As a critic and cinephile, one of the benefits of living in Utah is getting to attend the Sundance Film Festival each year at an affordable rate. 2020 was my fourth year attending the festival but it was also my least favorite experience; however, it was still wonderful to see so many unique films.
Part of the reason my experience wasn’t as good this year is because this was the first year I didn’t purchase a locals’ pass which allows access to all of the Salt Lake City screenings. With just The Grand Pass and a 10-pack I was more limited to what I could see and forced to wait in long lines you wouldn’t need to with a pass (with tickets you also have to try and predict what will be a big hit whereas with a pass you can attend whatever has buzz). It was a little discouraging to not find the gems I found last year but still a good experience.
The best film I saw at this year’s festival is a comedy called Save Yourselves! This is a film directed by Alex Hurston Fischer about a couple (Sunita Mani and John Paul Reynolds) who decide to take a break from their cell phones for a weekend and go up to a mountain retreat. The only problem is that same there just happens to be an alien invasion that same weekend! Not only is it a comedic movie about hipsters and technology but it is also a sweet and endearing romance. The actors have great chemistry and I was laughing throughout.
My second favorite of the festival is a documentary called Dick Johnson is Dead. This film is directed by Kirsten Johnson and is a very unique look into the process of aging and grief from the perspective of her dad who is still living. I had a very close relationship with most of my grandparents, and watching Kirsten’s dad brought back a lot of memories. There are even fantasy sequences where he dies on screen and he attends his own funeral! I was bawling my eyes out and yet still laughing each time her dad was his charming self. Look out for this on Netflix.
I saw a lot of artistic pieces at Sundance this year (and most of it, to be honest, were a bit of a slog) but 2 experimental projects worked for me: Nine Days and Tesla. Nine Days is a very interesting film about a premortal world where a man named Will (great performance given by Winston Duke) is tasked with selecting who is worthy to come down to Earth and get a body. For nine days he interviews a variety of people while also dealing with the knowledge that one of his choices just committed suicide, which he does not understand. It was emotional, beautifully filmed and very well acted. I found myself thinking about it several days after I saw it.
Tesla is definitely not for everyone, but it intrigued me. Purportedly, it is about the famed inventor Nikola Tesla played by Ethan Hawke, but it is not a bland biopic. There’s lots of fourth wall breaking and nods to modern technology. It all culminates in the character singing Tears for Fears at a modern karaoke bar. I am very curious to see—outside of the Sundance bubble—what people think of this quirky weird movie.
So that was my Sundance 2020 experience. It is a lot of fun but it is also a bit of a grueling experience. There are a lot of lines and just seeing 26 movies in 10 days takes a lot out of me. I know there are a lot of festival favorites I didn’t get to see like Minari and Time, so I look forward to catching up with them. And hopefully next year I can get a locals’ pass again so I have an even better experience!
Did you get to attend the festival? If so, what were some of your favorite films? Let us know in the comments section!
About the AuthorRachel is a Rotten Tomatoes approved film critic that has loved animation since she was a little girl-belting out songs from 'The Little Mermaid'. She reviews as many films as she can each year, and loves interviewing actors, directors, and anyone with an interesting story to tell. Rachel is the founder of the popular Hallmarkies Podcast, and the Rachel's Reviews Podcast and YouTube channel, which covers all things animated including a monthly Talking Disney and Obscure Animation show.
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By Parker Johnson — 2 years ago
Ha ha. Shower thoughts! Get it? Alright, alright; I’ll lay off the puns.
If you can believe it, there was a time when I wasn’t completely obsessed with movies. Back in high school, I took a “Literature Through Film” class as an excuse to watch movies as the class of the day. It was a chance for me to relax for an hour before going off to work. I remember when it was announced that we would be watching Psycho (1960), the principle of the school came in and assured us that even though this movie was rated R, there was nothing in this movie that would violate our cultural religious beliefs. However, if anyone felt uncomfortable, the teacher would provide an alternative assignment. (I grew up in a very conservative part of Utah) No one took the alternative, and I myself was super excited to see a real life, unedited rated R movie! (Once again, I was really conservative growing up.) When the credit rolled, I found myself with a deep sense of…boredom. Despite being in a film class, I had not begun to appreciate all the nuances and technical aspects that comes with filmmaking. I had expected a lot more shocking visuals and graphic violence to accompany the movie regarded as the greatest thriller/slasher film ever made. In my youthful arrogance and ignorance, I wrote off Psycho as being overrated and was determined to leave it at that. Thankfully, I grew up.
