The Sundance Film Festival was scheduled to return to an in-person event this month. But with the omicron COVID variant sweeping the country, the decision was made two or three weeks ago to cancel the live events and go virtual. I’m sure that was a difficult and costly decision, so I give them credit for doing the right thing.
Personally, I’m happy to be joining the festival again from my couch. I’m not an industry insider, have no need to network with anybody there and could care less about the so-called VIP events. While I would prefer the big screen, just getting to watch the movies is enough for me.
The festival continues until Jan. 30, so you can still go to the web site and buy tickets for some screenings. (For some reason unknown to me, these virtual screenings still sell out.) Here’s a few short reviews of what I’ve seen this week.
La Guerra Civil
A documentary about a boxing match. Julio Cesar Chavez, a veteran and longtime champion fighter from Mexico, against Oscar De La Hoya, a young Mexican-American Olympic champion from LA. I’m not a follower of boxing so I may not appreciate the significance of this bout from a sporting perspective. But that’s not really what this movie is about.
It is more a tale of Mexican identity. Chavez is from the barrio in some not-so-nice town in Mexico. He is stout, gritty and fights like a relentless bull. De La Hoya was born in East LA to a Mexican family. He is handsome, ever-smiling and fights with style and grace. Chavez chose this career. De La Hoya didn’t seem to have a choice, his dad grooming him relentlessly for the ring since age 5. If you grew up in a Mexican-American family, your old-school dad likely was rooting for Chavez, your sister for De La Hoya. Fans see Chavez as all Mexican. De La Hoya chafes at the suggestion he’s not Mexican enough.
A large part of the movie involves interviews with the fighters, some archival footage from the 90’s, but mostly the present day persons. Both come across as honest and likeable, sports heroes who’ll acknowledge and discuss their vulnerabilities. If you think of boxers as arrogant dim-witted trash talkers, you won’t see that in these two.
Do you need to care about boxing to appreciate this film? Hardly. In fact I think it helps to not be a boxing fan so you’re in suspense as to who’s going to win, I won’t let on.
You’ve seen this story before. A man walks into a bank and makes a bundled attempt to rob it. He comes up empty but ends up holed up in the bank with a couple hostages. Turns out he’s not criminal, just desparate, and he gains the empathy of the hostages, the covering media, even the police negotiator.
What’s different about 892? For one, this is based on a true story. Secondly, it is beautifully filmed. I really wish I wasn’t watching this one on my TV. Most of the film is shot in a dark bank with lights out and shades drawn while the would-be rescuers accumulate outside in the bright sunshine. And thirdly, while I admit this word is grossly overused in promoting and reviewing movies, 892 is absolutely riveting.
This is the story of Brian Easely. He is a former marine. He obviously has PTSD, but we can’t tell whether it’s from his military engagement or his dealings with the VA. He has a disability that has caused him to take a leave of absence from his two jobs. Dependent on disability payments from the VA, he is brought to the point of homelessness when some bureaucratic error results in his disability payment being taken to pay off someone else’s student debt. At the VA office, a stone-faced clerk of some sort responds to his predicament by handing him a brochure about homelessness. Brian decides to take matters into his own hands, walks into an Atlanta-area Wells Fargo with a bomb, and time comes to a standstill for him, for two hostages, for the empathetic police negotiator. Outside, enough firepower has been brought in to re-take Afghanistan. Meanwhile Brian is on the floor of the bank restroom reading bible passages to his daughter on the phone.
What also differentiates this movie is the message. How do we send guys like Brian on missions that can cost them their life and then forget about them when they get home?
Do the hostages get out alive? Does Brian? Do the good cops prevail over the trigger-happy ones? You’ll just have to go find this movie to get the answers. But I will tell you this. The title 892 represents the amount of money Brian got screwed out of by the VA.
A movie for our times. Something that demonstrates the implication of overturning Roe vs. Wade as the conservative Supreme Court seems on course to do.
