Day 7: Park City, UT– On Day 7, I inadvertently did a Jemaine Clement double feature, to drastically different results. The last few days I’ve been catching up on some of the US Dramatic films, like below:

 


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People, Places, Things (US)

Director: James C. Strouse

Writer: James C. Strouse

Stars: Jemaine Clement, Stephanie AllynneDerrick ArthurCelia Au

People, Places, Things covers a comic book artist dealing with midlife challenges of fatherhood, teaching college students, and exiting a relationship with his ex-wife. Clement is funny and engaging in the lead role, and his New Zealand flair plays extremely well. It’s a clever script and well-made all around. The most comparable film in terms of tone is Richard Ayoade’s Submarine, except that this is a more adult story. The film has a great message and while it isn’t a laugh out loud comedy, it’s charming and a worthwhile watch.

 


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Don Verdean (US)

Director: Jared Hess

Writers: Jared Hess, Jerusha Hess

Stars: Sam RockwellAmy RyanJemaine Clement

From Jared Hess, director of Napoleon Dynamite, is the premiere of his latest comedy, Don Verdean, another attempt at creating an iconic comedy character. Sam Rockwell in the titular role is an archeologist looking for the next great biblical artifact but to no avail. Unfortunately, the film does not know exactly how to utilize its humor or place its jokes and ends up feeling very empty. After a promising start, the film gets bogged down in flat sequences and some unimpressive, offensive humor that isn’t forgiven because it isn’t clever. Jemaine Clement plays the Israeli assistant Boaz, and you can guess how much they try and make a laugh out of the Middle East through his character. I am sorry to say that this was not something I could recommend and, for as iconic as Napoleon Dynamite became, I expect this one to quickly slip away.

 


Day 8: Park City, UT

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Songs My Brother Taught Me (US)

Director: Chloé Zhao

Writer: Chloé Zhao

Stars: Irene BedardDakota BrownCat Clifford

Sundance has been especially strong in curating American Indian culture, and this film continues that tradition. Taking place on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation near the Badlands in South Dakota, Songs is the story of two siblings growing up “on the rez” looking for role models and deciding their future. Their stories are incredibly similar to the actual stories of the reservation, and many of the actors are playing characters based on themselves. The film takes a slow pace that gives a slight sense of meandering, whereas the primary conflicts could be stronger if they remained the primary focus. I am very happy this film exists because without it, these stories wouldn’t be told (and they’re incredibly underrepresented), but the film itself is not as strong or innovative as it could have been. The Q&A following the screening was extremely powerful, especially seeing the actors and director in real life. Surprisingly, director Chloé Zhao is actually from Beijing, China, and having grown up feeling without an actual home, she was fascinated by a group of people whose lives are so connected to their land and home. I believe the concepts and principles will lead to even more nuanced filmmaking ahead.

 


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Z for Zachariah (US)

Director: Craig Zobel

Writer: Nissar Modi

Stars: Margot RobbieChris PineChiwetel Ejiofor

In the vein of other “last man on Earth” films, this takes place after an ambiguous apocalyptic event and a woman (Margot Robbie) appears to be the last person on Earth, until she meets Loomis (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who is ecstatic to come across another person. For the first half of the film we see their relationship develop, and their major conflict is that she is a woman of faith and that he is not. However, being the last two people alive, they begin to develop feelings for one another, and slowly become closer, until the stakes raise when a younger man who is also of faith (Chris Pine) enters the picture. The film excels at developing the tension between the characters, and since these are the only three people we see onscreen it has the luxury of finding the gaps and subtleties between their interactions and the high level of tension. It leaves a lot of elements ambiguous, making the end result a little less memorable because so much is left unsaid. In the end, it’s a great change of pace for the post-apocalypse genre and ends up being something very different and hard to predict compared to the conventional fare. I will be curious to see how it is marketed and sold to the general public due to its unusual nature.