In Vitro, In Vivo!

Cinematic rebellion was the artistic anthem of the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. From script to screen, the most important film festival in the country asked audiences, authors, and auteurs "to fight against the establishment of the expected" and "to battle for brave new ideas."

According to the public face of Sundance, actor-director Robert Redford, during a post-screening discussion of the documentary The Shock Doctrine: "The entire system is constipated at the top. Sundance can help because it really is grassroots and I think the power is going to come from the collective. I hope the festival can help tell these stories because there’s not a whole lot left of this planet."

Under the new leadership of John Cooper, this year’s festival ran from January 21-31. Many of the films (and panels) had overt political, often progressive, themes, some with better storytelling skills than others. Here are a few of the films coming to you—some day.


Cane Toad: The Conquest – Cute little creatures defying kooky bigger creatures, cane toads have been indigenous to Central and South America for millions of years. But in 1935 an ill-fated idea to bring over 100 of the amphibians to the northeastern part of Australia to eat the greyback cane beetle, a sugarcane pest, was implemented. Rather than kick out the vermin, cane toads multiplied by the thousands and started to go west across the continent. Today, approximately 1.5 billion cane toads have taken on mythological portions as pet, pest, and pariah. While some Australians keep the cane toad as a companion, others have lost their dog, cat, snake, etc., when they ate one of the poisonous creatures. This has led to great fear and misunderstanding of the toad—which is hardly a threat to humans—producing hysterical reactions. Presented in 3D, director Mark Lewis’s Cane Toads: The Conquest is a lot of fun. Similar to, but a little more icky than The March of Penguins, audiences of most ages should have a three-dimensional blast watching, while learning a lesson about ecological tampering.


Climate RefugeesIf you think Haiti is a crisis, wait until Bangladesh meets the rising tide. Nearly 150 Million Bangladeshis live at sea level. Rather than replicate David Guggenheim’s An Inconvenient Truth, starring Al Gore, director Michael Nash’s documentary puts the issue of climate change in terms of geopolitics. As seawater continues to rise, an estimated 50 countries are predicted to disappear within the next 20-30 years. Since most humans live by the sea, what are nations going to do when hundreds of millions of refugees start fleeing to foreign lands or to other parts of their country? In light of these predictions, it seems almost trivial to debate if humans are responsible for climate change. Climate change is here and people will be coming, and going, in alarming numbers.


HowlDirected by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, Howl looks at Allen Ginsberg, circa age 29, and his first published poem. Divided into four equal parts, this film uses different mediums to convey the power the poet and his poem "Howl" had on people and the powers-that-be. One part is essentially theater, with Ginsberg (played by James Franco) reading his poem at the Six Gallery on October 7, 1955. The second part uses animation (designed by Eric Drooker) to illustrate an interpretation of the poem. The third part is the dramatic poetic justice of "Howl," and thus free speech, which went on trial for obscenity (People v. Ferlinghetti). And the fourth is a pseudo-documentary where Ginsberg answers questions from an off-screen interviewer. While the poem "Howl"said many things about America, the greatness in the film lies in the fact that the producers managed to capture both Ginsberg and the essence of his work: the voice of desire and fulfillment by and for those who have been ignored by society.


Night Catches UsPhiladelphia, 1976. As white cops wail on the poor, a former Black Panther named Marcus (Anthony Mackie) needs to watch his step. His comrades question his loyalty. The only comrade he can trust is Patricia (Kerry Washington) who has become a sort of foundation for the troubled neighborhood. As tensions mount, violence and mistrust between cops and citizens arise, as well as trust and love among the oppressed. Naturally, something has to give and it will not be police misconduct. Finely crafted, writer-director Tanya Hamilton’s Night Catches Us offers an insightful look at what it means to be black and poor in America.


Nowhere Boy Directed by Sam Taylor Wood (Love You More) and written by Matt Greenhalgh (Control), this nostalgic biopic focuses on the late teenage years of John Lennon (played by Aaron Johnson). Lennon lives with his Aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas) while trying to reconnect with his mother, Julia Lennon (Anna-Marie Duff). A rebellious sort, John gets into all sorts of trouble at school, puts together a band called the Quarrymen with Paul McCartney (Thomas Sangster) and George Harrison (Sam Bell). Unfortunately, many who are familiar with the Beatles and Lennon probably already know John had a strained relationship with his mother and that her sister raised him for most of his early life. Rather than add anything psychologically productive to Lennon’s formative years, Nowhere Boy disappears into a pointless void.


The Shock DoctrineBased on Naomi Klein’s bestselling book of the same name and co-directed by Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross, this documentary traces the rise of Milton Friedman’s theories and disaster capitalism. From Augusto Pinochet’s Chile to Boris Yeltin’s Russia to our current economic woes, Friedman and friends have created problems in the name of profit by taking advantage of confusion and pushing through reactionary legislation. There is hardly anything shocking about the observations found in The Shock Doctrine for anyone who has read the likes of Noam Chomsky. And thanks to the artistic license used in The Shock Doctrine, it will be easier for critics to dismiss the documentary than Chomsky.


Sympathy for DeliciousStuck on the streets of Los Angeles in more ways than one, life for DJ Delicious (screenwriter Christopher Thornton) has been too tough for too long—unemployment, crime, disability. Like the people around him, Delicious needs an immediate fix. Then, one day, others discover Delicious has the hands of God and can cure approximately 72 percent of the people he touches, such as the ones with illness, blindness, or paralysis. This leads to many kinds of exploitation and manipulation by Delicious and others. Co-starring and competently directed by Mark Ruffalo, whose acting career was launched in 2000 with the Sundance Film Festival hit You Can Count on Me, the storyline of Sympathy for Delicious is a mixed bag. It is interesting to watch how Delicious and others make money off his talent, but, in this day and age, the idea of someone having supernatural healing powers is rather delirious.


Twelve The Hollywood director who brought us Flatliners, Falling Down, and Batman Forever, Joel Schumacher, has adapted Nick McDonell’s novel about contemporary privileged youth on the upper eastside of Manhattan. Anyone who has watched a movie about rich kids in the last ten years has a good idea what is coming—money makes misery and all that sex, drugs, and guns can only be fun for so long. At least there is no underground fighting ring. In a time when the super rich are sticking it to people, Twelve attempts to lay a "rich people are unhappy" sentiment to the public, while still inducing the masses of working class teenagers to wish for such unhappiness. Scene after scene in Twelve gives images of beautiful, rich people moving about in a milieu where there are more servants than working teenagers, a Porsche is crashed and daddy will be angry, a teenage girl gets a nose job, shopping is habitual, and there is barely a parent in sight. Twelve presents kids who are out of control, but induces us to believe that, if we could only change places with the beautiful brats, we could handle it.


Vegetarian After a series of nightmares stemming from repressed childhood memories, Yeong-hye (Chae Min-seo) decides to become a vegetarian. The stench of meat is everywhere and she will not participate in such behavior. In her family, however, a life without meat is just crazy. Her older sister, Ji-hye (Kim Yeo-jin), does not know what to do about her sister’s change of diet so her video artist husband, Min-ho (Kim Hyun-sung), decides to clandestinely assist his pretty, though gaunt, sister-in-law through the art of body flower power. This perpetuates various sorts of other behaviors, putting Yeong-hye further into suicidal drive. While the film’s appreciation of nature/body as art is admirable, some vegetarian filmgoers, like a few at the Sundance screening (including me), were a bit nonplussed at the title and the association the film makes between vegetarianism and madness.


John Esther writes about culture and politics via cinema. His work has appeared in Z Magazine and numerous other publications in print and online.