Sundance 2022 Day 4 capsules | Buzz Blog
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Sundance 2022 Day 4 capsules

Alice, Cha Cha Real Smooth, My Old School, Resurrection, Jihad Rehab and more

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Alice **
I’m not sure whether to blame Sundance for including as the matter-of-fact logline for this movie something that might otherwise be considered a “spoiler,” or writer-director Krystin Ver Linden for making a movie that takes nearly half its running time to get to what its actually about. We begin on a Georgia sugar cane plantation, where slaves Alice (Keke Palmer) and her husband Joseph (Gaius Charles) are among those tormented by their owner, Paul Bennet (Jonny Lee Miller). Then Alice manages to escape through the surrounding woods, only to discover—spoilers here, kinda, I guess—that it’s actually 1973, and Black people are free. Nearly everything that’s remotely interesting about Alice, both from a narrative and a formal standpoint, happens after Alice finds herself in “the real world,” so it’s absolutely confounding that Ver Linden spends nearly 40 minutes on the life into which Alice was born. There’s a tonal shift in the second half to something informed by blaxploitation, from the music to the use of frames within frames, and Palmer does get an absolutely phenomenal acting moment when it finally clicks into place that her painful life was built on a lie. Then again, the final half also needs to find something for Common (as the man who finds Alice and acclimates her to the present day) to do that doesn’t tax his “runs the gamut of emotions from A to A-” acting chops. Ver Linden just ends up rushing through Alice’s emotional journey to get to the avenging-angel payoff we know must be coming, then rushes through that as well. The result feels less like “Antebellum meets Django Unchained” than “Antebellum and Django Unchained are forced into an awkward shotgun wedding.” (SR)

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Brian and Charles ***
Jim Archer’s feature-length expansion of his 2017 short kind of feels exactly like a feature-length expansion of a short, though its charms are enough to make up for a somewhat clunky attempt at imposing a three-act structure on an idea best suited for snippets. Screenwriters David Earl and Chris Hayward, respectively, play the two characters of the title: Brian, a lonely handyman/amateur inventor living in a rural Welsh village, and Charles, the robot he cobbles together out of spare parts to be a companion. The faux-documentary set-up makes for a perfect set-up, as Earl’s good-natured Brian reveals his isolated life and weird creations with a complete lack of self-awareness. It’s also impressive how much comedic mileage the filmmakers get out of Charles’ design—a balding mannequin head atop a washing machine torso, dressed in a cardigan and bow tie—making him look (and sound, in Hayward’s voice) like an A.I. version of Jim Broadbent. The laughs begin to dwindle a bit once the focus is on Brian’s tentative romance with an equally-awkward local woman (Louise Brealey) and his clashes with the town bully, which also distract from the dynamic of Brian as strict parent to a creation that’s part eager puppy, part sullen teen. The high-concept premise really works when it’s a two-hander, and the weirdness that ensues when these two characters are hanging out together. (SR)

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My Old School ***
In fiction, I don’t think there’s such a thing as a script too good to eff up; for documentaries, I am confident there’s such a thing as a subject too good to eff up. Here is one. The basic premise (though not the whys, the hows, the implications) is spelled out at the start: Brandon Lee, seemingly a 16-year-old student at posh Glasgow-area Bearsden Academy around 1995, was actually a man of about twice that age. Director Jono McLeod mixes contemporary interviews with Bearsden students reminiscing about Brandon with animated footage in the ’90s-style of Daria recreating some of those memories. They are funny and cutting in the Glaswegian style, and their story isn’t just from the obvious “how were we fooled?” Brandon himself is recorded but never seen, his lines instead being lip-synched by Scottish actor Alan Cumming in the manner of The Arbor. When the story is blown, journalistic footage (including of Brandon at the time, including on a talk-show apology tour) gets mixed in, and the incredulities are chewed over. I wasn’t crazy about the ending—footage of the other students in their contemporary lives and a happy Lulu remake of the titular Steely Dan song. But the masterstroke is Cumming, based on Brandon’s insistence that he not be shown now, which gives this imposter story its suggestive opening and closing shots. (VJM)

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Resurrection **1/2
It would be inaccurate to call writer/director Andrew Semans’ film “derivative,” because it gets too idiosyncratically weird for that. But maybe it’s also true that grief and trauma as the subtext for psychological horror has become so pervasive that it has started to feel far too familiar. In this variation on a theme, Margaret Ballion (Rebecca Hall), single mother to a soon-to-be-college-freshman daughter (Grace Kaufman), abruptly finds her life turned upside-down by the appearance of David (Tim Roth), who brings back 20-years-gone dark memories. Hall is too committed an actor to phone in a performance, even if she recently played a similar haunted role in The Night House;  Semans trusts her with a long monologue to reveal Margaret and David’s backstory rather than opting for flashback, and Hall justifies that confidence. Yet she might ultimately go in the opposite direction, sending Margaret so far into mania that it’s hard to connect her experience with the kind of manipulative, controlling relationship that David is meant to exemplify. And while that craziness does lead up to a climax that’s almost as ghoulishly entertaining as it is completely expected, some of the potential resonance—including the internal conflict of someone who kind of believes they deserve the horrible treatment they’re getting—gets lost in how quickly Margaret goes completely bonkers. Maybe there are ways to commit fully to this kind of over-the-top material without it having to be about “the t-word.” (SR)

