Shock and awe is coming to the Sundance Film Festival, Robert Redford’s annual celebration of indie cinema that begins Thursday in Park City, Utah.
Movies seeking audience gasps as well as applause include Swiss Army Man, starring Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe, a bromance between a man and a corpse.
There’s also The Lure, a musical about a pair of pop-star mermaids who are hungry for love and also human flesh. And speaking of unusual pairs, there are two films, Christine and Kate Plays Christine, one a drama and the other a documentary, that coincidentally investigate the mysterious 1974 on-air suicide of a Florida TV newscaster.
Then there’s Operation Avalanche, by Toronto’s Matt Johnson (The Dirties), a conspiracy movie about the Apollo 11 moon landing that threatens to rewrite history and possibly enrage scientists, space freaks and American patriots.
These and other attention grabbers are amongst the 123 features and 72 shorts Sundance will screen from Jan. 21-31, many of them world premieres.
Scary movies have long been associated with the Sundance: The Blair Witch Project, Saw, The Babadook and The Witch all earned their first shrieks in Park City, a silver mining town turned ski Mecca nestled in the mountains of the Wasatch Range.
But for the most part, such films have been safely confined to Sundance’s Midnight program, which is similar to TIFF’s popular Midnight Madness slate.
This year it seems the midnight crazies have busted out of the asylum and are now running wild through the more mainstream sections, including the dramatic and documentary competitions.
“It’s true!” says Sundance festival director John Cooper, in an interview from his L.A. office before leaving for Park City.
“I think this fearlessness is coming from the filmmakers themselves. They’re not worrying so much about the end success of their films, because so many of them get picked up to go on a platform that’s not even theatrical, more and more. They know that audiences are just going to find them.
“They’re just not afraid to take crazy chances. This is what’s in their brains and in their hearts and in their passion to tell as a story, and they’re doing it without worry.”
Witness the “dead guy bromance” that is Swiss Army Man, co-directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, which is debuting in the U.S. Dramatic Competition.
Dano plays a suicidal man stranded in the wild who befriends a corpse played by former Harry Potter star Radcliffe. It’s one of the weirdest dramas ever to screen at Sundance or any other festival, and Cooper said comparisons to the 1980s comedy Weekend at Bernie’s aren’t valid.
“To have Daniel Radcliffe play a dead body through a whole movie and make it interesting is just so original. You get caught up in the relationship between Dano and Radcliffe. The directors come from the video music world, so they’re very used to freedom in image. I think it’s going to be interesting to see how people respond to it.”
Another wild combo is the singing mermaids of The Lure, a film by Poland’s Agnieszka Smoczynska that’s competing in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition. It stars Marta Mazurek and Michalina Olszańska as mermaid sisters who leave their watery domain to become nightclub singers and also to snack on a few patrons — although trouble begins when love suddenly intrudes. The two women are topless for much of the film, another novelty for a movie that courts mainstream as well as midnight audiences.
Dangerous love is also the theme of Halal Love (and Sex), a Lebanon/German/UAE co-production directed by Assad Fouladkar that’s premiering in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition.
It’s described in the Sundance program book as “four tragic yet comic interconnected stories” of Muslim men and women who are seeking to pursue both romance and lust without breaking any of the strict rules of their religion. The tales may be made up but the situations are real world.
The story is tragically true in Antonio Campos’ Christine, premiering in the U.S. Dramatic Competition, and also Robert Greene’s Kate Plays Christine, bowing in the U.S. Documentary Competition. The former stars Rebecca Hall and Michael C. Hall; the latter Kate Lyn Sheil (You’re Next).
Both films explore the unexplained 1974 on-air suicide of Christine Chubbuck, a 29-year-old Florida newscaster who calmly shot herself to death on camera after promising viewers they were in for something special.
The story was partial inspiration for the enraged newscaster of Network, the broadcast satire that turns 40 this year, but Cooper says his thinks the rise of social media accounts for why there are two films now about Chubbuck, whose desperate act has never been fully explained.
“It’s a retro story that sets up our world today and our obsession with doing everything on camera and for other people, the social media influence. And also at the studio where Christine was working, it was right when all the serious news was turning over to shock news to get ratings. That’s part of this story, as well.”
Advance word on Operation Avalanche is that it’s so realistic in its suggestion of Apollo 11 fraud, it might persuade people that men didn’t first walk on the moon in 1969. It was clandestinely filmed by Johnson at NASA facilities and also at the London film studio used by the late Stanley Kubrick, whose 2001: A Space Odyssey factors into Apollo hoax theories.
Cooper says the movie was an immediate grabber for him because he remembers watching the Apollo missions as a child: “I was always waiting for them to open that floating capsule and a big monster to come out.”
That’s the kind of surprise Johnson enjoys. He said in a separate interview he likes making movies that look to be about a certain thing going in but turn out to be something different. The Dirties, for example, which won two prizes after it premiered at Sundance rival Slamdance in 2013, appears to be about a school shooting “but it kind of tricks you twice.”
Operation Avalanche is similarly designed to mess with people’s minds: “Fooling you into believing something completely different is something so cool that only movies can do. It’s a great trick and I don’t know why people don’t do it more.”
He’ll feel right at home at Sundance 2016.