THB #306: The New Sundance Is Here!
Sundance started last Thursday… for those of us on the stream, on Friday at 3pm. And so far, it’s been a pretty terrific year. I haven’t seen a single film I really hated, of the 14 that I have seen so far. Of course, that doesn’t mean I love them all either. (each list is in alphabetical order)
Great And Commercial
Cassandro - A great performance by Gael Garcia Bernal as the title character, a real like Luchador who brought a great acceptance of gay men to that world by deciding to rise above the ghetto that Exóticos were in. Bernal plays the role without any camp in the “real life” sections, leaving it for the ring. But Roger Ross Williams’s film is not shy about his sex life. This is a fully realized, evolving human. Wonderful supporting roles too, from Roberta Colindrez as his trainer (who wrestles women) to Robert Salas, who has just one scene as Cassandro’s father. This is, in so many ways, a classic feel good film. In both English and Spanish, I think this movie can do surprisingly good business and be embraced by all communities.
Invisible Beauty - A documentary about the legendary Bethann Hardison, whose legend I was only passingly aware of until seeing this film. Hardison is listed as co-director with Frédéric Tcheng, who has made a career of docs about legends of fashion. But this one is his best and for me, the only doc I have yet seen at Sundance that really stood out. They are all quite good… but by the book. This one, by being so steeped in the presence of the subject of the film, rises above convention. For me, it was also special in that Hardison’s idea of how to force change, in her case twice leading the charge to get women of color to have a bigger role in the modeling world, is inspirational. It is not about blaming people for being narrow minded, though she is not shy about calling it out for what it is in so many words. It is about finding and executing solutions, relentlessly and with change as the only measure of success. In a time where finger-pointing is endless, the power of doing instead of blaming is mighty.
Magazine Dreams - Oscar-worthy turn by Jonathan Majors as Killian in a Taxi Driver for the new millennium. Director Elijah Bynum and writer Elijah Bynum are not always at peace. But throughout, Bynum relies on Majors, who never met a close-up he couldn’t fill with emotion and thought. In much the same way I would argue that Travis Bickle’s taxi was really just a reflection of his emotion, I feel that Killian’s body building is also a conveyance. There are other obsessions that could have carried him to where he is emotionally. Likewise, I don’t see this as a film about race… for the most part. There are definitely moments in which Killian’s race is a clear factor in events that happen. But I don’t think that is what the movie is about.
Killian is never, in our view, not a broken human. And this is where the bodybuilding does mean a lot, juxtaposing the extreme control of every inch of his physique with his inability to control what is really important to him. It reminded me as often of Aronofsky’s The Wrestler as it did Taxi Driver, though Mickey Roarke’s character is driven by different demons in different ways.
I like hard movies. And this is a hard f-ing movie. But it is not abusive of the audience. It is not a gimmick film. And I can’t wait to see it again (I can’t via Sundance, as the system this year gives you a 4-hour window to watch the movie, then it takes away your access.) So far, my favorite film of this year’s festival.
Great and Narrow
The Pod Generation - I didn’t expect a lot from this film from Sophie Barthes. I like Emilia Clarke and Chiwetel Ejiofor a lot. But it seemed kinda Sundance-y from reading the description. I was very pleasantly surprised. The film has a strong scent of Woody Allen’s Sleeper, though the character name, Alvy Singer, comes from Annie Hall. But the movie sets up in the future world, where we are all even more plugged in and tuned out from nature, as we meet this couple, one of whom is of that modern world of the moment and the other who is all about staying connected to the earth, no matter how strong the forces against his desire. This is a truly committed, loving couple. So when she plans for a pod baby without telling him - as he would never approve, she worries - the passions are stirred, but this is not a movie about pushing people apart.
I was really struck by Barthes’ clean, crisp visual choices. The movie is a bit surreal, but she never lets it get really silly. It is grounded in bad choices that we, as an audience, can easily believe might be in our future. I also liked that in the supporting roles, she chose actors who are established pros, but not really famous, when surely, she could have popped a more familiar face into a number of these roles.
In an odd way, this film is very similar to Fair Play, which is about a couple in the world of cutthroat finance who have a major challenge put into their lives. A lot about gender roles and priorities and self-discovery. Of course, this one is more fun and offers a familiar set of issues to consider that all parents face. Not an easy sell… but a really likable movie that could find a decent audience in theatrical as well as later, on streaming.
Sometimes I Think About Dying - I kinda love this movie and I can’t completely explain why. Daisy Ridley plays Fran… a young woman living in a poor man/everyman’s version of The Office, with extremely poor personal communication skills. There are many set-ups in the film, but few go anywhere… just like Fran. We are in her space and she is just floating. Waiting. Maybe. When a new co-worker shows interest, she wakes up just enough to be hopeful… but she still a bit of a stranger in a strange land.
It’s kinda like ASMR: The Indie Movie. Almost Charlie Kaufman-esque… but not doing as much paddling under the water. We are just there, in the moment, with this young woman.
I know this film has aggravated some people, but I was surprised how taken with it I was as it continued to not ask for my love. For some, it will be a cult classic. For others, a hard pass.
The Disappearance of Shere Hite - I actually consider this a really important film. I think I don’t rate it higher because it sometimes starts meandering and repeating itself a bit. But the footage and the readings and this story that is lost on at least one generation and probably two already is critical if this generation and future generations are to understand the evolution of women in the American society. Hite wasn’t Masters & Johnson. But she did ask questions that no one else was asking and presented them in a clear-eyed way… that immediately enraged a large percentage of Americans, male and female.
