Art & Copy
Director: Doug Pray (86 min.)
Headline: Advertising can be art, when done well
Indie type: Philosophical treatise on thing often taken for granted
Report: Doug Pray has made three of my favorite documentaries of the last 10 years—Hype, Scratch and Surfwise—so I was very much looking forward to this documentary about the advertising revolution of the 1960s and how it still reverberates. And Art & Copy is certainly, on its own merits, a fine piece of documentary filmmaking. It’s beautifully shot, with lots of clean lines and low angles that speak to the grandeur of the best advertising campaigns, and it features fascinating anecdotes about the enduring power of slogans like “Just Do It” and “Got Milk?,” and how they first came into being. But I kept waiting for the film to go that extra step that makes a Pray doc special. I wanted it to be as comprehensive as Hype or Scratch, or to develop a story, a la Surfwise. Instead, the various reminiscences and ruminations often felt disconnected and, after a while, a little similar. I would’ve liked to have heard more about how advertising’s changed since it turned toward the hip and savvy in the early ‘60s. I would’ve liked to have heard about bad campaigns, and why they failed. I would’ve liked to have heard the various advertising legends talk about each other, and not just their own work—or to have heard more about their personal lives, and how it fed their art. All of that is there in Art & Copy sporadically, but not consistently. I enjoyed the film, and loved learning about how, for example, the Wendy’s “Where’s the beef?” campaign was second-guessed all the way to the day of its unveiling. But I expect more from Pray, and though Art & Copy has been drawing some early raves, to me it felt a little undercooked.
The September Issue
Director: R.J. Cutler (90 min.)
Headline: Vogue editor Anna Wintour is a tough woman to please
Indie type: Here’s how a thing gets made
Report: Unlike Doug Pray with Art & Copy, R.J. Cutler makes exactly the kind of documentary I’d expect from him with The September Issue: a solid, somewhat restrained behind-the-scenes look at an arcane process. In the case of The September Issue, what’s under the microscope is the creation of the largest, most important annual issue of Vogue, and though Cutler certainly doesn’t shy away from showing Vogue-runner Anna Wintour as a chilly, somewhat capricious boss, neither does he really attempt to dig into her character, or into the changing times for fashion magazines, or into anything that might challenge Vogue’s or Wintour’s supremacy. Still, the behind-the-scenes look is interesting—and would be moreso if The Devil Wears Prada hadn’t already shown us a lot of how a fashion magazine comes together. And Cutler finds a fascinating secondary character in Grace Coddington, Vogue’s creative director, who clearly prizes the eternal qualities of fashion and beauty more than the what’s-in-what’s-out Wintour. As Coddington is almost brought to tears by Wintour slashing almost half of a lush photo shoot Coddington supervised, The September Issue scores its strongest points about how fashion is fleeting. Mostly though, Cutler doesn’t try to score many points at all; he just lays back and observes, a bit too casually.
Big River Man
Director: John Maringouin
Headline: Overweight, middle-aged drunkard swims length of Amazon; weirdness ensues
Indie type: An event transpired
Report: Throughout Big River Man, Slovenian long-distance swimmer Martin Strel is referred to as one of the most famous people in the world, and even though I’d never heard of him before this documentary, that doesn’t mean the movie is overhyping. There are a lot of global celebrities whose fame doesn’t quite reach our shores, and judging by the footage in Big River Man of crowds swarming Strel and the media reporting on his every move, I’m inclined to take the movie’s claims at face value. Nevertheless, it does heighten the sense of unreality to Big River Man that Strel is such a little-known entity hereabouts. When Strel’s son—the film’s halting narrator—talks about his dad drinking two bottles of wine a day, or getting free stuff everywhere he goes, or spending several hours a day in a cave in order to commune with wildlife, it’s all just so colorful that it seems too good to be true. And for all I know, maybe it is… certainly a lot of Big River Man feels stagey. But as Strel attempts to swim the length of the Amazon (following similar, successful runs at the Danube, the Mississippi and the Yangtzee), and gradually begins to lose his mind, Big River Man’s turn toward the surreal and psychedelic feels natural, because the movie's already pretty strange. Because I like my docs to be a little more journalistic, I’m not entirely cool with the various confabulations of Big River Man, but it’s definitely a mind-blower at times, and Strel joins the list of amazing characters I’ve met on the Sundance screens this year.
Director: Lee Daniels (105 min.)
Cast: Gabourey Sidibe, Paula Patton, Mo’Nique
Headline: Abused, overweight, twice-pregnant Harlem high-schooler learns self-worth
Indie type: Look at how terrible some people have it, but also look on the bright side!
