Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Day 1: Thursday, Jan. 23
Gird your loins (if you have them; I do not presume to know about your loins)! It’s time for another edition of the Sundance Film Festival, Robert Redford’s intimate movie shindig held each year in the desolate mountains of Park City, Utah. I’ve been to Sundance in all the years that start with 20, so I’m what they call an “old-timer” and “shut up, nobody wants to hear your stories.” As far as I know, I’ll cover Sundance until I die, probably longer.
My personal situation is a little different this year. I now have a day job unrelated to movies from which I’m taking vacation time to cover Sundance for Crooked Marquee. I also live in Utah again now, having moved back here last fall after 14 years in Portland. But I live in Provo, an hour from Park City, so as usual I’m staying at a condo in town rather than commuting. Sharing a condo with the boys (I don’t think they qualify as boyz) is half the fun of Sundance anyway. I’m told Redford does the same thing.
There are two screening slots on opening night, with three options for each. I had settled on something for the early slot when one of the boys pointed out that another option, called Summertime, was directed by Carlos Lopez Estrada, whose Blindspotting was one of my favorites here two years ago. Why had I not chosen this one, I wondered? Then I looked at the description in the festival guide and remembered:
“A love letter to Los Angeles written and performed by a collective of young spoken-word poets.”
“Collective.” “Young.” “Poets.” These are red flags. A search for more information yielded this detail in Entertainment Weekly:
“The young cast are all artists with Get Lit, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit arts organization whose mission is to ‘use poetry to increase literacy, empower youth, and inspire communities.'”
When I read this aloud in the condo, the assembled boys groaned in unison. (It may have been my delivery.) Yet my feelings began to change. Now the movie seemed to have all the ingredients for a memorable, insufferable disaster of pretentious proportions. I became morbidly curious. Forget whatever the other movie was, now I wanted to see Summertime!
And so a few of the boys and I wound up at Summertime. If we’d only seen the first 10 minutes or so, we’d have thought our fears/hopes were right. It’s mostly teenagers (a few are older) performing scenes, sketches, and vignettes that lead into slam poetry on various topics. The very first line is something like, “This morning the sewer smelled like butterscotch,” and I instantly became Aunt Linda.
The scenes are loosely woven into a narrative, and at times the movie seems like a student project that happened to recruit a really talented director. Everyone is so earnest and impassioned; everyone is not, unfortunately, an actor.
But after a rough start, Summertime finds its way and offers many scenes that are charming, funny, moving, or weird, or some combination of those. There’s a man and woman in couples’ therapy learning to settle their differences through rap battles. There are two aspiring rappers who make it big with a song praising their mothers. (“If I had to vote between Obama and my mama / I’d make it two votes / For my mama and my mama” cracked me right up and continued to do so for hours.) A girl confronts a friend who hurt her. Another girl stands up to homophobia on the bus. A fast-food worker blows his top. Some scenes are better than others, depending primarily on the kids’ charm (or absence thereof), but I ended up being a fan. Their energy is infectious, and Lopez Estrada does a terrific job giving their work some artistic context. The kids are all right, etc.
Pleasant surprise number one! A fine way to start a festival.
Next up was dinner at the Mexican place whose name I can never remember because it’s “Sergio’s” and Sergio seems like an Italian name to me. Condo boys Dan Mecca, Luke Hicks, and Matt Cipolla were with me, and we were soon joined by Jordan Raup, who’d seen a different movie. Here I also ran into Melanie Addington, who runs the Oxford (Mississippi) Film Festival, and her mom, Lynda, who is the mom of Oxford and now wants to be the mom of Sundance. I’m a regular visitor at the Oxford fest to be on panels and juries and stuff, so I am comfortable endorsing Lynda’s campaign for Sundance Mom.
The other movie tonight was and press & industry screening of Miss Americana, a documentary about an up-and-coming chanteuse named Taylor Swift. (It’ll be on Netflix next week.) I was largely indifferent toward T-Swift’s music going in, and I remain so now, but the doc offers a fairly intimate look at her mind-boggling fame and paints a portrait of her as a smart, self-aware girl who wants to do what’s right and who also has a pathological need to be liked.
Of course, it’s also glossy and stage-managed and carefully packaged. Many of her problems are the problems that rich, lucky people have, and you kind of roll your eyes if you are not rich or lucky. There are several moments, though, where director Lana Wilson (who made the abortion doc After Tiller) seems to have captured real moments of inspiration in Taylor’s songwriting — the very second that she came up with this lyric or that one. It’s always neat to see the creative process in action, regardless of the quality of what’s being created.
The doc covers her whole career (which has been amply documented on video, fortunately), including the thing with professional jackass and part-time musician Kanye West at the 2009 Video Music Awards — can you believe that whole kerfuffle was at the VMAs? The least important awards in all of awardsdom? That seems like a lifetime ago. Whatever became of Kanye, anyway? You never hear about him anymore.
