PARK CITY, UTAH—With my bags packed and ready to head to the airport at 6 a.m. Wednesday morning the day before the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, there was a feeling of uncertainty heading to Park City, Utah for my eighth year in a row. Maybe I was a bit unprepared this go round compared to years past. The chatter and reports were everywhere on the most vital film industry websites (Indiewire, Deadline, Variety, the Hollywood Reporter, etc.) on all the most anticipated films—who will be the breakout stars, what films will be bought, etc. I took very little notice until I arrived at the Salt Lake City airport and made my way into Park City. It was harder than ever to chart a list or map or films to see at Sundance, not to mention Slamdance too, as they had a nice slate of independent/foreign films screening concurrently over Sundance dates. Getting bombarded with emails, interview requests daily, even hourly from publicists and PR companies on coverage for seeing this film, and interviewing this star or director, became nonsensical and frankly, draining, yet I managed to see 27 films.
My excitement excelled more than ever when I finally got settled in and arrived a day early to avoid many of the major roadblocks and/or congestive areas of Park City, due to the overwhelming attendance at the first major film festival in 2015. One could argue Rotterdam, opening up on the same day just under 5,000 miles away from Sundance HQ and Berlinale, starting six days after the end of Sundance, have now taken steps to perhaps unseat Sundance as the first and more vital attraction for film viewers and buyers alike in the calendar year. Maybe Berlinale is more significant and vital as a world film festival. But Sundance is still the most important American festival today amd will always have a special place in my heart. I look forward to attending every year, but the first four days or opening weekend were as jammed packed as I have ever seen it and proved Sundance is still the number one film attraction to attend.
The weather in Park City was perhaps the sunniest and warmest it had ever been in all the years I have attended. The lines were cramped and busier than ever, and in some unbelievable Herculean effort, I still managed (without getting sick) to cram 27 Sundance films with even more seen at Slamdance (a separate report coming soon) in eight days. It was quite the luck of the draw, or the best lottery system of roughly 100 films (not including short films) to pick and weasel my way into seeing and finding a major discovery or colossal misses, but with best intentions and here are some of those 27 films I saw.
Starting off with director Liz Garbus’ entertaining music biopic on blues and jazz singer icon Nina Simone is What Happened, Miss Simone. Starting off with a music film on opening night seems to be a growing tread at Sundance with Twenty Feet From Stardom and last year’s Whiplash, which found an audience and buyer immediately and both films have garnered Oscar recognition. This Netflix documentary (still unknown when it will make its streaming premiere) packs a wallop of archival footage, thanks in large part of Simone’s estate giving access to Garbus and participating in the doc (her daughter Lisa Simone Kelly is featured throughout, despite not giving the best tidbits about her mother, who she rarely saw as a child) but it is Simone’s ex-husband/manager Andrew Stroud who provides frank interview confessionals. Watching Simone singing and playing the piano, a classically trained pianist (real name, Eunice Waymon), she applied to the Curtis Institute of Music with dreams of playing at Carnegie Hall and was denied. Simone had numerous hits including “My Baby Just Cares For Me” (originally recorded by Nat King Cole) and in one stunning scene of her playing at the Playboy mansion with Hugh Hefner, surrounded by Playboy bunnies, she played another hit, “I Loves You Porgy.” Garbus’ film is told in a straightforward manner and she does offer a unique inside look into Simone’s later years becoming a civil rights activist (she recorded the controversial song “Mississippi Goddam” shortly after the assassination of Medgar Evers and the Alabama church bombing that killed four young African-American girls). While Simone’s music and words were becoming controversial, she slowly started moving away from the music industry and becoming more mercurial and developing a bizarre stage presence (she was later diagnosed with bipolar in the late 1980s). She retreated outside of the U.S. in the early 1970s and lived in Switzerland, England, the Netherlands and France until her death in 2003. Simone’s songs and music have become admired worldwide with legions of fans and Garbus’ film should give any fan or invite new ones to admire the legacy of one of the greatest blues, folk, jazz, gospel and classical musicians of the 20th century into their hearts. (What Happened, Miss Simone? is being distributed by Netflix, although, no release date has been determined yet.)
