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Sundance 2014: First Report

Posted on Tuesday January 21, 2014, 17:36 by Damon Wise in Words From The Wise
Sundance 2014: First Report

The 2014 Sundance Film Festival took a little longer than usual to find its feet, but once it hit its stride it did so with a slew of titles that are among the strongest seen here in recent years. Top of that list has to be Richard Linklater’s Boyhood (pictured), which was added to the programme at the last moment. Very little was known about the film at that time, other than it took Linklater 12 years to shoot, so I was expecting one of his more experimental affairs, like Tape or Waking Life – projects I can appreciate but not necessarily enjoy. The running time of 164 minutes gave me the shivers, so I sat in an aisle seat just in case.

Astonishingly, the time just flew by. It’s hard to know just how commercial a prospect it will be in the UK, but there’s a definite chance that this could just about break out of the director’s loyal fanbase. It stars Eliar Coltrane as Marcus, a little boy growing up in Texas, and is about nothing other than that boy’s life in the course of his journey to adulthood. The passage of time is not signalled by title cards, but there are clues if you care (or remember) to look for them: music is used subtly, and key modern cultural icons (iPod, Lady Gaga, iPhones and Facebook) act as almost subliminal signposts to the changing times.

If it sounds like a gimmick, Boyhood is anything but a five-finger exercise, with key recurring characters, notably Marcus’s mother (Patricia Arquette) and his wayward father (Ethan Hawke). When we first meet the parents they are divorced and at war, but we soon realise that it is not going to be that film. Instead, it is a suburban odyssey, as Marcus drifts through a series of stepfathers and key life experiences ­– first job, first girl, first heartbreak. That Coltrane graduates from cute kid to soulful teenage is amazing enough, but Arquette and Hawke are sublime, bringing nuances to their characters that suggest gradual change while maintaining a consistency to their backstories. I came away feeling that this isn’t just a great Sundance movie, it is a true cinematic milestone.

From Britain came another pretty damn great film in the shape of John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary, his follow-up to The Guard. On paper it sounds like a satire, telling the story of a good priest in a bad town, and though it is certainly very funny in its dark humour, McDonagh’s second film is a much more mature and insightful piece than his debut. Key to this is Brendan Gleeson’s majestic performance as Father James, who is threatened in the confessional booth in the film’s dramatic, static, opening scene. A villager reveals he was raped by one of Lavelle’s predecessors as a child, and his revenge on the church will be to take the life of an innocent man – an existential act of reciprocity.

That the village is populated largely by actors better known as comedians – Chris O’Dowd, Dylan Moran, Pat Shortt – gives a false sense of security, and what begins as simple inversion soon becomes a compelling meditation on the modern world, using Ireland as its microcosm. Morality in all its forms is explored here, from the IRA to the ongoing financial crisis, and the country’s disillusionment with the church is presented not as a reaction to the recent abuse scandals but as a modern malaise. In McDonagh’s film it is hard but worthwhile to be good, and Gleeson has simply never been better. A grim but crucial scene finds Father James visiting a serial killer (played by Gleeson’s son Domnhall) in prison; it is chilling scene but a corrective to the usual portrayals of murderers on film. When the boy claims that killing a woman is like “becoming God”, Lavelle’s horrified response (“It is NOT like becoming God”) puts the movie’s message of humanity in a nutshell.

Two more good British films debuted here, both of them comedies and both of them quite serious in their own way.  The first is Lenny Abrahamson’s Frank, starring Michael Fassbender as the papier-mache-headed leader of an avant-garde rock band. Though the movie is loosely based on the true story of Frank Sidebottom, aka Chris Sievey, screenwriters Peter Straughan and Jon Ronson have made the bold but necessary step of making Frank an altogether different character, telling the story of an aspiring musician (Domnhall Gleeson) who joins Frank’s band after their keyboard player attempts to drown himself at the seaside. The first two-thirds are the best, with a dreamlike quality that’s more reminiscent of Berberian Sound Studio (man gets dream job, finds it becoming a nightmare) than the likes of Almost Famous. As Frank, Fassbender reveals a previously hidden genius for physical comedy (a shower scene is particularly hilarious), but the show belongs to Gleeson, the everyman who guides us through all this bittersweet madness.

The second British premiere was Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip To Italy, in which Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, once more playing heightened versions of themselves, are sent by The Observer newspaper to visit various gourmet restaurants in Italy. The formula is the same ­– lots of impressions and acerbic banter – but the romantic setting gives the film a wistful hue. Being whittled down from a six-part series, the film version is understandably riddled with elements that don’t seem to go anywhere (including an extramarital affair involving the “affable” Rob Brydon), but that doesn’t really matter. Like Boyhood, this is more a compilation of vignettes, and though it seems to be a showcase for the pair’s vocal talents – it starts with a discussion of the muffled stars of The Dark Knight Rises – Winterbottom’s effortless but strikingly beautiful film is deceptively thoughtful, a wistful elegy to the passing of time.

