Day 1: Thursday, Jan. 24
Good news! They decided to have the Sundance Film Festival again this year. I’m here in Park City, Utah, for my 20th ‘dance, having started in 2000, when Bill Clinton was still president, back when having a doughy sex offender in the Oval Office was considered charming.
I arrived this afternoon and picked up my press credentials at Sundance HQ, then checked into the condo that I’m sharing with like 50 other guys. It’s always like the first day of summer camp (I assume; I grew up on the West Coast), greeting friends you haven’t seen since last year, remarking on how good everyone looks or refraining from saying anything because they look worse. A few of us made a trip to the grocery store conveniently located next to the main press venues to stock up on supplies for the week, and saw many other people with newly acquired badges doing the same thing.
As has been the case the last few years, most of the opening night movie options didn’t appeal to me and weren’t anything I “had” to see, so I only caught one screening. It was of “Native Son,” a modern adaptation of Richard Wright’s 1940 novel about a young black man hired to work for a wealthy white family. The lead is Ashton Sanders, who played the heartbreaking teenage version of the main character in “Moonlight” and does a terrific job again here. The movie has its flaws (here’s a more complete review), but Sanders isn’t one of them.
Day 2: Friday, Jan. 25
The weather is cold but clear, the Sundance volunteers are chipper and helpful, and nobody has died yet. In the real world, the government is still shut down and what’s-his-name — you know who I mean — Orange guy? Lives part-time at the White House? — he’s still a nightmare. But here in the world of cinema, we’re distracting ourselves with, um, documentaries about Harvey Weinstein and Michael Jackson and their respective sex crimes! That’s why they call Hollywood the dream factory, folks!
I didn’t see either of those documentaries — I feel like my current level of awareness of those cases is sufficient (plus the MJ one is four hours long, and ain’t nobody got time for that) — and instead focused on narrative films about girls getting their lives disrupted in ways ranging from hilarious to terrifying.
First was “Troop Zero,” an utterly delightful comedy with Viola Davis and Allison Janney as opposing leaders of off-brand Girl Scout troops in rural Georgia in 1977. Davis and Janney are in it plenty, but the lead is Christmas Flint (Mckenna Grace), an exuberant misfit who starts her own ragtag troop to compete with Janney’s mean girls. The plot is over-simple (here’s a full review), but it’s a sweet, funny, PG film about girls supporting each other — not what you usually see at Sundance.
Next up was “Dirty God,” which is exactly what you usually see at Sundance. It’s a blunt, bleak, 21st century kitchen-sink drama about a lower-class London girl recovering from an attack that left her with extensive burn scars, now trying to put her life back together and not let the attack destroy her. But her life was crap even before this, so yikes. The plot is thin, and these aren’t the sort of characters you want to just hang out with. Not quite gratuitous misery porn — it’s ultimately more hopeful than that — but adjacent to it.
These were both Press & Industry (P&I) screenings. Credentialed press, who review movies all the time, generally follow proper theater etiquette, but Industry pass holders — who had to buy their passes and are often seeing movies only to determine their market value — are notorious for treating screenings like work meetings. To get an Industry badge, I think you have to PROMISE Sundance that you don’t actually like movies and will leave every screening early after playing on your phone the whole time.
The new thing I noticed this year is a lot of Industry types dimming their phones almost all the way. This Hollywood version of politeness is actually effective: As long as your phone isn’t a distraction, nobody cares whether you’re paying attention to the movie. Sit there and sleep for all we care, just don’t light up the room (or snore). So to Industry people who simply can’t not check their phones constantly during movies, I encourage this practice.
The reason I mention it is that you can tell when a movie isn’t connecting with a P&I audience by how many phones come out. I saw a lot during “Dirty God,” including the trio next to me who, sure enough, were on their phones nonstop and then left after an hour. Sundance: a celebration of cinema!
Next up was “Share,” another film where something bad happens to a girl. She’s an American high school student this time, and a video goes viral in which she’s passed-out drunk, being manhandled, mocked, and possibly worse by a group of boys. (The “possibly worse” is part of the issue, as the video cuts off and she doesn’t remember the night.) Focused mainly on Mandy’s feelings, the movie isn’t grueling — though she was victimized, she doesn’t fall apart completely, and she has great parents who do all the right things. Currently relevant issues like “boys will be boys” and “should we ruin a young man’s life over this?” are raised and addressed. Rhianne Barreto’s lead performance is well calibrated.
My last movie of the day was the public premiere of “The Hole in the Ground” (not to be confused with “Your Ass”). This was a midnighter at the Egyptian Theatre, up at the top of Main Street, which is always fun to go to at least once and at most twice every year. Main Street is world-famous for being a zoo during Sundance, with crowds that are 5% celebrities and 95% people looking for celebrities. For a veteran such as myself — not sure if I mentioned it, but this is my 20th year in attendance — the novelty of star-seeking has long since worn off, but I always think of Main Street as being “fun.” Examining my feelings, I realized this is because I always think it’s fun when a lot of people are outside really late at night. (It’s midnight! Why’s everyone outside?? This is crazy!) Many examples of things that might have people outdoors in the wee hours that are not fun immediately come to mind, but we won’t dwell on them.
