My fourth dispatch from the 2021 Sundance Film Festival contains capsule reviews of Amalia Ulman’s El Planeta, Robin Wright’s Land, Marion Hill’s Ma Belle, My Beauty and Sion Sono’s Prisoners Of The Ghostland.
dir. Amalia Ulman, World Cinema Dramatic Competition, USA/Spain, 82 minutes.
My favorite thing about film festivals is when you walk into a movie totally cold and find yourself falling in love. Multimedia artist Ulman’s debut feature is the slyest I’ve seen in ages, on the surface a gossamer confection about a grifter widow and her luckless daughter low-key scamming their way through a Spain hobbled by economic collapse. Staring down eviction in high style, the two live from hustle-to-hustle and hand-to-mouth, looking fabulous in furs and zebra prints even after the electricity’s been shut off. The filmmaker stars as Leonor, drifting between unpromising job interviews and even less promising men. Ulman’s real-life mother Ale plays the scheming widow, sashaying forth recklessly with the credit card as the end is nigh. Shot in a quietly observational black-and-white long takes, it’s got some of the dead-air poetry of early Jarmusch or Hong Sangsoo, laughs sneaking up on you from behind the empty storefronts and boarded-up windows of this dying tourist town. It all snaps into focus during a devastatingly funny epilogue featuring Martin Scorsese and the Spanish Royal Family, which reveals an entire country suffering from the same malaise.
dir. Robin Wright, Premieres, USA, 89 minutes.
One of the least volatile movies ever made about loss, Robin Wright’s directorial debut gives the grieving process a picture-postcard view and precious little in the way of anger or unpleasantness. Wright stars as a well-off woman recovering from an unspecified tragedy, so one day she throws away her cell phone and buys a remote cabin in the wilderness, an experiment in living off the land for which she’s woefully unprepared. A nosy neighbor (well-played by Demián Bichir) saves her life and teaches her how to fish and hunt, while agreeing not to talk about whatever sent them both off to live alone in the mountains. They can’t tell each other what happened to their families until the ending because otherwise we’d have no reason to keep watching – this isn’t the kind of movie where they’re gonna have sex – so in the meantime there are pretty montages of Alberta landscapes to look at and gentle music on the soundtrack. It’s all quite calming and back in the ‘80s probably would have been a well-regarded CBS Movie of the Week starring Jane Seymour or someone from Falcon Crest.
dir. Marion Hill, NEXT, USA/France, 95 minutes.
With the festival going virtual this year, it cuts down slightly on the perversity of programming a sunny, sweaty romance set in the South of France to be viewed by sneezing cineastes who just trudged through snowbanks in wet socks. Nevertheless, it was 13 degrees in Boston when I pressed play on this beguiling first feature from writer-director Marion Hill, which certainly raised the temperature on my couch. A roundelay of partners old and new hooking up during a restless summer week, the film stars Idella Johnson and Lucien Guignard as married musicians who reunite with an old ex (Hannah Pepper) and discover once again that their three-way relationship has only room for two. Earthy and sensual in ways most contemporary independent films have forgotten how to be, it’s a movie of good food, fine wines and languorous, lusty encounters in the late afternoons. (MVP goes to co-star Sivan Noam Shimon as a vacationing IDF soldier whose washboard abs make Pepper re-think her anti-occupation activism.) In the end it feels a bit slighter than it probably could have been, but that’s also part of the pleasure.
dir. Sion Sono, Premieres, USA, 103 minutes.
Another essential film festival experience is stumbling half-drunk and exhausted with eyes bleary from too many movies into a midnight screening so bugfuck strange you start looking around the auditorium, wondering is everyone else seeing this shit, too? Sion Sono’s fifty-something-ish film is his first in the English language –but words barely matter– starring Nicolas Cage as a bank robber dispatched to rescue a crooked governor’s “granddaughter” (Sofia Boutella) in a post-apocalyptic landscape way the hell beyond Thunderdome. It’s a neon spaghetti Western with samurai swordsmen and a bus full of radioactive zombie convicts (led by Nick Cassavetes in a nifty Face/Off reunion) that’s wall-to-wall mayhem amid junkyards strewn with gumballs and Christmas lights. Sono’s put every cult movie from the past fifty years into a Cuisinart, with shout-outs to Snake Plissken, George Miller, El Topo and endless others while Cage struts around in Elvis’ leather jumpsuit from the ’68 comeback special with a sword for an arm and explosives strapped to his nuts. If you’re not into this kind of thing I can’t imagine a more excruciating evening. The rest of us will have a ball.