I’m about to have my hip replaced, completing the set that I began six years ago. While I can walk ok, if slowly, standing for a long time is a problem. I had been dreading the necessity of having to do just that at Sundance. But our hostess, who is a festival volunteer, saved my bacon. She suggested I trot out the folding cane I carry everywhere (but had never used before) and ask if I could sit in the, you know, limited-mobility section to wait. Whew! So for the first — and almost certainly the last — time, I saw all my films at the same venue. The reason it’s significant is that Sundance’s largest auditorium tips toward movies in the dramatic competition, or premieres. That’s why the fifteen below are spare on world cinema and documentaries. Next year, bro.
We had planned to spend the festival-closing Sunday night in Park City and get up early Monday for an Uber, but a blizzard was scheduled to dump about an inch an hour by then, so we hitched a ride into Salt Lake and stayed over Sunday at an airport hotel. Good thing, too, because said snow fell indeed. The weather doesn’t care about my hip!
THE NEST*** Jude Law convinces his American wife (a fine Carrie Coon) and kids to move from Yank suburbs back to his native England, where he will rejoin his old firm and lease a humongous country manor. It’s the Eighties, so much of business is fast talking and artifice. The go-getter lives beyond his means, and the pace gradually becomes more and more frantic until Daddy gets a little creepy. Then a lot. Thoughts of THE SHINING will drift your way; the spooky, sprawling house they can’t really afford looks a lot like the Overlook Hotel. Sean Durbin’s MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE thrilled this fest almost ten years ago; his second feature demonstrates the same talent for depicting human nature, even at its most venal.
WANDER DARKLY**** To say this isn’t for everybody would be the understatement of the festival, but I was at rapt attention throughout. I can save you some reading time by asking: do you admire the work of David Lynch? If your answer is NO, then by all means, next flick please. After a traumatic incident, new parent Sienna Miller becomes as “unstuck in time” as poor old Billy Pilgrim, interacting with people who shouldn’t be there, careering among locations, emotions and even existential points of view. She’s, um, shadowed by her partner Diego Luna. Anyone who wants a traditional three-act story is in the wrong theater. But the askew view (beg pardon, Kevin Smith) is profoundly revealing, and plot strands actually do begin to re-tie before it’s over. It’s a distant cousin to the wonderful A GHOST STORY, but even that rhetorical relationship is misleading. You will either love this or hate it. No middle ground.
MISS JUNETEENTH*** “Juneteenth” is the annual celebration of the abolition of slavery in Texas on June 19, 1865; one character explains that Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, but “Texas didn’t mind him.” Part of the celebration in one small town is a beauty pageant/talent show, and single mom Turquoise Jones (a terrific Nicole Beharie) was the winner when she was a teenager. She’s grooming her daughter for the same victory, hoping for the college scholarship that goes along with the crown, but young Kai has other aspirations. This is a charming, colorful look at all the fish in Turquoise’s small Texas pond, anchored by the loving tension between what mother wants and what daughter needs.
PALM SPRINGS*** At a family wedding studded with stereotypes, the reluctant, rebellious maid of honor (Cristin Milioti, in what should be a career-maker) meets goofy, nihilistic Andy Samberg when he brashly saves her from having to plow through a boring wedding toast. He is brash because he has a secret, a secret you will instantly recognize from a certain Bill Murray movie that was recently made into a Broadway musical. That’s the main problem: the key premise feels too familiar — though the hit-and-miss story has some funny moments as writer Andy Siara follows the couple’s new situation to its logical extremes and then keeps going. The always dependable J. K. Simmons is featured in a scenery-chewing role that’s perfectly in tune with the flick’s farcical nature. This one sold for a sum that broke the all-time Sundance acquisition record — by exactly sixty-nine cents (funny!).
PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN**** Cassie (Carey Mulligan) was once a promising young woman, but then she dropped out of medical school and now lives an ostensibly boring life, working as a barista and living with her parents. But at night she becomes a femme fatale, imparting justice to men who think they’re about to take advantage of her (the remarkable opening sequence shows her in full flower). Something has traumatized Cassie and turned her brutally vengeful, and before we’re done we will find out what that was. Comic and filmmaker Bo Burnham plays it straight as a former classmate who kindles a relationship that will take him to unexpected places. Written and smartly directed by KILLING EVE’s Emerald Fennell, it’s way dark, but it’ll definitely provoke conversation.
THE 40-YEAR-OLD VERSION*** A fictionalized “version” of the life of writer-director Radha Blank, a playwright and, later in life than usual, a rapper. She’s trying to get her plays produced while eking out a living teaching hilariously sullen high-schoolers. But then she finds the perfect jolt of creative satisfaction by returning to her first love and belting out rhymes. Meanwhile, she’s getting some bites from the theatre community and there’s a good chance one play might land on Broadway. So the two artistic urges pull her in different directions while we watch her prance through her beloved New York in glorious black and white. This film depends entirely on whether you fall in love with the title character, but she’s a force of nature and it’s hard to imagine anyone resisting.
DINNER IN AMERICA**** This was one of my favorite films of the fest, but I was in the distinct minority among our group, so as the kids say, YMMV. About ten minutes in, you think you have it nailed. Then the movie takes a severe right turn, maybe even a yooie, and the screenplay remains one step ahead of you until the credits roll. I don’t want to say too much, but it’s a misfit-couple-road-movie starring a punk-rock pyromaniac and the cutest nerd you’ve ever seen. It’s both brutal and funny, and I so admired the ability and the determination required to surprise us again and again. The depiction of the punk era and punk-era fandom is just off the scale. It’s one of those movies that asks you to let go and float down the river with it. But if you’re game for unexpected shenanigans, you will HOWL.
FALLING*** (Festival Closing Night) In Viggo Mortensen’s writing-directing debut, he plays the son of a raging, bigoted, solitary, mentally declining dad (Lance Henriksen) who tries to help his father by moving him from the rural family farm back East into his California household. Problem #1 is the father’s relentlessly increasing dementia: the opening scene on an airplane will be painful to anyone who’s ever been close to early-stage Alzheimer’s patients, who tend to be resistant to change of any kind. Problem #2 is that the Mortensen character lives with his male partner and they are together doing their best to raise a daughter; can you guess the old man’s level of approval? This is a sensitive, sumptuously photographed family story that is quite sophisticated for a first feature. Henriksen’s is a juicily showy and intense role, but I thought he not only took the character to its histrionic limit but went past that point a few times into emotional bluster. Then again, maybe he was just following the boss’s instructions.
UNCLE FRANK*** CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF meets 1973 South Carolina. Beth (Sophia Lillis, the ingenue from the IT movies) adores her Uncle Frank (a stalwart Paul Bettany), but when she moves to New York for college, she learns a deep family secret: Uncle Frank is gay. Furthermore, circumstances conspire to bring both Frank and his husband (Peter Macdissi) down South for a family funeral. The three characters already named form the crux of the tale, but Stephen Root also has a ball as the patriarch, “Daddy Mac.” It’s a bit Douglas-Sirky, and the melodramatic moss hangs heavily from the trees, but it’s the kind of tale we can really use these days.
KAJILLIONAIRE*** Now this one is definitely for those who can handle visual and verbal absurdity a la Lynch or Quentin Dupieux without throwing up their hands in frustration. If you know writer-director Miranda July’s earlier work, you may understand where I’m headed. Imagine if I described TWIN PEAKS as a police procedural set in a logging town: that’s technically correct, but I am omitting everything that makes the show worth watching. Well, this is the story of a con-artist family, a couple (Richard Jenkins and Debra frickin Winger) and their daughter (an almost unrecognizable Evan Rachel Wood) who are plying their shoddy retail-level trade until a talented grifter (Gina Rodriguez) hooks up and raises their sights. The family lives next door to a laundromat, and several times a day they have to fight the huge soap-bubble effluent that leaches into their place a la Chaplin in MODERN TIMES. Get it? I’ll be candid: this is just as likely to perplex as it is to delight, but if you hang in there you’ll be treated to images (like the one I just described) that will stick to your cinematic ribs.
