Tag Archives: Sundance Film Festival

Mandy (2018 Sundance)

15 Sep

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when it happened, but somewhere in the 2000’s or perhaps 2010’s there was a collective cultural reawakening and renewed appreciation for the actor Nicolas Cage. Perhaps it was due to the broadening of meme culture and prevalence of GIFs as a viable communication tool. Perhaps it’s entirely due to the infamy of Neil LaBute‘s unnecessary remake of The Wickerman which is often cited as being one of the best (worst?) of the so-bad-it’s-great horror collection. Or maybe it had something to do with fan-made “greatest hits” video mashups of the thespian’s most outlandish moments. Whatever the reason, the Chuck Norris of the internet age had gone from acclaimed dramatic actor to C-movie superstar with roles in such abysmal works like Knowing, Drive Angry, and Left Behind.   

And then we get to Mandy, the follow-up from the elusive director of Beyond the Black RainbowPanos Cosmatos. Premiering in the Midnight section at the Sundance Film Festival, Mandy is exactly the sort of thing that the best midnight movies are made of. Cage stars alongside Andrea Riseborough (playing the titular character Mandy) as a woodsman hauling trees somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. The two appear to be husband and wife, and have settled themselves comfortably away from civilization in a remote mountian lodge.  One day as Mandy is out for a morning jog, she crosses paths with an eclectic group of self-identified “Jesus Freaks” who then kidnap poor Mandy to be used as some sort of cosmic, ritualistic sacrifice.

Mandy is essentially two separate hour-long films; the first half being the more surreal, psychedelic, visually-impressive storytelling that we are familiar with Cosmatos doing so well in Beyond the Black Rainbow. Scene by scene, the pulsating music, visuals, and 80’s aesthetic become so overwhelming that one becomes simultaneously distanced and hypnotized by the dreamstate that unfolds.  Characters ramble on and on about cosmic deities and philosophical musings and destiny and the nature of good and evil. Things make absolutely no narrative sense but you don’t really don’t care because Cosmatos believes so intensely in his unique drug-fuelled vision and the vivid details carry the film far above its C-level script. One becomes increasingly less-concerned with why and more transfixed with how things happen as the film progresses.  This part of Mandy looks and feels like a painting lifted straight out of a 1992-era Dungeons & Dragons game manual and the scenes are crafted with such Kubrickian-like artistry rarely seen in cinema today.

Eventually one part of the story bleeds into the next and the hallucinatory effect of Cosmatos’ cinema-drug starts to wear off as various images emerge and dissipate. A burned body….. cloaked figures chanting in a circle…. and….. is that Nicolas Cage forging a battle axe?!? Suddenly the lucid dream we were experiencing comes to halt and we are snapped into a vicious action story centered around a vodka-infused character (Nicholas Cage) out for blood.  Here the film completely embraces Cage’s legacy as the gaudy cult-icon he has become and events go from mildly absurd to full-bore bonkers as Cosmatos turns the Outrageous dial up to 11.  Mandy never enters full on camp territory however, even as Nic Cage breaks the fourth wall to stare directly into the camera and give his signature “You Don’t Say” face (soaked in blood this time, of course); Cosmatos is so committed to his vision that things still feel cemented in a serious story – even when moments become outlandishly bizarre.

By the end of Mandy, I found myself mentally and physically exhausted. This film takes you on a journey and steeps its way deep into the subconscious long after viewing. It’s definitely not for everyone, but those inclined toward midnight genre fare are in for a treat.

Bottom Line: While some might have a hard time with the film’s slower, more metaphysical first half, Mandy rewards patient viewers with an all-out assault on the senses that culminates into a truly original and exciting viewing experience. 

Rating: 7.6 / 10

Film Recipe: Enter the Void + The Evil Dead pt II + Beyond the Black Rainbow + The Visitor 

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Sorry To Bother You (Sundance 2018)

13 Jul

After spending years in development hell, rapper-turned-director Boots Riley‘s dark satire Sorry To Bother You finally hit the big screen at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and quickly became one of the buzziest titles of the festival.

Set in a not-too-distant-future of Oakland, the film follows Cassius (Lakeith Stanfield) and his activist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) as they try to save up cash with plans to finally move out of Cassius’ uncle’s garage. Cassius takes up a job as a telemarketer, where he struggles to make sales until he discovers the magic secret: putting on his “white voice” when talking with potential customers.  Cue the post-Obama racial satire as Cassius quickly climbs the ranks of telemarketing and begins to unravel a string of dark secrets brought on by corporate figurehead Mr. Lift (Armie Hammer).

Shot on a minimal budget and produced with the self-described “stone-soup” method (every new crew member brings something big to the table to collaborate on) Sorry To Bother You has a renegade punk vibe embedded within its DNA. Thompson and Stanfield both give incredibly bold performances and help the more outlandish lines of dialogue seem grounded within the film’s unique reality.  A supporting cast with Danny Glover, Terry Crews, Steven Yeun, and voicework by Patton Oswalt and David Cross help create the vividly colorful world the film lives in.

