Category Archives: Film Festivals

8: The Mormon Proposition

Blog Post Also Known As: 99 Problems but a Bitch Aint One – Volume 1

8: The Mormon Proposition
Directed: Reed Cowan and Steven Greenstreet
USA, 80 min.

As far as I’m concerned, 8: The Mormon Proposition has its heart in the right place. But, I’m coming from a very biased position. 8 attacks the church in ways that will be construed as manipulative and underhanded and, therefore, will end up preaching to the choir. Then again, Mormons are up to the same techniques in their political corner, so maybe you have to fight fire with fire.

To start, I need to come right out and say that I was raised Mormon, but haven’t attended church regularly since 2002. It has been a long 7 years, full of drama and tears, and I could relate to the ex-Mormons in the film more than I can express in writing. A lot has changed in the church since I was a member, but these particular issues were raging 7 years ago, too. I’m familiar with the hurt and fury behind the issues of gay rights as they concern the LDS church. I could never write an objective review.

That said, I could still recognize the factually…um….iffy…moments in the film that will decrease its validity to those in the know. As far as I know, for example, Mormons don’t believe God had multiple wives. And it is not established doctrine that there will be polygamy in heaven. That said, it’s not gospel principles that are really the subject of the documentary (though the filmmakers certainly use their interpretations of these principles as forms of manipulation). And the information they give surrounding Proposition 8, as far as I’m aware, is accurate.

With a subject as dividing as this one, presentation is key, and 8: The Mormon Proposition does not seem to concern itself with any attempt at conversion. The first image of the film is a creepy, distorted video of prominent Mormon leaders discussing what they see to be an important moral issue at stake in 2008’s election. The video streamed via the internet through a perfectly clear webcam, so the distortion is on the part of Cowan and Greenstreet, who use such a removed, foreign image to automatically position viewers politically. 8 continues to utilize sound distortions and eerie music to manipulate viewers into thinking that the LDS church is more than just an extremely conservative group: it’s a criminal organization, akin to the mafia.

What’s frustrating, is that the film is convincing enough without all the transparent manipulations. The facts stand up on their own! The Mormon church was the leading organization behind the “Yes on Prop 8” campaigns. They contributed the most amount of money. This led to many LGBT supporters to finally leave the church. Chris Butters is an asshole. Many LGBT kids in Mormon families suffer tremendously. The interviews with the families affected by this issue should be enough without all the conspiracy theories, and would provide a much more compelling/convincing approach to a delicate issue.

8: The Mormon Proposition will be affective on both sides. On my side of the fence the film produces righteous injustice; and on the other side it produces….righteous injustice. While this kind of ranting and raving can be very therapeutic, I doubt that this is the documentary that will promote policy change.

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Smash His Camera

I barely got in, and had to sit in the front row for this screening, but it was really worth it. Amongst all the heartbreaking, depressing, serious films at Sundance, this one takes on a pretty trivial subject, and does it well. Plus, it was full of celebrity photographs!

Smash His Camera
Directed: Leon Gast

I went into “Smash His Camera” expecting it to be a conventional, glossy, professional documentary. There’s nothing wrong with typical documentaries – I enjoy them very much – but it’s always nice to see someone try something new. In many ways “Smash His Camera” follows the formula, but it is in the areas that the film departs from traditional documentary form that it becomes really interesting.

One departure from the usual is in the subject itself: here is a sympathetic portrayal of a member of the paparazzi. There have been a lot of films deriding these photographic parasites, pointing out how annoying they are, how untalented and unartistic they are, even claiming that the paparazzi have been responsible for deaths. But “Smash His Camera” focuses on one man – the man, really – who may have a despicable job, but is certainly not a monster. This film presents Ron Galella as the guy that really popularized celebrity photographs in the US. It’s easy not to like the paparazzi. It’s hard not to like Ron Galella. He has loads of money, lives in a ridiculously big house filled with boxes of negatives, and yet remains fairly good humored and – just a little – trashy. His house is decorated with fake plants, silk flowers, and plastic trinkets. He goes from celebrity to celebrity taking their pictures, annoying them, and then giving them a signed copy of his book. In other words, he’s quite charming!

