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Films To See At The 2021 Sundance Film Festival
by Erik Childress

For the first time since 2003, I will not be traveling to Park City for the Sundance Film Festival. Thankfully, as many other festivals that have taken the leap, they are bringing their talents to Chicago and everywhere else in the country so movie lovers can experience what they have in store for 2021 virtually. There are a few less films and a few less days. Though I will not miss the rush to get from theater-to-theater with my usually insanely packed schedule nor standing in line, I will miss colleagues (especially my Chicago condo pals) and the atmosphere of anticipation that every festival brings. I have seen a good many of the films already and still have an insanely packed schedule from Jan. 28 to Feb. 2 to see the rest. But for those in need of a guide allow to present you with a selection of films I believe you will want to fit into your schedule.

I heard the name Alvin Ailey brought up many times over the years whenever I would stumble into the forms of musical theater. But other than some clips here and there I was not fully familiar with the man who helped revolutionize African-American dance culture. Director Jamila Wignot furthered my education on his techniques and a choreography that was less a lockstep to the notes of the music being played but the beating heart, pain and celebration of the performers acting out a whole historical landscape. Though audio recordings of Ailey (who passed away in 1989 not long after receiving a Kennedy Center Honor) and magnificent archival performance and rehearsal footage, this film is a lovingly crafted tribute to his legacy.

Writer/director Sean Ellis is a Sundance veteran with two previous premieres here in 2008 (The Broken) and 2013 (Audience Award Winner in World Cinema, Metro Manila). Now he adds his third in what may be his most entertaining film yet. A twist on the werewolf legend sees a group of 19th century gypsies massacred for land rights by the local barons. The curse they leave behind would make the residents of Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow feel like they got off easy. Boyd Holbrook's pathologist is no whimpering Ichabod Crane and stays to protect the few innocents that remain from a curse he may some experience with. The look of the film is wonderfully gray and gothic and there is much to delight those who needs sprays of red interspersed frequently. Ellis' last film, the solid WWII spy thriller, Anthropoid, had a helluva final shootout and he does not disappoint in another extended climax that is just as suspenseful and crazy. Though it may not be placed amongst the Midnight selections, this is one of the better horror entries the festival has had in recent years.

Rodney Escher has certainly map out a niche documenting some of the seemingly unsolvable puzzles of our time. From the endless theories of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (Room 237) to the horror of sleep paralysis (The Nightmare) and the true identity of an infamous shock rocker (The El Duce Tapes). Escher takes a leap from another heavily-conjectured film to root out the belief of some that we are actually living within a simulation of someone else's making. It all sounds like another crackpot rabbit hole but Escher puts in the homework to provide us a crafty mystery. The Matrix owes as much to the work of Philip K. Dick as much as anyone and much of the film is framed around a famous lecture we get to see where he questions his own reality. The primary "experts" hidden through avatars on camera present the same level of idea-driven "what ifs" to outrageous "get outta here" hypotheses as the voiceover participants of Room 237 but much of it is fascinating if taken on the level of clever science fiction. Thankfully, Escher also does not level away from the dark side in believing that nothing around us is real or can be controlled. Some may see this as little more than elevated stoner cinema but through the backup of film clips and the prism of religion and other philosophy it makes for a more well-rounded trip for the senses. Especially the sixth one.

In 2011 director Kevin MacDonald (Touching the Void, The Last King of Scotland, Whitney) presented his media art project, Life in a Day, which chronicled footage selected from 80,000 people shot over the course of the same day in 2010. A similarly crowdsourced experiment took place on July 25, 2020 and has produced this follow-up, a unique piece of capturing the mood of a planet over a summer filled with so much death. This collection of filmed moments, both personal and global, is not merely a mirror to heartbreak but also to moments of beauty. The highs of drone footage to life underwater, not to mention skydiving and on the back of a horse in a montage that looks like it was borrowed from the experiments in Brainstorm. At times it feels as if were caught in the vortex of Terrence Malick's evolution sequence from The Tree of Life and Michael Apted's Up series, especially in the harsh truth that not everyone who was present in the 2010 film would live to see this one. The approach of sometimes random footage may not always have the consistent impact of Steve James' addition to his City So Real docuseries from last year's Sundance. But as one participant quotes John Hurt's "wanna go for a ride" line from Robert Zemeckis' Contact you may be reminded of one of that film's planet onlookers who said "You're capable of such beautiful dreams, and such horrible nightmares." And this is just over a day.

Philippe Lacote's film has been making the festival rounds since last Autumn and even qualified for some critic awards in 2020. But most audiences will not get their chance to see it hits VOD on March 5. If you have the means to see it earlier at Sundance, take it. Set in the island prison of "La Maca" that is ruled by the inmates, a new fish is introduced to the dying patriarchy at conflict with challengers to his rule. By his order, the young man is tasked to act as storyteller on the evening of the blood moon not knowing whether his fate is already sealed. This is an original, fully alive piece of cinema that (in all fairness to News of the World, which I also like very much) is the kind of true testament to storytelling that you often hear bandied about in film discussion. But the story itself that Bakary Kone's character tells of desperation and a rise to power is also a tribute to the power of the visual medium as well. As we see his story play out on screen from a harsh reality to the fanciful it gives birth to the power of big screen trickery when used in even its most subtle of magical imagery. This is great filmmaking.

