Film

Dispatch: A Second Day of Films at Sundance Brings Hits…and One Big Miss

When you’ve got two film critics with nothing to do but watch films from home during the Sundance Film Festival, daily dispatches turn into hefty reading material. On the second day of Sundance, several documentaries become early standouts, while dramas find the dark corners of family relationships and a pre-apocalyptic comedy attempts to put some meaning behind this isolated time we’re living in. Read on for a our takes on what we saw at Sundance Day 2.

How It Ends

Image courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

How It Ends

If you thought it might take a year or two before pandemic film productions find their way to audiences, you’d be sorely underestimating both a filmmaker’s drive to tell stories and the relatively easy access to equipment in the digital age. Filmmaking team (and spouses) Zoe Lister-Jones and Daryl Wein attempt to make sense of their tangled shelter-at-home emotions in the slight but never flimsy pre-apocalyptic comedy How It Ends, a sort of road-movie-on-foot that sees Lister-Jones’ Liza use the last day on Earth to revisit friends, exes and even her estranged parents before meteors crash into the planet and destroy life as we know it. In a clever device that gives a solo Liza someone to engage with over the course of the film’s quick 82 minutes, Cailee Spaeny stars as Liza’s younger self, a manifestation of her both her insecurities and her aspirations. With plans to attend a world-ending party that night (and after discovering her car’s been stolen), Liza (and younger Liza) sets out on foot to make her visits around town.

The film is essentially a series of vignettes on the Lizas’ journey as they run into a motley crew of neighbors, strangers and fellow end-of-the-world lost souls out and about, making the most of their last day. Filmed during the era of social distancing as it was, all these scenes are sparse by design—it’s just the Lizas and whomever they happen to bump into, from a teacher-turned-comic pitching one-liners from a street corner to anyone passing by to neighbors bickering (from a safe six feet apart) about rinsing recyclables before they go out and if the predicted world-ending meteors are “fake news.” The burden of the film’s entertainment value lives largely on Lister-Jones’ shoulders, as we’re with her the whole time; if you’re not a fan of her or her relaxed but sharp comedic style, you might not be a fan of How it Ends.

The film is a who’s who of famous friends, as everyone from Lamorne Morris to Bradley Whitford to Helen Hunt, Charlie Day, Fred Armisen, Finn Wolfhard, Colin Hanks and Olivia Wilde make appearances. Each encounter is its own kind of delight, from a cathartic moment of honesty with her narcissistic mother (Hunt) to a painfully hilarious read on basic white bitches sharing a faux-insightful moment of bonding (a scene that, admittedly, had me howling in recognition). Through it all, younger-self Liza is right by Liza’s side, keeping her moving forward and creeping in with her own wants and needs if only Liza could take a moment to reflect on them for herself. All the honesty and vulnerability takes its toll on the Lizas, and its in the film’s penultimate scenes where Lister-Jones and Wein finally clue us into the real journey we’ve been on with them this whole time.

How It Ends is a film of joyful nihilism, one that accepts that when nothing really matters anymore, perhaps what’s most important is finding ways to be happy with whatever you’ve got. In a particularly dark time, one of such extreme isolation and despair, the film attempts to attach some meaning to all this time we’re spending apart from each other, and it does so in ways both light-hearted and significant. The amount of art likely to emerge from this particular moment in time is impossible to fathom; some of it will be monumental, some of it will be insufferable. How It Ends lands somewhere sweetly in the middle, a small, welcome piece of comfort viewing perfect for days when it seems like the world is ending. (Lisa Trifone)

Human Factors

Image courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Human Factors

It would almost make more sense if this story of a French-German couple and their two children attempting to salvage any type of joy out of a tense, emotionally unstable vacation was called Human Error, since ultimately the fate and future of this family seems tied to whether or not a perceived attempted robbery happened or not. Jan (Mark Waschke) and Nina (Sabine Timoteo) arrive at their seaside second home and shortly after, doors begin slamming, someone screams, and Emma believes she sees shadows and hears the hurried footsteps of someone inside the house running outside. At first, we see the immediate aftermath of this incident, which includes young son Max, who was returning from a trip to the grocery store, believing his pet rat has disappeared. But then writer-director Ronny Trocker backs things up in time and shows us the arrival and disruption from the perspective of another family member, then another, until we make it through the entire family (which also includes teenage daughter Emma and the rat, who has the best view of the alleged incident).

