Day 4: January 31, 2021

I stayed busy on day four with six movies, a new record made possible by the increased scheduling flexibility of the on-demand second screenings. By the final movie, I had surrendered and decided to watch on my laptop in bed. (I did not fall asleep during the film, though, which is more than I can say for myself at some of the late screenings at the in-person festival.) Six films in one day might be my limit, but never say never.

My favorite film of the day was probably Theo Anthony’s All Light Everywhere (U.S. Documentary Competition). Anthony describes his films as “documentary essays,” which aptly captures the way that All Light Everywhere weaves together thematic threads to make an argument. The film interrogates the idea of objective vision, particularly with regards to photography and cameras, asking the viewer to consider the subjective frame that’s constantly present. I don’t want to spoil where the film ultimately goes or flatten the sense of its scope, but suffice it to say that Anthony grounds these theoretical and philosophical musings about observation in the history and current practices of surveillance and law enforcement. As an art historian and an advocate for visual literacy, I will admit that this film was of particular interest to me; of course I’m down for a two hour meditation on the way cultural and social context frame any image if you know how to look. Your mileage may vary.

In the morning, I made time to catch up with On The Count of Three (U.S. Dramatic Competition), Jerrod Carmichael’s suicide pact buddy comedy. The film pulls off a tricky tonal balancing act, managing to be genuinely funny without undercutting the seriousness of the characters’ decision to mutually self-destruct. Co-leads Christopher Abbott and Carmichael both give great performances, although Abbott’s got the showier part and has received the bulk of the praise so far. Some of the filmmaking choices and bits of dialogue felt clunky, but the film balances its tone so deftly that I couldn’t write the film off entirely. I’ll be curious to see how this one plays outside of the festival.

I also saw two biographical documentaries: Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It (U.S. Documentary Competition) and My Name Is Pauli Murray (Premieres). The Rita Moreno doc (directed by Mariem Pérez Riera) celebrates the life of the iconic actress, singer, and dancer; the film focuses on her status as a trailblazer of Latina representation in Hollywood, as well as her remarkable resilience as she navigated the sexist and racists systems of the industry for decades. My Name is Pauli Murray (co-directed by Betsy West and Julie Cohen) works to elevate its subject into the mainstream historical consciousness. West and Cohen first heard about Murray when they were working on their previous documentary about Ruth Bader Ginsberg; Murray, it turns out, was the legal mind who came up with the framework for using the 14th amendment of the U.S. Constitution to argue against the legality of discrimination on the basis of sex. Previously, this amendment had only be used to legally battle discrimination on the basis of race. The documentary tries to tell the whole story of Murray’s incredible life, but 90 minutes doesn’t quite seem to do Murray justice. The film is a good introduction to an under-recognized civil rights hero, however, and made me want to learn more about Murray.

For my last two films of the day, I took a dive into the weird. First up was Sion Sono’s Prisoners of the Ghostland (Premieres). The film’s maximalist, post-apocalyptic, East-meets-West aesthetic is the best thing about it; and, indeed, the production design was so fabulous that I found myself disappointed that the rest of the movie didn’t live up to its promise. The film also inexplicably loses steam in the last fifteen minutes or so, right when I wanted things to get peak batshit. (This is a film where Nic Cage’s character gets one of his balls blown off while trapped in a tight leather suit programmed to self-destruct if he fails to complete his mission, so I’m not really sure what I mean when I say “peak batshit.” I just know that I wanted the film to accelerate right when it took its foot off the gas.) I’m glad I made time for this one, but it didn’t quite do it for me. While nestled in bed, I finished off the day with Strawberry Mansion (NEXT), Albert Birney and Kentucker Audley’s lo-fi sci-fi. I appreciated the film’s inventiveness and easily got on its surreal, Gondry-inflected wavelength. Strawberry Mansion isn’t going to change your mind if you aren’t into that kind of thing (if you hear the term “dream auditor” and roll your eyes, this film isn’t for you), but I enjoyed it.

See you back here tomorrow for day five! I’m really, really looking forward to the premiere of Judas and the Black Messiah, so look out for thoughts on that one.