Sundance Recap 1

The weekend went by in a blur but it was an interesting, happy blur.  N and I saw five movies at the Sundance Film Festival and on Sunday we celebrated Mimi’s fourth birthday with N’s parents.

So far I’ve been impressed with all the movies we’ve seen.  The first movie we saw was What Happened, Miss Simone?, a documentary.

Right to left: The director Liz Garbus, Nina Simone's longtime guitarist Al Schackman, crew, and a producer
Right to left: The director Liz Garbus, Nina Simone’s longtime guitarist Al Schackman, crew members, and a producer.

I had heard of Nina Simone but didn’t know much about her life or music. But the documentary did a great job covering her life and music and placing it in the context of the times she lived in.  It took a subject I knew little about and made it fascinating which I think is a sign of a successful documentary.

The second movie we saw on Friday was Bronze, an edgy comedy about an washed-up Olympic gymnast living in her small town milking her former glory for all it’s worth. It was written by wife and husband team Melissa and Winston Rauch as a vehicle for Melissa to star in it.

They did a Q&A after the film with the director and Thomas Middleditch (whom I like from Silicon Valley on HBO ) who plays a love interest.  Melissa and Winston said that the idea for the movie sprang from a moment when Winston told Melissa, “You know, you’re really short.  You could play a gymnast!”

Left to right: director Bryan Buckley, actor Thomas Middleditch, writer/actor Melissa Rauch, and her husband and co-writer Winston Rauch.
Left to right: director Bryan Buckley, actor Thomas Middleditch, writer/actor Melissa Rauch, and her husband and co-writer Winston Rauch.

The movie is very very very funny, but definitely not for the faint-of-heart.  The Q&A after was fun–it was neat to hear Melissa and Winston share about working together as a married couple and unbelievable to hear that the movie was made in just 22 days.

All of the movies we saw this weekend except for one had Q&As afterward which was great.  So far I think this might be the best year we’ve had at the festival.

Sundance Week One

The Sundance Film Festival begins later this week and N and I have tickets to some shows!  It’s a fun thing that we try to make time for every year.  This year we’re going to see 10 films (in 4 days, gulp.)

Our ticket package was limited to showings in Salt Lake City and N’s work schedule/our babysitters’ availability limited us to movies on Fridays/Saturdays so our choice of films was somewhat constrained.  There were things we wanted to see but couldn’t find a convenient showing of which was a bit of a bummer.  But I’m looking forward to seeing some movies that I normally wouldn’t have the chance to see and spending a few days hanging out with N.  Here is what we’re seeing this Friday and Saturday.

**The summaries are taken from the Sundance Festival Program.**

What Happened, Miss Simone?
A classically trained musical genius, chart-topping chanteuse, and Black Power icon, Nina Simone is one of the most influential, beloved, provocative, and least understood artists of our time. On stage, she was known for utterly free, rapturous performances, earning her the epithet “High Priestess of Soul.” But amid the violent, day-to-day fight for civil rights, she struggled to reconcile artistic ambition with her fierce devotion to a movement. Director Liz Garbus sensitively explores the constant state of opposition that trapped and tortured Simone—as a classical pianist pigeonholed in jazz, as a professional boxed in by family life, as a black woman in racist America—and in so doing, reveals a towering figure transcending categorization and her times. The film stays true to Simone’s subjectivity by mining never-before-heard tapes, rare archival footage, and interviews with close friends and family. Charting Simone’s musical inventiveness alongside the arc of her Jim Crow childhood, defining role in the Civil Rights Movement, arrival at Carnegie Hall, self-imposed exile in Liberia, and solitary life in France, this astonishingly intimate yet epic portrait becomes a non-fiction musical—lush tracks and riveting story resonating inextricably. —C.L.

The Bronze
In 2004, Hope Ann Greggory became an American hero after winning the bronze medal for the women’s gymnastics team. Today, she’s living in her father’s basement in her small hometown—washed up, largely forgotten, and embittered. Stuck in her past glory, Hope is forced to reassess her life when a promising young gymnast who idolizes her threatens her local celebrity status. Will she mentor the adoring, hopeful protégé, take her down, or both?

