• Nate Adams

Sundance 2022 review Day 2: 'Fresh,' 'After Yang,' 'Call Jane' and more


Courtesy of Searchlight/Sundance Institute

 

THE PRINCESS

Ed Perkin’s documentary/biographical piece “The Princess,” which debuted in the premieres section of the Sundance Film Festival, would make an interesting double feature with “Spencer,” which offered a brief, dramatized glimpse into the livelihood (and horrors) of Princess Diana. Perkins understands Princess Diana’s entire life has been told and retold countless times and his documentary strategically doesn’t waste time with talking heads or overwrought commentary reiterating the facts, but splices together hours upon hours of archival footage and condenses nearly all of Diana’s public life into a swift two hour package.


The primary goal of “The Princess” is to turn the camera back on the viewer and ask them to reevaluate the unhealthy pop cultural obsession with Diana and the Royal family. Perkins shows all the major touchstones from her complicated marriage to Prince Charles, which fizzled after their hurried engagement and infidelities, to her unwavering support and commitment to charity and noble public causes. Whether it was visiting third-world countries, opening AIDS facilities, or carrying a conversation beyond the formal “How are you?” “The Princess” does a solid job at peeling back the curtain and showcasing why she was “The People’s Princess.”


Glistening footage of the Royal wedding, the birth of Prince William and Harry, and the raw unfiltered coverage of her untimely death populate Perkin’s consistently engaging film. It can sometimes become dizzying and overwhelming (a statement on the constant battle Diana held with the paparazzi) and while “The Princess” doesn’t tell the viewer things they don’t already know, the hindsight analysis that comes with a project like this can’t be dismissed.


Grade: B


THE PRINCESS debuted in the Premieres section of the Sundance Film Festival. HBO will release the film later this year.


AFTER YANG

A challenging and meditative look on technology, human connectivity and memories, writer/director Kogonada’s admittedly gorgeous “After Yang,” based on a short story by Alexander Weinstein, unfortunately doesn’t translate as well to the screen as it landed on the page. It’s a patient watch that’ll reward some viewers while leaving others unmoved as it ponders deeply philosophical questions about the constraints of time and objectivity. “After Yang,” to me, is a film where you’re more invested in the laws and physics of the world around the characters than what’s actually happening to them. I found myself endlessly fascinated with the futuristic setting, but the disconnect with the main characters was hard to overcome.


Colin Farrell and Jodie Turner-Smith turn in solid performances playing Jake and Kyra, the parents of young Mika (Male Emma Tjandrawidjaja). She was adopted at a young age and, in an attempt to keep her in touch with her Chinese roots, they purchased a “techno sapien,” which is fancier terminology for artificial intelligence, named Yang (Justin H. Min) who they raise to be Mika’s big brother. When “After Yang” begins, the tecno-sapien has malfunctioned and simple repairs won’t be viable. Diagnostic tests by an underground mechanic, recommended to Jake by his neighbor (Clifton Collins Jr), suggest questions about Yang’s true purpose. Suddenly, we’re left to wonder if Yang was infused with government spyware or had the emotional levity to sustain long-term relationships with people outside his family orbit. It leads to some interesting discussions and Farrell, who is in about 98% of the movie, does his best to shoulder these moments.


In the end, “After Yang,” which was an incredible short story, feels stretched and doesn’t differentiate itself enough from the deluge of A:I films already in existence. Ryuichi Sakamoto’s score is easily the standout, guiding the viewer between several transitions and scenes beautifully. I’m open to the possibility of revisiting this film, but on first viewing, “After Yang” did minimal to keep me invested.


Grade: C


AFTER YANG debuted in the Spotlight section of the Sundance Film Festival. A24 plans to release the film in March.


FRESH

Mimi Cave’s explosive debut feature “Fresh, world premiering in the Midnight section of the festival, has plenty of bite. A sinister metaphor on the whirlwind of modernized dating (“I didn’t think people met people in real life anymore” a character quips early in the film) complemented by wildly unpredictable performances from stars Sebastian Stan and Daisy Edgar-Jones, “Fresh” is like “Hannibal” meets “Death Proof.”


