The winter storm that blew through Chicago this week might not have been welcomed by some, but for those of us used to heading to the snowy mountains each January for the annual Sundance Film Festival, it proved to be a fitting way to make Chicago feel a bit more like Park City, Utah. The 2020 festival was one of the last in-person events to take place on the film festival scene before the pandemic closed the country down (and it may’ve been a coronavirus super-spreader event); with just about a year to make their plans for a virtual festival, Sundance organizers have found innovative, inclusive ways to, as festival director Tabitha Jackson (in her first year at the helm) said in her opening remarks, “bring the festival to audiences instead of the other way around.”
The festival runs through February 3 and tickets are still available to films you can enjoy from home, all via the festival’s website, app or on smart TVs. Don’t let the new technology spook you; once you get your bearings, there’s a wealth of films, talks and even VR programming to explore. In our first dispatch from Sundance (from home), we share quick takes on the films setting the tone for the most unusual Sundance Film Festival yet.
Summer of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
Starting my 2021 Sundance Film Festival off exactly how I needed to: with a party. Marking the feature directing debut from Roots drummer and “Tonight Show” music director Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, Summer of Soul pieces together footage that has been sitting in a basement for more than 50 years from the Harlem Cultural Festival, circa 1969, an event meant to unite a community only a year after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and pay tribute to the many cultures and influences that made Harlem so special at the time. But Thompson does more than edit together a concert film featuring such dignitaries as Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, the Staples Singers, B.B. King, Gladys Knight, David Ruffin, Mahalia Jackson, Sly and the Family Stone, and even the 5th Dimension; he also places the various music styles (R&B, gospel, Afro-Cuban jazz, blues, and funk) in the context of the times, and makes the point that the event was a huge factor in radicalizing Harlem and the musicians that played the summer concert series.
Summer of Soul is just one highlight moment after another, accented with new interviews with both surviving performers and several of the more than 300,000 people who attended the concerts over that transformative summer, which was meant to both entertain and provide a history of Black music, culture, fashion and messaging. There are many standout moments, but the one that took my breath away was a rare performance of “Precious Lord” by Mahalia Jackson and Chicago’s own Mavis Staples. The energy of the Sly and the Family Stone’s performance is unlike anything else, and even more than the band’s showcase at Woodstock (which took place the same year, but got far more publicity) illustrates the influence his brand of funk had on an entire generation of musicians. Someone describes Nina Simone’s set as both joyful and mournful, and they couldn’t be more right—tears of either persuasion would be totally appropriate while watching her.
The most shocking moment in the documentary comes near the end when it’s revealed that the reason no one had seen or used this footage in more than 50 years is because no studio or television network wanted it because it was “too black.” Perhaps mainstream entertainment hubs were nervous about projecting such positive and proud images of Black people, but I can only imagine how much the rest of the country at the time—still very much steeped in the horrors of the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement, and a re-evaluation of the lengths non-white people would go to to achieve equality—would have reacted to seeing a sea of Black faces in Harlem so thrilled to be at the center of such a celebration. I really do hope Summer of Soul makes it to theaters at some point this year, so that I can hear this transformative music blasting through a righteous sound system. (Steve Prokopy)
Marking the feature debut from director/co-writer Prano Bailey-Bond, the UK-made, set-in-the 1980s Censor has one of the great horror film setups in recent memory. And the rest of the movie isn’t half bad either. Enid (Niamh Algar, Raised by Wolves) works as a film censor in Thatcher-era Britain at the height of the video nasty era, when the British government sanctioned cuts in movies to get them approved for rental in video stores (although sometimes, the films were just outright banned). So, it’s Enid’s job to watch these depraved works and pass or fail them for the general public. She’s especially meticulous in her work, taking copious notes, seemingly able to distance herself from the extreme nature of the films that are supposedly in danger of infecting the minds of young children throughout the country.
Enid doesn’t appear to have much of a social life, and even encounters with her parents are strained because she still holds out hope that her younger sister, who went missing when the girls were young and playing in the woods (something Enid has always struggled to remember details about), might still be alive, so she refuses to let her parents declare Nina dead. Then one day while screening a vintage title from famed exploitation director Frederick North (Adrian Schiller) to see if any cuts are needed, she spots a young actress in the film in a scenario that seems to mirror her fuzzy remembrance of the day her sister went missing. When she finds another, more current movie by the same director with the same actress, one Alice Lee (Sophia La Porta), the resemblance is tough to ignore, and Enid becomes convinced this woman is her missing sister.
She begins to investigate but it’s also clear in these frantic moments that Enid is having an increasingly tough time distinguishing reality and dark delusions that might actually be the result of her watching so many gore-soaked movies. The great Michael Smiley has a supporting role as a sleazy film producer who takes a liking to Enid, probably because she reminds him of his leading lady. There’s also an interesting storyline about Enid getting some unwanted attention from the press when a man murders his wife in a method that resembles a killing from a movie that Enid and a co-worker let pass through the system.
