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Sundance Diary, Days 1-4: John Slattery’s Debut, Somali Pirates, and the End of Amateurism

After four days, it has become apparent that a sea change is complete. All the cynical worrying being done 10 years ago about what the invasion of the studios and the multimillion-dollar acquisitions would do to the movies here has created something new. Movies arrive more competent and expensive-looking than ever.

It was minutes before the premiere of the actor John Slattery’s idea of crime drama that my favorite act of public rudeness occurred at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. A large man in glasses, a large white sweatshirt, and a baseball cap had spied an available pair of balcony seats in the middle of an otherwise full row. We were at Park City, Utah’s Eccles Theatre, which spends the rest of the year housing assorted performing-arts events. There’s not much give between your knees and the backs of most of the 1,270 chairs. So an entrance or exit means, either out of necessity or involuntary courtesy, that one must stand in order to ease passage, especially in the balcony.

This guy, the one in the sweatshirt, didn’t bother with any of that; he just pulled his wife past seated people, who didn’t know what was going on. All they knew was that this man was happening to them. He shouted up to his friend who had also been looking for a place to sit. “That one! Take that one!” That one happened to be next to my seatmate, who just glowered at me. The man took the seat (only slightly less dramatically) as his friend crashed down in the chair.

In all my years of coming here I’ve overheard obnoxious cell phone calls. I’ve seen film critics yell at filmmakers. I’ve seen talent agents berate festival volunteers. But I’d never seen anything quite like this guy. And yet he also wasn’t that unfamiliar to me: the blind surliness, the mine-mine-mine determination, the accent. I honestly didn’t notice the baseball cap until he was seated. He turned it backward so the front faced me, and suddenly the commotion made sense: The cap had a Philadelphia Eagles logo. This guy wasn’t going to the movies. He was at Lincoln Financial Field.

I know what you’re thinking: How was the movie? Honestly, it was just like that guy: loud and indifferent to its surroundings. Slattery’s directed a handful of Mad Men episodes and has good taste in local color. But God’s Pocket is set in a Philadelphia neighborhood that looks like somewhere else. It’s taken from Pete Dexter’s first novel, from 1983. A butcher (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his mobster friends (including John Turturro) commit really low-level crime while a chronically drunk newspaper columnist (Richard Jenkins) hits on the butcher’s grief-stricken wife (Christina Hendricks).

Slattery never finds a tone. This is essentially a comedy, but he doesn’t know what kind. Some of the violence has a perfect cartoon physicality: A character gets whacked across the back of the head and practically floats to the ground. But when no one’s eyes are being poked out and sweet, old Joyce Van Patten isn’t holding a gun, the movie just sits there, catatonic. Slattery must know this. I think he believes that all the generically jaunty music will give the movie a personality. Removing it altogether would give it a better one.

♦♦♦

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God’s Pocket is competing for the dramatic jury prize, and after four days, it has become apparent that a sea change is complete. All the cynical worrying being done 10 years ago about what the invasion of the studios and the multimillion-dollar acquisitions would do to the movies here has created something new. Movies arrive more competent and expensive-looking than ever. Only part of this is the result of the Sundance Institute, which conducts screenwriting and directing labs, and often the results wind up in the programming block. That’s why you wind up with so many movies that have seemed so thematically similar and that share certain devices, and with shorts that become full-length films. I can’t prove that the rise of shock car crashes is the fault of the labs, but there are more than a couple here every year. But it’s the apparent availability of funding for some lucky directors that feels different. Now the car crashes look spectacular.

Fishing Without Nets is a thriller in the dramatic competition largely set on a ship hijacked by Somalis. The cast and language are mostly Somali. The cinematography is accomplished. The score would be at home in almost any chase action film. It has all the confidence and swagger missing from a lot of movies here. You’d never know it was made by a 27-year-old first-time director (Cutter Hodierne). It doesn’t have a young man’s naïveté or earnestness. But it also doesn’t have anything to say in the way a younger director usually would. It gives you the story of a young Somali villager whose wife and children have been taken by smugglers and held for a ransom while he’s conscripted into piracy.

The movie follows Captain Phillips and A Hijacking and would seem to be a corrective to the point of view of those films: Hodierne’s entire cast is Somali! Captain Phillips, of course, functions as both an international thriller and a critique of international thrillers. Fishing Without Nets doesn’t feel like a movie a Somali would choose to tell about himself. There’s too strong a whiff of cultural superiority (Vice’s film division is one of the producers). Look at me showing you this degradation and raw criminality, not as journalism but as entertainment. Look at these drug-addicted sadists with nothing but ideas. The protagonist has the face of an angel. The most villainous character has the face of a snake. You don’t feel good feeling better than a movie predicated upon this kind of desperation and foolishness, this kind of adventure tourism. You feel a different sort of seasick.

