Reviews

February 3, 2021

Full SHOWBUZZDAILY Virtual Sundance Reviews

This may be heresy, but the virtual Sundance Film Festival went so smoothly that if they offered it as an option in a hopefully pandemic-free 2022, I’d seriously consider passing up the freezing weather and the waits for delayed, packed shuttle buses to stay at home.  Sure, I’d miss the communal experience, but on the other hand the technology worked perfectly–including a seamless transition with the press of a button from each movie on the festival app to its live Q&A on YouTube–everything ran on time, and it was actually possible to take a breath between screenings instead of setting out at a dead run to the next venue.  I was even sold out of one film I wanted to see, just for that authentic Sundance experience.
I saw 26 films this year, which is just about my in-person average, and as many were good as they usually are at this inherently uneven festival.  The titles below are ranked by my own personal preference (I’d say at least everything in my top 10 is worth a look), and US distributors/release dates are noted where applicable.
PASSING (Netflix):  The actress Rebecca Hall has taken a big swing in her writing/directing debut.  Her film Passing, based on the 1929 novel by Nella Larsen, embraces ambitious, difficult themes with sensitivity and expertise.  The story concerns Irene (Tessa Thompson) and Clare (Ruth Negga), one-time teen friends who run into each other after several years apart, when Irene is shocked to discover that Clare has been living as a white woman, to the point of having an openly racist husband (Alexander Skarsgard) with no idea who his wife really is.  The women resume their friendship, but Irene has been thrown off her axis, uncertain about the things she’s taken for granted despite her own prosperous life and loving husband (Andre Holland, superb).  Hall charts the subtle tides and implications of the bond between the two women, and although race is at the center of the story, the nature of friendship, marriage, parenthood and sexuality come into play.  The performances by Thompson and Negga are remarkably layered, capable of suggesting a half-dozen feelings in a single close-up, and they should be in the 2021 Oscar conversation.  Along with Holland and Skarsgard, Bill Camp provides strong support as a friend of both women.  The look and feel of Passingbelies Hall’s lack of experience behind the camera, gorgeously shot (by Edu Grau, whose films include A Single Man) in black and white and in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, and with assured skill in all other technical respects, including the production design by Nora Mendis, costumes by Marci Rodgers and score by Devonte Hynes.  Passing won’t be a rowd-pleaser (although the $15M pricetag Netflix spent for it suggests theat they think there’s an audience for it), , but it’s the best kind of Sundance discovery, a film that takes sizable risks and pulls them off.

CODA (Apple):  I found Passing to be a more impressive cinematic achievement, but there’s no question that Sian Heder’s CODA was the winner of the festival.  It sold for a record-breaking $25M to Apple a day after its first screening, then it broke records again by becoming the first film to win the Jury, Audience and Directing awards in the US Narrative section, as well as a special award for its ensemble cast.  (FYI Passing, which screened in the Premieres section, wasn’t eligible for awards.  Heder’s legitimately heartwarming, polished coming of age story is in many respects not unfamiliar.  Ruby (Emilia Jones) is a 17-year old in Gloucester, Massachusetts who balances high school with her work on the family fishing boat.  She loves and is sometimes mortified by her parents Jackie (Marlee Matlin) and Frank (Troy Kotsur) and her brother Leo (Daniel Durant).  She’s also a gifted singer, and in the course of the film will have to decide whether to leave home for a music academy in the big city or to stay for the sake of the struggling family business.  The difference is that Ruby is the only hearing member of her family (the title is the acronym for Child of Deaf Adults), and she’s spent much of her life as the only interpreter and liaison between her parents and the rest of the world,  CODA may not be the stylistic tour de force that the recent Sound of Metal is, but it’s satisfying and moving all the same.  Heder has previously been a writer on Orange Is the New Black and Glow among others, and her script, based on a prior French film, is a superior piece of craft that establishes vivid characters and makes the effort to depict the beauty of American Sign Language as communication.  The cast, which also includes Eugenio Derbez as Ruby’s cranky but supportive music teacher, is a lovely ensemble, with Jones the particular standout since she had to perform both vocally and in sign language, and showcase her singing as well.  At the price Apple paid, we can expect to see CODA as a heavy player in next year’s Oscar race.

