Sundance 2020 reviews: Day 4 | Buzz Blog

Monday, January 27, 2020

Sundance 2020 reviews: Day 4

Shirley, The Nowhere Inn, Dick Johnson Is Dead, Herself, Palm Springs and more

Posted By on January 27, 2020, 8:00 AM

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click to enlarge Michael Stuhlbarg and Elisabeth Moss in Shirley
  • Michael Stuhlbarg and Elisabeth Moss in Shirley
Shirley **** [U.S. Dramatic]
Or, Who’s Afraid of Shirley Jackson?, only directed not as a stage play, but as a wholly-cinematic piece of subjective surrealism while all the cutting dialogue remains. Director Josephine Decker made a splash here two years ago with Madeline’s Madeline, a masterpiece of art as insanity and as the cannibalization of its subjects. She returns to that theme here, as horror author Shirley Jackson and her college-professor husband Stanley host a younger couple, Fred and Rose, in their home so that Fred, dissertation in hand, can serve as Stanley’s assistant. Shirley is a little more straightforward and conventionally “entertaining”than Madeline, pushed in that direction by a much more overt, and every bit as brilliant, lead performance. Elisabeth Moss plays Jackson as careening from unfiltered rudeness to crippling depression to flirt to puckish miscreant to user of the pregnant Rose, all in the name of writing a novel. The story is fictional, but she’s clearly working on what will become “Hangsaman,” a work that itself resembles Shirley and Decker’s direction in some ways: off-kilter, vicious and liberation-as-danger. Michael Stuhlbarg makes a great complement in a love-hate marriage, while Logan Lerman and Odessa Young are perfectly cast for chewing up and spitting out. (Victor J. Morton)

Herself ***1/2 [Premieres]
Phyllida Lloyd’s Dublin-set drama opens with a restrained depiction of brutal intimate-partner violence casting a long shadow both forward and backward. Backward, because the scene reveals that Gary (Ian Lloyd Anderson) has battered Sandra (co-writer Clare Dunne) often enough to lead to a desperate emergency plan with covert cooperation from the elder of their two young daughters (Molly McCann and Ruby Rose O’Hara). And forward, not only because this attack sets the plot in motion, driving Sandra and her daughters out of the house in pursuit of a life after Gary, but also because PTSD flashbacks to this traumatic turning point recur throughout the film. Sandra’s plight as an underemployed single mother struggling amid Dublin’s housing crisis is far from uncommon, and Herself isn’t the first film to address the issue. What is uncommon is the generosity of a number of people around Sandra offering her a path forward as she battles for her daughters. Exceptional as such a scenario is, it unfolds with emotional persuasiveness. Herself is precisely an inspiring story, not a typical one, of what can happen when a community is willing to go to extraordinary lengths to carry one another’s burdens—what can happen, but too often doesn’t. (Steven D. Greydanus)

Dick Johnson Is Dead **** [U.S. Documentary]  
click to enlarge dickjohnson.jpg

Kristen Johnson's monumental documentary Cameraperson was a remarkable attempt at wrestling meaning and emotion from snippets of footage shot over decades; in some ways, it's a lot easier task wrestling meaning and emotion from this exploration of life and death, family and loss. But that doesn't minimize this stunning work, which begins from a blackly comic premise: As Johnson's octogenarian father Dick shows early signs of dementia, she invites him to participate in filming his own death, and even his afterlife—and he accepts. Johnson pére is a warm and engaging presence, which is part of what could have made this a maudlin exercise; it seems likely that, over the course of the filming, we'll see that personality diminish and fade as his condition worsens. But the director never wallows in pathos, granting us goofy visions of a heaven where Dick can have dinner with Farrah Fawcett and Bruce Lee, and broadly executed versions of Dick's demise. Mostly, it's a story informed by the passing of Kristen Johnson's mother, also from Alzheimer's, and her regret at not having enough of a record of her mother as alert and alive. This feels like a beautiful gift from a daughter to her father, but also to anyone who wants to see an example of caring for an elder parent while granting him dignity and grace. (Scott Renshaw)

