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Sundance Film Festival 2021: Highlights from the comfort of your living room

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Analysis by Thomas Page, CNN
Updated 11:31 AM ET, Wed February 3, 2021

(CNN) — Boing. That’s the sound of the Sundance Film Festival becoming an Oscars springboard.

Sundance normally holds a bit of an odd position in the calendar, set in the middle of awards season but with a program content to wait it out for next year’s cycle. It’s helped cultivate the festival’s image as a space for cutting-edge American cinema, like a fashion house previewing its wares a season ahead of the rest (“oh, are you still discussing that old movie? Well, here’s what’s next”). But this year — one hopes for one year only — the festival’s position changed as the calendar shifted around it.
Due to the pandemic, the Academy Awards is now in April, qualification extending through February, meaning Sundance took on new allure for one gong-hungry distributor. Warner Bros. (CNN shares the same parent company, Warner Media) launched Shaka King’s Black Panther/FBI drama “Judas and the Black Messiah” to widespread acclaim. A title that was originally slated for 2020 and confusingly included in the National Board of Review’s list of last year’s top films, there’s every chance it will enter
awards contention alongside the likes of “Promising Young Woman,” “Never, Rarely, Sometime, Always” and “Dick Johnson Is Dead” — films that debuted at Sundance 12 months ago and have had to work hard to maintain momentum. That’s some shortcut.
    Not that it could win here, premiering as it did out of competition. The jury including Julie Dash, Cynthia Erivo and Joshua Oppenheimer bestowed Grand Jury Prizes on Sîan Heder’s “CODA” (US dramatic), Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s “Summer of Soul” (US documentary), Blerta Basholli’s “Hive” (World cinema dramatic) and Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s “Flee” (World cinema documentary), with Audience Awards following suit in all but the last category, where Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh’s “Writing With Fire” triumphed. Stick a pin in that list for the months ahead.
    Another virtual festival supplemented by drive-in screenings, organizers said they expected it would be the best-attended Sundance yet, with tickets starting at $15. The past year has been nothing if not disruptive, but the egalitarian direction it has pushed the festival circuit, not always known for its ease of access, is encouraging. Whether professional critic or simply a fan of film, we’re all bored of staring at our own fall walls by now; everyone should have the opportunity to escape into new cinema for a while.
    Here are some highlights from the festival.

    “CODA”

    Thought there was nothing left to say in say in the coming-of-age genre? “CODA” begs to differ.
    In Sîan Heder’s sophomore feature, an adaptation of French hit “La Famille Belie,” Ruby (Emilia Jones) is the only hearing member in a family of four (CODA is short for children of deaf adults). A high school student by day and a deckhand on her father’s boat before dawn, she’s grown beyond her years, operating as the link between her family and the community of Gloucester, Massachusetts. Ironically enough her gift is her voice, and she follows a crush into a choir class … and you can guess what happens next.
    The bones of the film are familiar, but hanging off its frame are some original muscles. A game cast lend real conviction to Heder’s winning screenplay, as Ruby’s talent flourishes and she’s forced to choose between her own path and “protecting” her loved ones. There’s laughs and emotional wallop aplenty, and a star-making turn from Jones (Eugenio Derbez has Ruby’s teacher is also a highlight). Feelgood filmmaking this pure of heart is hard to come by right now.

    “Flee”

    Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s documentary sold to multiple powerhouse distributors during the festival and an English version voiced by Riz Ahmed (“The Sound of Metal”) and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (“Game of Thrones”) is to come. So expect to hear more about this account of a gay Afghan’s flight from home in the 1990s.
    Amin (a pseudonym) is in his thirties, working in Denmark as a successful academic. But for years he has lived with secrets that, once spoken, threaten to dismantle his hard-won stability. As a boy he was forced to flee Kabul, and his journey west is as harrowing as you’d imagine, with more twists and incident than a Hollywood screenwriter would think believable. Like any good story, there are redrafts, Amin deceiving himself as much as the audience; he has been forced to live with lies for so long they have become a part of him. Some unravelling is to be done.
    Animation from Sun Creative Studio doesn’t just provide anonymity to Amin, it conjures the past to stunning effect. Alongside rotoscope-style sequences, a whirlwind of suppressed memory emerges in scratchy, sketchy flashbacks, these shadows on a soul finding beautiful form.

