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Sundance 2021: Capsule Reviews

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For the next seven days, we'll be providing running coverage of the feature programming at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. This list will be updated several times daily with new titles, with newest capsule reviews at the top of the queue. Let the viewing begin!

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Judas and the Black Messiah ***1/2 [Premieres]
When a film displays the Official Great-Man Biopic Seal (real-life footage over the credits), my reflex is to distrust it as hagiography. But if the film portrays the person’s warts—real ones, not “warts” we’ve transvalued—and integrates them into the drama, I trust it. Judas and the Black Messiah does both and is a ripping entertainment to boot, a flip side to Spike Lee’s FBI infiltration film BlacKkKlansman. There, the KKK was targeted; here, it’s the Black Panthers, especially Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), its Chicago chairman betrayed by petty-criminal-turned-plant William O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield). The title and the clear analogy might seem a little excessive even to Panther acolytes, but the film transcends that by not whitewashing the Panthers as iHop with fatigues. The fiery scene of Hampton delivering his signature “I am a Revolutionary” speech includes its explicit exhortation to kill every cop for “total satisfaction.” Relatedly, Black Panther Jake Winters is shown murdering a cop in cold blood before being killed himself. Winters’ mother gets a scene, but a real crime is there. In the speech scene itself, looks get exchanged in the crowd between O’Neal and his white FBI handler (Jesse Plemons). Stanfield’s face and body stay in infiltrator’s approving character, suggesting he’s really swept up too, yet careful not to get too swept up as the FBI watches. All at the same time. (Victor J. Morton)

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The World to Come *** [Premieres]
The Nicene Creed closes with “[I believe in] … the life of the world to come,” which is what gives The World to Come its spine-tingling, seal-the-deal coda. In 1850s rural New York, before universal leisure and when marriage was more an economic partnership than a love match, Abigail (Katherine Waterston) and Tallie (Vanessa Kirby) are Tolstoyishly unhappy in their own ways. You’d have to be pretty dense not to sense where this is going once Tallie shows up at Abigail’s childless home. I didn’t quite feel “astonishment and joy, astonishment and joy, astonishment and joy” at The World to Come but, a couple of epistolary implausibilities aside, it is rather good, and does enough to not become a faddish period-lesbian gimmick even though it’s at least the fifth such major-festival film in three years after Portrait of a Lady on Fire, The Favourite, Colette and Ammonite). The necessary background of repression and/or sexual dissatisfaction grows from necessity and tragedy, not prudery. More importantly, there is the ubiquitous and rather literary voice-over from Abigail's journal, which may turn off some. But it serves an essential function as a hidden space for inner feelings that the public dramatic space denies. Thus the final scene, an expression of (quasi-) religious faith after the inevitable tragedy in this vale of tears, is earned. (VJM)

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The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet ***1/2
Alfred Hitchcock said he couldn’t work with Ingrid Bergman after the late-1940s because she only wanted grand roles like Joan of Arc rather than starring, in his words, “in a big picture about a little person. Here is a big picture about a little person. In no way is this black-and-white gem even remotely Hitchcockian, though. It’s a years-long character study with a gentle tone and slack narrative centering on an Argentine everyman named Sebastian (Daniel Katz). Sister director Ana Katz and co-writer Gonzalo Delgado segment the film into about 10 or 12 fairly discrete vignettes—“Complaining Neighbors,” “Vegetable Truck,” “Mom’s Wedding,” etc. At least two (my titles would be “Human Resources Meeting” and “The Epidemic”) are brilliantly absurdist comedy. The two HR flacks tell Sebastian he cannot bring his dog to work, and fire him without ever doing so. And in the latter scene, you have to stay below four feet of altitude (i.e., be a baby or walk on your haunches) or wear an astronaut-like transparent helmet. What makes the movie big, while also being a delicate wisp of a 75-minute film, is a rarely-treated subject matter central to our times—and I don’t mean the epidemic. Rather, it’s a coming-of-age story in which the central character is already an adult at the start. (VJM)

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Mayday **1/2 [U.S. Documentary]
Writer/director Karen Cinorre certainly does something unique with the cultural antecedents she’s drawing from, but the potency of the result will definitely be a “your mileage may vary” scenario. A catering worker named Ana (Grace Van Patten) finds herself transported from a traumatic day at her job to a strange coastline, where a young woman named Marsha (Mia Goth) is leading an army of other women in an unexplained war. The structural bones here come straight out of The Wizard of Oz—it’s even a dangerous storm that precipitates Ana’s experience—though Greek siren mythology makes more than a cameo appearance. And it’s clear that Cinorre is using an allegorical framework to explore the many ways women can choose to respond to abuse at the hands of men—from suicide, to homicide, to attempting to find some measure of peace. The journey, unfortunately, doesn’t take too many compelling narrative turns, leaving something that often feels like it’s repeating the same idea. Cinorre crafts more than a few beautiful images and flights of fancy, and gets great work out of her cast touching on different notions of female empowerment. There are simply moments when it feels like the “no place like home” part could have come half an hour earlier. (Scott Renshaw)

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Prisoners of the Ghostland ** [Midnight]
You’d think it would be easy to wrangle some excitement out of a movie that includes samurai swordfights, toxic waste zombie-ghosts, spaghetti western shootouts and Nicolas Cage in black leather screaming about his “TESTICLE!” Sadly, you would be mistaken. Director Sion Sono’s hyperactive but underbaked mash-up casts Cage as a convicted criminal referred to only as Hero, forced by a town’s all-controlling Governor (Bill Moseley) to retrieve his “granddaughter” Bernice (Sofia Boutella) from … some sort of post-nuclear wasteland place full of scaffolding? None of the pieces add up to anything, as the screenplay pretends occasionally that there’s a redemption arc for Cage’s conscience-ridden criminal. But the problem is that this is like seven different hyperactive genre movies packed into 105 minutes, one that can’t decide whether the climax is going to be a gun battle, or a clash of katanas, or the post-nuclear scaffolding tumbling to the ground. Sure, there are occasional bits of energy when Cage is allowed to be manic rather than sleepy, or when Sono commits his visual imagination to images like a bank robbery showered with primary-colored gumballs. At a certain point, though, you kind of need to settle on your movie being about samurai swordfights. Or toxic waste zombie-ghosts. Or that whole “TESTICLE!”-screaming thing. (Scott Renshaw)

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Pleasure *** [World Dramatic]
Even if you’ve seen this particular plot structure before—and odds are you probably have, more than once—there’s still some anthropological fascination for those who have a strong stomach. Co-writer/director Ninja Thyberg expands her 2013 short by telling the story of Bella Cherry (newcomer Sofia Kappel), a Swedish immigrant to Los Angeles with dreams of breaking into the porn industry. The narrative arc is straight out of a hundred “naïf has show-biz aspirations” tales from All About Eve on up, where the only question is how much of her/his soul the protagonist is willing to sell to get ahead. That’s exactly what’s happening here, except that Thyberg is so dedicated to exploring the minutia of the adult-film world—every on-set safe word, every choreographed placement of body parts, even the behind-the-scenes world of “model houses” and agents. Kappel is terrific at capturing every turn in Bella’s journey from anxiety to enthusiasm to degradation, which is important when nearly every plot point and relationship schism can be anticipated. You’ve got to know the uncensored material you’re in for, but there’s something to a movie that can take porn and explore the mundanities behind Bella’s observation that “every job has its bad days.” (SR)

