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Sundance Film Festival 2023: Day 2 Capsule Reviews

It's Only Life After All, Sometimes I Think About Dying, 20 Days in Mariupol, Justice and more

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It's Only Life After All - SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL
  • Sundance Film Festival
  • It's Only Life After All
It's Only Life After All ***
Whether it was a necessity of COVID or a more deliberate artistic decision, director Alexandria Bombach’s choice to interview the members of folk-rock duo Indigo Girls—Amy Ray and Emily Saliers—mostly separately results in something more intriguing than if they had been side-by-side throughout. The documentary tracks their 40-year musical (but never romantic, they clarify) partnership from meeting as Georgia high-school classmates, through their rise to semi-celebrity, as well as the possible impact on their career trajectory of being both openly gay and openly activist in their political beliefs. Bombach benefits from Ray being a compulsive documenter herself, with decades worth of cassette tapes and amateur video chronicling their entire career. But the best material comes in the present-day interviews, as Ray and Saliers reflect on their individual journeys and insecurities: their respective thoughts about harsh reviews from their early years; Ray expressing her doubts about measuring up to Saliers as a songwriter; Saliers opening up about her years of alcoholism. The two-hour run time starts to feel a bit long, and Bombach does occasionally short-change us on what seems like key details, like the time frame for Saliers’ path towards sobriety. It’s still an enlightening piece of biographical journalism overall, thanks to the choice to focus not just on the professional life of Indigo Girls, but the personal world of each individual Indigo Girl. (SR)

Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields - SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL
  • Sundance Film Festival
  • Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields
Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields ** [Premieres]
It is a shame that the frequently-repetitive convention of talking heads and a misplaced closing montage gets in the way of the story that Lana Wilson’s Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields is setting out to tell: confronting how the cruel world of Hollywood and misogynistic media coverage can place people on a pedestal before tearing them down is a worthwhile undertaking. To then also paint a new picture of Shields, the young model-turned-actress, for her to reclaim her story, carries plenty of promise. Unfortunately, over the course of the two parts of this 136-minute documentary, this promise goes squandered far too often. Opting to cover almost all her life, it more closely resembles the overview one would get via Wikipedia than a film with the necessary depth. The moments where it seems like it may scratch below the surface—like when Shields reflects with her own daughters—become increasingly few and far between. When this culminates in a sequence that draws an odd line in the sand about what her story can tell us about our present moment, whatever focused introspection we just got is jettisoned for one final broad observation that misses out on greater complexities. (CH)

20 Days in Mariupol - SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL
  • Sundance Film Festival
  • 20 Days in Mariupol
20 Days in Mariupol ***1/2 [World Documentary]
There is an inevitable component of self-aggrandizement in a documentary made by journalist about the importance of their journalistic work; in this case, it’s pretty hard to argue that it’s not justified. Ukrainian Associated Press journalist Mstyslav Chernov narrates the experience of leading a film crew to document the earliest days of the Russian Federation’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, as he and colleagues Evgeniy Maloletka and Vasilisa Stepanenko chronicle the destruction in one of the first targets, the port city of Mariupol. Not surprisingly, the footage they get is brutal: parents crying over dead children; residents wailing in despair over the destruction around them; city workers disposing of corpses in mass graves. In part, 20 Days in Mariupol is about the impact of getting these images out into the world to sway international opinion, and the horrifying efforts by Russian media and their allies to win the propaganda war by describing incidents like the bombing of a maternity hospital as “fake news” staged with actors. Chernov’s narration at times reflects on his own perceptions, as a father and a human being, about what is unfolding before his eyes, and perhaps he’s earned that expression of personal feeling. His film, however, proves much more powerful when the footage he and his team capture tells the story of creating a historical record that bears out Chernov’s statement, “This is painful to watch; it must be painful to watch.” (SR)

Sometimes I Think About Dying - SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL
  • Sundance Film Festival
  • Sometimes I Think About Dying
Sometimes I Think About Dying ***1/2 [U.S. Dramatic]
Life, for all we try to believe otherwise, is often defined by a collection of mundane moments that all fade together. It can be darkly funny, while also being terrifying as the time we have begins slipping through our fingers. It is this almost poetic predicament that Sometimes I Think About Dying captures so completely as we accompany the lonely Fran—played by Daisy Ridley of Star Wars in her best performance to date—throughout the confines of her life in a small coastal Oregon town. She largely keeps to herself as she goes to work, does her little office job and goes home, while frequently fixating on her own demise. Often short on dialogue yet still persistently mesmerizing as it dances around with darkness, it finds an honest humor in the rhythms and rituals of the everyday that accumulate into something oddly extraordinary. With a soaring score that is crossed with a patient pacing, it feels most like a fraught fairytale portrait of one person and the little discoveries they make where they thought there was none to be found. It isn’t flashy, by design, but it still emerges as an absolute standout of the festival. (CH)

