Sundance 2021 reviews: Judas and the Black Messiah, Passing & more!
The 2021 Sundance Film Festival has finally arrived and ComingSoon.net got the exciting opportunity to take part in the virtual iteration of the classic festival and watch some of the incredible films in its catalogue, from Robin Wright and Rebecca Hall’s directorial debuts Land and Passing to the biographical drama Judas and the Black Messiah. Check out our reviews for the films below!
Often times a psychological thriller with little-to-no explanations for the events of the story depicted is a smarter move as some ambiguity for the film breeds intriguing debates and compelling character work, but there’s still the occasional efforts in which this lack of exposition leaves a viewer underwhelmed and disinterested, such was the case for me with Knocking. Centered on a woman slowly losing her mind after moving into a new apartment and hearing a mysterious knocking sound from the walls, which no other tenant hears or is willing to believe her about, the film’s attempts at taking a pointed look at gaslighting and many countries’ incapacity to properly help those with a mental illness are certainly admirable, but by locking them in the psychological thriller genre they’re not really explored effectively or obvious enough for audiences to understand that’s part of the point of the film. Instead what we’re given is a mildly-tense-yet-ambling story that features a strong performance from Milocco and stylish direction from Kempff, but not much else in the way of a well-paced narrative or satisfying conclusion.
The story of a young family struggling as both must come to terms with their pride regarding their extended families, jobs rooted in tradition and temptations of a turn to crime is certainly a well-worn genre here in the States, but it’s one not often explored so richly and so uniquely as with Alex Camilleri’s Malta-set Luzzu. Centered on fisherman Jesmark as he seeks to find a way to provide for his wife and newborn baby while dealing with a leak in his boat and an increasingly problematic industry in the region, the film might follow the general formula of a slow turn to crime but rather than see him revel in it or suddenly become in the favor of all those around him, Camilleri keeps hammering Js down with realistic problems and moral hurdles and provides a nice slow burn to its story. In addition to its nice subversions of genre formula, the story does a fascinating job of exploring some very real-world issues of the European Union hurting local fishing industries rooted in family generations as well as the toll global warming is taking on the ecosystems of the region and local jobs, and with a proper minimal usage of Jon Natchez’ powerful score, it all culminates in a moving, gripping and often-heartbreakingly real tale.
John and the Hole
Evil children is a trope in the horror and thriller genre that has been explored in every aspect, from spawns of Satan to influenced by evil entities to just downright maniacal souls, but few have been quite as haunting to watch as the titular teen in John and the Hole, but whether that works in its favor or against it really lies in the preferences of the viewer. After drugging his family and dragging them into the bottom of an unfinished bunker, John casually goes about enjoying some freedom, including stealing money from an ATM using his parents’ debit card, telling lies to various adults regarding the whereabouts of everyone and inviting a friend over, all while bringing his family food scraps, bottles of water and garbage bags full of clothes. The tension and sense of dread permeating from this film is certainly handled expertly and Sisto’s directorial eye is quite artful, but the writing and the story really feels so bland and purposefully controversial that it doesn’t feel more than a poor attempt at trying to start a conversation regarding John’s actions. Is he a monster? Is he just odd? Is this part of some adolescent angst? No matter what the answer is, the way the film progresses and presents the character doesn’t feel like an intelligent or meaningful exploration of him, but rather a slow-burning experiment designed to torture the viewer and make them question what the point of any of John’s actions actually were, or if there even was one.
Nowadays when filmmakers choose to explore the issue of race in America, so often is the lens pointed towards the past during the era of slavery or Civil Rights Movement period of the ’60s and ’70s, but there’s a truly fascinating time in between with the Harlem Renaissance that feels so untapped with its potential. Not only does debuting writer/director Rebecca Hall properly explore this time with her adaptation of Nella Larsen’s Passing, but she also compellingly dives into so many of its fascinating themes, from its titular social status to the homoerotic subtext and repression in some of its characters, with an air of authenticity and a beautiful eye that makes her first outing in the director’s chair nothing short of remarkable. Centered on two childhood friends as they reunite by chance and see what their lives have become as they’ve chosen different sides of the race line, with Irene (Tessa Thompson) choosing to embrace her African-American heritage while Clare (Ruth Negga) has chosen to embrace her ability to “pass” as a white woman and marry as such, while also becoming increasingly obsessed and intrigued by the other’s life. Hall brilliantly utilizes the black-and-white styling of the film to tap into the story’s titular theme while simultaneously letting it shine through her thoughtful script and thanks to the gripping performances from leads Thompson and Negga, this is an absolutely absorbing, beautiful and timely work of art sure to turn heads at any awards ceremony with good taste in film.
