Another day of Sundance has come and gone and as is the theme with this year it was definitely a mixed bag. Some good, bad, and everything in between.
Here we go with the reviews!
I always enjoy documentaries that teach me about something I am unfamiliar with especially if they do so in a polished, beautiful way. Such is the case with Descendant. Director Margaret Brown introduces us to the descendants of the Clotilda, the last slave ship to arrive on American shores (in Alabama and was called Africatown for many years).
Brown effectively uses anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston’s words to narrate the story throughout the film and she also has footage of Cudjo Lewis, one of the last survivors of the Clotilda.
In February, National Geographic is releasing their own documentary on the Clotilda so it will be interesting to see how it compares. This one focuses more on the current ramifications and the impact big business factories have had on the area. I found Descendant moving and definitely recommend it.
7 out of 10
Alice, the new film by Krystin Ver Linden, is a bit of a hard film to review. On the surface its elements could be compelling but as a finished product I hated it. The idea of a slave walking out of the plantation into 1973 America could be interesting but it is executed with complete cringe.
To begin with the slavery part (a good 45 minutes of the film) is executed like they took a greatest hits book from other films and sloppily tried to copy them. Keke Palmer tries her best as Alice but she’s left with a one note character that alternates between timid wallflower to empowered activist without any nuance or believability.
Then we have the blaxploitation, revenge section which includes a terrible sequence from Alicia Witt and it’s awkward and bizarre but not in a way that is compelling or interesting. There are literally scenes with Alice watching television with googly eyes as she sees moments from Black history unfold. Come on. This story deserved better than the Black version of Encino Man. I’ve honestly seen episodes of Doctor Who that tackle this subject better and that’s a largely white show!
2 out of 10
There are a lot of things to like about Bradley Rust’s new film blood. To begin with it is beautifully shot with gorgeous cinematography showcasing both the city and mountains of Japan. It also has some good performances from Carla Juri, Takashi Ueno (who have great chemistry despite this being Ueno’s first acting role). The little girl is also really cute.
Unfortunately all these good attributes can’t make up for absolutely glacial pacing. Very little actually happens in blood (not too mention no blood LOL). It’s mostly long shots of people staring and contemplating life. And it’s nearly 2 hours! It was a LONG sit and I struggled to finish it if I’m honest. So little happens and pretty images can only satisfy my soul for so long. In the end, it was not for me.
4 out of 10
Another strong documentary from the festival comes from director Ramin Bahrani and his film 2nd Chance. It chronicles the life of eccentric inventor of the bulletproof vest Richard Davis.
In some ways 2nd Chance reminded me of an old Errol Morris documentary, something like Gates of Heaven (although that is too strong a praise the films have similar vibes). Davis is certainly the type of bizarre character Morris would have found interesting. But in 2nd Chance we not only meet Davis but his 2 ex-wives and other people like Aaron Westrick who was saved from his vests but then became involved in Davis’ life in unexpected ways.
Davis is a dream subject for a documentary. He’s brash and unapologetic and everyone seems to admire him despite some bad choices. It perhaps feels a little stretched out and repetitive at times but I was for the most part very entertained by 2nd Chance and am now just wondering when we are going to get the feature film adaptation of his story starring Sam Rockwell. It writes itself…
8 out of 10
Emily the Criminal
Actress Aubrey Plaza has become a bit of an indie darling the last few years. With strong performances in movies like Ingrid Goes West, Happiest Season and Black Bear she’s much more than just the funny actress from Parks and Recreation. Now she takes on a thriller in John Patton Ford’s new movie Emily the Criminal.
The premise for this film is strong with Plaza’s Emily desperate for a wage that can pay off her student loans begins working for an underground credit card fraud ring where she basically acts as a personal shopper buying goods with stolen credit cards. A lot of millennials will be able to relate to her frustration having found out the hard way that the promises of college were mostly lies and you are left doing menial work and letting your real passions go dormant. She even interviews for several jobs where she is told she can work for free with the hopes of maybe getting hired in the future. We’ve all been there especially over the last few years.
Where the movie is less successful is the thriller elements. Plaza has decent chemistry with costar Theo Rossi but most of the chases and supposed tension felt very by-the-numbers and ordinary. We’ve seen it all before and it isn’t filmed with any panache or flair which can elevate such sequences. It’s not bad just bland and predictable.
Still, I overall had a good time with Emily the Criminal. It has enough to say and Plaza is strong enough as Emily to carry the film past its more pedestrian elements. I’d say it is worth a watch.
6 out of 10
So there you have it! Let me know what you got to see at Sundance and if you get to see any of these films what you think!