SUNDANCE 2021 (online) - 19 Films



DAY 1 - Two films


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  CODA is a kind and lovely film about a high school girl's relationship with her deaf family of fisherman (CODA stands for Children Of Dead Adults). The unique ASL-perspective is really what enlivens the story, as without it, the film is prone to cliched characters and a disappointingly generic plot formula. The realities of how the family's deafness affects their business, relationships, and school feels very unique and authentic. It certainly helps that all the characters who are deaf are played by actual deaf people. There are wonderfully touching moments sprinkled throughout the film; I was especially enamored with the relationship between the lead, Ruby, and her father. And Marlee Matlin as Ruby's mother is luminous. As a former a capella singer, I appreciated the film's honest depiction of the lure and connection possible with performative singing.




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CENSOR is a dark, nasty little piece of work about a British film sensor in the 1980s whose life starts to fall apart as the uber-violence of the films she watches bleeds into her own life. There is not a lot of meat on the bone here, its all mood and early 80s horror style. I thought the lead performance was very good and vulnerable. Oddly, my screening cut out the last 10 minutes of the film. I debated just ending there, but I later tracked down and watched the last 10 minutes. Good thing I did, because the final scene is excellent, finally visually delving into the simmering theme of censorship sanitizing the awful dankness of our society. The trauma always peeks through. And that look on the lead's face as we cut out is both terrifying and exhalative.





DAY 2 - Three films


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I WAS A SIMPLE MAN is about an old man slowly dying on the North shore of Oahu and having flashbacks to his life. It is as slow and somber as you would imagine. There really is no plot, just images of this slow death, like a tropical Malick film. And the main character was a black hole, very little character, and frankly he is just kind of a jerk. There is a sliver of story about his grandson taking care of him that I latched on to. It plays with the idea of fear that can mask as disgust that the vibrant young often feel for the frailty and messiness of age. The cinematography was stunning; the lush trees and winds of Hawaii are so alluring. But frankly, if I had seen this in a theatre, I would have fallen asleep.




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JOHN AND THE HOLE is about a young boy, the eponymous John, who does something strange to his disconnected affluent family. Trying not to give away the main plot there. I have issues where characters in films don't make sensible decisions based on their established motivations. And this just all falls apart in terms of motivation. There is a slight thread about John trying to cope with the blurry line of adulthood, but its not enough to even attempt to explain his actions. The finale is so frustrating because no one acts like a human being! And there is a framing story that tries to set up the main plot as a fable, but that doesn't work either. Sorry, this is a scattered review, but the film was so ambiguous and confused its hard not to mimic that in the review! The whole thing feels wrong, exploitative somehow. I went into the Q&A hoping it would make a little more sense, but it turned into a defensive treatise on ambiguity as art which just annoyed me. As if answers aren't truth. Moving on!




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ON THE COUNT OF THREE saved the day for me! A rough and tumble, gallows humor film about two good friends who want to commit suicide. A genuine exploration of male friendship, for the most part the filmmakers walked a thin tightrope of tone; making a film about depression and suicide entertaining, moving, and fun. Chris Abbott was incredible and his chemistry with Jerrod Carmichael was potent. I was distracted by the presence of celebrities in some minor roles (hate this trend), but I understand that helps the film get made. The ending doesn't quite land as hard as it should, we needed a bit more time with the characters, but it got very close. But this is fast, good energy, and funny, definitely worth a viewing. Bonus points for making a hilarious 2nd amendment joke. Extra Bonus points for the film somehow using a Papa Roach song as a punchline AND as a surprisingly touching anthem.





DAY 3 - One film


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WILD INDIAN is about two Native American men who must wrestle with the awful things they did as kids and how those acts have molded who they have become. I wanted to like this, I really did. But everything just happens, its flat, there is no narrative buildup or momentum. And this fundamental amateur-level flaw robs the story of any power. For instance, I had no idea we were in the finale of the film until it was over. There is a separate plot that exists in the ancient past and I was confused how that fit with the modern storyline. To be fair, the cinematography is moody and excellent, its nice to see a Native film that looks cinematic. And the lead performances of Michael Greyeyes and especially Chaske Spencer are very good. The writing is quite bad, every theme is just SO on the nose. Want to show the lead is still dark? Let's show him choking a stripper! Also there is really no resolution for anyone, is that a problem I am having with Sundance movies this year? Does each movie need to end with endless bleakness??





DAY 4 - Three films


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IN THE EARTH is a trippy and disturbing body-horror film about scientists doing research deep in the isolated woods when they start to lose their damn minds. It's a Wheatley film, so you have to be prepared for it to get weird. No disappointment there! But its all mood and style, a kaleidoscope acid trip. There is a lot of exposition but no clear understanding as to what the characters know at any given point. The plot just peters out at a certain point and the filmmakers want us to complete the journey on the backs of the nonexistent, unclear characterizations. It's a pandemic movie (a plot point lazily pointed out early in the film), so I want to give it a pass, but everything filmed seemed to be their exact plan. Oh well, pretty lights!




