What I Watched at Sundance This Year (Part 1)
Thanks to Kenner’s enthusiasm for skiing, I spent more time on the slopes (The Canyons and the Park City Mountain Resort) than on Main Street, but I did manage to get five screenings in (The Company Men, Red Chapel, Boy, Animal Kingdom, and some shorts). I don’t have time to put up all of my reviews at the moment, but here’s a review or two:
Red Chapel – This was a documentary that I was only “meh” about going in (it was 11:30 p.m. at night, after a full day of boarding, and a drive out to Ogden to see another screening), but it had enough dark humor, ghostly shots of Pyongyang, and bad renditions of Wonderwall to keep me awake and very entertained. The director, Mads Brugger, covertly shot this documentary about the North Korea regime under the guise of arranging for two Danish-Korean comedians, Simon and Jacob, to perform in North Korea as part of a cultural exchange. The director’s idea (with references to Nazi Germany) was that “Comedy is the soft spot of all dictatorships.”
Brugger shot and edited this documentary in the style of Michael Moore (i.e. he was very manipulative), but he was extremely candid during the film about creating a “good” propaganda film as a counterpoint to the immersive propaganda that North Koreans are forced to live through every day. At one point, however, the three Danes are sucked into the NK propaganda machine. Throughout their stay, they are accompanied by Mrs. Pak, a middle-aged representative from the regime, who is their translator (she speaks to them in “interrogation-style” English) and arranges for their visits to monuments of the Dear Leader and to performances of well-fed, beautiful North Korean kids singing nationalistic anthems. Although Brugger wants to put on a Theatre of the Absurd piece, featuring fart jokes, Oasis, the Beatles, and a skit featuring a Dame Edna-esque tranny character, Mrs. Pak and the NK cultural representative re-work Simon and Jacob’s performance so that it celebrates the regime and the idea of “One Korea” (one where the North conquers the South of course). One of the comedians, Jacob is physically handicapped (though very intelligent – during the Q&A it came out that he was fond of Habermas), and is used both by the NK regime to demonstrate their acceptance of the disabled and by Brugger to emphasize the point that the regime kills or sends the disabled to concentration camps (at one point, Brugger goads Jacob into asking Mrs. Pak to show him other disabled people like him to prove the point that they are “disappeared). Jacob is the moral center of the film, who is bombarded with discomfort on all sides, discomfort with Brugger’s project, with the false images of smiling, healthy children that the NK regime presents to him, and with how he is reduced to his handicap while in NK. Fittingly, the film ends with Jacob karaoking Lennon’s Imagine.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the big star vehicle film that I saw was The Company Men, a sort of Good Will Hunting in reverse, starring Ben Affleck as a downsized sales guy who is forced to trade in his power ties and Porsche for a toolbelt. The lovely Rosemarie DeWitt plays Affleck’s unflinchingly patient wife, and while she has her acting chops, she was quite miscast (DeWitt is just too cool to play a boring housewife in the Boston suburbs, and her Boston accent comes and goes). The director, John Wells (of the recently deceased TV show, ER) also manages to monopolize every macho, All American actor between 55-65 in assembling the rest of the ensemble cast (Tommy Lee Jones, Craig T. Nelson, Kevin Costner, and Chris Cooper), and they each represent different iterations of what Affleck’s character could become in 15 to 20 years (the executive who views himself as a leader for his people, the CEO who puts his shareholders first, the small businessman, and the downsized mid-level sales guy with nowhere else to go). While these four actors put in effortless, decent performances, in the end, The Company Men was a middle-brow movie that failed to move me, but then again, I don’t think that I am its target audience.