Jane is an underground organization that operated in the Chicago area is in late 60’s and early 70’s. They helped women get safe abortions at a time when they were illegal. Their clients included women who were raped, women whose health and life could have been jeopardized by a full-term pregnancy, wonen who were underage, etc. This is a fictional movie about a real organization and a real issue.
Joy Griffin is a comfortable suburban Chicago housewife with a teenage daughter, married to an up-and-coming criminal lawyer. She is pregnant and after collapsing due to a cardiac ailment she is advised that her life is at risk if she carries the pregnancy to full term. To get a legal abortion in the local hospital requires an exemption to be granted by some type of board. The half dozen or so old white men on that board all refuse based on ‘data’ that shows the baby has a chance of survival.
When all else fails, Joy calls Jane, a phone number she finds on a sticker slapped onto a bus stop. The call is life changing, and not just because she gets the abortion she needed to save her life. It begins an involvement with the organization that changes her life, her family and pretty much everything that she thought was important.
In my short-form movie reviews I rarely make much of the acting of individuals in the cast. But Elizabeth Banks is truly outstanding as the suburban mom joining a group of pro-choice activists.
This is not always a comfortable watch, but this movie is so moving. I’m old enough to have been a teenager and young adult when abortions were illegal in this country. Honestly, I never fully realized how scary it was for women my age at the time. This is a movie that will stay with you.
The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales
Just in case you’re not familiar, the American Dream is about the thing that if you work hard you’ll live a comfortable middle-class life, own a home, have a car and a full fridge. The camera here follows the lives of four workers who do just that (work hard) but don’t have any of those things. I’m reminded of the classic Barbara Ehrenreich book Nickled and Dimed in which she took on a number of full-time jobs, none of which provided enough income to live on. That was over 20 years ago. It hasn’t gotten better.
All of the people the move follows work for Disney. The filmmaker is Abigail Disney, granddaughter of Disney co-founder Roy Disney. Every few minutes or so we’re reminded of exactly how many millions the company’s CEO makes. This portrayal of income inequality in modern America is not exclusively a Disney story. The move is a Disney story because its coming from within the family.
Abigail thinks things were different in grandpa Roy’s day. He lived a comfortable but relatively modest life and he cared about and felt responsible for his employees. This contrasts to the modern day exec whose sense of responsibility doesn’t seem to go beyond his own income and maybe the company shareholders.
The movie delves a little into how we got to this point. There’s Reaganomics, Milton Friedman and his vision of free market capitalism, the whole “trickle down” theory which has never seemed to have any ring of truth to it. It is suggested that Americans were trained to think government is bad, labor is bad, but greed makes the world go round.
As much as I appreciate the views expressed by the film, I don’t think the documentary is up to the usual standard at Sundance. I thought the portrayals of the Disney employees lacked depth and that the range of people interviewed was too narrow. But I’ll still go with the ‘down with greed’ message.
Somber and picturesque. This is a visual story. Dialogue is minimal. So is narrative. Emotion is limited to a very occasional smile or tear.
On one level, this is a “day in the life” story of a rural Mexican village. The camera takes us shopping at the butchers and hangs out at the hair salon. We get a glimpse of town social life: fireworks night, some impromptu drag racing and dancing.
Mostly the movie is set on a farm and tequila factory. It isn’t an idealistic kind of day on the farm we see here, its the tedious, workingman’s version. And if you’re filling, packing or labeling the tequila bottles, it isn’t any better.
The owner of the factory/farm is a middle age woman of whose background we learn little. While on the surface one day seems pretty much like another, there is a cascading series of problems that beset her, some type of plague affecting the crops, an agave shortage, flooding, a payroll she can’t meet and employees leaving.
The plot goes from standstill to slow to moving. But it’s the cinematography that’s something to behold. There are so many pictures that if captured as a still would look like they belong on the wall of an art museum.