Sundance 2014: Wild, Weird, Wacky and Wonderful

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  • Paul Eeenhorn and Earl Lynn Nelson in Land Ho!

Sundance is nearly finished. It’s Thursday morning, there are three days left, and while it isn’t quite winding down, it is starting to settle in. The tourists on Main Street, hoping for a glimpse of celebrity, have dwindled. Now it’s mostly locals, film crews, and film buffs. The free shuttles are no longer stuffed. It’s a little easier to get into films. There’s finally room to sit down and eat the tasty chips and amazing salsa at El Chubasco, the no-longer-quite-hidden but still slightly-out-of-the-way culinary secret of Sundance, where you can get great Mexican food for a decent price.

I’ve seen nearly two dozen full length films, including documentaries and features. What follows is a quick report on the most memorable fiction films I’ve seen so far, in four categories:

The Wild - films that made my heart beat faster, that were intense and exhilarating

Blue Ruin - directed by Jeremy Saulnier (who got his start in 2007 with the Slamdance-selected Murder Party), and starring his friend Macon Blair as a bearded and unkempt vagrant who eats from the trash and sneaks into empty houses to bathe. When he finds out that the man jailed for killing his parents is about to be released, he decides it’s up to him to enact justice. Unfortunately, he doesn’t plan things very well, and he’s ill prepared for the consequences. I found the film to be quite gripping and intense, with strong performances throughout.

  • Me and Iko Uwais (star of Raid 2)

The Raid 2 - on the evidence of this film, director Gareth Evans is the greatest living action filmmaker, and Iko Uwais is the greatest living martial arts star. This sequel is much bigger than the first film, The Raid: Redemption, which took place almost entirely inside a slum apartment building in Jakarta. After taking down the criminal slumlord, and capturing the corrupt police chief who enabled him, Rama (played by Uwais) is recruited on a secret operation to uncover corruption at the highest levels by going to a dangerous prison and befriending the son of a corrupt politician who is housed there.

The Weird - distinctive flicks that told compelling stories in unconventional ways

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter - in this, the latest film from the Zellner Brothers, Rinko Kikuchi stars as a withdrawn Japanese woman who is unhappy with her job as office assistant. She imagines, at least, that she is meant for much bigger things. She discovers a clue to her destiny in an old VHS copy of the Coen Brothers’ Fargo, whose opening credits (falsely) proclaim to be a true story. She takes pages of notes, focusing on a briefcase full of $100 bills that was buried in the snow near a barbed wire fence. She travels to Michigan and is quietly but doggedly persistent in the face of facts that trouble her fantasies. It’s a quirky tale, very well told with convincing performances throughout. I really liked it.

White Bird in a Blizzard - Gregg Araki’s latest is a loose adaptation of the novel by Laura Kasischke, which is itself loosely inspired by a true story about a Midwest housewife who suddenly vanished. 17-year-old Kat (Shailene Woodley) has a lot to deal with, and her mother’s disappearance is far from the top of the list of her concerns. Her dumb-as-nails but sexy boyfriend is losing interest in sex, and the tough detective assigned to the case of her missing mom is willing in private to take his place. Araki makes the story his own, with sitcom-style sets full of kitschy ’80s furniture, and through a series of flashbacks and haunting dream sequences dissects the troubles and longings at the heart of Kat’s seemingly ideal suburban family.

The Wacky - films that were really out there, not necessarily in a good way

R100 - the name of this Japanese film is meant to suggest that it’s subject matter is too mature for anyone under 100 to tolerate and understand. In the end, though, it seemed to be the product of a seriously twisted teenager. A lonely Japanese businessman hears about a mysterious organization. It turns out to be an unconventional S&M club, and after signing up he has random encounters with beautiful women in leather, who humiliate him in public or beat him into submission. He ends up liking it, until the humiliations become both painful and personal. It’s an intriguing premise, and in its somewhat realistic beginnings I found it to be surprisingly moving. Halfway through, though, it gets really weird, and descends into campy wackiness. For a more consistently satisfying strange Japanese flick, check out Funky Forest: The First Contact.

Wetlands - I confess, I couldn’t bring myself to see this one after reading the description and hearing about it from lots of people who had. It tells the story of a young German woman, who is fascinated by her bodily fluids and scents, and the film is, apparently, quite graphic in its depictions of her sexual experimentation. Here’s what Eckerd College student Dominick Cuppetelli had to say about it: “This is by no means a movie for the family to sit down and watch on a Sunday night. In fact, it may be so unholy that it shouldn’t be played on Sunday at all. The film couldn’t go five minutes without the audience shuddering in a flurry of emotion. I don’t have a sensitive stomach at all and even I was fighting my body’s reflex to gag at times. But in all it’s unholiness, its gruesome subject matter, its visceral imagery, it is actually a pretty fantastic film.”

The Wonderful - surprisingly lovely and delightful films, that reminded me why I love Sundance

The Lunchbox - Ritesh Batra directs and Irrfan Khan (the older Pi from The Life of Pi) stars in this delightful story about a lonely widower and a neglected wife, who connect and fall in love by accident. Ila (Nimrat Kaur) hopes to impress her husband with a new recipe she sends via Mumbai’s incredibly effective lunchbox delivery system. A rare glitch in the system sends the meal to Saajan (Khan) instead, and they begin a correspondence that takes him out of his shell and helps her to envision other possibilities than the future she faces with a man who doesn’t love her.

  • Growing up Lincoln - A.J. Edwards' Better Angels

Better Angels - if you didn’t know upfront that director A.J. Edwards’ black and white debut film was produced by Terrence Malick, its wandering camera and the whispered voiceovers would soon give away the influence. While the style is not original, it feels fresh here, and the film is easily the most moving and lovely film I've seen here. Based upon exhaustive historical research and told in rough chronological order, it is less impressionistic than Malick’s latest works, but draws upon Malick’s style to imagine the childhood of America’s 16th president. The film focuses on young Abraham's relationship with his harsh and domineering father (Jason Clarke), his birth mother (Brit Marling) and his stepmom (played by Diane Kruger), and is narrated primarily by Lincoln’s cousin, drawing upon his actual words from an interview after Lincoln’s death.

Land Ho! - one of my favorite films so far at the festival, Land Ho! was directed by Martha Stephens and Aaron Katz. I'm not the only one who loved it. The sleeper hit was one of the first to be picked up for distribution, by Sony Pictures Classics. The film stars Paul Eenhoorn and Earl Lynn Nelson as a pair of retirees who travel to Iceland in order to reclaim their youth. Earl Lynn is a plastic surgeon with a thick Kentucky accent, who calls things like he sees them, and has a rude sense of humor. His friend, and former stepbrother, Paul, is more soft-spoken. Their relationship plays out against the backdrop of stunningly beautiful Icelandic vistas in this hilarious and surprisingly moving road trip comedy.

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