In the summer of 1968, television news changed forever. Dead last in the ratings, ABC hired two towering public intellectuals to debate each other during the Democratic and Republican national conventions. William F. Buckley, Jr. was a leading light of the new conservative movement. A Democrat and cousin to Jackie Onassis, Gore Vidal was a leftist novelist and polemicist. Armed with deep-seated distrust and enmity, Vidal and Buckley believed each other’s political ideologies were dangerous for America. Like rounds in a heavyweight battle, they pummeled out policy and personal insult—cementing their opposing political positions. Their explosive exchanges devolved into vitriolic name-calling. It was unlike anything TV had ever broadcast, and all the more shocking because it was live and unscripted. Viewers were riveted. ABC News’ ratings skyrocketed. And a new era in public discourse was born.

In early 2000, in a tiny village in one of the poorest mining valleys in Wales, Jan Vokes, the barmaid at the local men’s club, hatches a crazy plan to take on the “sport of kings” and breed a racehorse. She gathers together a group of locals who each agree to pitch in 10 pounds a week. They raise their foal on a hillside made of slag from the coal mine and nurture it to maturity. Reflecting their pride and flights of fancy, they name their horse Dream Alliance. To the astonishment of the racing elite, Dream becomes an unlikely champion, beating the finest thoroughbreds in the land. Then, in one fateful race, the horse—which embodies the plucky band of misfits’ hopes and dreams—has a near-fatal accident. Nursed back to health through the love of his owners, Dream makes a remarkable recovery, returning to the track for a heart-pounding comeback.

In 1996, shortly after the publication of his groundbreaking novel Infinite Jest, acclaimed author David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel) sets off on a five-day interview with Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg). As the days pass, a tenuous yet significant relationship develops between journalist and subject. Lipsky and Wallace bob and weave around each other, revealing as much in what they don’t say as what the say. They share laughs, expose hidden frailties, yet it’s never clear when or to what extent they are being truthful. The interview is never published. Five days of audio tapes are packed away in Lipsky’s closet, and the two men never meet again.

*tap, tap, tap*


Is it too late to post about Sundance?  Things around here have been either happily-but-stressfully hectic or frustratingly dull and tiresome; both of which I’m afraid are not very conducive to faithful blog-posting. But I still wanted to share about some of the movies we saw this year at Sundance.

The eight movies we saw included documentaries, dramas, comedies, and a thriller.  All of them were well-made, most of them were excellent, and a few of them were visionary but Austenland was by far the most fun.  

Austenland is the story of Jane, a lonely single woman and obsessive fan of Austen’s work who in  a last-ditch effort to bring some excitement and romance into her life blows her savings on a vacation at an immersive English Austen-themed resort.  Hijinks ensue!

The movie has a great cast.  Keri Russell is the lead; Jennifer Coolidge is hilarious as a fellow vacationer; and Bret McKenzie from Flight of the Conchords is funny (and always a treat to watch).

The movie is based on a book by Shannon Hale which I’ve read and directed by Jerusha Hess who co-wrote Napoleon Dynamite with her husband. From the moment Jerusha came out on stage and introduced the movie she had the audience in the palm of her hand. During the film there were times when I couldn’t hear some of the dialogue because the audience was laughing so loudly. It was fun to be in such an enthusiastic audience.

After the movie Jerusha Hess and Shannon Hale came out on stage and did a Q&A.  Hess talked about what a riot it had been working with the actors, especially Bret McKenzie and Jennifer Coolidge who had ad-libbed most of her lines.  She also mentioned that Keri Russell had been 6 months pregnant when they had filmed at which there was a collective gasp from the audience.

It has a few minor issues but Austenland is a playful romantic comedy tailor-made for the English-major set and anyone who’s ever sighed over Mr. Darcy. Check it out when it’s released in theaters!

