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April 2021

A Great Season in Harlem

Mass Distraction Media/Sundance Institute

Summer of Soul (. . . Or, When the Revolution Could Not be Televised) (2021)

A documentary on the Harlem Cultural Festival in the summer of 1969 – when Woodstock took place upstate – “Summer of Soul” features previously unseen footage from this star-studded but mostly forgotten event, with performances from Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Sly and the Family Stone, Gladys Knight & the Pips and many more.

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Hearing Aide

Sundance Institute

CODA (2021)

If “Sound of Metal” is about the hearing impaired learning to normalize the disability, then “CODA” is set in the utopia where that normalization is complete. “CODA” does indeed center on a hearing protagonist; its title is an acronym for child of deaf adults. Here, deafness is more of an inconvenience for the hearing, and our protagonist is torn between interpreting for her family’s thriving fishery business and pursuing her own musical talents.

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Cross to Bear

BFI Flare

Jump, Darling (2021)

Oscar Wilde once said that no man becomes like his mother, which is his tragedy. But what writer-director Phil Connell’s film presupposes, what if he becomes like his grandmother?

Russell (Thomas Duplessie) is a resting actor who refuses to work more than one shift a week in a Toronto drag bar called Peckers (devastatingly, this is not a real place). On his 31st birthday he receives a card from his grandmother Margaret (Cloris Leachman, in one of her final roles) offering him her car if he comes to Prince Edward Island to collect it. So when his partner Justin (Andrew Bushell) calls him an embarrassment and dumps him, Russell takes his last money and shows up on Margaret’s doorstep. Russell loses little time in writing himself a large check from his grandmother’s checkbook, but a mishap with the car shortly followed by a mishap of Margaret’s means he decides to stay with her a while.

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And Then There Were None

BFI Flare

Dramarama (2021)

What are five 18-year-old virgins to do their last night together before they depart for college? A night when they are entirely alone in a house that also has a swimming pool?

Well, whatever you’re thinking, they don’t do any of that. A lot of moms will be happy for this movie to be shown at a lot of theater-kid sleepovers, but it’s unclear if “Dramarama” wanted to be anything beyond a note-perfect nostalgia trip. On Twitter this critic routinely sees 20ish gay influencers, with complete sincerity, call anyone gay over 40 an “elder” and casually discuss how we’re still trapped in the closet since all our friends are dead from AIDS. Will anyone with that mindset actually care about how much things have changed since 1994, when “Dramarama” is set? Can someone who can’t believe gayness existed 27 years ago be able to sympathize with the struggles of someone in a world that can’t even see him in the first place, much less carefully sub-categorize him?

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Offline Connection

BFI Flare

Sweetheart (2021)

The British seaside movie is normally a house of horrors. There are vampires (“Byzantium”), human trafficking (“London to Brighton”), exploitation (“Brighton Rock” in all its guises), drug deals gone awry (“Away”), kidnapping and torture (“The Scouting Book for Boys”), and violence in all its forms (“Quadrophenia” being the granddaddy of them all). “Sweetheart” triumphantly breaks the mold by being about exactly none of these things. It is such a relief to see a movie set on the English coast where the worst thing that happens is a fancy-dress night in the pub.

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Negative Action

Lou Nakasako/Sundance Institute

Try Harder! (2021)

The documentary “Try Harder!” speaks the quiet part out loud: Cards have long been stacked in academia against Asian Americans. Director Debbie Lum presents these inequities as the facts of life that they are, of which non-Asians who benefit must be acutely aware but prefer not to give the game away.

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Lone Wolf

Sean Ellis/Sundance Institute

The Cursed (2022)

“The Cursed” is a period horror film in more than one sense: It’s a werewolf picture set in the 19th century; and it’s the type of quality midbudget Gothic horror indie distributors used to pick up from Europe and that you never knew existed until happening upon their sun-faded sleeves (complete with Worldvision Enterprises logo) on the shelves of rental stores. Those went near extinct as the Coppola “Dracula” and the Branagh “Frankenstein” jumped the shark in the early 1990s, and with good reason. First came the wave of high concept meta-horror, and then low-budget “Blair Witch” types flooded our streaming-killed-the-video-star present day.

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