THE WOMAN IN THE HOUSE ACROSS THE STREET FROM THE GIRL IN THE WINDOW -- A Mystery with Twists and Turns No One Would See Coming
Review by Dan Skip Allen
There is something to be said for an understated role in a movie. They don't have to be big and loud and boisterous to be effective. A more subtle performance can go a long way at times. Tim Roth gives a very subtle performance in Sundown that anchors this film.
Tim Roth plays a man who is vacationing in Acapulco, Mexico with his family when his sister (Charlotte Gainsbourg) gets a phone call about a tragedy in the family. She decides to pack up her things and get the kids and get on a plane and go back home very quickly. When it's time to get on the plane, Roth's character makes up a story about forgetting his passport at the hotel. He ends up not getting on the plane with his family.
Sundown has a main character that is very quiet and doesn't say much. Even when people are yelling incessantly at him, he remains very calm and collected. Roth's performance owes a lot to the script because the script, written by Michael Franco, who is also the director of the film, makes Roth's character very mysterious because he doesn't say much. His lack of speaking creates tension in the film which in turn makes all that drama that happens all the most powerful.
It's not a spoiler to say Roth's character is having a midlife crisis and many men his age such as myself can relate in a way. He is just sick of the family drama his sister, Gainsbourg, creates. He falls in love with a local woman and pretty much all they do is sit by the ocean and watch the waves go back and forth and people watch. He also makes friends with a local cab driver. Money, which he has, can buy you this freedom. Most people don't have this luxury.
Michel Franco tried to put the viewer such as myself into the shoes of this man, but it's not that easy. He just forgets his family and stays in sunny Acapulco and shacks up with this local woman in a hotel. That is not very admirable. Sure we all have problems in life, but we can't just abandon our families in crisis and vacation just because we want to forget everything and everybody. This man is very shallow in that regard. Even though (to some extent) I'm empathetic to his cause, it's not right.
Franco does a few things right with this film and one of those is its runtime. This is a quick eighty-three minutes. It doesn't drag this sad story out for a very long time. It gets to the point of the story and has resolutions for its characters. The acting by all is very serviceable, especially Roth and Gainsbourg. The look of the film is very nice as well. How could you make Acapulco look very bad?
Sundown has some admirable qualities to it. The acting is good and the look of the film is beautiful. The runtime is a plus so the film doesn't drag out the somber story. The overall story is the problem with the film. Some people may relate to this aging man going through a midlife crisis. I didn't though because the fact that he had money and he does whatever he wants isn't very realistic to people such as myself. Most people aren't independently wealthy like him. Most people struggle to make ends meet and that is why they have mental illnesses, marital problems, or even work problems. Money doesn't solve all problems in the world, it just makes them.
Sundown hits theaters on January 28.
Review by Sean Boelman
Sundance likes to feature documentaries with stories that are so weird they must be true, and that film this year is My Old School. An unpredictable and fun ride, the movie makes something unexpectedly compelling out of a story that is ultimately at a much smaller scale than it presents itself to be.
The film explores the story of a teenage boy who, after achieving unexpected popularity as the new kid in school, is discovered to have committed an extraordinary ruse. At first, one may wonder why they should actually care about this story, but it’s easy to get invested in this tale that is stranger than fiction.
There is definitely a sense of humor about the whole thing given the ridiculousness of the premise. Jono McLeod thankfully doesn’t take the whole thing too seriously, refusing to approach it as an exposé and instead presents it as this crazy communal experience that all of them had.
At a few points in the movie, it seems like McLeod is going to use this story of a case study as to how the system was such a failure and led to these events, but the film soon pivots back to being a lighthearted (albeit piteous) recollection. And it’s actually refreshing to see a movie that knows what it is and not make too big of a deal out of itself.
The film’s director was enrolled at the school where the events depicted in the movie occurred, and so for better or worse, it has that personal feeling to it. McLeod recruited several of his former classmates and teachers to give talking heads in the film, and they have a surprising amount of personality given that they are effectively showing a bunch of old friends reminiscing about their high school years.
