Sundance 2021 (Part 1) – Knocking, Censor and BONUS Film Reviews

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Hello All!

You are in for a treat, as this year the Sundance Film Festival was presented virtually for people all around the world to enjoy, and I managed to get tickets to loads of premiers and exclusive Q+A sessions with the filmmakers!

So, in the spirit of the holidays (I know Christmas has passed, but the spirit of giving lives on!) I thought I would share my thoughts on several of the films that I was lucky enough to catch at the Sundance Film Festival 2021!

Ready to hear my thoughts on Sundance 2021?

Well, you’d better be, because these reviews are coming at you either way, so here we go!

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Knocking

(Director: Frida Kempff – Screenwriter: Emma Broström)

Synopsis (From Sundance Film Festival Website): What. Is. That. Noise. When Molly hears knocking coming from the ceiling in her new apartment, she naturally searches for the source. The upstairs neighbors don’t know what she’s talking about and dismiss her with cool indifference. Is this all in her mind? After all, she’s still processing a traumatic event that left her mentally unwell, and the unprecedented heat wave isn’t helping her think clearly. As the knocking intensifies and gives way to a woman’s cries, Molly becomes consumed with finding out the truth. Could it be Morse code? Is someone trapped? And more importantly, why doesn’t anyone care?

Director Q+A

After seeing the film, I did have several questions, so I am glad that we were treated to a brief discussion with the director, Frida Kempff.

Here is what I learned:

Knocking is Frida Kempff’s debut feature film, and is based on a short story titled Knocks.

With this film, Frida Kempff wanted to show how women are treated in society, specifically whenever they have an issue, problem. Unfortunately, Frida asserts, women are often dismissed, or not taken seriously when they report crimes or ask for help. Frida Kempff also wanted to specifically tell this story in a genre film, so that it could connect with a larger audience.

The film was shot in 18 days with a very low budget, the team’s motto was: everything is possible, and be bold. And bold they were in the creation of this limited-location thriller. In fact, the director of photography built all camera rigs himself with whatever he could find in his basement.

My Take

If you have seen my frequent disturbed rantings on Hank’s Under the Silver Lake review (which is either the greatest film ever made that we all totally misunderstood, or is just a garbage fire that I have been tricked into analyzing endlessly at great amusement to the writer/director) then you know that I believe there is something extremely compelling about stories dealing with obsession.

This could be obsession with a person, with reaching a goal, with finding something once thought lost, or an obsession with perfection, but there is something that draws us to characters who dive down the rabbit hole in search of greatness or some abstract greater truth.

As Thanos learned in Infinity War, and as we all later learned by endless mocking the scene with memes, the mental anguish of obsession extracts a hefty toll on the obsessed – in fact, it may cost that person “everything”.

Which is why I think Knocking is admirable in its ambitions, even if it falls short in its execution.

Before I get into that, we should talk about the high-concept nature of this piece. The story is easy-to-understand, and it is a contained, limited-actor psychological thriller in the vein and style of some of Hitchcock’s best work. Plus, it is based on a short story, which makes the low-budget genre film even more appealing to buyers / producers. Add all of that together, and you have all of the ingredients for a highly profitable little thriller.

This is something that we can all learn from, and, as Hank and I have said many times, we all should be writing / brainstorming a contained horror / thriller script.

Now, onto the film!

We start the feature with lead character Molly being released from a psychiatric facility. We are not sure why she was detained for about a year, but we know that “It is time.” for her to leave, as is repeated several times.

So, Molly gets an apartment and plans to start life anew.

But it won’t be that simple. It can’t be.

Because on her first night in the new apartment, she hears a knock. And then another knock. And another. It is a knocking that no one else seems to hear. Or at least a knocking that everyone else refuses to acknowledge in front of her.

To add to this stress, everyone in her rundown apartment building seems suspicious: Of her. Of each other. Of the building they are living in.

And, of course, we, as an audience, are not sure if the knocking is real, or a part of Molly’s severely damaged psyche. To add to fuel to our doubting flame, Molly is always alone when she hears the knocking, and the knocks only seem to start at night, rather than in the daylight.

The tension escalates as the knocks become louder and louder and more and more violent, and Molly begins to desperately search for a way to cease their endless rhythm before she loses what is left of her mind.

Molly, our lead, is played by Cecilia Milocco who turns in an excellent performance. It is especially impressive as the camera is on her almost the entire film and she has to express a range of emotions, which she nails.

The film is also only 78 minutes, which, if you have read any of my reviews of horror scripts and/or films, then you know that I typically recommend keeping your horror scripts short, sweet, and splatter-filled!

