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Sundance: Passing

In her directorial debut, Rebecca Hall adapts Nella Larsen’s novel about race relations in 1920s New York with her film Passing. The film stars Tessa Thompson as Irene, a light-skinned black woman who ventures into the city, passing as white as she runs errands and enjoys tea time at a fancy hotel. At home she lives a comfortable life with her black husband Brian (Andre Holland) and two children. One day she reunites with an old friend Clare (Ruth Negga), who is also passing for white however lives more boldly and is married to a racist white man (Alexander Skarsgård) who has no clue about Clare’s background. Clare is intrigued by Irene’s life in the black community and ventures into the world she left behind. As Clare spends less time passing, she and Irene develop an intense queer connection that threatens to destroy their marriages and possibly their relationship.

Passing is devastatingly beautiful. The film was shot in black-and-white which speaks to the binary set by culture but also makes us think about these constructs are arbitrary. The cinematography is stunning. For those who love the era, there are plenty of visual splendors to take in. The actresses wear gorgeous period appropriate costumes. (I secretly wanted to steal all of Tessa Thompson’s cloche hats).

Thompson and Negga are brilliant as Irene and Clare. Their movements are gentle and methodical; almost like a choreographed dance. Andre Holland delivers a powerful performance as the troubled Brian. The movie is less about passing as it is about the 1920s Harlem Renaissance, queer identity and the segregation of white and black communities. Rebecca Hall, who is mixed race  and has some African-American heritage on her mother’s side, offers viewers a stunning film with plenty of food for thought.

Passing premiered at the virtual 2021 Sundance Film Festival as part of their U.S. Dramatic Competition.

Update: Passing will screen in select theaters starting October 27th and will stream on Netflix November 10th.

Sundance: The Blazing World

Loosely inspired by  Margaret Cavendish’s novel, The Blazing World examines the long-term effects of trauma through a psychedelic lens. Margaret (Carlson Young), her mother Alice (Vinessa Shaw) and father Tom (Dermot Mulroney), are haunted by the early death of Margaret’s twin sister Elizabeth. Each deals with the trauma in their own self-destructive way. Margaret is suicidal and enters a dark place in her mind where she is followed by a mysterious man, Lained (Udo Kier), who lures her into an alternate world, a visualization of her trauma, where she must face multiple challenges in order to survive.

The Blazing World is an impressive directorial debut by actress Carlson Young who stars in the film and co-wrote the script with Pierce Brown. It’s a visual masterpiece and even if you are not sure what’s going on in the plot you’ll be dazzled by the intense and colorful imagery. The set design, color schemes and costumes are pure eye candy.  I particularly enjoyed Udo Kier’s performance as the creepy Lained. 

Some have criticized the film because how it approaches female trauma and its many film references. Trauma is unique to each individual and will not fill a mold based off of societal expectations. Also I really loved how this film seemed to be inspired by cinema. According to Young the film is heavily inspired by German Horror. I found references to Fritz Lang’s Destiny which really piqued my interest.

 

The Blazing World premiered at the virtual 2021 Sundance Film Festival as part of their Next series.

Sundance: Bring Your Own Brigade

Wildfires have long ravaged California but 2018 was a particularly bad year. That was when the deadly Camp Fire spread quickly through Paradise, California, causing many residents to flee for their lives. The wildfire engulfed houses, burned vehicles, and killed 85 residents. Those who survived endured the trauma that came with escaping the rapidly encroaching flames. Other fires, including one in Malibu, destroyed homes leaving devastation in their wake. While fingers might point to climate change and gender reveal parties as the root cause, there are many factors involved both natural and man-made. 

British director Lucy Walker offers a harrowing look at the 2018 California wildfires by examining the events of that year and the people affected by the disasters in her new documentary Bring Your Own Brigade. Perhaps the most eye-opening aspect of the documentary was how it uncovers the history of the wildfires and how they’ve progressively gotten worse over time. It’s not quite what you expect. The film  features interviews with residents of Paradise and Malibu, first responders, and various experts. It unfolds in an organic way which at times can feel disjointed. Essentially we’re following  the director as her curiosity about the California wildfires takes her on a journey of discovery.

