Whether the Tendency of the Letter Published is to Deprave and Corrupt Those Whose Minds are Open to Such Immoral Influence

The Video Nasties – a hysterical censorship phenomenon in the United Kingdom during the early years of the 1980s video recording industry that saw prosecutors determining the extent of cuts certain graphically violent movies would need to be deemed suitable for home viewing – do not have a one-size-fits-all aesthetic to them, outside of featuring graphic violence (which would often vary in amount still). It was an arbitrary motion made towards an arbitrary selection of films. So when Censor – the debut feature film by Prano Bailey-Bond – hardly resembles the Video Nasties which it takes as its screenplay’s subject matter (co-written by Bailey-Bond and Anthony Fletcher), this doesn’t feel as much a failure as it seems certain people would like to pronounce it. No, there is no less of a huge amount of fascination with the movies that were subject to this certainly publicity-boosting act of committee on top of the minutiae regarding that process in itself.

The censor whose process we follow most closely is Enid Baines (Niamh Algar), who takes her job very seriously, spending long hours in a room watching violent grisly material and noting what must be cut before she and her colleagues can determine to allow the film to be exhibited on the streets or if the movie must be banned for the safety of the citizens. She seems mostly stable enough in the first few scenes, if still alarmist, as she argues on decapitations and eye-gougings to be removed from a film and if the introduction of her traumatic past very early on invites doubt, she’s still relatively well-adjusted to receive a bombast of gruesome images of murder and rape and maiming and treat the matter professionally. The traumatic past, as it were, is a young memory of watching her child sister Nina (Amelie Child-Villiers) disappear in the woods and it appears that Enid’s stability about 2 decades later is at risk from three sides.

First, Enid’s parents (Clare Holman & Andrew Havill) approach her with a death certificate finally created for Nina, despite Enid’s objection that she might still be out there. Then there’s a shocking domestic killing that imitates a violent sequence that was passed by Enid in her assessment, bringing a lot of public attention to the censorship office and Enid herself. And finally, while reviewing the latest submission by an elusive and notorious filmmaker Frederick North (Vincent Schiller), she spots the face of the lead actor Alice Lee (Sophia La Porta) and is so very sure that she has to be Nina, beginning an personal investigation towards North’s production that only promises an unstoppable spiral down to something beyond the limits of the television screen.

I did very little in that synopsis to hide how Censor slides into psychological thriller territory and if Censor does not resemble a video nasty in any particular way – sure, there is gore and violence in the film but much of it is backloaded or archive footage from infamous banned Video Nasties with ironic cutting at the most visceral moments to “leave it to the imagination” as Enid suggests – it does resemble the unreliable atmosphere of a giallo with its choice of colors and spacing between the office workplace and Enid’s boxy apartment home, in the modern homage fashion of Cattet & Forzani or more closely to fellow British arthouse horror stablemate of Bailey-Bond’s Peter Strickland. And certainly this has extratextual purpose as well in indicting the sort of hang-ups that somebody might have imposing their restrictions on art, even art as disreputable as these violent pictures.

Censor is a movie that’s easy to chop down into three acts that slide well into each other, though I will admit there is a distinct difference in quality or engagement for that middle half interrupting the regularity of Enid and her colleagues staring at dismemberments between notes, researching their filmmakers, and having debates about what could possibly be going out to the public in between slimey producers waltzing into the offices to discuss those results (the producer particularly showing up in pivotal ways being played by resident screen creep Michael Smiley, which is of course an excellent casting choice*). Anyway, everything up until Enid visits a video store trying to solicit a Frederick North picture to clerk’s reluctance despite it being obvious he stocks banned videos is transparently a conduit for Bailey-Bond’s love for the movies, their attached notoriety, and a close interest in the process that brought them that notoriety. But that sequence is far enough into the middle investigation once Enid sees Lee’s face on a work assignment that we’re already beginning to segue into aimless meandering that is brought by slack and less interesting editing and once she leaves that video store, it’s not coming back for a while.

But that’s all fair since editor Mark Towns is saving his best for last and that can be argued for the rest of the crew as that meandering finally leads to the climactic final third where Enid finally finds a direction to take on in finding Alice and finding out if she’s Nina and her tenaciousness starts to affect the visuals in a tremendously exciting way. The frames of the aspect ratio begin to close at a snail’s pace so you can hardly notice the walls closing in on Enid, the colors by Annika Summerson’s camerawork become more saturated than the more grounded hues within the first hour, and video effects slowly corrupt the visuals in a way that disguise the segue between Enid’s perspective on things and the camera’s without particularly telling us what is the truth until the very final minutes. It doesn’t take a deep dive to recognize the events in terms of narrative, but it remains the sort of translation between a subjective perspective and the cinematic form that makes me giddy when encountered in the wild. And it all just brings us back to the interest in that video nasty aesthetic with a moment that particularly seats us as viewers into watching something ostensibly artificial and beastly before Enid finds ways to disrupt it in shocking ways.