ON THE COUNT OF THREE:  Jerrod Carmichael’s big-screen directing debut earned a well-deserved Sundance screenwriting prize for Ari Katcher and Ryan Welch’s script, which threads an almost impossible needle as a comedy about suicidal depression.  (In an unintentional way, the film is a companion piece to the festival’s How It Ends, also a comedy about its characters’ final day on Earth, but this one is far more grounded and affecting.)  We meet Kevin (Christopher Abbott) in a mental ward, where he’s been committed after a failed suicide attempt three days earlier.  Kevin has a long history of psychological problems, and the person he’s always been able to count on is his best friend Val (Carmichael).  But Val is also in a bad place, and he breaks Kevin out expressly for the two of them to enter into a mutual suicide pact.  On The Count of Three recounts the events of that day, as the friends make stops both trivial and critically important to what’s left of their lives.  Everyone involved with the film is on the precisely right wavelength, both consistently funny and sensitive to its characters’ very real problems.  Abbott (showing great range compared to his role in the festival’s The World To Come) are convincing as lifelong friends, equal parts aggression and affection.  Carmichael’s risk-taking doesn’t stop with the script.  He’s placed comic actors like Tiffany Haddish, JB Smoove and Henry Winkler into important and mostly serious roles, and they deliver.  As a director, he keeps the film modest with a tight 84-minute running time, and he generates a surprising amount of suspense around what will finally happen at the end of Val and Kevin’s day.  The film is a real accomplishment for all concerned.

JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH (Warners/HBO Max – February 12):  The title refers to the FBI informant Bill O’Neal (played here by LaKeith Stanfield) and the Illinois Black Panthers leader Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya).  Although Hampton was only 21 years old, he was so charismatic and successful–he had put together a local coalition that not only included Latinos but members of the white, right-wing urban poor–that he was a particular target of J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) and by his orders, the FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons).  Director Shaka King, working from a script he wrote with Will Berson (story also credited to Keith and Kenneth Lucas), lucidly and powerfully sets out the situation, detailing both the Black Panther organization’s internal issues and the mounting disregard for the rule of law by the authorities.  King directs with the drive of a crime thriller, reminiscent of Sidney Lumet’s Prince of the City and the 1970s films of Costa-Gavras, backed by gritty photography by Sean Bobbitt (Steve McQueen’s usual cinematographer) and sharp editing by Kristan Sprague.  The lead performances couldn’t be better.  Kaluuya conveys both Hampton’s enormous ability to rouse audiences and the humanity behind his public persona, and Stanfield captures O’Neal’s sweaty furtiveness, as the deceptively low-key FBI agent lures him deeper and deeper into a moral abyss.  The script has some odd limitations, in that we get a great deal of Hampton’s life through his marriage to Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback), but O’Neal’s character is presented only in relation to his betrayal.  (In the future, stories like this will more likely be streamed limited series rather than squeezed into 2-hour films, giving them more room to breathe.)  It’s unfortunate that Judas and the Black Messiah, in telling events that took place 50 years ago, is still so topical, but as we need to see such stories, this one is particularly worthy.

JOCKEY (Sony Classics):  There’s hardly a bettor to be seen in Jockey, or even a racehorse owner.  The glitz of horseracing isn’t of interest to director Clint Bentley (who co-wrote with Greg Kwedar), making his feature debut.  The film is an elegiac character study anchored by an immense performance by Clifton Collins, Jr, who won a Best Actor award at the festival.  He plays Jackson, a veteran jockey hit by a barrage of changes as the story begins.  On the one hand, he finds out from the trainer for whom he rides, his longtime friend Ruth (Molly Parker), that he’s going to have the chance to ride a potential wonder horse, the kind jockeys dream about.  But he also gets confirmation that his body is failing him, and he’s blindsided when the young jockey Gabriel (Moises Arias) reveals himself as a son Jackson never knew he had.  There isn’t much more plot than those storylines playing out, and the film mostly focuses on its three protagonists, establishing a mood very far from what goes on at the betting windows.  Collins and Parker are both performers that invariably deliver first-rate work but only occasionally have the chance to stretch into a lead role, and their work is rich and deep.  Arias, who had his work cut out for him keeping up with his co-stars, is up to the challenge.  There’s lovely photography by Adolpho Veloso (much of the film is shot at “magic hour”), and haunting music by Aaron and Bryce Dessner.  Jockey, which will remind some of Chloe Zhao’s The Rider (set in the rodeo world), avoids the cliches of its genre, and is memorably rewarding in its low-key way.

PLEASURE:  The matter-of-fact depiction of life in the porn industry conveyed by the Swedish director Ninja Thyberg’s film is unusual and disconcerting, in some ways even more than the extremely explicit imagery.  Thyberg (who wrote with Peter Modestij) wants it to be clear that this is a business, and while the power dynamics depicted here obviously go far beyond their expression in other industries, they’re not completely different either.  Thyberg’s avatar for her story is a young woman we will mostly know as Bella (first-time actress Sofia Kappel), the name she adopts when she comes to Los Angeles from Sweden, determined to find stardom in porn.  Bella signs with an adult agency and moves into a “model house” with other performers, but her ambitions are much fiercer than her roommates’.  That leads her into accepting some of the most intense assignments, and Pleasure is disturbingly clear about the industry’s rules of consent and the inherent limitations of such rules, and how they lead to harrowing abuse.  Part of the reason the film is so convincing is that aside from Kappel, the cast is almost entirely made up of people who actually work in porn, as is some of the crew, and the verisimilitude is probably unprecedented.  Thyberg’s decision to keep Bella’s own motivations mostly opaque holds us at something of a distance from the character, as must have been intended, but Kappel bridges that with the jolts of emotional reality she brings to the role.  Pleasure is of course not going to be for all audiences, and many will find it alienating and offensive.  It deserves credit, though, for sheer fearlessness.