Initially, the event brings the family closer as they close ranks and try to figure out of the intruders were in the house when they arrived or snuck in when they opened doors to air out the stuffy lodging. But before long, long-standing cracks in the relationships begin to creep back in. Max and Emma run a successful ad agency that has just accepted a political client for a campaign account, which Emma isn’t comfortable with but will both bring in significant money and boost their profile—things that are extremely important to Jan. When the police are brought in to investigate the intrusion, the account of the order and timing of events doesn’t add up, which shakes the couple’s tenuous connection up even further.

Human Factors does a remarkable job illustrating how fragile the familial ecosystem can be, even in seemingly the strongest families. Each new telling of the incident branches off into new stories that add depth to each character, complete with new sets of flaws, secrets, and darker corners that only serve to accentuate and reveal the divides within these as if they’re being cut open by a scalpel. I’m not sure I really liked any of the characters here, but I don’t require that to get something valuable out of any film. Still, I feel like an attempt at being empathetic might have helped access the fraught emotional cores of these people and made the movie better. As it is, the work is front-loaded with distrust, bitterness, and a decaying nuclear family. If that sounds like something you might enjoy digging through to get to its dark center, Human Factors might be for you. (Steve Prokopy)

In The Earth

At least once during every Sundance Film Festival, the programming team attempts to throw in a title that is a full on assault on your senses and logic receptors. In most years, that film starts around midnight and usually stars Nicolas Cage (who actually does pop up in a Sundance movie this year, but not in a late-night slot). This year, that film is Ben Wheatley’s In The Earth, his follow-up (weirdly enough) to his adaptation of Rebecca but probably more closely resembles some of his earlier works. Set in a near-future version of the world in which a deadly virus forces people to spend months in quarantine before being deemed safe to engage with others, the film follows the journey of Dr. Martin Lowery (Joel Fry), who has been corresponding with another research scientist located deep in the Arboreal Forest, somewhere in the UK.

Self-described as not much of an outdoors type, Martin is guided by park ranger Alma (Ellora Torchia, Midsommar) through the dense woods, and they trade stories of these parts that combine local mythology and more dangerous realities of the area. One the second of their two-night journey, they are jumped in their tents and robbed of most of their valuables (including their shoes), leaving them vulnerable until they meet the seemingly kindly Zach (Reece Shearsmith). Zach sews up a nasty gash on Martin’s foot, gives them both food and drink, and even plays them a little tune on his guitar, until they pass out and Zach reveals himself as being not as altruistic as we never really thought he was in the first place. This is a Ben Wheatley (High-Rise, Sightseers, Free Fire) movie, after all.

The pair manage to escape Zach’s clutches and eventually do find Martin’s acquaintance, named Olivia (Hayley Squires), who has set up a makeshift research facility in the woods to find the intersection between science, nature, and mystical happenings that supposedly occurs or can be summoned in the forest. Using piercing sounds and strobe lights, the team of three attempt to bright out this force and see what is revealed, but what they (and we) get is something that borders on indescribable, disorienting, and horrific. Wheatley uses a combination of hellscape kaleidoscopes, deafening sounds, and fairly graphic imagery (the film relishes in closeups of gory wounds, such as Martin’s foot injury) to compose a reality that is more like a sensory assault, making the final third of In the Earth almost impenetrable and certainly not for the more delicate viewers.

I was actually pretty impressed with what Wheatley has put together with In the Earth, a film clearly made during the pandemic and acknowledging its impact in the opening moments, but moving onto something far more original and mind-numbing. People seem to forget that perhaps even more than being a device for storytelling, film is a visual medium, one that Wheatley almost always embraces and reminds us of in challenging ways, never more so than with this work. We want to see our protagonists survive this ordeal, but we also really, really want to see whatever might come out of the darkness to greet and possibly brutalize them. I’m not sure I’m eager to revisit this one for quite some time, but it’s a standout addition to Wheatley’s filmography, for better or worse—I say for better. (Steve Prokopy)

Image courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Knocking

Not really a horror work as much a troubling psychological indictment of the way women are consistently ignored when being harassed, even by and unseen force. In the Swedish offering Knocking, from director Frida Kempff and screenwriter Emma Broström, we are introduced to Molly (Cecilia Milocco) as she is being released from a mental hospital. We never find out exactly what put her there in the first place, but she moves into a new apartment and is almost immediately tormented by a persistent knocking that sounds like it’s coming from the unit above her. But when she confronts her upstairs neighbor, not only does he claim the noise isn’t coming from him, but he’s also slightly dickish about it, leading her to believe he’s lying.

