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Sundance Film Festival

Sundance 2020: Ai Weiwei’s ‘Vivos’ Is a Somber Requiem for Democracy

Ai Weiwei’s newest documentary concerns the fate of 43 “disappeared” Mexican students, but it’s more concerned with the lives of their families than being a true crime procedural.

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Vivos

Ai Weiwei, the Chinese dissident artist who left his home country in 2015, has been making films for close to two decades, though he’s best known for his non-film art projects. That may have changed with his 2017 documentary Human Flow, about the global migrant and refugee crisis, which brought his work into multiplexes and arthouse instead of just museums. His newest feature-length documentary, Vivos, is his most direct and emotionally resonant film to date. It looks unsparingly at a humanitarian crisis that has dogged both Mexico and The United States in recent decades with a sustained fury that stays just below the surface, always present but never overpowering.

Vivos concerns the 2014 mass kidnapping of teaching students in Iguala, Guerrero, Mexico. The students, members of a rural teaching college, were first attacked by police officers during a protest. Police killed six people in the hail of gunfire and injured another 25. The fate of those 31 people is well-established, but the other 43 students were “disappeared” in the aftermath of the attack, never to be heard from again. A subsequent government-led investigation determined that local police, who were in cahoots with drug cartels, took the students into custody. The police handed the students over to the cartel membe3rs, who killed them, incinerated the bodies, and dumped the remains in a nearby river to be washed away. At the time, the government referred to this as the “historic truth,” a chillingly Orwellian turn of phrase. It both suggests the supposedly definitive answer was only a temporary explanation, while paradoxically establishing the explanation as a definitive matter of record. Outside investigators would later determine this narrative to be (at least partly) false; the timeline of when the students were believed to have been incinerated didn’t line up, and officials higher up the chain of command were believed to be involved.

Vivos

Vivos tells this story, in great detail and with enormous sensitivity, but it’s not a true-crime documentary. We don’t even get significant details about the kidnapping and the investigation until halfway through the film. Instead, he focuses on the families and loved ones of the abducted men. The bulk of the film examines their daily lives and how they struggle to find normalcy in the wake of a tragedy. Ai constantly finds a sense of stillness in his shots, as when he films his subjects in moments of contemplation, or rest. The slowed-down pace suggests how their lives have come to a halt with the loss of their sons. The film opens and closes with complimentary shots in which the camera moves slowly forward down a mist-shrouded road as it approaches a bend around a mountain. The images suggest the path those buses might have taken before the students were abducted. But the foggy air also can represent the cloud of lies and half-truths that will most likely prevent these families from knowing what really happened to their children.

If there’s one misstep, it’s in the film’s title: Vivos, meaning “alive” in Spanish. After the independent investigators determine that the “historic truth” is incomplete at best and fabrication at worst, the families, many of which have become activists in the memory of their sons, become convinced that their boys are still alive somewhere. “Alive, they took them! Alive, we want them back!” they chant during their public demonstrations. The families, in their grief, hope against hope that the government had kept the students alive and hidden them away, an outcome that strains credulity and logic. If a final answer is ever delivered, it’s likely to be a heartbreaking rebuke of that hope, but Ai seems to sympathize with those hopes in a way that gives them fuel. It’s understandable to not want to take away the last bit of hope from people who have already lost so much, but that doesn’t excuse the move. Perhaps these families will be successful in reforming Mexico’s government, military, and police, or even the US drug trade and drug war policies that led to this bloodshed. But that final bit of false hope is just one more indignity for them to suffer.

The Sundance Film Festival runs Jan. 23 – Feb. 2, 2020. Visit the official website for more information.

Brian Marks is Sordid Cinema's Lead Film Critic. His writing has appeared in The Village Voice, LA Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, and Ampersand. He's a graduate of USC's master's program in Specialized Arts Journalism. You can find more of his writing at InPraiseofCinema.com. Best film experience: driving halfway across the the country for a screening of Jean-Luc Godard's "King Lear." Totally worth it.

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Sundance Film Festival

‘Relic’ Weaponizes Our Fears of Aging Alone

The debut feature from Natalie Erika James is an elegant and chilling horror film about dementia and losing a loved one.

