Dispatch: On Its Second Day, Sundance Film Festival Offers Films That Impress, Underwhelm and Unnerve

Just two days in and the 2022 Sundance Film Festival has featured a number of noteworthy premieres, from documentaries about royalty (both literal and of the music industry sort) and the fiery work of studying volcanos to narratives that recount real life experiences like a tragic bank hold-up and life pre-Roe v. Wade. In today’s reviews: what impressed us, what underwhelmed us, and what unnerved us.

892
Image courtesy of Sundance Film Festival.

892

In 2017, Brian Brown-Easley walked into a Wells Fargo branch in Marietta, Ga., and, after withdrawing the last $25 to his name, told the bank teller he was carrying a bomb in his backpack. He was a man at wit’s end, the system seemingly irreversibly stacked against this former Marine, his wages garnished for a debt he said he didn’t owe. With a young daughter at home and feeling like he was out of options, Brown-Easley made his bomb threat hoping it would get him his garnished wages back but knowing it would likely end in his arrest or even death. He did it anyway, and it’s a tragic day that unfolds in Abi Damaris Corbin’s heartbreaking 892.

John Boyega (Star Wars The Rise of Skywalker) stars as Brown-Easley in a role that is so removed from his action and fantasy work of late that it’s a refreshing reminder just how talented he really is. With a desperation that borders on the overdramatic (though in my opinion, never seeps into that territory), he creates a bridge between audience and character that allows us to truly empathize with all he’s been through. Before he makes that fateful decision at the bank, Brown-Easley is just a hard-working father, a veteran who served his country, doing his best to get by. He puts on a brave face when his young daughter, Kiah (London Covington), calls to tell him about her new puppy and the name she’s going to give it. Their interactions are sweet and sincere, and it’s clear Brown-Easley takes his role as a father seriously, approaching it from a place of pride.

Inside the bank, the teller unlucky enough to take him from the line is Rosa (Selenis Leyva, “Orange is the New Black”); she and the bank’s manager, Estel (Nicole Beharie, also in another Sundance film this year, Honk for Jesus, Save Your Soul), end up the only two people in the building with Brown-Easley after Estel thinks quickly and moves stealthily to get her staff and customers to safety the moment she realizes something dangerous is about to go down. Together, they do their best to keep Brown-Easley calm while mitigating their own terror that spikes in response to his every move; Beharie in particular has a powerful sense of self throughout, Estel keeping it together much better than Rosa. Contained as the actors are in the bank, its imposing brick walls and bland lobby furniture, Corbin creates a combustible sense of tension that those outside the bank are trying their best to diffuse.

The film loses a bit of its momentum when Corbin moves the action outside of the bank, but only slightly. Connie Britton is engaging enough as Lisa Larson, a reporter at the local TV station who scoops her competition by getting Brown-Easley on the phone during the affair. But it’s the late Michael K. Williams who steals the show here, his commanding presence as law enforcement negotiator Eli Bernard overwhelming any scene he is in. I could be biased, as I’m still not over the fact that we’ve lost such an incredible talent, but I think that’s only part of it here. Williams is just that good. And the combination of his and Boyega’s stand-out performances plus Corbin’s keen eye toward Brown-Easley’s struggles within a broken system make 892 a tough but important watch. (Lisa Trifone)

Image courtesy of Sundance Film Festival.

After Yang

After his quiet 2017 masterpiece Columbus, filmmaker Kogonada moves tangentially into the world of heartfelt science fiction with After Yang, which debuted at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. Adapted from a short story by Alexander Weinstein, the film is set in the not-too-distant future and tells the story of parents Jake (Colin Farrell) and Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith), who have an adopted daughter, Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja), from China. When we meet them, they also apparently have an older Chinese son named Yang (Justin H. Min), who it turns out is an extremely lifelike android (or “techno-sapien,” as he is called in the film) that the couple purchased (certified refurbished) as a way to help Mika connect more with her Chinese heritage in ways that they couldn’t teach her. This well-meaning gesture becomes problematic when Yang malfunctions, leaving young Mika distraught and her parents desperate to find out how to fix her robot older sibling.

