Sundance Film Festival 2023: Day 8 Capsule Reviews | Buzz Blog

Friday, January 27, 2023

Sundance Film Festival 2023: Day 8 Capsule Reviews

Shortcomings, Rye Lane, The Eternal Memory, Beyond Utopia, The Pod Generation

Posted By on January 27, 2023, 8:30 AM

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click to enlarge Shortcomings - SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL
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  • Shortcomings
Shortcomings *** [U.S. Dramatic]
The “character study of a young fuck-up” has been a Sundance staple for years, but fortunately this one provides enough of a unique cultural context—along with terrific work by veteran actor Randall Park in his first feature as a director—to make it feel fresh. Justin H. Min plays Ben Tagawa, a film school dropout managing a Northern California repertory theater and floundering as much in his relationship with his girlfriend Miko (Ally Maki) as in his professional life. When Miko abruptly decamps to New York for an internship and a “break” from their relationship, Ben has the opportunity to take a hard look at himself, if he chooses to do so. Adrian Tomine adapts his own graphic novel with a playful look at ideas like fetishized sexual attractions and what kind of “representation” in media is good enough, rarely feeling like he’s stopping to deliver a lecture. Park also finds just the right visual style for the story, employing simple compositions but using unexpected hard edits as a perfect way to heighten a punch line. There are moments when Shortcomings feels a bit too enamored with its own cleverness—like giving Jacob Batalón’s character a reference to the current Spider-Man franchise of which he’s a part—and an episodic nature that’s bound to feel somewhat slight. But the cast is appealing enough to carry over the rough patches and find humorous bits of wisdom, like the destined-to-be-classic nugget from Ben’s best pal Alice (Sherry Cola), “Just because I’m a hypocrite doesn’t mean I’m wrong.” (SR)

click to enlarge Beyond Utopia - SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL
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  • Beyond Utopia
Beyond Utopia ***1/2 [U.S. Documentary]
It’s easy for the perils of those trying to escape oppressive regimes to seem abstract, but the idea comes vividly into focus when you’re watching people flee for their lives in real time. Director Madeleine Gavin crafts a you-are-there thriller out of her exploration of the “underground railroad” helping people get out of North Korea, many of those operations led by South Korean pastor Seungeun Kim. Much of the action involves footage taken during the efforts to smuggle a family of five—including an 80-year-old grandmother and two young children—from their hiding place across the North Korea/China border through Vietnam and Laos to Thailand, and it’s a harrowing odyssey to watch as they deal with threats of checkpoints and capture throughout the communist countries. But Gavin also includes a thorough history lesson and perspectives from other North Korean defectors, and while that material could have proven a distraction, it’s fascinating in a different way at detailing the bizarre world in which the nation’s residents exist; it’s hard to forget one woman’s account of how families had to save their excrement to turn over to the government for fertilizing crops, and how some people would steal from others’ outhouses to make their quota. Through it all, there’s the running theme of how profoundly North Koreans are brainwashed by their government, making it even more unsettling to watch people risk their lives to enter a wider world they believe is evil and corrupt. (SR)

click to enlarge Rye Lane - SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL
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  • Rye Lane
Rye Lane *** [Premieres]
The stuff that works in this bouncy, energetic romantic comedy work so well that it’s a bummer to see it fall short of greatness by virtue of trying too hard. From a meet-cute that involves adjoining stalls in a unisex bathroom, we meet Dom (David Jonsson) and Yas (Vivian Oparah), Londoners both recently broken up with significant others, who wind up spending one memorable day together wandering through the city and getting into a little mischief. The bones of Before Sunrise are evident in the set-up, but unlike Richard Linklater’s earnest classic, this one gets a little wackier in finding odd situations for our protagonists, like a forced karaoke duet to Salt-n-Pepa’s “Shoop.” And Rye Lane really only stumbles when director Raine Allen Miller seems too determined to push his aggressive visual style with plenty of extreme close-ups and fisheye lenses, and not being content to wink at other rom-com stalwarts like naming a burrito shop “Love Guac’tually,” but needing to have Colin Firth be the guy at the window. Fortunately, there are plenty of solid gags throughout, terrific chemistry between Jonsson and Oparah (the latter of whom takes a nicely meta approach to the “manic pixie dream girl”) and a production that’s full of bold colors and fun touches like an art exhibition where the automatic doors part a pair of butt cheeks. Sometimes it’s okay just to let an audience experience the unfolding of a story rather than feeling the need to shove them into it. (SR)

click to enlarge The Eternal Memory - SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL
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  • The Eternal Memory
The Eternal Memory *** [World Documentary]
There’s a level on which the almost painful voyeurism involved in director Maite Alberdi’s documentary might make it either better than I’m giving it credit for, or worse than I’m giving it credit for; in either case, it’s pretty hard to shake. The subject is the marriage between two Chilean celebrities—veteran journalist Augusto Góngora and actor/ex-Minister of Culture Paulina Urrutia—as they face the struggles of Augusto’s diagnosis with Alzheimer’s disease, and Paulina’s new role as caretaker. The background material provides a valuable sense of Augusto’s role covering the impacts of the Pinochet regime during a dangerous era for journalists, while home videos capture the couple during more idyllic times earlier in their relationship. All of that fits into the notion of Paulina’s efforts to help Augusto remember who he is, and what he has accomplished, all with an extraordinary degree of patience and kindness. But we’re also witness to Augusto on his bad days—reacting with fear and anxiety to not knowing where he is, or who Paulina is—and it’s not easy to watch, perhaps especially when we see Augusto returning somewhat to himself and being unable to believe he could be so cruel to Paulina, making un-keepable promises that it will never happen again. It’s a potent portrait of the “in sickness and in health” part of marriage vows, even as it feels almost too intrusive during such a difficult time. (SR)

The Pod Generation ** [Premieres]
The thing about a satire is that it helps a lot if you have a solid sense of what, specifically, is being satirized. That’s not easy to identify in writer/director Sophie Barthes science-fiction tale, which posits a futuristic New York where married couple Rachel (Emilia Clarke) and Alvy (Chiwetel Ejiofor) decide to opt for a new, exclusive procedure whereby a fetus can gestate fully to term in a plastic external pod. It’s clear that technological convenience is at least partially Barthes’ target, as AI helpers like the couple’s Alexa-esque home assistant and Rachel’s virtual therapist develop oddball personality traits. Yet there’s also the subtext of Alvy’s job as an academic focused on botany, and losing track of the natural world, along with a small hint of technological licensing limiting the extent to which we actually “own” the things we think we own. It all just seems to get jumbled together in the search for punch lines, with a soundtrack and editing rhythms that make it feel like it’s vaguely imitating a Woody Allen film, and thereby evoking Sleeper (and the character name "Alvy" certainly adds to the Woody-ism). Entertaining moments bubble up periodically, particularly through Ejiofor’s performance as the reluctant would-be father who finds himself in the position of primary caretaker for the pod, and a sequence where a technician narrates their artificial insemination like a sports play-by-play announcer. There’s just never a sense of payoff, or the realization that The Pod Generation has found anything incisive to say about modern living, or future living. (SR)

About The Author

Scott Renshaw

Scott Renshaw

Scott Renshaw has been a City Weekly staff member since 1999, including assuming the role of primary film critic in 2001 and Arts & Entertainment Editor in 2003. Scott has covered the Sundance Film Festival for 25 years, and provided coverage of local arts including theater, pop-culture conventions, comedy, literature,... more

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