At Sundance, Watch out for the Women

Categories: Film and TV
A scene from About Face
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
What 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.

Several 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,

-- Thom Powers, MIFF's senior documentary programmer sent this dispatch from Sundance.

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