Though beloved by many and comprised of a devoted fan base going back nearly a century, the horror genre has often been the subject of ire and criticism in regards to the effects some of the violence portrayed in their works have carried over into the real world. While there have been a handful of entries in the genre that have elected to either satirize or spoof said belief, Prano Bailey-Bond and Anthony Fletcher’s Censor offers something far different and more unique by not only showing a reverence for what’s come before but also almost a more meta-yet-direct desire to protect the genre from fairly ignorant criticisms. Following film censor Enid as she slowly loses her mind while investigating a mysterious new film and its potential connection to her sister’s disappearance in her childhood, it takes a fascinating approach to revealing a facet of the film industry and the video nasty era not hardly explored. Though Enid’s descent into madness might feel similar to The Ring‘s Rachel or In the Mouth of Madness‘ Trent, Censor offers a better driving force and more intriguing explanation for her devolution, never fully diving into the supernatural but offering just enough hints of it to please both genre enthusiasts and those generally fond of nostalgic storytelling. With a powerful leading turn from Niamh Algar and artful direction from Bailey-Bond that simultaneously utilizes the best of modern technology and the color palette and framework of horror’s past, this is an absolute dream of a film in every facet and marks a promising future from its co-writer/director.
Even prior to the global lockdown, the world of online dating has been an area of real fascination as it continues to expand with dating apps but unlike last year’s similar documentary Shoot to Marry, which focused more on the filmmaker than the modern world of dating itself, Pacho Velez takes a far more simplified and entertaining approach to this subject with Searchers. Placing various New Yorkers in front of a very innovative screen allowing the viewer to see what the subjects are seeing as they scroll through potential matches, messages and setting up their profiles, Velez finds an amazing ability to just draw out everyone’s authentic selves as they react to what they’re seeing. By choosing to really only make the apps and subjects the center of the story, especially in regards to what they’re looking for, instead of himself despite his occasional insertions as he uses the apps himself, Velez has crafted a hilarious, poignant and thoroughly entertaining documentary from start to finish.
Eight for Silver
The werewolf horror genre recently saw a nice change of pace thanks to Jim Cummings’ offbeat and fascinating The Wolf of Snow Hollow and though Sean Ellis’ Eight for Silver takes a similar character-focused approach without any of the sense of humor of Cummings, he still delivers a compelling and fairly original take on the formula. Centered on a pathologist as he heads to a small country village in the 1800s to investigate an animal attack with a darker meaning behind it, the film isn’t your typical werewolf film as it offers a more concrete explanation behind its creature’s origin and features more daytime attacks, but these not only work largely in the film’s favor but also spawns from the attacker behind the local murders being something more terrifying and conceptually fascinating than a normal lycanthrope, a near-Lovecraftian terror that’s somehow made its way to the middle of the woods. Though the film occasionally moves at a sluggish pace and some of its CGI proves a little shoddy, the scares dispersed throughout are very effective, the practical effect work is downright stellar and the performances from its cast are all top-notch, making for an outright chilling and intriguing affair.
In The Earth
With the world still stuck in the middle of one, film and TV creatives have sought various ways to address the ongoing pandemic in their work, be it by directly incorporating it into their stories, making stories about a pandemic or shooting over technologies such as Zoom to keep everyone safe. Last year saw the heinous attempt at offering a pandemic thriller with the poorly-thought-out Songbird but now writer/director Ben Wheatley has come along with a different kind of chiller with a virus as its initial driving force in his first horror film in nearly a decade, In The Earth, and the result is a beautifully-shot mind-bender. Unlike arguably the worst film of 2020, Wheatley uses the backdrop of a pandemic to heighten his story’s themes of human connection and as a minor catalyst for its survivalist thriller and takes a nice slow-burning approach to unveiling further details about its central three characters and their various motivations for being out in the woods, as well as blurring the line between psychedelic hysteria and a very real monster living in the woods. Though its latter half’s dive into a meld of science and fantasy feels a little mismatched with its first half, it does offer an intriguing enough story and breeds more gorgeous direction from Wheatley, resulting in a mildly disappointing but nonetheless compelling ride.
