Sundance 2021: Top awards go to ‘CODA,’ plus Bay Area filmmakers take home prizes among other festival highlights | #television | #elderly | #movies
The Sundance Film Festival, one of the most prestigious in the world, has come to a close, having showcased more than 70 feature films online and bringing world premieres to drive-ins across the country, including the pop-up Fort Mason Flix in San Francisco.
But the festival wasn’t just about watching the movies. The festival that ran Jan. 28 through Wednesday, Feb. 3, featured virtual Q&A sessions with stars and filmmakers for fun, often surprising, behind-the-scenes looks at some of the biggest films of the year. There were also some bidding wars from major distributors, who spent millions to acquire some of festival’s top films.
Catch up with our coverage of movies and events during Sundance:
Sundance in San Francisco: A guide to the 2021 virtual film festival
Wednesday, Feb. 3
Sundance comes to a close
The final day of the Sundance Film Festival didn’t feature any new premieres, but every movie that won an award during Tuesday’s virtual ceremony was brought back for an encore for any attendee who wanted to catch up (or rewatch) the best of the fest.
Along with the top winners — “CODA,” the film about a child of deaf parents looking to strike out on her own, and “Summer of Soul … Or How the Revolution Wasn’t Televised,” Amir “Questlove” Thompson’s documentary about the 1969 Harlem Jazz Festival — I enjoyed “Cusp.” It’s a much-buzzed-about documentary about a summer in the lives of a group of teenage girls in a Texas military town, which got some big names to come aboard during the postproduction process, including former San Francisco resident Chris Columbus, an executive producer. Co-directors Parker Hill and Isabel Bethencourt were awarded a special jury prize for emerging filmmakers.
I also caught up with two award winners very different from each other, each of them compelling in their own ways: “Users,” a speculative documentary by San Francisco director Natalia Almada; and “Hive,” a drama from Kosovo that swept the two top awards in the world category. (Read below for the short reviews).
— G. Allen Johnson
There should be a third category of film beyond narrative and documentary. Almada’s “Users” is technically in the documentary section, but in reality it is a personal essay — and I love an essay film if the director can pull it off visually.
Almada emphatically does, so much so that she denied Questlove the festival’s U.S. documentary directing award despite “Summer of Soul” sweeping the top U.S. documentary jury prize and audience award. In fact, Almada became the first to win a second U.S. documentary directing award (the first was for “El General,” a 2009 look at early 20th century Mexican President Plutarco Elias Calles).
The premise: The narrator bears a child. The child grows up. She wants to be the perfect mother. But she has competition: Technology. It babysits her child, educates him, entertains him. She even turns on a “Sono crib” to electronically rock her baby to sleep (there actually is such a thing). Technology is the perfect mother; can she compete for her own child’s affections?
Visually, the film doesn’t go where you think it will. Almada juxtaposes the child — at times as an infant, at times as a boy around 8 years old or so, and often staring at the camera as if it were a computer screen — with the massive global effort that mankind has engineered to make the “perfect mother.”
So we dive down into the ocean’s depths to touch the fiber-optic cables that make the internet possible and keep the globe connected. And we look at the cost of this perfect motherhood: vast shots of industrial wasteland and evidence of climate change.
The hypnotic narration is matched by a hypnotic score performed by the Bay Area’s own Kronos Quartet and an immersive sound design in Dolby Atmos, and some knockout visuals from cinematographer Bennett Cerf.
“This whole film came out of me living in San Francisco,” Almada told The Chronicle by phone. “I moved here seven years ago and the city feels kind of new to me in a lot of ways, and it’s remarkable what a tech city it is. Having kids here — both of my kids were born at UCSF — and having to make decision like, ‘What day care do I send my kid to?’ and seeing the prevalence of these nature-based programs in the city that’s so tech heavy. I tried to think of these questions more philosophically, more existentially, with sort of a grander lens.”
Thought-provoking doesn’t even begin to cover this most unusual film.
— G. Allen Johnson
In 1998-99, the Kosovo War killed thousands and wiped out most of the adult male population of some towns.
Her husband missing — likely killed in the conflict — and having to raise two children and care for her husband’s disabled father, Fahrije (Yllka Gashi) gathers women in a similar situation to band together to start their own business.
They jar honey, which Fahrije gets by beekeeping, and their homemade ajvar, a roasted red pepper condiment that is often spread on bread in Kosovo. But Fahrije gets resistance from the elderly, misogynistic men of the village who try to disrupt her efforts to be an independent woman. (This is a village where a woman driving is practically a moral failing along the lines of prostitution.)
“Hive” won the jury and audience awards for best film in the world category and Blerta Basholli won best director. It’s not great but very good, and the best part is it is based on a true story. The real Fahrije gets her cameo over the closing credits, her business having become the biggest female-owned company in Kosovo.
— G. Allen Johnson
Tuesday, Feb. 2
On the final day of premieres, “CODA,” Sian Heder’s drama about a child of deaf parents seeking to strike out on her own, won the top prize at Sundance Film Festival. But the win was no surprise, because “CODA” dominated from the outset. Its presentation on the festival’s opening night, Thursday, Jan. 28, created such buzz that by the weekend it was snapped up by Apple TV+ for a Sundance acquisitions record of more than $25 million.
It won both the U.S. grand jury dramatic prize and the audience award for best picture.
Among local winners is San Francisco filmmaker Natalia Almada, who won the best U.S. documentary directing award for “Users,” becoming the first person to win two Sundance Documentary Directing Awards (her first in 2009).
Other Bay Area honorees were Kristina Motwani and Rebecca Adorno for best documentary editing for Peter Nicks’ “Homeroom,” about a senior year at Oakland High School.
On Wednesday, Feb. 3, the final day of the festival, the award winners will screen again.
Read about the rest of the major awards here.
— G. Allen Johnson
‘Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir’
The documentary, which will air on PBS’ “American Masters” series in May, delves into San Francisco author Amy Tan’s dark childhood and how it shaped her as a writer. But Tan was excited Tuesday not because the Sundance premiere or because it was about her life and career, but that it was the last film of director James “Jamie” Redford, who died last year of cancer.
Read what she had to say about Redford here.
— G. Allen Johnson
‘When We Were Bullies’
Nearly 30 years ago, San Francisco filmmaker Jay Rosenblatt made a short film, “The Smell of Burning Ants,” about the roots of toxic masculinity in boyhood. A three-frame image of a child injecting himself into a fight between two others with a punch of his own jolted Rosenblatt into remembering an incident from when he was in the fifth grade. He and his classmates turned on one of their own in the schoolyard with a vicious bullying attack. Twenty-six years since revisiting that event with his film, Rosenblatt has not been able to let it go and so he returns from the vantage point of 55 years to look at it once more in this insightful autobiographical short.
A blend of documentary, animation, photos and found footage, “When We Were Bullies” marries the serious with the playful, the latter evident in opening frames as Rosenblatt and old friend Richard Silberg clumsily scale the locked gate of PS 194, their Brooklyn alma mater.
