Author

About the Author
Rachel is a Rotten Tomatoes approved film critic that has loved animation since she was a little girl-belting out songs from 'The Little Mermaid'. She reviews as many films as she can each year, and loves interviewing actors, directors, and anyone with an interesting story to tell. Rachel is the founder of the popular Hallmarkies Podcast, and the Rachel's Reviews Podcast and YouTube channel, which covers all things animated including a monthly Talking Disney and Obscure Animation show.

REVIEW: Artemis Fowl

Walt Disney Studios
Rated: PG
Run Time: 95 minutes
Director: Kenneth Branagh

With their huge hauls at the pre-COVID19 box office, a lot of people might not realize that Disney has a bit of a live-action movie problem. It has been years since the “House of Mouse” produced a winning, successful new franchise or original film, and that’s not from lack of trying. From The Lone Ranger (2013) to A Wrinkle in Time (2018) to Tomorrowland (2015), their attempts to start new franchises have not been successful. Even something with the pedigree of Mary Poppins Returns (2018) as a sequel underperformed.

The only successful new franchise I can think of are the Descendants films on Disney Channel, which is saying something.  Now we have Artemis Fowl based on the popular books by Eoin Colfer, and I was hopeful it could break this worrying trend. Unfortunately, it may be the worst of them all. Artemis Fowl makes baffling choices and fails to give us intriguing characters or an engaging plot.

The story of Artemis Fowl is fractured amongst a number of characters (part of the problem), but supposedly centers around the brilliant but devious Artemis (played by Ferdia Shaw) trying to find a device called the ‘aculos’ which will help him find his missing father (Colin Farrell). As he searches we meet a fairy named Holly Short (who is the lead character in the first novel) played by Lara McDonnell but is given little to do. Then there’s Josh Gad, Judi Dench, Nonso Anozie, and more. Most of these characters aren’t given anything to do but are stuck explaining their story to either Artemis or Holly. It reminds me of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (which I hated) in that regard. Magical creatures are stuck explaining magic instead of actually being magical.

(From left to right): Nonso Anozie, Lara McDonnell, Josh Gad and Ferdia Shaw in a scene of Artemis Fowl | Walt Disney Studios.

Miss Peregrine’s (2016) at least had some cool visuals—Artemis Fowl doesn’t even have that. It feels more like a pilot for a show introducing its characters than a movie. For example, in the book Holly is a vivacious character and leader of her people. She goes up against Artemis who is the villain and outsmarts him in many ways. Here, she is stuck in a cage the entire time talking with nothing to do or say.

If I was running Disney+ I would be concerned; with releases like Artemis Fowl they are in danger of appearing as Disney’s garbage bin. I have enjoyed films like Togo and Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made but they haven’t made much of a cultural impact. Artemis Fowl (being a YA franchise that readers love) has that potential and it could leave subscribers with a bad taste in their mouth. Regardless, it certainly doesn’t work as a film and most of the blame falls on the weak script and choppy editing. It’s simply a big, bland miss.

My recommendation is to watch one of the Disney Classics on Disney+ such as Pinocchio (1940) instead. That would be a far better use of your time.

Recommendation: SKIP IT

First Trip Back Inside a Movie Theater Since the Coronavirus Outbreak

SCERA Center for the Arts | Orem, UT.

This week in Utah, where I live, the Coronavirus task force lowered the risk from ‘orange’ to ‘yellow’ phase. As part of this phase movie theaters could start to reopen if they followed the hygiene, cleanliness, and other social distancing rules and kept crowds to under 50 people. Larger chains are still staying closed, but independent theaters have slowly begun to reopen with carry-over films from the spring or library releases of classic favorites. One such theater is the SCERA Theatre in Orem, Utah, and I was fortunate enough to go and visit it, catch a movie, and talk to the theater owners about their experience. Not everyone will be ready to embrace theater-going just yet but I can confidently say I felt very safe and was impressed with what I saw.

