Sundance 2021 — Part 3

In the festival introduction to his feature I Was a Simple Man, director Christopher Makoto Yogi inviting the audience to visit Hawai‘i for a couple hours. That struck me as an amusing, diversionary way to introduce what looked to be a somber drama about death and dying. Turns out Yogi accurately captures the feel of his finely rendered film. It’s not just that the depiction of the last days of an elderly man named Masao (Steve Iwamoto) takes place in the Aloha State; it’s that I Was a Simple Man operates with the relaxed rhythms and dreamy sensibility of the islands. Yogi threads together the quiet attentiveness to the simple, telling moments in life — evoking the work of director Yasujirō Ozu — and shimmers of magic realism to effectively capture the way mortality takes hold, heightening and erasing a life at the same time.

The documentary Misha and the Wolves is about a Holocaust memoir, first published in 1997, that told an improbable story and became a bestseller in Europe. As anyone with a sliver of skepticism in their soul can suss out from the jump, the purported survival saga is far from truthful. Director Sam Hobkinson tries to bring a similar sleight of storytelling to his film. That tactic requires showmanship skills on the level of Orson Welles at the height of his considerable powers. Hobkinson is miles below. Misha and the Wolves is an indulgent sham, aching to be the latest jaw-dropper about truth outpacing fiction in fantastic twists. It’s instead nearly as condemnable as the miscreants it gleefully holds up for judgment.

Directed by Sally Aitken, Playing with Sharks: The Valerie Taylor Story is a celebratory cinematic biography of one of Australia’s leading conservationists. Valerie Taylor first raised her profile as a competitive spearfisher, but she truly made her name making nature documentaries with her husband, Ron Taylor, capturing about wondrous footage under the sea. A consultant on Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, Taylor devoted a considerable portion of her career to undoing the ensuing myth of sharks as ruthless villains solidified by the blockbuster. Aitken wisely takes advantage of the bounty of underwater footage in Taylor’s library, crafting a film that movingly champions the preservation of creatures and habitats in the world’s vastest bodies of water. There’s nothing particularly revolutionary about Aitken’s filmmaking, and that’s how it should be. Her subject is the only trailblazer the film requires.

In Land, the feature directorial debut of Robin Wright, a woman named Edee (Wright) escapes her crippling grief by retreating to an isolated cabin in the rugged terrain of Wyoming, aiming to be alone and self-sufficient despite possessing only the most modest wilderness survival skills. To her great credit, Wright strives for restraint and realism. She makes the task Edee has set out for herself look as nearly impossible as it is. The script, co-credited to Jesse Chatham and Erin Dignam, takes some emotional shortcuts, but Wright manages to sand down some of the flaws with the earnest conviction of her storytelling approach. She solid in the lead role, and Demián Bichir is masterfully understated as the outdoorsman who comes to Edee’s aid and insinuates himself into her life.

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