Bouncing from one screening to the next is the norm at Sundance. After leaving What Happened, Miss Simone to venture into a supposedly raunchy comedy, The Bronze had plenty of raunchiness too it, yet little to zero comedy attached. Ditching her The Big Bang Theory TV role to go full-on bad sport, sole loser, mean-spirited avenger, Melissa Rauch plays Hope Annabelle Greggory, a former bronze gymnast, still milking her fame since 2004 in her small town, until she finds out another Olympic hopeful in town may succeed Greggory and win a Gold medal at the next Olympics. This becomes more complicated when Greggory receives a letter from her former coach, who passed away days earlier, letting her know she’ll receive her inheritance of $500,000 if she helps train the newcomer for the upcoming games, medal or no medal. What should have been a biting satire on gymnastics and the politics involved in reaching the Olympics fails miserably; The Bronze is pure vile in the mean-spirited department and ugliness with redundant and extremely vulgar jokes about sex, binge-eating, facial tics, and third place finishes. Even its finest moment, which involves a spectacular choreographed sex-scene, even over stays its welcome, similar to our fading star. (The Bronze was picked up by Relativity Media and a release date has not been determined yet.)
Having premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last May and part of the Spotlight program of films playing at previous festivals before arriving at Sundance, one of the more remarkable films was Hungarian director/co-writer, Kornel Mundruczo’s gripping White God, which hopefully will find an advantageous audience. Young Lili (a terrific Zfogia Psotta) loves her mixed-breed dog, Hagen (the real star of the film), until her strict father tells her to cut the dog loose since it is not permitted by the state to have a mixed-breed dog. What starts out as an emotional journey of the separation of child and dog, becomes a violent and strangely moving metaphor on class and race in the state where other “mixed-breeds” roam the streets and work together on surviving only to be hunted down daily by various folks looking to either capture them for personal gain or put them out of their misery. Once captured, Hagen transforms from lovable pet into a mean fighting dog and is pitted against other dogs in fights (similar to the horrific fight scenes in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Amores Perros) and soon Hagen is top dog in his class. Before you can say “Lassie,” it soon becomes inevitable that Lili and Hagen will once again reunite but it might be too late to turn back the clock to a once promising beginning. Mundruvczo’s film, which won the Un Certain Regard Prize at Cannes, is unflinching, surreal and highly original art, especially for its stunning cinematography by Marcell Rev, controlled editing by David Jancso, Psotta’s endearing performance of a broken-hearted and rebellious girl looking for her best friend and a special mention to animal trainer Teresa Ann Miller who overlooked the staging of hundreds of animals (mostly dogs) and Hagen (played by two dogs, Luke and Body). White God is an exceptional film with big ideas and an unpredictable story, and thankfully, no animals were harmed in the film. (White God is being distributed by Magnolia Pictures, and will be released in late March.)
Igniting a firestorm at its world premiere screening Craig Zobel’s, Compliance was one of the most talked about films in 2012. Zobel returned to Sundance (playing in competition, this time) directing Robert C. O’Brien’s (best known for Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH) 1974 young adult novel Z For Zachariah, leaving many scratching their head, aside from a few who championed this lovely reserved futuristic drama. Serving only as director this time, Zobel’s film is mostly a love-triangle with a sci-fi premise of biblical references to boot. After a world disaster has wiped out most of humanity, Ann Burden (Margot Robbie) continues working on her family’s farm. She comes across John (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a research scientist on the verge of death after he is contaminated by a waterfall nearby, and saves him by bringing him back to her house. Once his health is stable, the two begin creating a new life together, not in a marriage sense, but in a survival sense as the two believe they could be the last humans on earth. With signs of sexual tension apparent, they both could give in to their temptations, but attempt to work together to create an utopian environment until a former mine worker Caleb (Chris Pine) comes to stay and help out on the farm too (Caleb’s character was created for the film). Ann and Caleb lockeyes and John is not thrilled. Working from a script by Nissar Modi, Zobel’s vision of the apocalypse is calmer than one might have expected and resembles more of a thinking man’s unity of religion and science clashing in order to save mankind instead of scientific contraptions and unworldly beings. Z For Zachariah by cinematographer ace Tim Orr (shooting in New Zealand), feels deeply personal in conveying unrequited loneliness in a place of beauty and how if even tampered slightly, what one or three people are willing to sacrifice in order to survive. (Z For Zachariah is being distributed by Roadside Attraction and a release date has not been determined yet.)
