Sundance Film Festival: ‘Judas And The Black Messiah’ Review

By: Amanda Guarragi

Judas and the Black Messiah is the best film of the year. I know it’s only February but this is an incredible film. From the moment it began, Shaka King presents the decade of the sixties as one of the most brutal decades in American history. King makes you feel the weight of the deaths of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. during the Civil Rights movement, while understanding the importance of the Black Panther Party in the late 60s. It was a decade filled with hatred, death, violence and grief. Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) is, and always will be, a very important figure because he was the leader of a revolution.

This film is beyond impressive because of Shaka King’s directorial efforts. It is just so sleek and unique to his style of filmmaking. From the cinematography, to the production design, to the costumes, to the jazz undertones in the score that fade as the film gets deeper into the story, everything was perfectly constructed and it worked. The structure of this film played out like The Departed (normally I don’t compare films but it’s the first thing I thought of) because of the role that William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) plays in this story. There’s a rat in the Black Panther Party and they need to find out who. What King does extremely well is framing his subjects, the viewer is constantly shown new information with the characters, instead of learning through the dialogue.

The film is beautifully shot and King makes some different choices for his action scenes. When there were scenes involving standoffs with the police and the Black Panther Party, the camera was always focused on the person being shot and not the person firing. It was interesting because it symbolized that it could be anyone, at anytime, and that these situations are about more than just one specific person. It symbolizes an entire community or an entire system fighting against each other. Shaka King and Will Berson’s screenplay was intricate and perfectly executed to accurately tell this story. His actors elevated their words, to create such a timeless film that will be remembered by many.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

These performances were outstanding. First and foremost, we must give credit to the Fred Hampton who delivered such powerful speeches to unify people during this period. When Daniel Kaluuya opens his mouth, to speak his first few pieces of dialogue, the spotlight was his. Kaluuya brought Fred Hampton to the screen with such power, vulnerability and respect. Even though Kaluuya’s name has been everywhere, there needs to be recognition given to LaKeith Stanfield, who was an excellent choice to play O’Neal. Stanfield carried the film and gave a very complex performance, since he had to play both sides and had all of this information to process.

There is a third, and very important performance in the film by Dominique Fishback, who plays Deborah Johnson. Fishback’s role was a bit more laid back compared to Kaluuya and Stanfield but she had a more emotional role to play alongside them. She represented all Black women, who struggled with their agency through the revolution. The women who wanted to fight for justice, while still looking out for their men around them. In every scene Fishback was in, she presented another side of the story. She showed power through vulnerability and her emotional connection with Kaluuya shined through.

Judas and the Black Messiah will most definitely blow you away without expertly structured this film is. Shaka King delivered on all fronts and his ensemble of actors did extraordinary work with this story. Kaluuya, Fishback and Standfield deserve all the praise for their characterizations and performances because they were absolutely perfect. It is one of the best films of the year and it should be recognized as that. From beginning to end, the film flowed effortlessly from scene to scene and didn’t miss a single beat. It is such a strong directorial feature debut from Shaka King and it will leave you wanting more from him.

Sundance Film Festival: ‘Pleasure’ Review

By: Amanda Guarragi

Pleasure is definitely a midnight film, that I should have watched at midnight, and not at nine in the morning. But hey, these are the choices I had to make. I was instantly intrigued by the premise of Pleasure because I enjoy films that have women, freely exploring their sexuality. Writer-director Ninja Thyberg highlighted how emotional and psychologically damaging, the porn industry can be, for young women starting out in their career. 20-year-old Linnéa (Sofia Kappel) from Sweden, travels all the way to Los Angeles to become the next big porn star. She is taken for a loop, when she finds out that the industry is very competitive and she eventually becomes a product of her environment.

The reason why Pleasure was so interesting to watch was because of the female gaze. If a man was directing this film, it would have looked and felt completely different. What Thyberg does is focus on the act of sex as a job, like any other. All jobs come with their issues and Thyberg showed a day-in-the-life of a porn star. Like all industries, the job is competitive and it does take a mental, physical and emotional toll on you. Linnéa aka Bella wanted some adventure in her life and she wanted to fame, more than anything. At first we see her as timid and sweet. Then as the film goes on, we see this fire in her, this passion and drive for her work. Bella wanted to conquer everything but it came with a price.

