Park City 2014: Sundance Film Festival Diary, Entry Four
The final entry of Park City correspondent Jeff Meyers’ Sundance Film Festival Diary sees him working hard to squeeze in as many screenings as possible, including Justin Simien’s razor-sharp Dear White People, John Michael McDonagh’s excellent Calvary and the schlockfest that is The Raid 2: Berandal.
After the rush and energy of Sundance’s opening weekend, the wheels of industry, marketing and festival logistics set in. My next three days are crammed with interviews and meetings, which means I have to stack my movie-going on the front and back ends of the day.
I kick Sunday off with my first wait-list ticket – the premiere of Jake Paltrow’s Young Ones. I’m number 136 which, on first blush, seems rather high but the Sundance system reassures that I’ll likely make it in. And I do. Only half of those on the wait-list bother to show up. I guess a 9AM Sunday screening is a bit tough on folks who partied into the wee hours the night before.
Young Ones is a near-future sci-fi set in the U.S. after climate change and pollution has turned water into a high-value commodity. Michael Shannon is a farmer desperate to bring his land back to life, while caring for his two kids (Kodi Smit-McPhee and Elle Fanning). Nicholas Hoult is the scheming ne’er-do-well who has his eye on both Shannon and his daughter.
If the plot sounds a bit like a Western, well… it is. Paltrow’s film wears its homages on its sleeve. It’s a slick throw-back to ’70s apocalyptic melodrama, mashing up John Ford, Mad Max and The Road. The movie doesn’t work in every single respect, but it’s the kind of idiosyncratic festival offering that you’re glad to stumble across before it gets relegated to a half-noticed online streaming tag.
Later in the day I catch Justin Simien’s Dear White People (which took home the U. S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Talent). The buzz on this one was fierce, with some saying Simien was the next Spike Lee. Both the hype and comparisons are justified. There’s little doubt that this new millennium satire was influenced by Lee’s School Daze. I’d even go so far as to say that Simien presents a more nuanced dissection of campus race relations by crafting three-dimensional characters who don’t fit neatly into the role of villian or hero. Daze, as good as it was, leaned toward the cartoonish, painting with broad comic (and dramatic) strokes. Simien aims his sarcasm at just about everyone attending the upscale Winchester College, where Obama-age issues of race, class and gender come to a boil. What’s amazing is that Dear White People never crosses into the didactic, favoring comedy (a student protest of Tyler Perry movies at the local multiplex is brilliant) over drama but keeping everything and everyone grounded in reality.
Simien may not have Lee’s compositional prowess or obvious cinematic craft, but as a writer and director, his debut demonstrates a sure hand, incisive wit, and welcome desire to provoke. Sundance was smart to include his film, not just because it’s a terrific first feature but because its filmmaker shows such obvious promise.
I round the weekend off with my condo’s annual pasta party. Every year the folks I bunk with at Sundance are instructed to invite at least one person they’ve met at the fest to join us for dinner and drinks. The numbers ebb and flow from year-to-year (last year was crammed beyond capacity – this year was a respectable crowd) and the mix of folks is always good. We’re not the only ones to do this. Festival-goers from all over hold parties and happy hours at their condos and hotels suites with hopes of meeting some one new, networking or just having a good time.
If there’s one thing I’d suggest to anyone attending Sundance: Be open to chatting up the guy or gal next to you in line. At the very least they’ll be a fellow movie-lover. If you’re lucky, they’ll prove to be an invaluable contact. But mostly, you’ll be surprised how fast you can make a new friend and, quite possibly, end up talking movies over a plate of spaghetti and cup of decent cabernet.
THE LAST SPRINT: Monday and Tuesday were the business end of my time at the festival. I had four interviews with four very different filmmakers (shameless plug: look for them in future issues of MovieMaker): A newbie (Desiree Akhavan), a filmmaker moving from the world of micro-budgets to high-profile indies (Alex Ross Perry) and two veterans (Michael Winterbotom and Pawel Pawlikowski). Between prep (thank you, Airbnb, for your awesome drop-in cafe), shuttles and delayed meetings, I spent my last two days at Sundance wedging in screenings whenever I could. Here’s a quick run down.