The decision to reopen was not an easy one for the team at SCERA. Adam J. Roberson, President & CEO; and April Berlin, Operations Manager/Marketing & Development said, “We made the decision cautiously and optimistically, and after many hours on the phone with state and county officials, and discussion with staff on their comfort levels.” Upon opening they decided to start with a showcase of the Harry Potter film series since most new films have been postponed or delayed. I was able to see Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, which is one of my favorites in the series.

When I arrived at the theater I immediately noticed they had a separate entrance for high-risk individuals marked, ‘High risk persons enter here,’ along with signs reminding audiences to practice social distancing and wear masks. When I stepped inside I was immediately greeted by a hand sanitizer station and reminders on the ground for social distancing at the ticket booth.

Once inside the concession stand was staffed by young people wearing masks who I later found out were SCERA volunteers, which warmed my heart. They all said they were happy to be there and to be out of the house working. If you want a refill on the popcorn they will issue you a new container rather than refill an exposed bowl.

April and Adam described to me the procedures they have put in place to make things safe for the moviegoers: 

The Clarke Grand Theatre inside SCERA Center for the Arts | Courtesy SCERA Center for the Arts. Source: link

“Reduced capacity, sanitizing between shows, hand sanitizer stations in lobby, staff wearing masks and gloves, and social distancing markers and signage. We’ve blocked off every other row in the Clarke Grand Theatre. The unique thing about our theatre is we have 733 seats, so the huge auditorium makes it very easy to spread out and enjoy.”

Indeed the beautiful Clarke Grand Theatre is a wonderful place to watch a movie in. The historic touches throughout and the large screen and sound system make you feel like you are truly witnessing something special, not simply seeing a movie. I loved seeing such an epic movie like the final Harry Potter film in such a wonderful old theater. I had my mask on and aside from brief moments to get popcorn in my mouth I kept it on. I felt very safe and it was a terrific experience.

When I asked April and Adam why go to the theater instead of watching at home they said, “Our screen is 40’ tall, and that epic experience in digital projection and sound is something that can’t be replicated (even with big-screen televisions and in-home theaters), and buttery theatre popcorn, that’s just a bonus!”

While at the theater, the manager, Dahl Jenkins, spoke to us about how to exit while maintaining social distance; but then he added that he hoped for the day we could all see each other’s smiling faces, and that it is important to be together as humans. It was very sweet and touching. It is these human interactions, all witnessing the same art together that make going to the movies so special. I wouldn’t trade it for the best home movie system in the world.

Going out to your local theater is a very personal decision in this tender time and I would never push anyone to do something they are not comfortable with. So much depends on where you live, what precautions are in place, and your individual risk factor assessment; however, I am certainly glad that I went. The ironic part is I think it was probably one of the safest trips to the movies I’ve ever taken with all the space, safety, and precautions!

RELATED

Movie Review: ‘Valley Girl’ at the drive-in

If you feel comfortable going, then I hope you do go and support your local theaters, especially in this new and difficult phase. It’s hard being the first to open up again, and these theaters (as well as drive-in theaters, which have had a resurgence) need all the support we can give them.

I would love to hear about your experiences if you go to the theater. Please share in the comments section about your experience and how the theater helped you feel safe. Thank you!

REVIEW: Valley Girl

United Artists Releasing
Rated: PG-13
Run Time: 102 minutes
Director: Rachel Lee Goldenberg

My Rating: 6.5/10

As a critic I always try to divorce my movie-watching experience from the film I am watching. For example, it is not fair to fault a film being bad if I am in an unusually bad mood, or for it to be boring if I am unusually tired, etc; however, sometimes such objectivity is impossible as I am human and my viewing experience impacts my overall experience. Such may prove to be the case with the new remake of Valley Girl—although, I will try to be as objective as possible.

Valley Girl (2020) ended up being the first new movie I have seen in a theater environment for several months since the Coronavirus quarantine began. I watched it at my local drive-in movie theater called the Redwood Drive-in Theatre. I’ve been to this theater before but it had been a while as it is a bit of a drive from my home.