Galella "stalking" Jackie O.

My favorite aspect of the documentary was the departure it took from the traditional “talking heads” approach. After getting all his interviewees initial opinions, director Leon Gast places a bunch of people with strong, conflicting opinions in a room together and lets them hash it out. This is especially interesting when Gast gets the two lawyers together that argued in Jackie Kennedy Onassis’s lawsuit against Galella. It’s fun to watch people shit talk each other; it’s even more fun to watch them argue about all their shit talking.

“Smash His Camera” may not take on a heavy, life changing subject, but Gast’s representation of Galella is thoughtful and sympathetic and offers a new viewpoint on a profession we thought we already knew everything about.

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Boy

Boy was probably my favorite film I saw at Sundance this year. It’s indie without being hip, which seems like a hard balance to achieve. My reviews are getting shorter as I write more and more of them. Hopefully that just means more people will read them, because I don’t want to short change the films I have left to write about. I’m just really sick of the language involved in conventional film reviews. I don’t know how to get past it. It’s definitely something I need to work on.

Boy
Directed and Written: Taika Cohen
Starring: James Rolleston, Te Aho Aho Eketone-Whitu, and Taika Cohen
New Zealand, 87 min.

In Boy’s mind, his dad is a professional criminal, brave soldier, and brilliant pop star, all wrapped into one. He’s away in jail for now, but Boy spends a lot of time getting to know his estranged father through his own fantasies. Then his dad comes home, and Boy has to come to terms with his father not quite living up to his expectations. In fact, Boy has to come to terms with his father being a total loser.

New Zealand cinema has a history of creating believable, engaging child characters with the help of talented non-actors they find in Maori villages. Infectious smile, innocent hero-worship, and his protective relationship over his brother make Boy the kind of kid you would want to get to know. Equally compelling are his friends named after soap operas (Dallas, Dynasty and Falcon Crest), his six-year-old brother who believes he has superpowers, and his tiny, dirty, round-faced cousins.

In a film full of pop culture references from 1984, “Boy” manages to not sound pretentious. Rather, every American cultural phenomenon that influences this small Maori village is greeted with an innocent acceptance by the inhabitants. Like Boy’s father, America is far, far away, and sometimes myth is much better than the truth.

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it was like hearing an emotion produced by a machine: oddsac, or another green world

let’s build a constellation: a pirated (yeah!) copy of the bbc4’s documentary on brian eno, watching oddsac at sundance and the grammy awards.

eno's light-art installation at the sydney opera house

you’ve probably heard (of) brian eno without even realizing it.  after leaving roxy music in the early 70s, eno went on to make a handful of exceptional solo records, collaborated with david bowie on his berlin-trilogy (low, “heroes” and lodger, in other words, all his best records), pioneered electronic music, revolutionized ambient music for airports, helped the talking heads move from no-wave to all-world (remain in light), wrote several books and so on and so on and so on.  oh yeah, he also produced nearly every u2 record (but we shouldn’t hold that against him).

in the bbc4’s exceptional documentary, brain eno: another green world, eno notes that his earliest exposure to music was in church.  the musicians — the organists,  conductor, choir and congregation — were all people from town — the baker, shopkeeper, teacher or neighbor.  in other words, there were no professional musicians (i’m using professional musician in a very strict sense: professional => getting paid to produce/perform music).  extending this thought, it’s a safe bet that nearly all the music produced/performed in the history of the world was done so by amateurs.

i think he sewed all his own roxy music costumes

in other news, i went to a movie at the sundance film festival for the first time in like 10 years (which may be surprising since i’ve lived in or near salt lake for 9 of the last 10 winters).  but they were screening oddsac, the visual album by danny perez and animal collective, so there i was at sundance.  i was excited for this movie because, for some reason, i always associate animal collective with david lynch (probably because i first heard panda bear’s person pitch the same week i saw inland empire).  it turned out oddsac wasn’t like inland empire.  what oddsac is: a collection of new (or maybe just unreleased) animal collective songs set to different images.  the songs were great, the videos just ok.  except for this one video in the middle.  the screen goes white as random loops of noise start building up, syncing up momentarily then breaking apart.  colors, shapes and lines, mimicking the loops, break through the white, began to overlap, creating new patterns that then break apart into randomness.  it’s almost like the song is fed into some sort of program where the different noises in the song are converted into emergent moving-images. like the song is the input into a system of feedback loops whose output is the video (which is also how eno describes his work — he doesn’t create songs, but rather creates systems that produce new songs when fed different inputs).

