Sundance Film Festival 2023: Day 3 Capsule Reviews | Buzz Blog
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Sunday, January 22, 2023

Sundance Film Festival 2023: Day 3 Capsule Reviews

Fair Play, Magazine Dreams, Fancy Dance, Joonam, The Stroll and more

Posted By and on January 22, 2023, 9:00 AM

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click to enlarge Fair Play - SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL
  • Sundance Film Festival
  • Fair Play
Fair Play ***
I’m trying hard to appreciate writer/director Chloe Domont’s feature for the satisfyingly nasty little piece of work it is, rather than be disappointed that it isn’t the thoughtful provocation it seems to be striving towards. It opens with the seemingly happy occasion of the engagement between Luke (Alden Ehrenreich) and Emily (Phoebe Dynevor), except that complications are on the horizon: They’re co-workers at a New York brokerage firm where their relationship is already potentially off-limits, and even more fraught when Emily is promoted into the position of being Luke’s direct supervisor. What follows is the gradual disintegration of their relationship thanks almost entirely to Luke’s sense of emasculation, amplified by his fascination with a self-styled success guru. Domont builds a great drip-drip-drip of mounting tension, anchored by the two impressive lead performances and a low-key supporting turn by Eddie Marsan as the firm’s boss. The only real problem is that Domont stacks the deck such that Luke’s villainy is too obvious too soon, while Emily’s back-story casts her as the scrappy working-class kid who made her own way. Fair Play effectively captures an environment in which a woman faces a no-win scenario in trying to achieve success; understanding very early on how no-win that scenario is doesn’t leave much beyond the ample superficial pleasures. (SR)

click to enlarge Fancy Dance - SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL
  • Sundance Film Festival
  • Fancy Dance
Fancy Dance *** [U.S. Dramatic]
If one ever needed yet more proof that Lily Gladstone remains one of the most dynamic screen performers working today, it would be Erica Tremblay’s narrative feature debut Fancy Dance. While somewhat familiar in aspects of its narrative structure, this portrait of an Indigenous family in crisis is given new life both by the strength of the performances and the care with which it is told. Gladstone completely transforms into the troubled hustler Jax who, in addition to trying to turn her own life around, is looking after her niece Roki. Played by an also outstanding Isabel Deroy-Olson in her feature debut, the young girl wants to go to the yearly powwow where she hopes her missing mother will be; to get there, the duo must navigate a harsh world that is built to do everything it can to stack the deck against them. For all the ways it follows a well-worn path, it is through the quiet intensity of Gladstone alone that you’re drawn into something new and unexpected. The way it then all comes together is nothing short of devastating as the final fleeting moments that Jax and Roki share together tears right to your very soul. (CH)

click to enlarge Magazine Dreams - SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL
  • Sundance Film Festival
  • Magazine Dreams
Magazine Dreams *** [U.S. Dramatic]
The experience of watching writer-director Elijah Bynum’s macabre yet mesmerizing Magazine Dreams is defined by an almost existential discomfort. A riveting reflection on how the quest for beauty can become defined by brutality, it places us in the lonely mind of aspiring bodybuilder Killian, who will do absolutely anything he can to be remembered. Played by the always incredible Jonathan Majors in rare form, Killian pushes closer and closer to oblivion in such a way that we hardly get a moment to breathe. The film unflinchingly uncovers how Killian is at risk of becoming completely lost, carrying with him a past of immense loss and increasingly less to look forward to in his present. This isn’t a story that you enter into lightly, as there are several extended sequences that alone would prove to be a low point for any other character in any other film. It all could easily be too much for some—especially when there are five different moments that all could be the end—but there remains something spellbinding to it. Much of this comes from how Majors inhabits the character, but it is also the synchronicity it finds with Bynum’s vision that crushes the very breath right out of you. (CH)

click to enlarge Joonam - SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL
  • Sundance Film Festival
  • Joonam
Joonam ***1/2 [U.S. Documentary]
There’s a deceptive simplicity to the undertaking director Sierra Urich embarks on with this personal, but it’s also a textbook example of making all the right choices. The daughter of an Iranian-born mother and American father, Urich begins exploring her Iranian heritage—partly through time spent with her mother, Mitra, and grandmother, Behjat, and partly through taking lessons to learn Farsi. That kind of personal story easily could have gotten bogged down in narration whereby Urich informs us about feeling disconnected from both sides of her identity, but there’s not a moment of narration included. Mostly, she observes the interactions between these three generations of women, examining how each one of them thinks about Iran quite differently; Mitra in particular clearly hasn’t fully processed the trauma connected to political violence affecting her family. Beyond all that, though, are many thoughtful moments of visual filmmaking: the subtitled Farsi of Behjat’s speech abruptly disappearing into Arabic characters when Mitra (Urich’s de facto translator) leaves the room; terrific use of family home movies; a simple, hilarious shot where the flop of a hand into the frame convey’s Urich’s embarrassment at how little of the language she’s actually learned. The final sequence feels a bit forced in its introduction of more conflict into the narrative, but it’s also a way of capturing the mix of love and frustration involved in these generational relationships, and the sheer confidence of the hand behind the camera. (SR)