So there one has it. Deep in the midnight screenings of Sundance 2021 birthed a cryptic horror yarn on a moment in pop culture that come from a place of deep admiration. Censor, which I have to assume is a continuation of ideas from Bailey-Bond’s earlier short film Nasty (which I haven’t seen), is a fairly confident feature debut that presents the filmmaker’s personality with aplomb and it is very easy to see how Bailey-Bond’s interests and my interests align enough that I’m excited for whatever she comes up with next, genre or otherwise.

*I was also convinced for a minute that Matthew Earley, who plays a co-worker of Enid’s, was actually a cameo by Ben Wheatley at first glance. Apologies to Earley.

Another Green World

Probably my biggest regret of this past Sundance 2021 was not finding the time or ability to review even a single one of the multiple features I saw during that single week (though I am glad I was able to cover the short films selections), until far enough since the end of the festival that there was no relevance or point anymore. Maybe I can turn that around as they are wide released stateside, especially as it would give me a chance to refresh movies that were already fading by the time I could sit down and write again.

But one movie didn’t fade all that much. One movie, above all others, stayed embedded in my mind as I kept turning around it over and over until it finally got its expected release here (one of the movies that already had a distributor before it arrived to Sundance). And that was Ben Wheatley’s In the Earth, which heralded a return to form for Wheatley that rivals his early greatness (barring Happy New Year, Colin Burstead, which is my only gap among his features as it’s not yet released in the US).

In fact, it’s a movie that most feels in line with A Field in England, his 2013 rural period-based psychological hallucination that I frankly was not as impressed on first viewing with, but I do feel like I’d revisit with newfound appreciation in its untethered atmospheric madness. That movie begins with a sense of distance brought by its time setting and dreamy black-and-white and minimalist production design, In the Earth starts way differently. Its starting point is in fact extremely relatable to a viewer in early 2021, set in the middle of what is not identified as the COVID-19 pandemic but sounds eerily similar from how it’s discussed in dialogue (as one of several movies developed and produced during it) as scientist Martin Lowery (Joel Fry) prepares to move further beyond a unnamed government outpost into its neighboring forest with a local park guide Alma (Ellora Torchia). And if I’m being honest, that “a virus is happening” starting point may pull the viewer into the world but it’s also not particularly a committed element and the more In the Earth follows Martin and Alma through the woods… the less we have that virus as an urgent element. There’s more pressing matters to worry about.

The central matter is something I wouldn’t want to spoil, for a lot of In the Earth is trying to get us lulled into the rhythm of a quiet isolated trek through the woods – perfect for a film production made at a time where few people should be in close proximity to each other – and then have that violently swerved into something we couldn’t imagine. And Nick Gillespie’s soft photography of the oppressive greenery and shade does phenomenal work laying a tired shadow to Martin and Alma’s hike, seeking out Martin’s former colleague Dr. Olivia Wendle (Hayley Squires) and getting more and more nervous as they run into abandoned tents and a random habitant of the forest Zach (Reece Shearsmith) who gives off a plenty irregular enough vibe to make us prepped for something bad to happen.

Well, this IS a horror movie so something bad happens. And Wheatley’s work as his own editor does so much to make the bad things interrupting the slow-running expedition truly feel discombobulated by the later shifts it takes, inviting us to expect some contagion-set Blair Witch material what with Alma’s explanation of an folklore by the name of Parnag Fegg and campfire lit sequences taking up the first third. But In the Earth is headed towards something more eagerly aggressive in its aesthetic that Gillespie (who at one point of heightened disorientation and terror utilizes diagetic bright strobe lighting that makes this impossible to tough for the photosensitive but for myself I found absolutely thrilling), Wheatley, and the soundtrack (eager to bring us aware of how impossible it is to truly have quiet in the woods, your isolation surrounded by rustling and chirps) all crank up with enough measurement to give the kaleidoscopic indulgences a true sense of climax by the final moments.

Arguably the only constant to In the Earth‘s shifts is Clint Mansell’s droning score which fits smoothly into the preceding worshipful nature footage and slides into the abstract madness that lives deeper and deeper in the runtime. The closest I’m willing to provide as a plot spoiler (and frankly something easy to predict with that plot summary) is how Squires and Shearsmith’s arrival on screen truly marks the moment things change gears. The two actors together are contradictory guides to the narrative context of what weirdness Wheatley and his crew throw at our face, both grounded in their own awe of the invisible cosmic horror atmosphere. Shearsmith, absolutely unrecognizable to me from the few previous works I’ve seen him in (his prior collaborations with Wheatley, Doctor Who), resembles what I’d expect a dark version of a Taika Waititi performance while Squires carries the concept of hard science-fiction and procedural to the uncertain tension surrounding them.

