Piers Marchant reports from Sundance, Day Six

January 28, 2015

By Piers Marchant for blood, dirt &angels

Number of Films: 3
General Vibe: Eclectic sousaphone

Photo from Brooklyn, courtesy Fox Searchlight.

Photo from Brooklyn, courtesy Fox Searchlight.

Brooklyn: One of the pleasures of this festival with all of its multiple screenings of given films, both public and press, is if you wait long enough after a film screens (and in the Twitter age that’s all of about 30 seconds after the credits start to roll), you can get a quick consensus as to what films you absolutely can’t miss. Such was the case with John Crowley’s Brooklyn, a film I had no particular interest in until @noelmu championed its cause to me vigorously the previous night. Armed with his enthusiasm, I ventured over to the press office in the early morning, to stand in line in order to get a ticket, which I then used in order to stand in another line at a theater some distance away. Can I say that I could have had even a half-dozen lines to stand in and it still would have been worth it? It’s a masterful, sweeping drama about a young Irish woman (Saoirse Ronan), who travels alone to America in the early ’50s in order to make a better life for herself, even as she desperately misses her mother and older sister. Eventually, she meets a kindly young Italian man (Emory Cohen) and falls in love, but has to return to Ireland, where she ultimately has to make a fretful decision between staying in her beloved home, or returning to the life she only half-begun across the ocean. It’s the kind of emotionally driven story that you could imagine Hollywood snapping up — and thoroughly botching. Fortunately, the screenplay, based on the novel by Colm Tóibín and adapted flawlessly by Nick Hornby, never loses sight of the potency of the small, well-observed detail. It doesn’t demand that emotions well up in you, it just goes about the business of telling its story, and the wonderful acting and sharp screenwriting do the rest. The film quickly got picked up by Fox Searchlight, and you would have to immediately put it on the short list of next year’s major awards, as long as the studio doesn’t thoroughly screw up its distribution. (Hello, Selma.)

Cartel Land: A slightly disjointed but poignant documentary by Matthew Heineman concerning the sort of vigilante efforts private citizens in both America and Mexico have felt the need to employ in order to wrest control of their land from the hyper-violent drug cartels that claim their territory. We switch back and forth between two groups in particular, the Autodefenses, a citizen brigade in the Mexican state of Michoacan, lead by the charismatic Dr. Jose Mireles, who band together in order to drum out the vicious Knights Templar cartel from their towns; and the Arizona Border Recon, lead by former meth-head-turned-paramilitary leader Tim Foley, whose small squadron of heavily armed commandoes seek to prevent the cartels from sinking their claws into U.S. territory. What becomes clear, after a short while, is there is simply far too much money to be made in the drug trade for any group to change the culture in any kind of impactful manner. Even when the Autodefenses initially eradicate the Templars from the area, the group itself starts to turn corrupt, employing many of the same techniques as the cartel they were supposedly fighting against. Foley’s crew, whose story, while interesting enough, seems somewhat tangential to the film’s main focus, meanwhile stalk the dusty, cacti-strewn hills of southern Arizona, but can do little to stop the massive influx of drugs and influence the cartels have firmly established. As one Mexican meth-cooker puts it, the world will never be rid of them, one way or another, the drugs will still get made and the violence connected to them will still predominate, unless the entire paradigm can somehow be changed.

Results: Cinematic cult hero Andrew Bujalski’s celebrated last feature, 2013’s Computer Chess, was a peculiar and nervy piece set in the early ’80s at a gaming conference, and shot in fuzzy black and white in a boxy 1.33-1 aspect ratio. So, naturally, his new film — think of a kind of indie rom-com with particularly idiosyncratic characters — is set in the present in Austin, Texas, and concerns a sort of peculiar love triangle between two dedicated personal trainers (Guy Pearce and Cobie Smulders), and one of their clients, Danny (Kevin Corrigan), a shlumpy, suddenly wealthy man from New York, who literally has nothing to do all day other than noodle on his guitar and pay people exorbitant funds in order to take care of his day-to-day chores. To begin with, these aren’t your stock sorts of romantic figures: Though movie-star beautiful, Pearce’s Trevor, is a hyped-up would-be businessman, whose health brand Power4Life, offers clients a multi-faceted approach to total wellness; while Smulder’s Kat is an emotionless fitness drone, prone to fits of extreme pique and violent fury when any of her clients dare “cross” her. Still, we come to believe these two specimens deserve one another — and not just in the negative sense — even as they tangle and tussle with Danny, who ultimately decides he’d rather just be “pudgy but mellow” instead of furiously jacked up at all times. Knowing Bujalski’s more challenging work, you keep expecting things to turn completely sideways, but instead, he maintains the light touch throughout the flick. Not any kind of life-changer, but a simple, amusing affair, done, as they say, to a turn.

Tomorrow: On my last full day of the festival, I’ll hope to go out on a high note with I Smile Back, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Call Me Lucky, and Dope.

Into the frigid climes and rarefied thin air of the spectacular Utah Mountains, I’ve arrived in order to document some of the sense and senselessness of the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. Over the next week, armed with little more than a heavy parka and a bevy of blank reporter’s notebooks, I’ll endeavor to watch as many movies as I can and report my findings.


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