Sundance Film Festival 2013

photo via

The 2013 Sundance Film Festival kicked off yesterday. Every year N and I try to see at least a few films; it’s something we’ve done since we were dating.  Now it’s a fun way to spend some kid-free time together and as locals we get a decent deal on ticket packages. Attending the festival is usually one of the highlights of my year.

We prefer going to showings in Salt Lake City rather than making the drive to Park City. While we miss out on star-gawking and some Q&As I think we more than make up for it in ease of parking, plentiful places to grab a bite between showings, and the extra money we’d have to pay a sitter  🙂

This year we’re going to 8 films which I’ll try to post reviews about later.  We are seeing:

How about you? Are there any festivals where you live that you like to attend? 

Sundance 2012 – The Queen of Versailles

Every year N and I try and make it to a few films at the Sundance Film Festival. It’s pretty affordable and easy to do thanks to locals’ tickets and there being several festival venues in Salt Lake City.

On Saturday we saw two movies, one of which was The Queen of Versailles.

The Queen of Versailles is a documentary that follows billionaires David and Jackie (his 30-years younger wife) Siegel as they set out to build their dream house, a 90,000 square-foot replica of Versailles complete with ice-skating rink and grand ballroom. It will be the largest home in America.

However, once the 2008 economic crisis hits, the time-share empire that Jackie and David’s wealth is based on starts crumbling and then falls fast and hard. Their opulent lifestyle is thrown into chaos.

Lauren Greenfield’s deft touch is evident throughout the whole film. Greenfield walks the fine line of mining the absurdity of the Siegels’ life for laughs while still humanizing her subjects so when their fall comes you still see them as family thrown into crisis and not merely symbols of the 1%.

If there is any flaw in the movie it is that Greenfield does not hold David and Jackie as accountable for their own downfall as she could have. The Siegels, billionaires at the beginning of the film, are by the end talking about how their kids will have to get loans if they want to go to college.

On camera they talk about how their bad fortune is the fault of conniving bankers. Greenfield lets them expose their delusions with their own words rather than confronting them with it which is a valid choice but it does mean at times you just want to grab Jackie and shake her by the shoulders.

The film has the arc of a classic Greek tragedy and is epic in scope but unfolds its story by capturing the most telling details–the painted fantasy portraits of David and Jackie as warrior and princess, the dead fish floating in the scummy tank, the piles of dog crap on the expensive carpets.

As I was watching the film I kept exclaiming to myself, “I can’t believe they got this footage!” The access the documentary crew had is astounding and speaks to Greenfield’s talent of connecting with her subjects.

The Queen of Versailles is funny and charming and thought-provoking. I heard it got purchased so it will be hitting theaters in a year or so. If you get the chance it’s definitely worth watching.

Sundance Film Fest 2011: Part Two

On Saturday night N and I went out to dinner at The Copper Onion which is conveniently located next to the Broadway theater where our first movie of the night was playing. After seeing a parade of restaurants open and close in this space over the years I’m so glad to see that The Copper Onion is still going strong a year after it opened. The food is great! I love their sides in particular. Everything is very fresh and flavorful. In the summer N and I fight over their beet salad but the star of this last visit was the roasted cauliflower with anchovy cream and capers (in the middle of the photo below).

It was SO GOOD. I would have happily have eaten a big bowl of it for my entree. I also really liked the shredded brussels sprouts; the spinach with raisins and cashews was good but just okay. N got a plate of sweet breads and I got the pasta special and we shared everything. It was delicious but somewhat bittersweet because after the baby’s born I’m cutting out all dairy, eggs, and nuts from my diet while I’m nursing and I’m really going to miss food like this.

About the movies: the first film was saw was Incendies which is nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar. Based on a play by a well-known Lebanese-Canadian playwright, Wajdi Mouawad, the film opens with the reading of the unusual will of Nawal Marwan, a secretary of a Canadian notary. In her will Nawal’s twin children Jeanne and Simon are charged with finding their father (whom they understood to be dead) and their brother (whom they didn’t knew existed) and delivering sealed letters to them.