Day 2: Friday, Jan. 24
The first full day of the festival went smoothly, at least for me, and I’m whose diary you’re reading. My first movie was Ema (not to be confused with Emma), from mischievous Chilean director Pablo Larraín (not to be confused with Laraine Newman), whose films No and Jackie I very much enjoyed. This one is somewhat hallucinatory, pleasantly so, about the platinum-blonde title character, a modern dancer who, with her husband, Gaston (Gael Garcia Bernal), recently adopted a boy named Polo … and then gave him back after he set a fire that burned Ema’s sister’s face half-off. Ema and Gaston have bitter arguments and defiantly cheat on each other, and we come to understand that this story isn’t about a problem child but something weirder and more surprising.
The “wait, what?” aspects of the film were amplified by my personal sleepiness, which had nothing to do with Sr. Larraín or the Chilean adoption system. I liked it, but I’d need to watch it again to deliver a coherent review, as I don’t work for any of the outlets where reviews don’t have to be coherent. I’m not Rex Reed or anything.
By the way, my seatmate for Ema was Dor Dotson, a publicist and movie fan and all-around swell gal who’s been to as many Sundances as I have. She has a cute baby and a cute husband, neither of whom are here at the moment.
Next up was a very crowded P&I screening of Zola, which had its public premiere earlier in the day and was generating buzz. Here I ran into Melanie and #SundanceMom again and joined them in the front row, where they get to sit because Melanie has a bit of the multiple sclerosis, which she is owning like a boss. (Grammar note: When it’s multiple it’s sclerosis; the singular is sclerotum.) Sundance is doing its best to make itself accessible to everyone, and Melanie, whose disability is mostly invisible, has been on the front lines there. And, in this case, in the front row.
Zola is based on an allegedly true story that was relayed on Twitter in 2015 by the title character, a Detroit waitress and pole dancer played here by Taylour Paige. As the story goes, Zola befriends a ghetto-talking “white bitch” named Stefani (Riley Keough) and accompanies her on a road trip to Florida with Stefani’s dumb, gangly boyfriend (Nicholas Braun) and a mysterious black man of indeterminate accent (“It’ll be 48 hours before I know this nigga’s name,” Zola tells us). The trip is ostensibly to do some dancing and make some money, but it spirals into other shenanigans.
The movie is wry and sleazy, showing us Zola’s increasingly jaundiced perspective toward her new associates and letting us share in the pleasure of seeing dumb trashy people be dumb and trashy. But it wore thin for me — just as director Janicza Bravo’s previous film, Lemon, did. (That one was an anti-comedy with a deliberately unlikable protagonist. I could hang with it but only for a while.) Zola isn’t funny enough — or, when the time comes, suspenseful enough — to sustain itself, and it doesn’t have anything to say about the internet or Twitter (which keeps being referenced via sound effects but plays no part in the story). Still, Paige and Keough are all-in on their big-personality characters, and Bravo has a great eye.
My last film of the day was a public screening of Jumbo. With this title you would expect that it is either a sad documentary about elephant poaching or a quirky dark comedy about a fat person. It is neither. In fact, an accurate description of the movie sounds like a parody of Sundance movies: It is about a mousy young woman who falls in love with a carnival ride. Not a carnival worker — that would be gross — but one of those whirl-and-puke rides that flings you around. As it happens, the ride returns the girl’s affections. How does this manifest itself? Well, it’s hard to explain, but the girl ends up covered in oil. Talk about a coming attraction!
See? It sounds like I’m making it up, but it’s a real movie, and it’s played absolutely straight. I was fascinated by how well it worked thanks to Noémie Merlant’s pure conviction and writer-director Zoe Wittock’s earnest approach. She follows the formula for a “forbidden love” movie (the girl’s mother doesn’t understand or approve, etc.), walking a perilous tightrope between the ridiculous and the sublime. Can she get us to take this premise seriously for the whole movie? She can!
The movie starts by saying it’s “inspired by a true story.” I really should have stayed for the Q&A to find out more about THAT.
Day 3: Saturday, Jan. 25
It was a gorgeous day in this quaint mountain town, perfect for sitting indoors and staring at a screen. Speaking of which, as has become tradition, a lot of people with Industry badges (who are the other half of the Press & Industry screenings that I mostly go to) evidently attend Sundance just so they can spend a week sitting in dark rooms reading their phones while movies play in front of them. I don’t fully understand this. Maybe their offices back in L.A. are too bright? Maybe they don’t actually like movies? Maybe they are entitled a-holes? Who can say? (I can say. It’s the last two.) Many of them have taken to lowering the brightness on their screens, which is somehow worse. It means they know they shouldn’t be on their phones but they think they’re so important that they have to.
