Credit: Jake Polonsky
by InRO Staff Featured Festival Coverage Film

Sundance Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 2: The Sparks Brothers, I Was a Simple Man, How It Ends

January 31, 2021

The Sparks Brothers

For most of their fans and listeners, a first encounter with Sparks did not result in the assumption that the duo of Ron and Russell Mael were two Californian-born musicians. In fact, at that time, Sparks’ work bore a sound that could suggest many origins, none of which were akin to the pop/rock outfits of the early 1970s coming from the U.S. (“The best British group ever to come out of America!”, as they’re ironically dubbed.) This misleading characteristic is just one of many offbeat traits that have come to define and inform Sparks’ music, which has spanned roughly five decades. And yet, even after releasing 25 albums and recording nearly 500 songs, Sparks remains both simultaneously highly influential and decidedly overlooked, existing in a heavy, hazy halo of mystery and obscurity  — “They are a band you can look up on Wikipedia and know nothing.” An avant-pop sibling act — one part charming singer and one part deadpan keyboardist/lyricist/composer with an intimidating stare and a Chaplin mustache — the duo and their work often play out as a sort of public psychodrama, a venerable “part of the ecosystem of music.”

Keeping this in mind, Edgar Wright’s The Sparks Brothers paints a vivid portrait of the Mael brothers, both exploring their musical creativity and opening a window into their psyches in his curtain-pulling study of their lives and career. Wright’s docu-portrait uses an amalgam of formal modes — archival footage of music videos, live and TV performances, talking-head conversations with the duo, their bandmates, collaborators, and successors ( all of whom look directly into the camera, lending a sense of sincerity and playfulness) — but one element is crucial for grasping the essence of Wright’s work in relation with Sparks’ music: Ron and Russell’s oeuvre is tightly interconnected with cinematic aspects (inspired by likes of Ingmar Bergman, Jacques Tati, and Jean-Luc Godard, among many others) and a great dose of energetic humor and witty parody (that even frequently caused their listeners not to take them seriously.) In other words, their work is defined by an overall (and intellectual) friskiness, a quality that they share with Wright and which he here perfectly incorporates into his biography, to the point of mischievously titling his film The Sparks Brothers, a moniker that Ron and Russell always hated to be called.

Through a polyrhythmic structure, and a handful of distinctive visual flourishes — from doodle animations to stop-motion sequences, from photo collage aesthetics to a playful tendency for utilizing lexical intertitles and creative textual identifiers for interviewee — Wright renders The Sparks Brothers’ story, from childhood to present, as a frolicsome, roller-coaster experience and a delightful 140-minute audiovisual adventure where style and the substance are in complete harmony. It’s a film that comes at its subject matter from multiple angles, as it follows the history of the duo’s fraternal artistic collaboration, elucidates their later recognition and cultural resurrection, and, importantly, manages to capture and convey the zeitgeist of different eras and the temporal transition that took place within the music scene over the past half-century. The result is an insightful and singular film, an equal opportunity for viewers who are Sparks’ fanatics and those who don’t know them — after all, no one really does. Crucially, it’s also an exciting cinematic homage to one of the most cinematic musical groups of all-time. It’s only fitting, then, that, in true oddball form, The Sparks Brothers is a documentary and a biopic that viewers can readily dance and stamp their feet to throughout its wild ride.

Writer: Ayeen Forootan

Credit: Eunsoo Cho

I Was a Simple Man

“Maybe we don’t deserve to go so easily” this line is offered in response to the gruesome account of a suicide attempt that opens Christopher Makoto Yogi’s death rattle, I Was A Simple Man. It’s an offhand musing lent divine severity in the brief silence following it. The rest is fleeting suggestion; urban sprawl, traces of a prelapsarian past, the soundscape mottled by industrial noise before susurrating gently into a nighttime calm, settling on Masao (Steve Iwamoto). His twitching fingers and strained expression mercifully communicate untold suffering: here is a man knee-deep in it, yet still clinging to his life.

