Sundance Diary, Day 2: “Eighth Grade” Soars While Paul Rudd Bores and Nicolas Cage Bleeds

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Sundance Diary Day 2Sundance Film Festival

After sleeping in on Saturday morning in an effort to restore my sanity, I headed to an afternoon P&I screening of Panos Cosmatos’ acid-soaked revenge thriller Mandy on the advice of Drew McWeeny, whose review (an enthusiastic ‘B’) just posted. Unfortunately, we’re going to have to agree to disagree on that one, as I found Nicolas Cage’s latest straight-to-VOD B-movie both overlong and obnoxious.

To be sure, Mandy has its gory pleasures and Cosmatos clearly has an eye for trippy visuals, as the film certainly looks “cool” in an LSD kind of way. I’d be interested to see what he could do with a good screenplay, but the one he co-wrote with Aaron Stewart-Ahn is ridiculous nonsense, even for a genre movie.

Cage and the chameleon-like Andrea Riseborough (slumming) play a couple who live in the Shadow Mountains of eastern California where they cross paths with the Children of a New Dawn, a cult-like religious sect led by Linus Roache. Roache spots Mandy (Riseborough) walking home one day and for very poorly explained reasons, believes he must “have her.” See, he needs her! Why does he need her? Well, because if he didn’t, there wouldn’t be a movie.

In an effort to be positive, there are some things I liked about this movie, like the creepy supporting cast (check out Olwen Fouere in The Survivalist) the Mad Max-style design of the Black Skulls (even though their backstory is stupid), a cheeky Crystal Lake reference and some of the Heavy Metal-esque animated sequences. Plus, who could forget the Cheddar Goblin (“it’s gobblin’ good”), which I totally thought was real, though I’m told was made by Casper Kelly, the creator of Too Many Cooks.

But none of that makes up for the fact that this movie is a mess. I know Drew really liked it, but it just didn’t work for me, and ultimately, it goes down as yet another miss for SpectreVision. While I respect and appreciate the fact that that they’re making original horror movies over there, I really wish I enjoyed them more. When the most memorable part of your movie is the King Crimson song over the opening titles, there’s a problem.

And for the love of God, can someone please save Nicolas Cage from movies like this and Mom and Dad? The man is an Oscar-winning actor whose talents are being wasted. He barely has any lines in this movie, he just yells and bleeds a lot. But I digress…

After Mandy, I hopped in line for Ben Lewis’ The Catcher Was a Spy, a mildly engaging history lesson starring Paul Rudd as Moe Berg, the well-educated baseball player who was recruited by the OSS to assassinate Germany physicist Werner Heisenberg. At one point in the film, Berg says he just doesn’t fit, and accordingly, neither does Rudd. I like him a lot as an actor (Ant-Man is my favorite Marvel movie) and I appreciate that he’s challenging himself here, but Rudd just isn’t up to the challenge of bringing out Moe’s complexities and inner torment. I mean, for a guy who spoke multiple languages and played for the Red Sox and was, you know, a spy, Moe makes for a pretty bland protagonist, and Rudd fails to make him interesting.

The film also features an awkward subplot involving the question of Berg’s sexuality. Asked about it by his OSS superior (Jeff Daniels), Moe deflects and says he’s “good at keeping secrets.” Now, I fully understand not wanting to answer the question directly if Moe is gay, since it was frowned upon by society at the time. However, if he isn’t gay, then why not just say so? The only real evidence that he could be gay comes via a scene in which he holds hands with a Japanese history professor, but then Moe constantly says “I love you” to his girlfriend (Sienna Miller) throughout the film. Sure, that entire relationship could be a cover, but I didn’t get that impression, and quite frankly, I didn’t like how the film uses Moe’s possible homosexuality as a red herring. There’s even a scene early on in the film where one of his Red Sox teammates follows him because he thinks Moe is gay and he doesn’t want to share the locker room with a “queer.” Moe discovers the tail and throws the rookie a beating, but the scene strikes me as wholly unconvincing — it feels like Lewin was given a note to add more action upfront, as it takes a while to get to the battle scenes during WWII.