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First Date **1/2 [NEXT]
The writer/director team of Manuel Crosby and Darren Knapp are working within a long, storied tradition of “innocent person gets caught up in criminal craziness,” and come this close to making it all work. It’s the story of Mike (Tyson Brown), a hapless teen who finally asks out Kelsey (Shelby Duclos), the neighbor girl he’s been mooning over from afar. He just needs a car to seal the deal—but unfortunately, the junker he buys to squire Kelsey around in has some unexpected cargo left inside. Thus commences a manic night of Mike crossing paths with sheriff’s deputies, drug dealers a nostalgic older couple and more, with Brown serving as an appealing enough protagonist. Unfortunately, his appeal doesn’t include a strong personality to anchor what should be an arc about this experience pulling him out of his status as perpetual pushover. And despite a few enjoyably quirky touches—like the criminals arguing over whether Of Mice and Men is a short story or a novella—a lot of the material feels forced, including a shootout scene that feels like it lasts half of the movie. It’s simply a bit too clunky to feel like it has some unique take on what is otherwise a reminder of better examples within that long, storied tradition. (SR)

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Life in a Day 2020 **1/2 [Premieres]
I was a fan of the Kevin MacDonald’s 2011 Life in a Day, but 10 years ago the premise—a worldwide crowd-sourced YouTube documentary of thematically-linked footage taken “that day”—was fresh and vital, or maybe it seemed fresher and more vital than it is. By July 25, 2020, the bloom was off the social-media rose, epidemic or no epidemic. The 10-year interval has added the element of self-consciousness to the overall filmmakers, and especially the individual filmmakers, which makes the new film feel less joyful and innocent. For example, we see one person, interspersed throughout, visiting seven particular railroads for some challenge. He’s trying too hard. MacDonald feels obliged to include people’s politicking, some of which all will find irksome. Mind you, I’m speaking of the film in aggregate, not every segment; some of them are very good, like the parrot flight or the “wanna go for a ride” montage. Others even last long enough to develop character moments: the German guy whose girl rejects his proposal; the Asian woman who proposes a breakup; the American who names the spiders in his home. And one juxtaposition is simply unforgettable—two women show their sons appearing in the first film, with very different updates. There’s obviously enough good stuff that I can’t say Life in a Day 2020 is bad. It’s just unnecessary. (Victor J. Morton)

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All Light, Everywhere ***1/2 [U.S. Documentary]
It’s not exactly a revolutionary notion to note that perception is subjective, but Theo Anthony’s documentary essay applies that idea to the suggestion that photographic perception is somehow more reliable than what we see with our eyes. The subject matter is heavily skewed towards surveillance as applied to law enforcement, including behind-the-scenes visits to the company that makes most of America’s police body-cams, and a training session for use of those cameras at the Baltimore Police Department. But along the way Anthony also digs into the earliest history of photography as an attempt to understand the world—ranging from astronomy to eugenics—in a way that makes it clear how the human behind the camera shapes conclusions, and a curious connection between weapons and filming technological advances that makes “shooting” a picture feel more than metaphorical. It’s a wide-ranging exercise, one that pointedly refer to the things that a filmmaker chose to remove from the film. But it’s also one that finds unique ways to probe the idea that “cameras change behavior”—both for those in front of the cameras and those behind them—and that it’s never wise to operate under the assumption that “truth” is any more definitive just because you see it in a movie. (SR)

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Eight for Silver *** [Midnight]
Horror fare doesn’t have to be “about” something, so it’s mostly not a problem that writer/director Sean Ellis only skirts around the edges of giving his period genre piece thematic teeth to match its blood-drenched fangs. After a prologue set during World War I’s Battle of the Somme, Ellis flashes back to 1880s England, where landowner Seamus Laurent (Alistair Petrie) oversees the execution of a band of Romani threatening his land rights. When mysterious happenings ensue—including the disappearance of Laurent’s young son and some grisly murders—pathologist John McBride (Boyd Holbrook) appears to assist with a case similar to one he experienced before. Ellis employs some fantastic directing choices, beginning with the way he shoots the slaughter at the Romani camp from a distance emphasizing Laurent thinking he can keep his hands clean. The monster stuff is also effectively gruesome, folding some terrifically unique body horror into his werewolf mythology. That’s only part of the folding in Ellis is engaged with, and it might feel overstuffed to mix lycanthropy with this particular brand of gypsy curse crossed with Biblical roots and finger-wagging at rapacious capitalists. The rushed finale might not pay off its other notions, but there’s quite enough gory fun along the way for a satisfying, simple creature feature. (SR)

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At the Ready ** [U.S. Documentary]
For the second straight year, a Sundance documentary stars Texas high-school students and politics. But while 2020’s Boys State was a suspenseful movie about a real spectrum of students, At the Ready is the exact opposite—the kind of overdetermined issue-advocacy documentary that Indiewood churns out by the mile and praises for effectively preaching to its choir. I was hoping that the premise—three Latino students at an El Paso school’s law-enforcement training program (Junior ROTC, more or less)—would yield something a bit thornier, or at least less teleological. The three prepare for a policing contest that never shapes up as sharply as the Boys State election did. But careerism (the Border Patrol pays well) gets overridden by the border-wall controversy and the Cruz-O’Rourke 2018 Senate race. Cristina’s Spanish-speaking father is even very much on board with border security, while acknowledging the difficulties his daughter would have in her community. Cesar’s father is barely present, deported to Juarez for drug trafficking, and family desires gnaw at the boy. The third student is a clear political radicalization—a transgender male referred to as Cassandra/Cassy throughout the film. Mason comes out in a short video during the credits, to the film’s (unavoidable) detriment. The filmmakers couldn’t ignore it, but it clearly happened too late in post-production for anything more than a superficial footnote. (VJM)

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Night of the Kings ** [World Dramatic]
At some point, it behooves critics to throw up their hands and honestly admit “I couldn’t make sense of this movie.” Consider me behooved. Not making sense of Night of the Kings doesn’t mean it’s Marienbad unintelligible or incoherent. It’s a Ivorian prison movie in which the new inmate suddenly gets named “Roman” (French for “novel”) by a dying King Bee named Blackbeard under strange ritual rules that require him to die under a red moon, as Roman keeps the inmates entertained with stories. But I neither emotionally connected to Night of the Kings on any level, nor got a sense of what it was trying for. The prison intrigue involves a governor who’s very hands-off (until suddenly not) and (maybe?) some parallels to the stories, to which inmates sometimes danced and mimed. Denis Lavant shows up and skulks around, often with a chicken. The Roman-Scheherezade comparison is obvious, but not one that redounds to the film’s credit. She was recounting Aladdin, Ali Baba and Sinbad. Roman improvises accounts of a famous criminal named the Zama King whose soul passed through several bodies over centuries. But only in the movie’s one fling into pure fantasy do his portrayed stories (literally) soar, and by the time one somehow involved the 2011 overthrow of the Ivorian president (?), I was emotionally elsewhere. (VJM)