When the film line-up was announced in early December, it was great to see a new film by director James Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now) and even one with some Minnesota ties, The End of the Tour follows writer David Foster Wallace (a career-changing performance by Jason Segal) in the final days of a tour in 1996 for his mega-opus, Infinite Jest, as he is interviewed by Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg). After having his own book published and experiencing few reviews and even fewer sales, Lipsky seeks to interview Wallace, the most important writer at the moment for Rolling Stone, which was apparently unheard of by its editors. When they agree, Lipsky flies out to Illinois, when the two men meet, Wallace fears he’ll be misrepresented in the media and Lipsky is having trouble asking the tough questions (rumors of suicide watch and heroin addict are abound) and seems to be sidestepping much of the interview. Once the film finds the two Davids in Minneapolis, with a stop at St. Paul’s Hungry Mind for a reading and a stop of Mall of America, tensions really become apparent and both men are looking for answers from the other. Ponsoldt and playwright, Donald Margulies, bring the bromance to heightened comedic and dramatic levels, The End of the Tour could be considered “plotless” but it does spin various narrative threads of the relationship of friends, heroes, foes, or better yet, “frenemies” of each man looking for a reason to care about the other. Eisenberg is terrific in his usual neurotic mannerisms, but it really is Segal’s performance of Wallace as the shy, tortured artist searching for any reason given his emotional restraint of really opening up, until late in the film is a remarkable scenario of profound sadness and acceptance, opening up about his battle with depression, drinking and his suicide watch, really unleashes a new dimension to a man we may never really know. Segal’s performance will certainly be up for much discussion toward the end of 2015. (The End of the Tour was picked up by a24 and a release date has not been determined yet.)
One of the bigger and more outlandish curiosities at Sundance had to be director Crystal Moselle’s U.S. documentary Grand Jury Prize winner The Wolfpack, about six brothers (along with their sister, mother and father) living their entire life locked away in a lower east side Manhattan apartment. They were home schooled by their mother, Susanne, and kept inside due to fear of all the New York crime. They kept busy for years by watching movies, writing scripts, making costumes (cereal boxes and yoga mats), and reenacting and filming entire films in their apartment. Some of their favorites are Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, the Coen Brothers’ No Country For Old Men and Christopher Nolan’s, The Dark Knight, to name a few. The Peruvian brothers begin to question about leaving their apartment to venture out into the outside world. Their mother was a hippie raised in the Midwest, met their father, Oscar, while traveling abroad and there were plans to move to Scandinavian, but due to lack of money, the family stayed in New York and were raised Hare Krishnas by their parents and never questioned their them (it probably didn’t help in their moving plans that Oscar doesn’t work). When the oldest brother Mukunda leaves the apartment for the first time alone, wearing a Michael Myers mask no less, he is arrested and brought back to the apartment and ends up in therapy. This is the first of serious questions that begin to unravel and slowly began to lose interest for me. How did Moselle discover and convince the family to allow them to be filmed? How did she not talk to neighbors or friends about the Angulo family? There is a brief conversation with Susanne speaking to her mother on the phone that is planning a visit, yet we never see her in the film or mentioned again? Are their some ethical questions that need to be raised about keeping your seven children locked up for most of their life? I can only imagine some of these issues were brought up at public screenings, but sitting at the press and industry screening, these questions baffled me, and eventually, took over any reason for me to question these motives or care and basically turned this documentary into somewhat of sideshow attraction instead of a fully realized family class struggle. (The Wolfpack was picked up by Magnolia Pictures and a release date has not been determined yet.)
“Two 10-year-old boys steal an abandoned cop car” sounds like a joke on paper, but the film turned its B-movie premise into an entertaining B-movie featuring a mustachio-wearing Kevin Bacon playing a devious cop in the midnight entry Cop Car. Beginning with two boys walking endlessly in a field, where too we will never know, they discover a cop car and begin daring one another to go and touch the car and run back without getting caught. They finally get inside the car and find the keys stashed above the visor flap and take off for a joyride. The only evidence of anyone being around the abandoned cop car was a beer bottle sitting on the hood of the car. When the boys take off, we get a glimpse of how the cop car ended up parked in a field. When Bacon opens up the door, takes off his gun-belt and throws it in the backseat and sets his beer bottle on the hood of the car, we finally understand why he is out there all alone—he has a corpse in the truck, which he drags out to dispose of and when he finally comes back to his car, it has vanished. So begins the fun and surprises in store in co-writer/director Jon Watts’ highly entertaining and hilarious film, especially Bacon (also a producer on the film) becoming increasing annoyed scene by scene with the boys driving the car and playing with the police tape, and Bacon unable to track them down. Slowly more clues and story are revealed opening the hunt, even more with Bacon’s cop even more crooked and dangerous than at first glance, leaving him no choice but to go completely nutso toward an inevitably finale with the boys, who cannot seem to fire a gun to save their lives. (Cop Car was picked up by Focus World and a release date has not been determined yet.)