In comparing this film with the Netflix documentary Fire in Paradise (2019), Bring Your Own Brigade offers much more in the way of context and background information to both enlighten and terrify its audience.

Bring Your Own Brigade premiered at the virtual 2021 Sundance Film Festival.

Sundance: Pleasure

The idea of making money from pleasure is an intoxicating one. Bella Cherry (Sofia Kappel), has traveled from her home in Sweden to Los Angeles, to do just that. She aspires to break into the lucrative porn industry. Newcomers are embraced quickly with their first porn shoot which is packaged and sold as an enticing first experience video. But once that cherry has been popped, it’s more difficult to climb the ranks. Bella has the looks, the body but soon discovers that’s not enough. She’s timid, awkward and reluctant to do more advanced techniques. But she’s also got drive. She wants he top talent agent, the lucrative shoots, the best hair and makeup and the chance to climb to the top. Along the way she discovers how abusive her work really is and in order to make it she needs to not only take that abuse but to give it as well.

Directed by Ninja Thyberg, Pleasure is an expansion of her short film by the same name, Pleasure (2013), which premiered at Cannes and also screened at the Sundance Film Festival. Every industry is toxic in one way or another but the porn industry has a cycle of abuse that can be particularly damaging. Thyberg adeptly explores this in her film and casts a critical eye on how the industry treats young women. Kappel offers the viewer a sense of unease that fits with her character.

Pleasure is rooted in realism. There is plenty of nudity and borderline pornographic scenes. Many of the actors are actually porn stars and real porn genres and brand names are used throughout.

I recommend Rashida Jones’ Hot Girls Wanted, a breakout documentary that premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival and is available to watch on Netflix. Pleasure is almost like a fictionalized version of Jones’ film.

Pleasure premiered at the virtual 2021 Sundance Film Festival as part of their World Cinema Dramatic Competition.

Sundance: CODA

What a way to kick off my very first Sundance Film Festival! The first feature film I had the pleasure to see, CODA, is a new favorite and one I’ll be recommending for months to come.

Set in Gloucester, Massachusetts, CODA (an acronym for Children of Deaf Adults) stars Emilia Jones as Ruby, the only hearing member of a deaf family. Her father Frank (Troy Kotsur) manages a struggling fishing business which is bolstered by the help of his wife Jackie (Marlee Matlin), his deaf son Leo (Daniel Durant) and his hearing daughter. The family depends on Ruby to interpret on their behalf, causing her to bear more burden on the high school teenager. But Ruby is on her own journey.  Ruby joins the high school choir where she must overcome her shyness, accept the tough-love tutoring of her singing coach Bernardo (Eugenio Derbez) and expose her vulnerability to her crush and duet partner Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo). Can Ruby find her voice or will she have to sacrifice it to help her family survive their current hardship?

Director Siân Heder absolutely delivers with this feel-good drama that offers moments of joy, sadness and hope. CODA is funny and charming and sends its viewers on a rollercoaster ride of emotions. It’s effective not only as a coming-of-age story but an exploration of a unique family dynamic. Heder cast deaf actors Matlin, Kotsur, and Durant in the roles of the deaf family members. Potential caricature is avoided with authentic and multi-dimensional characters performed by  talented actors. Representation matters and Heder clearly demonstrates that with this thoughtfully crafted film. Another way CODA is effective is in evoking empathy for the plight of the characters and not for their disability. These are fiercely independent individuals who face a battle to thrive in a society of people who do not or chose not to understand. It’s beautiful to see the way they support each other especially as their youngest, who they’ve depended on for so long, is ready to spread her wings and fly.

CODA premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.

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