“Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter” and “The Overnighters”: Cream of the crop at Sundance Film Festival 2014

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PARK CITY, UTAH – The first few days of the Sundance Film Festival had the makings of one the better years I have attended and with only a few days left, right when I was hitting my stride, I got hit with a really nasty combination of altitude sickness, dehydration, exhaustion and hunger pains which derailed me for close to 24 hours. Cancelling plans and screenings are often difficult, especially when you only see some of the other festival programmers, journalists and distributors once a year at Sundance. But when your health is in question, taking some time off from screenings can do the mind and body some good. Surprisingly, the 2014 Sundance experience was, in fact, one of the best years I attended, even with being out sick for a day; there was always something that presented itself as either completely daring, original, mind-numbing or just plain entertaining.

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter may not have been as high on other festival-goers’ radar, but it was one of my must-sees. The movie by Austin, Texas-filmmaking brothers David and Nathan Zellner (Goliath, Kid-Thing), filmed Japan and Minnesota, did not disappoint. The film opens with a “true story” disclaimer that is featured at the beginning of Joel & Ethan Coen’s own Fargo (a wink and a nod). Kumiko is watching a damaged Fargo VHS tape and repeatedly fast-forwarding/rewinding in an attempt to pin-point the exact location of the buried money by Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi’s kidnapping character). Kumiko maps out the location of the where the hidden suitcase, measures out the poles in the ground, and goes to great lengths of finding the exact location. In one of the more entertaining scenes, she enters a library and attempts to steal a world atlas. When she is caught and it is revealed she only wants a map of the state of Minnesota and is willing to pay for it, the guard gives in and lets her have it. Kumiko avoids contact with most of her peers at work and is disenchanted with her daily and work life, save for her pet rabbit Bunzo. She occasionally communicates with her mother, but her mother wants her to move home and find a husband. She decides to leave Japan with her boss’ stolen credit card for the frozen tundra of Minnesota. When she lands at MSP airport, she travels up to Fargo to finish her quest. Along the way, she gets the bad news that Fargo is a fictional film, meaning there is no money. But that does not stop Kumiko from going further into the polar vortex in search of the cash. This is easily one of the Zellner brothers’ most satisfying film. The film, with the biggest budget to date, really accomplishes a stunning feat of merging the fantasy and reality. The urban legend is based off a 2001 story that was later turned into a documentary called This is A True Story, and never makes fun of Kumiko. Instead, the film balances the absurd and mesmerizing adventure and her beliefs of the treasure being real, and we come to sympathize Kumiko. Cinematographer Sean Porter casts a stoic beauty over the snow-covered roadside and hills, giving the white glare a sparkling glow to the mysteries abound. The main attraction is Oscar-nominated actress Rinko Kikuchi (Babel, Pacific Rim) in a “tour de force” performance of such isolation, obsession, and determination, often in her soft-spoken mannerisms. Credit is partly in due to director David who gave Kikuchi ample opportunity to fine tune her delicate character. Grade: A- (Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter has not been picked up for U.S. distribution yet.)

Having three films play at Sundance back to back to back, writer/director Lynn Shelton (Humpday, Your Sister’s Sister, Touchy Feely) returned to Sundance this time only as director in the rom-com Laggies, starring a shocking terrific Keira Knightley who boasts a flawless American accent. Knightley plays Megan, a 28-year-old still living just as she had when she graduated high school. She stands back and watches her friends start getting married and having babies and is blindsided when her longtime boyfriend and high school sweetheart (Minnesota-born Mark Webber) proposes, which scares Megan off. When she meets Annika (Chloe Grace Moretz), a young high school student, Megan asks if she can stay at her place for a few days to think about the proposal (she tells Annika she is in between apartments.) When Annika agrees, they have to avoid her father (the always dependable and likeable Sam Rockwell), but once he finds out, he and Knightley quickly become drinking buddies which leads to romantic entanglements, leaving Megan deciding what direction she wants her life to go. Working from a script by Andrea Siegel, the scenarios play out in typical sit-com fashion, with large gaps in the film void of any laughs and sometimes even questioning credibility. But I give Shelton credit for keeping many scenes lively, especially the chemistry between Knightley and Rockwell. Kudos should also be given to Shelton’s regular cinematographer Ben Kasulke (also appearing in a hilarious cameo in Land Ho!) for showcasing Shelton’s hometown, Seattle, making it more attractive and splendid than ever. Grade: C+ (Laggies was picked up by A24 for U.S. distribution and will be released this summer.)

