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Sundance Film Festival: Suggestions for dramas and documentaries to watch


Hey, the Sundance Film Festival wraps up this weekend. And for the second year in a row, the showcase of independent films was all virtual, which means that our film critic Kenneth Turan was watching from home. Hey there, Ken.

KENNETH TURAN, BYLINE: Hey, Steve. How you doing?

INSKEEP: OK, does this mean you did not get to walk the red carpet?

TURAN: (Laughter) There's rarely a red carpet in Sundance. It's not that kind of a place.

INSKEEP: I see. I understand. But you're on your couch, actually. Is that where you're watching when you're at home, by the way? I want to know 'cause you're an important critic. Are you on a couch or some other kind of...

TURAN: I'm on a couch. But I have a very big screen, so it dominates the room.


TURAN: So I'm getting a big-screen experience even though I'm at home.

INSKEEP: So on that screen you're watching, among other things, dramas. What stands out to you?

TURAN: Well, there's one film - you know, one of the things that's both the hope and the dread of film critics is that you fall in love with a film that's so crazy you don't know if anyone else is going to like it. And I had such a film with this festival. It's called "Brian And Charles." It starts with Brian, who's this wacky inventor, kind of a Gyro Gearloose-type inventor. And he's lonely in rural Wales, and he invents a robot. Charles is the robot - oddest-looking robot you've ever seen, 7 feet tall. His body is a washing machine. His head is a mannequin head just stuck on top of the washing machine. And these two people have adventures. You know, they get into trouble. There's some dark things that happen. But this is like a warm, sweet, completely wacky film. It's the least cutting-edge film imaginable. And, you know, I just fell in love with it.

INSKEEP: Let's listen to a little bit of this.


DAVID EARL: (As Brian) That head you see there I found in the back shed in a sack. And I knew I had a couple of levers in the bedroom. And then snap, crackle and pop, put them together. Hey, presto.

CHRIS HAYWARD: (As Charles) You built my body.

EARL: (As Brian) Built this body, and we've been friends ever since.

HAYWARD: (As Charles) Yes.

EARL: (As Brian) Yes. Yes, we have.

INSKEEP: It sounds like "Frankenstein" if it was made by Disney.

TURAN: (Laughter) It's more like "Frankenstein" made by Monty Python. I mean, it's charming, you know? I mean, if you go with it, which I did and which I'm hoping other people will as well, it's very sweet. It just - it's a pleasure to watch. It's unlike anything I've seen in a long time.

INSKEEP: You also wanted to highlight a remake of 1950s Japanese film that's been shown at Sundance. What is it?

TURAN: Yes, that's called "Living." It's a remake of a classic from the 1950s - Akira Kurosawa's "Ikiru." And in the title role and the real lure of this film is Bill Nighy, who's a wonderful British actor. He mostly does comic roles. People may remember him from "Love Actually." He's got a role in "Pirates Of The Caribbean." And he plays a kind of a fossilized bureaucrat who's been kind of a cog in the machinery for decades. And all of a sudden, he gets a diagnosis that he has less than a year to live, and he gets this urge to do something with his life. And it's a very nuanced film. It's a very impeccable performance by Bill Nighy. And the other thing about this film that's notable is that the screenplay was written by Kazuo Ishiguro, the Nobel Prize-winning author, adapting Kurosawa's screenplay.

INSKEEP: Any great documentaries at Sundance, as there often are?

TURAN: Gosh, always. I mean, really, in some ways, the documentaries are the heart of Sundance and the thing that I look forward to most. But the one that's really on everyone's mind is a film called "Navalny." This was a last-minute addition to the program. And it's about Alexei Navalny, who is the key opposition figure in Russia...


TURAN: ...Who was nearly killed, apparently by Putin's people. And the filmmaker kind of managed to embed himself with Navalny while he was in Germany recovering from being poisoned. And the heart of the film is that there's an organization called Bellingcat, which does a lot of investigation through computers of all kinds of information. And a journalist from Bellingcat figures out who the people were who tried to kill Navalny, the actual operatives. And Navalny gets one of them on the phone and kind of bluffs him and doesn't tell him who he is, makes believe he's someone else and gets the guy on the phone to basically provide all the details of how he was nearly killed.


TURAN: To hear that is just an astonishing moment of kind of cinema, just a really gripping moment. And the film is really quite, quite fascinating.

INSKEEP: Well, that's a documentary that's about as on the news as you could get right now. There's another documentary, though, I think you wanted to talk about.

TURAN: Yes. It's called "Downfall: The Case Against Boeing." It's by Rory Kennedy, a veteran documentary maker. And it explores the crashes of the Boeing Max 737 that people might remember. Twice in five months this plane crashed - 346 fatalities. And this is a step-by-step - it's almost like a police procedural why this happened, how it happened, what the human factors were, what the mechanical factors were, what the cultural factors were. If it's something you kind of vaguely know about, this will tell you everything you need to know, and it will really hold you in your seat and won't let you go.

INSKEEP: Ken Turan, our film critic on MORNING EDITION, always a pleasure talking with you.

TURAN: Likewise, Steve. Thank you.

INSKEEP: He's telling us what's at the virtual Sundance Film Festival on MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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