Piers Marchant at Sundance: Day ThreeJanuary 22, 2017
Number of Films: 3
Vibe: Bloody but unbowed
Axolotl Overdrive: An absolute boor of a film about Mifti (Jasna Fritzi Bauer) a 16-year-old German girl living in well-heeled chaos, skipping school, snorting coke, and spending time with her much older girlfriend when the woman isn’t playing cruel mind games with her. It strives to be edgy and untamed – check out this juxtaposition! Isn’t it nuts that she has no reaction to anything? What kind of girl says she should be raped? – but it takes its characters utter disaffection and drinks deep of the same noxious brew. Irritating characters looning around at clubs, and outdoing each other for larfs and style points does not make for much of a viewing experience. About halfway through, I was desperately hoping for the obvious closing shot framing to appear already, which is generally not a good sign. It’s based on a popular German novel – written by Helene Hegemann, who also wrote and directed this adaptation. I can only imagine the novel has more life than this sort of surface gloss she’s highlighted in the film. She can’t blame the screenwriter on this one.
Killing Ground: Creepy campers-in-the-woods-assault picture with an interesting structure in its first act, and enough depravity to be effectively unsettling. We follow the miseries of a cute, young Australian couple (Harriet Dyer and Ian Meadows), come to the Aussie backwoods for a relaxing camp experience, only to run into the crosshairs of a pair of amoral wretches (chillingly played by Aaron Pedersen and Aaron Glenane), who get their kicks raping and murdering innocent people. Moving along standard plot elements, writer/director Damien Power still finds ways to make his film singular and, I daresay, somewhat haunting. It draws us in with good character work and attention to detail (at one point, I started writing out the dropped clues “pocket knife,” “nightmares,” “car keys,” et al. in my notes), what really saves the film from slipping into well-charted territory is a Force Majeure-like plot twist, and a sincerely feminist bent. It earns its disquieting effect, but it’s not there to sadistically rub our noses in it.
The Yellow Birds: Alexandre Moors’ Iraqi War film (taken from the novel by Iraq veteran Kevin Powers) uses as its draw a central mystery – two friends, Bartle (Alden Ehrenreich) and Murph (Tye Sheridan) go into the war, but only Bartle returns, with his friend having seemingly vanished, leaving Murph’s mother (Jennifer Anniston) desperate to find out what happened to her son – but the truth is, the mystery element loses steam pretty quickly and actually seems to drag the film down with its reliance on those, more labored, plot points. It’s not without its graces, Sheridan and Ehrenreich share good chemistry, and both Anniston and Toni Collette, playing Bartle’s mother, do yeoman work – Anniston, in particular, seems to have let her guard down in this film enough to make her vulnerability poignant – but generally, it’s also nothing we haven’t seen before. Fortunately, the last beat of the film, in which Bartle performs an act of grace, at least ends it on a high-note (that is quickly dwarfed by the decision to actually use Radiohead’s “Exit Music (For a Film)” as the exit music.
Tomorrow: Easily my busiest of the festival. I begin my morning watching Wind River, as screenwriting sensation Taylor Sheridan makes his directorial debut; check in with Pariah director Dee Rees with Mudbound, a post-WWII rural drama; whisk myself over to see David Lowery’s A Ghost Story, which promises to live up to its title; venture into the bloody unknown with TIFF-buzzed Raw; and close out my evening by seeing the female-lead horror anthology XX.
Photo from Killing Ground
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 2017 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.