Category Archives: Sundance Film Festival 2021

Pleasure (Ninja Thyberg, 2021): Sweden/Netherlands/France

Posted by Larry Gleeson

This was one of the most interesting, difficult to watch films, I’ve had the pleasure of viewing (pun intended – not sorry). Writer/Director Ninja Thyberg nails the opening after the intro titles as the film’s lead character, Bella Cherry, portrayed by Sofia Kappel, is questioned at immigration as to whether she is in the United States for work or pleasure and she demurely coos, “Pleasure,” with a devil-may-care hint of what’s to come.

Unfortunately, after the brief porn-style opening, the narrative got real. Bella has trouble finding a job and eventually shows up to do an adult film audition. She’s nineteen years old, attractive, with beautiful blonde hair, and is looking for some good times. What transpires is the making of an adult film scene. It’s reflexive filmmaking aka we are aware of a film scene about making a film scene. The camera operator is crude and vulgar as he draws the silent ire of Bella. The male character continues the domineering behavior and Bella is trying her best to perform fellatio yet is quite awkward. She’s paid $900 for the day’s work.

From this first sex scene, Bella begins navigating the world of adult film. Although she doesn’t appear comfortable most of the time, she makes friends. Her Swedish mother calls telling her not to give up, stay the course and become successful. There is some miscommunication as Bella is not working in a dentist’s office. Far from it. As the narrative bends into very raw and brutal sex scenes, Bella comes to the realization the adult film industry is about business and comes to the realization that the adult film “stars” are not as whole and authentic as the B-movie actresses that Bella broke in with.

At times maybe Pleasure is a little cliche with its Porn Party where all the stars and industry actors come together at a mansion with a swimming pool and a stunning and expansive view of the surrounding suburban/urban area. Still, Pleasure hits the mark. Though Bella is new to the game she brings her own game. She learns to warm up to the more seasoned girls with her boldness and affinity for their affirmations while relying on her instincts to navigate her experiences with the male-dominated sets, predatory managers, and backbiting competitors.

Moreover, Pleasure uses its explicit portrayal to expose rather than titillate, offering a highly realistic feel for a no-holds-barred worker’s-eye view of the industry. Leading a cast mined from the adult entertainment world, first-time actress Kappel embodies a character who is constantly renegotiating, and re-crafting who she is from the fresh-faced newcomer to the fetish boundary-challenging performer to the ascending industry queen as she expresses herself wholeheartedly and unequivocally to the fullest. It is quite a performance. A must-see!

Pleasure screened in the Midnight Section and honestly, I wasn’t expecting Thyberg’s hardcore approach to illuminating an industry often not thought very highly of and not given much attention. The closest film I’ve seen that delves below the superficial surface of the adult film industry was the 1997 Paul Thomas Anderson helmed Boogie Nights. Pleasure goes deeper and is not a suitable film for an audience under the age of 18. With a runtime of 100 minutes, Pleasure is highly revealing and highly recommended.

*Contains graphic sexual content and sexual violence. Not suitable for audiences under 18.

 

 

Wild Indian

Posted by Larry Gleeson

After viewing Smoke Signals, the Audience Award and Filmmakers Trophy winner at the 1988 Sundance Film Festival, and the first feature film written, directed, and produced by Native Americans, I had an overwhelming desire to see more Indigenous filmmaking. Sundance Film Festival was organized around the guiding principle of giving Native American voices a platform. The 2021 Sundance Film Festival premiered a total of four Indigenous films, three short-form films, and one feature-length film, Wild Indian from Lyle Mitchell Corbine, Jr., (a member of the Northern Wisconsin Bad River Tribe of Lake Superior Chippewa).

Wild Indian opens with a metaphorical scene from possibly the 18th century depicting a Native-American in the woods shooting another Native-American in the distance. In a preceding scene, it is quickly revealed that Makwa, a young Anishinaabe boy, has a rough life. He’s bullied at school and doesn’t get along well at home with his young parents. He often appears with bruises he says he got falling down, but no one believes him.