There are pluses and minuses to seeing a movie at the drive-in; but as the only option available, it was refreshing to see a new movie on some kind of big screen! Since I am on a strict no-salt diet right now I didn’t have my usual popcorn, but I had snacks and turned my FM radio to the correct station, and watched my movie to my heart’s content. It was great!

So how about the actual movie: it is not perfect but overall I had a good time with Valley Girl. The original with Nicolas Cage is also a lot of fun but not a nostalgic favorite of mine. I don’t know what people who are super attached to it will think, but I think the decision to make the film a musical was inspired. Overall it was a bubbly, effervescent, fun film with a very likable leading presence from Jessica Rothe.

Chloe Bennet, Jessica Rothe, Ashleigh Murray and Jessie Ennis in a scene of Valley Girl (2020) | United Artists Releasing.

In the film Alicia Silverstone plays an older Julie Richman (Jessica Rothe), narrating her life experiences to her daughter. In particular, she tells the story of when she fell in love with the bad boy from the other side of town named Randy (Josh Whitehouse). Her preppy friends don’t understand her decision nor do her parents (played by Judy Greer and Rob Huebel).

Valley Girl is a high school love story so it plays out as you would expect, and that is fine. What sets this film apart (and what will probably be divisive) is their choice to make it a jukebox musical. In fact, the official soundtrack of Valley Girl has over 20 numbers on it. I’m a very easy sell when it comes to musicals and this had me sold. The musical numbers are bright, fun and full of energy.

The downside to Valley Girl is the acting. While Rothe is good, most of the other performances (particularly YouTuber Logan Paul as her evil ex-boyfriend) leave something to be desired. I was hoping he would only be a cameo but he has a good number of lines and he delivers them like the amateur he is. Whitehouse is also pretty bland and uninteresting as our male lead. He certainly ain’t anything close to Nicholas Cage, but who is?

Jessica Rothe and Josh Whitehouse in a scene of Valley Girl (2020) | United Artists Releasing.

Mae Whitman also appears as Whitehouse’s rebellious sister Jack, and she’s great as usual. I would just like Hollywood to start casting her in more adult roles outside of these kinds of high school films—she’s a great actress and she deserves it.

Nevertheless, Valley Girl is filmed with a lot of energy and personality by director Rachel Lee Goldenberg. I enjoyed Rothe in the lead, the 80’s fashion and sensibilities, and the fun musical numbers. That’s certainly enough for me to give it a recommendation. Plus, if you can see it in a drive-in near you GO! You’ll have a blast. At least I did!

Recommendation: GO SEE IT!

Here’s a look at my drive-in experience and actually seeing a new movie during the Coronavirus pandemic!

REVIEWS: Dolphin Reef & Elephant

With all the cancellations and postponements of films announced this month, at least there is one long-delayed film that finally was released to the public on Disney+. This is the new Disneynature film Dolphin Reef, which we were supposed to get in 2018 under the name Dolphins, but it was never released in the United States (only in France for some reason). In addition to Dolphin Reef, we also had the documentary Elephant added to Disney+, so April has been a wonderful time to be a nature documentary fan!

Dolphin Reef

Disney+
Rated: G
Run Time: 78 minutes
Director: Alastair Fothergill & Keith Scholey

My Rating: 7/10

In every Disneynature film they try to make following the animals more of a story to help make the footage more accessible to young children. The idea is if they can follow a narrative and give the animals cute names the kids will be more invested in the storytelling. This works sometimes better than others, especially in Chimpanzee where the story ends up surprising even the filmmakers involved. However, in Monkey Kingdom the story felt too contrived and arranged and honestly what’s the point of watching a documentary if it isn’t going to feel real?

In Dolphin Reef (or Dolphins) we meet a young bottlenose dolphin given the name Echo who learns how to get food from the coral reef and interact with friends of the reef, like Mr. Mantis (a peacock mantis shrimp), Mo’orea the whale (a humpback whale), and her newborn baby Kumu, and other oceanic creatures.

If you love the ocean like I do you will enjoy Dolphin Reef just on that level. It brought back memories of going snorkeling at Hanauma Bay in Oahu, Hawaii (one of my favorite places in all the world). The coral reef is so beautiful and kids can learn a nice lesson about preserving the ocean for all the creatures in the delicate ecosystem.

