Sundance 2021--Day 3 & 4
By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 02/02/21 03:20:20
Here is my look at a number of the films that premiered during Day 3 and 4 of this year's Sundance Film Festival.
AILEY: Even those who are not particularly familiar wit modern dance are probably familiar with the name Alvin Ailey, whose career as a choreographer and the founder of the renowned Alvin Ailey Dance Theater made him celebrated throughout the world as one of the most innovative people in his field. This documentary from Jamilla Wignot explores his life and work through archival footage, interviews with colleagues and footage of a new generation of dancers at his school continuing down the trail that he blazed with his often uncompromising work. The one major flaw with the film is that a talent as bold, brave and uncompromising as Aileys deserves a treatment slightly more adventurous than the standard-issue "American Masters" template offered here. However, the film more than makes up for that with the number of genuinely thrilling clips showing Ailey at work and excerpts from the finished pieces. For dance fans, this is a must and for others, it is a pretty good introduction to the career and influence of one of the great artists of our time.
AT THE READY: At Horizon High School in El Paso, Texas, students can take classes in law enforcement and can even sign up to participate in an after-school criminal justice club, an activity that allows them to participate in mock drug raids and active shooter situations to help them prepare for possible future careers in law enforcement and border patrol. Filmmaker Maisie Crow focuses on a trio of Mexican-American students participating in the program who go into it with the highest of ideals but soon find themselves torn between the policies espoused by the program and the real-life consequences that those policies have on the lives of people like them and their families. The result is a provocative meditation on cultural and personal identity that does not offer up easy answers and which provides a twist in the later going that serves to further underscore Crow's ideas in achingly personal and powerful terms.
THE BLAZING WORLD: Still reeling from having witnessed the drowning death of her sister when they were both young children, the now-adult and suicidal Margaret (Carlson Young, who also directed and co-wrote the screenplay) returns to her family home to go though some things before her estranged parents (Vinessa Shaw and Dermot Mulroney) move away. There she is beset by a series of bizarre visions that lead her into an alternate world that forces her to confront the demons in her life (including one played, almost inevitably, by Udo Kier) before they can finally destroy her. From a visual standpoint, Young appears to have been heavily influenced by such dynamic works as "The Fall" and "Pan's Labyrinth," which suggests that she at least has impeccable taste in picking movies from other people. When it comes to her own work, however, she comes up pretty short her with a messy and often incoherent narrative that takes forever to finally get started, throws in plenty of stylistic fireworks that don’t quite disguise the thinness of the story and then just comes to an abrupt and unsatisfying ending. That said, while the resulting film is not very good, Young deserves some kind of credit for even attempting something so elaborate for her filmmaking debut and though she has clearly bitten off more than she can chew, I suppose that I am a little curious to see what she comes up with for her next film.
EIGHT FOR SILVER: In the late 1800s, the rich and powerful Seamus Laurent (Alastair Petrie) elects to settle a dispute with a clan of gypsies over the ownership of some land by having them all slaughtered in a particularly brutal and cruel manner. This inevitably unleashes a curse in which his family is plagued by inexplicable nightmarish visions, his young son Edward (Max Mackintosh) disappears after suffering a strange attack and another boy turns up savagely murdered. While the locals are convinced that the death and attack on Edward were the result of a wild animal in the area, brilliant pathologist John McBride (Boyd Holbrook) suspects something far more supernatural and malevolent in nature that will not stop until it gets its revenge. This Hammer--nfluenced effort from writer-director Sean Ellis is visually impressive, dramatically ambitious and filled with a number of nicely stage shock sequences leading up to its wildly over-the-top and decidedly gruesome climax. Getting to that finale, though, is a bit of a slog at times as things do begin to bog down a bit in the extended middle section. That said, the film one of the better genre-based entries in this year’s lineup and horror buffs are likely to enjoy it immensely.