    “The Pink Cloud”

    Iuli Gerbase’s “The Pink Cloud” might always be known as the film that predicted lockdown. It knows it too: the line “Any resemblance to facts is purely coincidental” flashes up at the start. Written in 2017 and shot in 2019, the Brazilian director has said lockdown was used as conceit to explore gender inequality in its many forms. Looking at what has happened this past year, it gives me no pleasure to note how right she was.
    After hooking up the night before, Giovana (Renata des Lélis) and Yago (Eduardo Mendonça) awake to discover the titular cloud has descended. This malevolent whisp of candy floss will kill any human who goes outside within 10 seconds, forcing these strangers to play house for the foreseeable future. Which eventually puts own our lockdowns in perspective.
    The foresight of Gerbase (also the screenwriter) is striking: online plumbing tutorials; the perils of video calling a parent; the thwarted rites of passage; the lack of protection for those most vulnerable. That said, the novelty of this image of the present, beamed in from the past, shouldn’t distract from its acute commentary on a more universal subject: the moments little and large that can cause a woman to lose her autonomy. A film set in a pandemic but not about one, its shelf-life will live on.

    “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)”

    If you’re missing live music, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson is here to scratch that itch with his electric documentary “Summer of Soul.”
    It’s the summer of 1969: man was on the moon, hippies descended on Woodstock and 300,000 people congregated in Mount Morris Park, New York for the Harlem Cultural Festival. A veritable who’s who of Black musical excellence from Nina Simone to B.B. King to Hugh Masekela graced the stage, and a crew was on hand to record everything. Only the tapes were lost. No longer.
    Recovered from a basement after 50 years, Thompson presents these sublime performances alongside interviews with artists and speakers at the event. In a lovely touch, he also presents his subjects with the footage. They’re agog; stunned that this chapter of cultural history — the significance of which was known to everyone who was there, but lost on many who weren’t — was every bit as brilliant as they remembered it. “I knew I wasn’t crazy,” says one interviewee, “but now I know I’m not.”
    An event long-dubbed “The Black Woodstock” has been unhelpfully circumscribed by the comparison. Now it has its film and takes a large step out of the other’s shadow.

    “On the Count of Three”

    Jerrod Carmichael’s provocative debut is a pitch-black comedy that runs the emotional gamut and asks audiences to hold on.
    Staring the comic-turned-director as Val and Christopher Abbot as best friend Kevin, both bear the scars of abusive pasts. Believing they’re without options, they resolve to die after one last day of unfinished business. That means visiting ghosts from the past, possible murder and a lot of cruising in Val’s yellow 4×4.
    Writers Ari Katcher and Ryan Welch build layers of dark humor, while the actors inject a feverish energy to proceedings. It feels like a cousin of the Safdie brothers’ recent output, and not just because Abbott, bleached hair and doleful eyes, recalls “Good Times'” deadbeat Connie (Robert Pattinson) in looks and recklessness.
    But the stakes here are higher than anything the Safdies have pulled off so far. This is heavy subject matter and could — at best — come across as glib if handled clumsily. Credit then to Carmichael, who finds sufficient lyricism in direction and gravity in performance to prevent “On the Count of Three” pitching into nihilism. Credit also to Abbott for his quicksilver turn, displaying all the emotional acuity we’ve come to expect from the actor.

    “In the Earth”

    “The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.” Orson Welles may or may not have said that, but Ben Wheatley’s “Rebecca” was sure-fire proof that the sentiment rings true. Happily for us, the director returns to his small-scale roots with a delightfully sinister and deliriously effective spin on British folk horror, written in lockdown, filmed last summer and served to audiences before the corpse of his Netflix misfire has had the chance to go cold.
    Set in the midst of a viral outbreak, “In the Earth” has shades of Alex Garland’s “Annihilation” in its premise, sending a scientist (Joel Fry) and a ranger (Ellora Torchia) into the countryside to investigate peculiar biological activity. Quickly — inevitably — they discover they’re not alone, and not everyone’s motivations are strictly academic. “People get a bit funny in the woods, sometimes,” one character warns.
    Wheatley dispenses with the polish of his Du Maurier adaptation, getting down and dirty with his keen eye for grisly spectacle, augmented by some trippy sequences and a score from Clint Mansell that sows dread wherever it goes. We could do with less exposition, but this is an entertaining exorcising of demons and a return to the director’s “Kill List” best.

