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Sunday, January 23, 2022

Sundance 2022 Day 3 capsules

Good Luck to You, Leo Grande; Master; Dual; All That Breathes; and more

Posted By and on January 23, 2022, 7:40 AM

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Good Luck to You, Leo Grande ***1/2
If you are well and firmly ensconced on the “Emma Thompson is an absolute treasure” bandwagon—and I know you’re out there—then you’re likely the perfect audience for this delightful comedy-drama that also manages to be a primary text for sex- and body-positivity. Thompson plays Nancy, a 50-something widowed retired schoolteacher who hires sex worker Leo (Daryl McCormack) to help her experience all of the things she never experienced in her 31-year marriage. Katy Brand’s script follows the pair over the course of several meetings, and while director Sophie Hyde understands when to lean into a close-up, it’s also easy to see this same material working as a two-hander stage production. Of course, such a production would really need Thompson, who absolutely crushes her performance as a woman who barely understands the language she needs in order to consider what pleasure might be like for herself. And that’s not to slight McCormack, who conveys both the self-constructed persona that this man plays as “Leo,” and also what the role gives to him. The more overt confrontations between the characters feel both inevitable and distracting from the easy chemistry built into a discovery of how much damage shame can do, and the latest reminder that Emma Thompson is … well, you get the point. (SR)

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Nanny ***1/2
I wasn’t crazy about Watcher, thinking the film about an immigrant woman’s isolated paranoia in a big city was unidirectional and thin. So naturally the next film I see, Nanny, does this concept right. Here Aisha (Anna Diop) is a Senegalese in New York, hired in the titular role by a wealthy white Manhattan couple. Their working “relationship” is the U.S. center of the film. The couple’s daughter bonds more with Aisha, and maybe Michelle Monaghan perhaps plays Clueless Type-A Mom with one capital letter too many. Their faithfulness in paying her also is spotty, money that she needs to fly her son from Senegal, with whom she has Facetimes and voice calls. Aisha also develops relationships with their African-American doorman and later his mother (a welcome Leslie Uggams), meets other nannies, has a couple of great scenes with the Western Union clerk and a Nigerian hairdresser. In other words, Nanny has life going on amid what I’ll just call “the weird stuff.” The film is beautiful to look at as a whole, but these blue-green sequences show Nikyata Jusu has the stuff of a real supernatural-horror director. As the film wears on, and Aisha has more and more-elaborate breakdowns, Ousmane Sembene’s Black Girl and Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook are surely influences, as if the world, helped by a mermaid and Anansi the Spider, sends her signals, even as the signals direct from Senegal get spottier. (VJM)

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Nothing Compares ***
Recent events in the life of Sinéad O’Connor—the death of her son, and her public struggles with suicidal ideation—only add more poignancy to director Kathryn Ferguson’s profile of the singer. In some ways it’s a fairly conventional artist biopic, beginning with her upbringing in Ireland with an abusive mother, her troubled teen years that included a stay in a girls’ home, and the trajectory of her career in 1986-1993 from breakout star to arena headliner to controversy-plagued “has-been” all before she was 30 years old. Plenty of musical collaborators and personal friends provide voice-over context to supplement the archival footage, which does include great bits of pre-celebrity performances. Mostly, however, this plays as an attempt to reclaim O’Connor’s legacy from a life that became defined by events like the infamous Saturday Night Live appearance where she tore up a picture of Pope John Paul II, digging into the pain that shaped her non-conformist nature in general, and her anger toward the Catholic Church hierarchy in particular. Plenty of musical collaborators and personal friends provide voiceover to supplement the archival footage, but there’s tremendous impact in the contemporary voiceover provided by O’Connor herself, her more gravelly and weary-sounding voice evoking the ability to look back on her life with some perspective. It might be a reach for the film to suggest O’Connor’s 1990s stances were a direct precursor to progressive societal changes in Ireland, but even if she’s not necessarily a hero, this is a way to shift the sense that she was a villain. (SR)

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Dual ****
There are all sorts of questions you could ask about the logical premises of Dual, and the negative early reviews have focused on them. Honestly, I was cackling too hard to care, permanently sold by the invocation of the 28th Amendment. It’s like wondering whether Dr. Strangelove’s Gen. Ripper could’ve passed the psychological evaluations, or the Pentagon would have something like Wing Attack Plan R. Sarah (Karen Gillan) is diagnosed with a terminal disease, and thus can purchase a clone to pick up when she dies so her family doesn’t suffer her loss. “Unfortunately,” she survives after her family has learned to like her clone, which creates legal difficulties that can only be solved with a “duel” to the death. Then things get weirder. Dual is obviously a dystopian satire, and questions like why the law doesn’t allow two clones are plebeian; this is a movie with doctors doing overextended metaphors around baseball’s curveball, numerous layerings of “I do” played for irony, and “other mutually beneficial forms of exchange” (no, not those, you perv). Obviously Dual isn’t the caliber of Dr. Strangelove (how many films are?), but it has the same black heart, taking an absurd premise absolutely seriously and wowing us with where it goes. Acting-wise, Dual is more deadpan bureaucratic-speak and less broad farce, and the film is nothing more than functional visually. But the vivid script and the unforgiving and unpredictable plot carry all before them. (VJM)

