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Slamdance Film Festival recap, in absentia: From a Minnesota-made stunner to the worst film of 2012

It was a first this year that, due to scheduling conflicts, I was unable to catch anything at the Slamdance Film Festival. When I say I was not able to catch a film, I mean that it was the first time I have not been able to attend a Slamdance screening in the five years I’ve been heading out to Park City, Utah for the simultaneous Sundance Film Festival. I was bummed that I missed my chance to catch musician/filmmaker Neil Young and filmmaker/producer Jonathan Demme speak at a morning coffee panel to talk about their careers.

However, I was able to catch a few titles before I left, and a few when I got back into town. The first film I saw was writer/director Derek Franson’s highly inventive and flawed Comforting Skin. As lonely Koffie (a dazzling Victoria Bidewell) is trying to fit into any social circle that will have her, she remains somewhat of a social outcast, other than with her platonic childhood friend Nathan (Tygh Runyan). It isn’t until that she gives herself a tattoo, closing in on death until the tattoo comes to life and begins to control Koffie’s decisions, that she starts to transform and give life another shot. Franson gives his story some needed punch with stunning visuals and has an unique eye for his camera movements and lighting, but Comforting Skin drags at times and becomes rather stilted for chunks of the story, dancing around its main point for far too long. Despite a solid lead performance from Bidewell, Comforting Skin never got under my skin as it was supposed to. Still, I’ll be anxious to see what Franson does next.

Dan Leal, or “Porno Dan,” is the subject of Alexandra Berger’s documentary Danland, which follows Leal around for three years in his profession of amateur porno producer and star. He makes quite a bit of money but he can’t find love, which seemed like an interesting conundrum for a man in an industry that is filled with women, until he starts going on and on about his ex, and finally I gave up caring about anything that Dan was saying as he got very tiresome to listen to. Berger’s film features everything you would expect from a movie about a subject surrounded by naked women, exotic toys, trips to the annual AVN awards show in Las Vegas, and family issues. In one pivotal scene, Berger films Dan talking to another “star” on a couch in a hotel room and halfway through the conversation Dan and this woman start having sex, leaving Berger and her other cameraman perplexed, wondering what they’ve got themselves into. Gee, why don’t we care or feel sorry about him not finding true love or missing his ex?

What will most likely qualify as the worst film of 2012 was the completely unfunny and vulgar Bindlestiffs, featuring three high school guys devoted to J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, even though they have not even read it.  Looking like a poorly shot high school film project, writer/director/star Andrew Edison’s film deserves credit for bringing a new low to every scene, including depictions of he and his friends’ efforts to lose their virginity. In one unbelievable and completely questionable scene, John (John Karna) actually has sex at a bus stop with a gray-haired vagrant, and after Andrew knocks her out, the guys think she is dead and decide to bring the body back to their hotel room. How Bindlestiffs won the Audience Award at Slamdance, I’ll never know, and maybe it is best not to ask any questions.

In the short documentary feature Kelly, director James Stenson’s subject Kelly Van Ryan, a transgender prostitute looking for dreams in Hollywood after leaving her North Carolina family behind in her teens, does not break any new ground, but is fascinating from start to finish. Kelly knows what she wants, she expresses enough of an attitude on camera, and feels she is still doing the right thing and is willing to work no matter what the hour is. She struggles with her meth addiction and battles with her mom on her life choices, who even helps her out by posting Craiglist ads for Kelly. Stenson’s camera gives us a glimpse into a life that never makes for a pretty picture, and while we can not agree with every move Kelly makes, there is something strangely conflicting about being a viewer and wanting to help a young soul out of trouble. 

The Minnesota-made feature The Sound of Small Things, by writer/director Peter McLarnan, is a simple story about big issues. When Sam (Sam Hoolihan) marries Cara (Cara Ann Krippner), things seems to be going fine—until we discover that Cara has mysteriously gone deaf. Sam, a former musician trying to get back into the music scene, invites his fellow bandmates up to their house to start practicing again Sam and Cara’s relationship starts to unravel and demonstrate that sometimes, healthy relationships can become our worst enemies. McLarnan has a keen eye for staging beautiful and touching scenes with Sam and Cara wondering where their new marriage will take them; the film never settles for easy answers. Featuring outstanding music by Switzerlind, The Sound of Small Things knocks it out of the park with an incredible ending.

