Sundance 2022 Day 6 capsules | Buzz Blog
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Sundance 2022 Day 6 capsules

AM I OK?, Speak No Evil, Aftershock, Navalny, TikTok Boom and more

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AM I OK? ***
“Nice” is such a wimpy descriptor, but I’m struggling to come up with something that feels more apt for this amiable comedy drama from co-directors Tig Notaro and Stephanie Allyne and writer Lauren Pomerantz. It’s the tale of two 30-something best friends in Los Angeles—Lucy (Dakota Johnson) and Jane (Sonoya Mizuno)—whose relationship faces the complication of Jane’s upcoming work transfer to London, just as Lucy is struggling with the realization that she might be gay. Pomerantz’s screenplay leans into the shorthand relationship between the two besties, and finds some delicate moments in the less-often-told later-in-life coming-out story, as Lucy contemplates risking a relationship with a co-worker (Kiersey Clemons, radiating flirty energy). The challenge is that most of the dramatic weight falls on Lucy’s side of the story, with Jane feeling more like a supporting player than an equal part of the narrative since “how do I feel about moving to London” can’t possibly feel as potent as “how do I feel about taking on a radically different identity.” Still, there’s an easy chemistry between Johnson and Mizuno, and Johnson nails a kind of risk-averse quarter-life uncertainty that in her case could all go back to an inability to understand her true self. It’s funny, sincere, a little clunky—but mostly, it’s nice. (SR)

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Speak No Evil ***1/2
In his introduction to Speak No Evil, director Christian Tafdrup said he wanted to make “the most unpleasant experience for an audience ever,” and cited Michael Haneke and Lars Von Trier as polestars. Mission accomplished. For most of its length, Speak No Evil is a slow burn semi-comedy of manners that you’d never guess is part of a horror film, except for the occasional odd interruption of a loud and deliberately-cliched horror film score. Danes Bjorn (Morten Burian) and Louise (Sidsel Siem Koch) meet Dutch couple Patrick (Fejda van Huêt) and Karin (Karina Smulders) on vacation in Italy, each with their single child (the Dutch boy is congenitally mute). Having hit it off, partially because these Danish tourists don’t want to go to a place that’s too touristy, Patrick later invites the Danes to their home in their country. Things head south as he and Karin become progressively more obnoxious: Patrick cooks an enormous roast and insists that the vegetarian Louise (technically pescatarian, he notes) try it; she eventually does from politeness. Alpha Patrick wins over beta Bjorn in various ways, including the ultimate therapy, screaming at the top of a hill into the universe. I’d’ve never guessed the Danes see the Dutch like this; national stereotypes are played and flagged as such, and the varying prominence of Danish, Dutch and English as the spoken languages mirrors the growing alienation between the two families. But the Dutch couple are playing a very funny game, built on a mixture of amiability, passive-aggression and, finally, outright aggression. (VJM)

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Aftershock ***1/2
For an issue-oriented documentary like this one, there’s an ineffable “magic ratio” of individual personal stories to big-picture content, and co-directors Paul Eiselt and Tonya Lewis Lee pretty much nail it. Their issue is the disproportionate rate of maternal mortality among Black women in America, seemingly built into a system that doesn’t listen to Black women when they’re talking about what they’re experiencing, and prioritizes surgical delivery over natural childbirth. The statistics are disturbing, and the filmmakers dig into the financial incentives that have resulted in skyrocketing rates of C-section deliveries, while Harvard Medical School faculty member Neel Shah works on fixing the system from the inside. But the real power here comes from the experiences of the surviving family members of Black women who died from childbirth complications, as they work both to support one another and to apply pressure on the medical establishment that failed them. And on the more upbeat side, there’s the experience of expectant mother Felicia Ellis with a Tulsa, Oklahoma birth center that prioritizes natural labor—and includes an extended sequence to convey that yes, sometimes it’s a long process, which is kind of the way it’s meant to be. Some of the history of midwifery being usurped by patriarchal structures feels a bit obligatory, and not always as specific to the issues facing Black women. Aftershock works best when it shows the power of Black women being allowed to make choices, and grieving Black men being allowed to make emotional connections. (SR)

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You Won’t Be Alone *
To encapsulate this film in one image, imagine a medieval peasant woman who’s really a shape-shifting vampire-witch. She’s naked except for some grapevines and some bloodstains, in a hayloft, half-dancing and half-running after a goose. There is no natural sound, but anachronistic music and self-consciously poetic ruminations drop in from time to time. The camera is looking up and about and around. If you think Terrence Malick just needs vampire-witches who switch out their victims’ hearts and entrails with their bare hands … Wait. I may be making You Won’t Be Alone sound like awesome bugfuckery. It is not. It is meandering, tedious and boring. It follows its protagonist from being sold into witchcraft by her mother as a newborn through several body forms of both sexes (including a man looking like he’s wandered in from The Bachelorette) and multiple species. As a result, every time a new form threatened to get interesting, she assumes a new one (often related to sex) and we start again. Thus, I was never invested in You Won’t Be Alone for a minute, and was wishing that this witch would just marry a suburban ad executive over her spell-casting mother’s opposition so we can finally have some entertainment.  One might be tempted to think this reflects the limited language skills of a feral human—except for all the times the titles start reading like Romantic nature poetry. (VJM)