“The Hole in the Ground” is an Irish horror film in which a mother and her young son move to an isolated house in the country — which, not to blame the victims here, but that never turns out well. Their house is near a forest, at the center of which is the big-ass title character. Presumably related to this, the mom starts to think her son isn’t really her son anymore. Creepiness ensues. The horror is never unbearable or grotesque; the movie’s based more on tension and uncertainty than shocks. The screechy sound design can be overbearing, but apart from that and the fact that it goes on for exactly one (1) scene longer than it should have, I have no complaints. Well, and it’s always such a cold, late trek back to the condo from Main Street at 2 a.m., but that’s not the movie’s fault.
Oh, and at some point, the shutdown ended. Fitting that the government reopened while I was at Sundance, since I was also here two years ago, when it shut down.|
Day 3: Saturday, Jan. 26
I had planned to get up early and get to a 9 a.m. screening of “Late Night,” starring Emma Thompson as a talk show host and Mindy Kaling (who wrote it) as her first female staff writer. But longtime readers will know, as I did, that there was little chance I would actually do this, especially not the morning after a midnighter. It’s a shame, because I won’t have any other opportunity to see “Late Night” at the fest, and now the internet has one less opinion of it.
But remember Shia LaBeouf? Well, he’s back, in semi-autobiographical form. Today’s first movie (at the reasonable hour of noon) was a P&I screening of “Honey Boy,” written by The Beef, in which The Beef plays a fictionalized version of his own father, a former rodeo clown and current irresponsible dirtbag stage dad. The fictional Shia, a child actor named Otis Lort, is played at age 12 by Noah Jupe, who looks vaguely like a young Shia, and at age 22 by Lucas Hedges, who bears less resemblance to Shia and Noah Jupe than any other living white man.
Anyway, Mr. LaBeouf is fantastic as the elder Mr. Lort, creating an outlandish but recognizable character. (Note: “Lort” is also how Tyler Perry’s Madea says “Lord.”) Hedges is good too (physical non-resemblance aside), and even copies some of Shia’s mannerisms and speech patterns. The movie jumps back and forth between 1995, when Otis is on a corny unnamed TV show, and 2005, when he’s in rehab for the third time, trying to reckon with his tumultuous upbringing.
I seem to be in the minority in that I only found “Honey Boy” moderately compelling. It’s definitely not a self-indulgent vanity project — which it could have been. It’s more thoughtful and self-aware than that. But it still felt too specific, too much about LaBeouf’s particular scenario, without much universality. I don’t know. Maybe I had my heart set too much on getting some behind-the-scenes “Even Stevens” dirt.
Next was a nice slice of science fiction called “I Am Mother.” You’ll never guess when it’s set: after the apocalypse! Humanity was wiped out, but in a giant bunker, a robot called Mother (voiced by Rose Byrne) has been programmed to grow some pre-frozen embryos into people and raise them as a real mother would so they can repopulate the world. She has one so far, who’s about 18 and loves her mechanical mom. Things go awry when Hilary Swank shows up at the bunker, very much a living human even though Mother said there were no other people at all, let alone Hilary Swank. What’s up with that?
What’s up with that? was also the theme of the next movie, but we’ll get to that in a minute. Between films, I met up with adorable film couple Dor Dotson and Josh Johnson and their new baby, Nigel, at what used to be the Yarrow hotel but is now the DoubleTree by Hilton but we still call it the Yarrow because we are old. Like me, Dor is at Sundance for the 20th year in a row (she’s worked in publicity and distribution and just loves movies), and she was here a week early to be a panelist at the Arthouse Convergence conference — with a baby! (They do not take the baby to the movies.)
My point is that Dor is awesome and she let me hold her baby.
The Yarrow was where I needed to be for my next film, “The Lodge,” from the same demented Austrians who made “Goodnight, Mommy.” The venue is called the Park Avenue theater now (it’s the DoubleTree conference room), and it’s also where some press screenings are, but this was a public one. The fellow next to me asked if I’d been here before, so I got to tell him it was my 20th and show him my badge from 2000, which I was wearing along with my current one, because I am a nerd. The woman next to me and the guy in front of me (who looked like Bradley Cooper but wasn’t) chimed in with how long they’d been coming (six years and 15 years, respectively), and they asked me about my favorite experiences over 20 years, and I regaled them with stories like I was a venerable elder. WHICH I AM. Let me have this.
When the film was being introduced, the lady next to me leaned over and said, “It’s a horror film??” I said yes, and that I’d heard it wasn’t kidding around, either. She said, “Oh, s***,” and apologized in advance if she squealed or yelped.
Turns out “The Lodge” is not the kind of horror film that makes you yelp (save in one or two spots), nor is it the kind, like “The Hole in the Ground” was, that brings out the subsection of horror audiences known as The Ladies Who Say “Oh No” a Lot. ([Person in movie walks down basement steps] SMATTERING OF QUIET FEMALE VOICES FROM AUDIENCE: Oh no…) It’s more the quiet and ominous kind, about two sad kids spending Christmas in a snowy cabin with their new stepmother, who was the only survivor of a suicide cult when she was young, and whom the kids do not like. One morning they wake up and find their stuff missing … but they’re the only three people around for miles. What’s up with that?
On paper, I like what “The Lodge” does and the dark places it goes. In execution, it stalls for a while in the midsection. It kept me guessing, though, including a maneuver where a character in the movie expressed the same theory for what was happening that had just occurred to me, which meant it couldn’t be right. I like it when movies outsmart me (but please note that I’m offended when people do it).