MA BELLE, MY BEAUTY:  Sundance’s NEXT section, where Marion Hill’s Ma Belle, My Beauty won the Audience Award, is often where the festival puts its more out-there entries, but Ma Belle isn’t all that much off the beaten path.  In fact, in some ways it’s almost Hollywood-adjacent.  The setting is a farmhouse in French wine country, where Lane (Hannah Pepper) has come to visit her ex Bertie (Idella Johnson) at the request of Bertie’s husband Fred (Lucien Guignard), the twist being that back in the US, all three were in a polyamorous relationship, Bertie being involved with both Fred and Lane.  Fred is concerned that for months, Bertie has seemed unfulfilled, stepping away from performing with their band, where Fred is the guitarist and Bertie has been the vocalist.  The emotional undercurrents are strong, and made even more so when Lane begins a fling with Noa (Sivan Noam Shimon).  The Hollywood version of Ma Belle would have had more narrative drive–and there’s one scene that wouldn’t likely be on a major studio’s menu–but the film is filled with lovely locations (even more enticing in these locked-down times), sexy leads and beautiful music (by Mahmoud Chouki) on the soundtrack.  The show stops, in a good way, when Johnson finally sings and reveals a spectacular voice, which she had to confirm in the Q&A was her own.  The relationships among the characters are pleasingly complex, and the languid tension that mounts is compelling.  Hill, whose first feature this is, may well find herself in the Sundance conundrum of deciding whether to stay indie or shift into a mainstream that could use a talent like hers.

MASS:  Even more than recent examples like One Night In Miami and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Fran Kranz’s Mass feels like a filmed play–although in fact it was written directly for the screen.  Almost all of its 110-minute length is set in a single small space, much of the time around one table, in the function room of an Episcopal church.  There are four people in that room, and their gathering is emotionally charged:  two are the parents of a teenager killed in a high school massacre (Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton), and the other two are the parents of the shooter (Reed Birney and Ann Dowd).  They have come together in an attempt to find forgiveness and healing by sincerely listening to one another.  This is Kranz’s directing debut and first produced script, and beyond the obvious emotion and force of the situation, it can’t be said that he’s found all that much new or unexpected in the circumstances, either in terms of the specific story or the emotions one would expect to find on view.  A project like this, though, is largely about the actors who must shoulder the emotional baggage and enormous text, and this cast performs it to the hilt, pinpointing the transitions between politeness and wrenching memory, and between compassion, anger, grief and agony.  Dowd and Plimpton, in particular, are floods of powerful feeling.  Mass isn’t easy entertainment, and Kranz may overplay the religious overtones and indulge in too many endings.  The performances, however, make the effort worthwhile.

LAND (Focus/Universal – February 12):  Robin Wright’s accomplished big-screen directing debut is simple without being simplistic.  Edee (Wright) is buckling under the weight of a tragedy that isn’t fully explained until the film’s end, and she decides to utterly abandon her big-city life and take up an entirely solitary existence in a mountain cabin in the wilds of Wyoming.  The first section of Land is virtually a one-woman show, as Edee attempts to survive her first winter in the wild.  The script by Jesse Chatham and Erin Dignam then introduces Miguel (Demian Bichir), a nearby resident who brings Edee back to life both literally and figuratively, as they begin a friendship within the strictly circumscribed limits she’ll allow.  The conclusion doesn’t shy from sentimentality, but by then the film feels as though it’s earned its emotional pay-off.  Wright and Bichir bring compassion and force to their roles, and their scenes together have a flinty rapport.  Wright had no fear of physical challenge as a first-time feature director, with much of the film shot (by Bubby Bukowski) on glorious Canadian landscapes, a great deal of it in winter.  There’s a lovely score by Ben Sollee and Time For Three, and a refreshingly brisk pace (the running time with credits is just 89 minutes) set by editors Anna McCabe and Mikkel E.G. Nielsen.  Land is likely to be compared by some with Into the Wild and Wild, and Wright’s film doesn’t quite have the narrative engines or sustained intensity of those.  Nevertheless, it’s a skillful and often moving study of isolation and recovery.