Bella talked a big game but she was a rookie. She wanted to do what all the stars were doing in regards to sexual preferences for videos. She ended up in really horrible situations that broke her. There are moments in Pleasure where we can see that Bella’s emotions get the best of her and the tough exterior shell is stripped away. It also looks deep into the value of the industry and the various categories that people search for. Thyberg did not shy away from rough sexual scenes because it was necessary to show how vulgar they are. She also tastefully kept the frame on Bella and explored her emotions, while experiencing these scenes, which feel like torture.

Pleasure has a very different take on the porn industry. Ninja Thyberg takes the intimacy out of sex and instead shows the intimacy with oneself. It show how women look at themselves and treat their own bodies. I think that is the most important takeaway. Women have full control over their bodies, even when they think they don’t. We watch Bella go through some horrible moments but in the end it is how she chooses to control the situation. Her determination overpowers her logic at times and that is what makes her story so interesting to watch.

Sundance Film Festival: ‘First Date’ Review And Interview With The Filmmakers

By: Amanda Guarragi

First Date is a fun and entertaining ride, as newcomers Manuel Crosby and Darren Knapp, give us a throwback flick filled with many twists and turns. We meet Mike, a highs-school kid with a crush, who musters up the courage to ask out Kelsey on a date. The only issue is that Mike doesn’t have a car, so he borrows money and gets conned into buying a ’65 Chrysler. All Mike wants to do is go on a date with the girl he likes but he ends up getting mixed up with the wrong people. His date night turns into this wild misadventure, that finds him targeted by a pair of cops, a criminal gang, and a vengeful cat lady.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

This was such a fun watch because it reminded me of all the 90s/early 2000s films I grew up watching. Audiences can appreciate what Crosby and Knapp did with this film because the nostalgia always hits. There are so many characters that are introduced and they all eventually cross paths with each other, creating tension and well-crafted action scenes. Crosby wanted to mix genres, throw in a little humour and give audiences something memorable, “We really wanted to create a story that had twists and turns that you couldn’t really predict easily in terms of what kind of genre it was. Those were the types of movies we would watch all the time and we just sort of felt like they were a little harder to find these days.” It’s safe to say that they followed through with their idea quite well and created something special.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

We all know what it’s like to want to impress the person you’re crushing on, so Mike (Tyson Brown) is pretty relatable. He’s shy, socially awkward and has his friend Brett (Josh Fesler) walk him through calling Kelsey for the date. All the characters in this film, including Kelsey, all have fragments of other well-known characters from our favourite films. That’s what will make you connect to all of them and genuinely enjoy their performances. There was so much happening in this movie, that sometimes it was hard to focus on Kelsey and Mike’s chemistry. The action scenes were executed well and the big stand-off at the end was great! It did feel like a mash-up of everything and it was balanced for the most part.

Even though there were many characters, producer and actor Brandon Kraus said that the car became its own character, “We found this really cool, interesting car, that was just as quirky as the characters in the film. But that came with car troubles. So like my past car troubles in the movie, we defo had our troubles on set with it not starting.” Admittedly, the car had gone through so much during this film, so of course it would run into some trouble on set. Even though they had car troubles, Kraus praised the cast and crew for working tirelessly through night shoots, where they would have 10 hour days and filmed for five days straight.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

The film was a labour of love and you could feel that from everyone involved. For this to be Shelby Duclos and Tyson Brown’s debut feature was so exciting for them. They expressed what it was like to be on set filming those action scenes, while being able to see how it’s made behind the camera as well. Brown and Duclos are in this industry because they love movies and grew up watching films just like this one, so they were overjoyed to get the full experience, “Even behind the scenes, when we weren’t shooting, it was like watching behind-the-scenes footage and I was like a movie geek sitting there with a smile on my face.” Duclos agreed with Brown and said that she learned so much about herself. She really enjoyed being surrounded with such wonderful people.

First Date is a dark comedy and coming-of-age thriller, that keeps you guessing until the end. It is an ode to our favourite flicks growing up in the 90s/early 2000s and will definitely make you feel nostalgic. The film has many twists and turns but it balances out as the story moves forward. It makes you feel like a teenager again because it places you in those intense situations with these characters. It has some funny, awkward moments, that will give you second-hand embarrassment because you can relate to them. Knapp and Crosby delivered on all fronts to make this a great debut feature.