- Jim Brunzell III

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Slamdance Film Festival preview: Neil Young, Stan Lee, porn king finds love

Started in 1995 by filmmakers tired of getting their films rejected, the Slamdance Film Festival takes place from January 20-26 on the busiest street in Park City, Main Street (across the street and only a few hundred feet away from Sundance’s Egyptian Theater), at the top of the hill in the Treasure Mountain Inn, with two screening rooms, a filmmaker lounge, and a small restaurant/bar at the end of the hall. The whole set-up is very inviting and quaint.

The 2012 Slamdance Film Festival will surely have numerous bonding moments. I’ll always remember my first such moment from 2008: I’d only been in the T.M.I. for about ten minutes and I was invited to a cast/crew party after seeing my first-ever Slamdance film. Slamdance has screened some great films over its 18-year history (Paranormal Activity, Following, Mad Hot Ballroom, and The King of Kong, to name a few). They throw some great parties (the past couple of opening night parties have been a blast) and manage some crazy events (the traditional filmmaker sled-off and the ever-popular hot tub social, which seats 30+ people and is a fun meet-and-greet event with actors, filmmakers, and Slamdance staff members) during the weeklong festival.

I always leave impressed and surprised by films screening at Slamdance.  Two years ago it was Alexandre Franchi’s dark fantasy The Wild Hunt (and he’s returning with a documentary short this year,Franchi is Back), and Ben Wheatley’s crime dramedyDown Terrace; last year it was Simon Arthur’s twisty thrillerSilver Tongues and Mark Jackson’s psychological dramaWithout, which is tops on my 2012 list of favorite films in this young year.

Of the 30-plus features and 55 short films screening over one week, there are plenty that I’m looking forward to seeing. A few big names are screening films at Slamdance, including Academy-Award-winning director Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the LambsPhiladelphia), who will be screening his latest documentary, New Young Journeys, his third collaboration with musician Neil Young. Both will be giving a free master class, talking about their film careers and experiences in the music and film industries. The other master class will feature legendary American comic book icon Stan Lee (co-creator of characters such as Spiderman, The Hulk, and X-Men) associated with a screening of the Stan Lee documentary With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story.

Having seen three films on the 2012 Slamdance slate (one documentary and two features) so far, there are many more that I have my eye on. Writer/director Pema Tseden, a Tibetan filmmaker now working in China, is presenting Old Dog, which sounds to be a real tearjerker and will most likely feature stunning cinematography. According to a synopsis from the Slamdance website: “On the high Tibetan plains, an old shepherd will do anything to prevent his Tibetan Mastiff from being sold to an urban Chinese dealer.”

Another feature film, Welcome to Pine Hill, by first-time writer/director/editor, Keith Miller, involves a reformed drug dealer played by newcomer Shannon Harper and Miller himself. The film “tells the unique story of friendship, race and self-discovery, as newcomer Shannon Harper, straddles the world of fact and fiction, documentary and narrative looking for a lost dog one night in Brooklyn.”

There are four documentaries that I’m looking forward to seeing, including No Room for Rockstars by Parris Patton, produced by filmmaker Stacy Peralta. It’s “an intimate portrait of four very different musicians as they endure the notoriously brutal Vans Warped Tour.”  Another music documentary, Roger Paradiso’s I Want My Name Back, focuses on “former original members of the Sugarhill Gang, Master Gee and Wonder Mike, come back to reclaim their names, as they were responsible for the hip-hop hit song, ‘Rapper’s Delight.’”

Alexandra Berger’s Danland might be the most controversial and intriguing documentary (and film) to appear at Slamdance this year. “Amateur porn producer Dan Leal, aka ‘Porno Dan’ searches for intimacy despite his industry and in spite of himself.” James Stenson’s Kelly also has the potential to be a knockout film too. “Having fled a provincial past, a young, transgender prostitute searches for love and acceptance in a landscape of broken Hollywood dreams.”

- Jim Brunzell III

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Hear Jim Brunzell’s raucous conversation with Simon Arthur and Lee Tegersen, director and star of the Slamdance Film Festival breakout favorite Silver Tongues.

Hear Jim Brunzell’s raucous conversation with Simon Arthur and Lee Tegersen, director and star of the Slamdance Film Festival breakout favorite Silver Tongues.

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