Sundance 2015 Part Four, by Matt Warren
So I’m back, refreshed and erect behind the ergonomic standing deck in my corner office at Battleship Pretension world headquarters in beautiful Gordita Beach, CA, dictating the introduction to my fourth and final Sundance blog of the year to my beautiful Icelandic secretary Sigursteina while sipping a café au lait from the first-floor bistro and simultaneously itemizing my ten-thousand dollars worth of expenses to submit to Messrs. Tyler and David. Is that Mr. Nye on the conference line? Tell him we’ll catch up at Dan Tana’s tonight after the secret blood rituals. And if he could please, please, please bring the good mescaline this time. None of that Taos turquoise-jewelry bullshit. Thanks, Siggy. Anyways, where was I? Oh yeah—Sundance 2015 was a lot of fun. And like always, I’m totally burned out right now. Inevitably around this time I begin to debate with myself whether or not I feel like doing this again, but spoiler alert: I will. I guess I just can’t stay away. So with a bittersweet farewell, here are my final two reviews of the festival. Enjoy!
All of my tickets for Day Four were listed as “TBD,” and it’s always fun to see what sort of hand fate deals you with these on the actual day. And despite the fact that I never see even a quarter of what’s playing at the festival, I inevitably draw at least one film that I’ve already seen—and usually, for some reason, it’s some heady, slow-paced documentary I’m not exactly starved to revisit. It’s just how it goes; you eat the cost of the ticket and move on. This year was no different. I initially had three TBDs on Sunday, one of which turned out to be Western. But another was (T)ERROR, and while I’d seen the film listed in the festival program I hadn’t give it much thought. But I’m extremely glad I got to check it out. Other festival round-ups have compared this documentary to Citizenfour (which I haven’t seen yet), which should give you some idea as to its effectiveness as a tense, politically-charged thriller unfolding in real time. Directed with astonishing access by filmmakers Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe, (T)ERROR goes deep undercover with a FBI informant known as “Saeed” in gloomy Pittsburgh as he investigates and tries to build a case against “Kahlifah,” an Anglo-born American Muslim suspected of plotting terror attacks. Unbeknownst to his FBI handlers, Saeed invites the filmmakers into his safe house, where they observe the tense game of cat-and-mouse unfold. The embittered, weed-smoking Saeed, a disillusioned veteran of the Black Power movement, rants and raves against his assignment, the modern Muslim community, and, especially, the filmmakers themselves. It’s an unprecedented look inside the workaday life of covert ops, chronicling moments both drama-filled (eventually Kahlifah begins to suspect that he’s being set up) and mundane (Saeed watches Homeland—he likes it.) The film includes an astonishing 3rd Act twist that I won’t spoil, but suffice to say that a documentary about the making of this documentary would be equally riveting. It’s a great flick—highly recommended.
Josh Mond’s gritty character study James White was the winner of Sundance’s “no really, these films actually are independent” category NEXT, always one of my favorite sections of the festival. I had hoped the award might be given to the very deserving Tangerine, but selfishly I’m glad James White won so I could add an extra film to my tally (my ticket was specifically for the NEXT Audience Award winner.) White follows approximately five months in the life of its titular anti-hero: an angry 20-something New York City rich kid reeling from the death of his estranged father and mother’s terminal cancer diagnosis. Played in a very good lead performance by ex-Girls regular Christopher Abbott, James is a sweaty, scruffy, coke-snorting, fight-provoking loose cannon. He cheats on his underage girlfriend, shows up late and drunk to job interviews, and picks fights with everyone, from too-loud sorority girls, to best friends, to his rapidly-fading mom. The film doesn’t apologize for White’s behavior or ask you to feel sympathy for him, but it does an amazing job of letting you inside his head (frequently through the use of extreme close-ups), making sure that his actions are at the very least understandable. But White isn’t just the black hoodie version of Bad Lieutenant. The film’s second half focuses heavily on the slow decline of James’s mom, played with thoughtfulness and wit by a never-better Cynthia Nixon. So really, that part of the movie is more like the black hoodie version of Amour. Mond is part of the same filmmaking group that also includes Martha Marcy May Marlene’s Sean Durkin and Simon Killer’s Antonio Campos. I like both of those movies (also Sundance entries, incidentally) better, but the grouping should at least give you an idea of White’s chilly, downtempo tone. James White isn’t the kind of movie that exists to be enjoyed, necessarily, but it’s good. Fans of this unofficial indie film grouping should definitely check it out.
Well, that’s Sundance for another year. Thanks for being my invisible wingwoman/wingman along this journey, and be sure to watch for these films over the course of the following year. It was a solid festival, and these flicks deserve to be seen. See you in PC and beyond!