It’s a tale of two film festivals, both underway in chilly Park City, Utah.
The bigger one – the Sundance Film Festival – attracts worldwide attention and stars and sprawls throughout the snowy city, even drifting over into Salt Lake City.
The other is scrappier and not related. The upstart, much smaller Slamdance contains itself to one building located near the tippy-top stretch of Park City’s Main Street, an area where some big-name celebrities venture.
This week’s Pass the Remote covers the streaming buffet of both, plucking out cinematic nuggets worth watching. Sundance concludes Jan. 29; the streaming portion of Slamdance runs Jan. 23-29.
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While I haven’t sampled many Sundance offerings, my favorite in the limited bunch is director Sin J. Lee’s accomplished feature debut, “The Accidental Getaway Driver.” It’s set in Southern California, with a seemingly nondescript setup that might seem as if a screenwriter recycled scraps from generic crime thrillers or a Quentin Tarantino specialty. Guess again. It’s about an elderly Vietnamese cab driver who gets stuck with three escaped cons from Orange County. While the neo-noir grabs you from the start and makes you ill at ease, the simplistic plot does swerve into exciting directions; the film makes think about what constitutes “family” and addresses our inherent desire for connection in a disconnected world where many feel alienated. All in the cast are sensational, but it’s the exchanges between Hiệp Tran Nghĩa, as the lonely driver Long, and Dustin Nguyen as Tây, the escapee with whom he bonds, that are tender and true that make the movie a beauty. (https://festival.sundance.org/program/film/638a1707d406b207fbf2c90e )
One international feature we hope won’t get overshadowed is director Patricia Ortega’s unforgettable character-driven feminist drama “Mamacruz.” A devoted Catholic wife and grandmother’s repressed libido fires up when she catches an eyeful of porn on a device. Her interest and desire piqued, the 70-year-old Cruz (Kiti Mánver, exemplary in every way) loosens up, becoming more playful and inquisitive; with this development, she runs into conflict with pious and tradition-bound people who surround her. Manver is a wonder to behold, and “Mamacruz” is a mature and wise picture about unshackling cultural and societal chains that bind us. Its metaphorical ending is worth talking about long into the night. (https://festival.sundance.org/program/film/638a179977dd3d550a8054c9)
The immersive journalistic documentary “20 Days in Mariupol” exemplifies what it means to be a “tough watch.” But it’s also an essential historical document that shows viewers the relentless barrage of Russian attacks on buildings and civilians in the Ukrainian port city. A collaborative project between the Associated Press and Frontline, the movie captures what the committed and embedded Associated Press correspondents, the only journalists there, witnessed. The harrowing accounts got pilloried by a Russian misinformation campaign that claims that some of the dead bodies and carnage were staged. This devastating, fact-based account from director and journalist Mstyslav Chernov counters the falsehoods, showing brutality and casualties and emphasizing the need for legit and vetted journalism. https://festival.sundance.org/program/film/638a18e377dd3d7624805938
Shot in black-and-white and framed around interviews with four Black trans sex workers, D. Smith’s revelatory directorial debut “Kokomo City” challenges perceptions with its candid discussions about sex, identity and what it means to be Black and trans. To say it’s a provocative eyeopener that upsets the status quo on how documentaries go about their business would be an understatement. Their conversation proves invigorating and might even make you reconsider your own perhaps steadfast views. It paves the way for a great future ahead for Smith. https://festival.sundance.org/program/film/638a18f0d406b253ebf2cf2c
If you’re pressed for time, check out the award-winning animated short “Christopher at Sea.” It’s a seafaring tale about a young man on a Jack London-like nautical adventure to try to figure out why so many men fall in love with the sea. What he discovers on the boat unmoors and seduces him. Director Tom C J Brown’s short is entrancing and hypnotic, and could very well be made into a feature film. (https://festival.sundance.org/program/film/638a1b8bd406b22cd0f2d796)
If you’ve never attended Slamdance, now’s your chance to do so virtually.
While there are many deserving low-budget indies, here are two standouts – one feature, one short. Both reflect the feisty indie spirit of the festival and fully embrace their surreal, inventive premises.
First up is director-writer Reiki Tsuno’s quirky “Mad Cats,” a genre-defiant flick wherein ginormous cats retaliate against those they think have done them wrong. Yes, it’s kooky. But really, how can you really resist a film with the tagline: “Fear the purr”?
Jerah Milligan’s hilarious 13-minute short “Mahogany Drive” not only comes up with an intriguing plot — white women enter an Airbnb occupied by three African-American where they immediately collapse and die — and then turns it on its head. How so? I’m not telling. Milligan and others in the cast specialize in improv, and he and his two costars James III and Jonathan Braylock make for one winning comedic team. You’ll have no idea where it all winds up. You also can check out their sketch comedy work on Netflix’s “The Astronomy Club: The Sketch Show.” Expect this trio’s careers to soar in years ahead. They need their own feature film.
To check out both films, visit https://slamdance.com/festival/