Sundance Review Day 3: 'Street Gang,' 'Eight For Silver,' 'Mass' and much more
Courtesy of the Sundance Institute
Below is day 3 coverage of the eight films screened throughout the day.
HOW IT ENDS
An earnest apocalyptic comedy that fizzles quickly, Zoe Lister-Jones and Daryl Wein’s “How It Ends” is a one trick pony that stalls within twenty minutes. This quirky, sometimes comical, indie, sees the world ending and Liza (Zoe Lister Jones) along with her “metaphysical” younger self that nobody can see (Cailee Spaeny) are deciding how to spend their final day on earth. Those plans hit a snag when the duo have their car stolen, forcing them to traverse the abandoned LA county landscape where they encounter dozens of celebrity cameos ranging from Fred Armisen, Olivia Wilde, Bradley Whitford, Colin Hanks, and um, Pauly Shore?
If you take a shot for the amount of star power “How It Ends” possesses, you’d be dead. But this derived situational comedy only works sporadically as most of the scattershot, vaguely connected, vignettes draw minimal laughter. Lister-Jones and Spaeny have some good banter, but the whole “metaphysical” aspect never takes shape. If this is how it ends, we’re going out with a whimper.
HOW IT ENDS debuted in the Premieres section of the Sundance Film Festival and is currently seeking distribution.
STREET GANG: HOW WE GOT TO SESAME STREET
Hard to believe that nobody has made a documentary about the groundbreaking children’s program “Sesame Street,” but here we are and it was worth the wait. Though shallow in certain areas as filmmaker Marilyn Agrelo collects dozens of behind the scenes testimonials and archival footage to document the show’s evolution, “Street Gang: How We Got To Sesame Street” is the feel-good motion picture experience we could all use right now.
Covering everything from Jim Henson’s influence to producer/creator Jon Stone’s dream of reaching inner city youth through educational television, “Street Gang” charts the rise of the cultural phenomenon from its inception to today. Agrelo gives viewers a comprehensive look into how “Sesame Street” functioned in those early days, complete with fun never-before-seen bloopers guaranteed to enlighten anyone in its path. It also tackles how creators dealt with protests in Mississippi - educators didn’t like how the show was integrated - and their controversial decision to address the death of actor Will Lee who played Mr. Hooper, one of the original four actors on the show. Fans will be eager to see the late Carol Spinney in one of his final on camera interviews.
And while “Street Gang” has dozens of stories that could use their own movie, you’d have to be Oscar the Grouch himself to not enjoy this. Keep those tissues handy.
STREET GANG: HOW WE GOT TO SESAME STREET debuted in the Premieres section of the Sundance Film Festival and will be released by HBO later this year.
Self loathing in many aspects, Lyle Mithcell Corbin, Jr’s “Wild Indian” brings forth an imbalanced and jarring look at the rise and fall of a serial killer. Set in both 1980 and 2019, “Wild Indian” - running 90 minutes - is competing for time it doesn’t have. Spending 35 minutes understanding the young Makwa (played with amazing restraint and versatility by young actor Phoenix Wilson) navigating a fractured home life from an abusive father figure, often getting lost in the woods with his cousin Ted-O where they accidentally shoot a young child and cover up the murder.
The film awkwardly shifts gears to the present where Makwa or “Michael Peterson” (played here by the great Michael Greyeyes) is a successful executive with a trolling boss (Jesse Eisenberg) and happy wife (Kate Bosworth) expecting his second child. Meanwhile, Ted-O (Chaske Spencer) went in the other direction as a heroin dealer who spent ten years behind bars contemplating the secret from 30 years prior. Those secrets and bitterness are unearthed, but the movie never comes together the way you want. Trim down the first thirty minutes, spend more time with the adult characters and perhaps “Wild Indian” could fire on all cylinders. Kudos to the filmmakers on fostering indigenous stories/actors on screen (can’t reiterate enough how amazing Greyeyes continues to be) and procuring a chilling take on intergenerational trauma despite my overall feelings of the picture.
WILD INDIAN debuted in the US Dramatic Competition section of the Sundance Film Festival and is currently seeking distribution.
Fran Kranz’s single location drama “Mass” sees four parents sit in a church basement and discuss a horrific tragedy that changed their lives forever. Though a bit stagey, and the runtime could be tighter, “Mass” tackles very delicate and sensitive subjects, notably of a mass school shooting where 11 kids were killed, including the sons of Gail and Jay (Matha Plimpton and Jason Isaacs) and Richard and Linda (Reed Birney and Ann Dowd) whom have gathered to hash out their grievances.
For the first thirty minutes, Franz’s script does a plausible job at maneuvering around the central issue. There’s awkward small talk, chatter about children making plans to attend college, but something dark is at play, and in real-time we find out Richard and Linda’s kid was the school shooter with Gail and Jay’s son the victim. Why these four would gather in a room on a dreary winter day is at the heart of Franz’s message of forgiveness.
Intricate details about the shooting are laid out during the nearly two-hour-runtime, and this quartet of award worthy performers sling emotional insults like bullets on the battlefield. Everything from gun violence to political activism are up for discussion in “Mass,” but that doesn’t detour from the soul of the picture. In fact, “Mass” is a tough slope to walk down, and has triggering elements not for the faint of heart, but it shows the power of healing when society stops shouting belabored points and listens to their fellow neighbor.
