Piers Marchant at Sundance, Day Three

January 21, 2018

Sundance 2018: Day 3


Number of Films: 5
Best Movie of the Day: Bisbee ‘17 (pictured)

Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far on Foot: The late cartoonist John Callahan, an alcoholic paraplegic, specialized in the kinds of envelope-pushing work that routinely earned him both accolades and severe scoldings in roughly equal measure. Gus Van Sant’s fractured bio-pic attempts to embrace both Callahan’s cheeky insouciance and his serious climb through the 12 steps of AA with somewhat mixed results. Joaquin Phoenix, ever the iconoclast, plays Callahan with a sneering good cheer; and Jonah Hill, full of surprises as ever, is equally strong as Callahan’s AA sponsor. True to Van Sant’s inventive style, the structure is spread amongst a heady combination of flashbacks from various points of his life – raging party boy, sober believer, paraplegic alcoholic, and so forth – which adds to the pleasingly ragged structure that helps steer it away from more standard bio-pic pitfalls. If the film can’t quite do justice to Callahan’s more outlandish dark humor, he also doesn’t try to pretty up Callahan’s journey from souse to sober artist.

Nancy: Christina Choe’s debut film is a sparkling and complex narrative concerning a most problematic protagonist – perfectly deadpanned by Andrea Riseborough – whose motivations remain inscrutable throughout the narrative. Nancy is a woman who constructs lies both big and small about herself, in service to some impulse that is never made entirely clear. Is she an empty con woman, or is she actually trying to provide people with a sense of closure they couldn’t arrive at unassisted? Shortly after her mother passes away, she feels compelled to contact a long-grieving couple (Steve Buscemi and J. Smith-Cameron) claiming to be their long ago kidnapped daughter, now grown up and bereft. To Choe’s considerable credit, there is just enough we do know about Nancy to suggest she might well be on the level, which raises the emotional stakes considerably. She might be many things, but a sociopath she is clearly not, which makes possible all sorts of options that Choe leaves very much to our own imaginations: An enigmatic film about a highly enigmatic character.

Eighth Grade: Easily the single most awkward year for human beings, you suddenly find yourself at the crux of child/adult, with virtually none of the advantages you will soon develop and discover in high school, and confused, clingy parents who have no earthly idea how best to help you. Bo Burnham’s feature debut captures the intense self-consciousness and stroppy social hideousness of the age, while keeping clear of comedic hyperbole: He finds both the comedy and the pathos in the myriad of painful details in his characters’ lives. Kayla (Elsie Fischer) is a quiet, pimpled girl, who wants very much to make the transformation into confident teenhood. She sticks post-it notes inscribed with exhortations (“Act like a boss!” “Practice small talk!”) on her bedroom mirror and starts her own youtube channel filled with videos of her stammering on about subjects such as “Being Yourself,” in which she tries very hard to sound as if has already passed by these obstacles herself (closing out each episode with a cringe-inducing attempt at a catchphrase). Still, she’s no sad sack. She realizes in order to be brave, one must do something courageous, so she puts herself out there as best she can, navigating the difficult waters of boy crushes, pool parties, and cold-hearted beauties, all while her single father (Josh Hamilton) tries to find the proper balance of giving her space and being supportive when called upon. In someone else’s hands, the film could easily have been a dark, funny dirge, but Burnham shows remarkable and deft touch with his material, allowing for occasional bouts of emotional harmony in addition to the chaos. A fireside chat between son and daughter near the end actually captures a lot of the confusing, complicated emotions of the characters, which feels nothing short of cathartic.

Bisbee ’17: Bisbee is a small, quirky former mining town about six miles from the Mexican border in southern Arizona. Filled with artists, hippies, California drop-outs, happy tourists, and grizzled miners, it’s also one of the most haunted places I have ever visited. Robert Greene, a filmmaker who specializes in the peculiar netherworld between documentary and fiction, has made a film about one of the town’s most notorious incidents from its past: 100 years ago, a large group of over 1000 miners striking with the I.W.W. against the copper mine were rounded up by the sheriff (on orders from the mining company) and hundreds of newly sworn in deputies, and marched out of town and on to a series of cattle cars which transported them to the middle of the New Mexico desert, where they were summarily dumped and left to die. True to Greene’s fascinating preoccupations, we simultaneously watch the modern denizens of the town plan and implement a special centennial re-enactment, as Greene films scenes as if in a narrative period piece. Along the way, we meet a host of Bisbee natives and oddballs, tour much of the town, spend time with the Bisbee historians, and, a bit like a less high-stakes The Look of Silence, get a sense of the thorny contentiousness of the divide still prevalent in the town as to which side of the ledger you place yourself. The result is an affecting portrait of the political divide, then and now, and the way big capitalism forces society to choose sides forevermore, often against our better interests.

Leave No Trace: Debra Granik’s new film is minimalist in its plot: A troubled vet, Will (Ben Foster) and his teen daughter, Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie), live deep in vast national forest outside Portland, OR, using an elaborate system of lean-tos, fire pits, and basic gardening, they happily sleep in the woods, only venturing out to civilization when they need to pick up his disability medications (which they sell for cash) and restock the food stores. When they are finally discovered by the park rangers, they’re arrested and forced to live back on the grid until Will breaks them out back into the wilderness, even if Tom isn’t quite so sure she wants to return to the woods. Forgoing both Captain Fantastic-like whimsy, and Hannah-like plot machination, Granik creates a spare yet beautiful-looking film about civilization and the natural world (not for nothing does Will and Tom’s foray into society feel like deep loss for all of us), and the often awful choices we have to make in order to stay sane. The pace is slow and methodical, and it must be said, felt somewhat draggy in parts, but its anchored by its strong performances and the Granik’s exquisite eye for shot composition. She makes the forest seem like heaven on earth, the only place where the bedeviled Will can feel any solace.

Tomorrow: It was going to happen sooner or later, but tomorrow is the annual P/I screening day of death, in which multiple, highly buzzed about films all play more or less simultaneously, forcing you to choose which hype to believe. I begin the day finally getting to see Armando Iannuci’s ribald The Death of Stalin, which to my consternation, I couldn’t get to see at TIFF, but then things get difficult. Jennifer Fox’s The Tale, one of the early most talked about of the festival, plays in the early afternoon, but getting a chance to attend it will require a long enough wait in line that makes the mid-morning screenings of either Tyrel, or the much lauded Wildlife impossible. After that fiasco, I’ll close out my night by giving Nicolas Pesce (The Eyes of my Mother) another shot with the macabre sounding Piercing.

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 2018 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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