The Nightmare (2015)
Dir. Rodney Ascher
A fascinating, if frustratingly incomplete, exploration of “sleep paralysis” and night terrors through the eyes of several people uncovered by director Rodney Ascher (Room 237), The Nightmare offers more chills and scares than most mainstream and non-mainstream horror films. Where Room 237 focused on the intersection of cinephilia, monomania, and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (repeatedly played, slowed-down, and accompanied by both voiceover narration and a droning electronic score), The Nightmare centers on a different kind of mental, emotional, or neurological disorder. Ascher doesn’t question his subjects’ stories, happily recreating them on a soundstage (voiceover narration and an electronic score are still part of Ascher’s playbook, however). They’re just as chilling, disturbing, and outright terrifying as any horror film, sometimes even more so given the real-world connection. They might even originate in the same part or parts of the brain, but Ascher doesn’t explore that possible connection. He also seems content to let the interviews play out with minimal prodding or question. More importantly, he never goes beyond a dictionary definition or the Wikipedia page for a scientific explanation for sleep paralysis. Ascher doesn’t interview a single scientist or academic. He does suggest a commonality in the stories that beyond cultural differences and barriers, but like so much else in The Nightmare, he contends himself with simply illustrating his subjects’ stories.
Dir. Rick Famuyiwa
Writer/director Rick Famuyiwa (The Wood) returns to the Sundance Film Festival with Dope, an exhilaratingly original coming-of-age story set in Inglewood, California. Famuyiwa interweaves weighty themes and even weightier subtext through the story of Malcolm (Moore), a high-school senior, self-described geek, and ‘90s hip-hop super-fan. Malcolm lives his ‘90s hip-hop enthusiasm through his clothing and hair (high-top). Along with his two best friends, Jib (Tony Revolori), and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons), Malcolm carefully navigates the usual pitfalls and obstacles of high school (jocks), but also neighborhood gangs, and early on, a drug dealer, Dom (Rakim Mayers), who convinces Malcolm to play messenger between Dom and another neighborhood girl, Nakia (Zoë Kravitz). Malcolm’s efforts to stay clean and out of the criminal life go sideways when he ends up with a backpack filled with drugs and drug dealers (and others) hot on his trail. Mixing an obvious affection for ‘90s hip-hop music, culture, knowing nods to cinematic predecessors (Boys n the Hood, Cooley High), and a nuanced take on race, gender roles, and personal identity (cf., Dear White People), Dope easily transcends its nods and influences to become something bracingly unique and wholly original. Famuyiwa’s deft dialogue and emotionally layered characters, impeccably handled by his cast, especially breakout lead Shameik Moore, offers and overabundance of aural pleasures to accompany Dope’s countless narrative and visual pleasures.
Dir. Mora Stephens
It’s difficult, if not impossible, to imagine, how a pulpy, low-end thriller like Zipper somehow made it through Sundance’s selection committee, but here we are, reviewing a film that initially unfolds – and later unravels – like a misguided, commercialized version of Steve McQueen and Michael Fassbender’s Shame. Beta-male specialist Patrick Wilson (Watchmen, Little Children) plays Sam Ellis, a hotshot, on-the-political-rise federal assistant district attorney in South Carolina. Ellis personifies upper-middle class, white repression, suppressing any sexual desire beyond the confines of his marriage to his still attractive wife, Jeannie (Lena Headey). Jeannie has all the political connections Ellis needs to step into a political career at the first available opportunity, like the premature departure of a U.S. senator due to health concerns. Ellis’ tangential involvement in an identity theft case involving an escort service awakens his sexual curiosity gene. Almost immediately Ellis stops at a local grocery store during a jog to pick up a burner phone, makes a date with an escort, and promptly becomes addicted to the (insert yawn here) to high-priced escorts. Ellis’ double-life soon becomes a liability, but where co-writer and director Mora Stephens (Conventioneers) could have gone full camp (cf., Showgirls), she shows unnecessary, unwelcome restraint, muting Zipper into a colorless collection of barely there, perfunctory scenes, predictable conflicts (internally and externally), and a groan-inducing final shot (groan-inducing due to its painful obviousness) even the most disinterested moviegoer will see a half-mile jog away.
The Overnight (2015)
Dir. Patrick Brice
Writer-director Patrick Brice’s first feature-length film, Creep, premiered last year at the South-by-Southwest Film Festival to generally positive reviews, but sadly has yet to see the light of day – or rather the hushed, dimmed interior of a movie theater or the blue glowing screen of a laptop. His follow-up, The Overnight, shouldn’t have the same problem. A comedy-drama with more up its bathrobe than the male frontal nudity likely to get all or most of the attention, The Overnight takes a sly, subversive look at contemporary marriage, upper-middle class/white style, through a new-to-LA couple, Alex (Adam Scott) and Emily (Taylor Schillings), and an old-to-LA, slightly caricatured couple, Kurt (Jason Schwartzman) and Charlotte (Judith Godrèche). The two couples “meet cute” at an LA playground. Alex and Emily’s desire to connect and make friends overwhelms their “stranger danger” radar, agreeing to a dinner date with Kurt and Charlotte after only a few minutes of conversation at the playground. Ostensibly, their dinner date doubles as a play-date for their preteen sons. Before long, however, their sons are asleep and the wine begins to flow. Other types of alcohol make an appearance, as well as weed. Alex and Emily begin to shed their inhibitions like second skins, but keep missing the signs that Kurt and Charlotte aren’t who they first appear or that they have a not-so-hidden agenda for their guests. Every new revelation brings Alex and Emily one step closer to the point of no return for their seemingly stable marriage. Perfectly paced, without a moment of downtime or a moment without humor, The Overnight moves toward a denouement with all of the inevitability of a tragicomedy. The Overnight has more than laughs on its metaphorical mind; it also has a few things, some minor, some important, about the state of marriage in 21st-century America (or less broadly, LA). Credit, of course, belongs to Patrick Brice, a talented filmmaker who, if meritocracy truly ruled Hollywood, will be writing and directing films for the next twenty or thirty years (or longer).