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The Sparks Brothers ***1/2 [Premieres]
Two hours and fifteen minutes might seem like an epic length for a documentary about a band, but director Edgar Wright’s chronicle of the 50-year career of brothers Ron and Russell Mael—a.k.a. Sparks—does a great job of making it clear that they’ve earned it. From their childhood in 1950s California to their 1970s early popularity in England, 1980s MTV-era five minutes of fame and a bunch of subsequent re-inventions, Wright crafts a clearly affectionate story that’s as puckishly playful as his subjects. Historical re-creations are presented in a range of animation styles from hand-drawn to stop-motion; interview subjects are occasionally identified with on-screen captions like “Beck: See Above” and “Jason Schwartzman: Talia Shire’s Son.” But mostly, it’s a great big love letter to Sparks not just as influential pioneers in synth-based dance music, New Wave and more, but as resilient artists who traveled where their hearts led them rather than to the next likely paycheck. When the final act explores a crazy concept for a London concert residency in which they decide to perform all then-21 of their albums in their entirety, it plays out as something crazy yet entirely consistent with their work ethic. The Maels never once seem bitter or regretful about where their careers didn’t go; Wright honors them by appreciating where they did go. (SR)

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Wild Indian *** [U.S. Dramatic]
Raw pain percolates from every pore of Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr.’s feature, with such a ferocity that the storytelling shortcomings tend to drift into the background. In a 1980s-set prologue, teenage Ojibwe cousins Makwa (Phoenix Wilson and Ted-O (Julian Gopal) are involved in the murder of a classmate that they successfully cover up; 30 years later, Makwa has changed his name to Michael (Michael Greyeyes), with a wife (Kate Bosworth) and child, and a career as a successful businessman in California, while Ted-O (Twilight’s Chaske Spencer) has spent his life in and out of prison. The first act establishes the brutalizing home-life conditions that fill Makwa with such rage, which carries over unchecked into an adult life where he has managed to erase much of his past while that need to cause pain persists with the self-hatred built into his comment that “we’re the descendants of cowards.” The material focusing on modern-day Michael and his family life feels less authentic than that focused on Ted-O, as Spencer turns in a terrific, seething performance. Corbine’s script is less a scalpel than it is a blunt instrument, capturing the way violence passes from generation to generation, and the true mark of integrating into white society is whether you can get away with murder. (SR)

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Marvelous and the Black Hole **1/2 [Premieres]
There’s earnestness aplenty in writer/director Kate Tsang’s comedy-drama, but earnestness isn’t always enough to give a predictable plot dynamic a real emotional kick. Sammy (Miya Cech) is a teenager whose mourning over her mother has turned outward into vandalism and anger. While forced by her father (Leonardo Nam) to take a summer school class, Sammy meets Margot (Rhea Pearlman), a children’s magician, and becomes an at-first-reluctant student. The dynamic feels most reminiscent of The Karate Kid—teen in search of a replacement for an absent parent figure takes lessons from a lonely older mentor with family tragedy connected to a big historical event—but that’s no inherent problem considering how well that dynamic can work. The bigger problem is that Tsang doesn’t guide Cech towards a performance that really picks between rage and simple teenage petulance; it feels like a mistake to introduce slapstick comedic elements and fanciful animated marginalia if this is supposed to be about genuine grief. Pearlman and Cech have a few charming moments together, but on the way to exactly the climactic scene you should be able to predict at about the 15-minute mark, the movie never finds a psychological hook more profound than “well-intentioned diversion.” (SR)

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Passing ***1/2 [U.S. Dramatic]
They’re childhood friends who accidentally meet in Jazz Age New York, but only one recognizes the other … until she laughs. Now Irene (Tessa Thompson) remembers Clare (Ruth Negga), and we learn the two fair-skinned Black women—both pretending to be white at a posh hotel—are divided. Clare lives her whole life “passing,” and her white husband has an appalling pet name for her. Their day together (a flashback in the adapted novel) is a scene-of-the-year contender, and the rest of the movie isn’t bad either. Filmed in the squarish Academy ratio and black-and-white, the overlit white environments feel like a mixture of cream and bleach, while Harlem looks darker and feels lived-in, but also hemmed-in. By any standard, Passing is chilly, formal and fussy. The last shot is an overhead view of a snowy street that pans back and fades to white, and the minute you see a china teapot in one scene, you know it’s living its last seconds. But this is a movie about appearances and fragility, and not just in the context of race. Irene fears Clare is having an affair with her husband, and the couple quarrel about how much to tell their (dark-skinned) children about the racism of the wider world. Indeed, Passing reverses the easy polarity: It is not the passing Clare who is the more “uptight,” proper and dedicated to appearance. Until the last “teapot” shatters. (Victor J. Morton)

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Jockey *** [U.S. Dramatic]
Stop me if you’ve heard this before: aging athlete (Clifton Collins Jr.) prepares for one last hurrah, gets approached by a younger hotshot (Moises Arias) and becomes his mentor. The two alternatingly fall out and reconcile, there’s a secret about them in the past, a woman comes between them (Molly Parker as an owner) and the men compete in the Big Climactic Contest. You have? Jockey does absolutely nothing new, other than apply the sports-movie template to a context in which we might not have seen it before: low-level horse racing, concentrating on the jockeys. But it nevertheless feels so authentic and lived-in that you happily go along with the clichés, though the back story about Arias claiming to be Collins’ son is not easy to predict. This is about texture, not story. As someone who has never even gotten on a donkey, it surprised me how much athletic training jockeys must do; “52-card pickup” is a joke until it becomes a serious exercise. The easy camaraderie in the dressing room, and scenes like a priest blessing men in a sport that’s more dangerous than one might think, cannot be faked. And Jockey got my throat when Arias describes numerous breakages—collar bones, arm, ankles, his nose “more times than I can count”—concluding with “but I’ve never been hurt bad.” (VJM)

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We’re All Going to the World’s Fair *** [NEXT]
There’s an almost deliberate provocation in the way Jane Schoenbrun’s debut feature feints and dodges about what kind of genre its actually working in—and it wouldn’t be playing fair to reveal which way it ultimately goes. The set-up involves a teenager named Casey (Anna Cobb) taking “the World’s Fair Challenge,” involving participation in an online creepypasta horror narrative; as she begins to post videos about how she thinks she might be changing, a stranger identifying himself as JLB (Michael J. Rodgers) reaches out to Casey. Schoenbrun teases with the circumstances of Anna’s life—her parents are never seen as physical presences—as well as why JLB might investing himself so much in her fate. And while there are a few genuinely disturbing images sprinkled throughout the narrative—heightened by Alex G’s disturbing score—it’s never entirely clear whether there’s an actual supernatural component to World’s Fair. But it’s more unsettling as a portrait of how lonely, isolated people get sucked down Internet rabbit holes, seeking some way to connect with people, even if those ways seem disturbing or unhealthy. There’s scary stuff going on here, but the scariest thing might be Cobb’s committed performance of a kid who has no idea how becoming part of this world might be affecting her. (SR)

