Sundance 2014: Final Wrap
Posted on Thursday January 30, 2014, 14:49 by Damon Wise in Words From The Wise
Although a secret screening of Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac: Volume One was perhaps intended to provide this year’s dash of controversy, the film that arguably ruffled more feathers was Zach Braff’s somewhat more innocuous Wish I Was Here (pictured), the follow-up to Garden State. The film’s premiere screening at the MARC gained a little notoriety due to being besieged by Braff fans begging for extra tickets, bemoaning the fact that they had paid for it (via Kickstarter) but couldn’t get in. It made for a provocative news angle, but the fact remains that Sundance tickets were never going to be part of the film’s reward scheme, in terms that were made quite clear.
Braff’s film has been under fire since the Kickstarter project was announced, but it’s hard to see quite what the problem is: Braff has delivered a studio quality film that pretty much delivers what its backers were promised. Personally, I liked it, with reservations. Where Garden State was entertaining, but slight and a little naïve, his follow is entertaining, but overly deep and rife with issues. Usually the word “ambitious” translates to “set in space”, but in Wish I Was Here there are so many themes whirling around that it’s hard to focus.
It begins with Braff’s character, Aiden Bloom, finding out that his children’s school fees aren’t being paid, which leads to the revelation that his cranky father (Mandy Patinkin) is dying of cancer. This leads to several awakenings, one concerning Bloom’s relationship with his two kids, another concerning his deadbeat brother, another concerning his faith, and another concerning his marriage – is he being selfish, pursuing a job as an unsuccessful actor while his wife pays the bills? The comic beats kept me watching, but all the while I kept thinking that this was all quite a lot for a guy in his 30s to be going through.
Interestingly, Lynn Shelton’s Laggies, though very sweet and certainly enjoyable, suffered from the opposite problem: starring Keira Knightley, it tells the story of Megan, a Seattle girl in her late 20s, almost completely unburdened by any troubles at all. A blithely unambitious daddy’s girl, her life changes at a friend’s wedding, when not only does her nice but boring boyfriend propose, she also sees dad hitting on another woman. Driving off in a haze of tears, she encounters a group of teenagers outside a supermarket and hangs out with them, drinking. This leads to an unlikely friendship with their leader, Annika (Chloe Grace Moretz), who lives alone with her divorced lawyer father Craig (Sam Rockwell).
The scenes with the two actresses are the strongest, and both show a respectable sense of timing, notably Knightley, who might yet find a late-career bloom as a star of upscale romantic comedies. Unfortunately, the May-July dynamic between the two females is quite abruptly abandoned when the film shifts its focus towards an awkward love story involving Megan and Annika’s father. Here, the usual formula kicks in, and while Laggies ends as warm and fuzzily as you might expect, it’s still a little disappointing that it ends up sacrificing its genuinely different characters to a plot we’ve seen quite a few times before.
Another plot that seemed somewhat the worse for wear was to be found in Anton Corbijn’s A Most Wanted Man, based on John Le Carré’s 2008 spy novel, in which a Hamburg secret service cell try to deal with Islamic terrorists. The cast – headed by Philip Seymour Hoffman, making a passable fist as a German – is stellar, with Rachel McAdams, Robin Wright and Willem Dafoe providing back-up, but the drama is very diffuse and the film itself not especially stylish. As was the case with the recent Tinker, Tailor adaptation, it presents itself as a thriller when nothing about it is especially thrilling (since nothing is really at stake). Nevertheless, Hoffman is excellent as the world-weary Gunther Brachmann.
Hoffman also turned up in the promising but uneven God’s Pocket, directed by Mad Men’s John Slattery, playing Mickey, a blue-collar, Mafia-linked guy in a poor Philadelphia neighbourhood. When his obnoxious stepson is killed at work, the official verdict is that it was an accident, but Mickey is asked by his distraught wife to investigate, and so he does. Unfortunately for us, however, we already know that it wasn’t, which only highlights the weaknesses in this handsome but slightly chaotic drama. Adapted from Pete Dexter’s novel of the same name, it is over-stuffed with characters, including one too many in the shape of sleazy, drunken local columnist Richard Shelburn (Richard Jenkins).
That Shelburn, not so loosely based on Dexter himself, is the spare wheel here shows just how ungainly Slattery’s film is. There are some excellent moments of dark comedy, most of them involving lunk-headed Mafia muscle, but the tone is awkward, frequently veering into bleak Last Exit To Brooklyn territory, without the grace notes. Most puzzling of all is Christina Hendricks, whose character (Mickey’s wife) has little to do except model an exceptionally sturdy bra: surely her agent must be receiving better parts for her than this?
