Sophie Barthes’s The Pod Generation has won the first award at this year’s Sundance. Since 2003, the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize has been presented to a work that “focuses on science or technology.” In The Pod Generation, Emilia Clarke and Chiwetel Ejiofor play Rachel and Alvy, a couple trying to decide whether or not to outsource Rachel’s pregnancy to the Womb Center, where fertilized eggs spend nine months in a detachable pod. The jury admires this “futuristic romantic comedy” for “its bold, visually-arresting depiction of a brave new parenthood in which AI and artificial wombs provide technological benefits at the expense of our relationship to nature and to our own humanity, and for a woman artist’s exploration of shifting gender roles dissociated from biology.”
Reviews so far have been lukewarm. Tonally, Barthes’s third feature resembles her first, Cold Souls (2009)—in which Paul Giamatti temporarily relieves himself of his burdensome soul—far more than her second, the 2014 adaptation of Madame Bovary starring Mia Wasikowska. At the Playlist, Jason Bailey finds that Barthes “has a good ear for boardroom double-speak, and a keen eye for sleek imagery and aesthetics. What she does not have is much of a story to tell.” But for Variety’s Owen Gleiberman,The Pod Generation is “an entertaining but darkly resonant movie.”
Sundance launched The Pod Generation in its noncompetitive Premieres program, which showcases new work from established names. A handful of critical favorites has emerged from Premieres, and we’ll start with Ira Sachs’s Passages, in part because there’s a news angle—MUBI has just picked up distribution rights for the U.S., the UK, Ireland, and Latin America—but mostly because Passages has already been met with some of the best reviews of any film at the festival.
Franz Rogowski plays Tomas, a manipulative and self-centered German filmmaker whose character, some suspect, may have been inspired by Rainer Werner Fassbinder. But Rogowski (Undine,Great Freedom) is his own creature, and for Little White Lies’ David Jenkins, “there’s not a second he’s on screen where, in good conscience, you’d be able to tear your eyes away from his endlessly expressive face and body.” Tomas is “a ball of contradictions: explosively mellow; a hot, spectrum-traversing presence who, in this instance, constantly skirts the precipice of making a decision that’s likely going to ruin someone else’s life.”
At a wrap party in Paris, Tomas finds himself on the dance floor—and eventually, in bed—with Agathe (Adèle Exarchopoulos). When he excitedly reports his fling to Martin (Ben Whishaw), his British husband simply carries on making tea and tells Tomas that they’ll discuss all this later. “Aside from the classic id-ego-superego makeup,” writes Charles Bramesco at the Playlist, “the abrasive dynamic between Tomas, Agathe, and Martin also suggests an American’s view of archetypal intra-European tensions: the bratty German club kid, the sensual and existentially searching French mademoiselle, the Briton polite to the point of repression.”
Writing for Screen,Jonathan Romney notes that French cinema “has no shortage of complex, multi-sided relationship dramas, and Passages shows Sachs slipping into this tradition with impeccable ease. If the opening sequences, set in the film world, suggest Olivier Assayas territory, overall Passages is closer to Christophe Honoré, who has consistently explored the fluidities of desire in ways that resist fixed roles and identities. That’s a theme that Sachs and regular cowriter Mauricio Zacharias pursue here with incisiveness and audacity, but their take on the possibilities of polyamory is anything but utopian.”
At Cineuropa, Elena Lazic finds that “three of the best and most natural actors of their generation [are] each given a role that makes full use of their own unique talents: Rogowski’s presence and physicality, Whishaw’s subtly calibrated expressions, Exarchopoulos’s blend of innocence and strength. This generosity towards the characters also shows in the way the film delights in simply watching them be: cinematographer Josée Deshaies makes every image not simply beautiful, but also alert to the entire bodies of the actors, from the way they move across a space to small gestures and shifting looks.” Editor Sophie Reine allows “their movements and emotions [to] dictate the shape of a scene, not the other way around.”
In 2010, Roger Ross Williams became the first Black director to win an Oscar when Music for Prudence was crowned Best Documentary Short. Williams profiled Saúl Armendáriz, an American-born Mexican luchador, or professional wrestler, for a 2016 episode of The New Yorker Presents. In the ring, Armendáriz was always cast as El Topo, a little mouse-like creature, until a trainer convinced him to create—and embrace—a flamboyant exótico character: Cassandro.