And the film looks great, especially when you know it was done on a shoestring budget. I really liked the small touches the filmmakers made, like the sweat dripping from every character’s forehead, the sickly greens and yellows that Molly’s apartment is bathed in, and the dark, cold corridors of the apartment complex help give the story a suffocating atmosphere.

There are also some genuinely creepy moments, such as when Molly witnesses a woman in the apartment across the street jump off of her porch to the unforgiving concrete below, or when Molly hears someone being beaten to death through the vents in her building.

Finally, I liked that Molly is fairly resourceful: she calls the police when she witnesses domestic abuse, begins to study Morse code to try and interpret what the knocks mean, and tries to take care of herself by drinking lots of water (especially important because of the oppressive heat wave that is hitting the city) and stocking up on vitamin C for her health. It’s refreshing to see a protagonist act (relatively) rationally in a horror/thriller feature, as it helps audiences connect with the character.

One of my main notes is that the story runs out of steam quickly and then flounders until the end. From about the midpoint onwards, the film struggles to keep giving us interesting story beats, and plot holes become a real problem. For example, later in the film Molly just decides she doesn’t want to be in a psych ward and simply walks out. And this is after she has been involuntarily committed by the authorities.

Because of the pacing problems, I feel like this is a script that either needed to be tightened into a short film, or it needed to be expanded to add more to the story and aim for a solid 90 minutes.

In addition, none of the threads or subplots that are set up really ever pay off. Molly’s past trauma doesn’t make sense, doesn’t add to her characterization, doesn’t give her an arc of any sort, and really seems shoved into the film to make a flat, one-dimensional character more interesting.

The ending explanation (if you can call it that, it really raised more questions than it answered) is literally done in voice-over that I would almost bet was added at the last minute because it feels lazy, rushed, and just doesn’t work.

As Kate Erbland said in her review of the film, “Molly deserves answers, but “Knocking” forgets what the questions were in the first place.” From her Indiewire review HERE, which I fully agree with, as I was extremely disappointed by the abrupt and lackluster ending to the film.

I was much more interested in the knocking and the fragile psychological state of our lead, and didn’t particularly care about the other tenants in the apartment which we spend lots of time investigating. I suppose this comes more down to personal taste, but I would have opted for a more horror-centric take on this story, as Molly begins to lose her mind due to the incessant and unrelenting knocking that haunts her each night.

Overall, there was a lot to like here from a new director working with a very low budget, but the narrative was very disappointing, as it was all over the place and didn’t resolve any of the plot threads it set up.

Maybe worth a watch if you are planning on writing your own psychological thriller script, but I am not sure it lives up to the high-concept promise of the premise.

That said, Frida Kempff is certainly a director to keep your eye on and I will be interested to see what she does next!

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Censor

(Director: Prano Bailey-Bond – Screenwriters: Prano Bailey-Bond, Anthony Fletcher)

Synopsis (From Sundance Film Festival Website):Film censor Enid takes pride in her meticulous work, guarding unsuspecting audiences from the deleterious effects of watching the gore-filled decapitations and eye gougings she pores over. Her sense of duty to protect is amplified by guilt over her inability to recall details of the long-ago disappearance of her sister, recently declared dead in absentia. When Enid is assigned to review a disturbing film from the archive that echoes her hazy childhood memories, she begins to unravel how this eerie work might be tied to her past.

Director Q+A

Prano Bailey-Bond (Director / Co-Writer) said that the idea for Censor came from researching the Hammer Horror Era of films, particularly when she learned about the process film censors used back then.

For example, censors were told to make sure to censor things like blood on the grass, because would make men more likely to commit rape. Prano Bailey-Bond said she began to wonder how these images would affect the censors who have to watch? Would it make the male censors more likely to commit rape if they saw blood on the grass during their screenings?

Which led to her central narrative question: What prevents the censor from losing control?

Viewers also learned that the film was shot entirely on film, Kodak 35mm to be precise, to give it a look and feel of an older horror feature.

Also, sound was vitally important to the director and, even in the script, sound and specific music cues were listed to make sure that disorienting noises were going to be used and that they hit certain very intentional cues.

Prano Bailey-Bond always wanted this to be her debut feature, and she loves the catharsis that horror brings to viewers by experiencing these terrible images and realities in a safe place. That is why she loves to work in horror, and wanted to make her feature debut in horror.

A lot of emphasis in this story was placed on social hysteria – blaming art for atrocities. This was also something that Prano Bailey-Bond wanted to explore and comment on, and part of the reason for the period setting of the film.

Some of the shots and old film clips that were used in the film were from actual films like Driller Killer, Nightmare In A Damaged Brain, etc. which helped the Director create the style and imagery in the film.