Eventually the noise is compounded by what sounds like a crying woman, and Molly becomes more convinced that one of her neighbors is not only making noise but holding someone captive. There’s a young couple upstairs whom she spots having a fight in the parking lot that she also suspects may be the source of the noise, and that the woman may be hurt or being held captive, but even bringing in the police doesn’t solve the issue, and Molly quickly earns a reputation as being a troublemaker and busy-body in the building. Naturally, we are meant to wonder if Molly isn’t quite over whatever made her mentally unwell; the fact that there’s a heatwave happening doesn’t help the situation.

Using claustrophobic visual cues and upping the paranoia, confusion and sense of being ignored on a grand scale, Knocking does an admirable job of casting just enough doubt into the situation to make us feel for both Molly and her seemingly innocent neighbors. But it’s the outright dismissal of Molly’s concerns that are some of the most disturbing moments in the movie. The way the police and others reject her claims just because she’s a little squirrelly seems downright institutional. At the same time, there are strong indicators that she has stopped taking her meds, and her doctor calls her several times just to check in, clearly indicating that he’s worried that she may relapse into whatever her issues were previously. The final act revelations seem a bit inevitable in my estimation, but that doesn’t mean they don’t pack a punch, muffled as it may be. (Steve Prokopy)

Mother Schmuckers

An early contender for the worst movie I’ll see at Sundance this year, the Belgian-made Mother Smuckers is about two 20-something brothers, Issachar & Zabulon (Maxi Delmelle and Harpo Guit, who co-wrote and -directed the film with brother Lenny), who are the biggest assholes you’d ever hope to follow for 70-plus minutes, largely because they act like a pair of eight year olds—always fighting, pranking each other and others, and generally never considering the consequences of their terrible actions. They live in Brussels with their sex worker mother (Claire Bodson) and their dog January Jack, who goes missing (the dog, not mom) when they accidentally leave him tied outside a grocery store. As a result, mom threatens to kick them out in 24 hours if they don’t find the dog, so the search is on.

There’s a running gag in the film that the boys are always hungry, but I’m struggling to find the humor in that. While some gross-out comedies relish in their commitment to being disgusting and darkly funny (see The Greasy Strangler… or don’t), Mother Schmuckers is more like someone sitting too long in their own grimy bath water. The brothers’ arrested development might have been more innovative or interesting 15-20 years ago, but we’ve seen this done better. A gun is thrown into the mix for good measure, as is a really disturbing swingers party that you can only gain access to if you have a pet dog. Don’t ask me why; don’t ever ask me why.

Perhaps the biggest shock of the entire film is the presence of the great French actor Mathieu Amalric as the brothers’ well-meaning father. Seeing him in this just made me feel sorry for him and made me wonder what nefarious means of blackmail the Guits used to coerce him into this pile of wet garbage (of which there is plenty in this movie). Mother Schmuckers feels script-less, like the brothers simply picked up a couple of cameras and started shooting their special brand of nonsense. There’s a music video sequence that came the closest to making me laugh, and I don’t think it’s coincidental that the scene actually appears to have to be planned and choreographed—I was probably so thrilled to see actual purpose on the screen that I was fooled into thinking it was mildly funny. There’s nothing here worth recommending, even as a possible underground cult phenomenon. This is just sloppy, witless trash that didn’t even have the common courtesy to disgust me in creative ways. (Steve Prokopy)

On the Count of Three

An early frontrunner for the best opening sequence of the year, first-time feature director Jerrod Carmichael stars as Val in On the Count of Three, a brash and bold feature about two best friends who have their own very different reasons for wanting to end their lives. To make certain they go through with the deed, they point guns at each others’ heads and agree to shoot each other on the count of three. Just as the countdown culminates, the movie jumps back 24 hours to see how both men got to where they are, beginning with Kevin (Christopher Abbott), whom we see attempting to talk his way out of a mental hospital where he has been placed after attempting to commit suicide once already.

Val busts out his best friend, and we discover a long list of failures, abuses and missing moments that have lead to their self-destructive feelings. But before they go through with the deed, they decide to square up some accounts in their lives. For example, Kevin wants to murder his child psychiatrist (Henry Winkler) who sexually abused him when he was younger and effectively set the course of the rest of his miserable life. Val wants to confront his long-absent father (J.B. Smoove) who stole money from him when Val was just a teenager and pops was a drug addict. Val also finds out that his girlfriend (Tiffany Haddish) is pregnant, unexpectedly giving him a reason to stay alive.