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HOW IT ENDS is a very sweet, gentle hang-out film about one woman's last day before the world is destroyed by an asteroid. This is the first movie shot during COVID that FEELS like it was shot during COVID. All the encounters are socially distanced and the frame is appropriately deserted. I enjoyed it for what it is, a low-key, humorous comedy about one woman, Liza, and her journey to self-acceptance. There are a couple meta twists that don't quite work but are cute. The celebrity cameos are delightful and one amazing against-type performance by Logan Marshall-Green that had me laughing out loud. Nothing ground-breaking here, but I had a small smile at the end, and I do like the positive catharsis of that last shot.




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PLEASURE is a movie you will never see. Seriously. If this isn't X-rated, I don't know what would be. It's about a porn actress and her journey through the porn world from newb to star. There is no titillation here, this is a full expose of the business of the adult entertainment industry. It's hard to get past the pure shock of this film to talk coherently about its strengths. There is no fear in this dark dive and while there are some moments of light and friendship, the grind of this business and the awfulness is well stated. There is an absolutely gonzo scene (hard to describe without being explicit) halfway through that is extremely difficult to watch, but explores the line between performance and intent in a fascinating way. The ending is inevitably sad but strong, working on multiple levels and boldly challenging our beliefs. It really is a good film, and the willingness of the lead actress is heroic, but I can't imagine anyone ever seeing this and I certainly never will again. But for those curious, if you can make it through the audio of the opening credits, you should be well prepared!





DAY 5 - Three films


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PASSING is a stunning, astonishingly insightful film about 2 light-skinned black women in the 1920s who often 'pass' for white women. I was worried I was going to be a bit bored with the time period and lack of color, but the first hotel room conversation is a knockout and sets the stage for the amazing scenes to come. The film is not lacking for ambition; a deep exploration of colorism, community, marriage, exoticism, sexuality, parenting, and multiple other topics I am missing. Each scene is so layered and meticulously crafted, each line teased out with multiple meanings. The acting by Tessa Thompsons and Ruth Negga is spectacular. They are both coming at the roles from different places, which seems like it should be a problem, but instead it highlights the difference and conflict between these two complex women. This is one of the only times I have seen a film that tries to look like it is shot in a different era actually FEEL like it is from that era. The light is often rough and blow-out, the sound is tinny like it would have been, yet the deeply modern storyline inquisitiveness makes you feel like you just unearthed the most transgressive pre-Code film ever! The camerawork is playful, like one shot using a mirror to make two characters seem closer together then they actually are. It sags for a second, but then finishes with a pointedly ambiguous ending that actually serves the story. I can't praise this film enough, I was blown away.




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MASS is a difficult devastating film about a fraught meeting between two sets of parents. I don't really want to spoil why they are there, but it is a parent's worst nightmare. This is like a play, a wrenching 4-hander full of incredible performances. Martha Plimpton, Ann Dowd, Jason Isaacs, and Reed Birney all each have moments to shine and turn in truly stunning, career-pinnacle performances. Maybe since it was so unexpected, but I was most torn apart by Jason Isaacs. He has one revealing monologue halfway in that destroyed me. This is written/directed by, of all people, Fran Kranz, an actor from the Whedon stable, usually typecast as a pothead. Unfortunately, the only problems I have here are with the direction. I think the mystery of why the couples are there is unnecessary and drags on too long. It shrouds the first bit of the conversation in mystery which is just not needed. And the final shot was confusing to me, which is just not what I needed. But I don't want to take away from the power of this film, it is a towering work of tragedy and forgiveness; about the abyss of rage and the dear cost of mercy.




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EIGHT FOR SILVER was a necessary palette-cleanser after that last one. This is just a fun, gothic, gory werewolf film set in the English countryside. There are some good jump scares; nothing like the bone-deep horror of THE WITCH, more like the schlockeyness of SLEEPY HOLLOW. I dug the over-the-top design of the werewolf and the creeping fog. It suffers from the usual lack of logic, a saggy middle, and delusions of something grander. Some screamy fun, nothing more!





