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<Danielle DiGiacomo>

02/01/11 11:22am

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This is the last of Danielle DiGiacomo’s dispatches from the just-concluded 2011 Sundance Film Festival.

After a slow start to the dealmaking action, Park City, Utah erupted into a mad buying frenzy. As of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival’s wrap, more than two dozen distribution deals have already been made, from the obvious IndieWood sales (IFC Films taking star-studded thriller The Ledge, The Weinstein Company taking on the Tobey Maguire/Elizabeth Banks vehicle The Details) to the this-could-be-the-next-Little Miss Sunshine discovery plucks (Focus Features’ seven-figure deal for Dee Ree’s lesbian coming-of-age film Pariah and brand new distributor Motion Film Group’s seven-figure acquisition of Rashaad Ernesto Green’s gritty Bronx drama Gun Hill Road).

Sales are still being announced, leaving industry folks taking daily tallies, and texting each other incredulously with each new IndieWire report. Whether this marks a return to the golden age of independent film or is the result of a delusional bubble effect is yet to be determined, but it does leave me thinking of a scene from David Sington’s The Flaw (pictured), one of the stronger documentaries I saw at Sundance. A series of old ads, promoting the financial boom of the dotcom bubble years, depict a patient being rolled into a hospital with money literally “coming out of the wazoo.” At Sundance, money was pouring out of lots of wazoos; so here’s hoping, for the sake of talented, upstart filmmakers everywhere, that it’s not merely speculative.

At the awards show on Sunday night, there were few surprises. (See my past two dispatches for evidence of that). The Grand Jury Prize for Drama was handed to an emotional Drake Doremus for his long-distance romance Like Crazy, while Sean Durkin (a name that will soon be very familiar) took the Best Dramatic Director prize for MMMM. (Both films also landed high-profile distribution deals.) The Grand Jury Prize for Documentary was given to Peter D. Richardson’s tearjerker How to Die in Oregon, which takes an empathetic look at Oregonians trying to die with dignity through legally assisted suicide.

In the World Cinema Section, Anne Sewitsky’s Happy, Happy took the top dramatic prize, while the devastating war documentary Hell and Back Again took the top documentary award. The U.S. and World documentary Audience awards went to two biographical explorations—Cindy Meehl’s true-life Horse Whisperer doc Buck, and Asif Kapadia’s Senna, chronicling the life of Ayrton Senna, the three-time Formula One champion—while the Audience awards for drama were bestowed on two devastating and nuanced films: Maryam Keshavarz’s film Circumstance, a(nother) lesbian coming-of-age story set in Iran, and Alrick Brown’s Kinyarwanda, a layered portrait of post-genocide life in Rwanda.

Over a dozen more prizes were handed out to deserving filmmakers, and hundreds of deserving filmmakers were not given anything but the satisfaction of being featured in one of the strongest lineups at the most important U.S. film festival of the year. If the power and importance of Sundance has been questioned in recent years, 2011’s incarnation did everything to answer those charges. Less Swag, Great Cinema. The End.

01/25/11 12:29pm

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The first weekend of Sundance, along the sloping hill that is Park City’s Main Street, is a mad frenzy of tourists rubbernecking at the site of celebrities; music from the likes of Lil Jon and even, this year, Lou Reed pulsating from bar after bar; and women in tight white coats emblazoned with Stella Artois logos promoting their cold asses off. It is also the weekend that press, industry, and filmlovers wait in long lines to delight in seeing the best in new independent films, grabbing a protein bar here and there so they can just get one more film in.

As predicted, the buzzed-about Sundance indies are well, still being buzzed about. Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene (nicknamed via text message as MMMM), James Marsh’s Project Nim, and Pariah are three of the films that have everyone talking. Project Nim will be coming to a television near you, courtesy of HBO Documentary Films, but neither of the two fiction films have been officially picked up yet. [Update: Since Danielle filed last night, Fox Searchlight grabbed MMMM. —Ed.]

