Two very unique journeys are undertaken in a pair of very different films that premiered via the Sundance Film Festival today, January 31st. Sion Sono and Karen Cinorre have very different things on their mind but they both incorporate varied genres and inspirations into surreal dramas, to varying degrees of success. Sono’s film marks his English-language debut for an internationally renowned filmmaker while Cinorre’s is a feature debut altogether. Both films will find their loyal fan bases. Both will have their detractors.
Ana (Grace Van Patten) is magically transported early in “Mayday” to an alternated universe, thrust into the company of a group of female soldiers led by the mysterious Marsha (Mia Goth). Not unlike “The Wizard of Oz,” many of the people that Ana knew in her other life are found in a new form here in this place that has turned the gender war into something literal. Ana is trained as a sniper by Marsha and her team of soldiers who entrap men to come to their rescue only for them to suffer a deadly fate. Thick with symbolism like how girls make better snipers because they can hold uncomfortable positions and make themselves invisible, “Mayday” seeks to examine the issues of gender, suicide, and youth through a thin fantasy lens, but it never finds a confident wavelength and meanders when it needs to be world building. It leaves Ana and the other characters as symbols instead of people.
Cinorre takes her promising concept of “Little Women” meets “The Wizard of Oz” meets “The Hunger Games” and filters it through dime store commentary on gender and stunningly superficial dialogue, so stilted at times that the film becomes unenjoyable. The girls discuss how they killed themselves to get there and only vaguely remember their lives before. It’s a vision of purgatory in which a full-blown war between the genders is taking place. An interesting, ambitious idea for a movie? Sure. The problem is that the neverending navel-gazing philosophies start to feel like purgatory for the viewer too. At one point a thinly staged and directed musical number breaks out. Why? Why not? Too much of the creative decisions in “Mayday” seem to be have been answered with “Why not?”
Sion Sono’s “Prisoners of the Ghostland” may not be in the Midnight section of the virtual edition of the Sundance Film Festival but it feels like something that would fit that quirky, violent program perfectly. Sono’s English-language debut was easily one of the most anticipated films of this year’s fest as it pairs one of the most extreme and eccentric international filmmakers with an actor whose lack of inhibition would seem to make them a perfect fit. As he often does with his eclectic resume, Sono plays with multiple genres and their associated iconography making a movie that’s part Western, part Samurai movie, part Bank Robbery movie, and part “Mad Max: Fury Road.” He knows how to amplify the strengths of his production, including a game Nicolas Cage & Nick Cassavetes, reuniting from their time together in “Face/Off,” which feels like it’s probably a flick Sono loves, and a nearly movie-stealing turn from Bill Moseley. If “Prisoners of the Ghostland” disappoints a little, it’s only because it actually feels kind of restrained in comparison to what the mind can conjure when considering the potential of a collaboration between one of America’s most fearless actors and one of Japan’s most fearless directors.
Cage plays a nameless bank robber (partnered with Cassavetes) in a frontier city called Samurai Town. After a horrible robbery gone wrong leads to bloodshed, he’s captured, but quickly freed by the nefarious Governor (Moseley), who needs the villain to find his missing granddaughter Bernice (Sofia Boutella), who is trapped in a wasteland filled with sketchy characters. The Governor straps our hero into an explosive leather suit that will injure him if he raises a hand in violence or even has too strong a sexual thought about his granddaughter. And if he doesn’t get the girl back in five days, it will self-destruct. Can the hero find his way through the ghostland, get the girl, and get back again?
It’s a great set-up for a movie that makes it a little frustrating when Sono seems to lose the plot in the center of it, meandering through his post-apocalyptic vision with a surprising lack of momentum. It’s also, for the director of crazy pieces of work like “Forest of Love” and “Why Don’t You Play in Hell?,” a little tame in the end. Yet there are also incredibly Sono-esque flourishes, including an amazing use of Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle” to accompany a samurai sequence and a few ridiculous street showdowns. Even if it’s a movie that I kept wanting to boil over that feels content to simmer through genre conventions, it’s certainly never dull. How could it be really?