Next it was back to the condo to record a podcast with my tall friend Jeff Bayer and to do some writing, fueled by my first trip of the week to Burger King, which is the only fast food option near the Sundance hub and has been for 20 years, possibly due to a deal with the Burger King himself.
My midnight movie was at the Egyptian again. The schedule gods cursed me this year. But I lucked out and caught an express shuttle straight to Main Street and was basically at the front of the line for the movie. It was here that I heard reports of a problem that first arose last year and which I thought was a fluke but apparently wasn’t: Some people are being turned away from screenings even though they have tickets (which they paid for!) and were in line on time. It happened last night with “Late Night” and at least one other, and people were not happy about it.
How does this happen? Because of the Express badge. When you buy an Express badge ($4,000 for the first six days of the fest, $3,500 for the last five) or receive one as a member of the press who works for an important outlet, you’re guaranteed a seat at any screening as long as you’re there 15 minutes early. Sundance has no way of knowing how many Expressers will show up until they do, so when something attracts an unusually large number of them, the ticket holders — who only paid $25-$50 per screening — get screwed. They get refunds or vouchers, of course, but it means they waited in line for nothing and wasted a valuable movie slot. I made a mental note* about this injustice and resolved to investigate. (*tweet)
Most movies in the Midnight section are horror-ish, but there are always a few that play at midnight because they’re raucous comedies that aren’t respectable enough for prime time. Tonight’s was “Greener Grass,” an absurdist suburban satire written and directed by Upright Citizens Brigade alumnae Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe and populated with like-minded sketch-and-improv workhorses (including “SNL’s” Beck Bennett). It’s set in a sunny, artificial, candy-colored world with manicured lawns and interchangeable husbands, and the plot (such as it is) concerns one of the housewives giving her baby away to her best friend and then having second thoughts.
The humor is arch, absurd, and surreal. Not as deliberately off-putting or bizarre as “Tim & Eric,” but along those lines. It reminded me of “Stella” (Michael Ian Black, David Wain, Michael Showalter), or a lot of “Adult Swim” material (like “Childrens Hospital”) or some of the weirder “SNL” digital shorts. There are daft touches like the fact that every adult in town wears braces but the movie never mentions it. One character turns into a dog. This kind of thing usually wears thin before it’s over, and it does here, but it made me laugh enough overall to recommend it.
The first Friday and Saturday of Sundance are always the most zoo-like on Main Street, and the party was dying down when I left the theater at 1:45 a.m. I saw what seemed like more than the usual number of drunk people being held up by friends as they staggered down the sidewalk, babbling happily. I saw a man and woman in their 40s leaning against the window of Main Street Pizza & Noodle, making out like teenagers.
I didn’t feel like waiting for the bus, and the 1.5-mile distance from the Egyptian Theatre to my condo is all downhill, so I walked home. Off of Main Street, things were quieter, though still considerably more lively than they usually are at 2 a.m. in Park City (population: 8,378). Right there on Park Avenue, about 100 yards down from the 7-Eleven, I saw three deer just hangin’ out next to a building. They didn’t seem lost or distressed; like all Park City residents, they’re probably used to this.
Day 4: Sunday, Jan. 27
The Sundance sales have started to come in. Amazon paid $13 million for “Late Night,” then topped themselves paying $14 million for “The Report” (starring Adam Driver, about the CIA’s torture program). “Native Son” and “Share,” both A24 productions, were sold to HBO Films (which means they probably will not play in theaters). But A24 also bought “The Farewell,” a Chinese wedding comedy starring Akwafina, for $6-7 million.
But those deals have nothing to do with me, so let’s not dwell on them. I started the day by emailing the Sundance press office for comment about Ticket-Holders-Being-Shut-Out-Gate (still working on the name). I asked how this happens, and what, if anything, is being done to fix it. I received this reply from a Sundance representative:
Our ticketing staff has a variety of models for holding space for passholders, which are adjusted for each screening and each film. In cases of exceptional passholder attendance, we find alternatives (more below) for on-time ticketholders. We’ve never had to turn away hundreds of ticketholders. [I had heard a figure of 200 for the “Late Night” screening and asked specifically about it.]
Sometimes, if a screening fills before all on-time ticketholders are able to be seated, those guests are, of course, offered refunds or free exchanges, and comped tickets are offered equivalent exchanges.
In other words, it happens for the reason we assumed — too many passholders showing up — and what they’re planning to do about it is nothing.
What could they do? Issue a more conservative number of tickets at first and require passholders to choose their movies the night before. The day of, when you know how many passholders are coming, you release any remaining tickets. Technology like this exists — Fantastic Fest has a great system — but it would mean requiring passholders to pre-plan and use a cellphone app, so we can probably forget about it.
My first screening of the day was a P&I of “Sister Aimee,” which according to onscreen titles is “5 1/2 percent truth.” What is definitely true is that in 1926, a charismatic evangelist, faith-healer, and showwoman named Aimee Semple McPherson disappeared in Los Angeles and reappeared several weeks later at the Mexican border. She claimed to have been kidnapped, but her story didn’t really check out.