but i want to go back to before the movie started.  the pre-movie screen flashed some sundance-sponsored nonsense about a cinematic revolution.  then some sundance suit (except, at sundance, the suits dont wear suits) walks on stage to urge us to disable our cellphones warning us that any cellphone use, including receiving texts, will get you kicked out of the screening.  not because it’s annoying when people use electronic devices in a movie theater; you’ll get kicked out because sundance is super-paranoid of piracy.  not much of a cinematic revolution.

which brings me to the grammys.  sunday night i flipped over to the grammy’s looking to see lil wayne’s performance, but instead watched another suit (this time wearing a suit) going on and on about how current and future artists and musicians need to get paid in order to create quality music so we better pay for our music for the future of music.  but as eno already suggested, only the slightest portion of music is produced by professionals.  you can go online right now and find weeks, months and years of free music — not only because the music has been pirated, but often because the artists themselves make the music free.  and, if, as the suit suggested, the grammy’s are an indicator of quality music, i’d suggest we stop paying for music right now if only so the professional artists and musicians who need to get paid to make music are forced to find other jobs.

the future of music won’t suffer one bit.

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Please Give

Please Give
Directed and Written: Nicole Holofcener
Starring: Oliver Platt, Catherine Keener, Amanda Peet, Rebecca Hall
USA, 90 min.

No one writes female characters quite like Nicole Holofcener. She has the ability to combine the greater concerns of femininity with the small details – like that cracked gray skin that develops on your elbows, and trying on jeans at department stores with your mom – that seamlessly dot her narratives. And in “Please Give” she has compiled the perfect cast to illustrate her fairly loud and obvious themes.

The film starts with what seems like an endless stream of boobs. But not the hot kind. More like the “tubes of potential danger” that hang off old ladies’ chests and have to be propped onto mammogram glass. The scene is funny and disgusting and sad and beautiful all at the same time, and the radiation technician Rebecca (Rebecca Hall) conducting the mammograms is quickly defined by her work. She’s jaded. She sees things that would otherwise be considered incredible as threats, and the lack of beauty in her life is preventing her from making meaningful connections with everyone else. It doesn’t help that the grandma she has charge of is a cranky old hag, and her tanning-obsessed sister (Amanda Peet) is a total bitch.

Meanwhile, in the apartment next door, Kate (Catherine Keener) and her husband, Alex (Oliver Platt), are patiently awaiting Rebecca’s grandmother’s death so they can buy her place and expand their own small, New York, apartment. The problem is, Kate is wracked with guilt. About everything. She’s even guilty about the antique shop she and her husband run, and she starts looking for ways to assuage this guilt. She just can’t seem to find anything (volunteering with the elderly or the mentally disabled) that doesn’t serve to depress her even further. Her daughter, struggling with acne, keeps trying to get Kate to turn that guilt and potential affection towards her, but Kate seems to be too wrapped up her in own bourgeois world.

If you’ve seen Holofcener’s other work, this plot should sound vaguely familiar. She deals with a lot of the same themes here that she focuses on in her other work. But there’s nothing wrong with a little repetition when it’s done as well as it is here. Her actors shine in their realistic roles, and the character interactions are incredibly well-scripted. I was especially taken with Platt and Keener, who have a kind of normal, non-dramatic relationship that Holofcener can keep interesting. And, while not everyone can relate to the liberal guilt of the super rich, we can relate to the way a mother and daughter fight, or the way sisters argue over responsibilities.

“Please Give” is an engaging look at New York City family life. Well acted, well scripted, well directed, well shot. There really isn’t anything more to ask for from one of our most talented directors.

