Sundance: Bushwick, A Ghost Story, Landline, & Where is Kyra?

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Bushwick dir. Cary Murnion & Jonathan Milott

Director: Cary Murnion & Jonathan Milott

The Second Civil War comes to the working-class neighborhood of Bushwick, Brooklyn in Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion’s low-budget, pre-apocalyptic actioner, Bushwick. Wasting little time, Bushwick opens in mid-invasion, with Bushwick’s central character, Lucy (Brittany Snow), a grad-school student making the visit home with her boyfriend, Jose, for the first time, leaving a seemingly empty train station for above-ground chaos. Responding to Lucy’s earlier prodding about his manhood (or lack thereof), Jose leaves the relative safety of the train station, with predictably disastrous results (more for Jose than Lucy). Left to fend for herself as bombs explode and mysterious men in black military gear invade Bushwick, massacring civilians, Lucy does what anyone who’s stepped into a war zone would do: She runs, but the chaos of war has given the hood’s ethically and morally challenged citizens to take full advantage, including a sexual assault that ends abruptly when Stupe (Dave Bautista), a one-time marine corpsman turned janitor, steps in to save both Lucy and the day. As Lucy and Stupe head first for Lucy’s grandmother and then her adopted sister, Belinda (Angelic Zambrana), they have to fight off armed men on both sides of the conflict. Execution wise, Milott and Murnion deliver a relatively fair share of exploitation-level goods, albeit undermined by under-rendered CGI (fire and flame effects fall somewhere close to the latest disposable entertainment from the SyFy Channel). Bushwick’s premise, however, proves to be far less than the sum of its half-baked parts. Key exposition explaining the how’s and why’s of the invasion makes little, if any, real-world sense, but it’s doubtful Milott or Murnion cared (if they cared at all), content with focusing their primary attention on the set pieces (plentiful) and on going filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Y Tu Mamá También) one better (the “one” referring to Cuarón’s Children of Men) and shooting Bushwick as a near-continuous film. Frequent, obvious cheats throughout, however, undermine Milott and Murnion’s modest ambitions for Bushwick (a likely consequence of Bushwick’s modest budget).


A Ghost Story
Director: David Lowery

“It’s about time.” One sentence, three words, multiple meanings. It can be an expression of mild exasperation and unexpressed relief, of someone waiting on a friend or romantic partner late for an appointment or meeting for unspecified reasons. But if we switch the emphasis to the third word, “time,” the sentence changes meaning. Now we’re talking about time both as an objective, verifiable fact or as a subjective experience. Time is also at the center of writer-director David Lowery’s (Pete’s Dragon, Ain’t Them Body Saints) supernatural horror film, A Ghost Story. Even using “horror” as a descriptor raises a whole host of audience expectations, expectations constructed over time (that word again) and across different entries in the genre and its myriad sub-genres. Lowery has little interest, however, in jolting moviegoers with periodic frights, shocks, and scares. He signals as much by borrowing a non-scary image, a man (or woman) covered in a winding sheet, with holes poked out for the eyes, and recontextualizes it into something else entirely: A lonely, mute, observant figure, incapable of influencing the natural world except sporadically and indirectly. Lowery’s ghost, C (Casey Affleck), doesn’t begin as a ghost, but as another self-absorbed, self-centered thirty-something. That he’s a modestly successful musician and composer makes it all the harder for C to fully embrace domesticity with R (Rooney Mara), his wife. Despite obvious strains in their relationship, a future together seems all but assured until C dies unexpectedly. Lowery holds the camera for what seems hours as C’s body, covered in a winding sheet, lies in a morgue on a slab, first as R visits to confirm his identity, then later when R leaves. C slowly rises from the slab, but the sheet remains stubbornly fixed to his head, shoulders, and body. C eventually finds his way home to R, but can’t communicate with her. He can only watch as R navigates the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance), but C’s story doesn’t end. He waits patiently, observing time unfold across days, weeks, and years, with only the occasional reminder to the house’s inhabitants of his ethereal existence. As an observer (of life, the universe, and everything) he resembles the angels in Wim Wender’s Wings of Desire, blessed with a form of immortality, but cursed with the inability to influence or impact the natural world in a meaningful way. For C – or rather his ghost – there’s no going back, no resurrection, no choice between this world or the next, just the ever flowing passage of time. A simple shift in perspective, from R, a grief-stricken survivor, to C, a ghost, yields thematic depths otherwise unavailable to Lowery. He expands those depths by employing a minimalist filmmaking style (i.e., long, uninterrupted takes, deliberate camera movements, 4:3 aspect ratio) and a meditative, ruminative tone emphasized by Daniel Hart’s finely nuanced score.


