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Dispatches From The 2022 Sundance Film Festival

Another year, another Sundance— and, for better and for worse, another virtual Sundance, as the pandemic forced organizers to abandon their planned hybrid format for an entirely online festival for the second year in a row. But! The movies are still here. So let's do it!

Monday, 1/31

With the close of the festival yesterday, this is my final entry. I'll get to this year's Grand Jury Prize winner for U.S. Dramatic film, Nanny, in just a moment, but first, a little wrap up:

I saw exactly 20 features this year, only about a quarter of what was offered, so not an enormous amount, but some years you can do more than others. Of the 20, nine were directed by women, also not the best work on my part (I should have sought out more), but some part of that was simply scheduling. Fortunately, I only saw one movie that I'd consider actually bad, the family adventure movie Summering, which was baffling as I was watching it and only got worse the more I thought about it. Whatever they were trying to do (and that's up for a lot of debate), they didn't succeed. I do, though, have little good to say about Jesse Eisenberg's directorial debut, When You Finish Saving the World, and found myself quite disappointed by Alice, which started with an intriguing premise and then decided that was enough.

But that's about it for real strong complaints, and while I may have had mixed feelings about some other films, there's a whole lot to be happy about here. Cooper Raiff's Cha Cha Real Smooth, which won an Audience Award, is 100% going to be a crowd-pleaser when it gets around to Apple TV+ (who bought the movie for $15 million), and such a strong follow-up to his debut, Shithouse, means I will now pay attention to anything he's doing. I seem to be having a stronger positive reaction to the Macedonian folk horror film You Won't Be Alone than pretty much anyone else I've seen, but I stand by it: the movie is a knockout and one of the rare cases where outright theft of Terrence Malick's style actually works. Speaking of horror, it is a certainty that you'll be hearing about Resurrection when it comes out (good god). And Kogonada's After Yang is as good as all the praise it's been getting, and is sure to end up on some year-end top 10 lists.

I didn't see a ton of documentaries, but those I did see were almost all extraordinary. The best surprise of the festival for me was Three Minutes: A Lengthening, simply because I hadn't planned to watch it in the first place, and it turned out to be a deep dissection of memory and meaning, history and investigation, and the peculiar strengths of moving pictures. And the most stunning scene of any movie I watched, documentary or fiction, has to be that phone call in Navalny. If it had been written, it would be riveting, but the fact that it's real is almost too much to take.

It's encouraging to see a continuation in the increase of Black filmmakers telling stories and interrogating our history and social structures, even if the films aren't always totally successful— Alice fell flat for me, but at least it's got an interesting idea, Master has a ton of ideas and is creepy as all hell, and Nanny, well, let's get to that one right now.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute


Without a clear favorite for this year's Grand Jury Prize for U.S. Dramatic film, it's not too hard to see why they ended up going with Nanny for the award— it's not without flaws, but it's an extremely strong debut feature for director Nikyatu Jusu that ties together past and present stories and films, the constant struggle of immigrants and the continuing devastation of colonialism, and the folkloric traditions of West Africa.

This film follows Aisha (Anna Diop), a Senegalese woman living in New York, who's hired as a nanny for the daughter of a rich white couple. Aisha has her own son, Lamine, who is still living in Senegal, and her plan is to make enough money to bring him to live with her in the U.S. Of course, things don't go the way she expects, although they maybe do go the way we expect, at least to a point— the white couple seems pleasant enough, but are in fact self-absorbed and exploitative of Aisha. But naturally, there's more, and the movie brings in characters from West African folk tales, particularly Anansi the trickster and the water spirit Mami Wata, a development that was especially appealing to my interests (I saw Aisha touch a book on a bookshelf and I immediately said, "that's Anansi!" I was delighted when she later took the book off the shelf and read it to the girl.). Whether those characters are real and influencing Aisha's life, or whether they're a product of her increasingly stressed and fracturing mental state as she gets further and further away from the reality of seeing her son again, it's hard to say, although that's not a mystery that needs solving.

It's reductive to say this, and exposes my lack of other reference points (since what Aisha experiences is far more than an isolated story), but I couldn't help but think of the great Ousmane Sembène's film Black Girl while I was watching Nanny, as they both follow a Senegalese woman employed in the service of a wealthy white couple, and we watch as her exploitation grinds her down. This film doesn't really quote Sembène's in any way (although a bathtub plays a crucial role in both movies), but it's a reminder to me of how African filmmaking has the most trenchant social commentary I've seen from anywhere in the world (and yes, it's a huge continent, but filmmaking traditions, particularly in West Africa, cross many boundaries there). Nanny is still a debut film— as strong as many of its aspects are, it's also a bit unfocused, and there's an ending that feels incredibly rushed, but is, at least, a more hopeful conclusion than if it hadn't been there at all. Still, there are a number of exciting filmmakers coming from Africa right now, and Nikyatu Jusu has just rocketed into those ranks.

Sunday, 1/30

The last day of the festival, but my second-to-last entry, as tonight I'll be closing things out with this year's Grand Jury Prize-winner, Nanny. I'll talk about that one tomorrow, plus any wrap-up thoughts I have.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute


The winner of this year's Grand Jury Prize in World Cinema (Dramatic), this is quiet, deliberately paced, and kind of crushing. We have quite a few movies by this point that deal with climate change in the abstract, or by directly addressing it by name, but Utama is one that shows the extreme and devastating effects on people whose entire ways of life are being erased, without ever being explicit about what is happening or why.

Sisa and her husband, Virginio, are an elderly Quechua couple in Bolivia, who wake each day and perform the same tasks— Sisa collects water, Virginio grazes their llamas. But things are getting more and more difficult: there's a horrible drought that's left no water in the wells, so Sisa has to walk miles and miles and miles to a small river to collect two buckets of water before returning home. Virginio doesn't move well, and seemingly has to take the llamas miles in another direction just to find anything for them to graze. This life looks exceedingly hard, and seems to be getting harder, but it's their life.

One day, their grandson, Clever, arrives from the city, saying he has news, but Virginio just assumes he's come to bring them a message from his estranged son, Clever's father, maybe in an attempt to get them to move to the city. Clever agrees they do, in fact, need to move to the city, as there's nothing left for them where they are, but that's also not why he's there.

Virginio is stubborn, and has no interest in leaving, or really listening to anyone else, and thinks he knows what's best for both him and Sisa— part of this is likely his patriarchal thinking, but part of it is also that their lives have always been a struggle, and he feels like he's the one fighting to keep their lives in the way they know them. But the world is changing, whether Virginio likes it or not, Sisa is not an empty vessel, she has her own thoughts and concerns, and at some point, if Virginio is going to live at all, there needs to be a realization and an adjustment.

Virginio and the other people who live near the couple know it needs to rain or no one will survive, and we, who are watching, know climate change is so deeply involved here, but no one talks about things in those terms— these are people living their lives in a world that is dying. This isn't a political argument or a "logic" battle on Twitter. This is what it really looks like. What Virginio and the others do is what they think and know they can do to make any sort of difference, whether they really can or not. Is it all impossible? It might be. But one thing Utama reminds us is that even in a sick and dying world, life continues on. We could just give up and do no more, but then again, it just might rain.

