“An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn”
“The Happy Prince”
“Leave No Trace”
“Night Comes On”
“Sorry to Bother You”
“Summer of ’84”
Day 1: Thursday, Jan. 18
Sundance! The very word sparks a tingling in the loins of cinema. I, your faithful reporter, am in Park City, Utah, for my 19th Sundance Film Festival, a 10-day celebration of independent films, studio films that pretend to be independent, and complaining about the weather.
That last component is actually in short supply so far. On arriving in this quaint mountain town of 8,300 on Thursday, I found the temperature in the 40s, the skies clear, and less snow on the ground than I’ve ever seen during Sundance. And remember, I have been to 18 previous Sundances! (I will mention this numerous times.) I saw grass knolls previously invisible, dry sidewalks that have always been covered in slush, pathways that were hitherto impassable. It’s a whole different town! Say what you will about climate change, but it keeps things interesting.
I acquired my press credentials from Sundance HQ at the Park City Marriott, settled in to the condo I’m sharing with eight other gentlemen (I use the term loosely), and immediately had a change of plans. I had intended to skip the first round of press screenings this evening because none of the offerings appealed to me, but now I learned of an off-the-books screening of “Blindspotting,” which was having its public premiere simultaneously. “Blindspotting” was on my radar, though I wasn’t sure if that’s because it was getting genuine buzz or because I happen to follow one of the producers on Twitter. Either way, hey, surprise screening to kick things off!
It was a good choice. “Blindspotting” is an explosive racial comedy, a love letter to Oakland, and a jumpstart to the career of its star, Daveed Diggs, who co-wrote the screenplay with co-star Rafael Casal. It’s set during the last three days of a year-long probation for Colin (Diggs), who served prison time for something we learn about later. He’s been living in a halfway house (11 p.m. curfew), trying to stay out of trouble while he counts down the days. This is difficult when his hustling best friend, Miles (Casal), is a goof who “acts ghetto,” waves a gun around, and picks fights with strangers. Colin is beginning to realize and be resentful of the fact that as a large black man with corn rows, he’s under a lot more scrutiny than his play-acting, grill-wearing white pal. Colin witnesses a police shooting early in the film (white cop shoots a fleeing black man), putting him on edge even more.
So there’s this underlying tension throughout the movie, the unspoken fear that something will happen to screw up Colin’s probation. That gives a thrill of suspense to the pointed comedy, which sometimes gives way to pointed commentary as Colin and Miles grapple with their racial identities and how they affect their friendship. Daveed Diggs is charismatic and sympathetic, which becomes crucial in the last act, when the story takes a turn that threatens to knock it off the rails but is saved by the sheer intensity of Diggs’ personality.
I think that climax will be a dealbreaker for some viewers, and I don’t blame them. At least one critic (I use the term loosely) was so bothered by people’s positive responses to the movie that he went around chastising them for liking it, as is his wont. It wouldn’t be Sundance without some jackass or other (usually this one) being angry about other people’s reactions.
The second film of the first night was “Private Life,” starring Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn as an upscale Manhattan couple trying to have a baby. There are fertility issues for both of them — he’s 47; she’s 41 (three years less than their real-life ages) — so they’re trying IVF, adoption, surrogates, the whole nine yards. Whatever it takes to put a baby into their lives, “short of kidnapping.”
Written and directed by Tamara Jenkins (“The Savages,” “Slums of Beverly Hills”), this is seldom an all-out comedy, though it does have droll moments and scenes, particularly when the sophisticated air is punctured by a well-placed vulgarity from Hahn, who’s on the receiving end of what can often be a dehumanizing process of injections and inspections. Jenkins sprawls the film out over 127 minutes, taking us through the many, many avenues a marginally fertile couple might explore, including flashbacks to things they already tried.
It’s somewhat exhausting, which is part of the point. (Imagine how they feel!) It runs long, too, with a pace that is somewhere between “leisurely” and “indulgent,” and the atmosphere — the main characters and all of their associates are urbane, theater-referencing, well-educated people who claim to have money problems but don’t really — can be stifling. But Jenkins and the talented cast (also including Molly Shannon, Denis O’Hare, Kayli Carter, and John Carroll Lynch) show deep compassion for these issues, so much that I suspect the film will be cathartic for viewers who relate to them.
One line that got a big, rueful laugh at the press screening was Hahn talking about a potential egg donor who has a B.A. in journalism and cinema studies: “No wonder she’s selling her eggs, she can’t find a job.”
One detail that only I laughed at: As they scrolled past egg-donor profiles on the Internet, I saw that one was an African-American Mormon from Vermont, which is one of the unlikeliest combinations I can think of.
And thus concluded Day 1. One of my housemates — I won’t name names — arrived already sick with some kind of cold or flu that knocked him out for the night, so we’ll see if he becomes patient zero for a condo-wide epidemic. (Dan Mecca. It’s Dan Mecca.)
Day 2: Friday, Jan. 19
The weather was still fine when Day 2 began, but by the end of the day it was snowing like the proverbial mofo. Still, that’s better than Day 2 of Sundance last year, which started with Obama as president but ended with what’s-his-name.
First up for me was a press screening of “The Guilty,” a Danish film. Most of the press screenings (which are actually press and industry screenings, or P&Is) are in the Holiday Village venue, which is an actual four-screen movie theater and not, say, a converted hotel conference room. A handful of press screenings are across the parking lot from the Holiday Village, in a converted hotel conference room. It’s a “DoubleTree by Hilton” hotel, but until a year or two ago it was called the Yarrow, and it is unlikely that the other old-timers and I (this is my 19th Sundance) will ever stop calling it the Yarrow. The makeshift theater inside of it is now called the Park Avenue Theatre, but I don’t see myself adopting that, either.
I should mention that these temporary screening rooms always have great sound and projection, if not always comfortable seats. We’ve come a long way from the days when we’d just gather in a lobby somewhere and they’d project the movie onto Harvey Weinstein’s back.
“The Guilty” is a tight, efficient, 85 minutes set in a single location: the 911 call center in Copenhagen. (Except it’s not 911 over there, it’s 112. What a country!) A cop named Asger Holm (Jakob Cedergren) is on temporary desk duty taking emergency calls — this is evidently how the Danes punish misbehaving police — when he gets a call from a woman who’s been abducted. She doesn’t know where she is or where the vehicle is going, but it’s a van, so you know it can’t be good. Asger must figure it out and send help, all without leaving his desk.
I was excited when I realized we weren’t going to leave the call center. It’s tricky to pull off a one-location movie without becoming static, and I like it when filmmakers challenge themselves. Director Gustav Moller succeeds at keeping us riveted. We hear the voices of the people Asger talks to, but we don’t see them, so we share his suspense as he waits for responses, listens to vocal clues, strains to hear background noises and what not. Most of the movie has us watching Jakob Cedergren’s face, so it’s a good thing he can act and isn’t ugly.
Then it was right back to the press tent to get in line for my next movie, “Beast.” And whom should I see in line but Dan Mecca of The Film Stage, my friend and Sundance housemate, whom I had last seen doped up on NyQuil on the couch? I was glad to see him up and about, if still exhibiting cold symptoms and likely extremely contagious and why did I sit next to him?
