Remember the TV game show where contestants pick between unmarked doors? The Sundance Film Festival can feel that way. Despite the program notes and pre-festival buzz, you can't easily predict what you'll find.
Attending the 2012 edition last week, I uncovered these highlights:
Lauren Greenfield's documentary Queen of Versailles follows Jackie and
David Siegel as they set out to build the country's largest home,
modeled on the Versailles palace, in Orlando, Florida. David Siegel made his
fortune in the time share real estate business. Greenfield chronicles
what happens when his empire is undercut by the 2008 financial crisis.
I'll choose my words carefully since David Siegel sued Sundance for
defamation over its catalogue description. Among other things, Siegel
objected to the phrase "rags to riches to rags," asserting that the
characterization could harm his current business. Yet in the film,
Siegel himself uses the words "riches to rags" to describe his
predicament. With the suit still pending, his wife Jackie appeared at
the film's world premiere, watching for the first time along with an
opening night audience of 1,200. While there are plenty of laughs at the
expense of Jackie's compulsive consumerism, the film evokes a more
complex character who's by turns naïve, insecure, compassionate, lost,
and devoted as a wife and mother. The film serves as a surreal metaphor
for the whole country's comeuppance.
For all of
Sundance's dedication to emerging filmmakers, that emphasis can make
for an abundance of thinly plotted fiction. Real life tends to supply
more surprising scripts. Vivian Marthell and Kareem Tabsch, co-founders
of Miami's O Cinema, have experienced a strong performance from docs in
their theater's first year and came to Sundance looking out for more.
When I asked for their picks, they both cited Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry.
Tabsch calls it "an inspiring and fascinating story of an artist willing
to sacrifice his personal safety and livelihood in order to speak out
against the injustices of Chinese society." Two other docs making strong
waves were character-driven pieces shrouded in mystery. The
Imposter explores the story of a 13-year-old boy who went missing in
Texas then was reported discovered three years later in Spain. Searching
for Sugar Man tracks the Detroit singer known as Rodriguez, who
released two albums in the '70s, then fell off the radar in America while
becoming a sensation in South Africa.
Miami-born Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, renowned as a portrait
photographer, follows up his HBO-funded oral history docs The Black
List and The Latino List by interviewing older fashion models in About
Face. Joining him for the world premiere at Sundance were three of his
film subjects, Beverly Johnson (who was the first African-American face
on the cover of Vogue in 1974), Carol Alt (who posed for Playboy in her
late 40s), and China Machado (a muse to Richard Avedon, still vibrant
in her 80s). During the Q&A, an audience member asked what they had
in common. Johnson replied, "Hunger."
used to be called frat humor is increasingly getting an estrogen twist.
In Bachelorette, writer/director Leslye Headland elicits a marvelously
comic performance from Kirsten Dunst as a tightly wound maid of honor
who lets out her wild side under pressure. Whereas Bridesmaids subjected
a wedding dress to a case of the runs, in Bachelorette, the bride's
gown gets desecrated by every other bodily fluid. For a Good Time
Call ratchets up filthy talk even further as screenwriters Katie Anne
Naylon and Lauren Anne Miller concoct a tale of two female frenemies
operating a phone sex line. Miller plays one of the leads, while her
husband Seth Rogen makes an amusing cameo as a horny client.
Sundance titles including, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, The
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Imposter and About Face will make their Florida premieres next month at
the Miami International Film Festival, www.miamifilmfestival.com.
-- Thom Powers, MIFF's senior documentary programmer sent this dispatch from Sundance.