Monday, January 31, 2011

Why I love the Sundance Film Festival, and short reviews of the films I saw.

I am lucky to live in the middle of what is arguably the greatest film festival on the planet.

Why is Sundance so special?

It attracts smart people who are passionate about both films and life.

It’s festive, hip, peerless.

Film directors, writers and actors are often in the theater with you, available for questions afterwards, and they often mingle.

The films play to full theaters with more people always hoping to get in (I was turned away a few times this year—as a waitlister).

People applaud at the end of the film, if it was any good and most of the films are better than good.

People are friendly. It’s easy to talk to just about anyone.

The volunteers do an amazing job handling the crowds.

And the movies . . . the stories . . . the innovation in the medium of film.

These are some of the reasons, why I love Sundance.

Reviews of the seven Sundance films I attended:

1. “Hell and Back Again”

A documentary about a Marine Corps company made by Danfung Dennis. Dennis was an embedded photographer/videographer. He said that he didn’t set out with the intention of making a film. He’d covered war as a photographer previously.

The film offers a portrait of the horror of war and it tells the gripping story of Sergeant Nathan Harris, a young marine who is wounded in combat. Half of the film is set in Afghanistan; the other half is in the U.S. with intimate moments where Dennis films Sgt. Harris as he deals with his physical recovery and struggles to readjust to civilian life.

I am in awe of Sgt. Harris and all of the men and women who have followed the call to serve our country.

I have equal regard for Danfung Dennis who went into combat with these marines armed with nothing but his cameras—to provide the rest of us a glimpse into a war that we all too often forget about yet has been going on for almost ten years now.

All Americans should watch this film. It lived up to its Sundance billing as “courageous and extraordinary.”

I had the honor of saying hello to Danfung Dennis, shaking his hand and thanking him for his outstanding work. Sgt. Harris was not in attendance. Dennis said, and it appeared evident in his film, that the purpose of the film was to remind people that this war is still going on. People are dying. People are suffering horrible injuries. People are being uprooted and their lives changed forever—both American and Afghanis. That's what war does.

2. “The Ledge”

Part of the U.S. dramatic competition, I wrote a full review of this film here. I loved it.

3. “Reagan”

The filmmakers used historical footage and interviews to tell the story of an imperfect man who remains very likeable to many of us. This was a long documentary, but fast paced and fun—at least for a political junkie like me.

Love him, hate him, or know little of him, this movie does a nice job of telling Reagan’s story—a quintessentially American story.

4. “The Flaw”

In this important documentary on the financial crisis of 2008, British filmmaker David Sington uses humor and intelligent analysis to paint a picture of what went wrong that brought the economy to its knees. The film explores what capitalism is today. One of the messages Sington's messages was that capitalism is amazingly productive, however, unfettered capitalism is dangerous, even frightening.

5. “My Idiot Brother”

Part of the “Premieres” portion of the program—which includes Hollywood films, allowing festival goers to get a first look at some of the years “most anticipated films,” The film was a fun, funny, feel-good movie about trust and family starring Paul Rudd.

6. “Troubadours”

Mostly about James Taylor and Carole King, the movie centers around a place (The Troubadour Club) and a point in time (the early 1970s) when some of the most talented singer-song writers of that decade came together before hitting it really big. Fun to watch, especially if you like the music, I enjoyed this film very much—though it was a bit formulaic.

7. “Little Birds”

A coming of age drama featuring two 15-year old girls, this was the only film I didn’t care for. Even so, there were redeeming qualities—good acting, beautiful cinematography. It was a depressing film for me without much of a redeeming message.

It made me realize that there are many many Americans who live in poverty and whose lives are bleak. In that sense, it left me feeling lucky, and though it was fiction, I felt like I had a glimpse into a world that I don’t know—one filled with drugs, crime and a lot of desperation.

Sundance showed 200 films in 19 venues between Park City, Salt Lake City, Ogden and at the Sundance Resort.

Though I saw a fraction of the films, I saw many of the ones I hoped to see—without having a single ticket before the festival began.

In 2011, Sundance delivered again.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Sundance Film Festival 2011 Review: "The Ledge"

A stray comment from a man in line at this year's Sundance Film Festival got me interested in "The Ledge," written and directed by Matthew Chapman. I attended a screening last night.

Chapman crafted a thriller around two men: Joe (Patrick Wilson), a Christian fundamentalist and Gavin (Charlie Hunnam) an atheist. They are connected by Shana (Liv Tyler), Joe's wife who also becomes Gavin's lover.

The film opens with Gavin walking out onto a ledge at the top of a high building. A cop (Terrence Howard) is already having one of the worst days of his life when he's called to talk Gavin down. The story unfolds with a conversation you wouldn't expect between a potential jumper and a cop. A series of flashbacks fill in the back story, building to an unforgettable conclusion.

Working with big themes (life, death, faith, religion, trust, love, betrayal, loss) Chapman explores many aspects of being human. He deftly works with these heavy topics in a film that delivers a strong emotional punch while somehow not being a downer--though it is intense. The characters are complex and real. The acting exquisite.

"The Ledge" works artistically, emotionally and intellectually. For me, it was one of those rare films that struck many deep emotional chords leaving me feeling raw. Life is not easy, but it's good to be alive, even when it hurts.

Great work Mr. Chapman and company!

Jim Breitinger
Salt Lake City

Photo: Terrence Howard, Liv Tyler and Matthew Chapman.

Friday, January 21, 2011

An Op-ed in the Salt Lake Tribune

Read my Op-ed in today's Salt Lake Tribune: "Discouraging violent rhetoric". It was written about ten days ago, and is not what I would write today, but I stand by it. In a weak moment I let a particular woman from Alaska get under my skin. It reminded me of another guy that got to me last year. These people are way out of bounds.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Jon Stewart on Gabby Giffords and the situation in Tucson

A message of hope in a time of despair:

"I refuse to give in to that feeling of despair. There's light in this situation. I urge everyone: Read up about those who were hurt and or killed in this shooting. You will be comforted by just how much anonymous goodness there really is in the world. You read about these people and you realize that people that you don't even know, that you have never met, are leading lives of real dignity and goodness. And you hear about crazy, but it's rarer than you think. I think you'll find yourself even more impressed with Congresswoman Giffords and amazed about how much living the deceased packed into lives cut way too short. And if there is real solace in this, I think it's that for all the hyperbole and the vitriol that's become a part of our political process, when the reality of that rhetoric, when actions match the disturbing nature of words we haven't lost our capacity to be horrified. Please let us hope we never do. Let us hope we never become numb to what real horror, what the real blood of patriots looks like when it's spilled." -Jon Stewart