The movie, written and directed by Samantha Buck and Marie Schlingmann, speculates on what really happened. Anna Margaret Hollyman is great as the brash, dynamic Sister Aimee, who’s charismatic and spiritual onstage, cynical and crass offstage. She and her radio engineer (Michael Mosley) fake her death, leave their spouses, and drive to Mexico, led by a Mexican guide (Andrea Suarez Paz) who doesn’t say much but is good at disarming threats.
So it’s a picaresque Western with some “Chicago”-style razzle-dazzle (including a song!) about a confident, successful woman finding out what her limits are. It doesn’t add up to much, but it’s amusing and lively, which is enough.
Next was another story about a real-life rogue: Ted Bundy, played by Zac Efron, in a movie called “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile.” (The title comes from the judge’s comments at Bundy’s sentencing, but it could be the title of so many Sundance movies.) It’s told mostly from the point of view of Bundy’s girlfriend, Liz (Lily Collins), who believed in his innocence for many years, and doesn’t show any of Bundy’s crimes. If you go only by what the movie tells us, Ted could be innocent … except that he’s Ted Bundy, and we know he isn’t.
That’s kind of the issue. At first the movie goes out of its way not to say the name of the character Efron is playing. When he meets Liz at a bar and she says, “I don’t even know your name,” it cuts away before he answers. When he runs into an old acquaintance, she says, “Well, hello, stranger!” Nobody calls him “Ted” until 25 minutes in, and it’s another 15 before someone says “Ted Bundy.” I initially wondered if the movie wasn’t going to tell us who it was — that it was going to let us think it’s just some guy, and that maybe he IS innocent. The director is Joe Berlinger, a documentarian who has made movies about actual falsely accused prisoners (and “Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2,” but we all did foolish things in our youth), so it would have made sense.
But nope, it’s definitely Ted Bundy, a cruel, charming psychopath who eventually confessed to 30 murders and was probably responsible for more. “EWSEAV” gives no insight into what made him tick. Berlinger glamorizes Bundy, and a title card at the end listing the known victims, meant to show respect, does the opposite: We just watched a movie about what a nutty, handsome character he was, and now you want us to be somber and mournful about the victims you never showed? The use of real TV news footage mixed with recreations made me uneasy as well. Since it doesn’t shed any light on Bundy anyway, I think it would have been a better movie if it had used his story as the blueprint for a movie about a fictional killer, one that wouldn’t be fraught with real-world implications.
Zac Efron is pretty good, though. “High School Musical” fans are in for a treat. His naked butt appears, in what I’m calling Efrontal nudity.
I went back to the condo (aka The Fartiest Place on Earth) to write, and got involved in it so much that I neglected to hustle back to the Holiday Village cinemas (where most P&I screenings are held) in time for the 6:30 of “Paradise Hills.” It was my first shutout of the fest, made all the more painful by it being entirely my fault and not, say, Jeff Wells’.
My midnight movie was at the Library this time, much closer to the condo than the Egyptian and easily walkable. One thing that’s new for me this year (my 20th year at Sundance) is that I am wearing the appropriate footwear. I’ve always just worn whatever shoes I had at the time and avoided stepping in puddles or snowbanks, but my current favorite pair is very lightweight, so I bought some big old steel-toed clodhoppers at Payless for $28. Not only are my feet warmer than ever before, but now I can stomp around heedlessly, giving no thought to what I step on, as is my right as an American. It only took me 20 years to get this right.
The movie was “Little Monsters,” which is about zombies and is not to be confused with another Sundance entry, “We Are Little Zombies,” which is not about zombies. (Helpful hint: Don’t put “Zombies” in the title unless the movie contains literal, non-metaphorical zombies. It sets unreasonable expectations. See also: “Dragon,” “Monster,” “Ninja,” “Devil,” etc.) “Little Monsters” is also not to be confused with “Little Monsters” from 1989. It’s also not to be confused with “Casablanca.” I mean, there are a lot of movies it’s not to be confused with.
It was written and directed by Abe Forsythe, an Australian whose previous film, “Down Under” — a pitch-black comedy set during the Sydney race riots of 2005 — won awards at Fantastic Fest (where I saw it) but was never released in the U.S. “Little Monsters” is a dark comedy in another vein, about 10 kindergarteners, their teacher (Lupita Nyong’o), the slacker uncle (Alexander England) of one of the kids, and an annoying children’s TV host (Josh Gad) hunkering down when a zombie outbreak occurs during a field trip to a petting zoo. This is the movie to watch if you want to see Lupita Nyong’o behead zombies and threaten Josh Gad (I admit the reverse would be more interesting), and play Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” on the ukulele. The humor leans too much at first on the slacker uncle saying inappropriate things in front of children, but once it gets into the groove, it’s great — the kids are funny, the action is gory, and even Josh Gad grows on you. It has dark humor, but not the kind of dark where kids die. And again, Lupita absolutely slays.
It played like gangbusters at the Library. Forsythe said during the Q&A afterward that the Taylor Swift ukulele singalong was an actual thing that his son’s kindergarten teacher did, but that the rest of the movie is not based on a true story. Lupita Nyong’o couldn’t be at the screening because she was in L.A., winning a Screen Actors Guild Award with the “Black Panther” cast. Gad joked that he’s going to be in trouble with Disney after they see this movie, which I would have said was ridiculous if Disney hadn’t recently fired James Gunn from “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” over some dirty jokes. (Josh Gad will suffer no fallout, of course, because he hasn’t been politically vocal enough to be targeted by the right-wing dipsticks who got Gunn fired.)