Another filmmaker returning to Sundance again is English writer/director Michael Winterbottom (The Trip, The Look of Love, 24 Hour Party People) with his semi-sequel The Trip to Italy. Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan again play semi-versions of themselves with alter egos in another entertaining trip. This time around Rob is worried about an audition for a part in an American film directed by Michael Mann. He has also been asked by The Observer magazine to report on local cuisine in Italy and invites to his counter-part Steve to join him. The two battle wits and impersonations again over delicious meals. The first battle of sparring comes when the two discuss The Dark Kinght Rises, each trying to one-up each other with their imitation of Tom Hardy’s Bane. There’s a a side-splitting bit where the two discuss the pronunciation of pop singer Michael Buble’s name and the Canadian genius of Alanis Morrisette’s “Jagged Little Pill.” Yes, much of The Trip to Italy is similar to the original 2010 The Trip, and Winterbottom leaves the camera rolling for much of what seems to be improvised. The “if it ain’t broke, why fix it” motto brings perfect admiration with Brydon and Coogan playing off each other, enjoying the countryside of beautiful Italian, with the picturesque cinematographer done by James Clarke, with the appetizing dishes to die for along with fully belly laughs to follow. Grade: B+ (The Trip to Italy will be released in May 2014 by IFC Films.)

One of the biggest curve balls coming into Sundance was Land Ho! from duo filmmaking team Martha Stephens (Pilgrom Song) and Aaron Katz (Cold Weather, Quiet City), who share writing and directing duties. The two very distinct filmmakers seem to have pulled off the impossible in creating a touching and funny dramedy. The film was put into the “next” category (features with a budget under one-million dollars), but could have easily been right at home in the dramatic competition with its striking vision of Iceland landscape, thanks to Katz’ regular cinematographer Andrew Reed and acute realism and sensitivity in the script with flawless performances from both Australian actor Paul Eenhoorn and relative newcomer, Earl Lynn Nelson, playing Mitch and Colin. Mitch (Nelson) is feeling the urge to travel since his retirement and convinces his former brother-in-law Colin (Eenhoorn) to join him on a trip to Iceland. The two embark on an adventure neither of them expected: enjoying in fine restaurants, hiking through the hills, hitting all the Reykjavik hot nightclub spots, the hot springs and finding the best pot in the country to smoke. Much of the dialogue spoken between characters feels improvised, although, a certain few key scenes feel more scripted, one in particular of Mitch giving “love advice” to a newlywed couple staying in the same hotel, which garners huge laughs. Land Ho! is comfortable moving along without much of a narrative and in this case, the duo on-screen and off-screen create a plenty of tension without saying anything or very little, bringing attention to looming themes like ageism, loneliness and friendship. Both actors are aces, especially Nelson who plays the louder more brash Mitch, telling anyone what’s on his mind. Eenhoorn’s reserved Colin puts up with his antics, but also gives himself a chance to find happiness along the way searching for new terrain, Grade: A- (Land Ho! was picked up by Sony Picture Classics for U.S. distribution and will be released in 2014.)

After entering the stoner comedy genre in 2007 with Smiley Face and then diagnosing a sci-fi twist to various college students sexual awakenings in 2010’s Kaboom, prolific American independent writer/director/editor Gregg Araki dives back into full-blown dramatics for the first time since his 2004 breakthrough film Mysterious Skin with White Bird in a Blizzard, a rather disappointing feature from the always reliable Araki. Again adapting dramatic work from Laura Kasischke’s 1999 novel to the big screen, Araki’s film takes place in the mid 1980s with Joy Division, The Cure and New Order songs sprinkled into the story. Just in case  you didn’t know you were looking at bad wallpapering, ugly clothes, and obscure slang words spoken, Kat Connors (a luminous Shailene Woodley) is 16 and has fallen for the neighbor boy who is a bit of a dolt (Shiloh Fernandez), and begins to give into her sexual desires, all the while her homemaker mother Eve (a miscast Eva Green) has walked out on her and her dull father (Christopher Meloni). The two begin to wonder where Eve has run off too, and they enlist the help of a local detective (an underused Thomas Jane), and from Kat’s friends (including Gabourey Sidibe) in search for her missing mom and investigating to discover the truth. Kat soon begins dreaming of another world where her mother is around and vibrant, but in reality, she was distant, leaving Kat and her father to wonder if she’ll ever see her mother again. Araki’s heart is in the right place and nails many of the nuisances of the typical coming-of-age beats in preparing Kat for a bigger world outside of her small California town, but unfortunately much of Blizzard’s story is relatively flat and predictable and leaves too many opportunities unfulfilled. Beautifully shot by Sandra Valde-Hansen and production designer Todd Fjelsted fleshes out much of the story through frosty composition and sparkling clean interiors, giving the story a boost. But going in looking to get lost in this unpredictable mystery, I was ready to turn-around and look for the easy way home. Grade: C+  (White Bird in a Blizzard has not been picked up for U.S. distribution yet.)

