Sundance 2015 Part One, by Matt Warren
Like the swallows returning to San Juan Capistrano, so too am I called back to my hometown of Park City, UT each year for the movie-adjacent gathering of selfie stick enthusiasts known as the Sundance Film Festival. As I have the past few years, I focused my attention on the back half of the festival, rolling up on Day 8 fresh-faced and armed with a divine mandate to evolve the field of entertainment journalism by any means necessary. Regrettably but not unexpectedly, approximately 100% of my film blogger brethren had already perished, their weak constitutions fatally poisoned by toxic levels of pure, uncut Sundancery. Their corpses have been bulldozed by city snow removal units into an undifferentiated mass of rotting peacoats and gray infinity scarves at the bottom of Swede Alley, the fetid smell of crushed iPhones and Warby Parkers rising high above the Wasatch Front, raining back down upon us as a plague of hot-take locust spewing forth in turgid, unholy rivulets from the baptismal fonts in the Mormon Tabernacle at Temple Square. What I’m trying to say is: the vibe here is always pretty subdued by this point, so thanks for sticking with me. Let’s get a’readin’.
I kicked things off with Tangerine, Sean Baker’s hugely entertaining tale of two transsexual prostitutes from Los Angeles and their day-long journey across the city on a mission to get their shit correct—the exact nature of which varies scene by scene, moment by moment. Along the way they splinter off, reconnect, and intersect with a colorful menagerie of pimps, Johns, drug dealers, bouncers, cops, and donut vendors. Also, it just happens to be Christmas Eve—with these ladies proudly putting the “ho” in ho, ho, ho. Things pop off over a sugary ghetto breakfast of sprinkle donuts when streetwalker Alexandra (Mya Taylor) accidentally lets slip to her BFF/co-worker Sin-Dee (Kiki Kitana Rodriguez) than Sin-Dee’s fiancé pimp Chester (James Ransome) has been messing around behind her back concurrent to her recent 28-day jail stint for pandering. Thus, the girls set off on a comically hotheaded rampage through Hollywood’s most colorfully downscale neighborhoods on a desperate quest to find and confront the two-timing gangbanger. Alexandra eventually breaks away for her own series of adventures involving a love-struck Armenian cab driver, bad business transactions, and a disastrous cabaret performance at the West Hollywood Hamburger Mary’s. It’s all very funny and surprisingly sweet, especially for a film that doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities of the street-level sex trade—from drug abuse, to violence, to the ever-looming threat of transphobic hate crimes. Executive produced by Jay and Mark Duplass, Tangerine wisely starts from the assumption that the life of a sex worker—while difficult—isn’t an inherently negative condition that automatically needs to be transcended or overcome. And whether you agree or disagree, it’s a valuable perspective to consider. Highly recommended.
Director Rodney Ascher’s Room 237 was my favorite film of Sundance 2012 so obviously his follow-up, The Nightmare, ranked extremely high on my list of “must-sees.” But if Room 237 was a home run, The Nightmare is unfortunately a mere ground-rule double. Ascher undoubtedly has his own unique aesthetic, and his “documentary horror film” about the terrifying phenomenon of sleep paralysis definitely feels like a product of the same tonal imagination that wrangled all of those wackadoo Kubrick close-reads into one of the most compulsively watchable films of the decade. That Ascher’s voice shines through so clearly here is no small accomplishment, as Nightmare primarily utilizes staged reenactment rather than re-contextualized movie footage—two completely different filmic techniques, the gulf between which we should all pause to acknowledge and appreciate. But Ascher doesn’t have anything much to say about sleep paralysis in particular. And at an investigative level, there’s nothing he seems to be trying to get to the bottom of. His only real interest seems to be in the reoccurring nightmare imagery associated with the condition, which is eerily similar from victim to victim in ways that will seem either totally creepy or utterly banal depending on your perspective. Luckily, this imagery gives Ascher plenty of material to play with, which results in an eclectic grab bag of unsettling set pieces involving aliens, spiders, Freddy Krueger, and—most disturbing of all—rollerblades. At times it feels a little like this is just Ascher’s audition reel for studio horror directing gigs, but the end product is effective nonetheless. The Nightmare is definitely worth seeing, but don’t rush to make it a priority.
The Forbidden Room
Technically, The Forbidden Room has been my official introduction to the work of director Guy Maddin. Despite my having been very aware of Mr. Maddin and his signature postmodern silent cinema aesthetic for at least a decade, this was somehow the first film of his I’ve actually seen. Now that I’ve gotten what I can only imagine is a weapons-grade dose of the cracked Canuck’s extra-dimensional nickelodeon fetishism, I can’t wait to dig into the rest of his filmography. The Forbidden Room is impossible to describe with any real indication as to the visceral experience of actually watching it, but I’ll try. Essentially a series of nested micronarratives, Room uses a diverse jumble of film formats and historical styles (German Expressionism, adventure serials, hygiene films, tropical vacation advertisements, etc. etc. etc.) to spin a seemingly endless series of surreal, darkly comic fables about identity, theft, and death. I couldn’t keep track, but there must’ve been at least 20 or 30 distinct storylines at work—highlights include the final moments aboard a doomed submarine, an unlucky romance between a mercurial bone doctor and a reckless female motorcyclist, a terrifying encounter between an amnesiac lounge singer and a Latin American vampire, and a noble woodsman’s folkloric attempts to rescue a lycanthropic damsel in distress. Cloud Atlas, Inception, and The Grand Budapest Hotel are all relevant structural reference points while Natural Born Killers and Todd Haynes’s Poison are the closest things I can think of in terms of formal construction. Plus it all moves at a breakneck pace. Seemingly no shot lasts longer than three or four seconds. In short, this thing was a fucking whirlwind—definitely the most watching I’ve done in two hours and fifteen minutes in my entire life. Exhausting, but extremely rewarding. Highly recommended if you don’t mind your brain being melted a little like so much shipboard blasting jelly.
No matter how many sedatives the neurologist prescribes, I can’t seem to stop talking shit about how not scary I found The Babadook. Luckily, if you want to see what a horror movie looks like when its making Matt Warren urinate on himself with shameful saline fright, look no further than Robert Eggers’ shriekingly spooky The Witch. Winner of the crown for “most accurately titled,” The Witch follows the supernatural travails of a family of Puritan settlers in 17th-century New England. Deemed an extremist even by the standards of Salem-era Protestantism, the family patriarch “Father” (Ralph Ineson) and his brood are exiled to a remote farm on the outskirts of an ominous forest. Unsurprisingly, the neighboring woodland is chock full of all sorts of primitive malevolent forces. One day, the family’s youngest, Baby Sam, disappears, seemingly the victim of an unfortunate wolf poaching. But things only get worse from there. Boldly, Eggars shows the baby’s actual, unambiguous, and much worse fate immediately within the film’s first ten minutes—a bold indicator of his confidence in both the material and his uncompromising approach to storytelling. For the next 90 minutes, The Witch gallops forward with relentless momentum. Its horror doesn’t cut any corners, and it never relies on cheap jump scares. It’s the real deal—smart, atmospheric, and unbelievably tense. I haven’t been this stressed by a horror film since Ben Wheatley’s Kill List. It’s a major achievement, and the clear winner of a very strong day overall.
The festival may be wrapping up, but I’ve still got plenty of coverage coming over the next few days. Thanks for sticking with me. See you tomorrow!