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Misha and the Wolves ***1/2 [World Documentary]
Sam Hobkinson’s documentary deals with a best-selling novel about a girl named Misha Defonseca surviving the Holocaust by living among wolves. It is a very good movie, and you should see it. Now stop reading if you don’t want spoilers. Spoilage is baked into even describing Misha and the Wolves and/or its thematic virtues, because Hobkinson tells a story of literary fraud—the word “deception” is in the third sentence of Sundance’s online blurb—and its exposure. The film moves briskly through layers of investigation like an Errol Morris thriller, as the subjects look directly into the camera and the flow charts and evidence-images spill onto the screen. It also touches on some dominant themes of our time: emotional manipulation (“the callousness required to say ‘I don’t believe you’”) and selective incredulity (“I was looking for truth to confirm what I already believed”). And it would take a heart of stone not to laugh at Misha admitting her book wasn’t reality “but it was my reality.” Really, the only criticism I would make is that it’s too much like my favorite film of 2009, the little-seen masterpiece Forbidden Lie$, and that Misha Defonseca isn’t as compelling a person here as was fraudster Norma Khouri there. But there’s a reason for that—a revelation that is its own kind of shock. (VJM)

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Land *** [Premieres]
There’s nothing particularly groundbreaking about a story of someone fleeing into nature to escape psychic wounds, so it’s really all about the execution. First-time feature director Robin Wright, working from a screenplay by Jesse Chatham & Eric Dignam, finds a satisfying number of grace notes in the story of Edee (Wright), a woman who abandons her previous life after a family tragedy and flees into the remote mountains of Wyoming. There she eventually encounters Miguel (Demián Bichir), a man with his own troubled history who becomes Edee’s mentor in living off the land, and most of what works best here involves their growing friendship. The small moments between them have to carry a lot of weight, especially when it’s always clear that the primary character arc here will be Edee deciding whether she wants to embrace life again. As a director, Wright leans into the majesty of the landscape, with magic-hour lighting and an appropriately disorienting sense of the passage of time being indicated only by the changing of the seasons. While the drama might tend towards the lowest of low-key, there’s still an emotional resonance to someone offering his kindness to another because “you were in my path.” (Scott Renshaw)

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Hive *** [World Dramatic]
A fact-based drama with all the potential for being a formulaic female-empowerment tale instead takes on a melancholy tone built on the anguish of uncertainty. In 2006 Kosovo, Fahrije Hoti (Yllka Gashi) is among many women in a small village whose husbands have never been found or returned after the 1999 war. Desperate for money, Fahrije decides to start a business making and selling the condiment ajvar to a local supermarket, running afoul of societal expectations about what a married woman should and shouldn’t do. A clunkier version of this story would have leaned into Fahrije fighting against the system and the assumptions that only a loose woman would do such a thing. But writer/director Blerta Basholli digs into how Fahrije lives with the lack of resolution, trying to raise her children and deal with her invalid father-in-law’s stubborn refusal to believe his son might be dead. Gashi’s performance finds power in her stoicism, making the moments when her emotion bursts forth all the more potent. As much as we might be rooting for Fahrije to find success as an entrepreneur, Hive focuses more on her finding a way to move forward in her life. (SR)

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Together Together ***1/2 [U.S. Dramatic]
From the very familiar font of the opening titles to a direct reference to a certain problematic filmmaker, writer/director Nikole Beckwith is clearly taking on a dynamic in cinematic rom-coms that approaches male/female age/power dynamics in a not-entirely-healthy way—but the result is infinitely warm and charming. Forty-something single guy Matt (Ed Helms) hires 26-year-old Anna (Patti Harrison) to be the surrogate for the baby he’s always wanted, leading to a friendship that gets complicated as it advances beyond the purely professional. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they “fall in love,” or that any of the other expected dramatic complications—Matt getting creepily possessive, or Anna getting cold feet—ensue. Instead, Beckwith simply offers a portrait of two people who need a close friendship more than either of them initially realizes. The result is a unique kind of on-screen chemistry between the leads, with a lot of the humor filled out by the terrific supporting cast. In its way, it’s extremely conventional in its low-key comedic rhythms; in other way, it’s utterly unconventional in letting two people get exactly the kind of love they need out of this particular relationship. (SR)

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Superior ** [U.S. Dramatic]
Co-writer/director Erin Vassilopoulos delivers something that feels genuinely indie in its aesthetic, but too rarely translates that aesthetic into a unique storytelling point of view. Her protagonists in this stale expanded from a 2015 short film are twin sisters estranged for several years: Vivian (Ani Mesa), a small-town housewife; and Marian (co-writer Alessandra Mesa), a musician on the run after a violent confrontation with her boyfriend (Pico Alexander). Marian unexpectedly shows up on Vivian’s doorstep, leading to a reunion that turns into a little place-switching role-playing. There’s a superficially satisfying zing to the basic idea—the “good girl” and the “bad girl” both wanting to see what they’ve been missing on the other side—and the Mesas play that out in a few appealing scenes. But as Vassilopoulos repeatedly teases with the potential for a thriller to emerge, the character dynamics just never develop with enough depth to take it beyond a Prince and the Pauper-meets-The Parent Trap retread. The mid-1980s setting allows for some fun with the production design and a satisfyingly cheesy period-appropriate score. It’s simply assumed for too long that the idea of twins trading lives is inherently interesting, without providing the punch of those twins being back together in the first place. (SR)

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Cryptozoo **1/2 [NEXT]
Like animator Dash Shaw’s previous feature, 2016’s My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea, Cryptozoo offers abundant visual imagination in service of a genre story with a lot of the familiarity and flat character development of its live-action cousins. Set in 1967, it follows a group of self-styled guardians of mythological creatures, including veterinarian Lauren Grey (Lake Bell) and her Gorgon partner Phoebe (Angeliki Papoulia) as they try to establish a sanctuary for these magical beasts, and protect them from exploitation by a man named Nicholas (Thomas Jay Ryan) who wants to deliver them to the U.S. military. The result is a mish-mash of elements touching on everything from Raiders of the Lost Ark to Jurassic Park, particularly the latter during a climax involving creatures running rampant. Shaw renders the cryptid cast members with bursts of color, and finds at least one amusing character in a satyr (voiced by Peter Stormare) with shifting allegiances. But too many of the voice performances remain flat, and all the hand-drawn independent artistry in the world doesn’t change the frustration of movie that finds the villain saying to the protagonist, unironically, “We’re not so different.” (SR)

