It was a busy weekend watching Sundance 2021's digital offerings. We're rounding up all our reviews so far below. Let's start with the good:
Sundance Review: Questlove's "Black Woodstock" Doc Is Pure Gold
Some footage is found in a basement. This footage contains a long forgotten event: the Harlem Cultural Festival of 1969. It featured a banging amount of black and brown talent. Nina Simone (the storm), Sly and the Family Stone (the radical racial and gender experiment), Stevie Wonder (the boy genius), B.B. King (the king), Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach (the black modernists), Gladys Knight and the Pips (the perfection of slick), the Staple Singers (the grund of soul), Mahalia Jackson (the queen of heaven), and Hugh Masekela (the shumba of black Africa). This is what black gold looks like. And a stunning 300,000 (mostly) black people attended the six-week concert. Yes, it ran for six weeks. And without a hitch.
The Harlem Cultural Festival was a great success. Even New York City's then-mayor, the Republican John Lindsay, showed up, gave a brief speech, and looked like he was really digging the scene. The documentary, Summer of Soul, informs us that the black voters of Harlem regarded Lindsay in a warm light. Republicans were a different breed back then.
Sundance Review: Ma Belle, My Beauty Is the Queer, Poly Escape We Needed
The film opens with Fred and Bertie (Lucien Guignard and Idella Johnson), two recently married musicians who live in Fred's parents' beautiful farmhouse in the south of France. A depressed Bertie feels like a stranger in a strange land, hardly finding the will to sing despite her upcoming tour. In an attempt to raise her spirits, Fred invites their ex-lover from their life in New Orleans, Lane (Hannah Pepper-Cunningham), to the property as a surprise. Sensuous parties, heartbreak revisited, strained silences, soaring music, and really hot sex ensue.
The New Orleans-based Hill does well because Ma Belle, My Beauty does not attempt to be the tentpole film for queer, polyamorous storylines. While fundamental to the plot, the film treats their threeway relationship as means to explore the threads that bind the characters together rather than a starter guide for the poly-curious monogamous crowd. It deftly explores jealousy, but never between Bertie, Lane, and Fred, who all have an easiness and respect for each other that feels refreshing.
Sundance Review: Cryptids Meet Capitalism in Cryptozoo
Cryptids and their lovers should really send Dash Shaw and Jane Samborski a fruit basket.
The husband and wife duo's expressionistic animated feature film Cryptozoo is an affectionate tribute to Earth's most mysterious beasts. Set in the 1960s in the United States, Cryptozoo follows cryptologists as they create a romantic zoo for cryptids. It's a space for all the fanged oddities to roam free—and also be gawked at, for a fee. The zoo has guided tours and a tanuki-themed lounge. It's a little like Zoo Tycoon but with harpies. As you can imagine of a zoo with kraken where seals should be, things do not go off without a hitch.
Shaw's first and previous animated feature, My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea (2016), was a freewheeling and ecstatic debut about a shitty high school plunging into the sea after a tiny earthquake. It was tender and brutal, and if you're a fan of Seattle publisher Fantagraphics, which publishes Shaw, you'll be familiar with its style. Samborski animated High School Sinking, and Cryptozoo, the pair's sophomore feature, has Shaw writing and directing and Samborski as its animation director. Here, their loving collaboration extends to bigfoot and devil birds and grootslang.
For the non-believers and uninitiated, a cryptid is an animal claimed to exist but without sufficient evidence. These creatures go back forever. Werewolves are cryptids. The Japanese tengu is a cryptid. The platypus was once a cryptid, but now that little freak is a regular animal. People who study cryptids—cryptologists—have many theories on what is and isn't a cryptid. With Cryptozoo, they now have a radiant 95-minute feature film to admire and dissect.
Sundance Review: Wild Indian and the Violence We Keep
A tragedy that takes its time dragging you through the coals of moral suffering, Wild Indian is a revelatory feature debut from writer-director Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr. that is as painful as it is darkly poetic.
