Slamdance 2023 Part One
A Perfect Day for Caribou, Mad Cats, Where the Road Leads and more
If you want to check out Slamdance for yourself, you can subscribe to their online channel for one month at $7.99 and gain access to the entire 2023 festival lineup from January 23 to 29. This is a steal considering you get access to dozens of features and shorts at the fraction of the price of one virtual ticket at Sundance or TIFF.
First off, a brief note to everyone subscribed to my Substack:
Life happens, so I was not as consistent on updating here this month. The idea of a weekly/biweekly write-up on what I’ve seen was meant to maintain some consistency and force myself to write more in general. There will be more coming over the next several weeks, so I apologize in advance if you feel like I’m bombarding your inbox more than you would normally expect. Some periods of time will be busier than others on here, but I hope you find some value in what I’ll share.
When I first took a proper look at the Slamdance Film Festival in 2016, I wasn’t that aware of its history or purpose, other than it was a parallel film festival run at the same time as Sundance in Park City, Utah, and a vague memory of someone describing it as having a more genre-oriented program than Sundance. I ended up seeing several strong films in that edition, some of which already premiered elsewhere and had next to no buzz around them (or, at least, no buzz in my curated social media feeds at the time).
I learned more about the festival since. Founded in 1995 by several filmmakers, Slamdance was meant to give a showcase to independent films unable to make it into Sundance, and take advantage of Park City’s annual mass gathering of people in the film industry. Now, almost three decades later, Slamdance is still going, and its original intent remains relevant. The Sundance Institute is more or less its own ecosystem, and Slamdance provides a space for filmmakers unable to get a foot in the door with the big players. Indiewire’s Eric Kohn recently pointed out how many Sundance success stories are years in the making, so in some ways Slamdance could be looked at as a more authentic lineup of independent films.
And I find it’s one of the more rewarding experiences I get when covering a film festival, even if I’ve only done it remotely. Filmmakers are just happy to get their work seen and recognized, and in a lot of cases are doing the heavy lifting themselves, directly representing their own work for publicity and sales. I’ve seen a handful of strong films from Slamdance over the years: Nathan Williams’ If There’s a Hell Below, Daniel Martinico’s Excursions, Claire Carré’s Embers, Perry Blackshear’s They Look Like People, Daniel Warth’s Dim the Fluorescents, Frédéric Da’s Teenage Emotions, and Clay Tatum’s The Civil Dead, just to name a few off the top of my head. All of them were bonafide discoveries, and they’re all reasons why I keep coming back to Slamdance every year.
With all that preamble out of the way, let me talk about what I’ve seen from this year’s line-up so far. I’m also doing coverage over at The Film Stage, where you can see my reviews of Keishi Kondo’s New Religion and Kimi Takesue’s Onlookers. But I want to single out Linh Tran’s Waiting for the Light to Change, which is by far the best film I’ve seen at Slamdance so far and a new addition to my list of discoveries from the festival. Tran made the film as part of her MFA program at DePaul University in Chicago, and the film feels so out of step with what I see from new filmmakers in America that I’m not surprised it’s flown under the radars of most festivals (it premiered at the Heartland International Film Festival in Indianapolis last fall). You can read my review for more info on the film, but just give it a chance and watch it. It’s worth the $7.99 price tag on its own, and I hope someone smart will give Tran the funds and ability to make another film off of the strengths of this one.
Elsewhere in the narrative strand (in which every film must be a debut feature), I watched Jeff Rutherford’s A Perfect Day for Caribou, which might be the highest profile title in the narrative competition due to its premiere at the Locarno Film Festival last summer. Set over one day in rural Oregon, Herman (Jeb Berrier) gets an out of the blue phone call from his estranged son Nate (Charlie Plummer) while preparing to kill himself. They meet up at a cemetery, with Nate bringing along his six-year-old son Ralph who almost immediately runs off and vanishes. Herman and Nate then spend their day wandering around looking for Ralph while trying to bond and deal with their respective existential crises.