Sheila Francisco in 'Leonor Will Never Die'
Courtesy of Sundance Institute | Carlos Mauricio
Sheila Francisco in 'Leonor Will Never Die'

Leonor Will Never Die

This won a Special Jury Award for "Innovative Spirit," and not really knowing what that might mean, I figured I'd better find out. I'm pretty tickled that I did.

Leonor was once a famous action movie director in the Philippines, but she's since fallen on hard times. She's living with her son and hasn't paid the bills in about three months, but she finds an ad in the newspaper calling for screenplay submissions, and she digs out an old idea she'd worked on years before, knowing that if she can just finish it, it's a sure winner. Unfortunately, before she can do that, she's hit in the head by a television that's accidentally thrown out a window, and, naturally, she ends up inside the movie she's been working on writing.

We've seen that idea before, but not like this. I can't say I have (any?) experience with Filipino cinema, but as far as I can tell (or, at least, assume), a lot of what this movie ends up being is an ode to some kind of glory days of Filipino exploitation action pictures. Where Leonor ends up, and the shootouts and brawls all around her, are deliriously silly, and I can only think these must be loving recreations of the sorts of movies that must have been incredibly popular in the Philippines at some point. Maybe still? These are guesses. But sometimes, you can just tell.

But goodness gracious, there's so much more than this. Leonor had another son who died some years before, and he reappears as a sort of ghost (his brother asks him what it feels like to be semi-transparent), and after a while he just sort of hangs out with his brother and his father while Leonor is unconscious in the hospital. But the lines between Leonor's imagined state (inside the screenplay) and her real life (lying on a bed in the hospital) begin to blur, and some people start to cross that barrier themselves, and sometimes the movie reverses and chooses a different course than the one we were on, and sometimes we step out onto another movie set, and at least once the actual director of this movie, Leonor Will Never Die, has a role to play, too, and might need to consult with one or two fictional characters before she makes a decision. After all, what would Leonor want? If none of that makes any sense, it simply doesn't matter, as this movie piles on so many self-referential layers it just becomes a wonder to watch, and all of that is on top of the delightful ridiculousness of the action movie within the movie within the movie.

It does maybe take a bit to get here— the early part of the film (the real one, whatever that means) is unusually paced, especially for a comedy, and it's certainly true that it all isn't the slickest thing you've ever seen, but once it all gets rolling, none of that matters, and its even enhanced by its rough edges (and some of them are, of course, intentional). It's all a pretty wild ride, and one entirely worth taking. And now I have a new appreciation for Filipino exploitation action cinema, among other things.

Saturday, 1/29

Awards have been won! Sundance announced all their awards yesterday afternoon, and in keeping with the fact that no one seemed totally sure what was going to win anything, there wasn't any single movie that really dominated (unlike CODA last year). Of the winners, I've actually seen only a few, which isn't terribly surprising given how much of the festival exists outside the movies that are officially eligible to win awards. But I'll catch up on a couple this weekend and talk about those Sunday and Monday (and you'll see my thoughts on Navalny, which won the U.S. doc audience award and the overall "Festival Favorite" award— basically the audience favorite without regard to category— below, following the rundown of awards). There are still tickets out there for most of these, and you can find all the winners right here:

Grand Jury Prizes:

U.S. Dramatic: Nanny
U.S. Documentary: The Exiles
World Dramatic: Utama
World Documentary: All That Breathes

Audience Awards:

Festival Favorite: Navalny
U.S. Dramatic: Cha Cha Real Smooth
U.S. Documentary: Navalny
World Dramatic: Girl Picture
World Documentary: The Territory
NEXT: Framing Agnes


U.S. Dramatic: Palm Trees and Power Lines
U.S. Documentary: I Didn't See You There
World Dramatic: KLONDIKE
World Documentary: A House Made of Splinters

Screenwriting: Emergency

Special Jury Awards:

U.S. Dramatic, Uncompromising Artistic Vision: blood
U.S. Dramatic, Ensemble Cast: 892
U.S. Documentary, Creative Vision: Descendant
World Documentary, Documentary Craft: The Territory
World Documentary, Excellence in Verité: Midwives
World Dramatic, Innovative Spirit: Leonor Will Never Die
World Dramatic, Acting: Teresa Sánchez for Dos Estaciones

NEXT Innovator Award: Framing Agnes

And of course there were plenty of awards for the short films at the festival, those just weren't part of my coverage this year, I'm not ignoring them because of lack of respect. As you can see, only a couple of films even took more than one award. One of those was Navalny.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute


This was a late addition to the Sundance lineup, but it still ended up taking both the Audience Award for U.S. Documentary and the overall Festival Favorite Award, and it's not hard to see why. The movie follows Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny in the short time before he was poisoned and narrowly escaped death, through to his return to Russia after his recovery, and then his instant arrest. It appears director Daniel Roher began his film during Navalny's recuperation in Germany, as investigate journalist Christo Grozev was working with Navalny to track down who, exactly, was responsibly for his "murder." But not surprisingly, Navalny is the sort of guy who always had cameras shooting him, and so there's plenty of footage from before his poisoning, and even from the airplane when he began to feel extreme effects from the poison.

All of this footage is quite obviously remarkable— the entire story is (or, the story as it's happened so far), and to see so much of it right on the screen in front of you is astonishing. There are a couple of "am I really seeing this" moments, most especially when Grozev and Navalny are calling the men they've figured out carried out the attack, and they reach one (a chemist, so he's less savvy than the other murderers) who more or less gives up the whole scheme on the phone, believing Navalny to be a government official. It really is something from a spy movie (which they say often during this film), and it's nearly impossible to believe you're seeing and hearing it happen. My heart was pounding like a jackhammer. The tension moves even to another level when after the call, Navalny and Grozev acknowledge that the chemist will likely be killed for the mistake he's just made, and we learn later that the man hasn't been heard from since that phone call.

Navalny seems to be a bit difficult to pin down as a political figure, his main refrain is that he wants to dump the criminals in power and to end authoritarian rule in Russia (he says were he to become president, he would restrict his own powers for the good of the country's future), and he's more than willing to create a coalition with far less than savory figures— he says he's fine with having neo-Nazis as part of that coalition, since their shared goal is to end Putin's rule, even if he, personally, doesn't like the other ideas those people have. But, then, this movie isn't intending to be a deep dive into Navalny's ethos and philosophy. Perhaps that's for some other time.

There are a few times when the movie is maybe a little bit overproduced, laying intense, suspenseful music over the proceedings, which is wholly unnecessary given how dramatic what we're seeing is on its own. But this is a small gripe, and it's easy to forgive Roher his enthusiasm. There are worse movie sins.

Friday, 1/28

Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo: Family Affair Films

Three Minutes: A Lengthening

Here is a movie I hadn't intended to watch, but other plans fell through, and this ended up being one of the most fascinating things I've seen at this year's festival.

