Sundance 2016

Here are brief reviews on the six films I saw at Sundance, and then some general thoughts about the festival, etc. below. I'm not giving full plot synopses (I hate those, and didn't read any before I saw these films), but just some salient things that stood out to me. I'll link each title to a longer review if you want to know more.

Captain Fantastic

My initiation to my first film festival was this world premiere from writer/director Matt Ross. The 1200-seat theater was packed with VIPs, press, industry types, etc. We couldn't get tickets to this show, which quickly sold out, but I luckily got #18 on the wait list. I was one of the last ones let into the theater before the film began.

Viggo Mortensen plays a survivalist raising six children in the Pacific Northwest (the child actors were all wonderful). In a panel discussion the next day Ross called this a film about parenting, and it definitely is, but it's also partially about the absurdity and hypocrisy of contemporary American liberalism. Mortensen's character is a different kind of leftist than we're used to seeing, more academic than emotion-driven. He's well versed in Marxism and celebrates Noam Chomsky Day with his kids (one humorous scene has his teenage son explode in frustration when his dad calls him a Trotskyite instead of a Trotskyist--or was it the other way around?). He also, however, believes in self-reliance, rugged individualism, and meat-eating (the film opens with his oldest son ritualistically killing a deer, which the others skin). The children, in addition to their intense home-school regimen, participate in military-style physical training every day; they are smart and tough. All this is contrasted with the children's cousins, who are lazy, uninformed about the world (they don't know what the Bill of Rights is, for example), and play video games all the time. Their parents protect them by keeping certain information from them, while Mortensen's character answers every questions his children ask in explicit detail (at one point the youngest daughter asks what "rape" means, presenting a thorny situation, but dad doesn't flinch).

The film was my favorite of the six. It made me reflect on being a parent, being truthful with my kids, and being wholly committed to my beliefs.

Manchester By The Sea

Casey Affleck as a guy who's been through a lot, although it takes a long time to put it all together. A very close second to Captain Fantastic as my favorite film of the festival. The pacing of the narrative felt realistic without moving too slowly. This film continued giving exposition in jarring little doses almost all the way to the climax. Many instances felt like punches to the gut, especially as a parent. Very sad stuff. Beautiful composition in almost every scene, and terrific performance by Affleck.

Christine

I should have known that this film was about the real-life story of Christine Chubbuck, a Florida TV news reporter who shot herself during a live broadcast, but I didn't. So my experience was not ideal; I thought the film was rambling, rambling, rambling, BOOM. Did not see that coming. I think the filmmakers intended to take viewers on a journey to a destination we all know was coming (except I didn't), and so there was little effort to shape the narrative. Instead, the focus is on Christine's character in the months preceding the incident. Rebecca Hall was terrific as Christine.

Swiss Army Man

A man (Paul Dano) is trapped on a deserted island, about to hang himself when a corpse (Daniel Radcliffe) washes ashore and helps Dano in various ways, both physically and emotionally (as the title suggests). So far, all the buzz has been on the bookend extended fart jokes (co-director Daniel Kwan said, "We wanted to start with a fart that makes you laugh, and end with a fart that makes you cry."). In fact a bunch of people stormed out of the premiere after several minutes of a farting corpse. But that impolite bodily function (not to mention extended discussions of masturbation and pooping) stands for lots of things that we humans do but don't want to be caught doing. Much of the movie explores these things that, if made public, would get us labeled as "weird", even though they're common to every human. Ultimately, I thought it was a lovely look at the parts of being human we don't talk about--if you can get past what the Variety review linked above calls "surface scatology."

A note on the soundtrack. There was constant crossing between mimetic and diagetic sounds. Often the on-screen characters would speak or sing, and that would be looped and transformed into music accompanying the scene. For me, this reinforced the likelihood that on-screen events were probably happening in Dano's mind.

Green Room

I exchanged my ticket to Birth of a Nation because I couldn't see both that and Green Room. Since I didn't read any synopses, I had no idea Birth of a Nation would generate so much buzz and sell for over $17 million the next day. I also had no idea how violent and gory Green Room would be. I'm not the kind of guy who needs to see ligaments and intestines to enjoy a film. Oh well. This is the story of a punk band that ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time: a secluded skinhead bar in the Pacific northwest witnessing a recently murdered body. The owner of the establishment, played by a chilling Patrick Stewart, locks the band in the green room while they plot a way out of a mess that won't stop escalating. I'll leave it at that. (Oh, one more thing--SPOILER--Alia Shawkat (Arrested Development's Maebe Fünke) gets eaten by a dog.)

One thing I liked very much was how the characters behaved exactly as you might expect a real person to. Reactions aren't over-acted, no long monologs or stand-offs--just a lot of quick decision-making, trying to get out of there alive.

Yoga Hosers

Kevin Smith spoke for at least half an hour both before and after this screening of his new film. He called it a "kid's film" (promising a PG-13 rating), and acknowledged the similarities with Clerks (when he told his wife he was going to make a movie about two teenage girls who work in a convenience store, she said, "You can't do that--you've already done that."). Smith talked about how his daughter Harley Quinn and her real-life best friend Lily-Rose Depp had played apathetic teenagers in his previous film Tusk so effortlessly, that he wanted to make a whole film based on them. Depp's father Johnny also reprises his role from Tusk, Guy Lapointe.

The girls (both named Colleen) are in a band, practice yoga, sell artisanal maple syrup at a convenience store in Winnipeg (plenty of dumb Canada jokes; for example, all the "ou" sounds are changed to "oo"--like oot for out, aboot for about, etc.), and... well, look. I don't want to get into the plot. I don't think it's Smith's best movie or anything, but as a parent of a (nearly) teenage daughter, I found it compelling and accurate. It also gets weird, and I love when weirdness surprises me, so I'll just leave it at that. #brazis

Final thoughts

I was excited just to be there. There was a positive energy in the crowds on Main Street, in the shuttles, and in the waitlist lines that I rarely see in large crowds. It wasn't the anticipation of seeing a celebrity--as I had expected--but the shared experience of doing something we all loved. As a musician who's been to countless concerts, I was surprised to find these film screenings felt very much like concerts. At the end of each film there was applause for real people who were in the same room. And then they stood up and talked and answered questions.

My two favorite moments happened on Sunday afternoon. After attending a panel discussion with the cast and director of Captain Fantastic, I got to talk with Matt Ross for a couple of minutes about the film. It turns out we both have Noam Chomsky posters in our offices (different ones). After that I went to lunch where I ran into Trin Miller, who played Mortensen's wife, and several of the children from the film. I told them how much I enjoyed the film, and they, in turn, complimented my hair (several of them, including Miller, have red hair). And while Charlie Shotwell, who plays the youngest son, didn't actually play the harmonica in the movie (as portrayed), he is a budding composer (his mom said he had just started using MuseScore). These interactions grew organically out of the energy of the place.

I loved the mountains, the snow, the people I went with, and the people I met. I loved thinking about new forms (the jarring flashbacks in Manchester, the sudden climactic ending of Christine, the imagination of Swiss Army Man), and how they can work in music.

©2017 Joshua Harris