Thursday, January 24, 2013

Dispatches from Sundance 2013: 3

Ray Taras regularly reviews world literature for the Campaign for the American Reader and has represented the site at the Sundance Film Festival since 2008.

Taras's third report from Sundance 2013 (read Dispatches from Sundance 2013: Part 1 & Part 2):

When not celebrity spotting, a phenomenon to watch at Sundance is how films work their way from obscurity and out of the pack to make their mark on audiences and critics. Just about everyone agreed even before the festival began that a movie premiere to relish was going to be Stoker, a family drama directed by South Korean Chan-Wook Park and starring Mia Wasikowska and Nicole Kidman. While it has lived up to audience expectations, let us highlight a breakthrough film for director-writer Francesca Gregorini - Emanuel and the Truth about Fishes.

Its strong showing has not come totally as a surprise. The Hollywood Reporter had already identified Emanuel’s young star, Kaya Scodelario, as the number one “face to watch” at Sundance 2013. The British actor aces her character role as a rebellious and unmanageable seventeen-year-old; I might know something about this being the father of a teenage daughter.

(click to enlarge)
But it is poignancy that pervades this film: a daughter who lost her mother at her birth and has searched for a replacement; a middle-aged woman (sensitively played by Jessica Biel) who is the new next-door neighbor and who in turn lost her baby and created an improbable substitute; and a stepmother who valiantly attempts to assume a maternal role but is repeatedly rebuffed.

Particularly noteworthy in the film is Gregorini’s brilliant dialogue which lets us in on some secrets of female anxiety all too often glossed over or oversimplified. Hollywood Reporter reviewer Justin Lowe put it this way: “Gregorini's script creates an almost entirely feminine world…, and the women navigate primarily by emotion and intuition.”

If the transformation of Emanuel from the troubled teenager we encounter at the start of the film to a melancholic wistful young woman at the end is plausible and realistic, then the plot makes use of a number of convenient and contrived devices that have the stability of a house of cards. Accordingly Lowe concludes that “The film will certainly charm on the festival circuit, although theatrical breakthrough will require unconventional marketing to preserve the disconcerting mystery central to the narrative.”

That is true of many Sundance films. So we should remind ourselves that suspending disbelief offers an entrée to many of life’s mysteries.

(click to enlarge)
Outlaws, shootouts, prison escapes, and Texas Rangers in a film set in Texas: insufferable set of clichés or irresistible addiction? Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, in every aspect an aptly-titled movie, quickly established a large following this week in Park City. While we’ve heard its story line before, director-writer David Lowery uses the Texas Hill Country to create an evocative mood-saturated narrative that interposes the senses of separation, longing, and finally fate on captivated viewers.

Dialogue is rudimentary, as it must be, but in key places incomprehensible, as it need not be. The Texas twang is so pronounced that some critical lines just cannot be made out – and I speak as someone married to a Texan. Just about every character in the film – fugitive outlaw, forgiving Ranger, forlorn wife – is one we sympathize with. There may be a cottage industry for making such films about Texas, but it’s all to the good.

(click to enlarge)
Not Alexander Skarsgård but writer-producer-actor Brit Marling anchors the spy thriller The East directed by Zal Batmanglij. She turns in a powerful performance as double-agent in-the-making while employing the genre of industrial espionage film to expose the outrageous lies and deceit practiced by pharmaceutical corporations, water companies, and even security firms. Marling raises the timeless question whether citizens should use violent or nonviolent means to resist corporate lawlessness and injurious practices.

The resisters in this film are made up of a youthful anarchist collective. Skarsgård’s character is a dumpster diver who trolls for healthier discarded food than “fresh” products sold in supermarkets. Some of the ritualistic performances conducted by the collective – touching, hugging, and feeding each other – do not ring through for the politicized culture of anarchists. Given that two of them had recently been students at Brown and Stanford, becoming déclassé this quickly and thoroughly requires additional cues and props from the screenwriter for us to surrender our skepticism.

Marling’s character has a foot in both worlds. She goes undercover and gets dirty so as to infiltrate the collective, because she is employed by a top-of-the-line private security company that looks after America’s 1%. Her growing ethical doubts about what she is doing are portrayed insightfully. The arguments about use of violence or nonviolence are advanced intelligently. And given how effectively tension is built as we near the film’s climax, not everyone may be satisfied by the last trick Brit Marling pulls out of her bag. But I thought it was extremely clever.

(click to enlarge)
One of the most uninteresting films I’ve seen this week is C.O.G., adapted for film from a work by humorist David Sedaris. It is directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez whose 2009 Easier with Practice was also a road trip drama. The main character is a clean-cut student from Connecticut wearing a preppy sweater with a “Y” emblazoned on it. Before rushing to the apparent conclusion that the letter stands for Yale, consider whether it may not be for the “Y” in Brigham Young University.

Jonathan Groff, who has starred in soaps, is cast well as an awkward, peachy-faced, and all-too-vulnerable apple-picker come to the Northwest to escape mother, college, and unwittingly girlfriend. His encounters, whether with Mexican seasonal workers, women factory workers, or American gays, are edgy. But it is his relationship with a Christian evangelical that turns out to be the most sacrilegious.

There may be dead-pan humor in the film script if we listen close enough. For the most part, though, the film is about as bland as what the letters “C.O.G.” – Child of God – turn out to stand for.--Ray Taras

Ray Taras is professor of political science at Tulane University in New Orleans where he also directed its World Literature Program until Hurricane Katrina forced its closure. Comparative literature and world cinema have been teaching and research interests of his for many years.

--Marshal Zeringue