The Reeler

February 24, 2007

Sounds, Starts and Padres

(L-R) Actors Kene Holliday and Pat Healy with writer/director Craig Zobel at the Sundance premiere of The Great World of Sound (Photos: STV)

By S.T. VanAirsdale

I've been underachieving mightily in my dispatches from Park City -- especially from premieres, which gave me such pleasure last year in the credential-less early days of crashing public screenings. These days, however, I have split on attending press screenings and public events, and it's something of a drag, to be honest; hissing at the screen at the end of Hounddog isn't nearly as rewarding among jaded peers as it would be among baffled festivalgoers.

But I've still taken in a few premieres featuring NYC films and/or filmmakers -- some of which were reported earlier, but a few of which I wanted to pass along quick word of now:

The Great World of Sound

Writer/director Craig Zobel was a hell of a gracious good sport in fielding the third degree on The Reeler before Sundance, and as I told him at the time, I wouldn't have been so inquisitive if I hadn't outright loved his film. A kind of American Idol meets Borat -- without the pranky cultural warfare -- The Great World of Sound follows the professional trajectories of "song sharks" Martin and Clarence (Pat Healy and Kene Holliday), traveling salesmen masquerading as record producers who audition "talent" from open calls placed in the back of newspapers. Not that talent has anything to do with it; the men work to pull thousands of dollars in production fees from anyone sentient enough to make a noise into a microphone. Think of it as Salesmen recast as an honest-to-goodness buddy movie -- and a classically funny one at that.

"I think everybody, in their lives, has been in these high-pressure, high-sales situations," Zobel said after last weekend's well-received premiere. "The most obvious would be shopping for a car or something, where you really do wind up in situations where you want to leave, and you feel like you’ve said, 'No.' Yet this other person just won't let it go. And I wanted to know where that other person was coming from. That was the kernel of it."

The audience let Zobel off the hook with the exploitation issue I raised in our conversation; I honestly thought the shooting methods -- surreptitiously filming auditions from behind two-way mirrors -- would provoke a little more controversy. But smart filmmaking and a pair of terrific lead performances will clear anyone's conscience, I suppose. I won't complain; this movie deserves every accolade it has coming to it.

Follow the jump for recaps from Starting Out in the Evening and Padre Nuestro

Continue reading "Sounds, Starts and Padres" »

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January 30, 2007

Shocking Footage! Filmmaker Kills Reeler

If you've ever wanted to kill Reeler editor S.T. VanAirsdale, Jamie Stuart lived the dream last week in Park City. In this video dispatch from the Filmmaker Magazine blog, Stuart turns in one of his more impressionistic portraits of film festival life -- no narration, no big celebrity sound bites, just a general Sundance-rookie disorientation and an aggrieved nudge that doomed your humble editor to a chilly demise. Intercut with a Shooter Jennings performance. And a fantasy interlude with Sienna Miller's jewelry. And a quick word from Julien Temple and Great World of Sound filmmaker Craig Zobel among others.

View the carnage here, and send your condolences -- in the form of news tips -- here.

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January 27, 2007

Kampmeier's Lowdown Hounddog Ad Copy Blues

By S.T. VanAirsdale

I don't know if everybody was talking about this earlier in the day and I missed it or if perhaps it's just flown this low beneath the radar, but a friend recently pointed out the back of Friday's Sundance Daily Insider, which boasts a full-page Volkswagen ad featuring a handwritten note from embattled Hounddog director Deborah Kampmeier:

My film, "Hounddog" is all about finding one's true voice. We'd shot four weeks straight when we were shut down by the union. Trying to finish, the stress became almost overwhelming when, with almost no time left, a ferocious lightening [sic] storm hit. Cast and crew were whisked away to their trailors [sic]. I sat there, trapped in silent dispair [sic], feeling my film slipping away. I put on Bessi [sic] Smith. "When it thunders and lightenin' [sic] ... mmmmmm, I can't move no mo'." You know that feeling when a piece of music speaks your truth better than you can? I wept for Dakota's brilliant performance and I wept for all the women who've been abused. Then I had an inspiration. I asked my DP to shoot the lightening [sic] as it lit up the broken down cars. It ended up becoming important footage for the film. It stormed around us all night. But we finished the work and ultimately, the film... wailing the blues.

Meanwhile, virtually all of Hounddog's viewers finished the exploitive, racist piece of Southern-fried horseshit hackwork wailing for Kampmeier's head -- all of its viewers, that is, except for some doomed Volkswagen copywriter, who added this kicker:

Congratulations, Deborah, on getting your film produced and capturing this year's VW Relentless Drive Award. Have fun driving the sweet Touareg that comes with it. Or, if necessary, use it as a fat bribe should union officials wander your way again. We look forward to seeing you at next year's Sundance Film Festival.

