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How to Watch the Sundance Film Festival From Home

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Before the Coronavirus changed everything, the only way a person could take in the full Sundance Film Festival experience was to travel to Park City (or a surrounding town), dress very warmly, and brave insanely long lines for a chance to score a screening ticket. The 2021 Sundance Film Festival, which runs from January 28 to February 3, has adapted to current public health concerns by offering two options. One is to screen its films virtually, the other to catch an in-person screening at a satellite theater.

The Blazing World

For San Francisco-based Broke-Ass readers, the City’s very own Roxie Theater is one such official Sundance satellite outlet. In conjunction with Fort Mason Flix, interested viewers can catch Sundance films on an in-person basis via a drive-in setup. There are a couple of small caveats. First, only a dozen selections from the 2021 Sundance Film Festival play between January 28 to February 3. The other thing is admission is $49 per car…and advance tickets have already sold out to all screenings as of this writing. An announcement has been made that a limited number of additional tickets may become available on January 25.

By comparison, taking in Sundance 2021 virtually offers a couple of big advantages. First, there’s a wider selection. Second, as long as you have a decent internet connection and can watch a particular film within a certain time frame, you’re all good. For the Premiere screenings, you can start up to 3 hours after the official premiere time but must finish watching the program within 4 hours. For the Second Screenings, you have 24 hours from the start time to watch and finish the film.

On the other hand, the rule of thumb with catching a Sundance screening is to act sooner rather than later. Even with virtual screenings, attendance space is limited. Sundance Festival members have already taken first crack at selecting screenings. Fortunately, there are films that still have advance tickets available.

For those who decide to take the plunge, the process is simple. Create a ticket holder account with Sundance.  Then choose the ticketing option that works for you. The options range from Single Film Ticket ($15) to a Definitely Not Broke-Ass Festival Pass ($350) with other variations in between.

Together Together

Look through the Festival catalog to see what films interest you. To help you along, the films are broken down by categories. The Premieres, Shorts, US Dramatic and US Documentary categories are self-explanatory. The World sections are for films made outside the US. Spotlight covers films that have already played in other film festivals.  Midnight covers genre films and indescribable or bizarre films. NEXT offers films which marry dramatic stories to new storytelling technology.     

The catalog menu also allows you to fine tune your search for films that interest you. You can filter the festival offerings by genre or specific interest (e.g. First Feature, BIPOC stories) or even accessibility.  

Here are some suggestions for films that might be worth a look:

All Light, Everywhere

Theo Anthony’s essay film “All Light, Everywhere” considers how the observer effect (act of observation disturbing the system observed) applies to people.  How do our biases and limitations affect how we see things?  How do the instruments people create to see things reflect personal biases or even power dynamics?  

Since the age of six, Margaret has been haunted by the memory of her sister drowning while her parents were caught up in a spat.  Now thanks to a very troubled inner life developed over the years, she’s on the brink of suicide.  To save herself from going completely over the edge, the young woman will need to travel the beautiful yet deadly paths of her imagination.  Director Carlson Young expands her short “The Blazing World” into a feature-length mix of fantasy and horror.

What if unicorns really existed, but the only place you could see them is a very special kind of zoo?  Cartoonist Dash Shaw’s new animated feature “Cryptozoo” poses this dilemma via a chance encounter between military brat Lauren and sex daters Amber and Matt.  Lauren has built a secret shelter to provide refuge for cryptids, creatures whose existence is disputed.  But encountering Amber makes Lauren wonder whether her method of preventing cryptid exploitation is really the right choice.

You’ve probably heard of first dates that have had things go wrong.  But Manuel Crosby and Darren Knapp’s “First Date” concerns an utter clusterf**k of a first date.  High-schooler Mike may finally be going out on a date with his crush Kelsey.  But he’s not going to appreciate being saddled with a clunker of a ‘65 Chrysler for wheels.  And he definitely won’t like being the target of a pair of cops, a gang of crooks, and one really pi**ed-off cat lady.