The film cuts between scenes of Nawal’s life in an unspecified Middle Eastern country (Lebanon) as a civil war breaks out between Muslims and Christians and those of the twins traveling around their mother’s homeland in the present day searching for their father and their brother.

The film is really great and was my favorite of the three things we saw this year. The director, Denis Villeneuve, does a great job conveying the sense of place that is so critical to the story. And he handles several big plot reveals with a light hand and allows the story to tell itself.

After the screening Villeneuve conducted an excellent Q&A and provided some thoughtful insights into the movie as well as patiently answered a few moronic questions from the audience. One tidbit was that for a while the studio wanted to release the movie with the title Scorch but then backed off once they realized it made the film seem like a B movie. For more details about the film see N’s review here.

After Incendies we drove to the other end of downtown and saw Martha Marcy May Marlene. The movie rests on the shoulders of Elizabeth Olson (younger sister to Mary Kate and Ashley) and she carries it handily. Olson plays Martha, a young girl who falls in with a group of young people living commune-style on a farm in upstate New York. The group is headed by a older man who exercises absolute authority over everyone. The movie never uses the world “cult” but it becomes obvious that’s what life on the farm is.

Soon into the film Martha runs away from the farm and seeks refuge with her estranged sister Lucy and Lucy’s husband Paul. The rest of the movie cuts between Martha’s life with the cult and her struggles to integrate into Lucy and Paul’s upper-middle class life. The movie rides on Olson’s ability to depict her character’s inner turmoil without turning it into melodrama and I think she did a great job. It’s especially impressive since it’s one of her first feature films. For N’s take on the movie see his review here.

Sundance Film Fest 2011: Part One

The past few years N and I have bought locals’ ticket packages for Sundance. It’s always been a lot of fun: after the craziness of the holidays and in the middle of the January doldrums it’s great to play hooky from real life and go see some great movies. We usually go see about six movies but with the baby coming so soon this year we just bought tickets to three. It was really nice to go out on a last few dates before she arrives.

On Friday night we ate some delicious Middle Eastern food at Maza and then walked over to the Tower Theater and watched the Korean revenge thriller I Saw the Devil by Kim Ji-woon.

(Yum…tasty, tasty revenge)

I’ve seen several Korean thrillers: Kim Ji-Woon’s A Tale of Two Sisters, Park Chan-Wook’s Vengeance trilogy (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Old Boy, Lady Vengeance), Memories of Murder, The Host, Mother, etc… and I think that I Saw The Devil is one of the most disturbing. I actually found myself covering my eyes at times which I normally don’t do. It’s very violent and definitely not for everyone (or probably even most) but I thought it was pretty good.

The director Kim Ji-woon and one of the film’s stars, the very cute Byung-Hun Lee, attended the screening and introduced the film but unfortunately didn’t stick around for a Q&A. You can read N’s more detailed review here.

Sundance Tickets for Locals

For the past few years N and I have bought locals ticket packages for the Sundance Film Festival. We like to avoid the crowds up in Park City and go to screenings in Salt Lake. Not as many directors/actors attend the shows in Salt Lake as they do in Park City so there aren’t as many Q&A sessions afterward but not having to drive an hour each way in horrible weather + deal with parking = worth it. Every year it’s been a lot of fun and it’s great to see movies that we wouldn’t get the chance to see otherwise. It’s also a nice break to spend some time one-on-one with N after the craziness of the holidays.

However, we decided not to get a ticket package this year since the festival runs from January 20th-30th and my due date is January 31st. Instead we’re going to buy individual tickets to a couple screenings that hopefully fall closer to the 20th than the 30th.

If you’re a local and you’re interested in tickets this year don’t forget to register for a time slot to buy tickets. Registration is free and everyone who registers will be randomly assigned a time slot to go to the box office and purchase tickets. You have until next Monday the 20th to register here.

