Sundance, the biggest American film festival, has been known for its off-kilter picks. Steven Zeitchik, arts and entertainment writer for the Los Angeles Times, tells NPR's Melissa Block that this year's gathering in Park City, Utah, is no different.
Sex Sells At Sundance
A brewing controversy over Utah state funds that help support the Sundance Film Festival has focused on the sexual content of many of the presented films. Zeitchik says there's plenty for festival critics to talk about.
"There is really no shortage of films that deal with all manner of taboo here," Zeitchik says.
Those films include the porn-addiction comedy Don Jon's Addiction, from first-time director and screenwriter Joseph Gordon-Levitt; the raunchy Two Mothers, in which two women sleep with each other's sons; and the student-teacher relationship at the heart of A Teacher.
Additionally, the sometimes provocative actor-director-producer James Franco has brought two films to the festival — including Kink, which focuses on a San Francisco-based S&M porn website of the same name.
"If you look around this festival you'd think we were living in a pretty debaucherous time," Zeitchik says. "Certainly a time more interesting than one most of us are familiar with in our daily lives."
Women Make A Mark
Another trend at this year's festival is the strong showing from female directors. In the U.S. Dramatic Competition, eight of the 16 films are from women.
Among the films in that category is actress Lake Bell's directorial debut, In a World, which focuses on a low-level voice-over actress.
But women are behind all manner of films in this year's festival, which is a positive point for filmmaking overall, Zeitchik says.
"I think that's a good and notable trend," he says.
A Deceptive Disney Experience
Disney has been making a big impression in this year's festival, but not in the way the entertainment giant might like.
Escape From Tomorrow, a scripted feature from first-time director Randy Moore, was shot on location at Disneyland and Disney World — without permission.
"This is one of the most unusual and provocative films I've ever seen in all my years coming to Sundance," Zeitchik says. "Randy Moore snuck in, guerrilla-style, [with] these very small cameras and would have his actors ... moving around the park, often very far away from him because he didn't want to look like he was shooting a movie. ... And he would kind of, on his iPhone, tell them where to go and direct them, and they would be running around amid not extras, but everyday tourists at the park. And it's really something. It's completely guerrilla-style. And it's something I've never seen before."
But if the film is generating buzz in Park City, it's also facing an uncertain future.
"Every distributor I've talked to has said, 'Look, we're interested in this film, it's a provocative film, it's gotten a lot of media attention — but can we release the thing?' " Zeitchik says. "Even if there are some clauses that indemnify them [in a distribution deal], they're still going to be bracing for a big legal fight, an expensive legal fight. ... So this may be a film that lives on in a kind of underground, mixtape, pirate website kind of way, but we may never see it in theaters."
'Midnight,' Manslaughter And Money Policy
A trio of other films that caught Zeitchik's eye run the gamut of cinematic possibility.
Richard Linklater's Before Midnight, the third film in the romantic franchise that began with 1995's Before Sunrise, showcases strong writing and solid performances from stars Ethan Hawke and Julie Delphy.
First-time director Ryan Coogler's Fruitvale, meanwhile, focuses on the fatal 2009 shooting of an unarmed 22-year-old, Oscar Grant, by a Bay Area transit policeman; the killing was captured on cellphone video and drew national attention. The drama will be released by the Weinstein Co.
And Jacob Kornbluth's wonkish fiscal-policy documentary Inequality for All, featuring economist Robert Reich, attempts to teach a money-conscious audience more about growing income inequality in America.
"I would say it seeks to do for the economy what An Inconvenient Truth did for the environment," Zeitchik says. "I think it makes some of these very esoteric issues very accessible to those of us who don't follow them on a daily basis."
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Now to some of the films being showcased at this year's Sundance Festival and what's been getting early buzz.
Steven Zeitchik is in Park City, Utah, covering the festival for the Los Angeles Times. Steven, welcome back to the program.
STEVEN ZEITCHIK: Good to be here, Melissa.
BLOCK: And let's start off with that controversy we were just hearing about, the conservative group there in Utah complaining about highly sexualized films at Sundance. And it sounds like there are a lot of them this year.