As he is being questioned in the school’s administrative office a majestic piece of cinematography provides foreshadowing. Makwa has only one friend, Ted-O. Makwa and Ted-O like to escape by playing in the woods, until the day Makwa shockingly murders a schoolmate. After covering up the crime, Makwa runs away and the two boys go on to live very different lives.

Now, as adult men, they must face the truth of what they have done and what they have become. In what feels like going through a time and space continuum, Corbine takes the narrative to California where we are introduced to Michael, a senior-level corporate executive with authority over a Jesse Eisenberg character. In addition, Michael has a stylish home and a beautiful wife. With a strong and compelling visual style that evokes both fascination and dread, it quickly becomes clear Michael, portrayed by Michael Greyeyes,  has done terrible, unforgivable things.

Displaying sadomasochist tendencies, Michael is struggling to hold it all together. Meanwhile, a hard-looking adult Ted-O is being released from prison. Ted-O returns to the reservation, camping in the woods and making amends to the murdered boy’s mother with the truth of what happened to her son the day Makwa murdered him. Despite making his amends, Ted-O still suffers inner conflict and decides he must track down Makwa and complete the cycle of justice.

Unfortunately for Ted-O, Michael gains the upper hand and kills Ted-O to continue his life in California while covering up any links to the past. Michael still has to face the presiding District Attorney with jurisdiction over the reservation and the accusation from the murdered boy’s mother, Mrs. Wolf. In a diabolical manner, Michael manages to clear himself.

Wild Indian is a compelling look into the state of Native American life. And, Michael Greyeyes delivers a gripping, enigmatic performance as a modern Native American with a dark past. In addition, Kate Bosworth portrays Michael’s wife in California, with considerable depth and nuance. Jesse Eisenberg delivers a strong supporting performance and is credited as Executive Producer as well. Wild Indian was writer/director Corbine’s feature debut and is sure to become a touchstone in modern Indigenous cinema. Highly recommended.

Ma Belle, Ma Beauty

Posted by Larry Gleeson

Ma Belle, Ma Beauty, winner of the NEXT (the NEXT program provides a showcase for what the festival calls “Pure, bold works distinguished by an innovative, forward-thinking approach to story-telling.”) Audience Award, presented by Adobe at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, follows Bertie (Idella Johnson), Lane (Hannah Pepper), and Fred (Lucien Guignard) who had all three once shared a balanced, functional, polyamorous relationship in New Orleans. At its core, Ma Belle, Ma Beauty, is simply a complicated love story between Bertie and Lane. But it is also much more than that. The film’s director, Marion Hill, is a New Orleans-based director with roots in Vietnam, England, and France, and is known for her direction of the camera in the nuances of femme power, queer sensibilities, and radical sensuality across cultures. In her debut feature, Ma Belle, Ma Beauty, Hill touches eloquently on each aspect with respect and openness.

The mise-en-scene was scrumptious with some help from its employment of Hollywood-esque focusing and resultant eye-pleasing bokeh. The New Orleans-led, acoustic guitar soundtrack helped create tone while providing a much-needed respite from the COVID blues. In addition, a cast of beautiful actors giving powerful and intense performances amped up the narrative. In juxtaposition to the acting and music, and as equally important to the film’s narrative, was the on-location filming of open-air village markets, pristine waterways, and a country estate in the south of France providing a serenely magical quality to the film’s ethereal tone.

Ma Belle, Ma Beauty, opens with Bertie, who married Fred and settled into Fred’s hometown, in southern France continuing to pursue her singing despite, or in spite of, a nagging depression. Soon, however, Lane—their quirky ex who disappeared from their three-way relationship years ago shows up unexpectedly for a surprise visit, bringing new energy and some emotional baggage of her own. As the tensions of unresolved disputes, misaligned intentions, and jealousy surface, the sexual dynamics skyrocket when a lovely painter, Noa (Sivan Noam Shimon), fresh out of her service commitment to the Israeli Army, inserts herself into the mix. And, when the group of friends, including some attractive locals, venture down to the river for frolicking in the sun, Bertie begins experiencing feelings of liberation and the vague yet persistent reawakening of her past sexuality.

