Sundance Film Festival 2020 (Day 4)

By Erik Childress
Posted 02/22/20 03:10:29

My 18th year at the Sundance Film Festival will be chronicled here with ongoing coverage of all the films I saw.

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Sundance Film Festival 2020


Certain movies come with the hope that they will just go for it. They don't worry about who on the wrong side of history they will offend nor the moral platitudes that keep mostly decent folks from instituting the harsher penalties that, frankly, some people just deserve. In the culture we seem to swim in and out of through social media, even criticizing this movie a little could awaken to woke to suggest that you are one of those not a thousand percent on the side of its heroine. No, it just means that she (and we) deserved a better movie.

The always terrific Carey Mulligan stars as Cassandra, a woman who has taken it upon herself to go to bars, pretend to be drunk and then see which random guy will offer to help while seeing an easy mark for sex. While the film teases what her endgame is at first, it is soon revealed that she is not putting them down for good but simply charting her efforts in a notepad. What her endgame for that is never particularly clear but her initial motives are to teach these bad men a lesson for the harm that came to a friend of hers in medical school. Then two events enter her life. One is a nice man (Bo Burnham) whom she had classes with begins to woo her and raise her expectations that such men exist. The second is her realization that the perpetrator(s) of her friend's trauma is getting married and she sets into motion a plan to get back at him and all the enablers.

COOL is the first thought. Go get them all. But it is here where the film begins to muddy its waters. Promising Young Woman was written and directed by Emerald Fennell who wrote several episodes of the show, Killing Eve, and that tone is all over this film. Again, nothing wrong with creating a pitch-black comedy out of this material, but Cassandra ultimately comes off as little more than Jodie Comer's Villanelle without the murderous experience. Fennell seems to hint that Cassandra may be headed down the path of Michael Douglas in Falling Down who we root for against the banal everyday annoyances until we realize he may just be the one who is insane. That at least would have drifted the film into grey areas we could have grappled with. Instead the film reduces its impact again and again, first with a terribly modulated scene involving Mulligan and Alfred Molina (whose fate is rather insulting in a film that believes its going for it), then with a late twist that anyone with a history of watching rom-coms (or about the last 4-5 films about sexual assault) can see coming miles away and then finally with a third act that switches from tragedy to comedy to outright fantasy and it lost me fast. Promising Young Woman is too glib to provoke and not provocative enough to confront the larger scale problem in a manner that provide the well-intentioned cheers that good people deserve from it.


People like to coin the term "Sundance film" here and again not to state a verifiable fact but as a label to a project that checks all the boxes as to the perception of what that type of film is. For example, imagine a project that could be described as a coming-of-age period piece with a dash of culture clash, a mentor at odds with traditional family values after a road trip sparking memories of a traumatic childhood where homophobia and forgiveness have a destiny at the crossroads. If that sums up Alan Ball's Uncle Frank as a "Sundance film" then it was certainly the most Sundance-y film at the festival this year.

The terrific Sophia Lillis (from It and Gretel & Hansel) stars as Beth, part of a South Carolina family in the early 1970s that she doesn't really fit into. Thankfully her beloved Uncle Frank (Paul Bettany) gives her some sage advice and at 18 breaks free to go to school in New York where he teaches. It is here where she learns that Frank is gay and has a partner in Walid (Peter Macdissi). When they receive news that the family patriarch (Stephen Root) has died, the three of them hop in cars to drive back home where painful secrets are just waiting to be unearthed.[br]

There is no reason to doubt the earnest good intentions of the film though between Ball's wrecking ball-like style and already being two beats ahead of every turn, Uncle Frank begins to feel like a relic from a time well before it would have even felt revolutionary. This becomes more true with each mile we get closer to the South as we can just about time how the broad portrayals by good actors like Steve Zahn, Judy Greer and Margo Martindale are going to react when all the cards on the table. The early scenes between Lillis and Bettany (also very good here) in New York feel like the conversation piece this film should be - conversational rather than choir-preaching - and it is a shame these two characters did not get an opportunity to stay put and explore their futures rather than their past.


My third year at Sundance in 2005 saw the premiere of Miranda July's first feature, Me and You and Everyone We Know. In true Sundance scheduling fashion, it was a film I regrettably missed during the festival that ended up making of best-of list by year's end. (Look for the film to make its Criterion debut on April 28.) Her follow up six years later, The Future, I made sure to catch. While not quite up to the quirky and pitch-perfect pastiche of her debut, it was also worth the trip. It has taken nine years for her third film to come to fruition and it is a film that deserved time to stir around in my head before forming which side I would fall on.

Con artists do not get anymore pathetic than the Dyne family. They fancy themselves as clever thieves (Evan Rachel Wood as the daughter performs a series of acrobatics just to get into the front door of the post office) but are little more than homeless drifters pulling petty scams. Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger are Wood's parents and when they meet Gina Rodriguez's Melanie they have a groupie that they incorporate into their latest heist who forces Wood's Old Dolio (as she is called) towards a bit of introspection as to what she really wants out of life.