Natalie Portman acts as a serviceable narrator for the film, and overall I would put Dolphin Reef in the middle of my Disneynature rankings. It’s hard to get tons of personality from the dolphins because they are constantly moving but it’s still cute and made me long for the ocean!

Elephant

Disney+
Rated: G
Run Time: 89 minutes
Director: Mark Linfield & Vanessa Berlowitz

My Rating: 6/10

Next up we have the Disneynature film Elephant that follows a tribe of elephants in the the Kalahari Desert in Southern Africa. This area of Africa floods over spring creating a fertile and lush land for all creatures—but especially for elephants. Then later in the year the land dries up and the elephants have to travel many miles in order to find new ground for them to live until they can go back to the flooded land.

This cycle repeats itself each year and provides all kinds of intense experiences for our adorable elephants. This particular herd is led by an aging elephant named Gaia and her protégé Shani. Evidently most of the tribe is related in some way and Gaia leads by hearing the vibrations of the other elephants ahead of them as they travel. I don’t know if that is true or not but it’s a pretty effective line.

The thing that hurt Elephant is I saw essentially the same documentary but better at Sundance in 2019 called The Elephant Queen. In that film Chiwetel Ejiofor is the narrator (Meghan Markle narrates in Elephant) and he has more gravitas in his voice. Plus, the storytelling is less cloying in The Elephant Queen with a less manipulative feel about it.

Currently, The Elephant Queen is playing on Apple+, so if you have access to that service I recommend it over Elephant; however if you don’t, the latter is fine and kids will enjoy watching the elephants as they make their way across the desert, so it is worth a watch.

If you’ve seen either of these Disneynature documentaries, let me know what you thought of them! Leave a comment in the comments section below.

Recommendation for both films: STREAM IT

‘Sick-Day’ Movie Recommendations

As the world has gone on lockdown with the Coronavirus Pandemic, we are all on the lookout for different kinds of entertainment to pass the time. Whether it be a Netflix binge or a movie marathon, we all have our own ways of distracting ourselves from the mess. However, what if you are one of the unlucky folks who gets sick (this would be mildly sick, not hospitalized or anything like that)? Indeed, this week I was tested for COVID-19 as I have been fighting off pneumonia-like symptoms for some time. Thankfully, I tested negative for the virus, but I am still staying home and looking for great films to watch.

There are many factors that go into a great sick day movie; however, I was able to narrow it down to four. Let us know how you decide what to watch on those under-the-weather days:

1. It Must Allow For Naps

Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle appear in a scene of Pride and Prejudice (1995) | BBC

When you are sick you need to sleep, and sometimes your body falls asleep mid-movie and that needs to be fine. My number one suggestion for this is the 1995 version of Pride and Prejudice starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle. This movie is a perfect fit for this criteria because it is really long and most of us know the story (and this adaptation) so well we can fall asleep at any time and then wake up and keep watching. Colin Firth is the best Mr Darcy to-date, and it has so many iconic sequences like his memorable rage-swimming over his longing for Elizabeth Bennett.

2. It Must Be Moderately Cheerful

Happy Feet (2006), directed by George Miller, Warren Coleman and Judy Morris | Warner Bros.

Let’s be honest, when most of us are sick we feel a little sorry for ourselves. This is especially true if we are alone and have nobody to take care of us (we all need our mothers when we are sick!). My movie of choice for this category is 2006’s Happy Feet. Who can be unhappy by scene after scene of happy dancing, singing penguins? Come on! Plus, it also satisfies requirement one because the plot is totally bonkers, and you can come in and out at any moment and not miss a beat.

3. Having Sick People in the Movie is Helpful

There is something cathartic about seeing a sick character on screen when we are not feeling well. It gives a sense of understanding and empathy we need in times like these. And I actually have two suggestions for this qualification! Probably the most iconic ‘sick person’ role in cinema and theater is Miss Adelaide in Guys and Dolls. In the movie version she is played by Vivian Blaine, who also performed the role on Broadway. Her performance of ‘Adelaide’s Lament’ is an absolute classic.

