Sundance Film Festival 2023: Day 4 Capsule Reviews | Buzz Blog
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Monday, January 23, 2023

Sundance Film Festival 2023: Day 4 Capsule Reviews

Polite Society, Bad Behaviour, Flora and Son, Fairyland, Bad Press and more

Posted By and on January 23, 2023, 8:46 AM

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click to enlarge Polite Society - SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL
  • Sundance Film Festival
  • Polite Society
Polite Society ***1/2 [Midnight]
Writer/director Nida Manzoor’s frisky feature feels destined to be compared to other movies—a little bit Everything Everywhere All At Once, a little bit Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, etc.—but stopping there would mean missing out on what’s uniquely fun and culturally specific about its worldview. Ria (Priya Kansara) and Lena Khan (Ritu Arya) are British-Pakistani sisters each with unconventional career goals—Ria as a stuntwoman, Lena as a visual artist—that helps unite them. But when Lena unexpectedly ends up engaged to wealthy Salim (Akshay Khanna), Ria starts to suspect that something sinister is afoot. Manzoor mixes up plenty of genre sensibilities, drawing on martial-arts epics, Bollywood musical, caper comedy and more, all while remaining committed to well-crafted jokes. At the same time, she’s exploring the familial expectations for Pakistani young women, both through Ria’s need to have a partner in outside-the-norm dreams and through the evolving arc of Salim’s mother (Ms. Marvel’s Nimra Bucha, again nailing comic-book melodrama). It’s not particularly spectacular at nailing its genre elements, with fight sequences that are more functional than inspired, and some slackness in the pacing. With such solid character dynamics, though—and a thoroughly winning lead performance by Kansara—you wind up with 100 minutes of solid smiles and an entertaining delivery system for conveying a generational shift in gendered expectations. (SR)

click to enlarge Bad Behaviour - SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL
  • Sundance Film Festival
  • Bad Behaviour
Bad Behaviour **1/2 [World Dramatic]
Of all the films to premiere at Sundance this year, there are none that are as unexpected, and take such wild swings (often literally), as Bad Behaviour. This feature debut from writer-director Alice Englert—daughter of acclaimed filmmaker Jane Campion, who makes a cameo—was on my preview of the most anticipated films of the festival, and my goodness does it certainly stand out on that list now. Initially focusing on Jennifer Connelly’s former child actress Lucy and the retreat she goes on, it begins with an odd tone in its dialogue that you chalk up to the scammy nature of Ben Whishaw’s vapid guru, Elon. It then takes a hard turn and becomes about Lucy reconnecting with her stunt performer daughter, Dylan (also played by Englert), following a crisis. There is no way to predict the paths it takes in a way that is enthralling, even as it remains eclectic in its tone. At moments, you feel like you are being pranked as the poetic reflections on family are intermixed with something approaching farcical satire. It makes for a unique experience that, even as the pieces don’t all fit together, is a fascinating one all the same. (CH)

click to enlarge Flora and Son - SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL
  • Sundance Film Festival
  • Flora and Son
Flora and Son ** [Premieres]
No festival would be complete without an anticipated film that proves to be largely disappointing, and writer-director John Carney’s latest feature unfortunately fits that bill. As an admirer of his past works, which includes 2016's spectacular Sing Street, when Flora and Son was added to the lineup it immediately became a must-see. Telling the story of the titular Flora—played by a standout Eve Hewson (daughter of U2 singer Bono)—and her aspiration to begin performing music while also raising her troubled son in Dublin, it has moments of joy that are still wrapped up in an otherwise mundane tale. At the heart of it is a series of video calls she makes with a Los Angeles-based guitar teacher, played by a miscast Joseph Gordon-Levitt, that Carney makes more dynamic by having the two suddenly appear in the same room. It is a good instinct that often pays off, but the general feeling of distance extends beyond this to the narrative itself. Just when we think we are getting close to the characters, it takes a turn for the schmaltzy and holds everything at arm’s length. While many have eagerly awaited a new Carney project, this will not be remembered as his best work. (CH)

click to enlarge Little Richard: I Am Everything - SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL
  • Sundance Film Festival
  • Little Richard: I Am Everything
Little Richard: I Am Everything ***
The title might have been taken directly from one of the subject’s justifiably self-aggrandizing interviews, but in Lisa Cortés’s documentary, it also turns into a recognition of how complex and hard to pin down that subject is. It certainly follows some basic bio-doc rules, staying mostly chronological as it traces the artist born Richard Penniman from his youth in Macon, Georgia, through his early show-biz opportunities in traveling medicine shows and “chitlin circuit” performances, and into his 1950s rise to fame. Where it goes from there is a rollercoaster befitting where his own path leads: giving up his fame after a religious awakening; returning to that career, and drug abuse; abandoning it yet again after another religious awakening. Cortés dusts her images liberally with the stardust of her subject’s creative “big bang,” while her talking-head experts connect Richard’s jagged life trajectory to his alternating embrace and abandonment of his identity as a gay man; even as he laid the groundwork for gender-non-conforming artists to come like David Bowie, his own queerness was always at odds with his idea of God. I Am Everything totally gives Little Richard his due as the true “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” and captures the reality of a music industry that has always taken more from Black artists than it has given them. That only proves to be one part of the tragedy of the man’s life, constrained and limited by his times, his upbringing and the business that would take the raunchiness of the original “Tutti-Frutti” and only understand giving it to Pat Boone. (SR)