Sundance Film Festival: ‘Cryptozoo’ Review

By: Amanda Guarragi

Cryptozoo is an animated film with such a unique story, that is heavily centered on mythological beings. It is a film that introduces you to a whole other world and makes you care for these creatures, called ‘cryptids’. ‘Cryptids’ are creatures whose existence is disputed or unsupported. They are treated poorly and are segregated from the human race. The film has beautiful imagery, interesting characters and addresses how corrupt the government can be. Some sequences will have you in a trance but then something unexpected happens and cuts through it. There are definitely moments of shock when watching the film and it could only work because of the animation.

We are introduced to a military brat named Lauren, who spent her childhood having really bad nightmares. The reason why she is so attached to these cryptids is because a mythical creature named baku came to eat her dreams, thus relieving her mind of those nightmares. She has dedicated her whole life to protecting these animals, by becoming a ‘cryptozookeeper’ and giving them shelter from those who seek to exploit them. Lauren meets with new cryptids and tries to recruit them to the zoo, in order to keep them safe. She then finds out that, the baku is out there and the government wants to capture it to use it to their own advantage.

Writer-director Dash Shaw creates a fantastical world for these creatures and shines a light on how governments can manipulate their people. The way the story unfolds is really interesting and so much tension was created between the characters, as they fight to protect the baku. “Without dreams, there can be no future.” This line was really important because of how generations cycle back to each other, we can’t grow without ideas and in this particular story baku uses her powers for good and not evil. So naturally, the government would want this creature in their custody for manipulating ideas.

Cryptozoo is colourful, energetic and wildly entertaining. It takes you on an adventurous journey with such interesting characters. The story is well-written and you end up feeling for the cryptids. The direction of this piece is quite fun and the transitions from scene to scene had beautiful imagery. It has a very grounded concept (even though the characters are mythological) but it is rooted in basic human decency and compassion for others around you.

Sundance Film Festival: ‘Violation’ Review

By: Amanda Guarragi

Madeleine Sims-Fewer and Dusty Mancinelli’s Violation is a film that will leave you in awe of the work that was done. It is one of the most incredible revenge films I have seen. This handled trauma in a very stylistic & symbolic way. It is a very difficult watch as they both incorporated horror elements to address Miriam’s (Madeleine Sims-Fewer) trauma. The film was beautifully shot, even though some scenes were incredibly violent, they captured difficult moments in an interesting way. It is very hard to detach yourself from what is happening in certain scenes but the direction is what elevated those intimate moments.

What starts out as a domestic family drama, turns into a psychological nightmare filled with rage. It was supposed to be a weekend of relaxation and reconciliation for Miriam and Caleb (Obi Abili), as Miriam’s estranged sister, Greta (Anna MaGuire) invited them. We see the dynamic between two very different couples, Miriam and Caleb vs. Dylan (Jesse LaVercombe) and Greta shift with each passing moment. Miriam and Greta have similar issues that all siblings do but Miriam’s past is slowly revealed and we see why Greta wanted nothing to do with her. Since Greta, Miriam and Dylan all went to school together, Miriam has always had a close friendship with him.

What starts out as genuine conversations between Miriam and Dylan, turns into something more. The more they interact, the more intimate their looks become and that is credited to the direction of all of the scenes shared between them. One late night, as they are the remaining two sitting around a campfire, a long night of conversation began. Making the choice to stay out there together, while they were drunk with unresolved feelings from their past, the night heads into a different direction. What started out as innocent, turns into a horrific act of sexual violence that traumatized Miriam.

Violation handles violent, sexual acts in a manner that will repulse you but also help you understand the aftermath of pain and trauma. We visually see Miriam tear herself apart because of the rage inside her towards Dylan. What she wants to do to him, versus what she does do, are two separate acts and it is shown through symbolic imagery and dreamlike sequences. It is a daring film and it will not be for everyone because of how detailed the sexual scenes are. Madeleine Sims-Fewer gives an outstanding performance and she carried the entire film. It is truly a brilliant piece of work.