Also on everyone’s cocktail party conversation list has been Steve (Hoop Dreams) James’s three-hour Chicago street-life epic, The Interrupters (pictured above). The documentary follows, in James’s empathetic verite style, a team of former gang members who struggle daily to stop others from following the path they once took. Liz Garbus’ Bobby Fischer Against the World is another seemingly uniformly loved documentary about the genius—and madness—of history’s greatest chess player. It is also the last film of the great documentary editor, Karen Schmeer. Docs coming up from further under the radar to critical applause include the dark, comedic, catchphrase-heavy Shut Up Little Man!—two punks recording drunken, hilarious, and cruel arguments between their middle-aged next-door neighbors: this year’s Winnebago Man?—and Danfung Dennis’s Hell and Back Again, a stunning look into the post-traumatic stress of a Marine after Afghanistan.

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In the fiction world, Paddy Considine’s Tyrannosaur—a dark love story between two very damaged people in Northern England—wins the Most Divisive award (so far). Half of the critics and industry I’ve talked to have walked out due to its overwhelming bleakness, while the other half have raved. One British programmer made the sweeping statement that the film is simply too bleak for Americans, save any raging Anglophiles. Joe Swanberg’s latest, Uncle Kent, has been surprisingly well-received, with numerous critics lauding it as a new, more sophisticated turn in what is sure to be a long and (even more) prolific filmmaking career. Finally, Maryam Keshavarz’s Circumstance (pictured at right) is being picked as an early favorite for the U.S. Dramatic Competition Prize. A breathtakingly beautiful film about two female Iranian teenagers exploring their romantic love for each other, it is daring, layered, and profoundly moving—a real discovery.

A handful of distribution deals have been made at this point: IFC Films picked up Matthew Chapman’s thriller The Ledge, starring Charlie Hunnam and Liv Tyler; The Weinstein Company, unsurprisingly, has taken the rights to Jesse Peretz’s My Idiot Brother, and over the weekend, National Geographic picked up the Ridley Scott-produced documentary Life in a Day. More announcements are inevitable in the next few days, but for now, there are more films to see, more snow banks to trudge over, more cocktails to be had, and a party celebrating Cory Booker to be attending.

01/18/11 11:16am

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L Mag correspondent Danielle DiGiacomo is attending this year’s Sundance Film Festival, which runs from the 20th through the 30th. Watch this space for her dispatches from the festival—and in the meantime, a preview.

All over the country, young filmmakers are pulling all-nighters to get their final sound mixes finished, while agents and executives are replenishing their long-john collections and thousands of filmlovers are getting ready to head out to the snowy hills of Park City, Utah. Meanwhile, we’re gearing up to join what is already being discussed as a one of the strongest and most diverse Sundances in recent years.

Sundance, long known for plucking talents out of insider baseball buzz-land and into Weinstein consciousness, follows in this tradition with Andrew Okpeaha MacLean’s On the Ice, Dee Ree’s Pariah, and Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene, from three directors previously known for much-lauded shorts. On the Ice is the story of Inupiaq teenagers facing tragedy in Alaska isolation, Pariah the coming-of-age tale of a Bronx teenager dealing with her sexual identity, and Martha Marcy May Marlene (pictured above) explores of a woman’s journey back to normalcy after leaving a cult.

Among the higher-profile entries is Vera Farmiga’s directorial debut Higher Ground, starring herself as a woman on a spiritual journey; Jesse Peretz’s My Idiot Brother, starring indie comedy mainstays Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Banks, and Zooey Deschanel, and the latest works from Miguel Arteta, Miranda July, and Kevin Smith.

On the nonfiction side, Marshall Curry takes on the dramatic story of the Earth Liberation Front in If a Tree Falls; James Marsh (Man on Wire) explores the life of the chimpanzee who was raised as a human in a 1970s experiment in Project Nim; an David Sington (In the Shadow of the Moon) dissects the 2007 financial collapse in The Flaw.

Yet even with all the industry hobnobbing and acquisitions announcements, there is room for some obscure, offbeat fun. Who could pass up the undeniable pleasure of the Park City at Midnight Selections like Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same, or the Norwegian tour-de-force The Troll Hunter? Lesbians, aliens, trolls, and Vera Farmiga. Onward to Sundance 2011!