My next choice for a ‘sick person’ movie is Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Poor Cameron, played brilliantly by Alan Ruck, is pulled out of bed by his friend, Ferris, and dragged around town when he was perfectly happy to have his own sick day. However, as the day goes on he examines his relationship with his father until he is ready to confront him after destroying his car. It’s a powerful moment in an otherwise comedic film.

4. It Can Stretch Out Over Multiple Days

A few of the character subjects in The Up Series | BBC One

There are a lot of films you can use to satisfy this requirement. The Lord of the Rings trilogy would be a good choice, or a marathon watch of any series like the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) or Star Wars films. However, let me offer a more outside of the box idea: how about watching The Up Series?

The Up Series started in 1964 when director Michael Apted gathered British 7-year-olds from differing classes to test out an old mennonite saying—”Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man”. Then every seven years a new film is made updating all of us on how the children are doing and if their lives turned out the way they expected at seven—it is a fascinating series. In 2019 (2020 in Utah) the latest entry was released with 63 Up. The movies are super bingeable and you will likely find yourself getting attached to one or more of the subjects, like Suzy or Tony.

Roger Ebert said The Up Series was the most “inspired, even noble, use of the film medium,” and that the films “penetrate to the central mystery of life”— and I would have to agree. Plus, they are just really entertaining—so perfect for a sick day!

What do you think? Which films do you like to watch when you are feeling under the weather and stuck in bed? We’d love to hear your thoughts! Let us know in the comments below. And we hope none of you do find yourself sick during this tense time! 

St. Patrick’s Day Movie Recommendations

With the outbreak of the Coronavirus, it seems like we are all in need of a little luck. Fortunately, St. Patrick’s Day is here and we can all celebrate in our quarantines to our hearts content. To increase the fun, put on an Irish-themed movie and have a blast!

My Top 10 Favorite Irish Movies

Honorable Mention: Christmas Perfection

First, I would like to give one honorable mention. I am a huge fan of TV movies, particularly those found on the Hallmark and Lifetime Channels at Christmas. In 2018, Lifetime Channel had a film called Christmas Perfection, which is hilarious and is all set in an Irish Christmas village. The movie takes on the tropes of a time loop movie, but this time it is Darcy who keeps living her ideal Irish Christmas over and over again, with it eventually getting pretty desperate. It’s not a St. Patrick’s Day movie so I couldn’t include it in the main list but if you want some laughs check it out.
How to watch:

10. Far and Away

In this unfairly forgotten epic frontier film, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman play immigrants from Ireland who come over to America with big dreams. The film is worth seeing just for the land rush alone, but the then-married Cruise and Kidman have tremendous chemistry and both pull off their Irish accents quite well.


How to watch:

9. Waking Ned Devine

If you are in the mood for a laugh, Waking Ned Devine is the perfect choice. It focuses on a town that comes together after a lottery winner dies, but still wanting to get the payout. It’s funny and sweet, with a nice heart to it as well.


How to watch:

8. The Quiet Man

No film on this list made Ireland look more beautiful than The Quiet Man. John Wayne gives a more nuanced performance than usual as an ex-boxer who moves to Ireland to get rid of his demons (unsuccessfully, I will add). Soon he falls in love with Maureen O’Hara, and the two have a fiery, passionate romance.


How to watch:

7. Brooklyn

In many ways Broolyn is a simple story. It’s about one woman in the 50s who comes to America for an adventure. However, the characters are so likable and the atmosphere so immersive that it just works. Saoirse Ronan is wonderful as the lead character, and Emory Cohen and Domnhall Gleason make for a convincing love triangle.


How to watch:

6. Once

Once is another simple film that packs an emotional punch. It tells the story of two singers who meet and decide to record the perfect album together. It is not a romance, but a meeting of two like-minded people who have the same passion. The songs are so good they made a successful Broadway musical off of them.