A GLITCH IN THE MATRIX: Having infamously pursued a number of wild fan theories regarding Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining" for his controversial documentary "Room 237," filmmaker Rodney Ascher returns with a new film exploring the notion of simulation theory--the idea that the ostensibly real world that we are living in is anything but that--a concept that has inspired everyone from the Greeks to the Wachowskis to new generations of people endlessly theorizing on the topic in forums ranging from dorm rooms to the Internet. Using a 1977 speech by Philip K.Dick as a framework, Ascher guides us through conversations on the subject and related topics through a series of Skype interviews to which, in one of the film's cleverest moves, he has added CGI animation to hide their identities and to underscore the idea that we may not be who we think we are. As was the case with "Room 237," one's enjoyment of the film will depend largely on how much interest in the topic you have going in--those already into it are likely to get a lot more out of it than those going in cold, who may just find it all a bit bewildering. The film does get a little repetitive after a while and his deployment of clips from well-known films (including from virtually every cinematic adaptation of Dick's work) also gets a little old. However, the final section of the film, the harrowing and horrifying first-person account by a young man who took his fascination with the ideas proposed by "The Matrix" to murderous extremes, is a powerful and eye-opening demonstration of what can happen when people push their theorizing and speculation too far.
LAND: Robin Wright makes her feature directorial debut with this drama in which she plays Edee, a woman grieving an almost unimaginable loss. Unable to connect with anyone or anything, she impulsively throws away her phone, buys a few supplies and takes up residence in an extremely remote cabin in the Rockies without telling anyone of her whereabouts. Not an outdoorswoman by any means, this decision lands her at the brink of death's door until she is found and nursed back to health by a hunter (Demian Bichir) who promises to keep her secret and to avoid bringing her news of the outside world. Nevertheless, the two strike up a friendship that allows Edee to slowly begin to embrace life once again and finally come to terms with her life-altering tragedy. The good news about the film is that the performances by Wright and Bichir are strong and engaging and the cinematography by Bobby Bukowski is appropriately breathtaking. The bad news is that I simply never bought any of it for a single moment--nothing about the characters or situations created by screenwriters Jesse Chatham and Erin Dignam ever rings true and because of that, the big emotional beats never quite come off. As a director, Wright shows some promise, I suppose, but it is impossible to shake the sense that if it wasn't for the value of her name as star and director, another film probably would have landed this slot instead--possibly a more worthy one from people who could have used the break for their careers more than Wright.
MAYDAY: a.k.a. the other film in this year’s lineup, following "The Blazing World," featuring a feminist-themed fable of empowerment featuring wild visuals, alternate dimensions and an appearance from the enigmatic Soko. In this work from writer-director Karen Cinorre, Ana (Grace Van Patten) is a downtrodden waitress at a catering hall who is, courtesy of a bizarre short circuit, zapped into a parallel reality where she meets up with a trio of women led by Marsha (Mia Goth) who are waging a endless war against men, using their feminine wiles to direct them into storms that will destroy their ships and planes. Marsha and the others (Havana Rose Liu and Soko) train Ana to be a sharpshooter and everything seems to be great for a while. However, Ana's growing disenchantment with Marsha’s increasingly murderous ways finds her searching for a way back home, even though doing so could well destroy everything, both figuratively and literally. Cirrone's film is undeniably ambitious, both thematically and cinematically, and there are a number of things about it that I loved--topping that list are the undeniably charismatic performances from Goth and Soko and one sequence that develops in such a way that you will leave the movie hoping that Cirrone one day gets the chance to do a full-scale musical. At a certain point, however, the ambitions become muddled, the story becomes repetitive and the whole thing runs out of gas long before it comes to an end. It doesn’t work, to be sure, but even though it is ultimately a misfire, it at least goes down guns a-blazing.
