Sundance NEXTFEST Day 3 @ Ace Hotel: THE GUEST + A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT / by Samuel B. Prime

Sunday eve marked the conclusion of NEXTFEST 2014, the fest's final half-day comprised of LA premiere engagements of Park City's standout features. I am grateful to have allowed myself a day to recover before writing this final dispatch: to review my notes, fully process my thoughts on the last pair of films, and (maybe most important of all) to spend the Sunday twilight hours catching up on podcasts while devouring yummy ice cream. 

Time wonderfully well spent, having at evening's close made the difficult choice between LA-based indie rock group Warpaint's performance and Echo Park-based convenience store chain Walgreens', uh, convenience. In spite of what the LA Times' Mark Olsen described as the room's "arty make-out vibe," I chose to hustle back home and shop at Walgreens before closing time. Missed my moment to mack Mark, but we all have regrets.

But life is not all ice cream and make out sessions. Two films screened on Sunday that beg to be reviewed!

Director Adam Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett presented their latest collaboration and follow-up to the critically lauded slasher YOU'RE NEXT, a supposed throwback to 80s action/adventure/horror films called THE GUEST. Although the picture features a charismatic lead actor in Dan Stevens (David) portraying an honorably discharged soldier who is not who - or what - he seems, the film leaves very little to the imagination and what ideas are present are spare, recycled, or both. Even Wingard admitted during the post-show Q&A that the film came about as the result of an auspicious double feature of TERMINATOR (1984) and HALLOWEEN (1978)"I basically just wanted to remake both of these films," Wingard sloughed, "but do things a little bit differently." After struggling to get a number of other projects off the ground, Wingard and Barrett settled on THE GUEST as their next feature, a lazy choice that seems born out of creative exhaustion. In place of wit and originality is a kind of smarmy and violent brand of crowd-pleasing. The film's David initially seems nice, but then he starts HITTING.

It is no accident that Nicolas Winding Refn moderated the post-show Q&A, as THE GUEST is heavily influenced - visually and aurally - by both DRIVE and ONLY GOD FORGIVES. Cheap knock-offs of Cliff Martinez's should-have-been Oscar-nominated or Oscar-winning score play at moments of extreme tension, David finds himself bathed in red light, the David character himself seems like a cyborg extension of the mentally ill character of The Driver (and even looks a little bit like Ryan Gosling if you squint) - and these are just the first few examples that come to mind. I guess David is supposed to be a genetically engineered soldier or maybe a robot-soldier or maybe just an asshole with lots of training? I don't know. It is never clarified. However, there are early hints in the movie that David may be of supernatural or otherworldly origin, maybe even demonic (or the Devil himself). At a local bar, he orders a drink called a fireball. He emerges from a long, steamy shower as if the water was on as hot as it could go, uncomfortable in anything but temperatures hot as hell itself. He also has a tendency to lure others to violence (this behavior is ultimately contradictory to a hurried third act explanation of "David's programming"). 

Most people will probably call THE GUEST "awesome" and stumble upon it on Netflix. Like Adam Wingard's own professed relationship with Ridley Scott's PROMETHEUS (a film of which I am genuinely fond), they will probably be "high as fuck" when watching it and that will render it "cool." I wish that this film had gone in another direction, instead of limply marketing itself as a modern representation of nostalgia - a poor excuse for its lack of any real substance. For some, this will be good enough. Hopefully, the next project equals or surpasses YOU'RE NEXT.

As to Ana Lily Amirpour's A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT, I find myself torn between occasional, sincere astonishment at the directorial craftsmanship on display and dismayed by what I fail to understand. Everyone's shorthand for the film is to call it an Iranian vampire western, but only the first two parts are true - plus, there are tertiary elements of unabridged marginalia that add variety where it was never necessary. I mean that aside from all the intensely interesting vampire business, there is a subplot involving a drug-addicted father suffering through withdrawal and a scene where a character who seems to hover throughout the film without ever serving an explicit purpose does a dance with a balloon in broad daylight. Why do these elements exist? On the other hand, there is a near-silent scene overpowered by romantic rock music on vinyl, a spinning disco ball, and a gradual approach of one stranger (Arash) to another (The Girl) - this scene is so stunning, mesmerizingly rich, and pregnant with stomach butterfly emotion that it could easily be its own standalone, award-winning short film. 

Amirpour's film oscillates between these two extremes: breathtaking, beautiful artistry and half-translated ideas that unnecessarily complicate what should have been simple and straightforward. Otherwise, there are some oddly technical complaints to be made - all too often, the film pulls or racks focus from a distant point to a close-up object. It is not this technique that is the problem, but rather its execution. At least twice, the focus puller stutters and so creates an indelicate pop-zoom hiccup where an effortless juxtaposition should exist. This is an admittedly small technical complaint, but one that draws attention to the amateur skill at the center of even the most provocative idea. But, hey, this film features a skateboarding vampire, so it's most definitely not all bad.

A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT is seductive, scary, but also a bit scatterbrained. Like Alex Ross Perry's first feature film IMPOLEX, it has loose ends and more threads than necessary, but shows sincere promise. Moreover: as I understand it, Sundance has never (or rarely) been chiefly about championing the work of established, successful filmmakers who have hit their stride, but rather about investing in emerging artists, those who haven't yet made a film, are working on a sophomore effort, and who undoubtedly have great accomplishments ahead. More so than any other film in the festival, Amirpour's first feature exemplifies this quality. Even if it is not a perfect film, maybe it is the perfect Sundance film? When it works, it really works.

- Samuel B. Prime

Founder, LA Ciné Salon