First up today was Never Rarely Sometimes Always, which joins previous Sundance entry Martha Marcy May Marlene as a title that we can never get right unless we think very carefully about it (and who has that kind of time?). It’s from writer-director Eliza Hittman (just waiting for her to make a movie about an assassin), whose previous film was Beach Rats, about a Long Island kid grappling with his sexuality.
NRSA is about a 17-year-old Pennsylvania girl named Autumn (newcomer Sidney Flanigan) who finds herself pregnant, desires not to be, and treks to New York City with her cousin/BFF (Talia Ryder) to secure an abortion. Hittman’s focus is on how convoluted and frustrating this process is, but there’s also a menacing undertone as nearly every male the girls encounter is unhelpful at best, predatory at worst. (Even Autumn’s father — maybe he’s a stepfather? — is inexplicably unsupportive.) For those of us who, through no fault of our own, are not women, it’s an eye-opening reminder of what our sisters have to put up with all the time, with an excellent lead performance by Flanigan. (Focus Features has the release scheduled for March 13.)
A new thing at Sundance this year is that screenings are preceded by a rotating series of short bumpers in which Native Americans acknowledge the Sundance institute’s Indigenous Program and the Ute tribe whose land this used to be. “We thank them for allowing us to be here,” says Bird Runningwater, director of the program. Everybody’s eyebrows go up a little at “allowing.”
My next film was Spree, a title with a contrived double meaning. It’s about someone who goes on a killing spree, but guess what? He’s also a driver for a rideshare service called Spree (I suppose Uber and Lyft weren’t interested in a promotional deal). What a funny coincidence that the screenwriter made happen!
This is a dark satire about a young man named Kurt (Joe Keery) who desperately wants to be an internet “influencer” and acts like he already is one even though his livestreams usually top out at eight or nine viewers. All of that will change, he figures, when he installs cameras in his car and broadcasts what happens to his Spree passengers (hint: they will not be giving him five stars).
While the movie’s tone is satiric, it’s also shallow; Kurt doesn’t have enough substance to be chilling. It’s also funny, but not funny enough to stand on its own as a straightforward comedy. Still, it’s darkly entertaining, and Sasheer Zamata shines as a stand-up comedian whose audience Kurt wants to steal. I enjoyed the frenzied way director Eugene Kotlyarenko depicts as many as three people in the same scene all livestreaming from their individual phones, piggy-backing off one another’s audiences, especially insofar as it reminded me never to livestream anything.
Movie #3 today was Herself, a no-frills Irish drama about a woman who takes her two young girls, escapes from an abusive husband, and enlists friends and strangers to help her build a little house of her own. Clare Dunne stars (and conceived the story); the director is Phyllida Lloyd, who previously made girl-power movies The Iron Lady and Mamma Mia! (enthusiasm hers). The purity of Sandra’s goal — she just needs a place to live! — makes her readily sympathetic, and nice people helping one another is always a pleasant theme for a movie. I will overlook the soundtrack tune featuring the lyric “I got a new pair of shoes” that plays over a scene of Sandra getting a new pair of shoes. (Amazon picked up the movie and will release it whenever they’re damn good and ready.)
After this extremely Irish movie was an extremely Welsh one: Dream Horse, which sounds like what I would keep accidentally calling a movie called Dream House. (Now I want more house/horse switches. How about a haunted horse movie? Or a documentary about a man who has sex with a house?)
Anyway, Dream Horse is based on a true story about some lower-middle-class Welsh villagers who pool their money to breed and train a racehorse — a story already told in the charming documentary Dark Horse, so if you’ve seen that, there are no surprises here. I think that was part of what made Dream Horse seem so by-the-numbers to me, checking off every box on the Bemusing and Inspiring True Story formula. (You know those cute movies about a group of dotty villagers who do something nutty together? Maybe one of them’s a lovable old drunk? It’s one of those.) Toni Collette stars, does a Welsh accent, cries in Welsh, can do anything.
My fifth and final movie of the day was a midnight public screening of Relic, which is Australian, rounding out my trilogy of women in charming accents. This one has Emily Mortimer as a woman whose aged mother goes missing, leading Mortimer and her adult daughter (Bella Heathcote) to move into the old lady’s house while waiting for her return. The house has weirdness in it. Maybe something inside the walls?
Writer-director Natalie Erika James composes some lovely shots — it’s a beautifully photographed movie — and the last 30 minutes are terrifically surprising (and surprisingly tender). Prior to that, it’s a lot of random, undifferentiated Creepy Things happening, with the music and sound design doing a lot of the work. Good overall, though, and a fine way to wrap up a long day of movies about women and the men who kill them.
Day 4: Sunday, Jan. 26
This morning I came up with a great nickname for my friend and condo-mate Jordan Raup: Jojo Raupit. He loves it and only wants to be called this from now on.