It becomes apparent during the first 15 minutes that writer/director Boots Riley has stacked his script full of details that lift the film above a cultural pedestal and into a world of its own. The story goes from being socially provocative to radically ambitious to levels of Charlie Kauffman-esc meta-satire referencing everything from social activist culture to gentrification to celebrity status in the digital age to the meme-ification of fake news to the ever-present display of corporate America. Seriously, there are more ideas floated around in the first act of Sorry To Bother You than you will find in the most viral of Ted Talks.  Not all of the cultural commentary sticks however, and some ideas feel senselessly shoehorned into the plot for little or no reason. Still, Riley clearly has a passion for his chaotic mess, and even in its most confusing or cartoonish moments Sorry To Bother You thrives off its ever-emanating creative energy and ambition. Coincidentally, this unique gem ends up being a lot of fun in the process.

Bottom Line: While Sorry To Bother You makes more sense as a haphazard cultural collage than a narrative film, the ideological soup the film creates is impressively ambitious and wildly entertaining. 

Rating: 8.2/10 

Film Recipe: Get Out + Being John Malkovich + Office Space + Dear White People

I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore (2017)

23 Feb

It’s a cruel, cruel world. Taking place in what could only be Trump’s America, I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore details the day-to-day life of Ruth (Melanie Lynskey), a jaded medical assistant who seems disgusted by the self-centeredness of a universe where “everyone I see is an asshole.” Ruth lives at home; her only friend is Angie, a busy housewife who has no time to listen when she nearly has an emotional breakdown after becoming a crime victim. It’s enough to push Ruth over the edge and investigate the perpetrators on her own terms, enlisting the help of her violent, short-tempered neighbor Tony (Elijah Wood) who just also happens to be a skilled martial artist.

Macon Blair, a skilled actor making his directorial debut, tightly commands every moment of this pitch-black comedic thriller. The jokes are few and far between, but they are delivered in such sly fashion they have a big impact (the bar scene is awkward enough to rival any episode from The Office). Blair, who comes fresh off of acting in Jeremy Saulnier’s acclaimed indie thrillers Green Room and Blue Ruin, is obviously a big genre fan himself, and his script here takes from a variety of influences (Martin McDonagh and the Coen brothers come to mind) while still feeling fresh and original. Lynskey gives her career-best performance as someone who is constantly weighed by the anxieties of the modern world but still someone who wants to make the altruistic change she wishes she could see in other people.

The story gets bumpy at around the halfway mark, but the few narrative issues are easily put aside when the film dives headfirst into its white-knuckle, absolutely batshit-insane third act. Here Blair’s talent shines like a beacon and he creates enormous amounts of tension in an incredibly tight timeframe. Clocking in at just over 90 minutes, I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore is a taut little thriller that leaves a bigger impression than it should.

Elijah Wood and Melanie Lynskey appear in I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore by Macon Blair, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Allyson Riggs.

Bottom Line: A genre-infused piece that shows Macon Blair’s inherent directorial sensibilities,  I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore is a deliciously clever and innovative take on the vigilante revenge story. It’s also incredibly suspenseful and drop-dead hilarious. 

Rating: 7.7/10 

Film Recipe: Fargo + In Bruges + Straw Dogs + Gran Torino 

The Witch (2015 Sundance)

18 Feb

Zombies and Vampires may come close, but no horror archetype has been represented and caricatured in cinema quite like that of a witch. From The Wizard of Oz to Harry Potter, to Monty Python, we have been enchanted by the mysterious figure. I walked into the “The Witch” thinking I had seen just about every form of witches out there. I was so wrong.

Directed by Robert Eggers, and based of the real-life accounts of 16th century New England puritans, The Witch tells the story of a small puritan family who have recently been banished from their immigrant village on account of religious blasphemy.  William, Katherine, Thomasin, Caleb, Jonas, and Mercy must now fend for themselves by raising a farm in the middle of a forsaken (and possibly haunted) swampland. Without the aid of any nearby villagers, the family is faced with a terrifying ultimatum: either grow food or starve to death.  When crops fail to sprout however, William (Ralph Ineson), the family patriarch, suspects his children have been involved with witchcraft and dabbling in occult affairs. Members of the family then begin one by one to descend into a terrifying spiral of religiously-fuelled madness and savagery.

Part supernatural horror, part paranoid thriller, The Witch is a genuinely spooky take on the occult and the terrorizing effects religious devotion can have on one’s psyche. Thankfully, it is a meticulously crafted as it is terrifying, making The Witch the most artistically minded horror since 2014’s Under The Skin.