My Redemption Arc
It was around 2014 when I discovered my love for watching and collecting movies, and around the fall of 2015 when I first began seriously studying film as a medium. I took an introduction to film class with my roommate, and I began really appreciating what goes into making a film. I began to expand my watch-list beyond the bi-annual Disney and Marvel movies, getting into more independent films and familiarizing myself with different directors. About a year later, I realized that I still had neglected a whole genre: horror. I had always been a bit apprehensive about horror film because of my conservative upbringing, but I also knew I wouldn’t be a very good film critic if I refused to watch an entire genre. So I began to ask around to see what the best horror movies were. I slowly began to really appreciate and admire horror as a genre simply by how much effort it takes to create a good horror picture. Cheap B-horror movies are a dime a dozen, and I can’t tell you how great it is to see a fantastic horror movie. Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago, when the Backseat Directors writers were having a group discussion about critically acclaimed movies that were overrated (in contrast to our “Defend Your Movies” series on the podcast). I threw out that I thought Psycho was boring, and the gasps of outrage and disbelief could be heard throughout the far reaches of space. André (the founder of Backseat Directors) brought up the suggestion that I should watch it again and see how I feel about it now. Knowing that my knowledge of movies had grown, and I’d probably have a different opinion now, I agreed. So, what’s my verdict? Psycho is a masterpiece.
Surprise vs Suspense
Many fans of Hitchcock are likely familiar with his famous advice about surprise vs suspense:
There is a distinct difference between “suspense” and “surprise,” and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I’ll explain what I mean…TV interview with Alfred Hitchcock
We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let’s suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, “Boom!” There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: “You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!
In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.
One thing that plagues a lot of modern horror/slasher films is the over use of jump scares, and the lack of suspense building. They tend to go for the surprise angle and not the suspense. For some movies, that’s completely fine. However, an over reliance on suspense over surprise actually cheapens the quality of the film. This is the reason the original Halloween (1978) was such a success. It wasn’t as bloody or gory as most modern movies, and even the Halloween sequels themselves. But the constant stress of waiting and not knowing what the killer was going to do next kept us on the edge of our seats. I believe this drew its inspiration from Psycho.
“Re Re Re Re”
The music of Psycho is the heart and soul of the movie. Hitchcock even admitted that without the music, he was convinced that Psycho would be doomed to be a made-for-TV movie. However, after seeing the film with the finished score, he was confident in the film.
Going back to my comparisons with the original Halloween… in both films, the music elevated what could have been a B-movie into a masterpiece. Both had great themes and haunting melodies that accompanied the sense of being watched and stalked.
I just want to acknowledge how outstanding Anthony Perkins’ performance is in this movie. When we first meet Norman Bates, he seems like the perfect boy next door: a shy, but good natured man. Then slowly we learn that he is a peeping tom, and covers up for what he believes is his mother’s murders. The subtle change in his face and in his eyes over the course of the film is absolutely brilliant.
Back in high school I knew almost nothing about different types of movies, nor how they were made. In the words of my old boss at the movie theater, I was a “popcorn muncher.” Now, I totally understand why this movie is referred to as a classic and a masterpiece. Those terms are rightly used. It was because of Psycho that movies like Halloween could become so beloved. I’m so glad I watched this movie again. I own it now, and so should you.Post Views: 4,296
By The Formal Review — 2 years ago
During this ongoing pandemic, yours truly was participating in the social media trend of a “30 Day Film Challenge” where participants refer to one film each day under a specific category, such as “the first film that you remember watching.” When I arrived on Day 10, the category was “Your Favorite Superhero Film“—and I hit a wall. Each day was pretty easy, or I did not take it as seriously. The Superhero film genre has hit an all-time high, with one (Avengers: Endgame) even setting the box office record for any movie ever made. We, as a film community, have started to think Superhero films matter more now than ever. I oddly thought this question was more serious than it probably needed to be.
This decision was difficult—there have been numerous films that could fall under this category, and I also started to think about what makes viewers enjoy themselves so much during these films. No matter your gender, sex, race, or ethnicity, there is a superhero film that you attach yourself to. Before early Thursday night screenings became a thing, many viewers would attend the midnight screenings dressed up for the newest movie in a connected superhero universe or as billionaire vigilantes. After leaving the theater, we spent months on end debating who or which is the best! “Who is the best Batman?” or the “MCU vs DCEU” debate. These conversations transcend the fandoms and even reach those who are not connected to social media and pop culture. Everyone has their favorite representation of a character or their favorite superhero—but why?
