By Kim Voynar

Sundance Dispatch: Homework and Hell and Back Again

We’re officially over the halfway point at Sundance, and already I’m feeling a little glumness trickling in at the thought of this year’s Sundance nearing its end.This morning, of course, were the Oscar noms, and along with most everyone here for Sundance I dragged my bleary-eyed self out of bed at the asscrack of dawn to see what’s what. Not that any of us actually care about the Oscars, right?

So, time to play catch-up a bit.

Sunday I grabbed lunch with the Cinematical gang. If you’re here in Park City and didn’t know (hey, I didn’t) there is this really excellent burger joint called Flippin’ Burgers right across the street from Holiday Village. It’s closer than Burger King and exponentially better, though you do have to take your life into your own hands crossing the very busy street to get there with no crosswalk. I mean sure, you could wakl allllll the way down to the light to cross there, and then alllll the way back up to the strip mall, but if you’re grabbing a bite between screenings, you just wanna get your hands on a burger, am I right?

There are things worth risking getting plowed over by a speeding giant SUV for, though, and an excellent burger dripping with grease, accompanied by a side of beer battered onion rings, my friends, is one of those things. Especially at Sundance when you’ve survived for three or four days on Balance Bars, Vitamin Water, and the occasional snowflake caught on your tongue. A friend used to chide me that Sundance is a marathon, not a sprint. I, on the other hand, think of it as a marathon you have to sprint through from beginning to end. Each year’s Sundance lasts for a finite time and then it’s gone and you can never get it back again. Hell, I can sleep any time.

After eating my delicious burger and tasty beverage, I got caught up with some writing and then caught Homework, which I really wanted to like but unfortunately could not due to its lack of engaging, believable characters and lame, overdone script. I had several issues with Homework, not the least of which was the premise that this kid goes to an exclusive, no doubt ridiculously expensive private prep school in New York City, and he somehow has managed to get all the way through his senior year without doing any homework at all. None. Zip. Zero.

I don’t care how liberal and feel-good and artsy the school is supposed to be, or that the students call all the teachers by their first names, I just didn’t buy that. Didn’t buy Sally’s mom and her overt sexuality. Didn’t particularly buy the other students. I’m sure there are plenty of rich kids in NYC who live alone in fancy penthouses and drink openly at bars and all that, and I guess the film was trying to establish these are rich kids by showing us that, okay, fine.

However, that just made me that much more irritated at George as a character … here’s a kid who lives in a very nice apartment, has parents who treat him well and pay for him to attend a very nice prep school where the teachers care and are passionate about what they do, and he’s not in a wheelchair or dying of cancer or too stupid to understand the work. He’s just wretchedly emo, all “Woe is me, existence is meaningless, boo-hoo, so I’m not doing my homework. And get out of my room, parental units! You have no right to tell me to do anything!”

I wanted to smack him around, and I LIKE Freddie Highmore, a lot. The whole thing felt to me like a variation on It’s Kind of a Funny Story (which, coincidentally or not, also starred Emma Roberts). I don’t hate either film, and Funny Story grew on me, but gosh almighty, these priveliged white kid is depressed and miserable tales are getting O-L-D. They make me long for the mundane emptiness of a mumblecore film.

Next up was Hell and Back Again, which I really didn’t want to see because it’s a doc about the war, and I am so incredibly tired of war docs that I haven’t even been able to bring myself to watch Restrepo. But … the publicist assured me it was interesting, and thought I might like the way it was shot, so I sucked it up and went in, thinking that worst case, if I hated it I’d sit through it and write my review for Homework in my head. However …

Hell and Back Again is not quite your usual war documentary. Director Danfug Dennis custom built a camera rig that he could wear while embedded with the US Marines Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment as they were dropped deep behind enemy lines for a major campaign against the Taliban. Dennis stayed wit the regiment as they were repeatedly attacked by enemy troops and dealt with the angry and frustrated locals it was their mission to help.

He also met and befriended Sgt. Nathan Harris, who was severely injured when he was shot in the hip. Thus, the story Dennis set out to film evolved into two parallel stories: One of the troops fighting behind enemy lines; the other the story of Sgt. Harris on the homefront as he struggles to deal with the loss of his mobility and a lengthy rehabilitation following his injury.

It’s all too easy for those of us at home to forget the men and women in military service who put their lives on the lines not just for jobs, but for a cause they genuinely believe in. There are no politics when you’re in Afghanistan being fired upon by an unseen enemy, there’s only life and death and that moment.

In part, this is what Sgt. Harris finds so difficult about being back home; while in the heat of battle there is only the present, but where he can deal with the chaos of bullets and battle, the chaos of a Wal-Mart parking lot, or ordering at a drive-through, overwhelms him. This dual reality our returning soldiers face is captured here with a rarely seen clarity, as Sgt. Harris and his wife allowed Dennis to essentially embed himself in their home and capture all the ups and downs of his return home and rehabilitation.

That Dennis was able to capture such extraordinary imagery, both at home and in Afghanistan, was due largely to the technical functionality of the camera rig he constructed. Additionally he wanted only the actual sounds of battle in the final film, so the sound mixing was all done from what was captured while he was embedded with the regiment, with bombs exploding and bullets flying.

Even if you, like me, think you’ve seen all the war docs you can stomach, Hell and Back Again is an extraordinary film that captures the human side of the battle — our solidiers in Afghanistan and struggling to reconnect at home, and the people they are fighting to help. It’s worth your time to see the images and perspective Dennis captures here.

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“Don’t work with assholes. Ever. No matter what they’re offering, no matter what they bring to the table. If they’re the sort of person where the phone rings at 10 o’clock at night and you wince because you see that it’s them, then don’t do business with them. One asshole will ruin your life. I’ve managed my entire TV and filmmaking career to work with people I like and respect. If the point comes where I don’t like or respect someone, I don’t work with them anymore.”

– Anthony Bourdain

The Atlantic: You saw that the Academy Awards recently held up your 2001 acceptance speech as the Platonic ideal of an Oscar speech. Did you have a reaction?

Soderbergh: Shock and dismay. When that popped up and people started texting me about it, I said, “Oh, it’s too bad I’m not there to tell the story of how that took place.” Well. I was not sober at the time. And I had nothing prepared because I knew I wasn’t going to win [Best Director for Traffic]. I figured Ridley, Ang or Daldry would win. So I was hitting the bar pretty hard, having a great night, feeling super-relaxed because I don’t have to get up there. So the combination of a 0.4 blood alcohol level and lack of preparation resulted in me, in my state of drunkenness crossed with adrenaline surge. I was coherent enough to know that [if I tried to thank everyone], that way lies destruction. So I went the other way. There were some people who appreciated that, and there were some people who really wanted to hear their names said, and I had to apologize to them.
~ Steven Soderbergh