Report: There’s a lot about Push that makes me uncomfortable, from the straight-out-of-Rush-Limbaugh’s-nightmares vision of lazy welfare queens to the fact that it’s essentially one long wallow in human misery. It’s not enough that the lead character is morbidly obese and functionally illiterate; she's also a victim of sexual and physical abuse, and the mother of a mentally retarded daughter, and dealing with a looming health crisis. And yet Push really got to me, for a couple of reasons. First off, Daniels maintains a fairly light touch throughout, allowing space for some interior reveries from the heroine, showing how distant (yet so omnipresent) the TV-approved vision of a better life can be. Second off, the performances are simply astounding. Sidibe balances sympathy and repugnance remarkably well, and grows as an actress as her character grows as a person. Patton is calm and strong as Sidibe’s new teacher, who treats her students like people, not cattle. And Mo’Nique… holy crap, Mo’Nique! As Sidibe’s monstrous mother, Mo’Nique provides profane, terrifying tirades, yet at the end of the movie she delivers a monologue as painful and heartbreaking as any I’ve ever seen on film. If it weren’t for the stars, Push would be fairly mundane. But if you’re a believer in the power of great acting to transform a film, you'll want to see what happens to Push.
The Killing Room
Director: Jonathan Liebesman (90 min.)
Cast: Chloë Sevigny, Peter Stormare, Clea DuVall, Timothy Hutton, Nick Cannon, Shea Whigham
Headline: Volunteers for social experiment find themselves fighting for their lives (or, “Hey, it’s Saw, but with recognizable actors, lofty pretensions, and very little gore!”)
Indie type: Art horror with social message
Report: Oh well, it’s not like I expected to go the whole festival without seeing a movie I absolutely hated. It’s hard to articulate what I liked least about The Killing Room: perhaps the sound design, which scores easy shocks with jarring noises; or perhaps the mise-en-scene, which os loaded with unnecessary close-ups and odd angles, preventing the audience from really seeing anything; or perhaps it's the slack pacing, which presents the patients/prisoners at a government facility with a series of life-or-death problems to solve, and then gives them an hour or two to come up with answers to each. (When the victims get finished dithering and there’s still a half-hour to go, you have to wonder if the screenwriters really thought this conceit through.) There's some mild diversion to be had from waiting around to see what the government is hoping to accomplish by screwing with the psyches of civilians, and there’s an added twist to the premise, involving Sevigny as a would-be torturer undergoing some subtle psychological testing of her own. But there’s nothing to The Killing Room’s “What will otherwise moral people do under stress?” theme that hasn’t been well-explored in other films—films that are genuinely provocative, or at least honestly scary.
O’er The Land
Director: Deborah Stratman (52 min.)
Headline: Avant-garde documentarian meditates on how man attempts to control nature, vice-versa
Indie type: One goddamn montage after another, yoked by profound theme
Report: About halfway through Stratman’s hour-long experimental exercise, a voice actor reads from the testimony of William Rankin, who once bailed out of an airplane above a thunderstorm, and spent 45 minutes suspended in midair, buffeted by winds and rain. The story’s amazing, especially as illustrated by Stratman, with still shots of clouds in an increasingly darkening sky. As to how that sequence ties into O’er The Land’s segments about the Border Patrol, fireman training, Winnebagos, marching bands, gun shows or Revolutionary War re-enactors… well, I could speculate, but it would be hard to do so without sounding more than a little full of it. I enjoyed O’er The Land on the whole as a kind of palate-cleanser, and I appreciated that Stratman was willing to show the sometimes endearingly awkward side of her subjects, instead of aiming for a kind of Koyaanisqatsi-style warning about man’s imperfect relationship with the natural world. But I didn’t find the film especially striking in its photography or editing, and the whole thing seemed kind of loosely assembled, without much of a clear plan. Or perhaps I’m too dense.
Where Is Where?
Director: Eija-Liisa Ahtilla (55 min.)
Headline: Poet contemplates personal stake in global strife
Indie type: Gimmicky, art-damaged navel-gazing
Report: Unlike O’er The Land, Where Is Where? has a clearer sense of internal design, and is beautifully shot. Ahtilla uses a four-quadrant split-screen that produces some striking effects, allowing violence in Algeria to co-exist with a quiet writer’s retreat. But Where Is Where? is damnably pretentious, with its poet-narrator pondering death, faith and personal responsibility in a self-important tone that confuses obscurity with profundity and guilt with action. Around the time the heroine consults with a nun who begins floating around her room, I started to wonder if I was watching a parody of an experimental film.
Tomorrow I’ll write a little about the movies that have been earning the biggest buzz at the fest so far—most of which I’ve seen, for a change—but in the meantime, for those who want a little more Sundance in their lives, I’d recommend the following critics' Twitter feeds: Eric Kohn, James Rocchi, Robert Davis, Matt Singer, Alison Willmore and Karina Longworth.
I’m also in awe of the thoughtful reviews Longworth has been penning several times a day at SpoutBlog, and grateful for the coverage available at Movie City News, Hollywood Elsewhere, /Film, IFC's "The Daily," Lou Lumenick's New York Post blog, Variety, Filmmaker and The Screengrab.
Check these folks out, and see where they disagree (and agree) with your intrepid A.V. Club reporters. (I'm sure I missed some too, so if you're out there filing regularly from Sundance and I didn't name-check you, feel free to post your link in the comments below.
Tomorrow: Big Fan (maybe)! The Only Good Indian (maybe)! Plus documentaries about Lil’ Wayne and The Doors (maybe). The vicissitudes of line-finessing make tomorrows schedule an adventure.