Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Sundance Update

Stephen Jannise, Film Program Director, reports from Sundance.
Certain films are starting to pick up buzz at Sundance, sending audiences into a frenzy for tickets and distributors into bidding wars for the chance to put their name on the next “Like Crazy” or “Martha Marcy May Marlene.” But the films aren’t the only things making news. From angry Q&As to the loss of a beloved industry veteran, emotions have been running high in the past few days.

“Compliance” has enjoyed very solid word-of-mouth with the added bonus of contentious Q&As, suggesting that the film will be a surefire conversation starter. When a man claiming to be a police officer calls a local fast food restaurant and demands that the manager, Sandra, detain her young female employee, Becky, Sandra follows his orders. As the film progresses, Sandra continues to do what the man says, with horrific results for Becky.

The film examines how quickly we can bow to authority and how dangerous it can be to do so without question. “Compliance” is tense and terrifying, and after its world premiere, some audience members who felt that the film had gone too far loudly voiced their opinions. One filmgoer took offense to the violence against women depicted in the film, arguing that it was too exploitative, and the argument is certainly valid. This film is anything but tame and conservative, and it will surely elicit strong responses from its audience, whether positive or negative. Craig Zobel directs, and Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker and Pat Healy star.
Spike Lee was in town for the premiere of his new film “Red Hook Summer,” and his Q&A was also somewhat contentious. The film itself has received mixed reviews, but, as a fan of Lee’s films, I enjoyed it and think other fans of the director’s work will, too. You’ll find the unmistakable writing and visual style that has been the strength of his past films, particularly since the film is a sequel of sorts to “Do the Right Thing.” But don’t tell Lee that.
Using words that can’t be printed here, Lee asserted that the film is absolutely not a sequel and went on to claim that major studios “know nothing about black people.” As usual with Lee, the spectacle of his rant has overshadowed the fact that he has some good points. Lee is a filmmaker who puts a lot of thought and heart into his films, and it doesn’t seem so crazy that he would want his latest film to stand on its own merits, rather than being aggressively marketed as “Do the Right Thing 2.”

Lee’s dissatisfaction with the studio experience underlined the importance of indie film champions like Bingham Ray, who passed away early Monday morning. The independent film community has profited from Ray’s ambition and foresight for years; he played a significant role in the careers of indie masters like Mike Leigh, Lars von Trier, David Lynch and Jim Jarmusch. It is clear, based on the mood in industry parties, that he will be greatly missed, even by those who never got to know the generous and genuine man that he was.
Strong emotions were also felt at the screenings for two films that depict families struggling to cope when a loved one is sentenced to several years in prison. “Middle of Nowhere” follows a young woman with remarkable patience who finds herself waiting for five years for her drug-dealing husband to be released. Director Ava DuVernay wrote the screenplay after having conversations with several women dealing with an incarcerated spouse or partner, and she drew memorable performances from her lead Emayatzy Corinealdi, Lorraine Toussaint as a mother concerned that her daughter is throwing her life away, and the unceasingly charming David Oyelowo as a man who offers our heroine a second chance.
DuVernay is a talent to keep an eye on, as is Gina Rodriguez, who portrays the title character in the pulsating “Filly Brown.” This is an astonishing, star-making turn for Rodriguez, who plays an aspiring hip-hop artist trying to make the money she needs to bail her addict mom out of prison. The actress not only handles a very difficult role with aplomb, but she is also an incredible musician, leading several people in the audience to beg for the soundtrack. With great supporting performances from Lou Diamond Phillips, Edward James Olmos and the rest of this amazing cast, the film is so much more than an “8 Mile for Girls.” 

After the screening, “Filly Brown” received a standing ovation from the 1,000 people filling Sundance’s largest venue, which brought Rodriguez to tears. She took a bow and thanked everyone in the theater for sharing in the realization of her indie dream. At that moment, I couldn’t help but think about Bingham Ray. Those are the kind of moments that people like Ray spend their lives fighting for. We have lost another fighter.
For all of Jannise's Sundance reports, visit Austin 360's movie blog!

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