Tag Archives: Sundance 2021

Sundance 2021: Homeroom

Say hello to the Oakland High School senior class of 2020. They’re a representative sample of kids going to school in Oakland’s public schools, where rising crime rates, cuts to education, and inadequate health care mean the students here aren’t exactly being well prepared for their transition to adulthood.

Peter Nicks’ documentary clearly means to show us how difficult it is to be growing up in this rapidly changing climate – especially for this class of 2020 who of course were cut short by COVID-19. But it also really inspired me. These kids are different. They’re passionate. They’re awake. They mean to change the world. At least some of them do – like Denilson Garibo, for example – if the world is in his hands, I’m super comfortable giving him the reigns. This growing up stuff is tough but these kids are tuned in and ready to take to the streets for what they believe in. Yes the world is changing but so are the young people who’ll be left in charge of it.

The 2020 school year was of course unprecedented in many unforeseen ways and only time will tell how this blip will ultimately affect the young generation who put their lives on hold to wait it out, but this documentary will serve as a very interesting little time capsule that, as interesting as it is to watch today, will be even juicier to look back on when we have a little perspective. So many documentaries turn out to be quite different than what was originally intended, but Peter Nicks lets things roll as they may – and what choice does he have?

Nicks’ camera is a silent observer that can only show us small snippets of a few kids’ lives, but together they draw a very interesting portrait of what it’s like for the youth of today. You will feel heartened to get to know them.

Sundance 2021 Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir

Amy Tan is the wildly successful author of The Joy Luck Club and more. Her books, and the movies inspired by them, have had a huge cultural impact. The Joy Luck Club is largely credited with being the first mainstream American film with an all-Asian cast – a feat sadly not repeated until Crazy Rich Asians. Tan’s stories reach well beyond the Chinese community, hers are universal tales of immigration, and mothers and daughters.

In Unintended Memoir, we get to understand her work in new depth thanks to a close examination of her own childhood, and her relationship with her mother, even as she begins to lose her to dementia. It’s a dynamic that many of us may find familiar.

Also illuminating is the insight into Tan’s process as a writer, and her struggle with writer’s block. But most of all, Tan is a superlative story-teller, and her true family history is stranger, richer, and more interesting than fiction. James Redford has put together a compelling, straight-forward documentary that has storytelling in its heart, which makes it hard not to love.

Sundance 2021: Misha and the Wolves

Is the world ready for a post-modern holocaust movie?

Too late. Ready or not, here it is! Don’t blame director Sam Hobkinson, he’s just the guy delivering the bad news, but he’s delivering it because it’s interesting, it’s juicy, and you’re going to be thinking about it for a long, long time.

Misha Defonseca had been living in America for years, hazy about her past until one day she started opening up. As a little girl, her parents were murdered by Nazis and into the forest she fled, surviving thanks to the kindness of the wolves who adopted her. You read that right: wolves adopted her. Which is why she’s practically the Carole Baskin of wolves today (if you live under a rock and didn’t watch Tiger King on Netflix last year, you missed out, but long story short, Carole Baskin is the Tiger Queen). It’s a pretty amazing story, so amazing that a publisher comes calling, eager to make millions off the story, and soon Misha’s story is blowing up. Misha gladly travels all over Europe, accepting accolades, repeating her inspiring story, and seeing her book translated into many languages. Back home, she’s a little more reticent. Oprah comes calling and Misha doesn’t call back. Imagine the temerity! Misha’s publisher is pretty miffed at the missed opportunities, but then again, Misha’s pretty miffed at the publisher, who’s hiding money. So Misha sues the publisher and ruins her name and gets a huge judgement because she’s a sympathetic holocaust survivor and the publisher’s just a bitch who bilked her. But actually, the publisher’s beginning to poke holes in Misha’s story, and a researcher well versed in holocaust investigations agrees that Misha’s story isn’t quite holding up. But to accuse a survivor of lying is pretty delicate work and holocaust denial is pretty unpopular.

Hobkinson’s documentary is more twisty and turny than any detective story, and every time you think you’ve figured it out, you’re probably about due for another hairpin curve. You absolutely need to check this one out and be prepared to do your best sleuthing. It’s not often that a documentary can cultivate this much suspense and sustain it during most of its run. It’s a wild, well-told story that’s an engrossing watch and will pay dividends at dinner parties (or zoom dates) for years to come.

Sundance 2021: Mayday

After a terrible encounter with her boss inspires her to put her head in an oven, Ana finds herself on a mysterious island of girls – but this is no Themyscira.