How to watch:

5. My Left Foot

It’s hard to not put a film with an Oscar-winning performance from Daniel Day Lewis at the very top. His performance playing a young man with cerebral palsy is moving and humanizing. Brenda Fricker is also great in her Oscar-winning turn as DDL’s mother. It’s a moving film that can also be quite irreverent. A gem.


How to watch:

4.  In America

If people ask me for a film I find underrated, one of my first responses is In America by director Jim Sheridan. In the film a family led by Paddy Considine comes from Ireland to the United States to start a new life. Along the way, they face all kinds of challenges while their little girls give them hope. It’s an honest movie with characters anyone can relate with. Just beautiful.


How to watch:

3. Sing Street

In 2016 when the world was ga-ga for La La Land I was obsessed with Sing Street. I love basically everything about this story of an Irish teen trying to win a girlfriend. It’s so charming!




How to watch:

2. Darby O’Gill and the Little People

If you want a true St. Patty’s Day film, check out the only one on this list that features leprechauns! This is kind of The Quiet Man lite, but it is a lot of fun. A young Sean Connery is very charismatic, and Albert Sharpe is great as the leprechaun Darby O’Gill.



How to watch:

1.  Song of the Sea

Irish director Tomm Moore scored a hit with his film The Secret of the Kells, and then knocked it out of the park with his second film Song of the Sea. I absolutely love everything about this film from the beautiful world-building and lore, to the emotion of a boy having to say goodbye to his mother. The animation is so stunning and full of movement and life. It may be too emotional for some kids, but I think most of them are going to like it!

How to watch:

So there you have it. What are your favorite Irish films? Do you agree with my list? Let me know! Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

REVIEW: I Still Believe

Lionsgate
Rated: PG
Run Time: 115 minutes
Directors: Andrew & Jon Erwin

For some filmgoers, the mere mention of “faith-based films” makes them cringe; this, unfortunately, is not without due cause. While many solid films exist in the market, there are far too many demonize “non-believers,” while billing those with faith as almost mythic-like humans ready to part the seas and challenge the evils of the world.

With this history in mind, I try to be a little forgiving of the genre when a flawed but well-meaning film like I Still Believe comes to theaters. It’s not a game-changer or a great film, but it’s sweet, with a competent cast and inspiring message. That’s enough to get a recommendation from me. I Still Believe is directed by the Erwin Brothers who did the 2018 film, I Can Only Imagine (which is one of the best of the genre in recent years). Here, we follow the story of another Christian musician, Jeremy Camp (played by KJ Apa), and the struggles he faces as his first wife Melissa (played by Britt Robertson) battles with cancer.

For most of the movie, things play out reminiscent of a “Nicholas Sparks-ian” weepy-romance: we have our attractive young people who meet in sandy locations with dewy sunlight. At first, the romance is threatened by another suitor but eventually they declare their love just in time for our female character to get in an accident or become terminally ill. This is exactly how things play out here except, of course, this is a true story: Camp and his wife really did fall in love, they really did have a moment of healing, and she really did face-off with cancer. This battle that led him to write the popular title-song I Still Believe (the song and the music as a whole are not as good as I Can Only Imagine, which saps some of the energy from certain sequences). Obviously a true story is going to be more impactful than fiction (and we have to be more forgiving of story tropes) but it is nevertheless still predictable.

Britt Robertson and KJ Apa in a scene of I Still Believe | Lionsgate

The key to making a film like this effective is getting the right casting and portraying enough moments of earned emotion—I Still Believe passes both of these tests. It is not one of the best faith-based films of recent memory, but it is solid and inspiring enough to be worth a watch. While Robertson is getting too old for these types of teen roles, she and Apa have nice chemistry together which goes a long way. The script is also smart, giving them more than just anguish and misery to face together; we get to see them staring at stars in a planetarium, singing tunes by the ocean, and spending time with family together. This helps bond us as viewers to the couple especially as things get harder.

