Sundance 2020 Review Round Up
Sundance is finally over! And while I didn't see as many movies as I did last year (my personal record of 22), I still managed to see quite a few. Here's my yearly roundup of what I saw listed, from best to worst.
Nine Days follows the deliberations of an individual named Will who is tasked with interviewing souls for the opportunity to come to earth, be born and being able to live a life. Each day, he sits in a room and watches video tapes of previous souls he picked to analyze whether or not they made the most of their chance so that he can better identify qualities in people that will make them the most fit for the challenges of earth. Nine Days is a beautiful celebration of life and the opportunity we have every day to be alive. It's a movie that might require a bit of patience on your part, but the beauty it offers is well worth it.
It was a miracle I was finally able to get into Palm Springs because this seemed to be the movie that was destined to elude me all festival (much like another Sundance rom-com, The Big Sick.) I kept an eye on its reviews all festival and was disappointed to hear early on that it followed a Groundhog Day type formula of being centered around a time loop. While I think the concept has been able to successfully work in other films (see Edge of Tomorrow and to a lesser extent Happy Death Day), I have to admit some of the air was let out of my sails when it seemed this movie would be a lot less original than I hoped. Luckily, the film doesn't play like a total retread of Groundhog Day at all, but rather more of a spiritual sequel to it. We don't see Andy Samberg's character, Nyles, discover he's in a loop, rather he's already been infinitely lost into the same day at a destination wedding in Palm Springs for some time. What changes the game for him though, is when he unwittingly gets Sarah, the maid of honor and sister of the bride, stuck in the same time loop along with him. Having someone to go through each day with him makes his life worth living again, but for Sarah she's forced to keep reliving the worst day of her life over and over and wants out. Palm Springs works because they play the gags to their advantage, but also because of the fantastic chemistry between Samberg and Milioti. Samberg is his reliable comedic self, but Milioti gives her character real depth and range; she's a joy to watch. Also JK Simmons shows up here and there to provide some great comedic support and weight to the film as well. RATING: 8.5/10
Promising Young Woman
Promising Young Woman follows the story of Cassie, a woman who has squandered much of the potential of her life due to a tragedy she experienced in college. Now she has become a vigilante of sorts, teaching men dangerous lessons each night about consent by any means necessary. I knew to expect something really dark with Promising Young Woman, but what I didn't expect was for it to be as darkly hilarious as it was. It was almost oddly off-putting hearing so many people laugh at such dangerous situations and themes early on, but the movie walks a tightrope line balancing the darkness and humor with ease. Carey Mulligan is an incredibly talented actress and gives arguably one of her best performances here (though I may still give the edge to another past Sundance role in Wildlife), and you just can't take your eyes off her. I didn't always know if everything in this movie worked, but then little by little, more reveals would happen and for me it was exactly the movie it needed to be. The ending really sells it for me, though I recognize it might not work for everyone.
The Night House
Soon after her husband commits suicide, Beth (Rebecca Hall) begins to be haunted nightly in the house he built for her. She begins to look deeper into the events that led up to his death and discovers a whole new side to her husband that she had no idea existed. Each year, Sundance finds at least one great horror movie, and for my money, this is the one for 2020. While it's not the masterpiece that is Hereditary, or even quite as strong as last year's The Lodge, Rebecca Hall makes The Night House stand out among the pack of horror films at this years 'dance. The final act is a bit rushed and it was the one movie this year I saw where I actually wish it was a bit longer, but everything that leads up to its finale is great. I can't wait to see it again.
Going into Shirley, I expected a somewhat traditional, by-the-numbers biopic of acclaimed novelist Shirley Jackson. What the movie gave me was much more along the lines of Shakespeare in Love, where it focuses on the creation and inspiration behind a singular piece of work. When we meet Shirley, we are introduced to a recluse who hasn't left her home in months. Her husband (Michael Stuhlbarg), is a professor at the local university, who has agreed to take a young couple into their home with the purpose of easing both of their burdens. In exchange, the young husband (Logan Lerman) will serve as an assistant to the professor, while the wife (Odessa Young) cooks and cleans for Shirley. After a rocky start with the wife, Shirley develops a bond with her that inspires her writing. This wasn't a stuffy period piece like I expected, but often reminded me of the freshness of another Sundance alum Brooklyn.
In His House, a refugee couple move to London to escape the horrors of their home in South Sudan. They are placed in a home that they soon discover is haunted with the ghosts of their past, but unfortunately for them, if they attempt to leave their residence they'll have to face the legal consequences...leaving them forced to make the best out of an impossible situation. This movie contains probably the most effective scares of any movie this year at Sundance, but also narratively wasn't one of the stronger horror offerings. Between the amazing scares, I found myself a little bored and felt that that they weren't ever able to increase the tension (partially because the movie was SO scary SO early on). Sadly, because it fails to raise the stakes, I found I wasn't ever really invested in either of the characters. A reveal near the climax of the film is excellent, but I wish had been built towards more throughout the movie, and as for the ending, I wasn't totally sold. Still I have to give it credit for how scary it was because the movie definitely brought the goods.