Congratulations indeed, Deborah; the Touareg should do just the trick getting you to every screening in 2008 with time to spare. But don't worry about getting shut down on the job: As far as I know, ticket-takers aren't unionized.

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January 26, 2007

Screening Park City: Manohla Keeps it Real

Winona Ryder and friend in the box-ready comedy The Ten

Some of tonight's movie news of note from around the Sundance Film Festival:

--Manohla Dargis has her Sundance recap up at The NY Times, and while it's expectedly brilliant, my colleagues and I are wondering why she didn't just come out and name the anonymous "bad comedy that features a clutch of low-level film and television actors" and was "incompetently made and, from the half-hour or so of it that I watched, unfunny in the extreme" as The Ten? A quick browse through the program doesn't leave many alternatives. And huge kudos to her for propping up The Great World of Sound, which is still the best narrative feature I've seen at the festival (and, as of this writing, unsold). Not for nothing, her characterization of Hounddog as "rubbish," "sincere as it is stupid" and "pure art-house exploitation" couldn't have been more on the money. Someone should light the fucking negative on fire.

--Oh, and speaking of The Ten, The Hollywood Reporter notes that ThinkFilm bought it. I can't argue; those names will look good on a box.

--Meanwhile, one of Sundance's unsung heroes is Coming Soon's Edward Douglas, who, despite his lodging situation well outside the Park City limits, has arguably filed more stories (and definitely more words) than anybody else covering the festival. Plus he was one of the first reporters to get behind the Irish sensation Once, which took me more than a week to see and totally blew me away. I should have listened -- we don't agree on a lot, but this is one that might just be impossible to dislike. I want the soundtrack.

--I have sincerely missed Defamer since plunging into my Sundance cocoon last week, but after revisiting the wonderland of Mark Lisanti and Seth Abramovitch -- especially their spot-on coverage of Sienna Miller Swag-gate and Dakota Fanning's dirty-pantied hurdle on the road to pubescent godhead status. L.A. dwellers or not, Christ I love these guys.

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Glass Reflects on Televised Life

By S.T. VanAirsdale

This isn't technically a NYC cinema story, but the involvement of Christine Vachon and the very New York NPR host Ira Glass make the upcoming TV series adaptation of Glass's show This American Life a fairly essential development worth checking out. Glass previewed portions of the program, which debuts this spring on Showtime, during a Sundance panel discussion with director Chris Wilcha and cinematographer Adam Beckman.


(L-R) This American Life host Ira Glass discusses his show's TV adaptation with director Chris Wilcha and Adam Beckman (Photo: STV)

The show is like Dateline meets Errol Morris, with personal and narrative quirk subservient to a conventional newsmagazine austerity. Glass introduces segments from a Johnny Carson-esque desk plunked against the backdrop from which his stories originated; as evinced by a sample clip about a moody cloned bull and his sympathetic keepers, the interviews emphasize their subjects while retaining their host's inquisitive identity. "We go through a lot of stories to come up with like three or four stories to do on our show; we have the luxury that radio is incredibly cheap to do," Glass told the audience attending the event, introducing a discussion of how preparing the TV program differs so radically from his 12-year-old radio institution. "So to get three or four stories for the radio show, we consider 10 or 15 or 20 stories. And we only into production on seven or eight stores -- knowing we're going to kill half of them. Or maybe a third of them. And so we get (the subjects) in the studio, talk to them for maybe an hour, an hour-and-a-half and see if they're good. If they're good, they'll end up on the air. If they're not good, they... that's it. And that's a huge luxury. To do the story, we do an hour in the studio or we go to the person's house and take a digital recorder and sit at the table and talk for an hour or two -- a long time for a radio interview. And, you know, that's it for a lot of stories. There are stories we take weeks and months and we'll gather 100-150 hours of tape and (do something) documentary, but truthfully, the bulk of the show is much, much simpler. And so that's what we're used to."

Glass turned to Wilcha and Beckman. "And you guys are like, 'Yeah, we're not going for two hours.' "

"I mean, we would literally have to go take over a person's life for up to a week," Wilcha said. "You know; we'd shoot the interviews -- that would take a day. The lighting--"

"We pared the thing down to just the bare minimum," Beckman said. "We might have four lights, a very small camera package, and I never felt like we really had a crew; we just had one utility guy who helped us with everything from getting lunch to setting up lights. We moved quickly, although at times we were wondering, 'God, what's taking so long?' "

"They could literally record an interview and be on the plane an hour later, on Pro Tools, editing the thing," Wilcha said. "We would be setting up and shooting and days would go by and we'd need releases and the size of the crew -- for some of these, they were much larger crews. These were 15 people--"

"And the rest of the story, like, Adam would say, 'Among my people, this is very fast,' " Glass said.

