There are few things more alienating to a moviegoer than being the only person in a theater not having the time of their life. As any regular reader of this site can probably guess, I find myself in that lonely position from time to time—it’s the curmudgeonly critic’s cross to bear. But we’ve all experienced it, haven’t we? Think of that comedy that leaves you poker-faced, even as everyone around you cracks up, or that tearjerker that just bores you to tears in an auditorium echoing with sniffles. It’s perhaps even easier than normal at Sundance to find yourself the odd viewer out, because people come looking for a big emotional experience (they’ve paid good money for one) and are often met with movies designed to give it to them. Failing to get on the wavelength of one of these instant audience favorites can feel especially like being alone in a crowd, locked out of the supposed pleasures of a crowd pleaser.
It’s to that end that this cranky moviegoer finally found a reason to feel grateful for the virtual fest experience. What a relief, he thought last night, to be left cold by a big-swing exploitation movie in the comfort of my own home, not surrounded by those begging emphatically to differ. I don’t begrudge my peers and fellow B-movie enthusiasts an ecstatic reaction to Prisoners Of The Ghostland, the first English-language project from prolific Japanese merchant of lunacy Sion Sono. Nor can I actually be certain how it would actually play to the hungry masses gathered at the Egyptian or the Hereditary Memorial Library (as I’ve decided to start calling that Park City venue, following its appearance in one of Sundance’s best recent premieres). But judging from the reactions on Twitter, I appear to be in the minority finding this self-conscious mashup of pulp conventions more theoretically fun than genuinely so.
The recipe is there. This is, after all, an [a] elaborately art-designed samurai Western set in [b] a Mad Max-style post-apocalypse, featuring [c] Nicolas Cage as [d] a grizzled desperado with bombs strapped to his [e] testicles. The opening scene finds Cage and his one-time Face/Off flunkie Nick Cassavetes barreling into a bank, guns drawn, where the customers are all clad in bright rain slickers. A bullet catches a gumball machine, sending a whole rainbow of colors bouncing around the space—a good omen that Sono will bring a more vibrant palette than that favored by the typical dusty brown-gray vision of life after the fall presented by movies with George Miller in mind.
Like that exploding candy receptacle, Prisoners keeps throwing new shiny grindhouse sweets at the audience: Concubines trapped inside plaster mannequins! Outlaw tribes in themed costumes! (Sample dialogue: “You were fortunate that the rat man and his rat clan found you.”) Rob Zombie favorite Bill Moseley as a white-clad bastard heavy called, à la another big bad of another doomsday world, The Governor! But the film turns out to be more entertaining to describe than it is to actually watch. Sono’s interest in the genre-pastiche material is almost entirely cosmetic; the story, the characters, even the action couldn’t be much more perfunctory. There is one solid, Tarantino-grade set piece that sets swordplay to “Time In A Bottle.” But even as someone who finds Sono’s brand of outré extremity more exhausting than invigorating (Love Exposure almost broke me), I couldn’t help but wish the movie would actually plunge over the deep end, instead of tamping down his ballyhooed transgressions in favor of a lot of empty East-meets-West cosplay.
Cage’s convict hero, called simply Hero (a good indication of how flatly archetypal everything in this film is), cuts a deal to go rescue the villain’s daughter (Sofia Boutella) from another town. Once he gets there, the movie stalls, as if screenwriters Aaron Hendry Reza and Sixo Safai are just killing time until the big bloodshed climax. By now, Cage has carved out a nice side niche appearing in weirdo mad-lib midnight movies like the similarly crazy-quilted Mandy and last year’s Color Out Of Space. In Prisoners, he seems content just resting on the insta-cult appeal of his casting—on the delight some will automatically take seeing him just show up in leather, froth at the mouth a couple times, and shout the word “testicles!” But he could do this role in his sleep, and does in fact seem to be half-awake. That’s kind of the whole enterprise in a nutshell: the half-convincing impression of a wild time.
Still, don’t mind me—plenty of others seem to have had a real, uh, ball with Prisoners Of The Ghostland. Likewise, another nutty genre exercise from a workaholic purveyor of cult movies: In The Earth, by the British director of Kill List and A Field In England, Ben Wheatley. Almost no one I know liked Wheatley’s last movie, his Netflix remake of Rebecca, but this down and dirty, fast and cheap, theoretical rebound plays much more to his perceived strengths and the tastes of his fanbase. Shot last summer, which makes it yet another addition to the growing list of pandemic projects, In The Earth does indeed concern a deadly, widespread virus, though that largely qualifies as just the catalyst for its bare-bones plot, in which a pair of scientists (Joel Fry and Ellora Torchia) embark on a two-day hike to another research facility in the woods, only to run afoul threats both human and supernatural.
