Programmers Dan Repp and Jordan Brown were both at Sundance this year and we asked them to let us know about some of the SciFi or SciFi-related films they caught there. And of Course Bears. Here’s what they all had to say.
Jordan Brown on SLEIGHT: J.D. Dillard's Sleight was a true highlight in a rather underwhelming Sundance lineup this year (not to mention a welcome fun romp in a sea of bleak, depressing movies). Even the simple synopsis has an undeniably cool draw: a streetwise LA magician peddles drugs to provide for his family until he has to use his sleight of hand skills to save himself from his greedy boss.
The true scope of protagonist Bo's scientific/engineering-oriented mind isn't revealed until the last third of the film, when we meet his old science-teacher mentor and learn about Bo's dangerous devotion to his craft. When you finally discover a serious trick that is literally up his sleeve, it's a game-changer. Despite this, the entire film is a blast, mixing genres of crime, thriller, scifi, teen romance, and revenge in a satisfying way. It's also yet more proof that black heroes can be and are a thing in movies (something I'd rather not have to specify, but considering the slooow tide change in race representation in Hollywood...yeah I'm gonna mention it)
To make things even better, director Dillard has previously shown a pretty goddamn gorgeous SciFi eye with his music video for Empire Of The Sun's “Alive” in 2013. Needless to say, I'm gonna be watching this guy to see what he comes up with next
Dan Repp on Sundance: My excitement to go to Sundance for the first time came with a ton of high expectations. For the most part, the festival lived up to all of them. One big letdown for me was the lack of Science Fiction films on the program. There were some films with Science Fiction elements, but no robots, time travel, intergalactic death rays, or post-Apocalyptic survival stories. Even the film about space travel Operation Avalanche focused more on the conspiracy behind NASA faking the moon landing. I would still consider the film SciFi because the plot is an alternate history. In a way, the lack of SciFi at Sundance made my trip even more interesting because I challenged myself to find the Science Fiction even if it was hiding in a quirky indie drama. Here are a few of the films that Science Fiction elements showed up in:
Repp on ANTIBIRTH: This feature film was definitely in my bottom five of the festival, but it did have some Scifi in it. This is the only film on this list that I would not recommend. A Sundance regular Natasha Lyonne stars as a drug addict that wakes up after a party without any memory of what happened to her. Clearly this isn’t anything new for the character until she appears to be in her second trimester after only a day or two. Then she sets out on the quest to find out what happened to her by sitting around and smoking weed while other characters come to her and fill her in as to what may have happened. Yeah, not very exciting.
Repp on SWISS ARMY MAN: This maybe a stretch because this goofy, fart joke laden fantasy with heart could have all taken place in the mind of the main character. If that was so, then it is not Scifi at all. I’m choosing to take the other side and believe that everything in the story actually happened and it wasn’t in his head. If you view the film like that, then it is the most interesting take on Zombies that I’ve seen in years. It stars Paul Dano as a suicidal loner living on a desolate beach. His life is saved changed when Daniel Radcliffe’s dead body is washed onto the shore. He becomes reliant on the dead body for both practical survival needs and friendship. Give this one a chance. The tone is different than most films and takes some getting used to, but it has a surprising amount of heart.
Repp on PLEASURE. LOVE.: This is a Tragic Romance with a Science Fiction twist. Unfortunately, I don’t want to spoil the twist , so I can’t really write about the SciFi. I will say, I wanted more explanation for the twist, but that’s because I thought the twist was the most interesting thing in the film. The really focus of the story is love and heartbreak. Bears enjoyed this film more than me, but I’d still recommend it.
Bears on PLEASURE. LOVE.: Some films last much longer in your mind than their run time. Often it’s because they offer more than a story, they offer a puzzle, something your brain wrestles with for hours after the film. Yao Huang’s PLEASURE. LOVE., a romantic epic in Mandarin, follows two couples years apart, in two distinct chapters. In the first, a young man Jiang Nan (Ying Daizhen) is a destitute writer hung up on the girl next door. One night he meets the older and more experienced Hu Yajie (Yu Nan) at a dance hall. A successful business woman, Hu initiates Jiang into the world of pleasure, and he falls head over heels for her. However, it becomes clear to him that Hu never got over her first love, an older man who left her suddenly (I won’t give away the details).
In the second part, an older man also named Jiang Nan (played now by Gua Xiaodong), a successful business man, meets a young woman named… get this… Hu Yajie (plyed by Yi Sun) at the same dance club. She is drawing on the lampshade – the same lampshade the older Yajie showed the younger Jiang in their earlier sequence, and said she had drawn on ten years earlier. As the couple of the second part embarks on a tempestuous relationship, shadows of the first half hang over their love. A photo this Jiang has taken of Yajie looks strangely like a painting the older Yajie says she painted long ago of a place she visited with her first love. It’s mysterious, it’s evocative, it’s mind-blowing, it’s frankly impossible in the best way.
If the story sounds dense, I should clear that up. It’s not. Like love, the two parts are incredibly simple, full of powerful emotion that drive the characters to their inevitable heart-break. The performances are strong, the cinematography is lush and gorgeous, and the imagery is like a snapshot from a bygone decade, a perfectly composed memory that reveals everything and yet nothing at the same time. That’s where the film gets complicated, when you really start to dive into the two parts of the story, and how they work together, or don’t. If the second male character is the first one grown up, for that to work, the other character has to be that one, grown… younger.
Yao Huang’s film is almost circular. With an emphasis on the changing seasons, and landscape around the lovers changing from spring to winter as their love turns, Pleasure Love plays out unexpectedly when compared to a traditional ‘western’ one-direction narrative. A sensual tale that takes the viewer on a journey of emotion and not reason, Pleasure Love is a beautifully shot and crafted film that will remain in your mind long after the credits roll. It will be interesting to see if Eastern and Western audiences respond differently to the lack of transparency in the storyline, which intentionally frustrates any attempt to pin it down on how the characters are connected.