Posited as “an interracial, polyamorous, relationship-driven dive into the complexities of sexual fluidity and triangulation” with a promise to deliver a respite from the COVID blues, I felt Hill succeeded triumphantly. Having lived and worked in New Orleans in the immediate aftermath and reconstruction following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, my interest was piqued upon seeing where the director hailed from. In her “Meet the Artist” introductory video, Hill explained that the film was made with a lot of love as a small group of friends and collaborators from many different places came together in France to make the film.  And that all of the post-production and music, which features over twenty New Orleans musicians, was done in New Orleans.

In closing, Ma Belle, Ma Beauty was recently added to the upcoming SXSW (formerly known as South by Southwest) Film Festival slated to run March 16-20, 2021, as a Festival Favorite from acclaimed standouts and selected premieres from around the world. Ma Belle, Ma Beauty is a beautifully constructed film with exquisite mise-en-scene, gorgeous soundtrack, heady acting, and delightful direction. Highly recommended.

Ma Belle, Ma Beauty

 

 

Judas and The Black Messiah

Posted by Larry Gleeson

Judas and The Black Messiah, recipient of the recently awarded, American Film Institute’s Movie of the Year, made its World Premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival with fanfare. A late, Warner Brothers production, addition to the Premiere category starring Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield, Judas and The Black Messiah was a richly told story of the leadership, revolutionary activism, and eventual assassination of Black Panther Fred Hampton, and powerful addition to the social revolution films of the 1960s and early 1970s.

With the film set in 1968, social unrest in the United States was at the highest it had been in close to 50 years. The New Left was emerging. The Anti-War Movement was underway. Fears and threats of Communism were still present. And Chicago was hosting the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy had been recently assassinated and as the Black Community looking for new leadership, the Chicago Chapter of the Black Panthers and its chairman, Fred Hampton, saw an opportunity to fill a void and unite the disenfranchised.

All eyes were on Chicago, as the United States continued to deal with the issues at home and abroad. J. Edgar Hoover, the founder and first director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation had turned the organization into a menacing, crime-fighting apparatus.  Richard Nixon was elected as the 37th President of the United States under the promise of law and order. Hoover and his FBI saw Hampton as a radical “Black Messiah” threat and managed to compromise a young black male, William O’Neal, portrayed by Stanfield, to infiltrate the Black Panthers and keep tabs on Fred Hampton and the Chicago Chapter. Hampton, portrayed to a tee by Kaluuya, was young, impressionable, and highly charismatic. He rose up in the ranks of the Black Panthers and rallied the New Left, the Anti-War Movement, and the young Communists with his war cry, “I am… a Revolutionary.”

Judas and The Black Messiah, directed by Shaka King, with a cast, led by Kaluuya and Stanfield, and supported by a strong performance from Dominique Fishback portraying Hampton’s life partner, Deborah Johnson, is exceptional as the production design, costuming, makeup and wardrobe move the film into a period piece. And, the writing pulls heavily from historical texts with Black Panther phrases such as “War is politics with blood. Politics is war without blood.” King also manages to pose questions about how to make progress as his characters address the concepts of reform and revolution.  While the film is set in 1968-69, these issues are still prevalent today.

Judas and The Black Messiah, an historical drama on par with Gore Vidal’s Lincoln, is an emotionally moving, and at times, riveting film. Seeing history brought to life in a viscerally real and emphatic manner, made the work very compelling to me. Fred Hampton was killed at the age of 21 on December 4th, 1969. The aggrieved parties would wait well over a decade for justice with a civil suit settlement of $1.85 million in 1982 after an initial coroner’s jury inquest in January of 1970 found Fred Hampton’s death justifiable homicide. Watch at your own peril.