There’s one really terrific, queasy scene of bodily mutilation in this film—it’s like the big moment in Misery, stretched out with false starts and close calls to prolong the comic, well, misery. Otherwise, though, In The Earth struck me as a ghastly bore, alternating scenes of personality-free characters solemnly, endlessly discussing Wheatley’s vague eco mythology and the kind of strobe-light psychedelic hooey that’s made this filmmaker beloved by bong-rippers as much as gore hounds. It is, in the end, very much the kind of film you’d expect someone to have shot on the fly during a global outbreak: a true forest fuck-around most generously judged on the curve of “making a movie during this unprecedented time is an achievement in and of itself.”
The same caveat would certainly benefit How It Ends, a dire doomsday comedy directed by Zoe Lister-Jones (whose Band Aid premiered at Sundance a few years ago) and White Rabbit’s Daryl Wein. Though filmed on the empty, sun-baked streets of Los Angeles some time last year, the film is set not during the pandemic but on the cusp of a much more hopeless crisis: An asteroid is hurtling toward the planet, giving everyone a good 24 hours to get their affairs in order before it all goes kaboom. Plenty have tackled a last-day-on-Earth premise before, but the hook in this version is that everyone seems to have just sort of accepted their fate—there’s a collective boho nonchalance about total annihilation that How It Ends milks for a few honest chuckles during its opening stretch.
Trouble among many is that a fiery ball of impending destruction isn’t the script’s only high-concept hook. To paraphrase Nick Kroll, who shows up for the first and funniest of the film’s cameos, the film puts a hat on a hat: In addition to taking place on the eve of the apocalypse, How It Ends also saddles its heroine, played by Lister-Jones, with the earnest physical embodiment of her younger self (Cailee Spaeny), accompanying her across L.A.—a gimmick that ultimately speaks to the kumbaya self-help spirit of the project. All the hugging and learning to love thyself might go down smoother if the movie, on a whole, wasn’t such a scattershot shrug of a comedy, just ambling from one (possibly improvised) encounter with a comedian friend doing labored shtick to another. At times, the whole vibe is of a backyard hangout with bored celebrities; glad they found a way to pass a few days during the bummer summer of 2020, but there’s not a lot here for those who weren’t on the guest list.
For a less disposable comedy about staring into the void, look instead to On The Count Of Three, the nervy first feature by Jerrod Carmichael. The stand-up and one-time sitcom star plays Val, who’s recently made the decision to take his own life. The choice happens to coincide with a recent failed suicide attempt by his longtime best friend, Kevin (Christopher Abbott), who’s been in and out of institutions—and on and off ineffectual medication—since they were kids. Busting his pal out of the hospital, Val proposes a suicide pact. Kevin agrees, on the condition that the two make like Lister-Jones’ character in How It Ends and tie up some loose ends before they pull the trigger on each other.
On The Count Of Three threads a very tricky needle. Though the premise sounds glib, the film takes seriously its protagonists’ depression, and smartly delineates between their separate ideation—it understands that Val and Kevin may not share the exact same conviction to take their own lives, and uses that as a narrative tension. At the same time, it never slips into maudlin speechifying: This is a sometimes hilarious and very unsentimental movie about two people at the ends of their ropes. Carmichael, one is reminded, was attached to a proposed 48 Hrs. remake to be directed by the Safdie brothers, and whatever the fate of that project, he seems to have taken a few cues from the filmmakers’ live-wire style—and not just via the sight of Abbott, who’s superbly funny and poignant in his role, with a head of bleached blonde hair.
I do wish On The Count Of Three had a little more meat on its bones. For better and worse, the 84-minute runtime allows for little downtime en route to the proverbial finish line, and I suspect the ending would hit harder if we knew these characters just a hair better. But it’s hard to complain too much when the time we do get with them is filled with so many barbed highlights—including a repeated airing of a certain applicable nu-metal staple, deployed for laughs but also unironically, which makes it a microcosm for the dark-comic sincerity of the whole film. I roared with laughter on its second appearance and wished, in that case, there was an audience with which to share the moment.