We also got to hear from the lead actress, Niamh Algar, who talked about how she met the director at a film festival in 2018, where she watched Prano Bailey-Bond’s short horror, which she immensely enjoyed. So, when Niamh read the script for Censor and knew she would be working with Bailey-Bond, she wanted to be a part of the feature.

Niamh Algar said that the psychological journey of her character was what drew her to the film. How she had the opportunity to keep picking away at her character’s sanity was fascinating to her, and the role allowed her to challenge herself by playing a character who was losing her mind, which was too good to pass up.

Niiamh also met with actual film censors to prepare for the role and started to understand why and how someone would take this job so seriously, and how being exposed to intense violence day after day changes a person’s psychological state.

My Take

There is an interesting series on HBO titled Magnífica 70, about a film censor in the São Paulo government’s censorship department who falls in love with an actress whose work he must censor.

It is certainly a far cry from the style and tone of this feature, however, it was what I thought of when I first heard the description for this project, as they both deal with the psychological state of a dedicated film censor.

Censor is shot with a distinct look and feel of a woman trapped in her own mind, an unrelenting claustrophobia, and that same sense of unease persists throughout the film, which I really enjoyed and highly respect.

As Enid (Niamh Algar) views gory films, she resolutely debates with her colleagues the benefits of art and of showing gore and violence to audiences, which might be a little on-the-nose in terms of theme, but the film moves quickly on.

Our plot really kicks into gear when Enid’s parents take her out to dinner, with the ulterior motive of handing Enid her sister’s death certificate. Enid’s sister has been missing for years, and her parents just want to move on, even though Enid does not.

Because Enid can’t move on. Especially as her memories of the incident are still hazy and she holds onto a fleeting hope that her sister may still be alive.

And when a real-life murder (from someone dubbed The Amnesiac Killer) resembles a fictional killing in a film Enid passed through her censorship process, she begins to question everything that she previously believed. She also finds herself harassed by the media and the public, who all blame her for the murders committed by The Amnesiac Killer.

As if all this wasn’t bad enough, Enid then views a film, Don’t Go in the Church, submitted by a very creepy producer, that appears to have shocking similarities to her sister’s disappearance years ago.

In the film, two young girls go into an abandoned shed / church, and one of the girls brutally murders the other with an axe. This brings up all sorts of terrible feelings in Enid, and she races to find answers as to who created the film and what actually happened to her sister before her own sanity evaporates.

I was strongly reminded of the film Sinister, in the way the camera lingers on Enid and the glow of the screen on her face while she views and analyzes scenes of torture and death as the projector whirs behind her and screams from the screen pierce the air. There is also a similar thematic resonance in terms of films that seem to literally bring evil to life.

As with Knocking, I liked Enid’s characterization: when asked if the gore and terrible images they view ever get to her, she just shrugs and replies, “I just focus on getting it right.” And when her mother tells her “It’s just a job.” we can tell from Enid’s reaction that being censor is more than just a job to her, it is how she defines herself and understands her place in the world.

I also enjoyed the other film censors that work with Enid – the man with a crush on Enid, the flakey co-worker who passes her work off on Enid, and the gruff book-keeper, Valerie. All of these characters helped make Enid’s world feel real and come alive.

There are some slow moments that I feel dragged the film down, especially when the film chose to prioritize atmosphere over narrative. The atmosphere is great, and should be justly complimented, but it is often at the expense of explanation or narrative drive, which is a shame.

I will say that at just 84 minutes, the slower moments aren’t a huge problem, but it was a bit of a hiccup in an otherwise strong feature film debut.

I also like the way the climax comes together, as Enid arrives on a film set, hoping for answers as to what really happened to her sister, only to find that she is expected and is the lead player in indie gorehound director Fredrick’s newest bloody horror picture. It adds a creepy sense of the surreal to the final act and makes for a fitting, extremely bloody conclusion.

But then we end with some strange surreal imagery that, more than tying things together, really just seems like the writers had no idea how to end the story

I also feel that for a film that is all about violence in films and what responsibility we, as viewers and critics, have in terms of our consumption and/or support of this violence in our media, this film didn’t really seem to understand what it wanted to say thematically. Ideas are presented, but never followed-up on or explored fully, which hurt my ultimate enjoyment of the project.

And, unfortunately, the film ends with a very questionable, dream-like ending sequence that makes very little sense and refuses to explain or expand on any of the questions or narrative threads brought up during the runtime.

It was very disappointing for the film to end on such a sour and unfinished note, as I was really enjoying the first two-thirds of the project, and think that the script could have done with one more (or several more) rewrites and a more defined ending.