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Taming the Garden ***1/2 [World Documentary]
A simple synopsis can’t do justice to Salomé Jashi’s documentary, even though on its most basic level it’s “just” about cutting down trees. As it happens, the trees in question are massive, century-old trees in the Republic of Georgia, being relocated from villages to decorate the personal estate of Bidzina Ivanishvili, the country’s former prime minister. Jashi does chronicle the reactions of the locals to the removal of the trees, ranging from outrage to one man’s blunt “Who gives a fuck about trees?” Yet while there’s some interest in observing the people, Jashi and co-cinematographer Goga Devdariani capture much more when they’re observing the process of moving the trees, a Fitzcarraldo-esque feat of hubris that finds the mammoth objects moving down the roads on tractors, or set against the horizon of the Black Sea while finishing their journey by barge. The simplest images become almost hypnotic, like flashlights glancing off the treetops, or the re-planted forest secured in place by high-tension cables. While it's certainly in part about a never-seen antagonist attempting to buy up the wonders of nature, it’s also a pure piece of cinema that clearly gives a fuck about trees. (SR)

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Writing With Fire ***1/2 [World Documentary]
Directors Sushmit Ghosh and Rintu Thomas offer a unique perspective on the always-difficult job of being a journalist, tied up in a fascinating cultural specificity. Their subjects are writers and editors at Khabar Lahariya, a newspaper based in the Uttar Pradesh region of Indian staffed entirely by women—and not just women, but women of the “untouchable” Dalit caste. The film finds the publication in a transitional moment circa 2016-2019, as they attempt to make the pivot to more digital content, despite having staff members who have never used a cell phone. Yet the technological side proves far less compelling than watching the journalists dig into tough stories—illegal mines operated by syndicates, a surge in Hindu nationalism in India’s politics—while simultaneously fighting the members of their own family who think they shouldn’t be running around reporting instead of getting married and/or keeping house. Ghosh and Thomas capture their subjects getting mansplained about appropriate tactics when interviewing a government official, all while breaking stories that their male counterparts avoid entirely, and forced to make choices about whether to keep working or risk shaming their families. It’s a rich vein of material about multiple issues at once, and all credit to the filmmakers for managing to keep them organized and irresistibly watchable. (SR)

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Cusp ***1/2 [U.S. Documentary]
Apropos the Danish animated documentary Flee, I mentioned that closeness to a subject can be a double-edged sword for a documentarian. This is an example of when it pays off handsomely. Co-directors Parker Hill and Isabel Bethencourt spent a summer with three small-town Texas teens, and won their confidence so completely that they made a hanging-out movie that could make Richard Linklater go “damn, what have I been doing?” But while Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!! was a male movie, this is about three girls—Brittney, Aaloni and Autumn (my only minor criticism of the movie is that the girls blended in my mind a bit)—and how they deal with drugs, family woes and (mostly) boys and sex. Some of this is undoubtedly the generation gap—I was born in 1966—but I was never not-amazed at how blunt and unguarded these girls were while the camera was running, speaking and acting with a mixture of intimacy and blaséness. It breathes truth that becomes shocking when, for example, one of the girls describes losing her virginity. Or when another mentions being molested, but in the context of telling her parents that they can’t choose her friends. They’re lousy friend-choosers, she says, because “you have friends who molested me!” (Victor J. Morton)

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A Glitch in the Matrix *** [Midnight]
The capacity of the human brain to believe weird shit continues to fascinate director Rodney Ascher, as the creator of Room 237 here explores people who believe that we are living in an advanced computer simulation. Framed by excerpts from a 1977 speech by science-fiction author Philip K. Dick in which he suggested that possibility quite ahead of his time, the film goes back as far as Plato’s “allegory of the cave” for the history of beliefs about an alternate reality, while focusing on interviews with those who, at various points in their lives, came to feel that reality isn’t entirely real. Visually, Ascher keeps things lively for much of the running time, presenting many of his interview subjects as CGI avatars and sprinkling in multiple film clips, and overall he plays fair with the subject rather than putting his thumb on the scale of “check out these weirdos.” But he’s also wise enough to slow down and let the menace sink in when he relates one story of a break with reality that goes beyond harmlessly kooky speculation. It’s a bit disappointing that Ascher only touches briefly on the ethical ramifications of “simulation theory,” or whether gamers are uniquely predisposed to believing it. What remains is still an engrossing bit of cinematic philosophizing—and it’s not easy to put those two words together. (SR)

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R#J *** [NEXT]
Sure, it’s a wack premise worthy of Whose Line Is It Anyway?: Do Shakespeare using only 2020 social media. To quote another Bard play “though this be madness, yet there is method in 't.” And not simply because Romeo and Juliet is inherently a story of tempestuous teenagers, i.e., a group today that communicates through TikTok, Instagram, Spotify et al., especially about sexual passions, but also because Romeo and Juliet is about public appearance and performance. There’s nothing un-Shakespearean about the Tybalt-Mercutio fight, being about honor, thus getting live-streamed. And the peanut-gallery comment sections on those apps provides opportunities for hilarity that R#J takes full advantage of in that scene, and in such other early scenes as Mercutio live-streaming the Capulet party they crash. The first half—which is stolen by Siddiq Saunderson as a strutting Mercutio, who makes Shakespeare’s poetry sound normal in between all the “WTF you talkin about” texts—is one of the great Bard adaptations. But after the climactic fights and Romeo’s fleeing Verona, the play and story no longer fit the InstaTok aesthetic. And the less said about the ending, the better. Except to say that it “fits” the premise and thus implicitly says “this was a dumb premise.” Not a good thing. (VJM)

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Searchers *** [NEXT]
It’s such a simple filmmaking device, but director Pacho Velez turns a subject that could have been visually tedious—the modern phenomenon of online dating/hookups—into something fascinatingly human simply by having his subjects do their left-and-right-swiping while looking directly into the camera. Following the lead of Errol Morris’s Interrotron, Velez explores the way people evaluate potential partners and, perhaps even more revealingly, how they evaluate themselves while creating profiles for these apps. The material is almost uniformly terrific, capturing a range of experiences across age range, race, sexual orientation and gender that are by turns hilarious, melancholy and honest about what is and isn’t easier about finding a match in this way. While Velez frames the story with establishing shots making it clear that all this is taking place in pandemic-era New York, it’s disappointing that he rarely folds into his interviews the impact of forced isolation on connection apps, or even acknowledges the many complications of meeting up with strangers at this time. And it’s both refreshingly honest and distracting that Velez inserts his own quest for a partner into the movie. Still, he nails the fundamental weirdness of the process through the simple act of allowing us to stare not at the screens, but into the face of our need to be together. (SR)