PRISONERS OF THE GHOSTLAND: In a post-apocalyptic future, a master criminal, known only as Hero, is sprung from the prison where he has been languishing since a bank job gone wrong by the powerful boss (Bill Moseley) of Samurai Town and given an offer he cannot refuse--enter the blasted-out wasteland known as the Ghostland and retrieve his beloved missing granddaughter (Sofia Boutella). As an added treat, Hero is fitted with a suit complete with explosives wired to certain body parts--if he attempts to strike her, an arm get blown off and if any impure thoughts come to mind (a genuine risk when someone resembling Sofia Boutella is involved) and the bombs located at the testicles come into play. At this point, do I even need to mention to you that Hero is played, in the latest of a never-ending string of bewildering career choices, by Nicolas Cage? Actually, his presence her makes a little more sense than usual as it allows him to team up for the first time with gonzo Japanese filmmaker Sion Sono for a true meeting of like creative minds, so to speak. Too bad, though, that the end results are as ultimately tiresome as they prove to be here. Oh sure, there are virtues to be had--the samurai/"Fury Road" hybrid aesthetic offers up some interesting visuals, there is plenty of over-the-top action and Cage has a rally-the-troops speech featuring a moment destined to have a place of prominence in future YouTube highlight reels of his more outrageous screen moments. Beyond those virtues, however, the film is little more than an increasingly tiresome jape that seems to go on forever as Cage pretty much screams all of his line in an effort to alleviate his evident boredom. I get why a film like this would be invited to Sundance--festival programmers love to include a few completely off-the-wall items when they can for their amusement--but anyone trying to claim this one as being anything other than instantly disposable junk is only fooling themselves.
R#J: At one point during "Prisoners of the Ghostworld," Nicolas Cage picks up a stray helmet and off-handedly remarks, apropos of nothing, "Alas, poor Yorick." It is a throwaway moment in a film ultimately filled with such things but it also ensures that it makes that film a more successful and coherent take on the Bard than in the stridently annoying debut feature from Carey Williams. Yes, the R and J in the title refer to Romeo (Cameron Engles) and Juliet (Francesca Noel) and as the hashtag suggests, it is a version of the age-old story of literature's most infamous ill-fated lovers told entirely through the medium of social media ranging from text messages to hyperlinks to key moments played out online in videos complete with viewer comments. What might have made for an amusing sketch or short subject is instead treated at full length with deadly seriousness and the results veer for a while between the unintentionally hilarious and the downright aggravating before permanently settling for the latter. I cannot say for certain that this is the lamest adaptation of the play to ever go before the cameras but it is one of the few to make the 1936 version with a wildly miscast Norma Shearer seem positively tenable by comparison.
THE SPARKS BROTHERS: Considering the enigmatic mystique that they have continued to generate over the course of a career spanning five decades and 25 studio albums, there is an excellent chance that many people will be going into this film assuming that the entire thing is an elaborate put-on from director Edgar Wright along the lines of what Peter Jackson did with his amazing "Forgotten Silver." Nope--Sparks, the art-pop band comprised of brothers Ron and Russell Mael and an ever-changing array of sidemen, really does exist and Wright chronicles their entire career in such detail that even fans of the band may feel a bit exhausted at the end of its 140-minute running time. As a fan of the band, I had a lot of fun watching the Maels and an army of colleagues, collaborators and fans (including Todd Rundgren, Jane Weidlin, Jason "Talia Shire's Son" Schwartzmann and Patton Oswalt) looking back on a career so rollercoaster in nature that they actually made an appearance in the mostly forgotten 1977 disaster film "Rollercoaster" and discovering things that even I wasn't aware of (such as tragically scuttled potential collaborations with Jacques Tati on a final Hulot film and with Tim Burton on an adaptation of the manga "Mai the Psychic Girl"). As for those who are completely unfamiliar with the group, they might go into it based almost entirely on Wright’s name but by the time it is over, I'll bet that many of them start downloading the group’s albums in order to experience their oddball magic for themselves.
WE'RE ALL GOING TO THE WORLD’S FAIR: One dark night, lonely and isolated teenager Casey(Anna Cobb) decides to take part in the latest Internet fad, the World's Fair Challenge. To enter requires her to say "I want to go to the World's Fair" thrice, prick her finger, smear the blood on the monitor and hit play on a video. Inevitably, Casey is convinced that she is experiencing a number of mysterious changes and comes across videos of other participants that seem to confirm her fears. As her grip on reality begins to slip, she is contacted by another participant who says that he is seeing something unusual in her own uploads. This effort from writer-director Jane Schoenbrun is baffling to the extreme and there were long stretches when I confess to having precious little idea as to what was going on. That said, it is visually impressive throughout, especially considering what must have been a tiny budget, it has an undeniably trippy vibe that would have thrilled the midnight movie crowds once upon a time and the performance from Cobb, making her debut, is a real knockout that is hopefully a harbinger of even better things down the road.