WENDY*** Benh Zeitlin follows up BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD with a bayou-flavored take on the Peter Pan story. The “real world” is a down-home diner owned by the family of Wendy and her brothers. One sleepy night they are drawn to an elfin character riding atop a train car, and before long they are whisked to a magical place where they will never grow old — unless they stop believing. (That place is played by gorgeous Montserrat.) There’s an earthbound sibling and generational strand here that first seems to be only occasionally interrupted by beats from the famous J. M. Barrie tale, and that’s a legit point of view on Zeitlin’s part. This one ebbs and flows, but the child actors are wonderful. However, I recommend that you forget about the Peter Pan stuff until, say, the last reel, when it gets tough to follow the film’s arc without it — a dichotomy which I do consider a narrative flaw. You can judge for yourself when it opens tomorrow.
FOUR GOOD DAYS*** Harrowing mother-daughter confrontation as Glenn Close takes one last chance on Mila Kunis, a hopeless junkie who has thrown her life away and shows up at Mom’s door trembling from withdrawal. She can get an injection that will break the cycle, but not unless she can stay clean for the titular time frame. The busy Stephen Root acts against type as Close’s long-suffering husband who really wants to end his wife’s suffering. Both women are able to blast it in their own ways, and the moral heart of the movie has you cheering for each of them — but not without serious trepidation bordering on dread. The climax I will leave for you to discover, but it ends on the best final shot I saw this year.
YALDA, A NIGHT FOR FORGIVENESS*** (World Cinema Grand Jury Prize) Maryam has killed her husband Hassan and faces the death sentence. But the otherwise patriarchal Iranian law provides for the murdered man’s daughter, Mona, to forgive Maryam, if she so chooses, on a nationally televised reality spectacle; it will resemble a Jerry Lewis telethon to Western eyes of a certain age. We remain in the control room and tv studio for nearly the entire picture, with only one short break for fresh air before we return. Within this very creative tick-tock setting we learn much of the backstory, including why the crime was committed. This tradition, held on Yalda, the winter solstice celebration, may strike some as crass and commercial. First, how can you deride something as crass and commercial if you live in America? And second, it’s Maryam’s only hope. Breaths are dutifully held.
BOYS STATE***** (U.S. Grand Jury Prize — Documentary) A verite (meaning there is no narration or underscored music) look at a peculiarly American institution. Each year, the American Legion sponsors statewide convocations of bright high-school students who spend one week together forming a government (this one is in Texas). They decide on platforms, run for office, and, as we discover, use many questionable techniques they have osmosed from their elders. Any documentary is biased because you see only what the filmmaker permits you to see, but as the boys divide into “Nationalists” and “Federalists,” the “mock” element seems to recede, until the all-important election for Governor — the highest Boys State office — becomes both more political and more personal. As you watch, you may casually think of the many analogues to our real-life political system, but your attention is repeatedly thrust back to the boys. It’s riveting.
MINARI**** (U.S. Grand Jury Prize — Dramatic) A Korean family moves from California to Arkansas, where the father, an expert chicken-sexer (yes, that’s actually a thing), wants to “plant a garden.” That is, start a farm. The family has been reluctant, but he can’t be dissuaded from his vision, especially since he becomes a clock-punching superstar, while his wife’s slower speed is still “good enough for Arkansas.” Eventually they invite Grandma to join them, and she powers the rest of the plot. I noted as I walked out that there had been no racial prejudice depicted: this film is about a family that happens to be Korean, and their ethnicity does figure into the story, but no more than yours or mine would. They are assisted by a cross-bearing, God-fearing farmhand delightfully brought to life by Will Patton.
WISH I’D SEEN: BAD HAIR, BE WATER, FEELS GOOD MAN, THE FIGHT, HAPPY HAPPY JOY JOY, POSSESSOR, SHIRLEY, SPACESHIP EARTH, THE TRUFFLE HUNTERS, WHIRLYBIRD
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