I told you there was more to come from my Sundance experience, didn’t I? Well, here is the second part of my two-part Sundance 2021 review!
(Director: Jakub Piątek – Screenwriters: Jakub Piątek, Łukasz Czapski)
Synopsis (From Sundance Film Festival Website): New Year’s Eve 1999. Twenty-year-old Sebastian, armed with a gun, hijacks a TV studio and takes two hostages—a famous TV presenter and a security guard. His plan? No one seems to know, including Sebastian himself. His demand to deliver his message, whatever that may be, via live broadcast is repeatedly thwarted by an uncertain police force and an egotistical network chairman. As the night wears on, Sebastian and the hostages bond in unexpected ways, while those in power fumble to restore order.
This was a packed Q+A session, as we had the filmmaker (Jakub Piątek), the Producer (Jakub – or Kuba – Razowski), and the Lead Actor (Bartosz Bielenia) who spoke about the film after it screened.
The Producer talked about the reason they set the film in 1999: it was done so that Sebastian (the gunman) would need to break into a TV studio to broadcast his message, instead of just using his smartphone. There was also the tension on New Year’s Eve 1999, because no one knew what the New Year would hold, and people were afraid that the world might end (remember Y2K?) and so the filmmakers wanted to play into the fear and unease brought about by entering a new millennium.
(MILD SPOILERS BELOW)
The lead actor (Bartoz Bielenia) said he knew what the message his character (Sebastian – the gunman) was going to deliver when he finally got on TV. The director and lead actor wrote Sebastian’s manifesto down and actually burned it towards the end of the film. So, the lead actor and director knew what Sebastian wanted to say during his broadcast, even though we, as the audience, never get to see or hear his message.
(MILD SPOILERS OVER)
Bartoz Bielenia built the gunman’s backstory with the director over months. They worked on capturing the character’s childhood, his background, and, most importantly, what his last 6 months before the attack were like and what led him to hold people in the TV station hostage.
Interestingly, the director, Jakub Piatek, was a journalist before he got into filmmaking. He directed the short documentary, Mother, which had a successful film festival run, and this is his first narrative feature film.
The director, with his director of photography, used old photographs of television studios and life in the ‘90s to make the setting and time period feel real.
Dog Day Afternoon was a huge influence for the director and helped him create the atmosphere and tone of the film. In addition, the cast and crew watched the film American Animals (2018)while they were on set and used that story of a botched robbery to influence their performances.
When I read the synopsis, I could have sworn I had already seen this movie. Then I checked, and yes, there was a very similar film released in 2016 titled Money Monster, starring George Clooney and Julia Roberts.
Now, this is a period piece, taking place in Poland on New Year’s Eve, 1999, so the technology, outfits, and dialects are all different. Overall, however, I think Money Monster had a tighter narrative and much better pacing than Prime Time.
I did like that the film moved right to the action – within the first few minutes our deranged gunman is in the studio and holding up the broadcast. The film doesn’t waste any time with setup or early characterization, rather having the characters reveal themselves as the plot moves forward, which I usually like. Here, though, I feel it was detrimental to the story, which I will get into in just a moment.
I also liked that the gunman knows the laws, so when the hostage negotiator tries to trick him into surrendering for a reduced sentence, the gunman calls him out on it, because he knows it is a lie.
And I do have to say that for a young filmmaker, Prime Time does look and feel like a larger budget feature with indie sensibilities, and the director nailed the look and feel of the ‘90s.
Now, we need to get into the flaws, and this film had several:
One of my favorite shows of all time is Money Heist on Netflix, which focuses on various groups (police, hostages, robbers) during an intense heist of the Royal Mint of Spain, and this film aims to do something similar, though it is not nearly as successful.
By this I mean we have a newsroom that is taken hostage by a lone gunman on New Year’s Eve 1999, and the film follows the resulting fallout from several different perspectives, none of which really seem to matter or ever cohese into a satisfying whole.
And, unlike Money Heist, I personally didn’t care much about any of the hostages, the gunman, or the police trying to resolve the situation, which is the risk a storyteller runs when they jump right into the action without setting up the characters, the world, or the stakes.
It also didn’t seem like the gunman had any idea about the studio he was holding hostage, and he spends a lot of time trying to figure out how to get cameras, sound, etc. working. I am sure this was an intentional narrative choice, but it makes the gunman feel like less of a threat and more of a joke.
And there are extended periods where nothing happens and the plot slows to a crawl, as everyone (including the audience) waits for the next story beat to take place. Characters sit and slump around the studio, doing nothing, which does not make for a thrilling feature.
There is also a really strange dance break about two-thirds of the way through the film where, I kid you not, the hostages and the gunman all seem to take a break from the life-or-death situation they are engaged in and dance to loud music while they wait for the police to respond to their requests. It felt so out of place for the characters, for the tone of the film, and for the genre that I am inclined to believe that this some extra footage they had of the actors messing around on set that was accidentally cut into the final film.
Finally, the police do not act in a realistic manner at all. They do not ask what the gunman wants, they do not even attempt a real negotiation, and this is all especially absurd as there is only one man with a gun holding the station hostage!
The police enter the building and studio with no problem, yet they never take a shot at the man holding the gun. The police have multiple opportunities to neutralize the threat, which they never take because the police in this piece seem to understand that they are in a film and that the story has to reach the 90 minute mark before they can mercifully end the hostage situation for all of us.
To be fair, there is a convenient plot complication later in the film which provides a pretty poor excuse for the police not to rush in. This is never followed up on, and feels like a moment that was thrown in to placate critics like myself who were taking tally of the many holes in this narrative.
I am trying to avoid spoilers, but the last-minute explanation didn’t work for me and it comes so late in the film, long after the police should/could have already rushed in, that it doesn’t really matter.
