Park City, UT – Festival volunteers arrive at Sundance two days before Opening Night, so yesterday, I embarked on a 700-mile road trip from Southern California to Park City. What a drive it was – I could easily write a blog post just on the drive itself. But alas, that isn’t what you’re here to read about. After making great time and settling into my accommodation, I headed over to festival headquarters to get geared up with a Sundance volunteer coat and festival pass. If one thing is persistently true about the festival, it is the abundance of free stuff! For volunteers like myself, this stuff is currency for the next twelve days.

As the first night’s evening began, I was already enjoying what drew me to the festival in the first place: the movies. When asked how many volunteers were passionate about independent film, everyone present raised their hands. Like everyone else I am in company with, working in exchange for seeing movies is an offer too good for any of us to pass up. While I still do not know what I will be seeing once the festival is underway, they programmed a double feature for volunteers, much to my delight!


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Digging for Fire (US)

Director: Joe Swanberg

Writers: Jake Johnson, Joe Swanberg

Stars: Jane Adams, Steve Berg, Mike Birbiglia

First up was the briskly lengthed mumblecore-comedy from director Joe Swanberg. Having seen Swanberg’s last two films (Drinking Buddies and Happy Christmas),  I had a very good idea of what I was in for with this film. Love it or hate it, his films are easily identifiable in their simplistic filmmaking and heavy reliance on improvisation. He also has a returning cast of actors who appear in all these films: Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick, Melanie Lynsky, and Ron Livingston. The simple style of all his films seems a little under-ambitious for film and personally makes me wonder what kind of audience these films are made for. I am happy to say that Swanberg’s latest, Digging For Fire, is actually his most successful to date, in that it has the most-clear story without losing his trademark style. The primary concept explored here is the marriage of two people (played by Johnson and Rosemare Dewitt) and how they keep their relationship strong even after having children and beginning the slow descent into domestication. Again, although this is the most structured of Swanberg’s films, it still retains its trademark looseness, letting improvisation and antics drive the movie forward as opposed to conventional narrative. In this regard, it works well, but still asks the question of “Is this a strong voice in independent film?” Not only does Swanberg’s film premiere at Sundance but his wife, Kris Swanberg, also has a film in the US Narrative competition (Unexpected). Digging for Fire officially premieres on January 26th.

 


71

‘71 (UK)

Director: Yann Demange

Writer: Gregory Burke

Stars: Jack O’Connell, Sam Reid, Sean Harris

The second film is ’71, taking its title from the year in which its’ story takes place. Jack O’Connell, the recognizable young star from Unbroken, stars as Gary Hook, a young solider deployed into Belfast, Northern Ireland, at the height of the “troubles” and the horrific violent riots that were happening then. Taking place almost entirely in one day, ‘71 is a film built around suspense and never lets the audience get too comfortable once it gets underway. It aspires to be at the level of Black Hawk Down or even Saving Private Ryan, and for a film of its size it never feels constricted by budget. The camera work is a primary highlight, featuring rich color and composition in nearly every shot, and one ambitious and effective continuous take midway through the film. O’Connell still has a long way to go on the road to becoming a movie star, and neither of his high profile films so far have shown much range. I hope in his next projects he is able to show some more variety in performance. While the film’s action and high tension moments are effective, the storyline is often difficult to follow (partially due to Irish accents so thick that I would’ve used subtitles had I been watching at home), and also due to a lot of similar looking characters (with no hope of remembering any of their names), the film also has multiple false endings which detract from the eventual final shot. It is a directorial debut from Yann Demange whose previous work is in television, and based on this project, it appears he has the potential for even better material ahead.


After a 10 hour drive then a double feature, I embraced having a low key day today as excitement builds with the festival starting tomorrow. After volunteer training this afternoon, tonight I will be attending a volunteer and staff party, which has had hype building since the moment I’ve arrived. I’ll be writing about more of the festival and the films as it unfolds, and for quick reactions follow @DrivingNelson on twitter.