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Sundance 2018: An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn, Juliet, Naked, Holiday

Jim Hosking’s “An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn” is terrible, but I bet the outtakes are incredible. His second film after 2015 Midnight pick “The Greasy Strangler” has a whole list of indie darlings playing cartoonish characters as loud and wacky as possible. But while I’m sure they had fun with the wigs, the strange scenes and weird line-readings, the total package is a comedy that always wants to be funny but never is.  

From the very first scene, Hosking resumes the type of highlighted, underlined, bolded wackiness that made his debut “The Greasy Strangler” such an arduous viewing. In this case, it starts with a super hammy Emile Hirsch character named Shane Danger learning he has to fire his wife and employee Lulu (Aubrey Plaza) from the donut shop. To make matters worse, Shane steals money from a convenience store owner named Adjay (Sam Dissanayake), who then sends a hired gun named Colin Keith Threadener (Jemaine Clement) to get it back. Colin Keith ends up running away with Lulu, who takes him to a posh hotel where a mysterious musician named Beverly Luff Linn (Craig Robinson) is set to perform. But when Lulu tries to interact with Luff Linn, in the hotel pool or lobby, he merely grunts, as if in a trance. 

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A lot of strange events, gross-out monologues, and unwieldy cartoonish performances ensue within this very light plot. It’s all told with a mix of recognizable faces and striking non-famous ones, the latter sometimes taken from “The Greasy Strangler” and given the most far-out jokes (Sky Elobar ends a scene by flailing his arms). The one person who gets out alive, as also agreed with me by fellow critics, is Clement, who does not have to try hard to be funny like everyone does. And, by the end, when it does get to a type of hint about a previous relationship between Lulu and Luff Linn, the standards have been so lowered that this ping of heart registers as more genuine than it probably should. 

Hosking is by no means a lazy filmmaker; he has an eye for costume and location, such as the weird time period and images of America he composes with the donut shop, the hotel, and a whole array of character outfits. But his approach to comedy is extremely glib, not cluing the viewer into what type of perspective we should take to best understand his world and its impulsive inhabitants. The movie is a failed experiment in trying to create comedy without anything grounded in recognizable truth. 

I spent much of “An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn” trying to understand exactly why I wasn’t laughing, despite the tried-and-true comedians, the clear production effort and its general allegiance towards originality. I made the most sense of it for myself when I started daydreaming about David Lynch’s comedic moments, especially in projects like “Twin Peaks.” Hosking is very much vamping on the abstract behavior that makes for something Lynchian, but he is gravely lacking some emotional base of which his characters could do more than just flail their arms to be funny. He's merely trying to keep things weird, a goal that proves to be a cop-out in more ways than one.

There is a wealth of talent behind Jesse Peretz's “Juliet, Naked,” which is playing Sundance this week as part of the festival’s US Premieres category. Such talent includes co-writers Jim Taylor, Tamara Jenkins (whose film “Private Life” helped open the festival on Thursday night), producer Judd Apatow and three usually compelling actors: Rose Byrne, Ethan Hawke, and Chris O’Dowd. This roster makes it all the more baffling just how vacuous this romantic comedy is, in which none of them are particularly likable while in a universally recognizable story about what music means to others. 

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O’Dowd struggles to make a charming geek out of his character Duncan, who is obsessed with every song created by burned out American musician Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke). From the beginning we see how much Duncan loves everything Crowe, and that it even gets in the middle of his long-time relationship with Anna (Rose Byrne), who tolerates the obsession (the film's title comes from a demo CD mailed to Duncan by Tucker). When the couple separates because of something that Duncan does, but also a long-burrowed disagreement on having children, Anna becomes connected with Duncan on the internet, and they start a correspondence that is very “You’ve Got Mail,” but lacking a certain charm. Tucker is revealed to be no type of rock star in America with various illegitimate children and a poor lifestyle, a mess that doesn’t inspire much sympathy. Eventually Tucker finds himself in London, and an unexpected connection ensues between Tucker and this non-fan. Some tension arises later when Duncan finds out who his ex-girlfriend is dating, but that also doesn’t go a far enough distance to be funny however awkward. 

Based on a book by Nick Hornby, “Juliet, Naked” has its passion for music to give it a flavor, with Hawke lending his voice to cheesy ’90s-ready ballads that themselves aren't good enough. But Peretz's film doesn’t have enough interest in its characters, despite spending so much time in the messes they are in (an extended scene in which Duncan’s children all show up to see him is grating, and the movie tends to focus on heartache but not its complications). Plus, it’s impressive when a movie is able to take away Byrne’s comedic charisma, but “Juliet, Naked” does that with a role that has little personality. It all leads to a little ditty of an indie romance, with scant lyricism to get stuck in your head.

Seemingly every frame of co-writer/director Isabella Eklof’s “Holiday” contains a young Danish woman named Sascha (Victoria Carmen Sonne), who we understand quickly gets caught up with the wrong people. But these folk happen to be incredibly rich, vacationing in the Turkish beach area of Bodrum with all of the booze and entertainment they could want. We don’t know about all of their bad business, but we get a sense of their power, especially that of middle-aged boss Michael (Lai Yde, who makes for one hell of a villain). Sascha becomes swept up in his power, when he buys her emerald earrings as a type of romantic gesture, calling her “princess,” but he soon enough becomes awful. In between passages where Sascha, Michael and other unassuming members of his “family” are hanging out on the beach in bright neon swimsuits or sitting by a beautiful cliffside pool, he drugs here in one instance; later in the film, in another unbroken and extremely graphic scene, he rapes her in the living room. 

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Eklof’s filmmaking is unflinching throughout these moments and others, especially when Sascha returns to a sense of “normal” in the next scene. The juxtaposition is as powerful as it is subtle, as if the previous events never happened, and there is no sense that she’s processing things or trying to get help. For a directorial vision that wants to challenge what we do and don’t see, Eklof also adds complications to trauma that make “Holiday” a searing character study. 

There are numerous moments where Sascha is alone in the frame, and the effect of isolation is often haunting, especially when she tries to start a connection with a random man she meets at an ice cream shop named Thomas (Thijs Romer). But Eklof has much more on her mind than a love triangle, as there is a staggering lack of love in general in the sunny yet frigid “Holiday.” 

“Holiday” has a special power in the way that Sascha hardly changes throughout the story, especially after Michael goes from creepily possessive to disgustingly predatory. While this subtlety of her arc makes for a few forgettable passages early on, with Sascha often looking at her reflection (a visual trope at Sundance), the overall impact is made by Sascha’s slow understanding of the family’s liberation of the rules, depicted fearlessly by Victoria Carmen Sonne. She provides a very challenging image of trauma, and an even more complicated, thoughtful idea of good people who find themselves no longer resisting the insidious nature of their environments.

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