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Sundance 2021: Day 5

Yesterday may have been my favourite day of the festival so far. Aside from watching some great shorts, which I will be reviewing over the next two days, I ended up covering five films and being able to review six. There are some incredible films from the past day, and I cannot wait to share them.

Without further ado, here are my reviews for the Day 5 line-up of the Sundance Film Festival.

Pleasure

Director: Ninja Thyberg
Writers: Ninja Thyberg, Peter Modestij
Starring: Sofia Kappel, Revika Anne Reustle, Evelyn Claire

Synopsis: 20-year-old Jessica leaves the small town life in Sweden for Los Angeles with the aim to become the worlds next big porn star but the road to her goal turns out to be bumpier than she imagined.

Pleasure exposes the true, dark side of the porn industry and does so through the eyes of a Swedish girl who is new to the job. Having it through these eyes, including the incredible performance from new actress Sofia Kappel, makes the experience feel even more surreal and terrifying to watch.

This is a film that I love, but that I will most likely never watch again. It captivated me from the first moments, but it is incredibly hard to sit through. There are so many graphic scenes, so much pain that comes with this story and the harsh reality of the situation is almost tough to imagine, considering the amount of young women who put themselves through this and the treatment they get.

If there is criticism to come with this film, it is the ending. We are fully invested in this story, in the moment with our leading character and suddenly the ending comes about and it just does not fit. Whilst I get the choice, I wish there was something more substantial to leave the film off at. Aside from that though, if you are 18+ and are okay with graphic content and a hard-hitting story, this is an easy recommendation.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Marvelous and the Black Hole

Director: Kate Tsang
Writer: Kate Tsang
Starring: Miya Cech, Rhea Perlman, Leonardo Nam

Synopsis: A teenage delinquent befriends a surly magician who helps her navigate her inner demons and dysfunctional family with sleight of hand magic.

I’m incredibly sad that this didn’t work that much for me. I think there are some great stylistic choices within the film, such as the black-and-white sequences that have fun with the subject matter of fun and allows the film to take some risks.

The film plays out like a standard coming-of-age film that you would potentially see as a Disney Channel Original Movie. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t seem to want to go completely for that tone as there are moments that are too mature for that audience, so the tone choices throughout just confused me.

I found it hard to believe the story and to connect with the characters. Whilst I understand the progression of the story, mainly because it follows the traditional structure beat for beat, it is hard to say that I liked or connected with many of the characters. It just made it tough to care about or enjoy this film overall, so I was sadly disappointed by the final product.

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Night of the Kings

Director: Philippe Lacôte
Writer: Philippe Lacôte
Starring: Koné Bakary, Steven Tientcheu, Digbeu Jean Cyrille

Synopsis: Set in Abidjan’s MACA prison, the aging Black Beard, in attempt to maintain control over his fellow inmates, resorts to a “story” ritual, wherein one prisoner is forced, Scheherazade-style, to tell stories for an entire night. The young pickpocket he chooses relays the haunting tale of the Zama King.

This is a film that I definitely appreciate more than I enjoyed, which is unfortunate. There is a lot of good within this film, and I love the concept that the film runs away with. This film highlights the power of words, with our leading character only being able to tell this story through his words and needing to keep an audience engaged for an entire night.

The opening of this film is excellent, setting up the scene and making our characters distinct and clear. I also love the start of the story that is told, because the voice is clear and it was easy to engage within it.

I do question if this would have worked better as a short film for me. It was hard to stay engaged for the entire runtime, and that is because the story itself didn’t fully captivate me. I also wish it didn’t continually cut away so constantly, ruining the pace of the narrative. Maybe it would work on a revisit, but I just wish I could connect with the film a little more.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

The Sparks Brothers

Director: Edgar Wright
Writer: Edgar Wright
Starring: Ron Mael, Russell Mael, Dave Weigel

Synopsis: How can one rock band be successful, underrated, hugely influential, and criminally overlooked all at the same time? Take a musical odyssey through five weird and wonderful decades with brothers Ron & Russell Mael, celebrating the inspiring legacy of Sparks: your favorite band’s favorite band.

Out of every documentary I have seen at Sundance this year, this is the one that has the most style and distinctive voice. I shouldn’t be surprised at this, given the fact that it is directed by the one and only Edgar Wright, but within five minutes it is clear that this is going to be a fun watch.

I was not at all familiar with The Sparks Brothers before I put this film on. I am glad I went into this film having no knowledge of them, because I came out learning so much. In particular, I love the small touches within the film such as their friends and fans picking out particular song lyrics and getting to hear their music. It made the documentary feel complete, giving me a chance to enjoy their music and become invested in their careers.

I do question whether this documentary had to be 2.5 hours long. Maybe it is because I have been treated by Sundance with many films that are under 100 minutes, but the film did drag in the middle and there were aspects of the documentary I was less fascinated by. Regardless, Edgar Wright made a passion project and it absolutely worked in making me a fan of The Sparks Brothers.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

My Name is Pauli Murray

Directors: Julie Cohen, Betsy West

Synopsis: Overlooked by history, Pauli Murray was a legal trailblazer whose ideas influenced RBG’s fight for gender equality and Thurgood Marshall’s landmark civil rights arguments. Featuring never-before-seen footage and audio recordings, a portrait of Murray’s impact as a non-binary Black luminary: lawyer, activist, poet, and priest who transformed our world.

I am glad that this documentary exists purely because I was not aware of who Pauli Murray was beforehand. What a trailblazer of a person they were, and the impact they made is undeniable. This documentary is so cleanly laid out, telling the story from start to finish and filled with many voices helping to flash out Pauli and the work they did.

What Pauli did in terms of progressing representation and equality, both in terms of race and the LGBTQ+ movement, is empowering and it is sad that their name isn’t brought up more in history. Whilst many people like to think that they know a lot about American history and the people that led the way to inclusion and equality, this documentary shows that there are people who need to be thanked who currently aren’t.

The only thing I question is if less than two hours was enough to tell their story and do it justice. This is a film that I will absolutely be rushing to Google straight after to learn more and do my own research, but I would have loved to have seen more archival footage or hear more audio clips of the past. Still, this is an eye-opening documentary and one that should be shown in history classes.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Judas and the Black Messiah

Director: Shaka King
Writers: Shaka King, Will Berson, Kenneth Lucas, Keith Lucas
Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, Lakeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons

Synopsis: The story of Fred Hampton, deputy chairman of the national Black Panther Party, who was assassinated in 1969 by a Cook County tactical unit on the orders of the FBI and Chicago Police Department.

I have been saying sincd the trailer dropped for this film that Daniel Kaluuya would be winning an Oscar for this role, and I believe I am right with that performance. Quite simply, he gives the performance of the entire year here, and is captivating in every moment.

Do not forget the rest of the crew though, as everyone gives an amazing performance. I think what helps this is that they are all given such powerful characters to really bite their teeth into. It is so easy to be connected to these characters and to see the impact that they are making in their community.

This film is aggressive and loud. It has a message and it is not afraid to say it. Considering it is a film centred around 1969, it is shocking how relatable it is to this day and the impact it can make on today’s generation. Quite simply, it is one of the films of the year.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

All photos courtesy of Sundance Institute.

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