Sundance Film Review: Circle of Power (dir by Bobby Roth)


With the Sundance Film festival currently taking place in Utah, I am currently reviewing films that originally made a splash at the Sundance Film Festival!

(a.k.a. Circle of Power, Mystique, Naked Weekend, and probably a handful of other titles)

The Sundance Film Festival wasn’t always the Sundance Film Festival.

Up until 1984, it was known as the US Film Festival.  Because of the involvement of Robert Redford, it was something of a big deal but still nowhere as big a deal as it is today.  In fact, many of the films that were showcased and celebrated at the US Film Festival have slipped into obscurity.  While winning an award at the US Film Festival may have been nice a ego boost for an independent filmmaker, it certainly didn’t bring a film anywhere near the amount of attention that winning at Sundance does now.

Take the long and strange saga of Circle of Power, for instance.

From my own research, it appears that Circle of Power was originally filmed in 1980.  At that time, it was called Mystique.  It premiered at the Chicago International Film Festival in 1981.  A year later, under the title Circle of Power, it played at the US Film Festival.  It was awarded the Dramatic prize (which was the forerunner for Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize).

After that, it still took Circle of Power two years to achieve national distribution.  In 1984, when it was reviewed by Roger Ebert, the film had been released as Naked Weekend, a title that was as commercial as it was misleading.  (There is nudity in the film but probably not the type of nudity that Naked Weekend‘s audience was expecting.)  By the time the film was finally released on VHS, it had picked up yet another title: Brainwash.

That’s the poster for Brainwash at the top of this video.  There are two images on that poster.  One is of a woman holding a riding crop and showing off her bra.  The other is of a naked man in a cage.  Only the latter image actually appears in the movie.

The film’s distributors were obviously trying to sell Circle of Power as an exploitation film.  Actually, it’s not.  It’s … well, it’s hard to describe what exactly it is.  It starts out with a title card, informing us that what we’re about to see is based on a true story.  The rest of the film deals with a group of executives and their wives who are required to spend the weekend attending a “training course” at a beautiful hotel.  The weekend gets off to a good start, with lots of dancing and laughing.  Of course, none of the executives seem to notice that the hotel staff is watching them with a mix of scorn and pity.

(The film continually contrasts the privileged white executives with the largely black and Hispanic hotel staff.)

Before the training sessions begin, all of the executives and their wives are forced to sign a paper that states they understand that they will be psychologically and physically abused over the weekend.  Only one executive objects and he is quickly bullied into signing by his co-workers.  Apparently, they can’t do the training unless everyone agrees to sign.

The men and the women are separated.  (Interestingly, all of the executives are men.)  The men are “trained” by Bianca Ray (Yvete Mimieux, who is chilling in her final performance to date) while the women are left with Jordan Carelli (John Considine).  The training turns out to be a combination of ego stripping and physical abuse.  One overweight executive (Walter Olkewicz) is ordered to strip naked and is then locked in a cage, where food is dumped on him.  An alcoholic is forced to lay down in a coffin.  Soon, everyone is covered in bruises.  What’s remarkable is that only one executive and his wife actually seems to find any of this to be objectionable.  In fact, everyone else reacts to the abuse by hugging their abusers and crying for joy.

It’s a strange little film, one that often seems to be unsure of what it’s saying but which, at the same time, still possesses an undeniable power.  The film may be 38 years old but brainwashing is a timeless subject.  One need only spend an hour or two on twitter to see how easily people can be brainwashed.  While the film probably disappointed those seeking a naked weekend, it’s still an undeniably watchable oddity.

Previous Sundance Film Reviews:

  1. Blood Simple
  2. I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore

A Movie A Day #15: Special Bulletin (1983, directed by Ed Zwick)


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“We interrupt our regularly scheduled programming for a special report…”

Led by veteran anchor John Woodley, the RBS news team is providing continuing coverage of a developing crisis in Charleston, South Carolina, where terrorists are holding several members of the coast guard, a local new reporter, and his cameraman hostage on a small tugboat.  These are not typical terrorists, though.  Two of them are nuclear scientists.  One of them is a social worker.  Another one is a nationally-renowned poet.  The final terrorist is a former banker robber who was just recently released from prison.  This unlikely group has only two demands: that the U.S. government hand over every single nuclear trigger device at the U.S. Naval Base and that RBS give them a live television feed so that they can explain their actions to the nation.  If either of those demands are not met, a nuclear bomb will be detonated and will destroy Charleston.

