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Sundance Diary #2

By John Wildman on January 21, 2013

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THURSDAY, January 17, 2013

It Felt Like Love

It Felt Like Love

I start watching Eliza Hittman’s It Felt Like Love via a link the publicist sent me. The film is in Sundance’s NEXT section, which I always focus on, but I couldn’t make the film fit into my moviegoing schedule. But the Vimeo playback is doing that stopping and starting thing which is driving me nuts. And now I have to pause, take a break, and head off to be on a radio show.

It’s the Daily Buzz at Sundance with Eugene Hernandez, director of digital strategy at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. This is his 20th Sundance. That information gets awkward when he claims he first covered the film fest as an 8-year-old. I walk over to where the radio show is supposed to happen and can’t find anything that looks like a broadcast area nor anyone I recognize. Great.

Some guy taking off his ski gear looks up and asks me where I’m from. I say New York. He says he knew it was either New York or LA. Really? Brilliant? I wanted to ask if his name was John Edwards or James Van Praagh because that was amazing! I’m about to ask him if he can contact one of my relatives from the great beyond who might be able to reach a PA to help me out, but then a crew guy walks by and volunteers the info that the droids I’m looking for are located in the basement. Now, that’s the guy who should have his own show or at least be making a career out of bilking old ladies out of their fortunes.

It’s very cold in the basement. Everything is still getting set up, and we have to do the interview talking into Eugene’s phone because the microphones haven’t been set up yet. Film distributors like IFC’s Arianna Bocco and Tom Quinn from Radius are there, along with the journalists that will also be on the show, Brooks Barnes from The New York Times and Brian Brooks from Movieline. I decide they are now the Brooks Bros., and we start the interview. It’s fun and over in an instant, which is always the way it works when you’re excited to talk about something. During the interview, Brooks (the New York Times one) talks about Blackfish, and I’m regretting that I didn’t put it on my viewing schedule. So… Sorry, Touchy Feely—you’re out. Blackfish is now in.

Blackfish

Blackfish

As I’m leaving, Eugene says that IndieWire’s legendary chili party is tonight. Awesome. But that good news is balanced by the fact that my film festival nemesis Michael Lerman from the Philadelphia Film Society spies me from across the room as he listens to the next interview group (with the film distributors). He sneers in my general direction. I thought we had buried the hatchet during a karaoke party at the Starz Denver Film Festival a couple years ago, but apparently I was wrong. I assume it’s because he’s my nemesis and you take that shit with you to the grave.

We run into MSN Movies’s James Rocchi, which gives us a chance to congratulate him on his recent engagement. Besides being a spot-on writer and great wit, Rocchi is the definition of a “prince of a guy,” so that young lady has chosen wisely. I pick up my credentials and receive the annual Sundance water bottle, which I will take home to add to my collection of Sundance water bottles forever unsullied by the presence of water. That’s a Sundance tradition. As is finding Rosie Wong, the Senior Manager in the Industry Office for the ceremonial Sundance hug. Because she’s the heart of this whole damn thing. Bottom line.

Next on the greeting parade is filmmaker Kyle Patrick Alvarez (C.O.G.) and his partner and production designer/art director Gary Barbosa. We’ve been friends since his great feature debut Easier With Practice played at AFI Fest while I was there, and I had conversations with Gary about working on my first film as well. So, I couldn’t be bigger fans of both these guys and excited to see C.O.G. At one point in the conversation, Kyle says he’s astounded by the film’s early buzz since he “could count on two hands the number of people that have actually seen the film.”

I get back to the house and finally finish It Felt Like Love. But I can’t post the review yet because the publicist asked me to wait until it debuts. So, later on that one… And now for the first film seen at Sundance 2013. Ruth has an extra ticket for the Opening Night selection, May in the Summer, so the press screening of Who Is Dayani Cristal? gets crossed off the list in favor of getting to see Robert Redford do an intro.

Redford says that the Sundance Lab program “is our core purpose and at the heart of everything we do.” It’s timely for him to underline that fact since something like 22 Sundance Lab films are in the festival this year. So, yeah, nepotism. We get it. Though I don’t know anyone who’s shocked by this or really cares by this point. Then director Cherien Dabis comes on stage and tells us that when she notified her mother that the film had been selected for the fest, her mom replied: “This is so exciting! What is Sunny Dance?” To which Dabis now replies: “Mom, this is Sunny Dance!”

