2014 Sundance Diary, Day 5: Memorable Characters Descend on Park City

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Average: 5 (1 vote)

Exhaustion is settling in but the movies have been consistently good to great. Four movies in a row that variably thrilled or entertained me but definitely left with strong impressions of unforgettable characters. And one of them may be a masterpiece.

We’ll start at the top. John Michael McDonagh, brother of Martin (“In Bruges”), who wrote and directed “The Guard,” has done something truly special with “Calvary”, a fascinating dissection of religion and its impact on an Irish community, or rather lack thereof. Brendan Gleeson gives us another amazing performance and McDonagh’s script challenges in unexpected ways. It’s a film that’s dense with dialogue and philosophical conversation that truly takes its time to come together. Like when you’re going home. As I watched “Calvary,” I had some difficult digging through its themes to the point that I wasn’t sure it worked at all until the very end, at which point I was nearly floored. And I still am. I can’t remember the last movie I’ve rolled around in my mind as much as this one. Almost like a sermon, it’s something designed to provoke conversation and thought not just on the way home but for the coming days.

Photo credit: Sundance

Gleeson plays a Priest named Father James Lavelle, the religious leader of a small town. The film opens with him taking confession. An unseen man tells the Father that he was abused horribly as a child by a Priest. Every other day, for years. While most would expect this battered soul to seek vengeance on a bad Priest, the man argues that such a move would get no attention. He’s going to kill a good man. He’s going to kill Father Lavelle, a week from Sunday. And the Father has that much time to get his life in order. Father Lavelle speaks to the members of his community, who may actually represent the seven deadly sins but I haven’t broken it down that much. There is a woman with an abusive husband (Chris O’Dowd) or boyfriend (Isaach De Bankole). It’s not clear which one is beating her. There’s the morbid town doctor (Aidan Gillen) and wealthy prick (a great turn from Dylan Moran). And the Father’s daughter (Kelly Reilly), who has recently attempted suicide shows up on the scene. (The GREAT M. Emmett Walsh and Marie-Josee Croze also co-star).

Largely through conversations about faith and the diminishing purpose of religion in modern life, “Calvary” paints a picture of an old-fashioned community and its declining need for a church. What role is Father Lavelle serving? Will anyone miss him when he’s gone? He talks to people who need him and those who definitely have turned their back on the church. And the Father’s stolid countenance begins to crumble as Sunday draws near. “Calvary” is challenging, remarkably performed, and stunningly brilliant. I have liked it more with every minute since it ended and I can’t wait to see it again.

Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter
Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter
Photo credit: Sundance

My other three films since my last missive have varying degrees of quality but fall short of the brilliance of “Calvary.” Having said that, I was fascinated by The Zellner Brothers’ “Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter”, one of the most unique films you’ll see this year and one of the most gorgeous as well (with award-worthy cinematography by Sean Porter). Rinko Kikuchi (“Babel”) plays the title character, a fragile, unusual Japanese woman who has become obsessed with finding a treasure that she believes an American film has laid out for her to find. The film? Joel & Ethan Coen’s “Fargo”.

Kumiko watches a nearly-broken tape of “Fargo” over and over again, trying to figure out where Steve Buscemi’s character buried that money in the snow and she eventually ends up in the United States. As she encounters locals who think all Asian people are the same (giving her a copy of “Shogun” to read to or taking her to a Chinese restaurant), the film approaches something brilliant about cultural confusion. Just as the locals think Kumiko’s Japanese can be translated by a Chinese restaurant owner, Kumiko thinks a movie about “Fargo” that claims to be based on a true story is. It’s a defiantly unusual film but it’s always gorgeous and entertaining, verging on brilliant.

20,000 Days on Earth
20,000 Days on Earth
Photo credit: Sundance

One man who is definitely brilliant is Nick Cave, the subject of the unique “20,000 Days on Earth”, a music doc…sorta. Cave allows us into his life and his process but not in the ways you might expect from a film like this one. Just as he always has, he approaches the work from a different angle. It makes sense that a film about a distinct musician would have a distinct personality all its own. The first thing is that there’s more conversation in “Earth” than music. Most of the tunes featured come from the recording process for his stellar “Push the Sky Away,” and so don’t go into it looking for a Greatest Hits. Through narration that approaches poetry and fascinating conversations (often with recognizable faces like Ray Winstone and Kylie Minogue), Cave sketches the life of a self-proclaimed cannibal — someone who takes the human experiences around him, digests them, and turns them into music. It’s a fascinating flick, especially for fans of the artist.

Finally, there’s the tender “Land Ho!”, a buddy comedy about two old friends taking a trip to Iceland. The GREAT Paul Eenhorn of “This is Martin Bonner” stars as Colin, a man in a bit of a funk after a few of life’s speed bumps. Old friend (and former relative) Mitch (Earl Lynn Nelson) considers it his duty to cheer up Colin and so plans a trip for the pair. They jet off to Iceland, meet some locals, spoke some weed, and just generally hang out. Some of that hanging out can be too slow for the film’s good. I loved the first act, which plays almost like an “Odd Couple” remake with Mitch’s larger-than-life personality (he’s downright raunchy and smokes more weed than RZA) balancing Colin’s lower speed. Sadly, “Land Ho!” meanders a bit too often for its own good. It’s fun and I think it could do well on the arthouse circuit but the opening act and the talent of the stars set me up for something greater than the trip delivered.

Only two films left here in Park City and I don’t even know what one is — a secret screening of a “highly-anticipated work by a major filmmaker”. And then one final midnight show. I’ll be back tomorrow with a final wrap-up and then a best of piece later this week or early next. Stay tuned.

HollywoodChicago.com content director Brian Tallerico

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