In 1938, an American man named David Kurtz took a European trip, including to Poland, where he was born and left as a child. He filmed some of this with a 16mm camera, and the footage was found decades later by his grandson, Glenn Kurtz. Specifically, Glenn was interested in a few minutes of the footage that appeared to show a Jewish community in Poland, in this time shortly before nearly all of them would be murdered in the Holocaust. There's no indication of what the town is or who the people are, it's simply three-and-a-half disjointed minutes of people talking to each other and, mostly, being very excited to be in front of a camera, or at least very curious.

We begin the movie by seeing this footage, footage Glenn Kurtz had to work very hard to have restored (we learn that if he'd found it even a month later than he did, it would have been too old and warped and damaged to be restored at all), and we spend the rest of the movie seeing only this footage— replayed, reedited, reversed, slowed down, frozen. Glenn Kurtz spent years working to identify as much as he could about what these few minutes show, and this movie becomes an extraordinary examination of memory, meaning, how we understand history, and, to use a phrase from the movie, "the presence of absence." Kurtz, the grandson, pored over every frame of the footage, sometimes over the tiniest fragment of a single frame, and determined this was the town of Nasielsk, where David Kurtz was born (a carving in a door and the particular kinds of trees in the footage eventually gave it away), a town that included about 3,000 Jews, of whom only 100 survived the Holocaust. We see the footage as we hear the voice of Glenn Kurtz describing some of his deep investigation, we hear narration (from Helena Bonham Carter, it turns out) helping us to place some of this in context, and we hear a few voices of those few people who survived— one woman saw this footage after someone sent her a link from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and she recognized her grandfather's cheeks in the face of a boy (who, of course, turned out to be her grandfather).

Kurtz's investigation is riveting, even as it's presented meditatively in this film, but even more the movie begins to reveal the tendrils of stories and history that exist in the smallest details of life, in those bits we never notice or think about. The buttons on the women's clothes leads to revelations both personal and societal. A dent in a door is revealed to be all that's left of an important cultural signifier. And here is where we begin to get into that crushing "presence of absence." We start to see those things that we literally cannot see, but that fact that they were once there, and now are not, is the part that's so weighty. Just as we are haunted by how so many souls were swiftly erased from this planet and our lives.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Last Flight Home

"You weren't perfect. You made mistakes in this life. But you were good."

Certainly, we should all hope for exactly that. I paraphrase the quote, but this is what Eli Timoner's daughter says to him as he's in the last few hours of his life, as he wrestles with his guilt and regrets. Timoner was the founder of Air Florida, once a thriving airline, and as he's presented here, it's impossible to believe he wasn't a good man. The documentary (directed by another of his daughters, the filmmaker Ondi Timoner) follows Eli, his wife, and his children as Eli decides to end his life through California's Death with Dignity (commonly known as assisted suicide) allowance. He'd had a stroke following a freak accident decades before, and this left his paralyzed for a time, and unable to walk without a cane after he'd somewhat recovered. It also clearly led to other health difficulties, financial difficulties, and stress. At the point we enter into the family's lives, Timoner is in his 90s and is finished with the struggle. We stay with him and his family during the required waiting period between when he decides to end his life and when he's actually allowed to do so with prescribed medicine.

As the movie goes on, we begin to see what an uncommonly good man Timoner was, and how much everyone around him is filled with love for him, and from him. Or maybe he's not so uncommonly good, maybe it's just that we don't often see the real good and love in humanity because that's not the sort of thing that grabs our attention. But it seems obvious that throughout his life, Eli extended respect and grace to everyone he met— as Air Florida grew in size, he struggled with the fact that he could no longer keep track of all of its employees' names— and we see how he maintains that love even as he struggles to speak and remain alert during his final days, and how so very many of his friends and family members return that love.

And while I have to admit that this isn't the sort of documentary that exactly appeals to my personal tastes and stylistic preferences, I found it impossible not to be drawn completely in by the level of empathy and compassion on display here. Part of this is just a product of all of the love we see (and feel), but part of it comes very late in the film, as Eli is talking to his rabbi daughter, and struggles with what I mentioned up front, his guilt and regrets. His daughter takes him through the process of examining those regrets, and his ultimate forgiveness of himself— we see that what he regrets are things that weigh so heavily on him, but that are simply life mistakes anyone could make. As far as we can tell, they weren't even cruel or terribly damaging to other people, they were things that just made him feel ashamed, and he's carried that with him for his entire life. And seeing the level of grace Eli has extended to others makes it that much harder for us to see him struggling to extend that to himself. None of us makes it through this life without pain, mistakes, and guilt, but as we can see here, love and kindness, and especially forgiveness, is what can be with us in the end.

Thursday, 1/27

Mía Maestro in 'The Cow Who Sang a Song Into the Future'
Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Inti Briones
Mía Maestro in 'The Cow Who Sang a Song Into the Future'

The Cow Who Sang a Song Into the Future

A woman emerges from a river, wearing a motorcycle helmet and riding suit, spitting out water. But she hasn't just fallen in— she'd clearly been under there for a while. We know a tiny bit about what's happening because there are piles of dying fish in the water and on the shore, and those fish are singing to us about what's going on.

A number of creatures will sing to us during the course of the film— the fish, the bees, the cows— but this isn't a children's movie, and those creatures aren't singing us happy songs. This is a kind of quiet, sad fantasy, probably about climate change and environmental decay, definitely about the struggle between parents and children (and especially mothers and daughters), and about mistakes, acceptance, and forgiveness.

That woman who comes from the river is Magdalena, who died many years before in what is assumed to have been a suicide. Her husband is now old, her children are grown. Her daughter, Cecilia, is a doctor and has two children of her own, including her trans daughter, who Cecilia insists must remain living life as a boy if she's to stay under their roof. Magdalena appears to her husband, who understandably faints and ends up in the hospital, which brings the family together as they come to care for him at the dairy farm the man owns with his son, Cecilia's brother. Cecilia carries a lot of anger with her, as she believes her mother repeatedly abandoned the family before killing herself (she learns later this may not be what it seemed), and she maintains a rigid control on her life and the lives of those around her.

This debut feature from Chilean director Francisca Alegria leans hard into its strangeness, which doesn't always work, but it's a strangeness I find attractive. It's not common to see a first-time filmmaker (she's made some shorts, so maybe not exactly "first-time") who's so confident with her pacing and creative risks (who has a herd of cows singing plaintively about their deaths?), and while it does sometimes seem like she's taking on too much, it's apparent she's just fine with remaining elusive in her intentions. Is the sickness in the land because of the people or a result of this familial disruption? These animals are being exploited, but is that a symptom or the larger issue? It could be any and all of these things, or something I've not even thought of myself, but, then, being given all the answers isn't often too interesting, and I admire those who are willing to remain ambiguous in their art.

Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson in 'Something in the Dirt'
Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Aaron Moorhead
Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson in 'Something in the Dirt'

Something in the Dirt

When the world has stopped making any sense, we look for ways to force it to make sense. Pandemic madness has taken many forms, and there's no doubt we've seen a huge increase in people buying into conspiracy theories and wild ideas about the way the world "actually" is. Often, of course, there's a tiny kernel of truth in an otherwise absurd worldview, and we connect those to other tiny kernels of truth in order to create a larger story and gain some control over our experience— even if that means creating a world in which we think we have no control. We tell ourselves stories to survive.