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Cha Cha Real Smooth **1/2
Recent college graduate Andrew has a McJob and lives with his bipolar mother, his precocious little brother, and Wicked Stepfather. He lands a side hustle as a party organizer (recent grads can do this), and thereby comes to know middle-aged woman Domino (Dakota Johnson) and her teenage autistic daughter Lola (Vanessa Burghardt). Cha Cha Real Smooth is plainly a coming-of-age story, with an elder woman as a sorta-romantic sorta-interest (it’s no Licorice Pizza, but still…). Director Cooper Raif plays his own protagonist as a less cutting Chris Eigeman, even offering his sympathy: “sometimes, I think I’m autistic … no.” This kind of meandering movie is, to steal a phrase Scott used to describe 892, “Sundance comfort food.” Cha Cha Real Smooth is comforting and often quite scrumptious: the way Lola talks in complete sentences that are grammatically correct when written but feel stilted in speech; when the asshole stepfather wields his fists, and one of the youths asks, “What are you, Jake Paul?” (I winced and laughed at the same time). Unfortunately, the film has about three endings too many, and just seems to glide and coast, like when Andrew getting a “real job” gets reduced to a quick montage. Is the charm of an appealing lead character and actor enough to carry a movie? I say no, though regardless of anything else, I learned from the closing credits that the lyrical sophistication of “WAP” required six co-writers. (VJM)

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Jihad Rehab ***
As interesting as Meg Smaker’s documentary is in its specifics about its ostensible subject—Muslim extremists at a facility intended to “deprogram” them and allow them to return to society—it might actually be better as an allegory about the carceral system in a broader sense. Smaker follows three Yemeni nationals—Nadir, Ali and Mohammed—who have been sent to the Mohammad Bin Nair Center in Saudi Arabia after more than 15 years detention at Guantanamo Bay, with the intention that after a year or so they will no longer be considered violent threats. Like most documentaries of this kind, Jihad Rehab gets most fascinating when the unexpected happens, in this case the Saudi palace coup by Mohammad bin Salman that abruptly changes many of the country’s policies. And there’s some formal creativity on display, as Smaker turns the detainees’ “art therapy” into animated segments. Mostly, however, there’s the sadly familiar tale of what prisoners’ stories tell us about the world in which they exist: the possibility that their involvement with criminal activity originated from lack of any other opportunity; feeling so institutionalized that you’re afraid of what life outside of a prison will look like; being left without a support structure after release, making it hard to stay on the straight and narrow. Jihad Rehab lets these men acknowledge the harm they’ve caused, while speculating on why we keep making the same societal choices that make ongoing harm more likely. (SR)

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Summering **1/2
There’s no point ignoring the obvious point of comparison: A coming-of-age story about four pre-teen friends on an adventure involving the discovery of a dead body reads a lot like Stand By Me. Co-writer/director James Ponsoldt's shot-in-Midvale drama changes things up more than simply making the protagonists girls rather than boys, but not always in the right ways. On the final weekend before they are all set to begin middle school, best friends Daisy (Lia Barnett), Dina (Madalen Mills), Lola (Sanai Victoria) and Mari (Eden Grace Redfield) discover the aforementioned corpse in one of their favorite playing places, and set out to find out the story behind his life and death. Ponsoldt initially provides a fanciful sense of the childhood free-spiritednes these girls fear they’ll be leaving behind, and a sweetly low-key moment when they break into their elementary school and seem so at home in a classroom. It simply feels like the characters aren’t given enough of a vivid sense of unique personality beyond a single trait—Mari’s the goody-goody, Dina’s the intellectual, etc.—with the exception of Daisy’s struggles with being abandoned by her father, and the few scenes involving the girls’ mothers feels awkwardly incorporated. There are wise observations here about the difficulties involved in becoming part of the messy adult world, but the result is almost too episodic to really nail the “I never had friends like the ones I had when I was 12” emotions. (SR)

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Honk for Jesus, Save Your Soul **1/2
The disgraced pastor Lee-Curtis Childs (Sterling K. Brown) and the congregation’s “first lady” (Regina Hall) in Honk for Jesus, Save Your Soul move up the Easter Sunday resurrection of Wander To Greater Paths mega-church in Atlanta by one week, to avoid competition from another Black megachurch’s opening. But he never says “Palm Sunday.” That’s an indication of an insider’s work, the film of a theological sophisticate. But then you wonder whether a store named “Bathsheba’s Bonnets,” bearing the name of the Old Testament most notorious wanton woman, doesn’t flag the film as the work of outsiders. Attacking the Prosperity Gospel, even when it’s a Black congregation and dyed-in-the-wool Americanism, is the theological equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel. There is a lot of funny stuff in this faux-documentary by writer-director Adamma Ebo and co-producing sister Adanne Ebo—a passive-aggressive sistah conversation in the mall, “Knock If You Buck,” “fuck the Sumpters … bless them and the work they do, but…” However, while Honk For Jesus declares in its first scene to have been commissioned by the church on its revival, it doesn’t play by the rules. Too many scenes in the movie—a sex scene, the pastor coming onto a male ex-congregant—show things you can’t believe people trying to apple-polish would do in front of the film-makers. (VJM)