On this island, Ana (Grace Van Patten) joins Marsha’s (Mia Goth) army of girls where war is constantly being waged against men. Along with Bea (Havana Rose Liu), Gert (Soko), and June (Juliette Lewis), they lure what appear to be WWII-era planes of soldiers with mayday calls of distress. Planes that answer the call and steer toward the island are mysteriously wrecked, and any men who survive and wash ashore are taken out by the girls, who’ve been training as snipers.

If the island is meant to be some sort of limbo for suicides, it’s populated by women who’ve been done wrong by men and are out for revenge. There is strength in numbers and strength in taking one’s power back, but while the island’s unique mission is exhilarating at first, Ana comes to realize she’s not entirely the killer Marsha wants her to be. Leaving won’t be so easy, though. Even if there’s a way to leave, Marsha isn’t keen to lose her newest recruit.

I love the vision and I love the attempt but I didn’t love the movie. The island is a great premise for exploring feminism and suicide but it doesn’t know how to create tension or sufficient reason to keep watching. Director Karen Cinorre is clearly very talented at putting together snappy, stylish visuals and has a knack for emotional dexterity, but Mayday needs a better grounding, better world building, better character development. Without those things, the film lacks dramatic propulsion and a good idea just never really becomes a good movie, but Grace Van Patten makes a strong case for future roles and Cinorre is a director to look out for.

Sundance 2021: Prisoners of the Ghostland

Prisoners of the Ghostland is a collaboration between America’s most bonkers actor, Nicolas Cage, and Japanese auteur Sion Sono, known for grotesque violence, extreme eroticism, and surreal imagery. I’m not the biggest fan of Nic Cage’s recent reincarnation as a b-movie cartoon, but I thought this combination was made in movie heaven and couldn’t wait to check it out at the Sundance Film Festival.

But you know what? It wasn’t that great. It was okay, but I expected some pretty bananas action from these two knuckleheads and instead Cage seems to be playing it straight, giving us a film that’s far more conventional than I ever would have guessed. Had they embraced the subversive, unhinged kind of film I was expecting/hoping for, Prisoners of the Ghostland could have been an instant cult classic, instead I’m left feeling disappointed after having been promised “the wildest movie I’ve ever made” by Cage himself, which is patently untrue.

Cage plays Hero, a notorious bank robber who’s released from prison in the savage, post-apocalyptic frontier city of Samurai Town in order to rescue the wealthy warlord Governor’s granddaughter, Bernice. The Governor (Bill Moseley) will guarantee Hero’s freedom in exchange for Bernice’s swift return, but straps him into a leather suit programmed to self-destruct in just a few days as a little extra incentive. And while we’re at it, the suit is also loaded with explosives should Hero raise a hand against a woman, and more explosives in the crotch region should Hero pop a boner for Bernice (Sofia Boutella).

Hero does indeed find Bernice, by accident, and I do mean accident – he immediately crashes his car and is rescued by the people in Ghostland, where Bernice is being held. Ghostland is under some mysterious curse that prevents anyone from leaving and is guarded by the “survivors” of a prisoner transport bus crash who were turned into monsters thanks to radiation. The people of Ghostland are obsessed with time, and they’re not even the ones strapped into leather jumpsuits charged with deadly explosives. The town is peppered with crumbling mannequins that house prisoners inside them; Bernice is broken out of her shell but is still voiceless, and not much help against the curse, the cult, the gunslingers, the ghosts, the samurai, or the irradiated convicts.

Prisoners of the Ghostland isn’t a complete wash. There are some crazy-cool visuals, a western-spoof vibe, an interesting soundtrack, and plenty of dirty neon lighting up our Hero’s path. And there’s Chekhov’s gun, of course: if in the first act you have rigged a suit with ball-sac bombs, then in the following one they should explode. And indeed they do. But I wanted more than just scrotal thrills, I wanted a whole anatomy of weird and wonderful, I wanted a rainbow parade of the absurd, I wanted Nic Cage at his best worst most demented, I wanted Cage and Sono to make a movie that would get banned in 17 countries and give me a nosebleed and an ice cream headache and leave me out of breath and intellectually bedazzled. Okay, that’s asking a lot, but I dared to dream big, and what I got was a strange, supernatural cinematic question mark that’s not half as nuts as anything else Cage has made in the last decade.

Sundance 2021: Pleasure

I mentioned in my Sundance review of Violation that I’d watched several R-rated horror movies and yet none until Violation had asked me to confirm my birthdate. The difference? Not blood or guts or skinned animals or severed limbs or gouged eyeballs; the difference was a mere erection. Erect penises are apparently more horrific than mass murder or treating body parts like fire wood. Pleasure, too, has asked me to “prove” I’m legal, and in some respect, the erections here are indeed horrific.