Appropriate Behavior: Desiree Akhavan’s first feature (and grad school thesis) is a clever and engaging comedy of awkwardness. After getting dumped by her girlfriend, Shirin reluctantly tries to re-enter the dating pool while strategizing the best way to come out to her Iranian-American parents. Episodic, goofy, and affectionate, Akhavan’s writing is repeatedly compared to Lena Dunham’s on Girls. I think it’s a poor (and possibly sexist) comparison, suggesting that only one young woman can stand in the smart, navel-gazing corner at a time. While Appropriate Behavior is pretty rough around the edges, if comparisons must be made, then I greatly prefer Akhavan’s work to narcissists engaging in meta-examinations of their own narcissim.
Ida: Spare, gorgeous and rich beyond words, Pawel Pawlikowski’s simple yet moving black-and-white road movie was probably my favorite film at the fest. Before she can complete her vows as a nun, a young woman – whose name might be Anna – must make contact with an aunt she never knew she had. Her mother’s sister, Wanda (Agata Kulesza), turns out to be a highly-placed judge in Communist Poland (the movie is set in 1962). Together, the promiscuous and hard-drinking Wanda and innocent Anna set out to uncover what really happened to her parents, Jews that died during the war. Thought it’s only 85 minutes, Ida takes its audience on a haunting journey, offering an aching snapshot of people still struggling to find a place for their past.
Calvary: John Michael McDonagh’s The Guard was a wonderfully comic crime drama that benefitted from a witty script and the towering performance by Brendan Gleeson in a rare lead role. Calvary attempts to emulate that formula with an even darker-hued tale of religion, trauma, and family in a small Irish community. Gleeson is a priest who came to his calling after the death of his wife. As a result, he brings a lifetime of real-world wisdom and patience to those who have an ambivalent relationship with the Church, given its history of abuses. This, of course, sets the stage for some terrific gallows humor and character interactions. Still, little can prepare Gleeson’s Father James Lavelle for the confessioner who vows to murder him in retribution for the sexual abuse he endured in childhood (at another priest’s hands – now deceased). The movie becomes a week-long countdown to that fateful meeting. I won’t give the ending away, but suffice to say there are laughs and gasps and tears along the way. McDonagh doesn’t have the audacity of talent his brother Martin has displayed on both screen and stage, but he’s a helluva strong storyteller in his own right..
What We Do In The Shadows: Total surprise. I went into this blind and had a surprisingly good time. Had I known Jermaine Clement (Flight Of the Conchords) and Taika Waititi (Eagle vs Shark) were doing triple duty as writers, actors and directors, I might have made it a priority on my to-see list. Essentially a Real World-style mockumentary, this amiable bloodbath of a comedy follows four vampires that live as flat-mates in Wellington, New Zealand. The gags are hit-or-miss but I found my chuckle-to-eye-roll ratio landed mostly on the side of laughs.
The Trip To Italy: Second verse almost as entertaining as the first. Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon once again devour haute cuisine, confront middle age anxiety and out-Michael Caine each other. The movie lacks the simmering intensity of male competitiveness that supplied the tension of the first, but you’re once again in the hands of two masterful entertainers. This time out Coogan is the one trying to attend to family matters while Brydon sees his marital fealty tempted by a comely young blonde. That’s all well and fine, but it’s the improvisational riffs that make the movie worth the price admission, including an extended take down of Tom Hardy’s incomprehensible Bane and Christian Bale’s tongue-garbled Batman is a highlight.
The Raid 2: Berandal: Bigger, louder, longer and more outrageous that its predecessor, this film also doesn’t make a lick of sense. Where the first film had narrative modesty and an effectively self-contained universe on its side, The Raid 2 suffers from an atrociously nonsensical script, sprawling landscapes, leaden dialog and anonymous protagonist. Still, as far as balls-to-the-wall action scenes go, there are few who can compete with Gareth Evan’s jaw-dropping, genre-redefining stunts. You simply have to see it to believe it. The movie’s epic-minded and unabashedly violent fights, gun battles and car chases are messy, wince-inducing, and mind-blowing. From an elaborate prison-yard brawl to baseball and hammer-wielding sibling assassins to a frenzied freeway chase, $4 million has never ever ever been better spent. Yes, you read that right. This low budget Indonesian-shot actioner looks like a Hollywood film made at thirty times the budget. MM
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