 

 

 

LaKeith Stanfield, left, and Shaka King in Judas and the Black Messiah (Warner Brothers 2021)

 

(Warner Brothers 2021)

CODA

Posted by Larry Gleeson

CODA (Children of Deaf Adults) despite being somewhat formulaic pushed all the buttons – strong writing, superb acting, and solid production design. Imagine being the only family member who can hear and speak! Basically, that’s where our film’s lead actress finds herself. Actress Emilia Jones portrays seventeen-year-old, Ruby Rossi, a Peppermint Patty, and semi-typical teen in that she goes to high school, has a teenage crush, and feels awkward socially in her hometown of Gloucester, Massachusetts.

What’s not typical is that she engages in a commercial fishing operation with her family before school, signs to communicate with and for her father (Tony Kotsur), mother (Marlee Matlin), and brother (Daniel Durant), haggles with the local fishmonger and sings with a voice most nightingales would be envious of. Despite, all of this, the Director and Writer of CODA, Sian Heder, manages to thread the needle as most of the time it’s wholly plausible that this person is living this life.

CODA so pleased audiences at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, it walked away with more awards than any film in recent Sundance history. Most notably it took home both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award for best drama. In addition, Apple TV splashed a record-smashing $25 million for the film rights. Until the last few years, no film had reached the $10 million mark. So don’t expect to see CODA out at any local film festivals.

At its most basic essence, CODA is heartwarming, endearing, and full of characters embodied by actors who truly understand the concept of emoting. In my opinion, next to Oscar-winner, Marlee Matlin (Children of a Lesser God), Mexican actor/writer/director/producer, Eugenio Derbez, stands out as he delivers more than one show-stealing moment with his dead-pan presence and energetic delivery. Emilia Jones’s performance is exceptional as her character Rubi’s struggle is self-evident onscreen. Rubi is conflicted with going her own way or continuing to support her family. The issue comes to the forefront when she joins the school’s choir and finds herself attracted to her duet partner and her latent singing ability draws the attention of her tough-love choirmaster, portrayed by Derbez.

As the conflict mounts, Rubi learns to stand in her truth and Director Heder allows the audience to witness and experience the world from the deaf person’s perspective. But wait! There’s more. Heder illuminates the family in a subtle manner with the prime focus on Rubi. Despite their handicap of being deaf, they all engage in what is considered normal activities. There’s sibling rivalry, budding relationship angst, concerns about making a living and supporting a family. And, there’s some hilarious comic relief in the parents’ expressive love for one another.

Normally, I’m not so drawn to a dramedy. Yet, CODA, while predictable at times, pivoted at critical moments creating a most compelling narrative with its expressive, heartfelt acting, its naturalistic, on-location filming, and its strong writing. Not sure when CODA will be available for public viewing. But, I can definitely say. CODA is worth the price of admission. Highly recommended!

While we wait for the film’s release check out the Meet the Artist: Sian Heder on Coda video. You’ll be glad you did!

Baz Poonpiriya’s “One For the Road” Will Leave You Wanting More

Posted by Larry Gleeson

When I viewed One For the Road, recipient of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award: Creative Vision, and directed by Baz Poonpiriya (the first Thai director to feature in Sundance’s World Cinema Dramatic Competition), my mind wandered as I became aware of a thought, “This film reminds me of Wong Kar Wai’s work, In the Mood for Love.” The film had a wonderful soundtrack with some Cat Stevens music along with several mainstream hits, a strong production design, and a lovely mise-en-scene with exquisite cinematography and a touch of colorization. One For the Road follows a young Thai man, who is dying from cancer and has decided to make his final amends by delivering a parting gift to those closest to him on the earthly plane. The narrative structure is non-linear as the director uses flashbacks to inform the viewer and add depth of meaning to the present.

Unfortunately for the film’s lead character, Aood, portrayed by Ice Natara, the only Thai runway model in South Korea, he doesn’t drive and doesn’t own a car. So, he calls on his best friend, Boss, portrayed by actor/singer/model Tor Thanapob, to drive him across Thailand beginning in the north and traversing the length of the country down to the south in order to bring closure with the people from Aood’s past. Only, Boss owns a bar in New York where he seems to be living the dream with an endless lineup of beautiful women that he entertains after hours.

