Sundance 2022 Review Day 3: 'Master,' '892,' 'Dual' and more
Courtesy of the Sundance Institute
A British remake of Akira Kurosawa’s unforgettable “Ikiru,” Oliver Hermanus’ well intentioned though sluggish “Living” is salvaged by an enigmatic Bill Nighy in the type of juicy, late career role that netted the likes of Christopher Plummer an Oscar ala “Beginnings.” Nighy is very good playing English bureaucrat Mr. Williams, a widowed and zombified civil servant who shows minimal human connectivity and speaks with a soft, ghoulish accent as though he were in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.”
When given only six month to live after a cancer diagnosis, he’s suddenly looking at life in a different perspective, and trying to swap out mundane routines with things that’ll make the remaining weeks of his life more fruitful. That includes befriending members of his young staff, including Margaret (Aimee Lou Wood) and Peter (Alex Sharp) and streamlining important municipal projects the city brushed aside.
“Ikiru” this is not, “Living” sometimes feels stuck on auto-pilot: one of Mr. William's rowdy nights on the town (with a game Tom Burke of “Mank” fame) fizzles as quickly as it starts and the touchy relationship with his son doesn’t quite inflict the emotional gravitas one would expect. “Living” leaves plenty of gaps and holes in the story, but at least the attempt to do right by Kurosawa with the casting of Nighy makes the somewhat anticlimactic ending go down a little smoother.
LIVING debuted in the Premiere’s section of the Sundance Film Festival. It is seeking distribution.
John Boyega turns up the heat in an otherwise standard, “based on a true story” manipulative bank robbing thriller with a moral compass. Featuring excellent supporting work from the late Michael Kenneth Williams and Nicole Beharie, “892” gets a pass on their (and Boyega’s) strength alone. Whichever streamer decides to snag this one will undoubtedly have a buzz-worthy conversation starter, but the aftershocks won’t be felt after that initial opening weekend. It’s standard, forgettable stuff.
Boyega, who’s career post “Star Wars” has been fascinating to see, brings the intensity as real-life figure Brian Brown, a kind-hearted and lost soul who walks into a Wells Fargo on a sunny afternoon in Georgia with note saying “I’ve got a bomb.” He takes two managers (Beharie and Selenis Leyva) hostage and encourages them to call the police and alert the media. A former marine who worked on Operation Iraqi Freedom, Brian has been struggling with mental illness and the Veterans Affairs office withheld his disability benefits on questionable technicalities. Now he’s threatening to blow up the bank unless the VA deposits backpay in the amount $892 dollars into his bank account.
It’s a cautionary tale that director Abi Damaris Corbin is obviously passionate about and it deserves to be heard. But the overlying message becomes unglued by stagey theatrics and gimmicky camera maneuvers. “892” does find the humanity in Brian’s situation and showcases his humility (side conversations shared with his young daughter are heartbreaking). He’s also one of the nicest bank robbers you’d ever meet, constantly apologizing for his sudden outburst and even taking messages for the bank when their customers ring in. The movie skates on Boyega’s committed and nuanced portrayal even if the movie sometimes crumbles beneath him.
892 premiered in the US Dramatic Competition of the Sundance Film Festival. It is seeking distribution.
2022’s equivalent of “Get Out” has arrived thanks to Mariama Diallo’s smart stab at diversity academia in “Master.” A slow churning horror/comedy/thriller marking the debut of Diallo who’s got her finger on the pulse of the blanket statements universities make when it comes to cultural and diversity awareness. Complemented by exceptional performances from Regina Hall and rising star Zoe Renee, “Master” might not always land the correct note (a twist ending will surely be divisive) but the cool use of shadows and tracking shots cement this film as one of the better films to emerge from the Sundance lineup.
The film primarily follows freshman Jasmin (Renee) who’s arrival at Ancaster College, a school which thrives on inclusivity, quickly spirals out of control when an urban legend/folklore begins tormenting her. Supposedly, a witch who conveniently hung herself in Jasmin’s dorm room chooses an incoming freshman each year to prey upon and when she tries getting help from recently anointed House Master Gail Bishop (Hall) the two are caught in a never ending cycle of empty promises from a university harboring a false image of themselves.