Once all is said and done, we are left without any answers, any reason for the attack, or anything to take away from this feature that so acts like it has something high-minded to say, or a piece of wisdom to impart to its audience. The sad truth, however, is that this story has nothing meaningful to share with us, much like the film’s lone gunman.
Eight for Silver
(Written & Directed by: Sean Ellis)
Synopsis (From Sundance Film Festival Website): In the late nineteenth century, brutal land baron Seamus Laurent (Alistair Petrie) slaughters a Roma clan, unleashing a curse on his family and village. In the days that follow, the townspeople are plagued by nightmares, Seamus’s son Edward (Max Mackintosh) goes missing, and a boy is found murdered. The locals suspect a wild animal, but visiting pathologist John McBride (Boyd Holbrook) warns of a more sinister presence lurking in the woods.
The Director, Sean Ellis, has been nominated for an Oscar for his short film Cashback, and was excited to tackle a horror project.
When we finished the film, Sean Ellis did his Q+A from Paris at 5 a.m., which was very much appreciated.
We also had Kelly Reilly (Isabelle Laurent) and Alistair Petrie (Seamus Laurent) join us for the live chat!
Sean Ellis (the writer/director) didn’t want to do a werewolf film, and instead thought of the story as more of a film about curses, prisoners, and about secrets.
Sean Ellis wanted to mix the wolf with a shark for the look of the monster.
Interestingly, the film was shot in two blocks: half at the beginning of 2019 and half at the beginning of 2020. This was done to keep the cold atmospheric look of the landscape, which they could only do in the Winter months.
Films that helped shape the aesthetic of this particular project were Alien, The Thing, The Exorcist, and An American Werewolf in London.
I was very excited to see this one, as I love Boyd Holbrook, and this creepy tale of curses, murder, and nightmares seemed right up my alley. From the description, I was reminded of the Netflix film Apostle, which you should certainly check out.
And I have to say, this film looked phenomenal, which is especially impressive, since Sean Ellis was both the Director and the Director of Photography.
We begin our film in a medical tent during World War I. As you can imagine, it is sufficiently bloody and horrifying.
A soldier is carted in, bleeding out, having been wounded from several bullets to his abdomen, though there is only one bullet that really seems to be an issue: a silver bullet.
We then cut to an older John McBride (Boyd Holbrook) who is dying, so he hands his own collection of silver bullets off to a young woman named Charlotte and tells her that she must be the keeper of the silver now. She initially refuses, but he insists, as it is of vital importance.
This does take some of the tension out of the film, as we then know that both John and Charlotte survive the events that we are about to be shown.
We then travel back in time 35 years, to meet Seamus Laurent, Charlotte’s father, as he murders a clan of nomadic people residing near his village because they are living on “his land”.
After the massacre, one of the surviving spiritualists from the clan places a curse on Seamus just before she is buried alive.
Boyd Holbrook plays a pathologist named John McBride who comes to the village, searching for the clan and raising eyebrows and tensions in the community as he does. John has his own personal reasons for wanting to catch this clan… which was a bit cliché (SPOILER ALERT: John’s backstory involves a wife and child who became wolf-chow)
Seamus’ son is bitten by one of his friends who was playing with a pair of silver teeth that he found in the remains of the nomad massacre, and the son develops a fever and a fear of light. Then, his son mysteriously disappears into the night and the brutal murders begin.
As more bodies pile up around the settlement, the Laurent family turns to John McBride for help.
The rest plays out, in many respects, like an old-timey murder mystery, as John McBride searches for the truth and attempts to catch the party responsible for the killings.
This one is brutal, and not for the faint of heart. Hands and feet are chopped off, flesh is torn, and blood flows. I respect a good, bloody horror, but I also realize that it is not for everyone, so I thought I would include this warning.
I didn’t like that this film used frequent dream sequences for jump-scares. Any reader who has been with W2R for any amount of time knows that I am not a fan of dream sequences (or jump scares) and the film would have been fine without them.
There is also the matter of the CGI, which is questionable at best. Thankfully these dated effects are used sparingly, but they are very noticeable due to the high-quality of the rest of the presentation. Perhaps this was not the final cut that will be released, though this was never mentioned one way or another, and I hope they have some time to polish the effects before a wide release of the film.
The film also goes on a bit too long at 115 minutes. It felt a bit slow at times, and, for a gory horror feature, 115 minutes is certainly a stretch. The film could easily have cut some bits and pieces here and there (like the dream sequences) which would have made for a tighter 100 minutes of runtime.
And, because I have noted plot holes in previous films at the festival, I have to mention that there are several noticeable inconsistencies in this film as well.
One plot hole in particular involves a character who is bitten by the werewolf later on in the film. John knows about this person and begins his search for the bitten party… until he doesn’t. So, our lead conveniently forgets about a very real and very present danger to himself and to the Laurent family because the plot needs the person John is searching for to turn into a werewolf and bite some people near the end of the film.
Basically, instead of acting consistently or logically, John just stops his search and takes a couple hours off of werewolf hunting because the writer could not think of a better way to get this plot moving.
To add to that, characters conveniently forget to bring their weapons with them sometimes, and make frequent unforgivable decisions to investigate strange noises down darkened corridors and pitch black patches of forest.
Overall, though, I really enjoyed this one and think it was my favorite film of Sundance 2021. It looks incredible in terms of the atmosphere and period setting, it sure is bloody, and the film offers a straight-forward, coherent werewolf tale that was an enjoyable watch. I would highly recommend looking for this one when it gets a wide release!
Did you get to attend the Virtual Sundance Film Festival this year? What did you see? What did you think? Let me know in the comments below!
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