Sundance 2021--The Rest Of The Fest
By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 02/04/21 08:51:34
Here is my final look at films that I saw during the last few days of this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Many of them may be coming to a theatre or streaming device near you before long. Some of them even deserve to be seen.
FIRST DATE: After finally mustering up the courage to ask his long-standing crush out on a date, teenager Mike (Tyson Brown) discovers that he has been left carless for the occasion. Desperate to make a good impression, he is duped into buying a bombed-out 1965 Chrysler that turns out to have something hidden inside of it that makes him the target of the members of an especially idiotic criminal gang, a couple of ever-present cops and the gun-toting wife of the now-missing guy who sold him the heap in the first place. Debuting writer-director duo Manuel Crosby and Darren Knapp are clearly aiming for the next "Superbad" or "Pineapple Express" with their combination of slacker humor and wildly overcalled action beats but the end result is a tiresome drag that is nether as funny nor as outrageous at it clearly thinks that it is. Brown is likable enough in the lead but winds up getting lost amidst all of the buffoonery and bullets and most viewers are likely to come away from it feeling annoyed rather than amused.
JOCKEY: Aging jockey Jackson (Clifton Collins Jr.) has been on the racing circuit for so long and endured so many injuries along the way that when he goes to the doctor for one of what proves to be an increasingly dire series of exams, he is asked not if he has broken his back before but how many times. Nevertheless, with the help of the loyal Ruth (Molly Parker) and a promising new horse, things are looking up for him until his plans are upended by the arrival of a young jockey (Moises Arias) who claims to be the son he never knew he had. This film proved to be one of the big winners of the festival--it received a bunch of rave reviews and was sold to Sony--and for the life of me, I cannot quite understand why. The film isn'’t terrible, I suppose, and any chance to see Collins (who won a Special Jury Prize for his work) in the lead role of a film is certainly welcome.The trouble is that this film from debuting director Clint Bentley proves to be little more than a rehash of "The Wrestler" with horses instead of body slams. The end result is competent but forgettable but if it leads to Collins getting more notice, I suppose it will have done its job.
JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH: As the leader of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers and the founder of the Rainbow Coalition, Fred Hampton was a revolutionary voice for the cause of social change, one so powerful that the FBI went to enormous lengths to silence him, including planting informant William O'Neal in the organization. Eventually becoming a trusted friend to Hampton and the head of security for the chapter, O''Neal would supply the Feds with information that would lead to raids, arrests and, most infamously, the brutal 1969 incident where Hampton and fellow Panther Mark Clark were murdered as they slept as the Feds stormed his apartment. Director Shaka King, who co-wrote the screenplay with Will Benson, recounts this shameful piece of Chicago history in vivid and powerful detail that is slightly undercut by the realization that the film wasn’t really shot in the city. (It was instead filmed in Cleveland.) The film is further driven by electrifying performances from Daniel Kaluuya as Hampton, Lakeith Stanfield as O’Neal and Jesse Plemons as the FBI agent willing to do anything to take down Hampton to get in good with boss J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen, donning makeup that is only slightly less awkward-looking than the stuff applied to Leonardo DiCaprio in "J. Edgar").Both as a penetrating depiction of recent social history that remains relevant today and as a rejoinder to the comparatively weak "The Trial of the Chicago 7," this is a must-see.
LIFE IN A DAY 2020: At the 2011 edition of Sundance, documentary filmmaker Kevin Macdonald presented "Life in a Day," a co-production with YouTube comprised entirely of crowdsourced footage shot by ordinary people over the course of one specific day. Now, ten years later, Macdonald and YouTube returns with a follow-up that utilizes the same concept but unleashes it on a world that is now fundamentally different than it was a decade earlier for reasons ranging from the Covid-19 pandemic to the inescapable fact that people posting clips of themselves for all to see is nowhere near as unusual as it had previously been ten years ago. Like the first film, this is essentially a slick, feature-length commercial for YouTube (who will be releasing the film to the public) and while there are some undeniably affecting moments to be had (many of them illustrating the devastating effects on Covid-19), it is mostly a rapid-fire compilation of the good, the sad and the silly that is undeniably flashy but ultimately rather pointless and forgettable.
MISHA AND THE WOLVES: In 1997, Belgian emigre Misha Defonseca published "Misha: A Memoir of the Holocaust Years," a memoir in which she tells the astonishing story of how, as a little girl, she set off on a journey on foot from Belgium, where she had been placed with a Catholic family when her Jewish parents were sent away, to Germany in search of her real family. Sticking to the woods on her trek, she was befriended by a wolf pack that accepted her as one of their own and even killed a Nazi she encountered who attempted to rape her. When sales in America did not match those in Europe, where the book became a sensation, she sued her publisher and won an enormous judgement. As a last resort, the publisher began investigating Delfonseca's claims and slowly began to uncover a startling web of deception surrounding her story. Sam Hobkinson's documentary on this bizarre literary mystery grapples with the need that people have to embrace stories like Defonseco's without hesitation even with the presence of any number of seemingly obvious red flags. He also has a fairly clever retort for viewers who go into it wondering how people could be so gullible to accept a particular narrative just because they are told it is real, even when it seems too good or unlikely to be true. Even if you known the basics of the story, this is still a compelling and thought-provoking work that once again proves that truth, such as it is, is eminently stranger than fiction.