In the film, Rosenblatt seeks out as many members of his class as he can find, as well as their teacher, Mrs. Bromberg, still thriving in her 90s. A funny thing happens as he probes what happened that afternoon when they all turned on the other Richard in their class, the bullied boy they called Dick. Rather than bring the incident into sharper focus, both it and Dick recede further into jumbled memories.
If “When We Were Bullies” represents a reckoning, it is one between the 60-something Rosenblatt and his 10-year-old self. What is gained through the course of the film is perspective and greater understanding and empathy for that boy and for all the boys and girls, each carrying their personal pain. The shame Rosenblatt feels for having bullied another is palpable, but he has taken that and made a work of art that is sad and funny and very much in touch with the human condition.
— Pam Grady
‘The World to Come’
To make this 19th century drama, Norwegian-born director Mona Fastvold needed more than standout work from actors Katherine Waterston, Vanessa Kirby, Casey Affleck and Christopher Abbott. So, to make viewers believe they were in old-time rural New York, Fastvold and cinematographer André Chemetoff chose to shoot on 16mm film.
“I knew I wanted to shoot on 16mm, because I get that grit and texture would be so beautiful with this particular movie,” Fastvold said.
It’s a trend that’s picking up. Most films these days are shot on digital formats, from Marvel movies to indie films shot on iPhones. While A-list directors who prefer film such as Christopher Nolan, Quentin Tarantino and Greta Gerwig can afford to shoot on 35mm, most low-budget filmmakers are limited to digital because of the cost.
But lately there has been a groundswell of lower-budget filmmakers who want to shoot on celluloid and find that 16mm is way cheaper and more versatile than 35mm. The format has been used lately to shoot a gorgeous-looking 1950s Harlem romance (“Sylvie’s Love,” now on Amazon Prime) and a hardscrabble modern film about a teenager agonizing about getting an abortion (“Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” now on HBO Max).
“The World to Come” was shot in both the summer and winter in Romania, with the Carpathian Mountains standing in for the Adirondacks. From blinding snowstorms to lush greenery, Fastvold, Chemetoff and production designer Jean-Vincent Puzos were inspired by 19th century painters of the time, particularly Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershøi.
The story, about the strong friendship and eventual romance between two women trapped by the domestic constructs of the time, is structured like a quill-dipped, ink-stained diary, with narration by Waterston’s character. Spare and bleak, Waterston and Kirby achieve an intimacy that operates as a warm fire warding off the coldness around them.
“The World to Come” will be released in theaters, where Chemetoff’s work can shine, and will be made available to stream in March.
— G. Allen Johnson
‘At the Ready’
“Active shooter at 12, hostage negotiation at 1:30, drug raid at 2:30,” are the first words spoken in this provocative documentary, which made its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, shining a light on law enforcement programs aimed not at police cadets but at high school students.
Focusing on three teenagers, a recent high school graduate and two seniors, “At the Ready” offers a fascinating, somewhat disturbing window into police recruitment that goes far beyond public service announcements and ride-alongs.
Horizon High School in Horizon City, Texas, 10 miles from the Mexican border, is one of 900 Texas schools to offer law enforcement classes. The school also plays host to the Criminal Justice Club, in which children are armed with plastic guns and other props to enact scenarios ranging from making an arrest to conducting a raid to shooting a suspect. The drills are practice for the Border Challenge, an annual event in which a dozen similar clubs compete against one another for trophies and bragging rights.
There are deeper questions in Maisie Crow’s documentary than whether it is appropriate for law enforcement to be recruiting in high schools or for teenagers to enact active shooter scenarios in an age of school shootings. Shot over the 2018-19 school year, politics come to the fore as the Trump administration enforces its family separation policy. For kids living in a border town, some the children of immigrants and with relatives living in Mexico, how immigration rules are enforced complicates ambitions to join the police.
Scenes of kids swarming a “suspect” or pretending to shoot someone (“two shots to the chest, one to the head,” one says chillingly) are arresting, but what is more compelling are the questions and concerns that come to plague “At the Ready’s” young cast. In their classes and in their club, law enforcement is presented as the good guys who protect the public from the bad guys. But the world is not that simple, and the strength of Crow’s film is in the way she delves into the lives of her young cast and allows their questions and concerns to emerge. The phrase “question authority” takes on new meaning when the kids doing the asking are weighing whether they want to be that authority.
— Pam Grady
Monday, Feb. 1
‘Misha and the Wolves’
After a quiet couple of days on the sales front, Netflix swooped in to acquire the North American rights to the buzzy documentary “Misha and the Wolves.” (The acquisition price was not announced.)
Directed by Sam Hobkinson, “Misha and the Wolves” is the story of the deception behind the incredible 1997 memoir of an orphaned girl who escaped the Nazis by living with wolves.
Except that she didn’t. In 2008, Misha Defonseca admitted that she had fabricated the memoir and had to return millions of dollars to her publisher. But the truth behind the deception turns out to be even stranger than that.
Los Gatos company Netflix has not yet announced plans for either a theatrical release or a streaming release date.
— G. Allen Johnson
‘Judas and the Black Messiah’
It’s startling to hear a director on the brink of a major world premiere introduce his much-anticipated Sundance Film Festival screening by saying in a sober voice, “I hope you can enjoy it, if you can. It’s a very tragic movie.”
But after watching Shaka King’s sensational, blistering “Judas and the Black Messiah,” about the 1969 assassination of the young Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, his point is well-taken. This indelible portrait of a man, a murder and a moment in recent American history of thwarted revolutionary change still resonates powerfully today. And it’s as infuriating as King intended.
Hampton (played by Daniel Kaluuya of “Get Out” and “Queen & Slim”) was just 21 when he was killed by FBI agents who fired 99 shots into his home while he was in bed with his pregnant girlfriend, Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback).
Hampton had been called a potential “Black messiah” with the potential to galvanize the Black power movement by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen), who established the COINTELPRO program to squash dissent by planting informants like William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield of “Sorry to Bother You”) within the Panther ranks.
Both lead actors give awards-worthy performances, Kaluuya channeling Hampton’s ferocious charisma, and Stanfield a twitchy embodiment of a man anguished over sabotaging a movement and possibly selling out his soul.
“Judas and the Black Messiah” was a late entry to Sundance, announced in mid-January, and it’s a rare example of a big-budget studio film with Academy Award potential premiering at what’s generally considered an indie festival.
Warner Brothers is releasing the movie in theaters and on HBO Max on Feb. 12.
— Jessica Zack
‘A Glitch in the Matrix’
If you’re a reality-based person like me, it would help to approach the central question in Rodney Ascher’s thought-provoking documentary “A Glitch in the Matrix” as an observer, not a participant.