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Prime Time *1/2 [World Dramatic]
This looks the kind of movie that needed another script rewrite. It definitely has a promising premise: A gunman named Sebastian takes over a Polish TV-network set during a live broadcast, taking a famous hostess and a security guard hostage and issuing demands to go on the air (the network sensibly goes dark once hostages are taken). But once that premise is set up, Prime Time just spins its wheels, both as a thriller and as a character study. Fatally, we never learn Sebastian’s motivations or hopes, and a late gesture involving two pieces of paper pointedly throws that away, as if refusal to flesh out a story or character is profound. A phone conversation with a male friend hints at … something, but it’s never followed up. The authorities call in Sebastian’s father, and their conversation is cringeworthy. And if there was a point to its being New Year’s Eve 1999, or to the panned-over Polish TV broadcasts, I missed it. As a result, Prime Time made me imagine such adjacent films as The King of Comedy or Money Monster, but hollowed out, like if the Scorsese classic never told us Rupert thinks he’s a great comedian, or we never learned that the deliveryman had lost his savings because of Clooney. (VJM)

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Mass *** [Premieres]
Analyzing actor Fran Kranz’s writer/director debut is the emotional equivalent of Alfred Hitchcock’s “refrigerator logic”—it’s too good at pulling all the right strings while you’re in the moment for you to be concerned that they’re being pulled. His scenario feels like the stuff of a stage play, chronicling a meeting one Saturday afternoon between four people whose lives were forever intertwined years earlier by a school shooting: Jay (Jason Isaacs) and Gail (Martha Plimpton), whose son was one of the victims; and Richard (Reed Birney) and Linda (Ann Dowd), whose son was the gunman. On a filmmaking level, Kranz does little beside switch from steady camerawork to more jittery handheld as the tensions rise, though he has one great shot panning slowly across the table where the characters sit, emphasizing the space between them. But structurally he makes the interesting choice of bookending the meeting with the mundane details of the Episcopal church where the meeting is taking place, providing a sense of the simple moments these characters might never know again. And the performances are uniformly terrific, boiling with rage, guilt, self-recrimination and a desperate search for meaning in a tragedy that feels meaningless. The script at times feels like it’s hitting a checklist of expected points surrounding this sensitive subject, but the way performances hit those points might have you choking back tears regardless. (SR)

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Try Harder! *** [U.S. Documentary]
It may be the very definition of a “first-world problem,” but the pressure to get into a top-tier university still fuels some fascinating character study in Debbie Lum’s documentary following seniors at San Francisco’s elite, majority Asian-American Lowell High School as they go through the nerve-wracking process of applying for college. The culture of the school itself makes for a great backdrop, conveying the pressure felt by the students to stand out even when they’re surrounded by all the people who will be competing with them for slots at Stanford, Harvard and the like. But the strongest material comes from watching the way different parent-child dynamics affect the process, with some of the pressure self-imposed and some of it clearly the result of super-intense “tiger moms.” It’s almost disorienting when serious problems periodically emerge, like a teacher facing a health crisis and a student potentially being homeless, putting into stark perspective how Ivy League admission might be low on the list of life crises. Lum tiptoes a bit around the subject of high-achieving Asian-American students potentially facing a unique kind of discrimination, yet that notion still raises the stakes for kids who believe that everything depends on a “yes” or “no” they receive when they’re 17. (SR)

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Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street ***1/2 [Premieres]
Having just last year read a biography of Jim Henson, I wondered if Marilyn Agrelo’s documentary wouldn’t offer me much that was new; it turns out that her adaptation of Michael Davis’s book is all about changing the narrative that “Jim Henson + Muppets = Sesame Street.” Agrelo digs deep into the team that in the late 1960s developed the radical premise that pre-school children—specifically pre-school children in economically disadvantaged communities—could learn from television: producer Joan Ganz Cooney; director Jon Stone; Lloyd Morrisett and the educators who eventually formed the Children’s Television Workshop. It’s certainly not that Henson is given short shrift, as Street Gang gives plenty of credit to the Muppets’ appeal for the out-of-the-box popularity of the show, and even notes how Henson’s background using the Muppets for commercials made him a good fit for the show’s philosophy of applying advertising principles to early childhood education. This documentary simply fills out the picture, tipping a hat to folks like composer Joe Raposo and all of those behind the scenes who took a chance on a concept that was made for a diverse country, with a cast that looked like a diverse country. The result is a portrait of a creative family dedicated to a crazy concept that succeeded beyond any of their wildest dreams. (SR)

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Ailey *** [U.S. Documentary]
It’s not always easy coming up with a framework for exploring a great artist’s life, but director Jamila Wignot gets a great framing structure: Watching other artists influenced by the master explore his legacy. The subject is the late dancer/choreographer Alvin Ailey, founder of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and pioneer in bringing both Black themes and Black faces to contemporary American dance at a time when both were few and far between. Wignot leans heavily on archival footage of performances from landmark pieces like Revelations, providing a strong sense for the work itself as interviews with Ailey’s collaborators provide context. But we also see choreographer Rennie Harris preparing a production celebrating the 60th anniversary of the company, allowing for a powerful sense of continuity and a recognition of Ailey’s contribution to his art form. While historical interviews with Ailey allow for a sense of where he came from, there’s a bit of a gap in understanding him as a person, with only token exploration of his mental health struggles or his choice to remain mostly closeted as a gay man, including hiding from his public obituary that he died of AIDS-related causes. Still, for a movie meant to celebrate what Ailey created, and how his creations inspired and moved others: mission accomplished. (SR)

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Knocking **1/2 [Midnight]
There are two possible interpretations of the ending of Frida Kempff’s psychological thriller, only one of which doesn’t make it a complete waste of time—and I’m trying hard not to think that Kempff really wants us to believe the other one. It’s the story of Molly (Cecilia Milocco), recently released from a psychiatric hospital after a breakdown induced by a life-changing trauma. In her new apartment, she begins to hear noises from the floor above her, yet can’t seem to get anyone to believe that those noises exist, and might indicate someone in danger. Kempff makes some great directing choices early on, often shooting Milocco’s face in combinations of light and shadow that emphasize her teetering on the edge between possible outcomes. And Milocco’s performance itself provides a powerful portrait of how her particular PTSD drives her to a need to believe she can save a life. Yet around the margins, there’s a notion that Knocking is in part about gaslighting and refusing to “believe women,” despite the fact that there’s ample cause not to believe this particular woman, and that the body-cam Kempff uses during Molly’s climactic breakdown doesn’t exactly suggest a rational person unjustly doubted. By the time we get to that ambiguous ending, there’s a frustrating indication that we’re being pointed towards a reading that vindicates Molly—and I really hope I’m wrong. (SR)

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I Was a Simple Man **1/2 [U.S. Dramatic]
Not every movie was made for me; it helps to approach them with that simple humility, even if it doesn’t necessarily make me embrace them more. This one is set in Hawaii, where elderly Masao (Steve Iwamoto) faces terminal cancer, causing him to reflect on his life while he’s alternately cared for by his estranged daughter Kati (Chanel Akiko Hirai) and grandson Gavin (Kanoa Goo), and visited by the ghost of his late wife Grace (Constance Wu). Writer/director Christopher Makoto Yoki moves back and forth through time, touching on Hawaiian statehood in 1959 and the impact of impending World War II on the Asian diaspora in the islands, and along the way presents some lovely tableaux and a sound design redolent with winds in the trees and surf crashing on the beaches. But the actual story remains too opaque for the relationships to connect: What was the impact of the Romeo & Juliet-esque dynamic of Japanese Masao running off with Chinese Grace on his failings as a father? What is Gavin actually thinking as he’s placed in the role of caretaker to a man he barely knows? There are a few resonant grace notes in the story, like the younger Masao attempting to connect with Kati the only way he knows how, over a pool table. But mostly, this feels like a story crafted in an emotional and/or cultural language I don’t speak, offered to me without subtitles. (SR)