At the start of the festival I sat down with festival heads John Cooper and Trevor Groth, who both noted the increase of genre-inflected films at this year’s event. I didn’t quite know what they meant until I saw a double bill of Cold In July and The Guest, followed the next day by Life After Beth and The Babadook. Two of these are in the traditional Park City At Midnight slot – The Guest and The Babadook – but the other two, a neo-noir (Cold In July) and a zombie comedy (Life After Beth), are in the main Dramatic Competition. Of the latter, I preferred Jim Mickle’s Cold In July, a real piledriver of a film that starts with a home invasion and spirals into a vigilante assault movie. Dexter’s Michael C Hall stars as a suburban guy who shoots and kills an intruder, making him a target for the boy’s furious father (Sam Shepard), a hardened criminal. But this is not simply a hayseed revenge movie, and a glorious appearance by Don Johnson as a private investigator (and farmer) takes the film in a gloriously unexpected direction. It may not stack up logically, but as violent thrillers go, this is pure sugar rush, reminiscent of the early, good films by the once-great John Dahl.

Life After Beth, like The Babadook, is a film that uses horror elements to explore grief, opening with high-schooler Zach (Dane DeHaan) being devastated by the death of his girlfriend Beth (Aubrey Plaza) from a snake bite. Pretty soon, however, Zach notices something strange is going on at her parents’ house, and it becomes pretty clear that Beth is not dead after all. Or rather, she sort of is and isn’t, having tunnelled out of her grave in part of a spate of similar occurrences that start to plague the neighbourhood. As allegories go, it’s quite smart – like The Monkey’s Paw it is a warning of the perils of not letting go – but, let’s face it, of all the genres to use for comedy, the zombie flick has not only had its day but several. Still, the cast are always entertaining, if sometimes a little over the top.

The Guest and The Babadook, meanwhile, are both pure genre fare. Downton’s Dan Stevens stars in the former as a discharged soldier who visits the family of a former comrade. He seems too good to be true – because he is – and though it is clear from the off that this man is likely to have some skeletons in his closet, director Adam Wingard spins out the suspense in a way that is both knowing and straight. Stevens is especially good – tongue in cheek but never hammy – while Wingard keeps things mean and lean, building up to a good old-fashioned shoot out. A good comparison would be Eric Red’s The Hitcher, which certainly must have been reference for this 80s-tinged action-horror.

Also traditional was The Babadook by Jennifer Kent, an Australian spine-tingler in which a suburban single mother (Essie Davis) is tormented by visions of a clawed demon after a macabre pop-up book appears in her home. Though Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby are clear references, this very, very creepy film is more than mere homage, creating superb scares from an obviously limited budget. The ending is perhaps a little underwhelming (let’s see if a Paranormal Activity-style coda is added – it wouldn’t hurt), but The Babadook is great, grassroots genre stuff, with a terrific performance by its near-solo lead.

Two more films that stood out to me were also variations on genre. The first was I Origins by Mike Cahill, director of Another Earth. While I thought that film was a little silly in places (a lottery-style competition to win a trip to space, you say?!) I did enjoy its atmosphere and mood. Cahill’s follow-up is a step up in some ways (he does still tend to meander), but at its base this is a very imaginative and provocative metaphysical thriller. Michael Pitt stars as Ian Gray, a biologist seeking to prove Charles Darwin’s theory once and for all by tracing the evolution of the human eye back to year zero, thereby negating the existence of God. In flashback, he recalls a previous love affair, and, though it takes a while, the two plot strands gradually converge, reaching a wholly unexpected and satisfying ending. It could probably lose a few minutes, but then so could most films; it takes a lot of talent, not to mention nerve, to create a thriller with little in the way of physical action, and Cahill’s film stays long in the mind as a result.

Last but not least is the first film I saw, which remains one of the highlights of Sundance 2014. Directed by Damien Chazelle, Whiplash is a sports movie by any other name, starring the reliably brilliant Miles Teller as Andrew, an aspiring jazz drummer who dreams of being the new Buddy Rich. Recruited by his school’s tyrannical bandleader Fletcher (JK Simmons), Andrew soon finds his limits tested, as Fletcher plays a serious of vicious mindgames that take him to breaking point. Where this diverges from the standard Rocky template is that there is little sentiment here – Fletcher starts and ends a bully – and rather than take its villain to rehab, Chazelle’s terrific film takes us into the minds of two men searching for perfection. As in Calvary, the moral, yet again, is that being good is hard, and being better is almost impossible. As I write this, it is perhaps the current favourite to take home the Jury Prize on Saturday, but whether it wins or not I don’t care: films like this are the reason we come to Sundance.

More to come. Follow me on Twitter for updates @yo_damo.

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