click to enlarge Fairyland - SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL
  • Sundance Film Festival
  • Fairyland
Fairyland **1/2
Writer/director Andrew Durham’s adaptation of Alysia Abbott’s memoir oozes with the compassion you’d expect from a story of a woman honoring the spirit of her father, except that the father in question remains frustratingly out of focus. In 1974, widowed father Steve Abbott (Scoot McNairy) relocates himself and his young daughter Alysia (Nessa Dougherty) from the Midwest to San Francisco, so he can pursue both his ambitions to be a published poet and a gay identity he’d previously kept closeted. But as Alysia becomes a teenager (CODA’s Emilia Jones) in the 1980s, it becomes harder for her to deal with father’s lifestyle amidst the growing public homophobia of the time. The first act works wonderfully in conveying a child’s-eye-view of a queer-friendly world she has no idea yet should be anything but normal, and Dougherty is an adorable delight as the younger Alysia. Things get more conventional once the focus is on the older Alysia dealing with bottled up shame and frustration over feeling abandoned to her own devices, and as the specter of AIDS inevitably looms. And while it’s likely a feature rather than a bug that Alysia doesn’t really understand her dad as a person, the extent to which we see Steve focusing on his own pleasure while leaving Alysia to, say, watch horror movies alone at night or get lost on the bus as a grade-schooler, makes it harder to sympathize with the lost opportunity he feels he’s making up for. Alysia may forgive him for doing the best he knew how, but the movie doesn’t always make the case for viewers doing the same. (SR)

click to enlarge Is There Anybody Out There? - SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL
  • Sundance Film Festival
  • Is There Anybody Out There?
Is There Anybody Out There? *** [World Documentary]
British filmmaker Ella Glendining goes hunting through the world for people with her rare congenital difference—shortened femurs and missing hip joints—and instead discovers something thornier about how we tend to respond to disability as a society. The principal narrative thread, involving Glendining’s quest to find someone who “looks like me,” gets tied up in her own pregnancy and new motherhood, and questions about why parents—including her own—make the choices they do in what they believe is their kids’ best interest. But there’s more complicated material tied up in the way Glendining’s search mostly uncovers folks who have opted for elaborate, painful surgeries in an attempt to lengthen limbs or otherwise pass as more “normal.” And while Glendining is careful not to shame those who do choose such procedures for their children—or the Florida-based specialist who conducts most of those surgeries, for that matter—she ultimately builds her film around why those who are capable of living happy lives can’t do so on their own terms, without having to twist themselves into a concept of “normalcy.” Painfully outmoded ideas about the kind of life facing people with disabilities bubble up in archival documentary footage Glendining uncovers, but it’s also clear that cultural ideas haven’t evolved that much. The filmmaking structure might be a bit loosey-goosey—kind of like Glendining’s occasionally awkward interviewing style—but if she teaches us nothing else, it’s to think about what’s going on beneath those superficial appearances. (SR)

click to enlarge Bad Press - SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL
  • Sundance Film Festival
  • Bad Press
Bad Press ***1/2 [U.S. Documentary]
Self-serving though it may be for a journalist to support the importance of journalism—a challenge the people profiled here face themselves—it’s still amazing how much this documentary presents a microcosm of the challenges facing those who try to hold government to account. The setting is the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of Oklahoma, where the local tribal press outlet, Mvskoke Media, finds itself in the crosshairs of the tribal government when a free press law is repealed, placing editorial control in the hands of government officials (including some who had been the target of unfavorable stories). Directors Rebecca Landsberry-Baker and Joe Peeler use their focus on reporter Angel Ellis and the 2019 tribal elections to explore the consequences of the wolves guarding this particular henhouse, as well as the complicated history of press in tribal nations not having the same protections as faced by other American journalistic outlets. But in so doing, they manage to cover issues that reach beyond the boundaries of this specific place: disheartened journalists facing a world where their work is disparaged and devalued; politicians of questionable character trying to make the media the villain; election integrity being called into question by candidates when results don’t go their way. As the climax turns to the efforts at creating a tribal constitutional amendment protecting free press, the filmmakers effectively turn this into a kind of suspense thriller—one where the threat is less to an individual than to the idea of those in power ever being held to account. (SR)

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