There was nothing especially sturdy about Kumiko The Treasure Hunter, one of the most promising Sundance films on paper. Inspired by the urban legend about the Japanese girl who travelled to Fargo in the American Midwest and died there while looking for the missing bounty from the Coen brothers’ 1996 film of the same name, it stars Rinko Kikuchi in the title role. First we see her in Japan, leading the bored, single life of an office girl, silently rewinding the Coens’ film until the VCR eats it, forcing her to invest in a DVD player. Finally, she frees her rabbit Bunzu and ups sticks to head for the USA, where she hopes to find the briefcase-full of cash, last seen being buried by Steve Buscemi by a wire fence.
Much like the original Fargo, the Zellner brothers’ film is built on fierce whimsy, drifting from one deadpan scene to another. At first it seems to be gathering some kind of quiet comic momentum, but when Kumiko gets to the States it soon becomes clear that there isn’t really anywhere to go. The get-out-of-jail card is played with an ambiguous ending that accepts that we know what this is all leading up to while showing us something altogether more surreal and different. I found myself wondering what it was all in aid of, although I did enjoy the use of Yamasuki by the Yamasuki Singers over the end credits.
Two films that didn’t get much attention but show a lot of promise were The Signal, by William Eubank, and The Sleepwalker, by Mona Fastvoldt. Both were stylish in the extreme, Eubank’s film going for a more high-end gloss in its tale of a pair of computer geeks obsessed with tracking down a prolific hacker who has been taunting them after cracking the computer at MIT. The trail leads to a remote military base, where the two men uncover a terrifying conspiracy, at which point the films adds an unexpected FX dimension. It would be churlish to spoil the twist, but I wouldn’t do that partly because I can’t say I fully understood it – Eubank’s film leaves so many loose ends, presumably to generate interest in a sequel, that it feels incomplete. Nevertheless, he has a genuine talent, and a big-budget studio job seems likely and welcome.
Fastvoldt’s The Sleepwalker played a much more interesting game with genre, taking the slasher-movie set-up of a happy couple renovating an old house and having their peace and quiet disturbed by the arrival of the woman’s disturbed sister. When her boyfriend arrives in pursuit, we then have two couples, suggesting that a psychodrama – perhaps like Polanski’s Cul-De-Sac – is about to play out. Instead, The Sleepwalker is an interesting tease, revealing itself as the story of two women who may or may not be in tune with their neuroses when such ghosts from the past as a possibly abusive father and a mysterious house fire bubble up to the surface. Fastvoldt’s film played in the US Dramatic Competition, where it seemed out of place with its European sensibility and also showed up just how unadventurous many of those other films were.
This mostly leaves the documentaries, which I didn’t get much of a chance to catch up with. Although previous years have been incredibly strong, and the festival always promotes them heavily, there were few likely documentary breakouts this year, at least not in the vein of Searching For Sugar Man or 20 Feet From Stardom. In fact, one of the most hyped films – headed for Sundance London – was, for me, one of the biggest disappointments of a pretty good festival. Directed by James D Cooper, Lambert And Stamp tells the story of the management duo of Chris Stamp (brother of Terence) and Kit Lambert, who steered mod band The Who to glory in the mid-60s. Some of the archive footage is great, but the music use is negligible (perhaps for the better for a non-fan like me) and so many swathes of story are so glossed over that I found myself looking at Wikipedia to fill in the many gaps (like what actually happened to the late Kit Lambert).
I wasn’t too wild about 20,000 Days On Earth either, not being much of a Nick Cave fan, but for the faithful it certainly represents not only his slippery public persona, by deliberately fudging fact and fiction, it also presents some pretty strong footage of his live shows. On a more straightforward level, Captivated: The Trials Of Pamela Smart, by Jeremiah Zagar, was more solidly entertaining, telling the story of a New England murder-mystery that you might remember as the basis of Gus Van Sant’s 1995 film To Die For, with Nicole Kidman. Zagar’s film is solid and effective, if a little repetitive, suggesting not only that the media set the narrative for this sensationalised story but that the suspect’s (literal) trial by television – the first reality show of its kind – put us on the slippery slope to where we are now.
More challenging thany anything else, though, was Concerning Violence
by Goran Hugo Olsson, director of The Black Power Mixtape. Using archive footage and re-enactments, it uses the writings of French philosopher Frantz Fanon – principally his 1951 book The Wretched Of The Earth – to suggest that violent resistance is an inevitable and even necessary consequence of colonialism. Narrated in steely tones by singer Lauryn Hill, it is a discomforting and disturbing film, with shocking scenes of racism and oppression that should give a wake-up call to those that think 12 Years A Slave is just gussied-up ancient history. It's hardly commercial, but, when the smoke clears from any Sundance, even a good year, these are usually the films that stay longest in the memory.Some Berlinale coverage to come. Follow me on Twitter for updates @yo_damo.