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Relic

Of all the longstanding horror tropes, few are as resilient as that of the horrifying elderly person. Of course, there shouldn’t be anything scary about old people (most of us will be there soon enough), but we sense the decay that has overtaken them and know that it will eventually come for us, too. Seniors have also had far more experiences than young people, and their depths of knowledge are imposing. They know more of the horrors of the world then younger generations have been able to experience, and sometimes they turn those evils against them. It would have been easy for Natalie Erika James to make Relic, her debut feature, something that played on that well-worn territory for some cheap scares. Instead, she has crafted a subtle and terrifying film graced with a welcome strain of tenderness.

Relic stars Emily Mortimer as Kay, who learns in the film’s opening minutes that her mother Edna (Robyn Nevin) hasn’t been seen or heard from by the neighbors in quite some time. She and her improbably old daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) drive from Melbourne to her country house to find the place empty and showing signs of disrepair. Furniture and items have been left in disarray, there’s food left out for a pet that’s been dead for years, and there are post-it notes everywhere with reminders for the simplest tasks. Kay and Sam put their lives on hold to stay in the house while the police search for Edna, but strange goings-on in underlit rooms suggest something closer to home might account for her disappearance.

Relic

The scary old house would be a perfect opportunity for copious jump scares, but James keeps Relic admirably free of such cheap thrills. There are a few, to be sure, and plenty of terrifying moments, but she doesn’t feel the need to punctuate them with crashing sounds loud enough to make you involuntarily shudder, like a doctor’s hammer to the knee. Instead, she builds an ever-mounting sense of dread that begins to envelop Kay and Sam. Much of that is accomplished by the excellent production design by Steven Jones-Evans, who has decorated the house to feel both lived in yet mysterious. Part of its disorienting nature is also due to the layout, which never quite makes sense; it’s difficult to tell which rooms are on the second floor, and the audience is never quite sure which room one of the characters will end up in when they pass through a door.

Relic is more than just a great haunted house movie, though. As Kay and Sam are driven closer together by their fears for Edna, the audience is able to confront its fears: of death, of old age, of losing our memories, of dying alone with no loved ones to care for us in our final moments. The movie takes some bizarre turns as it hurtles toward its climax, but Relic ends on an unexpectedly moving note (if still chilling). After your nerves have settled, you might just want to give your parent or grandparent a call.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on January 29, 2020, as part of our coverage of the Sundance Film Festival.

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Sundance Film Festival

Sundance 2020: ‘The Night House’ Finds New Life in the Maligned Jump Scare

‘The Night House’ evolves from a simple haunted house story to a chilling examination of grief, with plenty of spooky noises along the way.

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The Night House

I’m on the record as not being a fan of jump scares — those moments when a movie signals that we’re supposed to be scared by using such a loud sound that we involuntarily shudder. They’re the ultimate form of shocked surprise, but too often, filmmakers use them as a means of misdirection. When they’ve failed to create a suspenseful atmosphere via the screenplay or the visual ambiance, they add a deafening door slam or a bump in the night or a gasp that registers as loud as a scream to make viewers involuntarily spasm. Something legitimately frightening that’s given an extra soundtrack boost is one thing, but more often the jump scares are paired with completely innocuous events to set us on edge when there’s no reason for our defenses to be aroused. It was clear from the opening minutes of The Night House that the film would use jump scares liberally. In fact, it’s a movie that lives or dies by them. But, miraculously, The Night House finds original and legitimately terrifying uses for its sometimes deafening sound. I’d hate to go home to an old, creaky house after seeing it, but few movies in recent years have set me this much on edge.

If The Night House embraces the jump scare, one trend it thankfully ignores is the need to find frights from the very beginning. Instead, it opens on a somber note with downbeat — but not depressing — music. Beth (Rebecca Hall) is obsessively going through keepsakes and old home videos. It soon becomes clear that her husband has killed himself, but we first meet Beth once she’s past the earliest stages of grief. Now, her sadness has lifted a bit and become intertwined with anger at the way he left her alone so suddenly. She’s a grade-school teacher and who lives in an elegant and spacious home on a lake hidden away in the woods, which we later learn was completely built by hand by her husband. But just as Beth is attempting to regain a sense of normalcy, something begins to act up in the house. She hears banging with no obvious source, and the automatic lights turn on outside and hints of figures are glimpsed, but nothing concrete. Things escalate when she’s awoken in the middle of the night by the stereo in the living room downstairs turning on and spontaneously playing her wedding song at full blast.