Taking place over more than a thirty-five-year span, it follows Anishinaabe boys Makwa and Ted-O as they grow into adulthood after covering up a brutal incident from their youth. Though they both hide the act, it's Makwa, who later goes by Michael, who was directly responsible for the incident. Makwa had faced abuse at home, bullying at school, and near-constant scrutiny from white society that all comes to a head with the sudden violent act. That this stems from harm doesn't excuse it, though it does offer a sliver of an explanation.
Instead of violence being an isolated act, Wild Indian presents it as a process of historical and generational trauma. It's a film about wounds and how past sins stay with us into the future.
Sundance Review: Pleasure Is Boogie Nights for Gen Z
How has cinema's perspective on the porn industry changed since the Gen X masterpiece Boogie Nights, which was completed in 1997 but set in the '70s? According to Pleasure, a film written-directed by Ninja Thyberg, a Swede, and set in the capital of US porn, LA: a lot and not so much. Let's begin with the former.
In our day, a person with big porn dreams, such as that maintained by the main character of Pleasure, Bella Cherry (Sofia Kappel), must amass a large following on social media. That means posting dirty selfies on the regular. The movers and shakers of porn will not take you seriously unless you show them the number of likes and eyeballs on your profile. (Please forgive the smutty pun in that sentence, but as the Human League once sang: "I'm only human.") This is the first important lesson that Pleasure's star, Bella Cherry, who moves to Los Angeles from rural Sweden with nothing but what can only be described as Blond Ambition, learns when she attempts to make the fantastic leap from the massive bottom of the porn heap to its tiny top.
Sundance Review: Mother Schmuckers Has a Special Kind of Taste
Working for a porn festival will teach you that people have their limits.
The Stranger's amateur porn festival, HUMP Film Fest, is in its 17th year. We've accepted films from nearly every kink. We infamously screened a submission where someone shit a solid stick of butter, made pancakes with that butter, and then ate the shit-butter-pancakes. When we tell people that we'll accept anything into the festival, we mostly mean it. But there have always been a few hard rules at HUMP: No poop, no animal sex, no minors.
The new 70-minute Belgian comedy Mother Schmuckers had its world premiere during Sundance's final Friday-night slot last night—it's the first Belgian film to screen in the Sundance Midnight program—and it breaks two of HUMP's hard rules. (It doesn't break the "no minors" rule.)
As a verified pornographic jurist, I'll say that many scenes in Mother Schmuckers are beyond the pale for even our beyond-the-pale porn festival, which premieres its 2021 line-up this evening, complete with a grandpa eating corn off a sounding rod attached to two dicks. I bring this up to say that I understand why Mother Schmuckers is so divisive.
Still. I have to report that I fall into the "Mother Schmuckers is good" side of the debate, and I think everyone who disagrees can eat shit—which, incidentally, is how this movie starts. Where Pink Flamingos ends, Mother Schmuckers begins.
Sundance Review: CODA Puts an Enjoyable Twist on Familiar Tropes
Adapted from the 2014 French film La Famille Bélier by writer-director Siân Heder, what sets CODA apart from other formulaic Netflix-adjacent fare is its focus on the deaf community. Heder cast deaf actors to play deaf characters, including subtitles and bringing deaf collaborators into the filmmaking process. Nevermind the standard set-up—CODA's warmth, genuine chemistry amongst all the leads, and look into an underserved community make the film a rewarding watch.
Set in Gloucester, Massachusetts, the film centers around Ruby Rossi, a 17-year-old girl who's the "child of deaf adults" (hence the film's title), Jackie and Frank (played wonderfully by Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur). Her brother Leo (Daniel Durant) is deaf as well, making her the only hearing person in the family. She has spent her whole life deftly interpreting for her rambunctious family, sometimes putting her in awkward situations like telling her parents that they have jock itch.
