Friday, March 6, 2015

Reel Deal: Movies that matter Published Feb 1st; Timbuktu, Still Life, Mommy, 1971+ Sundance report, Oscar controversy ( Selma, Imitation Game, Nightcrawler)

I am writing this column from Park City, Utah home of the 26th SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL. Today there are actually two Sundances. The one you see on TV full of stars—Jane Fonda, Lily TomlinRobert RedfordIggy AzaleaCommon and John Legend—partying on Main Street. The other Sundance, the one Robert Redford founded to celebrate and promote independent film, lives in the theaters, panel rooms and post screening Q&A with the directors, writers, actors and producers. This is the one I attend. I come to see movies that most people will never get to see in a theater because of the current state of commercial distribution, but these movies may eventually be available on VOD like the Sundance Doc Club (
This year 12,166 films were submitted, and 123 films and 60 shorts were selected and divided into the various categories. These films are screening from 8:30 AM to midnight each day. Every day. And all these movies are showing while the party folk are playing on Main Street. Each night there are music showcases and parties galore. Both ASCAP and BMI have panels on music that showcase their members. The choices are overwhelming.
Since I can’t see them all, I’ve set up a priority system. My criteria, in order, are US Documentaries, World Documentaries, World Features and US narratives in competition for Jury and public awards. I also sprinkle in NEXT (low budget, new tech) and the New Frontiers (technology and expanded cinema). I try to shoot and participate in as many of the first screening Q&A sessions as possible. I prefer to see films with a public audience over a press screening. Tickets are always in high demand, so mastering the art of getting in should be a college credit course. You can see my Q&A videos at
Among the films I have seen and really like were films about
And a wild collection of shorts that shout “looky here we are the future.” I also got to meetJeremy Hersh whose short film Actresses was one of the lucky 60 chosen. We talk to him at:
I will review the best of the Sundance films when they become available in theaters or via VOD. You can look at the film selection here:
SUNDANCE 2015 is a return to the core values that motivated Redford, and John Cooper has reigned in the festival to respect those boundaries. Translation: 10 days of little sleep and a whole lot of time spent with strangers in dark rooms looking on light splashing on a screen telling a story.
Oscar Nomination Controversy
I do not advocate a quota system based on race for Oscar nominations, but I find it shocking that a number of performances by actors of color were ignored or overlooked. I have some additional thoughts on 3 films I would like to share with you.
1: Selma: The firestorm of criticism about LBJ’s portrayal in Selma was orchestrated in popular media and on twitter by former LBJ policy makers upset by what they thought was a challenge to the LBJ legacy. Even Maureen Dowd criticized how LBJ was drawn in a NY Times Op-Ed. The firestorm peaked during the last two weeks of the Oscar nominating period. Some of these critics very specifically called for Academy members NOT to nominate Selma.
This black woman directed, written, and produced film received only one nomination: Best Picture. The director, writer, actors, and a group of craft artists were all ignored and denied the nominations that, in my view, they deserved. I have to defend Selma as an important film that is not a documentary but a narrative film based on the humanness of the principals involved including King and LBJ as well as the extraordinary grouping of civil rights leaders and those politicians who opposed them. Selma also brought to the foreground—for the first time in 50 years—the role black women in partnership with black men played at the front lines of the ’60′s civil rights movement.
Ava DuVernay, the director and principal writer, tells an authentic story in narrative form. It was never meant to be a documentary. There is a difference. The attacks on the integrity of both the film and the director were caused by a windstorm of mostly white men. Please read this well thought out and documented defense of Selma by Mark Harris. It not only defends the film, but also explains the nature of narrative film making and how it differs from documentary film making.
Go see SELMA and take your friends and kids or parents. You can watch the trailer here:
2: The Imitation Game: I have known of Alan Turing and his history since the late ’60s. His brilliant brain was instrumental in ending WWII. The horrible story of the damage done to him because of his self-admitted homosexuality and his history of having to closet himself in order to work was one of the motivations that made me become an activist despite knowing how it would damage my own career goals.
When I saw the film, I was happy that at last more of the public would know of this gay hero and what happened to him because he was a homosexual. However, I did have an uncomfortable feeling in the bottom of my stomach when I left the theater. Not with the performance ofBenedict Cumberbatch, but with how his character was written and directed—it made me wonder if Turing’s character as directed was in fact a highly functioning person with Asperger syndrome, a form of autism, or simply a victim of having to closet himself in his daily life. When I attempted to broach this subject with gay or straight friends, I was met with unwelcome ears. So recently reading this piece in the Guardian by the always insightful and au contraire Alex Von Tunzelmann made me realize I was not alone in my questions. Read his article at:
