Sundance Film Festival: ‘Emily the Criminal’ Review

By: Amanda Guarragi

There is a reason why people flock to action thrillers and it’s because of the tension that the director creates during certain sequences. As the viewer, we sense the excitement and understand how each scene is built in order for there to be a climactic moment surrounding our lead character. It’s that thrill fluctuating throughout the runtime of the film that has to be done in a way to keep us engaged in order for us to connect with the story. In Emily the Criminal, director John Patton Ford builds those scenes extremely well just enough to hook you but then it falters in the second half.

We meet Emily (Aubrey Plaza) who is saddled with student debt and locked out of the job market due to a minor criminal record. Desperate for income, she takes a shady gig as a “dummy shopper,” buying goods with stolen credit cards supplied by a middleman named Youcef (Theo Rossi). Emily soon finds herself seduced by the world of her mentor Youcef. Plaza and Rossi developed such great chemistry between their characters that they blended into the world Patton Ford created quite naturally. Plaza was perfect for this role and her character became stronger as the film went on. She has a strong sense of who she is by the end of this and I really appreciated that.

The film itself falls apart the second Emily and Youcef get together. I preferred them as business partners instead of lovers because then the storyline just gets a bit messy. Now, they’re involved in each other’s lives with an emotional attachment that has the second half of the film spiral into something that doesn’t quite make any sense. The smaller jobs in the first half had better tension than the entirety of the second half. It would have been better to just build up to each heist and have a final generic blowout than have them get together. Even though they had chemistry between the two of them, the excitement of the action fizzled out right after.

Emily the Criminal had such potential to be a really fun action thriller but it turned into more of a dramatic piece because of the relationship between the two leads. It didn’t necessarily feel forced but it felt as if it just needed to happen because they were the leads. Plaza becomes unhinged in this film and it’s always fun to see how many wild characters she can come up with. Rossi is delight and is such a fun actor to watch as well. Both performances are solid, I just wish there was more tension in the second half of this film because it would have stuck the landing. Patton Ford knows how to build tension well and I am looking forward to see what he does next.

Sundance Film Festival: ‘Sirens’ Review

By: Amanda Guarragi

In some parts of the world, women aren’t free to be themselves at all. So when a documentary feature like Sirens is brought to our attention, it comes with great importance that we understand the difference in female identity in all parts of the world. Director Rita Baghdadi focuses on the first and only all-woman thrash metal band in the Middle East called, ‘Slave to Sirens’. While they navigate the political unrest and the heart breaking unraveling of Beirut, these five bandmates form a beacon of expression, resistance, and independence. Baghdadi specifically follows founders and guitarists Lilas Mayassi and Shery Bechara; their relationship is somewhat flawed and we see the change in how they work together within the band. They are joined by vocalist Maya Khairallah, bassist Alma Doumani, and drummer Tatyana Boughaba, as they journey through young adulthood together, while fighting the system and expressing who they truly are.

What Baghdadi did was really focus on the music and what it meant to this band of women. What those lyrics mean to them and how this genre of music allows them to fully express themselves. The connectivity between music and human emotion is definitely shown in this feature. You can tell that these women have been struggling with their own sense of agency among the government silencing them. The only way they can authentically express themselves is through their music and they go on this emotional journey as they try to push forward as a band. Lilas Mayassi was going through her own identity crisis and not knowing her sexual identity. Baghdadi also showed how harmful the messaging was in the Middle East towards the LGBTQ community.

It’s a journey through adolescence in a world that doesn’t feel as open or welcoming to women. How can a young girl even attempt to navigate through any of that without the freedom to express themselves. Baghdadi also captures the beauty of creativity in all its madness in a very candid way. There were natural conversations about changing certain notes or lyrics, even the arguments felt natural because it came from a soulful place. You could see how much the music itself meant to each of them and when Mayassi got passionate, it changed the whole dynamic of the band. It’s an entertaining and educational feature that really highlights the struggles of this band through a female lens.

Sirens is a documentary feature that will get you into the mindset of these women and how they operate within the band. The standout is Mayassi because she is the central focus but her partner Shery Bechara also creeps through and has her moments as well. Together they are the ones to ground the band in having these important meetings to discuss the issues within the band and what they need to do to move forward. You don’t need to be into heavy metal to appreciate this documentary because all music has a story, which creates an emotional connection to these women. Even though it all feels very natural, there is also a sense of urgency through Baghdadi’s direction.

Sundance Film Festival: ‘Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul’ Review

In Adamma Ebo’s directorial feature debut, she makes a bold statement with her flashy direction and strong storytelling between two lenses. We meet the proud first lady of a Southern Baptist megachurch, Trinitie Childs (Regina Hall) who carries immense responsibility on her shoulders. Her church, ‘Wander To Greater Paths’, once served a congregation in the tens of thousands, but after a scandal involving her husband, Pastor Lee-Curtis Childs (Sterling K. Brown), forced the church to close temporarily, Trinitie is struggling to manage the aftermath. Now Trinitie and Lee-Curtis must rebuild their congregation and reconcile their faith by all means necessary to make the biggest comeback that commodified religion has ever seen.