It turns out the couple bought Yang “slightly used,” and as a result, they can’t take him back to the manufacturer or any certified repair place, which leads Jake down a series of rabbit holes (recommended by neighbor George, played by Clifton Collins Jr.) of unsanctioned repair options, one of which discovers that Yang has a memory function that has been recording moments of everything he and the family have been doing their entire time together. But his memories also reveal encounters with previous owners, as well as a current relationship with a mystery woman (Haley Lu Richardson) that no one in the family knew he was capable of engaging in.

Jake combs Yang’s memories, hoping to discover a key to fixing him, but instead he discovers an artificial intelligence that seems to be on the verge of actual self-realization and emotion, which ultimately leads him to a museum curator (Sarita Choudhury) who believes this revelation about this model of robot sibling is worthy of study and research, which would ultimately mean permanently separating Yang from the family in the name of science and progress. Less a conspiracy-based tale (although that does factor into the equation) and more a study on how Yang impacted this family in meaningful and existential ways, After Yang uses its cold, sleek facade to barely veil its emotionally complex core that investigates everything from what makes a sentient being to the fractured state of Jake and Kyra’s marriage. Both parents work too long and too hard to provide for Mika the way they should, so Yang was also acting as her de facto babysitter much of the time, and his absence highlights what inattentive parents they’d become with him around.

While most films of this nature have many moments of the android attempting to find out how to be more human by asking often unanswerable questions (which this story does), After Yang features Jake digging deeper into the mind and memories of his android in an attempt to understand better how Yang functioned and what held value to him. Perhaps not surprisingly, the movie deals with topics such as loss, compassion, and the role of technology in our lives. At once sweeping and intimate, After Yang is never anything less than fascinating and endlessly moving. (Steve Prokopy)

Call Jane
Image courtesy of Sundance Film Festival.

Call Jane

This week marks the 49th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision, the Supreme Court case that guaranteed a woman’s right in this country to choose whether or not to continue a pregnancy. Nearly 50 years later and such a simple concept remains as divisive as ever, and there is a very real chance that that same case might be reversed if today’s conservative-leaning court decides the way pundits expect them to. It’s a scary thought made all the more incomprehensible when one is confronted with what life was like for women seeking the procedure in the years before the precedent was set. Phyllis Nagy makes her directorial debut with Call Jane, written by Haley Schore and Roshan Sethi, a film that attempts to put us in that very era (namely the 1960s) via a collective of progressive women who provide the then-illegal service to those who can’t get it done any other way. Starring Elizabeth Banks as Joy, a mother, housewife and relatively conservative woman who finds herself in need of a medical abortion when a heart condition puts her life at risk, the film works hard to give weight to these delicate proceedings. Unfortunately, a messy script that can’t decide where to focus its energy ultimately sells this very worthy issue short, resulting in an underwhelming film over all.

Nagy’s background is in the theater, having been a playwright in London for years before adapting the Patricia Highsmith novel Carol for Todd Haynes’ captivating 2015 film of the same name. One wonders if Call Jane would be a better film overall if Nagy had overseen the scriptwriting here herself as well, but I suppose we’ll never know. Instead, the story Schore and Sethi cobble together wants to do so much to express the noble work of the collective; to explore how a woman like Joy gets involved in this underworld; to lecture contemporary audiences on how bad things will be if Roe is overturned, that none of it ever quite gets the attention it deserves. Joy does go through with her procedure, and it’s a harrowing scene that Banks carries with dignity; here, at least, the filmmakers have the sense to not obscure the facts with unnecessary flourishes or veiled implications. So too does the film matter-of-factly present the plight of the women served by the collective (whose members, in order to maintain plausible deniability for everyone, all go by “Jane”), embodied by Sigourney Weaver’s Virginia, a woman hell-bent on making sure any hint of moral judgment or value is placed on anyone who seeks their services for any reason.