The Witch is one of those rare films you just don’t watch but experience; you can feel the sense of impending dread seeping out from the screen as you watch characters slowly peel back the mystery and evil that exists within the nearby woods. Boasting an immaculate production design that effectively recalls the early 1600’s, the film accurately recalls a time and place when religious paranoia fueled all aspects of life.  The film’s dialogue is even written word-by-word from historical transcripts and rendered by the actors in heavy, old-english accents. This kind of attention to detail might throw some viewers off (especially those with an aversion to period pieces) and the slow timing during the film’s first act ensures only those with a bit a patience will brave the film’s nightmarish climax.

This film is dark – extremely dark – figuratively and literally, (I doubt some scenes will even be visible when screened in a lightened room) which adds immensely to its haunting quality. Dimly lit landscapes covered in impenetrable greys add a surreal and menacing atmosphere. With one hell of an unsettling score, The Witch creates subtle psychological tension from the things we don’t see onscreen rather than relying on tiring jump scares.

 

Bottom Line: The Witch is a throwback to the great horror films of the 70’s, but delivered in such a visceral fashion that the ultimate effect is hard to shake off; I literally had dreams (nightmares?) about this thing weeks after seeing it.

 

Rating: 8/10 

Film Recipe: The Wicker Man (1973) + The Shining (1980) + The Exorcist (1973)

Anomalisa (2016 Sundance)

28 Jan

What does it mean to be human?

Perhaps no other question has plagued writer/director Charlie Kaufman throughout his work than this age-old existential dilemma. Co-directed with Duke Johnson, Anomalisa marks the first animated film from Kauffman, with all the characters taking the form of stop-motion puppets. It’s a brave choice to render a deeply human artistic vision with inhuman objects, but somehow it all works so well. These characters feel and look familiar enough to be incredibly relatable while still maintaining their foreign and still-life properties through the wall of puppetry.  Anomalisa unfolds itself in a sort of hallucinogenic, dream-like state, with each scene blending into the next until a narrative starts to take shape:

The film focuses on Thomas Stone, a sort of well known cheerleader for customer service reps nationwide, as he has been summoned to speak in Cincinnati Ohio for a business convention. Unfortunately, Stone seems to be suffering from some sort of psychological breakdown, one that makes him inept to connect with others around him – despite their obvious love and adoration for him. Stone sees everyone else in the world as “the same”; simple replicas of one another without any depth, feeling, or emotion. Stone is miserable man, plagued with the mindless existence of others, until he meets someone who, by chance is “different….. a real person.” This prompts Stone to reconsider his options, in order lead a fulfilling life of love and authentic connection.

Johnson and Kaufman pay special attention to the small details in the world of Anomalisa; it doesn’t matter if they are the physical details of the production itself (every set piece was painstakingly crafted and animated by hand) or the subtle character details that make these puppets spring to life and take on the personas of real people. Financed entirely from funds through fans from Kickstarter, Anomalisa is one of those quiet films that makes an impact through its many smaller parts. It plays like a short film actually, with a only a few interior set pieces being used, but it’s incredibly powerful in its message and, ultimately, hauntingly truthful. Though there are some jarring and awkward moments (one particular scene featuring puppet sex drags tragically for too long) it’s intimate ideas about loneliness, desperation, self-consciousness and connection somehow become incredibly poignant as the film progresses, and even more so after the credits roll and you are left to reflect on what you have just seen.  It might not have the towering ambition of Synecdoche New York, the meta, self-awareness of Adaptation, or the Inception-esc surrealism of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but Anomalisa is singularly Kaufman’s most restrained and intimate work.

Bottom Line: A labor of love from directors Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman, Anomalisa makes a profound statement about humanity through its many small (and sometimes painfully truthful) charms.

Rating: 9/10 

Film Recipe:  Happiness + Her + Being John Malkovich

Cop Car (2015)

2 Sep

“This is our cop car!” ten-year-old Harrison (Hays Wellford) yells, as he and his best friend Travis (James Freedson-Jackson), take off with a newly carjacked police vehicle. The aptly-titled film Cop Car follows these two boys as they begin their rebellious journey by committing grand theft auto in a midwest rural town. Of course, the local Sheriff  Kretzer (a wonderful Kevin Bacon) isn’t game to just let a couple of hoodlums escape with his car, especially when it contains important contraband connected with a crime of Kretzer’s own doing…

Directed by Jon Watts and co-written by Watts and Chris D. Ford, Cop Car starts out as standard teenage, lighthearted fare. The first opening lines feature Harrison and Wellford alone in a wheatfield spewing a string of curse words for the sheer thrill of it. Boys will be boys after all. As the film slowly starts to shed light on the repercussions of messing with law enforcement, it becomes obvious to the children, and to the audience, that things have gotten WAY out of control. This is when the film thematically exhausts itself, as it tries too hard to straddle the lines between 1) exploiting the jokes and fun of having a pair of innocent kids take on the cops, and 2) showing just how serious (read: deadly) the situation has become.  It’s a tough line to straddle, and there are moments in the film (like when the children try to figure out how to handle a police pistol, for example) where I wasn’t sure if I should be laughing or terrified.  It’s all fun and games until someone gets shot.

