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Looking again at Sundance Film Festival ’12

The Sundance Film Festival once again drew in big-name movie moguls such as Sigourney Weaver, Spike Lee, Kirsten Dunst, Bradley Cooper and Bruce Willis. QSaltLake’s top-notch paparazzi duo, Michael Aaron and I, eyed Elijah Wood, Eric Roberts and former Salt Lake City Mayor Deedee Corradini; and, I had the distinct pleasure (seriously, it was really, really pleasurable) of meeting David Duchovny — the chance encounter enabled me to finally give up my many years of sleeping with an Agent Fox Mulder Barbie® doll. Thank you David!

In between screenings of, what felt like, a rather tame selection of films than is typically earmarked for the SFF, we enjoyed the hospitality of several participating sponsors including Bing, Bertolli, Grey Goose and T-Mobile, all of which were most accommodating.

To be clear, we did not have an opportunity to see a majority of films: Because of the daily commute to and from Salt Lake City (albeit Michael drives like his bladder is the size of a BB and the nearest rest stop is a 100 miles away); the hobnobbing with director Ira Sachs (Keep the Lights On), video blogger Chris Crocker (Me at the ZOO) and color-coordinated Mike C. Manning of The Real World: Las Vegas and The A-List: New York; covering the cineGLAAD panels featuring Bishop Gene Robinson (Love Free or Die) and Zachary Booth (Keep the Lights On); and, unfortunately, suffering the shuttle service of ill repute to the press screenings, we were limited to only a handful of films over our allotted five days of coverage.

Of course our focus was on LGBT films, but we did catch a few of the more “mainstream” films. Here are brief critiques on some of the films screened at this year’s festival:

The Invisible War (Audience Award recipient)
A documentary by acclaimed filmmaker Kirby Dick, The Invisible War documents sexual abuse within the confines of the American military. As is customary in American culture, hush-hush is the unspoken policy. Compiled through — approved — government studies and interviews with nearly 100 female survivors, as well as high-ranking military officials and members of Congress, blocks of the film follow the internal repercussions of rape within the military structure and the aftershock on the victim’s personal and familial lives. Though there is an astonishing percentage of servicemen who are also sexually assaulted, there’s little acknowledgment, to no fault of the filmmakers I’m surmising, of such abuse.

At times, the film tries too hard to pull at heartstrings; the truth of the matter is horrifying, (for example, rape at gunpoint by military police, victims charged with adultery after the fact) but certain sequences feel superficial and planted for unnecessary affect.

Overall, The Invisible War is quite compelling, and the segment on the military’s “prevention” of internal sex crimes is wholly preposterous — notably, the former Department of Defense’s director of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response, Kaye Whitley, would make the perfect poster child for education reform.

This feature-length directorial debut by Richard Bates Jr. could easily become an American cult classic. Excision takes some stock in classic horror films, and is set present day in suburbia U.S.A. Annalynne McCord, as the disturbed and delusional teenage antagonist Pauline, is remarkably creepy — a far cry from her role on TV’s 90210. Her overprotective mother Phyllis is played perfectly two-dimensional by B-movie icon Traci Lords. There appears to be a hint of diabolical brilliance in Bates’ casting of the supporting roles: Ray Wise, Malcolm McDowell, Marlee Matlin, Matthew Gray Gubler, Roger Bart, Ariel Winter, Jeremy Sumpter and the legendary John Waters. That same brilliance is also modestly noted in other aspects of the film: for instance, look for a copy of Sybil strategically placed in the high school principal’s office — ha!

Pauline has an unusual obsession with human organs and plans a career in surgical medicine. Fearing an inevitable loss of her younger sister to cystic fibrosis, and conspiring a quick loss of her virginity, Pauline sets in motion a chain of events that will leave you shocked and dismayed in your seat, and, in finality, chuckling a bit with a weird sense of satisfaction.

