Sundance 2021: Genre films that stood out, from A Glitch in the Matrix to Prisoners of the Ghostland
Starry studio projects and A-list auteurs aren't the lifeblood of a breakout festival like Sundance. Recent years have proven one of the best ways to break out at the festival is through genre filmmaking.
As it's the first major film festival in the calendar, Sundance functions as a barometer of emerging trends and outliers. 2020 was a genre-busting production. It was a sci-fi movie that got all too real. It was a horror movie about isolation. Mostly, it was a disaster movie that even Roland Emmerich could not have imagined. The way the pandemic irrevocably reshaped our lives was reflected in many of the films in this year's line-up.
Starry studio projects and A-list auteurs aren't the lifeblood of a breakout festival like Sundance. Recent years have proven one of the best ways to break out at the festival is through genre filmmaking. Hereditary was the 2018 edition's biggest breakout, and established Ari Aster as an emerging voice in horror films. Get Out did the same for Jordan Peele the year before. 2014 was a particularly fertile year. It gave us Ana Lily Amirpour (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night), Jennifer Kent (The Babadook) and Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin). While the shortened Sundance 2021 may not feature as impressive a slate of genre films as 2014, there was still something for every kind of genre fan. Of course, you could classify many of these films as much as post-pandemic as post-genre, in that they use genre conventions in the service of broader analogies.
Reality has become so unreal the idea that we're living in a computer simulation, akin to a video game, has started to gain mainstream traction. The simulation theory was largely discussed by philosophy minors and wannabe podcasters in the smoky haze of hostel rooms. It entered pop culture following the success of The Matrix. It's a common theme and setup in Rick and Morty. It features on every YouTube video on The Mandela Effect. It's got the endorsement of Elon Musk. Now, it's the subject of Rodney Ascher's new documentary, A Glitch in the Matrix. Ascher, who had examined the many ludicrous theories about The Shining in Room 237, deconstructs the simulation theory by interviewing academics and apostles. Emily Posthast, one of the academics, traces the idea's origins all the way back to Plato's Allegory of the Cave. For its modern iterations, we revisit Philip K Dick's "If You Find This World Bad" speech, which becomes the documentary's framework and instructs the theoretical tenets.
All the proponents interviewed have their reasons or offer anecdotes of coincidences which they firmly believe to be irrefutable proof about the theory's validity. Operating from a place of non-judgmental curiosity, Ascher plays a patient listener through it all. He might have benefited from the occasional grilling of these proponents with contrasting viewpoints, so that the documentary doesn't just feel like a convention for solipsists. The darker implications of belief in such a theory become clear when we hear from Joshua Cooke, a Matrix fanboy who shot and killed both of his parents after he was convinced he was living in a simulation. Glitch in the Matrix makes for a thought-provoking Simulation Theory 101. But if you want a more refined, all-encompassing discussion, you're better off watching this 2016 Isaac Asimov Debate, where Neil deGrasse Tyson invited nuclear physicists, cosmologists and philosophers to share their thoughts on the matter.
Prisoners of the Ghostland is exactly the kind of haute trash you would expect from a Sion Sono-Nicolas Cage collaboration. If you have followed either or both of their recent work, you will know exactly what you're getting into. To paint the movie in words is like trying to instil it with meaning and coherence to which it doesn't really aspire. Sono's demented imagination presents Cage as the captive of Bill Moseley's Colonel Sanders-looking overlord in a bizarre East-meets-West post-apocalypse. Cage is Hero, literally. Moseley, the villain, enlists Hero's help to find and bring back his missing granddaughter Bernice (Sofia Boutella). To prevent him from absconding, Hero is forced into a leather jumpsuit that will detonate if he doesn't bring her back in five days. This includes a bomb strategically strapped to his testicles which will detonate if he tries to hook up with Bernice. It gets more nuts from there. Sono reinforces the idea that Cage represents an alternative kind of hero and masculinity to the traditional Hollywood model.
