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Sundance 2021--Day 1 & 2
by Peter Sobczynski

My look at the offerings on display during the first two days of this year's Sundance Film Festival.

For various reasons that we need not go into here--mostly borne of my lack of desire to travel from Chicago to Utah in January and my preference for seeing films in properly oxygenated surroundings--I have never actually attended the world-famous Sundance Film Festival. However, since circumstances have forced the festival, like so many others, to scuttle their usual format for a virtual approach, I am able to at long last to cover it from the comfort of my own fortified compound. Over the next few days, I will be posting a few dispatches here covering the films that I have seen, some of which will go on to justifiable obscurity and some of which will go on to become a part of the cultural conversation in the next few months. Below, please enjoy my thoughts on a number of the films that screened during the first two days.

CENSOR: The so-called "video nasties" era--a period in the mid-1980s when the ready availability of gory horror movies on home video in England sparked a bizarre backlash that caused many to be censored or banned outright by the government for fear that they could inspire copycat violence--is the spark for this entertaining and cheerfully gruesome debut feature from Piano Bailey-Bond. Enid (Niamh Algar) is a prim and proper government censor who calmly catalogues the grisly acts she views every day. It is soon revealed that when she was a young girl, her sister vanished under circumstances that evidently witnessed but cannot recall the key details. One day at work, she is viewing yet another schlocky gorefest ("Don't Go Into The Church") and discovers that the gruesome onscreen details resemble her vague childhood memories, a revelation that causes her to dig deep as she heads down a path where real life and reel life come together in appropriately messy fashion. The screenplay by Bailey-Bond and Anthony Fletcher stumbles a bit towards the end but even that sort of jibes with the films it is paying homage to and the final moments certainly end things on a nicely creepy moment. Nicely conveying both the social hysteria of the time and the tacky grandeur of the films being targeted (often feeling like a knowingly low-rent version of the cinematic fetish objects of Peter Strickland), filled with enough grisly imagery to satisfy gorehounds without going too far overboard and anchored by Elgar's compelling performance, genre buffs will have a blast watching it but there is enough going on here to attract the kind of strait-laced viewer who would never dream of watching something entitled "Driller Killer."

CODA: The title of Sian Heder's film stands for Child Of Deaf Adults and refers to Ruby (Emilia Jones), a high school senior who is the only hearing member of her family and who helps her parents (Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur) and brother (Daniel Durant) run their Gloucester-based fishing business. She loves them but nevertheless yearns to do more with her life and when she stumbles into joining her school's choir--ostensibly to be near her secret crush (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo)--it turns out that she has a gift that her teacher (Eugenio Derbez) encourages her to pursue further in college. This sets up the inevitable collision between her familial obligations and her newfound passion that leads to any number of conflicts (her mother takes it personally that Ruby would choose the one form of artistic expression that completely separates her from her family) and tearful resolutions. It makes sense that this film would be chosen as one of the Opening Night presentations because while it starts off on an admirably quirky note (such as a scene where Ruby is forced to translate during a particularly embarrassing doctor's visit), it soon bogs down in so many familiar tropes and plot developments that it feels that all it needs is the appearance of a Spitfire Grill to let viewers complete their Sundance Bingo cards. That said, while I cannot say that I cared for it that much, I concede that Jones is pretty wonderful, Heder certainly knows how to create a story that aims for maximum crowd-pleasing effect and there is a very good chance that you may wind up liking it a lot more than I did.

CRYPTOZOO: Dash Shaw made a splash a few years ago with his inventive animated debut feature, "My Entire High School, Sinking Into The Sea," but comes up short with his latest effort, in which a sometimes inventive visual style does battle with a narrative that never really works. As a child, Lauren (Lake Bell) had her childhood nightmares stopped when she was visited by a baku, a mythical creature that ate her dreams and allowed her to sleep. Now an adult, Lauren has devoted herself to tracking down other fantastical creatures, known here as cryptids, and housing them in a zoo of her creation to prevent them from being exploited by the outside world. While on a chase to find that original baku before military men can get their hands on it, Lauren begins to wonder if she is doing the creatures just as much harm by allowing them to be viewed by the world instead of letting them stay in the shadows. In essence the story is basically a slow and obtuse mashup of "Pokemon" and one of those Adult Swim shows you never quite got around to watching and while the hand-drawn animation style does yield the occasional lovely visual moment, there is little here to engage viewers on anything other than a purely technical level. Shown at midnight--preferably later--I suppose its hallucinatory approach might find favor with audiences under the influence of substances slightly stronger that oregano but in the cold light of day, it is little more than a good-looking bore.