Ultimately, this true story rings false, and The Catcher Was a Spy is a disappointing shoulder-shrugger of a movie.

After struggling to stay awake during Spy, I needed a good movie to re-energize me. I had a ticket to An Evening With Beverly Luff Linn, but Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade was screening at the same venue as Spy, so I called an audible and decided to stay put. The film, which apparently already has distribution in place via A24 (I had no idea, tsk tsk), has earned strong word-of-mouth here in Park City, so the theater filled up pretty quickly and poor Drew got shut-out. In the end, I gave him my ticket to see An Evening With Beverly Luff Linn, which I felt bad about, since I don’t think he liked it much. Call it revenge for Mandy! The truth is, neither of us was a big fan of The Greasy Strangler, but we were both willing to give Jim Hosking’s follow-up a fair chance. That said, I don’t think either of us shares Hosking’s bizarre sense of humor, but I’ll wait for Drew to weigh in on that title since I didn’t see it. I know he stayed all the way through the film, which is more than I can say about myself and The Greasy Strangler.

So, circling back to Eighth Grade… this was the best film I’ve seen at Sundance so far. I might have even liked it more than (gasp!) A24’s own Lady Bird. It follows a teenage girl as she prepares to graduate middle school, and I just thought it felt more natural and true to life. It’s an impressive and richly observed debut for Burnham, who perfectly captures the horrific details of middle school (like awkward sex-ed videos), but perhaps the main reason he succeeds where other coming-of-age movies have failed is the casting.

Elsie Fisher is perfectly cast as the lead, Kayla, who is covered in acne and still growing into her adult body. Fisher feels like a real teen, unlike, say, 23-year-old Saoirse Ronan. The way that Fisher is constantly looking down and avoiding eye contact, peppering her speech with “ums” and “likes” — that isn’t as easy as it sounds. Fisher gives a very physical performance here, and her body language here speaks volumes about Kayla’s self-esteem, or lack thereof. hanging her head as a result  in shame, anxiety and self-loathing, or a combination of all three, speaks volumes about her self-esteem, or lack thereof.

Meanwhile, Josh Hamilton plays her single father, and to me, he’s indie royalty — the male equivalent of Lili Taylor. This may be his best feature role yet alongside (no, not Kicking and Screaming) the little-seen Freak Talks About Sex. I just adored his awkward Dad jokes and his genuine concern for his daughter, especially knowing there’s no female presence in her life to give her advice on boys and such things.

I just felt like I could relate to Kayla so much, even though I’m a 33-year-old man. I remember having really bad acne as a teen — we’re talking two rounds of Accutane treatment — and I was always anxious about taking my shirt off at pool parties or the beach, and Burnham does a great capturing that creeping dread, and that feeling of how you just can’t wait to get in the pool and hide your body in the water, as if it’ll suddenly make you invisible.

Of course, you can’t write about Eighth Grade without mentioning The Scene — one where Kayle plays Truth or Dare with an older boy in the backseat of a car. I think it’ll end up getting more ink than it really merits, as it doesn’t personally strike me as an altogether unusual situation. Of course, the age difference between the two characters is startling, and clearly this high school boy is pushing the boundaries of what he can get away with by testing Kayla’s limits, but in this age of #MeToo, I’ve already read a few articles ascribing a really sinister intent to this character, when I think his behavior was more flirtatious and innocent. It’s absolutely an uncomfortable situation for any inexperienced teenage girl, but in the end, nothing actually happened. I felt bad for Kayla, though, who clearly internalizes that shame, blaming herself for what ultimately happens (or doesn’t). I don’t think he made her feel that way, as he was fairly understanding about the whole thing, but alas, that’s how it turned out. I love how Burnham shoots the aftermath of that scene, too, with music drowning out her sobs and her father’s concern.