12/20/06 12:00am

There is something baffling about Renée Zellwegger. The puffy-cheeked, squinty-eyed waif has a quality at once completely strange and magnetically engaging. In Miss Potter, Zellwegger validates her “critic’s darling” status once again, with a performance sure to be noticed by international juries. As Beatrix Potter, the author of the Peter Rabbit series, the actress revives, in a different historical context, the pre-feminist strength of her Oscar-winning Cold Mountain role, Ruby. The plot: British writer Potter, an imaginative girl who wiles away her hours drawing animals and spinning yarns, grows up with an artillery of stories, lives in a world (Victorian England) that would nary take a woman seriously. To her good fortune, she meets the son of a publishing magnate (played innocuously by Ewan MacGregor). Potter manages to become a child-lit legend, fall in love, refuse marriage and advocate suffragism. An inspiring story, the film lacks conflict, and it’s difficult to care about this rather privileged character. Too saccharine to leave the audience with anything but a half-raised fist and empty calories, Miss Potter is a movie with heart — but in the wrong place.

Opens January 5

11/22/06 12:00am

Heavy-hitting social issue dramas infrequently have enough subtlety to simultaneously tackle personal, existential concerns. The Architect, based on a play by Scotsman David Grieg, is the rare movie that focuses on the essential way that the emotional and structural intersect.

Anthony LaPaglia plays the titular character, a man who defines himself by his professional success and picture-perfect family life. Ensconced in the shiny warmth of his upscale Chicago suburb, he is confronted with harsh reality in the form of Tonya Neeley (an impressive Viola Davis), a single mother and activist fighting for new housing in her drug-ridden community. In order to get city approval to demolish and rebuild the projects, Tonya must appeal for the signature of the man who designed it, our eponymous draftsman.

As their relationship grows, affecting the architect and his ennui-filled wife (a stunning-as-usual Isabella Rossellini), a new sense of reality and context jars the suburbanites out of complacency. Intelligent without being lofty, emotional without being melodramatic, The Architect shows how beautiful writing can work in balance with well-executed cinematic form.

Opens December 1

08/02/06 12:00am

I was humbled by this great film and I would urge people to see it for themselves. The story is thus: Brooklyn history teacher/girls’ basketball coach Dan Dunn (Ryan Gosling) spends much of his down time with a crack pipe in his mouth or white powder in his nasal canal. He builds up a relationship with a student named Drey (Shareeka Epps), a reticent tomboy with an incarcerated brother and absent father. The friendship, far from being a student-mentor sapfest a la Finding Forrester, is complicated and awkward, with an odd beauty that comes from the unspoken understanding of two troubled souls living stoically with their demons. There is a narrative arc, but plot points are far less important than the fact that every detail is so unexpectedly close to perfect. Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (who co-wrote, with the latter directing) seem preternaturally determined to make movies. This once-jaded critic thanks them.

08/02/06 12:00am

That a white couple, Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, managed to make an affecting, nuanced coming-of-age story set in a Latino community may be evidence that cultural cross-pollination does exist, even in our increasingly segregated society, or it may simply bespeak the talent of the directors.

Either way, Quinceañera, which won Sundance’s two most coveted prizes, succeeds as a complex narrative film, anthropologically realistic and dramatically crafted. Set in L.A.’s gentrifying neighborhood Echo Park, it centers on Magdalena (Emily Rios), who is preparing for her 15th birthday celebration (the highly ritualized “quinceñeara,” as important to a young Mexican woman as a Bat Mitzvah is to a Jewish girl). When the honors student gets pregnant, her devout father promptly ejects her from his home. She finds shelter at her great-uncle Tomas’s (legendary actor Chalo Gonzalez) small bungalow, where another lost soul, her rebellious, pot-smoking cousin, Carlos is also seeking refuge.

Awakening to his homosexuality, Carlos soon enters into a sexual relationship with the yuppie white couple (perhaps modeled on the filmmakers themselves, who co-habitate in Echo Park) who own the large property in front of Tomas’s. The performances are captivating, particularly that of first-timer Rios and the more seasoned Garcia, who pulls off the Brando blend of tough-tender perfectly. Yet the strong, beautifully written script is the movie’s trump card; let’s hope Hollywood hacks watch and learn.