Anyone who has ever seen a Jaws documentary knows the name Valerie Taylor. She was one of the shark experts Steven Spielberg called upon to shoot Great White footage for the film. But that is just a chapter that brought her additional notoriety. Sally Aitken's documentary covers the years before-and-after that call to fame when as a young woman in Australia became a champion spearfisher. Her loving relationship with husband, Ron, took her on a evolution from the kill to the study and eventual salvation, trading shooting sharks with spears to with a camera. As well as being in front of it with documentaries like Blue Water, White Death, still considered one of the definitive films on the subject, Valerie would be compared to a Bond girl, though she was clearly the real star. Any film about Taylor would be incomplete without a side trip into Jaws territory and this one certainly does not disappoint even if it does threaten to detract from her other accomplishments. You may not share her laissez-faire attitude on the harmlessness of sharks, but she is still here to tell her life story and it is a fully-lived one at that.

As a student from the Catholic School system, stories about the Church's systemic suppression over time are near and dear to my heart. You do not have to be so closely entrenched to the rules of rectories and convents to root on the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart. The Los Angeles based nuns were progressive well before the word achieved household status in political discourse. Entering the sisterhood as many did in the mid-20th century to achieve a level of independence not seen in modern marriages, these women then found themselves met with a patriarchal society that was ready to smite any semblance of norms designed to maintain control. This included everything from the design of Christmas cards to the wearing of the traditional habits. (Some of these changes came belated to my grade school as far into the 1980s and there was even pushback then to its acceptance.) One interviewer comments that in the habit the perception was that they could no longer comment decisively on any serious topic without it being filtered through the lens on the Church's belief system. These women were practically utilized as slaves, teaching without formal training, so the school could turn a healthy profit. I was half-expecting to see a scene of them forced to put a new roof on the Church. But over time these women turned the tables and became activists for not only their own self-worth but for the young ladies who would come through their schools and to advance the causes against racism and sexism across the country. If there was anyone worthy of genuflecting for at Sundance this year the list begins with these incredible women.

Maybe I spoke too soon about the Sisters, though I bet this spectacular lady would even take a knee for them. Meanwhile we should all be prepared to take one for Rita Moreno as well. Mariem Perez Riera's documentary about the EGOT-winning star is more than just a love letter it is practically its own museum in tribute to all she has accomplished. Not just with her talent but in breaking ground for Latinas everywhere - in her industry and inspiring those on the outside of it as well. As showbiz documentaries go, this one is a real pleasure, but it never sidesteps the trials of its leading lady (her days playing "the dusky maiden roles" wearing makeup "the color of mud") nor does it sugarcoat the effect on her life. Many of these moments we hear direct from Miss Moreno's lips straight to the camera, sometimes jarringly so as she recalls her fix-up date with Columbia Pictures hard Harry Cohn or what we learn as she watches Christine Blasey Ford testify against Brett Kavanaugh. Further telling are details over her relationship with Marlon Brando that spilled over into a movie they made together years ago. On the other side there are moments of great wit and humor as you would expect from someone who admits doing The Muppet Show was "one of the great experiences of her life." This is a woman who was determined to not let anyone work her mouth or control her strings and faster than you can say "HEY YOU GUYS!" know that it was an exclamation to get out of the way because a legend is coming through.

After being opened up to the world of Frank Zappa in Alex Winter's amazing documentary last year, Edgar Wright expands our minds to a band we probably feel we should know and once we are (re)introduced to them we only want to know more. Mostly known across the pond, the band known as Sparks, made 25 albums without compromise and marched to their own pop sound and frequently satiric beat. Over 140 minutes Wright takes us through individual lyrics, television performances (including American Bandstand) and music videos that seem to have dazzled countless musical artists and even actors. As their songs seem to play over almost the entire film, Wright creates the subconscious perception that we have been listening to them our entire lives. Watching The Sparks Brothers is like witnessing a five decade rock opera that missed the wormhole to the alternate universe where the brothers were the ones doing Stop Making Sense and American Utopia. For years I have only known Sparks as that band with the musical interlude in the film "Rollercoaster." Great music docs not only paint a portrait of the artists but provide a true appreciation of the art they are creating. The way Wright keeps the beat going through never a dull moment of this epic tribute feels like a love letter to the way they have influenced the way music as a whole is utilized in everything from Shaun of the Dead to Baby Driver. This is easily the most complete piece of work I have seen playing at this year's Sundance so far and makes it worthy of must-see status.

Stay tuned throughout the festival for more updates and look out for multiple shows on the Movie Madness Podcast with more coverage and reviews.

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originally posted: 01/29/21 03:50:17
last updated: 01/30/21 03:21:09
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