A Glitch In The Matrix

Ever feel that the world you’re living in is not entirely real?  Pop culture fans would say you were stuck in The Matrix.  But simulation theory (the official name for this phenomenon) dates back to the days of Plato’s Republic.  Rodney Ascher’s new documentary “A Glitch In The Matrix” looks at the evolution of simulation theory over the centuries.  This film features everything from talks with game theorists to considering the works of Philip K. Dick and, yes, the Wachowskis.  Is simulation theory scientifically provable, or mainly a metaphor for present-day social alienation?   

Director Ben Wheatley’s film work has included such stripped-down semi-hallucinogenic thrillers as “A Field In England.”  His new film “In The Earth” takes place in the Arboreal Forest.  Dr. Martin Lowery is on a mission to reach a research hub located deep in the forest.  After he and his guide park scout Alma are attacked, they’re left in dire straits.  Salvation seems to come from the off-the-grid living Zach.  But it turns out Zach’s help is not what it seems…and further perils come from the Arboreal Forest’s springing into hostile life.

The new documentary “In The Same Breath” looks at how COVID-19 spread from Wuhan to the United States.  This film comes from one of the Chinese government’s least favorite documentary filmmakers Nanfu Wang.  Of course the Chinese government gets deservedly ripped for its cover-ups, mismanagement, and lies…but the U.S. government wound up being guilty of the same sins.  However, Wang’s film is also a celebration of those individuals who fought to save lives and/or get the truth about the disease’s danger out there. 

Judas And The Black Messiah

The hotly awaited Shaka King drama “Judas And The Black Messiah” takes viewers back to 1969.  Illinois Black Panther Party chairman Fred Hampton has been successful in building solidarity movements with different political causes.  To the FBI, that made Hampton a threat.  So William O’Neal was planted among the Panthers as an informant.  This drama gives time to consider both Hampton’s legacy and O’Neal’s increasingly conflicted feelings about his assignment.  That internal conflict didn’t stop the FBI informant from eventually fatally betraying Hampton.

Looking for a comedy that features graphic animal abuse, sexual violence, and other potentially offensive subjects?  Then you might need to make time for Harpo and Lenny Guit’s “Mother Schmuckers.”  How could things get worse for admittedly low down and rotten brothers Issachar and Zabulon?  Try getting thrown out of the family apartment after losing their mother’s beloved dog January Jack.  The brothers soon wind up in some truly bizarre and/or filthy situations on the streets of Brussels.

If you’re a fan of the late Notorious RBG, you need to know about Pauli Murray.   Betsy West and Julie Cohen’s (“RBG”) new documentary “My Name Is Pauli Murray” will introduce you to the forgotten titular lawyer, Black activist, and priest whose trailblazing ideas would shape RBG’s advocacy for gender equality and Thurgood Marshall’s arguments for civil rights.  

A road trip through Thailand is at the heart of the Wong Kar-Wai produced drama “One For The Road.”  The traveling protagonists of director Baz Poonpiriya’s film are estranged friends Boss and Aood.  Popular New York City bartender Boss has returned to Thailand to help the dying Aood return stuff he borrowed from his exes.  As the trip progresses, the viewer slowly learns what frayed Boss and Aood’s friendship.  It might be the last return, though, that may permanently destroy the friends’ bond.

Actress Rebecca Hall makes her directorial debut with an adaptation of Nella Larsen’s acclaimed 1929 Harlem Renaissance novel “Passing.”  On a hot 1920s summer day, a reunion takes place in the tearoom of New York City’s Drayton Hotel.  Irene Redfield (Tessa Thompson) and Clare Kendry (Ruth Negga) used to be high school classmates.  While both women are African-Americans light-skinned enough to pass as white, the two women reside on opposite sides of the color line with Irene living an upper-class lifestyle.  But their renewed acquaintance threatens the lives they’ve built for themselves.