Director: Gillian Robespierre

To quote the opening line of Leo Tolstoy’s novel, Anna Karenina, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” It’s resonated across three centuries and every continent except Antarctica and for good reason: Tolstoy spoke a universal, transcendent truth. Not incidentally, an unhappy family caught up and pulled down with a veritable shedload filled with secrets and lies can be at the center of Gillian Robespierre’s follow-up to Obvious Child, Landline. Robespierre’s Obvious Child collaborator, Jenny Slate, returns for the 1995-set Landline, but that’s only because the protagonist in Landline isn’t just one character, but the entire Jacobs clan, beginning, but by no means ending with Slate’s character, Dana, a thirty-something who works at a New York City monthly, Paper, on the verge of marrying her long-term boyfriend-turned-fiancé, Ben (Jay Duplass). He’s dull, dependable, and safe. While Dana slips into “woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown” mode thanks to doubts about the long-term viability of her relationship with Ben and the reappearance of a one-time college fling-turned-potential-future-fling, Nate (Finn Wittrock), her teenage sister, Ali (Abby Quinn), plows straight into her rebellious phase (e.g., drugs, alcohol, nightclubs), sending her overprotective mother, Pat (Eddie Falco), into paroxysms of anger and anguish, and her father, Alan (John Turturro), an ad man (i.e., a commercial copywriter), sideways into ineffectual parenting. Facing a prolonged existential crisis, Alan takes the road most travelled by middle-age men, he starts an affair, an affair Ali soon discovers, destroying the little faith and respect she had in her father and adults in general. Pat has a crisis of her own: She’s practically invisible to her family. Dana and Ali enter Landline as virtual foes, sibling rivals turned haters, but there’s nothing a solid family crisis and a big secret to help them overcome their differences. Robespierre and her co-writer, Elizabeth Holm, deftly mix observational humor and relationship drama into a film that rarely fails to engage, enlighten, or educate and always manages to entertain. The cast, of course, prove equal to the task of giving Robespierre and Holm’s dialogue life and rounding out characters into complex creations.


Where is Kyra?
Director: Andrew Dosunmu

The phrase “bleak as f*ck” comes to mind where Andrew Dosunmu and Darci Picoult’s Mother of George follow-up, Where is Kyra?, is concerned. Centered on the near hopeless plight of a middle-aged woman, Kyra (Michelle Pfeiffer), attempting to eke out an existence in an unforgiving Brooklyn, New York. When we meet Kyra, she’s lost everything (i.e., her job, her marriage) except her elderly mother, Ruth (Suzanne Shepherd). Her mother, however, has a terminal illness: old age. Kyra treats her mother with care, compassion, and tenderness, qualities consistently missing from her encounters in the real world with the exception of Doug (Keifer Sutherland), a middle-aged man Kyra meets at a local bar. While they strike up a romance, it’s clearly based on mutual need, convenience, and proximity. When Ruth passes away quietly in her sleep, she doesn’t just leave Kyra bereft, she leaves her jobless daughter without a means of income. Kyra’s repeated, failed attempts to find a job, any job, including minimum wage jobs, leave her in increasingly desperate straights. That desperation leads her to make a decision that helps her cover her immediate expenses, but which, if discovered, would most likely lead to imprisonment. Picoult’s short-on-subtlety, long-on-empathy screenplay, short on subtlety, isn’t just a character study of a lone, lonely women, but meant as a stand-in of middle-aged women in general, especially single women without the family or safety net necessary to ride out financial crises. Long one of our most undervalued, underused actresses, Pfeiffer delivers a typically nuanced performance, but Dosunmu rarely allows the audience to fully see Pfeiffer, purposely hiding Pfeiffer’s face in shadow or half-shadow (there’s a metaphor in here, somewhere). Working with cinematographer Bradford Young (Arrival, Selma, A Violent Year), Dosunmu relies exclusively on natural, interior lighting and a murky, gray-brown palette, often keeping his characters in deep shadows or silhouette, giving Where is Kyra? a horror film vibe, a vibe confirmed by Philip Miller’s discordant, dissonant score that plays whenever Dosunmu flashes back or forward to an old, lonely woman leaning heavily on her cane to navigate city streets. Between the repeated, resonant image and Miller’s score, we’re immersed, however briefly, in the personal, individualized horror of her experience.


About Author

Mel Valentin hails from the great state of New Jersey. After attending New York University as an undergrad (politics and economics double major, religious studies minor) and grad school (law), he relocated from the East Coast to San Francisco, California, where he's been ever since. Since Mel began writing about film nine years ago, he's written more than 1,600 reviews and articles. He's a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle and the Online Film Critics Society.