Something else we've seen over the past few years (longer than that, really, but whatever) is the rise of dudes sitting around jabbering about stuff they don't actually know anything about. Not that this is a new phenomenon or even that it's happening more than it used to, more like now it's an industry— we can name very famous podcasts that do nothing more than this. And of course, dudes sitting around bullsh*tting and the development of nutso theories have huge overlap, and also feed into each other. And this is, basically, where we are with Something in the Dirt, from the filmmaking team of Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson. This is my first experience with the two, although they have a handful of fairly well regarded movies, and I do feel a bit like I was thrown right into the fire— I have no idea how this movie compares to their others (I'm interested to find out), but since this is mostly just the two of them (or, rather, the characters they've created and play in the film) being dudes trying to make those nutty connections, I have to figure this is the most intense version of them I'm going to get.

Quickly: Levi moves into the apartment across from where John lives in Los Angeles, and while John is helping Levi move in, they see a large crystal (that Levi found in the closet) levitating. It's a ghost, of course, they say, and they set out to make a documentary about what they're seeing. Although, maybe it's not a ghost, because it could be some kind of interdimensional resonance, or maybe aliens running a simulation, although also there's this guy who was the original city planner for L.A., and something about the year 1908. Or at least the number 1908.

Basically these two end up being a sort of Youtube algorithm rabbit hole (though thankfully, not one that ends up with white supremacists, as the real world version so often does), serving as a kind of feedback loop to each other, as one drops in a tiny, tiny little bit of knowledge he has about something (this is usually John), and connects it to another tiny bit, and they form an overarching theory about what's going on and how the universe is truly functioning. What is this overarching theory? It's impossible to tell, it shifts with the wind and they don't even really know what it is, but it's something, man.

Somehow, Moorhead and Benson make this generally pretty fun to watch— they're not making fun of these guys, really, but it's also clear that nothing they're doing makes any sense. And something crazy really is going on, we think, probably, although that almost becomes incidental to what the two guys are doing. One thing that's certain is that the movie is far, far too long, but some text during the closing credits says something like, "this is dedicated to making movies with your friends," and lord knows we all need something fun to do right now.

Wednesday, 1/26

Rebecca Hall in 'Resurrection'
Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Wyatt Garfield
Rebecca Hall in 'Resurrection'

Well, now, I'm glad I saw Watcher before I saw this, because they have some noticeable similarities, but Resurrection is superior in nearly every way. Except in terms of being remotely normal. (Watcher is still a good movie, don't misunderstand me there.)

This one starts out with Margaret, played by Rebecca Hall (and boy does she commit), a major Type A businesswoman at a biotech company who keeps tight control on everything. She notices a small condensation ring from a cup on her desk that someone else left there (she's visibly irritated). She goes for runs with such intensity that she looks like Tom Cruise chasing down a fleeing motorcycle. She goes hard. She doesn't have quite as much control over her teenage daughter, though she'd like to, but what can you do, teenagers, amirite? The opening of the movie gives us a buzzy, propulsive feeling, setting a tone that draws us right in, even if that tone isn't exactly where we stay as the movie goes on.

But a major crack (more like a chasm) opens in Margaret's rock-fisted control when, at a conference, she sees someone across the room who we haven't seen before, but it's pretty clear she has (and it's Tim Roth, so you figure he'll probably pop up again). Margaret immediately begins to hyperventilate and she rushes out of the presentation. We can imagine what she might be thinking, though we don't really know, and it's certainly an extreme reaction.

Wouldn't you know it, Roth pops up again, from a distance (again), and as in Watcher, this moves into a stalker thriller, and Margaret tries to take steps to protect herself and her daughter from Roth, although we still aren't sure if he's real or if she's having a mental breakdown (it could be both), and it all gets increasingly disturbing for Margaret and for us.

And then there's a scene that will probably become semi-famous, a single-take monologue when Margaret lays out exactly what the whole deal is (if we can believe she's relating reality in what she says), and my thought process went like, "the movie was really moving along well and then we have this exposition dump right here in the middle? Hall is definitely delivering it well, but it kind of brings things OH NO WAIT SAY WHAT NOW?"

And off we go.

This movie is part of the long tradition of putting female leads through the absolute wringer, and Hall is way more than game— as we see her spiral she turns up the intensity higher than we ever could have suspected. You love to see someone go for it, and she does. Roth, for his part, is frankly horrifying, controlled menace that gets deep under your skin. There's a quick shot where he bares his teeth in the most unpleasant way that actually made me feel a turn in my stomach.

Whatever you think I'm getting at with all this vague talk, you're wrong, and I've already said too much, although director/writer Andrew Semans does a fantastic job of making the whole thing about more than just what happens (and has happened)— he controls the proceedings in a way that keeps us disoriented but glued to the screen, no matter how we might feel about what's going on. To say it's psychologically punishing makes it sound like an oppressive slog, and it's much more watchable than that, but it's not at all a stretch to say Resurrection is psychologically monstrous.

Dakota Johnson and Sonoya Mizuno in 'Am I OK?'
Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Emily Knecht
Dakota Johnson and Sonoya Mizuno in 'Am I OK?'

I admit, I had hoped for more.

This is the feature directorial debut from married couple Stephanie Allynne and Tig Notaro, the latter being the more famous of the two, but both are actors and writers (and, of course, Notaro is known for her standup), and have done good, emotionally resonant work, notably with the TV show One Mississippi. And their film is reasonably cute, but emotionally skin deep, and crams too much in to its short running time to feel in any way focused.

Lucy and Jane are best friends, and have been for a long time. They're in their early 30s, Lucy works at a spa, Jane has a prominent position at an advertising company. As the movie begins, Jane is offered the chance to open a branch of the agency in London (she's British herself, but has been in the U.S. for some time), which she accepts. It's difficult for her to part with Lucy, but they both know it's a great opportunity, and besides, they promise each other things won't be that different. One drunken night of celebration/commiseration, Lucy reveals to Jane that she thinks she might be, or probably is, gay. Jane is terrifically supportive, as a best friend should be, though Lucy's already a bit of an introvert and worries about coming out so "late" in life (Jane assures her this is hardly late). There's tension as Jane gets closer to leaving, Lucy explores this newly acknowledged part of her life, things blow up, and they come back together with a bit of personal growth and the acceptance of life's changes.

Which is all just fine and well intentioned, and it's pleasant enough, although the jokes are a bit thin and forced, and no one really does or feels anything beyond what you might expect from a pleasant enough version of this story. The bigger problem, or, at least, another problem, is the movie's serious lack of focus. We have Jane and Lucy's relationship, Lucy's personal exploration (specifically with one woman who seems a little more freewheeling than maybe Lucy needs right now), Jane's relationship with her boyfriend, Jane's friendship with a weirdo work colleague and Lucy's irritation because of that, and maybe a few other things I can't remember, all packed into 85 minutes. Which means there are scenes that simply don't really matter to the core of the story, and at least one that REALLY doesn't matter in any conceivable way, and it makes it hard to hold on to anything beyond the light, intermittent chuckles we have as it all plays out. Add on top of all of that, the fact that the movie is mostly nonsense technically— there's no apparent rhyme, reason, or strategy to where the camera goes or to editing any particular scene, sometimes the camera is up here, sometimes over there, sometimes it's both and more within a couple of seconds— and this generally just seems like a sweet but thin comedy that could have been made by any first-time filmmakers. Which, well, these two are, and maybe I should be a little more understanding of that. But they aren't first-time writers, and I could have forgiven the rest if there had been real, human feelings here. We just don't quite get there.