On The Count of Three
Films regarding suicide are a really slippery slope, as one certainly wants to depict the mental struggle with authenticity and respect to those who have thoughts of self-harm without entirely alienating an audience and though Jerrod Carmichael’s feature directorial debut On The Count of Three might be a mixed bag of genres but thanks to a nice layer of dark humor and incredible performances from the stand-up comic and Golden Globe nominee Christopher Abbott, it’s a damn impressive first outing. Following two men ready to commit suicide as they decide to take care of some unfinished business before leaving this Earth, the film moves at a steady enough pace and sees Carmichael expertly tapping into the pitch-black comedy to come from such a premise and directing with a soulful eye, even if Katcher and Welch’s script proves to be a little underwhelming and fairly predictable, and its modest ensemble cast all deliver truly powerful performances, very much disappearing into their roles and bringing them to life with a level of authenticity that is truly gripping to watch.
Modern parenting is a much more complex and fascinating world than that of the past, especially thanks to scientific breakthroughs with surrogacy, but a formula so rarely explored is a single man nearing the end of his own biological clock for raising a kid and electing to find a surrogate mother who he has no prior connection with. Basically a gender-swapped Baby Mama, the film takes a more dramedy approach to its story, amps up the overbearing nature of its desperate-to-be-a-parent character to somewhat annoying degrees and repeats a number of jokes from similar genre efforts — Sex during pregnancy? You’re ordering that? You’re turning to a surrogate? — but there is plenty here to admire in comparison to other of its ilk. Rather than having the mother be a supporting character to the hopeful parent, Patti Harrison’s Anna is a well-rounded individual with her own aspirations and agency while Ed Helms’ Matt mostly proves a little two-note across its short runtime, but thankfully the duo’s evolving chemistry saves the latter from being too much of a bore. The inclusion of therapy groups that are vital to the process makes for a nice subversion and helps ground the film in a better sense of realism than some studio efforts exploring similar themes and formulas.
Stories regarding humanity going up against nature so often take an adventurous or drastic approach to their tellings that it’s so often easy to forget the characters at the heart of the film and their emotional and personal struggles. Films such as Everest, The 33, The Mountain Between Us all pride themselves on the spectacle of their plots while frequently losing touch with the souls at the heart of the stories, and though Robin Wright’s directorial debut Land may take a fairly safe and predictable approach to its premise, it largely shines thanks to its fascinating character development and gorgeous direction. Centered on a woman as she heads into the mountains following a family tragedy and takes the opportunity of a near-death experience to find a path towards having a desire to live, the way the film never truly divulges the trauma from Wright’s Edee until near the very end better allows viewers to establish a deeper and truer emotional connection with the character and feel her pain as she grieves and attempts to grow with the friendship of the always-charming Demián Bichir. While its semi-exposition dump at the end felt a little unnecessary for the journey that preceded it, Wright shows an incredible grip on both the visual and storytelling duties that come with the director’s chair and has delivered an emotionally beautiful, moving and powerfully-performed tale that any viewer can resonate with.
Prisoners of the Ghostland
In this day and age, I think it’s safe to say when going into a film starring Nicolas Cage to temper one’s expectations and be prepared for an absolute gonzo ride and while Prisoners of the Ghostland might feel like a more disjointed effort than some of his recent critical hits, it’s nonetheless got some fun for fans of the Oscar winner. Centered on a bank robber tasked with tracking down the escaped adopted granddaughter of Samurai Town’s The Governor in exchange for his freedom, the film has a real odd meld of tones between the Western, samurai and post-apocalyptic genres that sometimes lends itself to a great air of ambiguity and mystery akin to the best films of David Lynch and Richard Kelly though often times feels like some of their worst. The Mad Max-esque wasteland is fairly interesting in concept and may have a solid message regarding the environment behind it, but if it does exist it’s lost in the scattershot writing and storytelling. That being written, said storytelling delivers Nicolas Cage’s testicle exploding, Sofia Boutella getting to be an action badass that I’d love to see her do more of and some well-shot samurai action sequences resulting in one of the weirdest yet oddly-compelling films from its star in years.
