All Light, Everywhere
If it hadn’t already been claimed, a much more appropriate title for Theo Anthony’s All Light, Everywhere would be The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes — after all, Anthony’s documentary does posit at one point that “an act of seeing is always an act,” conceptualizing sight in the same manner that Brakhage did: as an action that requires thought, one that has been molded and shaped by cultural and socioeconomic factors that render notions of objectivity irrelevant. But impartiality is, paradoxically enough, something of a defining feature of living in the age of the surveillance state, where citizens are constantly monitored, recorded, and framed by a technological apparatus devoid of such subjectivity.
Or so one would be led to believe from the calculated arguments the proponents of said technology would attempt to present here: Steve Tuttle, a spokesman for Axon, the leading developer of police body cameras, sells his company’s product as a simple means to an end, a tool to help curb systemic violence. Tuttle even calls attention to the fact that “notice how I’m not swearing right now” when Anthony’s camera is pointed directly at him (brazenly ignoring the context in which he’s being recorded and by whom) as reason enough for the utilization of such devices. Another advocate, Ross McNutt, the CEO and founder of Persistent Surveillance Systems, attempts to sell his company’s software to local community centers in Baltimore as a means to monitor local crime — the very same operating system that was used to monitor the entire city after riots broke out following Freddie Gray’s murder in 2015, unbeknownst to even the city’s mayor at the time. McNutt eventually finds a buyer: the Baltimore City Police, who in December 2019, launched a six-month trial of this aerial surveillance program.
For all of their interest, these basic talking points spouted by Orwellian technocrats don’t get to the heart of what All Light, Everywhere is actually about, which is a bit difficult to fit into an elevator pitch: It’s concerned with sight in a broad sense, yes, but also how the state frames the general population’s perception of what is or is not visible. One subtly chilling sequence early on, shot entirely with an Axon body camera in a deserted shopping center, highlights how a user’s own body is kept completely out of frame, unseen and therefore always the justified party. Image creation, thusly, is treated as a practice of not deciding what enters the frame, but what is kept out in order to properly establish a narrative; the irony of such a concept being explored in a cinematic work isn’t lost on Anthony, who utilizes a myriad of differing contemporary artistic channels (documentary footage, picture books, VR equipment) to undercut any sense of illusive control he may have over his final product.
But as in his previous feature Rat Film, Anthony’s concerns also lie within the historical structure of such authoritative institutions, which lead him to formally connect past practices with current actualities — usually over a swelling Dan Deacon score that imbues these fast-edited montages with a sense of awe — and reach conclusions (not the information itself, more the act of putting all the pieces together) that attempt to convey what the last image of the galaxy brain meme must feel like. Which is all to say that Anthony is attempting a lot here, crafting a dense thesis in a manner that’s “in” on its own cleverness — though the film also has a tendency to spell things out for the sake of not losing its audience, even if its points have already percolated through popular media over the past decade or so. All Light, Everywhere is ultimately a Herculean effort deserving of praise, but one whose parts are more impressive than what they ultimately add up to.
Writer: Paul Attard
On the Count of Three
We’re all living in a post-Garden State world, one where twee titles angle for a coveted Sundance launch, the punchlines (and reviews) mostly write themselves, and emotion-heavy films that play the festival inevitably skew too mawkish or quaint by half. This is, of course, a reductive bias not really confined to any single genre, but it holds more often than not. Still, while the Sundance model may be easier to spot than most, it remains a trap to blindly write off such fare. Case in point: On the Count of Three. In shape, it looks a lot like it was cast from this standard, aughts-and-after Sundance matrix. A dramedy that tackles dark themes, it readily ticks off a checklist of the festival’s most meme-able qualities: an indie-approved soundtrack (and, in this case, a score by the indie-approved Owen Pallett), topical fodder (mental illness and gun control), and a handful of blunt-force zingers constructed for their future quotability (“Kevin, thanks for hitting my dad over the head with a tire iron earlier. You’re a good friend, man.”). But such superficial strokes are not troublesome on their face, and while they are indeed often predictive of a certain depthlessness, it only makes for greater impact when something like On the Count of Three manages to skirt typical pratfalls.