And with that, I returned to the condo, where paying for a spot always guarantees you a spot.
Day 5: Monday, Jan. 28
Like many journalists covering Sundance, I share a condo with far more people than the condo is supposed to hold in order to bring the per-person cost down to something close to reasonable. We had 10 at my place (number of beds: six) until this morning, when one of us left. Now we only have two people on air mattresses and one on the couch. Luckily, we’re all friends (-ish). We’re probably still in violation of the fire code, but who isn’t these days?
The thing about sharing a condo with eight straight men — and I don’t wish to generalize about the straights, only to share my truth — is that straight men are slobs and I don’t know how any woman puts up with them. They’ll finish a can of beer and set the empty can on the counter FIVE FEET AWAY from the recycling bag where the can is supposed to go. Or they’ll finish their Starbucks and leave the empty cup on the coffee table — which is for COFFEE, not for empty coffee CUPS — like they’re expecting a busboy to come along and clear it. This has always been the case, year after year, and no amount of passive-aggressive remarks in this Diary can change it.
While I was asleep, four studios were competing to buy “Little Monsters.” By the time I woke up — less than 12 hours after its world premiere — it had been bought by Neon and Hulu, together, in some kind of partnership. They aren’t partners normally, but they’re hooking up just this once and seeing how it works out.
My first movie today was a P&I screening of “Relive,” starring David Oyelowo as an LAPD detective who is surprised to get a phone call from his recently murdered niece, calling from three days before she died. (Is this a Verizon thing?? I’m on Sprint.) Uncle Jack takes advantage of the time warp to try to prevent and/or solve the murders (her parents were killed too), but not before spending what feels like several minutes staring agape at his phone and not saying anything while his niece says, “Hello? Hello?” It’s a perfectly good premise, but the film turns into a formulaic police procedural with the most obvious, easily guessed resolution.
Something alarming happened at the next P&I screening. The Sundance staffer in charge of the venue always introduces the film, tells us how long it is, and reminds us to turn off our phones. But this time, she said, “Please silence your phones, and if you have to use them, because we know you’re working, please turn the brightness down.” She GAVE US PERMISSION to use our phones during the movie! Colleagues reported a similar announcement at a different screening earlier today. The announcement was met with a handful of modest boos, some of them emanating from this reporter’s own gullet.
Ironically, I didn’t notice much phone use during the movie. Either the Industry people all did a good job of turning the brightness down, or diddling on their phones lost its appeal once it was no longer forbidden.
The movie was “Them That Follow,” a drama set among snake-handling Christian cultist hillbillies, focused on the pastor’s daughter (Alice Englert), who’s betrothed to a dull, potato-faced fellow Serpentarian (Lewis Pullman) but is in love with a non-believer (Thomas Mann). Walton Goggins plays the pastor, with Olivia Colman and Jim Gaffigan as the non-believer’s super-believing parents. Which is great, because I’d been wondering when Olivia Colman and Jim Gaffigan would finally make a movie together.
I’m always down for a spiritual drama, and this one, with its intense emotions and solid acting and snakes, had me engaged. I’ve even had crises of faith like the girl in the film, Mara, does. But for some reason it didn’t resonate with me. I think it’s because snake-handling is stupid and dangerous. Like, objectively. It’s not a belief system that merits respect, and Mara’s dilemma boils down to, “Should I go off and be happy, or should I stay here and be miserable until I’m killed by snakes?”
This was my second Jim Gaffigan movie of the fest, and the second where he played a Southern dad. He’s also in “Light from Light,” which I haven’t seen but which makes three for him this year. It’s not unheard of for certain indie darlings to be in three or four Sundance movies at once, but I wouldn’t have thought of Gaffigan as an “indie darling.” But I guess he is now! Good for him. They should make a Hot Pockets movie.
Went back to the condo after that to record another podcast, then had a break during which I meant to write but instead took a nap. You’d think after 20 years I could literally write Sundance reviews in my sleep, but nope.
Then it was back to Holiday Village for a P&I of “Before You Know It,” which sounds like the title of a Nancy Meyers movie along the lines of “Something’s Gotta Give” or “It’s Complicated.” And it pretty much is one of those movies: white New Yorkers who claim to have money problems but seem to be getting along just fine encounter an amusing disruption to the status quo. In this case, two sisters Rachel (Hannah Pearl Utt, also the director and co-writer) and Jackie (Jen Tullock, the other writer) learn that the mother they thought was dead is alive and Judith Light and starring on a soap opera.
It’s part screwball comedy, part Woody Allen-ish celebration of neurotic Manhattan theater types, and all very, very irritating. Jackie’s the kooky sister who throws herself at unavailable men in a lukewarm subplot The real issues involved (their mother abandoned them!) are treated lightly, which is fine, but the movie isn’t funny enough for it to work. The whole thing needed to be screwier, tighter, and more focused.
From there we headed next door to the Ray Theatre, a new venue as of last year, where the “surprise screening” was to be held. The surprise was announced a few weeks ago as being “Fighting with My Family,” Stephen Merchant’s true story of a wrestling-obsessed English family whose children audition for the WWE; the tickets actually said “Surprise Screening – Fighting with My Family,” because words don’t have meanings anymore.