For Masao, the minimal commitment and routines of subsistence amidst the forested depths of Oahu have accommodated him well, serving as ample distraction from the untimely passing of his wife, Grace (Constance Wu), and further abandonment of his three children. Watched over by an apparition of Grace, he ventures inwards in a bid at confronting past failings and finding peace. Such a jumping-off point, unfortunately, isn’t much removed from Yogi’s 2018 debut, August At Akiko’s, which saw the development of a similarly rootsy animating spirit, as well as thrall to the mystical energies that have succeeded modernity’s homogenized cultural centers. Though the mentioned opening entices with its cater-cornered assemblage and sparing detail, Simple Man quickly retreats to the comforts of previous influences; slow cinema heavyweights Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Pedro Costa, whose interests largely track with this sort of twilight portrait of ancestral/familial specters and the half-spaces they cohabit amongst the living, are obvious cribbings.

Beyond the facsimiled imprints of celebrated works is a genuine effort on Yogi’s part to distinguish his film from a mold its ilk has been accused of over-reliance on. His close acquaintance with the territory infuses into it a sensorial vividity that pirouettes around select scenes: lovers’ hands clasped above a mound of dirt as waves crash in the near-distance, an arc of continuity scribed into the dissolve between a burning altar and the flowy, swaying movements of forest brush. Ultimately, however, these more memorable images remain few, subordinate to the competing impulses at play — repetitive keynotes and temperance of form, pitched against conceptual ambition. “When you let go of ritual, you can assume the magical,” we’re told at one point. The former takes regrettable precedence here: shots of seeping rainwater, an overfilled cup, and wind rippling across sugarcane fields are continually cycled back to and layered, so as to establish an elemental basis for the film’s tone-poem wanderings. 

Problems arise when our immersion inevitably wears thin, and how better to resuscitate things than with a dash of memory-as-structuring-device? As Masao enters a reckoning with all that he’s missed in the throes of grief, narrative uniformity splinters, variously differentiated timelines now finding (imaginary) alignment such that flashbacks become marked by retroactive guilt, self-destruction, and personal indifference. It’s certainly a bold jig, especially in light of its late-film placement, but one completely lacking in the stylistic justification or modulation necessary to convey all this elegantly. Yet elsewhere, and like the concentric-circle painting Masao’s daughter Kati (Chanel Akiko Hirai) gradually fills in, the deluge of thematic material (Japanese nationalism, displaced identity, superstition and clashing traditions, adolescent romance, erasure of colonial histories) and spaced-out insularity ensures neither subject nor referent is examined with deserved closeness. The result is a wildly contradictory affair whose unresolved ideas find as little purchase as its sojourns across time.

Writer: Nicholas Yap

Mother Schmuckers

American audiences encountering the Belgian gross-out comedy Mother Schmuckers can be forgiven for thinking that perhaps something is lost in translation. It would be easy to assume that the central pair at the heart of the film, actors Maxi Delmelle and Harpo Guit, are some sort of social media sensations or long-standing comedy duo who have a huge cult following in their homeland; it would at least explain why they were given the opportunity to make such a dire film in the first place. Alas, research reveals that this is indeed their first collaboration, and the directorial debut of real-life brothers Lenny Guit and star Harpo. Thus, any would-be leeway is mercilessly revoked, and all that is left is a brutally unfunny film that tries hard to shock but does nothing more than exhaust. There’s a hint of John Waters in the film’s DNA, the story of two incredibly stupid and obnoxious brothers, Issachar and Zabulon, who search frantically for their mother’s missing dog over the course of 12 insane hours, getting into all sorts of wacky adventures along the way. That this film opens with one of the duo eating dog shit seems like an obvious reference and perhaps a challenge to Waters’ cult classic Pink Flamingos, which (in)famously finds star Divine eating a fresh coil on camera at film’s end. The strategic logic of Mother Schmuckers, then, seems to be: what if we started with this nauseating act? 

