Debbie Cerda's blog
Of the five documentaries nominated for Academy Awards this year, four played Sundance Film Festival 2013. Festival Director John Cooper credited this to the heightened aesthetic excellence in the films at the festival as well as that "the world is accepting non-fiction in really interesting ways." During a discussion of the business and profits of independent films, Cooper stated that "at Sundance, we have to think a little differently. We think of impact. When you look at something like Invisible War is changing policy, when you look at Blackfish -- awareness is actually changing how things are done in our world. It's as important as how much money they (the films) make -- and actually way more important to us."
The documentary film that most affirmed this vision at this year's festival for me was director Michael Rossato-Bennett's documentary Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory. This moving and groundbreaking documentary received the Sundance Audience Award for U.S. Documentary, as well as a standing ovation at its premiere at Sundance 2014.
As high as I'd set my expectations for Alive Inside, the film far exceeded what I'd imagined. I nearly left the press screening that I attended simply because I was emotionally overwhelmed and in tears, while still a response that I would still describe as a positive experience from the aspect of grieving and healing after personally witnessing the mental deterioration of a beloved elder. Anyone who has ever had a loved one suffer from Alzheimer's disease, dementia, stroke or mental illness will recognize the profound impact of this film's core message -- that personalized music therapy can not only awaken but in some cases prolong our emotional and mental faculties.
Preconceived notions about the male entertainment industry can drive some viewers away from film content, and I myself had little interest in seeing Magic Mike when it was released in 2012. However, a timely discussion with local filmmaker Richard Linklater about Matthew McConaughey's stellar roles of that preceding year led to his recommendation of Magic Mike due to the depth of McConaughey's performance as male strip club owner Dallas.
Joe Manganiello co-starred as Big Dick Richie in the film, which became a smash hit. Manganiello was so inspired by the discussions about the film's related topics of "objectification and post-feminist relations between the sexes" and interest in the characters that he and his brother Nick Manganiello decided to capture the men's stories themselves. The 3:59 Incorporated production team went to the birthplace of male entertainment -- the first La Bare club in Dallas, Texas, which has been open since 1978 -- resulting in their documentary, La Bare.
The men of La Bare are each unique and engaging in their own right. First up is the veteran Randy "Master Blaster" Ricks, a self-professed "205 lbs of twisted steel and sex appeal" who has danced at the club since its opening. His elderly mother Mary Lou supports him in his endeavors, even helping to run a side strip-o-gram service. Backing up Randy are the younger generation who go by first-name-only nicknames -- "Channing," "Chase," "Cesar," for example -- and who come from various backgrounds, including ex-military.
The Slamdance Film Festival tends to be overshadowed and thus overlooked by its larger concurrent counterpart, which is a shame due to the quality independent programming that takes place on the two screens at Treasure Mountain Inn in Park City.
At first glance one might think this story transcends locale, but Raso's unique twists affirm the selection of Denmark's capital for the setting. The colorful facades of the 17th-century buildings and deep canals of the Nyhavn district serve as the background of a lushly told story of young love and personal redemption for its main characters, Will (Gethin Anthony) and Effy (Frederikke Dahl Hansen).
"Are you ready for the summer?" Those lyrics from the 1979 summer classic Meatballs sprung to mind when I watched Ping Pong Summer, a film written and directed by now-Austinite Michael Tully. Although Tully's comedy takes place later in 1985, his movie embodies the whimsical and quirky nature of both Meatballs and National Lampoon's Vacation.
Meet the Miracle family on their summer vacation to Ocean City, Maryland -- the quirky father effortlessly portrayed by John Hannah and Lea Thompson as the mother who innocently mistakes her 13-year-old son Rad (Marcello Conte) as engaging in pre-pubescent self-gratification. Rad's shyness isn't bolstered by his father's insistence of loading his state trooper vehicle down with all their luggage, or his mother's selection of a summer cottage next to the town's crazy lady Randi Jammer (Susan Sarandon), but that doesn't stop him from making a new best friend and crushing on the most desirable girl in Ocean City.
Local writer and director Kat Candler returned to Sundance Film Festival for her third consecutive year, with the feature-length version of Hellion. In 2012 Candler debuted the short that served as the basis for this dramatic feature, and in 2013 her short film Black Metal screened at the fest and online.