Most of the nine people from my condo were at this screening: myself, my podcasting/life partner Jeff Bayer, Jordan Raup of The Film Stage, Vince “Filmdrunk” Mancini of Uproxx, Luke Hicks of Film School Rejects, Chris Bumbray of JoBlo, and Nick Johnston of Vanyaland. Only Dan Mecca (The Film Stage) and Rob Hunter (Film School Rejects) were absent.
You know who was there, though? Sundance alumnus and hat critic Zach Braff! He’s not in the movie, but he was there with the movie (or sitting in the seats reserved for people with the movie). There was an incident almost five years ago where he thought my dislike of his “Wish I Was Here” meant I hated HIM, so he got on Twitter and made fun of my stupid hat, then deleted the tweet and blocked me when everybody started clowning on him for being a baby. I’m still blocked. Bayer said I should go get a selfie with him without revealing our shared history, then tweet the picture and make fun of him. I couldn’t see a downside to this, but I also didn’t want to be one of those people who ask celebrities for selfies at movie screenings.
Several of the people in the film were there to watch it, including Florence Pugh, Jack Lowden, Lena Headey, Nick Frost, and even Dwayne Johnson! He produced the film and has two key scenes in it, but I very much expected him not to appear until the Q&A afterward on account of his being The Rock. Vince Vaughn was there at first, presumably for red carpet purposes, but left as soon as the movie started and came back afterward.
The movie’s fine. Having Stephen Merchant write the dialogue for it helps considerably, as it’s otherwise a routine sports underdog story. The stakes don’t even feel very high. The main character, Raya, says, “I’ve dreamt of this since I was 13,” but she’s only 18 now. Five whole years, huh? But it’s got some solid laughs, some insight into how professional wrestling works, likable characters, everybody goes home happy.
When the MGM logo appeared at the start of the movie, exactly one person applauded. You still have fans, Leo!
After three midnight movies in a row, I was OK with not doing one tonight. One of my favorite parts of Sundance is having a late night at the condo with my friends, hanging out while we do our work and/or try to prevent others from working. The lineup of friends has evolved over the years, but the principle is the same: A film festival becomes drudgery unless you have people to share it with. Even if those people are slobs.
Day 6: Tuesday, Jan. 29
Spent the morning and early afternoon writing, then went to a P&I screening of “Sweetheart,” which at 82 minutes was already everyone’s favorite. A lot of Industry people, especially, leave after Monday, so from here on the P&I screenings are a little less crowded and have a lot less phone usage. The announcement that you could use your phone as long as you kept it dimmed was never repeated after yesterday’s screenings. I think it might have been a theater manager who went rogue.
“Sweetheart” is a treat. Kiersey Clemons (“Hearts Beat Loud”) washes up alone on an uncharted desert isle that is home not to Gilligan and the Skipper but to a monster — a literal, not metaphorical monster! The shot in which the creature is first glimpsed is an all-time great reveal, and director J.D. Dillard finds the balance between showing the creature too much and not showing it enough. I’d have liked a more exciting climax, but that’s my only complaint about this taut, no-fat thriller.
Jordan, Jeff, and I then went to the adjacent grocery store to get food and supplies for tonight’s party. The weather in Park City continued to be chilly but clear, and downright warm when the sun comes shining through the windows. Elsewhere in the country, people were preparing for record lows in the minuses. The one week of the year that I get to complain about being cold, and the Midwest and East Coast had to steal it from me.
The last screening before the party was a movie about partying: “Animals” (not to be confused with “Corporate Animals,” also playing here), in which one of two party girls meets a guy and starts to settle down and grow up, which makes the other party girl feel jealous and abandoned. The settling-down girl is played by Holliday Grainger, with whom I was unfamiliar; the other one is Alia Shawkat, from “Arrested Development,” whose persona is perfect for this kind of hedonistic, heavy-drinking role.
We’ve seen plenty of movies on this topic. “Animals” doesn’t do anything new, though it does have a moment where someone spills wine on a baby, which I don’t think I’d seen before. It actually follows some of the same beats as “Before You Know It” from yesterday, but with more fully developed characters (who aren’t morons) and smoother direction. I can easily imagine people LOVING this movie, especially if it’s not the 18th movie they’ve watched in six days.
Then it was time for the party. This was our ninth annual “blogger party,” for our fellow critics, journalists, and press types. We never came up with a better name than “blogger party,” even though it’s not completely accurate, which makes you question how good we are at journalism. Over the years it’s evolved into a setting for young new critics and first-time Sundance-goers to meet old veterans, and there were several newbies here tonight. Their challenge was to determine which old-timers would be good mentors and which could only be cautionary tales.
A few of my friends, like beloved Sundance boyfriend Matt Patches of Polygon, had already left town, and several others were here and just didn’t show up (and are now dead to me), but we still had a good turnout: enough guests that it felt like a party, but not so many that the police came. I met a lot of new people while doing my favorite party thing, which is scurrying around picking up empty bottles and cans.
No injuries were reported.
Among the party highlights:
– Jeff Bayer, who is 6’6″, met someone who’s an inch taller. First we were going to make the giants fight each other, but they ended up being friends and hanging out for most of the night. I like to think they spent the entire time talking about being tall.
– We did the thing where we put Monica Castillo of Remezcla next to tall people. She never tires of this.
