Sundance 2022 Day 8 capsules | Buzz Blog
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Sundance 2022 Day 8 capsules

Living, Emily the Criminal, Descendant, Something in the Dirt and more

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Living ***1/2
Kazuo Ishiguro might have been the perfect choice to adapt Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece Ikiru—not just because of his toehold in both Japanese and British cultures, but because this feels like a spiritual sibling to Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day as a profile of the emotionally crippling consequences of following the path of least societal resistance. This version is set in 1953 London, where long-widowed civil servant Rodney Williams (Bill Nighy) receives a terminal cancer diagnosis, and sets about trying to make sense of how to live his final months. Right from the opening credits, director Oliver Hermanus crafts a lush production indebted to the cinema of the time in which its set, including Sandy Powell’s wonderful costumes and sweeping music by Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch. And he’s masterful at small touches, like a shot focused on Williams’ feet that shows him pushing off from his toes in a kind of leap into a new way of approaching his job. Nighy’s performance is tremendous, but he has superb raw material to work with in the situations Ishiguro creates for Williams: a getaway to a beachfront vacation town, with a local writer (Tom Burke) as his tour guide; a growing friendship with one of his former employees (Aimee Lou Wood); the rituals of social deference that shape his existence. The third act falters a bit as the focus turns to one of Williams’ newest co-workers (Alex Sharp) and what the young man might learn about not falling into the same trap as Williams’ own life. While that might make this a lesser film than Ikiru, Living proves touching, lovely and life-affirming in its own particular way. (SR)

Something in the Dirt ***1/2
I hate movies like Something in the Dirt, so I loved Something in the Dirt. DIY film-making team Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead (The Endless, Synchronic) play a couple of not-quite-“working” class 30-somethings who bond one afternoon when Levi (Benson) moves into the same rundown Los Angeles apartment block/crime scene (?)/Greek secret-society headquarters (?) where John (Moorhead) lives, and is sitting in the courtyard in a white shirt with some large red stains. John is a fanatic and Levy a fuck-up, but in the course of 115 minutes, a levitating ashtray that says “praise Jesus” set to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony will not be the weirdest thing you see. And not the weirdest thing you hear will be that mind parasites carried by cats control all mankind, as proven by the coinciding (ahem … “coinciding”) phenomena of the rise of schizophrenia and of cats becoming common house pets. In short, this is the over-plotted conspiracy-theory movie played for comedy. The dialogue is mostly delivered deadpan, telling gestures are tossed off, and “significant” edits dropped in. The performances, cheesy special-effects and no-budget touches all give the film the air of a lark. As John and Levi fall down the rabbit hole, the film itself begins to eat its own textual tail, to collapse into unintelligibility plot-wise, and to come into sharp focus character-wise. One late scene has the two spitting (justifiable) insults at one another like Ingmar Bergman characters—all while they ignore how every object in their room is floating. (VJM)

Emily the Criminal **1/2
When the titular Emily (Aubrey Plaza) visits the mother of her partner-in-crime, Youcef (also increasingly her plain-ol’-partner), the older woman tells her “God will give you a gift” and make her “Emily the Something.” As the title suggests, Emily finds her vocation. Emily the Criminal has the pleasures and low-key thrills of the civilian-rises-in-the-underworld genre, During a shit day at her McJob, Emily gets dropped a lead for a one-time cash gig, purchasing expensive goods as a “dummy shopper” using stolen-ID credit cards; those trinkets then get flipped by the card procurer. However, the film seems not to realize that this is a very old genre (its South American coda might remind you of 1951’s more-comic The Lavender Hill Mob), and those older films played out grievances long before anyone had heard of student-loan debt or unpaid internships, among the specifics of this film’s deck-stacking. And it is deck-stacking, as I wondered what would be happening to identity-theft victim “Jennifer L. Goodwin” offscreen, for example. Nor was I surprised when Emily gets surprised to learn that criminals must deal with other unsavory and untrustworthy people. Props, however, to a one-scene job interview in which Gina Gershon … just GinaGershons up the joint. And Plaza takes the movie as far as it goes, as a force of youth, intelligence and determination in an eyebrow and a sideways glance. She has a criminal record before the movie begins (part of her career woes), but it is experience that does come in handy in her new vocation. (VJM)