But, again, Hodierne is operating at an elevated level of competence. You see this movie and you know he’ll fit right in at the big studios. The innocence of amateurism might be over at Sundance. This is an advertisement for his talent. The same is true of Peter Sattler, whose first film, Camp X-Ray, premiered on Saturday. It’s a handsome-looking movie that walks a cleaner political line than Hodierne does. Kristen Stewart plays a Guantánamo Bay detention-camp guard who strikes a tentative friendship with Ali, one of the prisoners, who’s played by Peyman Moaadi, the husband from A Separation. Most of the film watches Stewart’s character go about her daily duties, and you worry that too much of it will be about this bland woman instead of the men whose cells she peeks into to ensure that they don’t take their lives.

There are too many bogus attempts at complicating the story, and even more wide-eyed revelations. “It’s not as black-and-white as they said it was going to be,” says Stewart. “I didn’t know they kept the lights on all night,” she says later. But eventually Sattler’s camera makes its way into Ali’s cell, and the film tries to open up. For one thing, Mooadi is giving a performance that, despite its showiness, dramatizes the moral-philosophical problem: Under circumstances as ambiguous as these, how does someone even this full of life not consider taking it? It’s hard not to spend this much time in this prison setting, noticing both the framing of Mooadi and Stewart — talking to each other by looking more or less into the camera — and Stewart’s ongoing evocation of a hard-knock Jodie Foster and not think about The Silence of the Lambs. There’s a similar, less perverse tenderness at work here that’s as naively optimistic as it is depressingly resolved. You’re curious to see where Sattler takes his big themes and polish next.

♦♦♦

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My favorite bad headlines so far have involved Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, a thriller about a student drummer (Miles Teller) and his flamboyantly sadistic jazz professor (J.K. Simmons). It’s been a hit here, and thus has inspired people to exclaim that Whiplash is giving people, you know. The movie’s skill is as exhilarating as the story is simple: The professor torments the drummer until he cracks. People are calling this Full Metal Drumkit.

Chazelle keeps the pot boiling. His camera dances and pivots and runs around rehearsal rooms and performance stages. It captures blood and sweat sautéing on cymbals. The movie gets at the insanity of wanting greatness. Chazelle is a musician, and he works with alarming cinematic musicality. This is his second film, and, formally, it couldn’t be more different from his first, a charming homemade black-and-white musical called Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench. It’s like watching a skateboard turn into a Ferrari.

Whiplash isn’t totally convincing. (What’s the professor’s thing with drummers?) It’s even accidentally problematic. This is a jazz movie about two white guys who love jazz, psychotically. A friend called the film race agnostic. Chazelle probably just cast the two best people for the part, and they’re both great (Teller plays his own instrument). But you’re not unaware of all the black men in the band just standing around while Teller and Simmons act all over each other.

But enthusiasm for this movie feels involuntary. Chazelle taps your knee and your leg flies up. The film is both idiosyncratic in its obsessive creation of a personal world and just blatantly audience-ready. Chazelle wants us to love this movie, and we do. He gives you what you want from certain directors: everything he has.

I felt the same way about Justin Simien’s Dear White People. Simien took his Twitter handle and turned it into a satire of race and college. The movie has an arch, self-conscious pretentiousness that initially puts you off. All the quips come in at about 160 characters. But you’re eager to know where Simien is taking this story and its two dozen ideas. Basically, the answer is everyplace. Still, he keeps the film and its handful of black and white high-education archetypes so deeply under his control that he can complicate each of them until they approach seeming human. The race riot that the movie builds to feels anticlimactic or perhaps redundant, but the film is funny, troublemaking, and oddly fair. The pretentiousness actually feels right for a campus. Simien taps one of Spike Lee’s veins for this movie (as well as Barry Jenkins and John Singleton): It has Lee’s energy and his many ways with a camera. But it doesn’t feel beholden to him. Simien has a voice and a point of view. The movie can only be as diagnostic about race as satire will allow. But its politics extend to the movies themselves. What else can black directors do with black characters than pain and suffering? Racism can be depressing — but it can be very funny, too. Simien is another of these filmmakers who come to this festival surprisingly fully formed. Unlike a few of my peers, I left his movie having no idea what he’d do next, but I would hit people in the head with a coat in order to see it.