The directorial debut of Jerrod Carmichael, who also co-stars here, the film bears a bold logline: A buddy comedy about two friends who share a suicide pact. The agreement is made in the film’s early minutes: Kevin (Christopher Abbott), depressed and with a lifelong history of mental illness, is under observation after a failed suicide attempt; his best friend Val (Carmichael) helps him break out, grills Kevin about his continued ideation, and announces that he too has decided life isn’t worth living and they should shoot each other in the head. Kevin agrees, but only on the condition that the act takes place at the end of the day, which they will spend working through a bucket list of sorts, enacting vendettas and reclaiming power against those who have wronged them, with the help of a gun. (At one point, Kevin uses it to get the attention of a gas station clerk but still insists on paying, wholly mesmerized by the weapon’s suggestive power and gleefully yelling to a confused bystander, “It’s my right to bear arms, for some reason.”)
Ok, so that’s all pretty on-brand. What keeps On the Count of Three from succumbing to maudlin affectation is the gravity with which Carmichael considers his characters. Kevin’s struggles with mental illness are thrillingly nebulous, and while a narrative of trauma evolves across the film’s runtime, it never reduces his struggles to any pat explanation. Abbott trades in moody brooding for comedic mania, imbuing Kevin with a goofiness that never feels less than dangerous. Carmichael is given less to do as an actor, and his flat-affect, straight man schtick is predictably subordinated to the film’s convenient emotional crescendo — the climax feels inevitable but still rankles a bit for its convenient machinations, as certain crucial beats seem to exist, often against logic, only to usher in this ending. But as director, his handling of tone and theme is legitimately impressive. The central friendship is rich in chemistry and, importantly, evinces a genuine, moving love between the two, but it’s the darker undertones — discomfiting power dynamics and outright manipulation, particularly in light of Kevin’s mental health — that offer more to chew on. Likewise, its bouts of anarchic energy and comedic action are balanced with melancholic connective tissue, still, contemplative scenes set to the minimalist plucking and strings and occasional drum smacks of Pallett’s score. But perhaps the best example of the film’s careful equilibrium — and its facility at navigating both broad comedy and affecting drama — comes in a most unexpected place: a Papa Roach song. “Last Resort” becomes something of a running joke throughout the film, but at one point, after the duo briefly separates and Kevin finds and contemplates violence against an old high school bully, it takes on new meaning. Firing the song up for a bit of last-minute, head-thrashing motivation, his face instead begins to fall, lips faltering on the words: “Nothing’s alright, nothing is fine / I’m running and I’m crying.” Mining genuine emotion from a Papa Roach cut is Sundance done right.
Writer: Luke Gorham
At this point, it should go without saying that any Timur Bekmambetov production that features a plot “told entirely through social media and smartphone screens” should be high-priority viewing for anyone who cares about the future of cinema. Of course, these are all signifiers of what the Kazakh-Russian mega-producer refers to as “Screenlife”; not quite a genre, but more an approach to filmmaking made possible through new screen-recording technologies conceived and developed by Bekmambetov and his Bazalevs studio. It wasn’t so long ago that the producer’s name was more recognized in relation to his directorial output, big-budget Hollywood pulp like Wanted and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, but it seems that Bekmambetov’s interest in conventional Hollywood filmmaking dissipated in 2015 when he produced the first Screenlife film, Unfriended. In 2018, Bekmambetov spoke to Indiewire about this career pivot, saying “When you try Screenlife, it’s like a drug…You enter a world with no rules, there are no Sergei Eistensteins, no John Fords, nobody! So you can do whatever you want.”