Sundance Review: Censor Is Unhinged VHS-Fueled Horror
Set in the UK in the mid-1980s during the real-life moral panic surrounding the "video nasties," Censor is a horror film keenly aware of its genre.
It's the debut feature of director Prano Bailey-Bond, who also co-wrote the film with Anthony Fletcher. In many ways, the film creates its own tradition of horror. Even as it loves trashy horror flicks of decades-old, Censor becomes a beast all its own.
It stars a superb Niamh Algar as Enid, a censor tasked with watching more horror films than many would watch in a lifetime just in an average month at work. Enid is committed to this big task and takes the job seriously. She considers herself a protector of society's moral fabric. After all, she believes she's the only thing standing between the fragile minds of the world and the corrupt forces of graphic violence beaming into homes from the VHS era of horror.
Enid insists that "it's not entertainment" and that she does "it to protect people," which she convincingly says with seriousness. But when she screens a film that eerily seems to resemble a traumatic event from her past, Enid's life takes a sinister turn.
Sundance Review: Street Gang, a Doc About Sesame Street, Might Be the Most Depressing Doc in Sundance
Marilyn Agrelo's Street Gang, a pretty straightforward documentary about the founding and first two decades of the American cultural institution Sesame Street, has many moments of pure magic, such as Jesse Jackson preaching black power to a bunch of kids ("I am, somebody"). It's like he is trying to liberate children from the oppression of grownups. When the kid power sermon aired, in 1972, the show was still very new (Sesame Street was born ten months after I was born in 1969), still on its learning legs. The documentary shows how the idea of a kids show that appropriated the techniques of advertising came into existence. We learn about this person, that person, these people who put it all together in the late '60s.
But the documentary fails to really examine the social situation of Sesame Street. Yes, a talented team of white do-gooders did something whose originality cannot be denied. But the show was aimed at urban black kids raised on television because their parents worked too much or were tied up in the legal system. The question that the documentary fails to ask and attempt to answer, then, is why a show of this kind was even needed in the richest country in the world?
Sundance Review: John Is Really Gonna Leave You Inside That Hole
Eerily bizarre and deadly serious, John and the Hole is a film with a lot of questions. Notably: What if the kid from Home Alone was kind of a sociopath, a kid who manipulated his circumstances so he didn't have to be around his family?
The answers John and the Hole gives its questions aren't exactly satisfying, but this kid, who keeps doing inexplicably awful things just because he can, is definitely, uh, interesting.
The kid in question is John, played by a quiet yet creepy Charlie Shotwell. The last time audiences would have seen Shotwell was in last year's The Nest as a kid who was in the unfortunate position of having a menacing Jude Law as his father.
Now it's the son who is the source of menace in the family.
Sundance Review: One for the Road Is Bloated and Fast, Weepy and Luxurious
One of Thailand's most famous directors, Baz Poonpiriya (the director behind the record-shattering heist thriller Bad Genius), has partnered with one of the gods of cinema, Wong Kar-wai (a dude you probably know), to create One for the Road, a romantic epic that aims to follow Poonpiriya's previous blockbuster success. While Wong Kar-wai's inclusion as a producer will ensure lots of justified eyeballing, I think this road movie's editor may have been asleep at the wheel.
One for the Road has far too much plot in its two-plus hour runtime, so I won't fall into the trap of trying to run down all of it. The gist: "Boss" is a bartender in NYC from Thailand. He's a literal boss and a "consummate ladies man," as the film's synopsis suggests. Boss gets a call from his old best friend, Aood, who tells him he has cancer. Aood wants to go on a trip across Thailand to reconnect with his old lovers before he dies, and he needs Boss's help. So, the two meet up with Aood's exes. One ex now runs a dance studio, another is like a boho-chic photographer, and one more ex has become a movie star (Aood apparently has magic dick). The two bros "rekindle their brotherhood," get very drunk, and the film time-jumps incessantly. The strength here is not in the plot.