"One of the things that I remember frustrated you on one of the first shoots was the sheer distance you had to have from your interview subjects," Wilcha said. "In other words, you used to be able to sit this close to somebody and talk to them, and we had you talking to this woman named Helen, who probably was 85 years old or something? Not only did you have to sit further away from her to not be in the shot, but actually she couldn't hear that well. And I think it was reflected in the interview and we didn’t use it. She was like, 'Huh?' "

Glass nodded. "Before the interview, she and I were joking around," he said. "It was really funny, and there was this really nice vibe to it. And then we sit down for the shot, and she's in front of the camera and I'm behind the camera -- like a good 14 feet away. I was going, like, 'What I said was...' "

"And then the other things -- we might have to show them this -- there were these indignities that Ira had suffered that you just don't feel on radio," Wilcha said. "A quick one we had an illustration of was that at one point during our shoot in Utah, the sun was coming up and Ira was backlit and his ears were backlit, and so he looked like an alien. We had to swoop in and tape his ears."

Indeed, as an outtake demonstrated, out came the gaffer's tape and thus was Ira Glass made ready for TV. If you're a fan of his, you'll love the show; if you're not (I would probably lean this way), the format is familiar enough to overlook his voice and self-awareness and locate the narrative hearts that make these stories worth telling. I mean, you can't really fuck up the tale of a guy who's bull gores out a testicle from a wound requiring 80 stitches. That's entertainment in any format, isn't it?

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January 25, 2007

Manda Bizarro From Sao Paulo

By S.T. VanAirsdale

Jason Kohn discusses Manda Bala after its screening Tuesday at Sundance (Photo: STV)

One of my favorite interviews with a New York filmmaker prior to the festival was the chat I had with Jason Kohn, whose competition documentary Manda Bala (Send a Bullet) I had the chance to check out a little while ago. Five years in the making, the film constructs a triptych of Brazilian phenomena including the world's largest frog farm, a plastic surgeon specializing in ear reconstruction and one of the country's most corrupt politicians, positioned against each other in a colorful, hyperstylized kinesis of treachery in Sao Paulo. A title preceding the film affirms its inability to be shown in Brazil -- yet not as a result of any censorship issues, as Kohn told the audience at the Prospector Square Theater on Tuesday. Rather, the subject matter is so severe and the cultural tumult so vividly portrayed that even Kohn's family, who lives in Brazil, faces reprisal following the filmmaker's riveting (if indeed outrageous) depiction of their nation.

But the story isn't so much the thing in Manda Bala as it is a foregone conclusion; Sao Paulo is viewed from the sky, streets and slums as a megalopolis of finite possibilities and virtually infinite lawlessness. Kohn's interviews with the money-laundering frog farmer yield to an interview with a former kidnapping victim whose captors sent her severed ear as a ransom demand; that pair gives way to a bulletproof car entrepreneur and an actual, ski-masked kidnapper himself. With subjects like these -- all equally haunted and defined by their relationships to crime and country -- Kohn's film lives in the extremes while somehow taking refuge in the commonplace. It's fascinating, unsettling viewing, with dolly shots in operating rooms and symmetrical, offbeat interview set-ups recalling Kohn's mentor Errol Morris.

And as Kohn told his audience this week, it was equally unsettling filmmaking. "I was down there for about four months trying to get a kidnapper through prisons," he said. "But there are a lot of documentaries about prisons and how bad they were in Brazil, and they wouldn't let anybody in. We couldn't pay off an official -- that's how bad it was. Usually it's pretty easy. And my Dad has a friend who's a cab driver -- an old-time friend, maybe 10 years or so. And my car had broken down; I was on my way to the dentist. He asked me how things were going, and I said things sucked; I couldn't get an interview with a kidnapper. I mean, I was down there just to do that. And he was like, 'Well, you want me to introduce you to someone?'

"Turns out he delivers packages every once in a while for some extra money to that guy (in the film)," Kohn continued. "The guy called that night and said, 'What do you need?' I said, 'I need an interview with someone who's kidnapped somebody.' Now, after four months, I would have gladly interviewed your garden variety flash kidnapper -- someone who goes to ATM's from the evening into the morning or something like that. And he said, 'Well, all right, you've got a kidnapper. What else do you need?' I said, 'Well, what about some violence?' He was like, 'Well, I've, you know, pulled out fingernails, cut off ears...' Well, that was a wet dream, right?"

