Live from the Sundance Film Festival: Tuesday, Jan. 21

January 22, 2014


I had my mind blown by a movie Tuesday, in the middle of another five-movie day at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.

And it was blown in 3D.

The film, “The Girl from Nagasaki,” was by photographer Michel Comte. A reworking of “Madame Butterfly,” it recasts the story – set in Nagasaki – in late 1950s Japan, with the title character a survivor of the atomic blast the leveled the city shortly before Japan surrendered to end WWII.

But Comte mixes and matches here, to dazzling effect: After a disturbingly beautiful 3D recreation of that bombing, Comte creates something that looks like a cross between Baz Luhrmann and David Lynch, by way of Robert Wilson. The aria “Un bel di” from Puccini’s opera rises to the surface of the soundtrack several times – but so does David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” (Pinkerton is now an American test pilot who becomes an astronaut).

Comte moves back and forth between forthright realism in telling the story of Cho-Cho San, seduced and abandoned by the American, and overtly theatrical images. Part of the conceit is that an elderly American (played by the elegant Christopher Lee) has come back to Japan; you get the impression that this is the elderly Pinkerton, who then watches a staged version of his own story.

But that staging is avant-garde, bloody and surreal, with elements of modern dance, classical tableaux, kabuki and opera, as well as conventional melodrama. Comte returns often to that staged version to emphasize the action or outline it in a more symbolic way. But then he’ll go to pure realism, taking the characters to the top of a volcano – or he’ll stage a rock-music video.

Anyone who reads me regularly knows of my antipathy for 3D. But Comte uses it to give depth to the imagery, to add a hallucinatory quality as he dissolves from one image to another. He’s not afraid, with some of the theatrical moments, to hold the scene in an unmoving mid-range master shot as the dialogue unfolds. As for the fourth wall – well, now you see it, now you don’t.

I came out of “The Girl from Nagasaki” thinking I’d never seen a film like that before. Bold, experimental, engagingly weird and sometimes just a little silly in its seriousness, “The Girl from Nagasaki” is the most adventurously artistic vision I’ve seen in years. It’s destined to be a movie for critics, rather than audiences, I’m afraid, because the public appetite for more oblique entertainment simply doesn’t exist on the scale necessary for a 3D release in theaters.

But if you ever get the chance, see it: Relax into it and just let it wash over you rather than trying to understand every single image. You’ll be amazed at what you come away with.

My day started with “Drunktown’s Finest,” a film full of newcomers set in a little town on the edge of a Navajo reservation in New Mexico. It focuses on three Native-American characters, whose paths cross in the course of a weekend, as each learns lessons about their identity – ethnically, spiritually and genderwise.

Sydney Freeland’s neophyte cast handle these stories with a minimum of overacting: a young man trying to join the army to better his family’s future; a college student searching for his biological parents; a transsexual who dreams of being in a pin-up calendar. It’s not a subtle film but, on the other hand, it doesn’t hammer its issues home. It’s a no-frills effort of solid if workmanlike storytelling.


Director Marjane Satrapi’s “The Voices” is a comedy-horror film about a disturbed young man named Jerry (Ryan Reynolds), who works in a bathtub factory and harbors a crush on one of the women in the accounting department (Gemma Arterton). Just one thing: He’s got a slight problem with hearing voices that urge him to do bad things.

Specifically, animals talk to him, particularly his nasty orange tabby, Mr. Whiskers. In a sharp-edged Scottish burr, the cat is the perpetual devil’s advocate while Jerry’s mastiff is the voice of reason. And did I mention the talking head in the fridge?

It’s a daringly colorful and chipper film, given that it’s full of people getting their heads chopped off. (Don’t even ask about the Tupperware.) But Michael Perry’s script suffers from the law of diminishing returns in terms of laughs, as the focus turns more and more to the horror.

I liked “Listen Up Philip,” which stars Jason Schwartzman as a more caustic, even-more self-involved writer than he played on the delicious comedy series, “Bored to Death.” Written and directed by Alex Ross Perry, it’s like a serious spoof of a certain kind of literary novel from the 1950s or 1960s – the kind about the young writer struggling to balance his art, his ambition and his personal life.

In this case, Schwartzman plays Philip, whose second novel is about to be published. He refuses to do a publicity tour, treats his girlfriend Ashley (Elisabeth Moss) shabbily and is invited by an aging author, Ike (Jonathan Pryce), to use his country home as a writer’s retreat.

Perry uses a voice-over narration (by Eric Bogosian) to explain Philip’s actions – and the writing is smart, witty, complex. But, having focused on Philip for the first third of the film, it suddenly shifts its focus to Ashley, and what becomes of her life after Philip leaves to teach at a college in Connecticut. Then, just as you settle in to following her, it shifts again, this time to Ike – and then back to Philip.

At heart, this movie consists of a lot of scenes of people talking at each other – usually about themselves. Its rapid-fire dialogue takes hairpin turns, both linguistically and emotionally. It’s a movie you have to pay attention to – which may be what ultimately dooms it.

My final movie of the day was “No No: A Dockumentary,” Jeffrey Radice’s look at the life and career of former Pittsburgh Pirates pitching ace Dock Ellis. And the film makes no bones about it: The movie opens with scenes from Ellis’ most famous career moment – the day he threw a no-hitter while tripping his brains out on LSD.

“If Dock was pitching, you knew he was high – the question was just how high was he?” Ellis says of himself, noting that he never pitched a game in the majors without being on drugs, whether he was smoking weed, gobbling massive quantities of uppers or snorting cocaine. Yet Radice shows that there was more to Ellis than just a hard-partying athlete.

In fact, he was an outspoken black man at a time when that was a bold and even dangerous thing to be. He went his own way and was not afraid to play the race card — because, in the late 1960s and into the 1970s when he played, racism could still be an overt force in daily life. Eventually, he retired from baseball, cleaned himself up and became a counselor for drug abusers.

“No No” is probably too long for its own good because, while colorful, Dock Ellis was still just a solid major leaguer whose one quirk has earned him that asterisk. It might work better as a one-hour doc on ESPN, which seems a natural home for it. Ellis died in 2008, but this film will earn him a new set of fans.

Well, that’s back-to-back-to-back five-movie days. I’ll spend one final day at Sundance Wednesday and then head for home Wednesday night. Tune in tomorrow for the wrap-up.

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