In other words, the question, “Are we living in a simulation?” gets a shrug of the shoulders and a dismissive “no” from me. But others actually do believe this could be the case (the concept is called simulation theory), and it’s worth diving into a mind-set that is becoming more and more prevalent.
Who knows, I might be wrong about this reality thing. I wonder as I type this sentence: “A Glitch in the Matrix,” which made its world premiere virtually at the Sundance Film Festival, opens virtually through local cinemas and on digital platforms on Friday, Feb. 5.
Just a few short years ago, that would have been virtually mind-blowing.
Read the full review here.
— G. Allen Johnson
‘Life in a Day 2020’
A decade ago, with the recent development of smartphones putting a camera in virtually every hand, film directors Kevin Macdonald and Ridley Scott invited people to film whatever they wished on July 24, 2010. The resulting documentary, “Life in a Day 2010,” was unlike anything that had come before — a messy, poetic, diverse, globetrotting snapshot of life on our planet on a single day.
Since then, cell phone camera quality has dramatically improved and new toys such as low-cost drones have become ubiquitous. And oh yeah, there’s a raging pandemic and a reinvigorated commitment to racial justice. So “Life in a Day 2020,” again directed by Macdonald and executive-produced by Scott, has a lot going on in its snapshot of life on Earth on July 25, 2020.
The film made its world premiere as part of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival today and will be available for free on YouTube beginning Saturday, Feb. 6. Read the full review here.
— G. Allen Johnson
‘Night of the Kings’
Filmmaker Philippe Lacôte spent part of his childhood visiting his mother in La MACA, a sprawling Ivory Coast prison, where she was incarcerated for her political activities. In a Q&A following the Sundance screening of his latest film, “Night of the Kings,” the 51-year-old director recalled a chaotic, crowded place that was a kind of playground for him as a little boy. The seeds of his evocative drama, a hit on the festival circuit since its premiere in September at the Venice Film Festival and the Ivory Coast’s entry for the international feature Oscar, were planted then by the men and women he met.
“La MACA was like a kingdom, with kings, queens and lackeys,” Lacôte remembered.
Lacôte’s second narrative feature draws not just from those memories but also from his background as a documentary filmmaker and former radio reporter as well as his talent for fiction.
The La MACA of Lacôte’s imagination is a chaotic place where the guards keep themselves safe by locking themselves away from the men they are supposed to be guarding. Inspired by the ancient Arabic folk tale “One Thousand and One Nights,” Lacôte imagines his Scheherazade as a gang member and self-described thief, fresh meat at La MACA whose arrival at the prison coincides with a power struggle among inmates.
The king of La MACA, Blackbeard (Steve Tientcheu), is seriously ill, but not about to cede his throne to young rival Lass (Abdoul Karim Konaté). Seeking to assert his power, Blackbeard takes charge of the youthful new convict, rechristens the boy Roman (Bakary Koné in a stunning debut), and names him the prison’s new griot, its storyteller. When the red moon rises that evening, it will be time for Roman to tell his tale, a narration that takes on new urgency when another prisoner advises him to keep talking until morning if he wants to live.
With the power dynamics shifting and the prisoners settling into factions, Roman’s situation grows ever more fragile as the night progresses. But he just keeps talking, spinning a yarn that someone complains is unrealistic and confusing. But as other prisoners illustrate the tale in dance and mime, Roman’s words achieve a kind of lyricism that holds his audience and just might save his life.
Sundance is the last festival stop for “Night of the King” before the Neon release opens in theaters (virtual and otherwise) Feb. 26. The film will be available for online streaming March 5.
— Pam Grady
‘Eight for Silver’
An old Romany woman sets the terms under which a 19th century village will come to live in this sometimes effective but uneven horror thriller. “We will poison your sleep until you summon the dark one. Then you will know what death is,” she curses the town, plunging it into a waking nightmare from which there is little chance of awakening.
Not that brutal punishment isn’t warranted, for what sets the plot in motion in writer-director Sean Ellis’ fever dream is the village elders’ desire to steal land belonging to the Gypsies by any brutal means necessary. But while town father Seamus Laurent (Alistair Petrie) and others of his ilk are the guilty ones, it is their wives, children and servants who stand to pay the ultimate price when a werewolf-like creature with powerful claws and viselike jaws appears in the neighboring woods.
To the mix, Ellis adds a pathologist, John McBride (Boyd Holbrook), an outsider who understands what they are all dealing with but who has his hands full just getting Seamus and the others to listen to him. There is a shared dream of a set of silver dentures with bullets for teeth that one of the children believes is made from the pieces of silver paid to Judas for betraying Christ. There is a missing child. Oh, and there is a pandemic that has halted most travel, further isolating the town.
Adding to the film’s sense of unease and dread is the omnipresent mist filling the fields and forest around the village. There are touches of “Alien” in the creature design and moments of body horror that recall David Cronenberg and John Carpenter at their most visceral. In his Q&A after his Sundance premiere, Ellis also cited William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist” as an influence on a film in which the thing stalking the town represents not so much a being transformed as one possessed.
Tension and fear run high in “Eight for Silver” when it is at its most effective. Some scenes are so murky, it is hard to tell what is going on, but that only adds to the tension. If only Ellis was able to sustain that mood.
There is a terrifying horror movie to be found here, but only a return to the editing suite for some tightening will reveal it.
– Pam Grady
Sunday, Jan. 31
Robin Wright’s impressive and quite moving Sundance FIlm Festival entry “Land,” in which she stars and directs, made its world premiere. (Focus Features plans to release the film Feb. 12 in theaters nationwide).
Wright directed numerous episodes of Netflix’s “House of Cards” but said during a post-screening Q&A that when the series ended she was eager to try her hand at a feature film.
As a director, Wright strikes a satisfying balance between gorgeous shots of the extreme beauty and weather of the high-altitude Alberta mountain range where she filmed and quiet close-ups of herself, and co-star Demián Bichir, tentatively crawling out from their characters’ respective traumas.
Read the full story here.
— Jessica Zack
‘Marvelous and the Black Hole’
Sammy is a foul-mouthed, bad-attitude teen who alienates everyone around her. Then she meets a grandmotherly magician who opens up new worlds, both imaginary and real, in Bay Area native Kate Tsang’s charming debut feature, “Marvelous and the Black Hole.”
The film stars rising young actress Miya Cech (who grew up in Davis) as Sammy and Rhea Perlman as Marvelous Margot, the magician, in a performance that shows she still has the comic chops she honed on “Cheers” in the 1980s.
Tsang, whose short film “So You’ve Grown Attached” won best narrative short at the 2014 San Francisco International Film Festival, said in the Q&A following the world premiere of “Marvelous and the Black Hole” that she conceived of the film when, as the child of divorced parents, she bounced between their respective homes in Hong Kong and Fremont.
Read the full story here.
— G. Allen Johnson
‘Prisoners of the Ghostland’
Nicolas Cage is a national treasure. Though he won an Oscar for a relatively sedate performance as an alcoholic determined to drink himself to death in “Leaving Las Vegas” (1995), it is not in that sort of prestige picture that he excels.