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Strawberry Mansion **1/2 [NEXT]
You’ll have to trust me when I say that some critic friends years ago began applying the advertising phrase “bursting with fruit flavor” to describe movies that had a lot of stuff going on and ideas thrown in—all potentially interesting, but the director never really got a handle on them or developed them well. Strawberry Mansion is (sorry) positively bursting with fruit flavor. Co-director Kentucker Audley plays James Preble, a dream auditor in 2035—dreams are monitored and taxed in this not-quite-dystopia—who comes to audit Bella, an old woman decades in arrears on those taxes. He stays in her home and falls in love with her younger self from watching VHS tapes of her dreams, which include a Harryhausen-style skeleton jumping out a grave, waiters with giant frog heads, talking spiders, grass beasts that turn out to be Preble, sailships manned by rat-sailors who turn into chickens, and much more fruit. When the plot kicks in as Bella’s son and family enter, the film gets even weirder. Audley and co-director/writer Albert Birney commit whole-heartedly to the story-book surrealist style, the gentle tone (helped by Audley’s deadpan acting) and the determinedly low-tech special effects. But by the time Preble and young Bella’s faces are on asteroids burning up as they enter the atmosphere (don’t ask), I just felt exhausted. (Victor J. Morton)

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Playing With Sharks **1/2 [World Documentary]
Here is the very definition of a perfectly solid documentary profile that almost never takes the next step to being something fully engrossing. The subject is compelling enough: Valerie Taylor, the Australian-born underwater photographer—and later environmental activist—best known for her work with her husband Ron providing up-close footage of sharks for movies like Blue Water, White Death and Jaws. The early biography provides an interesting portrait of Valerie’s journey from child with polio to adventurer, and the final half hour digs into Valerie and Ron’s work to change the public perception of sharks as killers, and their regret at participating in the movies which created that perception. Yet despite having access to Valerie as an interview subject, reflecting on her life and still diving as an octogenarian, Playing With Sharks feels less like a biographical portrait than a showcase for all of the amazing footage she accumulated over the course of her career. There are worse ways to spend 90 minutes than appreciating that footage, and the risks that went into capturing it, but it feels like a missed opportunity not to understand more about the person behind the images. (SR)

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Rebel Hearts **1/2 [U.S. Documentary]
You can almost feel the vibes radiating off this documentary of something destined to be a “based on a true story” drama—and maybe that’s actually the preferable interpretation of this story. Director Pedro Kos relates the events surrounding the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart, Los Angeles-based Roman Catholic nuns who, in the wake of the Vatican II reforms of the 1960s, pushed for a contemporary vision of religious life that brought them into conflict with the institutional Church. Several of the women involved at the time provide interviews, and it’s poignant to see how much the events still sting even from a 50-year remove. Yet while Kos makes creative use of animation to fill in the gaps where archival footage doesn’t work, this is a tale where the primary antagonist—Los Angeles Cardinal Francis McIntyre—remains an abstraction, and talking heads reporting from the Dept. of the Obvious about the hierarchical, patriarchal nature of the Catholic Church don’t do much to help. Rebel Hearts shares an interesting footnote from the culture clashes of the Vietnam War era, but it’s hard not to feel like it will reach its fullest potential when it’s based on the true story. (SR)

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John and the Hole **** [U.S. Dramatic]
Director Pascual Sisto and screenwriter Nicolás Giacobone teach you how to watch this unsettling drama through its unusual framing structure, yet it already seems destined to be misunderstood. I’ll say less than the official festival logline does—suffice it to say that John (Charlie Shotwell) is a 13-year-old boy whose relationship with his parents (Michael C. Hall and Jennifer Ehle) and older sister (Taissa Farmiga) takes an unusual turn—because it’s best not to approach it with expectations based on an inadequate synopsis. What ultimately emerges is at times akin to Home Alone if pitched as psychological horror, wrapped in a fable about that ineffable adolescent dividing line between childhood and maturity, and how the grass always seems greener on the other side of that line. Sisto’s crisp direction and the dissonant music score by Catherine Barbieri add to the sense of menace, spiked with just the right touch of black comedy for seasoning. If the disconcerting final shot of John and the Hole doesn’t point you directly to the film’s true north, it’s been too long since you’ve been a child wondering if you’re ready yet for being alone in the world. (SR)

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The Most Beautiful Boy in the World **1/2 [World Documentary]
It feels as though directors Kristina Lindström and Kristian Petri have a can’t-miss subject on their hands, yet somehow it falls a bit short of feeling revelatory. They explore the story of Bjorn Andrésen, a Swedish youth cast at the age of 15 as an object of homoerotic obsession in Luchino Visconti’s 1971 adaptation of Death in Venice, addressing both his life before finding international fame and where he is today. Both sides of that story are interesting individually, delving into Andrésen’s complicated childhood including his mother’s mysterious death, and his various tumultuous adult relationships. But while there are terrific tidbits throughout—including noting that Andrésen was one of the aging sacrificial victims in Midsommar—there’s an unresolved tension here in trying to sort out whether being cast in Death in Venice was the reason his later life was such a mess, or whether he was destined to have a messy life anyway based on the events of his early years. While it’s certainly not necessary to make a definitive cause-and-effect claim, the result feels more like a series of snapshots of a dysfunctional life, rather than a cohesive life story. (SR)

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Flee *** [World Documentary]
Documentarians generally profit from closeness to their subjects, especially in profiles; winning trust helps capture a life’s privileged moments. But Flee is the contrary case, hemming a great film into mere prettygood-ness. The journey of Amin, a gay Afghan refugee in Denmark, gets told mostly in animated form, structured largely as a flashback of Amin telling childhood friend Rasmussen a life story of flight: growing up in Kabul in the 1980s, having an unspeakable fascination for bare-chested Jean-Claude Van Damme, fleeing with his family for Russia and beyond. The story carries all as Rasmussen uses various types of animation, from Archer to impressionistic charcoal drawings for harrowing events, as Amin’s storytelling sometimes becomes unreliable due to his family’s gradual disintegration over the years. However, the film’s “present tense” in Denmark—involving Amin, his partner Kasper and “commitment” issues—falls flat, especially in comparison with the gripping refugee story and even a short scene in which a struggling Amin asks a Danish doctor for a homosexuality cure. Kasper’s importance to Amin (he mentions him in a passage in the closing credits, befitting his closeness to Rasmussen) doesn’t inherently make him important or interesting to us. He’s just the clichéd neglected spouse, like if Sissy Spacek in JFK had a Y chromosome. (Victor J. Morton)

