Dispatch: Sundance Film Festival Continues with Impressive Remakes and Disappointing Returns

Image courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Living 

Remakes are always a tricky prospect, and one probably shouldn’t engage in remaking one of the greatest movies ever made unless one has something new to say on its themes. Thankfully, award-winning writer Kazuo Ishiguro (Never Let Me Go, The Remains of the Day, as well as the screenplay for The Saddest Music in the World) has carefully studied Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru (To Live) and noticed that the emotionally stunted characteristic of Japanese culture is surprisingly similar to that of post-World War II Britain, personified in Williams (the deftly understated Bill Nighy), an elderly civil servant/widower with terminal cancer. He’s a creature of habit and little else who works with a group of closely knit underlings whom he doesn’t socialize with. He lives with his grown son (Barney Fishwick) and daughter-in-law (Patsy Ferran), but he’s not close to them either. And even before he finds out he’ll be dying soon, we get a sense that there was a time in his life when he remembered to live life to something resembling the fullest.

We see portions of this story through the eyes of Peter Wakeling (Alex Sharp), whom we follow into the office on his first day of work. He quickly realizes that in this government office, very little gets done because files and projects are simply shuffled around from department to department with no one really taking responsibility for any of it. Williams even has a special place for files that have been moved around so much that it’s better to simply let them sit than do anything. But when Williams gets word from his doctor, he is rattled to the core and heads to the seaside town of Brighton to kill himself with sleeping pills. Instead, he meets cheery writer Sutherland (Tom Burke), and he begins to break out of his seemingly impenetrable shell. He ends the evening with a touching song, and for the first time in quite a while, things are looking up.

Once back in London (but still not going back to work), he runs into a former female employee, Margaret (Aimee Lou Wood), and the two begin spending time together. He’s not falling for her, but he is hopelessly drawn in by her spirit, cheer and youthful energy. Drawing from his newfound outlook on life, Williams finally heads back into the office, where he decides to rescue one of the dozens of presumably doomed projects from the special pile on his desk—a simple village playground where a bombed-out building currently sits. His sense of urgency and passion for the project inspire both his team and the other departments, and Williams regains some small sense of purpose and humanity. It’s lovely to watch Nighy’s performance as a man who comes back to life in his final days. Director Oliver Hermanus (Moffie) doesn’t attempt to reinvent the story of Ikiru, but he does make it feel unique to British culture and attitudes, without ever getting too sentimental or message-heavy. And Ishiguro’s screenplay allows for believable character transformations that are small but noticeable and beautifully human. Almost a fable in its telling, Living is inspiring, somewhat tragic, and incredibly moving throughout, and it will likely be one of the favorite works I see at Sundance this year (Steve Prokopy).

Image courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Dual 

The latest film from writer/director Riley Stearns (The Art of Self-Defense, Faults) opens with a televised, two-person, combat-to-the-death battle between an unnamed competitor (Theo James) and his unseen opponent. The man is having arrows shot at him from a crossbow, even taking one in the shoulder. But he manages to best his enemy, and it is only then that it is revealed that the opponent is an exact double of himself. This is the setup for Dual, a deeply dark comedy about the existential crisis that exists when we are told we are on the verge of death. Although the premise sounds a great deal like the recent Swan Song, starring Mahershala Ali, Dual’s tone is radically, almost defiantly different, beginning with the simple fact that lead character Sarah (Karen Gillan) is a great deal more difficult to like.

After being diagnosed with a rare, incurable disease, Sarah decides to take part in a cloning process known as “Replacement,” during which an exact clone is made, and you must spend time with that clone so that it can match your likes, dislikes, personality traits, and overall demeanor as closely as possible. To give you a sense of the kind of person Sarah is, she absolutely cannot afford this procedure, but when she finds out that the clone is ultimately responsible for the costs, she signs up immediately. Sarah’s life is relatively simple. She has a live-in boyfriend (Beulah Koale), but they don’t seem to connect any longer; and she has a mother, who comes equipped with a barrage of daily, guilty phone calls wondering why they don’t talk more and aren’t closer. Gillan’s delivery as Sarah is part of what I adore about this film; it’s deadpan, to the point, and free of any knowledge that her words have consequences. She may be on the spectrum, but it’s more likely she just isn’t inspired to care much about others.

When she meets her clone, it’s clear this Sarah double is eager to please and learn, and a much kinder person than her original. The clone promises to love all things as much as Sarah, but the truth is, she does Sarah’s life far better than Sarah herself, and after several months, she not only takes over Sarah’s life, but steals her boyfriend and endears herself to her mom in ways Sarah never could or tried to. She’s in better shape than Sarah, seems to like entirely different things, and even has a different eye color (courtesy of a glitch in the cloning process). But Sarah will soon be dead, so, like most things in life, she doesn’t let it get to her much.