Me at the ZOO
It’s hard to say whether this documentary film will bring a celebratory resurgence of the once beloved, gender-bending video blogger, Chris Crocker. But the correlation between his and, ironically, Britney Spears’ rise and fall in the eyes of the American public is an enlightening portrayal of the American Dream: Stardom.

Every action one person takes, every word one person says, every thought one person shares to and for the world are and always will be scrutinized — whether it be by an individual or a congregation. You’ll recognize it in yourself when you see this film: You will scrutinize, make assumptions, admire or dislike Chris Crocker — “Bitch, please” that’s the point.

My Brother the Devil (World Cinema Cinematography Award recipient)
Out of the United Kingdom, this straightforward, no-bells-and-whistles drama about two British Arab siblings living in “gangland” territory is a stirring account, by writer/director Sally El Hosaini, of the sometimes-bulldozing bond between brothers. Fourteen-year-old Mo is a sensitive boy (and he wears a lot of pink) who idolizes his older brother Rash, a tough and respected drug-dealing gang member. After a tragic event on the dark streets of London, Rash reevaluates the path he’s taken. When Rash’s newfound friendship with an artist escalates, and Mo steps into his brother’s abandoned gang-banging shoes, truths are brought to light and tough decisions are forced to be made.

The story isn’t necessarily groundbreaking, but the performances by the lead actors are heartfelt and beautiful. How an older brother wants more, and better, for his younger brother, resonates nicely in the film. Garnering a cinematography award is definitely well-deserved; David Raedeker, beautifully captures the fragility of the harder sides of life and love and, more importantly, the dynamics of brotherhood.

The Surrogate (Audience Award recipient)
One of my favorites of the festival, The Surrogate, is nothing more and nothing less than an honestly sweet and funny film. I can’t possibly describe completely how gratifying this film is, but the writing is divine, the characters likable and it leaves a feeling as warm as a loving mother’s arms. I strongly encourage seeing this movie when it comes to theaters (it was picked up by Fox Searchlight Pictures).

It’s based on the autobiographical writings of journalist and poet Mike O’Brien, who at the age of 38, decided to change his sexless existence, confined to an iron lung. Trust me when I say it’s not at all as dry as it sounds. Plus, you’ll enjoy the fantastic performances by Helen Hunt, William H. Macy and the amazing John Hawkes, who portrays O’Brien with great dignity and beauty.

Love Free or Die (U.S. Documentary Special Jury Prize for an Agent of Change)
For the irreligious, like myself, it’s quite possible to become somewhat invested, like myself, in this documentary that stems metaphysically farther than the strife of homosexuality within the Anglican faith. However, the film’s core study is how the Episcopalian Church and Gene Robinson underwent much heated scrutiny, in 2003, when he was elected the church’s first openly gay bishop; and director, Macky Alston, a filmtheologist (yes, writers have their own vernacular), exudes passion unlike any I have seen in a recent documentary. And kudos to Bishop Barbara Harris, who, as an interviewee, provides for great comic relief.

Love Free or Die is angelic and will give you faith and hope, if nowhere else, in yourself.

Keep the Lights On
Openly gay Ira Sachs co-writes and directs a bittersweet love-to-hate-to-love story in Keep the Lights On. Based loosely on his own experiences, Sachs recounts a decade-long, but bound-to-fail, relationship between two gay men in New York City. Erik (Thure Lindhardt, in a sensational performance) is a documentary filmmaker longing for a real connection to another man, and using phone sex as an outlet; that is, until he meets Paul (Zachary Booth), a closeted homosexual and drug addict. (Sidebar: I get that drug use runs rampant within the homosexual-male lifestyle, but the constant documentation of it in films as an ice-breaker to gay sex is becoming offensive.)

Other than my momentary rant about drugs being synonymous with gay sex, Keep the Lights On, is a low-key drama that seeps quietly into the many gray areas of gay relationships. At times, it’s unsettling, and at others, it’s sobering. Plus, the music of Arthur Russell helps propel the weathered nuances of the film.

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