Superheroes are meant to inspire. They represent someone we are not, or someone that can do things that we can’t. They can provide an escape into a world where someone is there for us even when our protectors or our medical and social institutions have let us down. Anger and sadness are commonplace emotions felt throughout our society because of the regular injustices we see or even experience ourselves: unjust murders because of racial tensions and prejudices; governments’ inability or flat out refusal to act; betrayal by those we loved or considered friends; our world is full of struggles that seem to find you no matter your background or social status.
People want to believe in the existence of fictional figures like Superman or Supergirl—someone they could depend on to save them when the humans who are supposed to either can’t or won’t. We want a person like Steve Rogers (Captain America) to do what the rest of us aren’t courageous enough to do and take a stand when it’s not convenient to do so. We want someone that brave enough to say, “I can do this all day.” Especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, we are told that real life superheroes exist in our healthcare facilities, in our schools, and at other times, in the military and police. We are constantly shown and told how “not all superheroes wear capes.” But what happens when that’s not enough? Numerous times in history people who are in a position to help choose not to act. People who are recognized as “ordinary” heroes might let down those looking up to them and expecting them to be there or to be there for them. Superheroes serve a purpose in filling this void.
Clinical psychologist, Robin Rosenberg wrote, “[superhero stories help us in] finding meaning in loss and trauma, discovering our strengths and using them for a good purpose.” She stated that “superheroes undergo three types of life-altering experiences that we can relate to:”
Trauma; such as the one that young Bruce Wayne goes through. He makes a promise to his murdered parents to fight against the crime in Gotham City. Rosenburg states that this is directly applicable to a lot of real life scenarios. Her past research has shown that many people experience growth “after a trauma and resolve to help others, even becoming social activists.”
Destiny; similar to that of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. She’s a normal teenager who discovers she’s the “Chosen One” to fight demons. She has to be the one who does not have a normal life and will take on this burden. Sometimes we are thrown into scenarios that we may not have predicted but we have to adapt and push through anyway.
Rosenberg’s last type of experience is similar to what Spider-Man goes through. When he initially gets his powers, he uses it for selfish reasons until his beloved Uncle Ben is killed. This type of experience is similar to the first, but instead of the trauma defining the hero, it’s the choice that matters. No matter whether ‘your’ Spider-Man is Peter Parker, Miles Morales, or Peter Porker, this choice exists. They could stay wrestling for money to pay rent; they could stay home and be a normal kid instead of saving the multiverse. The choice to do what is right versus what is easy is a choice that we, as humans, make every day. Rosenberg states that, “[superheroes] inspire us and provide models of coping with adversity, finding meaning in loss and trauma, discovering our strengths and using them for good purpose” (link). We want to attach ourselves to these characters; we want to see them in ourselves; we want to see those with fantastical abilities are still imperfect and relatable, and we are comforted by seeing them struggle with ordinary problems and still do the right thing in the end.
Recent research from Kyoto University in Japan shows that this “choice” can happen even before we learn how to speak. Their study had preverbal infants shown short animations in which one character purposely bumps into another. They then showed the infants a third character who could either prevent it from happening or not do anything at all. The infants consistently wanted the third character to help and prevent the pain. This study showed that even though they could not speak they recognized what heroism was and wanted it to happen.
“Six-month-old infants are still in an early developmental stage, and most will not yet be able to talk. Nevertheless they can already understand the power dynamics between these different characters, suggesting that recognizing heroism is perhaps an innate ability.”David Bulter – “Preverbal infants affirm third-party interventions that protect victims from aggressors” (link to article)
This idea is then touched on again in the television show What Would You Do? People are shown how ordinary people behave when they are confronted with dilemmas that require them either to take action or to stand by and mind their own business. Each scenario has the viewer hoping for the regular people to step in and stop whatever the situation is. We all want to be that person who does what’s right even when it’s not easy. Data suggests that feelings are one of the stronger reasons why audience members connect to certain heroes (link). Personally, I attach myself to stories of people and characters who have gone through trauma and stand up to those who are wrong. As Batman, Daredevil and the X-Men deal with their respective issues, I cope with what I have gone through and deal with my own conflicts.