Tuesday, 1/25

A good day.

Colin Farrell in 'After Yang'
Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Benjamin Loeb / A24
Colin Farrell in 'After Yang'

After Yang

Certainly one of the best movies at this year's festival, After Yang is the second feature from the director Kogonada, following 2017 Sundance entry Columbus (although he's done quite a lot of work analyzing film directors in his series of video essays). We're sometime in the future, and Jake (Colin Farrell) and his wife, Kyra, live with their adopted daughter, Mika, and Yang, the robot "brother" they bought to help Mika understand more about her Chinese heritage— such robots ("techno-sapiens") seem to be a major industry, as there are a bunch of resale shops and quick fix stores set up to help people who have them, although the company that makes them keeps many secrets about their internal workings. Yang is very much a part of their family, he's been with them since Mika was an infant, so it's not at all as if Jake and Kyra are farming out their responsibilities (although Kyra seems to feel like maybe they are, a bit too much). Yang teaches Mika about things her parents never could, and he's a warm companion to all of them— aside from being rather overanalytical, he's plenty human in how he looks and acts.

But Yang isn't human, and one day he simply shuts down, giving no indication why, which is distressing to all of them (well, Kyra thinks maybe it's a blessing in disguise), but, of course, especially to Mika, who knows he's a robot but still loves him dearly, and wants him fixed ASAP. After some quick diagnostics at the local fix-it store, it becomes clear that Yang's problem is a "black box issue," meaning this is a proprietary matter that no one outside of the manufacturer is allowed to deal with, and really the only option is to recycle Yang before he starts decomposing ("You could get a thousand dollars off a new one!" Jake is told by the store clerk.)

The details of what happens after aren't nearly as important as how it all happens, but suffice it to say Jake ends up with access to Yang's memories (three-second snippets of time that the robot deemed important enough to store), which enters us into a patient, empathetic meditation on humanity, memory, connection, and what we prioritize in our lives. Yang has secrets Jake learns about, but while this could all be played for comedy or suspense, Kogonada isn't interested in those things, he's interested in our human experience (even when it's not human), and in what our world looks like both through our eyes and when reflected by someone else.

The movie is visually arresting, though rarely flashy (the opening credits are an exception, and a delight). It's that patience Kogonada has that's so valuable— we're not here to be distracted, we're here to experience this moment, and to create real, true connection to our world, to others, and to ourselves. Tea leaves floating in water, a few seconds of joy from a song, a small smile. This world offers so many opportunities to be disconnected, but if we slow down for just a moment, we can see all of the different ways we can be with each other, too.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Riotsville, U.S.A.

Well, this would be insane if it weren't distressingly true. In the 1960s, the U.S. military built a couple of fake small town main streets so that soldiers and the police could practice suppressing riots. This was during a time when there was a huge amount of social upheaval in cities across the country, as Black communities were often taking to the streets to express their anger with the near-Apartheid conditions under which they were living, and white communities lived in fear (often manufactured by the same forces that manufacture such fear today) of what was basically the idea of (non-existent) marauding Black mobs. Sierra Pettengill's documentary captures the time and situation very cleverly by showing us only archival footage that was either shot by the military or was created for broadcast TV, weaving together a portrait of a country divided by anger, fear, and racism, and a police force that was becoming increasingly militaristic.

In the late '60s, Lyndon Johnson commissioned a panel to study the "riots" around the country (Watts, Detroit, Newark, etc.), and, surprisingly, the panel came back with relatively incisive analysis about the circumstances leading to the uprisings, and what might be done to address those circumstances. All of it was far from perfect, as some prominent Black voices expressed, but it was a lot more than you'd expect, and certainly a lot more than we might see today. But this was also a time when "Law and Order" was the hottest of topics (here comes Nixon!), and so the only commission suggestion that was actually adopted was... more money for the police.

The film gives us plenty of footage of the military and police practicing quelling riots and demonstrations, and without directly commenting on it, Pettengill shows us what a farce it all was (though a massively destructive farce). The military brass sits on bleachers watching and laughing and clapping, while soldiers and police (I say both, because it was becoming increasingly unclear where the dividing line was) half-heartedly wrestle "demonstrators" to the ground. We learn how focused they were on "outside agitators" (nothing has changed) who were co-opting the otherwise reasonable peaceful protests, and how "snipers" were hiding around every corner. Of course, we know, none of these fears were based in reality. What we have is those in power regarding Americans as enemy forces, even while conducting training exercises on military bases named after Confederate generals, people who actually waged war on this country.

The broadcast TV footage— much of it from public television— shows us that it was obvious even at the time how manipulative this all was. People weren't ignorant to the propaganda being used, this isn't all hindsight. We see footage of the 1968 Republican convention, and after we see segregationist Senator Strom Thurmond rail about the need for "law and order", the TV commentator explicitly acknowledges that that phrase has a coded meaning. They knew it was racist rhetoric then, just as we do now.

Maika Monroe in 'Watcher'
Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Maika Monroe in 'Watcher'


There's nothing wrong with playing the hits if you're good at it.

Chloe Okuno's nifty little paranoid thriller does very little that's new, but it hits the standard beats effectively, and is helped out by a little serendipity.

Julia moves to Romania with her husband, whose mother was Romanian and who got a promotion that is relocating them to Bucharest. Julia doesn't know the language, or anyone else there, and ends up spending far too much time alone in their apartment, looking out the window, which is never a good idea in a movie like this. She notices what appears to be the figure of a man in the apartment building across the way, his shadow always in the window staring, and she's sure he's staring at her. Things get worse when she sees a man follow her from a movie theater to the grocery store, and they get worse still when it turns out there's a serial killer on the loose.

What do we expect? About what we get, with creepy voyeurism and questions about what's really happening, and Julia perhaps becoming the voyeur herself (she tracks down the man and begins to follow him), and, well, I'll let you imagine how it all goes. But there's nothing quite like a slowly burning mystery in a darkly lit Eastern European hallway, and Okuno takes her time laying everything out in a way that's easy to get wrapped up in. Plus, Burn Gorman gets to walk around and be creepy, and everyone loves that.

The movie was apparently originally supposed to take place and be shot in New York City, but the production had to relocate to Bucharest, and this twist of fate made all the difference. This is a generic thriller, mostly, and it would have been far too generic in that familiar location. The ideas still would have been there— women having to be too conscious about everything around them, the danger that lurks in a very real way at all times, not being taken seriously in their concerns— but the fact that Julia is so isolated in space and in language ratchets all of this up another degree. Her lack of ability to communicate or to really know what's happening at any particular time is disorienting, and makes every situation far more tense, even if we can guess where's it's ultimately headed. Okuno is good, but it's also nice to be lucky.

