Sundance Reviews: 'All Your Dead Ones' and 'The Oregonian'
Brief reviews of a Colombian drama and a Midnight movie
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PARK CITY - I had a rough penultimate day at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival.
Due to interviews for "I Melt With You," I lost a morning of possible screening. I did have a fine chat with director Mark Pellington and co-star Jeremy Piven, a conversation that didn't make me like the movie any more, but which made me appreciate that even a movie you strongly dislike is still more interesting to talk about than one you're ambivalent toward. That interview will post in the next day or two.
Then, as the afternoon came to a close, I was glued to my Slingbox for two hours of "American Idol" auditions from Milwaukee.
Because of those interruptions to my own schedule and some spotty Sundance scheduling. I was only able to see two movies on Wednesday (Jan. 26) and I can't say that I especially liked either one.
In the afternoon, I saw Carlos Moreno's Colombian dramegoredy (drama+allegory+comedy) "All Your Dead Ones" (which reads far better in its original Spanish as "Todos Tus Muertos"), an entry in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition.
In the evening, I caught Calvin Lee Reeder's "The Oregonian," which is part of the Park City at Midnight program.
I really don't have enough energy for full reviews of either, so I'm splitting the difference and doing partial reviews of each.
"All Your Dead Ones"
For my afternoon movie, I basically had the choice between the documentary "Granito" and "All Your Dead Ones." I went with "All Your Dead Ones" for basically one reason: I don't get the chance to see many Colombian movies and what's the point of doing Sundance if you aren't going to stretch your cultural boundaries?
Also, I thought the plot of "All Your Dead Ones" seemed compelling. A farmer is making his rounds when he discovers a path going deep into his cornfield. And at the end of the path, he discovers a pile of dead bodies. He runs into the nearby town to alert the authorities, but with an election in process, he finds that nobody is eager to assist him.
The Sundance program describes "All Your Dead Ones" as "a silent indictment of Colombia's ongoing civil war," which is an utterly ridiculous statement. "All Your Dead Ones" is about as clear and unambiguous an indictment as one could possibly hope to find. The farmer reaches out to most of his country's institutions -- the press, the police and political officials -- and finds all of them to be self-involved and uninterested in helping the common man, even as the walls are papered with signs for missing people. Where's the silence to that? Somehow The Church isn't mentioned at all, but otherwise the Colombian social institutions are all either corrupt or powerless.
I get that.
What I don't get is why more than half of the movie is dedicated to the farmer, his wife and a couple officers standing around the bodies having dull conversations about what to do with the bodies. I think it's a distinct possibility that something was lost in the subtitles. A poor translation of Beckett, for example, could make a foreign audience think that "Waiting For Godot" was just play about two people sitting on a bench having dull conversations about leaving. Either the nuance gets translated or the nuance is lost. In "All Your Dead Ones," the nuance is gone. It's one set of characters talking on cell phones and another set quivering in fear.
Moreno tries to keep the film vaguely lively with details comparing the human characters in the tapestry to animals, but a couple scrawny dogs and some viciously brawling roosters do not a "silent indictment" make.
The closing credits of "All Your Dead Ones" leave no doubt that Moreno views his story as a piece of Brechtian theater mixed with South American magic realism, or something to that effect. Maybe a different translator could provide subtitles to get that point across better. Or maybe it's time for me to brush up on my rusty Spanish. Either way, my attention flagged during the standing around in the cornfield and didn't return until the very end.
The translation is not at fault in Calvin Lee Reeder's "The Oregonian," which doesn't have more than a dozen lines of dialogue.
Part of me wants to detest "The Oregonian." It's plotless, pretentious and exploitative. But it's also aware of its pretensions and of the exploitation and goes out of its way to wink at the audience in the moments it isn't assaulting you with a visual and auditory barrage.
"The Oregonian" may be categorized as a horror movies in some circles, but it's really a weird post-modern art-house/grindhouse hybrid that features "True Blood" were-panther Lindsay Pulsipher as a woman who finds herself wandering somewhere in the Pacific Northwest unsure of her name or how she got there. Traveling by foot and occasionally hitching, the woman meets an assortment of strange people, including a balding guy with truly troubling urination issues, a helpful figure who only appears in the darkness, a creepy woman with a red frock and a spinning head and a man/woman in a giant green frog suit who either has a visibly pounding heart or a visibly throbbing erection. There are dead fish, ominous fungi and gasoline cocktails, plus all of the blood-spitting one could ever hope for. There are also flashbacks that seem to suggest that our heroine's disorientation stems from rape or possibly a car accident or maybe a miscarriage or possibly an extra-salty omelet. Really, If I tried to figure out what "The Oregonian" either is or isn't about, I'd end up hurting my head, or possibly getting really angry.
But I'll give Reeder credit for this: The guy knows how to set an evocative sense of place that's simultaneously infused with the threat of... God only knows what. The journey in "The Oregonian" goes from the forests of Washington to the deserts of California and through several modern ghost towns along the way, with a perpetual feeling of disease. You never feel any actual fear for the main character, because there's nothing to get invested in. Pulsipher is committed enough to make viewers believe that *she's* afraid, but even that's only occasional. Along with her identity, she's also lost the sense that you should be worried about the bandaged man carrying the torch, the strange bursts of light or the car stereo that plays a head-rattling version of "Pomp & Circumstance."
I don't know that Reeder's imagery means all that much. Weird-for-the-sake-of-weird loses a lot of its power if you don't have any version of "normal" as a control group. Our main character may be going through some bizarro Lewis Carroll-style looking glass, but her confusion is so absolute that she doesn't know where she came from or where she's going and there's no chance the audience is going to care either. For the view, the best case is just to be appropriately disturbed by what's on-screen, which definitely happens.
"The Oregonian" isn't going to haunt me, or even to linger with me. Again, without investment of any sort, I can't be haunted. But at least it earns the heck out of the confused shrugs that greet the closing credits. Too often it seems to me like the Park City at Midnight program is arbitrarily defined. A movie like "Buried" probably suffered from its Midnight inclusion, which made it look niche-y and dangerous in a way that it really wasn't. To Sundance programmers "Midnight" too often just equals "horror" or "non-existential sci-fi" or "indie exploitation." I could watch "Buried" or "Splice" at midnight or in the light of day. Something as alien and experimental as "The Oregonian" feels like a more deserving fit with the program and the midnight ethos, for better or for worse.
Anyway, that's what I saw on Wednesday at Sundance. Rough, right?
Thursday is Team HitFix's last day in Park City and I'm probably going to try to catch two more films before we head out. We'll see how that goes...
Other Fien Print reviews from the 2011 Sundance Film Festival: