Sundance 2014 Part Two, by Matt Warren
Welcome back to the thrilling, sexually dynamic adventures of a non-professional film blogger embedded deep within the Seattle’s Best Coffee cabanas and dine-in Pizza Huts of Park City’s de-militarized “Gingham Zone.” As I write this, the awards for the 2014 Sundance Film Festival are just being announced. And just as I feared/suspected/don’t really care about, most of the awards are going to films I haven’t actually seen.
Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash claimed both the Grand Jury Prize and U.S. Dramatic Audience Award—a rare feat historically, but the second year in a row, after Fruitvale Station last year, that a single film has swept both awards. Rich Hill, directors Tracy Targos and Andrew Palermo’s portrait of small-town America (or something), got top documentary honors. Other winners included Fishing Without Nets, The Case Against 8, The Skeleton Twins, and Dear White People.
I hope you weren’t expecting to read about any of any of these titles here, ‘cause #god had other #plans for you and me #both. Luckily, most of the movies I’ve seen have been pretty-good-to-great. What are they, you ask? Well stop asking. I’m about to tell you.
Jamie Marks is Dead
Most of what works about adolescent ghost fable Jamie Marks is Dead feels like it’s on loan from other, better movies. Much of the basic imagery and set-up is straight out of Twin Peaks and River’s Edge. The dirty, chalk-white body of titular murder victim Jamie Marks—a ruthlessly bullied high school nerd in fey Harry Potter glasses—is found on the banks of an isolated woodland river, sending shockwaves through the cloistered, small-town logging community nearby.
None are more deeply affected by Jamie’s death than good-guy jock Adam (Cameron Monaghan). It doesn’t help that Jamie’s ghost starts appearing outside Adam’s bedroom window, begging him to be his friend and drawing him dangerously close to the other side. Meanwhile, the damp, grey-green color palette is calls to mind Gus van Sant’s Paranoid Park/Last Days/Elephant run of films, and the pale, sopping wet ghosts are pure J-horror. But while the film may get and “A” for atmospherics, the overall effect of what’s on the screen is far less than the sum of its parts.
Director Carter Smith is a Sundance vet, having previously directed the short film Bugcrush, but his main claim to fame is the Paramount horror release The Ruins. JMID is a good-looking film, but the characters are thinly drawn, and the film’s supernatural architecture is poorly defined. And it doesn’t help that aside from Noah Silver as Jamie’s lonely, angst-ridden spirit, the performances (including Judy Greer and Liv Tyler in small roles) are uniformly poor.
JMID isn’t terrible, but I had a hard time finding much meat on its bleached, protruding bones. If Netflix ever pushes this title on you in a “Ghosts Who Don’t Know They’re Dead” carousel, just skip it and go straight to Carnival of Souls instead.
We Come As Friends
I can pretty much sum up the thesis of Academy Award-nominated documentarian Hubert Sauper’s chronicle of contemporary Sudan thusly: shit over there is fucked, and it’s never going to get un-fucked.
Floating—literally and aesthetically—in a rickety biplane from one dire vignette to another, Sauper stitches together an impressionistic portrait of a nation divided againt its own future. Sauper suggests that Sudan, the once-powerful “breadbasket of civilization,” is broken beyond repair, owing to centuries of colonialist exploitation and competing domestic social interests.
But this isn’t some finger-wagging activists’ treatise or dryly-informational MSNBC field report. The dreamlike camera calls to mind the cloudlike eye-of-god from such films as Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void and Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire. Without comment or editorializing, the film glides across the newly divided African state providing brief episodic sketches of a diverse range of players including Chinese oil developers, Jesus-loving Texas missionaries, puffed-up military leaders, aloof United Nations reps, cavalier soldiers of fortune, oil-hungry American entrepreneurs, and more.
We also meet plenty of actual Sudanese people, who seem just as confused and conflicted about the state of their nation as anyone. With variable levels of education and political sophistication, they express hope, fear, doubt, greed, lust, anguish, cruelty, ignorance, and more—the entire spectrum. But to foreign interlopers, these citizens represent little more than just another natural resource, ripe for leverage.
We Come As Friends argues that colonialism is a chronic and incurable virus. And as a cinematic experience, it’s equal parts exhausting and illuminating.
Director Adam Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett made a big splash in horror-nerd circles last year with the smart, suspenseful home-invasion thriller You’re Next—the best movie ever made about how uncomfortable it is to borrow money from your parents as an adult. Like all Americans with taste and intelligence, I loved You’re Next. Which is why I’m happy to report that duo’s follow-up, The Guest, is equally awesome.
The most purely fun movie I saw at Sundance this year, The Guest is a deliciously heightened psychological thriller—the kind of movie Brian De Palma wishes he still knew how to make. It’s a modern-day menace-melodrama in the Cape Fear/Night of the Hunter mold, sprayed down with a thick acrylic finishing coat of 1980s John Carpenter. And just using myself as a representative example, I predict sophisticated genre fans will rub their face and whiskers all over this one like a big fat tabby going bugfuck on a piece of catnip.
With a scraggly beard and drawling Texas accent, ex-Downton Abbey star Dan Stevens is completely unrecognizable as a deranged Iraqi War vet who mysteriously appears on the doorstep of a fallen comrade and begins to insert himself into their lives. At first, his presence seems like a dream come true to the grieving family. It then a nightmare, then…well, you’ll just have to watch it for yourself.
As with You’re Next, Wingard and Barrett demonstrate an absolute command of tone. The film is juuuust campy enough to be fun without curdling over into sour candy or undercutting the gravity of its violent moments. Part Uncle Buck, part Drillbit Taylor—but with a higher body count than both of those films combined, plus the first two Texas Chainsaw movies.
And let’s take a second to praise Dan Stevens. Not just for his flawless performance, but for his shrewd decision to take on this role at this point in his career. If The Guest is as big a hit as it deserves, it should go a long way toward establishing an identity for the actor apart from Downton’s courtly Cousin Matthew.
So how to wrap up here? If you dig the pure pleasure of a well-made genre movie and aren’t adverse to a little—or a lot!—of bloodshed, then invite this Guest into your house. There we go. Nailed it.
Check back soon for my third and final Sundance journal, which will feature even more scintillating prose, pornographic wordplay, and macabre incantations toward old-world demonology. Cheers!