click to enlarge When It Melts - SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL
  • Sundance Film Festival
  • When It Melts
When It Melts *1/2 [World Dramatic]
There’s a particular kind of sadism involved in movies that seem to exist simply to drag you, inevitably and excruciatingly, towards a horrible event, as though the real-world horrible-ness of such an event were sufficient to justify the structure. Perhaps a lot of the blame can go to the 2016 Lize Spit novel adapted by co-writer/director Veerle Baetens, which begins with a woman named Eva (Charlotte de Bruyne) living in Brussels when a social-media post triggers memories of her summer as a 13-year-old girl (Rosa Marchant), inspiring her to return to her hometown to face her past. A split present-day/flashback structure ensues, focused largely on the latter, and the haunting performance by young Marchant as a girl wrestling with adult feelings—and lacking the support network in her home to address them, thanks to her alcoholic mother—is one of the narrative’s few saving graces. But it’s not enough to overcome the brutal obviousness of every bread crumb that the plot lays down, showing us unpleasant moments that are simply steps on the way to even-more-unpleasant moments that are telegraphed at every opportunity. Plenty of movies take the effects of trauma as their take-off point, at least with the notion that there’s a lesson to be learned, or some catharsis to be reached along the way. When It Melts treats the presentation of trauma as an end in itself—painful, disturbing and irredeemable. (SR)

click to enlarge The Stroll - SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL
  • Sundance Film Festival
  • The Stroll
The Stroll **1/2 [U.S. Documentary]
Important conversations are taking place regarding who should get to tell certain stories; it should be just as okay to acknowledge when those choosing to tell those stories overplay their hand. Kristen Lovell, a Black trans woman and former New York City sex worker, co-directs with Zackary Drucker this documentary focusing on the experience of being a Black trans sex worker in New York City—more specifically, during the period in the 1980s and 1990s in Manhattan’s Meat Packing District before the gentrification of the neighborhood. Not surprisingly, Lovell gets trusting access to a bunch of terrific interview subjects, laying out the details of life on the street for those who had very few other options for gainful employment, and who formed tight bonds for their survival. Along the way, the filmmakers explore the history of police and government officials responding to sex work—spoiler alert: not compassionately—as well as the often-contentious relationship between trans activists and a cisgender gay community that for many years tried to distance itself from them. The primary downside: Lovell is so personally intertwined with this story, and with her interview subjects, that she tends to draw too much attention to herself. And while she is absolutely a part of this story, it’s one that could have stood on its own without frequent reminders that we’re getting the story from the source. (SR)

click to enlarge Food and Country - SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL
  • Sundance Film Festival
  • Food and Country
Food and Country *** [Premieres]
A documentary about each of this movie’s two primary subjects, individually, could potentially each be terrific; folded into one documentary, the result is merely solid, if diffuse. Director Laura Gabbert follows veteran food writer Ruth Reichl as she investigates two consequences of the COVID pandemic on her chosen subject: the existential crisis facing restaurants, and a better understanding of how deeply broken America’s food production system is. The latter topic produces the most compelling material, digging back to the policies of the post-World War II era and how the push for highly industrialized farming practices led directly to the disappearance of family farms, the consolidation of distribution and a general decline in the quality of what we eat. But Gabbert also spends time with restaurateurs struggling to figure out if they will be able to survive the extended shutdown of early 2020, and the hand-waving that the film does to try to connect that crisis to the specifics of America’s food production system just isn’t particularly convincing, even when there are connecting stories like smaller local farmers facing a loss of their buyers, or difficulty qualifying for government assistance. There’s so much material simply in understanding why one shutdown of a meat-packing plant can paralyze our food supply, without trying to do a miniature version of the story that Bad Axe already told so much more personally. (SR)

click to enlarge Slow - SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL
  • Sundance Film Festival
  • Slow
Slow ** [World Cinema]
Love is messy. Even the most passionate of relationships will have its troubles that require communication and care to navigate. In the often rich (though still rocky) Lithuanian relationship drama Slow, that is baked into the story from the very beginning. From the moment that contemporary dancer Elena (Greta Grinevičiūtė) meets sign-language interpreter Dovydas (Kęstutis Cicėnas Actor) when he has been assigned to her class, there is a connection that begins to draw the two closer. However, when they begin to confide in each other, their different desires and perspectives begin to steadily collide. There is probably a joke to be made about the title of this film in regards to its pacing, but that would only obfuscate the greater problems that begin to hold it back. While both performers give their all to the characters, there is a moment where the film eventually reaches a ceiling and leaves them little to work with. For every moment you feel like you are getting a little more insight into who both of these significantly different characters are as people, it will pull back. The intimate moments that transcend this are rather engaging, but its tentativeness still takes away far too much the longer it goes on. (CH)

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