MASS debuted in the Premieres section of the Sundance Film Festival and is currently seeking distribution.
Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut “Passing” - based on Nella Larsen’s novel - is a dull lesson on race in 1920s Harlem. Leads Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson deliver wholesome, easy to digest performances, but this crisp black and white drama goes nowhere, leaving its premise in the rearview within the first fifteen minutes.
There are numerous questions raised and never answered throughout “Passing,” with borderline plotless developments. We follow Rennie (Tessa Thompson) and her old friend Clare (Ruth Negga) both of whom are light-skinned and mixed-race. It’s revealed that Clare has been “passing” as a white woman in upstate New York, a decision that’s helped her climb social ranks and marry a wealthy bureaucratic husband (Alexander Skarsgard). Meanwhile, Rennie is happy to retreat home to her doctor husband Brian (an always welcome Andre Holland) and two kids.
But Rennie can’t get rid of Clare that easily as she eventually stumbles back to her old stomping grounds, eager to live out facets of the life she left behind. There’s a nice dynamic between Negga and Thompson that briefly gives “Passing” some energy, but Hall’s script never figures out the correct direction to take them.
Hall - whose mother is biracial and also “passed” for white - has a deep connection to the material, and surprisingly “Passing” never finds an emotional foundation to sink its hooks into. The sluggish pacing and mundane plot do little to keep casual viewers invested and what begins as a strong character study about the perils of race identity, quickly sputters the moment things start heating up. Hall shows great poise as a rising filmmaker, but her ambitions far outweigh the needs in this clunky period piece.
PASSING premiered in the US Dramatic Competition of the Sundance Film Festival and is currently seeking distribution.
EIGHT FOR SILVER
A gnarly creature feature of the week complete with gypsie curses and Boyd Holbrook hunting a werewolf ravaging a small community in the late nineteenth century, Sean Ellis’s “Eight for Silver '' comes as advertised. A horror film that doesn’t dabble in convoluted folklore, but a fairly modern narrative about how the destruction of a gypsie encampment orchestrated by wealthy landowner Seamus Laurent (Alistair Petrie) unleashes a deadly hex that lures children into its trap (and inexplicably turns them into a werewolf, attacking and infecting the townsfolk along the way).
That’s where Boyd Holbrook’s pathologist comes into play, who’s tiny village faced a similar threat that left him widowed years ago. His tasks are simple: trap the beast and kill it, though that’s easier said than done considering one bite infects the host, and now one werewolf is suddenly three.
Ellis’ film is an effective little shocker that occasionally gets bogged down by silly creature designs and even cheaper looking CGI effects, but there’s an array of gory, practical effects worth praising too. Take away the jump scares, trim fifteen minutes and “Eight for Silver” would be an air-tight machine. Still, Holbrook proves convincing in his role with the tense and moody atmosphere paving way for solid thrills that really bite.
EIGHT FOR SILVER debuted in the Premieres section of the Sundance Film Festival and is currently seeking distribution.
COMING HOME IN THE DARK
James Ashcroft’s “Coming Home In The Dark” knows exactly what it wants to be: A lean, 90 minute nail-biter with stark underlying themes. When you’re running on minimal sleep and watching several movies in rapid succession, sometimes it pays to have something familiar, but Ashcroft subverts expectations at nearly every turn. Mainly because of Daniel Gillies’ wildly unpredictable performance as the sadistic madman named Mandrake who's just taken Hoaggie (Erik Thomson) and his entire family hostage during a family picnic in the New Zealand countryside.
There’s plenty of familiar beats Ashcroft toys with and he’s clearly inspired by “The Hitcher,” but the tension remains steady and consistent with secrets to Mandrake’s past resurfacing in killer fashion. I genuinely enjoy when a movie doesn’t fuss around and waste time, kicking into gear within the first five minutes, pumping up adrenaline before there’s even time to settle in. Despite an ending that’s a smidge anti-climatic, Ashcroft shows great promise as a rising filmmaker and if he keeps this type of chokehold on the thriller genre, there’s no telling where he could go. The best Sundance Midnight submission by a mile.
COMING HOME IN THE DARK premiered in the Midnight section of the Sundance Film Festival and is seeking distribution.
Director Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s “Flee” perfectly blends animated storytelling and documentary mechanics for a visceral experience. Premiering in the World Documentary section of the Festival, “Flee” defines what it means for discovering cinema. The pic recounts the story of Amin, who today is 36, a successful academic and is getting married to his long-time boyfriend. But his childhood was a daily struggle and “Flee” encapsulates - with clean animated textures - Amin’s immigration journey from Afghanistan (where he could be hung for his homosexual urges) to Russia to Denmark and eventually the United States.
“Flee” creates an unforgettable odyssey for the viewer with animated sides envisioning aspects of Amin’s story that would be left to imagination otherwise. It’s the perfect medium for this story and how it should be told. “Flee” is arguably the best film of Sundance thus far that’s uplifting and empowering message should speak truth for decades to come.
FLEE debuted in the World Documentary section of the Sundance Film Festival and was acquired by NEON who will release it later this year.
All the above photos courtesy of the Sundance Institute.