First up was Uncle Frank, written and directed by Alan Ball, who wrote American Beauty and created Six Feet Under. (I know everyone hates American Beauty now. I haven’t checked on how we feel about Six Feet Under, but I hope we still like it.) The two main things Ball is interested in — repressed homosexuality and death — are front and center in Uncle Frank, set in North Carolina in the 1970s with Paul Bettany as the title character, an NYU college professor who is not out to his family but might have to come out when he returns home for his father’s funeral.
It’s told from the point of view of Frank’s teenage niece, Beth (Sophia Lillis), seemingly the most open-minded member of the family. The cast is great: Stephen Root as the father, Margo Martindale as Mammaw, Lois Smith as an elderly aunt, Steve Zahn and Judy Greer as Frank’s brother and sister-in-law. Bettany, in era-appropriate mustache and glasses, is effective conveying a wide range of delicate emotions.
Being a gay uncle myself, I’m qualified to say that the humor in Uncle Frank is sitcom-y, right down to Frank’s recruiting of a lesbian friend to play his girlfriend at a family get-together. The drama is the melo- kind — big and histrionic (Frank is a recovering alcoholic in danger of relapse, and wait’ll you hear the reading of the will). But that said, if you want to make me cry, all you gotta do is show a family being supportive of their gay son/brother. I am but a man.
Melanie and #SundanceMom were at this screening, the latter reduced to a puddle of tears by the film’s warmth and empathy. To be fair, though, it is not hard to reduce her to a puddle of tears. I’ve done it a number of times without trying.
Next up: Kajillionaire, from Miranda July. I always thought it was remarkable that I liked her previous films, Me and You and Everyone We Know and The Future, considering her vibe of hippie New Age whimsicality is usually a turnoff for me. Well, my luck ran out here, as I found Kajillionaire insufferable. I mean, not literally, because I did suffer it. But it was rough.
And it sounds so good! It’s about a family of low-rent grifters in Los Angeles, with Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger as the disheveled parents, Evan Rachel Wood as their daughter, named Old Dolio. Everything’s a hustle with this family. They love each other, more or less, but are not demonstrative: Old Dolio has little experience with affection, and is pleased when she makes a friend (Gina Rodriguez) who’s from outside her bubble. (Speaking of which, the family lives in the disused office of a factory that makes bubbles, called Bubbles, Inc.)
Many of the film’s peculiar details remind me of a Charlie Kaufman movie: the bubbles, the landlord who cries a lot because he has no emotional filter, the general good-natured weirdness. But we remain at arm’s length from Old Dolio and her parents. Their circumstances grow repetitive, and the quirkiness feels random and precious. (The cons they pull are not the entertaining kind.) By the time we arrive at the moral of the story — everyone shows love in their own way, and everyone can only be who they are — I’m begging for it to be over. The whole thing just didn’t work for me. And, again, I’m the one whose diary you’re reading.
(By the way, I totally didn’t recognize Debra Winger. I knew the others, and I thought it was odd that the third member of the family wasn’t a familiar actor. We haven’t seen her much lately, and she’s so unkempt and dowdy here that I don’t know if I would have recognized her even if I’d seen her in something recently. Anyway, hello, Debra Winger, I like you.)
In the next slot, I had planned to choose between The Night House (in the Midnight section, but this screening was at 6 p.m.) and Save Yourselves!, from the U.S. dramatic competition. But I was convinced by condo-mate Luke Hicks to instead see The Glorias with him, a film I had dismissed as impractical because it’s 139 minutes long, and also, first two popes and now multiple Glorias? This kind of inflation can’t be sustainable.
The Glorias is a biopic of Gloria Steinem and the women’s movement up to the present day, with four actresses playing her at different ages: little girl, tween, young woman (she’s Alicia Vikander there), and adult (now she’s Julianne Moore). The director is Julie Taymor, the stage director who’s made a few visually inventive movies (Titus, Frida, Across the Universe). The Glorias is pretty straightforward, though, with just a few Taymorian flights of fancy and a narrative device that I liked where the different Glorias interact and question one another on a metaphysical bus.
For the most part, though, it’s a regular biopic: Gloria’s childhood, her flaky father, her fear of public speaking, her getting over her fear of public speaking, dealing with sexist bosses, etc. There isn’t a lot of emotional connection — possibly because Steinem’s memoirs, from which it’s adapted, don’t have much to begin with. We get that she’s passionate about certain subjects, but we don’t see her show much emotion toward other people. Which, again, might just be how she is. Moore is good; Vikander less so; Bette Midler shows up as Bella Abzug, which is perfect. Also, “Bella Abzug” sounds like a Tolkien character.