– It was my only chance the whole week to see David Ehrlich (IndieWire), because he has an Express badge and mostly goes to public screenings, whereas we lowly General Press people mostly stick to P&Is. The badge system divides us as a people. I hardly saw old friends Jordan Hoffman (Times of Israel) or Erik Davis (Moviefone) the whole week for the same reason. My only chance to see Kate Erbland (IndieWire) — Kate, who was one of the hosts of the original party back in 2011 — would have been the party, except she didn’t come. (DEAD TO ME.) Ehrlich came, though, and I was glad because I like him so much better in person than on Twitter.
– The party ended with about 10 of us playing Movie/Actor, where one person names an actor, the next person names a movie that actor was in, the next person names another actor who was in that movie, the next person names another one of that actor’s movies, and so on. The rules are very simple, but Dan kept explaining them anyway. Turns out Dan Mecca and Chris Bumbray have encyclopedic memories of everyone’s filmographies, embarrassing the rest of us.
– Vince had such a good time (read: drank so much) that he slept not only in his clothes but with his press lanyard still around his neck. He said this was so he could get into the good parties in his dreams, but I think it was because he was drunk.
Day 7: Wednesday, Jan. 30
Today began a little slowly for many of us, having been up late with the party. Jeff and I groggily recorded a podcast, then he headed to the airport with Dan and Jordan, who are cowards who leave early. Luke and I went to a public screening at the Ray Theatre of “The Nightingale,” from Jennifer Kent, writer-director of “The Babadook,” which scared the pee out of Sundancers five years ago. The followup isn’t horror but a revenge drama, set in the British colonial Australia in the 1800s, about an Irish ex-convict avenging the death of her family at the hands of English soldiers.
Every description of the film by people who had seen it included the word “brutal.” This was not false advertising. You take it with a grain of salt when people say a Sundance movie is “crazy” or “shocking,” because Sundance audiences are somehow still surprised when movies have metaphors or penises. But “brutal,” you take seriously. “The Nightingale” is certainly the movie I’ve seen that had the most rapes in the first 20 minutes, and I don’t even know what the previous champion was. It has to be the rapiest female-directed movie I’ve seen. And the rape is just for starters! There’s also plenty of traditional violence and murder.
So it’s an intense movie. About halfway through, we heard a commotion behind us that turned out to be a man having a seizure and the people around him calling for help. The Sundance staff very quickly stopped the film, turned on the lights, and summoned medical assistance. The man, who looked to be in his 30s, indicated he’d had seizures before, and after a few minutes he walked out of the theater on his own power, so I assume he’s OK. They waited a few more minutes to let everyone settle, then restarted the movie and resumed traumatizing us.
I wish I could say it’s the most unsettling movie I’ve seen, but that is sadly not true. It’s up there, though, not because of what’s shown onscreen (I’ve definitely seen more graphic violence) but because of the implications of it all, the matter of who’s being harmed, and why, and by whom. The revenge-seeking Irish woman, Clare (played by Aisling Franciosi, who, like most actresses I’m unfamiliar with, has been on “Game of Thrones”), is aided on her quest by an Aborigine man named Billy (Baykali Ganambarr). Billy’s people are in the process of being raped and murdered into extinction by white settlers, so he’s not a fan of whites generally. But he and Clare have something in common: They both have good personal reasons to hate the English. One of the film’s purposes is to shed light on what British colonists did to the Aborigines, which has not often been explored in movies.
Despite the ugliness of many characters’ behavior, there are graceful moments of beauty sprinkled throughout, including some that I don’t think a male writer or director would have considered. (Example: Clare is in pain because she’s still lactating after having lost her baby, and Billy makes a poultice to ease the discomfort.) The relationship between Clare and Billy becomes its own thing of beauty, providing light in a dark world.
Next was a P&I screening of “The Farewell,” one of the most universally beloved films of the fest. We’re at the point in the week when many of the P&I people have gone home, so the screening was sparsely populated and filled mostly with festival volunteers and publicists (who only get to see movies once everyone else who wants to see them is seated). Like “Crazy Rich Asians,” “The Farewell” is about Chinese culture, weddings, and Awkwafina. She learns that her grandmother has terminal cancer, but that the family has chosen not to tell her. Instead, everyone’s returning to China to say their farewells, under the guise of attending a wedding.
We learn in the film that lying to a loved one about his or her medical condition is evidently a thing in Chinese culture. Why make them worry? And doesn’t dwelling on “I have four months to live” ensure that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy? Written and directed by Lulu Wang, and “based on an actual lie,” the film is mournful but celebratory, honoring a life well lived, family bonds, and other wholesome things. It’s a humorous heartwarmer and a gentle tearjerker, and Awkwafina is good in a relatively serious role.
Went back to the condo to write for a while, fueled by Burger King and leftover party snacks, before heading to the Library for my fourth and final midnight screening of the fest. I love these screenings, but I was alone for all of them this year except “Greener Grass,” where I had Meredith Borders (Fangoria) as a seat partner. Frequent midnight buddy Drew McWeeny wasn’t here, Scott Weinberg hasn’t been here in years, and Rob Hunter kept choosing different movies from me, maybe on purpose.
But the midnight movies, especially, tend to have friendly audiences, and you end up talking to whoever’s next to you anyway. I was in line in front of two volunteers who seemed like sharp youths. Today was Volunteer Appreciation Day, and I was glad I could appreciate some right to their faces.