Story-wise though, there is enough going on to make up for the film’s self-confusion. Watts and Ford have written a fairly solid film, especially in its latter half. And the execution – from the cinematography to the editing to the action scenes – is equally solid. In a film like this though, the children obviously take in the spotlight. Wellford and Freedson-Jackson make an adorable on screen presence, but unfortunately their lack of acting experience shines right through. Of course child actors are usually tricky, and make for an easy critical targets when discussing performances, but in a film like Cop Car, so much is weighing on the kids and it’s absolutely critical to have believable young actors who can pull the whole thing off. Unfortunately, that’s not the case here.

The vast majority of Cop Car however, is as entertaining as its premise would suggest. Watts cleverly weaves multiple storylines and points of view together to create a fulfilling and suspenseful narrative, complete with an incredible third act. Some of the scenes are flat out brilliant (the final 5 minutes might be one of the best cinematic moments of the year), but others feel mismatched and inconsistent. Clocking in at a nice and neat 86 minutes doesn’t give me too much to complain about.

Bottom Line: Missed opportunities and bland child acting zap Cop Car of it’s potential, making the film a bit of an inconsistent – but always enjoyable – mixed bag. 

 

Rating: 6/10 

The Recipe: Coen Bros + Home Alone (1990) + Young Anakin from The Phantom Menace 

Diary of a Teenage Girl (Sundance 2015)

25 Aug

Very few themes have been examined more in teen cinema than that of sexual maturation and puberty. From classic films like Stand By Meto contemporary ones like Superbad or last year’s Boyhood, film culture seems to be obsessed with capturing that moment where children start see the opposite sex in a different light. Rarely though, are they done so skillfully through the eyes of a female protagonist, which is what makes Sundance Film Festival entry Diary of a Teenage Girl such a refreshing delight.

Our lead girl is Minnie (played by Bel Powley), a 15 year-old girl raised in the hippie culture of 70’s San Francisco. Raised by her single mother Charlotte (Kristen Wiig) who has since divorced Minnie’s father and is seeing a new man by the name of Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard). The film quickly establishes that Minnie has just lost her virginity to Monroe, and the two form an unconventional and highly toxic relationship that fuels the drama for most of the film. Minnie’s newfound sexuality serves as her inspiration to start an audio journal, wherein she chronicles her sexual exploits and thoughts about life in general. As you can imagine, dating a man 20 years older has its share of compilations, especially when he is also dating your mom and you are still in high school.

While intensely uncomfortable at some moments, Minnie’s adventure is told so delicately and expertly by writer/director Marielle Heller (who, up to this point has been mostly known for her acting work in the underrated Liam Neeson vehicle A Walk Among The Tombstones) that it becomes hard not to fall in line with Minnie’s innocent view of what a romantic fling entitles her to. In her mind, dating her soon-to-be stepdad is perfectly natural because the two genuinely love each other, and according to Minnie “loving someone means you touch them all over”.  In the film’s first act Heller is arguably justifying a pedophilliac relationship, and we see how idealistic and good Minnie and Monroe are for each other. Later on however, Heller expertly shows us the complexity and devastation that comes with heartbreak.

The film’s plot does get weighed down a bit in the third act by a few unnecessary moments which tragically put the brakes on the free flowing and enthusiastic pace of the first half. Heller knows she has a great story on her hands, but perhaps she became a little too enthused about telling us how it ends. There is also a lot of crude animation that some people will really fall for, but I thought it was just a distraction.

Diary of a Teenage Girl is a superbly crafted and deeply affectionate film; you get a sense the story is intensely personal to Heller but still conveyed well enough so it’s instantly relatable to a wide array of viewers. Soft lighting and incredible production design reflect the youthful optimism and rebellious independent spirit of the 70’s.  It’s easy to see how this film took the Best Cinematography Award at the Sundance Awards Ceremony – every frame is overflowing with a romantic and dreamlike idealism. Bel Powley, a British theater actress, is absolutely fantastic in one of 2015’s biggest breakthrough performances.

Bottom Line: While a widespread theatrical run might not be on the horizon (I can’t imagine many megaplexes are looking for a film this unrelinquishing about such a taboo topic), Diary of a Teenage Girl deserves to be seen by many though VOD or some other platform where it will resonate with a large audience.

Rating: 8/10 

Film Recipe: Fish Tank (2010), +  It Felt Like Love (2014),  + Blue Is The Warmest Color (2013)