Kevin’s 2022 Sundance Film Festival Log: Part 1

by | Jan 26, 2022

2022 marks the first year that Fox Force Five News covers the Sundance Film Festival, and as of this writing, the iconic festival has brought about a solid batch of promising films for casual audiences and cinephiles alike to seek out and keep their eyes peeled for their release in theaters or on a streaming service. From documentaries about prolific celebrities and socially conscious college-based thrillers to unsettling horror films and poignant period dramas, the Utah-based mecca for cinema boasts so many diverse and creative entries into the world of cinema from filmmakers on the rise this year, it cannot be contained in just one article. So without further ado, here is the first part of our coverage for the 2022 Sundance Film Festival! 

La Guerra Civil (dir: Eva Longoria Bastón)

Since Desperate Housewives, actress Eva Longoria Bastón has evolved into a prominent voice for the Hispanic culture in cinema whether it’s through executive producing the first John Wick film or serving as a showrunner on short-lived TV shows like Telenovela and Grand Hotel. She looks to continue elevating Hispanic voices and telling stories within her culture behind the camera, and she does just that with her first feature documentary La Guerra Civil, which is centered around ‘The Ultimate Glory’ fight between boxers Oscar De La Hoya and Julio Cesar Chavez in 1996, and their careers from their humble beginnings and all the way up to the fight. From a stylistic standpoint, it’s very much reminiscent of a standard sports documentary, cutting back and forth from archival footage and talking head interviews with sports journalists, trainers, and even De La Hoya and Chavez themselves recalling their experiences living in East Los Angeles and Tijuana, Mexico respectively. 

However, it does succeed in asking questions enveloping audiences into an informative look at how much dedication both men put into being greats in the sport. De La Hoya, Chavez and their respective trainers describe the decisions that went into executing every boxing maneuver from a sidestep to long jab with elaborate detail, further engrossing us into their fights as they go along. It may not explore the entrenched nature of sports fandom as much as it should, but La Guerra Civil still tells a captivating, well-paced tale of a sports legend looking to claim his Mexican identity in defeating the country’s self-made titan of boxing, encapsulating both of these larger-than-life athletes in an illuminating portrait of two definitions of what it means to be Mexican: fighting for one’s family and cultural pride. 3.5/5

Emergency (dir: Carey Williams)

Emergency is a college comedy that follows two African-American college friends Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins) and Sean (RJ Cyler) aiming to go out for one last night on the town before the end of the semester and leave behind a legacy of partying. At least, that’s how it starts. They’re all set to go except for the fact that Kunle’s plant-based thesis project is in danger of dying in a refrigerator accidentally left open, and their discovery of a white female student inexplicably intoxicated to the point of passing out on their living room floor. With the help of their stoner roommate Carlos (Sebastian Chacon), the two friends go to incredible lengths to learn the girl’s identity and drop her off at a hospital much to Kunle’s disapproval, because he just wants to call the police, completely passive of the possibility they’ll be treated with brutality rather than fairness.

The film’s biggest strength comes in its sharp script and direction from Carey Williams in his sophomore effort after R#J in 2021. Kunle is written as a representation of Black excellence: he is polite, hyperfocused on his studies, and striving to follow in the footsteps of his family of doctors by working twice as hard as his peers, and it pays off when he sees himself on the verge of continuing his education at Princeton University. Meanwhile, Sean is a brash, rebellious slacker who vapes in every scene, constantly has his guard up and prioritizes having fun with friends over everything else, acting as the id to Kunle’s superego. Their dynamic is also compelling to watch on-screen thanks to the strength of its young leads; Cyler and Watkins have great chemistry working together, evidenced when Sean angrily insists they avoid the police with a raw intensity that feels organic and keeps the socially relevant stakes high while Kunle responds with a defiant, if naive desire to do what’s right based on his overtrust in the justice system.

This blend of Superbad and Very Bad Things centered around race relations is heavy on suspense and drama as it should be, but elements of the college comedy genre come in the form of sporadic one-liners. Chacon in particular steals the show as Carlos in situations that see him timidly call Sean out on using a certain curse word during an argument, and early on when the girl is loaded into the back of Sean’s minivan, to which Carlos responds with ‘shotgun’ in a moment of perfect timing. On the opposite end of the humor spectrum, there is a subplot involving the girl’s sister and her white friends searching for her that sadly doesn’t entirely land.