Here I also met a new person, Dan of Thrillist, for whom I’d been told to be on the lookout by his editor, my Sundance boyfriend Matt Patches, because this was Dan’s first Sundance and he didn’t know anyone. (Patches isn’t here this year because his wife just had a baby or some crap.) I introduced Dan of Thrillist to Dan of The Film Stage, and now we are all brothers. New Dan seems nice, though he is no Patches.
“Beast” is about a weird 27-year-old redhead named Moll (Jessie Buckley) who lives with her parents and siblings on the Isle of Jersey and squeezes broken glass in her hand when she gets upstaged by her sister at her birthday party. She then starts dating a dirty, sweaty, swaggering working-class boy, Pascal (Johnny Flynn), who comes to fall under suspicion for a string of local murders. Oh, and when Moll was 13, she stabbed a girl with scissors.
Reading back my description now, I like the movie better than I did when I saw it, when it started strong but fell into meandering, slow-burn territory before finally becoming overwrought. The performances are strong, though, including Geraldine James as Moll’s severe, imperious mother.
A brief break, then over to the Yarrow for “American Animals.” My screening pals this time were Aaron Morgan and Eric Vespe. Aaron and Eric were two of the first movie bloggers I met back when bloggers first started coming to Sundance, when they wrote for Ain’t It Cool News and I wrote for a newspaper. Now that those things don’t exist anymore, we all just work for The Internet. (Side note: Aaron wanted me to mention that he’s 6’5″, 329 pounds, and in perfect shape.)
I had bristled at the title “American Animals” because it sounded generic. Ever since “American Beauty,” countless films have randomly included the word “American” without being about anything distinctly American: “American Fable,” “American Gangster,” “American Made,” “American Outlaws,” even one called “American Animal” (singular). But “American Animals” justifies its title, being the true story of four dumb Kentucky college kids who tried to pull off a heist of rare books by Charles Darwin and John James Audubon. See, the books are literally about American animals! It practically writes itself.
Barry Keoghan and Evan Peters play the two main guys, Spencer and Warren, who half-jokingly come up with the idea to steal these exceedingly rare and expensive books from the university library’s collection, only to have that half-joke evolve into a real (but not very good) plan. As a heist film, it spins its wheels for too long, forgetting that these guys and their pals are dopes and we don’t care about them.
But! Writer-director Bart Layton, whose previous film was the unbelievably engrossing documentary “Impostor,” pulls a master stroke here, incorporating real, new interviews with the actual guys into the story, even having them interact with the movie versions of themselves. Layton blends documentary and dramatization, allowing each half to comment on the other, in a way that I don’t think I’ve seen before. The device turns an otherwise so-so true-crime dramedy into something special.
It was starting to snow by now, as foretold. I popped back to the condo to get something to eat, then returned for a public screening at the Ray Theatre, a brand-new 500-seat venue in the same parking lot as Holiday Village and the Yarrow, in what used to be a Sports Authority store. In my imagination, where Park City is a Brigadoonian town that only exists 10 days a year, the Sports Authority only stayed in business by selling snow boots to incoming journalists who hadn’t packed for the weather. Sundance bought the space in the last year and converted it into a permanent venue. Robert Redford made it official by spraying his musk in all the corners.
It’s always exciting when Sundance gets a new venue, especially one as big and not-a-hotel-conference-room as the Ray, and more especially one in such a convenient location. I ran into several pals in line and ended up sitting with Nick Allen, who writes for RogerEbert.com even though he is not Roger Ebert, and IndieWire’s Steve Greene (known south of the border as Esteban Verde). We sat up near the top, with good sight lines of the screen and even better sight lines of the rubes in the front rows who take their phones out during movies.
(We used to call these people a-holes because they were acting entitled, but now that it’s well established that taking out a bright object during a movie is boorish, socially unacceptable behavior, I have to assume they’re bumpkins from the outer counties who have simply never been in a movie theater before.)
The movie was “Night Comes On,” the feature debut of director Jordana Spiro, who was there to introduce it. That’s one of the cool things about public screenings as opposed to press screenings (although the latter are preferable when the movie is bad and it’s just as well the director isn’t there to see you hate it). Spiro was endearingly nervous, calling the event — the world premiere of her first feature — one of the best days of her life. There are plenty of Hollywood big-shots here, but most of the filmmakers are like Jordana Spiro, up-and-comers whose lifelong dreams are coming true by premiering their films at Sundance. It’s honestly inspiring.
“Night Comes On” is a sober, well-acted drama about Philadelphia juvenile delinquent Angel (Dominique Fishback, from HBO’s “The Deuce”), who’s released from juvie on her 18th birthday. First thing that happens to her is the father of her former cellmate, from whom she’s trying to buy an illegal gun, tries to have sex with her. So it’s gonna be like that.
Angel reconnects with her 10-year-old sister, Abby (Tatum Marilyn Hall), now in foster care, and the two set out to find their father, who destroyed their family. The film isn’t as bleak as it sounds, but it can be grueling, and it feels longer than its 86 minutes. (Esteban Verde, who loved the movie, did not believe me afterward that it had only been 86 minutes.) Those two lead performances are fantastic, though, particularly newcomer Tatum Marilyn Hall, who has the screen presence and confidence of someone much older. It’s a good movie that maybe just wasn’t my thing.
I returned to the condo afterward, trudging through the fast-piling snow. (“Trudge” is the official verb of Sundance.) Neil Miller of Film School Rejects and Dan Mecca were there, allegedly watching news coverage of the government shutdown but really watching SportsCenter. So, really, not much different from last year.
Day 3: Saturday, Jan. 20
It snowed all day, though not nearly as much as last year, when it snowed all day every day forever. In fact, I believe it’s still snowing from last year. I spent the morning writing, then hit a 1 p.m. press screening of something called “Mandy,” about a woman who came and gave without taking and then got abducted by a cult.
“Mandy” stars Nicolas Cage, with Andrea Riseborough as his wife, the two of them living a lumberjack’s life in the Pacific Northwest in 1983. Intercut with scenes of their idyllic existence, reading fantasy novels and talking about which planets are their favorites, are scenes of a cult leader, Jeremiah (Linus Roache), and his dimwit followers apparently occupying the same woods. The inciting incident in the plot occurs at the one-hour mark of this two-hour movie, which makes it a spoiler to tell you what the movie is about. Suffice it to say that Nicolas Cage becomes hell-bent on revenge.
The filmmaker is Panos Cosmatos, whose “Beyond the Black Rainbow” is a good litmus test for “Mandy,” which has a trippy ’80s LSD heavy-metal aesthetic, ponderous synthesizers, and unnatural colors. When it does eventually get to where it’s going, Cage does not disappoint in terms of loudness and craziness. Indeed, you don’t even have to sign Nicolas Cage to star in a movie like “Mandy.” Just start filming and he’ll show up, summoned by the vibrations in the air. It’s about a man and woman who run afoul of cultists, and it ends with a chainsaw fight, and also there is a tiger for no reason. Nicolas Cage couldn’t not star in this if he wanted to, which he does not.
Also: I’m going to need a comprehensive list of movie cult leaders named Jeremiah.