It’s Weaver who does most of the heavy lifting in Call Jane, and her scenes are the most interesting moments of the film; Banks does good work as well, but her path from medical abortion patient to Jane member and beyond is so muted and milquetoast that one almost longs for a rallying montage that sees Joy shed her suburban ways in favor of a woman’s right to choose. Even more interesting than both these characters are the other people who make up the collective, most of whom we only see in glimpses. From the Catholic nun there to help assuage certain women’s guilt when they have to call the collective to the Black woman who rightly pushes back when she begins to see troubling trends in who the collective grants their few procedure slots to, I found myself more curious about them than the women at the center of the film—never a good sign.

Nagy’s filmmaking is perfectly serviceable, if lacking the sort of artistic vision a filmmaker like Haynes brings to the frame. The sparse, cold procedure room (really, just a run-down apartment somewhere in a run-down part of Chicago) evokes the sort of worry and desperation one would expect; no one with any other options at their disposal would ever willingly choose this route. Contrasted with the rich colors of the late ’60s and early ’70s, as seen in everything from the costumes to the furniture, it confirms what dire straits these women were in. There is a worthy story to be told in the work Joy, Virginia and their compatriots did for their community, but Call Jane ultimately falls sort of giving them their due. (Lisa Trifone)

Nothing Compares

Despite deciding only to cover the powerful Irish-born singer’s life up through her first three (admittedly most popular) albums, the Sinéad O’Connor documentary Nothing Compares, from director Kathryn Ferguson (her feature debut) does a solid job tracing the rise and fall of one of the most influential voices of the late 1980s and early 1990s. The work navigates through O’Connor’s difficult, often torturous, childhood in a deeply Roman Catholic Ireland, where the church was law and women were dismissed and reduced to second-class status without exception. Even after such an upbringing, which included time in a school for “difficult” girls, O’Connor remained steadfast about her desire to be heard as a singer, with a host of old friends and bandmates all agreeing that her unique voice made her almost destined for success.

Even as her notoriety grew, her career path was often blocked by men telling her what she should or shouldn’t do, from her album covers to production choices. Still, there’s not getting past that initial visceral sensation of hearing her debut album, The Lion and the Cobra, for the first time, with its blend of hip-hop beats and traditional Irish song stylings, all used as a bed for her howling voice as it pierced the soul and the skin. With a new (off-camera) interview with O’Connor, the film takes us inside the creation of this groundbreaking music, while also talking to more modern musicians about the impact such a record had on their young lives.

But it was O’Connor’s mega-selling I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got that not only gave her success but also a platform from which she could discuss any number of topics, like the oppressive nature of religion, women’s rights, abortion, war—you name it, O’Connor probably had an opinion on it. The media loved poking fun at her for all of it, painting her as an attention-starved pop star who shaved her head just to be different and not because record company people were telling her how she should look in photo shoots. The discussion of the song “Nothing Compares 2 U” is minimal, with the film focusing on the creation of the hypnotic music video; in fact, the Prince estate refused to let them use the song in the movie, likely because O’Connor has had a few unkind things to say about how Prince treated her when they eventually met.

Not surprisingly, Nothing Compares culminates with the aftermath of O’Connor tearing up a picture of the Pope after a performance on “Saturday Night Live” when she was promoting her record Am I Not Your Girl?, an event that effectively ended her stardom in America (especially since it followed her refusal to have the American national anthem played before one of her live shows). Once you piss off patriotic Americans and Pope-loving Catholics, your career is effectively done, I guess. At this point, O’Connor became a punchline and an object of every type of prejudice and misogyny imaginable, and the film captures every heartbreaking minute of her downfall. But the truth is, her desire to push back against powerful establishments made her an inspiration to many, something she may not have been aware of until years later.