A high school first date gone wrong is a concept plenty of films have explored, but very few have involved gunfights, car chases and kilos of cocaine and while First Date‘s involving of these conflicts does frequently lend itself to some outrageous and funny situations, the film itself can never quite live up to the promise. The action scenes are certainly well-executed, especially for a film with no seemingly no budget, some of the acting is great in the film, especially sure-to-be-breakout star Shelby Duclos, and there’s quite a few hilarious moments, but unfortunately the film just moves at such a sluggish pace and repeats a few too many gags that it proves underwhelming. One thing similar-plotted Date Night got right in comparison was not overstaying its welcome with its runtime, a fast-paced 88 minutes instead of the overextended 102 that feels like a misguided attempt to pad the film’s length and go for some unfunny jokes.
The United States is a country that never seems to get a respite from shocking reports of a mass shooting occurring somewhere and as lawmakers continue to struggle to figure out how to address the issue, filmmakers similarly continue to show an uncertainty in how to approach the subject. While this year has already seen an egregious attempt — which I shall not name, but a quick Google will lead you to it — debuting writer/director Fran Kranz has brought his own approach with Mass and it’s a painfully raw, authentic and far more respectful exploration of the subject. Centered on the parents of a victim of a mass shooting meeting the parents of the perpetrator years after the event, Kranz’ incredible script covers nearly every facet of the argument on either side of the aisle, from pride driving some to turn a blind eye to those displaying dangerous characteristics to gun control to the sad truth that sometimes therapy may not work or have an adverse effect on those attending. Kranz, who took to Broadway in 2012 and 2014, brings his experience and lessons learned from the stage and expertly translates them into the film world, as the nearly-two-hour runtime feels more like a stage production with its one setting and minimal production design, which goes a long way to allowing the viewer to focus on the incredible performances from its central four stars, even if there are a few too many cuts during conversations. It appears as an attempt to properly illustrate everyone’s fascinating performance from every angle possible during every conversation, but sometimes it feels a little too much and feels like the film could’ve used a few less camera angles. That being said, however, Kranz has delivered a thoroughly intelligent, powerful and urgent tale that is supported by incredible turns from its talented leads.
A decade ago, Zack Snyder tried and failed to deliver a world in which women seeking to escape the harsh reality of their lives in a mental institution turn to a fantastical world in which they are badass action heroes. Where he missed the mark with a misogynistic depiction of his characters, Karen Cinorre has displayed a better understanding of how ambitious a premise could be and that a less straightforward and more ambiguous approach can be far more thrilling with her debut Mayday. Following two women at low points in their life who are magically transported to an alternate world in which one is the leader of a crew of female soldiers caught in an endless war, the film may take a more reductive approach to its feminist themes for much of its runtime and is heavy on atmosphere and light on actual exposition, but it feels like a much richer and intriguing approach for the premise. Cinorre’s direction is thoroughly engrossing, almost creating the feel of a Hayao Miyazaki film brought to life, the performances from its cast are solid, especially a career-best turn from Mia Goth, all culminating in a visually beautiful, thoughtful and delightfully odd little genre effort establishing its writer/director as a talent to watch.
Marvelous and The Black Hole
Teenagers are rebellious. It’s one of the oldest tropes/traits in the book for storytelling, but it’s the motivation behind said behavior and the execution of a film that can help set it apart from the bunch and while Kate Tsang’s Marvelous and The Black Hole may prove a bit familiar, it’s nonetheless and a sweet and energetic take on the formula. The film centers on teenager Sammy as she struggles to come to terms with the loss of her mother and her father moving on and dating someone new and pushing her to taking a summer course at her local community college, where she meets magician Margot, who introduces her to the world of magic as an outlet for her grief and frustrations and they slowly build a friendship that will change her life for the better. Yes, it’s a story told time and again, but the way Tsang presents it is far better than other similar genre efforts. With an energy and style akin to Matthew Lillard’s adaptation of Fat Kid Rules the World but still full of its own unique flair, interesting characters and authentic performances from its cast, namely Miya Cech, Rhea Perlman and Leonardo Nam, the film is a hilarious, moving and rewarding tale of loss, growth and imagination.