Sundance 2010: Louis CK “Hilarious”

Even though he sometimes uses language that would make my mother faint, Louis CK is one of my favorite comedians. (And the part about my mom is no exaggeration. My brother Steven is a huge Howie Mandel fan (yes, apparently there is such a thing) and for his birthday he wanted to go see Howie perform but when Mr. Deal-Or-No-Deal started dropping the swears my mom freaked out and wanted to leave but Steven wanted to stay. So she covered her ears and successfully blocked the evening from her memory.)

You may have seen one of Louis CK’s comedy specials on Comedy Central or noticed him as Amy Pohler’s cop love interest on Parks and Recreation. Hilarious, is a two-hour performance movie by Louis CK. It was really funny but I wouldn’t recommend it if you have delicate sensibilities (This means you, Mom!).

The best part of the viewing was that Louis CK was there in person! He introduced the film and then held a lengthy Q&A session afterward. It was fun to see him in person. He definitely had a self-loathing vibe roiling off him (surprise, surprise) but he was very nice. I was tempted to ask to take a picture with him but decided it would be tacky; he looked really tired by the end of the Q&A.

Louis CK did a bit on Conan’s show that’s been making the rounds on the ol’ internets. It’s pretty great (and swear-free since it was on network tv). He included a longer version of it in the movie. Check it out.

Sundance 2010: “The Red Chapel”

Friday night was a lot of fun. We ate a tasty dinner at Mazza, a Middle Eastern restaurant that we’ve been meaning to try and then went to the movie theater. It was very hassle-free: we parked in the garage and then walked right in to the theater and sat down to watch Grown Up Movie Star and then afterward just walked to the screening room next door for The Red Chapel. I really enjoyed both movies. We’re going to see 6 shows at Sundance this year and I’m planning on posting about about all of them, so um, considered yourself warned.

The Red Chapel is an extraordinary documentary. Rather than objectively following a subject the director engages in gonzo-style film making in an attempt to capture on film the absurd evil that rules North Korea. Mads Brügger, the Danish director, arranges for two Danish-Korean comedians, Simon and Jacob, to travel to Pyongyang for a few weeks to practice and perform a show as part of a “cultural exchange.” The whole time they’re there Brügger is lying through his teeth to keep the North Koreans in the dark about his true intentions to expose the insanity of the totalitarian regime.

Jacob, who has a muscular disorder and describes himself as a “spastic” is the lynchpin on which the whole enterprise depends. After every day of filming Danish-speaking North Korean censors reviewed the crew’s footage but they couldn’t understand Jacob’s garbled speech. As a result, Jacob emerges in the movie as the lone voice of reason, the only one who can openly question the craziness of what he sees.

Jacob is used by both Brügger, who is open about his intentions of ruthlessly using Jacob for the good of the film, and the North Koreans, who figure that it’s good propaganda to shower a disabled Korean adoptee with affection especially considering the allegations of North Korean sending disabled people to camps.

It’s a riveting film and very moving at times. Ms. Pak, the crew’s North Korean minder, takes a shine to Jacob and smothers him in motherly affection but her ferventness is both unsettling and familiar to anyone who has meet a distant Korean aunt or grandmother. As Jacob points out, while all the North Koreans are kind to him he can see the contempt in their eyes. At one point Jacob has a breakdown after touring a model North Korean school; he’s so creeped out and saddened by the whole situation.

I found myself getting a little emotional a few times during the movie. My mom’s Korean and we still have family living in South Korea. My siblings were adopted from Korea and my brother Steven is developmentally disabled. I couldn’t help imagining what it would have been like if my gentle brother had been born in North Korea. At one point in the movie Jacob asks Ms. Pak if he can meet some North Koreans who are handicapped like him. Her stunned and panicked expression gives credence to the idea that the disabled are not treated kindly in North Korea.

I’m not sure what time of distribution the movie has, but I recommend watching it if you ever get the chance. It really is a fascinating film. If you’re bothered by swearing, the movie does have a fair amount in it (but most of it is in Danish/subtitled).