Working with a screenplay by Ari Katcher and Ryan Welch, Carmichael’s assured directing and unexpectedly moving performance adds so much to the impact of On the Count of Three. For the most part, the movie is darkly funny, with Abbott and Carmichael making a terrific buddy movie about two guys who claim to want to end it all, but always seem to find reasons to stick around. But the movie isn’t afraid to show us its heart and allow us to get emotionally invested in these wildly messed-up lives. It’s a work that allows the audience to feel compassion for its characters and hope that they pull out of their tailspin—as entertaining as their tailspin might be. These are two men who have been friends since they were kids, but their lives have taken wildly different paths, so perhaps their relationship has run its course. A big part of me would love to see these two actors do more movies together; they bring out something in each other that is palpable, and it kept me glued to their every word and movement. The more I consider their lives, the more I love this movie. (Steve Prokopy)

Playing with Sharks

For those who are more intimately familiar with the behind-the-scenes machinations of Steven Spielberg’s 1975 mega-hit Jaws, you probably already know a bit about Australian diving legend Valerie Taylor and her husband Ron, both of whom rewrote the book on undersea photography, filming and interactions with creatures that most would deem highly dangerous, especially sharks. The few shots in Jaws in which you can actually see real sharks (primarily near the end, when the great white gets tangled in Hooper’s shark cage and ends up destroying it) were all shot by the Taylors and none of the chaos was planned. From director Sally Aitken (Cinematic Life), the documentary Playing with Sharks traces Valerie’s journey from spear hunter to fierce conservationist, all the while attempting to protect sharks from the mass hysteria that she helped create.

Much like 2018’s around-the-world sailing documentary Maiden, the undercurrent of Playing with Sharks is about how Taylor defied expectations tied to both her gender and her chosen field of diving and spear fishing, which was very much a male-dominated field in Australia in the 1960s. But when oceanic hunters began killing sharks for no reason beyond a cool photo and trophy set of jaws, the Taylors immediately stopped killing any form of aquatic life and fought against the slaughter of sharks in particular. The footage of Valerie swimming with sharks is breathtaking (as is all of her undersea work), and it eventually became the subject of the world-renowned 1971 documentary Blue Water, White Death (an incendiary title, if ever there was one) that both inspired divers around the world and may have kicked off the world’s fear of sharks, even though it shows the team emerging from their cages in order to interact with great white sharks.

Most of the film is filtered through the eyes of Valerie, who is now in her 80s and still diving, although getting on the wetsuit is tougher than it used to be. For a time, she was the most famous diver in the world, arguably even more so than Jacques Cousteau, who had a team surrounding him and a seemingly endless supply of financing from the French government; the very DIY Taylors had none of that. Some of their conservation accomplishments in terms of making certain undersea creatures and portions of the ocean around Australia protected are discussed here, but it’s watching her attempts to prove that sharks are just as smart and trainable as dogs that is the type of edge-of-your-seat stuff that makes this film stand out. Director Aitken doesn’t quite make the case that the Taylors ever accepted the fact that they contributed to projects that made the world irreparably fear sharks and believe that killing them en masse is acceptable (the shark fin soup portion of the movie is highly upsetting), but I suspect that’s a truth that haunts Valerie every day. But it’s Valerie’s passion and personality that keep Playing with Sharks not just adrift but propelling forward, and make it well worth checking out. (Steve Prokopy)

Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It

Few biographical documentaries dig into the psychological depths of what make its subject the success they are quite like director Mariem Pérez Riera’s profile of EGOT queen Rita Moreno. With the career highs in Moreno’s decades-long run in show business came crushing lows, including a suicide attempt brought on by feeling not worthy of the love of long-time romantic partner Marlon Brando. With a title taken from a t-shirt she wore recently to an awards show, Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It traces Moreno’s life from being an energetic young girl in Puerto Rico who grew addicted to performing and being the center of attention to her later childhood growing up in New York City, where she was discovered by a talent scout who introduced her to Louis B. Mayer, who in turn signed her to a contract to MGM.

This story sounds like a dream come true, one that culminated in her Oscar-winning turn as Anita in Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’ film adaptation of Leonard Bernstein’s and Stephen Sondheim’s West Side Story. But even that success was tempered by the fact that the creative forces behind that musical were all white men who knew little of the actual Puerto Rican experience. The documentary is filled with stories of Moreno being typecast as the “dusky” native girl with the nebulous accent who falls for the white hero (she basically fine-tuned a generic “exotic” accent for these roles, regardless of what country her character was meant to be from because studio types were too ignorant to know the difference). The parts were both degrading for her, especially considering the untapped talent and personality she had to offer, and barrier-breaking because she was a known quantity and was always working, putting forth a Latina face for her community to see on the big screen.