So basically Alma begins as our guide into the woods, but really this movie slips away from her control and ours. It belongs to Ben Wheatley finally finding himself back in the zone of surprise horror scenarios that he always did best flexing between Kill List, Sightseers, and A Field in England. I’m sure the past few years of him getting more of a budget to play with have been satisfying to get out of his system, but they didn’t result in very interesting or good movies. Sometimes all a person needs is a few humans, a vast space, and a limitless collection of sounds and filters to truly show us something terrifying. Looks like Wheatley and his crew made the most out of little.

The Sundance 2021 Animated Shorts

KKUM (Kim Kang-min, USA/South Korea)

Of course Mickey Please was not going to be the only animator in the world who experiments with styrofoam sculpting as an animation style. And frankly Kim Kang-min makes his own mark with the form, pushing on an ambition with the spacing and scope of what he’s depicting that rivals Please’s Marilyn Myller. I am a bit too distant with the schema by which Kim approaches this otherwise a deeply felt personal story of maternal affection and protection, but the depiction of his mother’s dreams and the primitivism imagery comes with a magical realism that compliments the style. It is quite possible that this supersedes Excuse Me Miss, Miss, Miss as the short I’m most excited to watch again whenever I can.

THE FIRE NEXT TIME (Renaldho Pele, UK)

Feels way too much like the sort of film that wants to say something without really having much to say, but its animation does well enough to give it a true frenzy to the way it escalates that while I found it to be a short I could not connect to… the visuals were so clearly inspired and lively that it was a lack of connection that I deeply regretted. The sort of usage of color and lines that demand you pay attention to why they’re chosen.

GHOST DOGS (Joe Cappa, USA)

This was probably something that I should have expected but this program had at least three short films that I ended up watching thinking “wow, this grotesque visual style and the puerileness of it would feel right at home as an Adult Swim bumper” and here we arrive at the first of these. And to be honest, that thought was a big part of what made me fear I was going to hate Joe Cappa’s short here except… at some point I ended up coming around to loving it and finding myself impressed with how steadily it was able to maintain its discomforting vibe for the entirety of its runtime. Cappa’s utilisation of the humanoid dogs with horrifying sharp teeth and sickly blue skin turns out to be less indulgent than I as worried it was going to be – accompanied by a protagonist dog whose smoothness of lines and warm brown is adorable in comparison – and it turns out he’s just finding out how long he can turn up the suspense before letting loose on a psychedelic climax followed by a hilarious punchline to it all that made this among the most impressive works of animation in the whole program.

MISERY LOVES COMPANY (Sasha Lee, South Korea/USA)

Very easy to like, but it didn’t stick around long enough for me to love it. Still it’s hard not to recommend this as comfort food for when one is feeling most melancholy, as it provides soothing visuals that still dare to transform throughout its central tune and cool colors to it all.

GNT (Sara Hirner & Rosemary Vasquez-Brown, Australia)

The second of our “Adult Swim” type of shorts and unfortunately the one that appealed the least to me, albeit I’m sure that there is exactly an audience for the sort of bodily humor that this one traffics in as well as the squashy pink-on-white visual style matching pretty well with that humor. It’s impossible to pretend that it’s not setting its sights on themes that have some relevance today, what with social media and open conversations about the female body, but it’s just not for me and that probably indicates how out of touch I am at the ancient age of 28.

THE FOURFOLD (Alisi Telengut, Canada)

A friend of mine told me that they would have probably liked this more if there were an English-language version of Qirima Telengut’s narration (mind you, they are no philistine and watch healthy amount non-English films regularly) and while I don’t know that I agree, I can certainly understand how trying to keep up with Telengut’s speech may get someone unable to keep up with the ever transforming abstract visuals. In any case, they marry together extremely well into a short that is one part meditation and one part environmental plea so that the elusive nature of its impressionist artwork just lingers in our head several frames later and makes us recognize how easy it is for things to change drastically.

TREPANATION (Nick Flaherty, USA)

It just does not feel finished in any visual sense and that got in my way with connecting to this short on any level. I’m certain that’s a deliberate choice on Flaherty’s part to give it that sort of alien nature to its opaque storytelling, but I wish I could respect it enough to meet it halfway in that manner. It reminds me way too much of Tony de Peltrie in all the wrong ways.

SOUVENIR, SOUVENIR (Bastien Dubois, France)

The script could go either way for me, as I’m sure could be expected for this subject matter. The story of people realizing how bad war crimes the French commit on us Algerians certainly brings out my inner “congratulations for catching up”, but I can’t hold that too hard for a story that uses that as the bedrock for a variety of animation styles clashing together in representing not only the divide between generations trying to discuss and process wartime trauma but also the slow ability for Dubois as an artist to truly recognize the seriousness of this material and grapple with his past juvenile cartoons versus the harsh textures of his later attempts to tell this story. The meta-layers are the source of this short’s depth for me, providing introspection that the obtuseness of Dubois’s father otherwise cannot give way to and for that I can forgive it for taking a minute to getting to conclusions that were already clear for all Algerian people if not most French people and certainly not in the 1950s-60s.