Prisoners Of The Ghostland

Nicolas Cage is an actor whose best performances in such films as “Mandy” features his diving into the mental deep end.  Sion Sono is a Japanese director whose work challenges and spits on “good taste” with berserk glee while offering gory violence and gratuitous nudity.  What happens when Sono directs Cage in a film?  The answer is the spectacularly berserk crime film and future midnight movie staple “Prisoners Of The Ghostland.”  See fearsome gunslingers, a weird desert cult, and Cage wearing bombs connected to his testicles!  For those boring people who need plots, Cage is a ruthless bank robber who’s been sprung from prison by the wealthy warlord The Governor.  His mission: find and rescue runaway granddaughter Bernice in five days.  If he completes the job, he’s free; if he fails, his leather suit self-destructs in a really messy way  Expect lots of extreme violence and gore. 

Readers who think nuns are bland paragons of virtue are in for a surprise when they meet sisters Anita Caspary, Helen Kelley, and Corita Kent.  They’re the subjects of Pedro Kos’ rousing documentary “Rebel Hearts.”  In 1960s Hollywood, those three nuns would lead Immaculate Heart College, a radical women’s college which produced graduates who were ready to put their social activism knowledge to good use.  However, the archbishop of Los Angeles and the entrenched old guard behind him didn’t appreciate these nuns doing such radical things as marching with Dr. Martin Luther King at Selma.

One of the recent “One Day At A Time” revival’s joys was seeing Rita Moreno’s turn as the flamboyantly eccentric Lydia.  Mariem Perez Riera’s documentary “Rita Moreno: Just A Girl Who Decided To Go For It” shows just how wide-ranging Moreno’s talents truly are, thanks to her 70 years in show business.  The dues Moreno paid to avoid having her career lazily pigeonholed would include overcoming movie industry racism.

Director Edgar Wright (“Shaun Of The Dead,” “Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World”) takes a left turn into documentary filmmaking with “The Sparks Brothers.”  You may not know the names of brothers Ron and Russell Sparks.  But for five decades, their music and other creative output has been part of a lot of cool things.  The Sundance festival catalog does not mention by name the interviewees Wright talks to about the titular brothers.  However, expect your jaw to do a floor drop at some point.

Summer Of Soul (Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)

Summer Of Soul (…Or When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” concerns the forgotten 1969 summer music series known as the Harlem Cultural Festival.  This musical revue offered such unforgettable moments as Stevie Wonder doing a drum solo and Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples doing a duet.  But film footage of this concert series remained unseen for 50 years…until now.  Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson makes his feature filmmaking debut with this documentary that’s both a historical record and concert film. 

Ready for a relationship comedy that celebrates platonic love?  Then you need to check out Nikole Beckwith’s “Together Together.”  Matt (Ed Helms) is a single middle-aged app designer who decides to hire a gestational surrogate.  Anna’s a 26-year-old college student who hopes her work for Matt will generate enough cash to help her finish her degree.  But when Matt starts inserting himself into Anna’s life and inviting her into his life, these two admitted loners start letting down their personal barriers and begin forging an unexpected friendship.  

Jane Schoenbruen’s debut feature may have the innocuous title of “We’re All Going To The World’s Fair.”  But there’s nothing innocent about this particular fair.  The World’s Fair Challenge happens to be an online horror RPG (role-playing game).  Teenage Casey has finally decided to take part in the game and upload clips of the weird stuff that may or may not be happening to her in real life.  But who’s the mysterious figure claiming to see something special in Casey’s clips?  Can Casey even figure out what’s real and what’s a dream any more?

Writing With Fire

In the Indian caste system, the Dalits are considered the lowest of the low.  But the Dalit reporters of the all-female news network Khabar Lahariya don’t let caste prejudice stop them as they expose caste and gender violence, criticize the lousy local police force, and shine a spotlight on harmful daily practices.  The story of these amazing rural reporters is told in Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh’s documentary “Writing With Fire.”  

(All photos used here provided courtesy of Sundance Institute)

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Peter Wong

Peter Wong

I've been reviewing films for quite a few years now, principally for the online publication Beyond Chron. My search for unique cinematic experiences and genre dips have taken me everywhere from old S.F. Chinatown movie theaters showing first-run Jackie Chan movies to the chilly slopes of Park City. Movies having cat pron instantly ping my radar.