Hellion stars Aaron Paul as Hollis Wilson, a disconsolate widower raising his sons Jacob (Josh Wiggins) and Wes (Deke Garner) with the support of his sister-in-law Pam (Juliette Lewis). The boys are left without supervision most of the time, with Jacob engaging in delinquent acts around their southeast Texas town of Port Neches and Wes insistent on tagging along. After Jacob's actions result in his younger brother being taken from their home, he must overcome his anger and pain from his father's abandonment and mother's death to repair the tenuous bonds that hold the Wilson men together.
With the wealth of emotions exhibited from the main characters in Hellion, this film could very well tip towards the more melodramatic under a less-conscientious filmmaker. However, Candler's direction as well as her solid writing provides an in-depth characterization of her lead actors. Paul and Wiggins are well suited and immersed in their roles, and their interactions are spot on.
Austin filmmaker Richard Linklater finally unveiled his long-awaited epic drama Boyhood at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, with a capacity crowd at both the premiere and press screening. Written and directed by Linklater and featuring Ellar Coltrane as the central character Mason, the movie is an opus of 164 minutes portraying the growth and influences on one boy. Mason -- along with his assertive older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) -- faces the challenges of the dysfunctional family structure comprising the fiercely maternal Olivia (Patricia Arquette), who is desperate to provide a father to her children in lieu of an absentee father, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke).
Boyhood follows the family for 12 years, from 2002 to 2013, with seamless transitions between periods noted by aging of the main and supporting characters as well as by cultural references, music and wardrobes. From the introductory moment of Mason and Samantha engaged in a typical sibling interaction, viewers are engaged by the natural charm of these youngsters. As their father is "off in Alaska," Olivia must meet her children's needs while trying to fulfill her own desires for companionship and better herself through a college education.
This month's major "Film on Tap" event that I experienced was the "Austin at Sundance Party" at the Wasatch Brew Pub & Brewery. This Main Street brewpub, founded in 1986, was the first brewery in Park City since Prohibition, and features ski and snowboard movies every Monday night. More importantly, Wasatch was a great respite from the frenzy of Sundance premieres and liquor-heavy events elsewhere, with great craft beer and food at the Austin Party.
The party was co-sponsored by the Austin Film Society (AFS) and the Austin Film Commission, in honor of seven films that debuted at this year's Sundance Film Festival. AFS founder and writer/director Richard Linklater debuted his long-awaited film Boyhood last week to a full house at Eccles Theatre with over 1,200 attendees. Linklater is seen above with AFS Associate Artistic Director Holly Herrick, who also produced Ping Pong Summer, a whimsical underdog story written and directed by Michael Tully.
After seeing the premiere of Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter at Sundance this week, it is easy to understand why Alexander Payne (Nebraska) and Jim Taylor (Sideways) signed on as executive producers for the latest feature from Austin filmmakers David and Nathan Zellner (Kid Thing). This film is a superlative visualization of a lonely woman's quest to escape her reality in Japan for the mythical destination of Minnesota in the "New World" of the Americas.
Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi) deviates from the traditional Japanese society, as she isolates herself from her coworkers and silently rebels against her conservative boss. Her mother's disembodied voice on the phone reminds Kumiko incessantly that if she remains unmarried, she should return home to live. Not that Kumiko's current lifestyle is the most appealing, as she lives in a cramped apartment with her pet rabbit Bunzo as her only true companion.
With nine films at the Sundance Film Festival this year, Texas was well represented both on the screen and at festival events. The Texas Association of Film Commissions hosted a special Film Texas reception at the festival this week, which included representatives from each of Texas' metroplexes. A number of attendees were from various parts of the Texas film community, such as Austin actor Jonny Mars and Dallas International Film Festival Artistic Director James Faust, pictured above.
Deputy Director Alfred Cervantes of the Houston Film Commission, Janis Burklund, Director of the Dallas Film Commission, and San Antonio Film Commission Drew Mayer-Oakes (pictured below) were also in Park City, along with staff members from the Texas Film Commission.
The 30th Sundance Film Festival is well underway, with plenty of familiar faces from Texas. My first day in Park City was relatively low-key, as I settled into my lodging and re-acquainted myself with the free public transportation and picked up the essentials -- credentials, groceries and booze. I opted out of opening-night parties to plan my activities for Day Two, knowing I would have a full day of interviews, premieres, receptions and screenings. My "sleep is the enemy" fest mantra has been replaced with the "it's a marathon, not a sprint" mentality.
Friday marked the premiere of the Austin feature film Hellion. I briefly saw producer Kelly Williams as he was entering the theater -- pictured at top with Alamo Drafthouse and Drafthouse Films founder Tim League. League and I spoke about what films we had seen so far and especially those we enjoyed -- quite a common interaction between festivalgoers here at Sundance.