Piers Marchant at Sundance: Day Seven

January 31, 2019

JANUARY 31, 2019Sundance 2019: Day 7

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Number of Films: 3
Best Movie of the Day: This is Not Berlin

This is Not Berlin: At an underground club in mid-‘80s Mexico City, a young woman is talking to the best friend of her younger brother about the ephemeral aspect of life: “A month ago, I was with that guy, and you were still a kid.” At a certain age, a lot can change in a super-compressed period of time. Take Carlos (Xabiani Ponce de León), a sweet-faced engineering-focused kid, who likes messing around with his friends, hitting the arcade and pining after the sister, Rita, (Ximena Romo), of his best friend, Gera (José Antonio Toledano). One night, Rita allows Gera and Carlos to join with her band entourage to a cutting edge club downtown called the Azteca. The boys’ experience, being introduced to the art scene (reminiscent of the Factory), and booze and drugs, and sexual freedom, catches hold and almost overnight they transform into club kids, even as they drift apart. Carlos hooks up with Nico (Mauro Sanchez), the de facto leader of the Azteca artist/drug collective, hanging around their installations and establishing a more androgynous look, while Gera, greatly wounded at his friend’s apparent disavowal, haunts the place desperately wanting to find his own place to fit in. Hari Sama‘s film is filled with telling, specific period detail, from the black fingernail polish and eyeliner, to the soundtrack, which hits everything from Patti Smith to Joy Division, only adding to the verisimilitude. The film has to do with that specific time of life where identity is as elastic as taffy, and, with the deposing of your family as you come more into your own, the prospect of feeling like you fit in somewhere overpowers almost everything else in your life. Every generation has their rituals of youth and rebellion, for a certain segment of kids growing up in the ‘80s, this was ours. 

The Nightingale: Revenge films follow an eager-to-please narrative trajectory: Our protagonist is brutalized/betrayed/left-for-dead by truly vile villain(s); they survive, dedicate their lives to seeking out the villain, and dispatch them in gruesomely satisfying way. The equation starts with a horrific, haunting act that terrifies us; by the end, we can leave the theater vindicated that an act of evil has not gone unsuitably punished. Jennifer Kent’s brutal revenge tale, set in 19th century Tasmania, flirts with the idea of subverting this paradigm, before ultimately acquiescing to its tenets. Clare (Aisling Franciosi), a young Irish convict, gets brutally raped and beaten and forced to watch her husband and baby get murdered by a small team of British soldiers, lead by the cruelly self-serving Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin). Barely surviving their savage attack, and seeking retribution, Clare enlists the aid of an aborigine guide, Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), to track down the culprits through the deep Tasmanian brush. Kent’s film is brutal and uncompromising, never afraid to point out the true enemy: White Male Evil, which she displays in all its horror throughout the land, as the British are in the throes of colonizing the natives, bending everything to their way of doing things. There is a moment, near the end, where it feels as if Kent will actually take a different route – and which, frankly, would have made for a more interesting outcome. That she ultimately stays with the formula is a bit of a letdown, eschewing a better use of her metaphor, rather than just giving the audience their expected vengeance. 

Greener Grass: A nutty suburban comedy from the writer/director team of Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Lubbe, a pair of Upright Citizens Brigade veterans. Through a hazy fog of pastels, the pair play a couple of housewives in a suburban haven so idyllic, all adults have braces, and everyone drives golf carts from place to place. The Suburban Satire is a well-spent comedy subgenre at this point, but DeBoer and Lubbe have a gift for absurdity – 30 seconds into the movie, one of the mothers offers up her infant baby to the other; at one point they inadvertently kiss goodbye the wrong husbands; one of their children falls into their backyard pool and emerges as a Golden Retriever – that carries the film’s first couple of acts. There is a plot involving some kind of killer on the loose, and the idea that DeBoer’s character has pretty much lost everything, including her house, by the end of the film, but the film works best just as a series of interconnected, twisty vignettes. The last third begins to drag noticeably (at 101 minutes, it could be cut by 15 to good effect), but there are plenty of laughs in the early going. In any event, it’s sort of nice to close out my 2019 Sundance experience on a happier note. 

Tomorrow: Homeward bound!

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 2019 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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