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President *** [World Documentary]
It’s not the toughest criticism ever, I suppose, but even at 130-odd minutes on Zimbabwe’s 2018 presidential election, I left President wanting to know more, especially about the country’s politics—who supports whom, and why. And no, “the people support Nelson Chamisa and his Movement for Democratic Change” is not an answer, though for large stretches President plays too much like it is. Largely an adoring campaign embed with Chamisa early on, it’s not fundamentally different from following any candidate in a stable democracy. Zimbabwe, however, is not a stable democracy. What makes this a worthy film is how the ruling ZANU PF under President Emmerson Mnangagwa—the right-hand man of longtime dictator Robert Mugabe, and his successor-via-coup—steals the election in a ham-fisted way. At one point, Chamisa jokes that Mugabe was a better fraudster. The whole second hour, consisting of live footage without narration or post-hoc interviews, sells the film; it runs from a surprise Mugabe cameo through long reporting delays, charges of fraud including impossible returns, the army firing into crowds claiming a stolen election, police forcibly breaking up a Chamisa press conference and then deciding “maybe not.” It all climaxes with Chamisa asking the Supreme Court to nullify the election. Have we heard this one before? (VJM)

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Homreroom *** [U.S. Documentary]
Director Peter Nicks concludes his “Oakland Trilogy” of documentaries—previously focusing on health care and policing—with an exploration of public schooling that both benefits and suffers from the unexpected turn of world events. Since the focus is on seniors at majority non-white Oakland High School during the 2019-2020 school year, our foreknowledge that COVID-19 will turn things upside down hangs over the early scenes in which we see students in familiar scenes of boisterous activity, checking their social media in class and occasionally nodding off. But the narrative comes to rest on the efforts of students to address planned school budget cuts by requesting an end to the Oakland School District’s dedicated police force, and specifically on Oakland High’s student representative to the school board, Denilson Garibo (pictured). The activism surrounding that issue makes for more compelling material than any of the individual students’ lives, which generally remain vague and unexplored. But as students find themselves out of classrooms in the spring, and national attention focuses on protests against police violence, the crusade by Garibo and his fellow students takes on additional resonance. The result is less a story of admirable youth crusaders for justice than a reminder of how often it takes horrible tragedy for people in power take even the most obvious action. (SR)

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Human Factors **1/2 [World Dramatic]
There’s certainly a lot going on in writer/director Ronny Trocker’s domestic drama; I wish I could be more confident that any of that stuff hits at potent thematic ideas. The opening finds a Germany-based family—Jan (Mark Waschke), Nina (Sabine Timoteo), their teenage daughter Emma (Julie Hermann) and son Max (Wanja Valentine Kube)—visiting their vacation home at the Belgian seashore, where Nina is startled by fleeing home invaders. The narrative then backtracks to other events establishing tensions within the family, as well as revisiting the “home invasion” from every character’s perspective. Trocker finds some compelling material in the familial dynamics, including which kid seems to be each parent’s favorite and vice-versa, plus Jan and Nina clashing over whether their co-owned advertising firm should represent a political party. Yet while the filmmaking and sound design effectively build tension in what these characters hide from one another, much of the actual content feels almost too simple, like Emma’s actions when visiting a rowdy party. Families are complicated, but that’s not exactly a revelatory concept, and much of what Trocker delivers here feels like impressively slick packaging surrounding familiar platitudes. (SR)

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CODA *** [U.S. Dramatic]
It’s much easier to forgive formulaic material in a movie when the story it’s serving is otherwise so committed to honest emotion and specificity. Writer/director Siân Heder, adapting a 2014 French film, follows Gloucester, Mass. high-school senior Ruby (Emilia Jones), a hearing child of deaf adults (hence the acronym that gives the film its title). Generally committed to helping the family, whether that’s working on her father’s fishing boat or serving as translator, Ruby decides to pursue her own love of music when she joins the school choir. Some fairly predictable plot dynamics ensue, like a romantic interest (Sing Street’s Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) and a tough-but-caring music teacher (Eugenio Derbez), along the way to the expected familial tensions. But Heder really burrows into the love within this family—non-hearing actors Marlee Matlin, Troy Kotsur and Daniel Durant are all terrific, along with the breakout work by Jones—that makes it so hard for Ruby to think about following a passion that might pull her away from them. And it’s satisfying to see these characters portrayed as earthy, sexual and far from saintly. It all builds to not one, not two, but three key music-focused moments, each of which might put a lump in your through for completely different reasons, making for the kind of crowd-pleaser that earns the designation. (SR)

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In the Same Breath **** [Premieres]
Political philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote that when one is constantly lied to, the effect isn’t believing the lies, but ceasing to believe anything. Insightful as that is, I wonder what she would have made of this documentary that both rebuts and proves her point. The film about the epidemic that has consumed the world focuses on its origins in Wuhan, China, and to a lesser extent its spread into the U.S. and its personal effects on U.S.-based, China-born director Nanfu Wang. Orchestrating footage from citizen journalists on the ground in Wuhan, Wang builds an infuriating (if often also funny and, inevitably, tragic) portrait of consent being manufactured from constant lies. One tearful woman insists (or “insists”) it was her patriotic duty to accept ... something unspeakable. Chinese news anchors saying “eight people were punished for spreading rumors about an unknown pneumonia” hangs over guerrilla footage taken in hospitals in Wuhan like a cloud. We expect people to refuse to talk, but one would do so with an official around which … makes a certain sense. Wang notes the change in news reports as classic propaganda. When the virus arrives in the U.S., we see American authorities speaking exactly as Chinese authorities had. But the different U.S. populace behaves exactly as Arendt predicted. And the Chinese anchors crow. (VJM)

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Summer of Soul (…or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) ***1/2 [U.S. Documentary]
Summer of Soul contains so much great music of so many different kinds, so many moving memories and contemporary reactions, and the film’s very existence and previous non-existence is its own great story, that its awkward steps hardly matter, For example, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s film about “the Black Woodstock” in Harlem in summer 1969 doesn’t make it clear that this wasn’t a single weekend, but several weekends in a row (which make the Woodstock comparisons a cheat). The contemporary filmmaking just isn’t the virtuoso act that Woodstock is, and the film ends too suddenly and with some historical questions left hanging. But c’mon. There’s just no arguing with six minutes of “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” sung by an aging Mahalia Jackson and acolyte Mavis Staples. Or with the Edwin Hawkins Gospel Choir singing “Oh, Happy Day” (you rarely see a concert film as suffused in religion as this one). Or Nina Simone singing “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” and exhorting the crowd. Or with Sly & the Family Stone, B.B. King, Stevie Wonder and more. The retrospective interviews with some of the performers have their own charms too, especially Marilyn McCoo tearing up as she calls the concert vindication for the 5th Dimension, more popular with white listeners, because “we wanted our people to receive us.” (VJM)