Palm Springs *** [U.S. Dramatic]
At the premiere Q&A for this fanciful comedy, director Max Barbakow and screenwriter Andy Siara tried to suggest that their premise was inspired by Groundhog Day, rather than a de facto remake—but I mean, come on. That doesn't mean there isn't plenty of charm and humor in this story set at a Palm Springs destination wedding, where Sarah (Cristin Milioti), the sister of the bride, meets Nyles (Andy Samberg), the boyfriend of one of the bridesmaids—and winds up pulled into the same time loop Nyles has been experiencing for a long time, awakening every morning to that wedding day. It is a solid twist to shift the concept so that someone joins the protagonist on his journey, and needs to play catch-up with how the whole “system” works. The sense of discovery for viewers comes entirely from the jokes the filmmakers can wrestle from the characters' understanding that their actions have no long-term consequences, and both Samberg and Milioti have great fun with that notion. It's a bit less effective at re-creating Groundhog Day's moral arc, especially when there's almost no sense of what specifically Nyles is happy to be escaping from his pre-loop life. Good comedy is hard enough to find that it's okay to realize we've lived through this story before. (SR)

Save Yourselves! **1/2 [U.S. Dramatic] 
click to enlarge Sunita Mani and John Reynolds in Save Yourselves!
  • Sunita Mani and John Reynolds in Save Yourselves!

John Krasinksi’s A Quiet Place made a case for the value of practical hands-on abilities—DIY skills, farming, medicine, firearms—in a sufficiently dire emergency, such as an invasion of predator aliens. Alex Huston Fischer and Eleanor Wilson’s Save Yourselves! takes a comic look at the flip side of this equation: How would a young hipster couple from Brooklyn fare in an alien apocalypse? Jack (John Reynolds) and Su (Sunita Mani) have few discernible skills; Jack even admits to rejecting his father’s traditionally masculine skills, in stark contrast to Krasinski’s capable paterfamilias. The one thing they have going for them is that, like the couple in A Quiet Place, they’re implicitly devoted to one another—even if their screen addiction gets between them in more ways than one. It’s a healthy impulse that moves them to resolve to unplug and spend an entire week in a remote cabin, although their timing couldn’t be worse. An opening title establishes the setting as “the year humankind lost planet Earth,” so we know there’s no Independence Day rally coming. Jack and Su struggle entertainingly to connect with their inner survivalists (along with other dormant instincts) until an out-of-nowhere non-resolution echoing Jack’s attempts to reject “Earth-based categories”—quite unsatisfyingly to this Earth-based organism. (SDG)

Whirlybird *** [U.S. Documentary]

It’s tough not to come at Matt Yoka’s documentary as an almost textbook profile of toxic masculinity manifested as the result of a closeted identity, even as it keeps creeping over to being a simple chronicle of a unique historical moment in news coverage. The central subject is the founders of L.A. News Service, a breaking news operation that began by chasing police scanner calls at street level in the 1980s, before taking to the skies with helicopter footage that became iconic for capturing events like the post-Rodney-King-verdict riots and the O.J. Simpson slow-speed chase. Those founders were a married couple—Bob Tur and Marika Gerrard—but in contemporary interviews we see that Bob has transitioned as transgender, and is now Zoey Tur. That knowledge can’t help but inform audience reaction to much of the archival footage, in which you can often hear the pre-transition Bob constantly verbally abusing Marika off-air, or learn that Bob had a heart attack at 35. And all of that information makes it weird simply to be caught up in reminders of those bizarre national news events they captured. Whirlybird’s two sides are individually fascinating, even if they don’t always quite fit together. (SR)

Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets ***1/2 [U.S. Documentary]
The concept is so simple, it's almost comical: Bill and Turner Ross (Tchoupitoulas, Western) spend 24 hours at a Las Vegas dive bar called Roaring 20s, which also happens to be the last 24 hours before the bar closes its doors for the last time. With their signature observational style, the Ross brothers introduce us to cast of employees and regulars that are as indelible as any fictional creation: Shay, the tough bartender who's also trying to keep an eye on her teen son; David, perpetually looking to get someone to fight him; Pam, who's proud enough of her “60-year-old titties” to show them off; and especially Michael, an ex-actor who for all practical purposes lives at the bar. On one level it is about the way such places become makeshift families for the outcasts and oddballs who congregate there, even as Michael himself tries to dismiss such sentimental notions. It's tempting to say that, while there are plenty of entertaining episodes, not much happens in Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets. That's only if you aren't interested in hanging out with people being their bawdy, authentic, alcohol-fueled selves, or if you think it's “nothing” that all of them will soon be left without one of the few places where they feel safe and accepted. (SR)

The Nowhere Inn ***1/2 [Midnight]  
click to enlarge Annie Clark and Carrie Brownstein in The Nowhere Inn
  • Annie Clark and Carrie Brownstein in The Nowhere Inn

