28 January 2009

Fashionably Forward

Lest I keep putting it off, I am now going to present, for your viewing pleasure, a summary and brief review of one more Sundance film I saw. This is because I have other topics I wish to blog on, but can't allow myself to until I deliver the promised goods of my festival experience. Here is yet another, dear friends.

The September Issue

The premiere kick off of the festival and possibly one of my favorites of the few I saw. It's a documentary that focuses on the creation of the prestigious September issue of Vogue magazine, highlighting the workings (and business relationship) of editor-in-chief, Anna WIntour, and creative director Grace Coddington. For those not in the know, Anna Wintour is considered one of the most powerful and influential women in fashion. She is also nicknamed the Ice Queen, and known for being a a cold and stand-offish bitch. Meryl Streep's character in The Devil Wears Prada is reportedly based off of Wintour.

The film didn't disappoint. She is a fascinating personality, completely capable of sending even the most powerful and self-assured designers into quivering fits of terror. The exchange with Yves St. Laurent was particularly memorable as he attempted to convince her that his fall line of blacks is actually very colorful when it becomes apparent she isn't interested in dark or brooding looks for upcoming issue. Watching her boredom in meetings with extremely influential people, or her ability to take away and turn conversations into exactly what she wants them to be was truly riveting. And yes, she certainly had her moments in which she coldly admonished subordinates and peers alike. The staff at Vogue are walk on egg shells, constantly in fear of her decisions.

Its not entirely without reason, either. While she can be frightening, Wintour also weilds ungodly power. In one excellent segment she takes a no-name beginning designer who won a small local contest and, simply by recommending him to a few choice individuals, elevates him to star status. In a matter of weeks after their meeting, his picture is plastered across NYC, he is the toast of parties and his designs are in huge demand. Such is the power of Anna Wintour, and why despite her occasional cold streak people are desperate to appease her.

To be frank, the woman eats, sleeps and breathes her magazine and uses it to mold the entire fashion world. The film is filled with gems that have you squirming, such as when a photographer ignores her requests on a photo shoot and the aftermath as Wintour discovers it. But the real enjoyment comes from watching the interaction between Grace Coddington and Ms. Wintour. Both came to Vogue at the same time, but often clash in their ideas. Anna is the editor, the slasher, and the eye that makes the final product work. Grace, on the other hand, is a creative type who whips up incredible images and infuses beauty and art into every piece she does.

Her 1920's flapper shoot is particularly impressive.

Grace is the one person who has little fear of Anna, and even enjoys goading her on at times. There isn't a whole lot of love lost between the two, but the need for each other is clear. At one point, after seeing all of their difficulties with the other's opinions and work methods, it is nice to see both acknowledge how talented the other is at their respective job. All in all, the film is a fun and unique look into the fashion world, and even more into the figures who shape it.

See it. And feel bad about your wardrobe.

26 January 2009

Great Depression

We just finished watching Push (not the Dakota Fanning trash coming
out). And its safe to say that we're all under a haze after seeing it.

The movie was powerful and incredibly, incredibly, depressing. This
was our follow up to the documentary film about Afghan Star, a Middle
Eastern equivelant to American Idol. Only you can get shot by the
Taliban for participating in their version.

All in all it was a worthwhile evening, if a total downer too. More
on this when I'm feeling a little less somber.

Afghan Pop and Incest

Currently waiting for the Best of Fest at sundance, winners of the doc
and dramatic categories.

24 January 2009

Ever feel like beating random strangers? This one's for you.

Violence! Senseless Violence! So Will and I saw an entry in the dramatic competition entitled Bronson. The blurb in the Sundance guide made it sound interesting: a criminal who believes himself an artist, learns to make violence his craft and perfect it into an art.

In theory, it sounds really disturbing and strange. I could think of a million interesting things to do with this synopsis were I making the film. True to the nature of the Sundance guidebook, the movie you see is rarely the same thing they explained to you. That can go either way of course, some of the worst sounding films turned out indeed to be the best. And I'm sad to report that this movie just didn't make the grade.

The story focuses on Charlie Bronson (not the actor, although that is where he pulled his pseudonym from), a british man with few if any morals who spends his time beating people up in prison. And loves it. The narrative unfolds partially through seeing the action, but also through a series of "stage performances" in which the actor tells his story to group of tux clad theater-goers. These departures are enlivened with Bronson's unique whiteface or playing multiple characters ala-Harvey-Dent-style make up. It is an interesting effect, and I was willing, even excited to go with it . Oh, and it's based on Britain's most violent/notorious incarcerated inmate, the real Charlie Bronson. What could make a more interesting film?

Here are my problems. First, and perhaps a minor detail: A story concerning one of the most violent men in the UK prison system, particularly a story about a man who defines himself by violence should be... violent. Honestly. I wanted this movie to make me uncomfortable, have to look away, make me shudder at the horror. Perhaps I expected a little more Clockwork Orange or some American History X curbing, but the violence was fairly generic, bloodless punching and beating that looked all a little too staged.

Look, I'm not into gratuitous violence. I'm not wild about seeing graphic violence. But I think violence serves a purpose and can prove a point; it is one of many tools a screenwriter can use to convey the message. The ritualistic attacks in this film however, struck me as unremarkable, which is unfortunate. How can you showcase this character's personality if you don't offer what he is capable of. In many ways he is a monster. But we are denied that monster in most respects, and by the end when he kidnaps and holds hostage a character that we might feel sympathetic for, I found myself actually hoping Bronson would viciously hurt the victim, if only so I could then feel justified in being shocked by him. And I was disappointed.