Even more interesting is the fact that McLeod uses actor Alan Cumming as a stand-in for the movie’s subject. Although the subject wouldn’t appear on camera, he agreed to be interviewed, so McLeod has Cumming lip sync the audio of the interview. It’s an intriguing method that is really creative, even if it doesn’t have much of an effect on the story itself (positive or negative).
There are also many animated sequences (with animation reminiscent of the television show Daria) that are used to illustrate the story in the past as opposed to traditional reenactments. It gives the film an infectiously fun atmosphere, especially when compounded with the great soundtrack.
My Old School may not be one of the more hard-hitting documentaries in this year’s festival, but that doesn’t make it any less worthy of your time. It’s just an enjoyable movie which realizes what is compelling about its story in the first place, and makes the most of that.
My Old School screened at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, which runs virtually January 20-30.
[Sundance 2022] THE COW WHO SANG A SONG INTO THE FUTURE -- A Profound Character Study with an Environmentalist Message
Review by Sean Boelman
Sundance’s World Cinema Dramatic competition is always a great place to find budding voices in international filmmaking, and The Cow Who Sang a Song Into the Future director Francisca Alegria is one of the greatest discoveries of this year’s festival. This is definitely an idiosyncratic film, but it thrives in its ambition.
The movie follows a woman who returns to her family’s farm for a family emergency when, in the wake of a local environmental disaster, her long-deceased mother suddenly and mysteriously returns. It’s a premise that is undeniably far-fetched, but Alegria doesn’t lean too hard into the genre elements, instead focusing more on the family drama and the human side of things.
There is almost a hypnotic feel to the film, brought about both by its visuals and its tone. Of course, there is a dreamlike feel to the magical realism in the movie, and this is a majority of the film’s atmosphere. It’s fanciful in a way that contrasts nicely with the forlorn subject matter that the movie explores.
One of the most interesting parts of the film is its context. There is a very clear and powerful environmentalist message here, but Alegria manages to not make it feel heavy-handed. The social commentary of the movie is integrated very smoothly thanks to how fundamentally connected it is to the premise.
The film also does a great job of exploring its subplots and supporting characters. The movie explores how each of the members of the family is affected by these strange occurrences, and it really creates an emotional investment with each of them involved. The film tackles a lot of issues, but not overwhelmingly so.
Leonor Varela does an extraordinary job in her leading role, with a turn that is fittingly quiet and subtle. It’s a movie that really thrives in the interiority of its characters, and Varela emphasizes that quality quite well. Mía Maestro is also exceptional here, breathing an unexpected and refreshing life into her character.
This is also just a gorgeous film to look at. The cinematography by Inti Briones is stunning. The movie takes these plot elements that are typically associated with eco-horror and uses them to create something a bit more understated and human, changing the execution to go along with it to create something more alluring than disturbing.
The Cow Who Sang a Song Into the Future is a wonderful film, and while there are a lot of moving parts, they come together harmoniously. Francisca Alegria is clearly very talented, and it will be exciting to see what she does in the future.
The Cow Who Sang a Song Into the Future is screening at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, which runs virtually January 20-30.
Review by Sean Boelman
When it came time to submit a film for the Academy Award for Best International Feature, France got it down to three options: the Palme d’Or-winning Titane, the Golden Lion-winning Happening, and Céline Sciamma’s Petite Maman. And while the former ended up with the submission, Audrey Diwan’s Happening is without a doubt the best of the bunch.
The movie tells the story of a bright student in France in the 1960s who is forced to seek out an illegal abortion when she unexpectedly gets pregnant. Films like this have become a subgenre of their own in recent years — Never Rarely Sometimes Always and Unpregnant being the most mainstream examples — but Diwan’s movie is perhaps the most harrowing of them all.
Much of the film plays out like a thriller, as the protagonist struggles to find the medical treatment she needs before it is too late. And the movie does feature some shockingly graphic depictions of some of the processes involved, but this is part of what makes the impact of the film so visceral.
