Our on the ground coverage at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.
Nov 18, 2016
Manchester by the Sea is a beautiful tragedy, and Casey Affleck's finest role
Eleven months after its Sundance premiere, Manchester by the Sea has opened in limited release. In hindsight, the drama is not just one of the best films from Sundance 2016; it's one of the best films of the year. This review was originally published on January 25th, 2016.Read Article >
Secondary drowning is a grim death. Following a near drowning incident, the liquid remaining in the lungs of a victim can trigger the inward extrusion of bodily floods. Hours or even days after escaping the water, the body begins to drown in its own liquids.
Feb 9, 2016
Here’s how Sundance’s first VR residency film got made
Since the first piece of modern virtual reality showed up at the Sundance Film Festival in 2012, the medium has occupied a bigger and bigger place at the show. In 2015, there were 11 virtual reality experiences at its experimental New Frontier exhibit. In 2016, there were closer to 35 — including one that the Sundance Institute helped bring into existence. It's called Collisions, a beautifully shot film about one man's memory of nuclear bomb tests in the Australian desert. And it's one of the festival's first steps toward positioning virtual reality not as an experiment, but as an up-and-coming medium.Read Article >
As we saw at Sundance, virtual reality video is one of the most accessible things to put on a headset. It doesn't require interaction or movement, it runs easily on ordinary smartphones with cheap Google Cardboard viewers, and it avoids the extant stigma of looking too much like a video game. But on the artist's side, it requires money, technological acumen, and finessing a new filmmaking language. Finding camera rigs that can capture perfect spherical video remains a daunting and expensive task. Working with a device that sees in every direction at once means changing how you think about scenes. And while artists have made progress in figuring out how to fund, sell, and show off virtual reality film in the last few years, it’s still a field full of pitfalls.
Feb 1, 2016
The best films of Sundance 2016
The last screen has gone dark, the awards have been handed out, and Park City is comfortably under capacity again. But Sundance isn't over until The Verge's Sundance team have named their favorites among this year's diverse film lineup. Here they are, in no particular order.Read Article >
Bryan Bishop: Films and television love to give us tidy, narrative takes on atrocities so we can come to grips, stick them in a box, and file it all away under "Can't Happen Here." They remove the fear, but Tim Sutton's surreal meditation on the dangers of gun violence goes the opposite direction. Loosely inspired by the 2012 movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado, Dark Night uses inhuman patience and an unflinching eye to turn even the most mundane moments into possible precursors to tragedy.
Jan 30, 2016
Nuts: a documentary about goat testicle transplants that's too good to be true
The adage "fact is stranger than fiction" is muddied in Nuts, the new documentary from director Penny Lane (Our Nixon, The Voyagers) about a poor man becoming rich off a big idea and a few thousand goat testicles.Read Article >
Lane strikes pay dirt with her subject, the surgeon John Romulus Brinkley, who built a medical empire in the 1930s by transplanting goat glands into the scrotum to cure male impotence. He leveraged his wealth to build a medical empire, with hospitals in multiple states. And to promote those hospitals, Brinkley operated two radio stations, first with KFKB (Kansas Folks Know Best), which spread country music and hours of daily adverts for his miracle medicines across most of the country, and second with XERA, a million-watt radio station. Built in Mexico to dodge Brinkley’s legal issues, XERA broadcasted to all of the USA, along with 16 other countries.
Jan 29, 2016
The best virtual reality from the 2016 Sundance Film Festival
I went to Sundance 2016 for the express purpose of covering virtual reality, and over the past week, I tried out all but a handful of the 30-plus VR-related experiences at its experimental New Frontier show. New Frontier is obviously just one part of the festival, but since last year, virtual reality has been big enough to merit a collection of the weirdest, darkest, and most sublime excursions that we’ve taken into other worlds. Here are some of the most interesting moments from my show — I've chronicled several more over the course of our Sundance coverage.Read Article >
Jan 29, 2016
Stephen King adaptation 11.22.63 isn't going to turn Hulu into HBO
While Netflix and Amazon have been able to transform themselves into legitimate creators of high-end, award-winning television, Hulu has continued to find itself on the outside looking in. The streaming service has invested hundreds of millions of dollars locking down classics like South Park and Seinfeld, and rescuing favorites like The Mindy Project from the deathblow of network cancellation. But it has yet to create an original series that has driven the cultural conversation the way House of Cards, Transparent, or Making a Murderer have.Read Article >
Hulu is taking its biggest swing with 11.22.63, an eight-part mini-series adaptation of the Stephen King novel of the same name, about an English teacher who travels back in time to prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy. It’s a pedigreed production from top to bottom: produced by J.J. Abrams, starring James Franco, with the pilot getting a sneak preview at the Sundance Film Festival ahead of its February 15th release. Clearly the hope is that that show can catapult Hulu into the big leagues, turning it into a creator of original programming on par with giants like HBO.