IN THE EARTH: The good news about Ben Wheatley's latest--shot on a microscopic budget over 15 days last summer under pandemic protocols--is that it is better than his previous effort, his bungled and throughly unnecessary take on "Rebecca." The bad news is that it is just as shitty as all of his other shitty mashups of clumsily subverted genre tropes, failed dark humor and sadistic brutality. Set a year or so into an unnamed global pandemic, it starts as microorganism specialist Martin Lowery (Joel Fry) sets off on a trek deep into the Arboreal Forest, led by forest guide Alma (Ellora Torchia), to reach a remote research facility and make contact with fellow scientist (and former love) Dr. Olivia Wendle (Hayley Squires). While camping one night, the two are assaulted by mysterious forces and have their shoes stolen, forcing them to continue their trek barefoot (cue the beginning of plenty of grisly foot trauma) until they come upon Zach (Reece Shearsmith), a grizzled recluse living off the grid who offers them help--I will reveal no more of what happens but I suspect that you can figure out that this proves to be not the smartest of ideas. The film clearly sees Wheatley reaching back to his low-budget roots following such recent bloated works as "High Rise," "Free Fire" and the aforementioned "Rebecca" but all he really accomplishes here is showing that he can make a crummy movie on a shoestring budget as easily as he can with big stars and comfortable budgets. There are a couple of potentially interesting ideas here and there but they wind up getting buried by the muddled plotting, boring characters and copious bloodletting that no amount of wild strobe lighting effects and bizarre camera angles can quite disguise. I suppose that Wheatley fans--it seems that such creatures do exist--might enjoy it but, as they have clearly demonstrated in the past, they are perfectly content to settle for less. Other than an undeniably strange and compelling score from Clint Mansell, this is near-total waste of time and energy for all involved.

IN THE SAME BREATH: Award-winning filmmaker Nanfu Wang, who lives in America, happened to be in China last year as part of her annual trip to celebrate the Chinese New Year with her family. As a result, she was able to witness both the initial stirrings of the coronavirus pandemic and the attempts by the government and the media to downplay things, a move that only served to exacerbate the situation with catastrophic results. Recognizing wha was going on, she hired camera crews to document what was happening in the hospitals of Wuhan and interview doctors and family members of victims. The levels of misinformation and propaganda that she has complied here are still shocking to witness but what is equally startling is her illustration of how the early days of the pandemic in the United States were handled and the stunning realization that the American response shared any number of parallels with the Chinese, despite the ideological differences between the two governments, and ended up with pretty much the same disastrous results. The end result is a film that presents frontline journalism through an intensely personal perspective and, along with the recent "76 Days," will almost certainly go down as a key cinematic record of the early days of Covid-19 and how it all went so terribly wrong.

JOHN AND THE HOLE: This film from director Pascual Sisto was originally set to debut at last year's Cannes Festival until the whole thing was scuttled--alas, Cannes gain proves to be Sundance's loss. If the festival were to be presenting the Chumscrubber Memorial Prize commemorating the most irritating film of the festival illustrating the exquisite ennui of poetically nihilistic teens suffering mightily at the hands of self-absorbed adults who just don't understand the unique pain that comes with being a privileged white kid in an upper-class suburb, it would almost certainly go to this excruciatingly banal and annoying work. Based on a short story by Nicholas Giacobone (who also penned the screenplay), it centers around John (Charlie Shotwell), a 13-year-old kid who lives a coddled life of well-to-do suburban splendor in his huge remote home with his parents (Michael C. Hall and Jennifer Ehle) and older sister (Tassia Farmiga). After discovering an abandoned half-constructed underground shelter in the woods, he decides one night to drug the rest of his family and dump them in the shelter. While they shiver in the shelter, trying to figure out why John is doing this to them, he stays back at the house to do whatever he wants, occasionally offering up half-baked explanations to visitors as to the whereabouts of the others. The film is presumably meant to be some kind of tortured allegory for the rocky transition from adolescence to adulthood--over the course of his time on his own, John goes from scarfing ice cream and playing video games to such ostensibly adult activities as learning to drive and cooking risotto---through an approach clearly modeled on the chilly and occasionally surreal sadism demonstrated in the films of such directors as Michael Haneke and Yorgos Lanthimos but what can be fascinating in their hands comes off as both pretentious and grating here. Because it has been made with a certain degree of style--entirely self-conscious, of course--and is resoundingly self-serious throughout, there is the possibility that some may end up regarding this as some kind of masterpiece but let me assure you--those people could not be more wrong if they tried.

KNOCKING: In the wake of a recent stay at a mental facility following a traumatic event that is clearly still haunting her, Molly (Cecilia Milocco) struggles to make a fresh start for herself by moving into a new apartment. Already on edge from her still-raw emotions and an ongoing heatwave, she is frazzled even further when she begins hearing knocking coming from her ceiling but when she inquires of her neighbors on the floor above here, they all deny making or even hearing any noise. The knocking continues, possibly in Morse code and now accompanied by what might be a woman's voice, but when Molly, believing that someone is in danger, tries to alert authorities, her suspicions are dismissed as the inventions of a woman still suffering from mental issues. Determined to prove herself, Molly continues to investigate further to discover the source of the noise and the reason behind but cannot entirely dismiss the possibility that it is indeed all in her head. Short (a mere 76 minutes) and direct, Frida Kempff's merging of suspense thriller tropes with an examination of gaslighting culture may not be particularly original or surprising (the chance that a movie condemning gaslighting would end with the woman being wrong is pretty slim) but it has been made with undeniable style and Milocco ia eminently watchable and sympathetic as the increasingly frazzled Molly.