Piggy ***
A wicked sense of moral complexity gives writer/director Carlota Pereda’s thriller a kick beyond what it offers from a visceral storytelling standpoint. Sara (Laura Galán) is an obese teen in a small Spanish town, often the target of social-media taunts and real-world bullying from her mean-girl classmates. When three of those girls are abducted by a mysterious stranger (Richard Holmes), Sara is a witness to the incident—but isn’t exactly rushing to tell the authorities when the abductor treats her with more kindness than his victims did. Pereda draws out the scene involving the girls’ cruelest treatment of Sara, as Galán nails the experience of both physical danger and emotional humiliation. That characterization provides the foundation that’s necessary for everything to come, as Piggy offers a world in which a literal serial killer might provide more of a sense of security to Sara than even her own mother (Carmen Machi). Some of the later centerpiece scenes meant to build tension aren’t as deftly crafted as you’d hope for in a genre piece of this kind, and the abductor becomes a tricky character to nail from a writing standpoint. But that’s also a way to capture Sara’s viewpoint, in which someone who has experienced pain has to decide what constitutes justice, and what she might allow that pain to turn her into. (SR)

Descendant ***1/2
If someone were creating this as a fictional story to serve as an allegory for the current push in red states to eliminate any kind of history that can be lumped under “critical race theory,” it would probably be criticized for being too on-the-nose. Yet it’s the real deal, and here we are. Director Margaret Brown explores the legacy of the “Africatown” neighborhood of Mobile, Alabama, including many residents who are direct descendants of Africans brought over in 1859-1860 on the slave ship Clotilda, more than 50 years after the transatlantic slave trade had been criminalized. The film mostly covers the period between 2018 and 2019 when the search was heating up for the wreckage of the Clotilda, which had been intentionally burned and sunk by the ship’s owner to cover their tracks—and that specific attempt to bury certain unpleasant parts of history becomes the backbone of this narrative. Brown addresses the way the residents of Africatown passed along the story of the Clotilda as oral history in the absence of any official acknowledgement that it happened, along with the long-delayed publication of Zora Neale Hurston’s oral history of the last survivor of the Clotilda. Descendant also touches on many other connected issues, including the location of heavy industry near predominantly-Black neighborhoods and the question of reparations from those families that benefitted financially from the slave trade, and it does get a bit cumbersome at times. Ultimately, though, Descendant makes a powerful case for allowing Black voices their place in talking about the whole truth of American history, and refusing to let the parts of history that make us uncomfortable remain submerged. (SR)

Midwives ***
A House Made of Splinters was set near a war zone, but the fighting had no direct impact on events; in Midwives, also an observational documentary about female care-givers in a war zone (specifically Rakhine province in western Myanmar), it very much does. Director Snow Hnin Ei Hlaing centers on two women, Buddhist Hla and her Rohingya Muslim apprentice Nyo Nyo. As the film’s title and the first scene suggest, these women and their micro-clinic deliver babies, but we see them provide all manner of basic health and maternity care, especially to Muslims and women. Meanwhile, the escalating tensions and fighting between Buddhists and Muslims force clinic closures, and set up all sorts of taboos surrounding treatment and working together. What sets Midwives apart from do-gooding UNESCO cinema is the dynamic between these two women, and how that dynamic does and doesn’t become conflict. Hla is blunt—and I am being diplomatic. In one scene, after having called a Muslim family “darkies” from Bangladesh who can’t even speak the language, she gets their 5-month-old to swallow some medicine without spitting and, cradling the baby, says “take that, you little bitch.” Nyo Nyo gets involved in a micro-loan cooperative to set up a clinic for her own people, and when it finally opens, it’s a bit bigger and has a broader scope than she planned. Hla comes by in a congratulatory scene … and tells her how she needs to rearrange everything. (VJM)

Mija **1/2
It’s understandable if the emotional part of this story is where director Isabel Castro’s heart is, but some structural messiness makes it a little harder to connect with those emotions. The primary subject of her profile is Doris Muñoz, the first-generation American citizen daughter of undocumented Mexican immigrants, whose career as a talent manager for Latinx musical artists hits a snag when she has a professional break with pop star Cuco, her first and most successful client. The narrative takes a turn when Doris reaches out to Dallas-based Jacks Haupt, also a first-generation American citizen, who could be the Next Big Thing that Doris is looking for. Castro has a terrific eye for making her images more than purely functional, finding unique angles and lighting that adds to the glow of an American Dream story. She also finds a couple of terrific individual moments, like Doris breaking down over the pressure of supporting so many people financially, and Jacks dealing with an uncomfortable phone call with her parents. Unfortunately, Castro leaves a lot of fairly significant questions unanswered: After three years, was Cuco still her only client? What’s the professional relationship between Doris and the agency to which she refers Jacks? Why doesn’t Jacks have the kind of information about financial payment that her mom is asking about? It’s also not easy for us to catch up to Jacks’ story when so much of the first half of Mija has been focused on Doris, and Jacks also disappears from the back half of the movie as Castro turns the focus to the resolution of the long fight by Doris’ parents to get green cards that would allow them to visit Doris’ deported older brother. The characters’ bumpy journey makes it easy to root for them, while the bumpy storytelling makes it harder to know exactly what we’re rooting for.  (SR)