Nadezhda Tolokonnikova of the Russian girl-punk band Pussy Riot.

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By Joe Bendel. Nadezhda Tolokonnikova is currently in prison for protesting the collusion between church and state. She also has a long history of demonstrating on behalf of women’s issues. One would think her face would be on countless hipsters’ t-shirts. Given her supermodel looks, her likeness would certainly be more appealing than ugly old Che. However, Tolokonnikova and the other members of her punk rock band were objecting to the authoritarian Putin regime’s increasingly brazen abuses of power. It might not interest professional activists in the West, but their ongoing plight is as dramatic as true stories get. The persecution of Russia’s most famous underground band is documented in Mike Lerner & Maxim Pozdorovkin’s Pussy Riot—A Punk Prayer, which screens during the 2013 Sundance Film Festival in Park City.

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Sort of like a real world version of the musical tricksters seen in Simonsson & Nilsson’s films, the balaclava-donning Pussy Riot specialized in provocative, unannounced public performances. Critical of both the Putin regime and traditional Russian patriarchal (or chauvinistic) attitudes, their lyrics have always been pointedly political. While they certainly ruffled some feathers before, Pussy Riot’s decision to crash Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior was admittedly a profound miscalculation.

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The Russian girl-punk band Pussy Riot.

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While the thirty second performance was intended as a political commentary on the open alliance between the Russian Orthodox Church and Putin’s government, the resulting outrage amongst the faithful allowed prosecutors to come down on the band with the full force of the state. Soon thereafter, Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina, and Yekaterina Samutsevich were behind bars, facing trial on vaguely defined charges.

The reasonably well informed should know the broad strokes of the regime’s campaign against Pussy Riot, but Lerner & Pozdorovkin give viewers a look beneath their brightly colored hoods. Over the course of the doc, the audience learns that the three imprisoned musicians are deeply steeped in the contemporary art scene and earnestly committed to causes like environmentalism and democratic reform. Far from being the maladjusted delinquents of state-sponsored propaganda, they are profoundly influenced by supportive, well educated fathers, who are quite compelling during their on-camera interview segments.

Sadly, Pussy Riot will not be performing at Sundance’s ASCAP Music Café. Although the story is still developing, Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina still remain behind bars. Indeed, Lerner & Pozdorovkin illuminate the twists and turns of the case quite well, while eschewing voice-over narration. Frightening and infuriating, Pussy Riot—A Punk Prayer is arguably the most important film selected at this year’s Sundance. It is very highly recommended when it screens again today (1/20), Wednesday (1/23), and Thursday (1/24) in Park City. However, it should also be a call for action. For starters, every Russian filmmaker who attends a western film festival should be asked to comment, as a fellow artist, on Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina’s continued imprisonment.


Posted on January 20th, 2012 at 4:41pm.

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By Joe Bendel. For climbers, the math surrounding K2 is daunting. Twenty-five percent of those who reach the summit perish on the way down. It is a factor of altitude plus exhaustion. Nevertheless, the mortality rate for the international expedition scaling the mountain in August of 2008 was unusually high. While the sudden blizzard and subsequent avalanches obviously cost the climbing party dearly, many of the details of what transpired up there remain murky. It is a mystery that survivors and loved ones try to resolve in Nick Ryan’s The Summit (trailer here), which screens during the 2013 Sundance Film Festival in Park City.

Out of the twenty-four who ascended K2 that fateful day, eleven never made it back. That is forty-four percent—or sixty one percent of the eighteen who reached the so-called “death zone.” Gerald (Ger) McConnel became the first Irishman to summit K2. However, his ultimate fate is the driving question of Ryan’s documentary.

From "The Summit."

The tragic 2008 climb was not the first controversy surrounding K2. In fact, there was quite a bit of back-biting and finger-pointing after the first successful summitting. Esteemed Italian mountaineer Walter Bonatti never received proper credit for his contributions that allowed his countrymen to stake their claim for glory. Viewers learn this from journalist Concetto La Malfa, who intermittently tells the tale in the persona of Bonatti. Actually, that is not very clearly established in Summit, which is problematic for a documentary – but good golly what a rich voice he’s got.

