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February 2021

Nature's Course

Eunsoo Cho/Sundance Institute

I Was a Simple Man (2021)

Writer-director Christopher Makoto Yogi’s “I Was a Simple Man” is not exactly a work of startling originality. The way it mythicizes Oahu, Hawaii, as a place unspoiled by time and modernity is not unlike Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s depiction of Thailand in “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.” The two films share earthy scenery, clairvoyant characters and superstitious rituals, but “I Was a Simple Man” elides that lost-in-translation pastiche symptomatic of Mr. Weerasethakul’s neo-Orientalism.

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Doing Storytime


Night of the Kings (2021)

In appearance and execution, “Night of the Kings” makes it clear audiences underestimate it at their own risk. The set-up is direct: La MACA is a prison in the middle of the Côte d’Ivorian jungle, and while it’s led by head guard Nivaquine (Issaka Sawadogo), it’s run by its prisoners, of whom Blackbeard (Steve Tientcheu) is the chief. But Blackbeard is sick, and according to the prison’s laws, a sick chief must kill himself to make way for a stronger successor. But Blackbeard is not quite ready to die. He’s allowed to buy time by nominating a prisoner as a storyteller, someone to distract the prisoners from the impeding war while negotiations take place. When a wide-eyed young man in a yellow t-shirt is driven alone through the gates, Blackbeard nominates him as Roman (French for novel; played by Bakary Koné). There are a thousand men who will kill him if he gets it wrong.

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Very Big Deal in America

Getty Images/Sundance Institute

Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It (2021)

In the dim and distant past when your reviewer was a small girl living on an American military base in Japan, there was exactly one English-language television channel which had exactly four shows for kids: “Little House on the Prairie,” “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” “Sesame Street,” and “The Electric Company.” One was historical, one was soothing, one was educational, and one was noisy, anarchic fun. The shows were behind the times, but in our isolation we had no way of knowing, especially since those shows were all the culture we had. It meant that the ordinary greeting on the playground was to holler “HEY YOU GUYS!!!!!” We were quoting Rita Moreno.

It’s hard to imagine how different the Hollywood of now is compared to what it was like when Ms. Moreno started out in 1950 with the total support of her mother. She had a small part in “Singin’ in the Rain,” but that was the very rare part where her ethnicity wasn’t a hindrance. As one of the few non-white and non-black working actors in Hollywood in the ’50s and ’60s she was given “ethnic” parts from all over the world – most notably Tuptim in “The King and I.” It might have taken until now, but finally Ms. Moreno is able to speak openly and frankly around how those roles were managed – including a very funny demonstration of the catch-all accent – and how playing all those barefoot peasants made her feel. She is very smart and very funny, and director-producer-editor Mariem Pérez Riera is clearly delighted to help Ms. Moreno settle more than a few scores.

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Dixie Chicks

Sundance Institute

Cusp (2021)

This is a really good movie about the fact that growing up takes forever, and the things you do the pass the time while it’s happening don’t matter much in the long run, except that nothing else in the world is more important. And the opening shot of the film makes it clear just how high the stakes are for the girls profiled in “Cusp”: two of them are lying on a swing, playing on their phones in their small (unidentified) Texas town, as a teenage boy of their acquaintance approaches to hang his machine gun from the branch of a tree.

“There is no normal in your teenage years,” is said early on, as a kind of motto for the film. But what directors Parker Hill and Isabel Bethencourt are trying to do is take their title literally. The girls – Brittney Marsh, Autumn Smalley, and Aaloni Cook – are 15 or 16, not quite able to take adult responsibility but able to make adult choices. There’s a lot of drinking and drugging, D.I.Y. piercing – thoughtfully filmed from the neck up, to focus on the pain instead of the body – and one extraordinary shot moments after Ms. Smalley has been dumped by her boyfriend, as she goes into shock, her whole body shaking, while she calls her dad.

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Knowledge is Power Struggle

Sean Havey/Sundance Institute

Homeroom (2021)

In between classes, endless scrolling on smartphones, posing for Instagram and rising to TikTok challenges, students at Oakland High School in California undertook an extra dose of the real world compared with most their age: police brutality. The school district employed its own police department and endowed it with an absurd $6 million budget. Officers apparently thought earning their keep involved occasionally visiting excessive force on their charges.

Student leadership pushed for the elimination of school police and the diversion of funds to educational and social ends threatened by budgetary cuts, but their efforts consistently hit the brick wall of adult members on the school board. Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 further fueled the students’ cause, filmmaker Peter Nicks suggests in the documentary “Homeroom,” though he never quite connects those dots.

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Where the Wild Things Are

Johnny Dell'Angelo/Sundance Institute

Cryptozoo (2021)

Right now there is a huge fear being expressed in indie American cinema about people’s imaginations being stolen and our capacity for original wonder being stifled under the jackboots of government or corporate forces. The naked stoner at the start of the film (Michael Cera) tells his girlfriend about the horrendous vision he had of an armed and angry mob storming the Capitol. Then he climbs a giant fence, convinces his equally naked girlfriend, Amber (Louisa Krause) to follow him, and is gored to death by a unicorn. Yes, really. You can do that when it’s animated.

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The Adjuster

Sundance Institute

Censor (2021)

The more inspired expository stuff from director-co-writer Prano Bailey-Bond’s ode to 1980s horror, “Censor,” has a sense of humor about it. The title sequence is like the gory companion to the kissing reel from “Cinema Paradiso”: a montage assembled from clips supposedly excised due to censorship. It’s almost put together on a dare to see if anything will survive the notoriously prudish B.B.F.C. There’s also a bit of deadpan comedy in the workaday life of the film’s heroine, Enid (Niamh Algar), as she and colleagues matter-of-factly describe in minute detail the unpleasantries they witness as film censors, presumably in 1980s England.

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Tiger Mommie Dearest

Jim McHugh/Sundance Institute

Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir (2021)

Amy Tan, the original “pick me Asian” – an Asian expert at telling white people what they want to hear – may not have been one intentionally or consciously after all, at least per James Redford’s documentary “Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir.”

Author of bestseller “The Joy Luck Club,” Ms. Tan has inspired generations of pick-me Asians, both within and outside creative fields. But judging from the film, Ms. Tan would be more aptly characterized as a classic, but different, Asian archetype: the narcissist – an uncommonly melodramatic person who wallows in their own victimhood and thrives on the pity and attention they draw from others. They would readily open up about their sufferings to any random stranger who would listen. This is a trait she seems to share with her mother.

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Caught Up in the Rapture

Daryl Wein/Sundance Institute

How it Ends (2021)

In New York, when the world is about to end (in “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World”), people have restaurant orgies and riot and get arrested. In Canada, when the world is about to end (in “Last Night”), people count their orgasms and tip over trollies and have rooftop arguments at gunpoint. In Los Angeles, when the world is about to end in “How It Ends,” the mental picture you keep of your younger self becomes visible to all and helps you get ready for a party at Mandy’s house. Talk about cultural differences.

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Internal Revenue

Tyler Davis/Sundance Institute

Strawberry Mansion (2021)

If “Fight Club” and “Being John Malkovich” had a non-violent baby, it would look a lot like “Strawberry Mansion.” No one could ever say that Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney, who co-wrote and co-directed, were short of ideas or talent. The smallish budget does show, but is more than made up for a barnstorming concept and highly stylized production design (take a bow, Becca Brooks Morrin). It’s strange to be annoyed by a movie for having too many ideas, but these days it’s stranger still to watch a movie that bubbles like a stewpot instead of glistening like a bento box. The trouble with the final result, unfortunately, is all too human.

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