One audience member objected to Manda Bala's exclusion of any "poor person(s)" besides the kidnapper as interview subjects, after which Kohn unequivocally restated his mission. "This isn't a film about poverty," he said. "It's a film about wealth, decadence and corruption. I wanted to try to stay away from poverty as much as possible, because I think there' something about the liberal, first-world eye going down to poor people and filming them and it's very easy to film poor people because they've got nothing to lose. I didn't want it to be that kind of movie. But poverty was an essential part of the story; to make that final link and bring it full circle, we needed somebody. And that person needed to be a criminal. It's not by any means saying every poor person is a criminal, but he was the necessary element. And he had an unreal life, and he's now dead. He as recently killed a few weeks ago in a shootout with the police."

Kohn's been the quote of the festival so far; more on Manda Bala later as it navigates its way to distribution.

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Blueprint for Backlash: Carr's Kid Twin Bill

I've been all over this film for a while now, but The NY Times's David Carr is playing catch up with a pair of pieces today about My Kid Could Paint That, Amir Bar-Lev's documentary on young art prodigy Marla Olmstead. In the print edition, Carr contributes an official version of the film's backstory and the questions it raises about media ethics. But over at The Carpetbagger, Carr has room to get a little more introspective -- and it kind of hurts:

(J)ournalism may aim at one thing but leave something else riddled with pellets, collateral damage in a process that never quite goes as you think it will. This morning, the Bagger got a nasty e-mail from a studio executive suggesting that he was vicious and stupid. He could care less about that stuff; she is a business person and writing about her business is just that: business. But it is the civilians, the people who don’t routinely spin or engage journalists, that make even the most careful practice of journalism uncertain over the long haul. Even when you are trying to do something nice, you sometimes do grievous harm.
On Tuesday night, (Marla's mother) Laura Olmstead gave him the courtesy of returning yet another reporter’s call, even though she knew no good would come of it. It was the Bagger’s job to talk her into talking and her job to engage, defending her family while he listened on a cell against the whizzing traffic on La Cienega. Neither of us really wanted to play a game that always seems fated from the start.

I've been thinking about this more and more over the last few days: This is a film that the Olmstead family has already come out against, and the concept of general culture's anti-art bias is one that Bar-Lev reviews in depth in his film. To the extent Sony Classics is expecting to make a splash with this film (and at nearly $2 million, it had better be a large splash), I wonder when the market factors invoked by both Carr and Bar-Lev might yield an equivalent backlash among observers who play the child exploitation card in critiques of Bar-Lev. Clearly the Olmsteads are neither art phobic nor anti-intellectual, but Laura Olmstead's statement read at Sunday's premiere -- "(W)e are heartbroken by some of the choices he made in his portrayal of our family in the editing of the film," for starters -- implies that they are victims. And I have doubts that any "judge for yourself" marketing campaign (already begun at Sundance with the installation of Marla's art at a gallery on Main Street) can trump the resentment of a devastated family.

Am I overthinking this, or are we gazing at a blueprint for bad buzz?

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January 24, 2007

Screening Park City: EW Goes B-List

Some of today's movie news of note from around the Sundance Film Festival:

--The crazy fuckers at Entertainment Weekly sent a press release alerting Sundance media to the presence of "celebrity bloggers" Rainn Wilson, Billy Baldwin and -- wait for it -- Tara Reid in Park City. "HI its Tara Reid and i'm in Sundance its freezing here but alot of fun and alot of work my movie premieres tonight and i'm really excited," Reid actually writes by way of introduction, setting mainstream media's perception of bloggers back about, oh, six hours.

--As you've probably noticed by now, I've been sticking pretty close to Hollywood Reporter know-it-alls Anne Thompson, Gregg Goldstein and Nicole Sperling for most of my festival dealmaking coverage, and today is no different: Their Tuesday wrap-up has all latest about the Weinsteins pairing up with everybody but me on a Sundance purchase, including La Misma Luna (Fox Searchlight), Dedication (Fox Searchlight) and Teeth (Lionsgate, like you didn't see that coming).

--indieWIRE has an especially in-depth report about some of those deals and the conditions under which they were made, including an early-arriving Harvey stealing John Sloss away from Monday night's Cinetic Party to "talk business." And grab a couple of those tasty garlic crostinis before they got cold. But mostly business.

