The writer of Ecclesiastes said, “There is nothing new under the sun.” Barenaked Ladies said, “It’s all been done.” Both prophetic utterances get to the heart of the problem faced by all filmmakers, especially those still trying to establish themselves. How do you stand out and create something original when everything has been done before?
At its best, Sundance showcases filmmakers who found a good answer to that question. Some of the most memorable festival movies are the ones that took a risk and tried something different. It almost doesn’t matter whether they succeed. Here are some films that took a big swing.
R#J is an adaptation of Romeo & Juliet, which I agree is unnecessary. The only story that has been told on film more times than Romeo & Juliet is the story of Bruce Wayne’s parents being murdered. What’s more, director Carey Williams’ approach here — setting it in the present and telling the story mostly through the characters’ social media and text messages — has a high risk of being insufferable.
But the risk pays off. I was surprised at how successfully R#J wooed and charmed me with its mix of Shakespeare (most of the spoken dialogue is straight from the play) and modern youthful exuberance (the characters use modern English when they text one another). The generation of English teachers who would be appalled to see Romeo and Juliet (Camaron Engels and Francesca Noel, both very appealing) use GIFs from The Office to flirt with each other has largely died out, leaving the rest of us to enjoy the earnest, life-or-death stakes of young love.
You do have to accept a certain level of silliness, but it’s entirely deliberate. When a skirmish between thuggish Tybalt (Diego Tinoco) and flamboyant Mercutio (Siddiq Saunderson) is being livestreamed on Instagram, the boys’ dialogue is all “forsooth” and “thou knave,” while the comments being posted by viewers are along the lines of “beat his ass” and “spit on me, Merc.” The juxtaposition of classical and modern is amusing, but that’s kind of the point. Romeo & Juliet was written in the 16th century and has a few archaic details (14-year-old rich girls no longer have “nurses”), but the essentials — heedless teenage romance and the petty jealousies of adolescence — are as timeless as the murder of Batman’s parents. (Grade: B+)
Speaking of familiar genres given new twists, Prisoners of the Ghostland is a post-apocalyptic samurai Western, highly anticipated as the first collaboration between insane Japanese filmmaker Sion Sono and insane American actor Nicolas Cage — a match seemingly made in midnight movie heaven. Cage plays a convicted murderer in a ruined Mad Max version of Japan who is released from prison by the slimy Governor (Bill Moseley) and commissioned to rescue his adopted daughter, Bernice (Sofia Boutella). Cage, introduced wearing a sumo wrestler’s loincloth which he removes and throws to a crowd of appreciative female admirers, is locked into a leather suit equipped with several small charges (including one on each “testicule,” as the Governor pronounces it) that will detonate if he misbehaves or deviates from his mission.
Like a lot of Nicolas Cage movies (and with the few Sion Sono movies I’ve seen), Prisoners of the Ghostland is full of Awesome Things — the little bombs, the post-apocalyptic cult worshipping a clock, the people wearing broken doll parts, Nicolas Cage beginning a speech with, “Impossible? HA!” — and yet somehow it’s still kind of boring. There are many individual moments of delightful oddness and exciting action, but they exist separate from one another. Random, unmotivated weirdness wears thin and becomes exhausting when there’s nothing to connect it. (Grade: C+)
Speaking of random, unmotivated events, Coming Home in the Dark belongs to the horror sub-genre in which ordinary people are terrorized by psychos whose only reason for doing this is that they (the psychos) are psychos. Actually, this one, from New Zealand director James Ashcroft, tries to have it both ways by suggesting the victims may have been targeted specifically and then refusing to settle the question; either way, a movie like this establishes a contract with the audience that this one does not live up to.