PLEASURE: One of the selections clearly booked because of its overtly controversial elements, filmmaker Ninja Thyberg expands on her 2014 short of the same name in this film centered on one Bella Cherry (Sofia Kappel) as she arrives in Los Angeles from her homeland of Sweden with dreams of being the next big porn star. In quite graphic detail, the film follows her as she goes from her first film shoot, a relatively benign (if messy) affair, to kinkier fare as she tries to work her way up the ladder amid sleazo managers, snippy competitors and male-dominated sets that could theoretically become dangerous in an instant. As a look at the contemporary adult film industry from the perspective of one of the on-screen personalities, it is sort of interesting as it presents scenes varying from the hilarious to the heartbreaking. However, when it was all done, I kind of found myself at a loss as to what it was trying to do, other than try to see how much adult content can be put into a film before it is considered to be pornographic itself. It should be noted that Kappel gives a performance that is so convincing that she is virtually indistinguishable from the numerous real-life porn stars who turn up here as well--for the record, I mean this as a compliment.
SUPERIOR: Erin Vassilopoulos makes her feature debut with a continuation of the short that she presented at the festival in 2015 that, like the previous film, is centered around twin sisters and stars real-life sisters Alessandra and Ari Mesa. On the run following a violent incident involving her husband, the flighty Marian (Alessandra) turns up at her childhood home to see her sister Vivian (Ari), a straight-laced housewife struggling to conceive with her dullard husband, for the first time in six years. As the two begin to reconnect, they occasionally begin to change places with each other--Vivian takes over shifts at Marian's job scooping ice cream and smokes pot with the teenaged boss while Marian discovers the hidden pleasures of domesticity--but Marian's dark past inevitably catches up with her with unexpected results for all. In essence, the film suggests what might have resulted if Brian De Palma had directed "Desperately Seeking Susan" and while it takes a while to get going, it does hit a nice grove duding the middle section, thanks in large part to the charm of the twin Mesas. Unfortunately, the final scenes, in which Vassilopoulis abandons the film’s loopier charms for a disappointingly flat wrap-up.
TOGETHER TOGETHER: In one of my earlier festival dispatches, I made the slightly snide suggestion that "Coda" was a film that seemed to be going out of its way to include elements that would appeal to the Sundance crowd. While I have definite issues to the film, I will concede that it does work on some basic crowd-pleasing level, which is more than I can say for this blandly conceived and executed comedy-drama from writer-director Nikole Beckwith. When lonely middle-aged man Matt (Ed Helms) decides that he would like to have a child, he hires Anna (Patti Harrison), a 26-year-old who needs money to resume her college studies, to serve as a surrogate mother. Although purely a business arrangement at first, a theoretically unlikely friendship begins to develop between the two over the course of the gestation. Helms and newcomer Harrison are both likable and engaging performers but they are let down by a screenplay that starts with an intriguing idea--the notion of a man spurred to have a child after hearing the ticking of his own biological clock—but largely squanders it on a series of increasingly formulaic plot developments and scenes that go absolutely nowhere. (There is one clanker of a scene in which Anna shoots down the oeuvre of Woody Allen that rings so false and hollow that it pretty much grinds the entire film to a screeching halt.) This might have been the dullest of this year's crop of films--look for it to most likely become on of the biggest hits of the bunch.
THE WORLD TO COME: The love that dares not speak its name hits the frontier in this period romantic drama from Mona Fastvold centered on Abigail (Katherine Waterston), a young woman still trying to recover from a great personal tragedy while toiling away in the rural upstate New York farm where she lives with her uncommunicative husband, Dyer (Casey Affleck). Through her journals, she yearns for a life with more excitement and her wishes appear to be answered with the arrival of Tallie (Vanessa Kirby) and her loutish husband Finney (Christopher Abbott) The two become fast friends--and more--but their relationship begins to put a strain on both of their marriages with heartbreaking results. There is nothing here that you haven't seen before--in many ways, it feels like a rural "Ammonite"--and the decision to have all of the characters speak in the florid manner of Rooster Cogburn doesn’t help matters much. All of the actors are fine (although Abbott really needs to find a role where he doesn't play a self-absorbed jerk) but the screenplay is so stiff and ritualized that it never gives them the chance to breathe and become convincing characters.
WRITING WITH FIRE: Of all the documentaries to screen at this year's festival, this work from Rintu Thomas was arguably the most pertinent and powerful. It follows the Dahlit women behind Khabar Lahariya, India's only all-female news organization as they go about pursuing stories--especially those that help give a voice to the normally silenced victims of gender and caste-related violence--while at the same time making the all-important shift from print to digital media that will help spread their message further. This would be complicated enough as is but to attempt what these women do in a patriarchal society where the Dahlit are the lowest rung of the country's caste system and the killing of journalists is a depressingly common occurrence makes them among the bravest people that you could possibly imagine. Alternately enraging, horrifying and inspiring, Thomas presents an indelible testament to both the importance of a free press and to the strength and spirit of women who have decided that they no longer wish to be treated as second-class citizens. The film won both the World Cinema Documentary Audience Award and a Special Jury prize.