The most exciting bits are the bits that feel closest to Wong Kar-wai's hand: the film's rapid montages, which possess the rare quality of being fast and luxurious. A director often shows luxury with a languid camera. Here, Poonpiriya manages to do what I love most about a Wong Kar-wai film—a hurried, dense collection of scenes that happen to be as sensual as they are quick. Experiencing this type of sequence can feel mystical. It's no small feat that One for the Road has many of these sequences, and it's funny that this bloated movie's best parts are its fast montages.
Sundance Review: Do Not Miss A Glitch in the Matrix, But Prepare to Be Disappointed
I want to begin by asserting this fact: You do not live in a simulation. You live in the world impressively explained by the Standard Model of particle physics, the theory of general relativity, Newtonian mechanics, and quantum mechanics. There really is a there out there and in wherever you are. To believe otherwise is sadly a consequence of two things, which can be attributed to a bad education: You have confused capitalist realism (a cultural construction) with the real thing and you have not read Spinoza, the antidote to much of the Cartesianism that is packaged, and repackaged, and re-repackaged for mass consumption. You think you know Jesus seriously? No, you don't. You mostly see the world through the concepts designed by a 17th-century French freak/philosopher called René Descartes.
And so A Glitch in the Matrix. Where to begin with this documentary by the articulate filmmaker Rodney Ascher? Maybe with the movie The Matrix, an icon of '90s sci-fi cinema? Maybe with Emily Pothast, a former Seattle resident who contributed art criticism to The Stranger and, in the Glitch, admirably explains the myth of Plato's cave? Maybe with Elon Musk, one of the greatest nutters that Pretoria has ever produced (and that is no small feat)? Musk is just one hot mess. In the Glitch, and on TV, and the web, he goes on and on about colonizing Mars and the unreality of reality and what have you. It's like giving your ear to a Boer and billionaire who happens to be next to you in a shebeen. It's 3 am. The oke just wont stop. You can't make him stop. You lip-hit-hard that Castle while he's chewing your ear like a howler with a rubber bone.
Sundance Review: Land Forgets the Land It Stands On
A film doomed by convention, Land is a competent but boring look at one woman's venture into Wyoming's wilderness that fails to go in any exciting narrative directions.
The "find yourself in nature" story has become a subgenre of its own, and Land plays into nearly all of its cliches. In this case, the character finding themselves is Edee and is played by Robin Wright in what is also her directorial debut. The last time audiences would have seen Wright was briefly in last year's misfire that was Wonder Woman 1984. Thankfully, there is something more interesting going on here, with Edee running from her past, though only barely. If this film were a meal, it would be the cans of beans Edee eats over and over.
The story's most compelling part is how it frankly and frequently portrays Edee as a selfish and self-centered character, though it only scratches the surface of this characterization.
Sundance Review: I Wish Passing Were a Little Gayer
An adaptation of Harlem Renaissance writer Nella Larsen's 1929 book, writer-director Rebecca Hall's debut feature Passing is a pretty looking film that often mimes at deeper conversations about race, class, and sexuality but ultimately eludes saying anything interesting.
And through it all, I wished the two leads could overcome their gay yearning for just once and KISS.
Shot in what Sundance refers to as a "creamy" (!!!!) black and white film, Passing begins on a sweltering hot New York day in the 1920s. Irene (Tessa Thompson) takes refuge from the heat in a hotel tea room, using her ability to pass as a white woman to gain entry into the whites-only space. Irene is clearly uncomfortable, preoccupied with the idea of being caught, until she is—by an old friend, Clare (Ruth Negga), who also happens to pass as white.
As the two women catch up, they realize they took different paths when it came to their racial identity: Irene decided to live as a Black woman while Clare chose to live as a white one. Despite being married and having a child, no one in Clare's new life knows that she's Black. It's as if her community were some distant, unpleasant dream.