    “Pleasure”

    Ninja Thyberg’s searing debut takes aim at America’s adult film industry, peeling back the veneer of eroticism to find professional rivalries, coercive coworkers and patriarchal oppression. In some ways, the film says, it’s similar to any other job, but Thyberg is clear-eyed about the differences, offering notes on the topic of consent, the downward spiral into extreme acts and the for-profit violence meted out on women’s bodies.
    Sofia Kappel as Linnéa, a 20-year-old Swede who moves to L.A. to pursue a career as Bella Cherry, delivers a fearless and committed performance. Paired with deft and unflinching direction, it dares you to disrespect it by looking away. Meanwhile, a supporting cast sourced from within adult entertainment provide an additional note of authenticity.
    If “Pleasure” finds widespread distribution — and it is an if, this is explicit stuff — there will be no small amount of pearl-clutching on release. Originally destined for Cannes last year, we can only imagine the commotion it would have caused in that critical pressure cooker. Watching from home, it’s clear this thought-provoking film has a lot to say, if only one chooses to listen in good faith.

    “The Sparks Brothers”

    Director Edgar Wright’s foray into documentary was born of his love for cult band Sparks, but also the fact he kept having to explain to people just who they were.
    Dubbed by one talking head “the best British group to ever come from America,” across six decades their itinerant sound has passed through rock, pop, disco and electro (with a sojourn into neoclassical) while remaining singularly… well, Sparks. Their dips in and out of popularity and their forward-looking, art-for-art’s-sake ethos has made them influential within the industry. In their seventies now, they’re on hand to look back through the albums, while there’s plenty of big names ready to appraise them, from Flea of Red Hot Chili Peppers (once a supporting act) to Giorgio Moroder (producer of album “No.1 In Heaven”).
      The central duo Ron and Russell Mael make for an affable but inscrutable pair, and despite a 135-minute profile with a dizzying array of interviewees, they leave with most of their mystique intact. Which, one suspects, suits them just fine.
      The Sundance Film Festival concludes February 3.

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      The third ‘Spider-Man’ film finally has a title

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      By Sandra Gonzalez, CNN
      Updated 6:49 PM ET, Wed February 24, 2021

      (CNN) — Until Wednesday, rumors about the title of the third Spider-Man film have been a web of lies. But the truth has been revealed.

      Tom Holland will swing into theaters in December in “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” Sony and Marvel have confirmed.
      The film will be the third installment of the Holland-led franchise that has also included “Spider-Man: Homecoming” and “Spider-Man: Far From Home.”
      Director Jon Watts, who directed the first two, returns for this film.
        Earlier this week, cast members Holland, Zendaya and Jacob Batalon presented a series of fake titles (like “Spider-Man: Home Slice” and “Spider-Man: Phone Home”) on social media, drumming up speculation that the official title would soon be revealed.
        The film is set to be released December 17, 2021.

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        DWI charges dropped against Bruce Springsteen, who pleads guilty to just drinking in the park

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        By Evan Simko-Bednarski, CNN
        Updated 12:54 PM ET, Wed February 24, 2021

        (CNN) — Bruce Springsteen pleaded guilty Wednesday to charges he imbibed alcohol at New Jersey’s Sandy Hook National Recreation Area, despite knowing it was prohibited.