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blood **
I feel as though I gave Bradley Rust Gray’s ethereal meditation on grief and new connections every possible opportunity to pull together into something more substantial than a collection of snippets, and his artistic response was, “Nope.” There is a narrative, of sorts, as we follow Chloe (Carla Juri), a widowed professional photographer visiting Japan for work, where she reconnects with Toshi (Takashi Ueno), a single-father musician who was a friend of her and her husband. Chloe spends her days alternately on her work—which seems to involve profiling artisans of various kinds, but I’m honestly not sure—and stuff like dance classes, all while spending a lot of time with Toshi and his daughter, as Toshi develops romantic feelings for Chloe. There are also dreams/flashbacks to Chloe’s life with her husband, Peter (Gustaf Skarsgård), abstracted to the point of complete emotional distance, and Gray plays coy with the circumstances of Peter’s death, hinting that Chloe might have something to be guilty about before making it clear he’s not interested in sharing that information, either. Chloe occasionally breaks down into tears, but why? What’s going on in her internal life beyond those few dream sequences? And why couldn’t we actually spend this movie with the great Issey Ogawa (Silence), who steals every scene he’s in as a colleague of Chloe’s? Gray crafts a few individually lovely moments, but there’s a point where you start asking an audience to find the link between all the pieces, and it becomes a puzzle with no picture on the box. (SR)

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Navalny ***1/2
Whether Navalny is the best film of 2022 Sundance (that I’ve seen anyway) is uncertain; whether it has the best scene of 2022 Sundance (that I’ve seen anyway) is not. I will merely call it “Alexei Navalny makes some prank calls,” and note that it is jaw-dropping, unbelievable and can exist only as cinema recorded in real time and capturing the persons onscreen having the same reactions you are. The rest of the movie is pretty good too, and in ways that complement that scene. The titular Russian opposition leader—who survived a poisoning assassination attempt by nerve-agent novichok and now languishes in prison—is shown as the kind of savvy troll ideal for leading an opposition movement reliant on social media. He perfectly lip-syncs OMC’s one hit single to mock strongman Vladimir Putin, he yells an apology to the passengers on his return flight to Moscow when it gets delayed because of demonstrations in the terminal, and his film-closing speech is the work of a rhetorician and a clear-eyed man who knows his risks. Navalny’s enormously appealing personality and Putin’s transparent villainy aside, Navalny also shows you a great deal about the surveillance society. The man who tracked down the assassination team—Navalny refers to him as “a very nice Bulgarian nerd”—did so using nothing but data-mining the same signs of Internet use that you and I put out every day. And he did it to secret agents. (VJM)

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TikTok, Boom. ***
The interview subjects in Shalini Kantayya’s documentary keep saying at various points, about various topics, “but this isn’t specific to TikTok.” That’s really the main problem with this wide-ranging movie, because when it is specific to TikTok, it’s pretty consistently fascinating. Most of the time, it’s about the wildly popular app and the astonishing speed with which it became the central social-media platform for Gen Z, turning kids into superstars and millionaires. Kantayya profiles a few of these TikTok stars, while also digging into the unique algorithm format that has become a kind of perfect data-mining system for marketing to young people, and the particular issues arising from the fact that TikTok is owned by a Chinese business, subject to a wide range of often-invisible restrictions. The most eye-opening material involves speculations and leaked data about what those restrictions might be, including “shadow-banning” content created by disabled or LGBTQ people (ostensibly to reduce the possibility of cyberbullying) and the improbable lack of visibility of people of color and certain controversial subjects. But then Kantayya also pivots to address more general perils of the social-media age, from popular creators becoming the targets of hateful comments, to the general perils of having one’s every online move turned into a commodity, to the way algorithmic content-pushing narrows the ideas people are exposed to. TikTok itself is compelling enough in what makes it different from other social media; it doesn’t need to be part of a commentary about all social media. (SR)

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Framing Agnes **1/2
There’s a solid conceptual foundation driving director Chase Joynt’s documentary focusing on 1960s academic case studies of transgender people—one that’s built, in the words of historian Jules Gill-Peterson, on “performance as an aspect of trans-ness.” The frustration comes when it feels like there are too many levels of meaning being explored at the same time. For the primary framing device, Joynt turns the transcripts of these case studies—beginning with “Agnes,” the celebrated trans woman interviewed by UCLA sociologist Dr. Harold Garfinkel, and whose story inspired the filmmaker to discover many other such case studies in Garfinkel’s files. These interviews are dramatized with performances by trans actors, and Joynt spends as much if not more time asking the contemporary actors what they’re learning from the people they’re playing as on the staged interviews themselves. And then there’s a lot of time spent with Gill-Peterson talking about historical transness, with some fascinating observations about what ideas like “visibility” mean both positively and negatively, and the long history of science trying to understand “aberrant” sexuality. All of these ideas are potentially compelling individually, but they muddle one another in Joynt’s execution. Is this primarily a story about these case studies and what they tell us about transgender life decades before social normalization was even remotely conceivable? Or is it about modern-day trans people finding a mix of comfort and frustration in these stories? The 72-minute running time feels too densely packed with data and anecdotes for it all to cohere into a movie. (SR)