Twenty year old Linnéa Bella Cherry (Sofia Kappel) leaves small town Sweden for Los Angeles with aims to become the world’s next big porn star. This road is indeed paved with many, many erections, and Bella’s over the top, completely fake reactions to them. She knows how to play the game, but the path to superstardom isn’t quite as straight forward as she’d imagined. To get noticed, she agrees to increasingly more toxic situations and ends up getting fucked.

Director Ninja Thyberg has clearly spent a long time immersed in the culture of pornography to present such a grounded and evocative picture of its reality. Deconstructing its inherent misogyny and the ubiquitous privilege of male positions in all aspects of the business, Thyberg tells her story with equal parts humour and humiliation, all of it raw and unfiltered. It’s no surprise to anyone that the porn industry is predatory, yet Thyberg strives to share a perspective that represents sex work in a positive way. The script doesn’t judge Bella for her choices or their consequences, understanding that viewers will bring enough judgment of their own, making the viewing experience dependent on each person’s own prejudices and expectations.

Ninja Thyberg casts actress Sofia Kappel as the beautiful blank slate, allowing us to use her as a human Rorschach test, but she meta-casts the rest of the film with porn insiders. Giving Pleasure a sense of realism are Chris Cock (Thrilla in Vanilla 8, Facesitting Tales 4), Dana DeArmond (Semen Sippers 7, Ass Eaters Unanimous 15), John Strong (Double Stuffed 6, Cum Fart Cocktails 6), Charlotte Cross (Cum Fiesta, Electrosluts), Xander Corvus (Foot Worship, Turbo Sluts 2), Evelyn Claire (My First Interracial 11, Lesbian Strap-on Bosses 4), Kendra Spade (Creampie My Bush!, Giant Dicks in Asian Chicks 3), Axel Braun (Busty Hotwives, Squirt Class 2) and more. So many more. Pleasure doesn’t lack for authenticity.

Arriving at LAX, a customs agent asks Bella whether she’s in the country for business or pleasure – you can guess at the answer she gives with a smirk – but the film itself refuses to see these terms in black or white. Certainly Thyberg makes clear that Pleasure isn’t here for our pleasure, it brilliantly and almost magically avoids sexualizing Kappel even while hauling her through scenes of double anal and rape-adjacent threesomes. In this film, the camera gives Bella a certain power that most porn starlets will never have: agency. It’s actually a story you’ve seen a million times before: a young ingenue climbing her way to the top. If you fail to recognize it, it’s only because you haven’t seen it wearing a strap-on before.  Oscar Wilde once apparently said “Everything in the world is about sex, except sex. Sex is about power.” And in this film, those words have never been more true.

Sundance 2021: Cusp

Isabel Bethencourt and Parker Hill debuted their brilliant documentary, Cusp, at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.

In a Texas military town, three teenage girls go about their summer break as if no one’s watching. Drinks, drugs, guns, and toxic masculinity – a terrible combination mostly shrugged off by the girls who don’t know any better way to be. Autumn, Brittney, and Aaloni are so cavalier about their perceived helplessness that it’ll make you sick to your stomach. And yet these girls are representative of so many more that it’s both illuminating and deeply disturbing to hear their thoughts on freedom, consent, and ubiquitous sexual violence.

With a vérité approach, Bethencourt and Hill chronicle the lives of 15 year old girls with sensitivity and truth. Mimicking their lazy, unstructured lives, the camera is merely a witness to the intimate moments within their family homes and their social circles. In some ways Autumn, Brittney, and Aalani are dealing with more adult problems than I encountered in my own youth, yet they seem so much less mature, less equipped to survive these formative years on the cusp of adulthood.

Bethencourt and Hill manage to observe unobtrusively while eliciting organic, surprisingly nonchalant confessions from their subjects. It’s an eye-opening documentary that all parents should see, and take away at least one valuable lesson: to teach your daughters to say no, and your sons to hear and respect it.

Sundance 2021: Jockey

Jackson Silva (Clifton Collins Jr.) is an aging jockey who wants to win one last time before his body breaks down completely. It’s against the advice of his doctor, of course, and he’s already past his prime, but he doesn’t know when to quit, or what he’d do after, so he just keeps doing the one thing he’s good at.

Gabriel (Moises Arias) is a young jockey with his whole career in front of him, and a lot of promise. He’s come to be Jackson’s protégé but also claims to be his son – a son Jackson didn’t know he had.

Have you ever seen a one trick pony in the field so happy and free? You don’t really have to answer that, it’s a lyric from a Bruce Springsteen song from the movie The Wrestler. The Wrestler is about an aging wrestler whose body is past its prime but he doesn’t know when to quit or what he’d do after so he just keeps doing the one thing he’s good at.