The film features new interviews with Moreno, her daughter and many of her closest friends and admirers who are able to add color to her stories of always seeing herself as a child, wanting to please her parents, as well as someone who began to hate being Puerto Rican because Hollywood only seemed interested in her as other nationalities. This identity crisis lead to a deep self-loathing, therapy, the aforementioned attempt to take her own life, and an eventual rebuilding based on a restored sense of self worth.

Executive produced by, among others, Norman Lear and Lin-Manuel Miranda, and featuring interviews with the likes of “Electric Company” co-star Morgan Freeman, fellow EGOT winner Whoopi Goldberg, and those who followed in her footsteps like Eva Longoria and Gloria Estefan, Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It excels because it’s not afraid to dig deep and even name names when it comes to those who wronged Moreno and many like her, who discriminated against her or treated her a like a sex object. But after seeing her thrive in her later years on such shows like HBO’s “Oz” and the revived “One Day at a Time,” her 70-plus years in show business must feel like the ultimate act of defiance against those who sought to keep her down.

Moreno’s ability to continuously reinvent herself is remarkable and inspiring, and the glimpses of her on the set of Steven Spielberg’s upcoming version of West Side Story (in which she has a role) are surprisingly emotional. Some of her stories and answers may seem a bit rehearsed and polished to sound pithier and easy to clip into handy soundbites, but that rarely diminishes their power or ability to turn them into life lesson for anyone experiencing doubt in themselves. The film was produced for the PBS series “American Masters,” so look for it hopefully soon, and prepare to perhaps do a little dancing in your living room. (Steve Prokopy)

Rebel Hearts

Image courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Rebel Hearts

The Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary have been in the news in recent years as pop star Katy Perry faced off with the aging community of nuns over their Spanish-colonial convent in Los Angeles, a property Perry was keen to acquire and turn into her own personal retreat space. But the women of the California-based order have a much longer, and it turns out much more interesting, history in the last sixty years than that singular “scandal” would have you believe. And Rebel Hearts, the sophomore directorial effort from longtime documentary editor Pedro Kos (Bending the Arc), seeks to finally put their heroic efforts to evolve the Roman Catholic church in the history books where they belong. And just in time, too; the film features interviews with many women nearing the end of their lives, and recounts for posterity the lives and impact of those no longer with us.

The Catholic church underwent a sea-change after Vatican II in 1965, the monumentous new edicts from Rome that allowed for Mass to be said in the local language (rather than Latin), for women to be more involved in the sacraments, and much more. Around the same time, conservative Cardinal McIntyre, head of the Los Angeles diocese, tapped the Sisters to staff the city’s growing system of parochial schools; nuns could not do much in the deeply patriarchial Catholic church, but teaching would be acceptable. In the midst of this internal turmoil, Los Angeles (and the country) was in the midst of its own changes as free love and Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement and more all bubbled over into every aspect of society, including the convent. Led by Anita Caspary (known in the church as Sister Mary Humiliata), the Sisters began to push back against the Cardinal’s conservative expectations and the expectation that they remain quiet, obedient and unaffected by the evolving world around them.

Rebel Hearts recounts all of this at a clip that keeps the narrative moving without ever becoming overwhelming; interviews with various community members are interspersed between archival footage of Caspary in the media at the time or audio recording of internal community meetings where the women discuss their demands for improved relations with the church, the option to stop wearing the habit and more. Leaning into the aesthetic of the era, groovy animations add a splash of color to the black and white photography from the community’s archives. Several members emerge as bastions for change in the order’s push for growth, including Corita Kent, whose pop-art screen prints both earned the Cardinal’s ire and made her something of a mainstream celebrity. The film makes special effort follow the community’s story from the most tumultuous years into present day, charting how a divisive moment in its existence ultimately opened the door for an organization more inclusive and progressive than a Sisterhood could ever be under the Church’s watchful eye.

Though many of them are now at advanced ages, several of the sisters who were a part of IHM’s confrontations with the Church in the 1960s and ’70s are still alive today. Capturing their story as Rebel Hearts so warmly does means that their impact will never be forgotten. The ripple effects of their actions decades ago—their determination to stand up for their beliefs and push for change no matter the cost—are not only still felt in the Catholic church, but they’re present in every fight for social justice the community champions to this day. (Lisa Trifone)

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