The Blackout Experiments takes you inside the most traumatic haunted house of all time
I’ve always been a fan of being scared. Even when I was a little kid and my elementary school had a book fair, I didn’t buy Encyclopedia Brown; I picked up the Dynamite Book of Ghosts and Haunted Houses — because even at that age, getting freaked out of my mind was cathartic in a way I couldn’t really express. That developed over the years (Mr. King and Mr. Barker, please meet my new friend Mr. Lovecraft), and about 10 years ago I discovered the haunted house scene. You know what I’m talking about; the kind of place where you pay $60 to have people with chainsaws chase you into tiny rooms filled with fake body parts. But you can only see so many Leatherfaces before it starts getting goofy, which is how the New York-based production Blackout got on my radar.Read Article >
If you’re not familiar with Blackout, it’s something that its creators call "immersive theater." People sign a waiver absolving Blackout from any responsibility should anything happen to them, and walk alone through a darkened space where… things happen. Violent things. Sexual things. Degrading things. Things that take it far from the realm of "Oh look, there’s a guy with a Freddy Krueger glove," and into the territory of "This place has a safeword policy and if you suffer from PTSD you probably shouldn’t go." But despite (or perhaps because of) its nefarious reputation, I haven’t experienced Blackout myself, so when I saw that a new documentary called The Blackout Experiments was going to be at Sundance, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to find out if this experience was something I was going to be interested in.
Operation Avalanche is a fake documentary about the faked Apollo Moon landing
Sometimes all it takes is one scene for a movie to stand out. A single moment, concept, or shot can make the difference between something sticking in your mind indelibly, or fading from memory altogether. When you’ve got several of those moments strung together, you’re not only ahead of the curve — you’ve likely got a very strong film on your hands.Read Article >
All of which makes Matt Johnson’s second feature, Operation Avalanche, so frustrating. Premiering here at Sundance, it’s a conspiracy thriller about the faking of the Apollo Moon landing that doesn’t just have one special moment — it’s got dozens of them, piling smart ideas and clever beats atop one another into a pastiche that should be a home run for anybody with a love of movies, space exploration, or just good old-fashioned X-Files government paranoia. Instead, it ends up being a little too smart for its own good, so enamored with the cleverness of its found-footage premise that it forgets to tell a riveting story along the way.
Sundance 2016 Days 4-5: Dark Night, Lo and Behold, and the drama of being human
I've been enjoying editing and reading Adi Robertson's coverage of the massive amount of VR at this year's New Frontier section — even if you aren't here at Sundance, I'd highly recommend checking her stuff out. My enjoyment is partly vicarious, as it's nearly impossible for me to fit any of the installations and demos into my schedule, and partly because she's doing such a great job at distilling what the manifold priorities on display in the chaotic Wild West of the format. I particularly enjoyed her most recent column, in which she talked about the more psychedelic, abstract experiences on display. What she's getting at is contradictory, but makes sense: sometimes the experiences with the least direct human-interest missions (aka engendering empathy around a social issue or doing documentary-like coverage of a place or person) can come off as the most pro-human experiences. You can learn something universal about what it is to have a physical body by spending some time in an insect's.Read Article >
New Frontier was launched ten years ago to showcase "filmmakers who expand, experiment with, and explode traditional storytelling." The VR explosion has meant that most of the projects in the section are now interactive or otherwise non-linear, and experimental films often get bumped to the NEXT section or the other competition categories. This means higher visibility, but sometimes unfair expectations from a crowd looking for capital-M Movies. Tim Sutton's Dark Night is an 85-minute film that premiered in the NEXT section this weekend, but I'd hesitate to call it a movie. The director's look at a Florida community in a day leading up to a movie theater shooting is something more like a motion picture photo essay.