Unfortunately, the first act of I Still Believe has an extended back and forth love triangle, which I did not care for. It was so obvious who was going to get together that the melodrama of “will she/won’t she” was not interesting in the least. That said, once the cancer plot goes into full gear the film mostly earns its emotion. I particularly loved a scene with Gary Sinese (playing Camp’s father) where he talks about the disappointments in his life but how each one of them has brought him closer to God. I saw I Still Believe about 10 days ago and that message, along with his performance, has really stayed with me and made a positive impression.

KJ Apa performs a song in a scene of I Still Believe | Lionsgate

Thankfully there are enough strong moments in I Still Believe to make it worthy of a recommendation, especially for its target demographic of religious evangelicals. There were times I got a little sleepy (both because I was sick and the pacing sagged), and it is not reinventing the wheel; but in the end, it is a sincere and sweet story of faith and love, and sometimes that’s enough.

Recommendation: MAYBE A MATINEE

My Adventures at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival

Rachel Wagner enjoying her time at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.
Rachel Wagner enjoying her time at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

As a critic and cinephile, one of the benefits of living in Utah is getting to attend the Sundance Film Festival each year at an affordable rate. 2020 was my fourth year attending the festival but it was also my least favorite experience; however, it was still wonderful to see so many unique films.

Part of the reason my experience wasn’t as good this year is because this was the first year I didn’t purchase a locals’ pass which allows access to all of the Salt Lake City screenings. With just The Grand Pass and a 10-pack I was more limited to what I could see and forced to wait in long lines you wouldn’t need to with a pass (with tickets you also have to try and predict what will be a big hit whereas with a pass you can attend whatever has buzz). It was a little discouraging to not find the gems I found last year but still a good experience.

Sunita Mani and John Reynolds appear in Save Yourselves! by Alex Fischer and Eleanor Wilson. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Matt Clegg

The best film I saw at this year’s festival is a comedy called Save Yourselves! This is a film directed by Alex Hurston Fischer about a couple (Sunita Mani and John Paul Reynolds) who decide to take a break from their cell phones for a weekend and go up to a mountain retreat. The only problem is that same there just happens to be an alien invasion that same weekend! Not only is it a comedic movie about hipsters and technology but it is also a sweet and endearing romance. The actors have great chemistry and I was laughing throughout. 

Dick Johnson is Dead (documentary) premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

My second favorite of the festival is a documentary called Dick Johnson is Dead. This film is directed by Kirsten Johnson and is a very unique look into the process of aging and grief from the perspective of her dad who is still living. I had a very close relationship with most of my grandparents, and watching Kirsten’s dad brought back a lot of memories. There are even fantasy sequences where he dies on screen and he attends his own funeral! I was bawling my eyes out and yet still laughing each time her dad was his charming self. Look out for this on Netflix. 

Winston Duke and Zazie Beetz in Nine Days. Courtesy of Sundance Institute

I saw a lot of artistic pieces at Sundance this year (and most of it, to be honest, were a bit of a slog) but 2 experimental projects worked for me: Nine Days and Tesla. Nine Days is a very interesting film about a premortal world where a man named Will (great performance given by Winston Duke) is tasked with selecting who is worthy to come down to Earth and get a body. For nine days he interviews a variety of people while also dealing with the knowledge that one of his choices just committed suicide, which he does not understand. It was emotional, beautifully filmed and very well acted. I found myself thinking about it several days after I saw it. 

Ethan Hawke in Tesla, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival

Tesla is definitely not for everyone, but it intrigued me. Purportedly, it is about the famed inventor Nikola Tesla played by Ethan Hawke, but it is not a bland biopic. There’s lots of fourth wall breaking and nods to modern technology. It all culminates in the character singing Tears for Fears at a modern karaoke bar. I am very curious to see—outside of the Sundance bubble—what people think of this quirky weird movie. 

So that was my Sundance 2020 experience. It is a lot of fun but it is also a bit of a grueling experience. There are a lot of lines and just seeing 26 movies in 10 days takes a lot out of me. I know there are a lot of festival favorites I didn’t get to see like Minari and Time, so I look forward to catching up with them. And hopefully next year I can get a locals’ pass again so I have an even better experience!

Did you get to attend the festival? If so, what were some of your favorite films? Let us know in the comments section!

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