LITTLE MISS FATE (Joder von Rotz, Switzerland)

The final of the Adult Swim looking shorts and like GNT before, definitely one where the animation style just does not appeal to me. Still I imagine an earlier version of myself in high school who used to be all about this vulgarity would have been all over it and I honestly can’t pretend that Joder von Rotz’s attempts to gross us out with the violent and puerile distortions of its characters don’t aim for an ambition that maybe I don’t see as often with these types of shorts. I’ll send it back in time to high school me and see how he responds.

The Sundance 2021 Live-Action Shorts – Program 4

You can read my thoughts on Program 1 here, Program 2 here, and Program 3 here.

LIKE THE ONES I USED TO KNOW (Annie St-Pierre, Canada)

A melancholy Christmas story that manages to remain fresh and emotional even despite how many melancholy Christmas stories I’ve gone through. Annie St-Pierre clearly has a hand on tone and modulation, however obvious some choices of camera movement and framing may be, and the result is a movie that is efficiently able to establish the mindsets of its duotagonists (both of whom – Steve Laplante & Lilou Roy-Lanouette – are the stand out of a perfect ensemble cast), the relations of everybody in this short, and let that drive the emotional drama until a brilliant two-hand ending. Obviously Excuse Me Miss, Miss, Miss is my favorite film of all the programs, but this one puts up an excellent fight for my second favorite short of the festival (mostly trying to battle Raspberry).

YOU WOULDN’T UNDERSTAND (Trish Harnetiaux, USA)

Feels like it may be trying a bit hard to have its absurdity cake while pleading for us to laugh with it, but I do think it’s trying in all the right ways: Anthony Arkin and Jacob Ware’s performances, the neat costumes, and the selection of wide shots and close-ups that specifically punctuate what the hell we are trying to figure out this time. I can’t possibly say it wasn’t put well enough together to get the job done, I just have trouble being as amused as it seems a story of this kind wants you to be.

DOUBLESPEAK (Hazel McKibbin, USA)

I mean, there’s no going around the fact that given how much workplace sexual harassment in all industries still exists after the #metoo and #timesup movements, Doublespeak is a very relevant short film addressing a long urgent issue. I just honestly have trouble seeing it address that issue in a compelling way. It doesn’t help its case that this short played at Sundance so soon after The Assistant came around and provided an overwhelming experience similar to the one Doublespeak provided. I expect that’s not fair to compare. In any case, the lighting, acting, and dialogue felt like a gritty primetime reboot of a corporate harassment reporting video and maybe that’s the point to add subversion to the obvious truth it’s heading towards about Human Resources’ complete resilience to help survivors of sexual misconduct in any manner. I just wish embraced the bite that could have given or provided more insight on the matter.

THE UNSEEN RIVER (Pham Ngoc Lan, Laos/Vietnam)

The last of these gorgeous short films that would be so perfect if they were shorter. Probably the one that frustrates me the most given how perfect everything seemed to be going up until… it still kept going. And that is a bit unfair to say, since I understand the mosaic schema that it is trying to adopt and while it takes its sweet time tying the various stories togerther… it does eventually come together. But I also finding the swapping of the stories interrupts the otherwise meditative rhythm of the whole thing, despite Lan and his crew doing a phenomenal job to help me sink into the environments of this short in its sedate visuals and the brilliantly layered sound mix for the river and the people on it. So perhaps I’m a bit bitter that it didn’t end up my favorite thing ever as I initially thought it was gonna be, but what’s left is still an outstanding experience.

I ran from it and was still in it (Darol Olu Kae, USA)

We got three avant-garde shorts on the experience of being a Black person in America by the end of the Live-Action shorts run (albeit all three of them on different areas of that experience) and while I might still prefer Black Bodies to Darol Olu Kae’s I ran from it and was still in it, I think this is the one that most takes advantage of that unorthodox approach to provide something touching truly overwhelming and touching. A lot of that comes from the earnestness and honesty that Kae uses to determine his associative editing rhythm and juxtapositions from a combination of archive footage and personal videos and truly some of that earnestness leads to the movie getting a bit too fussy but this isn’t necessarily trying to be anything other than a personal appeal for something better in the fact of what he’s bringing to the world. Kae takes exactly as much time for that appeal and I walked away very impressed by how he did it with the power of filmmaking.

THE TOUCH OF THE MASTER’S HAND (Gregory Barnes, USA)

I genuinely don’t have anything to say about this and I apologize to Gregory Barnes for that. It caught me at a time where the subject matter is a bit too close to home regarding a friend of mine, but it also just approaches things from an angle that is alien to myself as an anti-religious person (and sort of alien to my religious friend, to be sure). I am confident enough in saying that this was never going to be my sort of jam no matter when I saw it, between the sense of humor and stakes, but I feel saying anymore would be ungenerous.

