Down to Earth


All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt (2023)

History wraps around itself while you're watching "All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt," setting the life of one person against those of her parents, grandparents, sister and her own child. Different time periods in the same Mississippi setting mesh together, not urgently for impact but languidly for poetry, events crossing across each other like the wandering tuning of an old radio. Dialogue is sparse but the soundtrack is dense with the noise of rain, insects, running water, while the images are lengthy shots of hands, vegetation and mud. A story about one young rural mother builds up incrementally, a sad story; but the film roots her so firmly into the landscape that she and her pain might be aspects of some larger, more spiritual thing.

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Young Americans

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Shortcomings (2023)

Adrian Tomine bounds up the list of comics creators whose books have been turned into films without disastrous consequences, having inspired two decent ones in succession. "Paris, 13th District" reworked some of his stories through the lens of Jacques Audiard and Céline Sciamma, and moved them a fair distance from the source. But now "Shortcomings," for which Mr. Tomine did the adaptation himself, is a direct translation from one medium to the other. Characters, dialogue, and for the most part droll social commentary all survive the trip from Mr. Tomine's 2004-2007 comics essentially intact.

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Mommie Dearest

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Bad Behaviour (2023)

Showbiz mothers, already indicted many times for many crimes, are back in the dock in "Bad Behaviour" before being let out on parole. Alice Englert, writing and directing her feature debut after a couple of short films, plays the younger side of a mother-daughter relationship bent out of shape by the influence of the past, in this case by the parent's acting fame from years before. That the daughter, Dylan (Ms. Englert), has followed her mother Lucy (Jennifer Connelly) into the same industry is just one dimension of a tense codependency. Ms. Englert would know something about this kind of potential disaster, although her own mother, Jane Campion, cameos here offering moral support, and the vibe is comedy-drama compassion not confessional.

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Baby Talk

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

The Pod Generation (2023)

Into this moment of tension over reproductive rights lands "The Pod Generation," a gentle sci-fi satire of parental unease that isn't toothless but wants to try mediation and understanding rather than scream at anyone in anger. Whether this is actually a failing, or bad timing, or just a missed opportunity might depend on the eye of the beholder along with their feelings about the set of reproductive organs lower down; but it does produce a film skirting around the full nature of its own topic at a safe distance so as not to get singed.

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Everybody Hurts

Dustin Lane/Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Sometimes I Think About Dying (2023)

The obvious joke that "Sometimes I Think About Dying" could have come from the Sundance Random Title Generator is deflated a bit by the fact that the film already heard this gag, back when the original short of the same name played at the festival in 2019. But the shoe does fit. The new expansion is from the same writers - Stefanie Abel Horowitz who also directed the short, Katy Wright-Mead who also starred in it, and Kevin Armento who wrote the original play that inspired both short and feature - and has the same outline: a meek, introverted Fran (here Daisy Ridley) is lonely and depressed in the overcast Oregon gloom. The short was essentially a two-hander, while this feature, directed by Rachel Lambert, has room for all the co-workers Fran endures at her office job, well-meaning overly upbeat cubicle dwellers that might make anyone consider oblivion, if not freelancing.

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Double or Quits


Infinity Pool (2023)

Brandon Cronenberg's previous film, "Possessor," had moments of gore and violence, while manipulating you mostly through drastic quiet unease about mind and body; a film in which Andrea Riseborough calmly stared at you while you were staring at her. "Infinity Pool" barges in and breaks the window and makes a mess on the floor; a film in which Mia Goth screams at you about your unease until you decide that maybe you don't feel so bad. Emboldened, reasonably enough, by the last film's success, Mr. Cronenberg now attacks on multiple fronts. In "Infinity Pool" there are clones and doubles and sleight of hand about which is which. There are rich white people going off the deep end into drug-fuelled violence in a country offensively poorer than Los Angeles. There's a bag of storytelling tactics, harsh editing and strobe lighting and subliminal glimpses of genitalia, the tool kit that gets called experimental - but really isn't because it isn't chasing a state of mind, just an instant of disorientation, not the same thing. All these flammable items go into the test tube, without catching fire.

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The Boy Can't Help It

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Little Richard: I Am Everything (2023)

Baz Luhrmann's film "Elvis," already cooking at 450 Fahrenheit, is goosed even further when Alton Mason turns up playing Little Richard, screaming "Wop Bop-A-Loo-Bop" from a range of two inches as you rock backwards in your seat. Mr. Mason gives "Tutti Frutti" all he's got; but even skilled impersonations of Little Richard look like best guesses after 10 seconds of reminder about the real thing. This is handy for "Little Richard: I Am Everything," a documentary about the life and career of the singer born Richard Wayne Penniman, which samples a range of his performances but opts not to run any of them at length or let archive footage of the singer in action just unspool. The film wants to talk about the many contradictions and agonies in Little Richard the man, rather than the thermal updraft of the music; and for those issues, you have to hear him speak.

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News of the World

Alex Takats, left; and Carl Juste

Endangered (2022)

“Endangered” follows four journalists of the liberal press going about their trade in four geographically separate but equally unsettled parts of the world, running into all the dangers that the trade has always encountered plus the ones brewed up in our current tense period. Dire as these are, sometimes they don’t seem so novel. Governments have always threatened reporters and the cops have always fired tear gas at them and people who mark their ballots in a different place have always been angry. When the film arrives at its natural destination with the Jan. 6, 2021, Washington riot and the abuse of journalists there, it seems one item on a continuum rather than a rogue data point. Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s HBO film puts its journalists on another continuum, the honorable one leading back to The Washington Post and Watergate, and further back to clips from a 1960s U.S. TV program about the strength of a free press and the roaring print lines churning it out. Whether this is a road map to rescue or a last lament is less clear.

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Mr. Robot

Tribeca Festival

Sophia (2022)

Documentaries about tech entrepreneurs take off when the visionary spins a convincing vision, or bump along the runway when the vision is more myopic than they realize. “Sophia,” by Jon Kasbe and Crystal Moselle, finds a not entirely comfortable third path by following David Hanson and the humanoid female robot he and Hanson Robotics are developing, which lends its name to the film. When Mr. Hanson speaks of his creation as a marker on the path to true artificial intelligence his earnestness speaks for itself; but the film doesn’t put Sophia into any context as a point on the arc from here to there, not least since a lot of the running time is taken up by Sophia not actually working very well. The android’s body is not much more than functional anyway, but what its brain is capable of and the seismic impact that its creator predicts can’t really cohere while the company pit crew are under the hood with the jump leads.

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About a Goy

Søren Kirkegaard

Attachment (2022)

Incongruous openings win immediate bonus points, and “Attachment” starts with a chance encounter between an elf princess and a mysterious commoner who perhaps has a curse on her while an uptempo synth beat bounces on the soundtrack, as if the film was about to be the hit meet-cute queer comedy of 1985. Since the setting is clearly a library in present-day Denmark and the elf princess is an actor in costume recreating her TV character for some kids who are bored horizontal, the hidden layers of the set-up are left for you to register later, while “Attachment” skips deftly on into a serious supernatural drama about religion and tradition, lesbian love and culture clash.

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