I truly didn’t know what to expect going into this film but I was pleasantly surprised with how much fun this was while addressing the constructs of religion. What I really appreciated was how Ebo told this story on two different plains in order to get a firm grasp of the difference in perspective for her characters. From a technical aspect, the change in aspect ratio was used effectively to show the difference behind the scenes and what was going to be used in the mockumentary. The visual cue for the audience was very clear and added so much to the story. As the film went on, we see the lines blur a bit because first lady Trinitie and Pastor Lee Curtis Childs both lose their sense of self on this journey.

Ebo pulled out great performances from Regina Hall and Sterling K. Brown. They both brought such an energetic and lively presence to the screen. Whether it was faking it for the mockumentary or expressing themselves behind the scenes, they were electric and they made you listen to their every word. Both of their performances were incredibly strong, but Regina Hall slightly edged Brown because of the range of emotions she explored with her character. Trinitie is a woman who has been through so much with her husband and has been cast aside, while he gets the credit. After the scandal, she stays with him, and it shows the strength she has to fight for her marriage. However, he still doesn’t recognize the work that she puts into the congregation and their marriage.

Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul is funny and entertaining all the way through. There are really great moments between Hall and Brown. They are such a good pairing and they definitely need to do another film together because their chemistry was incredible. Ebo also dives into the facade of religion and belief through the scandal in this film. The scandal is covered up and then there is a redemption arc for Childs’ because that’s how he makes a living. Showing this and highlighting the way the corporations can cover up these scandals through a mockumentary style film was incredibly interesting and worked for the story.

Sundance Film Festival Short Film Program Reviews

By: Amanda Guarragi

These were the 11 short films that caught my eye when looking through the program. Some worked more than others, but more importantly, all of these short films told a powerful story. The short film program is always filled with diverse, emotional, unique stories that will resonate with many. Keep an eye out for these filmmakers as well, as they had a short time to fill the screen with beautiful imagery and make an impact.

Alone
dir. Garrett Bradley

Alone

Review: Alone is a harrowing short film about how the judicial system and mass incarceration break a family apart. The internal dialogue of a young, single mother, who is trying to go on living while her husband is in jail is heartbreaking. Garrett Bradley uses the space within the frame to show how alone she is. There is an emptiness surrounding her when she is just lying in bed. There are some great choices made to highlight voices and arguments instead of showing it on screen, which made it much more powerful.

Appendage
dir. Anna Zlokovic

Appendage
Courtesy of Neon Pig Media

Review: Rachel Sennott stars in this short film about a young fashion designer who must make the best of it when her anxiety and self-doubt physically manifest into something horrific. Director Anna Zlokovic made some great choices when showing anxiety and created an atmosphere that suited that feeling. It was such an interesting watch because of what her anxiety manifested into and what it meant metaphorically for her to cut away the degrading, intrusive thoughts. Really unique and I am excited to see what Zlokovic does next.

Chaperone
dir. Sam Max

Chaperone

Review: Director Sam Max creates a tension-filled evening when an unnamed man with sunglasses picks up a young man in his car. As the two drive together, and settle into a secluded rental house in the countryside, the details of their arrangements become very clear. This concept is a bit dark, but it was still interesting to watch the events unfold. I was surprised to see Zachary Quinto in this but he gave such a strong performance that I couldn’t keep my eyes off of him. There are so many questions and emotions that will run through you while watching this, as the ending is even more interesting than how they got to that point.

Chilly and Milly
dir. William David Caballero

Chilly and Milly

Review: This is the short film that really stuck with me the most. It connected with me on an emotional level because I have personally seen the effects of dialysis and what it does to an entire family. The use of old documentary footage combined with stop-motion animation to show the more emotional aspects of the story was beneficial. You got a sense of the family and who they were through the live-action aspects, only for the animated portions to create more of a visual connectivity to the illness. Really great work from William David Caballero.

Daddy’s Girl
dir. Lena Hudson

Daddy’s Girl

Review: I am a complete sucker for a father/daughter relationship, especially one that is fun, understanding, and loving. In Lena Hudson’s short, we see a young woman’s charming but overbearing father help her move out of her wealthy older boyfriend’s apartment. There are some small moments that build up into a pretty funny and cringe moment between the father and daughter, which hasn’t really been explored before on screen. Really enjoyed this one and how fun it was.

F^¢K ’€M R!GHT B@¢K
dir. Harris Doran

F^¢K ’€M R!GHT B@¢K
Courtesy of Mother Films

Review: Writer-director Harris Doran brought so much flare to this short about a queer Black aspiring Baltimore rapper who must outwit his vengeful day-job boss in order to avoid getting fired after accidentally eating an edible. There is a way to fight the system and explain how to be treated as a worker with factual evidence. We have all had that one boss who is just no fun at all and doesn’t understand how to conduct themselves in a professional matter. So this short touches upon what to do in that situation.