We grabbed dinner after this at the place that I now remember is called Sergio’s (there is a movie called Sergio at Sundance this year, maybe it’s a biopic?). Between Sergio’s and the Holiday Village movie theater where most press screenings are is a Chinese/Thai place that I’ve been to a few times and found mediocre, as is often the case when a restaurant tries to cover two genres at once. Learn from the movies, people! Mashups seldom work.
At 10 p.m. was a press screening of Possessor, written and directed by Brandon Cronenberg (David’s boy) and already gaining buzz for its graphic content. Some of us, when we hear that a movie has unusually graphic violence, we think: Well, we’ll see about that! It’s only a movie. No matter how gross or detailed it is, it’s still fake. Nobody’s really getting hurt. (Footage of people actually getting hurt is not entertaining, obviously, unless it’s a kick to the groin or a fat guy falling down.) So bring it on, Skippy Cronenberg! Do your worst!
Possessor is set in a world where it is possible to transfer your consciousness into someone else’s body and take over that person — “possess” them, if you will. This is achieved via medical implants in the head, and the person being possessed usually has not consented. Our heroine, Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough), works for a shadowy organization that carries out assassinations this way: get into somebody’s head, kill the target, then commit suicide (whereupon the possessor comes back to her own body, safe and sound in the lab). Tasya is the best in the business, but it’s becoming increasingly difficult for her to live as other people without their minds leaking into hers.
The present job has her inhabiting the body of Christopher Abbott, thus fulfilling a long-held dream of mine. His name is Colin. The target is Colin’s fiancee’s father (Sean Bean). Vos plans to spend a couple days in Colin establishing erratic behavior so his murder-suicide of his future father-in-law will make some sense, but in the meantime, Colin starts to gain control.
Abbott is really impressive, especially in the later parts of the film when he’s wrestling between two identities. Riseborough has less screen time, but her initial presence is so strong that we can imagine it’s still her even when it’s Abbott (which is also a tribute to Abbott’s abilities). The movie’s premise isn’t exactly unique, but Cronenberg’s sterile, calculated style and a few ingenious variations make it compelling, if completely nihilistic.
And graphic? Hoo boy, yeah. Gratuitously so. When Tasya Vos gets inside a body and goes a-killin’, she really goes to town. She usually has a gun, but she prefers to stab you a thousand times. She loves her job, and Cronenberg loves showing her loving her job. It’s like they say, when you do what you love you never work a day in your life.
Day 5: Monday, Jan. 27
At Sundance (and most festivals), members of the press get a little tote bag with stuff in it. The stuff used to be quite elaborate — magazines, fliers for festival movies, various useless knick-knacks — but they’ve gotten smaller in the last several years for reasons relating to the environment and common sense. Now there’s just a Sundance-branded water bottle, a pair of reusable metal straws that I’m confident most people throw away (who carries their own straw around with them?), and, new this year, a Netflix-branded portable phone charger. It is by far the most useful freebie I’ve ever gotten at a festival, and for once I’m glad Netflix has more money than God and is intent on wasting it all.
I had scheduled a P&I screening of Amulet for my first slot this morning, but overnight I heard great things about a movie called Minari that wasn’t even on my radar, so I called an audible (that is a sports term) and went to Minari.
It did not disappoint, being a happy smile of a movie about a Korean-American family (mom, dad, young boy and girl) moving to Arkansas in the 1980s to try farming. There’s potential for a lot of major drama — the boy has a heart murmur; grandma comes to live with them; how do Arkansans feel about foreigners? — but instead writer-director Lee Isaac Chung delivers relatable, everyday dramas: Mom is skeptical that Dad (Steven Yeun, the only actor in the cast that I was familiar with) can pull off the farming thing, which strains their marriage; the kids get Grandma hooked on Mountain Dew (“water from the mountains,” they call it); the family looks for a church to attend. The locals are nice to them. I kept waiting for the racism, and it never happened. Way to leave me hangin’ on the racism, bud!
Chung’s approach is so warm and human. He has affection for the characters, who have affection for one another. I suspect that if I had only read the screenplay, I would have guessed it would make a slow, boring movie. But while it’s certainly not action-packed, it doesn’t lag. It moves along at the steady pace of life. So far, this is my favorite movie of the festival. (Bonus: Nearly everybody said Amulet was no good.)
We had a bit of trouble after this screening, which was at the venue called Park Avenue, which is at a hotel that used to be called the Yarrow but is now called something else. They have you enter on one side of the room, exit on the other side. There are two sets of doors 15 feet apart on the exit side that open into the same hallway, but we’re only allowed to use one set — the one that involves walking up a few stairs. There is no plausible reason not to let us use all the doors, and some of the volunteers cheerfully fail to enforce the rule. The ones who do enforce it, though, enforce THE HELL out of it.