Those who have been tracking her life since this time period know that O’Connor has changed her religious beliefs a few times and had a number of public bouts with bipolar disorder (not to mention the very recent suicide of her son and her subsequent hospitalization to deal with the grief), and there are a great many mysteries still left to unpack about her life after her most famous period some 30 years ago. Still, what is contained in Nothing Compares is powerful stuff, from archival concert footage that really shows her power in a live setting to copious interviews and behind-the-scenes looks at her record-making process to her less guarded moments with friends and family who supported her more than most. You can’t come out from watching this movie without thinking that O’Connor got the rawest of raw deals because she dared to stand out from the crowd, but it’s useful and uplifting to see her true impact acknowledged and celebrated like this. (Steve Prokopy)

Watcher

One of the highlights of last year’s horror anthology V/H/S/94 was director Chloe Okuno’s creature-feature segment “Storm Drain.” Now making her feature-length debut, Okuno brings us the psychological thriller Watcher, about Julia (Maika Monroe), an American woman who has recently given up her acting career and relocated to Bucharest, Romania, with her husband Francis (Karl Glusman, from Greyhound) for his work. One of his parents is Romanian, so he speaks the language, but she is in the early stages of learning and feels horribly out of place and alone in this foreign land, especially since she spends the vast majority of her days on her own.

One night, Julia finds herself people-watching outside the floor-to-ceiling windows in their apartment when she spots someone standing and staring out their own window across the street. She can’t see this person’s face, but to her, it feels like he’s staring right at her. Almost convincing herself she’s overreacting, she waves to the motionless figure, and sure enough, he waves back. Over the next couple of days, she spots someone whom she believes is following her into a movie theater and the grocery store, and she convinces herself that this mysterious neighbor is the same man stalking her. Making matters worse, there is a serial killer (nicknamed The Spider) killing women in the city, the most recent attack being very close to where the couple lives.

As many thrillers of this nature do, Watcher allows for the possibility that Julia is simply letting her mind get away from her, growing increasingly paranoid as a manifestation of her empty life in an unfamiliar city. She enlists the help of her husband, but even he is worried that this is more about her not adjusting to her new surroundings—although he does contact the police, who go to visit the suspect across the street (an encounter we hear about, but Okuno wisely doesn’t show us). At a certain point, it is revealed that the neighbor in question is the rather timid Weber (Burn Gorman, The Dark Night, The Expanse), who simply lives a quiet life in the apartment he shares with his elderly father. But when you spot Burn Gorman in a movie, you know you can’t let your guard down.

Watcher is a terrific and highly effective, albeit low-grade, suspense film. Monroe is one of the reigning queens of this brand of anxious, neurotic character who also has the guts to fight back against (or at least look into) her suspicions. Cinematographer Benjamin Kirk Nielsen does a masterful job working with light and shadow within Julia’s apartment to illustrate how exposed, vulnerable and trapped she feels in those confines. I especially liked the scenes Monroe shares with her next-door neighbor Irina (Madalina Anea), a dancer with a strong personality who takes Julia under her wing and at least gives her someone to talk to and spend time with. There is something achingly clean and streamlined about the look of Watcher, and this contrasts beautifully with some of the nastier elements that come late in the story.

There are deeper themes at play here as well, especially the all-too familiar one about believing women and not dismissing them when they feel at risk. What makes Julia’s plight worse is how often she begins to doubt her own intuition and survival instinct. The film is frequently unnerving more than outright scary, and that’s a far more unsettling experience in the long run. Watcher is a worthy feature debut from Okuno, and I’m eager to see where she takes us next, since she’s clearly interested in exploring all manner of horror in her filmmaking. (Steve Prokopy)

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Third Coast Review Staff

Posts with the Third Coast Review Staff byline are written by a combination of writers, credited by section within the article.

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