Equal parts remnant of “The Blackcoat’s Daughter” with its tension surrounding Jasmin’s supernatural nuances, “Master” finds a way to be a singular voice amid a crowded field of scathing social critiques about the struggles women of color face on a daily basis. “Master” won’t vibe for everyone and the comparisons to Jordan Peele are inevitable, but I was transfixed by Diallo’s timely narrative on systemic racism and everyone should keep her next project on their radars.
MASTER debuted in the US Dramatic Competition of the Sundance Film Festival. Amazon Studios plans to release the film in March 2022.
Riley Stearns’ “Dual” is an ingenious dark comedy set in the distant future where folks who are dying can have themselves replicated, but the decision can only be reversed in a Hunger Games style killer-takes-all event that’s live-streamed on television. In this universe, people also speak in monotone, deadpan voices not seen or heard since “The Invention of Lying.” Stearns, who dabbled with this genre in his equally memorable “The Art of Self Defense,” crafts an audacious and incredibly unique third feature with two hilarious Karen Gillan performances for the price of one.
She plays Sarah, an off-kilter zombified character who delivers all her lines in the same tone for the entirety of the movie. Her daily life may be just going through the motions, but when she’s given the news that a terminal illness will end her life in six months, the option of replacement is put on the table (by law, people who are dying are the only ones who can “double” themselves). It’s a simple procedure (all you have to do is spit in a cup) and it’s not long before she’s standing on the other side of her double (Gillan) teaching it how to live.
Sarah begins to resent this perfect, more glowing version of herself who will assume her responsibilities and relationships after she dies. Except, after getting told numerous times death was “certain,” she’s going to survive, which means someone has to go. According to the 28th Amendment, the two Sarah’s must duke it out on a football field for all to see one year hence like the Green Knight himself would have wanted.
The lore and creation of the microscopic world in “Dual” is easy to get lost in and, at times, almost upstages the movie. But the brittle dystopian foundation suits Stearns’ vision well, and when Aaron Paul shows up in a glorified supporting role as combat-training instructor Trent (who likes to hip-hop dance to Three 6 Mafia), “Dual” starts to gel. The film’s lo-fi sense of humor and cheeky metaphor on existence can taste a little sour, but Stearns revelels in the exploration of human companionship against the backdrop of how we all would sacrifice a little bit of ourselves each day if it meant living for something greater.
DUAL debuted in the US Dramatic Competition of the Sundance Film Festival. It’s currently seeking distribution.
We as a society do not deserve the immense talent and range of Rebecca Hall who in Andrew Seaman’s wild and sometimes undercooked drama/thriller “Resurrection” delivers a one-take unflinching 10-minute speech that ebbs and flows through a variety of emotions before arriving at its unforgettable conclusion. In a way, that could be used to describe the movie around her too as she plays Margaret, one of those strong-armed business women who enjoys a quickie in the bathroom with her workplace lover and annoying her 17-year old daughter (Grace Kaufman) who’s about to depart for college. All is fine and dandy until a relic from her past, a British gentleman named David (Tim Roth amping up the levels of menacing glee) shows up in unexpected places and with him copious amounts of anxiety for the viewer and main character. Who the hell is he? And why does Margaret hyperventilate each time he’s in the room?
To reveal the bat-shit crazy history of Margaret and David would be a disservice because it’s a “so-wild-it-must-be-true” type of scenario. Seaman’s script might bite-off more than it can chew, but the one two gut punch of having Roth and Hall (two incredible performers who are very selective of their projects) makes the wonkier elements of the film easier to digest. Seamans takes some big swings that’ll probably leave some laughing at the absurdity of it all, but “Resurrection” comes together on the strength of its leads and go-for-broke attitude. Tread lightly.
RESURRECTION debuted in the Premiere’s section of the Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.
OTHER HIGHLIGHT FROM THE DAY:
I got to see Christian Tafdrup’s “Speak No Evil,” now playing in the Midnight section of the festival, and it left my jaw hanging on the floor. Master psychological horror that will have a great life once it lands on Shudder later this year.
Stay tuned to TheOnlyCritic.com for continuing coverage of the Sundance Film Festival.
All above photos courtesy of the Sundance Institute.