Produced by Adam McKay, I’m hesitant to reveal any major plot specifics about “Fresh” as going into the movie blind subverted any and all expectations. Let’s just say it has to deal with Noa (Edgar-Jones) and her sweet and charming new boyfriend Steve (Stan) who has an unusual hankering for, um, flesh. “I just don’t eat animals,” he says while she munches down on some rib tips. From here, Cave firmly has the audience in her grasp as she milks Lauryn Kahn’s delicious screenplay for all its worth. Hell, the opening credit doesn’t happen until thirty minutes into the movie.


Sure, “Fresh” might go a little off the rails during the bonkers final act, but Cave, who shows great poise as a rising filmmaker, doesn’t let things get that awry before reeling us back in. The underlying message of how women are only seen as literal pieces of meat could be seen as tongue-and-cheek, but “Fresh” is a total breath of fresh air and one of the early standouts of the festival. When mass audiences get to see this, heads will roll.


Grade: B+


FRESH debuted in the Midnight section of the Sundance Film Festival. Searchlight plans to release it via Hulu later this year.


CALL JANE

Debuting in the Premiere’s section of the festival comes Phyllis Nagy timely and relevant directorial debut “Call Jane,” a film about the Jane collective who were an organization in the mid-to-late sixties dedicated to providing save access to abortions. Considering women's reproductive rights are up for grabs every day of the week, there’s an urgency in “Call Jane” and Nagy, who penned “Carol,” gets the message across despite the main character, played by Elizabeth Banks, undercutting the film's momentum.


Banks plays Joys, you’re average wealthy, white suburban housewife living in a Chicago suburb circa 1968. She’s married happily to her lawyer husband, Will (Chris Messina) and loves her daughter Charlotte (Grace Edwards), but life hits a snag when it becomes evident her current pregnancy will kill her if it’s not terminated. Cut to a hospital boardroom of snobbish men sitting around a table with cigarettes hanging out their mouths telling Joy, whose pregnancy is causing congestive heart failure, to suck it up. We love the sixties.


Naturally, this leads her to the Jane collective run by Virginia (Sigourney Weaver - outstanding) where she’s given treatment (in an unflinching, beat-for-beat ten minute sequence) and then becomes enamored with the idea of helping others in her situation. “Call Jane” is an important film with rousing performances (shoutout to “Lovecraft Country” alum Wunmi Mosaku) but there’s a strange shift towards the latter half where it stops being about the cause and more about Joy’s home life. An awkward subplot with the next-door neighbor (played by Kata Mara) and Will feels tacked on. Plus the idea of seeing the Jane collective’s story told through the lens of a wealthy suburbanite didn’t always sit well with me.


Nevertheless, it still shows how far we as a country have come (and still have to go) in regards to quality reproductive care and the combatting of common misconceptions. When it stays honed in on what the Jane collective stood for, Nagy more than answers the call.


Grade: B


CALL JANE debuted in the Premieres section of the Sundance Film Festival and is seeking distribution.


WATCHER

Poor Maika Monroe, the girl can’t go anywhere without being followed. That was the case in “It Follows” and it certainly is the case in “Watcher,” the new “Rosemary Baby-esq” psychological thriller from Chloe Okuno playing in the US Dramatic Competition of the festival. Monroe plays Julia who’s just relocated to Romania with her marketing executive boyfriend, Francis (Karl Glusman) and is struggling at staying occupied in a city she knows nothing about.


This is when she starts noticing a creepy older gentleman (played by Burn Gorman - electric) watching her from his loft across the street (because all apartments in these movies have ginormous windows) and then, the next day, happens to be within spitting distance at the grocery store. Is she being followed? Or is the stress, fear and isolation anxiety going to her head? There is a serial killer, who enjoys slitting throats and decapitating young women, dubbed “The Spider” on the loose. Is this the guy? Those are the questions slowly unraveling throughout “Watcher” which doesn’t offer anything noteworthy or revelatory in the realm of these Hitchcockian thrillers we’ve all seen before.


Still, Monroe is a solid presence who does channel several layers of emotion while Okuno keeps audiences seemingly guessing until the final shot. “Watcher” also has some genuinely creepy and skin curling moments, but the central relationship between Julia and Francis hits several roadblocks and never quite earns its emotional catharsis late in the game. As a late night snack before bed, “Watcher” should keep the audience interested to see where Julia’s journey ends.


Grade: B-


WATCHER debuted in the US Dramatic Competition section of the Sundance Film Festival. It’s currently seeking distribution.


Stay tuned to TheOnlyCritic.com for continuing coverage of the Sundance Film Festival.


All above photos courtesy of the Sundance Institute.




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