After about a half-dozen films, from a documentary about third-trimester abortions to an America high on cocaine in Chile, the first two days of the Sundance International Film Festival have come to a close. Alas, my Sundance virginity has been lost. It was bound to happen at some point.
I won’t prolong the roundup coverage of these first couple of days with small talk. Expect similar work to be published on Movie Mezzanine throughout this next week, alongside full reviews and featured interviews.
Oh, and one last bit: If any of you have suggestions as to what films I should keep an eye out for, please do leave a comment below.
Who Is Dayani Cristal? (Dir. Marc Silver)
Grade: D — Oozing with self-importance from top to bottom, Who Is Dayani Cristal? begins with a trio of border patrol officers discovering a decomposed body under a cicada tree. Upon further examination of this John Doe the officers discover a tattoo written on the chest of this dead man that reads: “DAYANI CRISTAL.” With no form of identification, the sympathetic officers make a concerted effort to discover who this man was, where he’s from, why he was migrating, and who is family is. This tiring, sluggish, and frustratingly one-sided depiction of immigration gives the viewer no breathing room – or rather, no room to think for yourself. Read the full review here.
Crystal Fairy (Dir. Sebastián Silva)
Grade: C — The hoopla surrounding Crystal Fairy is probably a bit more fascinating than the actual film itself. It has been reported that Chilean writer and director Sebastian Silva filmed Crystal Fairy adjacent to another film (with the same cast and in the same location) entitled Magic Magic (which is also playing here at Sundance). Perhaps this is why Silva’s wacky witty comedy about an obnoxious and impatient American traveling around Chile snorting cocaine and longing for the infamous San Pedro (a drug produced from cacti), feels horribly aimless. The editing is choppy and discordant — albeit a few brilliant sound design sequences where Jamie (Michael Cera) and his native Chilean friends partake in the Pedro. The dramatic elements toward the backend of the film feel forced and unnatural. But Silva does manage to encapsulate the experience of being with a selfish ass rather well (which is amplified by the sheer goodness of just about everyone around him). However, despite a downright hilarious opening 45-minutes and a performance from Gaby Hoffman that is equally refreshing and spontaneous (she prances around naked, offering sage advice on the tiresome road trip), Crystal Fairy looses itself in bland nothingness. Conversely, it lost me too.
Mud (Dir. Jeff Nichols)
Grade: B+ — Jeff Nichols takes an unexpected detour from the psychological horrors of Take Shelter with his latest film entitled Mud: a thoughtful coming-of-age drama driven by the limitless power of love – and the great lengths many of us go to find it, obtain it, and keep it. The titular protagonist (Matthew McConaughey) is a fugitive attempting to hold onto the final remains of his relationship with Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). Aiding the felon wanted for murder (and on the run from bounty hunters) are inquisitive teenage best friends Ellis and Neckbone. The youthful boys are helping this criminal reconnect with his lover for a couple reasons: a gun and love. As the three begin to form a friendship Ellis, naive and hopelessly romantic, confides in Mud as his parents consider divorce. Born and raised in Arkansas, Nichols’ sets the film in his homestate, on the banks of the Mississippi river. His depiction of what love can compel people to do and say is equally as authentic and honest as his portrait of this wetland. Gorgeously shot, perfectly cast, and beautifully realized, Nichols has solidified himself as an auteur that won’t be restrained to a specific genre.
After Tiller (Dir. Martha Shane and Lana Wilson)
Grade: C+ — In Kansas 2009 Dr. George Tiller, one of only five doctors who performed third-trimester abortions in the United States, was assassinated outside at his local Lutheran church. Following his death, the remaining four doctors continue his legacy, chronicled in After Tiller – a multi-dimensional documentary that offers an intimate perspective on abortion, and the people that have and perform them. As opposed to other documentaries that focus on pertinent social issues, directors Martha Shane and Lana Wilson don’t choose sides. The debate on whether abortion should be allowed – third-trimester or otherwise – is a fiery one that has transgressed into hateful, often dangerous protests, including death threats against the chronicled doctors and their families.
Nevertheless, After Tiller does not paint these four conscientious surgeons as the victims. Despite the film’s overall non-partisan illustration of this heated subject, you can’t help but get the sense that After Tiller would’ve been much more effective as a 30-minute documentary on ABC. At about the halfway mark, Shane and Wilson’s second feature film seems to be playing on repeat.
Grade: B — Illustrated beautifully in Dror Moreh’s Oscar-nominated documentary is the idea that wars can only be solved by words, not guns. While that may seem like a fairly elementary concept, The Gatekeepers is a deeply disturbing documentary that brings all our worst terrorism fears to fruition. For the first time in history all six former heads of the Shin Bet – Israel’s internal security organization (a company that scarcely speaks out or discloses information) open up in one-on-one interviews with Moreh. The stories they tell, the ideas they have, and the fears that live in them each day are engrossing to listen to.
Photos courtesy of Sundance festival site.