ZEITCHIK: You're absolutely right. There is really no shortage of films that deal with all manner of taboo here at the film festival, among those, "Don Jon's Addiction," which is that kind of porn comedy - a porn addiction comedy - directed by Joseph Gordon Levitt. There are a number of very kind of serious, rigorous relationship movies, one called "Two Mothers" about two mothers, each one sleeping with the other's son. A movie called "A Teacher," which is about a teacher-student relationship.
James Franco has two films here. He's never one who's shy about shocking us. He directed one, produced another, and one of the films is called "Kink," about an S&M porn website based out of San Francisco.
So, really, if you look around this festival you'd think we were living in a pretty debaucherous(ph) time; certainly a time more interesting than one most of us are familiar with in our daily lives.
BLOCK: And another trend, Steven, that's been noted this year, is a very strong representation of women directors at the festival.
ZEITCHIK: It's absolutely right and a trend that I think a lot of people have been prominently picking up on; the U.S. dramatic competition at the festival, which is sort of the movies that are competing for prizes coming out of America. Sixteen films make it in, fully eight of them this year are directed by women. Movies of all shapes and sizes, some of the movies are relationship movies, we were just talking about. Another one that comes to mind is called "In a World," which is Lake Bell, the actress Lake Bell, she has a directorial debut here. And it's about a kind of a second string voiceover artist.
So, comedies, dramas, but a lot of films coming from women. And I think that's a good and notable trend.
BLOCK: One film that's gotten a lot of attention at Sundance sounds intriguing and it's gotten attention for the way it was made; it was made on the sly. It's called "Escape from Tomorrow." Tell us about that.
ZEITCHIK: This is one of the most unusual and provocative films I've ever seen in all my years coming to Sundance. And it's set and shot at the Disney parks, both in Orlando and Anaheim. First-time filmmaker named Randy Moore snuck in, guerrilla-style, these very small cameras and would have his actors - this is a scripted featured, not a documentary - but he'd have his actors moving around the park, often very far away from him because he didn't want to look like he was shooting a movie. This was not done with Disney's permission.
And he would kind of, on his iPhone, tell them where to go and direct them, and they would be running around amid not extras, but everyday tourists at the park. And it's really something. It's completely guerrilla-style. And it's something I've never seen before.
BLOCK: You said it wasn't done with Disney's permission. Not only that, it sounds like this movie may never actually get to theaters precisely because Disney may stop it.
ZEITCHIK: Absolutely, every distributor I've talked to has said, look, we're interested in this film - it's a provocative film, it's got a lot of media attention - but can we release the thing? And I think even if there are some clauses that indemnify them, they're still going to be bracing for a big legal fight, an expensive legal fight with Disney in terms of getting it out there. So this may be a film that lives on in a kind of underground, mixed tape, pirate website sort of way, but we may never see it in theaters.
BLOCK: Well, before we let you go, Steven, what else has been really catching your imagination out there?
ZEITCHIK: Well, a lot of interesting and unusual films. One of them that I think maybe listeners will remember - or at least a franchise they'll remember - is "Before Midnight." This is the third in a now trilogy of films from Richard Linklater, began with "Before Sunrise" in 1995, continued with "Before Sunset" in 2004. And it sort of looks at the romance that has blossomed between Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy's characters, getting some strong reviews. Really great writing and I think that's one to look out for.
Another movie, a drama that's been getting a lot of attention is called "Fruitvale." It's about a real-life - it's a scripted movie - but it's about a real-life shooting at a San Francisco BART station in 2009. And that movie will be released by the Weinstein Company.
And finally, there's a documentary called "Inequality for All," which is a kind of - I would say it seeks to do for the economy what "Inconvenient Truth" did for the environment. Robert Reich, labor secretary under Bill Clinton in the '90s, kind of taking on the Al Gore role, teaching a class about wealth inequality. And it's a little bit wonky but I think it makes some of these very esoteric issues very accessible to those of us who don't follow them on a daily basis.
BLOCK: Steven Zeitchik, thanks so much for talking with us.
ZEITCHIK: Thank you, Melissa.
BLOCK: Steven Zeitchik covering the Sundance Film Festival for the Los Angeles times. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.