In the past, and still now today, society often sees comics and comic book movies as only enjoyed by children or “nerds.” With Black Panther becoming the highest-grossing solo superhero film of all time, Avengers: Endgame becoming the highest-grossing film of all time, and a multitude of films winning Academy Awards for both their performances and their technical aspects, this is clearly not true. More people enjoy these characters outside of children and “nerds” than ever before. There are films that are clearly made more for children than older crowds, but there are just as many that are for adults and have many more important themes. Superheroes have become the modern-day mythology that tackles issues, from the struggles of high school to mental illnesses. No matter which superhero you attach yourself to, or when you attach yourself to them, there is no denying the effect that they have on our lives.
Which superhero do you identify with the most? Or which superhero has inspired you the most? Let me know down in the comments section below!Post Views: 7,624
By Rachel Ogden — 2 years ago
What’s your favorite movie?
Don’t say you don’t have one. Everyone has one, you just don’t know what it is yet; it’s something you can turn on whenever; something that makes you smile every time you talk about it; something that impacted you and continues to amaze and delight you with every re-watch. I also believe our favorite movies are ones that define us, that connect in perhaps indefinable ways to our own stories and help mold and shape our choices onward. Is that a little extreme? Maybe. But quarantine has made me extremely grateful for movies and for the Backseat Directors community. So as we celebrate its 20th anniversary, allow me to share with you my all-time favorite movie: Gladiator (2000).
A Dream that was Rome
Let’s set the scene—it’s 180 A.D., and Emperor Marcus Aurelius is waging war with Germanic tribes, accompanied by his loyal Roman general. His son, Commodus, is brutal and unfit to be emperor, so Marcus Aurelius asks this general (who is the former lover of his daughter Lucilla) to take his place as heir to the Roman Empire. Naturally, Commodus is hurt by his father’s decision, and Marcus Aurelius is killed. Without the Emperor’s choice of heir made public, Commodus takes his father’s place as Caesar while the loyal general is exiled.
Those who have seen Gladiator might recognize the plot points and characters found in this description, but this synopsis actually belongs to a movie called Fall of the Roman Empire (1964). Considering the latter was released to an audience well-acquainted with Roman epics, the studio expected it to be a smash at the box office like Quo Vadis (1951) and Cleopatra (1963) before it. After all, it starred such titans of the screen as Sophia Loren (Two Women), Christopher Plummer (The Sound of Music), Alex Guinness (Star Wars) and Stephen Boyd (Ben-Hur). The studio had spared no expense; the film’s Battle of the Four Armies (not to be confused with the Hobbit movie) involved 8,000 extras, and the Roman forum they built is still the largest outdoor film set in Hollywood history (yes, even bigger than Hobbiton). But the film was an utter failure. It tanked at the box office, almost single-handedly bankrupting its production company. Critics of the time panned it as being too ostentatious and devoid of humanity and drama (ironically today it holds a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes). So much for the glory of Rome. Fall of the Roman Empire was the last of the old Hollywood Roman epics, famed for making its title ironically intuitive and credited with killing the genre.
For 35 years, Hollywood steered clear of Ancient Rome, the Caesars, and the Coliseum. That is, until a screenwriter named David Franzoni had a pitch meeting with DreamWorks and suggested that they make a gladiator movie. Even though Fall of the Roman Empire was a disaster, the idea of making a Roman epic was thrilling enough to attract an acclaimed cast and crew. This included Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner) as director and a rough-and-tumble, goofball Aussie/Kiwi named Russell Crowe (L.A. Confidential) as the lead character, Maximus. The supporting cast included seasoned veterans like Richard Harris (Harry Potter) and Oliver Reed (Oliver!) and relative newcomers like Joaquin Phoenix (Joker) and Connie Nielsen (Wonder Woman). Hans Zimmer was invited to compose the score, and he had the good sense to bring on Lisa Gerrard. In addition to these well-knowns, 566 other names are listed in the credits (I counted). It was the dream team, and the movie’s success is owed to each and every one of them.
Death Smiles at Us All
When Gladiator won Best Picture at the 73rd Academy Awards, three producers took the stage to accept their Oscars. One of them was Branko Lustig, a native of Yugoslavia who as a boy spent years imprisoned during the Holocaust. He survived Auschwitz but lost the majority of his family. The life he went on to live is the best representation of why the movie he helped to make endures. Maximus is a hero who loses everything, but not because of a mistake or a momentary lapse of judgement: it is his very goodness that brings on his head punishment, heartache, and loss. But it’s his adherence to his principles that allows him to rise and eventually challenge the corrupt Emperor in the Coliseum, becoming leader to a Rome that lost its way. Overcoming adversity through strength and honor against even insurmountable odds is not uncommon in Hollywood pictures, but few films resonate with a worldwide audience the way Gladiator did. It’s what made Roman epics so popular in the first place.