This sense of freedom is apparent in Bekmambetov’s latest production, R#J, a Romeo and Juliet update that recasts the iconic characters as Black and Latinx American zoomers (the reveal of the film’s sole white cast member is a great gag), with the action exclusively existing in the digital realm (texts, live streams, and various social media). Bekmambetov and director Carey Williams (also credited as one of three writers) carry out their vision to its fullest and seemingly without compromise, though one must point out that despite the former’s assertion that Screenlife is a filmmaking style free from the rules of traditional cinematic grammar, R#J succeeds because of the ingenious ways it reinterprets cinematic editing and photography. The very act of switching between apps — and from phone to tablet to laptop — becomes its own seamless montage (often the recordings of one character will become content for another character’s viewing), while front-facing (FaceTime) live chats are positioned adjacent to one another in the same frame; a new media approximation of the De Palma split screen that also gestures towards the source material’s theatrical origins. R#J also understands the inherent intimacy of its aesthetic, that it is granting the audience direct access to a visualization of the characters’ psyches via their phones and homescreens. Just a quick glance at a lock or home screen reveals so much more about a character than endless expository dialogue could, as do their Spotify playlists (lots of diegetic music cues) and the curation of their Instas.
None of this would work if the characters weren’t drawn so well, but R#J (presumably thanks to Williams) is specific in its character work and clearly tapped into contemporary youth culture in a way few other films have yet to be. Romeo is a Letterboxd user with Radio Raheem as his lock screen, listens to Boards of Canada. Juliet is into Junji Ito and FKA Twigs, listens to Grouper. So, satisfying to see a director who actually understands the spirit of their times — and this understanding is reflected back in the youthful verve of his actors’ performances (in a just world, Siddiq Saunderson’s take on Mercutio would make him a star), all of which vibe with the film’s conceit perfectly. R#J may have not gotten significant buzz at this year’s festival, but it’s destined to have a significance that persists long after Sundance 2021 is behind us.
Writer: M.G. Mailloux
The Blazing World
With horror films in general and increasingly mired in slow-cinema formalism and banal explorations of trauma and representation without the spine of narrative (not to mention blatant this-movie-is-like-that-movie referencing), it was only a matter of time before someone truly concocted the ultimate cliche. The Blazing World is that film, a disarmingly charmless and amateurish series of indie genre check-boxes dressed up as something desperate to be described as “like Alice in Wonderland on acid” or something equally hack-ish.
The story opens with twin girls Margaret and Lizzie, dressed in identical pink dresses, collecting fireflies on their family’s sprawling estate. While mom and dad (Vinessa Shaw and Dermot Mulroney, respectively) have a blistering argument that soon spirals into something fairly abusive, Lizzie drowns in the pool and Margaret sees Udo fucking Kier beckoning her into a swirling black wormhole. Cut to the present day, where we find Margaret (writer/director/star Carlson Young) paralyzed by the memory of her sister and searching for answers. Minus the gonzo-cinema pandering, it’s all very Psych 101. She returns to her parents’ place to help them move out of the mansion, but her relationship with them remains strained. After a night out with some old friends, the film shifts into Margaret’s dreamscape journey into her own psyche, a tiresome mish-mash of cinematic touchstones, from Dr. Caligari to The Cell to (most egregiously) Pan’s Labyrinth.
Margaret’s Mind Palace is a brightly-colored, greenscreen-infested journey through chintzy production design, quasi-feminist pop psychology, and recurring appearances of Kier saying things like “I am the darkest tree in the forest of light!” while he eats magic bugs. It’s all rife with obvious symbolism and self-help platitudes, so that we can have the scintillating experience of watching Margaret collect four keys from four different weird monsters in her psyche in the hopes of recovering her long-gone sister. Young shoots the entire thing in either locked-off symmetry or wispy faux-Terrence Malick handheld, but neither technique is employed for any good reason. And there’s still a good chunk of running time left when Margaret announces “What if there isn’t any bottom of the rabbit hole?” How profound.
Writer: Matt Lynch
In Land — one of the two high profile films at Sundance 2021 directed by popular actresses making their debuts behind the camera, the other being Rebecca Hall’s Passing — Robin Wright directs and stars as Edee, a woman on the run from her own grief, who escapes to a remote cabin in the Rocky Mountains to heal. It’s difficult not to compare the film to Jean Marc-Vallée’s Wild (or even Sean Penn’s Into the Wild), but Land is a much more insular take on familiar survival material, with Wright putting on a nearly one-woman show for the film’s 90-minute running time. Wright is, of course, magnetic, and her evocation of personal trauma is deeply affecting. But for all of the film’s beautiful locations and pretty cinematography, it feels almost too brief and inconsequential. The always reliable Demián Bichir shows up as a local who helps guide her out of her cloud of grief, but his entrance into the narrative is so belated that it almost doesn’t justify the emotional impact his character has on both the plot and on Wright’s character. Land keeps the true source of Edee’s pain hidden until the very end, but the reveal almost feels cheap, a missing piece of the character’s puzzle that would have perhaps had more impact had it been revealed earlier in the film.
