It’s almost impossible to watch as many movies as you can and then write about them in a short period of time, especially during such a wide-ranging event as the Sundance Film Festival. The Utah festival ends Friday with the announcement of award winners.
But here are a few capsule reviews of movies that should be noted. There are doubtless many more deserving attention.
“Dual.” Riley Stearns has the drollness of Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos down to a tee. And it’s quite a good match for Stearns’ subject matter in “Dual,” which takes place in a future where emotions are so tamped-down and blank that we know we are in farcical territory. Karen Gillan stars as Sarah, who starts coughing blood and goes to see a doctor. The doctor eventually tells Sarah that she has a terminal illness, that nothing can be done, and that she might want to look into having a clone made so that the clone can ease the loss experienced by her loved ones. Even though Sarah is married to Peter (Beulah Koale), the marriage doesn’t appear to be all that loving, but Sarah goes ahead with the plan to have herself cloned. The new clone quickly inserts herself in the private life of Sarah, as if it’s a competition. And then Sarah learns that she’s not going to die after all. So there are two Sarahs walking around, and that’s not allowed under cloning rules. Those rules state that Sarah and the Sarah clone must meet in a field and fight a duel to the death. So the original Sarah hires a martial arts teacher (Aaron Paul) to help her prepare for the match, which will be televised. This is what you call “high-concept” in Hollywood. And the ending is quite a hoot. The rights to “Dual” have been picked up by RLJE Films, a division of the AMC Network. A theatrical release is planned for the later this year.
“Emily the Criminal.” John Patton Ford has come up with a winner. His crisp direction of Aubrey Plaza as an indebted and desperate young woman ends up being a dark thriller that makes you root for Emily. What is Emily’s crime? Well, she gets involved in a ring of credit-fraud conspirators in an effort to pay off her student debt from art school, from which she didn’t graduate because of a murky arrest for assault involving a former boyfriend. So she has a record, and some employers simply won’t consider her for a job. Emily turns out be quite good at credit fraud and learns the ropes with the help of Youcef (Theo Rossi). But as you might expect, the crime spree gets complicated, and these complications test the resolve of a very determined Emily. Sit back and enjoy the ride, because Plaza, best known for her role on TV’s “Parks and Recreation,” is at her best. Distribution plans for “Emily the Criminal” remain unsettled, but it’ll probably be an arthouse release later this year.
“When You Finish Saving the World.” Jesse Eisenberg’s directorial debut stars Julianne Moore as Evelyn Katz, the founder of a shelter for abused women. She considers herself quite a serious liberal in an unspecified Indiana town. And she’s disappointed that her son is somewhat wayward, in her opinion, of holding up her ideals. The son, Ziggy Katz, is played by Finn Wolfhard, and he seems like a nice-enough guy. He livestreams folk/alternative songs and has a following of 20,000 people. He has a crush on Lila (Alisha Boe), who’s a poet who likes to attack capitalism in her work. Ziggy tries to understand her political viewpoints, but she considers him to be clueless, which he is. The movie is based on a 2020 Eisenberg audio of the same name, and Eisenberg says he considers the characters to be both “aggravating and endearing.” Reaction to the film, however, has leaned toward the “aggravating” part. Variety called it “a claustrophobic mockery of do-goodism.” A24 has bought the distribution rights.
“We Need to Talk About Cosby.” Director W. Kamau Bell says he grew up on Bill Cosby and says the revelations about his sexually preying on women were not only devastating but also worthy of a national conversation. Bell interviews Hollywood insiders as well as the women who have made charges against Cosby, and draws a timeline showing that Cosby was living one life in public as “America’s Dad” while living quite another secretive life throughout his career. The first part of the series explores how Cosby’s early recordings included jokes about the supposed sexual elixir Spanish Fly, and features many interviews with women who tell strikingly similar stories of how they ended up naked in bed with Cosby in various hotel rooms around the country, over numerous decades. It’s an impressive, deeply researched series. But it’s rather disturbing to listen to the stories of assault over and over again. Then again, the women deserve to be heard. The four-part documentary mini-series debuts on Showtime Jan. 30.
“Jeen-yuhs.” Clarence “Coodie” Simmons and Chike Ozah spent more than 20 years following Kanye West, tracking him from aspiring Chicago rapper to worldwide star, with West footing much of the bill, since he was convinced of his future stardom. Shortly before its premiere at Sundance, West demanded final cut of the film. But the Sundance screening of the 4.5-hour film went ahead as planned. Simmons and Omaha show a personal side of West, especially when the footage focuses on his relationship with his supportive mother, Donda. It also has great moments, as when West spends $33,000 to pay for the music video of his hit, “Through the Wire,” when music labels wouldn’t give him funding. The latter part of the series is not so much about West’s success as about his seeming meltdown, especially during an anti-abortion outburst during a South Carolina appearance and a later interview on Tucker Carlson’s Fox TV show. “Jeen-yuhs” will still be a must-see stuff for West’s fans. It is scheduled to debut on Netflix Feb. 16. The streaming service paid $30 million for distribution rights.
“Lucy and Desi.” Director Amy Poehler takes us inside the private lives of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz in her new documentary about the comedy legends. And it’s interesting to watch the film shortly after seeing the narrative feature of “Being the Ricardos,” starring Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem. Poehler takes a standard documentary approach, pairing archival TV footage with interviews featuring Carol Burnett and Bette Midler, as well as others. The gist of the film: that even though Ball and Arnaz eventually divorced, they still remained in each others lives, even after getting remarried. The documentary also features interviews with the duo’s children, Lucie Arnaz and Desi Arnaz Jr. The movie has been picked up by Prime Video.
“The Janes.” Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes take us back to 1960s Chicago, when women who were looking for abortions had to take an illegal route — usually by going to the Mafia, only to end up bleeding and hurt and sometimes dead. From this context sprang the Janes Collective, a group of women who banded together and offered a safer route to the procedure, even though it was illegal at the time. As the filmmakers show, it was largely a white woman’s group, but the film also explores how these women, some of whom were Black, pushed for more affordable options for low-income women. At times, “The Janes” is simply stunning. We see women who are of a certain age detail their experiences, why they sought abortions and why they chose to join the collective. We also see the ruses and various “storefronts” they set up to evade authorities. All of this, of course, becomes more relevant because of a growing feeling that the U.S. Supreme Court might roll back abortion rights. HBO Documentary Films will release “The Janes” later this year.