Instead, it is in those movies — both good and bad — where he emotes freely and characters emerge that are larger than life and at least a little insane: the yuppie convinced he’s a budding Dracula in “Vampire’s Kiss” (1988); the snakeskin-suit-jacketed, Elvis worshipping Sailor Ripley in David Lynch’s “Wild at Heart” (1990); vicious gangster Castor Troy in “Face/Off” (1994); an escapee from hell out to rescue his granddaughter in “Drive Angry” (2011). On his game, Cage imbues his movies with pure, unhinged life. And so it is, with this absurd, action-packed, ultra-violent thriller.
Cage takes his act to Japan for his latest caper. Director Sion Sono, a veteran director with a resume as gonzo as his leading man’s, wanted to pay homage to a favorite auteur of his own, spaghetti Western director Sergio Leone, and shoot his film in Mexico. But as Sono explained during a Sundance Q&A, when he had a heart attack, it meant that he had to stick close to home. But “Prisoners of the Ghostland” loses nothing in the change of setting as cherry blossoms elegantly fall like snow over rivers of blood.
Cage is Hero, a vicious bank robber haunted by his past and doing time in prison. Samurai City’s town boss, the Governor (Bill Moseley), arranges for his release with a quid pro quo in mind. The Governor’s granddaughter Bernice (Sofia Boutella) is missing, and he expects Hero to find her. Strapping the ex-con into a leather jumpsuit wired to explode in five days, the Governor sets a tight deadline for Hero’s, ahem, journey to Ghostland — a town that lives up to its name.
Aaron Hendry and Reza Sixo Safai’s overstuffed, insane script has little bit of everything: samurais, Western tropes, gunfights, sword fights, nuclear waste, mannequins, even a cast sing-along. The story is at once firmly rooted in the Old West past and in a post-apocalyptic future. The action rarely lets up in a film where “The Road Warrior” meets “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” (or better yet, “Red Sun,” the 1971 spaghetti Western starring Charles Bronson and Toshiro Mifune) meets a supernatural, acid trip freak-out.
Cage is in his element as a smart, hard man who plans to survive the impossible mission he has been given. Tak Sakaguchi, as the Governor’s samurai henchman Yasujiro, and Boutella complement Cage with their own action moves.
Yet there is one other element that makes “Prisoners of the Ghostland” so striking: Toshihiro Isomi’s art direction, which is as vivid as Cage’s performance. Samurai Town’s elegant facades, the dusty, foreboding muck of Ghostland, and night scenes that suggest a neon graveyard situate the characters in an eerie, blasted world and add a trippy vibe to Hero’s quest.
“Prisoners of the Ghostland” aims to sate the audience with action and imagery and Cage at his most audacious. It is one fantastic, adrenaline-packed ride.
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— Pam Grady
Ed Helms is a lonely, middle-aged man yearning for fatherhood in writer-director Nikole Beckwith’s delightful sophomore feature that explores the relationship between this would-be dad and the young woman he hires to be his baby’s surrogate mother.
One imagines the rom-com that might have developed out of this germ of an idea in the Hollywood dream factory, but this Sundance world premiere develops a more realistic story and is all the richer for it.
Anna (Patti Harrison) gets a sense of what she is in for when she first meets San Francisco game developer Matt (Helms). A man with little sense of boundaries, his questions to the young barista are blunt and intrusive — but then again, he is looking for a woman to carry his child for nine months.
Despite the awkwardness of the encounter, she agrees to help him and soon discovers he is not just a nosy worrywart, he is a helpful nosy worrywart. He minds her diet, brings her gifts she doesn’t want, and in general just gets underfoot. He is an annoyance, initially. But visits to the doctor, sessions with a therapist (Tig Notaro), awkward encounters with friends and relatives, and uncomfortable birthing classes push them together.
Also, while at 26, Anna is far more self-possessed than Matt at 40-something has ever been, they are both loners and they are both lonely. In one lovely moment, she helps him pick a color for the nursery, a spark pointing toward genuine friendship and a little less isolation for both of them.
The romantic implications of the setup are not lost on Beckwith, who adroitly acknowledges and dispenses with them. The gaps in their ages put Matt and Anna at vastly different places in their lives. Beckwith underlines that the two are a full generation apart with humor, using his affection for the sitcom “Friends” and her indifference to it as a kind Gen-X/Millennial divide. Instead of turning into a love story, “Together Together” becomes a platonic buddy movie, and a tale sweetly told.
Beckwith did not need to set her film in San Francisco. Most of the movie takes place inside, so little of the city makes an appearance. There is one inadvertently funny scene, though, in Dolores Park. On the soundtrack is a ring that sounds suspiciously like a cable car’s bells, and trundling up the hill is a J Church streetcar. “Together Together” strives for naturalism, but I guess the Muni Metro screech made for too much reality.
– Pam Grady
Horse movies are a genre all their own, and “Lean on Pete,” “Mustang” and “The Rider” have all been standouts in the past few years. So it’s no surprise that “Jockey” arrived at Sundance with positive buzz. (It didn’t hurt that Sony Pictures Classics announced Saturday night its acquisition of the new movie for worldwide distribution, a day before its world premiere in Sundance’s U.S. dramatic competition.)
Clint Bently’s immersive, character-driven debut didn’t disappoint, and it feels like it even breaks some new ground in a category prone to cliche. The movie avoids a focus on equestrian beauty or against-the-odds competition and instead takes an authentic, naturalistic look at an aging jockey’s life off the track.
Versatile character actor Clifton Collins Jr. (“Westworld,” “The Stand”) is wonderful as Jackson, a beleaguered jockey whose deteriorating health is forcing him to confront the end of his career. Molly Parker (“House of Cards”) plays his longtime trainer, and Moises Aria (“King of Staten Island”) a rookie jockey who shows up claiming to be Jackson’s son. The trio’s relationships as a kind of makeshift family, and Jackson’s bonds with his fellow riders in this punishing sport, are the emotional core of the film. We don’t even see a race until more than an hour into the film.
Bently described “Jockey” as a deeply personal tribute to his late father when he introduced the film at the festival.
“I grew up behind the barns on one racetrack after another as my dad followed the circuit,” he said. “I always felt horse racing movies were lacking something by not portraying what it’s really like, this interesting slice of the American Dream that is fading away.”
To achieve those verité qualities, Bently shot at a real, working racetrack in Phoenix, and his supporting cast includes numerous non-actors he met in the tack rooms, cafeterias, trailers and shared locker rooms.
— Jessica Zack
‘On the Count of Three’
Stand-up comic Jerrod Carmichael, star of the 2015-17 NBC series “The Carmichael Show,” makes an astonishing directorial debut in “On the Count of Three.”