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All That Breathes ***1/2
It’s far too rare that documentaries seem concerned with being visually remarkable, so it’s wonderful to see such care applied to a subject—the experience of living in a place that feels like it’s disintegrating around you—that easily could have been presented with a grim matter-of-factness. Director Shaunak Sen finds in Dehli, India three men—brothers Nadeem and Saud, and their friend Salik—who have devoted themselves to caring for injured and ailing birds of prey, mostly black kites. This is, however, no simple profile of nice people doing a nice thing. Sen folds the story of their efforts into a chronicle of Dehli itself, a place of often-hazardous polluted air and monsoon rains that turn into foaming runoff. And this filming also takes place at a time of turmoil, with Muslims like our protagonists facing possible violence in the wake of anti-Muslim government policies in India. Collectively, it becomes the tale of an ecosystem impacted by destructive human decisions, and how unusual an act it can seem to take responsibility for the well-being another living thing when it seems just as easy not to give a shit. Sen takes us through this story with strangely beautiful images like the opening tracking shot through a field overrun with rats, and with counterintuitive camera movements that take in the entirety of the world these people inhabit. Only an awkwardly-constructed coda offers any distraction from a film that’s beautiful and a little bit heartbreaking, almost always in unexpected ways. (SR)

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Master **
Not every piece of allegorical horror needs to be neat and tidy in its thematic touchpoints, but it feels like writer/director Mariama Diallo is casting such a wide net that it catches everything without really latching on to anything. At an Eastern liberal-arts college, two Black women—freshman arrival Jasmine (Zoe Renee), and dorm faculty rep/headmaster Gail (Regina Hall)—are attempting to settle into their new roles, in a place where a history of racism and violence haunts it like a ghost, perhaps literally. Much of what follows becomes a case study in enduring microaggressions, from a library employee needing to search Jasmine’s bag, to the conversations about who has “earned” tenure involving Gail’s fellow Black faculty member (Amber Gray). But Diallo ultimately is trying to connect that material to supernatural tales of witch hangings—which definitely muddles the specifically racially-charged subtext—and student suicides, and neither the director’s uneven visual approach to that material nor the wide-ranging type of phenomena we see helps to bring into focus the real-world experience of being a Black woman in a space controlled by white men, especially when one late revelation pivots in an entirely new direction. All the performances are fully committed to the intensity of the experience; the experience itself just keeps shifting on a moment-to-moment basis. (SR)

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Babysitter **1/2
There’s a manic energy to this Quebeçois adaptation of a play by Catherine Léger, but it’s trying to hit so many satirical targets at the same time it feels like a kid spinning around in circles with its fists extended. After he’s caught on camera making a drunken pass at a TV reporter, engineer Cedric (Patrick Hivon) faces potential professional repercussions, forcing him to consider a public apology that begins morphing into a grander, self-flagellating project about sexism and misogyny. This effort is set against the experience of Cedric and his wife Nadine (director Monia Chokri) dealing with their newborn daughter, ultimately leading to the hiring of young au pair Amy (Nadia Tereszkiewicz). Chokri’s directing style favors lots of short, sharp edits, from the opening sequence at an MMA match to a rapid-fire conversation in a pediatrician’s waiting room, with bold embrace of the outrageous that feels indebted to early Almodóvar. The trouble is that Chokri and Léger keep pivoting from a commentary about “performative remorse” to material about the simple trials of early parenthood to something that implicates Cedric’s brother (Steve Laplante) for a woke façade masking a basic horny dude. Most of the time, that’s too many balls to keep in the air, to the point where Amy is such a rarely-relevant cipher that making the title Babysitter feels like a misdirection. Chokri shows herself to be a distinctive visual stylist—her use of faces at the edges of the frame feels completely original—in need of a story with a focus to match. (SR)

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The Cathedral *
Critics should admit their personal biases and foibles; I hate personal-memoir movies about how awful the filmmaker’s family was. Even if true, airing dirty laundry in public, against those dead or otherwise unable to defend themselves, is distasteful. In one late scene, director Ricky D’Ambrose’s stand-in protagonist—The Cathedral follows “Jesse” from pre-birth to 2005—describes a photo he took of his mother and sister in his father’s house, a scene already shown and on which the film will also end. He says “a lot of what I remember about growing up is reflected in this light.” Yes, but the shot also includes characters with referents, and this movie plays like adolescent revenge about a quarrelsome and cruel family unworthy of Sensitive Boy. Compared to something like Terence Davies’ autobiographical films, there is no joy and little love, and even Sensitive Boy is mostly a cipher and observer, isolated in close-ups by the degree-zero style, which admittedly is bracing. My objection is primarily moral, so YMMV, but The Cathedral has problems besides that. For one thing, biopic shapelessness applies in spades here, as no dramas really develop beyond “and then”; the title refers to a picture book about cathedral architecture that momentarily fascinates X, but then goes nowhere. For another, short clips of contemporaneous world events are sprinkled throughout to no discernible end—they’re just page-markers to dance on screen and disappear mysteriously. (VJM)

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