Also also: I’m going to need a comprehensive list of Nicolas Cage movies in which someone is set on fire.
After this I walked over to the Yarrow to see if I could find a good place to sit and write for a while. I didn’t find that, but I did run into my friend Sam Fragoso, who writes for a number of outlets and hosts a podcast where he uses an NPR voice to interview actors. Catching up on films we’d seen, Sam said he liked “Tyrel” (which I’m seeing later in the week) but that it might be a little racist. Only a little? I asked. If you’re going to be racist, I say go all the way with it.
Where I did find a place to work was at the Fresh Market grocery store, in the same parking lot as the Yarrow, Holiday Village, and the Ray. Truly, it is the parking lot in Park City. The grocery store has a deli, a Starbucks, wifi, and some tables and chairs, nearly all of which were occupied by Sundancers like myself.
One of my tablemates asked if anyone had seen “Tyrel.” I told her I hadn’t but that a friend had said it might be a little racist. She said, “Racist against black people, or against Asians?” I said I didn’t know and wondered if one or the other would have been OK with her, but I didn’t ask.
I didn’t have another screening till 6:00, and I planned to get in line at 5:30. I worked studiously up to that point, like a big boy, then headed over to the press tent and found the screening almost full already. The movie, “Eighth Grade” — the directorial debut of young Internet comedian Bo Burnham — had been well received at its public premiere the night before, and the other press screenings in this slot didn’t look interesting, so everyone was here. My first shutout of the fest! It was bound to happen sooner or later.
It turns out some of my colleagues had tweeted warnings about the size of the line some 30 minutes earlier, but I hadn’t seen them because I was busy working. Basically, I worked too hard and didn’t check Twitter enough. Let this be a lesson to me.
With a new chunk of free time, I headed back to the condo to record a podcast with Jeff Bayer, my co-host on Movie B.S. with Bayer and Snider, the only movie podcast on the Internet. This accomplished, I had just enough time to dash over to Burger King real quick before I’d need to leave for a screening at the Eccles Theatre. Since I had my car (I drove down from Portland so I could visit Utah friends and family when I’m done Sundancing), and since it was still snowing, I drove to BK instead of walking. On my way back, just a few yards from the condo, I got a flat tire. I had planned to avoid the shuttle buses and drive to the screening (there’s street parking near HQ at night), but there wasn’t time to convince someone to change my tire for me (it was cold), so that plan was aborted. These are the struggles we face.
Traveling with friend and condo-mate Jordan Raup of The Film Stage, I got a shuttle that didn’t take any weird alternate routes or break down anywhere, and we arrived in plenty of time. The Eccles is Sundance’s largest venue, seating 1,270 people, and it is a high school auditorium. A pretty nice one, as high school auditoria go, but it’s always a little weird to watch a Sundance movie at a school, and even weirder during the week, when school is actually in session.
(They keep the students away from the Sundance people, though they only started being stringent about that in the last decade or so. One of my first years here, maybe 2001, I was looking for a place to work between screenings, took the wrong door, and found myself in the cafeteria during lunchtime. I sat at a table with my laptop and wrote for a half hour without anyone ever saying a word to me. I suspect that would not happen today, as I am now 43 years old and have a mustache.)
Tonight’s movie was “Leave No Trace,” from “Winter’s Bone” director Debra Granik. It’s about Ben Foster and his teenage daughter living off the grid in Forest Park in Portland, where I live! (Portland, not the park.) When they’re rousted by rangers and put in touch with social workers, the father — a veteran with PTSD issues — kicks against the system while the daughter (played by Thomasin McKenzie) struggles with wanting to be with her dad while also wanting to see where she fits in the world. He can’t function in society, but maybe she can, you know?
The film is moving and compassionate, and the emotions of it really snuck up on me in the end. My eyes made tinkle. Both of the leads do great work — Foster understated and subtle, McKenzie fierce and strong. There’s also the wonderful Dale Dickey as a woods-dweller who helps them out and seems to understand their desire for isolation. It’s really a lovely movie.
EXCEPT FOR ONE HUGE FLAW. As I said, it’s set in Portland. At one point, the father and daughter are hitching a ride with a trucker, who remarks, while driving on a country road, “We just crossed over into Washington,” like they might not have noticed it. Well, the only way to cross from Oregon into Washington is to drive across one of a handful of big-ass bridges that span the Columbia River. You can’t do it unawares. You can’t be driving along and then suddenly be like, “Oh, huh, we’re in Washington now.” So, unfortunately, I have to give “Leave No Trace” zero stars. Rules are rules.
Back home at the condo, people were chugging Pedialite and Alka-Seltzer Cold to avoid getting whatever Dan had, which he seems to be over but which has undoubtedly contaminated every surface in the place. It’s only a matter of time before someone else falls victim, which adds a fun element of suspense.
Day 4: Sunday, Jan. 21
Day 4 began with me replacing the flat tire on my car with the spare donut designed for that purpose. (Donuts: Is there anything they can’t do?) My first movie was a press screening of “Piercing.” Outside the tent, I ran into Vadim Rizov of Filmmaker Magazine, who told me he’d read the novel the movie is based on and that it is effed up. If the movie was faithful to the book, he said, it was going to be too much for some people. All of that, plus the fact that it was only 80 minutes, made me very eager to see “Piercing”!
And it is indeed effed up. Christopher Abbott plays a nervous man who’s planning to murder a prostitute with an icepick. It would seem there are voices telling him to do this, and who is he to argue? We see him in a hotel room, practicing the entire plan, pantomiming the actions. When the escort shows up, she is Mia Wasikowska, and she turns out to be as disturbed as he is.
It’s a darkly comic thriller, knowingly lurid and outrageous, and very squirm-inducing at times. The title, let me tell you, is not figurative. The director, Nicolas Pesce, had a horror movie here a couple years ago called “The Eyes of My Mother,” and that title wasn’t figurative, either. Don’t mess with this guy.
(By the way, Vadim says the movie deliberately misses the point of the book.)
PIERCING: renders an essentially tragic novel about failing to process abuse as psychology-free black comedy, which is (deliberately) missing the point, but this is kind of fun anyway. Surprisingly dollhouse-y.
— Vadim Rizov (@vrizov) January 21, 2018
Next up was something I had been waiting a long time for: lunch. As long-time readers know, there are only a few purveyors of foodstuffs within easy walking distance of Holiday Village, but one of the better ones is a Mexican place right next to the theater, between it and the Ray. Had me a big burrito, I did, plus a Dr Pepper, which with tax and tip came to just $17. I defy you to find me a better deal* on a big burrito and a Dr Pepper! (*in Park City)
And the winner in our “Who will get sick after Dan contaminated the condo?” lottery? Neil Miller —
My body temp is all over the place. My head is on fire. Sinuses are a nightmare. I need to sleep for 20 hours, watch Paddington 2, then return to #Sundance.
— Neil Miller™ (@rejects) January 21, 2018
— who, if we’re being honest, was just going to watch football today anyway. But get well soon, Neil (and stay in your bed, away from us, thank you).
