I Was at Sundance Without Ever Leaving My Couch

With this pandemic continuing unabated, going on nearly a year now, it is harder and harder to find any bright side. But alas, in the last week I was able to attend the Sundance Film Festival for the first time. No need to fly to Utah. No need to pay festival rates at the closest hotel I could find nor to compete for a shrinking number of dinner reservations.

I don’t much care about the parties, the awards, the networking, the celebrities, so from that perspective a virtual festival is fine with me. Surely I miss the big screen and the big sound. But at least I don’t have to wear a mask sitting on my couch.

The first movie that I watched virtually because of the pandemic that made live viewing impossible, The Pink Cloud, was a movie about quarantining, a lockdown. Not a benign sort of social distancing, mask wearing lockdown but a real shut the door and never open it lockdown. The culprit is a pink cloud over Brazil, a gaseous invader so noxious that you’re dead in 10 seconds of being outdoors.

Some people got stuck in the grocery store. One married couple was separated when the husband went to the bakery and never came back. Giovanni and Yago had just met. Likely they were alone in her mother’s apartment thinking of a night of sex. They never left. Because the pink cloud doesn’t get blown off by the next weather system, it’s here.

It’s very hard to review this film without spoilers, but assuming you’re going to be seeing The Pink Cloud in other festivals and eventually on a streaming site or two, I’ll keep all i’s secrets to myself. We see about ten years of Yolanda and Yago’s time together. In that time they go through everything you might expect in 60 years or so of hot and cold marriage.

Despite having a setting limited to a single apartment, the movie is beautifully and artistically filmed. The acting is brilliant and conveys a roller coaster of emotions. And while it might seem a little unnerving to watch while we’re in the midst of a pandemic, hey, it could be a lot worse.

After all this quarantine doom and gloom, I looked forward to the Spanish movie El Planeta. What it promised was fun. But I came away with nary a chuckle.

A young woman, Leo, and her mother are in the apparent last days before being kicked out of their apartment in Gijon, Spain. There’s no heat and not much food. Leo sits on the steps in the hallway in order to read because the electricity has been turned off. Now the fridge leaks, though it seemed to be used for little other than by mom to “freeze” her enemies. Sounds like a laugh a minute, right?

There is however a card and some merchants willing to run a tab so we see the pair in the mall buying clothes, at the beautician, and mom comes up with a box of pastries everyday or so. They even get to try the tasting menu at a restaurant named El Planeta.

The movie is filmed in black and white, adding to the stark appearance of the town where it seems most storefronts are papered over with a for sale sign in the window. The score is just as stark.

This is a debut feature for Amalie Ulsan. She also stars as Leo. Her mother stars as her mother. So many reasons I wanted to like this film. I just didn’t.

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Kawzi and Mahmoud are The Captains of Zaatari. They are teenage soccer players. They play everyday. Their lives are focused on tournaments where they can be chosen for a traveling team. They dream of being the next Ronaldo. They are also Syrian refugees living in a camp in Jordan.

That camp is desolate and desperate. There’s no money, there’s no work and not much in the way of food. But they have dreams and the story of those dreams supersedes the rough edges of their lives.

Both are selected to be on a team called the Syrian Dream. They go to Qatar and play in an international under-18 tournament. It is their first time on grass, their first time with proper boots. They stay in a nice hotel and marvel at the availability of 24-hour Internet. Then it’s back to the camp in Jordan.

During a press conference after one of the tournament games, Mahmoud says: “refugees just need an opportunity, they don’t need your pity.” That is what this documentary is all about, but the filmmaker doesn’t beat you over the head with that message, he just lets you see it. If the boys’ story isn’t compelling enough there is also some stunning cinematography.

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Dog Day Afternoon meets Y2K. I’ve watched dozens of movies during this pandemic. Prime Time might be the best. It’s New Year’s Eve 1999. There’s a game show on Polish TV. A young guy with a gun slips into the TV studio and takes the game show host and a security guard hostage.