The Chickening is a NSFW, poultry-covered remix of The Shining
The Chickening, a surreal short film that screened at Sundance 2016, is like a high-touch TV pilot for Adult Swim. Director / animators Nick DenBoer and Davy Force have spliced, warped, and reanimated The Shining into a five-minute movie trailer featuring a mustachioed Danny; a chicken-pitching Jack Torrance; and a space alien Dick Halloran, whose sexual organs — if I'm reading this correctly — have been replaced with a live chicken head. Consider that my NSFW warning.Read Article >
Does every bit work? Oh gosh, no! The short can be downright off-putting. "Where," you may ask while watching The Chickening, "are that man's privates?" I have no answers, only more questions.
Jan 26, 2016
Yoga Hosers and the tragedy of Kevin Smith's stoner era
When Kevin Smith introduced his latest film, Yoga Hosers, at the Sundance Film Festival Sunday night, he got a little nostalgic. Sundance, of course, was the place that launched his career in 1994 with the debut of Clerks, and where he returned with what’s arguably his strongest film, Chasing Amy, three years later. His brand of raunchy indie comedy wouldn’t exist without the nurturing presence of Sundance, Smith said — and he’s probably right.Read Article >
But Sundance is also the place where he took the stage after a screening of Red State in 2011, and told a theater full of acquisitions executives that he wasn’t willing to sell the movie to them — that he was going to put it out himself. Like a lot of things Kevin Smith tries, that strategy didn’t stick (Tusk was put out by A24), but it’s an even more relevant landmark because Red State is when Smith decided to stop playing ball. After having crashed and burned with studio movies like Cop Out — and having built up a reliable fanbase through his podcast network — Smith decided to stop making movies that would even attempt to have mass appeal, and instead just focus on weird, quirky things that amused him and his fans.
Dear Angelica is Oculus' third virtual reality film, and it's being made in VR
Oculus Story Studio's third foray into virtual reality filmmaking doesn't currently involve a single frame of animation, and it may still be the most impressive thing the studio has ever done.Read Article >
During Sundance, Oculus offered an early look at the unfinished Dear Angelica, an upcoming animated short for its Rift virtual reality headset. Oculus announced Dear Angelica last year as part of a slate that, so far, has included the science fiction short Lost and the cute, Pixar-esque Henry. In any other medium, what Oculus has brought to Sundance this year would be called storyboards or concept art. But in VR, it's extraordinary.
Sing Street is a return to form for the director of Once
In a film festival that spotlights slow death by cancer, the gory murder of cute dogs, and a tragedy so stomach-twisting I’ll spare you the recap, Sing Street, the new musical comedy from Once director John Carney, is a breath of fresh Irish air. It’s the closest the director has come to recapturing the charm and naked emotional core of his debut, and it’s a welcome return.Read Article >
Of course, Carney does much of this by borrowing heavily from his own film. I say this with love, sincerity, and respect: Sing Street is Once: Kidz Bop Edition. The big beats are much the same: the relationship of a musician and a young woman is threatened by one of them packing up for a new life in London. An emotional turn hinges on the leading woman, alone at night, absorbing a personal song through her goofy headphones. There’s a stripped-down song recorded into a home cassette player, and even a Hoover vacuum sucker. Perhaps enough time has passed that all of it works almost just as well.
Sleight director J.D. Dillard talks about his proto-superhero Sundance debut
"It's just so trippy. It's so trippy." J.D. Dillard is still processing the fact that he's at Sundance — and that he's finished his debut feature film, Sleight, and that it premiered to ecstatic cheers this weekend. "It's so validating to have this thing that you've been working on — it's just weird when people respond to it," he says. "There's just something so weird about having someone be like, 'hey, I saw it, and I dug it.'"Read Article >
Dillard's an easy guy to root for. It wasn't too long ago that he was working as a receptionist at Bad Robot, while chasing development deals on big-budget science fiction projects. But about this time last year, he and his writing partner Alex Theurer started to get the itch — they were tired of staring at Final Draft all day, and they just had to make something.
Jan 26, 2016
The Birth of a Nation just set a record for the biggest Sundance deal ever
After lighting up a roomful of industry experts and instigating an all-night bidding war, Nate Parker's slavery drama The Birth of a Nation is being purchased by Fox Searchlight for $17.5 million. It's the most expensive purchase ever made at the Sundance Film Festival (far outstripping the $10.5 million paid for Little Miss Sunshine a decade ago), and the price could've been higher: according to both Variety and Deadline, Netflix made an offer as high as $20 million in an attempt to outbid competitors like Fox and The Weinstein Company.Read Article >
Best known for his performance in the 2014 musical drama Beyond the Lights, Parker spent seven years working on The Birth of a Nation, a movie he calls his "passion project." (He writes, directs, and stars.) Its title references D.W. Griffith's 1915 Ku Klux Klan propaganda movie of the same name, and it chronicles Nat Turner's 1831 Virginia slave rebellion in gory, shocking fashion. The movie's first screening at Sundance earned rave reviews and immediate comparisons to 2013's Oscar winner for Best Picture, 12 Years a Slave. (According to Deadline, "potential buyers for the film streamed out of the lobby mere minutes after the cast had left the stage post-screening.")