There’s a lot going for Rutherford’s feature, like its strong opening section where Herman records a goodbye message to Nate before receiving the phone call, or Alfonso Herrera Salcedo’s cinematography, filming in black and white and Academy ratio but putting an emphasis on the vast, empty landscapes surrounding both leads. Obvious comparison points will be Alexander Payne’s Nebraska given the visuals, father/son dynamic and existential themes, while the dry sense of humour evokes some of Jim Jarmusch’s work. After a while the film just goes in circles, and its use of cutaways as punchlines becomes grating in how forced it is. I don’t have any real ire towards the film since Rutherford has a clear vision of what he wants to do and more or less achieves that. I just couldn’t get on its wavelength, and found myself thinking of better films like it while waiting for the end credits.
“No more depressing movies from Japan. I want to make fun movies that make you feel happy.”
That’s the director’s statement from Mad Cats filmmaker Reiki Tsuno, and I don’t really understand what he’s getting at. Another statement from Tsuno expands on it a bit more that talks about independent Japanese films (which tend to have miniscule budgets), but go check out any genre festival like Fantasia and you’ll find some fun genre exercises, or we can point to breakout hits in recent years like One Cut of the Dead or Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes. There’s always been a niche market in North America for Japanese horror/fantasy/sci-fi that, to my knowledge, hasn’t really gone away, so maybe we’re only getting exposed to the bigger scale titles or serious dramas are a lot more prevalent in Japan than what gets showcased outside its borders.
For me, Mad Cats is little more than basic midnight movie fare, which I grew out of a while ago. There’s a story here involving deadbeat Taka (Sho Mineo), whose brother has been kidnapped by evil cats that have taken the form of a gang of women. The cats are after a forbidden catnip from ancient Egypt that Taka has, and soon he teams up with a homeless man (Yuya Matsuura) and gun-toting woman (Ayane) to prevent the evil cats from getting a hold of it and gaining more power.
The plot is not worth thinking too much about, as it’s an excuse for Tsuno to toss in gunfights, action choreography, and whatever else one might find cool or funny if they were a high schooler. Even some of the smaller details, like all the driving scenes using green screen footage that has a bunch of fake film filters all over it, are annoying and reminded me of a bad Robert Rodriguez ripoff. I could be more on board with Tsuno’s ambition if it weren’t so derivative and juvenile. I’m sure midnight movie audiences will have a good time with Mad Cats to some degree, but I’ve seen a lot better than this.
Nina Ognjanović’s Where the Road Leads came to me with a humble statement by the director, who admits herself that the film isn’t perfect given its tough shoot. Maybe that put me in a mood that set expectations low, since it’s a flawed effort that has enough going on within it to show Ognjanović has some promise as a new talent.
There’s a time hopping structure, starting in the morning with 18-year-old Jana (Jana Bjelica) coming upon a dead body, then jumping back in time to show the circumstances leading up to it. The victim in the opening turns out to be a visitor to the small, mountain village in Serbia, whose grandfather used to live there (and, as one town elder puts it, was the only person who moved away). The man’s curiosity about his past soon turns to disdain as he gets to know the villagers, while Jana sees him as a one-way ticket out of a life she finds boring and hellish.
The Memento-like structure is a bit overdone and somewhat baffling here (at one point the film flashes back 30 minutes), although Ognjanović does a fine job establishing her film’s setting and the stakes for Jana. The majority of the film takes place in what could be considered the town square, which amounts to several houses where neighbours gossip among each other and run from house to house spreading news. Jana removes herself from this as much as possible, running around frantically to find the right window of opportunity to escape town, yet Ognjanović makes a point of always having her wind up back at the same spot to convey her feelings of being trapped. The ensemble of villagers go a long way establishing themselves as unique personalities, and Ognjanović’s decision to make the central, inciting incident at the start turn out to be triggered by a single line of dialogue said so fast you might miss it is a bold one.
Next Time: Later this week I’ll talk about several of the documentaries playing at Slamdance, while I check out titles I couldn’t catch in advance on the online festival.
Thanks for reading Acquired Cinema! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.