Horse racing has been explored on screen a number of times, from seven-time Oscar nominee Seabiscuit to the recent Toni Collette-starring dramedy Dream Horse, but it’s rare that a story is willing to genuinely focus on the jockeys themselves and the toll their careers can take on them and Clint Bentley’s extremely personal drama delivers thanks to the fantastic performance from lead Clifton Collins Jr. Centered on an aging rider as he finds himself confronting potentially his final season, the arrival of a young man claiming to be his son and helping train a promising new horse, the film takes a similar approach to Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler for the world of horse racing and much like said film the formula works. The establishing of Collins Jr.’s Jackson is handled with such a quick-yet-emotional touch that it helps the viewer quicker connect to him and his full immersion in the role and while he looks like he’s rather enjoying the ride in moments such as dancing a jig at a party, we also can feel every ounce of pain coming from him, in his heart, his soul and especially his body. While it may run a little overlong in its pacing, Bentley’s skillful direction and Collins Jr.’s committed performance make this a worthwhile race around the track.
The Blazing World
Imagine a film who finds a way to bridge the general premises of Alice in Wonderland, The Odyssey and Jacob’s Ladder then cranks them up with some of the most potent acid on the planet. The result is Carlson Young’s fascinating and haunting feature directorial debut The Blazing World. Surrounding a young woman haunted by the drowning death of her sister in childhood as she journeys through a dark and dangerous fantasy world in hopes of saving her sister’s soul from demons while herself on the brink of suicide, there’s a lot to process and unpack in the film. From its opening moments, it becomes clear to the viewer to never fully trust what they’re seeing as hallucinations and false memories are presented, the former of which delivers some nice jump scares and both of which help create an intriguing air of mystery and delusion akin to the Tim Robbins-led cult classic. Though its plot begins to feel a little simplistic as it goes on, journeying from one twisted realm to the next, each does present a vast amount of symbolism and breathtaking imagery that keeps the audience glued to the screen while wanting to crawl back in their seats in fear. The visual design of the brief glimpses of demons we see are terrifying and unique, the sharp colors palette of the evil dimension feels very reminiscent of the giallo films it seeks to pay homage to and Young’s direction is incredibly stylish, making it a shame that the story can never quite keep a steady pacing or intriguing throughline.
Judas and the Black Messiah
Three years ago, Spike Lee delivered one of the most exhilarating and stylish undercover police stories based on a true story from the Civil Rights movement and now Shaka King is looking at a story on the flip side of the coin with Judas and the Black Messiah and the result is one nearly as electric but equally as timely and as powerful. Centered on William O’Neal as he is enlisted by the FBI to infiltrate the Black Panther Party and bring down its chairman, Fred Hampton, the film takes a far more character-focused approach to telling its story and sets itself apart from Lee’s — and others — similar films by electing to put a proper spotlight on the good Hampton sought to put out into the world for the Black community and the level of O’Neal’s betrayal against the revolutionary. But rather than treat O’Neal as the villain of the story, a route some filmmakers could have easily taken, King and co-writer Will Berson ensure to display the reality that he was a man backed into a corner who tried to stick to his morals and support the positive messages the Black Panthers put out even as he is constantly put down by his authority bosses, delivering a brilliant balance with their saint-like depiction of Hampton. Alongside King and Berson’s urgent script and the former’s strong direction, the film is carried by the downright stellar performances from Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield. The Get Out Oscar nominee quite literally seems to only get better and better with every role, absolutely dominating every single scene he’s in and had me damn near standing up and chanting and cheering alongside him in every public event, and the Atlanta star has now absolutely established that if he’s snubbed for any major award, something’s wrong with Hollywood because he is an incredible anchor and hones in on every level of duplicity, paranoia and charm O’Neal needed to bring to his work as an informant. King, his cast and crew have set a very high bar for the rest of 2021 and already delivered what is sure to be one of the best films of the year.