Our favorite virtual reality filmmakers at Sundance explain how to make great VR
One of the first pieces of virtual reality to really, truly blow me away was a 360-degree video called Strangers with Patrick Watson. A short performance starring Canadian musician Patrick Watson, this was the first time I'd heard someone take full advantage of VR sound. When Patrick Watson played piano, you felt like you were in the room. When he lit a cigarette and dropped the matchbook, you could hear exactly where it went.Read Article >
Strangers was an early project from Paul Raphaël (at left in the photo above) and Félix Lajeunesse, collectively known as the Montreal-based VR film studio Felix & Paul. The duo recently partnered with Oculus to release a 12-minute piece about LeBron James, and they're appearing at Sundance to premiere Nomads: Maasai and Nomads: Sea Gypsies, a new pair of documentary films. Late last week, we met up to talk about the language of virtual reality filmmaking, the challenges of interactivity, and what it means to get inside the human mind.
Allumette is a beautiful virtual world from an Oculus Story Studio veteran
One of the most powerful styles of virtual reality is something I call the diorama technique. Instead of attempting to make a photorealistic environment, the creator shrinks a virtual one down to the size of your immediate surroundings. The world becomes a dollhouse, every piece available in its entirety. This is especially beautiful when the VR headset supports positional tracking — the ability to move around the scene, crouching to examine the ground or peering through windows to see what's going on inside.Read Article >
This is the very first thing I do in a trailer for Allumette, the second work from VR animation studio Penrose. The experience — an increasingly stilted and inadequate word for virtual reality that falls between film and game — opens in darkness. Then, as if someone has just woken up and noticed an audience, the outline of a window appears. A tiny silhouette appears inside, set against a warm yellow light. Another window appears, and then another, until I'm in the center of a city made invisible by the night.
The co-creators of Starz's The Girlfriend Experience talk about sex, law, and premium cable
When Steven Soderbergh's The Girlfriend Experience was released in 2009, it was largely dismissed. The director was at the peak of his film-a-year experimental phase, and what seemed on the surface like a steamy art film starring adult actress Sasha Grey as a high-class escort ended up being an elliptical documentary-style period piece about the 2008 recession that left many critics irritated and bored. The film depicts Grey's character Chelsea as just another businessperson desperately trying to sell herself in New York as the markets crumble — much of her job involves listening to the woes of men brought low by the financial crisis.Read Article >
The film has aged remarkably well as a historical document, but it's still something of an odd duck in the director's prolific, odd-duck-filled catalog. But when Soderbergh turned his attention to television a few years ago, it wasn't long before he was approaching director Lodge Kerrigan and writer-director-actress Amy Seimetz to develop a series inspired by the film. The two had worked together when Seimetz had a role on AMC's The Killing, but this time they were being given the keys to an entire series — to write, direct, and produce 13 episodes all on their own. "We had complete freedom, which is insane," Seimetz said of the arrangement. "And it took a lot of trust from Steven and Starz to let us have that."
The surreal, blissful, and sometimes orgiastic side of VR at Sundance
One of the oddest moments of this year's Sundance VR track is when a man wearing a sober black-framed version of Spider Jerusalem's glasses hands me a VR headset and asks if I want to try something French.Read Article >
"It's 12 minutes long," he says. "I'll understand if you're upset and need to take it off early."
Jan 25, 2016
Dark Night is a powerful testimony to the horror of gun violence
Walking into my first screening at Sundance this year, I was asked to stop and unbutton my coat, then open my bag for inspection. The doorway into the Library Center Theater, like all the venues at the festival, was plastered with a bold "NO FIREARMS" sign. No matter what your political perspective on the issue may happen to be, it’s undeniable that the United States is in the midst of a horrific stretch of gun violence, one that’s touched every corner and every institution — including schools and movie theaters.Read Article >
When something this horrific and senseless happens there’s a natural need to understand it; to put it into context and make it part of an ordered universe in which such tragedy can somehow make sense — or at least be understood. As I settled into the screening of Tim Sutton’s new film Dark Night here at the festival, it was clear many were hoping for just that. But although it was loosely inspired by the 2012 movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado, in which 12 people were killed at a screening of The Dark Knight Rises, Sutton’s film doesn’t try to provide answers and it doesn’t claim to know how to stop the problem. What it does is infinitely more challenging, and potentially even more powerful.
