Piers Marchant at Sundance Day Four

January 27, 2020

Sundance 2020: Day 4


Number of Films: 5
Best Film of the Day: Bloody Noses, Empty Pockets

Promising Young Woman: It would certainly make sense that the world would be ready (and awaiting) a revenge thriller in the #metoo era. Unfortunately, this peculiar mish-mash of a film has far too many abrupt tonal shifts — more like a fly zipping around an outdoor picnic — to keep itself together. Carey Mulligan plays Cassandra, a young woman with a traumatic past, who seeks revenge against piggish men by posing as black-out drunk at clubs, going home with one hoping to score, only to turn the tables on them when given the chance. What she actually does to them is strangely vague (in the film’s opening sequence she dispatches Adam Brody’s character in a way that leaves blood spatters on her blouse — but we find out later he’s apparently fine), as is her exact motive, for a time. More confusingly, writer/director Emerald Finnel veers wildly in tone from one moment to the next: One minute, it’s a sweet romantic comedy; the next, a dramatic revenge thriller; before shifting to an archly satiric social commentary, all jumbled up into an unwieldy collage. In one crucial, dramatic scene, a character admits to her wrongdoing, but does so in a living room so notably gouache, with pink carpeting and frilly furniture, the characters actually acknowledge the weirdness of the setting to one another. The plot, which involves several unlikely convolutions, too often works against itself, all the way to a supremely unbelievable (if satisfying) ending. Milligan is strong, and the chemistry she shares with Bo Burnham, as a potential real love interest, is sparkly, but its tonal ambiguity eventually does it in. 

Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets: Filming the last day and night of a dingy, hole-in-the-wall bar in Las Vegas, the Brothers Moss imbibe their neo-doc appropriately enough with a distinct ‘70s vibe, in keeping with both many of the clientele themselves, some of whom display a post-hippie vibe, and the concept itself, which plays like something out of Cassavettes joint. We start at the beginning of the day, as Michael, the bar’s chief barfly, is woken up from the counter, goes to shave in the bathroom, and again takes his customary seat at the bar. For the day shift, he’s being served by the genial bear of a bartender, who has a surprisingly good singing voice on those occasions where he is inspired to pick up his guitar and croon. Shortly thereafter, Michael is joined by a bevy of the other regulars, including Pete, a sweet-faced man with a long pony-tail and many stories of past relationships; John, a large Aussie, who bring a heavy, mysterious paper bag with him and tells the bartender to hide it for him. There’s also a former military grunt who gets mildly belligerent, a smattering of younger people who saunter in, and a host of others, at various levels of decay. As the day progresses, and the sweetly fierce Shay comes in to tend bar on the last night, the clients get more and more soused, and things turn drunkenly chaotic. Amidst numerous confessions, admissions, and exhortations off the clientele being “family,” a claim the saucy Michael instantly refutes (“we’re bar friends,” he says sternly, “not family”), the cameras capture the anarchic spirit of the place, even as it exposes the fissures in the nature of their relationships. Michael, the bar’s patron saint and conscience, seems to best crystallize this dichotomy: When he finally does shuffle off the next morning he does it with zero fanfare, as if no longer having to maintain the illusion that the place is anything other than a sad, dilapidated wreck, where patrons get to shut off their minds from whatever pains have driven them there. 

The Nowhere Inn: Carrie Brownstein, of both Sleater-Kinney, and “Portlandia” fame, has a penchant for slightly oddball riffs; Anne Clarke, aka St. Vincent, is known for many things, none of them personal, details she protects vigorously. The “documentary” they have made together, along with director Bill Benz, then, is somewhat predictably a mash-up of concert footage (albeit limited), set-up scenes with Brownstein attempting and failing to make a doc of her own, and creative flights of fancy that half play like sketch comedy bits. It’s certainly interesting, concerning itself with issues of performative identity and audience expectation  —  including, naturally, the film audience  —  but I found myself less than enthralled with these various manipulations. I understand all documentaries, even ones that purport to be straightforward, are still formulations, but by the end of this one, not only have we not learned much new about the pair, it’s possible we know even less.

The Nest: It has been 12 long years since Sean Durkin has made a feature film. His debut, the brilliant Martha Marcy May Marlene, earned him richly deserved praise, so this was one of the films most anticipated by critics at the festival. He does not disappoint. The film is an exceedingly slow burn concerning wealthy commodities trader, Rory (Jude Law), his wife, Allison (Carrie Coon), a horse trainer, and their two children, as he moves them from a comfortable life in New York, to a huge English mansion outside London. Shrewd and successful, Rory is still moving too fast for his own good, a fact that puts tremendous strain on his familial relationships. Played as it is, a bit like a monsterless horror film  —  the actual horror being our own alienation from ourselves, as well as the people we love most  —  Durkin’s careful, precise filmmaking, and attention to character detail, really pays off in the later scenes. Law is brilliant, as per usual, and Coon is a bloody revelation. Ironically, it’s a film that the hyper, inattentive Rory wouldn’t have been able to sit through. 

Downhill: Well, we knew this was coming the second this film, an American remake of the remarkable Ruben Ostlund helmed Force Majeure, was announced. Ostlund’s film, about a family on a ski trip in the Alps, where the hapless husband flees for his life when a controlled avalanche seems to head straight for them, deserting his wife and children in the process, is all about the subtle mechanics of interpersonal relationships, and the lies we are forced into believing about ourselves. This film, from comic team Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, eschews many of these delicate details to focus on a more broad comic premise. True to form, Farrell plays his character without genuine delusion  —  unlike the original, it’s clear to him from the start that he ran from his family, and doesn’t really try to believe otherwise  —  which makes his denial far less palpable. Meanwhile, they have added in various bits to generate enough plot momentum to carry through to the finish, some of which seem to counter the film’s very premise. There are some funny bits, and enough of the original is kept in place to keep it at least mildly provocative, but everyone is still vastly better off watching the original instead. 

Tomorrow: A little bit of a mix-n-match type thing: We will likely begin with the comedy Palm Springs; then switch to horror for Amulet; and take in Assassins for a lighter day. 

Into the frigid climes and rarefied thin air of the spectacular Utah Mountains, I’ve arrived in order to document some of the sense and senselessness of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Over the next week, armed with little more than a heavy parka and a bevy of blank reporter’s notebooks, I’ll endeavor to watch as many movies as I can and report my findings. 9:12AM  |   URL:  https://tmblr.co/Z52bPy2nQQYZx
(view comments)  (Notes: 6)  FILED UNDER: Sweet smell of successssospiers marchantfilmsmoviessundance 2020park citybloody nose empty pocketsdownhilljulia louis dreyfuswill farrellpromising young womancarey mulliganthe nestjude lawcarrie coonsean durkinthe nowhere inncarrie brownsteinanne clarkst. vincentarkansas democrat gazette

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