Nicole Newnham, who co-directed the Oscar-nominated Crip Camp, is on her own in the director’s chair here and does a really fine job of mixing found footage, semi-recreations, and interviews to tell the story. The only limitation of the film is that it gets less and less specific about Hite’s life as we get to the last act.
Fair Play - Very enjoyable Industry arc, at least until the last segment, which suddenly decides to take a side in the relationship the movie follows with absolutely reasoned balance 90% of the way.
Netflix bought the film for a HUGE/meaningless $20 million - less than they pay for 2 hours of Bridgerton, in which the co-lead here stars - which is probably appropriate. Every mention of this film should include a link to the HBO/BBC series, which is very similar, with wider arcs and even more sex.
Phoebe Dynevor is a fresh face for those of us who are not Bridgertonians. Alden Ehrenreich continues to come of age as a very handsome, slightly odd man. The story of this relationship is the boundary of the film’s story. Within, the question of romantic power, challenges to beliefs in equality, and the challenges of very real self-doubt.
For me, the ending, which will be much discussed, kind of ruins it… not because I took a side, but because the movie had not until that moment. And I felt that was one of its strengths. Men and women can be strong and weak, honest and treacherous, loyal and disloyal. This ending can be read both ways, really… either of which is, for me, a bit of a betrayal of the rest of the film.
Still, well made, well acted, very watchable film.
Little Richard: I Am Everything - I loved taking the journey of this movie. It’s already an HBO Max/Magnolia release, so no Sundance mystery to it in that way. But like so many of this year’s Sundance doc, it was really nicely made… and all to familiar in terms of the documentary making. The director, Lisa Cortes, is also the producer of Invisible Beauty, so she is having quite a Sundance. I really did have a great time with all the found footage and they do an admirable job navigating all the shifts in Mr. Penniman’s life and his view of himself. But it was pretty by the book… not even really a complaint… just not as inspired as I look for in a doc like this, separating from the pack.
As I keep writing, the docs, for a change, have been the weaker part of the Sundance program this year… at least, so far. These three are all good… but I’m looking for great.
It’s Only Life After All - I know it’s hard to believe, but I am not an Indigo Girls person. So it was nice to get to know them in this doc. Lots of great footage. Active participation of the subjects. But really for fans, I think. I’m glad this history is being produced. And I’m glad I saw the film.
Kim’s Video - I remember Kim’s Video from my childhood at NYU. But I certainly didn’t know the story of what happened after the Village landmark closed.
I am a fan of this filmmaking duo (David Redmon & Ashley Sabin) and their 2011 film, Girl Model, which is creepy as hell, fitting well into the oeuvre of Lauren Greenfield’s Thin and Generation Wealth.
Kim’s Video was a rental store in Greenwich Village that specialized in the obscure… even illegal on VHS and briefly, DVD. When that medium made keeping a brick & mortar financially viable, Mr. Kim looked for a place where the entire collection of over 50,000 films could live and be made available for people to borrow. A small town in Sicily ended up with the collection. This film tells the history of Kim’s Video and then follows the trail of what happened next. At times, it feels homemade. At other times, too weird to be real. But it is a piece of history that I am glad is available through these filmmakers.
Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields - This one is from ABC News and friends of Brooke… and it feels like it. Again, I value that someone is telling the story. It is interesting. But for a movie that clearly wants to be revelatory, its filmmakers are too close to the subject to really push her to tell her story fully. There are so many questions brought up and, to my ear, really unanswered or underansewered. While all kinds of intimate questions are touched on, none seem to get a full answer. I know this is hard. Friends are sympathetic, not interrogators. And what Brooke was willing to offer was a choice to expose herself, so one has to respect that. But there was a restraint, that is, on camera, unchallenged, that I found frustrating.
On the other hand, I don’t get to decide when she wants to name her rapist… or if she ever will name her rapist. Having had conversations with other actresses who were not ready to name their rapists - or even to call it rape, in one case - I understand that it is a journey and a very, very personal choice.
Likewise, there is a lot of discussion about Ms. Shield’s virginity and presumed sexuality that feels unfinished. The film feels like no one pushed her at all to offer greater insight… that saying anything was enough because the people making the film love her. And that’s fine. Knowing how Brooke Shields felt in a world of models and actors fornicating like mad before AIDS landed was not on my list of things I needed to know… but then I turned on this movie that talked about it a lot.
The film is also very focused on how the world couldn’t see her as a non-sexual being… but why, exactly, did she make Endless Love after The Blue Lagoon and King of the Gypsies and Pretty Baby if this was a real concern for her? No one seems to ask or challenge the illogic of the complaint. For that matter, there is an odd notion that she was considered a good actress before her 30s. She wasn’t. She was a box office stunt for the films she was hired onto. Not her fault. She did become a good, pro actor. But…
Not My Favorites
birth/rebirth - It has its moments… the performances are more interesting than the movie itself… overall, feels like we have seen many variations of it and this is not one of the most interesting.
Run Rabbit Run - I found it repetitive and, ultimately, a bit boring. I just never hooked into whatever it was really trying to say.
Okay… back to the couch… Oscar tomorrow and more Sundance on Wednesday…
A dance to the sun… A dance to Park Avenue… A dance to subscriptions