If you’d asked me last week whether St. Vincent was a group, a woman, a duo or what, I’d’ve drawn a blank. But ignorance may make me the ideal viewer for The Nowhere Inn, because I could see a fan thinking it an evasion, and even an insult of fans. While it’s obviously no , both films are I Didn’t Want to Make This Movie: The Movie. It’s right there in the title: a non-place, a post-modern empty signifier. “The Nowhere Inn” also is incredibly funny. Annie Clark stars as (a version of) herself, and Carrie Brownstein of Portlandia plays the director of a tour film being made about St. Vincent, who “wanted people to know who I really am.” Alas, Clark really doesn’t, but Brownstein still has to try. The scenes spoof rock documentaries while playing with elements like horror-film scores and variable frames. The best scenes feature Clark going back home to Texas to see her “family” and Clark goading Brownstein into shooting a sex scene. Both scenes, but especially the sex one, come across as hyper-practiced on Clark’s part and squirm-inducing to Brownstein (tellingly, the sex scene’s blocking doesn’t pander to the audience). Some fans might think Clark has lost sight of what she was doing, though I did not. (VJM)

And Then We Danced **1/2 [Spotlight]
The basic structure of a “coming-out-of-age in a conservative culture” movie is remarkably consistent, so that leaves all of the sense of discovery in the details. And at least some of them are compelling in writer/director Levan Akin’s tale set in the country of Georgia, where two members of a Georgian folk dance troupe—Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani) and Irakli (Bachi Valishvili)—begin a relationship that they’re forced to keep a secret. The focus is mostly on Merab, and how is dawning realization of his sexuality affects his potential professional opportunities and his other relationships, including with his girlfriend (Ana Jakavishvili). Gelbakhiani’s performance is quietly lovely, mostly in the way we see his introverted personality blossom upon finding for the first time what he believes is love. It is hard to avoid the sense of inevitability hanging over the basic story beats, though, which leaves all of the interest in the small grace notes, or getting a sense of what the underground gay community is like in a place where who they are is a crime. While the finale becomes a bold expression of individuality, much of the rest of this narrative doesn’t do a lot to set itself apart. (SR)

Scare Me **1/2 [Midnight]
A minimalist three-hander set in a cabin in the woods, this is a horror(ish)-comedy where the scares, such as they are, come mainly from the imaginations of the characters telling and acting out scary stories for one another, aided by light magical realism (mostly sound effects). Writer-director Josh Ruben stars as an aspiring writer-actor-director named Fred whom we meet enduring an awkwardly chatty female ridesharing driver (Rebecca Drysdale in a brief Melissa McCarthy-esque turn) embarrassingly trying to pitch him an idea for an Old Testament/science-fiction epic. The tables are soon turned, though, when Fred encounters a young woman named Fanny (Aya Cash), an intimidatingly successful and confident genre writer who is so much more inspired than the intimidated Fred that only her continued nettling (and suggestions) goad this mediocre white man to be his scariest. The premise holds both promise and pitfalls, and, while the execution is more successful than not, the film never outdoes Fanny’s first story. The arrival of a disconcertingly game pizza delivery man (Chris Redd) helps for a while, but the finale doesn’t quite deliver; the second half may work best for viewers who have consumed as much pizza and alcohol (not to say cocaine) as the characters. (SDG)

Impetigore ** [Midnight]
Supernatural horror films come with an inevitable need for back-story, but writer/director Joko Anwar’s Indonesian thriller spends so much time on the lore that there’s almost zero time left for the gore. Maya (Tara Basro) is a 25-year-old woman who is attacked at her job by a man who seems to know more about her family history than Maya herself knows. Soon, she and her best friend Dini (Marissa Anita) decide to find out more about that history by visiting the village where Maya was born, and find a dark curse over the place. The nature of that curse unfolds over a pokey 107 minutes, some of it handled with a bit of creative panache but a whole lot of it just dumped out of an exposition bucket. But the bigger problem is that the mythology itself doesn’t make much sense internally, especially leading up to a kicker at the conclusion that feels utterly unconnected to anything. Anwar clearly seems to be inspired by the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, from the basic premise to smaller filmmaking nods, but can’t latch on to the same primal sense of terror, or provide enough creepy shocks, for the visceral moments to transcend Impetigore’s sluggish storytelling. (SR)

About The Author

Scott Renshaw

Scott Renshaw

Scott Renshaw has been a City Weekly staff member since 1999, including assuming the role of primary film critic in 2001 and Arts & Entertainment Editor in 2003. Scott has covered the Sundance Film Festival for 25 years, and provided coverage of local arts including theater, pop-culture conventions, comedy, literature,... more

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