Reviews from the first weekend of 2021's all-online Sundance Film Festival
I’ll admit it, I was skeptical about the prospect of a fully-online Sundance Film Festival. In my head, I recognized that the most important aspect of the annual event — movies! — would be intact. But in my heart, I couldn’t shake the sense that exploring the festival selections alone, using whatever disparate technologies our individual homes are equipped with, was somehow, ineffably, wrong.
But it was me who was wrong. As I settled into the makeshift screening room I had set up — in what is typically my wife’s home office — I felt that same old mix of excitement and apprehension that comes from being part of a film’s premiere audience, and not having the slightest idea of what might unfold on-screen.
So before I get to reviewing what I watched during opening weekend, allow me to offer kudos to the folks at Sundance for rising to the challenge of a pandemic-torn world and building a thoughtful, inclusive festival experience. And while the new format meant I was able to watch a LOT of movies in a relatively short period of time —free from the constraints of physically moving from venue to venue — here’s hoping we never again are limited only to online attendance.
In The Earth
Writer-Director Ben Wheatley has a knack for making big films out of small spaces. His previous movies High-Rise and Free Fire both largely take place in a single building while his latest, In The Earth, consists of little more than a series of campsites. But that and a handful of characters are all Wheatley needs to craft an eerie, violent, nature-set horror story reminiscent of Midsommar and Annihilation but uniquely its own thing.
Notable as one of the first films to be fully shot and produced under Covid-19 protocols, In The Earth is set in a world reeling from a minimally-defined but distinctly Coronavirus-esque pandemic. But we only hear pieces of the larger world as we follow a scientist (Joel Fry) and his guide (Ellora Torchia) trekking into a forest of ambiguous “fertile” properties to rendezvous with a colleague and conduct research.
The movie is inordinately sensory, and to great effect. That means stomach-churning depictions of violence and injury as well as remarkable use of sight and sound, particularly in the film’s third act, as Wheatley builds a nightmare that envelops the viewer along with the characters on screen.
An early breakout from this year’s festival, Coda is the coming-of-age tale of Ruby (Emilia Jones), the only hearing member in a deaf family of Massachusetts fishermen. Ruby is approaching high school graduation, necessitating a choice between her life as the family’s de facto interpreter and pursuing her love of singing at music school (the film’s title being a play on musical terminology and the acronym for “Child of Deaf Adults”).
Few Sundance films are as wall-to-wall charming as Coda. There’s a recognizable formula to the story structure, but it adds to a feeling of sincerity that is magnified by the excellent, and often hilarious, ensemble cast. Jones’ character is the center of the story, but it’s the familial chemistry between her and co-stars Marlee Matlin, Troy Kotsur, and Daniel Durant that makes the film pop and creates the tension pulling Ruby in two directions.
Given the bidding war that erupted after the film premiered, Coda is likely to be heading to a screen near you in the relatively near future. Keep an eye out for it.
The more I think about Censor, the more I like it. Set in London in the 1980s, the film follows Enid (Niamh Algar) a government censor tasked with protecting the populace from violent imagery by trimming or outright banning overly-indulgent “video nasties,” U.K.’s term for the low-budget exploitation films that proliferated with the advent of video cassettes.
Younger viewers take for granted the ubiquity and ease of watching videos at home, but it wasn’t so long ago that VCRs were blowing society’s collective mind, eliminating barriers to entry for would-be filmmakers and fueling niche markets for the most graphic, most erotic, and most unsettling content that could be captured on tape.
Enter Censor and Enid, a workaholic committed to drawing a line of decency in the sand, and seemingly motivated by the loss of a sister during an unexplained childhood trauma. As she screens the latest slasher-porn to cross her desk, memories of that half-forgotten trauma resurface, compelling Enid to investigate her past.
Censor is many things at once, which makes it a pleasure to watch and think about afterward. It’s a horror film, with loving nods to the genre; it’s a period piece, with an impressive commitment to 1980s historicity; and it’s steeped in satire, with movies within movies within movies and biting meta-commentary about censorship itself and the relationship between fiction and reality. I can’t say for certain that it delivers on its build up, but the ending zags when you expect it to zig and shows that writer-director Prano Bailey-Bond had more on her mind all along.