THE CRIMINALS (Serhat Karaaslan, France/Romania/Turkey)

Pretty impressive how smoothly this took on the tonal shifts, but maybe that has something to do with what I was expecting when I originally read the premise. And it led me on with that expectation at first with the relaxed manner in which it introduced its protagonists and what they wanted to do without the scope of the film – I was honestly expecting a tiny teenage sex comedy about them just trying to find a place – but slowly and surely the menace of what sort of society they live in and the invasive nature of the morally self-righteous edges in. It is a bit frustrating that it reaches the peak of that tension fairly early on and I suppose some of that comes from the antagonist’s performances being such blatant villains, but the naturalism of the two teenage leads helps ground this into something very real and threatening to them. It is totally understandable why such a story won the Screenwriting Award for the shorts, even if it wouldn’t be my choice.

The Sundance 2021 Live-Action Shorts – Program 3

You can read my thoughts on Program 1 here and Program 2 here.

WIGGLE ROOM (Julia Baylis & Sam Guest, USA)

On the one hand, a great and likable protagonist performance in Deanna Gibson whose naturalist performance fits right into the realist aesthetic that Baylis & Guest adopt in trying to tell a low-key frustrating story with real-world stakes. Ostensibly, those stakes are kind of abandoned almost invisibly by the time the short ends, leaving an ending where it is obvious how we are meant to feel positive but it also lacks any true resolution to what it previously took very seriously in a manner I’m not convinced the short is aware of. But I also can’t pretend that the sort of sleigh-of-hand the final beats make to let the surprise of that ending land really earns this movie a lot of praise from me, not to mention how Gibson doesn’t underplay or overplay the small victories. I haven’t decided whether or not the fact that Sam Stillman practically looks like if Lin-Manuel Miranda wore Eric Andre’s suit is a benefit or detractor, but it doesn’t help the broadness of the performance or a secondary antagonist. A brusque receptionist earlier in the short matches the sort of natural antagonism that is more fitting to Wiggle Room‘s style and a foil to Gibson’s performance, but this is Gibson’s film by the end of it all.

THE LONGEST DREAM I REMEMBER (Carlos Lenin, Mexico)

As though a response to the visually exciting Five Tiger being too short, there had later been a noticeable trend for me of the other great visually exciting shorts in the festival being too long (we will have at least one more in Program 4 where this is a big liability). I am even more paradoxical with regards to The Longest Dream I Remember: it is at once too long to be satisfying as short and too short to truly accomplish the patient atmosphere that the longeurs of its gorgeous cinematography invite. The Longest Dream I Remember is more than any other short the one that I’d be most interested to see adapted into feature-length form, where it could live up to both the “long” and the “dream” in its title. Although, to be fair, it does tap into the dream elements in its selection of shot scales arranged to make us witness an occurrence in simultaneous different forms. But most of all, it probably would give Carlos Lenin the canvas to fill out the narrative with… something. Something other than the ostensibly deliberate non-presences that stand to be dwarfed by Diego Tenorio’s incredible visual eye.

AVA FROM MY CLASS (Youmin Kang, USA/South Korea)

A friend of mine asked while we were talking about Sundance what was the best performance in my eyes? And my immediate response was a pair of performances from In the Earth but after really sitting down and thinking about it… I think I’d have to land on Bae Bonalie here. Child actors can be good or bad, but Bonalie (and I assume Youmin Kang as a director of her performance) do tremendously complex work in giving a naturally nervous little girl several scenarios to display that with a layer of “acting in drama class” and then juxtaposing that with the uncertain way she interacts with her classmates or lets those interactions sink her subtly into further shyness. It is phenomenal work that would probably get more attention if as many eyes landed on the shorts as the features at Sundance. I can’t honestly say that I felt much for any other aspect of the short (and this may be a symptom of it now being a week and a half since I’ve seen this shorts program), but a find is certainly a find.

EXCUSE ME MISS, MISS, MISS (Sonny Calvento, Philippines)

Sonny Calvento’s attack on the EDSA Malls is certainly something with a lot of specificity towards an exclusively Filipino phenomenon, but I found the ideas and concepts it pulled out and tore apart to be universal to capitalism all around the globe. And opening up with that feels like a mistake, because surely Excuse Me Miss, Miss, Miss is a social satire but it’s an extremely fun one to watch on every aspect. Its alienating set designs for the central shopping center it takes place in, its earwormy jingle, its occasionally cheeky choice of compositions, and its ability to have the condescending smiling attitude of the shopping center environment to fuel both Excuse Me Miss, Miss, Miss‘s bounciness as a narrative while also allowing it to sit down as a major target of the taxing of working in the mall. And I find just as much as this lives off of Calvento’s confidence as a filmmaker, it also has to be credited to the polar opposites in the central performances: Phyllis Grande’s stone-cold deadpan to everything she deals with only to be punctuated by wide-eyed discoveries and Mailes Kanapi’s aggressively smiling tyrant in her bright red suit that stands out with the soulless sterility surrounding her. I saw a lot of features and I saw almost all the shorts in Sundance (apologies again to the Documentary programs). In any case, THIS is my favorite film I saw in the whole festival, more than any other feature or short.

