My second dispatch from the 2022 Sundance Film Festival includes capsule reviews of Kogonada’s After Yang, Kathryn Ferguson’s Nothing Compares, Christian Tafdrup’s Speak No Evil and Mariama Diallo‘s Master.
dir. Kogonada, Spotlight, USA, 96 minutes.
The miracle of video essayist Kogonada’s 2017 directorial debut Columbus was how his careful compositions allowed the architecture around his characters to express the roiling emotions they dare not say out loud. One can only wish the surroundings were as communicative in this mopey, muted sci-fi follow-up, set in an unspecified future era where everything looks like a Japanese restaurant at a mall. Colin Farrell stars as the sad sack father of an adopted Chinese daughter who bought an android older sibling to keep the kid company and teach her fun facts about her heritage. When the robot goes on the fritz, he visits some sketchy repair shops –he shouldn’t have cheaped-out and bought a used model – uncovering less-than-urgent mysteries regarding spyware and the machine’s memories that all kind of fizzle out whenever they’re threatening to get interesting. Farrell spends most of the movie on the edge of tears, and he’s such a tender, emotionally available actor it’s tempting to be touched even while he’s ignoring his mourning daughter who needs him and dodging calls from a stereotypical nagging wife. There’s no motor or forward motion to the picture, which wants to flirt with philosophical questions about what makes us human, but is mostly content to watch Colin Farrell watch home movies while crying over a broken appliance.
dir. Kathryn Ferguson, World Cinema Documentary Competition, Ireland/United Kingdom, 97 minutes.
I’m no fan of this rush to relitigate every tabloid scandal from the 1990s, especially when filmmakers try to rehabilitate the reputations of criminals like Tonya Harding or Tammy Faye Bakker in the name of misguided feminism. (I can’t speak to the Monica Lewinsky or Pamela Anderson miniseries because I barely made it an episode into either of them.) But an exception should be made for the story of Sinéad O’Connor, a fearless, ferocious talent whose PR crucifixion was one of the uglier media pig piles of my teenage years, and I do genuinely regret whatever jokes I might have cracked about “the crazy bald chick” at the time. As it happens, she turned out to be right about pretty much everything — invading Iraq wasn’t such a bright idea after all, and the Catholic Church was indeed covering up the rapes of countless children. With all that off my chest, Kathryn Ferguson’s fine documentary is limited to the years 1987-1993, covering O’Connor’s ascendance and implosion with great sympathy and perhaps a few too many artsy-fartsy, shallow-focus re-enactments of the singer’s childhood trauma. Recent audio interviews with O’Connor reveal a raspier-voiced fighter who still loves to rankle the status quo. And shame on the Prince estate for refusing to allow her shattering rendition of the title track to appear in the film.
SPEAK NO EVIL
dir. Christian Tafdrup, Midnight, Denmark, 98 minutes.
Social embarrassment and terror sit so close together on the emotional spectrum I often find myself having the same physical reaction to both. After all, “cringe-inducing” was a term commonly used to advertise horror movies before it became a school of comedy. Full of mortifying faux pas that will have you gripping the armrests, director Christian Tafdrup’s dastardly thriller chronicles an exquisitely uncomfortable vacation and is my favorite film of the festival so far. A well-to-do couple and their daughter from Denmark go to visit new friends they met while summering in Italy, staying for a few days at the humble Holland home of a gregarious doctor, his wife and their special needs son. It starts as a squirmy comedy of emasculation, with the meek Danish dad (Morten Burian) trying to impress Fedja van Huêt’s roughhousing, wild-boar-eating Dutchman. Simple slights – like “forgetting” that the Dane’s wife is a vegetarian – soon bloom into passive-aggressive insults that are possibly being misinterpreted by the over-sensitive visitors. The film wallows in the discomfort of plausible deniability for a good stretch of its running time, with our hosts clearly taking advantage of their guests’ aching desire to avoid confrontation. But being polite never saved anybody’s life, and the simmering comedy of manners eventually explodes into something too terrible and upsetting to reveal, like if Michael Haneke directed an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm.
dir. Mariama Diallo, U.S. Dramatic Competition, USA, 91 minutes.
Like Carey Williams’ Emergency, which I raved about yesterday, Mariama Diallo’s feature debut uses genre trappings to examine the struggles faced by people of color at predominantly white colleges. Set in the fictional Ancaster, Massachusetts – supposedly one town over from where the Salem Witch Trials took place, though the exteriors were shot at Vassar – the film stars Regina Hall as the first Black headmaster at a snooty liberal arts college. But there’s something rotten in these hallowed halls, with visions of maggots and urban legends about witches troubling the sleep of the only incoming Black freshman we meet (Zoe Renee) while a daily flurry of microaggressions begin to grow more troublingly overt. We’ve got a big old mess of muddled metaphors here, with structural racism viewed as an infestation and all sorts of creepy-crawly interludes that never coherently pay off, especially after the screenplay jumps the rails into cross-burnings and Rachel Dolezal Human Stain territory. Diallo’s film reminded me most of the recent Candyman sequel/reboot in that the story feels like it was reverse-engineered from a list of political talking points, allowing nothing to emerge organically. (Though admittedly, Candyman was far more sumptuously shot than this pedestrian-looking picture.) I would so much rather have been watching a straight campus drama about these issues with these actors, instead of all this wannabe A24 “elevated horror” mumbo jumbo.