In the Same Breath
In this insightful documentary — which will be released by HBO later this year — director Nanfu Wang takes viewers past the “All is under control” propaganda of Chinese state media to the early days of the Coronavirus pandemic as it began tearing through Wuhan. With footage cobbled together from various on-the-ground sources, we see the infection move from a trickle to a flood as health care services are overrun and cities are ultimately placed on severe, and sudden, lockdowns, all juxtaposed against the carefully-scripted pronouncements of the nation’s authoritarian regime.
It’s an unvarnished and eerie portrait of life in China, one in which citizens don’t dare to express the slightest criticism of government while cameras are rolling and where newscasts allude to police enacting “punishments” against people who “spread rumors” about the virus. And while countless numbers are dead or dying without sufficient medical resources, the government celebrates “victory” over the pandemic with glossy, televised banquets and all-smiles public service announcements.
Then Wang turns her camera to America, and we see the cycle of lies, downplaying and death repeat itself, only this time closer to home.
For his directorial debut, Fran Kranz (Cabin in the Woods, Homecoming) picked a subject that is objectively hard to pull off. Unspooling in essentially real time, Mass sees the parents of a child who died in a school shooting sitting down with the parents of the perpetrator of that shooting to talk, share, and potentially, heal.
Franz is careful with the information he doles out. It’s not immediately stated which pair of actors is playing which role, and not until much later that we learn the details of the tragedy sucking all the oxygen out of the room. And when I say room, I mean it, as the film takes place almost entirely within the confines of a generically-Protestant church space selected as neutral ground for the meeting. It has the bare walls, plastic table, and stacked chairs of so many Sunday school classrooms, which has the dual effect of underlining the Anywhere, USA aspect of mass shootings and ensuring that there is nothing to distract the viewer from the pain being shared by the characters.
Opinions will inevitably vary on the success of the film, but the cast is certainly right for the job. The four leads — Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton, Ann Dowd, and Reed Birney — each bring a different energy to the heavy material, with the discussion bouncing between them in shifts and spurts that feels something like a cross between 12 Angry Men, We Need to talk about Kevin, and My Dinner with Andre. Isaacs, in particular, shows great range, conveying both the rage that boils just under the surface and delivering a few moments of levity that feel crucial when they arrive.
Mass is a hard sell, wearing its heart on its sleeve and all-but-inviting criticisms from viewers that will be turned off by its political messaging. But it also makes a point to sidestep the lure of sensationalism, and is content instead to stew in the sadness of tragedy and ask what catharsis is possible.
Eight for Silver
Set in the late 1800s, Eight for Silver sees a cursed village haunted by shared nightmares and hunted by a supernatural monster after the destruction of a Roma camp.
Written and directed by Sean Ellis, the film is a largely successful reimagining of the classic werewolf story, benefiting from excellent creature design and practical effects that sell the film’s understated, but effective, horror elements. One scene in particular stands out, as the story’s monster hunter (Boyd Holbrook) takes us inside the belly of the beast — literally — with unflinching, impressive, and revolting detail.
Eight for Silver is strongest in its middle sections, with the slow creep of terror spreading through town and an as-yet-undefined menace stalking from the shadows. But the story is bookended with time jumps that, while visually impressive in their own right, do little to advance the plot.
It’s unfortunate, as the narrative choices create expectations that aren’t fully realized, and then cause the story to finish late with an anticlimactic feel. But the highs outweigh the lows, and for genre fans it’s a novel and inventive entry into the library of werewolf tales.
A Glitch in the Matrix
Are we living in a simulation? It’s a question that is increasingly de rigueur as computing technology and digital imagery become ever-more-lifelike and the social dogmas crumble around life, death, religion, and our place in the universe. And it’s the question on the mind of A Glitch in the Matrix, the latest documentary from Rodney Ascher, the hard-to-define mind behind Room 237 and The Nightmare.
If you’d like someone to adjudicate the evidence for or against simulation theory, look elsewhere. Instead, A Glitch in the Matrix assembles a collection of talking heads — an academic, a gamer, a murderer, etc. — to explore and dramatize their conception of constructed reality and the potential ramifications on our understanding of human life and the cosmos around us.
The film is unapologetically odd, with a synth-heavy soundtrack and interview subjects rendered as digital avatars. But it’s also brimming with information, tracking the mainstreaming of simulation theory through works like The Matrix and celebrity endorsers like Elon Musk, and pointing to real-world examples of inexplicable behavior to posit a “what if?” scenario of higher life forms entering our reality the way our children log onto Fortnite. Part research paper and part acid trip, A Glitch in the Matrix is a top-quality film experience in a genre all its own.