FOREVER (Mitch Mcglockin, USA)

Certainly feels like an entry into Live-Action split the difference for Forever as something of an autobiographical documentary while also being very much an animated short. But I guess focusing on category fraud stalls me from saying things that I don’t want to say, so how about I start with what I do want to say? Which is that this is outstanding as a representation of life via Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) which gives this short a three-dimensional feel even in its disarming usage of a tool as flat as the line with something simulating camera movements to stress emptiness and depth at once. And it DOES compliment the sort of story it’s telling and it is a story that absolutely makes my eyes sink into my skull with its morbidity and weird attempting to grapple with AI as an infallible force. And the monologue in which this thought process takes place obviously was instigated by a personal and definitely disturbing instance but I do think it was a phone call taken way too seriously. Like, dude, come on.

BLACK BODIES (Kelly Fyffe-Marshall, USA/Canada)

I absolutely love it when editors are approaching a rhythm from something other than conventional narrative cutting. And that’s what Kelly Fyffe-Marshall does with Black Bodies, keeping up with Komi Olaf’s passionate delivery of poetry regarding the topic you would expect it to regard with that title and matching up with Jordan Oram’s similarly poetic lighting of the titular black bodies and faces in an open interior space. Treating a real-world issue with visual abstraction is to my mind the best kind of approach to appeal to an audience that otherwise won’t listen and Fyffe-Marshall creates that sort of appeal without losing an ounce of blunt impact that this should hit others with.

WE’RE NOT ANIMALS (Noé Debré, France)

Just have to join in the choir of people that say this is a very French movie. In its approach to sexuality, its approach to philosophy, in its approach to human interaction, and none of these are particularly topics that interest me so there was only a hard ceiling on how well I was going to enjoy this short. I give it credit for trying to use its non-stop dialogue to keep moving, though the direction in which the short is moving is kind of hard to determine even after it ends (partly because its ending beat focuses on an entirely different conflict from how it began). It’s perhaps an attempt to accomplish an amusing shagginess, but all I got was the shag and the amusement was more nervous than certain.

LIZARD (Akinola Davies, UK)

I am… kind of pleased that such a weird movie ended up winning the Short Film Grand Jury Prize. And it probably help cases that even despite everything Davies does to make this film about uneasy premonition feel that kind of weirdness so that we connect with Naomi Akalanze’s attempt to piece together this ominous feeling, it is a very easy short film to sit down and feel engaged with. There is certainly the presence of narrative and characters, but at the end of the day Lizard felt like its focus was provided an extended mood: one that feels akin to watching a car crash happen seconds before you end up in a wreck. Shabier Kirchner catches my attention once again so soon after watching his brilliant work in Small Axe, this time by letting the haze in which he keeps Lizard in giving us unsteadiness until the horrible acts we get the sense are gonna happen hit. And Davies’ ability to establish the location as a real space is what keeps Lizard anchored from getting way too intangible so if this isn’t necessarily in my top five shorts overall, I can’t say I’m displeased with such confident work being recognized by Sundance.

The Sundance 2021 Live-Action Shorts – Program 2

You can read my thoughts on Program 1 here.

WHITE WEDDING (Melody C. Roscher, USA)

Sundance has an M.O. and that M.O. is generally not my thing and this short honestly embodies that M.O. to a T. A whole lot of heavy-handed delivery of themes, most of them crammed in, most of them honestly predictable. It’s not poorly shot or edited (in fact, the opposite) so it has that going for itself, but it also would feel right at home as Oscarbait if it was a feature film with the artless way that the cast and script posture itself for all the final beats and twists. I’ll give it that at least one of those beats lands.

LATA (Alisha Tejpal, India/USA)

There was a letterboxd review that I encountered after finishing this program that I captured exactly my attitude and I could not imagine adding a single observation to it: “Yes, I too have watched Roma“. But this is meant to be a fuller capsule review and I do believe every movie deserves elaboration on it’s responded to. It is very apparent what Tejpal is going for and she does it relatively successfully: placing Shobha Dangale’s titular housekeeper in compositions stressing her out-of-placeness or invisibility amongst the privileged folks she works for. It’s no more dysfunctional on this matter than Roma, honestly, but Roma is a full-length picture that has more to exercise the patience that Tejpal is restrained from doing. And because of that, it’s obviously there is a lot of promise in this short without a whole lot realized that isn’t already established by the halfway point.