Well, the thing is, my friend Melanie can’t walk up stairs. Because of the MS. The staff knows her situation; it’s why she and a few others sit in the floor-level seats reserved for those with disabilities. But sometimes volunteers get salty when she wants to use the forbidden doors, because they forget she can’t use stairs and she doesn’t look disabled. (She used a cane one day as an experiment, and sure enough: People believed she was disabled without seeing a note from her doctor.)
So today they told her to wait till everyone was out and then she could use the forbidden doors. She was fine with that. When the audience was half-evacuated, the volunteers opened the other doors and let us through. Melanie figures she can go now, too, and makes for the door, but a volunteer who is A JERK gives her a hard time for not waiting, getting all exasperated with her and her constant need for “accessibility” and “dignity” that the handicapped are always banging on about. He even made #SundanceMom cry again (see, it’s not hard). He said the reason he’d asked her to wait till the end was that some critics get jealous when they see her using the forbidden doors. If this is true, those critics are also A JERK, but I don’t think it’s true, because Jeff Wells isn’t even here.
Anyway, I want to stress that Sundance is powered by a team of 2,000 volunteers, 1,990 of whom are wonderful. The festival could not exist without the volunteers. If Sundance had to pay people to do everything the volunteers do, passes would cost 10 times what they currently cost, and they currently cost a billion dollars (more or less). So I am not anti-volunteer. I am anti-this particular volunteer, who was maybe just having a bad day. And he’ll have a worse one if he crosses me again! These colors don’t run.
The next screening was one I’d been looking forward to: Wendy, a biopic of the fast food mascot. No, I’m j/k, it’s Wendy from Peter Pan, and the film is Benh Zeitlin’s followup to Beasts of the Southern Wild, which rocked Sundance 2012. This one has the same dreamy, lyrical vibe, but with a distinct difference: It’s terrible.
Our Wendy is a little girl in the indeterminate South who, with her slightly older twin brothers, hops a train and is whisked away to an island where a boy named Peter never grows up. Nobody grows up here, as long as you believe in Mother, who is a huge, glowing fish. There’s an old man who stopped believing and that’s why he’s old. A group of other adults want to catch Mother because of reasons (probably). There’s no Captain Hook yet, but give it time. Various things happen that don’t make sense because, hey, nothing has to make sense when you’re doing magical realism, right? It’s an aimless, meandering movie, set in a world that has no rules or boundaries and is thus hard to care about because it’s like playing Calvinball. It’s a huge disappointment.
I noted that Wendy begins with a logo that just says Searchlight Pictures. I guess it’s official: Disney has no more Fox to give.
After this, Jojo Raupit and I went to the grocery store to get supplies for our condo party tonight, the social event of the season. I intended to catch a 7:00 screening next, getting out just in time for the party, but the theater was too full by the time I got in and the only seats were too close to the screen, and I was hungry. So instead I went to Burger King, my first time this year. Unlike Wendy (or Wendy’s, for that matter), Burger King did not disappoint because I expected nothing from it.
The party was for our fellow critics and bloggers and journalists, and the turnout was decent, if overwhelmingly male. This is often a problem, of course, but it seemed especially pronounced this year. Which is odd, because in general there’s been a huge increase in the number of women covering Sundance. Next year we’ll have to do a better job of getting the word out/not being creepy.
It was our 10th year hosting the party, and the 10th year Jojo Raupit and Dan Mecca of The Film Stage have been to Sundance. They were fresh-faced new college graduates when we met; now they’re old and married (not to each other). Rob Hunter of Film School Rejects has been around almost that long, too, but he was already old when we met him. Luke Hicks of Film School Rejects is here for the second time and well-regarded by all. Chris Bumbray of JoBlo has roomed with us the last few years even though he’s Canadian. Jeff Bayer of Movie B.S. with Bayer and Snider is usually with us, but he’s home on husband duty this year, which means Vince Mancini of Uproxx gets to sleep in a bed instead of on an air mattress. Rounding out the condo lineup and with us for the first time is Matt Cipolla of The Spool. Oh, and Bill Bria of Crooked Marquee was here for a few nights, but we made him sleep on the floor.
Day 6: Tuesday, Jan. 28
The party went past 3 a.m., so there was considerable sleeping in and hungoverness at our place today. I spent most of the day writing, then went to a 4 p.m. screening of Tesla, about the ’90s rock band. No, I am j/k, it’s about the inventor, played by Ethan Hawke against Kyle MacLachlan’s Thomas Edison. I was intrigued because the director, Michael Almereyda, has done interesting things with biopics before, including Experimenter (Sundance 2015), about Stanley Milgram.
Tesla is indeed a bit offbeat, with some intentionally trippy anachronisms (Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” factors in) and an interrupting narrator and fact-checker. Though the film is often funny, the tone is contemplative and sad, which I suppose befits a subject who famously got screwed over and lost his place in history. Say YESLA to TESLA!