This leads into my second and more vital argument. The character never went anywhere. And this, for any story, but especially where the narrative completely revolves around a character, spells certain doom. At first Bronson seems interesting, mysterious and you're trying to figure out why he does what he does. The film doesn't give us this psychology and worse yet, allows Bronson to remain static throughout the film. He is the same person at the end as the beginning growing neither better nor worse in response to his situations.

That makes for boring cinema. The last third of the movie I simply stared at the screen, Wagner blaring over images of him taking on the the guards for the umpteenth time, and couldn't help but be disinterested. More of the same. It's just more of the same. It felt like the secondary characters were more developed than the film's namesake. Characters need story arcs. Even if the individual fails, or you want to present a character who embodies senseless violence for no particular reason. There still needs to be something for the audience to work with. Watching the first five minutes of this film is about all you need. You've then seen the end too - all the information about Charlie Bronson you're going to get.

Bronson make me want to commit acts of violence. On the filmmaker. Okay, it wasn't Midnight Meat Train awful, but it fell flat and that such a dull film was made about such an potentially interesting subject is disappointing.

21 January 2009

Waiting for Phillip Morris

This is us, sitting anxiously in anticipation of Ewan McGregor kissing... Jim Carrey? Alright its odd and believe me the movie was even more wild than that might sound. I Love you Phillip Morris was factually based, at least in part. And the notion that if even part of this story is true is seriously fascinating.

It focused on Carrey's character, a newly outed gay man who discovers his lifestyle is far too expensive to maintain on his current salary and becomes a conman to pay for it. After getting caught, he winds up in prison where he meets the love of his life, Phillip. The extreme schemes and measures which ensue to make sure they can be together are both clever and hilarious. It's safe to say that we all enjoyed it and the audience around us did as well.

The style is humorous, but treats the emotional side with gravity. And as for the "whole gay thing," well I'm happy to report that while central to the story there is little time wasted on the inner conflict concerning the move to that lifestyle. Maybe that sounds callous, but if you watch any sort of gay cinema, 95% are about the coming of age/coming to terms/experimentation with homosexuality. Yes, it is a huge issue for any gay person, and there are exceptional films out there. But I don't have patience for the mass of confusing, poorly written and acted excuses to see boys kiss.

On the flip side, I really don't care for the stock stereotypes that many other movies and television shows dredge up. Maybe it fills a diversity quota but it also doesn't fairly represent a complex human being who happens to be gay. I'm sure any other minority feels the same about their own media representation. Essentially, it is a breathe of fresh air to see a character like Carrey's who is simply head over heels in love, and the illicit means by which he runs his life in order to find happy. Carrey never plays him as just a stereotype. My only complaint is that after the prison scenes, McGregor slips into the background slightly. Though always the motivation for the main characters actions, I missed seeing him as an integrated part of his life. It was assumed (which is workable on our part) but not as often displayed.

All in all it's a funny, tender, and slightly sad film worth your time. No doubt this will receive wider release, Sundance just being its first stop so I recommend that you see it. Assuming you can deal with Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor having sex.

19 January 2009


Well, it's my favorite time of year again. Or for the moment. At least, until other favorite times of year show up. Ah yes, that magical ten days of freezing cold, pretentious wannabe art snobs, affluent assholes who desperately want to be "seen," celebrity gawkers (suck it, EW), and of course, films.

What? They show movies at Sundance? I thought it was a big excuse to see famous people (and people who mistakenly think they're famous people) wandering the snowy streets of a random ski town in Utah. And lots of alcohol-infused parties.

It is, of course, all these things and more. But to be completely honest, the celebrity access buzz that common folk hunger for drives me absolutely batty. Whenever I tell coworkers or acquaintances I attended, the intial question out-of-the-gate is, "Who did you see?" How about what did I see? Honestly, its a film festival, but locals seem to forget that in the glamor of actors and actresses private jetting their way to Mo-mo land and demanding free snowboarding equipment.

Now I also realize that Sundance is hardly as independent as many festivals these days, having slipped more into the commercial realm with each passing year. But that said, it does provide many cinematic experiences which aren't the traditional Hollywood formula, and for that I am grateful. We don't get a huge amount of independent flicks here in Utah, though God knows the Salt Lake Film Society tries (credit where it is due and all that). Having a festival like Sundance available to those interested in film in this cultural wasteland is an unquestionable boon. It is consistently a fun grab bag of quality, experimentation, and non-traditional narratives and documentaries which just make my pulse quicken in excitement.

Film festivals and independent films are film as it should exist - without giant studios standing over the artist demanding the addition of a fuzzy lovable animal, as research has indicated it will improve marketability by 3%. The majority are movies that are made out of the love for film and its power to be art and express ideas or points of views that are part of the human condition. This is why Sundance is one of my favorite times of year.

As such, I would never want to read all 2 faithful readers of this blog out in the cold Park City air, and will report briefly on each film I see. I'm already behind, having seen three with more on the way, so I will try to catch up today. In the meantime re-arrange your schedule and plan to attend next year.