The film is about two best friends, played by Carmichael and Christopher Abbott, who decide to commit suicide together, then spend their final day getting their affairs in order. For Carmichael’s character, Val, that means walking out on his dead-end job and cashing in his girlfriend’s engagement ring and leaving her the money for their unborn child. For Kevin (Abbott), that means killing the child psychologist (Henry Winkler) he blames for his suicidal state.
This dark comedy is energetically directed and acted, and genuinely funny. It’s reminiscent of the kind of gun-toting bromances that used to be a staple of Sundance in the 1990s such as “Reservoir Dogs” and “The Brothers McMullen,” although “On the Count of Three” is not an action film but has more of a “Swingers” vibe.
Carmichael and Abbott have such an easy chemistry with each other that I can imagine them making a string of buddy comedies together — in fact, I insist.
— G. Allen Johnson
‘Captains of Zaatari’
Egyptian director Ali El Arabi was working as a war correspondent in 2013 when he first visited the massive Zaatari refugee camp in northern Jordan. It’s home to approximately 80,000 Syrians who have fled their country’s war, and half those refugees are children.
He didn’t have a documentary in mind, let alone one about sports, when two charismatic and talented teenagers caught El Arabi’s attention: Fawzi Qatleesh and Mahmoud Dagher, best friends who excelled at soccer and dreamed of playing professionally. Without cleats or grass, they practiced day and night in the hopes of using the sport as a ticket out of the camp. They became the subjects of El Arabi’s inspiring, deeply humanistic new doc “Captains of Zaatari.”
The boys’ close bond and natural charisma make you pull for them instantly when an elite Qatari sports academy arrives at the camp to select players for an international tournament in Doha. The film follows their journey after both players are flown to Doha to train and compete in a world-class facility and play a U17 AlKass International Cup game their families will watch via satellite back in Zaatari.
It’s not a stretch to say everything is riding on Fawzi and Mahmoud’s dreams, and El Arabi said in post-screening remarks that he made the film to remind worldwide audiences that displaced people have dreams as well as pressing physical concerns.
“In addition to needing their basic needs met for food, water and shelter, refugees need opportunities, not just pity,” El Arabi said.
Hope, tenacity, and believing in oneself are the lifeblood of sports stories, and El Arabi discovered two exceptional embodiments of those qualities in these young men.
Fawzi and Mahmoud were able to join the Sundance discussion via Zoom (and an Arabic translator) from Jordan, an extraordinary moment of technology and cinema bringing people closer.
“I can’t describe my feeling, how happy I am,” said Mahmoud, who had just watched the finished film for the first time, in real time with the Sundance audience, with Fawzi. “We are in a refugee camp surrounded by walls, and all of the sudden people see me in the United States, all over the world.”
They didn’t stop smiling, and I suspect the same will be true of audiences who are introduced to them on screen when “Captains of Zaatari” is hopefully picked up for release.
— Jessica Zack
Saturday, Jan. 30
Oscar buzz for ‘CODA’ and ‘Philly D.A.’ win award
The biggest buzz of the festival so far still surrounds “CODA,” one of the opening night films, about a child of deaf parents hoping to strike out on her own. Egged on by ecstatic reviews (The Chronicle’s Jessica Zack called the coming-of-age drama by Sian Heder a “knockout”), Apple TV+ won a bidding war with Amazon to acquire the film for reportedly more than $25 million, a Sundance acquisitions record.
In other news Saturday, it was announced that Nicole Salazar, the series co-creator and producer of the docuseries “Philly D.A.,” is the recipient of the 2021 Sundance Institute/Amazon Studios Producers Award for Nonfiction Filmmaking. The award carries a $10,000 grant.
“Philly D.A.,” which takes us inside the office of Philadelphia district attorney and unapologetic reformer Larry Krasner, is one of five projects at Sundance supported by the SFFilm Makers program. The first two episodes premiere at Sundance on Tuesday, Feb. 2.
— G. Allen Johnson
Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut was one of the most anticipated U.S. dramatic competition titles heading into Sundance.
An adaptation of Nella Larsen’s 1929 Harlem Renaissance novel of the same name, “Passing” is about two biracial childhood friends who run into each other as adults and discover they’re each living on opposite sides of the color line. Irene (Tessa Thompson) is married to a Black doctor (André Holland) and raising her family in Harlem, while Clare (Ruth Negga) is passing as white — with all its privileges, as well as its emotional privations since she’s had to forsake her ties to her race and community. She’s married to a white bigot (Alexander Skarsgård) with open contempt for “coloreds” and understandably gets drawn back into Irene’s orbit where she can be herself, whatever that now means.
“We’re all of us passing for something or other, aren’t we?” Thompson’s dreamy character muses early in the film.
Hall, a celebrated actress who got raves for her title role in “Christine” at Sundance in 2016, called the slim, much-studied book a “brilliant 93-page puzzle box of a novel” when introducing the film virtually from her home in New York. And she shared a personal connection to the material: she first read “Passing” “at a “very precise moment in my life when I was asking more questions about some of the unresolved mysterious aspects of my mother’s family’s history.”
Hall’s mother, opera singer Maria Ewing, is from Detroit (her father is renowned Brit theater director Peter Hall), and Ewing’s father and grandparents were most likely Black and “white passing,” she said. Hall’s family didn’t discuss her biracial roots because “we didn’t have the language for it” and “it is a history that is necessarily hidden.” Reading the book gave her “some historical context and understanding” for the choices her grandfather made, and because she had such a strong emotional response to the women in it, she “thought it would make an extraordinary movie.”
Hall succeeded on a number of levels. “Passing,” shot in expressive, noirish black and white by award-winning Spanish cinematographer Edu Grau (“A Simple Man”), is a film of great emotional sensitivity, and Thompson and Negga are both exceptional as these two very different women navigating through a world that prizes whiteness.
Hall said her decision to shoot in black and white “wasn’t just aesthetic, it was conceptual — to make a film about colorism and drain the color out of it asks you to look at it as an abstraction.”
— Jessica Zack
Sundance introduced an impressive new cinematic talent with the Saturday debut of Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr.’s “Wild Indian.”
The bold, at times disturbing movie follows the divergent paths of two Native American friends who covered up their roles in a classmate’s murder. Told in distinct chapters, the film introduces the boys as preteens on their Wisconsin reservation, and then picks up their stories as adults burdened by the lingering shame.
Makwa, played by Michael Greyeyes (“True Detective”), lives in California and is a financial success (Jesse Eisenberg is a co-worker). He’s also married (to Kate Bosworth), but is raging and broken inside. His buddy Ted-O (Chaske Spencer), on the other hand, emerges from a prison sentence for other crimes simmering with guilt. Both actors give devastating performances, tackling material that explores the domino effects of abuse and intergenerational trauma.
It’s a heavy watch, but well paced, and a brave, worthwhile look at the ugliness of unresolved pain and internalized racism.
“We are the descendants of cowards. Everyone worthwhile died fighting,” Makwa says at one point, overcome with self-loathing.
