THB #75: Sundance 2022 Reviews 1
It’s Sundance time again and I’ve been watching movies. 15 features since Friday (with time off for 4th quarter football). That’s my pace. Unfortunately, my access is winding down quickly now, as the festival only offers me 25 virtual tickets and I am saving the last couple for closing weekend, when award winners will re-stream.
Then again, there are lots of publicists out there filling the frosty mug o’ cinema as it empties each day. So I should be at 30+ before it’s all over.
Before I start on the features, of the shorts, Bestia is the outstanding experience so far. It’s stop motion with porcelain faces and the amount of emotion director Hugo Covarrubias gets out of his faces is quite extraordinary. Having watched the film 3 times, I’m still not 100% sure how he makes it work.
Also, Nash Edgerton closes out his animal trilogy with Shark. Here’s a tip for those playing at home. Go onto Hulu and look up Nash Edgerton or Shark and you will find all three of this trio of short hits. Start with Spider. Go with Bear. And then enjoy the finale’ that is Shark. Don’t hold a glass of liquid while you watch or you may find yourself cleaning up.
I’m not sure I would hold them up as cinematic masterworks, but F^¢K ’€M R!GHT B@¢K and Precious Hair & Beauty were both a lot of unpredictable fun.
I’ll watch more of the shorts as the week progresses and let you know what else I run into that’s great.
I’m going to start with a pair of movies… one “fiction” and one doc, because Call Jane and The Janes are, for all intents and purposes, about the same true life story. The broad strokes are that a group of women in Chicago came together and decided to help provide safe abortions for women in the years just before Roe v Wade. The use of “Jane” actually has nothing to do with the soon-to-be-famous pseudonym Jane Roe. One of the women offered to let the group use her phone for women to call in and she didn’t want people asking for her by name, in case one of her family members answered the phone.
That story comes from The Janes, directed by Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes. There is a lot of non-specific period footage, but the main course of the film is recent interviews with members of the group. And as a whole, they tell their story. There is no pretentiousness about this group of women who did something so daring and so dangerous and so kind in their youths. Each has a different reason for why they felt compelled to be part of the group. There is also an honorary John… the guy who did the abortions for most of the time the group was together. He was not a volunteer. He was there to make money. And he did… even if he what he did was more honorable than why he did it.
In Call Jane, Elizabeth Banks and Sigourney Weaver deliver - so to speak - fine performances, but somehow the film just never accelerates beyond the obvious. I think the world of Phyllis Nagy, as a writer and a human. But this was not her script and it is missing something. Hard to put a finger on it precisely. But I have thought about the British Girl Gang films like Made in Dagenham or Calendar Girls that have similar energy about women being unstoppable but felt a little more like an ensemble than this or a movie that had fewer charming side characters that really got into why this one woman was so driven to take action in her life. Somehow, as nicely made and well-acted as it is, it slipped between the ideas that might have worked better.
Call Jane particularly suffers in light of The Janes. Wonderful actresses in Call Jane are still not as compelling as the real women. And Call Jane creates a fake central protagonist to guide us through the story. I understand why that choice was made. But it just can’t match all the real-life participants.
Now on to the features… starting with the fiction films. There is a good reason why this hasn’t been much of a sales festival so far. Some really interesting ideas… not a lot of special execution.
The only one I have really loved is Living, which should have been great, as it is based on the classic 1952 Kurosawa film, Ikiru. Bill Nighy plays the central character, a quiet man who has risen to chief paper pusher, and finds out that he has only 6 months to live. The director, Oliver Hermanus, does a nice job with the 1950s London setting and the performances. But it’s Nighy who owns the film… his range of emotion and dancer’s physicality is just beautiful to watch. May not land with the under 40s… but if you are over 50, have Kleenex nearby.
There are two films in the category I think of as “Fascinating Idea… but you better be a genius to pull it off,” Emergency and Alice. Both filmmakers show promise for the future, but neither qualifies as filmic geniuses as of yet. The first attempts to mix the House Party-style drugged-up, young men of color comedy with the serious question whether young men of color must always be seen as a threat when dealing with white people, especially young white girls. Two very different tones. Needed to be smarter than smart to work. It has its moments, but screenwriter K.D. Dávila and director Carey Williams just don’t find the way to make it work. The 10 -minute short (seen here) that was elongated was simpler and didn’t challenge itself in a way it couldn’t find a way out of.