The scenario is that Hoaggie (Erik Thomson), his wife Jill (Miriama McDowell), and their twin tween sons (Billy Paratene and Frankie Paratene) — all nice enough but devoid of charisma — are on a family outing in the countryside, far from civilization, when they are set upon by Mandrake (Daniel Gillies), a scroungy dirtbag with an offensive mustache, and his mostly silent partner, Tubs (Matathias Luafutu). These people are not interesting, either. As awful things begin to occur, we see the options: Either we will be horrified by what our heroes endure before eventually being thrilled by their ingenuity and triumph; or information will emerge that makes us see the attackers as the heroes; or there will be some other intriguing twist that has not occurred to us.
The film does none of those, instead wallowing in misery and cruelty without any payoff or satisfaction. One of the first incidents is the kind of vicious, shocking act that, once done, a movie must spend the rest of its runtime justifying. It never does. This is a deeply unpleasant film, and not in a good way. (Grade: D)
Speaking of scary things happening in nature, Cryptozoo is a trippy, stylish, very adult-oriented animated drama, set in 1967, about an admirer of “cryptids” (unicorns, centaurs, etc.) who’s trying to rescue a particular one before the U.S. military finds it and weaponizes it (which does sound like us). This conservationist, Lauren Gray (voiced by Lake Bell), already has a sanctuary/zoo for animal-like cryptids, while the humanoids (e.g., a snake-haired Gorgon) live secretly among regular folk and try not to make waves. She teams up with a hippie girl who is nude for most of the movie and whose nude hippie boyfriend was killed by one of the creatures.
Writer-director Dash Shaw assembled a fine voice cast (including Michael Cera, Peter Stormare, Jason Schwartzman, and Grace Zabriskie), but he didn’t give them many noteworthy things to say. The story is unabashedly fantasy-nerdy and quite serious about that. We see all manner of mythical beasts from the world’s many cultures (and maybe some that Shaw made up?), all imaginatively designed. More than anything, the film is a treat to look at, with a variety of drawing styles and color schemes and a pleasantly retro type of animation reminiscent of old acid trips like Belladonna of Sadness and Yellow Submarine. If you ever drew dragons on your school notebooks this movie is for you. (Grade: B)
Speaking of segues, we end with How It Ends, a sunny comedy set on the last day of the world (asteroid comin’), with a young woman named Liza (Zoe Lister-Jones, who co-wrote and co-directed with husband Daryl Wein) walking around Los Angeles confronting and/or making amends with people while there’s still time. In an amusing twist that proves far more important to the movie than merely providing quirkiness, Liza is accompanied by a younger version of herself (Cailee Spaeny), who’s normally a figment of Liza’s imagination (“You don’t count, you’re metaphysical” Liza tells her) but today has taken corporeal form and is visible to everyone. This being L.A., everyone’s pretty chill with the idea of someone having a Younger Self as a companion.
Brimming with cheerful, absurd humor, the film is built like a series of sketches as Liza and Young Liza meet one person after another. There are strangers, like the schoolteacher (Ayo Edebiri) who’s fulfilling a lifelong dream by doing stand-up comedy (on the sidewalk for passersby, but still) and the neighbors (Rob Huebel and Paul Scheer) arguing over whether it’s important, at this point, to rinse out plastic bottles before recycling them. There’s also a cheating ex-boyfriend (Lamorne Morris), a friend Liza had a falling-out with (Olivia Wilde), and both of her parents (Bradley Whitford and Helen Hunt). There are two dozen speaking roles in the movie, but never more than four in one scene, and only a few people other than Lister-Jones and Spaeny appear more than once. It’s essentially a series of cameos, including Logan Marshall-Green, Nick Kroll, Fred Armisen, Colin Hanks, Whitney Cummings, three people from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and Pauly Shore.
How much of this was necessitated by COVID-19 restrictions isn’t clear, but it works. The episodic structure has a natural, comfortable rhythm. Lister-Jones and Wein walk — and make fun of — the line between self-care and selfishness, leading Liza to a happy place of self-actualization while mocking the “Gee, you’re kind of a bummer, I don’t want you in my space today” attitude that was already a problem for a lot of West Coast touchy-feely types even before the pandemic made self-obsession a virtue. As ends of the world go, How It Ends is pretty appealing. (Grade: B+)