Pianoforte - SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL
  • Sundance Film Festival
  • Pianoforte
Pianoforte ***1/2 [World Documentary]
Adjust your expectations accordingly if you’re not in the tank for competition-based documentaries the way I am, but director Jakub Piatek still finds something uniquely fascinating beyond the drama of “who’s going to win.” The contest in question is the 2021 installment of the nearly-century-old International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw, referred to by one of the contestants as the “Olympics of piano.” And like most compelling competition docs, the filmmaker provides focus by narrowing his scope to just a handful of performers: 17-year-old Russian Eva Gevorgyan; Polish Andrew Garfield look-alike Marcin Wieczonek; effervescent Italian Leonora Armellini; etc. At times, Pianoforte evokes not just other competition docs like Spellbound, but even a great parody of competition docs like Best In Show; I chuckled involuntarily when the teacher of the high-strung Eva pulled out the pianist’s crocheted security piggy. But while the strength of the characters is certainly a key component, Piatek also makes terrific filmmaking choices, like the early montage of competitors trying to relax before their performances, or waiting until the images of the final round to really capture them performing most passionately. You may find yourself with a rooting interest, but Pianoforte feels most effective at capturing all the tangled emotions involved in trying to “win” at an artistic endeavor. (SR)

Deep Rising - SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL
  • Sundance Film Festival
  • Deep Rising
Deep Rising *** [Premieres]
Voice-over narration is a tricky ingredient to get right—and it’s a bummer that director Matthieu Rytz does so many things right from a visual filmmaking standpoint, only to have so much overly literalized. The primary subject is the financial exploitation of the deep ocean floor, where ancient polymetal nodules provide a rich source of the raw materials needed for electric car batteries, leaving the marine ecosystems at risk. As the faces of this battle, Rytz introduces us to Gerard Barron, CEO of the ocean mining outfit DeepGreen, and Chilean marine biologist Sandor Mulsow, taking us inside the rooms where Barron is using environmentalist rhetoric to raise capital, while Mulsow raises the alarm about the possible consequences of DeepGreen’s operations. There’s lots of great information here, including the decisions of the U.N.’s International Seabed Authority, all punctuated at intervals by remarkable footage of deep-ocean life forms that convey what we stand to lose. We also get Jason Momoa solemnly intoning about the wonders of the deep and the perils of extractive industry—all of which Rytz has managed to represent in other, far less pedantic ways. The fascinating details make Deep Rising consistently worth watching, even as I cringed every time Momoa rumbled about “another misplaced step on humanity’s unstoppable march to self-destruction” or some such. (SR)

Justice - SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL
  • Sundance Film Festival
  • Justice
Justice **1/2 [Special Screenings]
There has been, and will likely continue to be, good reporting done into the allegations that have been made against the now associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States Brett Kavanaugh. One then hopes that Doug Liman's documentary debut Justice opens new doors that had been slammed shut in this regard, even as it doesn’t open many of them on its own. It is a documentary about the greater context surrounding the sexual assault allegations against Kavanaugh—and, at a certain point, uncovers some of what went overlooked in the lackluster investigation. However, while there are certainly threads worth unraveling in one particular tape that is found, Liman and his documentary don’t ever bring the necessary journalistic experience by which to do so. It holds back what could and should have been a more thorough uncovering of all that was brushed over. Despite its lack of depth, the film still justifies itself when it delves just enough into a few key details that raise important questions. One wishes Liman had taken more time to find the answers to all of what he throws out there in order to more fully bring to light key stories. (CH)

Birth/Rebirth - SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL
  • Sundance Film Festival
  • Birth/Rebirth
Birth/Rebirth **1/2 [Midnight]
There’s a potent piece of psychological horror swirling around somewhere in the story concocted by director/co-writer Laura Moss and co-writer Brendan J. O’Brien, but a fundamental chilliness in the filmmaking turns into an obstacle to that potential. In a Bronx hospital, nurse Celie (Judy Reyes) faces the ultimate tragedy when her 6-year-old daughter Lila (A.J. Lister) dies from an acute case of meningitis. But in that same hospital works a pathologist Rose (Marin Ireland), whose clandestine experiments could offer an impossible hope for bringing back the dead. The notion of applying a Frankenstein narrative to parental grief is hardly groundbreaking—Stephen King’s Pet Sematary being just one devastating example—but Moss and O’Brien do find some interesting territory in the clashing personalities of the clinician Rose and the caregiver Celie, and how their shared circumstance results in a kind of crossover in their behavior. It often feels, though, that the filmmakers aren’t quite sure what to do with the reanimated Lila as a creepy threat, or how to mine their premise for all its body-horror possibilities. Most frustrating, despite the solid performances by the two leads, the emotions driving their behavior don’t end up driving the narrative as much as the idea of a ticking clock for the materials needed to keep Lila alive. The result is slick and occasionally satisfying, but one that misses the mark on finding the real terror in what grief can drive someone to do. (SR)