But there isn’t just sickness among us. There are also injuries! Scott Tobias slipped and fractured and/or dislocated his elbow yesterday, and Peter Sciretta of Slashfilm broke his wrist and had to go home *before the festival even started*. (When there wasn’t even much snow yet! What did he slip on?? The whole thing smells fishy to me. What is Peter covering up??) We wish them a speedy recovery and hope their slipperiness isn’t contagious.
Elbow dislocation and fracture, which recalls a favorite Jack Black line reading: “I’ve got a headache *and* the runs….” (I’ll be fine.)
— Scott Tobias (@scott_tobias) January 21, 2018
My #Sundance trip lasted one day. Headed back home with a high likelihood of surgery. This sucks. Thanks everyone for all the support, and I hope my team and colleagues get to see some awesome films this year.
— Peter Sciretta (@slashfilm) January 18, 2018
Next was a press screening where I was joined by my friend, condo-mate, and life partner Jeff Bayer, who was missing his son’s second birthday to be here. (Before you say, “Aww,” keep in mind that Jeff missed Sundance two years ago to be at his son’s birth, so it balances out.) Jeff had not yet seen a bad movie this week, and he rolled the dice on one he was pretty sure he wouldn’t like but that he knew I was seeing and he wanted to see one together. There’s your “Aww”!
The movie was “An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn,” directed by one Jim Hosking, the followup to his infamously irritating/amusing “The Greasy Strangler,” which played here in 2016. I enjoyed “Greasy Strangler” as a you-gotta-see-this provocation, and I was curious to see what else Hosking could do. Jeff never saw it and would have hated it if he had, so he really was taking a chance here.
It would seem that all of Hosking’s skills and interests were represented in “The Greasy Strangler,” because “An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn” is more of the same, but less so. He has a few real actors this time — Aubrey Plaza, Emile Hirsch, Craig Robinson, Jemaine Clement — but they all pitch their performances to be at the same level of stilted badness as the non-actors who fill out the rest of the cast.
The story is about a woman (Plaza) dissatisfied in her marriage (to Hirsch) who discovers that an ex-lover (Robinson) is coming to town to perform a show called “An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn” (the ex’s stage name). When the husband steals money from Plaza’s brother (who is Pakistani), the brother hires Clement to get it back, and Clement and Plaza run off together to wait at the hotel where Beverly will be performing.
I didn’t think I would miss all the gross-out stuff of “Greasy Strangler,” but “AEWBLL” hardly has any and is excruciating. Hosking removed the provocation but kept the deliberately bad acting and go-nowhere story. And the thing is ONE HUNDRED AND EIGHT ACTUAL LITERAL MINUTES LONG! There’s a peculiar sincerity underneath it all, and this is clearly the type of film Hosking wants to make. More power to him, but I don’t need to watch them anymore. I SAID GOOD DAY, SIR. (Jeff hated it, too.)
We recorded a podcast after that, making it quick so Jeff, Dan, and some of the other bros could go to a party. I’ve been to some Sundance parties over the years (this is my 19th, I don’t know if I mentioned), and I’ve occasionally had a good time, but there’s usually not much appeal for a non-drinker. It’s the same reason I’m not a big fan of New Year’s Eve or Las Vegas.
While they partied, I went to the Prospector Square venue for an 11:30 screening of “White Rabbit,” about which I knew very little but which I predicted would not have an actual rabbit in it. (I hoped not, anyway. I’ve already seen two movies this week in which rabbits are killed.) As prophesied, “White Rabbit” contains no rabbits, and I don’t know why it’s even called that, unless there’s a cultural reference I’m not getting (entirely possible). Charming movie, though, starring Vivian Bang as an L.A. performance artist (is there any other kind of performance artist?), originally from Korea, who tries to find an audience, a career, and love. Directed by Daryl Wein (“Lola Versus”), it’s a slight movie, only 72 minutes long, light on plot. Sporadically funny, and Bang is fun to hang out with, at least in the movie. I remain wary of performance artists in real life.
When I exited the theater to head home, my phone told me there were only 9 degrees. That is not enough degrees! You need more than that. I filed a complaint with the festival organizers and went to bed.
Much later, my CPAP-aided slumber was interrupted by a drunken Jeff — who’d come home at some point and gotten into bed — stumbling back out of bed and falling across mine before stumbling further and falling across the air mattress on which Vince Mancini was sleeping, on his way to stumbling to the bathroom. Every Sundance has at least one night that ends with Drunk Jeff, and it is eagerly anticipated by all regular attendees.
Day 5: Monday, Jan. 22
If you looked at all the days I’ve spent at Sundance since 2000, the “typical” day for me would like approximately like today. I went to four regular press screenings, ate overpriced food with some friends, and snapped at someone for turning on his phone flashlight during a movie.
We began with “Clara’s Ghost,” written and directed by — am I reading this right? — “Bridey” Elliott? That seems like a typo. She’s the daughter of Chris Elliott, sister of Abby Elliott. Mom is Paula Niedert Elliott, who was a “Late Night with David Letterman” staffer when Chris worked there. The whole family plays the Reynolds family, whose circumstances lightly mirror the Elliotts’: Ted Reynolds (Chris) is a once-famous actor whose star has dimmed; daughters Julie (Abby) and Riley (Bridey) co-starred on a sitcom as children and have struggled to find work as young adults; and mom, Clara (Paula), is in the background, the non-famous one, the one who isn’t asked to stand in the pictures when magazines do stories about them.
The girls have come home to Connecticut for a couple days for a photo shoot and to celebrate the dog’s birthday (yes, really), but Clara is having trouble keeping a grip on reality. She’s started seeing a ghostly woman in white, perhaps a former occupant of their very old house. She’s also drinking a lot, but that’s normal, and she’s not the only one. Meanwhile, Ted is bitter at being fired from a show that Julie and her producer fiancé are developing, and the girls are hanging out with family friend Joe (Haley Joel Osment), their high school friend and weed dealer.
The family dynamics are funny and gently odd, and the film has the sort of quirky humor you’d expect from something with Chris Elliott’s DNA in it. I enjoyed hanging out with them, even though the story ultimately fizzles out. Surprisingly, the best performance is by the non-actor, Paula Niedert Elliott, whose worried, addled, tipsy Mom character is never more endearing than when she’s late-night drunk-dialing a winery to pay compliments and ask questions (“If someone could call me back about the fruity undertones, I would appreciate it”). The movie isn’t quite an insightful look at the Forgotten Mom character, but it almost is.
I saw this with Jeff, who was in character for the movie by being hungover from last night. He, Dan, and Vince had gone to some official Sundance party, where there was much to drink, and then to an afterparty at someone’s house, where there was more. Apparently Dominic West (McNulty from “The Wire”) was at this second party, if you’re keeping track on your celebrity scorecard.
Every Sundance screening starts with a brief trailer for the festival that feels less brief the more times you see it. This year’s is a slapped-together montage of words in various languages meaning “dream,” “yearn,” “believe,” crap like that, accompanied by royalty-free music you can download from the Internet, all seemingly assembled in an afternoon by someone’s nephew. It is around this point in the week that one begins to actively hate the trailer.