The movie certainly tries to top itself with each successive scene, introducing bestiality, necrophilia, homophobia, abuse of the homeless, the dangers of nut allergies stemming from the deep-throating of a peanut butter-covered pistol, and dick removal by the jaws of a dog. Waters is also channeled in the film’s grungy aesthetic, which combines traditional digital photography with cell phone footage, videotape, and 16mm film stock. Every camera angle imaginable is utilized, while specialized techniques such as speed ramping and freeze frames — and freeze frames within freeze frames! — abound. What the Guit brothers seem to have forgotten is that, for all of the gross-out and sometimes deplorable actions enacted by his characters, Waters’ kinship with them was palpable, an innate likeability and, ironically, innocence present within each one. His films were nothing if not a portrait of outsiders desperately trying to find their place in the world, even if it meant destroying its mores in the process. Issachar and Zabulon are merely grating and mean-spirited, driven by literal hunger and nothing more. The difference is as stark as the one that exists between Dumb and Dumber one and two, the former another clear aspirational touchstone here. Trust me, then, when I say nothing has been lost in translation; unfunny transcends any and all language and cultural barriers. This film can go schmuck itself.

Writer: Steven Warner

Credit: Sundance Institute

A Glitch in the Matrix

The kindest thing one could say about Rodney Ascher’s A Glitch in the Matrix is that it’s a timely film, though even this may be a bit generous. Landing in the same year as a new Matrix film and in a cultural moment where “red pill” has become a recognized verb, it’s easy to see why Sundance has positioned Ascher’s simulation theory documentary as a major title. Yet, A Glitch in the Matrix does little beyond planting its flag in this territory, offering up what is essentially a survey course with moments of cartoonish spectacle. 

In keeping with the aesthetics of his previous films, Ascher’s conceit for A Glitch in the Matrix is to center interview subjects culled from message boards and YouTube; individuals who have some obsession with the subject at hand, but lack institutional credibility. The interviewees are questioned on how they initially got swept up in this subculture, their hypotheses regarding the scope and purpose of the simulation, and the ultimate impact it’s had on their lives — their responses soundtracked over reappropriated footage from a variety of popular science fiction cinema. Those familiar with Ascher’s past work should recognize all of this, his very subjective approach to documentary filmmaking largely unchanged since debut feature Room 237 played this festival in 2012. That said, A Glitch in the Matrix does employ a new (much advertised) trick — interviewees are represented on screen via kooky digital avatars (of Ascher’s design) — but it’s a flourish that does little to reveal deeper truths on the subject, serving more as (often laughable) distraction.

One could argue that distraction and/or distance is actually Ascher’s intended effect, to perhaps replicate the feelings of isolation and anti-empathy voiced by some of the subjects in the audience. But alas, this is one decent idea among many weaker ones, the film’s perspective flitting about between these avatar sequences, Room 237-style breakdowns of The Matrix, archival footage of Philip K. Dick, and talking-head interviews with traditional (non-digitized) academics. Some of this might perhaps be of interest to those who are newly aware of simulation theory or have never considered the Wachowski Sisters’ 1999 opus very carefully, but those who do not place into either camp will be surprised at how shallow A Glitch in the Matrix is (mentions of “simulacra” but no talk of Baudrillard?). But where some may gain the occasional insight, it’s hard to imagine coming away satisfied by Ascher’s pragmatic thesis, his subjective documentary style belying a distinct perspective. A shockingly tame approach to such existentially alarming subject matter, A Glitch in the Matrix is the sort of movie the simulation might generate to dissuade us from ever investigating further.