Hallelujah
dir. Victor Gabriel

Hallelujah
Courtesy of BLK MGC Content

Review: Writer-director Victor Gabriel has the best short film at the festival. We meet two brothers in Compton, California, who have to decide if they are willing to take on the responsibility of being guardians of their annoying, bookworm nephew. The script is very well-written and the way the story is structured makes an emotional impact at the end of the film. There are some effective choices made by Gabriel that keeps the emotional weight intact and does so in a tasteful manner to tell this tragic story.

Long Line of Ladies
dir. Rayka Zehtabchi and Shaandiin Tome

Long Line of Ladies
Courtesy of Junk Drawer

Review: Seeing generations of women being able to express themselves through their own traditions was beautiful to see. In this short film, we see a young girl and her community prepare for her Ihuk, the once dormant coming-of-age ceremony of the Karuk tribe of northern California. There are beautiful, natural shots in this film and a wonderful community bond. It was nice to learn something new and watch a young woman come into her own within her tribe.

Love Stories On the Move
dir. Carina Gabriela Dașoveanu

Love Stories on the Move
Courtesy of UNATC I.L.CARAGIALE BUCHAREST

Review: Writer-director Carina Gabriela Dașoveanu shows the daily life of Lili, a taxi driver, who is trying to save her marriage with Dani, an amateur fisherman. Her fares expose Lili to several love stories really different from her own. With each story that she heard, she would wonder where the romance or genuine love went within her relationship. She began to question why she was even staying. Hearing these stories affected Lili because she is missing something from her relationship that she is so desperately craving. The structure really worked, as the start of a new day, came a new story and then an interaction with her husband that changed her perception.

Maidenhood
dir. Xóchitl Enríquez Mendoza

Maidenhood
Courtesy of IMCINE

Review: How do we define virginity? More importantly, why have we been socially conditioned to think that virginity is something so sacred to a woman? In this short film, Catalina submits to the tradition of her people to demonstrate her purity and worth as a woman to her beloved, but her body betrays her and she fails to demonstrate her chastity.

Night Bus
dir. Joe Hsieh
Night Bus

Review: Writer-director Joe Hsieh really surprised me with this one. On a late-night bus, a panic scream shatters the night’s calm, a necklace is stolen, followed by a tragic and fatal road accident. The series of intriguing events that follow reveal love, hatred, and vengeance. The way the events unfold continues to shock you because of how well-paced this short film is. It does have a great story that instantly connects you to the characters. The animation is great and the use of the animals throughout the film gave you a sense that something wasn’t quite right. As the film went on, these characters got worse and it definitely became darker than expected.

Sundance Film Festival: ‘God’s Country’ Review

By: Amanda Guarragi

What many don’t realize is the stress that comes with ageing parents. For the later half of their lives, their mind changes and they grow weaker by the second. After a long life with your parents, it’s only right to look after them in their time of need. But, there are plenty of strained relationships and in the end; it’s out of moral obligation to help them and not genuine love. In God’s Country, we see Sandra (Thandiwe Newton) who has just lost her mother. She has always tried to please her mother and she was never satisfied. Her mother drained her and made her feel inadequate, which then translated into every aspect of her life. So, she’s tired. On top of that she has had to navigate the challenging politics and power dynamics at the college where she teaches. And then there is the racism, sexism, and toxic masculinity she encounters wherever she goes.

God’s Country examines one woman’s grieving process and determination to be taken seriously amid her refusal to surrender to the confines of society. This film would not have worked without Thandiwe Newton as Sandra. The emotional depth and brewing anger that she was able to bring to this role definitely worked with the pacing of the film. At first, once we get to know Sandra and her current environment, it moved a bit slow. While she processes her grief and the sense that she can finally live for herself without scrutiny, she begins to change. She’s more forthright and she speaks her mind on issues that are affecting her daily life in her community and the future of the education system. It’s simply about a woman reaching her breaking point because she doesn’t know how to express herself while grieving.

The structure of the story was interesting as well. The choice of bookmarking Sandra’s days after her mother’s passing is similar to the Bible story of how God created Earth. Each passing day was a lesson, and each day had a moment of dealing with her grief. The situation with her community members was a distraction from her mother and as the story goes on it became more evident that she just wanted to let her anger out on someone. Those two men, just so happened to be in her crossfire and they ended up being exactly what Sandra needed to get some justice in her own world. After going through so much, she finally rested on the seventh day and was at peace with her decisions.

God’s Country directed by Julian Higgins is a slow burn that has a great character piece at its centre for Thandiwe Newton. She made you connect with Sandra on many levels because of everything she was going through all at once. The film also did not feel preachy in regards to the issues being presented at the school or even when she approached the two men who were giving her trouble. It is a well-written script that wraps these themes together to show that one woman can take on so much while going through her own personal issues. This is also an example of not fully knowing what someone else could be going through and to always be kind to everyone.