Jockey is actually a perfectly good movie. Clifton Collins Jr. is never better as a man coming to terms with his own expiration date. It’s an intimate, low-key character study with a weighty impact. But I’ve seen this movie. I’ve seen it dozens of times and probably you have too. Director Clint Bentley shows a real mastery but I just can’t forgive it for being The Wrester, with horses. If you love horses then maybe Jockey will be your The Wrester – though I believe The Wrestler is the much superior film, and the one you should watch if you’re going to watch any. And anyway, this movie isn’t called The Horse. It’s about the small people who ride atop them, most of whom didn’t go to college first to get a “fallback career” as their mothers likely counselled them. Jackson is forced to contemplate his exit, and to consider his legacy, and his life beyond. Mickey Rourke did the same in The Wrester, and found there wasn’t much for him outside the ring. Its subtle heartbreak still haunts me more than a decade later. Jockey, while well made and beautifully acted, I’m already on my way to forgetting.

Sundance 2021: Violation

I hardly know what to say or indeed what can be said about a movie such as this.

We have watched many horror films at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival and seen buckets of blood shed, sometimes literally. Why, then, is this the first one that required me to manually enter my birthday, verifying my age? It’s the dick, of course. Americans will tolerate all kinds of blood and guts and gore, but an erect penis makes them shy. This movie, be warned, will have all of the above, and more.

Miriam (Madeleine Sims-Fewer) and husband Caleb (Obi Abili) are on the brink of divorce and are visiting her younger sister Greta (Anna Maguire), who almost seems to rub her happy marriage to Dylan (Jesse LaVercombe) in her face. Not intentionally, I’m sure, but they’re happy, they’re intimate, their relationship is a stark contrast to Miriam’s, which has been cold and dispassionate for months. One night, after a few drinks by the fire, Miriam opens up to Dylan, and the confession turns flirty, the two sharing a kiss before falling asleep by the fire. The next morning, Miriam wakes to Dylan fucking her. Raping her, in fact, though he’ll later tell her it was mutual, that she’d seemed into it, despite being unconscious. This betrayal is the basis for Miriam’s revenge plan, which will be both brutal and elaborate.

Miriam’s tools include a baseball bat, a hoist, a cooler, a motel toilet, but most of all, the sense of outrage and indeed of violation in her heart, powerful motivators indeed.

Violation is as savage as any horror I’ve ever seen, but with a female director (Sims-Fewer co-directs with Dusty Mancinelli) in charge, there are suddenly new aspects to vengeance that we haven’t seen on screen before. Miriam is perhaps emotionally elusive, methodical but still very much guided by a ruinous thirst for revenge. The true horror is of course in the honest way the aftermath of trauma is exposed. Violation is purposely difficult to watch, and even harder to swallow, but that’s because it’s rooted very much in reality, and reenacts what for most victims can only be fantasy. It is deeply unsettling because the emotional damage is just as raw and ruthless as the physical wounds inflicted. It’s the kind of film that dares you to flinch, but as tough as it may be to watch, it may actually hide some valuable if disturbing insight.

Violation will be available via Shudder on March 25 2021.

Sundance 2021: Land

Bereft from some ambiguous tragedy, some half-crazy white lady drops everything to go live on a mountain, totally alone, without being adequately prepared. No phone, no car, nor running water even, this scenario spells disaster to absolutely everyone except her, who persists against all common sense.

Edee (Robin Wright) seems not to have thought of pretty obvious things, like cold, and like bears, which are both pretty big threats to isolated cabins in the woods. This is shaping up to be a pretty short movie. Lucky for Edee a hunter (Demián Bichir) happens by and thoughtfully notes the absence of smoke from her chimney (Edee having lacked the skill to chop wood and the sense to stack it inside). He saves her from the brink of death, and when she’s finally healthy enough to speak, she tells him to get the heck out. She’s come up here to be alone, you know. Grudgingly she consents to semi-regular visits as long as he brings no news of the outside world. He teaches her all the survival skills that she had no business living up here without, and in exchange she’s barely grateful. Because she’s sad! And because she doesn’t consider that others might be sad too.

Land isn’t a bad movie – how could it be? It’s been made so many times there’s a tried and tested blueprint to follow, and as a first time director directing herself, Robin Wright follows it pretty closely. There’s some very pretty scenery and a quietly commanding performance from Wright, but nothing we haven’t seen before, no new insights, no new tricks. It’s hard enough having empathy for a woman who’s so cavalier and careless, but truth be told, neither character is well-developed and we need more to get a true connection.

Wright is a competent director but Land is a retread of places we’ve seen, people we’ve known, emotions we’ve explored. It’s safe and it’s familiar and it probably didn’t need to get made.