I got to see Tesla with Matt Patches, who’s been my festival boyfriend at Sundance off and on since 2011, “festival boyfriend” being an entirely platonic role assigned to a cute friend who hangs out with me. No compensation is provided. It’s sort of like an internship. Anyway, Patches’ attendance has been erratic the last few years, but it was OK because I had Jeff Bayer, but Jeff couldn’t come this time, so I’m glad Patches could. (Luke is auditioning to be a new festival boyfriend.) I was pleased to see him and fellow New Yorker Jordan Hoffman back on the first night, when we all watched the Taylor Swift documentary together. My other New York friends, Kate Erbland, Mike Ryan, and David Ehrlich, all have Express badges and only go to public screenings and are class traitors and I never see them. I’m sure I’ve complained about this before, but I assume nobody remembers what I wrote last year any better than I do.
Had to hustle right out of Tesla when it ended to get in line for Nine Days, a P&I screening that I knew would be full because it had been rapturously received at its public debut a day earlier. I barely made it but managed to get a seat that wasn’t in the front row, next to an older critic I didn’t know who had an Express badge and slept for a lot of the movie.
Nine Days is the feature debut by one Edson Oda, whose past credits include a short film called I’m NOT Hitler, which is exactly what you’d expect someone who was Hitler to say. Nine Days is a quiet, humane existential drama starring Winston Duke (from Us) as a man named Will who spends nine days with pre-born souls (who appear as adults) determining whether they deserve to be born into mortality. Will and his associate Kyo (Benedict Wong) wear ordinary clothes and inhabit a space that looks like a rustic part of Earth, using analog TVs and VCRs and Polaroid cameras to do their jobs.
I found the whole thing fascinating and thoughtful. Will, Kyo, and the candidates (who include Zazie Beetz, Tony Hale, and Bill Skarsgard) talk about philosophy and morality without using those terms; it reminded more than one of us of Lost. It doesn’t quite gel in the end (another Lost parallel), but it’s one of the most strikingly original things I’ve seen all week.
After this was the traditional condo boy dinner at Squatter’s, an unappealingly named brewpub across the street from our residence. Not all the condo boys could make it, but we had a quorum. Then it was back to the condo, where Jojo, Luke, and I watched a screener of a documentary called Boys State.
Boys State is where budding, 17-year-old political nerds go for a week to form mock governments, hold elections, impeach one another, etc. (They have it for girls, too.) They have them in every state, evidently (I’d never heard of it, but I haven’t been 17 in a while); the documentary follows the one in Texas in 2018. The kids are randomly divided into two parties (Nationalist and Federalist), then told to come up with party platforms and elect party leaders and a Governor. The week culminates in an election between the two Governors to see who is president of Boys State.
Directors Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss did a terrific job forming a narrative. Not knowing ahead of time who would turn out to be important, they must have followed all the candidates, then whittled it down into an engaging story with many moving parts. The parallels to real-world adult politics are amusing: Some kids are earnest about wanting to be public servants; some are opportunistic and will say anything; some are conniving villains and agents of chaos.
Also amusing: Since it’s Texas, the only political issue anyone cares about is the right for everyone to have immediate access to guns at all times. One of the boys tries to make points with an anti-abortion platform (not even an exception for rape!), but only because he thinks it’s what his Texan audience wants to hear. The audience, being exclusively male, doesn’t care one way or the other. I’m thinking next year the condo boys should also form a government, if only to give ourselves tax cuts.
Day 7: Wednesday, Jan. 29
Park City starts to clear out significantly on Tuesday and Wednesday, making it easier to get into screenings and Burger King. Dan and Jojo headed home early this morning, bringing the number of people staying in the condo into alignment with the number of beds in the condo. (That number is six. The total cost of the place averages out to $700 a night, or $116.66 per bed. Fortunately, there is ample floor space, and air mattresses exist, so the cost per person comes down a bit.)
There was a good turnout for the P&I screening of His House, which is basically a Spooky House movie with an added layer: The married couple who have just moved in to the shabby government-funded London apartment are Sudanese refugees who lost their daughter escaping the war. They struggle with guilt, PTSD, racism (there’s a subtle moment where the husband goes shopping and is followed by a security guard), and, of course, ghosts. It’s mostly well-made and unremarkable, until the thoughtful final act gives it more nuance.
I ran into provisional festival boyfriend Luke after this, who said he had procured a ticket to a public screening of The Father, about which we had heard good things. I emailed the same publicist and got a ticket for myself (thanks, Michelle!). We had a quick lunch at Burger King — but not quick enough, as we arrived at the Ray Theatre to find the ticket-holder line already stretched out of the tent. We got in, but it reminded me that we know of at least two instances this week where ticket-holders didn’t get to see the movies they had tickets for. Actual hard tickets, in their hands!