DAY 6 - Five films


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MISHA AND THE WOLVES is a documentary about the fascinating story told by a Holocaust survivor and what happened after her story was published in the late 1990s. Unfortunately, the filmmaking has some pretty major faults. For one, the film presents the story as serious, but a lot of the transitions and music used is just silly. Campy 'villian' music and such. There are also some pretty major holes in the story that seem essential. For instance, there are no interviews with Misha in the second half of the film. I'm not sure why you would make the film without that key interview. Also, there are thematic threads near the end that seem to implicate the viewer in the story, and I would love to have seen this idea expanded upon instead of shoved into the closing minutes. Also, there are some big holes in Misha's life that the film is uninterested in telling. And finally, a personal pet peeve, but the closing titles drop a key bit of information that, instead of wrapping the film up, raises a whole slew of interesting questions. Why on earth would you do that to an audience?? It is sad to see a juicy documentary topic tainted by amateurish storytelling.




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PRISONERS OF THE GHOSTLAND is Nic Cage's latest insane performance tucked into a Japanese action flick. This should have been soooo much better than it is, but it is utter nonsense. Cage is actually excellent when he is allowed to emote. I give it a full star rating just for his amazing rant about his testicles. But the majority of the middle of this film is middling wandering confusion. Nothing makes a lick of sense and is actually quite boring. And maybe I am used to more choreographed, John-Wick-ian balletic violence, but the fighting in the finale felt sloppy. It was nice to see an apocalyptic action film with gorgeous bright color saturation. But otherwise, truly a huge disappointment.




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LAND is a very gentle, tender film about a woman escaping into the wilderness in order to process her grief. Robin Wright does an excellent job with her performance as Edee, but also as the director; all stunning landscapes and a smooth languid tone. This was a film you quietly settle into and enjoy the aching friendships that develop and root for the slow journey Edee takes back to people. I keep thinking of the small moments; a little smile at a hospital or the unexpected tears upon hearing a story. Nothing mold-breaking here, just a confidently told story about the demands of grief and the deepness of compassion. And maybe my line of the festival, an encapsulation of our last year, when asked why someone helped another, the simple answer was 'You were in my path'.




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MAYDAY is a take on THE WIZARD OF OZ, about a violent female-empowered separate universe that is only reachable by women who commit suicide. This conceit almost works, but it took me way too long to figure out what was happening. There is a lot of confusion in the middle, like a nonsensical dance number that the director admitted in the Q&A was only thrown in because she liked dance numbers. And the awfulness of the 'real' world at the beginning felt exaggerated and fake, which I understand was necessary to juxtapose the the separate universe, but still. Shockingly, unlike most movies, the film gets better, and the final scenes are thrilling and genuinely moving. So nice to see Juliette Lewis in something again! But then, a frustrating last shot that, similar to a lot of movies this year, just raises more questions exactly when everything should be wrapping up.




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WE'RE ALL GOING TO THE WORLD'S FAIR is an unnerving microbudget film about a young girl's decent into the creepy online horror role-playing world. It's not exactly horror or a thriller, just deeply disturbing. The themes of isolation, and the lure of exploitative online communities is a timely and well-detailed topic. Halfway through, the film morphs into an unreliable narrator-tale and makes even deeper points about trust online. There are some truly weighty issues being explored here, and I felt so much empathy for the poor lead girl, lost in her loneliness. Like a really fucked-up EIGTH GRADE. And there was one slow PARANORMAL ACTIVITY-like scene that, while not jump scary, was one of the most terrifying images I have seen on screen, that still crawls around in my head. An excellent film, but also, YIKES!





DAY 7 - Two films


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JOCKEY is an authentic movie about an aging horse jockey who struggles with family and his decreasing ability to ride. The movie has a rough lived-in feel, filming sizable scenes with actual jockeys and their trainers. Clifton Collins gives a confident towering performance as the jockey. The plot though, geez, its lifted from Screenwriting 101 and is a story we have all seen a million times. It is also one of the few films I have seen recently where a lack of budget visibly hurt a big scene. The acting moments are just so damn good though, and the hazy sunset cinematography was blissful.




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SUMMER OF SOUL (…OR WHEN THE REVOLUTION COULD NOT BE TELEVISED) is a tremendously accomplished documentary compiled by Questlove about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival (often called Black Woodstock). The footage has only recently been unearthed, 'lost' for about 50 years, which I'm sure is a frustrating story in of itself. The performances and moments caught here are stunning; Stevie Wonder playing drums, Gladys Knight, Sly, 5th dimension, Staple Singers, Mahalia Jackson's solo, Nina Simone, BB King, Jesse Jackson talking about MLK Jr. dying in front of him a year earlier, the moon landing on one of the concert days. There are 3 narratives at work here: the concert, an exploration of Black life in 1969, and modern reminisces from performers and others who attended. The breadth of issues and culture explored here is astounding, assembled with a passion and smooth knowledge. Honestly, this would be great with concert alone, but this is also vital, historical information of a turbulent time in our country. 1969 has always fascinated me, so much was happening, yet the world seem to teeter on the edge of destruction. Add this wonderful concert for just one more major event that was squeezed into that insane year. See this immediately.