3: Nightcrawler: I think Nightcrawler is the best American made feature of the year, with Oscar worthy performances from Jake GyllenhaalRiz Ahmed and Rene Russo. Set in theMichael Mann L.A. landscape, all glistening like a newly plated gold Oscar, it is storytelling at its highest form in popular cinema. Using the world of tabloid television news “journalism” as a backdrop, it evokes the desperation of everyday life in a world dominated by the triumph of capital. There is not a character written that is not desperate to either hold on to their job or willing to do anything to get or keep it.
Like the Mexican film Miss BalaDan Gilroy has constructed a film that takes a hard look at whether any moral compass is still at work in TV news reporting, and how the demand for high ratings stomps on whatever traditional ethics are left. Gyllenhaal was robbed. Rather than having a historical figure to bring to life, he has to create a modern day Sammy Glick who sees winning as the only motivation for success and survival.
Gilroy has studied the lessons of Wall Street, and Nightcrawler is a wake-up call in the same wayThe Wolf of Wall Street was. Now on VOD.
Watch the trailer at:
MoMA’s annual Documentary series Documentary Fortnight is the best place in NYC to discover what is going on in the documentary world. Here is a list of the films with trailers:
The Film Society of Lincoln Center is presenting Tell it Like It Is: Black Independents in New York 1968-1986
Feb 6th – 19.
1971, director Johanna Hamilton
On March 8th, 1971, eight ordinary citizens broke into an FBI office in Media, PA. Calling themselves The Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI, they removed every file in the office. They then proceeded to anonymously mail these documents to the mainstream media.
The most significant revelation was COINTELPRO, a controversial, secret, illegal surveillance program overseen by lifelong bureau director J. Edgar Hoover. Before wiki-leaks and the internet, these ordinary citizens stood up and took moral actions to expose the US government as a war was waged both in Vietnam and here at home against radicals fighting for racial justice and against the war.
Never caught, despite years of intense investigation, they now have surfaced to tell the story of how and why they took this action, and how they avoided detection for over 40 years. Ordinary citizens taking extraordinary actions. Now on VOD! Trailer
Still Life, director Uberto Pasolini
Every so often a little film with a big heart opens in a small theater and people who go to see it pick up their cells, post on Facebook, or shout from their roof tops. I LOVE Still Life. It was a joy to behold. Eddie Marsan plays John May. Marsan is a character actor whose name you probably do not know, but you will instantly recognize him from the many films he has appeared in.
Marsan plays a lonely worker whose job at the South London city morgue is to locate the next of kin of a person who has died with no know survivors. He is methodical and dedicated to his job. We see him track down those next of kin. In the process, we learn about the life of the unknown DOA. When he is told his job has become redundant, he finishes up his last case and, while doing so, finds love.
If you like Mike Leigh or Kelly Reichardt films do see Still Life. I will shout it from the roof tops! It is a Tribeca Release film. If you can’t find it in theaters, it is now on VOD!
Watch the trailer at:
Mommy, director Xavier Dolan
Dolan is the L’Enfant terrible of indie film. Canadian born and based, his film How I Killed My Mother was the sensation of the 2008 Cannes Film Festival. He’s well known in Montreal as the French-dubbed voice of South Park’s Stan.
Mommy stars Anne Dorval as Diane Després, a widowed mother who is overwhelmed by the difficulty of raising her son while working full time to support him. The sometimes violent teenage son Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) appears to be the “bad seed” child—until your realize he loves his mother. She is desperate—
working hard and long to make ends meet and still trying to have an active emotional and sex life. The son is out of control most of the time, and his school offers them little help.
Mommy is really about how to survive and keep family together when low paying work and everyday needs overwhelm even the best intentions. Mommy deservedly won the Jury prize at Cannes 2014, and Anne Dorval would give any of the Oscar nominated actresses a run for their money if the film had been released in time for consideration. See it. Trailer
Timbuktu, director Abderrahmane Sissako
Engaged, Paris-based African director Sissako, best known for Bamako, returns with a visually stunning film set in Mali. In the film, fundamentalist Muslims (ISIS like) are destroying the culture of a Muslim country by suppressing indigenous culture, mostly music and ritual that integrates pleasure with spirituality. Rather than the rigorous and formal intellectual debate of BANAKO, here Sissako concentrates on one Bedouin family and their encounters with the fundamentalist army, allowing the landscape to underline the film. Beautiful and sad, most importantly, the film humanizes all sides. Please be kind to your spirit and go! Watch the trailer at:
and yes Fifty Shades of Grey is opening too. Try to resist it … trust me.

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