STREET GANG:  HOW WE GOT TO SESAME STREET (Screen Media/HBO Max):  A loving documentary about the history of the iconic children’s education series.  Marilyn Agrelo’s film (from the book by Michael Davis) is packed with marvelous clips and behind-the-scenes footage, and on this 50th anniversary of the series premiere, it’s a worthy reminder of how groundbreaking the show’s mix of teaching, entertainment and inclusiveness was.  There are occasional mentions of controversies related to the show, but largely the film is a workmanlike celebration.  (Notably HBO, the current home of the series, produced the film and there isn’t even a mention of the fact that new episodes of what was once the very emblem of public television are now largely available via a paid subscription service.)  Street Gang is built around the contributions of Joan Ganz Cooney, Jim Henson, composer Joe Raposo, and long-standing members of the cast and crew, and it makes a particular point of reclaiming the work of director Jon Stone, who never received the public attention of the other founders of the creative team.  Those who grew up with Sesame Street will find the beautifully preserved footage and memories delightful, especially the fascinating saga of how its seemingly inevitable elements actually came together, while those who want a grittier view of the classic may have to do some further research.

IN THE EARTH (Neon):  After his foray into more commercial cinema with a Netflix remake of Rebecca that didn’t go very well, Ben Wheatley has returned to the stranger and more experimental style of his earlier films like Kill List and High Rise with In the Earth.  It’s not an easy movie to describe in detail, both because it begins as one kind of horror thriller and changes to another, and also because what’s going on becomes progressively less clear as things proceed.  (But pay attention when a character makes a casual mention of pagan idolatry early on.)  The story starts as a tale not dissimilar to Annihilation, with an additional topical touch.  Martin (Joel Fry) is a scientist sent in the midst of a very familiar looking pandemic to make contact deep in the heart of an enveloping forest with his colleague Dr. Wendle (Hayley Squires), with whom he also has a personal connection.  He and his guide Alma (Ellora Torchia) make a journey through nature that becomes increasingly overwhelming, until it’s unclear whether their greater fear should be for menaces human or not.  Wheatley orchestrates things to become mountingly hallucinatory and surreal, building a disturbing tone with committed performances from the cast; abrupt, eventually strobe-like editing that he handles himself; as well as a harrowing score by Clint Mansell and a remarkable sound design.  Even if the specifics of the story aren’t entirely clear, Wheatley, who wrote and directed the film after the COVID lockdown began, isn’t just intent on conveying suspense and gore (although there are plenty of both) but wants to makes some very current points about the risks of both social isolation and the rejection of science for dangerous delusions.  In the Earth melds real and imagined horrors in a way that’s hard to shake.

THE WORLD TO COME (Bleecker Street – March 2):  Although the story is set in 1856, this is 2021, so it’s not hard to see where Mona Fastvold’s The World To Come is heading.  Ron Hansen and Jim Shepard’s script begins in the dead of winter, in the wilderness that was upstate New York in that era, where Abigail (Katherine Waterston)–who narrates, at great length–lives miserably with her husband Dyer (Casey Affleck, who also produced), haunted by the death of their young child.  Abigail’s outlook changes with the arrival of new neighbors Tallie (Vanessa Kirby) and Finney (Christopher Abbott).  Abigail is delighted by the vivacious Tallie, and as both their husbands are dull and unappreciative or worse, their bond deepens, until with the arrival of spring, the relationship blossoms.  It being 1856, things are unlikely to work out well, and they do not.  Waterston and Kirby are two of the finest actresses around, and they admirably fulfill the demands of their roles.  Kirby, as the catalyst, gets to be relatively glamorous and magnetic, while Waterston brings a passionate intensity to the more timid and insular Abigail.  The men also do everything needed, but to less emotional effect.  Fastvold, who shot the film over several seasons (on 16mm film, with Andre Chemetoff behind the camera) achieves a powerful vision of the time and place, and the soundscape of the project, with music by Daniel Blumberg, is similarly impressive, especially during a brutal snowstorm sequence. Ultimately, though, The World To Come is limited by the lack of invention in its storyline, and despite the skill of many of its elements, it doesn’t ignite.

CENSOR:  The festival section most diminished by the virtual mode is Midnight, where so much of the attraction is sitting in a theater packed with audiences eager to scream.  (The “midnight” movies at Sundance are actually only shown at the Witching Hour for viewers on the East Coast.)  Even seen as a solitary experience, though, Prano Bailey-Bond’s Censor is a striking feature debut.  The film, written with Anthony Fletcher, sets its psychological horror in the fertile ground of a movie censorship office, where the employees spend their days watching all the footage too disturbing for general audiences.  Specifically the setting is the UK 1980s, when a subgenre of ultra-violent, low-budget VHS releases known as “video nasties” was a disreputable pop culture sensation.  As is often the case in these kinds of stories, our protagonist Enid (Niamh Algar) is already very much on the edge when we meet her.  A real-life murder has been publicly linked to a film she cleared for release (in events similar to those that led to A Clockwork Orange being unavailable in the UK for decades), and she’s been haunted since childhood by the disappearance and possibly worse of her younger sister.  Enid becomes increasingly obsessed with what she sees as the resemblance between those memories and a movie submitted to her office, and that leads her to pursue the mysterious filmmaker behind the camera.  Bailey-Bond, who shot on actual 35mm film, does a masterful job with her design team of recreating the aesthetics of those lo-fi thrillers and their extravagant gory violence, while also making us feel the claustrophobia of the censorship office in Enid’s shaky real world.  Algar, best known for her role on HBO Max’s Raised By Wolves, holds the entire movie dead center from beginning to end, keeping us unsure whether to sympathize with Enid or fear her.  Censor may not quite hit the Cronenbergian sweet spot of horror and skewed psychology in its final act, but it’s a tremendously promising start that establishes its maker as a skillful lover of genre.