May in the Summer

May in the Summer

May in the Summer

Written, directed, and starring Cherien Dabis (Amreeka), May in the Summer is about a young, beautiful Jordanian woman living in New York who has just written a celebrated book and is visiting her family to plan her upcoming wedding. Unfortunately, she immediately finds herself in the center of more family drama than she can bear: her devoutly Christian mother refuses to attend her wedding because her betrothed is Muslim; one sister is a dropout from massage-therapist school; the other was just fired from her job for saying inappropriate things to a client; and her estranged American father has come back into the circle after an eight-year absence. All of which could possibly be manageable if she weren’t having severe, though repressed doubts about her wedding. May attempts to act as mediator between each family member while she increasingly feels her own situation crumbling at the same time.

May in the Summer is equally a funny movie, with a wonderful dynamic between the three sisters and their mother, and what is meant to be soul-baring drama. I say “meant to be” because that’s where it comes up short. While overall, May is absolutely charming and Dabis is a stunning beauty who serves herself as director very well in the lead role, the film doesn’t quite succeed on all fronts. The casting of Bill Pullman as the father is distracting at best (and bad casting at worst), as his presence pulls you out of the film. And unfortunately, the question remains whether the Jordanian setting and the multicultural flavor can get May in the Summer over the hump with audiences, where an identical American-based production with similar failings would be dismissed. For that reason, I think the appeal would be strongest for female viewers that strongly identify with the sister and mother-daughter dynamic. Beyond that, it’s a lukewarm sell.

Expected Sundance Reaction:

While I think the Sundance audiences would give the film the benefit of the doubt, I still think it really will make the strongest connection with women.

Expected Real World Reaction:

Actually, the same applies here as well with just a little less rope given on behalf of the cultural aspect. Does the Lifetime network have a world cinema offshoot? Maybe it’s time for that idea.

After a speed walk from the Eccles Theatre to the Holiday Cinemas where the press screenings are, I find HitFix’s Drew McWeeny in line for the next film and we discuss the likelihood of a fest as renowned as Sundance doing what every single other film festival does at some point in their existence (if not every single year) and select films based on the prospect of a personal appearance by a famous cast member or filmmaker. Apparently, the quality of one of the films he saw makes the man suspicious. Hmmm….

Crystal Fairy

Crystal Fairy

Crystal Fairy

Written and directed by Sebastián Silva, Crystal Fairy stars Michael Cera as Jamie, a young American traveling through Chile seemingly determined to annoy every last person he runs into as he continues a beyond-obsessive pursuit of the ultimate high. Breathlessly referencing Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, he and his roommate make plans to go to the beach and experience the mind-expanding powers of a mescaline-induced high courtesy of the San Pedro cactus. The problem is that, while under the influence, Jamie invites along a trippy hippie chick named Crystal Fairy (Gaby Hoffmann). She takes him up on the offer and joins the two young men and his roommate’s brothers for the adventure.

The trip soon becomes a battle of wills between Jamie and Crystal Fairy, with the three brothers alternately being entertained by it all and caught in the struggle, as they attempt to find and obtain the elusive cactus and then prepare for their “experience” at the beach. Cera and Hoffmann are more than effective and committed in their roles, and the film has moments of genuine fun and human connection. Hoffmann in particular leaves no stone unturned, and no item of clothing still on, in her creation of the eccentric title character. However, those moments come in fits and starts, and Crystal Fairy never quite opens those doors of perception completely. As a whole, it’s an acquired taste, likely to be championed by a loyal few, while proving to be middling to the majority.

Expected Sundance Reaction:

Those that “go along for the ride” will talk it up eagerly, but overall, I’m guessing it gets a half-hearted reaction.

Expected Real World Reaction:

The Michael Cera fans will be curious, and if marketed properly, people could be convinced the film will deliver more than it actually does. I don’t know how well it would do, but I could see an outside potential for a minor stab at the multiplex audience.

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