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Arts and Entertainment

LAist at Sundance: Day 4

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Photo courtesy of the Sundance Film Festival

My fourth day at the Sundance Film Festival began bright and early at seven am. Thankfully, the night before had been a fairly casual one so I was actually feeling full of bounce and vigor. That energy was quickly sapped by a twenty minute wait for the shuttle bus (in twenty degree weather) but soon enough I made it to the Festival Headquarters and quickly jumped into one of the screening booths. Since I had an empty stomach, I figured it was the perfect time to watch the Norwegian zombie movie about Nazis, Dead Snow.

As the film opens, we see that a young woman is running through knee-high snow in the mountains, desperate to escape from whatever is chasing her. Since it is a horror movie, she gets killed pretty quickly and we move on to our main group of future victims. They are seven Norwegian medical students heading to the mountains for their easter vacation. Each one of them fits into their own narrow type: there is the horny guy, the nerdy guy, the movie guy, the athlete guy, the good girlfriend, the scared girl and the hot babe.

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Photo courtesy of the Sundance Film Festival

Since a remote location is de rigeur for horror films, our seven students decide to spend their time at a cabin accessible only by snow mobile or hiking. Once there, athlete guy takes off to go find his girlfriend (the aforementioned dead chick in the mountains who had planned to cross country ski to the cabin) and the rest of the crew settle in for a long night of drinking and carousing. Their party is interrupted by a sudden visit from Creepy Old Man who demands coffee from them and relates a dark tale from the area's past.

Basically, in World War Two the Nazis had been real dicks to the local townspeople who eventually rose up and drove the Nazis into the mountains where they presumably all froze to death. But, of course, this is a horror film so you know there is no way those Nazis are really dead. Creepy Old Man finishes his story and leaves (convenient that he arrived to relay this crucial piece of narrative exposition, huh?) and the film finally begins in earnest. College kids are ready to be killed.

The first victims, naturally, are those who dared to engage in illicit sex. The girl is merely beheaded while the boy has his face pulled apart until his brain pops out like a pistachio nut. From there, all hell breaks loose. A full platoon of Nazi scum surrounds the cabin and the remaining vacationers are forced to find a way to survive the onslaught. Again--since this is a horror film--numerous, creative deaths pile up (the best of which is an actual drawing and quartering of athlete guy by four zombies).

Once the violence starts, it never ends. The kids finally get hold of some weaponry and launch a counterattack (heavily referencing Evil Dead 2). For awhile there actually appears to be some hope of living and escaping, but--for the last time--this is a horror film. No one here gets out alive. Dead Snow is by no means a good movie. I'd call it a fun movie and horror fans will really get a kick out of its pure, violent zeal. Barring a few weird gaps in continuity, it's definitely worth finding.

A film that's not worth finding was my second film of the day, Big Fan. Patton Oswalt plays a nebbishy, football-obsessed loser who inadvertently causes a huge problem for his favorite team, the New York Football Giants, by getting into a scrap with their Pro Bowl linebacker. Actually, he almost gets beaten to death when said linebacker realizes that the creepy Oswalt has been following him for most of the night and chased him into a strip bar. The presumed "conflict" of the movie is what will Oswalt's character do.

If he cooperates with the police, the linebacker may go to jail and the Giants' season will be doomed. But, then again, if he doesn't help them he's allowing a guilty man to go free. Personally, neither choice felt particularly compelling to me. The film pretends to have a very insider viewpoint with respect to the morons that call into sports talk radio shows to shout insults at strangers. But I know such a moron very well, and the film felt deeply inauthentic in how it treated the devoted football fanatic. Pass on Big Fan.

Luckily, my faith in filmmaking was restored when I saw what may have been the most powerful documentary in the festival, The Cove. As the film opens, we met Ric O'Barry. He is the man who almost singlehandedly introduced the notion of keeping dolphins in captivity when he helped popularize the television show, Flipper. Barry, in fact, captured all of the dolphins used in the show and ultimately became the first real dolphin trainer. Ever since then, though, he has waged war against dolphin captivity.

The cove of the film's title is in Taiji, Japan and is the world's most notorious dolphin capture site in the world. The cove lies along the dolphin's yearly migration path and every September fishing boats line the cove ready to catch and kill dolphins. Their methods are crude but effective. Because dolphin's rely on their acoustic sense so strongly, the fisherman literally sink metal poles into the water and bang on them repeatedly, creating a wall of sound that the dolphins flee from right into the cove.

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Once there, dolphin trainers from around the world wade into the water, examine all of the specimens and choose the ones they want to take back to their aquariums. Of course, not all of the dolphins are chosen. What happens to the remaining dolphins is almost unimaginably horrifying. They are herded into a separate, more hidden cove and butchered for meat. At the time of the filming, there was no video evidence of this slaughter. That is exactly what the filmmakers intended to get.

Their method for doing so is ingeniously complex. Because the local Japanese authorities rigidly enforce all access to the hidden cove, the filmmakers decide to go undercover. They actually go to Industrial Light & Magic and have their fabricators create video housing units that look just like rocks. They also hire two of the world's best freedivers to secretly dive into the cove and plant acoustic microphones on the floor of the ocean. With military precision, they eventually get the footage they need.

Needless to say, the evidence they ultimately acquire is grotesque. So many dolphins are killed in the cove that the water actually turns a deep shade of red. Not even baby dolphins are spared as the fisherman gleefully spear them and wrest them aboard their ships. And watching it all is Ric O'Barry, the man who first helped capture dolphins in the wild. Throughout the entire movie, his eyes constantly seem rimmed with tears as if he cannot escape the pain that constantly lives with him.

The Cove makes many other salient points about the issue of the dolphin slaughter--the mercury toxicity of their meat, the corruption of the International Whaling Commission, the duplicity of the Japanese in refusing to acknowledge the trade in dolphin meat. The main crux of the film, though, is expressed in those moments when we can hear the dolphins screeching in the water as they are killed. The film ends on a small note of hope, but concludes with the fact that the dolphin hunt will begin again soon.

No Impact Man tells the story of Colin Beavan, his wife Michelle and their daughter Isabella. The mission of the Beavan family is both simple and preposterous: to spend an entire year in Manhattan having no impact on the environment. This means no trash, no television, no cars, no food that isn't locally grown and, ultimately, no electricity. Imagine how difficult it would be to spend one day living that way. Extrapolate that to a year and you would almost conclude that the Beavans are crazy. And they are. Sort of.

Colin is clearly the rigid one the group. The strains in his wife's face and psyche are often obvious as she struggles to deal with the requirements of living such a life (no new clothes, no make-up, no using elevators--in New York City!). She slips more than he does, but his almost bullying passive-aggressiveness eventually puts her back in line. Colin's purpose in doing this "experiment" isn't purely charitable. He is, in fact, writing a book about the year and hopes/expects that his own involvement will sell more copies.

I can't say that I enjoyed No Impact Man. It's certainly an intriguing premise, but watching zealots in action is almost always off-putting. Colin Beavan states several times in the film that he doesn't expect people to do what he does; he just wants them to analyze their own lives more closely and see what they can afford to get rid of in the interests of sustainability and environmental consciousness. What I took away from the movie, however, is a deep desire to never run into someone like Colin Beaven.