The 2nd film, Alice, has a premise so inherently unbelievable that the audience has to give it the willing suspension of disbelief, like The Truman Show. But Alice fights that suspension, demanding that we take it quite literally. Doesn’t work. The idea of there being a working plantation where the black people are convinced for 100 years that slavery still exists but are just miles from 1970s civilization, where even the white folks from the plantation live a modern life… too much. It’s like believing that the Eastern Europeans who lived near the train tracks heading into concentration camps didn’t suspect anything murderous was happening. Nope. Keke Palmer is excellent in the film. The film is well shot. But the writer/director, Krystin Ver Linden, just doesn’t push hard enough to rise about the premise, which leads to more unasked questions than answers.
I liked Happening, a French film about a young woman at university who finds herself pregnant in 1963, when the laws were very strict on the issue. It can be brutally harsh, showing the process of a backroom abortion graphically, not showing the vagina or object penetration, but graphic enough to make any audience squirm. Or the result of a miscarriage. This is really a film of intimacy with its subject. Anamaria Vartolomei, the center of the film, never offers a false moment. And the director, Audrey Diwan, who won the Golden Lion for this film, is one of those directors whose work seems like it will become a cinema-lover’s ritual every other year or so.
I didn’t like Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, no matter how much I love Emma Thompson. It felt like local dinner theater with beautiful lighting and 2 compelling actors. But the construction of the story is just so… done. It reminded me of the version of Same Time, Next Year that I never wanted to see. That show/film was very stage-y… but it was often funny and the 2 characters were always in love, through every stage they transitioned through. This one, you kinda know everything that has to happen to get to the end from the beginning.
I was frustrated by God’s Country, which has a subtle, powerful turn by Thandiwe Newton, but spends a lot of time on scenery and not really getting to the point. Perhaps this is because it is based on a short and has been overly stretched. The film’s basic theme is that men are misogynistic, sometimes racist, nature-hating, disrespectful jerks. Racism comes in with a couple good monologues, but isn’t really supported by the rest of the film. But most of the way, we are in slow motion, breathing in the space. But this ain’t Apichatpong.
On to the docs…
Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power isn’t really a doc. It’s most often a masturbatory exercise. The idea remains one that I would love to engage. How does the movie camera, operated almost exclusively by men for a century, see women, how does it trick us, and how can we evolve? But the film, which is more about filmmaker Nina Menkes and her directing journey in the 80s and 90s than it is about the subject offered. And when she does get into some complex, serious arguments, she almost always goes for the lowest hanging fruit possible. You can probably name the filmmakers with me… DePalma, Hitchcock, Joel Silver. It’s lazy and weak.
One of the central interviews is with Rosanna Arquette. She has good, horrible stories about ugly moments to offer. But she also was topless for much of her first studio release, S.O.B., playing traveling partners with, amazingly, the director’s daughter, Jennifer, assuring that all the women in Blake Edwards’ immediate family would be topless in the film. I think, sadly, she has had to fight that topless performance the rest of her career. And probably her most famous role with film geeks is in the Scorsese section of New York Stories… in which she is objectified as the younger love obsession of Nick Nolte. I don’t blame her for what happened to her… but if you are serious about following the arc of her career, shouldn’t she have been asked about those events. (I was going to write “choices,” but they may not have seemed like choices to her… and that is something that makes the argument Menkes wanted to make even more than Harvey naked under an open robe trying to screw her in a hotel room, really.)
Back to my point about clips chosen… when you are trying to argue that male directors use close-ups of women’s body parts, don’t trot out a dream sequence with a body double from a DePalma movie in which he actually allows a woman over 40 to be sexy and in some power before that power is taken away by a schizophrenic with a straight blade. You could make a whole movie arguing over Body Double and whether it is 100% sexist or at least 50% feminist. And a lot of that discussion would be about the male gaze and how much of it in cinema is a function of how men actually look at women as opposed to how women look at women and men.
Anyway… I wanted to be smacked in the head with a smart argument. Didn’t get one. Menkes probably could make one in a classroom or over lunch. But this movie was for people who are finding this conversation for the first time.
Lucy and Desi has been my favorite doc experience so far. Amy Poehler’s doc for Amazon premiered at Sundance. I don’t know whether the juxtaposition with Being The Ricardos made the film better. But it reminded me, 100 times if once, why I am so frustrated by the Nicole Kidman performance in the film. It’s no fault of Ms. Kidman. Even in home movies with no make-up and no play for the camera, Ms. Ball is funny and quirky in a way that Kidman - a great actress - just is not. She is not unfunny. She just isn’t funny that way. It’s as clear and simple as an eye widening.
But I digress…
Poehler has an unexpected skill as a storyteller, even when putting together found footage (much of it audio), which makes up most of this film. Her editor, Robert A. Martinez, is top editor on only his 3rd film… but the prior one was Frank Marshall’s excellent Bee Gees doc. This guy is great. But I give the lion’s share of the credit to the director. She seems to have a natural instinct for picking the right piece of footage to express the right emotional idea… over and over and over again.
