Culture / Entertainment

Talking About Bill Cosby, a TV Changing Couple and a Poisoned Russian — Sundance Movie Winners You Can See Soon

Film Fest Reveals Must Sees and Some Overhyped Flicks You Can Skip

BY // 02.04.22

The Sundance Film Festival is coming off its nine day run — its second consecutive year in an all-virtual format. Although experiencing Sundance in any format is always magical, being physically present in the mountain town of Park City, Utah provides the true shared joy of discovering new movies and actors. There’s nothing like being in the buzziest place on earth with people who share your passion for movies.

But one upside of the virtual experience is not having to wait in sub-freezing snowy conditions for a bus to take you to the next venue. Where you’ll wait in yet another cold line for entry and a seat. Another upside is being able to see more movies because there are no logistical issues. You merely watch from your home setup — hopefully a big screen TV.

This year I saw 25 movies. Eight were excellent, eight were good and the rest were just OK. That last group includes Sundance audience award winner Cha Cha Real Smooth with everyone’s current crush Dakota Johnson. Cha Cha Real Smooth is a light, heartwarming coming of age comedy about an aimless college grad who strikes up a friendship with Johnson, a soon to be married mother, and her autistic daughter.

Sundance audiences loved this film, and it commanded the highest price of the movie festival’s offerings. But it didn’t do too much for me. Cha Cha Real Smooth reminds me of the 2019 Sundance coming of age drama Brittany Runs a Marathon. Sundance audiences swooned over Brittany Runs a Marathon too, but it received a ho-hum reception once it was released in theaters.

Out of my 25 films, I saw only one really bad one. That’s a pretty good ratio. The bad one you ask? The clear winner or loser (depending on how you look at it) is Resurrection, starring the talented Rebecca Hall, which started as a promising, cerebral thriller that jumped the shark with a such a silly, bizarre and unhinged ending that I’m swearing off horror films for the rest of this lifetime.

You can judge Resurrection and the sweet though forgettable Cha Cha Real Smooth for yourself soon. Apple acquired Cha Cha and IFC Films bought Resurrection. Both will be released in theaters and shortly thereafter start streaming.

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For those who are wondering what you can see soon that is worth seeing, there are three excellent documentaries that made Sundance waves that shouldn’t be missed. One started streaming this week, one will stream on March 4 and the last is coming out soon after.

We Need to Talk About Cosby

We Need To Talk About Cosby is an unsettling and illuminating four-part documentary that examines the life of Bill Cosby — the good and the inescapably evil.  Even the title feels heavy. Director W. Kamau Bell, a comedian who once admired Cosby, has conflicting feelings about the film about which he is candid. This documentary also has already provoked threats from Cosby fans.

The doc opens with a group of mostly Black entertainers and writers sitting in a circle. They are shown a clip of Cosby from his heyday on The Cosby Show where he made the world smile. They can’t help but smile, but the smiles are coupled with palpable sadness and disappointment. Can you separate the art from the artist?

Bill Cosby
Bill Cosby is not the good person everyone who watched him in TV assumed he was.

The documentary series combines archival footage and current interviews with academics, comedians and former colleagues who discuss Cosby’s wide-ranging impact on Black actors, education and culture. Interlaced with this context are the painful stories of the victims of Cosby’s alleged sexual abuse. Cosby’s accused bad behavior began in the 1960s and included drugging and assaulting more than 60 women. Cosby was convicted, but the conviction was later overturned by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court after it determined he had been denied protection against self incrimination.

This documentary differs from other bad dude docs (Harvey Weinstein, Michael Jackson) because they were never promoted as America’s Dad. How were all of us were fooled by Bill Cosby? Bell provides possible clues we missed. How can we reconcile such a cultural icon with immeasurable talent who also turned out to be such a horrible person and charged predator?

This thoughtful documentary is entertaining, educational, horrifying and ultimately sad. Bill Cosby was one of the most famous figures in the entire world. Who were his enablers?  You can’t behave like he did in a vacuum — or can you? Bell asks the viewer to use this documentary as a springboard for ongoing discussions about systems that allow people like Bill Cosby to operate.