As I watched, I kept being reminded of the saying, “Hurt people hurt people.”
Corbine wrote the screenplay while living in Berkeley and “thinking about how removed I felt from my tribe,” he said in post-screening remarks.
“For a long time, Hollywood portrayed us in grotesque ways,” Greyeyes said. “In Lyle’s sure hands I felt safe to reclaim that kind of portrayal and recontextualize it on our own terms. Complex portraits of Native men in a contemporary setting like this are still very rare.”
“Wild Indian” is an auspicious debut for Corbine, who’s just 31 years old and someone we’re likely to see great things from in the future.
— Jessica Zack
Lowell High School, San Francisco’s elite public institution, draws children from throughout the city, many with their eyes set on being accepted to one of America’s top universities. Such is the case for the five students at the center of San Francisco filmmaker Debbie Lum’s energetic, effervescent documentary that made its world premiere this afternoon at the Sundance Film Festival.
There is both humor and pathos as Lum follows her cast — all seniors in the class of 2017, except for one junior — throughout a year in high school. Lum records their triumphs, their heartbreaks, and their interactions with teachers and parents.
A second virtual screening is set for Monday, Feb. 1, followed by a drive-in date at Fort Mason Flix on Tuesday, Feb. 2. A wider theatrical release and an airing on the PBS series “Independent Lens” are in the works.
Click here for the full story.
— Pam Grady
‘The Sparks Brothers’
After 50 years, 25 albums, 400 songs and countless shows worldwide during a career that brought them fame that has alternately risen and fallen, brothers Ron and Russell Mael of the rock duo Sparks step into the limelight again in a big way in 2021. This year, French director Leos Carax plans to debut a new movie musical “Annette,” the script and songs written by the Maels. But first, there is “The Sparks Brothers,” director Edgar Wright’s (“Shaun of the Dead,” “Baby Driver”) first documentary, which made its Sundance world premiere.
Early in the film, Wright engages the siblings in a mock Q&A where one of the questions is, “Are you identical twins?” It is an absurd query of Los Angeles natives born three years apart who always made a show of the differences between Russell’s beauty and Ron’s eccentric looks, amplified by his choice in mustaches. Then there are their differing roles in Sparks, Russell, with an enormous vocal range and a falsetto that reaches for the heavens, sings, while keyboardist Ron writes the music and lyrics. But when one stops to consider that they have kept their eyes on the same goals, never broke with another and remain committed to constantly reinventing their music, well, maybe they are identical after all.
Wright underlines that symbiosis between Ron, 75, and Russell, 72, through the spine of those 25 albums. After filling in the biographical details of their youth, he uses the records to build a linear progression of their singular career, starting with their 1971 Todd Rundgren-produced debut when they fronted Halfnelson, soon to be redubbed Sparks. He ends on “A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip,” released during the pandemic in May 2020.
The siblings appear throughout the documentary, wry presences with a sense of humor and keen perspective on a career that has not always gone the way they wished. In many ways, “The Sparks Brothers” is a portrait of perseverance.
Wright lavishly illustrates the documentary with recordings, concert footage, Sparks’ witty videos, television appearances and even excerpts from Russell’s UCLA student film “Tres sérieux.” To all of that, Wright supplements the story with visually captivating stop-motion animation.
Woven throughout are a chorus of voices bearing witness to Sparks’ genius. Among them are people the Maels have worked with, such as Rundgren, the Go-Go’s’ Jane Wiedlin, Franz Ferdinand’s Alex Kapranos, producers Muff Winwood and Tony Visconti; and musicians who played in Sparks. There is also testimony from fans, some famous like Neil Gaiman, Mike Myers and Wright himself.
But it is in all these myriad voices that “The Sparks Brothers” goes somewhat astray. The film is well over two hours long, overstuffed with people observing how great Sparks are. They are, but not only does Wright forget that when it comes to movies, it is “show not tell,” he forgets that he has shown the Maels’ story.
Despite that flaw, “The Sparks Brothers” is a valuable memento for the band’s fans and a wonderful primer to anyone just discovering them. Clearly a labor of love, Wright’s affection for the Mael and their music decorates every frame.
— Pam Grady
‘The Most Beautiful Boy in the World’
On Friday, I saw an inspiring documentary about a classic film and television actress still going strong at 89 — “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It.” On Saturday, I saw another documentary about a classic film actor, this one much, much darker — and it was just as terrific.
“The Most Beautiful Boy in the World” is the story of Björn Andrésen, who at age 15 in 1970 was plucked out of anonymity by Italian master Luchino Visconti to star opposite Dirk Bogarde in an adaptation of Thomas Mann’s brooding novella “Death in Venice.”
The Danish-Swedish Andrésen was tall, thin, blond-haired, grey-eyed and, in Visconti’s view, worthy of obsession; a perfect embodiment of the object of fascination of Mann’s aging writer. It was Visconti who dubbed him “The Most Beautiful Boy in the World,” and for a while he was a celebrity in Europe and especially in Japan, where he recorded an album and has influenced the look of anime characters to this day.
When co-directors Kristina Lindström and Kristian Petri find him, he is on the verge of being evicted from his housing in Sweden because of uncleanliness that is a danger to his neighbors. He has sunken eyes, a long mane of gray hair and a long, gray beard. The most beautiful boy has become a sad, broken man.
Andrésen is still acting (he had a small role in the 2019 horror hit “Midsommar”), but his meteoric and fleeting fame was the worst thing that could have happened to a kid who was essentially on his own. He never knew his father, and his mother committed suicide when he was 7. He was raised by his grandmother in Stockholm, where as a schoolkid he was part of a roundup herded in to see Visconti, who was on a tour throughout Europe to find his perfect boy.
After the fame for the most part subsided, Andrésen’s life became a series of disappointments that I will not spoil in case you have the chance to see this documentary that is a must for classic film fans. The film does not currently have distribution.
— G. Allen Johnson
Identical twins Marian (Alessandra Mesa) and Vivian (Ani Mesa) have not seen each other in six years when the former suddenly reappears, upending her sister’s life in Erin Vassilopoulos’ tense directorial feature debut. This thriller breaks no new ground — the ending can be foreseen from the opening scenes — but it maintains a high level of suspense.
Marian is looking for a place to hide, not that she tells her sister that that is the reason for her sudden visit. Instead, the wild-child rock musician spins tales of shows in Paris and incipient stardom. It is a life foreign to Vivian, a conservative, small-town housewife struggling with infertility.
At first, it seems like the only thing that the twins have in common is miserable taste in men with Vivian married to blandly passive-aggressive Michael (Jake Hoffman) and Marian saddled with abusive Robert (Pico Alexander). But as Vivian begins to wish for a little of Marian’s spark and disdain for social niceties and Marian yearning to be free from Robert, their similarities and their sibling connection rise to the forefront.