But today’s movies had another, longer promo before the main one. This trailer starts out talking about storytelling, then moves on to telling us how great Sundance is (which you wouldn’t think needs to be explained to people who are already at Sundance), and then drifts into appreciation for the 2,000 volunteers who run the festival. “Wednesday is Volunteer Appreciation Day,” the trailer says, “So please take this moment to applaud and thank them.” All four times I saw this trailer today, it was followed by a confused smattering of applause. Are we supposed to clap now, or on Wednesday? Why are you giving us two days’ notice on having to clap our hands? You don’t even fill in the TBA screening slots until the day before.
I waited in line for my next movie with Erik Childress, an old friend who’s been coming to Sundance almost as long as I have. We had a new iteration of a conversation we have every year, wherein he rails against a movie he hated that pretty much everyone else liked. (This time it was “The Miseducation of Cameron Post.”) Erik’s tastes often run counter to those of normal people, but he comes by it naturally. He’s not a contrarian doing it intentionally like some common Armond White. (How to spot a critic who’s going against the grain on purpose: he spends a lot of the review talking about what other people thought of the movie.)
This press screening was at the Yarrow (known colloquially as the “Park Avenue Theatre”), a makeshift venue that nonetheless complies with regulations regarding safety lighting, exits, and so forth. It’s not like they scatter 200 folding chairs in a conference room, pack it with critics, and turn off the lights.
So anyway, I was sitting in the front row of the second section, at the far right end of the row. Not long after the movie started, a fellow journalist entered from the doors on the left, then used the flashlight on his iPhone to guide himself down the ENTIRE length of the 40-foot-long, 6-foot-wide, flat, unobstructed, heavily glow-taped aisle. By the time he got to me he’d been shining this spotlight on us for several seconds, and I confess I whisper-shouted something to the effect of, “THERE’S GLOW TAPE ALL OVER THE FLOOR! WHAT DO YOU NEED A FLASHLIGHT FOR?!” I may have also used a vulgarity, which I regret. I do not regret the sentiment. (The man’s response: “Screw you!”)
Oh, yeah. The movie. It was “The Happy Prince,” about the final days of Oscar Wilde, with Rupert Everett as writer, director, and star. As a very funny gay person who never has enough money, I am the target audience for an Oscar Wilde biopic, but YEESH what a lugubrious slog this is, Everett’s passionate performance notwithstanding. (This is clearly the movie he was born to make.) We begin after Wilde has spent two years in prison for homosexuality, breaking his spirit and ruining his career. He’s penniless and ill. We never see him (except in very brief, dreamlike flashbacks) as a beloved public figure, never see what made him Oscar Wilde. It’s like a movie about the Titanic that only focuses on what happened after it sank. Everett tells the story in a non-linear fashion, like a dying fever dream, which is disorienting but not in a good way.
No time to cry over disappointing movies, though, because it’s on to the next disappointing movie! It was “Arizona,” a dark comedy from the Midnight section (full disclosure: I watched it at 6:30 p.m.), set after the housing collapse in 2009. It stars Rosemarie DeWitt as a divorced mom in an Arizona suburb who’s about to lose her house while still working for the sleazy realtor (Seth Rogen) who sold it to her. A disgruntled homeowner played by Danny McBride confronts the boss, accidentally kills him, then takes DeWitt hostage because she witnessed it. Things escalate from there, as they do.
It starts out well, if you’re into dark comedies where violent things happen, which I very much am. McBride isn’t a terrifying psycho but a doofy suburban dad who’s immediately in over his head with a woman who’s smart and resourceful. He’s got DeWitt tied up in his kitchen when his ex-wife walks in, and she’s played by Kaitlin Olson — Dee on “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.” If you know that show, you know how funny (and mean) she can be when responding to a man’s frustrating stupidity.
But the movie soon stops being the funny version of this story and just becomes the regular version, where McBride is a psycho with no compunction about killing, and that gets old fast. And it’s a shame. DeWitt is perfect, the underlying premise of a man driven to desperation by the housing collapse is fine material, and a mostly abandoned housing tract where all the homes look the same and there’s nothing for miles around is a great horror setting. And David Alan Grier as the local sheriff! But alas, it all falls apart. JUST LIKE THE HOUSING MARKET.
I saw this with Dan, and afterward we joined Jordan Raup, Jeff Bayer, and Vince Mancini at the Chinese/Thai restaurant next to the Holiday Village and the Mexican place and the not-Sports-Authority-anymore. There was much jovial banter and plate-passing as we spoke lovingly of our absent colleagues and expressed respect for their opinions with which we disagree. You weren’t there, so you can’t prove the conversation was any different.
The other three had just seen “Assassination Nation,” a high-buzz Midnight entry about teenage girls fighting back against leaked nudes and such. Most reactions so far had been positive or mixed, but Vince HATED it, and hated it in such a way that other people liking it made him angry. We all have these now and then. I think mine is the “Fast and Furious” franchise.
We were also hearing lots of praise for another Midnight film, “Hereditary,” which premiered last night. What caught my attention was that I’d seen tweets raving about it from multiple friends with very different tastes. It seemed to have really messed people up, which I always like to hear. A press screening is scheduled for Wednesday morning … but that’s the day after the party we’re hosting, which will last until the wee hours. So who knows what will happen?
Our bellies full and our heads up our own butts, a few of us went to see “Ophelia,” a sumptuous-looking retelling of “Hamlet” from the point of view of his crazy ex-girlfriend. Or maybe she wasn’t crazy after all! The film starts the way a lot of movies do nowadays: “You may think you know my story. But you don’t!” And then it turns out the reason you don’t is because they changed it. Which is hardly fair.
Daisy Ridley is an excellent Ophelia, and I enjoyed the way the film changes our perception of her by adding information that doesn’t contradict Shakespeare. That is, until the last 20 minutes, when the film is like, “Screw it, let’s go to town.” (Everyone knows Ophelia went crazy and drowned. What “Ophelia” presupposes is … maybe she didn’t?) The movie would have been better if it had been over-the-top throughout, or if it hadn’t gone over the top at the end, but fans of Billy Shakes should enjoy it.
A final note for the day. Sundance has security guards checking coats and bags at every screening, including press screenings. They’re looking for guns or explosives. Now, when I say they’re checking coats and bags, I just mean that they have you unzip and open your jacket like a flasher, and open your backpack or purse, if you have one. They don’t pat you down or rummage around in your bag, though. The message is clear: You will not be able to bring a gun into the movie unless you put it in your bag underneath something else. Or in your pocket. Or in the front pouch of your backpack, which nobody ever makes me open, which is absurd because that is TOTALLY where I would hide my gun if I had one. Good thing I don’t! (Or do I??) Anyway, thank you for keeping us safe, Robert Redford.
Day 6: Tuesday, Jan. 23
Today I saw my least favorite movie of the festival; a well-regarded movie that I don’t think I quite “got”; and half of a movie that wasn’t going anywhere so I decided to go somewhere for it, i.e., out of the theater.
First was “Summer of ’84,” a Midnight comedy from the trio of directors who made “Turbo Kid,” a daffy, post-apocalyptic, ’80s-style “futuristic” adventure that premiered at Sundance 2015. “Summer of ’84” is another play to nostalgia, but in the least imaginative way possible.
