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Sundance Watch: Redford vs. Gilmore, Howl, Restrepo

Sundance Watch: Redford vs. Gilmore, Howl, Restrepo

Sundance started slushy on Thursday, but by nightfall, the mayor of Park City was thanking the festival for bringing snow. “With this fest, you’ll see that new things are going on here,” said Robert Redford before the debut of Howl. “I believe we are getting back to our roots.” He promised more experimentation. “You’ll see that evidenced tonight in this film,” he said, recalling seeing Allen Ginsberg read at the City Lights Bookstore, even before “Howl.”

When John Cooper took the podium after Redford he used Geoff Gilmore’s old line, “I’m the director of the Sundance Film Festival. This feels good.”

At the opening day press conference Redford was tough on former SFF director Gilmore, who served the festival loyally and well for 19 years before moving on. That’s because Gilmore and his bosses weren’t always seeing eye-to-eye toward the end of his tenure; Redford was also not pleased that Gilmore went to Robert De Niro’s rival Tribeca Film Festival. Here’s indieWIRE, and The Star on Redford’s view of docs as filling a news void.

The fest’s dramatic opener, Howl, is an ambitious and admirable film from documentary filmmakers Rob Friedman and Jeffrey Friedman (The Times of Harvey Milk). They started out trying to make a documentary and realized that they wanted to be able to show the young Allen Ginsberg, who wrote the searing, profane classic poem “Howl” in 1955. They workshopped the movie at various Sundance labs and found financing from Minneapolis producers Werc Werk Works. In this case, the transition from doc to dramatic feature is an awkward one.

The movie is in turns inspiring, frustrating, compelling and finally, doesn’t quite come together. The filmmakers liked Eric Drooker’s illustrations accompanying Ginsberg’s poems, and decided to add animation to James Franco’s reading of “Howl.” “The animation was scary,” they admitted at the Q & A following the screening. “We had never worked in animation before. It was a steep learning curve.”

Milk director Gus Van Sant made the introduction to Franco, who makes a great Ginsberg; he said he watched footage of the poet as an older man, listened to countless readings and interviews, and watched the short Pull My Daisy for a glimpse of the younger Ginsberg’s gestures and movements.

I would have preferred a more straightforward dramatic biopic of the young Ginsberg, with more material on the two writers who broke his heart, Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, as well his life lover Peter Orlovsky. I found inspiring both Franco’s readings of the poem and a long interview (based on transcripts) about Ginsberg’s evolution as a writer in search of an honest voice. The documentarians fell into the trap of trying to make everything based on real life, including the “Howl” obscenity trial that made Ginsberg famous–but putting well-known actors Bob Balaban, David Straithairn and Jon Hamm, skilled as they are, into the courtroom just serves to underscore its inauthenticity.

Critic B. Ruby Rich backgrounds the film; reaction here is mixed and the distribution response, muted. “It will wind up at IFC,” said one observer.

Far more successful was Vanity Fair contributors Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington’s astonishing doc Restrepo, which screened later Thursday night to rousing applause. The two men visited the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan ten times, five each, and the footage shows a platoon of army soldiers under almost constant attack from Taliban fighters in the mountains who they never see–until one horrific campaign. That’s when the filmmakers shot footage of a slain soldier which ended up on ABC News. You’ve never seen fighting like this. Ever. The film is set to air on National Geographic Channel in the fall. This all-too-timely doc should be seen in theaters; it makes one wonder how effective an outside fighting force could ever be in Afghanistan. Finally, the army withdrew from one beleaguered post in the dangerous Korengal Valley, where since 2005 some 50 fighters lose their lives. According to Junger, the army has pulled is considering pulling out of the valley altogether.

Friday morning in the Spotlight section (for films that Sundance programmers love that have screened elsewhere), Aboriginal musical Bran Nu Dae scored lots of laughs at the Racquet Club. Here’s how one attendee described it in a text message: “Grease meets Gods Must Be Crazy meets 10 Canoes! Geoffrey Rush makes surprise leading role. Fun, fun, fun! The audience screamed and cheered at the end! Very audience friendly and appealing with big heart and theme. Very Aussie cheekie.”

IFC acquired another Spotlight title, Gasper Noe’s Cannes entry Enter the Void, before the fest.

I got some more info on that odd Paramount Vantage acquisition of the Davis Guggenheim doc Waiting for Superman. I hear that Paramount chairman Brad Grey acquired the movie as a favor to Microsoft billionaire/philanthropist Bill Gates. Making money, in other words, is not the goal here.

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