February 1, 2023

Sundance 2023 Reviews: “Magazine Dreams,” “Polite Society” & “Drift”


MAGAZINE DREAMS:  The hype was accurate:  Jonathan Majors gives a titanic performance in Elijah Bynum’s Magazine Dreams.  Playing Killian, a roided-up amateur bodybuilder obsessed with achieving glory in that profession, Majors somehow manages to be both massive and delicate, prone to rage but also abjectly needy for acceptance or connection.  Majors never misjudges the balance of Killian’s wild extremes, and he has the magnetism of a born movie star–even when the character is at his most cringey, as when he goes on a catastrophic date with a sweet colleague (Haley Bennett) from the supermarket where they work, you can’t take your eyes off him.  If Majors deserves comparison with the peak of DeNiro, though, Bynum isn’t quite up to the challenge of being his Scorsese.  Magazine Dreams is skilled at showcasing its star both dramatically and visually (the moody photography is by Adam Arkapan), and at building an atmosphere of suspense and dread as Killian appears to be making his way to a Travis Bickle-like fate.  Bynum knows how to build a sequence into something off-kilter and graceful, as when Killian visits a sex worker (Taylour Paige) who doesn’t quite know what to do with him.  The film goes on too long, though, at 124 minutes, and in the final act, Bynum seems to lack the nerve or focus to take the story where it needed to go.  He resorts instead to some cheap narrative tricks (that thing you thought just happened?  It didn’t!), and an unconvincing denouement.  But even if Magazine Dreams doesn’t fully deliver, it deserves to be seen for the mesmerizing performance at its center, and for the many fine sequences along the way.  The time will come when lovers of acting will need to be Jonathan Majors completists, and even with its flaws, Magazine Dreams will be an important part of that legacy.

POLITE SOCIETY (Focus/Universal – April 28):  Nida Manzoor’s feature debut (she’s the creator of the TV series We Are Lady Parts) doesn’t lack for exuberant wackiness.  She’s taken the Jane Austen tradition of a tale about two sisters, one determined to be married and the other dismayed by the idea, plugged it into an Indian community in London, then zapped it with doses of farce, martial arts, sci-fi and Bollywood musical.  Polite Society is the one-of-a-kind result.  High schooler Ria (the delightful Priya Kansara) wants more than anything to be a stunt woman in martial arts action movies.  She’s closely bonded with her older sister Lena (Ritu Arya), and bereft when Lena suddenly becomes engaged to the rich, handsome doctor Salim (Akshay Khanna)–and not just bereft, but suspicious.  Is there something alarming about Salim and his fulsome mother (Nimra Bucha), or is Ria just paranoid?  With the help of some intrepid friends, Ria sets out to discover the truth, leading to sequences that take off on multiple Hollywood and international genres.  Polite Society doesn’t completely hold together, as it tries to squeeze seemingly every wayward notion that’s ever occurred to Manzoor into a 103-minute bundle.  The tone hits over-the-top and keeps climbing, and as a director she doesn’t have the polish to pull off all of her genre ambitions.  Nevertheless, at its best Polite Society is wild fun, a bold statement of intention that stamps its filmmaker and its mostly little-known cast as talent to watch.

DRIFT:  On a Greek island, Jacqueline (Cynthia Erivo) walks aimlessly among the tourists.  She has almost no resources, giving foot massages (with stolen oil) on the beach for a few euros, living in waterside caves and abandoned buildings, and washing and re-washing the same set of clothes.  She avoids eye contact and conversation wherever possible.  She’s obviously scarred, but only over time will we discover that she had been a pampered daughter of a government minister in Liberia, living a happy life in London until a visit home swept her up in awful events.  Before she can begin to come to terms with that, though, she has to hesitantly accept a point of human contact, with Callie (Alia Shawkat), an American tour guide who wants to befriend her.  Anthony Chen’s film, based by Susanne Farrell and Alexander Maksik on Maksik’s novel, is both lush and austere.  Crystel Fournier’s photography captures the gorgeous environs where Jacqueline blankly wanders, while the script only gradually doles out dialogue and information.  Erivo is masterful in the lead, holding the camera silently for long stretches and conveying both Jacqueline’s current grief and confusion, and her background of privilege.  Shawkat is a an appealing, adept scene partner, allowing Erivo to set the tone and pace of their encounters.  Drift is a very small film, and despite its picturesque visuals, its literary roots are evident.  It isn’t going to draw a mainstream audience, although Erivo’s work will certainly garner notice  On its own terms, it’s an accomplished, moving tale of one woman’s shaky steps out of a private abyss.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."