CRYPTOZOO:  Dash Shaw’s adult animation (the visuals themselves were directed by Jane Samborski) seems to be a natural candidate for cult favorite status, and possibly even as that relatively obscure 5th Oscar nominee in each year’s Best Animated Film category that everyone has to look up when the nominations are announced.  It’s both an adventure story and a high-minded reverie on how humans should treat other species, and if the pieces don’t fully fit into a satisfying whole, it’s not for lack of imagination and effort.  Cryptozoo posits a world where magical creatures like the unicorn, kraken and pegasus are real, but mostly hidden from the mortal world.  Set in the 1960s, it teams a human vet (voiced by Lake Bell) with a gorgon (Angeliki Papoulia) and a hippie (Louise Krause) to protect a baku, a creature that the military wants to use to suck the idealistic dreams out of the minds of members of the anti-Vietnam War counterculture.  Our heroines plan to keep the baku in a cryptozoo, a cross between a refuge for hunted mythical beasts and an amusement park. But even with the best intentions, is that the way the baku and other such wondrous beings should be treated?  Cryptozoo wants to explore that question, while also providing some Jurassic Park-type action sequences.  Shaw’s ambitious exceed his script at times, which tends to some tinny dialogue and setpieces that don’t fully commit to providing audience pleasure.  Mainstream audiences may also find that the animation, while often original and beautiful, lacks the polish and scope that hundreds of millions of studio dollars will buy.  Nevertheless, there may well be a passionate viewership for Cryptozoo and its mix of ethereal ideas with Hollywood thrills.

THE SPARKS BROTHERS:  I have to admit that before seeing Edgar Wright’s loving documentary, I’d never heard of Sparks, although I discovered through watching it that I’d had some glancing contact with them as the band who performed in the movie Rollercoaster.  (They also had ambitions for a movie career that foundered on unproduced Jacques Tati and Tim Burton projects, although they’ve finally very recently had a new script directed by Leos Carax.)  Wright’s account left me feeling very well informed about the work of brothers Ron and Russell Mael, Los Angelenos who have been performing since the mid-1960s and have had their greatest successes in Europe as they’ve reinvented their music and style over and over again.  Despite their lack of a US breakout hit, they’re widely beloved by fans who appreciate the quirky, here represented by celebrities as varied as Jason Schwartzman, Beck, Amy Sherman-Pallodino and Daniel Pallodino, Neil Gaiman and Weird Al Yankovic.  Wright’s style here is busy and inventive, including animation and distinctive graphics; even the talking-head sections are often jazzed up in one way or another.  Despite all that imagination, Wright has taken an oddly dogged approach to the documentary’s structure, taking us through what seems to be every one of the band’s more than two dozen albums in sequential order.  Even though the fact that Sparks has remade itself so many times keeps things enlightening, 140 minutes felt like a long time indeed by the (extended) end credits.  There are also the clearly deliberate but somewhat frustrating decisions not to discuss either brother’s personal life in any way (other than a quick reference to a fling Russell had with Jane Wiedlin of The Go-Gos), and not to include any interview subject who isn’t a close colleague or a committed fan.  There is, it seems, no bigger fan of Sparks than Wright himself, and The Sparks Brothers may be best aimed at those who already feel the same way.

R#J:  Every generation gets its Romeo & Juliet.  In Carey Williams’ R#J, the words of Shakespeare are only occasionally heard.  Instead, these extremely up-to-date Capulets and Montagues communicate almost exclusively over social media on their phones, and those screens are where the bulk of the film takes place.  As written by Williams, Rickie Castaneda and Alex Sobolev, some of the translations of text to text message are ingenious and witty (the comments on the Instagram Live videos are great), and there’s surprising force to the section where social media cancel culture turns on Romeo and Juliet.  The decision to keep some of the original language, though, was something of a backfire–the dislocation is too extreme, as if the characters in Clueless had suddenly started to recite Jane Austen’s own dialogue in the middle of a scene.  There’s also an inherent problem in trying to depict one of literature’s greatest romances in a mode that gives them hardly any in-person contact.  That could have provided the opportunity for an interesting commentary on our moment, but it doesn’t seem to have been the intent.  (Changing Shakespeare’s ending also doesn’t have much resonance beyond cleverness for its own sake.)  Given all these limitations, the actors are more able to provide cool presences than sustained performances, and it’s hard to tell more about Camaron Engles and Francesca Noel as R and J than that they’re photogenic and committed.  The real achievement of R#J, though, is in its technical dexterity, which takes this kind of narrative a step beyond laptop dramas like Unfriended and SearchingR#J is more an experiment than a full success, and worth a look with that in mind.