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The End of a Week

Sundance is over. Thank God. About a month from now I’ll be so excited for next year’s lineup, but for now, I’m relieved that it’s over. Seeing 3-5 movies a day is fun in the comfort of your living room, but seeing 3-5 movies in theaters can get a little monotonous. Not to mention the popularity of Sundance that forces you to show up at least 30 mins early and wait in line in the snow and wind. Every once in a while, usually after watching a film like New Low, I come out of the theater – only to get right back into line for the next screening – and wonder why I do this. After all, Scott and I cover the festival for free, and even have to dip into our own funds when you consider all the time we take off work. Then I see something like Winter’s Bone and I remember what a great opportunity a festival like Sundance provides us.

Here’s the final breakdown of the past week:

Friday, January 22
Shorts Program III (7 shorts)
His and Hers
Hesher

Saturday, January 23
Bran Nue Dae
Boy
Waiting for Superman
Please Give
Splice

Sunday, January 24
Smash His Camera
Howl
Documentary Shorts (7 shorts)

Monday, January 25
Cyrus
Frozen
Welcome to the Rileys
Jack Goes Boating

Tuesday, January 26
The Extra Man
Grown Up Movie Star
8: The Mormon Proposition
Tucker and Dale vs. Evil
The Violent Kind

Wednesday, January 27
12th and Delaware
New Low
The Killer Inside Me

Thursday, January 28
HIGH School
Shock Doctrine

Friday, January 29
Sins of My Father
Space Tourists

Saturday, January 30
The Perfect Host
Winter’s Bone
Shorts Program II (7 shorts)
Animation Spotlight (9 shorts)

That brings my grand total to 31 films. Or, 27 features and 30 short films. That seems like a lot, but somehow it feels like I’ve seen so much more than that.

Look below to see the reviews I’ve posted already, and be on the lookout for reviews to come. Eventually I plan to have a little something written about all of them. Most of these movies were great, and deserve all the press they can get. Continue to check He Shot Cyrus and Identity Theory for additional Sundance coverage.

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New Low

New Low
Directed and Written: Adam Bowers
Starring: Adam Bowers, Jayme Ratzer, Valerie Jones
USA, 82 min.

This year the Sundance Film Festival included a category they called “Next.” The idea was to showcase some of the best films made with the lowest amount of money. Adam Bowers’ film “New Low” certainly qualifies as far as the budget is concerned. Shot on different pieces of borrowed equipment (whatever friend was around that day, he says), Bowers’ wrote, directed, and starred in the film. It’s hard not to root for a project like this. And, while Bowers as an actor is decent – his timing is always spot on, even if his performance gets a little repetitive – the rest of the film is dull in a predictable kind of way. If you’re going to the trouble of making a film for such a tiny amount of money, not knowing where it will end up, just for the love of filmmaking, it seems like you should try to do something a little bit different with the medium. “New Low” expands on the oft-repeated indie love triangle between a witty boy and the two very different girls that may or may not be interested in him. We’ve seen this before and we’ve seen it done better.

Wendell is balding, thin-lipped, and too skinny. Or, so says Vicky, his new girlfriend that derides him and then sleeps with him. Wendell would much rather be with Joanna, the environmentally conscious, Food Not Bombs organizing, volunteer that wants to shape Wendell into a better person. The problem is, does he deserve someone like Joanna? Or is he doomed to spend the rest of his life with assholes like Vicky.

All of the performances are much better than you’d expect from a plot like that. I especially enjoyed watching Jayme Ratzer manipulating Wendell at one moment and then being highly self-conscious the next. But, they needed more from the script to really break out in their roles. Bowers’ writing is full of funny one-liners, but everything in between is monotonously familiar. Small details, like the existence of a VHS rental store in 2009 are never addressed, and so come across as trendy anachronistic mistakes instead of adding texture to the story.

There have been a lot of historical films that have made the best of a tiny budget. Kevin Smith’s “Clerks” or Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs,” for example, created something new and different enough from the mainstream that they changed the way we think about independent film. When a film with a tiny budget attempts a very basic story like the one told in “New Low” without outstanding cinematography, style, or form, it just resonates as poorly made.

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