A young woman named Maya, accompanied by her best friend, Dini, returns to the village where she was born because she learns she has a claim to a large inheritance that will make all her problems go away. Little does she know, that village happens to be cursed because of the mistakes of her family, and the villagers there are willing to resolve the curse by any means necessary. Impetigore actually has the opposite problems of His House. This film had a really compelling horror story and it unfolded in a way that always kept my interest, but unfortunately, its scares (aside from its excellent opening,) were not up to par and you could see them all coming a mile away. It builds a great lore for itself that's really fun to be immersed in, but it never achieves the goal of actually scaring you or filling you with much tension. RATING: 7/10
In Relic, Emily Mortimer stars as Kay, a woman who comes to check on her mother Edna, (a chilling Robyn Nevin), after she disappears in her own house. Accompanied by her own daughter, Sam (Bella Heathcote), they discover that Edna isn't acting quite like herself. This horror was a slow burn to the point of frustration. I caught a midnight screening of this film and fell asleep pretty frequently that I ended up unintentionally self-editing the movie to be much quicker paced than the film my companions saw. I wasn't quite as frustrated with the lack of scares because the ending was a pretty great payoff, but can also understand that it was a little bit too little too late. If only there were more scares to even the film out during the rest of the run time, this one would have been a lot more effective. Still, I kind of dig the metaphor the film is going for, which reminds me a lot of The Babdook, though it doesn't pull it off as well as that film does. RATING: 6.5/10
Determined to get a vacation from their devices, millennial couple Jack and Su go on a vacation to a remote cabin to disconnect from their devices and reconnect with each other. Little do they know, an alien invasion is headed into town just as they're turning themselves away from technology. Save Yourselves starts out incredibly strong. I was laughing so hard and totally connecting with the characters, but after awhile the film kinda becomes aimless and doesn't quite know what to do with itself. You start to really feel the length by the end and it's hard not to feel frustrated when it totally meanders near its head scratching finale. It's a shame because the two leads are great and so much fun to watch. RATING: 6/10
Kajillionaire is about a couple who raised their awkward daughter, Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood), not as their own child, but rather an accomplice in their own petty cons. Old Dolio (yes that's her full name) is practically a feral human being who has no idea how to interact normally with the rest of the world. Her life gets turned upside down when her parents become taken with an outsider they meet on one of their cons who they then try to incorporate into their schemes. Old Dolio is forced to confront some of her emotional baggage towards her parents and whether or not this way of life is what she wants for herself. The best thing about the movie is undoubtedly the cast. Evan Rachel Wood is quite good in this role and physically transforms herself into an entirely different person as Old Dolio. Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger as her parents, and Gina Rodriguez as Melanie (the outsider) also turn in really great performances as well. The movie itself is your typical Sundance indie where it’s understated to the point that it kinda hinders your interest in the story on the screen. There’s some interesting themes going on here for sure, but it’s hard to imagine myself ever rewatching it or having it stay with me for long.
Two horror writers, one professional (Aya Cash) and one amateur (Josh Ruben) meet one fateful night when the power goes out in the neighboring cabins they both happened to rent to focus on their writing. To pass the time, the two take turns telling scary stories trying to discover which one of them is the better storyteller. I was so excited for this movie because I think the concept is fantastic, and I was really interested to see which way they'd go with the movie because I knew it had potential to be both comedic and horrific. Unfortunately, I felt they leaned too hard into the comedic side while ignoring all the potential with the horror elements (except to throw it in at the very last moment because they realized the movie needed to be more than just an improv show). I know it's not fair to review a movie on what it could be, however...if the film had focused much more on the two characters as we get to peel back the layers of who each of them really are to reveal their own past horrors, it would have been a more character-driven film that would have been so great. Instead, our characters Fanny and Fred are insufferable stereotypes that are pretty hard to invest in. A fragile male ego vs. an all too woke feminist to the extreme (basically the type of obnoxious people I encounter on Twitter every day) neither of whom are too much fun to spend the time with. More depth and fewer platitudes would have made this movie great. Unfortunately, while I had fun with the movie, it's ultimately a great concept that was squandered. RATING: 5/10
Tesla is told from the perspective of the daughter of one of Nikola Tesla's biggest benefactors, Anna Morgan, daughter of JP Morgan. Anna is in love with Tesla and admires his genius. She supplies us with facts about his life and everyone else who shows up in the story. Tesla is so mind numbingly dull, but tries to set itself apart by unconventional means like breaking the fourth wall, making contemporary references and using backdrops in lieu of actual sets in a number of scenes. Unfortunately, it's all style and no substance as the story (or lack of one) just bored me to tears. It's a shame, because the performances here by Ethan Hawke and Kyle MacLachlan as Edison, in particular, actually are good and deserve to be in a movie that focuses on their rivalry.