That could be because their scenes often follow moments of high tension, however, and Sean, Kunle and Carlos feel all of it as they hit roadblock after roadblock on their road out of their life-or-death situation. Their profile shots are framed to keep audiences on the edge of their seats wondering if and when law enforcement is just around the corner, the lighting is stylized effectively to keep the darkness of night looking naturalistic, and the drones of the score underline the harsh realities of Sean and Kunle’s situation. Emergency is a darkly funny and suspenseful story about a friendship where both men give each other what they need to be complete men, and a tense and timely commentary about terrifying social truths. 4/5

After Yang (dir: Kogonada)

Kogonada caught the attention of the filmmaking world with his series of visual essays about the many methods of visual storytelling, and he proved himself as a master of the directorial craft in his own right with his debut feature Columbus in 2017. His newest film, After Yang, is a science fiction drama set in the very near-future, where Jake (Colin Farrell) struggles to operate his tea shop and maintain his bond with his wife Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith), adopted Asian daughter Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja) and the family ‘technosapien’ called Yang (Justin H. Min), a humanoid robot purchased in order to teach Mika about her Chinese heritage. But after a night of playing a virtual reality dancing game vibrantly crafted in a joyous and high-energy opening credit sequence, Yang’s core suddenly malfunctions, and it’s up to Jake to find a way to repair his family member or cope with his impending death. To help make his decision, Jake looks through Yang’s memory bank, and it’s through this that he learns Yang’s worldview, and finds a way to reconnect with his family and help them move forward from this loss. 

The film does a stellar job of conveying how each character sees the world through a clever use of aspect ratios; the image takes up the full frame to show that Yang saw existence as vast and full of wonders while the black bars of the 2:35:1 aspect ratio confine Jake in his car to and from his tea shop and a museum offering to display Yang’s body and memories on a loop. Meanwhile, a switch to 4:3 is made when Jake makes video calls with his wife and the museum’s curator, seemingly projecting them into his physical space. Jake and Kyra speak in an almost robotic cadence which deliberately communicates the dullness of their routines. It’s through moments like these and scenes of quiet contemplation where Colin Farrell shines in a brilliantly understated performance, while the electronic score from Aska Matsumiya accentuates the possibilities of technology and the boundlessness of Yang’s subconscious. 

Thematically, there are a lot of philosophical ideas within After Yang to grasp onto, from the power of memories and what it means to exist on Earth to artificial intelligence’s capacity for love and the possibilities of life after death, to which Yang responds in a flashback with an adage that “There’s no something without nothing.” The script also proposes a refreshingly optimistic proposal of the future as technology continues to evolve; rather than going the familiar route of destroying our connections, Jake uses it to understand its possibilities, and Yang’s place in the universe as well as his own. Meanwhile, the spellbinding shot compositions meticulously convey Jake’s detachment with his family, express how humans and AI process memories differently, and use nature as a means of representing not only technology’s impermanence, but also how makeshift families are still families through the strength of their bond.  Those themes may be too cerebral for casual audiences to fully comprehend, but those in a thinking mood will have plenty to chew on well after After Yang, as it’s another meditative masterwork from Kogonada. 4.5/5 

Fresh (dir: Mimi Cave)

Frustrated with her dating life, working girl Noa (Daisy Edgar-Jones) is about to give up until she is charmed by cosmetic surgeon Steve (Sebastian Stan) at a grocery store. They meet up for a date and are instantly smitten with each other to the point where Noa is quick to accept Steve’s invitation to a weekend retreat. There, Noa is quick to learn of a disturbing fixation Sebastian has, and suddenly finds herself trapped in a battle of wits while her best friend Mollie (Jojo T. Gibbs) does everything in her power to find Noa before it’s too late.

To reveal the full extent of what’s going on involves treading into spoiler territory, but director Mimi Cave’s debut feature is a solid first foray into domestic horror at a time where that subgenre is surprisingly absent in cinemas or streaming. The twists and turns in Lauryn Kahn’s script do veer in a direction reminiscent of a much-maligned former subgenre, the flashy editing conventions of which make their presence here and ultimately feel unnecessary. That being said, the pratfalls of this particular subgenre are cleverly avoided through a clean approach to the film’s visual style and Noa’s relationship with Mollie, among other characters.

The actors do their part to keep Fresh entertaining as well, with Sebastian Stan gleefully having fun in his turn as Steve. On dates with Noa, he exudes a captivating charm and wry sense of humor upon meeting Noa and explains his twisted definition of love with unsettling naturalism, while gazing at Noa in the bedroom with a monstrous expression as if he’s struggling to contain a menace inside him. Meanwhile, Daisy Edgar-Jones shines as Noa, displaying her range in scenes where she’s longing for guidance in crippling despair, and using her intelligence to look around her surroundings for anything that can aid her with distressed but reserved facial expressions.