Of course, the political aspects of the movie are strikingly relevant even though it is set in France in the 1960s. It’s horribly depressing to see what this character is going through, especially as many young women are facing similar issues in our own country today. And the screenplay pulls no punches in terms of skewering the system that caused these events to take place.
The film is based on Annie Ernaux’s novel, which is in part inspired by her own experiences. And the movie maintains that feeling of intimacy and honesty that comes with a semi-autobiographical work, making the emotion of the film resonate all the more deeply. The movie will leave viewers feeling absolutely shaken.
Anamaria Vartolomei’s performance is absolutely stunning. The amount of vulnerability that she brings to the role is just captivating. If there were any justice, she would be in the conversation for awards, but international performances often only break out from the showier pictures. But that does not reflect the incredible strength of her turn.
The film is also extraordinarily well-shot. The crisp cinematography is often absolutely gorgeous, and creates a feeling of warmth in the first act, only for everything to be ripped away in the rest of the movie and replaced with some of the most disturbing images there are to see. This feels like a film made by a filmmaker who has been working for years, not a sophomore effort.
Happening is without a doubt going to stick with viewers long after they finish watching it. Although the movie does feature some very graphic imagery, it is used effectively and does not feel cheap or manipulative in any way.
Happening screened at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, which runs virtually January 20-30.
Review by Sean Boelman
One of the biggest acquisitions before Sundance even began was when Searchlight and Hulu picked up Fresh from the midnight section. A fun and wild ride, Mimi Cave’s film is the type of film that is best experienced without knowing anything going in, but it’s attempts at subversiveness are sometimes a bit too much for its own good.
The film follows a young woman who, after finding herself frustrated with modern dating, meets a handsome and charming man and enters into a relationship with him that might be too good to be true. Ultimately, the film does use its unexpected twists as a bit of a crutch, and so while they are effective, it doesn’t have the substance to back up the gimmick.
The film definitely is a lot of fun to watch. Even though the first act isn’t as intense as the remaining two thirds, it still sets up that fun atmosphere. It strikes a great balance between the humor and dread, which will make the viewer laugh with a feeling of discomfort for a majority of the runtime.
There are some interesting things to be said in the film about modern dating and the commoditization of women’s bodies. Yet even though both themes are connected, it feels like the film is trying to juggle too many ideas. There is a lot of dialogue that is really on-the-nose, although the script is quite witty.
The character development in the film is solid but it devolves into archetypes by the end of the film. It is easy to get behind the protagonist, and her love interest is written in a slyly charming way. However, it is the dynamic between the two characters that really drives the narrative forward.
Sebastian Stan gives the performance of his career in his role, and he single-handedly carries the film. Yes, there are a lot of solid things happening around him, but he is the only element of the film that nears greatness. Daisy Edgar-Jones is also good, but she is frequently overshadowed by Stan.
The film also has a killer aesthetic. For it being Cave’s directorial debut, the film is surprisingly confident in its style. It’s a sleek film, and while the subject would typically lend itself to something campy, Cave avoids that pitfall. Instead, the inspired soundtrack and great cinematography by Pawel Pogorzeiski give the film a stylish feel.
Fresh has a strong concept, a good performance, and solid visuals working for it, but these elements don’t always come together. It’s not a bad time by any means, but it doesn’t fully deliver on its potential.
Fresh screened at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, which runs virtually January 20-30.
Review by Sean Boelman
As his follow-up to The Art of Self-Defense, Riley Stearns has made another pitch-black deadpan comedy, albeit with an even more ambitious concept. Dryly hilarious and delivering on its insane concept, the coldness of Dual may be off-putting to some, but will resonate with those who get on its idiosyncratic wavelength.
The film follows a woman who, after discovering that she has a terminal illness, gets herself cloned only to miraculously recover, and then must fight her clone in a duel to the death to decide which one of them gets to continue living. It’s a wild, sci-fi premise, but the thing about Stearns’s film is that it doesn’t feel too futuristic or exaggerated.