Special shout-out to the character of Gab, er, Gabe, I mean, who serves as Kayla’s male counterpart. The spine of Eighth Grade is comprised of Kayla’s YouTube videos, in which she offers advice that she, herself, could use. And the whole time, you’re left to wonder, who is watching these videos? No one ever says anything about them to her at school. Well, just as there’s someone for everyone, as they saying goes, there’s an audience for every video. This is just a really sweet movie that I fell pretty hard for after a string of disappointments.

Which brings us, finally, to Piercing, which I wasn’t sure I would be able to enjoy because my iPhone died and wasn’t responding to any chargers or wall outlets. I felt a little naked being without my phone, and yet, the experience was strangely freeing. I couldn’t check the time like I do during most movies, not that I would’ve here, since Piercing was only 81 minutes long.

The film hails from Nicolas Pesce, whose debut feature, The Eyes of My Mother, was absolutely fantastic. Piercing isn’t as bold or daring as that film, but it’s a fun two-hander with solid performances from Christopher Abbott & Mia Wasikowska.

Based on the novel by Ryu Murakami, the author of the book that Audition is based on, Piercing is a game of cat-and-mouse, where you’re never sure who is the predator and who is the prey. In that sense, it’s kind of like Phantom Thread, but you know, this is a Midnight movie so, there will be blood. I loved the music and thought the production design was gorgeous, and I just dug the overall giallo vibe. That said, expectations were pretty high following Eyes of My Mother, and I’m not totally sure they were met, though to be fair, this film is much more commercial.

 

Russ Fischer called Piercing “a slight prick,” while Joshua Rothkopf said it felt like “a mannered placeholder” for the director, who is clearly talented and has a very bright future, especially with Borderline watching his back.

On the way out of piercing, I overheard folks saying good things about Jennifer Fox’s The Tale, and I’ve since heard that Jason Ritter is absolutely terrific in that film.

Elsewhere in Park City, I heard mixed things about Sebastian Silva’s Tyrel starring Jason Mitchell and Michael Cera. Jordan Hoffman called it “basically perfect,” but other critics like Alex Billington weren’t big fans.

 

People seemed to like Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You starring Lakeith Stanfield and Tessa Thompson, but at the same time, they weren’t quite sure what to make of such a weird movie. I also heard some Alamo Drafthouse executives praising Juliet, Naked, while one Di Bonaventura Films exec was overheard telling a Chernin Entertainment exec that Dead Pigs is the most commercial movie he’s seen so far, and it’s a foreign-language film, no less. That really speaks to the market here at Sundance, and maybe why sales have been so slow.

Much like Lizzie, reactions to Paul Dano’s directorial debut Wildlife ran the gamut. People seemed to like the performances (particularly from Carey Mulligan), though Jeffrey Wells wasn’t a big fan of the film, which he called “slow, cold, perverse and altogether hateful.” Well, okay then! I skipped my screening today despite having a ticket, so I can’t really talk.

But you know who can talk? Our own Ed Douglas, who offered some thoughts of his own on Saturday’s slate. It seems he liked Gus Van Sant’s Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot more than most critics, saying it’s as strong as the director’s acclaimed drama Milk, and that Joaquin Phoenix and Jonah Hill give Oscar winner Sean Penn a run for his money.

Ed said that Jesse Peretz did a nice with Juliet, Naked, which I know Drew really enjoyed as well. Ed was a big fan of the casting — Rose Byrne, Chris O’Dowd and Ethan Hawke — and said he found it “sweet, funny and romantic, often at the same time.”

Ed ended the day with Jordana Spiro’s Night Comes On, which he called “a fantastic showcase for the first-time filmmaker and her two leads, Dominique Fishback and Tatum Marilyn Hall, who give amazing performances.

That’ll do it for Saturday’s Sundance diary. I’ll starting my Sunday recap after Drew and I check out Revenge — because after Mandy, he can’t get enough of it, and I’m ready for a female take on the genre.

  | Editor in Chief
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