Virtual reality pioneer Nonny de la Peña charts the future of VR journalism
Nonny de la Peña was the first person to bring modern virtual reality to Sundance, when she debuted Hunger in Los Angeles in 2012. Since then, one of her former interns at USC's mixed reality program — a one-time journalism student named Palmer Luckey — has helped turn VR into a global phenomenon. This year, de la Peña's work is returning to Sundance alongside over two dozen other virtual reality experiences, spanning a range of genres and formats.Read Article >
But de la Peña's two pieces still aren't quite like anything in the show. While Across the Line and Kiya, the former about anti-abortion protestors and the latter about intimate partner violence, chronicle real events, they don't do so through film. Instead, she and her team record real audio and motion capture data, then work it into a digital recreation of an event. It's an unusual technique that lets people not just see an event, but explore it.
Jan 25, 2016
Werner Herzog's internet doc Lo and Behold is a must-see for anyone on social networks
A group of scientists at Carnegie Mellon believe that by the year 2050, robots designed to play soccer will surpass their professional human counterparts. This juicy nugget of techno-speculation materializes in the middle of Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World, a new documentary broadly about the internet from Werner Herzog. Sporty robot prototypes, which look like Roombas with attitude, have already been created by an emotional team of students who have developed love for one robot the way sports fans adore Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi. But they disappear just as swiftly as they entered in the dizzying collage of subjects Herzog has stuffed into the 98-minute film.Read Article >
Divided into 10 parts, each introduced with a Herzogian title like "The Internet of Me," the doc spends all-too-brief time with the people who create, protect, advance, and fear the internet — and in one stark case, those who have found a way to escape it.
Jan 25, 2016
Samsung is opening a VR film studio in New York City
Samsung is ready to double down on virtual reality filmmaking. In an announcement at Sundance last week, Samsung USA marketing chief Marc Mathieu stated that the company plans on opening a VR production studio based in one if its New York City offices.Read Article >
"At Samsung we love stories," Mathieu told his audience at the festival. "And we love to help people tell stories." The tech giant was otherwise mum about its plans for VR films going forward, but it's clear that the Gear VR device will figure prominently in its designs. What's more, the company inked a year-long partnership with the Sundance Institute to help develop filmmakers with its technology.
The virtual reality of Sundance, Day 2: hate is the purest emotion
This week marks the first time I've tried a piece by Nonny de la Peña, one of this decade's most influential VR artists. I'd been anxious about it for days.Read Article >
For the unfamiliar, Nonny de la Peña has been creating virtual reality journalism since before the Oculus Rift — founder Palmer Luckey actually interned for her at USC — and has been generally working in what she calls "immersive journalism" for even longer. Bryan Bishop wrote about Hunger in Los Angeles, which arguably invented modern VR journalism, in 2013, but I'd missed it, along with her later work.
Jan 25, 2016
Sundance 2016 Days 2-3: The Lure, Wiener-Dog, and the perks of being a weirdflower
In the introduction to Thursday night's premiere of Belgica, the festival programmer introducing the film noted that Sundance has been making a concerted effort to bring its world competition films up to par with its US competition films. Sundance has had a world competition since 1999, but its reputation as a showcase for American independent film has always come first. A "this matters to us, we promise" statement could easily be dismissed as lip service, but the next morning I saw a film that convinced me Sundance was putting its money where its mouth is.Read Article >
The Lure's logline is straightforward enough: it's a musical set in the 1980s about a pair of siren sisters who get hired to sing at a nightclub and also eat people. Why not, right? It's the first feature from Polish director Agnieszka Smoczyńska, and the fact that it exists at all is inspiring — the fact that it's gorgeous, rendered in lurid neon and dingy Miami Vice pastels, makes it go down even easier. Smoczyńska is surely a fan of the 1960s Japanense cult horror film House; her film has a similar give-no-fucks combination of violence, eroticism, and musical sequences. Its matriarchal narrative — the struggles and rivalries are between women, the men are all dolts, victims, or playthings — makes what could have easily been exploitative in the hands of another director feel more like a psychedelically gynocentric safe space.