LUZZU: Although acclaimed filmmaker Rahmin Bahrani serves as one of its co-producers, it is Alex Camilleri who makes his feature directorial debut with one of the first locally-produced films to emerge from Malta. The latest in several generations of fishermen in his family, Jesmark (Jesmark Scicluna) is trying to eke out enough of a living to provide for his wife and their newborn son in the face of dwindling supplies of fish and government restrictions meant to help combat the damage done by overfishing. When two disasters hit at the same time--his wooden boat develops a leak that requires extensive repairs and his child develops a condition that requires immediate and expensive treatment--he finds himself compelled to participate in an illegal operation that sneaks out at night to catch fish that are ostensibly off-limits and sell them for a large profit on the black market. Using a cast of nonprofessional actors, Camilleri utilizes a neorealist approach to the material that manages to convey any number of powerful emotions without ever slipping into turgid melodrama. The end result is a poignant and stirring look at a way of life that is slowly and inevitably being eclipsed by the passage of time and those who end up getting caught in the middle of those changes.

RITA MORENO: JUST A GIRL WHO DECIDED TO GO FOR IT: If ever there was a performer deserving of a documentary chronicling their life and career, it is Rita Moreno, the multi-talented force of life who has been entertaining audiences for over 70 years and has won just about every imaginable award along the way. However, Marie Pere Riera's film is more than just a mere highlight reel of Morenos numerous achievements. It charts her entire story, sometimes in harrowing detail, from transplanting from Puerto Rico to New York as a child to her early days in the industry facing both equal harassment and racial discrimination with nothing but her talent and integrity. Even after winning the Oscar for "West Side Story," things did not get easier (she reveals she didn't get another film role for years afterwards because she rejected the stereotypical parts that were all she was being offered) but she continued to stand strong and would eventually become a true icon for multiple generations of fans. Although Riera's film breaks no new ground from a filmmaking standpoint, that is hardly necessary with a subject as fascinating as this--seeing her immediate reaction to the conclusion of the Brett Kavanaugh hearings is worth the price of admission by itself--and anyone who has ever been entertained by her work over the decades owes it to themselves to watch this.

STRAWBERRY MANSION: In the not-too-distant future posited by this trippy new feature from Albert Birney, people's dreams are now subject to taxation and as the story begins, meek government agent James Preble (Kentucker Audley) arrives at the home of aging artist/force of life Arabella "Bela" Isadore (Penny Fuller) to go through her lifetime archive of dreams in order to find out how much in back taxes she owes. While doing so via a process that puts him into those very same dreams, James encounters the young Bella(Grace Glowicki) and is instantly smitten, leading to a serious of strange encounters and discoveries within her dreamscape. I am probably not explaining the film very well but then again, this is not the kind of film that is overly reliant on narrative structure to come across--it is the kind where you just kind of lean back and let its wild visuals and weirdo humor sort of wash over you for a couple of hours. The effect is definitely strange--it feels at time like what might have resulted if Alan Rudolph had directed "The Matrix"--and I cannot honestly say that I understood all of it. That said, it looks great, it has a lot of charm and wit and I suspect that I will probably remember moments from this one far longer than I will with anything from most of the other films being presented here this year.

SUMMER OF SOUL (. . . OR WHEN THE REVOLUTION COULD NOT BE TELEVISED): During the summer of 1969, a six-week concert series dubbed the Harlem Cultural Festival brought an astonishing amount of talent--including David Ruffin, Sly Stone, the Staple Singers, Stevie Wonder, Mahalia Jackson and Willie Tyler and Lester--to perform before over 300,000 people. The entire event was filmed but due to a shocking lack of interest in the material--besides the antipathy at the time towards an all-black roster of entertainers, the Woodstock music festival (which was staged 100 miles away) wound up dominating the cultural conversation--no one bought the footage and it would up being locked away in the basement. A half-century later, musician Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson has unearthed the material and utilized it as the basis for his directorial debut, one of the most joyous and vibrant film experiences that you are likely to have this year. Of course, the musical performances are grand--we see everything from Stevie Wonder doing a drum solo to Sly Stone making the crowd wait fo him to take the stage to a stunning climactic turn from Nina Simone--but Thompson has give us more than just a concert movie. Using additional archival material and new interviews with those who were there, either on the stage or in the crowd, he does an excellent job of placing the concert in the context of the times and illustrates just how important it was as a statement for a populace that looked at the moon landing (to name another incident going on at the time) and largely saw a waste of money and resources that could have gone to help rebuilding communities as theirs. As both a record of some truly amazing musical performances (I cannot recall a single dud in the whole bunch) and as a piercing work of cultural anthropology bringing to light an event that should have been more widely heralded at the time, this is a film that is ultimately as essential as it is entertaining.

link directly to this feature at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/feature.php?feature=4289
originally posted: 01/30/21 11:49:09
last updated: 01/30/21 12:46:38
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