--Over at Zoom-In Online, Reid Rosefelt, Annie Frisbie and the gang are continuing their video diligence featuring interviews with Brett Morgen and Jason Kohn and Rosefelt's extraordinary Adrienne Shelly memoir: "I have never really been able to explain to people why I thought I should make a film about a singing frog, but maybe it's enough to say that Adrienne Shelly thought making a film about a singing frog was a magnificent idea, and Adrienne Shelly was never wrong."

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January 23, 2007

Sony Classics Bosses Earn "Indie Mogul" Honors



Sony Pictures Classics co-presidents (L-R) Michael Barker and Tom Bernard gather their prizes in Deer Valley Sunday night (Photo: STV)

By S.T. VanAirsdale

The Reeler visited The Hollywood Reporter's tribute to Tom Bernard and Michael Barker Sunday night, where the Sony Pictures Classics bosses were bestowed some pointy glass hardware and feted as "indie moguls" for their contributions to the film industry over the last 25+ years. And while any party with a pair of massage rooms is a party too decadent for me, I had a chance to corner each of the honorees to get their impressions.

"I found it kind of strange, because we're the farthest thing from being moguls that you can imagine," Barker told me. "Our philosophy is that there's no job too menial for anybody to do, even the co-presidents of the company." He also noted the parallels between his partner's and his journey from UA Classics to Orion Classics to Sony Classics and the evolution of Sundance, where the pair has brought its discerning eyes (and checkbooks) for decades. "I do think Sundance's contribution to the evolution of documentary film deserves real mention," he said. "I do think that all of us in the film business are reaping the benefits of Sundance, bringing to our attention the value of the nonfiction film in the marketplace -- and that value is big -- both in revenues and in quality." (Speaking of docs, Barker played it cool following my inquiries about My Kid Could Paint That; "We've expressed an interest," he told me about 12 hours before he dropped $1.85 million on it.)

Bernard was in a reflective mood -- at least for a few seconds. "We've been coming here since it was the US Film Festival back in the early '80s," he said, "when a bunch of people came to ski and meet and talk about movies, because back then, when you were in the union, you couldn't work on independent movies. And now it's become so much hype." He then invoked Robert Redford's mantra from the opening day press conference that Sundance "is a festival, not a market: "I would love to see Bob put the market in the festival, so that the market is dealt with as a market, and the festival can be dealt with as a place to see new and fresh movies," Bernard said. "The documentary stuff has always been phenomenal for me, and it distresses me to see when you think of the festival last year, you only remember which movie sold for the most money."

Bernard also noted that even as the festival and the Sundance Institute are virtually unsurpassed in their capacity to provide exposure to new independent filmmakers, those market factors in 2007 may require the Institute to adapt its own mission as well. "I was here in 1981 when they started the Sundance Institute, and it was to help filmmakers make movies," he told me. "Back then, it was really hard to make a movie, and I think they accomplished those goals. But I think they really need to look to the future to teach filmmakers now how to deal with the business of movies after they've made them. Whereas in the '80s, it was all about the business of movies -- and then getting them made. Now it's all about making them, and the business they hand over to strangers. So a lot of movies are not handled in the sale in a way that best serves the film."

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Money Flows in Acquisitions Madness

My posting yesterday was limited kind of pathetically to a few brief morning items; I could make any number of excuses (note to self: never stay at Yarrow Hotel again), but you don't want to hear it. What's far more interesting -- shocking, perhaps -- is that Sony Pictures Classics paid almost $2 million for the rights to My Kid Could Paint That, a genuinely terrific documentary that nevertheless seems like an extremely tough turnaround at that price; I have no idea how SPC will market this outside the cities. Of course, I hope I'm wrong, and it may be that SPC is listening to the rumors around Park City that have Kid pegged as an Audience Award front-runner. God knows it deserves it -- and needs it. (Read more Reeler coverage of the film and its premiere here.)

Meanwhile, Fox Searchlight made its second big pick-up of the festival with the late Adrienne Shelly's Waitress (above); Gregg Goldstein and Nicole Sperling note a $4 million sale over at Risky Biz. I'm just not that impressed with the film (which The Reeler covered in depth in the run up to Sundance), but a lot of critics I've spoken to are into it and the gang at Searchlight is essentially printing money these days, so if Tony Safford says $4 million is OK, that's good enough for me.

Also, at last night's Picturehouse party, company president Bob Berney told me he bought the Slamdance video-game obsessives doc The King of Kong; the deal entitles Picturehouse to a theatrical release and remake rights for New Line to put together a fiction feature. Meanwhile, the distributor's competition feature Rocket Science continues to play to raves around town; it's set for a spring release.

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