You know the kind of movie where four boys on bicycles have an adventure in the summertime? It’s one of those. Think of every cliché you can come up with for the genre. “Summer of ’84” has them all, without subverting, twisting, or spoofing any of them. The four boys are a Normal, a Nerd, a Fat, and a Horny. The Normal is a Spielberg fan who wants to be a filmmaker when he grows up. The four think their neighbor might be a serial killer, so they undertake their own investigation. There’s a pretty blonde a few years older than our boys whom they lust after, but the Normal says, “Hey, cut it out, don’t talk about her like that,” because he alone knows she’s really special. And she turns out to actually have the hots for him! Shows up at his house when his parents are gone one night and puts the moves on him. I kept waiting for it to be a trick, or a dream sequence, but nope.
I kept waiting for a lot of things that never happened. Since the formula is so common, I figured they’d deviate from it at some point. I mean, why make an homage to ’80s boys-on-bikes movies in 2018 if you’re just going to do a straight copy? But no, a straight copy is exactly what they made. It’s not funny, suspenseful, clever, or surprising. It doesn’t capture the look or feel of 1984 particularly well. The serial-killer angle has no teeth to it until the end, when the movie takes a cruel, tone-deaf turn and kills a character who had no reason to die.
“An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn” was more excruciating to watch, but at least that movie was trying something. “Summer of ’84” does the opposite: it takes the path of least resistance, plays it safe, checks off every trope on the list without question. It’s a terrible waste of time, talent, and energy. (The young cast is fine. Not their fault.)
The next film I watched was “Madeline’s Madeline,” which is in the Next section, and not just because it was the next film I watched (although it was). The Next category tends to be for movies that are particularly low-budget or unusual, such that it doesn’t feel like a level playing field to put them in the U.S. Dramatic competition category. What Sundance regulars have discovered, however, is that Next films are often better than the competition films. Past Next entries include “A Ghost Story,” “Columbus,” “The Fits,” “Tangerine,” “James White,” “Listen Up Philip,” and “Obvious Child.”
“Madeline’s Madeline” certainly fits. Ostensibly, it’s about a 16-year-old girl named Madeline (Helena Howard) who’s had some mental-health issues in the past and is now participating in a theater workshop that emphasizes improvisation based on personal experiences. Madeline’s mother (Miranda July) worries hysterically, and Madeline seems to get along better with the theater director, Evangeline (Molly Parker), who really takes a shine to her.
But all of this is presented subjectively, flitting in and out of reality as Madeline sees it. The theater piece they’re creating resembles Madeline’s life, but Madeline’s life is already like an abstract theater piece. I was enraptured by what I was watching, particularly Helena Howard’s dynamic presence, but I freely admit that my reaction when it ended was as follows: “What?” It didn’t coalesce into something comprehensible for me, and didn’t impact me the way it did several of my colleagues. It might click on a second viewing, which I wouldn’t mind.
Eating and writing happened after this, and then I went to see “Never Goin’ Back,” another Midnight comedy. On the way in, I overheard a colleague talking to a man I don’t know who was involved with “Hacksaw Ridge,” which was hilariously nominated for Best Picture last year. This man (a producer on the film, maybe?) was relating the story of the “La La Land”/”Moonlight” mixup at the Oscars. His team knew “Hacksaw Ridge” didn’t have a chance of winning. But then, when Warren Beatty opened the envelope and looked surprised, all the people who knew they didn’t have a chance of winning experienced a brief moment of wild, tentative hope, only to have it extinguished a second later. The Oscars really were cruel last year.
“Never Goin’ Back” is about two almost-17-year-old girls in Texas who’ve dropped out of school and work as diner waitresses while living with one of the girls’ older brother, a wannabe drug dealer. The girls have planned a trip to the beach (well, Galveston) and must work extra shifts to pay for it. Things go awry, their plans are jeopardized, etc.
They’re patterned after the gals on “Broad City” — sloppy, vulgar, barely responsible, fond of the reefer. The difference is that these two aren’t funny. It’s strange. The movie has the form of a comedy, but the lines that should be humorous aren’t. It was during a montage of elaborate fake illnesses that the girls have used to get out of work in the past that I realized we were sunk. Here was an easy chance to get some laughs … and nothing.
I was sitting between Jeff and Vince. I could tell they weren’t enjoying it, either. When we’d reached the halfway point — 41 minutes — I whispered to Jeff, “It’s only half over.” His eyes indicated his alarm that only 41 minutes had passed. My eyes indicated we should leave. His eyes agreed. We used our eyes to tell Vince, who joined us. The movie wasn’t unbearable or grating; it just wasn’t doing anything for us. You make choices like that sometimes at film festivals.
Leaving the film early gave us extra time to prepare for the party that we and our five housemates were hosting tonight. It’s unofficially known as the “blogger party,” because when it started, in 2011, that term didn’t have as many pejorative connotations. Really, it’s just an excuse for our fellow Sundance press friends to hang out. We provide snacks and booze, and people show up. I always enjoy the gathering. It’s good to see pals outside of screenings, and I like skittering around picking up empty bottles, separating the recycling, and cleaning up spills. They’re important duties, and I’m good at them.
The party was well attended but less crowded than last year. Several regular attendees had left town already, and the press corps in general felt smaller this year. There was only one press screening all week that was hard to get into (“Eighth Grade”), a welcome surprise. Anyway, it was a good party, or at least nobody walked out after 41 minutes.
Day 7: Wednesday, Jan. 24
Today I exercised boldness. “Hereditary,” the film I most wanted to see before I left Park City, was having a press screening at 10 a.m. I’d need to be in line by 9 or 9:15, probably — this was a must-see for a lot of other critics, too — but I’d be able to see it.
But doing so would mean missing the 12:15 public screening of “Sorry to Bother You,” which I also really wanted to see. And there was a “Hereditary” public screening tonight at 11:45 (at the Egyptian Theatre, and I do love Sundance midnight screenings) — but I didn’t have a ticket, and neither did the publicist (or at least I took her non-response to indicate as much). I’d have to roll the dice on the waitlist like regular people. Did I dare pass up a sure thing in favor of a non-sure but preferable thing?
I did, my friends. I did dare. A purely coincidental side benefit of this choice was that I did not have to get up as early.
I wrote in the morning, then headed to the Eccles for a series of public screenings for which I had already procured tickets. I used to spend many, many hours at the Eccles, back when all a press person had to do to get a public ticket was show up at the venue an hour before showtime. There used to be a venue downstairs for press screenings, too, so I’d go back and forth all day without leaving the building. But this was in the early 2000s, when there were fewer journalists covering Sundance (and yet it sure seemed like there were a lot of us), and when the festival was smaller overall (but felt huge).
There isn’t a separate line for regular press at these screenings — all ticket-holders are treated equally — so this is where you mingle with civilian festival-goers, the regular people, the salt of the earth. I didn’t mingle much with the young gentlemen in line near me (I was busy eating a sandwich), but I did see one of them eyeballing my badge to see who, if anyone, I was. (No judgments here! I’d have peeked at his, too, if he’d been wearing one.) As we were being ushered into the theater, I saw him on his phone beginning one of those brief Facebook posts with the large font: “Checking out press”– and that’s all I saw before the phone passed from my view. Was he going to say something about me?? I’ll never know.