Sebastian’s demand is air time, a slot to address the national TV audience right after the president gives a New Year’s speech. We don’t know what message he will deliver, nor do we know what brought him to this point. The only hint is the appearance of a prick of an estranged father who arrives on the scene and makes things worse.

The movie goes through every emotion: sympathy, hysteria, anger among them. There’s the hard core police, the soft-touch hostage negotiators and the arrogant TV executive. The outside cast of characters becomes polarized between the sympathizers and the would be attackers.

I hate to try to characterize a movie like this, but maybe psychological thriller is the best description. I barely even blinked while watching this one.

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Life in a Day 2020 is just that. This ‘crowdsourced documentary’ was culled from videos sent in from 192 countries. Thousands of hours of mostly cellphone video clips became a 90-minute snapshot of what people were doing all around the world.

The day is July 25, 2020. For many it is a day like any other. A mom wakes up her sleepy kids, a girl milks her goat, babies learn to crawl, children learn to read, lovers meet and cuddle and kiss. For others it is a special day. They give birth and get married and bury loved ones.

There are signs that it’s 2020. A woman whose teenage son was part of the first Life in a Day movie ten years ago shows the urn that contains his ashes. He died from COVID. A young black woman tries to suppress her rage while telling us of her two brothers who were murdered in police custody.

But the overall impact is a celebration of humanity. It is as if the director Kevin McDonald has taken all the social media networks and boiled down their data feed to just the highlights: no marketers, no trolls, no conspiracy mongers or disinformation artists. Watch this movie and you can’t help thinking of cliches like ‘we’re all one human race.”

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The first thing you notice about the movie Jockey is how absolutely beautifully and artistically it is filmed. Most scenes are dark with subtle back lighting and maybe a beam of light on the side of a central character’s face. Sort of like a classic Renaissance painting. Outdoor scenes are back lit by beautiful sunsets. Did they shoot this whole movie at sunset! It is in Arizona so maybe it’s too hot to shoot when the sun is high in the sky.

The second thing you notice about the movie Jockey is that you don’t want to be a jockey. These guys are beat up. Every locker room conversation is about broken bones, busted heads and damaged spines. And they don’t seem to be the ones making the money at the track.

As for the story. Jackson is a veteran and very successful jockey. He’s near the end of his career and he has more than one doctor tell him it’s over. He works for a trainer who he may or may not also have some romantic involvement with. And a young aspiring jockey pops on the scene who may or may not be his son from an earlier relationship.

For much of the movie the atmosphere takes precedence over the story. It is filmed at working race track. While the lead roles are played by professional actors and actresses  who are quite brilliant, many of the background roles are filled by actual jockeys and other racetrack personnel. In the end, it is the drama that demands your attention as the aforementioned threesome sorts itself out in one big race.

(The U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award went to Clifton Collins Jr. who played Jackson.)

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8 Responses to I Was at Sundance Without Ever Leaving My Couch

  1. imogenglad says:

    I like the sound of some of these, wish I’d got organized and signed up now!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for these references, I also read about Misha and the Wolves at Sundance and am really looking forward to seeing that film.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Donna Janke says:

    Being able to attend festivals virtually that might have been difficult or expensive to attend personally has certainly been one good thing happening in these difficult times. In my case, I attended virtually a writing conference I’d been wanting to get to for a while. I enjoyed reading about the movies you saw.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pam Lazos says:

    Wait, how did you manage to watch these films, Ken, and can anyone do it?!

    Like

  5. I always enjoy your movie reviews, Ken! Very cool that Sundance opened this up for virtual attendance–hope they continue to offer that. Maybe I’ll be on the ball next year. 🙂

    Like

  6. Ken Dowell says:

    They sent a survey after the festival asking if we’d be interested in a virtual element in the future. So I know they’re at least think about it.

    Like

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