TOGETHER TOGETHER (Bleecker Street):  Nikole Beckwith’s low-key dramedy explores the uniquely intimate relationship between a single man and the surrogate he hires to bear his child.  Matt (Ed Helms) is middle-aged and not in a romantic relationship when he decides that he wants to become a father, and Anna (Patti Harrison) is the rootless 26-year old who takes the job.  What begins as a business transaction deepens into a friendship, while staying away from the rom-com cliche of going farther.  (Beckwith is at such pains to distinguish her film from others where older men become involved with younger women that she’s included a tonally jarring scene where Anna dissects the 1970s films of Woody Allen.)  Together Together is likable throughout, and key to that is the rapport between the stars.  It seems at first as though Helms may be too well-cast for his own good:  cluelessness is often his default mode, and the early stretch of the film makes one worry that Matt will just be another in his line of such dim characters.  As the story develops, though, he’s allowed to stretch once Matt and Anna begin sharing their deeper feelings.  Harrison has her own sharp comic timing, and she brings strength to a less-defined role.  She and Helms ease through the transitions between comedy and more serious sequences.  Beckwith, whose last Sundance entry was the grim Stockholm, Pennsylvania, is in a lighter mode here, and an oddly abrupt ending aside, Together Together provides a pleasing time with some warmly-regarded characters.

MARVELOUS AND THE BLACK HOLE:  Goodhearted YA comfort food.  Kate Tsang’s feature debut is about 13-year old Sammy (Miya Cech), who has become surly and rebellious toward her father Angus (Leonardo Nam) and sister Patricia (Kannon Omachi) since the death of her mother.  Things become even worse when potential stepmother Marianne (Paulina Lule) enters the scene, as Sammy begins acting out with some low-grade vandalism and self-applied tattoos.  Her father is beginning to despair, when Sammy bumps into kids-party magician Margot (Rhea Perlman).  Will Sammy initially resist Margot’s attempts to reach out, but secretly be ever more intrigued with the challenges of mastering sleight of hand?  Will Margot help Sammy through her sadness and anger?  Will there be a third-act crisis that resolves itself sweetly?  Well, yeah.  Tsang doesn’t seem to have any interest in reinventing the narrative wheel here, and the result is quite conventional by Sundance standards, other than in the mere fact that Sammy and her family are Asian-American and that her background is just part of her story and not the subject of the film.  At 81-minutes, Marvelous doesn’t overstay its welcome, and the cast is charming.  Marvelous isn’t out to make anyone’s jaw drop, and it meets its modest goals.

EIGHT FOR SILVER:  Sean Ellis’s 19th century werewolf movie takes itself very seriously.  Ellis has extensively revised the usual mythology of the genre:  the full moon doesn’t figure into things, the werewolf curse dates back to biblical times and relates to a set of silver teeth, there’s a political dimension to the story, and victims don’t transform in the way we’re used to seeing.  Much of this is quite interesting, but despite all the effort that’s gone into rethinking the tropes, Ellis’s film is oddly stodgy, with most of the chills coming from numerous nightmare sequences.  The set-up is that the local landowners have unleashed terror by their brutal massacre of a gypsy community that’s taken up residence in the nearby fields, and shortly thereafter people begin to have those nightmares and disappear.  Luckily, pathologist John McBride (Boyd Holbrook) has come to town, and he has personal experience with this curse.  There are too many scenes of McBride explaining things that the audience had figured out long before, and Ellis, who shot the film himself on 35mm, features lots of people walking through dark forests and rooms by the light of candles and torches.  The beasts themselves are seen only in brief glimpses, although there’s one sequence, seemingly inspired by John Carpenter’s The Thing, where we get to see what resides disturbingly inside them.  Eight For Silver qualifies under the “elevated horror” banner that has recently been used to describe films like The Witch and Midsommar, but it’s not quite as arrestingly strange as those works of auteurship.  It feels instead like a tale not quite certain whether it wants to blow up its genre or just rearrange it.