Halfway into the festival, one usually hears buzz from certain titles playing over the opening star-studded weekend, but one of the most talked about titles had neither big names nor fireworks shooting from the sky. Jesse Moss’ North Dakota documentary, The Overnighters, delivered and lived up to the buzz and took home a special jury award for Intuitive Filmmaking.  A few years ago, the small town of Williston, North Dakota saw a significant surge in job opportunities thanks to the booming oil fields creating jobs, well “overnight,” and many people from around the U.S (mostly men, but some women) came to Williston to look for work. One of the major issues with all the people coming into town was there was no place for them to stay, that is until Pastor Jay Reinke opened up his doors at a Lutheran church to workers as a place to stay. (Many of the workers were sleeping in their cars in the church parking lot before they were accepted in.) What starts out as a good deed by Reinke soon frustrates the locals who are unsure about having semi-vagrants staying at their church, sleeping in the pews, and taking up space within the confides of the church. When one of the “overnighters’” criminal background is revealed, Reinke and his family must deal with the consequences and the layers of the onion slowly starts peeling off in this conflicting and dense story. Moss struck “fool’s gold” with his documentary; he started following this story almost from the beginning. In what originally felt like a 20/20 story, The Overnighters turns itself upside down by pulling the rug out from under you in the last 30 minutes, giving you a completely different perspective of the true nature of the many people looking for advice, help and shelter from Pastor Reinke. Trusting thy neighbor, The Overnighters may begin to question our acceptance and willingness in who really are our friends and how far will one go to keep the truth hidden? Grade: A- (The Overnighters has not been picked up for U.S. distribution yet.)

One of the more American exciting actors working these days, Dane DeHaan (Chronicle, Kill Your Darlings, The Place Beyond the Pines), was in one of the most talked-about films at Sundance, which was a surprise entry in the dramatic competition with writer/director Jeff Baena’s one-long running tedious joke of a romantic zombie comedy, Life After Beth, the rom-com-zom flick. When Beth (Aubrey Plaza) dies in the opening seconds of the film, Zach (DeHaan) is devastated and for some reason his own parents cannot relate to Beth’s death, so he starts hanging out with Beth’s parents (the excellent pairing of John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon) who begin treating him like their own son and begin the mourning of Beth. Soon Zach discovers that Beth has risen from the dead and is back home living with mom and dad again, being stored away in the attic. She’s also suffering from memory loss, and since she she was very close to breaking up with Zach, he sees this as a grand second chance with her. While this is good news for the family and Zach, Beth is a zombie and eventually zombies need to eat, soon her body starts to deteriorate and her antics become increasingly weirder and wilder (watching Plaza walk around with an oven strapped to her back is a worthy laugh.) However, Baena’s script (he co-wrote David O, Russell’s I Heart Huckabees) loses steam once Beth returns from the dead, the jokes seem to get more desperate and sporadic and never elevate into anything more than a bland combination of Shaun of the Dead and tirelessly zombie spoofs. Baena directs the material with plenty of energy and gives each actor their moment in the sun. But this hodgepodge of zombie love is not a clever or as funny and one would hope, especially wasting the talents of DeHaan, Reilly, Shannon and to some degree, the undead Plaza. Grade: D+ (Life After Beth was picked up by A24 for U.S. distribution and will be released first on DirecTV before opening up in theaters in the fall of 2014.)