Writer: M.G. Mailloux

How It Ends

New indie comedy How It Ends prides itself on the fact that it was filmed during the pandemic-plagued summer of 2020, an act of desperation that basically begs audiences to forgive its slapdash execution. The husband-wife filmmaking duo of Daryl Wein and Zoe Lister-Jones, here serving as co-directors and co-writers, were obviously influenced by the world events around them, crafting a tale that details one woman’s journey of self-acceptance on humanity’s last day on Earth, soon to be obliterated by an apocalyptic meteor. The woman in question, Liza (Lister-Jones), hoofs her way across sunny Los Angeles, desperate to bring closure to a number of fractured relationships from her past. In tow is the metaphysical version of Liza’s younger self (Cailee Spaeny), who can now be seen by everyone as a result of some heightened emotional frequency caused by the upcoming cataclysmic event. Much like everything else in this film, there is absolutely no pay-off to this plot development, its implementation feeling like a half-assed eccentricity, at best.

The film’s episodic structure allows Liza and Liza Jr. to encounter numerous individuals on their trek across L.A., with Lister-Jones and Wein clearly calling in a lot of favors from friends to cameo for a series of one-off scenes that feel highly improvised and rarely amusing. It’s quite an achievement to gather the likes of Fred Armisen, Olivia Wilde, Bradley Whitford, Helen Hunt, Glenn Howerton, Lamorne Morris, Paul Scheer, Rob Huebel, Charlie Day, Colin Hanks, and — God help me — Pauly Shore, and give them exactly nothing of interest to do or say. It’s also quite obvious that, aside from Lister-Jones and Spaeny, the production had Covid protocols in place, with everyone on screen maintaining a bubble of at least six feet. While this is admirable — to the extent that adhering to life-saving protocols and communal responsibility has become praise-worthy rather than expected — it unfortunately results in exceedingly ugly shots that only serve to highlight the filmmakers’ (required) awkward blocking and improper use of screen space. But what’s most frustrating is that this hindrance actually could have been used in the film’s favor, a visual metaphor to reinforce the distance Liza has created between herself and others in order to shield herself from pain and heartache. This is, after all, the story of one woman finally learning to love herself — literally. Yet it becomes just another example of a production that showed little thought in conception and execution other than, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we got our friends together and made a movie?” As How It Ends makes painstakingly clear, the answer is a resounding no.

Writer: Steven Warner

Credit: Lauren Guiteras

Ma Belle, My Beauty

Polyamory is a subject that’s not often explored in mainstream films. While other films have touched on it — Christophe Honoré’s Love Songs and Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers spring readily to mind — few films have tackled the subject by name in such a frank and unassuming way as Marion Hill’s stirring feature debut, Ma Belle, My Beauty. Set against the idyllic backdrop of a country estate in the south of France, the film centers around two former lovers Bertie (Idella Johnson) and Lane (Hannah Pepper-Cunningham), who reunite for a weekend at the invitation of Fred (Lucien Guignard), Bertie’s new husband. The trio had once formed a polyamorous relationship, but Bertie’s engagement to Fred ultimately alienated Lane from the relationship, and their reunion threatens to both rekindle old passions and reopen old wounds.

It should be said that films about polyamory are typically more about love triangles than true polyamory, in which multiple partners are in equal relationships with each other as one unit. Ma Belle, My Beauty explores the breakup of one such trio, and while it suffers from some of the typical hiccups and lack of polish one may expect in a low-budget Sundance indie, Hill manages to lend the affair a striking sense of emotional honesty, thanks in no small part to the tender and honest performances of the women at the film’s center. While their relationship with Fred, a transient musician whose true love is music and the open road, remains somewhat underdeveloped, there’s something appealing (perhaps even poetic) about the fact that the man is the least interesting figure in this relationship, and that Bertie and Lane could possibly make a stronger pair on their own.  Together with a jazzy score by Mahmoud Chouki, with its Django Reinhardt-inspired guitar riffs, the sunny locations create an indelible atmosphere, and Hill confronts the burning passions simmering beneath the surface with a sexual frankness that is explicit without being pornographic. That’s probably Ma Belle, My Beauty’s greatest strength: it takes a subject matter that’s still somewhat taboo in modern society and treats it with the dignity it deserves. It doesn’t quite stick the landing — the ending is somewhat unsatisfying given the gravity of the emotions on display — but real relationships often don’t give us satisfying endings either; things are left unsaid, promises unkept, desire unrequited. But the film closes on a note that is almost too opaque to have the necessary emotional impact. Ma Belle, My Beauty is a lovingly realized romantic confection that puts a multi-racial, bisexual polyamorous romance front and center without turning polyamory into some sort of exotic sexual tourist attraction, but it ultimately shies away from confronting the emotional ramifications of its plot head-on.