Monday, 1/24

Cooper Raiff and Dakota Johnson in 'Cha Cha Real Smooth'
Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Cooper Raiff and Dakota Johnson in 'Cha Cha Real Smooth'

Cha Cha Real Smooth

I don't know if my heart was this big when I was in my early 20s, but I know for sure that I didn't have this kid's ability to communicate or represent that in any meaningful way. (I mean, I still don't have his ability even now.)

Cooper Raiff made the warm, humane college-kid comedy-dramaShithouse when he was around 22, and now he's back a few years later with this one, about Andrew (played by Raiff himself), a guy just out of college who's appropriately without much direction (he plans to go to Barcelona where his college girlfriend has just moved, but we all know how that sort of thing goes), who moves back home and gets a bad job, who loves his mom and his little brother, but who apparently really doesn't like his stepfather. It's the world a whole lot of people find themselves living in when they get out of college, where whatever they learned at school doesn't seem to have any immediate connection to whatever comes next, and where there's a whole, whole lot still to learn about life.

But one thing Andrew does have going for him is that, like Raiff, he's absurdly charming, with his goofy smile and infectious enthusiasm— he's the sort of person who makes anyone he's talking to feel like the most important person in the world, but it's not because he knows how to work people to his advantage, it's because he honestly seems to believe whoever he's talking to truly is that important. He appears entirely genuine, and also incredibly excited about people, which works strongly to his advantage when he accompanies his brother to a bat mitzvah, works the room to get everyone dancing, and is offered a job as a "party starter" (this is a thing!) for the similar upcoming ceremonies for all of his brother's classmates.

One of the kids he meets at the first party is Lola, who's autistic, and who Andrew takes to immediately. She's smart and interesting, and that's more than enough for Andrew, who, again, is just a guy who really cares. Lola's mother is Domino, played by Dakota Johnson, who Andrew also takes a conflicted liking to— conflicted, because Domino is engaged, but she's also kind, mysterious, and looks like Dakota Johnson. Plus, Andrew is 24 years old, Domino clearly has her own personal conflicts (which can be attractive to certain people at certain ages), and she is also obviously drawn in by Andrew's zest for life.

Things get messy, as they're bound to do, especially when you're in your 20s, and Andrew has some things to learn, but none of this happens in a sitcom-type way, or even really a romcom-type way— if it's not exactly as mundane as real life, it does still ring true emotionally. It's easy to believe these are real people just doing their best, and people don't always make sense, but at least you can be nice to each other, and when you're not, you can apologize and try to do better the next time.

And through all of this is Cooper Raiff, who is not only magnetic simply in his personality, but also has a delightful sense of comic timing, and a sincere sweetness that fills his movies. Raiff, as a filmmaker, has "it," and I don't even need to wonder what "it" is— the kid's got heart.

Keke Palmer in 'Alice'
Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Eliza Morse
Keke Palmer in 'Alice'


Just having a good idea isn't enough.

This apparently isn't a spoiler, since it's in even the shortest descriptions of the movie: Alice is about a woman who is enslaved on a plantation in Georgia, who escapes and discovers the year is 1973, and the world is quite a lot different from what she'd experienced her entire life. The movie is "inspired by true events," although it's not clear to me how much those events reflect this film, and how much they were just a jumping-off point for a larger idea.

Regardless, it's an intriguing idea, but one that plays out here in the most expected way possible. Which is to say, whatever basic story beats you've started writing in your head after reading that premise, those are exactly what you'll see.

We spend a fair bit of time with Alice on the plantation to open the movie, as she gets married (in secret) and is tormented and tortured by the plantation owner, the man who has enslaved her and her family. To see all this, there's no reason not to think it's the 1850s— they live with no modern technology, lighting rooms by candlelight, and as far as any of the enslaved people know, slavery is just the law of the land (given how long we stay here, all of this makes it even more surprising to me that the major plot development is revealed in every bit of promotion, but that's not my decision). Eventually, she does escape, and runs out onto a highway, where she's almost hit by a semi truck, driven by Common (he's not Common in the movie, he's a guy named Frank).

Alice struggles, as you'd expect, with her new reality, but eventually (it actually only seems to take a couple days of reading) learns all about everything that's happened between the time she thought she was living in and the time she's actually living in, and she, understandably, resolves to take revenge on her former enslaver.

It's an idea with possibilities that just aren't explored, as this all plays out the way you think it will, other than a nod at something more inspired toward the end when Alice watched Coffy before heading off for vengeance (it's not quite as exciting as you might hope). It's certainly not that what the movie wants to do and say isn't important, but Alice speaks mostly in cliches and platitudes, and it all just feels as if the writer/director, Krystin Ver Linden, thought she'd hit upon gold with the idea, and then didn't interrogate that any further. It's not the concept that's flawed, it's the lackluster execution, and Alice is a big missed opportunity.

Sunday, 1/23

Noomi Rapace in 'You Won't Be Alone'
Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Branko Starcevic
Noomi Rapace in 'You Won't Be Alone'

You Won't Be Alone

You're not going to find a single review of this film that doesn't mention Terrence Malick, so I'll just get to that right up front. It's impossible to avoid anyway, nor should it be avoided.

Director Goran Stolevski is clearly a Malick disciple, and it's unmistakable that that's what he's going for here. But I'm fine with Malick-lite as long as it's done well, and believe me, I've seen more than enough bad Malick knockoffs to know a good Malick knockoff when I'm looking at it.

Besides which, it seems fairly unlikely Terrence Malick is ever going to take a stab at Macedonian folk horror, so if that's what you're wanting, deep down inside you (and it turns out I was, which I didn't realize, but isn't surprising given my personal deification of Malick and my unreasonably strong interest in folklore), then this is as close as you're going to get.

Our story opens sometime long ago, with a woman, a baby, and a witch— the Old Maid Maria, also known as the Wolf-Eateress, who appears to have been burned over her entire body (this is, indeed, what happened, we find out later). The woman owes the witch newborn blood, but she begs the Old Maid Maria to allow her to keep the child until she is 16, at which point she will give her to the witch and allow the girl to be turned into a witch herself. The witch agrees, but not without first mutilating the infant's mouth (she cannot go unmarked, the witch decrees). The mother then takes the baby girl to a remote cave where she keeps her for the next 16 years, thinking the witch will never find her and she won't have to give her away.

But the Wolf-Eateress does, of course, find the girl, who's been in that cave with no contact with the outside world for her entire life, other than her mother's visits, which often seem to consist only of bringing her food. The girl cannot speak and has no knowledge at all of anything outside the cave, but the witch takes her out and begins to teach her about surviving as a witch (animals are there for their blood, not to play with, and the humans will gut you as soon as look at you). The witch is cruel, and has no use for the girl's curiosity about her new world, and certainly not for compassion, and so she abandons the girl to go out on her own, but not before the girl learns that she can shapeshift by tearing out the heart and intestines of other living things and place them in her own body, taking on their form.