There are not only ronins and geishas in Prisoners of Ghostland. Sono gleefully co-opts Hollywood myths from Westerns, post-apocalyptic dramas and the Nicolas Cage genre into an unrefined alchemy that will likely be embraced by the more adventurous moviegoers. The film is pure, deliberate goofiness, to be sure. But it brims with such a contagious energy that Sono and Cage fans will go along with whatever is on display with little reservation. Cage bellowing, "I am radioactive", in Cage-appropriate fashion belongs on a T-shirt. While Prisoners of the Ghostland is nowhere close to Sono's best work, it is a solid addition to the canon of Japanese genre mash-ups and the cult of Nick Cage.
Zombie movies have arrived in shuffling hordes and vampire movies have raised the stakes in the 21st century. But werewolves haven't lead the pack in a while. In Eight for Silver, Sean Ellis tries to put them back on the map, put the "where" back in werewolves, if you will. The film takes place in the 19th century English countryside. When the land baron Seamus Laurent (Alistair Petrie) butchers an encampment of Romanis who laid claim to his land, his family and the surrounding town are cursed by the dying Romani matriarch. Nightmares haunt their sleep before Seamus's son, Edward (Max Mackintosh), mysteriously disappears into the forest. A pathologist named John McBride (Boyd Holbrook) is hired to find the boy, but what he finds instead is a savage beast with a silver allergy. With this brutal presence hurtling through the misty woods, the film has a lot going for it, atmosphere-wise. What makes or breaks werewolf movies is the shapeshifting from man to monster. An American Werewolf in London, the definitive werewolf movie, was able to achieve a horrifyingly painful transformation with practical effects alone. The use of CGI in a period horror film like Eight for Silver works against it: the werewolf looks like the lovechild of the monsters from The Thing and The Descent. The suspense in the first half makes way for more viscera-drenched horrors in the second. But honestly, it's nothing that will have the horror fan howling though because it's a lot more bark, than bite.
If werewolf movies like Eight for Silver feed on the primal fear of physical transformation rooted in the inhuman "other", We’re All Going to the World’s Fair redefines body horror for the Creepypasta generation. Rooted as much in the psychological as the physical torment of a teenager, Jane Schoenbrun's film plays on the horror of losing control over one's own body. Casey (Anna Cobb) is a lonely teenage girl and horror movie lover searching for kinship and community online. So, she joins a popular RPG challenge. The game requires users to repeat a phrase three times, prick their finger till it bleeds, and watch a video. The testimonies of other gamers hint at transformation into vampires and creepy clowns. A girl becomes plastic. A man can’t stop running on a treadmill and slapping himself. When Casey feels like she is losing autonomy over her own body, her reaction is not far removed from the feeling of gender dysphoria. Long takes immerse us in the troubled headspace of Cobb’s alienated teenager. But a lot of the tension built is disrupted when Schoenbrun switches to the POV of an older man (Michael J. Rogers) on Skype concerned over Casey's increasingly troubling behaviour. For those jonesing for scares, be glad the film never pushes the horrors of coming-of-age and millennial malaise to the wayside in favour of shoehorning in found-footage gimmicks.
The last thing we do before closing our eyes and the first thing we do when we open them again is check our phones. The time in between, while asleep, remains the last refuge from tech's absolute invasion of our lives. That's what makes Strawberry Mansion's scenario of direct-to-dream advertising an unsettling nightmare. Writer-director duo Albert Birney and Kentucker Audley imagine a future where ads are not only beamed into people's dreams, but the products, if purchased, in those dreams are taxable. Reed Birney is James Preble, a dream auditor on assignment to collect the back taxes of an odd old woman named Bella (Penny Fuller), who lives with a turtle in her pink mansion. Bella has seemingly not paid dream taxes her whole life. An ad blocker device invented by her late husband being how she got away with it. James's audit takes him on a journey across the vivid dreamscapes of Bella as a young woman, gradually falling in love with her. It's an intriguing premise with sumptuous visuals wholly committed to it. Prioritising set design over storytelling in the second half, it's ultimately undone by a wild shift into so many surreal interludes that the satire loses its focus and function. It’s like snacking on strawberry candies: delicious but empty calories.
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