In many ways it can be deduced that July is turning a number of specific genres on their head including the big score film (the "who's conning who?" dynamic finds new dimensions) along with the child needing to uncouple themselves from their guardians (as seen recently in films like Leave No Trace and Honey Boy.) The scam-and-heist stuff is goofy and fun for a little while but becomes wearisome during a lengthy second act that walks a fine line between defining Old Dolio's trepidation and losing our interest as well. July's script which has enough quirky elements (i.e. the bubble factory) to hold our attention even while the parental units approach an insufferability that threatens to implode the whole proceeding. However, as the film drifts into its third act - which I wish got there quicker - everything begins to come into focus as Wood's performance takes on a newfound appreciation and a real emotional connection begins to form. Kajillionaire is one unique, funny creation that spins its wheels a bit too much in the middle but with further viewings I suspect its eccentric flavors could create an even richer experience in the future.


Like clockwork there seems to be one film every year at every festival that I'm on the other side of. I am not trying to be. I do not play contrarian politics or fall in line into groupthink. My reaction comes from what I see and what there is to process, if anything. Sometimes opinions can change over time as colleagues I respect offer continued positive vibes on a film that did not work for me for any variety of reasons. Let me say then for this film a few things. I was not tired. I was not in a bad mood. I am a fan of Glow. I like weird relationship comedies and I really like unique science-fiction. OK? This movie is simply bad.

Sunita Mani (from Glow) & John Reynolds star as a couple who appear to be hitting that wall where they are not sure where the next phase of their relationship should go. When a friend of theirs offer them his cabin in the woods they drive out to do a little rekindling. They just happen to do it while the rest of the world appears to be going through an alien invasion. Not that it appears to them right away. Soon people are becoming hard to reach and what is with that giant kush ball that appears and disappears downstairs? I wish the film had more ideas than that but it simply does not.

The first 45 minutes of Alex Huston Fischer & Eleanor Wilson's film is more or less like the first 30 minutes of Shaun of the Dead. Whereas Shaun's blinders to the impending apocalypse was peppered with getting close to those characters, really funny dialogue and satiric editing, Save Yourselves is like being forced into a corner at a party with a couple shouting vegan recipes at you ironically. Nobody is faulting a low-budget film for not leaning into the alien appearance, but at some point it becomes clear that everyone just fell in love with the word "poof" and then thought it was the epitome of funny words. In the zero sum game of comedy that Save Yourselves is, it is somehow even less clever. Given the spate of apocalyptic films that have escalated (i.e. A Quiet Place, Bird Box), it is just stunning how the screenplay never finds a way to have the couple play upon their inconsistencies. (Though maybe This is the End more than beat them to the punch.) Nor does it play up the obvious angle of how the later generations are personally ill-equipped when forced into survival mode. Then when it seems to have completely exhausted its singular idea the film forces a baby into the mix and throw a psychedelic trip in for garnish. I remember laughing once during the film. In the first scene. May have even been the first line. There were occasional chuckles during the press screening, but certainly without the consistency one would expect a passing enjoyment for. This was one of the weakest entries I saw at this year's festival.


Following up a no-laughs comedy with a film starring the likes of comedy icons Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus sounds like the perfect antidote. Though the trepidation of wading into a remake of a brilliant, dark comedy just a few years removed certainly loomed large. Then again it was being done by Jim Rash and Nat Faxon who, more or less, updated a version of Ivan Reitman's Meatballs with The Way, Way Back seven years ago here at Sundance. That may not exactly have been lightning but Downhill is not even thunder.

The premise here is basically the same except its an American family on vacation at a European ski resort. Ferrell and Dreyfus are the parents of two young boys and they are all having a good time. That is until an uncontrolled avalanche nearly wipes out the balcony restaurant while dad's first instinct is to grab his phone and run while mom huddles the boys for safety. The realization that women-and-children first is not subscribed to by the family patriarch begins to eat away with her putting their vacation in a tailspin and maybe the rest of their marriage in the garbage.

Ruben Ostlund's film was a beautifully modulated slow burn of comic tension that explodes just when the audiences needs it to only to then be drawn into the aftermath of how a split second decision can define one's worth. Downhill also has that scene and it is still the best one in the film, primarily due to Dreyfus' commitment to the rage. She is the best thing about the film while Ferrell's miscasting is at the heart of where this film goes wrong. Unlike the character he plays, the remake cannot make a commitment to its direction. As if the film, only clocking in at 85 minutes, is in slow motion to provide towards its own indecisiveness. The film could have just turned Ostlund's film into a straight-up Will Ferrell comedy in which case, you've got your man. And it may not have been the kind of critical darling that Force was, but at least it could have been funny. By trying to flirt the line between comedy and drama, then Ferrell is just not the guy you believe is headed into a spiral of masculine dissection. He's already too goofy and aloof. There is an occasional moment from Dreyfus or perpetual scene-stealer Zach Woods, but this is a film that stares at the avalanche for too long, somehow gets through it and then ends the experience with a literal shrug.

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