Vassilopoulos employs an arresting visual style. The set design emphasizes the aridness of Vivian’s life in the banal details of her home. Costuming marks the evolution of the sisters’ relationship and reveals Vivian’s growing unhappiness with her domestic status quo. She leaves her staid dress behind to adopt Marian’s affinity for miniskirts, and both twins begin to show a marked preference for the color red.
“Superior,” co-written by Alessandra Mesa with Vassilopoulos, is a first feature for the Mesas after appearing in a number of short films. The script’s strength is in its sharp characterizations of the twins and their murky motivations. The film’s strength is in the twins’ vivid performances, transforming a genre piece into something more: an involving exploration of the bonds between siblings and their identities, so alike and yet so different.
— Pam Grady
Friday, Jan. 29
First sale for ‘Flee’
The second day of the Sundance Film Festival was the first full day of the event — and we already witnessed the festival’s first sale.
“Flee,” a documentary featuring hand-drawn animation, archival footage and ’80s pop music about an Afghan refugee, now living in Denmark, and his escape from persecution. The film, executive-produced by “Sound of Metal” star Riz Ahmed, drew rave reviews after its opening night slot.
Neon, the company that guided “Parasite” to a best picture win at last year’s Oscars, snapped it up for a reported $1 million.
There is also major interest from distributors for “CODA.” (See Jessica Zack’s review from opening night below.)
— G. Allen Johnson
‘Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It’
Asked when was the best phase of her 70-year career, Rita Moreno says it’s right now. And she makes a good case.
The Latino reboot of the sitcom “One Day at a Time” completed its fourth season and made its major-network debut on CBS in the fall. She also has a role in “West Side Story,” a Steven Spielberg-directed reboot of the 1961 film that won her an Oscar. And now, the documentary of her life, “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It,” made its world premiere at the virtual Sundance Film Festival on Friday, the same day it screened at Fort Mason Flix along the San Francisco waterfront as part of this year’s (mostly virtual) Sundance Film Festival.
Mariem Pérez Riera’s film is both a nostalgic look back at Moreno’s legend, her battles against ethnic stereotypes and a frank look at her troubled relationships — with Marlon Brando, most notably, which brought on a suicide attempt — and bouts with self-esteem issues and depression.
Read the full story here.
— G. Allen Johnson
‘I Was a Simple Man’
Writer-director Christopher Makoto Yogi experienced a series of heavy losses 10 years ago when his father and both grandfathers died in rapid succession. The Honolulu native didn’t know how to process their deaths, but remembers that what lingered was “the feeling of being in the room with someone who is passing on to another realm. In retrospect, I see it as a profound and beautiful thing to have witnessed,” he said in a Sundance post-screening Q&A, explaining the inspiration for his lyrical debut feature film “I Am a Simple Man.”
That same metaphysical, ultimately heartening feeling permeates Yogi’s Sundance entry about an elderly dying man, Masao (Steve Iwamoto), in Oahu’s verdant north shore countryside who’s visited by spirits from his past, including his late wife, played by Constance Wu (“Crazy Rich Asians”).
Yogi’s camera lingers on images of Hawaii’s lush natural beauty, and the film’s ambient soundscape uses the crashing surf and wind in the trees to signify the ubiquitous pull of memory as it carries Masao back to his youth when he fell in love and Hawaii was granted statehood.
It’s a beautiful, haunting film that raises large, timeless questions about personal histories, forgiveness and how we treat those we know we’re with for a finite period of time. During some prolonged hushed scenes, the film moves too slowly, but it’s still a rewarding experience — and would be even more so on the big screen — once you settle into its contemplative island spirit.
As Masao’s grandson says in a scene with a fellow skateboarder near his grandfather’s house: “Time moves differently out here.”
— Jessica Zack
‘Bring Your Own Brigade’
Living in Northern California, I’ve now seen several documentaries about wildfires in just the two short years since the Camp Fire and three other major fires caused widespread death and destruction, most recently Ron Howard’s “Rebuilding Paradise,” which is now on Hulu.
British-born Oscar-nominated documentarian Lucy Walker’s “Bring Your Own Brigade” is an interesting but scattershot addition to the genre. Now a resident of California, Walker expands her focus to all four of those 2018 fires and the fallout.
At first her main focus is on the people of Paradise, interviewing some of the same people and filming some of the same events that were featured in “Rebuilding Paradise.” But the film, which does not yet have a distributor, began getting to its point (finally) about 45 minutes in when Walker begins to discuss what caused these fires. And it’s not only climate change. Logging practices (particularly by Sierra Pacific Industries), housing development, lack of proper planning, and yes, forest management (where former President Donald Trump famously laid the blame) are some of the many factors.
The title comes from the practice of some well-to-do homeowners in fire zones contracting with private firefighting units to protect their homes first. The message is these massive fires aren’t going away. We’ll have to learn to live with it.
I just wish the specific causes and solutions of wildfires were explored more in depth.
— G. Allen Johnson
‘In the Earth’
“I had a slightly hysterical episode one week into the lockdown,” British filmmaker Ben Wheatley revealed. “I had to try and calm down, and so I tried to sit down and write.”
Wheatley said his strange horror tale “In the Earth,” inspired by 1970s British horror films (“Wicker Man” comes to mind), was the first film made in England after the country’s pandemic lockdown, and he tried to make the production as socially distanced as possible. He filmed it entirely in the forest, with very little production design and a small crew.
But “In the Earth” is not just socially distanced, it’s antisocial. Two hikers (Joel Fry and Ellora Torchia) are captured by a disheveled, deranged cult member (John Hollingworth). For what reason? No spoilers, but it’s trippy.
The film, which will be released by distributor Neon this year, is watchable and never boring, but it goes about as one would expect when venturing out into the forest with a camera and a skeleton cast and crew. It’s fun but not groundbreaking.
Nevertheless, give props to Wheatley, whose most recent film was a remake of “Rebecca” for Netflix. The guy was frustrated by the pandemic shelter-in-place orders and just wanted to go out and make a film, and that’s what real filmmakers do.
— G. Allen Johnson
‘Cryptozoo’ and ‘Son of Monarchs’
One of the great joys of watching a lot of movies at once at a film festival is the way patterns emerge. Sometimes they are deliberate, with programmers weaving themes throughout the festival. But other times, they are purely accidental, a fluke of timing arising out of the way you build your viewing schedule.
Such was the happy case with “Cryptozoo” and “Son of Monarchs,” films that screened in the virtual space Friday.
On the surface, the two films have little in common, besides a certain obsession with fauna. Dash Shaw’s “Cryptozoo,” which was supported by the SFFilm Makers program, is a trippy, animated fable for adults about Lauren (Lake Bell), a veterinarian who keeps an amusement-park-like zoo in San Francisco of amazing creatures like a Pegasus, elves and a kraken, and her attempt to rescue a “baku,” a nightmare-eating, pig/elephant-like hybrid.
