The Bonkers Narrative Films of Sundance

Four new movies that really click with our current hellscape

Sundance, part two: The narrative films! These four in particular, I thought, really click with our current hellscape.

Ben Wheatley’s In the Earth is the only one of this group that they actually shot during the pandemic. I think. In an introduction to the film, the ‘Kill List’ director said he came up with the concept on the first day of the lockdown. Man, this guy went dark right away! Although I found the other film I’ve seen of his, High-Rise, to be sexist, obvious and tiresome (and have read that his Rebecca reinvention for Netflix was not well received), this one is a little slice of psychedelic doomsday heaven. Think Annihilation meets Midsommar meets Jacob’s Ladder meets The Happening. Wheee!

His setup is deceptively simple: During a global virus outbreak, a scientist (Joel Fry) and a ranger (Ellora Torchia) make a two-day journey into a forest to find a researcher who’s been working on a mysterious project there. “People get a bit funny in the woods sometimes,” muses Torchia’s character. You think? They find the woman (Hayley Squires) but not before intersecting with another denizen of the woods (Reece Shearsmith) who seems more than a little…off. Both are obsessed with communicating with the flora and with a mythological local spirit of the forest. Strobe lights, heavy bass and mushroom tea come into play. Shit gets weird. And loud, and bright. Probably don’t watch this one if you’re prone to migraines. The immersiveness is wild; it’s the only Sundance film I was really sorry not to have seen on a huge screen.

Iuli Gerbase wrote the The Pink Cloud, a prescient fable about a natural phenomenon that traps all of humanity indoors, in 2017 and shot it in 2019. The quiet Brazilian thriller eally nails the creeping claustrophobia of quarantine–in this case, for a couple (Renata de Lélis and Eduardo Mendonça) waking up together after their first date. So much for a one-night stand! Suddenly they’re stuck in her apartment for who knows how long because there’s a rosy mist outside that kills in ten seconds flat. And it just never goes away. Societies adapt; they install a tube in everyone’s window through which you can order whatever you need.

Years pass. Giovana (de Lélis), who initially tells Yago (Mendonça) that she doesn’t want kids because she likes autonomy and travel, finds herself trapped in a different life trajectory. Yago, it turns out, doesn’t mind the pink cloud so much. And so it goes. The more I think about this movie, the more I like it as a feminist allegory. (Doesn’t it sound like the title of a Susan Faludi book?) Whichever way you choose to interpret it, The Pink Cloud indulges some of our grimmest musings about pandemic existence. There are holes you could poke in the logistics (how does that mist not get in the cracks, for example), but what fun is that?

If two dramatic teenagers from rival families were going to fall in love right now, it would be over social media, wouldn’t it? R#J is an update on Romeo and Juliet from director Carey Williams (a Sundance short film alum), and it is definitely not aimed at my old ass, but I found things to like about it when it wasn’t mildly confusing me. Pivotal street fights become Instragram Stories with likes and comments flowing throughout, while @romerome (Camaron Engels) and @j (Francesca Noel) flirt madly via text and build a playlist together. As usual in this play, it’s the side players who steal the show, and Siddiq Saunderson (Wu-Tang: An American Saga) as the pink-haired, coked-up Mercutio is the one to watch here. Williams mashes up the Shakespearean language with current-day lingo, and that seems right, too. Go forth and enjoy, fellow kids.

A gonzo Samurai-Western post-apocalyptic thriller with toxic-waste zombies, prisoners glued inside antique mannequins, and a leather jumpsuit with an explosive-boobytrapped crotch? A little on the nose for Nicolas Cage, no? Prisoners of the Ghostland, the first partly-English-language film from veteran Japanese director Sion Sono, is a hot mess of throwback tropes, leaning heavily on an Escape from New York setup and evocative of Mad Max’s junkyard fashions and Terry Gilliam’s multidimensional fever dreams. Cage is a convicted bank robber assigned to rescue the kidnapped daughter (Sofia Boutella) of a baddie called The Governor, who sends him into a realm called the Ghostland on a short timeline (hence the exploding suit).

It’s all too much, and none of it makes much sense, and there’s a montage buildup to a thing that never actually happens. But if you’re into the Caginess of it all, which I usually am, it’s a reasonably good time. He gives one line reading about a testicle that will surely make it into future supercuts of the Cage Going Bananas canon.

Cage
Nicolas Cage, going bananas in ‘Prisoners of Ghostland,’ courtesy of The Sundance Institute.

 

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Sara Stewart

Sara Stewart is a film critic and a culture and entertainment writer whose work is featured in the New York Post, CNN.com, and more. You can see her stories and contact her at sarastewart.org. But not on Twitter, because she’s been troll-free since 2018.

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