Noa is a smart and strong character, and the script has her and Mollie both making smart, if sacrificial, decisions for the sake of their friendship and survival. Some of the attempts at dark humor driven by needle drops in the soundtrack feel inorganic, but they land with success when they’re centered around the film’s biting dialogue. Despite its flaws, Fresh is a promising effort from Mimi Cave, and an empowering celebration of female kinship. 3/5 

Speak No Evil (dir: Christian Tafdrup)

Whether it’s at the bar or poolside at a hotel, casual conversations with strangers are bound to happen to everyone at some point in life. But what if a family of passers-by thought of you as a genuine friend and invited you and yours to visit them? That’s the scenario at the center of Danish horror film Speak No Evil. In Christian Tafdrup’s latest feature, Danish couple Bjorn (Morten Burian) and Louise (Sidsel Siem Koch) along with their daughter Agnes (Liva Forsberg) meet the Dutch family of father Patrick (Fedja van Huet) and mother Karin (Karina Smulders) walking down the streets of Tuscany while on holiday, and the Dutch parents treat the Danes to lunch before seemingly going their separate ways. However, Patrick and Karin surprisingly re-enter the lives of Bjorn and Louise with a postcard inviting them to their house in Holland for a getaway vacation. Despite Louise’s initial hesitation, out of an internal desire for an escape from the monotony of family life, Bjorn accepts their invitation.

They do just that, only to learn as soon as Bjorn meets Patrick and Karin’s son Abel (Marius Damslev) that something feels very off with their Dutch friends, and Tafdrup does an excellent job at making viewers feel more and more uneasy as the film goes along through both his writing and direction. Tension slowly but surely builds through Patrick and Karin’s minor unpleasantries in front of the Danes that grow more and more inconsiderate and careless to outright intrusive and dangerous as the film progresses. Tafdrup also succeeds in using sounds and shadows to trap and unnerve his characters when their privacy is invaded. An example comes in a scene where brushing teeth has never sounded more frightening. 

It’s a shame that the logistics of the story fall apart after a certain revelation in the second half, which is also where Bjorn and Louise become inconsistently written to the point where they make baffling, illogical decisions to get to the film’s main thesis. Even then, Christian Tafdrup said before the film that he likes films that make a difference and inspire change, and while Speak No Evil is bleak, it accomplishes just enough as a cautionary tale about engaging with nationalists, let alone strangers. 2.5/5

Living (Oliver Hermanus)

It’s easy to feel instant skepticism upon the announcement of yet another remake, especially when it’s a reimagining of a classic such as Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 masterpiece Ikiru. That’s precisely what writer-director Oliver Hermanus chose for his fifth feature Living, a period drama set in 1950s Britain about Rodney Williams (Bill Nighy), an elderly bureaucrat who learns he has terminal cancer and only has months to live. Upon the diagnosis, he strives to find meaning in his existence and enjoy the simple pleasures he’s neglected after a lifetime buried in stacks of paperwork at the government office in which he works. Living is admittedly a little too faithful to the original as far as its story structure goes, and there are select moments in the third act with expository dialogue that wear the theme on its proverbial sleeve. 

That being said, in working with Kurosawa Production Co. and Japanese screenwriter Kazuo Ishiguro, Hermanus makes Living stand outside the shadow of the original through Hermanus’s lyrical direction and a dedication to British sensibilities, which shine through when characters speak in dignified, professional cadences with a vast vocabulary. Meanwhile, the lyrical side of Hermanus’ direction comes through in the visuals; a montage of closeups featuring various surroundings of a nightclub communicates Rodney’s and a barfly’s own disillusionment, while beautifully lit and framed shot compositions shroud Rodney in darkness to emphasize his impending fate, and interactions with an ex-subordinate surround them by the beauty of the outside world. 

The visuals are also aided by gorgeous production and costume design as well as an opening title sequence reminiscent of classical Hollywood, while the digital cinematography does its best to replicate the look of old cinema through saturated colors and stark shadows. The heart of the film, though, is in Bill Nighy’s phenomenal performance that endears viewers to Mr. Williams with facial expressions that convey a lifetime of regret, while interactions with the people he connects with see him converse with a noble humanity. Despite his age, Nighy takes Mr. Williams on a journey toward exuberant rebirth, and audiences will start to re-evaluate their own lives by Living’s poignant conclusion. 4/5