At Sundance, Watch out for the Women

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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:

Florida Follies

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.

Dominant Docs
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.

Glamour Queens
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."

Raunchy Ladies

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

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.

Follow Cultist on Facebook and Twitter @CultistMiami.

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