A GLITCH IN THE MATRIX (Magnolia – February 5):  The documentarian Rodney Ascher has found a niche in stories of true believers, who may be cranks or visionaries depending on your mileage.  His short The S from Hell focused on those terrified by the 1960s Screen Gems logo, and Room 237 was concerned with people who had developed elaborate theories around the meanings of Stanley Kubrick’s The ShiningA Glitch In the Matrix is a study of “simulation theory,” a way of interpreting human existence as most widely known from the movie referenced in the title:  namely that we don’t live in the “real world” at all, but in a mammoth imitation of a world created by beings we can’t hope to comprehend.  This is a wider and more resonant theme than Ascher’s previous subjects, and perhaps even more topical than he knew as he made the film, as this nation has itself become obsessed with issues of experiential reality.  The film ranges broadly, from interviews with those who believe in the theory (and who are depicted visually through CG-animated avatars), to extensive footage of a talk by the writer Philip K. Dick, whose fiction often centered around alternate realities, and who came to believe that his dreams were actual visions of such worlds.  More disturbingly, Glitch also includes a lengthy interview conducted with a man who committed awful crimes in the belief that he was acting in a virtual existence.  Ascher’s visuals and sonic landscape are imaginative, but this unwieldy subject is tough to contain, and the film struggles tonally between the relatively academic statements of the believers and the horrible consequences evidenced by the jail interview.  Ironically for a film that questions real life, reality itself may have made A Glitch In the Matrix inadequate to fully realize its thesis.

FIRST DATE:  Your regard for First Date is likely to directly relate to your nostalgia for the low-rent action comedies and Tarantino imitations of the 1990s and 2000s.  The comedies were marked by idiot plots that piled on coincidences to justify rampant bloodshed, while no pseudo-Tarantino script would be complete without garrulous gangsters monologuing about petty complaints and pop culture (National Treasure and Of Mice and Men get namechecked here) while waving weapons around, and at least one scene where a group of them point guns at each other.  All of that is present in Manuel Crosby and Darren Knapp’s First Date, which adds a YA sensibility to their tale by setting off its chain of events when shy teen Mike (Tyson Brown) finally asks Kelsey (Shelby Duclos) out on a date.  She shocks him by saying yes, and he finds himself unexpectedly in need of a car.  When he acquires a monstrously old, large and decrepit Chrysler New Yorker, it turns out to come with a whole lot of baggage.  Crosby and Knapp have plenty of energy, and both the leads and some of the supporting cast are appealing (particularly funny is Scott E. Noble as Dennis), but the structure of this thing quickly becomes repetitive as Mike lurches through one increasingly dangerous pickle after another, each one with a group of baddies running off at the mouth.  It also doesn’t help that the one thing the filmmakers didn’t have was a budget, which means that the action sequences can’t escalate beyond a certain point, and either due to lack of resources or imagination, none of them are shot with any particular distinction.  One of the fetishized 1990s objects in First Date is a VHS player and tapes to play in it, and no doubt the film itself is meant to be a nod to the kind of movies that used to be rented for just such a pre-HD machine.  But sometimes a homage is just a rerun, and those who miss the real thing can find plenty of it on Netflix.

KNOCKING:  A small (78-minute), straightforward Swedish psychological thriller that’s a scaled-down version of recent genre exercises like Girl On the Train and Woman In the Window, with a heavy scoop of Repulsion on top.  The woman here is Molly (Cecelia Milocco), who’s no sooner released from a stay in a mental hospital and moved into a new apartment than she begins to hear, well, a knocking that seems to be coming from the apartment directly above and that she eventually determines is signalling her in morse code.  No one, of course, believes her, and no one else in the building hears anything.  As Molly becomes more desperate and obsessed, the film’s one and only question is whether she’s on the trail of a victim of violence, or whether she’s self-destructively deluded.  In her scripted feature debut, director Frika Kempff (working from a script by Emma Brostrom, based on a novel by Johan Theorin) keeps the focus entirely on Molly, and tries to wrap the narrative tightly, although there just isn’t much substance here, as compared, say, to this year’s somewhat similar Sundance horror entry Censor.  Apart from a few show-offy shots fastening the camera on Molly as she moves through space (think of the person on your Zoom call who keeps talking while walking their laptop through their house), the filmmaking is spare, and while Milocco is able to sustain one’s attention, Molly isn’t a character with much nuance.  The rushed conclusion of the film is particularly unsatisfying, a grab at ambiguity that feels like it could have been added in post.  Knocking isn’t apt to convince viewers to open their collective door.

HUMAN FACTORS:  Is Ronny Trocker’s Human Factors intended as a political allegory?  The married couple at its center are the German Jan (Mark Waschke) and the French Nina (Sabine Timoteo), and there’s a plot point about whether the ad agency they run will take on a political party as a client.  If that’s the case, though, it didn’t get through to this US viewer.  What we do get is similar to Force Majeure and its remake Downhill, in that it centers on a momentary incident that has lasting consequences to a family.  However, it lacks both the wit of the original and the silliness of the US version.  (The tone here seems rather more informed by the dark bourgeois landscapes of Michael Haneke.)  In this case, the incident is a burglary at the vacation home of Jan, Nina and their three children that was witnessed only by Nina, and Human Factors jumps back and forth in time to show each character’s impression of the event, including–in the film’s one brief bit of humor–from the family’s pet rat.  Human Factors intelligently depicts the way small family ripples can lead to tidal waves, but it never develops any of its characters with much depth, and Trocker doesn’t make a case for why this inciting event is more interesting than any other might be.  Nothing ever quite breathes life into the film’s careful structure.