The Express passholders, you see, can waltz into any screening whenever they want (they do not have to waltz), ahead of the other lines. Sundance can guess, based on past experience, how many Express people will show up for any given screening, but they have no way of knowing for sure. So if more Expresses show up than expected, you end up with ticket-holders getting screwed. It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen.
Anyway. The Father. Hoo boy, this one. Anthony Hopkins stars as an old man suffering from dementia, which is not nearly as funny as years of listening to the Dr. Demento Show led me to believe. The hook is that we see the world the way he does, not knowing for sure what is objectively real. There are no special effects involved; we just matter-of-factly see that his daughter is played by a different actress in her second appearance, leaving us as confused as the protagonist is.
Hopkins’ performance is impeccable, not at all showy but quietly devastating. It’s one of those reminders you get now and then with movie stars, where you think: Oh yeah. This guy can ACT. The supporting cast of Olivia Colman, Olivia Williams, Imogen Poots, Rufus Sewell, and Mark Gatiss is excellent. It’s an impressive directorial debut by Florian Zeller, who also wrote the play it’s based on (which starred Frank Langella on Broadway, which I would love to have seen). The action all takes place in the man’s (admittedly huge) apartment, but it’s not claustrophobic because the sparkling dialogue and shifting reality keep things moving.
Next up: Find a place to sit and write. The nearest spot was the Yarrow, which Luke calls by its current name (whatever it is) because it’s the only name he’s ever known it by and I’ve been unable to train him to call it the Yarrow like a hipster. We encamped at the hotel in a waiting area outside the conference rooms, where a filmmaker interview soon broke out. Filmmaker interviews can occur at any time or any place in Park City during Sundance. I couldn’t determine which movie the interview subject had directed based on what I overheard, but she was a British lady, and one thing she said was: “Antonioni’s The Passenger, and Don’t Look Now, those are the two films I watch religiously, literally every day.” I can’t imagine finding time to watch two movies a day and make a movie yourself, but I guess women are better at time management than men.
A great deal of writing occurred here, accompanied by a great deal of complaining about the music that was playing on the Yarrow’s sound system. We used to complain about the spotty wifi, but the wifi’s pretty good now, so we have to complain about the music. Then it was dinner at the Chinese/Thai place, where I received this truly prescient fortune cookie:
And that was enough for one day.
Most of the remaining condo boys shared a Lyft to the airport early this morning. Luke and I were the last ones out. The hot ticket today was a P&I screening of Time, a much-discussed documentary about a woman trying to get her husband out of prison, where he’s serving a 60-year sentence for armed robbery. Her point is: Sure, armed robbery is bad, and you shouldn’t do it. But 60 years?
The doc is simple but extremely powerful, not a procedural at all — there are almost no details on the actual legal process — but focused on the wife and her amazing children and their struggle to maintain hope. The title is well chosen; the director, Garrett Bradley, has shaped the film to be a rumination on the passage of time, aided by home-video clips of the loving couple pre-prison. I won’t tell you how it ends, but I will tell you it made us all sob.
Next we had hoped to get on the waitlist for a public screening of Palm Springs, the Andy Samberg comedy that was bought for a record-setting $17,500,000.69 (the extra 69 cents is what put it over the top, beating The Birth of a Nation, which sold for $17.5 million and went on to earn $16.7 million at the box office).
The waitlist is handled electronically nowadays. At exactly two hours before showtime, you can get on the Sundance app and get a waitlist number. They issued 400 numbers for Palm Springs — and they were gone in less than a minute. So much for that idea. Instead, we wrote some more and ate dinner, and then I went to a P&I screening of Black Bear.
Here’s what I can tell you about Black Bear: I liked it, but I didn’t get it. There are two parts. In the first one, an icy film director played by Aubrey Plaza visits a cabin owned by Christopher Abbott and Sarah Gadon, a romantic couple (she’s pregnant) whose relationship is on the rocks. In the second part, Abbott plays the film director, with Plaza and Gadon as his actresses, on a chaotic shoot at the cabin. The first part is NOT the movie that we see being made in the second part. The two parts’ connection to each other is thematic, not literal. There is also a bear, which is literal but has symbolic implications. A second viewing would probably bring it all together for me a little better.
Speaking of which, my last screening of Sundance 2020 was a midnight showing of Ema, the movie I was drowsy for back on Day 2. Turns out Luke had seen it before too, at Venice, but he wasn’t able to process it properly because he had to watch Joker immediately afterward. With nothing else pressing tonight, we both decided to watch it again. I was relieved to discover that I hadn’t missed anything the first time, plotwise, and that the things I thought I must have misunderstood had happened just as I thought they had. It’s reassuring to know you’re not losing your mind and the world actually is insane.