        “I had two small shots of Tequila,” Springsteen said in a virtual appearance before New Jersey Federal Court.
        The plea came after federal prosecutors agreed to drop charges that Springsteen was operating a vehicle under the influence and driving recklessly, charges Assistant US Attorney Adam Baker said the government would not be able to prove.
        “The evidence we reviewed indicates that after the defendant’s arrest, he submitted to a breath test at the ranger station, and his BAC reading was .02, which as the court is aware is well under the legal limit of .08,” Baker said.
          Noting that the prohibition on alcoholic drinks at Sandy Hook was two years old, and noting Springsteen’s otherwise clean criminal record, Judge Anthony Mautone sentenced The Boss to pay a $500 fine plus $40 in court fees.
          While Springsteen has often sung about driving “suicide machines” down the New Jersey Turnpike, bragged of having his “carburetor, baby, cleaned and checked — with her lines blown out she’s running like a turbo jet,” and sang of being “sprung from cages on Highway 9 — chrome wheeled, fuel injected, and stepping out over the line,” Mautone remarked on the singer’s clean driving record.
          “I have in front of me the driver’s abstract of this defendant, going all the way back to 1973,” Mautone said. “There’s three violations in the whole abstract. In fact, two of them aren’t even violations and the third one is use of a hand-held cell device. Rarely would you see a driver’s abstract so devoid of any entries as I see before me, Mr. Springsteen.”
          Springsteen was arrested at Gateway National Recreation Area on November 14 and charged with DWI, reckless driving and consuming alcohol in a closed area, according to a spokesperson for the National Park Service.
          That night, a source close to the singer said earlier this month, Springsteen took a shot of alcohol with fans in the park after taking a photo with them. The source added that Springsteen is known to take photographs with fans. “That’s typical Bruce,” the source said.
          One officer said they observed Springsteen “consume a shot of Patron tequila and then get on his motorcycle and start the engine,” according to a probable cause statement obtained by CNN.
          Springsteen told the officer he had consumed two shots of tequila in the previous 20 minutes, according to the probable cause statement.
          “SPRINGSTEEN smelt strongly of alcohol coming off his person and had glassy eyes,” the officer said in the statement, adding he “was visibly swaying back and forth while I observed his eyes.”
            Springsteen, according to the officer, took 45 steps during the “walk and turn” test “instead of the instructed 18.”
            Prior to the screening, the officer said he approached Springsteen and informed him alcohol was prohibited in the park and asked whether Springsteen was leaving, to which “he confirmed he was going to drive out of the park,” the statement said.

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            BTS covers Coldplay and more on MTV Unplugged debut

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            By Chloe Melas, CNN
            Updated 10:15 AM ET, Wed February 24, 2021

            (CNN) — BTS made their debut on MTV’s Unplugged Tuesday night and played some of their greatest hits.

            The international K-pop sensation, which is comprised of Jin, Suga, J-Hope, RM, Jimin, V and Jungkook, performed “Telepathy” for the first time live, along with “Blue & Grey” during Tuesday night’s broadcast. BTS, which stands for Beyond The Scene, broadcast live from Seoul, South Korea.

            The group recently told CNN that they felt they needed to give their audience new music amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
            “If everything went according to plan, we’d be on tour right now, but the pandemic has changed everything,” Suga said. “So we thought about what we can do, and what we can do best at this point, in this situation. Everyone is going through such a difficult time, so we wanted to cheer them up.”

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            Taylor Swift’s re-recorded ‘Love Story’ is back on top of the charts

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            By Sandra Gonzalez, CNN
            Updated 9:08 PM ET, Mon February 22, 2021

            (CNN) — Taylor Swift’s re-recording of “Love Story” is now a success story.

            “Love Story (Taylor’s Version)” debuted at No. 1 on this week’s Hot Country Songs chart, according to Billboard.
            The song is shockingly Swift’s first No. 1 debut on that chart. It is also her 8th career No. 1 on the Hot Country Songs chart, the last one being 2012’s “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.”
            “Love Story” was originally on Swift’s album “Fearless,” which was released in 2008. Swift has been hard at work re-recording that album after losing the rights to her master recordings predating 2019’s “Lover” after they were sold to a company owned by music manager Scooter Braun. (Braun’s company sold them in late 2020.)
              Swift’s re-recording — titled “Fearless (Taylor’s version)” — will be released April 9.

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              Mandy Moore welcomes baby boy with husband Taylor Goldsmith

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              By Marianne Garvey, CNN
              Updated 6:19 PM ET, Tue February 23, 2021

              (CNN) — Mandy Moore has welcomed her first child.

              The “This Is Us” actress took to Instagram on Tuesday to announce that she and her husband Taylor Goldsmith, lead singer of the folk rock band Dawes, are now parents to a baby boy.
              “Gus is here,” Moore captioned a picture of the baby in an adorable blue onesie. “Our sweet boy, August Harrison Goldsmith. He was punctual and arrived right on his due date, much to the delight of his parents. We were prepared to fall in love in all sorts of brand new ways, but it goes beyond anything we could have ever imagined. M + T.”
              In January, Moore told Romper that she had high expectations for her child.
                “I want to raise an intelligent, feminist, loving, compassionate young man, who respects women, and who understands boundaries,” she told the publication.
                  Moore also sang her husband’s praises, saying he was born to be a dad.
                  “I think he’s been suited to be a father pretty much his whole life,” she said. “He’s been gearing up for this. Like in the morning, it’s funny, I’ll reach for my phone and he’ll reach right for whatever baby book he’s reading.”

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