Boss and his family had supported Aood over the years and the two were as close as two blood brothers until a falling out left them estranged. But when Aood tells Boss he is sick and needs Boss’s help to complete a final “to do” list, Boss comes to help. As the two rekindle their friendship,  Boss puts up with Aood’s idiosyncrasies and his overt intrusions into people’s lives with his parting gifts. Yet, when Aood tries to give Boss a gift, truths are revealed threatening their friendship while simultaneously offering an opportune moment for redemption.

One for the Road is full of nostalgia as multiple genres come together including romance, buddy film, as well as sex-positive melodrama. It’s very visual, very visceral, and one I was sad to see it end after 136 minutes. But end it did and as the credits began to roll, there it was – a title revealing “Produced by Wong Kar Wai” – “… a filmmaker who specializes in making the evanescent tangible, in capturing fleeting emotions in a style that is always poetic, often ravishing and, despite his films’ surface-level dreaminess, unerringly precise.” (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/26/movies/Wong-Kar-wai-romance-films.html) I’m a huge fan of Mr. Wong’s work so all I could do in that moment was sit and smile. What a wonderful gift. (Wong and Baz worked together on One For The Road for three years.)

Director Baz Poonpiriya, a strong storyteller who has come into his own, had previously helmed Bad Genius the 2017 Thai box-office smashing and the record-breaking winner of twelve categories at the 27th Suphannahong National Film Awards (the Thai Oscars), before embarking on One For The Road with Wong. If you’re a fan of Wong, this is a film you don’t want to miss. And, if you’re a fan of Thai film (Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s 2010 Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives turned me on to Thai film), it’s a must-see! Lastly, if you simply enjoy exquisitely told films, I highly recommend you see Baz Poonpiriya’s One For The Road!

 

“Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir” Enthralls Pleasantly

HollywoodGlee inside the Sundance Film Festival Headquarters at the Park City Marriott on January 23, 2019, in Park City, Utah, the day before the opening of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. (Photo credit: Larry Gleeson/HollywoodGlee)

Posted by Larry Gleeson

The most pleasant surprise of my 2021 Sundance Film Festival screenings goes to Jamie Redford’s Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir. I was deeply saddened upon hearing Redford passed away before the film’s screening. Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir was produced by Karen Pritzker and is a PBS American Masters Picture Production. Tan is most recognized for her Joy Luck Club work. The 1993 film, directed by Wayne Wang, spoke volumes to what was lost between generations illuminated through the onscreen conflict between Chinese-American daughters and their immigrant mothers. The film was based on Tan’s 1989 novel, The Joy Luck Club. To date, Tan has written two widely acclaimed novels, the aforementioned Joy Luck Club and the 1991 The Bonesetter’s Daughter, based on Tan’s own relationship with her mother and the stories of her grandmother. In addition, Tan has written and published two children’s books, six fiction novels, a few short stories, and several non-fiction books including The Opposite of Fate: A Book of Musings (2003) and the 2017 Where The Past Begins: A Writer’s Memoir.

It’s one thing for me to simply reflect and write about Tan’s body of work. It’s entirely another issue for me to delve into Redford’s approach. Utilizing traditional documentary techniques of voice-over narration (in this case Tan’s), archival footage and photos, film clips, direct interviews, personal testimony, and the more recent animation technique, Redford reveals a writer’s life in all its fullness and in all its complexities. As consumers, we all often believe writers simply write and occasionally have to deal with the infamous and godforsaken “writer’s block.”

Furthermore, Tan’s openness in sharing her family’s history, especially the women’s side of it, her own personal process, and professional writing history, allowed Redford to provide a very intimate look into Tan’s impressive body of work and into her psyche. For example, Amy Tan began her career as a technical writer and she found it paid well yet unfulfilling from a humanistic viewpoint. So, in her pursuit of some sort of self-actualization, she became a fiction writer as she felt fiction would actually allow for a more expansive expression of the truth. I suspect, other than her mother, that anyone would have guessed the impact her writing The Joy Luck Club would have on her life, and on audiences here in America and around the world. It was a bonafide game-changer.