In line with the title, there is a bit of a duality in the film between the comedic and action-oriented portions. There’s definitely a dark, twisted sense of humor to the entire project, but there are some portions in which the film just embraces its zaniness, and those are some of the best parts. But Stearns also does a good job of building suspense, setting the stage for what is to come.
The film’s commentary may not be as profound as that of Stearns’s previous films, but there are still some really compelling things going on in the script. The observations that the film has on connecting with one another and oneself may not be the most original or profound, but they still have quite an impact.
One of the most impressive things about Stearns’s script is how he is able to build these two central protagonists so well. He does a phenomenal job of writing them in a way that feels close enough to be connected, yet still entirely distinct from one another. And the viewer will sympathize with both of them equally, which allows the film to have even more of an impact.
Karen Gillan isn’t known for having the most emotional nuance in her performance, but she is a perfect match for Riley Stearns. The director’s characteristically dry style matches with the fact that Gillan’s delivery is typically flat. As a result, the performance feels much more complex than it may have even been intended.
And despite the fact that the premise is very much science fiction, the film doesn’t feel all that futuristic. It’s a very restrained film within the genre, with much of the film’s creativity coming out in terms of the script and the opening scene. It’s not as action-packed as one might expect with the premise, but the action it does have is very effective (and funny).
Dual is exactly what fans of Riley Stearns’s last movie are hoping for. It’s the same style of humor, but at a slightly larger scale and perhaps a bit more subtlety with the way it explores its themes.
Dual screened at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, which runs January 20-30.
Review by Sean Boelman
Chase Joynt’s feature debut No Ordinary Man debuted at TIFF in 2020, and explored the issue of trans history through the context of modern interpretation of trans identity. And while his second feature Framing Agnes is similar in context and form, it is even more compelling in its approach.
The film follows the experiences of six subjects from the UCLA gender clinic in the 1950s, many of whose stories have previously been untold. It’s a really interesting way of connecting some of these stories that are already historically significant with those that should be as well as the experiences of trans individuals today.
To tell these stories, Joynt sets up a series of reenactments in the form of talk show interviews. And while this does give these portions of the movie a very scripted feel, they feel very genuine, and the talking head interviews are so authentic and intimate that it hardly distracts from the topic at hand.
The film does a very good job of making the audience empathize with these case studies even though many of them have to this point gone down in anonymity in LGBTQ history. Although Joynt clearly wants to explore how these stories were representative of the trans community as a whole, he is also interested in them as individuals, which really helps the movie to connect even more deeply.
However, the arguably more interesting angle that the film offers is that of the actors who are portraying these historical figures in the reenactments. Joynt interviews them after their reenactments, and they discuss the ways in which they relate to the experiences of the person they portrayed. It gives the movie an even more personal touch.
The issue of trans healthcare is something that is definitely very important and timely, especially given that there have been some significant political controversies to arise recently. Joynt explores the topic in a way that is genuinely enlightening and insightful, yet without feeling like it is overtly political in nature.
There is also some interesting commentary here about the way in which the media tends to otherize the trans experience. A portion of the film discusses how talk shows like the ones emulated by the reenactments took advantage of trans trauma for the sake of entertainment, which is something that really needs to be called out.
Framing Agnes definitely feels like an evolution of Chase Joynt’s style after his already impressive feature debut. It’s a really interesting approach to documentary filmmaking that offers a necessary look at LGBTQ history.
Framing Agnes screened at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, which runs January 20-30.
Review by Sean Boelman
Festival midnight sections are generally most known for horror and camp, but every festival tends to have that one film that is more a twisted thriller than anything. The Danish movie Speak No Evil fills that niche this year, a simple but demented film that gets its message across in a brutally direct way.
The movie follows a Danish family who befriends a dutch family on vacation and later travels to their remote cabin for a seemingly idyllic getaway, only to discover that the people they are staying with might not be who they thought they were. It’s not a very original premise by any means, but the way director Christian Tafdrup executes it is shocking and effective.
