My first dispatch from the 2023 Sundance Film Festival includes capsule reviews of Rachel Lambert’s Sometimes I Think About Dying, Rachel Zlotowski’s Other People’s Children, Anton Corbijn’s Squaring The Circle (The Story Of Hipgnosis) and Patricia Ortega’s Mamacruz.
dir. Rachel Lambert, U.S. Dramatic Competition, USA, 91 minutes.
I guess it wouldn’t be Sundance without an awkwardly titled, Opening Night dud. In the not-so-grand tradition of I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore and When You Finish Saving The World comes director Rachel Lambert’s anemic expansion of a short that screened here in 2019. (It probably played a lot better at 12 minutes.) Daisy Ridley stars as a depressed cubicle drone and cottage cheese aficionado who spends most of her day staring into space and fantasizing about her own death. Morose and monosyllabic, she inexplicably attracts the affections of a gregarious new co-worker (Dave Merheje) who asks her out on a date. She doesn’t so much accept as acquiesce, begrudgingly putting up with his small talk and offering mere mumbles in return. One assumes the character’s unpleasantness is supposed to connote some sort of soulfulness and yearning for a life beyond this stifling office environment which is, of course, depicted with the thoughtless inauthenticity and casual condescension we’ve come to expect from incurious young artists who never had to work regular jobs. Looking for life after Star Wars, co-producer Ridley is given little to do and gives the audience even less. She’s basically blown off the screen by character actress Marcia DeBonis in a powerhouse scene near the end that shows you just how much this mannered movie has been missing. And even if the character is a cliché, I must confess to cracking up at Parvesh Cheena’s cringe-worthy turn as an intensely unfunny employee who thinks he’s hilarious.
dir. Rachel Zlotowski, Spotlight, France, 104 minutes.
It would probably be impossible for me not to enjoy a movie in which Frederick Wiseman plays a kindly gynecologist, but this latest effort from writer-director Rachel Zlotowski is also the kind of beautifully photographed, bourgeoise French drama I always find especially easy to watch. You don’t often see movies this sleek up here in the mountains, where festival selections tend to be a little more urgent and a lot rougher around the edges. Zlotowski’s An Easy Girl was one of the great underseen sleepers of the streaming era, and this semi-autobiographical follow-up finds Benedetta’s Virginie Efira starring as a divorced Parisian schoolteacher dating a single dad (Roschdy Zem) and navigating a shared custody dynamic with his adorable four-year-old daughter (Callie Ferreira-Goncalves). We see how being Dad’s girlfriend is a bit of a third-wheel position even under the best of circumstances, which are always civil yet nonetheless still a little strained when it comes to his ex, played by a luminous Chiara Mastroianni. Efira is lit like a goddess throughout — an early shot of her face reflected in the rearview mirror of a taxi passing the Eiffel Tower lets us know straight away the movie won’t be stinting on visual pleasures. It’s such a soothing, comfortable experience I was on board with all four endings, and movies can do a lot worse than having Fred Wiseman explain the moral of the story.
dir. Anton Corbijn, Spotlight, United Kingdom, 101 minutes.
Decadent rock star documentaries are a dime a dozen these days, so it’s about time we got one about crazy graphic designers instead. Founded by the mercurial Storm Thorgerson and his more business-minded partner Aubrey “Po” Powell, the firm Hipgnosis provided the instantly iconic logos and album cover art for Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Paul McCartney and a host of other huge names back in the heyday of classic rock. Music video legend Anton Corbijn, no stranger to the industry’s excesses, borrows the traditional rock doc format to paint a portrait of a creative partnership that flowered in perhaps the only era absurd enough to encourage these artists’ wild flights of fancy, filling their photo shoots with inflatable flying pigs and basketballs in the Sahara. If McCartney said you should drag a statue halfway up a Swiss mountain for an album cover, helicopters were standing by. (Never mind that you probably could have gotten the same shot in a studio with a pile of salt.) It’s a fond snapshot of a wonderfully foolish time, with Noel Gallagher on hand – all music documentaries should have Noel Gallagher on hand – to lament the shoddy album art of today that his children only know as thumbnails on their smartphones. It was nice to finally hear the stories behind so many of the T-shirts I wore in high school.
dir. Patricia Ortega, World Cinema Dramatic Competition, Spain, 83 minutes.
Writer-director Patricia Ortega’s slim, sensitive third feature begins with a Spanish grandmother’s iPad showing her some things she never expected to see. She also didn’t expect to like looking at them so much. The late-life, accidental discovery of internet pornography sends the title character (well-played by Almodóvar regular Kiti Mánver) on a journey of self-discovery that starts with an extra prayer candle or two added to the mantle to atone for her impure thoughts, before eventually bringing her to a community women’s group where like-minded older ladies have frank discussions about sex toys, shaking off lifetimes of repression over margaritas. The movie is entirely predictable in its plot mechanics yet quietly revolutionary in its insistence on taking the sexuality of senior citizens seriously, unlike the infantilization of elderly women in awful American movies like Book Club or that new one about the four old ladies who want to fuck Tom Brady. Less successful is a subplot about her daughter’s career struggles as be a dancer in Vienna – I’m getting awfully tired of movies about parents learning to apologize to their ungrateful artist children. But what’s so groundbreaking about Mamacruz really shouldn’t seem as shocking or unusual as it is. After all, as my friend, the great crime novelist S.A. Cosby wrote in My Darkest Prayer, “everybody’s grandma done touched a dick.”