From a screenplay by the director and Anthony Fletcher, Censor has a tremendous sense of visual style, thanks in part because it was shot on film. But the low-key production design still manages to squarely place the movie in the 1980s. Even more impressive is the way the filmmaker captures the strange hysteria that took over people who firmly believed that extra-bloody horror movies were transforming viewers (mostly men) into killers and rapists. Clearly having a bit of fun, Bailey-Bond fully embraces the blood and guts of the very movies we’re meant to see as dangerous. The final act of Censor cuts loose in several fun ways as Enid gets the answers she’s looking for about the mysterious actress. And as for the questions left dangling, let’s just say Enid fills in a few blanks along the way. The film is clever, inventive, and true to its time period without resorting to cliché ’80s touchstones—all providing a great backdrop for Algar to go deep as a character, while her mind implodes. This is the kind of smart horror I truly adore. (Steve Prokopy)
In the Same Breath
On the heels of powerful COVID-centric documentaries like Alex Gibney’s Totally Under Control and the harrowing, on-the-ground exposé 76 Days comes In the Same Breath, a story filmmaker Nanfu Wang (One Child Nation) is uniquely capable of assembling with precision, perspective and urgency. Conceived as she traveled to the U.S. from China in January 2020, leaving her three-year-old son with her mother there only to be rushed back to the states as the coronavirus began to spread, Wang watched the early reports of a new, mysterious illness spread on Chinese social media with concern and worry. Chronicling a year in the pandemic, In the Same Breath begins as Wuhan (population 11 million) rings in 2020 “like any other city,” Wang tells us; downtown is packed with people cheering and celebrating, completely unaware of the tragedy and death in their future (like the rest of the world). Wang narrates this film like she did One Child Nation; and also like that film, In the Same Breath starts as something incredibly personal for the filmmaker only to evolve and expand into a searing examination of politics, government, media and propaganda.
Produced entirely remotely, Wang employed a dozen freelance videographers in Wuhan, giving them marching orders from the U.S. to film everything they could, wherever they could gain access. The result is an unfiltered and unflinching glimpse into how quickly the coronavirus overwhelmed the healthcare system there and how swiftly China’s communist government mobilized to control the narrative around the pandemic. Between the footage from inside Wuhan hospitals is Chinese national media coverage reporting the same government-approved messages across the country, minimizing the threat and reinforcing the regime’s positive handling of the situation. As chilling as it is to see the same words broadcast by newscaster after newscaster, their scripted reports only what the government wants their citizens to hear, it’s impossible to wholeheartedly indict China’s response with the hindsight of the U.S.’s own failings all too evident as well. And Wang deftly builds this bridge between cultures, too, chronicling the virus’s trajectory into the U.S. and the early minimization by both the inept and uniformed and by trusted sources like Anthony Fauci himself.
Investigating the pandemic’s spread leads Wang down unexpected paths, meeting a variety of citizens confronting the virus with everything from dismay and frustration to, at least on camera, patriotic acceptance and deference. From the father who says goodbye to his son on a ventilator in the hospital to the private health clinic owner whose husband and partner passed away in the early days of the pandemic to the grown son who has to figure out how to bury his mother only to hear the grave diggers discuss the true daily death toll, Wang distills a global tragedy to the very human, very relatable stories of those impacted directly. It all adds up to a devastating reminder—particularly in a late sequence that captures what could have been —not only of what we’ve lost over the course of the year, but how preventable it all really was in the end. A lot of what’s to come in documentaries in 2021 will be looking back on what we lost in 2020; In the Same Breath starts the conversation with sweeping scope, exceptional perspective and an inescapable reckoning with the truth. (Lisa Trifone)
If the worst thing one could say about CODA, filmmaker Sian Heder’s sophomore feature film about a hearing teenager in a deaf family, is that it employs a few too many clichés familiar to coming-of-age dramas, there is far more to praise, from the touching performances, the authenticity of the film’s emotions and themes and even the kicky, winsome soundtrack featuring everything from Marvin Gaye’s groovy “Let’s Get it On” to Joni Mitchell’s melancholy “Both Sides Now.” Every time the narrative risks tipping just a little too far into predictability (yes, we can see most of the plot developments coming around the corner from miles away), it’s saved from falling flat by the vulnerability of its cast and their willingness to explore every corner of their shared emotional journey along the way.
Ruby (Emilia Jones) is the only hearing member of the Rossi family (a CODA, the child of deaf adults), a blue-collar foursome that makes their living fishing in the New England waters off Massachusetts; Ruby often joins her dad Frank (Troy Kostur) and older brother Leo (Daniel Durant) on their boat for the long workdays bringing in a daily haul while mom Jackie (Marlee Matlin) manages the books and brings the family together for dinner each night. Though they are incredibly sufficient and independent, Ruby’s nevertheless lived her life as the family’s connection to the hearing world, interpreting at the docks, making voice phone calls, and generally stepping up anytime they need her. With a new school year starting (and a cute boy in the form of Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Sing Street) on her radar), Ruby takes the first of many steps out on her own by joining the school choir, led by the charismatic Mr. V (Eugenio Derbez). She’s a hugely talented singer, and Mr. V convinces her to start working toward an audition to the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston, a future she never in her wildest dreams imagined for herself.
CODA hits many, if not all, of the expected narrative beats, from the conflict with Big Fishing at the docs to Ruby’s budding romance with Miles, but it arrives at each of them with good intentions and a sense of fun. Kostur and Matlin are sublime as parents who are still cool (and hot for each other!) in middle age, even if their teenage daughter is mortified by their very existence; their relationship with each other sets the tone for a family environment that, even with its hiccups and shortcomings, is warm and welcoming. This acute attention to detail in the various relationships within the film extends to all of Ruby’s interactions; her connection to Miles is distinct and different from to connection to Mr. V or to Leo, but they are all well-defined and essential to understanding our protagonist better. Even as we know where this story goes—Ruby finding her voice, both metaphorically and literally—we’re fully on board for the journey with this charming cast for the sweet resolutions.
Heder’s film is actually a remake of a 2014 French film, La Famille Bélier, that curiously never received a release in the United States. Regardless of how CODA compares to that version, it’s never a bad thing when a film as endearing as this one, featuring memorable performances, valuable lessons and heartwarming relationships, finds its way into the world. (Lisa Trifone)