Writer: Mattie Lucas

Prime Time

Set on the eve of the millennium, with the impending possibility of Y2K just hours away, Jakub Piatek’s Prime Time follows Sebastian (Bartosz Bielenia), an enigmatic and menacing young man, as he holds two people hostage inside a television studio. His ransom? A short broadcast to the people of Poland. Out of this simple premise, Piatek spins a 90-minute thriller that, despite being low on conventional thrills, still manages to be engaging throughout. The negotiation of Sebastian’s demands is naturally the central driving force of Prime Time, but Piatek seems less interested in the potential for high-stakes tension than in the complicated dynamics between his characters, as they navigate the situation under the microscope of the attention economy. 

From start to finish, the characters of Prime Time engage in carefully crafted performances. A rotating cast, from professional negotiators to network staff to members of Sebastian’s own family, try their best to handle the situation. Muted sparks of true empathy occasionally burst through but are quickly snuffed out by the apparent need to maintain a cold, impassive front. Instead, Piatek generates empathy in the way only his camera can, through its focus. Like a child that hasn’t yet grasped object permanence, Piatek’s camera drifts, losing focus throughout the film, and the second it leaves something behind, we realize how quickly that thing is forgotten. As New Year’s Eve festivities rage on in the background, Sebastian’s broadcast becomes just another performance vying for the attention of the camera. We get the sense that the only way any of these characters know how to relate to one another is through cameras, with one of the film’s stand-out scenes being one of the rare moments of connection, between Sebastian and one of his handlers, Lena. Notably, however, their entire exchange takes place through a TV screen.

For all this talk of performances, the three leads do a stellar job in portraying just how fragile those performances are. Sebastian’s two hostages, a security guard (Andrzej Kłak) and television hostess Mira (Magdalena Poplawska), are ultimately at the whim of their captor, and it’s at times difficult to tell whether the pair have a bizarre case of Stockholm syndrome, genuine sympathy for him, or whether they are performing for their lives. The way Poplawska and Kłak choose to play their roles is perhaps best described as curious, adding an intriguing layer to characters who could easily have strayed into cliche. Similarly, writers Piatek and Lukasz Czapski leave a breadcrumb trail of cliches in their characterization of Sebastian (a cold, distant father, a failed attempt at higher education, childhood trauma), all of which culminates in a stereotype of an armed attacker that the Western world has learned to be familiar with: an angry, entitled young white man waving a gun around and playing with people’s lives. However, Bielenia’s deft performance maintains a careful balance between cryptic and shallow that makes Sebastian far more likeble and sympathetic than his character has any right to be.

Where Prime Time stumbles, however, is also in its characterization of Sebastian. In many ways, Sebastian is emblematic of a generation of terrorists and killers to come. The future looms over Prime Time, and it’s easy to project for Sebastian 20 years of violence following this event, not to mention many before it. However, Sebastian’s motive and message are ultimately unknown, while in reality we know the motivations of such figures, and it is generally far more hateful than a vague dissatisfaction with society. Depriving him of any clear motive, Piatek makes a terrifying implication as to what many attackers of Sebastian’s type seek: attention. Whether this is a stroke of genius or a glossing over of the motivations of ideological terrorists is for audiences to decide.

Writer: Molly Adams