This made-for-TV movie was shot on video tape, to specifically make it look like an actual news broadcast.  Though much of the movie seems dated when compared to today’s slick, 24-hour media circus, Special Bulletin was convincing enough that, when it was originally broadcast in 1983, it caused a mini-panic among viewers who missed the opening disclaimer:

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Because the movie deals with the threat of nuclear terrorism instead of a U.S.-Soviet nuclear war, it still feels relevant in a way that many of the atomic disaster films of the 1980s do not.  Beyond making an anti-nuclear statement, Special Bulletin is also a critical look at how the news media sensationalizes every crisis, with the RBS news team going from smug complacency to outright horror as the situation continues to deteriorate.  David Clennon and David Rasche are memorable as the two most outspoken of the terrorists and Ed Flanders is perfectly cast as a veteran news anchor struggling to maintain control in the middle of an uncontrollable situation.  Special Bulletin won an Emmy for Outstanding Drama Special and can be currently be found on YouTube.

Keep an eye out for Michael Madsen, who shows up 57 minutes in and gets the movie’s best line: “That guy’s a total psycho ward.”

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The Daily Horror Grindhouse: Savage Weekend (dir by David Paulsen)


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Filmed in 1976 but not released until 1979, Savage Weekend is the story of a brave boom mic that takes a trip to upstate New York for the weekend and ends up witnessing a lot of decadent behavior and, eventually, a few gruesome murders.  Sadly, the brave little boom mic apparently has no social skills because everyone pretends like they don’t see it, even though it shows up a few dozen times, always floating at the top of the screen.

It’s also the story of Otis (William Sanderson), a local redneck (I’ve never been to upstate New York but I still find it amusing how movies always portray it as being a step away from Deliverance country) who spends his time talking to his father’s gravestone.  Apparently, when Otis was younger, he found out his girlfriend was cheating on him so he branded her with an H.  Why an H?  Because, we’re told, Otis doesn’t know how to spell whore.

Well, okay then…

Actually, if you’ve watched any number of these type of films, you’ll immediately recognize William Sanderson.  Sanderson played a countless number of backwoods weirdos and he always did a pretty good job.  (He also played the poignantly sympathetic J.F. Sebastian in Blade Runner.)  Interestingly enough, in real life, Sanderson has a law degree.

Savage Weekend, incidentally, has a brilliant opening.  After running through the woods, a woman finds herself cornered by Otis.  As Otis approaches her, he gives her a strange little half-smile.  It’s super creepy and scary and the rest of the film never lives up to it.

That said, Savage Weekend is an interesting film, even if it’s not a particularly good one.  I’m not sure if it’s intentional or if it’s a happy byproduct of the filmmaker’s general incompetence but Savage Weekend has a truly surreal feel to it.  It moves at a deliberate, almost dream-like pace.  Characters appear and then vanish for lengthy periods of time.  Plot points are raised and then abandoned.  As a result of an inconsistent script, much is hinted at without ever being truly revealed.  It makes for a very odd viewing experience.

Plotwise, it’s your standard slasher film.  A group of people find themselves in an isolated location and are picked off, one-by-one, by a masked killer.  Whereas most slasher films feature teenage victims, Savage Weekend is distinguished by the fact that all of the victims are adults and they’re all way too old and successful to justify continually making the type of stupid decisions necessary for a slasher movie to work.  Two of them, Robert (Jim Doerr) and Jay (Devin Goldenberg), are stockbrokers.  Marie (Marilyn Hamlin) is the ex-wife of the Governor of New York’s press secretary.  (At one point, someone mentions that the governor was corrupt and apparently committed suicide.  It’s one of those plot points that comes out of nowhere.)  Meanwhile, Marie’s sister, Shirley (Caitlin O’Heany), is accompanied by her best friend, Nicky (Christopher Allport).  Nicky is flamboyantly gay and, shortly after being introduced, he single-handedly beats up three rednecks and then dramatically announced, “I was raised in the Bronx!”

Since the first murder doesn’t take place until an hour into the film, we spend more time than usual getting to know our victims but none of them behave in any sort of consistent manner, which adds to the film’s dreamlike feel.  Nicky clutches a barbed wire fence while watching Shirley fool around with Jay.  Marie appears to be on the verge of touching herself while listening to the story about Otis branding his girlfriend.  Later, a good deal of screen time is devoted to Marie and another redneck milking a cow, with the camera zooming in on the milk shooting out of the udders.  While being stalked by the killer, Nicky puts on makeup while a lingerie-clad Shirley dances through the house while tango music plays on the soundtrack.

It all just feels very odd and strangely paced, as if huge chunks of the script were either not filmed or left on the editing room floor.  But that oddness (along with the boom mic) is exactly what makes Savage Weekend an interesting movie.