Then the wrinkle in this story hits: Sarah goes into full remission from her illness, and when she tries to decommission her clone, the clone petitions to stay alive, which is only allowed if the two dual to the death in one year’s time (like the dual that opens the film). Sarah spends the year training to fight for her life with the cheapest trainer she can find (Aaron Paul), who actually seems fairly knowledgable in the ways of getting her in shape, teaching her combat strategy, and getting her mentally prepared to kill another human being, especially one that looks exactly like her.

Filmmaker Stearns doesn’t get too deep in the weeds about the ways in which people re-examine their lives when dealt a death sentence, but Sarah does take stock in the things in her life that should and do matter (not always the same thing) as she dives into her combat training. In order to defeat this enemy double, she has to remember why she wants to go on living in the first place, and her journey is anything but an easy, straight line. She must desensitize herself to killing and death in order to find meaning in living, and Gillan captures this struggle beautifully. Nothing in Sarah’s life is simple, but we aren’t made to feel sorry for her or pity her inner turmoil. If anything, you may find yourself screaming at her to get over her personality hangups and live for something other than herself. Gillan’s scenes with her double are seamlessly executed from both a special effect perspective and an emotional one. These two women are both the same and unique in equal measure, and it’s the actress’s work to make that clear that sells this odd but redemptive little movie. The kicker is that while Sarah strives to be more caring like her double, after spending time in Sarah’s life, the double begins to resent being stuck in this dead-end life. “Be careful what you wish for,” is certainly the underlying message of the strangely wonderful Dual. (Steve Prokopy)

Image courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Resurrection

After hoisting herself up as the new queen of angsty acting (with such films as Christine and The Night House) and equally impressive writing/directing (last year’s Sundance offering Passing) Rebecca Hall returns to hold onto the title another year with Resurrection, writer/director Andrew Semans’ second feature (after Nancy, Please), about a British woman living in the states, leading a successful and orderly life that is in danger of coming apart when she spots a familiar face from her past.

Hall’s Margaret is the portrait of stability in her career, with her teen daughter Abbie (Grace Kaufman), who is just months away from heading off to college, something Margaret is already distressed about. She even carefully controls her love life by having an affair with a married man (Michael Esper) whom she knows isn’t entirely available to her. What better way to keep a distance from real emotions? But when she glimpses David (Tim Roth) at a conference, it sets off a series of terrible, almost unspeakable memories that knock her completely off of her axis and send her spiraling into paranoia and psychological unraveling.

The more Margaret attempts to avoid seeing him, the more he seems to pop up in the unlikeliest of places. Is it coincidence? Is he stalking her? Or is he even real, perhaps the product of Margaret’s fractured mind (which is likely the result of something in her past)? When she and David finally speak, he falls right back into patterns and catchphrases that he used to control her when they were together, back when Margaret was barely able to consent to their rocky relationship. There’s even an indication that their bond went deeper than just psychological abuse when he reminds her that something lives inside his belly, something that was very upset when Margaret left David all those years ago and now it wants to talk to her again. 

There’s no getting around the fact that Resurrection is highly disturbing, and Hall’s performance makes it all the more unsettling because however things play out, we know we’re watching a woman’s mind crumble because of a man’s control (or attempted control) of her. There’s a sequence when Hall delivers a monologue to an intern that she’s been mentoring where the camera barely leaves her face, and her delivery is terrifying in the way she says words she’s clearly never spoken to another human being. It’s part confession, part unlocking the deepest, most private thoughts she possesses. This is clearly something she’s avoided talking about because to do so would unleash hell on her mental state.

There comes a point in Resurrection (a film whose screenplay made the 2020 Black List) when reality and delusion are indistinguishable, so we’re left with no choice but to ride this terror wave to its conclusion. Even then we aren’t sure if what we’re experiencing is meant to be real. What I do know is that Roth’s brand of sinister charm is played exactly right. We understand why, even now, she might find some comfort in simply slipping back into old habits. But then he shows his true self again, and Margaret must contend with both the past and present-day version of David. Just when we think we know how good Hall can get as an actor, she pulls out something like Margaret, and our minds are expanded. Sometimes the film’s blurring of fact and fiction can be distracting, and there were certainly times when I wished we had a few things to hold onto that we knew were genuine. But this is a small quibble when we get a film like Resurrection as a result. (Steve Prokopy)

Image courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Sharp Stick

Writer/director Lena Dunham burst onto the independent film scene in 2010 with her feature film debut Tiny Furniture, a film that evoked an entire generations sense of stasis, an inability to launch into a world that didn’t seem all that excited to have us. Dunham’s career took off after that, with the long-running HBO series Girls perhaps her best-known work. Now, Dunham returns with her first feature film in over a decade, and though she’s talked about Sharp Stick being a film born of her own deep soul searching during the pandemic, it plays more like the messy work of someone trying to make what she thinks we thinks she wants to make. Yeah, it’s complicated.