Having already been a hit at Cannes, Telluride, and Toronto international film festivals, the delightful Indian film, The Lunchbox, will bring a smile and warm even the stoniest hearts out there. In Mumbai, a lunch delivery service known as “dabbawallas,” where drivers bringing lunches to workers all across the country, proves to not always be a perfect system, especially in the case of Saajan (Bollywood veteran actor, Irrfan Khan) who receives the wrong lunchbox. It immediately brightens his day—knowing it’s not his regular lunch but something special. Ila (wonderful newcomer, Nimrat Kaur) made the lunch intended for her husband and is surprised to learn that he has little to say about it when he comes home. When the next meal is delivered to Saajan, again from Ila, it has a note in it (again, intended for her husband) and Saajan replies and soon begins a long distance relationship between Saajan and Ila, even similar to online dating or dare I say You’ve Got Mail. In a completely moving secondary story, Saajan, who is close to retiring, has been given the task to train in Shaikh (a hilarious Nawazuddin Siddiqui) and the two begin sharing the meals that Ila provides and form a friendship, which really opens up Saajan from his moody demeanor about life, family, love and food. For first-time writer/director Ritesh Batra, The Lunchbox is a surprisingly simple and delicate love story, leaving the audience wanting more of the delicious noshes and observant humor that follows Ila and her never-seen auntie. Batra’s script is rich in character detail, full of life examining the local lives in Mumbai from the fast-pace nature of the crowded buses to the busy streets of the lonely or broken-hearted walking among the millions, embodying a dizzy spell of enchantment over these wonderful characters. All three performances are outstanding with Khan, best known to U.S. audiences from Life of Pi and the police inspector in Slumdog Millionaire, giving a brilliant performance and bringing a coy confidence to Saajan who is reeling in the loss of his wife, but looking forward to a new adventure as his career is winding down. Not to be outdone, Siddiqui, after a menacing performance in 2012’s Gangs of Wasseyrup, is downright perfect as the hungry up-and-comer co-worker who brings balance and retrospective to Saajan’s life. As Ila, Kaur is magnetic with a soulful face of promise and a glowing spirit of connecting with Saajan, and is lovely and just as exquisite as her cuisines. Grade: A (The Lunchbox will be released by Sony Picture Classics and is scheduled to open at Landmark’s Edina Theater on Friday, March 21, 2014.)

Best known as a comedian in Japan, writer/director Hitoshi’s Matasumoto’s fourth feature, R100, is as completely delirious as his previous efforts (Big Man Japan and Symbol) in both an absurdist and provocative approach in pushing the limits and securing his spot as a “cult” director to follow, even if R100 is somewhat of a mixed-bag. Going to work everyday at his boring job, Takafumi Katayama (Ichi the Killer star, Nao Ohmori) has decided to bring some excitement to his life and joins a mysterious S & M club called, “Bondage” and learns that there are very few rules in joining the club, one of them being you cannot get out of your contract, no matter the circumstances. Different “Queens” find Kayatama wherever he is and whether they are kicking him in public, humiliating him at work, or coming to his home where his wife lays in a coma, these dominatrix’s don’t stop coming after him. When he challenges the rules and wants out of his contact, the “Queens” come after him in a fury and their evil CEO, a seven-foot woman, flies into town from Singapore to take care of unsettled business. There are plenty of running jokes throughout the film, especially in one repeated motif of Kayatama “coming to his climax” appearing with a notably goofy grin after each scenario. Even its title R100 represents a poke at the Japanese film rating system, saying you should not be allowed to see it unless you’re 100-years-old, where most ratings are R15 and R18 for a standard American R-rated film. While there is also a fair amount of outrageous sequences, especially one involving the “Queen of Saliva,” R100 is relatively tame in shocking its audience and tiresome at times with many jokes losing momentum, only to end up winding down an unexpected road with a very unsatisfying conclusion into “B” movie hell.  Grade: B- (R100 will be released by Drafthouse Films and is scheduled to open in mid-2014.)

The five Sundance films that I missed that I would have loved to sneak into my schedule were Craig Johnson’s The Skeleton Twins starring Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader; the Australian psychological horror film The Babadook; John Michael McDonagh’s follow-up to the 2011 The Guard, again starring Brendan Gleeson in Calvary; the Human Rights-Emergency Team doc, E-Team and Joe Berlinger’s documentary on “Whitey” Bulger in Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger.

You can also listen to me talk on Minnesota Public Radio’s The Current with morning co-hosts Jill Riley and Steve Seel about the other music films I saw out at Sundance.

My next Park City report will be on the 20th anniversary of the Slamdance Film Festival, which took place concurrently during Sundance and where I managed to see some of the offerings up the hill on Main Street.