Sundance 2016: Day 1

So this was my first Sundance! Also sort of my first film festival. My parents have been attending Sundance for years now, and this year is special, because they have actually executive produced a film that was in the festival this year (How to Tell You’re a Douchebag)! As a bit of a celebration they brought me along, and so I’m going to be cataloging all the movies I saw with little reviews, along with bigger reviews for any of the pictures I see that I think deserve it. Friday was my first day, and I was able to see three movies. Belgica, Morris from America, and the already controversial Swiss Army Man. Let’s dig in!

Belgica

Director: Felix van Groeningen
Writers: Arne Sierens, Felix van Groeningen
Stars: Stef Aerts, Tom Vermeir, Stefaan De Winter

A film about two brothers in Belgium who own a bar called the Belgica. It’s about their loving but turbulent relationship as their business expands and changes until they reach a breaking point. The movie has themes about love through hardship, about the immigration thing in the EU, about fatherhood and brotherhood. All told, it was a pretty nice start to the fest. It’s a really good film with two strong central characters who are deeply developed. On the other hand, it’s a bit overstuffed, with a lot of different plot threads that usually all inform the characterization of the two brothers but feel like a lot by the end. Two strong female characters are totally pushed aside for the focus on the male characters, and it feels like a huge missed opportunity. The film is about the relationship between the brothers, but the women in their life could have offered the film a lot more emotional complexity, even just by recognizing other relationships they had with characters who were also deep and complex people. While it ended up not being one of my favorite films of the fest, it did set a high bar, especially since I had never really been to a film festival before and had the reaction of “Oh, all these films are going to actually be good, aren’t they?”

 

Morris from America

Director: Chad Hartigan
Writer: Chad Hartigan
Stars: Markees Christmas, Craig Robinson, Carla Juri, Lina Keller

A film about a black boy whose father works as a soccer coach in Germany. He’s big, he’s black, and he’s into gangster rap, so he is totally alienated by his German peers (although notably he spends a bit too much of his time with kids a few years older than him). Of course he falls in love with a German girl and tries to prove he’s worthy of her by pretending to do drugs with her and then in his own way by busting his own rhymes. An excellent film that while a bit predictable uses its basic fish out of water premise as well as boy meets girl type structure to full effect. And Morris, being a black kid in germany, is certainly something we don’t see every day. Some great performances really elevate the film into great territory. Specifically Craig Robinson, who is just as good at drama as he is at comedy, and Markees Christmas, who is a real find. Even his name screams “movie star”. This kid is going places. While I don’t feel like this movie was “for” me, it has a lot going for it. There’s a really awkward and cringe inducing scene with a pillow that I did feel on an emotional level, and which I hope doesn’t become the selling point of the movie. Again, relatively predictable for what it is (a fish out of water story combined with a boy meets girl story) that manages to still feel fresh.

Swiss Army Man

Directors: Daniel Kwan, Daniel Scheinert (The Daniels)
Writers: Dan Kwan, Daniel Scheinert
Stars:  Paul Dano, Daniel Radcliffe, Mary Elizabeth Winstead

OH MY GOD. What an amazing experience it was watching the premiere of this movie. I’m so glad that The Daniels ended up taking the Jury Prize for directing at Sundance. I went into this movie expecting basically Castaway with Daniel Radcliffe, but what I got was something I can honestly say I had never seen before. There’s a lot of ways to describe this movie: a 90 minute fart joke, a suicidal man tries to convince a corpse that life is worth living, the continuing saga of Daniel Radcliffe taking truly bizarre roles to distance himself from Harry Potter enough to have a really great career, or my favorite, the movie my Dad hated almost enough to make his worst Sundance movie of all time. Basically, the movie is about Paul Dano’s character, Hank, who has been stranded on an island for an indeterminate amount of time, and is on the verge of killing himself when Daniel Radcliffe’s body washes ashore. Dubbing the body “Manny”, Hank is able to ride the body to shore like a jet ski propelled by the corpse’s farts. I don’t want to give too much away, but soon afterward, Manny begins talking, and Hank has to remind the Manny, who has amnesia, what life is like and why its worth living. And I can also let slip that Manny is the eponymous Swiss Army Man, and jet propulsive farts aren’t the only tools he provides to allow Hank to survive. Swiss Army Man is beautifully directed, beautifully scored, and beautifully themed. I keep honestly wondering why people walked out of the theater during this film, but I suppose a 90 minute fart joke, even one that contains beautiful thoughts about the meaning of shame in our lives, isn’t for everyone? I don’t really understand that, but I guess that’s why they don’t understand Swiss Army man and why this was my 2nd favorite movie of Sundance this year, and one of only 3 films I awarded 4 out of 4 on my audience ballots.

 

Honorable mention: I actually missed one film on this day, because Swiss Army Man started almost 30 minutes late. That film was Operation Avalanche, which I did not have another opportunity to see but am very interested in seeing. My Dad saw it and said he enjoyed it, and that the Q&A was fascinating because it was essentially made for no money and yet is about faking the moon landing. Another one to look out for, that I will have to look out for with you.

Here’s the link to Day 2, the second part of my Sundance reviews.

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