Sundance Screening Room returns with “Infinitely Polar Bear,” “Phoenix” and “Uncle John”


After the usual summer break to make room for all those superheroes, Sundance Cinemas will launch its next Screening Room Calendar next week.

The series, for the uninitiated, sets aside Cinema 2 at the theater for a scheduled list of independent, foreign and documentary films. One of the nice things about the calendar is that it locks in some of these smaller films that have less publicity behind them, so you can see them coming and plan accordingly. And, unlike other Sundance offerings, the Screening Room movies are exempt from Sundance’s amenities fees.

Here’s a rundown of what’s coming, starting next week. I’m looking forward to doing post-show chats with a couple of these films — I’ll get back to you soon when I know which one, and when.

Aug. 14 — “Infinitely Polar Bear” — Writer-director Maya Forbes’ warm and personal film is based on her own experiences growing up in a biracial family in 1970s Boston with a bipolar father (wonderfully played here by Mark Ruffalo). Here’s my review from the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.

Aug. 21 — “Lambert and Stamp” and “Saint Laurent” — A real-life two-fer, one a documentary and the other a biopic. Rockists will enjoy learning how aspiring filmmakers Chris Stamp and Kit Lambert ended up managing The Who, while fashionistas will want to see how the famous designer Yves St. Laurent transformed style in the 1960s and 1970s. In addition, Sundance says they’ll be showing the Jennifer Connelly drama “Aloft” during the week, and have down on their online calendar that James Ponsoldt’s David Foster Wallace biopic “The End of the Tour” also opens this week. Busy!

August .2013  Dreharbeiten zum CHRISTIAN PETOLD Film PHÖNIX mit Nina Hoss , Ronald Zehrfeld und Nina Kunzendorf Verwendung der Fotos nur in Zusammenhang mit dem Film PHÖNIX von Christian Petzold ( Model release No ) © Christian Schulz Mobil 01723917694

August .2013
mit Nina Hoss , Ronald Zehrfeld und Nina Kunzendorf
Verwendung der Fotos nur in Zusammenhang mit dem Film PHÖNIX von Christian Petzold
( Model release No ) © Christian Schulz
Mobil 01723917694

Aug. 28 — “Phoenix” — Director Christian Petzold reteams with “Barbara” star Nina Hoss in this tense World War II drama about a Jewish-German nightclub singer who tries to uncover whether her husband betrayed her to the Nazis.

Sept. 4 — “Steve Jobs: Man in the Machine” — Michael Fassbender is nowhere to be found in documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney’s look at the world of Apple’s Steve Jobs.

Sept. 11 — “Queen of Earth” — Writer-director Alex Ross Perry reteams with Elisabeth Moss from “Listen Up Philip” in this tale of a grieving woman who falls into delusion and madness.

Sept. 18 — “Uncle John” — I’m really excited that this Wisconsin-made film, about a farmer (Josh Ashton) trying to cover up a deadly crime, is getting a theatrical run in Madison. Here’s an interview with the filmmakers from this year’s Wisconsin Film Festival.

Sept. 25 — “Listen to Me Marlon” — A documentary about Marlon Brando would be interesting enough, but this film draws from a wealth of private audio and video recordings Brando made that have never been shown before.

Oct. 2 — “Testament of Youth” — Alicia Vikander (“Ex Machina”) and Kit Harington (Jon Snow on “Game of Thrones”) star in this luminous World War I drama.


DVD review: “How to Survive a Plague”


It’s probably not surprising that David France’s Oscar-nominated film “How To Survive a Plague” didn’t win Sunday night. Oscar voters tend to gravitate towards straightforward and relatively safe subject matter when honoring documentaries, and they had a great example in “Searching for Sugar Man.”

But I hope the attention brought upon by the Oscar nomination will bring more people to see “Plague,” which is out on DVD today and streaming for free on Netflix Instant. Because while it is a devastatingly sad portrait of how the AIDS epidemic ravaged the gay community in America, it’s also just as hopeful and inspiring as “Sugar Man.”

That’s because France focuses on ACT UP (and a later offshoot, TAG), a dedicated group of activists who kept up the pressure on the government, health officials and the pharmaceutical industry to hunt for a cure. In the 1980s, the task seemed hopeless, as the activists met a wall of indifference masking outright homophobic hostility, and an undercurrent that said gay people brought the plague on themselves.

Watch an episode of “Crossfire” featuring Pat Buchanan trying to goad activist Peter Staley into basically warning young people against being gay. Staley turns the tables, asking Buchanan which was preferable, thousands of dead people or gay people having safe sex. Buchanan clumsily dodges the question. Today he’s considered a crank, but in 1987 he was disturbingly close to the mainstream.

But ACT UP kept up, with public demonstrations (sheathing Jesse Helms’ home in a 35-foot-tall condom was a nice bit of media catnip), and private cajoling. The activists became experts on politics, on the law, and most importantly on science, and with their knowledge and persistence eventually got themselves invited into the labs to help researchers identify the most promising strains.

When the breakthrough finally comes in 1996, it’s a triumphant moment, but also a sad one; how many more could have been saved if the government hadn’t turned a blind eye for years? You see the survivor’s guilt in the eyes of the activists during present-day interviews: “Like any war, you wonder why you were the one that got to come home,” Staley says.

Aside from those interviews, France relies on never-before-seen archival footage of rallies and Greenwich Village strategy meetings to tell the story of ACT UP. He gets into the nitty gritty of scientific research, and of the complex nature of grassroots organizing, as factions develop and the group runs the risk of turning on each other in moments of despair.

But this is a story, if not of unvarnished triumph, then at least of perseverance, and a model for other grassroots movements facing their own seemingly unbreachable walls.