Piers Marchant at Sundance: Day Six

January 25, 2017

Sundance: Day 6

Number of Films: 4
Vibe: Life is Misery

Bad Day for the Cut: Imagine an Irish John Wick, only as a farmer armed only with an old hunting rifle, and who tools around in a red camper van. When one night his mother is murdered at their home, and an attempt is made on his life, Donal (Nigel O’Neill) along with Bartosz (Józef Pawlowski), a young Polish man trying to save his sister from the brutal sex ring she’s been forced into, grabs his rifle and hits the road on a mission of revenge. Big and burly, but hardly trained in combat, Donal nevertheless gets closer and closer to Frankie (Susan Lynch), the female kingpin behind his Ma’s murder. Along the way, he’s badly battered and bruised – director Chris Baugh makes sure to keep his everyman hero readily subject to pain to play up his vulnerability. At its heart, it’s a kind of dark action movie, but one rooted in reality – no motorcycle stunts, or physics denying CGI tomfoolery – just smears of blood, and the sounds of fists hitting faces.

Where is Kyra? Where, indeed? In a film whose tones and shadings are so bleak everyone looks half-hidden in shadow. Michelle Pfeiffer emerges after another long absence (her last released film was in 2013) to star in this unrelentingly grim drama, about poor Kyra, living with her elderly mother in Brooklyn. Downtrodden but resiliant, Kyra keeps gamely trying for jobs, but can never seem to catch a break. When her mother dies, Kyra’s financial situation moves from lousy to cataclysmic. With debts pouring down on her, she hatches a risky scheme to impersonate her mother in order to cash the deceased’s pension checks. Warned against it by her caring boyfriend (Kefer Southerland), she keeps getting pressed further and further down until she sees she has no other choice. It’s a straight bummer, to be sure, but at least director Andrew Dosunmu isn’t hiding the ball; from the film’s first depressing shot of an old woman walking haltingly down a grey, garbage strewn street, you know what you’re in for.

Beach Rats: Director Eliza Hittman certainly has identified her niche subject: The scattered, drugged up teens who live in deep Brooklyn. As with her first film, It Felt Like Love, she shows a deft touch with her young actors and captures their restless, if often disaffected, spirit. Here, the subject is Frankie (Harris Dickinson), an extraordinarily good-looking kid, who does little more than hang out with his meathead friends and get high. Thing is, he’s also beginning to question his sexuality, an issue that comes to a head, as it were, when he starts a relationship with a young woman (Madeline Weinstein), whom he can barely feel attraction to. Instead, he starts cruising male pick-up sites, and meeting strangers surreptitiously for quick sex. Conflicted to the end, the (mostly) unlikable Frankie eventually finds a way to include his wildly homophobic friends with an encounter, with predictably horrific results. Dickinson, a Brit, it turns out, is quite a find: He takes a fairly loathsome, narcissistic character and gives him enough of an inner sense of conflict to at least make him palatable.

Beatriz at Dinner: With it’s straight comedic set-up – a L.A.-based holistic masseuse and Earth mother (Selma Hayek) is pressed to attend a party set up by one of her enormously wealthy clients, who includes on the guest list Doug Strutt (John Lithgow), a Trump-type blowhard, who does nothing but plunder the earth for his ill-gotten gains – you might imagine a series of fish-out-of-water gags, with class humor thrown in for good measure. This is not that film. As written by Mike White – the undisputed master of the tragic, feel-bad comedy – poor Beatriz has to suffer these devils, who have just completed a massive deal that will clear yet more pristine land for a shopping mall, with her kindly disposition. In one scene, as Strutt proudly displays a photo of his posing with a rhino he’s just shot and killed, Beatriz finally loses her manners, and whips his phone at him. We shift into awkward social drama, at that point, with Beatriz, still sad from the wrongful death of one of her pet goats earlier in the week, weighing her response to this kind of scourge. Fantastic performances from both Hayek and Lithgow raise the film to moving levels.

Tomorrow: We’re in the winding down phase of things now, but on my last full day of Sundance sundancery I plan on a pretty full slate. First up, The Discovery, a sci-fi thriller that sounds kind of like a radically updated version of Flatliners; next, Sami Blood, a very intriguing Sweedish film involving a program in the ‘30s in which young children were forced into boarding schools and indoctrinated in Swedish culture; after that, things get a bit more tentative, I suppose I’ll have to give Brigsby Bear, a very strange sounding comedy involving yet another man-child and the difficulty he has assimilating into mainstream culture; closing out the fest, I might go with Rebel in the Rye, a sort of J.D. Salinger bio-pic, though I will likely have an itchy trigger finger with that one.

Photo from Bad Day For the Cut

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