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January 21, 2010

Day One at Sundance:  Live From Park City

http://www.jewishjournal.com/blog/item/day_one_at_sundance_live_from_park_city_20100121/

My flight from New York City to Utah for the 2010 Sundance Film Festival was overbooked and very bumpy.  Betty Davis was nowhere in sight.  Unlike yesterday’s U.S. Airways Express flight from NYC to Kentucky, on which the pilot became worried about a Jewish teenager wearing tefillin, and forced the jet to land in Philadelphia, my Delta jet had no such problems, since we were an evening flight, and morning prayers were long over.

The forecast for Park City is for snow each day this week, which is great for the Olympic snowboarding team’s grand prix finals, but a little bad for filmgoers who will need to deal with some heavy flakes.  But, no worries, since once you get through the snow, the sold-out theaters are screening 113 feature-length films which hail from 36 countries, with 82 world premieres, 44 first-time feature filmmakers – and plenty of films of Jewish interest.

One of the opening movies is “Howl,” directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, two nice Jewish boys who previously made award-winning documentaries on the “celluloid closet” and Harvey Milk.  Now comes “Howl,” a feature film set in San Francisco in 1957, when the gay, Jewish, beat movement poet, Allen Ginsberg, (James Franco) read and published – you guessed it – his tome, “Howl.”

Then there’s Spencer Susser’s “Hesher,” about a father and son struggling to deal with a loss of their wife and mother, respectively, through the help of one of the most unlikely, tattooed, enigmatic young men.  On the strength of his script the first-time filmmaker—who himself suffered the loss of his mother – drew prominent thespians Natalie Portman and Joseph Gordon-Levitt (yes, both are Jewish) to star in his film.

Perhaps the most unusual movie of interest to the Tribe is Kevin Tyler Asch’s “Holy Rollers,” inspired by the bizarre-but-true story of Hasidic Jewish students who smuggled Ecstasy in the late 90’s, before September 11 made authorities more vigilant.  Who would expect a nice Hasidic boy to be a drug mule?  A shanda.  The film promises to be a story of faith and “blind faith.”

At Sundance’s opening press conference, the battle was “RE:”  Renewal, Rebellion, Rebirth, Remind, Recycle, Rejuvenate and more.  For 2010, the festival is striving to get back to its independent roots, to be the great independent pause between the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards, sort of like the Days of (cinematic) Awe between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.

Robert Redford spoke about how festivals, as they grow, get frightened to try new things for fear of toying with past successes and revenues.  In Redford’s opinion, the past few festivals were afraid to take chances and it “was in danger of flat-lining.”  For this reason, Sundance is shaking things up in 2010. Instead of having a single opening night feature film, it is opening with one narrative, one documentary, and one shorts program.  Another change is its section for “Next” films, films that are low budget or no budget, which still have interesting stories to tell, even if their production qualities are not what most audiences expect.

Documentaries of interest include “Casino Jack and the United States of Money,” about Jack Abramoff, the Washington D.C. super lobbyist and observant Jew who was convicted of corruption and fraud; “Freedom Riders,” about the 1961 fight against segregation in the American South; and “Joan Rivers - A Piece of Work,” directed by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg, about the plentiful private dramas of comedian and entrepreneur, Joan Rivers.

Redford (who may I say was a true mensch when he walked into the audience after a press conference to embrace the film critic, Roger Ebert) said that he dislikes those in the media who are seeking a pre-festival scoop or opinion.  He wants participants to digest the 10-day festival and then form a holistic opinion afterwards.  Well, sorry, but I won’t wait for Day 10, so check back with me each day, as I figure out whether the Sundance rebellious cinematic “RE”birth is “RE”juvenating or “RE”petitive.

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