The girl gravitates toward the people who inhabit small villages in the countryside, and she moves from place to place taking on the form of different villagers (the first she accidentally kills, and quickly realizes she can use this to her advantage). This is not a smooth process— she still can't talk, she moves and interacts strangely (she has a herky-jerky walk and stares at things as if she's never seen them before in her life, which she hasn't), though in every case the other villagers seem to excuse away this incredibly odd behavior. The first woman she inhabits had been beaten often enough by her husband that the other people regard her trauma as the reason for her lack of speech and her unusual movements, she takes the place of a young girl who'd fallen and hit her head on some rocks, and so on. Sometimes she's a man, sometimes a woman, once a dog, and each time she learns more about the world and its strangeness, wonder, and cruelty.

We hear the girl's thoughts entirely through voiceover, an obvious hallmark of Terrence Malick's work, although Stolevski is not only imitating— he makes this an organic part of the movie, as the girl cannot speak, and more than that, we see how her ability with language develops throughout the film. When we begin, those voiceovers consist of fragments of words, syntax that's so odd we can't always make out what she's actually thinking, the language of someone who's only heard a few words in her life and has yet to develop that capacity, or even the concepts that might underlie it. As we go on, her language becomes more sophisticated (in a relative sense, she's never Shakespeare), and she absorbs the world into her language as she learns more about it.

Stylistically, this is also very much a Malick approximation, with the floating and swirling camera and the action of one shot that's not necessarily related to the action of the next, you know how this goes. It is occasionally gorgeous, even if it is an imitation, most especially in depicting the Macedonian hills and mountains and countryside, sometimes lit in the golden glow of dusk, sometimes obscured by heavy mists and fogs. One thing Malick does that's so valuable, that Stolevski also does quite well with this film, is that he allows you the space and time to wander around in his movies, to bring yourself to them as much as he's bringing them to you. Both directors give you time to reflect, sometimes not even to notice what's happening on the screen (I found multiple times I wasn't even reading the subtitles in this movie because I was lost in the images and my own thoughts, and this was perfectly fine), they give you the ability to engage with the films in a different way— it becomes a dialogue, with the viewer contributing themselves to the experience, with the understanding that we can return from that wandering when we're ready.

Is this film as genuinely transcendent as the best of Terrence Malick? Of course not. But that's ok. Stolevski's movie retains that ethereal, elevated quality and places it somewhere we don't expect, and this is plenty.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute


I've tried and tried to be as generous to this movie as I possibly can, I've even slept on it, and I still can't get there— this is either an enormous miscalculation, or I'm still, after half a day, missing something major.

The first few minutes of Summering seem to promise a story that will exist in a world with at least a slight amount of fantasy— four girls run through the rainbows caused by the water from sprinklers on lawns, they float into the air as they travel to visit a secret hiding place on the last weekend of summer, before they all go off to their first year of middle school. It's all the sort of thing that could turn out to be whimsical and charming or deeply irritating. And I decided to give it the benefit of the doubt and stay open to what it was offering.

Bizarrely, it ends up being neither charming nor irritating— the fantasy aspect, at least, because it mostly abandons that after the opening of the film. Instead, in their secret hiding place, the girls find a dead body, and this propels them into a weekend adventure that's not too much of an adventure, and that's too muted to be fun, and too confusing to be exciting. Without, I suppose, giving too much away (I can't see as how it matters, but now I'm being rude), the girls make a series of increasingly poor decisions regarding this dead body (beginning with the fact that they decide to investigate the death themselves— sort of— instead of telling anyone about it), but it's not clear that the movie regards these as necessarily poor decisions so much as just a furthering of this "adventure."

I do wish I knew what director James Ponsoldt had in mind here, because essentially none of it seems to connect. The pace is too languid to keep us wanting to go further, and he doesn't fill that with any particular insights about what it means to be a fifth-grade girl on the edge of change. Worse, though, it's just not apparent what we're supposed to make of any of it. I was willing to go along with it being a fantasy, but then it wasn't, and if it's supposed to be engaging with reality, then there are deeply troubling issues with how it regards the girls' ultimate lack of trouble with a dead body. One baffling decision after another after another, by both the characters and the filmmakers. Or maybe I'm just missing something. And by "something," I mean everything.

Saturday, 1/22

Bill Nighy in 'Living'
Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Number 9 Films/Ross Ferguson
Bill Nighy in 'Living'


It's not unreasonable to feel skeptical about an English-language remake of Ikiru, arguably the greatest film by Akira Kurosawa, inarguably one of cinema's greatest directors. My concerns, at least, were allayed a bit by the fact that this adaptation was written by Kazuo Ishiguro, author of The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go (among other things), and a man who's extraordinarily able to convey the storms of emotion that remain suppressed under that stiff British upper lip. This is a quiet story of profound revelation and change, and despite the extremely bold move to remake a movie of this stature, it does seem to lend itself to a relocation to post-war Britain.

Nighy plays Mr. Williams, a life-long civil servant in a London public works department, whose day consists of piles and piles and piles of paperwork, much of which no one will ever look at. He's part of an enormous and nonsensical bureaucracy, and seems to be fine with it— although even saying he's "fine" with it is probably overstating his emotion. He's there, on time, he does the work, and that's that. We see just how absurd the whole system is when a group of women come to try to get a small playground built in their neighborhood, and they're shuffled through five or six different departments (told they have to start at public works, they're then told they have to see the parks department first, except that no, they need to see water first, except that they can't see water until they see public works), round and round, without end. This is something that barely registers on Mr. Williams' radar, it's just one piece of paper of the thousands and thousands he sees.

But Mr. Williams learns he has stomach cancer, and only six months to live, and he begins to wonder, then, about that verb, "to live." The thing is, he has no idea how to do it. And so, he begins to try, or at least to try to learn how, in the time he has left.

But if you know the story, you know he doesn't go on madcap adventures or cut loose in any major way— his actions are not big or bold, they're simply things many of us might do as a matter of course of actually living our lives, and eventually he has his eyes opened to the truly glorious parts of living, the parts that mean you're actually engaging with the world around you instead of staring at your desk and filing a piece of paper that will never move again. This leads to a number of truly lovely moments (including some that are so iconic that I worried about how they would come across here, but they end up working quite well), all of them muted in volume but with much larger implications for Mr. Williams himself, until eventually he discovers he can and must move heaven and earth to achieve something for other people (and, ultimately, leave some small mark of his own on the world).

Nighy's performance is rigorously contained and understated, and I admit that I was constantly jarred by the near-whisper with which he speaks throughout the movie (I think this is my problem, not his or the movie's, it's just such a departure from what I'm used to seeing from the man). But what's so magnificent about the actor is his humanity, and while that usually comes through in quite a different way, here it's that when we see the tiny glimmers of a real person break through Mr. Williams' automaton shell (a co-worker reveals that her nickname for him is "Mr. Zombie"), the life that still exists somewhere in there fills us with light. On the rare occasions Nighy allows himself a half-smile (or, even more rarely, a full smile), that wisp of a gesture bursts off the screen.