The Night House’s director, David Bruckner, handles these developments carefully and delicately. Though his jump scares are initially stimuli without meaning, they begin to accumulate, and we start to discover the secrets hidden in Beth’s house, some of them left by her husband. Though it’s a respectable haunted house film in many ways, The Night House begins to teeter on the edge of cosmic horror as it progresses, and the massive scope of the horrors it suggests is nearly overwhelming. Hall is the perfect choice for the film; she has a calming presence, and even her voice is soothing, and she’s able to stay calm initially, but once she finally lets loose, full-on panic sets in.

The Night House descends from bumps into the night to a constant state of terror, but what ultimately makes it so powerful is the sense of real emotion. Beth’s husband is mostly a cipher, but she reveals home important their relationship was, and just how alone she feels without him. The film’s nihilistic tendencies are abated just enough by her humanity. The Night House will get your adrenaline pumping, but it won’t leave a sour taste in your mouth.

The Sundance Film Festival runs Jan. 23 – Feb. 2, 2020. Visit the official website for more information.

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Sundance Film Festival

Sundance 2020: ‘Never Rarely Sometimes Always’ Is More Than a Simple Polemical

Eliz Hittman’s ‘Never Rarely Sometimes Always’ explores the humiliations and obstacles that block women’s paths to abortion throughout the US.

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Never Rarely Sometimes Always

The early buzz out of Sundance was largely positive about Eliza Hittman’s third film, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, but some critics misjudged the work as a mostly political examination of hot button social issues. They’re not totally off the mark, as Hittman’s viewpoint is clear and undisguised, but her film is a sensitive and moving look at the experiences of young women in need of an abortion in the United States rather than a form of propaganda.

The film opens on a talent show with a parade of singing groups, but the pattern is disrupted when we first see Autumn (Sidney Flanigan). She’s singing an angsty rock song solo and accompanying herself on guitar. It immediately sets her apart from the crowd; the self-penned song betrays her inner anger at how she’s treated, and the fact that she’s the only person playing an instrument suggests she’s resourceful and adaptable. The fact that she’s even willing to sing sometime that departs so extremely from the poppy nature of the other acts indicates how desperate she is to break out of the social constraints that bind her.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always indicates the position Autumn is in early, when a boy in the audience calls her a slut in the middle of her performance, temporarily derailing the song, though she’s able to resume and finish it. Hittman doesn’t give anything in the way of backstory, but it’s clear from the outburst and the shifty way other guys look at her after the talent show that she’s being shamed for some kind of sexual encounter. The consequences of said encounter are also clear when Autumn skips school one day to go to a clinic for a pregnancy test, which turns out to be positive. Though she doesn’t realize it, the place she has gone for the test is a “crisis pregnancy center,” an organization that seeks to dissuade women from getting abortions, often through disinformation. Autumn is 17 and still in high school, and she knows she can’t take care of a baby or even bring one to term without sacrificing her future, so she looks up how to obtain an abortion. That’s where things get complicated. She’s 17, and minors in Pennsylvania can’t get an abortion without parental consent, something she might not get. So she skips out on school and work shortly afterward to take a bus to New York with her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) in search of one.

That might seem like the end of her journey, but Never Rarely Sometimes Always finds obstacle after obstacle that seemingly conspire to stop Autumn from getting an abortion, whether legal, financial, or social. Some viewers might find Autumn’s trials and tribulations to be a bit much, but that betrays their own disconnect from something that’s shockingly immediate to many women. After my screening of the film, Hittman revealed that much of Autumn’s experience navigating clinics and Planned Parenthoods was based on her own research long before filming began. She traveled to multiple different centers and played the part of a pregnant woman, or someone who thought she might be pregnant, in order to see how the different employees treated her, what options they offered, and in what ways they stymied her. One of the counselors that Hittman found particularly helpful and soothing even appears in the film in a marvelously empathetic role.

Hittman largely follows Robert Bresson’s precept that filmmakers should use non-professional actors in order to extract a life-like and spontaneous performance. With Flanigan, she’s found a miraculous newcomer, an actor so good that she makes it hard to believe she hasn’t been in movies before. Ryder is a more professional actor, but she also has a wonderful realness to her performance and incredible chemistry with Flanigan, so much so that I assumed she was also a non-professional (in the best way possible). Hittman could easily have made Never Rarely Sometimes Always as a documentary, but her lead actress are so good that they help make the story even more personal for viewers. Not everyone needs a way in, and plenty of women will have gone through exactly what Autumn does here, but it’s impossible not to be moved by her plight and the way she transcends it.

The Sundance Film Festival runs Jan. 23 – Feb. 2, 2020. Visit the official website for more information.

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