Every year, I try to convince myself to see more documentaries; for the most part they prove to be more interesting and entertaining than the narratives. Case and point: the wildly hilarious and heartfelt Finders Keepers, where the phrase, “truth is stranger than fiction” truly applies. After surviving a small plane crash in North Carolina, John Wood lost his leg in the crash and wanted to preserve it by going to great measures to get it mummified and after a trail of errors of finding a place to store it, it ended up in a storage facility. Succumbing to drinking and pain killers after the crash (John also lost his father in the crash and two other family members survived), Wood fell behind on his payments and the storage facility went up for auction where another man, wannabe celebrity and entrepreneur Shannon Whisnant, won the storage facility. Whisnant went through the items and made the horrifying discovery of Wood’s leg stored in a grill. When the discovery made him famous in the local news, Whisnant’s new-found fame goes straight to his head and he began exploiting the leg by charging people to see it and making t-shirts with the slogan, “Foot Smoker BBQ.” All the while, Wood just wants his leg back, but Whisnant refuses to give it back and even offers “joint custody” of the leg. And so begins the long battle of true custody in “Finders Keepers,” including a stint on Judge Mathis TV show. Co-directors Clay Tweel and Bryan Carberry’s film gives ample screen time to each man, debating his side of the story and the struggles of each man’s personal life and seem to have landed on “a golden goose” of a story. Whisnant comes across as more of a buffoon and craving attention for his prized possession and could be the so-called “villain” in the film, although he does bring up valid points of why he is the rightful owner of the leg. Whereas Wood, a humbled man who battled addiction and survived numerous near death experiences including being shot, electrocuted and being run over by a truck, on top of surviving the plane crash, is portrayed as sympathetic and sincere in his sobriety but also claiming what is rightfully his. Finders Keepers offered more laughs, heart, suspense, and strangely, poignant humanity story than any film I saw at Sundance. (Finders Keepers was picked up by The Orchard and a release date has not been determined yet.)
One of the more striking original features to turn up at Sundance was also the best film I saw in writer/director Robert Eggers’ debut feature The Witch, an excellent “New-England Folktale” (as the title card reads) period drama with supernatural elements fleeting a foot from the opening moments. The narrative is tightly wound and focused on a farming family, if one had to guess around the Puritan era, the family has moved to America from England, where father William (Ralph Ineson) is doing his best to take care of his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) and their five children adjusting to the a newer life, until their youngest born Samuel mysterious disappears. Although, the oldest sister Thomasin (a revelation, Anya Taylor-Joy) was watching Samuel she immediately feels guilt and now the family blames her for his whereabouts, all the while a more ghastly setting has set upon the family, whereas William, a devout Christian, trusting everything will get better soon. He is proven very wrong. The atmosphere on the farm quickly escalates and with his other children coming under spells, the family goat aptly named “Black Phillip” begins spouting blood rather than milk, the crops begin to go sour, and Katherine and William are pushed farther and farther apart dealing with the ominous situation at hand leading to an unfaithful incident. Biblical references are scattered about and dangerous undertones emerge late in the proceeding; The Witch may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but this darkly shot feature by Jarin Blaschke makes great use of its claustrophobic and confined space using every inch of the families’ home, land and barn. The direction never slacks, some scenes move slower than others although the tension is ratcheted up, Eggers’ dense vocabulary sets the stage early with uneasiness hovering every scene building for the unspeakable horror we know is coming, we just do not expect to be shaking in our boots when faced with true evil. (The Witch was picked up by a24 and a release date has not been determined yet.)
Top Ten Films of Sundance 2015
1. The Witch
2. Finders Keepers
3. The End of the Tour
4. Brooklyn (dir. John Crowley)
5. White God
6. Z For Zachariah
7. Cop Car
8. The Royal Road (dir. Jenni Olson) & Sam Klemke’s Time Machine (dir. Matthew Bate)
9. Western (dir. Bill & Turner Ross)
10. Entertainment (dir. Rick Alverson)
PHOTO CREDIT: LISLLC. FINDERS KEEPERS.