HOW IT ENDS:  Filmmakers Daryl Wein and Zoe-Lister-Jones are Sundance veterans, both separately and together, and if nothing else, How It Ends is certainly a Sundance experience.  Conceived and produced under COVID–and with the exception of one scene near the end, photographed somewhat awkwardly with most of the actors at social distances from one another, except for the two leads and the actors who are real-life couples–the story takes place on the last day before the world is going to come to an end.  In this case, it’s not a pandemic but an asteroid that will finish us off, and the loose framework of the story is that Liza (Lister-Jones) is making her way toward a end-of-world party, existentially walking across Los Angeles (her car has been stolen, because why not on the last day of the planet) and coming into contact with people close to her as well as other random oddballs, each for a brief scene.  She’s accompanied by the physical embodiment of her younger self (Cailee Spaeney), while the people they encounter are cast with an entire season’s worth of primetime TV, from Bradley Whitford and Helen Hunt to Whitney Cummings, Paul Scheer and Nick Kroll.  The result is naturally episodic, in some cases effectively (Olivia Wilde and Lister-Jones spark off each other nicely) but often in a rambling, overtly semi-improvised way that feels more like a hang than a story.  When it comes time to head toward a point, the presence of Liza’s physical younger self provides a very literal realization of the eternal Sundance themes of coming to terms with one’s past and future.  The message seems to be that Earth may come to a catastrophic end, but film festival tropes are forever.

MAYDAY:  The fantasy whatzit is a Sundance staple, and Mayday fits into that category.  (Paradise Hills was a recent example from a past festival.)  Ana (Grace Van Patten), short for Anastasia, is an ignored and abused waitress who finds herself swimming through a portal to what turns out to be an otherwise deserted island whose permanent inhabitants are a group of women, Marsha (Mia Goth), Gert (Soko), Bea (Havana Rose Liu) and June (Juliette Lewis).  Some kind of war is going on, but the women aren’t on either side.  Instead, Marsha, Gert and Bea serve as sirens, broadcasting mayday messages to the male fighter pilots flying above so they’ll come to the island to rescue the women in distress and then be summarily murdered by their hostesses.  Is this an alternate dimension?  A dream?  (People recognizable from Ana’s real life show up from the island, a la The Wizard of Oz.)  The afterlife?  Shrug emoji.  The message, in any case, is that men are largely awful and women’s solidarity is a wonderful thing, but murder isn’t the way to go.  Along the way, there’s a dance number featuring Ana and an assortment of the soon-to-be-dead soldiers, as well a flock of birds, a set that resembles the inside of a submarine, and eventually a daring escape.  Cirrone, whose feature debut this is, gets the most she can from a clearly limited budget, and she draws personable work from the actresses.  But Mayday doesn’t go sufficiently far in either direction, neither grounded enough to provide real character development and compelling narrative, nor weird enough to make that beside the point.

PRISONERS OF THE GHOSTLAND:  The schlockiness of Nicolas Cage’s choices in projects has become its own cult object, but for every genuinely wild, transgressive selection like Mandy or Color Out of Space, Cage does many pieces of pure genre garbage.  (Grand Isle, anyone?  PrimalRunning With the DevilA Score To Settle?  All of those, mind you, were his output from 2019 alone.)  Prisoners Of the Ghostland very much wants to be considered in the former group.  It’s a postapocalyptic action movie directed by Japanese auteur Sion Sono, making his first (partially) English-language work, and among its eccentricities is a slaughter sequence scored to “Time In A Bottle.”  Sadly, it takes more than mere auspices to qualify as transcendently weird, and Prisoners doesn’t hit the necessary crazy note.  The incoherent plot (script by Aaron Hendry and Reza Sixo Safai) places Cage in a bargain-basement Mad Max future as a hero named–wait, let me check–Hero.  He’s a convict who feels very sad about the fact that his last bank robbery turned into a massacre after his accomplice killed multitudes, including an angelic child holding a cup of gumballs–we see a lot of that kid in flashbacks and nightmares.  Hero is removed from captivity by The Governor (Bill Moseley) so that he can rescue The Governor’s adopted granddaughter Bernice (Sofia Boutella) from her abductors, the catch being that Hero is first zipped into a boobytrapped leather suit that will explode various parts of his body if even thinks about striking or having sex with a woman, or if he doesn’t deliver Bernice on time.  Soon enough, Hero has become a… well, you know, who’s going to free all the local prisoners from the real villain, who turns out to be, Spoiler Alert for anyone who’s never seen a movie, the Governor himself.  None of this is spectacular enough or bizarre enough, and Cage doesn’t do his part, either, with little of the scenery-munching that makes him beloved.  Nicolas Cage playing it straight is a contradiction in terms, and Prisoners of the Ghostland doesn’t even provide the guilty kind of fun it promises.



About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on screened.com and the-burg.com. In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."




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