I admire Ishiguro's fidelity to the original film, but it's also true that Living is so faithful to Ikiru that it's impossible not to think of Kurosawa's movie while watching this one, and it's simply impossible for any film to fully stand up against that weight. This is not Ikiru, and it's not fair to ask it to be, but it's also unavoidable that some part of you will compare the two. I do wonder if perhaps Ishiguro had strayed just a little bit in his adaptation then that might have given at least some distance and allowed us to have some separation, although that's clearly not what he wanted, and may have created its own problems. But not every movie has to be one of the greatest of all time, even if it's based on another that is, and this one does an admirable job, and occasionally more than that.

Regina Hall in 'Master'
Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Regina Hall in 'Master'


Well, one thing you love about Sundance is when you get a movie that's exceedingly messy but that's taking some really big swings, connecting on a few, missing on plenty, and forcing you into some really conflicted feelings.

Regina Hall is Gail, the new "Master" (a dean of students, I guess?) at a fictional New England university that caters to an elite, almost entirely white clientele. The school boasts two presidents (not sure which two, being fictional) and many senators among its alumni, and also has, as we quickly learn, a rather dark history. It was built on the same ground where a woman was once executed for being a witch, and rumor has it that the woman's ghost haunts the school grounds, and one room at the residence hall in particular, which just so happens to be the same room a new student, Jasmine, is moving into. Jasmine, who is one of just a handful of Black students on campus.

It's more than obvious that the university has a trouble history with race, certainly because of the fact that almost every face among the faculty and student body is white, because of what we eventually learned happened to the school's first Black student in the 1960s, and because of the overtly racist threats that mysteriously begin to confront Jasmine. But those threats are far from the only mystery, as it may actually be true that the witch is on the prowl and after Jasmine, or it could just be her night terrors, or it could be something or someone else entirely. Gail has her own problems, with some sort of creepiness in the house, infestations of maggots, and frantic phone calls from a woman trying to tell Gail about her daughter, who Gail has never heard of.

One thing we know for sure is that the tendrils of a racist past and present have a deep hold on the university, and we don't have to stretch, at all, to see how reflective that is of academia in our world today. Many (most? all?) of these elite (and not as elite) schools do have that racist past, do struggle mightily with addressing real diversity in their ranks today, and really have no notion of the difference between taking steps to remedy these problems and simply assuaging their white guilt.

Does all this make sense? I'm leaving a lot out, of course, but that's both because it's rude to tell you everything and because I didn't have the easiest time following it. We often wonder what's really happening and what isn't, and some of that ambiguity is intentional, but some of it is very much not— the movie wants to tackle so many ideas that it brings up storylines that go nowhere, brings in characters who seem like they might be important and then just end up not having much to do with anything, and sometimes just works far too hard to jam certain plot points in, such that you feel surprised this is what they had in mind the whole time. In short, the movie could have used another really serious edit— those swings are big, but you also can't be swinging at everything and expect to have a fully coherent film.

There are a few developments, one in particular, that thrive because of those hazy lines and our general confusion, and to be fair, all of that swirling does lead to an ending I very much appreciated, one that doesn't provide a hopeful conclusion, or at least not a conclusion that's hopeful for our larger society. We've got a lot of problems, and maybe some of them aren't getting fixed.

Friday, 1/21

Interestingly, we made meat loaf last night at home (very much not a common occurrence), and then we wake up this morning to learn Meat Loaf has died. I don't know what that means. But it has to mean something, right? I certainly wouldn't have been eating homemade meat loaf if I'd been in Park City, Utah. Anyway, sad news. On to my opening night movie.

Finn Wolfhard and Julianne Moore in 'When You Finish Saving the World'
Courtesy of Sundance Institute / photo by Beth Garrabrant
Finn Wolfhard and Julianne Moore in 'When You Finish Saving the World'

When You Finish Saving the World

My opening night movie at Sundance last year was Questlove's magnificent documentary The Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised). That movie ended up on my best-of-the-year list, and so I did at least expect a somewhat less auspicious start to this year's festival, as it would be cruel to assume anything would equal that one.

I did, though, hope for more than I got.

There's a moment in Jesse Eisenberg's directorial debut, When You Finish Saving the World (and yes, we're talking about that Jesse Eisenberg), when Julianne Moore is talking to her teenage son about how he wants to have deeper conversations with his classmates about important things, like politics and protest (really, he just has a crush on a girl who's socially conscious, and he wants to know how to relate to her). Moore tells him that at this point, he doesn't have a chance, because he hasn't put in the work. There's no short cut to having meaningful conversations, because you can't do it without earning it, without putting in the time researching the issues and understanding them. People can smell insincerity. I couldn't help but think that Eisenberg needed to take some of Moore's advice, too (or, frankly, his own advice, as he also wrote the film). What little emotional resonance this movie has doesn't even feel earned, because Eisenberg hasn't put in the work to make us care about his characters.

Moore is Evelyn, a woman who works at a domestic violence shelter, and lives with her academic husband and their fairly vapid musician son Ziggy (Finn Wolfhard), who spends all of his time either livestreaming his singer-songwriter performances for a worldwide audience (he has 20,000 followers) or talking about how he livestreams his performances for a worldwide audience (he has 20,000 followers). Ziggy is self-absorbed, Evelyn is self-absorbed, and, not surprisingly, they have trouble connecting. With anyone. Evelyn keeps the world at a distance, probably because she has trouble with emotional intimacy, certainly because she hyper-intellectualizes everything, and Ziggy just wants those sweet, sweet upvotes.

But here, I'm already adding a little more nuance to the characters than Eisenberg gives us. The trouble with all of this is that they don't exist outside the words on the page, or the images on the screen. They aren't organic people, with lives that stretch beyond the time we see them. We can't become emotionally involved with them, because they only do and say what Eisenberg wants them to do and say. They're played by people, but they aren't, themselves, people. It's as if they were brought into existence when the first frame of the movie came on screen, and, for all intents and purposes, they're snuffed out when the credits roll.

Yes, in a literal sense, this is always true, but one small illustration of what I mean: very early, Evelyn knocks on Ziggy's closed bedroom door, behind which Ziggy is livestreaming a song. Ziggy of course becomes irate, and yells at Evelyn about how she can't interrupt him when he's playing for his audience. Evelyn doesn't really seem to understand what he's so mad about, she doesn't know what livestreaming is, etc. etc. It's clearly the first time they've had this fight, which seems pretty difficult to believe if Ziggy has been doing this long enough to be as popular as he is (he has 20,000 followers). This is, essentially, Ziggy's entire life, and it hasn't come up before? Well, no, it hasn't, because Eisenberg only has use for these people in the narrow terms he's defined.

And even at this, the movie could have at least existed on its own terms, even if they weren't terms I was terribly excited about. But as we reach the end, Eisenberg tries to pull some emotion out of his hat, tries to have some kind of connection, and this... just doesn't feel earned. He hasn't put in the work. Evelyn and Ziggy mostly play one note for the entire movie, so by the time they try to play a chord, we've long given up any interest in how it will sound.

Fletcher Powell has worked at KMUW since 2009 as a producer, reporter, and host. He's been the host of All Things Considered since 2012 and KMUW's movie critic since 2016. Fletcher is a member of the Critics Choice Association.