Ultimately, much of the film is spent building up to the final act, which delivers on the violent catharsis that the Sundance trigger warning promises. Yet even though the first hour of the movie is extremely tame (especially for midnight section standards), there’s this palpable sense of tension about the whole thing.
The film is about as subtle as a jackhammer with its messaging, but it’s not too horribly distracting. The way in which writers Christian and Mads Tafdrup explore Danish-Dutch relations is quite interesting, and not a topic that is frequently explored in movies that make it to a global scale. On the other hand, the messages about human nature aren’t as intriguing.
Perhaps the thing that allows the Tafdrups’ script to work so well is that it gets us invested in the characters early on. The first thirty minutes trap the viewer with a false sense of security by playing like a hangout film before things start to seem a bit off. And when things start to go south, viewers will find their imaginations exaggerating things because of their previous notions.
Of course, great character work is nothing without a talented ensemble bringing the roles to life, and all four lead actors are exceptional. Morten Burian, Sidsel Siem Koch, Fredja van Huêt, and Karina Smulders all have tremendous chemistry with one another, but it is van Huêt who is likely to have the most lingering impact with his slyly sinister performance.
The movie is also absolutely gorgeous in a visual sense. There are a lot of really beautifully composed shots, even when there is some really horrifying brutality involved. This creates an interesting feeling of discomfort and builds that atmosphere of uneasiness which is so central to the film’s success.
The substance in Speak No Evil is minimal, and what it does have to say is said very clearly, but it’s a very well-crafted movie for what it is. In terms of festival midnight movies meant to be taken seriously, it ranks pretty highly.
Speak No Evil screened at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, which runs virtually from January 20-30.
Review by Sean Boelman
It can be a difficult line to toy when a film takes a devastation real-life event and uses it as the background for a movie that explores its greater context. With Klondike, Marynaa Er Gorbach does so wonderfully, using tragedy to spin a crushing tale of loss and struggle in a time of international crisis.
The film follows a family living near the border of Russia and Ukraine as the threat of armed conflict draws ever nearer and the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 incident happens in their village. Although the focus of the movie is more on the conflict that caused the incident and the toll that this hostility takes on this family, using this catastrophe as an adjacent plot point taps into viewers’ memories to create an affecting mood.
This is a slow drama, lingering on the ways in which this family’s life is slowly falling apart, but it’s a ticking time bomb. It’s clear that it is only a matter of time before everything explodes, yet even though you know what is coming, it’s still horribly depressing when it does actually happen. This isn’t the type of film that leaves you feeling warm and fuzzy inside.
However, the movie does struggle with being slightly vague in terms of what it wants to say. It’s clearly exploring how the characters are torn between what they believe in politically and what they have to do for their own safety, and the film does deserve points for not being heavy-handed with it. Still, the occasional meandering does cause Gorbach’s script to lose track of what it is trying to do at times.
The way in which these characters are written is very precise and does an excellent job of getting the audience to connect with their story. The first scene of the movie is one of the most effective and impactful, and immediately gets us invested. And even though what we are watching may seem mundane, it still resonates quite deeply.
Oxana Cherkashyna’s performance will go down as one of the most impressive of the festival. What she is able to accomplish from an emotional standpoint using only the most basic of mannerisms is thoroughly impressive. And the final moments of the film are just haunting, largely thanks to what she does with the role.
This is a very bleak movie, both visually and formally, but Gorbach does so in a way that is not oppressive. There are lots of wide shots of wreckage and devastating destruction, juxtaposed against close shots of these people trying to hold onto one another. It’s hard to call something so centered tragedy gorgeous, but that is what Gorbach has done.
Klondike is perhaps a bit too thin, but it will have a profound, lasting impact on the viewer despite its simplicity. It starts off with a bang before drawing you in and slowly sucking your soul out in a harrowing finale.
Klondike screened at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, which runs virtually from January 20-30.