In Williams’s first fictional feature, Gael García Bernal “nails his best role in years, giving a performance steeped in cheeky humor, resilience and radical self-belief—not to mention some amazingly nimble moves,” writes the Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney.Cassandro “doubles as a gorgeous depiction of mother-son love and an exhilarating exploration of fearless queer identity in a macho environment.”
García Bernal’s Cassandro is “such a peacock yet so athletically cunning in the ring that the crowd that has been crying ‘Puta!’ at him in derision suddenly and believably starts to root for this uninhibited show-off, responding to both his guts and his skill,” writes Dan Callahan at TheWrap. While the film is put together with all the “familiar makings of an uplifting story,” notes Carlos Aguilar at IndieWire, “Cassandro doesn’t sugarcoat Saul’s drug habit or his rocky romantic relationship with Gerardo, played by the always memorable Raul Castillo, a closeted married father who sneaks Saúl into his home whenever his wife is away.”
On the other hand, Aguilar finds that “the casting of Benito Antonio Martínez Ocasio, better known as reggaeton superstar Bad Bunny, as Lorenzo’s sidekick in his drug dealing operation seems gratuitous.” For Nick Schager at the Daily Beast, though, Cassandro is saved by García Bernal, “a charismatic force of nature, his magnetism so great that it elevates Williams’s drama above its clunkier, clichéd elements.”
In Eileen, an adaptation of Ottessa Moshfegh’s 2015 novel directed by William Oldroyd (Lady Macbeth), Thomasin McKenzie plays an introverted and ostracized prison employee who brightens up when a new warden arrives. Rebecca (Anne Hathaway) is a blonde magnet for attention who makes an immediate and conspiratorial connection with Eileen. For Jessica Kiang, writing for Variety, “this is a film that is practically drunk on the possibilities of cinema, pumping a recklessly modern energy through a plethora of classical Hollywood genres.” Eileen “moves, sometimes sinuously, sometimes with lurching abruptness, from Sirkian romantic melodrama to film noir into black-comedy horror, coming to rest somewhere in the realms of one of the more effed-up Hitchcock thrillers.”
The Guardian’s Benjamin Lee finds that the “earlier flashes of psychosexual strangeness fade and I found myself craving a little bit more oddity from a film, and characters, that hinted at a more daring and depraved destination. Hathaway remains ferociously alluring, though, her finest performances in years, never once making you question how and why she would be able to get anyone to do anything.”
Writing for Paste,Shayna Maci Werner agrees that “the script stumbles to an atmospheric but unsatisfactory close. Nonetheless, the visceral thrills and quiet abominations of the journey are enjoyable, and worth the watch for Hathaway’s circling of McKenzie like a shark smelling preemptively spilt blood in the water; that is, until she realizes she’s a little more dangerous than her usual prey.”
Raine Allen-Miller’s debut feature Rye Lane stars David Jonsson and Vivian Oparah as Dom and Yas, each of whom is dealing with a recent breakup. Dom is staking out a responsible career as an accountant, while Yas aims to become a costume designer who takes the film world by storm. They meet cute in an art gallery bathroom and then wander the streets of Peckham, a district in southeast London.
“Not since Spike Lee introduced the world to Bed-Stuy, has a Black director so seamlessly embedded viewers into the verve and flavor of their neighborhood,” writes Robert Daniels at the Playlist. “Running at a compact eighty-two minutes, the rom-com is a rich and vital love story that breaks the mold with its visual acumen and bright spirit. Rye Lane doesn’t gesture toward an awkward cool; it’s an effortlessly cool picture that finds glee in the sights and sounds of these characters’ lush surroundings.”
Allen-Miller “presents us with two smart and snarky Londoners for whom taking the piss out of each other is the highest form of courtship, and while Dom at first comes across as the quiet type, he proves to be Yas’s equal in terms of repartee,” writes Jordan Mintzer in the Hollywood Reporter. Writing for Screen,Amber Wilkinson finds that Allen-Miller “achieves the Holy Grail of all great rom-coms in making us desperate to see the pair get together for good, while simultaneously not wanting this first flush of romance to end.”
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