It is hard to assess the overall quality of any Festival unless you see all the movies, but Sundance 2023 has proven to be a good source of substantial roles for actors. Well, at least if we go by what I have managed to see. Even when the movies fall short of expectations and can't deliver on their promises, performers of every level offer work worthy of your time. Check these out.
Jonathan Majors (Devotion) gets the kind of role that turbocharges a career playing Killian. He is an amateur constructing his life around becoming a bodybuilding star. The magazine dreams of the title refer to getting showcased on the cover of health magazines, just like his idol, Brad Vandenhorn (Michael O’Hearn), to whom he writes unresponded fan letters. Killian faces some mental health or developmental challenges, as we can deduce by eavesdropping on his sessions with a compassionate therapist (Harriet Sansom Harris). After much effort, he musters the courage to ask the girl he fancies at work (Haley Bennett) for a date. But every little interaction that goes sour might push him over the edge.
Muscle memory: Killian (an amazing Jonathan Majors) falls short of his Magazine Dreams / Photo by Glen Wilson, courtesy of Sundance Institute
Writer-director Elijah Byrnum wisely decides not to diagnose his character and observe how pressure keeps building up on him. Majors is excellent at embodying a walking paradox, a physically strong man so fragile he can come undone at any moment. He is a survivor of domestic violence and the sole caretaker of his grandfather (Harrison Page), an elderly Vietnam veteran. The specter of violence surrounds him and might as well possess him. The movie inches towards a development that echoes too uncomfortably with the evening news, but this is not a case of filmmakers shamelessly plundering the headlines for significance. The issue of gun violence is so common that it is impossible to really take distance from it. Whenever a movie premieres, there is a shootout on the news every day.
Magazine Dreams skillfully recreates how the cults of celebrity and success build a mirage that entraps the castaways of the American Dream. In one of the most lacerating scenes of online cruelty since Eight Grade (Bo Burnham, 2018), Killian scans comments on his YouTube channel only to find pleas for his suicide. It can be hard to watch, but you can't take your eyes off Majors. The movie falters in the last third, overstaying its welcome with a series of false endings. Once you think it made its point, it goes on and on. Again, such a thing did not prevent CODA (Sian Heder, 2021) from conquering Sundance and the Oscars.
Lilly Gladstone is great as Jax, a queer no-nonsense, petty criminal in the Seneca-Cayuga reservation in Oklahoma. When her sister Tawi (Houli Sioux Gray) disappears, like many other Native-American young women, she takes on the challenge of caring for her niece, Riki (Isabel Deroy-Olson). The girl dreams of reuniting with her mother to dance at the looming Powwow. Jax feeds this fantasy while investigating what happened to her sister and dodging authorities who want to take the kid from her.
Take to the Powwow: Deroy-Olson and Gladstone are a great team in Fancy Dance / Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute
Echoes of Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik, 2010) are discernible, but Fancy Dance is not as tight as that memorable Appalachian noir. The resolution to the mystery is somewhat anticlimactic. Circumstances plant the seed for a tragic ending, but the movie blinks at following dramatic logic and closes in an awkwardly staged resolution. Alas, there is real power in the performances. Gladstone is an ace, and her chemistry with Deroy-Olson pushes you over the rough patches. Shea Whigham is excellent as Jax and Tawi's father, a white man haplessly trying to do right by his bi-racial progeny.
We interviewed director Glorimar Marrero Sanchez about her debut feature film, but nothing can prepare you for the emotional and aesthetic experience of The Fishbowl. To compare colonialism to cancer might sound like a heavy-handed metaphor, but the clarity of her vision gives vital breath t the idea. Isel Rodríguez plays Noelia, a cancer-stricken filmmaker who decides to return home to the Puerto Rican island of Vieques, haunted by warfare contamination planted by the US Army and an upcoming hurricane.
In the air tonight: Rodriguez escapes back home in The Fishbowl / Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute
Noelia half-heartedly tries to go on with her work, producing a film about the plight of Vieques, but can't quite make it. Time is against her, and the impending weather disaster only makes the clock tick louder and faster. Alas, we sense she has never felt so alive. The beautiful images conjured by Marrero and cinematographer Pedro Juan López elevate the film. Check out how the first and final scenes connect the themes with Noelia's desire. A circular narrative trick finds serenity among the chaos.
Three years after Possessor (2020), Brandon Cronenberg returns to prove that mind-bending thriller was not the lucky shot of a nepotism baby. The son of master filmmaker David Cronenberg crafts a naughty thriller about ugly occidentals up to no good in a luxury resort on a poor, imaginary island. James (Alexander Skarsgård) is a blocked writer trying to jumpstart his inspiration through a vacation with Em (Cleopatra Coleman), the wealthy wife who sustains his career. He is intrigued by the forthcoming Gabi (Mia Goth), the British wife of Alban (Jalil Lespert), a star architect from LA. The couples get friendly and make arrangements for a day at an off-resort secluded beach, which will lead to madness and violence.
Riding fast to the deep end: Skårsgard and Goth hide under masks in Infinity Pool / Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute
The less you know going in, the best Infinity Pool will work. Horror and debauchery go hand in hand in a story that might remind of many other movies about innocents corrupted by more worldly, mischievous characters; and vehicular accidents that send the rich on an excursion to the other side of privilege. Alas, Cronenberg makes the tropes his own and finds an unyielding fountain of horror in self-hate. Goth is chilling as Gabi sheds the appearance of ingenue and reveals the power-mad shrew pulsating beneath her lovely appearance.
Complaints on social media about the movie being hard to follow are unfounded. Perhaps some members of the public are put off by the violence and the penchant for graphic sex and violence. It is possible that a hand-job in a close-up will get excised before the movie opens January 27 in commercial cinemas, as well as two or three shots of genitalia. Still, the hallucinogenic sequences that suggest a drug-enhanced orgy should remain in place. From The White Lotus (Mike White, 2021-2022) on TV to Triangle of Sadness (Ruben Ostlund, 2022) in theaters, we live in a cultural moment where audiences want to revel in watching the rich behaving badly and more or less getting some comeuppance. Maybe the pandemic or the Trump presidency poured salt in the wounds of inequity. Kudos to Cronenberg for being the only one that takes the hate further, all the way to the breaking point and beyond.
* Update: "infinity Pool" is available to stream at Hulu. Rent or buy at all the major digital platforms.
A documentary that explores our complex relationship with nature itself and our contradictory behavior of caging what we fear may be lost.Stream Now
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