Despite the flashing backwards and forwards, Summit keeps the audience riveted throughout. Incorporating home videos and footage shot during the climb, as well as staging some surprisingly cinematic dramatic re-enactments, Ryan conveys the personalities of most of the party members, often through their own words. This also increases the suspense as the mountain takes the ill-fated eleven one by one, And Then There Were None-style.

Visually arresting (with ample credit due to cinematographers Robbie Ryan and Stephen O’Reilly, as well as the climbers themselves), The Summit is a perfect doc for viewers who prefer narratives. It is about as story-driven as films get. Ryan’s documentary vividly captures a sense of the punishing Karakoram-Himalayan environment as well as the spirit of adventure that draws people to it. Enthusiastically recommended, The Summit screens today in Salt Lake (1/20), Wednesday (1/23) and Friday (1/25) in Park City, and Tuesday (1/22) in Sundance Resort as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.


Posted on January 20th, 2012 at 4:39pm.

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By Joe Bendel. When the apocalypse comes, books will definitely have an advantage over the internet. An aspiring grad student would agree. She was planning a career as a librarian. Unfortunately, the end of the world complicates matters. However, it takes a while for her and her hard partying BFF to notice Armageddon looming during their southwestern road trip in Brea Grant’s Best Friends Forever, which premiered last night in Park City at the 2013 Slamdance Film Festival.

Harriet is the sensitive one, who spent a short stint in a mental hospital following a suicide attempt. Following the long held tradition of low budget genre movies, her best pal Reba is kind of trampy. After graduation, Harriet packs up the AMC Pacer for grad school in Texas, convincing Reba to tag along for the ride. While they are on the road, a mysterious terrorist attack leads to a series of nuclear explosions. The two women are not listening to the news, though, preferring music and the occasional “Oprah” moment to reports from the outside world. Their first inkling something might be amiss comes when three hipsters carjack their Pacer.

From "Best Friends Forever."

Eventually, the breakdown of civilization strains their relationship. Of course, nobody is assigned responsibility for the cataclysmic act of terror, lest that offend anyone. In one awfully strange exchange, several characters want to blame North Korea, to which Reba replies that she is Chinese – as if the PRC were as benign as Luxemburg. Indeed, the third act threatens to undo much of the good will established by the co-leads, depicting a rather nasty nativist martial law sweeping across Texas.

Since Grant co-wrote and co-produced with her co-star Vera Miao, viewers are pretty much stuck with them as Harriet and Reba, respectively. Fortunately, they have some nice bickering buddy-buddy chemistry together. Still, this is clearly a genre film with a female audience in mind, casting men in exclusively either predatory or ineffectual roles. While Grant comes in with geek credentials from appearances in Heroes and Halloween 2, as well as her work co-writing the 1920’s zombie comic We Will Bury You with her brother Zane, neither of the two seems particularly comfortable with the odd action scene. Frankly, everyone in BFF would rather talk than do anything else, but the dialogue does not have the sort of snap it should.

Putting a Pacer in the center of an end-of-the-world road movie is pretty ingenious. Employing the apocalypse as a prism through which to examine personal and social relationships is also a promising strategy, yielding mixed results in this case. There are some appealing moments of friendship under extreme circumstance in BFF. Nonetheless, it never approaches the attitude or verve of Thom Eberhardt’s Night of the Comet, the gold standard for zeitgeisty generational Doomsday movies. More chick flick (deliberately referencing Thelma & Louise) than midnight movie, Best Friends Forever should satisfy those looking for the former, albeit with a bit of an edge. Flawed but interesting, it screens again at the Treasure Mountain Inn screening room this Monday (1/21) as part of this year’s Slamdance.


Posted on January 20th, 2012 at 4:38pm.

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