My third dispatch from the 2021 Sundance Film Festival contains capsule reviews of Marilyn Agrelo’s Street Gang: How We Got To Sesame Street, Dash Shaw’s Cryptozoo, Jerrod Carmichael’s On The Count Of Three and Rebecca Hall’s Passing.
dir. Marilyn Agrelo, Premieres, USA, 107 minutes.
We tend to take for granted the things with which we were raised. So it wasn’t until my nephew came along and I found myself watching Sesame Street again for the first time in thirty-odd years that I realized what a bloody miracle the program is, a funky educational marvel that also teaches toddlers the values of kindness and inclusion. Mad Hot Ballroom director Agrelo’s chronicle of the show’s first two decades isn’t any great shakes as a piece of filmmaking –it could stand to be an hour longer, honestly– but with such a story it seldom matters. It’s genuinely, enormously inspirational to watch this ragtag band of beatniks and beardos turning sinister Madison Avenue techniques into instruments of learning, selling the alphabet to kids instead of sugary foods and plastic shit. The movie includes both Big Bird learning of co-star Mr. Hooper’s death and footage from Jim Henson’s funeral, so be prepared to sob like a six-year-old all over again while marveling at the audacity of these idealists who believed they could use the boob tube to make the world a smarter, gentler place. And they did.
dir. Dash Shaw, NEXT, USA, 95 minutes.
It’s 1967 and two naked hippies are getting groovy in the forest when one of them is abruptly gored by a unicorn. Writer-director Shaw’s crudely drawn and even more crudely amusing animated adventure posits a world in which mythological creatures like centaurs, gorgons and winged pegasuses (pegasi?) have become collector’s items for big game hunters, military interests and wealthy liberals who altruistically try to keep these cryptids “free” inside a crassly commercial wildlife preserve that looks suspiciously like a theme park. Everyone’s chasing a brightly colored baby elephant that eats your dreams, but the movie is more concerned with the moral sacrifices inherent in capitalist ventures and what’s lost when we try to make things palatable for the masses. As in his snarky, psychedelic 2016 debut My Entire High School Sinking Into The Sea, Shaw’s defiantly ugly aesthetic is backed by a bratty sense of humor and R-rated antics. Cryptozoo is awash in smeary colors, grisly gags and copious cartoon nudity, with the bloody fate of the title establishment a reminder that some things – like this movie – are born to be wild.
dir. Jerrod Carmichael, U.S. Dramatic Competition, USA, 84 minutes.
NBC’s sadly short-lived The Carmichael Show, a traditional three-camera sitcom following the fictionalized family of controversial standup comic Jerrod Carmichael, was so sharply written and exceptionally attuned to issues of the day, any network that couldn’t make it a huge hit has no business being in television in the first place. This is why Carmichael’s directorial debut — a half-baked suicide pact comedy penned by his longtime collaborators Ari Catcher and Ryan Welch — is my biggest disappointment of the festival so far, even though it’s an okay movie, I guess. The director co-stars with Christopher Abbott as a couple of troubled childhood friends who vow to kill each other at the end of the day, and then escalating misadventures ensue. Shockingly raw performances here from Carmichael and Sundance go-to guy Abbott, as well as special guest stars Tiffany Haddish and J.B. Smoove, but the film feels like a first draft. Indifferently photographed, the movie obviously wants to be Mikey And Nicky but there’s no momentum driving these scenes into each other. Also, bad form stealing the final shot from If Beale Street Could Talk.
dir. Rebecca Hall, U.S. Dramatic Competition, USA, 98 minutes.
With its boxy 1.33 frame, elliptical edits, silvery monochrome photography and huge gulfs of empty headspace bearing down upon the characters, actress Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut brazenly borrows the visual language of Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida and Cold War for her adaptation of Nella Larsen’s slim 1929 Harlem Renaissance novella about two women of color, one passing as white in high society just before the jazz age comes crashing to a close. Tessa Thompson stars as a self-loathing bundle of nerves, silently longing for Ruth Negga’s bleach-blonde Claire, the life of the party and keeper of secrets. Hall’s screenplay frustratingly requires the characters to remain mysteries to themselves while at the same time being so blunderingly obvious that a novelist played by Bill Camp announces the moral of the story in fortune-cookie fashion not even halfway through. (“Maybe we’re all passing for something or other” is an actual line of dialogue in the movie Passing.) Cinematographer Eduard Grau does a lot of the heavy lifting here, discreetly framing the more obnoxiously overt foreshadowing. Artful to a fault, the movie lies carefully arranged, as if under glass.