The movie, “Sorry to Bother You,” had its premiere a few nights ago and got an enthusiastic response, at least among people I follow on Twitter. (I admit this is not scientific.) There was much talk of how kooky nutty bonkers insane it is — “You’re not prepared for how crazy this movie is!!!,” that sort of thing.
It’s written and directed by Boots Riley, a former musician who watched a lot of Michel Gondry movies and decided to make his own Michel Gondry movie. Lakeith Stanfield stars as Cassius Green, a black Oakland man who gets a job as a telemarketer and finds that the key to sales success — and thus to advancement in the company — is to use a “white voice” on the phone. (Cassius’ is provided by David Cross. Patton Oswalt does someone else’s.) Cassius and his co-workers want to unionize, but he turns his back on them when he gets promoted to a higher level of the company, one that does business with a coke-snorting entrepreneur (played by Armie Hammer) whose business relies on what is essentially slave labor. It gets weirder from there.
I found it funny and inventive, full of whimsical touches and surreal humor, social satire and progressive politics, though it runs out of creative steam before it’s over. Race, class, and capitalism are its targets, and it’s generally spot-on.
As for its reputed kookiness, sure, it’s a weird movie. In 19 years, I’ve probably seen no more than 50 movies that were crazier. There’s something like this every year, where the first reaction is “HOLY COW THIS IS SO BIZARRE!” and then I see it and feel like those first people need to see more Sundance movies. Two years ago it was “Swiss Army Man,” with Daniel Radcliffe as a farting corpse that Paul Dano rode like a jet-ski. “The strangest movie shown at Sundance?” asked The New York Times. Well, no. It wasn’t even the strangest movie at Sundance that year (see also: “The Greasy Strangler,” “Yoga Hosers”).
TWITTER: This movie is NUTS! It has [crazy thing] and [other crazy thing]!
MOVIE: *only has those two crazy things*
— Eric D. Snider (@EricDSnider) January 24, 2018
Oh, and you’ll be pleased to know that today was actual Volunteer Appreciation Day, teased two days ago. The volunteers are essential in keeping the festival running. There are 2,000 of them — how much would it cost if Sundance had to pay them? Many dollars! They stand up all day, often outdoors, answer questions, point people in the right direction, and prevent us from being run over by cars while walking from the parking-lot tent to the theater. And what do they get in return? A Kenneth Cole jacket and access to screenings (if they’ve finished their chores and there are seats left). And so we do appreciate the volunteers, almost all of whom are great. I mean, in a group of 2,000 people, you’re gonna have a few jerks. But it’s not like they can say, “Please give a round of applause to honor the Sundance volunteers except for Darren.”
Next up, with only enough time in between to grab a snack and get back in line, was “Tyrel,” by Chilean filmmaker Sebastian Silva, who’s had five films at Sundance previously, including two the same year (2013, “Magic Magic” and “Crystal Fairy and the Magical Cactus”). He’s a handsome overachiever who makes everyone else look bad, is my point. “Tyrel” is about race relations, and Silva introduced it by saying, “It’s a movie that was specifically designed for Americans. So enjoy it, or not.”
It’s a shaggy, low-key dramedy about a group of guys spending a weekend (the weekend of Trump’s inauguration, as it happens) at a cabin in the Catskills, from the perspective of the one black man among them, Tyler (Jason Mitchell, who played Eazy-E in “Straight Outta Compton”). Everybody’s cool and friendly, but their ingrained subconscious racism and generally bro-y insensitivity keeps manifesting itself (the film’s title is someone’s mispronunciation of his name). Basically, “Tyrel” is “Get Out” if you removed the horror, most of the comedy, and the point. You keep waiting for something to happen, for the awkwardness and brooding to build to something, and it doesn’t. It’s a good rough draft of a screenplay that just needs to be fleshed out before they start filmi– oh, whoops.
I was sitting next to a married couple in their late 50s who had Eccles Theatre badges, which grants you priority access to any screening at the Eccles. The Eccles badge people are a sub-class of Sundance-goer, usually about that age, always affluent (the pass costs $2,500 for the first half of the festival, $1,500 for the second), generally pleasant and affable, but also oblivious and entitled and possessed of what you might call Academy Award-level taste in movies. They are the sort of people who, when Ann Dowd shows up in a film, and she’s also been in a few other Sundance movies this year, the husband will say, “Oh, it’s her again!,” and the wife will say, “Oh, yep!,” both making no effort to lower their voices, because why would they? They are the only people in the world. They paid $4,000 each for this Eccles pass, so they can do what they want.
(I did the math. If you attend every single screening at the Eccles for the entire 10 1/2 days of the festival, you can see 52 movies, which works out to $76.92 per ticket. I’m sure I’ve had a few movie experiences in my life that were worth $76.92, but I doubt I’ve had 50 of them in a week and a half. And there’s a higher level of pass you can buy, too, the Express Pass, which grants you priority access to all screenings at any venue. It’s $6,500 for the whole festival, or $104.83 per movie if you watch six movies a day.)
Anyway, the reason I bring it up is so I can tell you what the Eccles husband said to his Eccles wife before the movie, when they were discussing their subsequent plans to see “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot,” the movie about quadriplegic cartoonist John Callahan. “It’s called ‘Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Very Far on Foot,'” the man said. “Because he’s handicapped. He’s in a wheelchair.” You don’t get this kind of scintillating movie conversation at press screenings.
(Note: What I said about Eccles people applies to every single person at Telluride.)
Next I had a ticket to an Eccles screening of “The Catcher Was a Spy,” a true story starring Paul Rudd as, I’m guessing, a catcher who was a spy. But I had reached the point in the festival where I needed to skip a movie for mental-health reasons, and my housemates were gathering for a farewell dinner before some of them depart tomorrow, so I decided that was the better choice for me. I gave my ticket away to one of the people walking along the ticket-holder line asking if anyone has extra tickets. She seemed like a nice lady. When I gave her the ticket, she thanked me profusely and hurried over to her friends in line. “I got one!” she called, and they all cheered in celebration. The act of doing something nice (that cost me nothing) for someone who really appreciated it made me cry, if you need an indication of where I was emotionally at this point.
Two roommates had already left, and one was off seeing a movie or some crap, but the remaining six of us — myself, Neil Miller, Rob Hunter, Dan Mecca, Jordan Raup, and Vince Mancini — went to Squatter’s brewpub, across the street from our condo and from the Yarrow. We had a jolly dinner that was only mildly contentious, which is pretty good for Day 7.
At last it was time for Operation: See “Hereditary.” Sundance’s waitlist system is fantastic now that we live in the age of apps. In the old days, you had to show up at the venue two hours before showtime, get a waitlist number, then go kill an hour somewhere before coming back and getting in line again. Now the first part is done electronically: You get a waitlist number through the app. There’s a countdown clock to when the waitlist will open. When it does, everyone who registers within the first 15 seconds is assigned a number randomly, and people who join after that are numbered sequentially. Then you get to the venue 30 minutes before showtime to check in and line up in numerical order.