A few words about that. Like most festivals, Sundance relies on an army of volunteers to keep things running — more than 2,000 of them, about half from Utah and the rest from 45 other states and 20 foreign countries. You see them all over Park City: at the shuttle stops to help you get on the right bus; at certain crosswalks to help you not get run over; and at all the venues, helping wrangle the lines, guide people in, scan badges and tickets, clean up the blood and vomit afterwards, etc. Wherever you go, you’re never more than a few feet away from a volunteer who will cheerfully tell you what you need to know or where you need to go, usually accurately.
The Sundance volunteers are unfailingly polite and friendly, even when their job (which they are not being paid for) requires them to stand outside in 20 degree weather and sometimes falling snow.
I don’t remember ever seeing a civilian get huffy with volunteers, but I’ve seen Press and Industry people do it, usually when a screening is full and they can’t get in. It doesn’t happen often, but it happens. And whenever it does, a protective wall of indignant bystanders immediately forms to shield the volunteer and chastise the assailant. DON’T BE RUDE TO THE VOLUNTEERS. Being mean to the staff is why certain off-brand Babadooks stop getting invited to Sundance, and not for any other stupid reason they might dream up.
As I said, today was Volunteer Appreciation Day, an occasion marked by a pre-movie trailer that starts with inspiring quotes about taking risks from such noted philosophers as T.S. Eliot and Will Smith, then pivots to telling us about the volunteers and asking us to give them a round of applause. Which we gladly do, in part because we are relieved that nothing more is required of us.
For some reason (and they did this last year too) they also showed us this trailer all day on Monday, advising us that Wednesday would be Volunteer Appreciation Day and telling us to “take this moment” to applaud them. This was confusing on Monday. Did they mean take THIS moment, right now? Two days early? Did they think we needed 48 hours’ notice to prepare ourselves for Volunteer Appreciation Day, to decorate our homes and gather our families around? I do not understand all the customs related to this holiday.
One of my favorite uses of volunteers is at the Library. The auditorium itself is on the third floor, so you have to walk up two long flights of stairs to get to it. A volunteer is posted at each landing, smiling and pointing the way (there’s only one way you can go), saying encouraging things like, “Just one more flight!” and “You’re almost there!,” like the animatronic figures you pass as you go from one scene to the next in a Disney ride.
While we were waiting for the movie to start and the audience was filtering in, a stoned young ski-bro entered the theater and cried with a loud voice, “Zuko! ZUKO!” Seeing, evidently, Zuko, he then happily cried, “Zuko! and led a cadre of fellow stoners to their seats. I don’t know if Zuko and his friends enjoyed the film, but I suspect they did.
The movie was “Corporate Animals,” a comedy about a group of employees on a team-building retreat who are trapped in a cave-in with their awful CEO (played by Demi Moore). They run out of food before too long, which leads to exactly what you’d expect. I’d heard several people say that the humor wore thin, but I was amused and engaged all the way through. The characters are a lively, diverse bunch, and there’s a lot going on: one has a leg wound that’s going bad and making him delusional; one’s having an affair with the boss; one’s just a jerk who verbally abuses everyone. “Weinstein” is used as a verb to describe sexual harassment in the workplace. All of this is scabrously funny, and so is the comedy related to what people do when they get desperate for food. (That aspect, though played for laughs and not horror, is not for the faint of heart.)
I got back to the condo around 2:00, just as others were returning from whatever their midnight movie had been. We sat around talking and snacking for a while before succumbing to the siren call of our most cherished mistress, Lady Sleep.
Day 8: Thursday, Jan. 31
I spent the day writing and didn’t see a single movie. Movies continued to be shown, but they were movies I’d already seen or didn’t need to see more than I needed to write. Vince, Nick, and Rob left, leaving only me, Luke, and Chris for the last night at the condo, plus a Josh who needed a place to stay.
There’s always a little melancholy at the end of Sundance, coupled with an intense desire to be home and usually some intestinal irregularity. I used to have a recurring dream, a few times a year, where it was the last day of Sundance and I realized we’d forgotten to have the party. This year the dream had a variation: Sundance was over and I hadn’t seen any of my friends. I never dream that I went to Sundance and didn’t see any movies, presumably because my subconscious doesn’t think that would be so bad. But to come all this way and not enjoy the sociality of my fellows? What would be the point??
That was especially true this year, when the Sundance lineup was good but not great. I didn’t see anything I loved, almost certainly nothing that will be on my top 10 list for the year. (My 2018 list had six movies that played at Sundance.) But I still had a great time because of the community, and the friends, and the fact that it didn’t snow AT ALL.
Late in the evening, with Chris and Josh out at a movie, Luke and I got Mexican food and hung out. This was Luke’s first Sundance — I have been to 20 times as many Sundances as him. Without prompting, he asked me lots of questions about Sundances past, giving me a chance to bloviate about how it used to be and how it has evolved. He asked questions I’ve been DYING for someone to ask. “Was the Park Avenue [Yarrow] screening room always like it is now?” “Why, no, young man! Let me describe all the changes!” It was nice to have a new audience as I went full Grandpa Simpson. I missed the old friends who couldn’t make it this year, or whose paths didn’t cross with mine during the week, but having a newbie listen to a veteran’s old stories was a pretty good ending for my 20th Sundance.