Alexis Gambis’ “Son of Monarchs,” in contrast, is a gorgeously rendered, melancholy, live-action drama about Mendel (Tenoch Huerta), a scientist in New York, who is unlocking the secrets of butterfly DNA that will allow him to manipulate their genes. That he studies butterflies is no happenstance; they have been his companions since his childhood in Mexico where he still has unresolved family business.
The government and the military seek the animals in Lauren’s care in “Cryptozoo” with the aim of weaponizing their unique characteristics. In “Son of Monarchs,” there are wider implications to Mendel’s research than just changing the color of a monarch’s wings. “Will (sequencing technology) turn some of us into other creatures altogether?” asks one character.
And it is this that unites the two films and made watching them one after the other so satisfying. Both center creatures in their stories and observe the way people use them and suggest wider implications for society.
— Pam Grady
San Francisco rain doesn’t put a damper on film festival’s opening night
‘Summer of Soul … Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised’
The Harlem Cultural Festival, which ran over six consecutive weekends in Manhattan’s Mount Morris Park during the summer of 1969 — the same summer as the world famous Woodstock rock festival — fell into obscurity despite starring some of the biggest stars of blues, soul and jazz. Footage of the free community shows languished for more than 50 years until Roots drummer and frontman Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson rescued it as the subject of his vibrant documentary feature directorial debut.
Nightclub singer Tony Lawrence hosted and promoted the shows, and to call the festival “star-studded” is an understatement. Nineteen-year-old Steve Wonder, B.B. King, Mahalia Jackson, the Fifth Dimension, Nina Simone, Bay Area choir the Edwin Hawkins Singers, San Francisco band Sly and the Family Stone (three weeks before their Woodstock performance) and Gladys Knight and the Pips are only a few of the acts that Thompson showcases through the film, which presents one highlight after another.
But “Summer of Soul” is no mere performance film. Thompson, who is a DJ, producer, author and now filmmaker in addition to his work as a musician, noted in remarks before his premiere that he defines himself as a storyteller. And it is quite the tale he weaves with his documentary, a history not just of a music festival, but its context within Black culture of the era and American history as a whole. The concerts themselves were a communion between Black performers and a Black audience in an era of change and revolution.
During the Q&A after the film screening Thursday, Thompson said that a drum solo by Wonder, the Jackson-Mavis Staples duet, and Simone’s performances of “Backlash Blues” and “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” gave him goosebumps when he first saw the footage. Those moments “spiked the punch,” he added, giving him a framework for a film in which he wanted to both celebrate the Harlem Cultural Festival and deliver a “gut punch” to the audience in the film’s depiction of circumstances facing Black Americans in 1969.
— Pam Grady
“That chemistry you see onscreen is real,” actor Daniel Durant said during the celebratory Q&A after Thursday’s world premiere of “CODA.”
Durant is one of three exceptional deaf actors playing members of the close-knit, funny and feisty Massachusetts family at the heart of writer-director Siân Heder’s knockout new coming-of-age film.
But the breakout star in “CODA” is Emilia Jones (Netflix’s “Locke & Key”) who plays Ruby Rossi, a teenage girl who’s the only hearing member of her family (a “child of deaf adults”). She’s caught between shouldering beyond-her-years responsibilities as her parents’ de facto translator when they leave home — in their commercial fishing business, at doctor appointments and with her teachers — and pursuing her dreams of leaving home for music school.
Durant plays her older brother, and Academy Award-winning actress Marlee Matlin and the exceptional Troy Kotsur play her parents as a couple whose passion and sense of humor make their home a place of irreverent warmth.
The movie is based on the French film “La Famille Bélier,” and it has all the familiar beats you’d expect of a coming-of-age film: an adolescent trying to break free from expectation, a first kiss, bullying, parent-teen heart-to-hearts, even a choir teacher/savior figure (Eugenio Derbez) who sees promise in Ruby and draws her out of her shell. And yet “CODA’s” specificity and the remarkable authenticity with which it portrays the tensions between the hearing and deaf communities, and the ways Ruby can feel like an outsider in her own home, make it feel universally relatable.
Heder wrote for Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black” and is the showrunner of “Little America” on Apple TV+. Her debut feature film, “Tallulah,” starring Eliot Page and Alison Janney, was an indie hit at Sundance in 2016 and was later released by Netflix. But based on the first reviews and social media reactions that started rolling in during the post-show Q&A, early audiences agree this is Heder’s finest, most nuanced work to date.
Heder and her cast beamed when moderator Kim Yutani, Sundance director of programming, announced what she was hearing.
“The word is that everyone is crying,” Yutani said, “and they’re talking about Oscars.”
— Jessica Zack
‘In the Same Breath’
A year ago, Chinese-born, American-based documentarian Nanfu Wang was a jury member at Sundance, but she was nervous. She had just visited her mother in China with her husband and small daughter, as she does every December, and sensed something was amiss in her home country.
Social media posts were coming out of Wuhan that there might be a dangerous virus. She stayed on top of the story, and, working with a crew of independent videographers, chronicled the coronavirus’ outbreak. In the United States, as the pandemic took hold, she noticed the same patterns of denial and neglect.
The resulting documentary, “In the Same Breath,” is a devastating piece of video journalism that details how first China, and then the United States, bungled the response to the pandemic.
“I have lived under authoritarianism. I have lived in a country that calls itself free,” Wang said in the Q&A after the screening. “In both systems, innocent people are sacrificed by government leaders’ pursuit of power.”
“In the Same Breath,” which will stream via HBO Max around summertime, is essential because the point isn’t “I told you so,” it’s that there will be major crises in the future, beyond viruses, and the fact is, Wang seems to say, we can’t trust our governments thanks to rampant spin and misinformation.
In China, it’s misinformation by suppression. In the U.S., it’s misinformation by expression. The end result, in this case, was the same.
— G. Allen Johnson
‘One for the Road’
The name Wong Kar-wai is attached to Thai filmmaker Nattawut “Baz” Poonpiriya’s melancholic joyride, and it’s easy to see why: It has Wong’s fondness for impossible love affairs, remembrances of things past and dreamy-colored cinematography.
Wong, the Hong Kong auteur, is a producer of this Thai-language delight, which details the bromance between a New York bartender and his best friend, who is dying of leukemia in their hometown. The dying man, Aood (Ice Natara), asks his pal Boss (Thanapob Leeratanakajorn) to drive him around Thailand so he can say goodbye to each of his past loves, apologizing for his failures that ended their relationships.
Aood has a secret though, about Boss’ first love and her whereabouts 10 years later.
The film is fun, escapist and moving. At two hours and 16 minutes, it’s a long watch, and Boss’ first love, Prim (Violette Wautier) appears a bit late in the game, but the characters are so engaging that those flaws are not a deal breaker. Hopefully, this can get a theatrical release in the United States when the time comes and it can be enjoyed on the big screen, where it belongs.
— G. Allen Johnson