Despite the talented and dedicated people involved, the making of Gladiator was fraught with difficulty and chaos. Much of Franzoni’s original screenplay was thrown out, so they began shooting with only about 31 pages of script. Dozens of other writers weighed in, brainstorming ideas that were often rejected and ridiculed by Scott and his actors (especially Crowe). While filming, the script was often freshly written the night before. When they flew a 300-person team to film the second act in Morocco, there wasn’t a line of script to work with, just a repurposed soccer stadium where they could shoot some gladiator bouts. The toll of filming such an epic affected everyone involved; Crowe was battered and injured throughout shooting, and Phoenix was incredibly anxious about his performing abilities and physique. Just as the end of the arduous shoot came into sight, tragedy struck: Oliver Reed (Oliver!), who plays the retired gladiator Proximo, died while shooting in Malta. Instead of replacing him with another actor, the ending was rewritten and filmed with the help of CGI and extra footage.
Gladiator was released on May 5, 2000. Even with its first act similarities to Fall of the Roman Empire, the final result was a journey more reminiscent of Ben-Hur (1959) and Spartacus (1960), with similar success. It’s a simple story: the general who became a slave, the slave who became a gladiator, and the gladiator who defied an Emperor. But it did the impossible; it ushered in another age of sword and sandal epics with a loose remake of the very movie that killed the age before. It won five Oscars, conquered the box office, and won over fans everywhere. Despite the legendary and extensive careers of both Crowe and Phoenix, today it remains the film they are most asked about in interviews. Franzoni, whose script was repeatedly thrashed, rewritten, and criticized, earned an Oscar nomination for his writing and took home an Oscar beside Branko Lustig when the film won Best Picture. It renewed a love and interest in Roman history in the United States (termed “the Gladiator effect” by the New York Times) and led to a series of movies and television shows set in Ancient Rome, though none of them were able to reach the same level of success. A Roman epic was not, and still isn’t, a guaranteed win for a movie studio, but Gladiator was a home run.
Are You Not Entertained?
So why now? Why take the time to extoll the stories and virtues of this film beyond my own obsessive fandom? Because I think Gladiator is the kind of film that inspires people to be artists. It’s the kind of film that pulls people like Richard Harris out of semi-retirement because they just can’t say no to starring in it. Nobody would go into entertainment if not for those kinds of films, and I’m sure everyone at Backseat Directors could tell you the films that made them love movies. With a founder who left a corporate career to pursue a passion and a group of writers made up of professional critics and film fanatics alike, we might be a dream team of dreamers not unlike the one Ridley Scott put together.
Hollywood became an empire because it told stories that captivated our imagination and elevated our perspective. Seated with our popcorn and good company, we enjoy visual storytelling that transports us across continents and to time periods both real and imagined. The beauty of art is its subjectivity, so this will not be true for everyone, but for me, Gladiator is Hollywood at its best. It is the ultimate hero’s journey: overcoming adversity by maintaining principles that the outside world calls you to abandon. The story on the screen and the one taking place behind the scenes can inspire and encourage us as we write our own stories. Daring to believe in your own creativity and build something that’s yours is not always easy, and the rewards are not always apparent. While your leap of faith may not be quitting the corporate life or standing up to corrupt dictators or taking a 300-man crew to Morocco with only an inkling of what you’re going to film, seeing people do so can give you courage. There’s always a chance that your idea will turn out like Fall of the Roman Empire; but if there’s something you feel drawn to do, something you can’t stop thinking about that lights you up inside, could it be worth the chance of failing? I’m certainly no expert on the subject. If there’s anything we can learn from Gladiator, it’s that life is short; but as a fictional man once said, “What we do in life echoes in eternity.”
“When you grow up in the suburbs of Sydney or Auckland……or the suburbs of anywhere, you know, a dream like this seems kind of vaguely ludicrous and completely unattainable. But this moment is directly connected to those childhood imaginings, and for anybody who is on the downside of advantage, and relying purely on courage: it’s possible.”Russell Crowe, Oscar for Best Actor acceptance speech (2001).Post Views: 3,930