From top left: Stew on stage in Spike Lee's "Passing Strange"; Samantha Power, a producer of "Sergio", Richard Ray Whitman in "Barking Water"; a scene from "Cliente"; a scene from "Peter & Vandy"; Kevin Bacon in "Taking Chance", Anna Wintour in "The September Issue", Wesley Snipes and Don Cheadle in "Brooklyn's Finest", and Ashton Kutcher in "Spread".  (All photos courtesy of Sundance Film Festival)

Halfway Home, And Still Plenty Of Sundance To Go Around
By Omar P.L. Moore/The Popcorn Reel
January 20, 2009

As the Sundance Film Festival hits its halfway point, several films and documentaries have caught the eye, and with screenings still to come before the Festival comes to a close next Sunday there are some titles definitely worth highlighting.  In the category of engagement and the amazing, Spike Lee's "Passing Strange", the filming of the stage musical by Stew, a rock-n-roll musician, has had audiences tapping in the aisles with great energy and enthusiasm by all accounts.  "Strange" deals with the expression of black male teenage angst, and does so quite vividly.  "The Carter", a documentary, features the stream-of-consciousness genius of Lil' Wayne, the young rapper from Louisiana who literally works around the clock, not sleeping a wink, for he is constantly creating new music and churning out work all day, every day.  Filmmaker Adam Lough follows Wayne around at numerous junctures over the course of several months.  Wayne is nominated for more Grammys this year than any other artist (eight) and for a few hours next month he will literally be stifled creatively as he sits at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles during the ceremony as he awaits word on whether he is a winner.  Angst is at issue in "La Mission", Peter Bratt's drama set in the Mission District of San Francisco, starring his brother Benjamin as a tough-as-nails Lowrider car leader whose world is rocked by a family crisis.

Sheer ingenuity is chronicled in "Nollywood Babylon", the documentary by Canadian filmmaker Ben Addelman and Samir Mallal about the world's biggest and busiest film industry centered in Nigeria, known as Nollywood.  Film distribution is cranked out at an extraordinary high rate, with dozens of thousands of films distributed each year in the country.  An ingénue is documented in "The September Issue", a documentary on compiling that month's issue of Vogue Magazine in 2007, its famously polarizing and profound editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, who gives filmmaker R.J. Cutler ("The War Room") an exclusive, never-before-seen behind the scenes look at the inner workings of Vogue.

For politics, look no further than films like Pete Travis's "Endgame", about the negotiations between a British intelligence officer and the then-outlawed African National Congress and its prominent star and later South African president Thabo Mbeki (Chiwetel Ejiofor) in the country during the apartheid era, brokered by a professor (William Hurt).  Jonny Lee Miller, who plays a real-life character that upon which the film is based, also stars.  "Sergio" is a documentary about the slain UN envoy-diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello who was killed in Iraq in 2003 when a bomb went off in his office there.  The film is produced by Samantha Power (based on her biography Chasing The Flame) and Greg Barker, who also directs.  "Brooklyn's Finest", another police thriller directed by Antoine Fuqua, has an all-star ensemble cast to boast: Don Cheadle, Wesley Snipes, Richard Gere and Ethan Hawke are among the participants, as the film explores the dynamics and dilemmas of politics on the streets and in the precincts.

For the trips with the dead or the soon to expire, "Taking Chance" is about the long, solemn journey home for soldiers who fly home with the dead bodies of their comrades in arms.  Based on the true story of Lieutenant Colonel Michael Strobl, who undertakes the difficult journey of taking slain 19-year-old Lance Corporal Chance Phelps' body back to America on a flight.  Kevin Bacon stars as the Lieutenant Strobl.  "Barking Water", a stunning landscape of a Native American woman who forgives her abusive and now ailing husband and accompanies him on a road trip home, is directed by Sterlin Harjo with great conviction.  The cinematography is sometimes oversaturated but no less haunting or beautiful.

For love stories, there's "Peter & Vandy", which plays like the 2001 film "Memento", with its story out of sequence.  There's "Dare", a film which may not be what it appears to be, about love, relationships and the blurring lines of sexual identity.  Steven Soderbergh's 1989 debut film "sex, lies and videotape" makes the Festival's Collection cut on its 20th anniversary of world premiering at Sundance, while Wendell B. Harris's incendiary and superb "Chameleon Street" (not a love story) does too.  There's more love, this time of the same-sex kind, where Jim Carrey plays a cop turned con-man and gay lover in "I Love You Phillip Morris", which is based on a true story and has been waiting for a distributor for at least two years.  Ewan McGregor also stars. 

If success in Hollywood is measured by how many people you sleep with, then Ashton Kutcher's character has everyone else licked, if you pardon the pun.  In "Spread", he plays an up-and-coming (sorry!) actor who sleeps his way up the Tinseltown ladder.  What does he learn?  You'll have to see.  Then there's "Cliente", which may be viewed as something of a reworking of "American Gigolo".  The film stars Nathalie Baye as a successful career woman who develops a complex relationship with a gigolo.  It may also sound like an amplification of last year's "Deception", part of which dealt with underground sex clubs in the American corporate world. 

For topics close to the black community, "Good Hair", executive produced by Nelson George and featuring Chris Rock, examines the history of black people's hair and what it symbolizes in the culture.  Robert Townsend's "Why We Laugh" discusses black comedians and the history of their comedy in America, with Mr. Rock and whole host of other noteworthy voices of comedy, Whoopi Goldberg, Steve Harvey, Paul Mooney, D.L. Hughley, Dick Gregory, Bill Cosby, Keenan Ivory Wayans and many more opining on the subject.

Boxing enthusiasts will take to "Thriller In Manila", John Dower's documentary on Joe Frazier, who for the first time since the 1975 fight with Muhammad Ali in the Philippines looks at the infamous encounter in which he suffered humiliating defeat.  The film is entirely from Mr. Frazier's perspective.  "Tyson" looks at the rising and falling star of Mike Tyson, and at the man behind the boxing brilliance that he was in the 1980's and early 1990's before a series of falls took him to new lows. 

For one word first names there is "Adam", about an awkward man (Hugh Dancy) who tries to find love with the beautiful woman of his dreams, and "Helen", Sandra Nettelbeck's film about the severe depression which befalls a successful professor (Ashley Judd).  Two first names in the same title (aside from "Peter & Vandy") there's "Rudo Y Corsi", which reunites Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna from "Y Tu Mama Tambien" and is directed by Carlos Cuaron, the brother of "Y Tu Mama" director Alfonso Cuaron, whom along with Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and Guillermo Del Toro produce this film about a pair of Mexican brother day laborers who aim to build their mother a dream house.  The film has already been picked up for distribution in North America by Sony Pictures Classics.

Finally, last but definitely not least, there's "Over The Hills And Far Away", a film based on a true story of author-journalist Rupert Isaacson, whose South African-born son suffers from autism and is taken to Mongolia to see if the effects of the affliction can be cured.

There's a lot to see -- so many movies, so little time.  And there are lots of short films still available to be seen for free on iTunes, including "575 Castro Street", about the photo business of Harvey Milk, San Francisco's Board of Supervisors member. 

For all of the films mentioned here and for ticket information, visit

The Popcorn Reel Sundance 2009 Coverage

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