Dunham starred in Tiny Furniture; here, she casts herself in a supporting but pivotal role as Heather, the mother of Zach (Liam Michel Saux), a tween with Down’s syndrome whom the film’s main character, Sarah Jo (Kristine Froseth), babysits. Sarah Jo is a 26-year-old young woman who’s emotional and sexual development has been stunted by, well, it’s not entirely clear what. She had a full hysterectomy as a teen, and as a result entered menopause early, thus royally messing with her internal sense of desire and sensuality, among other things. She lives with her mother, Marilyn (a scene-stealing Jennifer Jason Leigh), and sister Treina (Taylour Paige), both of whom are so entirely different from Sarah Jo it’s nearly impossible to believe that this person evolved from living in that environment.

The plot kicks in when Sarah Jo decides that it’s finally time to lose her virginity and the only man in her orbit who is a reasonable candidate is Zach’s dad and Heather’s husband, Josh (a mop-headed Jon Bernthal). Their initial seduction scene is so cringeworthy it’s practically unwatchable, as Dunham has made no effort whatsoever to instill in her audiences any sense of sympathy (or empathy) for Sarah Jo. Soon, SJ (as she takes to being called) has such a backwards idea about sex and its function in adult relationships that she embarks on a bizarre quest to jam in (no pun intended) every sexual experience she can think of so as to be well versed enough to hold onto a man.

Froseth does her best to create a character we can care about, but Dunham’s messy script keeps throwing us off the path just as we get a foothold. There’s an odd subplot to do with a porn star SJ becomes enamored with (Scott Speedman), and it’s him who ends up being the only voice of reason in this young woman’s very mixed up, turned around outlook on life. The sort of dysfunction Dunham is hoping to approach on screen is, inherently, interesting and complex. Unfortunately, the filmmaker assumes so little of her audience that she reduces both characters and circumstances to empty, unremarkable shells of what they could be, making it all but impossible to find anything worth appreciating here. (Lisa Trifone)

Image courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Downfall: The Case Against Boeing

On October 29, 2018, a Lion Air flight crashed off the coast of Jakarta, Indonesia shortly after takeoff. On March 10, 2019, an Ethiopian Air flight crashed into a field in that country just six minutes after takeoff. Both crashes killed every on board, a total of over 300 people. Both aircrafts were the Boeing 737 Max, a new version of Boeing’s workhorse plane, a new model that had been recently introduced to help the company regain its market share in the consumer air travel industry. As governments, regulation agencies, the media and the families of survivors began to dig into the cause of the crashes, blame was flung in every direction, namely from Boeing out to anyone else they could think of. It all became a shameful game of hot potato. At least, that is, until the truth of what cause both crashes was finally revealed.

Filmmaker Rory Kennedy (Ethel, Last Days of Vietnam)’s Downfall: The Case Against Boeing investigates the fallout from these tragedies and chronicles the dogged efforts of both Boeing to hide the truth and the government and the media to expose it. What could have easily devolved in to a fairly dry, academic affair (this happened, then this happened, and so on) instead becomes something much more stirring in Kennedy’s able hands. For every interview with a politician or journalist, Kennedy also speaks with the men and women who dedicated their lives to building Boeing’s planes piece by piece, the surviving family members grieving their lost loved ones, and the professional pilots who are not shy about expressing their disappointment, frustration and anger about Boeing’s ill-advised choices through the whole ordeal.

Step by step, the film recounts exactly how the truth about the crashes eventually surfaced, as well as what ultimately caused the fatal accidents; if you didn’t follow the news back then, I won’t spoil the findings for you here. Suffice it to say that Boeing, in an unrelenting bid to keep share prices rising and turn a profit in any way possible, cut corners in ways so egregious and unacceptable that it led to these entirely preventable tragedies. Even worse, the company tried to shift blame the pilots and airlines in an ultimately unsuccessful bid to shield the truth. It’s all deeply objectionable, but sadly, none of it is terribly surprising; in fact, it’s perhaps the inevitable conclusion of the late-stage capitalism we’re all trying to survive these days.

Late last year, the esteemed PBS investigative journalism series Frontline released an episode called “Boeing’sFatal Flaw,” and that production does look deeper into the flawed bureaucracies at play in addition to all of Boeing’s lack of leadership or corporate moral compass. It’s an informative, educational piece. Downfall is too, but Kennedy manages to draw out an understanding of the true human cost of these crashes, a cost that goes far beyond just the innocent souls on both planes. By digging deep into Boeing’s corporate history and exploring when and how the company fundamentally changed its approach to production, design and safety standards, the film provides a context for how we got to here—and how to ensure it never happens again. (Lisa Trifone)

Did you enjoy this post? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by making a donation. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support! 

Default image
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.