My first dispatch from the 2021 Sundance Film Festival contains capsule reviews of Baz Poonpiriya’s One For The Road, Siân Heder’s CODA, Alex Camilleri’s Luzzu and Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson‘s Summer Of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised).
dir. Baz Poonpiriya, World Cinema Dramatic Competition, China/Hong Kong/Thailand, 136 minutes.
This sprawling, unabashedly florid melodrama begins with a hotshot Manhattan bar owner named Boss getting a call from estranged best bud Aood back in Bangkok, telling him he’s got terminal cancer and some amends to make on his way out. The friends are reunited for a road trip across Thailand in a classic car, visiting ex-girlfriends while fluidly flashing back to old affairs and buried backstories. There are some stunning individual passages here, with the super-saturated cinematography by Phaklao Jiraungkoonkun and lyrical pop music interludes bearing the obvious influence of the film’s producer Wong Kar Wai. Certain beats, like the turning of a lover’s head timed to an explosion of fireworks in the night sky, stir up enough swoony romanticism you may find yourself forgiving the filmmaker for cramming in so much stuff it almost feels as if he couldn’t decide which story he wanted to tell so he shot them all. The too-muchness eventually becomes part of the boyish charm. This is very ardently a young man’s picture, full of unreflective nostalgia and self-mythologizing grandeur. As an old fart, my heart went out to it.
dir. Siân Heder, U.S. Dramatic Competition, USA, 111 minutes.
The moment we met the mincing music teacher I knew I was gonna be in for a long couple of hours. One of those annoying, crowd-pleasing Sundance sensations that sticks sitcom characterizations in an unconventional milieu, Heder’s sophomore effort stars Sing Street’s Emilia Jones as the teenage daughter who can hear in a family of deaf Gloucester fishermen. But what she really wants to do is sing. Based on a 2014 French film unreleased in America, the movie piles on underdeveloped subplots and contrivances while the supporting cast and day players give performances so cartoonishly broad they can be seen from space. (The overwritten attempts at bawdy humor are especially cringeworthy.) Some nice lensing of area locations can’t cover for the script’s inauthenticity and some staggering logic leaps – the family effortlessly starts up a successful fishery co-op practically as an afterthought, not to mention the most easily attained Berklee scholarship in the history of higher education – and the extent to which any of this is remotely tolerable has everything to do with Jones’ lovely singing voice and her relaxed screen presence in a sea of ham.
dir. Alex Camilleri, World Cinema Dramatic Competition, Malta, 94 minutes.
Fishing again, though a great deal more convincing this time, as young Jesmark finds yet another leak in the wooden luzzu boat via which his family has made their livelihoods for generations. Working in the tradition of the great Italian neorealists, writer-director Camilleri befriended actual fishermen while researching the story on the Malta coast and ended up casting them in the picture. It’s got a rough-hewn, easy authenticity, process-oriented in its depiction of a diminishing way of life and how easily one can fall into a financial squeeze when all the social safety nets have been cut. A sick child sends Jesmark down a slippery slope and narrowing options steer him into in a grey market of closed season poaching and assorted other extralegal activities. Camilleri calmly regards his characters. You never get a sense of scenes being pumped up for the audience’s benefit, and first-time actor Jesmark Scicluna is just distant and ornery enough that we’re never quite sure what he’s going to do next. It’s thoughtfully directed without being showy, the matter-of-fact presentation hammering home how such sad stories are everyday occurrences.
dir. Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson, U.S. Cinema Documentary Competition, USA, 117 minutes.
Oh, happy day. The Roots’ drummer and music scholar extraordinaire makes his directorial debut shaping mountains of previously unseen footage from the Harlem Culture Festival – which took place over six consecutive weekends at New York City’s Mount Morris Park in the summer of 1969 – into a powerful portrait of a political moment and one of the most rousing concert films you’ll ever see. Featuring peak performances by Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, The Staple Singers, B.B. King, Gladys Knight and the Pips, the Edwin Hawkins Gospel Choir and the incomparable Nina Simone, it’s a loud and proud celebration of African-American music during what one attendee describes as the transformation from “Negro” to “Black.” Thompson and ace editor Joshua L. Pearson fold mini-history lessons inside of the individual songs – a technique that irks me when other directors do it, but is brought off here with a musician’s timing and reverence for the right parts of the material. He’s smart enough to sit still when Mahalia Jackson duets with Mavis Staples on a gooseflesh-inducing “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” Also, “A Questlove Jawn” is the new greatest possessory credit in all of cinema.