Matt’s Sundance Diary: Part One, by Matt Warren
For the first time in a long time Park City looks like it should during Sundance. It’s been storming steadily, and the entire city has been coated with an aesthetically pleasing, Revenant-esque top layer of gleaming, cocaine-white snowfall.
But that’s not the only thing that’s different this year. For the first time since I started covering this beat for our cruel Battleship Pretension overlords I’ve been joined in Park City by my hated BP rivals Scott Nye and David Bax. No doubt you’ve already been thrilling to David and Scott’s (the latter for our pals over at Criterion Cast) only partially mescaline-fueled film reviews and been thinking, “This is all well and good, but where’s Matt’s coverage?”
Well—no wine before its time, children. But lo, you’ve waited long enough. Here’s the first installment of my 2016 Sundance Diary, conjured into existence via blackest magic for your reading pleasure. Enjoy!
The animated documentary is a curious form that’s been ascendant for a while now, and my first flick of this year’s SFF certainly fits snugly into the genre. Directed by Our Nixon’s Penny Lane, NUTS! Tells the unlikely tale of Dr. John R. Brinkley, early-20th century surgeon and “pioneer” in the field of impotency treatment, as well as one of radio’s earliest celebrity broadcasters.
Why the scare quotes around “pioneer” in the last paragraph? Well, it may have something to do with Brinkley’s signature treatment for clearing up potency issues. For a not-unsubstantial fee, Brinkley would surgically attach Billy goat gonads to your mangled danglers and boom! Just like that you’d be jizzing like Old Faithful.
If you’ve never heard of this particular procedure, well…there’s a good reason. A big part of NUTS!’ aim is to celebrate the outsized hucksterism of the old, weird America—particularly that of Brinkley’s 1920s-40s heyday—while also acknowledging the scope of public harm done by Brinkley’s class of self-styled anti-establishment iconoclast and media hog.
There’s no way this parallel was intentional, but I was reminded of Donald Trump as Brinkley’s story devolved from curio to cautionary tale. NUTS! takes a bit to get where it’s going, but once it does the effect it—wait for it—potent.
The Illinois Parables
I came to my screening of Deborah Stratman’s The Illinois Parables directly from a long day tearing up some gnar gnar pow pow at one of Park City’s world-renowned ski mountain conglomerates. As such, I was bone-tired, mentally feeble (more than usual!) and not at all prepared to receive such an abstract and slow-moving piece of filmmaking. Was I dozing a bit? Guilty as charged. So take my reaction in context.
Told in eleven brief chapters covering everything from the Trail of Tears to the expulsion of Mormon settlers outside Nauvoo to shootouts between the Black Panthers and the Chicago PD, Parables chronicles a dozen or so unsavory chapters in the long history of our cherished, deep-dish-and-Ditka-friendly 21st state—thumbnail sketches charting a span of roughly 400 years.
The material is presented in a deliberately confused jumble of new footage, archival clips, found audio, 16mm landscape photography, old newspaper clippings, and Brechtian historical reenactments. It’s sort of like if Sufjan Stevens’ Come On Feel the Illinoise and Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil made dirty heartland sex and had a baby—except somehow not that compelling.
I don’t know. I feel like there would be plenty of people out there who might enjoy The Illinois Parables, but evidently I’m not one of them. So forgive me, Sufjan. I’ll try to do better next time.
Between Sea and Land
What is it with quadriplegics and movies with the word “sea” in the title? Okay, so taken as a duo this film and The Sea Inside hardly constitute a trend, but I have to start this review somehow, dammit.
Coming from Columbia, Between is the first film by director Carlos Del Castillo. And while its not perfect, it’s a promising debut. Set in the maritime slums along the Columbian coast, the movie follows the story of Alberto (a terrific Manolo Cruz, also the film’s screenwriter), who lives with his mother Rosa (Vicky Hernández, equally strong) aboard a floating shack along an expansive coastal inlet somewhat reminiscent of the ad-hoc dwelling featured in another Sundance favorite, Beasts of the Southern Wild.
Alberto suffers from some sort of cerebral palsy-like muscular disease that’s left his body twisted and calcified. Rosa dotes on him, doing her best to keep his soul aloft as the no-hope bleakness of Alberto’s immobilized adulthood begins stretch out in front of them.
There’s also a forbidden fruit love interest in the form of pretty neighbor Giselle (Cecilia Salcedo, fine), a manic pixie dream girl en español who is single-mindedly devoted to Alberto, despite Rosa’s fear that the only outcome of the coupling is surefire heartbreak.
Sea is pretty good. The setting and production design are especially strong. But the film is a bit melodramatic, which at times seems out of step with the tone established elsewhere in the movie. But overall, Sea is a recommended watch for fans of international art house cinema.
So that’s Day One in the books. Stay tuned to this URL to see what other Sundance titles fall beneath the beveled scythe of my madcap prose. Only the gods know for sure, but all will be revealed in due couse. As Room’s Old Nick might say, “keep it locked.”