IN THE AIR TONIGHT (Andrew Norman Wilson, USA)

Is it associative in its cutting and rhythm? Yep. Does it try to spin around that famous urban legend about the titular song? Kind of, but I don’t think it needs to to be entertaining at least. Is the dry delivery of David George’s extended monologue amusing? Sure. So what is it that holds me back from being in love with this short as somebody who is the ideal viewer for this? It is so fucking literal. Which is the most disappointing thing for something ostensibly avant-garde to be, its choice of shots and imagery to have accompany the monologue is just so obviously what would be going through someone’s head and guiding our expectations of where this short is going that it ends up not feeling as engaging as I was hoping it could be. Points for including an explicit shot of penises touching each other mid-ejaculation though, so I can’t say it isn’t out there even in its literalism.

MOUNTAIN CAT (Lkhagvadulam Purev-Ochir, Mongolia/UK)

Sadly one of the shorts that was starting to evaporate from my brain by the end of the festival, but what I do remember of it… I very much enjoyed. Beginning with its beautiful cinematography from Krish Makhija, which compliments very well with the shifting moods and high-altitude anxieties this picture places us into. And these shifts that for the most part Purev-Ochir and the cast all approach with naturalistic subtlety that won me over even further. The sole exception to that is the shift that defines the first and second half of the movie, very much calling attention to how the plot and conflict kind of changed to us in an abrupt and awkward way. Still even if it’s not a small gripe, it is the only gripe I truly have towards this short.

THE AFFECTED (Rikke Gregersen, Norway)

In the Q&A after this program, Gregersen brought up the fact that she was trying to avoid the sort of short that would – with this sort of premise about a deportation being interfered with in an inconvenient manner – make a political statement. And this was something that already crossed my mind while watching the short itself, but I absolutely feel it is to the short’s benefit. For one thing, the focus away from the act of protest gives us some cramped shots of everybody who is stuck in the crossover, which only amplifies the dark humor it has about people who are reacting in either blasé or aggressive ways. And it doesn’t overstay its welcome, particularly once it finds the most cynical pair of beats to end on and thereby deliver its political attitudes on Norway’s treatment of foreigners without undercutting itself.

RASPBERRY (Julian Doan, USA)

It has one beat. Just one. And if I’m being honest, it’s a beat that probably has the misfortunate of arriving so soon after Dick Johnson Is Dead had a penultimate scene similar to that beat. But it’s still supremely well-constructed in its lead up to that beat and its wind-down from that beat and in the beat itself. And by Doan’s ability to put it all together with a sense of pacing and composition stressing the empty rooms and placement of the family over the dead grandfather (and especially the awkward placements of the undertakers), it’s not just that the beat lands but that it gets to find a few variations in its emotions during the moment it pops in. I sound pretty weird when I describe but this is a short I found to have tremendous payoff personally.

UNLIVEABLE (Enock Carvalho & Matheus Farias, Brazil)

Like Yoruga from the last live-action shorts program, tremendous world-building on the part of the creators. And not just that, but tremendous character-building where we learn so much of the relationship between Luciana Souza, Sophia William, and Erlene Melo’s characters in the short time we spend with them (and that they spend with each other, given that Souza is the clear protagonist and the one we are with from beginning to end). It’s hard to pretend like its choice in tones, particularly when it comes to the ending of it all is more for the sake exercise, but I am impressed enough by its willingness to end on an ambiguous note that gambits on our desire to know more regarding its central mystery (a gambit that I find works on me) that I’m pretty happy to assume great things to come from Carvalho & Farias.

The Sundance 2021 Live-Action Shorts – Program 1

Now that Sundance 2021 is behind us, I’m gonna spend the next few posts reviewing a couple of the features I actively enjoyed at the festival and also give capsule reviews of all the shorts I’ve watched. The Shorts program was set up as Animation, Live-Action 1, Live-Action 2, Live-Action 3, Live-Action 4, and Documentary. I sadly did not have time to see the Documentary Shorts, but expect the rest.

BJ’S MOBILE GIFT SHOP (Jason Park, USA)

Definitely a feel-good cutesy kind of movie, which kind of hampers its attempts to say much about race or class (though there is a central scene specifically dedicated to dragging the latter theme as far as possible). There is a whole lot of areas in which it hit me right in the soul, beginning with the fact that Johnnyboy Tellem’s charismatic central performance reminds me specifically of a friend I had in Queens (Shout out to G.C.) and the gorgeous deeply in-love citywide cinematography of Chicago, soon enough after I had moved to the city last year to bring to my attention the moments where the area I live in were captured on-screen. Its shagginess doesn’t prevent me from feeling like it’s not entirely too put-together and especially in the fact of moments like the endless balloons from the bag that could have hinted at a more warmly absurd story than the non-committal realist one we got, but it has heart and it happened to have hooked mine at the right time in my life.