Structural issues aside, Land is much more successful as a mood piece. The film is at its best when it’s just focused on Wright and the land, as she struggles to survive in the harsh winter elements, setting up her new home, hunting for food, and fending off hungry bears. In that regard, it’s almost Cast Away in the mountains, with Wright commanding every moment in a nearly wordless performance. Buoyed by a lovely, rustic score by Ben Sollee and string trio Time for Three, Land is an easy watch filled with gorgeous images and meditative lyricism, but for all its beauty it never manages to connect on a deeper level. After a year like 2020, a story about a woman who cuts the cord, leaves her cell phone and the internet behind, and heads off into the wilderness for some peace and quiet is certainly easy to relate. But while Wright displays a keen eye for shooting mountain vistas, the film consistently shies away from tackling its thematic material head on, relying instead on its lush scenery and an all-too-familiar story about a person’s triumph over adversity through an encounter with nature.
Writer: Matthew Lucas
Coming Home in the Dark
As more than a few commentators have noted, the specter of Michael Haneke — that gloomy Austrian known for his austere, severe aesthetic and ice-cold view of humanity — has loomed over a number of titles at this year’s festival. Here now is Coming Home in the Dark, a deeply unsettling bit of Ozploitation (although it’s actually from New Zealand, so Kiwiploitation?) that begins like a distaff version of Haneke’s own Funny Games by way of Greg McLean’s Wolf Creek. Out for a weekend drive and a picnic in the middle of nowhere with his family, schoolteacher Hoagie (Erik Thomson), wife Jill (Miriama McDowell), and their two teenaged sons (real life siblings Billy and Frankie Paratene) are suddenly set upon by a pair of ominous strangers. Mandrake (Daniel Gillies) is chatty and polite and all ingratiating, creepy charm; Tubs (Matthias Luafutu) is mostly silent, standing off to the side, quietly observing. What follows is 80 minutes of pure survival horror, as the family is kidnapped by the two men and taken on a nightmarish odyssey to destinations unknown.
Adapting a short story by Owen Marshall, director James Ashcroft, along with co-writer Eli Kent, have stripped this horrific scenario down to the barest of bones, deftly sketching in believable, even likable characters in a short amount of time and then immediately tossing them into a meat grinder. Thomson and McDowell are fine performers, conveying their characters’ frantic desperation, but also their intelligence as they try to figure a way out of their predicament. Gillies in turn gives a fantastically unhinged performance as a talkative psychopath; his constant needling and pointed questions gradually reveal a kind of method to his madness. There’s not much plot to speak of, and to give away any more would be a disservice to potential viewers, but there’s a point to the cruelty here. It’s the return of the repressed, that favorite genre trope, here wrapped up in a kind of philosophical debate over cycles of institutional violence and the difference (if any) between carrying out an action and simply allowing it to be carried out. Needless to say, Hoagie and his family haven’t been targeted randomly, and teasing out that shared history is the main drive of the otherwise minimal narrative. For all the misery up on screen, Coming Home in the Dark isn’t particularly violent; taking a cue from the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, certain acts occur just offscreen or so quickly that you’ll miss them if you blink. Instead, it’s the constant threat of potential violence that shreds the nerves. Coming Home in the Dark isn’t breaking any new ground here, but it’s so good at summoning up a kind of primordial dread through precisely tuned, even elegant, set pieces that one has to admire it. It’s a film that feels genuinely dangerous, like anything could happen to anyone at any time, and that’s no small feat. If the ending feels a bit pat, a little too tidy in its morality, it’s still a helluva of a journey getting there.
Writer: Daniel Gorman