Opens August 4 at Landmark Sunshine



07/05/06 12:00am

At nine o’clock on a foggy morning in Brooklyn, the line at the tiny corner deli at Dean Street and Third Avenue runs out the door. Behind the counter, a slight young man of Arab descent moves with speed and grace in an impressive feat of multitasking. He pours coffee, flips eggs, butters bagels, wraps sandwiches, and rings up orders, all the while taking the time to chat with each customer, remembering details of their lives and their preferred caffeine fix. “Asher man, how are you?” he greets a tall, good-looking man who avails himself of Amad’s food before walking across the street to his job at the Working Families Party. “Large coffee black two sugars croissant,” he says without pause, handing Asher the usual.

Everyone within a few blocks of the deli knows Amad, who prides himself on making “the best sandwiches in Brooklyn.” Age 24, the Yemeni native has just left the deli that made him a neighborhood character and moved on to realize his American dream in the form of a new restaurant at the corner of Dean Street and Fourth Avenue. Though only one block away, to Amad it is possibly the most important step in his young, turbulent life.

Born in Ibb, an agriculture-based city of 160,000 residents in southwest Yemen, Amad (surname: Jobah) does not like to speak much of his years in the Middle East. For him, his life truly started at age 12, when his father, leaving the remainder of his immediate family, moved him to Detroit and found work in an auto factory. The two settled in Hamtramck, Michigan, a village surrounded by the urban sprawl of Detroit on three sides. Settled by Polish immigrants, its ethnic makeup has changed in the past two decades, with the influx of large numbers of Bangladeshi and Yemeni newcomers. Considered the sharpest member of his family, the endless possibility of American life proved too enticing to him. “I never liked school,” he admits. Amad’s middle and high school days were spent less in the classroom than they were playing video games and cruising the streets. At age 17, he dropped out and got entry-level work at a medium-sized factory specializing in automotive hitches. He loved the job; it paid decent wages, he was treated with respect, and he eventually moved up to the coveted position of Forklift Operator. As all good Americans are expected to, he began to “live large,” as he puts it, buying all the flashy accoutrements of consumerist culture — an S.U.V., shiny jewelry, brand name sneakers. Life was, on most counts, good to him. Yet, as it will, love intercepted, in the form of his foreman’s daughter. He shies away from disclosing details, offering nothing more than, “she broke my heart, so I ran away.” He and a friend picked up their possessions and drove to New York. “Just like that.”

Amad knew nothing about New York in detail, and was, like countless immigrants before him, attracted to its excitement and color. “In Detroit,” he notes, “there is just black and white. Here, the people are beautiful, there is diversity, there are business opportunities.” An old friend from Motor City had moved to a rooming house on Dean Street, one of the last of a dying era, a few months earlier. The nondescript building possesses a number of bare, shoebox-sized rooms, with shared kitchen and bathrooms. Though located at that relatively un-gentrified liminal zone at the crossroads of Carroll Gardens, Park Slope, and Fort Greene it is — with the agents of gentrification descending — in danger of being redeveloped for a higher income bracket. With all the expensive emblems of immigrant success vanished, Amad was forced to cobble together a paltry living through odd jobs. After selling flowers on the street and working construction, he initiated a tireless campaign of systematically walking into every store in the area to ask for a job. One can picture the sped-up movie montage version of this effort: doors slammed in face, hopeful expression becoming ever more soured, the wiping of sweat off brow until finally, the sun goes down and normal speed returns. Defeated, Amad walked into the deli just half a block away from his room, and asked the question he’d repeated all day. He was shocked when greeted with that almost cliché: “When can you start?” For two and a half years, Amad worked 13 hours a day with rarely a day’s vacation. He mopped floors, stocked shelves, rang up costumers, and of course, made sandwiches.

Though initially wary of the job, Amad soon realized the enjoyment he found combining socializing and making food — and that’s when the idea of opening a restaurant came to him. Since moving to Brooklyn, he had seen the restaurant space at the other end of his street go through numerous incarnations, constantly reopening in new form and closing quietly a few months later. The space, over the past two years, has been a burger joint, an Indian restaurant, and a seafood buffet. Each time it was boarded up, Amad pined for the chance to fill it with his own food, yet the timing was never right. Finally, in April, he and his friend Allam realized they had saved up enough money to buy the place together. After weeks of intense labor — the deli by day, the restaurant by night — the Dean Street Grill opened, announcing its array of “Mediterranean and Caribbean food.”