FIVE TIGER (Nomawonga Khumalo, South Africa)

Not only was this by a long shot the most exciting and promising film – short or feature – that I saw the whole week of the festival, but staying for the Q&A afterwards and learning that Khumalo is in the midst of pre-production for her feature debut got me giddy as a schoolgirl. For if there is one issue I have with Five Tiger it is, with all due respect to Khumalo’s discussion after on the attitude towards sex work in South Africa and the dual therapeutic and predatory nature of religion in communities, there doesn’t seem to be very much within it. Certainly not with its frustratingly ephemeral runtime or its sudden decision of a stopping point. And this is not a small gripe that I felt more of that theme in hearing Khumalo talk about it than in Five Tiger‘s content, but nevertheless it is the imagery of Five Tiger that arrests me and gets me interested for what her feature film will be: Khumalo and cinematographer Rick Joaquim show a confident hold on the Panavision frame to fill out gorgeous widescreen visual and also tell us more about the characters in the positioning of that frame than any script could (particularly with a use of close-up that refuses to split focus on a character in the background). It was felt more than it was said, I suppose is the best way to put it about this film and that’s exactly what I look for when it comes to movies.

YORUGA (Federrico Torrado Tobón, USA/Colombia)

Yet another short film that I wish I could had more of, though that of course appears to be the point of Tobón’s story. And he places on top of it a ticking clock, challenging himself as a filmmaker to earn a particular sentimental and emotional beat within a 5 minutes. Suffice it to say, Yoruga accomplishes this with flying colors: it performs its world-building extremely fast without sacrificing any solidness to that world and uses its choice of character perspective in an unsubtle way to earn its tenderness and its bittersweet final moments. “Time flies”, as Octavio Solorio says close to the end of the film and boy does it. One of several shorts I’ll be on the look out to watch again when it’s available to me.

BRUISER (Miles Warren, USA)

I have to admit that very little checks me out of a movie these days than another one that examines trauma and masculinity, especially if I don’t think it’s cutting as deeply as I think it could. Bruiser is definitely not one that puts on as many kid gloves as some other recent Sundance darlings, but none of its revelations particularly struck me as fresh or new in this go-round and it keeps me from honestly checking in too much emotionally even with its admittedly relieving ending that allows a bit more complexity to its patriarchal character way too late before the credits roll. But it definitely believes in its convictions about toxic masculinity, is competently constructed, and it was definitely a welcome surprise to see JD Williams acting in something, who is perfectly cast for what the film requires of him.

FLEX (Josefin Malmén & David Strindberg, Sweden)

Positioning two short films about masculinity next to each other is definitely the most obvious bit of pageantry I can recall encountering in any of the short programs here and I have to admit that Flex is the short that benefits most from that juxtaposition. But even then, it would probably stand out on its own terms simply from how weird and silly it is by any metric, having a sense of humor while it examines Calle Bolund’s top-tier physique and has his delivering a monologue that ebbs and flows with vanity and insecurity. Plus the places it goes aesthetically only seem to further the desire to make us giggle with the film rather than at the film. I don’t think anyone laughs at it as it makes the most out of its amateur look and the rhythm it develops between the monologue and the cuts. But, it’s not really my sense of humor so I don’t find myself laughing with it either. I do give it my deep admiration for going where it goes, though.

BAMBIRAK (Zamarin Wahdat, Germany)

One of those instances where the content supersedes my preference for the form as the chemistry between Kailas Mahadevan and Lara Cengiz as the central Afghanistani father and daughter is just too winning not to dismiss it in the face of how I’m really not a fan of the sort of realist look that this movie goes for (especially with BJ’s Mobile Gift Shop in the rearview). But even in the spaces where the movie interrupts itself to become a message movie about racism in Germany (something I’m confident was the point of the movie, if only this allowed itself a bit more room in its runtime to live with the suddenness of its confrontational climax), Wahdat paces this day in the life of the two so easily and with enough awareness of who they are and where they are that Bambirak ends up an entirely satisfying character drama.

DON’T GO TELLIN’ YOUR MOMMA (Topaz Jones & Rubberband, USA)

At the beginning, I fully onboard and I do confess I still ended the short film mostly positive on it. But there was A LOT of time between the beginning and the end of this short film and it’s pretty clear where most of that 38 minute running time is being drawn out from. This is an ambitious and admirable project on its own terms, an attempt to fundamentally reconstruct a black-positive educational tool from the letters A to Z and when Jones and Rubberband represent most of the letters with fun visuals and gags specific to the black experience in America… that’s where Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma feels like its in motion and pumping. But more than a few of these letters become dedicated to eloquent talking heads speeches by both personal figures to the filmmakers (such as one of their old teachers and one of their lawyers) and public figures (such as Black Thought from The Roots). Frankly, these moments just feel didactic in this context on top of specifically halting the rhythm and making this one of the longest short films I watched in the entire festival. It is basically the equivalent of being a student who was really getting into the fun and engaging part of the lesson plan feeling intellectually stimulated, only to have to deal with the boring part of the lecture plan. Still by the end of it, it feels like a piece to talk to all audiences, even if some methods in it feel less elegant than others.