Up to 300 people can waitlist at the Egyptian Theatre; my number was 109, which the app said had a “like chance of entry, like your mom,” which seemed uncalled for. Lots of people change their minds and drop out, of course, so there were only about 30 people ahead of me when it came down to it. The important thing is, I got in.
This was my first chance to see a movie with my old pal Drew McWeeny. David Ehrlich was also there, as were Jeff Sneider (no relation; we have different last names) and Amy Nicholson, among other luminaries. I had brought a bag of Golden Oreos left over from the party, and I passed them down the row. Jeff said, “No thanks — I never cheat on the black-and-whites,” which I respect.
“Hereditary” is the feature debut of writer-director Ari Aster, who’s had a few short films play at Slamdance, Fantastic Fest, and elsewhere. He introduced “Hereditary” by saying he’d had “a rough few years” with his family. His IMDb bio says he spent 11 years in an iron lung. Whatever has happened in this guy’s life, he’s working through it by traumatizing audiences.
The film starts with the death of a mean old grandma nobody liked, who’d spent the last little while living with her daughter, Annie (Toni Collette), and her family: husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff), and 13-year-old daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro). Grandma loved Charlie, but that’s about it. As the family is working through its “grief,” something truly awful happens. In addition, Annie finds a book on spiritualism among her mother’s possessions, with a note to Annie inside.
That’s all I’ll say about the plot. It’s set in a big, old house; between that and the book on spiritualism, you can assume certain elements. But what makes “Hereditary” so frequently terrifying is that it’s not just one kind of hell that’s threatening to break loose. As we learn more about Annie’s family history, and as the aftermath of the new awful thing unfolds, we’re bombarded with numerous eerie possibilities. It’s not one specific thing we’re afraid of, nor does the film limit itself to one sense of the word “horror.” It has scary things, but it also has events, images, and ideas that are simply horrific without being meant to frighten us.
Toni Collette gives the most intensely committed performance of her career, basically having a nervous breakdown for two hours while delivering impassioned speeches that span a range of emotions. Aster directs the whole thing smoothly, nothing jittery, no fake-out jump scares. You can tell he’s confident, as well he should be — this is a great movie. One moment elicited an audience-wide “Gahh!” that was followed by stunned, disbelieving silence. I wish there’d been a camera to capture us all with our eyes wide, our mouths agape, our armrests broken. (It wasn’t just a shock-value moment, either, but a legitimate turn in the story.) There’s another image later that makes me shudder — an involuntary physical reaction — every time I think of it. If there’s a better horror movie this year, I’m going to need new pants.
Day 8: Thursday, Jan. 25
It was the last day of Sundance for a lot of us, even though the festival runs through Sunday. There are a handful of press screenings tomorrow (mostly repeats), and the awards will be announced Saturday night. Just about everyone I know who used to stay to cover the awards will be gone by tomorrow, perhaps because their editors realized it was too expensive to stay in town another two days just to report something they can get from a press release.
Six of the nine people in my condo were gone now, which made the place surprisingly roomy. This tableau of left-behind items gives you some indication of what the week was like:
First up for me was a public screening of “Assassination Nation” at the new Ray Theatre, which I waitlisted quite easily. I brought the leftover party bag of Peanut Butter Oreos to share with the people around me, and was disheartened by how many people were suspicious of them, like there was some kind of catch. Don’t question free Oreos, you guys. Just eat them.
Before the movie, festival volunteers were inquiring about empty seats so they could get more people in. The young woman two seats away from me said the seat between us was for her friend, who was indeed already in the building. “She’s in the toilet,” the woman said. Now, I know “toilet” is how they say “bathroom” in England, but this woman didn’t have an English accent, so it seemed like she was saying her friend was in the actual toilet. I was like, “Lady, it’s Day 8 of Sundance. We’re all in the toilet.”
“Assassination Nation” was a high-buzz film due to its having been sold for $10 million to new-ish distributor Neon (an offshoot of Drafthouse Films), and because it’s #topical and #woke and #metoo. It’s an in-your-face, self-consciously edgy satire about four high school girls who become targets of their town’s ire when half the town’s online accounts are hacked and everybody’s secret affairs and nude pics surface.
Some of the mob-rule/witch-hunt stuff that happens (especially regarding the police) is harrowingly plausible, and writer-director Sam Levinson (“Another Happy Day”) captures the dark side of social media and a weaponized Internet on his way to delivering a Tarantino-style bloodbath. But Levinson also loves to point the camera at girls’ butts while having those girls decry the male gaze, and he’s eye-rollingly gleeful about having the main girl, Odessa Young, alert us up front to the movie’s “trigger warnings,” which appear on the screen in red, white, and blue lettering. You can tell he really, really wanted to squeeze the word “American” into the title but couldn’t find a way. The movie is raucous fun and occasionally suspenseful or horrific, but it’s not nearly as insightful as it thinks it is. It’s not going to make $10 million at the box office, either, but that’s not my problem.
I spent the afternoon writing, then went to my last film of the festival, a press screening of “Juliet, Naked.” The last of the Oreos disappeared here, and I got to see Kate Erbland, whom I hadn’t seen since our first screening seven days ago. The movie, a delightful rom-com for grown-ups based on a Nick Hornby book, is about a woman named Annie (Rose Byrne) who begins an email correspondence with reclusive ’90s indie rocker Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke) — the very troubadour with whom Annie’s boyfriend, Duncan (Chris O’Dowd), is obsessed. (The title refers to a newly surfaced demo version of Crowe’s album that sets the plot in motion.)
I like that the film sidesteps many of the usual pitfalls. Tucker Crowe is a bit of a mess, but he’s not a man-child who just needs a woman to fix him. Duncan is an obsessive fan, but he’s within the parameters of normal human behavior, and he’s an endearing dope. Annie is torn between the two men, but her emotions are grounded. The plot doesn’t rely on any dumb misunderstandings, even though there are several opportunities for them. It was a good note to end on for what must be — let me do the math — yep, my 19th Sundance.
* * *
Last year’s Sundance lineup included “Call Me by Your Name,” “The Big Sick,” “Mudbound,” and a surprise screening of “Get Out,” all of which were nominated for Oscars earlier this week, two of them for Best Picture. Nothing on this year’s roster seems likely to follow suit. Several movies were very highly acclaimed — “Blindspotting,” “The Tale,” “Private Life,” “Hereditary,” “Leave No Trace,” “Eighth Grade,” “Sorry to Bother You” — but they’re either not polished enough for prestige status, or they’re too niche in their subject matter to break out.
That doesn’t mean Sundance was disappointing, though, despite what the bean-counters say. If it was short on Great films, it was long on Very, Very Good ones, which is OK with me. There was quite a bit of creativity and diversity on display, new and interesting voices saying unusual things. There were 56 films in the competition categories, with a total of 62 directors, and 23 of them were women. Why, I didn’t see a single movie this year about a mopey white guy returning to his hometown, nor any generic coming-of-age dramas about closeted gay youths — and I did see Toni Collette [REDACTED] her own [REDACTED] in “Hereditary,” which single-handedly made the festival worthwhile (even though she used both hands). Trump was still president at the end, but there’s always next year.
Eric D. Snider lives in Portland.