Just a few weeks after opening, the Dean Street Grill is a success. “All kinds of people come in.” Amad says proudly. “Once they eat here, they keep coming back.” The self-professed “King of Dean Street” sits on the porch and smokes a Newport. As the sun sets, a baby-faced Arab man enters and greets Amad warmly. “This is Sal,” Amad says. “He works in a school. He’s the only Saudi Arabian in town!” Sal has only positive things to say about his friend: “He’s a cool and honest guy. Anybody could just walk in and chill with him. And he’s loyal — he’ll help any of his friends, any time.” Asher, who has stopped by for an evening green tea, concurs, “Everybody’s like family with Amad.”

Amad wants the Grill to be “the best restaurant in all of Brooklyn.” He wants his own house in the borough, as well as “a nice wife and kids.” And a restaurant empire à la Mario Batali?
“One is enough for now,” he says. A moment later though, wistfully gazing up at the Brooklyn clocktower he says quietly, “But who knows?”

06/21/06 12:00am

During filming of Lauren Weisberger’s chick-lit morality tale, there was whispered gossip that Anna Wintour, the Vogue editrix and generally acknowledged inspiration for the titular demoness, threatened to ban any fashion labels who provided clothes for the film. Judging by the luscious array worn by Anne Hathaway and Meryl Streep, this was, like half of what is published in the celebrizines, false. And thank god for that, as the gorgeous frocks and accessories that so flatter the enviable bodies on screen are one of the movie’s major delights.

The narrative is simple, a fable told in countless contexts and settings throughout literary history: Andy Sachs (Hathaway) is a well-intentioned college graduate — the editor-in-chief of her college newspaper — who hopes to enter the high profile world of New York journalism. With a sensible haircut and Marshall sales rack wardrobe, she has never seen a sample sale in her life. When a Human Resources joke lands her a position at Runway magazine, working for Miranda Priestley, the most feared, powerful woman in fashion, (a silver-haired Streep, resembling Glenn Close’s Cruella DeVille) she is unceremoniously mocked by the perfectly kempt, underfed staff (including a bitchy Stanley Tucci as the flaming art director and a hilarious Emily Blunt as Pierson’s head assistant).

After a montage of pratfalls, Andy transforms into a perfectly tamed fashionista, always at the ready with a latte in one hand, and the unpublished Harry Potter book (for the twins) in the other. Yet, success has its costs, and, being a woman, it is impossible for Andy to maintain both a career and relationship, having sold her soul to couture. Though the narrative is predictable, the players are perfect, with Streep consistently funny and Hathaway projecting the perfect combination of naivety and intelligence. Though satirizing an inherently ridiculous world is not the most difficult of comedic jobs, Devil does so joyfully, resulting in a film that might not be original, but is undoubtedly entertaining.

Opens June 30

06/21/06 12:00am

Transforming a short-form comedy sketch into a compelling narrative film is, as evidenced by countless one-note flops (think It’s Pat: The Movie), an exercise that seems doomed to failure. In original form, something driven by absurd details or characters has a formulaic story, complete with third-act conflict and emotional manipulation, awkwardly grafted on.

Yet Strangers With Candy, the film adaptation of a cult Comedy Central series, succeeds hilariously. Amy Sedaris, brandishing a frightening overbite, fat suit, and Tammy Faye makeup, plays Jerri Blank, an adult delinquent who returns after decades in the slammer to find her beloved daddy comatose. His doctor (Ian Holm) encourages her to start life exactly where she left off before drug abuse and crime. Returning to high school, Jerri is greeted with general disgust, yet manages to find her niche in a place filled with equally bizarre characters — the whiskey-swilling Principal Blackman, gay born-again Christian science teacher Chuck Noblet (the consistently brilliant Stephen Colbert, who co-wrote the film), and his gentle art teacher boyfriend Geoffrey (Paul Dinello, who co-wrote and directed). 

Because the characters are allowed to outshine the silly plot (Jerri enters the Science Fair, believing winning will awaken daddy), and because much of the dialogue is genius in its twisted logic (take Colbert’s line “I need more out of this relationship than I’m willing to put in; and I think I deserve better than that, don’t you?”), Strangers With Candy is comedy at its sharpest, deserving of multiple viewings.

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