There are so many on-camera clips under 10 seconds - many under 5 seconds - that still connect instantly and generate a laugh. And the way she ties in the stills and the behind-the-scenes moments. It’s like every call is answered. There are moments that others clearly would have cut, if they chose them at all. But Poehler understands the audience and the storytelling so well.
At one point, she talks about selling hamburgers at a carnival. “I worked in the park. Celeron Park. I was a… making hamburgers. And I used to holler, (funny voice) ‘Look out! Look out! Don’t step over there. Step over here and have a hammmburger!’ You know, scare the hell out of people.” That is where most would cut. Poehler and Martinez leave in an after-comment, “And they were also good hamburgers.” That last bit is not the funny part… not informative in a way that matters. But it tells you something about this person that she would make that point. It makes such a difference.
Nicole Kidman is gorgeous. Always has been. Young Nicole was not as elegant, but she couldn’t walk into a room without every head turning. It was never just her look, but her energy. I’ve seen some of that energy in recent years, but mostly off camera. Anyway… point is… I never questioned, watching Ricardos, what would attract Desi. But I didn’t feel the heat between them that was often brought up by other characters. It was more like Desi (Javier Bardem) constantly trying to distract her to get out of the doghouse. (“Daw-Gause” as Desi/Ricky would say it.) In this documentary, you see the heat. You see it in the ways you don’t expect it. You see it in small looks. In body language. In their casualness. In out-of-focus home movies. That didn’t just happen. The filmmaker made it happen. It’s storytelling.
Some docs just never seem to make a wrong step. I will watch this one every time I run into on the virtual cable dial. So many images and stories that I feel like I can watch over and over. Get Amy Poehler a non-Netflix movie to direct. Stat!
DOWNFALL: The Case Against Boeing is a really good, very important doc. It doesn’t feel like a Frontline episode. But it lives in that world of doc. What is really fascinating about it is how they got to the point where pilots were not properly trained and then, how they kept the planes flying, even after 2 crashes in an impossibly short period.
2nd Chance is a doc from the great Ramin Bahrani, returning to documentary after making the most elaborate narrative film of his career. Fascinating character. The guy who invented and popularized bulletproof vests. Great guy. Asshole. Generous. Greedy. He’s a real Errol Morris kind of character. But Ramin is not Errol. He doesn’t have the kink. So it’s a good film, worth watching. But it feels like it could have been more… something indelible. Still, very good film.
The Princess is Diana and the film is a meticulously put-together history of her life and death, told completely with found footage. For all the Diana stuff out there, this film does find another slightly different angle on her history. It thins out a lot - as the available footage does - after the divorce. So it feels a little like we leap to her death. But Ed Perkins finds another gear after her death and does an excellent job bringing us into the experience of her death by the public. Quite moving.
Nothing Compares is the Sinead O’Connor story. Found footage with an audio interview. Strong insights into her music experience and development. Lots of performance. There is something odd about a film that is often “narrated” by a audio conversation with the current O’Connor, but without her ever speaking on camera. We get a glimpse of her now-ish at the end, in performance. But she is so compelling along the way in clips from her interviews of many years ago, we miss her bigger presence now.
We Need To Talk About Cosby may be the best film I’ve seen at Sundance so far. It’s not a film, really. It’s a 4-part series heading to Showtime next month. And it’s just plain satisfying. W. Kamau Bell has become skilled in just talking to folks about stuff that makes them uncomfortable. And in this film, unlike his series, he really steps out of the picture. You hear his voice, there is some voice over, but he’s not really acting as a host. He is a guy trying to figure out how to feel and how others feel.
Bell also does more traditional doc work here, telling Cosby story from his college years on in a very effective way. It’s mostly a happy story through much of the first episode. But then… it changes.
It’s true that Cosby really doesn’t have defenders on this show. But his victims don’t own the entire series either. It really is a conversation about Cosby and about how the black community, in particular, has been willing and unwilling to trust his accusers over time. It’s a wide range of voices. It is a lot of people who really admire Cosby’s work as a comedian and yes, a philanthropist… which excuses nothing, but doesn’t get wiped away into nothing because the man is a serial rapist.
There are a few holes in the show. The fact that they couldn’t persuade Hannibal Burress to sit for an interview kinda sucks. Someone who really believes Cosby should be allowed to roam free would have been good, even if in a silhouette. Bell doesn’t fire with all barrels at all the accomplices, like Dr. Alvin Poussaint. That isn’t the kind of show it is, even if it sometimes feels like a little more of that would be nice.
But really fine work. I guess it’s a little weird that what I will watch again and again from Sundance so far are Lucy, Desi, and Cosby. Good thing no one made a doc on Hugh Wilson.