We Need To Talk About Cosby is streaming on Showtime

Lucy and Desi

Films sometimes travel in pairs. In 2020, there was a documentary and a drama on activist Gloria Steinem. This is the movie time of Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz and their iconic TV show I Love Lucy. Aaron Sorokin’s entertaining drama Being the Ricardos, starring Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem, premiered in December. It was followed at Sundance by Amy Poehler’s directing debut, the delightful and much more entertaining Lucy and Desi.

Poehler had access to home movies from Ball and Arnaz’s archives and interlaces the well-known background of Ball and Arnaz with memories from Norman Lear, Carol Burnett and Bette Midler, and behind the scenes footage of the now 70-year-old TV show. Neither Lucille Ball or Desi Arnaz received national acclaim as solo performers, but together their synergy produced America’s best known TV couple, changed the television landscape and inspired generations of women comedians, including Poehler.

Lucy and Desi – Still 1
A still from Lucy and Desi, directed by Amy Poehler. (Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

Poehler also highlights Arnaz’s emigration from Cuba and how he altered the perception of Cubans. The documentary details how Arnaz changed the way TV shows are filmed and how the couple’s production company, Desilu Productions, at one time owned and developed 30 TV shows. Including Mission Impossible, Star Trek and The Untouchables. Most importantly, Poehler charmingly shows Ball and Arnaz as more than just their characters.

They are revealed to be complicated people struggling to make a complex relationship work and, in the process, become America’s favorite couple.

Poehler doesn’t linger too long on the reasons for their divorce — his work, adultery and drinking. Nor does she mention that Lucille Ball was married to second husband Gary Morton longer than she was to Arnaz.

The best scene of the documentary occurs at the end when daughter Lucie Arnaz describes how her mother visited Desi as he was dying of lung cancer. The daughter put in tapes of the old TV shows and left Lucy and Desi alone. From behind the closed door, she could hear their laughter.

Lucy and Desi begins streaming on Amazon Prime on March 4.

Navalny

Navalny, a true life, international, harrowing thriller, was a surprise, last minute entry to the Sundance Film Festival. It won not only the audience award for best documentary, but the overall award for the best film of Sundance.

For those not familiar with the name, Alexei Navalny is the Russian opposition leader who in 2020, barely survived a poisoning attempt with nerve agent Novichok, which shuts down the body and dissipates, making death seems like it was from natural causes. Novichok is reputed to be Russian president Vladimir Putin’s drug of choice when it comes to eliminating his enemies.

As Navalny was recovering in Germany from the poisoning, he met Christo Grozev who was part of a team of online sleuths, including Canadian filmmaker Daniel Roher who had identified eight men from Russian security who had been following Navalny for several years. Most of the documentary follows these suspects during the second half of 2020 as the amateur sleuths unravel the assassination plot and prepare to disclose it to the public.

Navalny – Still 1
A still from Navalny, Sundance’s best film winner.

Navalny is a handsome, articulate and heroic protagonist. He is accustomed to being on camera and is media savvy. His wife and daughter (who has an American accent and is a university student in California) appear in the film to talk about him as a father and husband.

The most shocking part of the film occurs when Navalny prank calls one of the suspected assassins and tricks him into giving details of the assassination plot. Which included lacing his blue underwear with poison. This call is captured on film. It’s liable to leave your jaw on the floor. If this were a drama you would think it was unbelievable.

This thrilling, tense documentary ends as Navalny returns to Russia with multiple reporters in tow. He tells the documentary crew that he realizes he may be arrested and executed upon his return. He is promptly arrested and is jailed in a penal colony 60 miles east of Moscow, where he remains today. The is an outstanding film that gives voice to those demanding a better government, those who are even willing to die for it.

Navalny will premiere on CNN and HBO Max this Spring.

Jane Howze is managing director of The Alexander Group, a national executive search firm. She has covered  every Sundance Film Festival since 2010.

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