I found Redford’s work, Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir, inspiring and heartwarming. On a deeper personal level, I felt I understood how Tan had become one of our most beloved contemporary authors – she learned to listen! Simultaneously, I identified with Tan’s immense intellectual curiosity and her overwhelming desire to express her world experience. Facing racism, misogyny, and intergenerational conflict of growing up in a new world separate and distinct from her mother’s she managed to also write for truth. I was so enthralled after watching Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir, I ordered and purchased two of her books. Currently, Tan has embarked on painting artistry from her home base in the Bay Area of San Francisco, California. Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir, a fascinating portrait of a deeply beloved and deeply poetic American author. Highly recommended!

Until next time. I look forward to seeing you at the movies…

Rainbow Portal at Cabrillo Ballpark in Santa Barbara, Calif.

 

 

 

JOCKEY races through Sundance and into the arms of Sony Pictures

Posted by Larry Gleeson

Larry Gleeson at Churchill Downs Racetrack in Louisville, Kentucky.

Being a horseracing (often referred to as the “sport of kings”) fan, I felt compelled to see the premiere of 2021 Sundance Film Festival Dramatic Competition selection, Jockey, directed by Clint Bentley. And man, am I glad I did! Without much to go on besides the title, I settled in for what I imagined would be a similar storyline to one of my favorite horseracing films, Seabiscuit. 

Jockey centers around Jackson Silva, a successful, well-known racehorse rider (a jockey) seeking a final championship to end his rather illustrious career. Silva is portrayed by the chameleon-like, veteran actor Clifton Collins, Jr., (The Last Castle, Capote, Star Trek). And much like Seabiscuit’s jockey, Red Pollard, portrayed by Tobey Maguire, the often unseen human elements of jockeying are on full display in Jockey.

In Jockey (and a major issue for Red Pollard in Seabiscuit as well) Silva’s need for an optimal weight of 134 pounds and the challenges inherent in getting the targeted weight has serious complications. Over the years his loss of bone mass has decreased the protection for his skeletal structure and the exacerbated effects from the lack of caloric intake on his physical and mental energies are becoming more evident. The lack of skeletal protection comes to the forefront for an aging Jackson Silva as he already has suffered greatly with three broken back incidents from falls and is experiencing issues with his riding form from the early onset of ALS, a rapidly progressing neuromuscular disease affecting the limbs causing increasing weakness and muscle wasting.

Jockey’s storyline doesn’t sugarcoat and Bentley doesn’t whitewash the struggles of being a jockey, let alone a famous jockey like Jackson Silva on the horseracing circuit. With a stellar, nuanced performance from extremely talented Canadian Molly Parker as stable owner Ruth Wilkes, the narrative dives deeper into visceral emotionality and vulnerability as the male/female dynamic provides for a broader gamut of feelings between the characters. One of the film’s great lines comes from Wilkes addressing her concern for Silva’s insistent need to keep riding, “the critical difference between a racehorse and a jockey is a horse doesn’t know when to quit.” The appearance of Moises Arias’s character, Gabrielles Boullait, adds another dimension to the film’s humanity as Gabriel wants to be a jockey just like “his father” Jackson Silva. Silva takes the young man under his tutelage and begins training Gabriel in earnest.

I was pleasantly surprised with Jockey’s narrative as it did entwine some of the Seabiscuit narratives of the hardships of jockeying while also including seedier elements of what goes on when the race is over depicted in David Milch’s short-lived (10 episodes,) Dustin Hoffman led HBO series, Luck. Much of jockey was shot on location at the Surf Paradise Racetrack in Phoenix, Arizona. In my opinion, what separated Jockey from Seabiscuit is the depth Bentley gets from the actors and the writing is excellent. Bentley shares a writing credit with Greg Kwedar, whose self-claimed mission is to tell stories of human connection in difficult places. Mission accomplished as Jockey orbits around a series of multi-faceted relationships with some profound emotional depths. And what separated Jockey from Luck is the intimate focus on the jockey and less focus on stable shenanigans. Very highly recommended viewing!

Sony Pictures Classics announced the night before the premiere that they acquired all worldwide rights to the film, JOCKEY.