With that said, the film is a very great first feature and is extremely well-shot, and I am really excited to see what Prano Bailey-Bond does next! Here’s hoping she keeps making horror films and continues to elevate the genre with her unique take on conventions and preconceived expectations for what a horror movie should be.

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Bonus Review:


El Planeta

(Directed, Written, Produced By & Starring – Amalia Ulman)

Synopsis (From Sundance Film Festival Website):After her father’s death, Leo leaves her life as a fashion student in London and returns to her hometown of Gijón, Spain, where her mother is on the verge of eviction. The two scheme their next meal by selling personal items online and running up tabs based on extensive lies. Their impending misfortune does not stop the pair from dressing up in their best fur coats, heading to the mall to sample makeup, and buying cute shoes (as long as they are returnable). The grifting is delicious, and their familial bond over common tragedy strengthens as evident doom nears.

Director Q+A

Amalia’s own mother co-stars as her character’s mother in the film, which was very interesting. And, apparently, it was not a problem to get her mother to agree to join the project. As Amalia said: “She (Amalia’s mother) has been waiting for this opportunity all her life!”

It was shot in the city where Amalia was born and raised on a very tight budget.

Amalia is autistic and has a physical disability as well, but did not let this stop her from writing, directing, producing, and starring in her own feature film.

The film was shot entirely in black-and-white because the city where they were shooting (and where Amalia grew up) has very poor natural lighting, so Amalia knew that color-correction would have been a major expense that their production could not afford.

Some of the incidents that happen to the characters in the film actually happened to Amalia and her mother in real life. The one Amalia specifically mentioned is the experience of being evicted, which she went through and is something she wanted to show in her feature.

My Take

NOTE: I am doing a mini-review of this film, as this was a feature that happened to be playing on the day I was (virtually) attending Sundance 2021 and I had time in my schedule to attend the premier.


That is not to say that I was necessarily negative on the film, and I respect Amalia Ulman immensely for taking on the Herculean task of writing, producing, and starring in her own directorial feature film debut.


However, this film is a family dramedy, which is not usually my preferred genre to read, write, or watch, so please keep that in mind as I continue with my review.

The plot revolves around Leo and her mother living together and trying to make ends meet by stealing, selling whatever they can at thrift shops, and using other people to run up expensive tabs.

I did love the way it was shot: entirely in black-and-white, which made the film stand-out visually from others in the competition.

I also enjoyed the running jokes, like the joke about the lead character (Leo)’s hair. Whenever she meets someone, they first comment on her hair: it used to be longer (and most people seem to prefer her long-hair-look). Leo always responds with, “Well, it grows.” The repetition makes the joke work, and with this and other strong humorous beats included in the film, Ulman proves that she understands comedy.

However, I do have to mention several issues that I had with the film:

There were some strange edits and cuts, like the one where we cut to a silent shot of a client (Leo is interviewing to be his mistress) laughing at her.

I also didn’t like that a lot of our plot and exposition is delivered via dialogue. We learn that Leo’s father died, that her mother is scared of flying, that Leo was in a bad car accident, etc. when characters literally tell us. Again, just because you have a low budget, doesn’t mean that you can (or should) take the easy way out or ignore rules like “Show don’t tell.”

There were also lots of moments that were extremely slow, with characters making small talk about the temperature, the weather, a nearby restaurant closing, etc. These exchanges add nothing to the film or to the characters and slow the film to crawl. I bring this up because, for a film that’s only 82 minutes, this does not do the pacing any favors.

I think that a stronger script would have explored the relationship between mother and daughter in a more interesting way. Leo is offered the opportunity to fly to New York and help with Cristiana Aguilera’s comeback, but this never really seems to go anywhere. I was expecting this to be the final straw and to expose the cracks in the tumultuous relationship between Leo and her distant mother, but that didn’t seem to happen. I also expected Leo’s mother to want Leo to stay with her, but this did not happen either.

In fact, very little of substance happens during the runtime, which is a shame, as even with a low-budget, I feel like there were plenty of situations that could have been mined for maximum dramatic effect.

And, as with several of the other films that I caught during Sundance this year, this one seems to end with no real resolution. Many of the films this year (this one included) just ran out of steam and creative ideas and so the filmmakers decided to bring the films to a close without any form of resolution.

Overall, I am glad I got to see this one, and I must praise Amalia Ulman for tackling such an ambitious project. However, the film didn’t totally work for me, as it seemed to want to be Parasite (2019) but didn’t really have the same cohesion or narrative drive as that film.

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Did you get to attend the Virtual Sundance Film Festival this year? What did you see? What did you think? Let me know in the comments below!

And stay tuned! I saw lots more at the Sundance Film Festival 2021 and will be sharing more of my thoughts on some of the premiers next week as well!

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