January 22, 2022

ShowbuzzDaily’s Sundance 2022 Reviews: “Living,” “Call Jane” & “Watcher”


LIVING (no distrib):  Over the years, there’s periodically been talk about remaking Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 masterpiece Ikiru, including a rumored updated US version that would have starred Tom Hanks in the lead.  We finally have an English-language Ikiru in the more modest form of Oliver Hermanus’s Living, from a screenplay by the famed novelist Kazuro Ishiguro, which retains the 1950s timeframe of the original but moves the action to England.  The basic story is the same, now with Bill Nighy in the role of the lifetime civil servant, here named Williams, who learns that he has a terminal illness and becomes determined to push one good deed through the mind-numbing bureaucracy that surrounds him.  Ishiguro’s novels include The Remains Of the Day, so mid-20th Century British repression is certainly in his comfort zone, while Hermanus and his cinematographer Jamie Ramsey shoot with the luminous saturated colors and boxy aspect ratio of that cinematic era (if not of Ikiru itself, which was in black and white).  Bill Nighy, always a pleasure to see on screen, has the kind of role and gives the sort of beautifully judged performance that earn veteran actors awards attention, although one might prefer him in his less restrained mode.  There are also appealing performances by Alex Sharp and Aimee Lou Wood (from Sex Education) as two of Williams’s more sympathetic co-workers, and Tom Burke shows up briefly to play another of his rake characters.  Living is a sturdy film that draws admiration and some emotion, but it’s also a bit musty and stiff-upper-lip compared to Kurosawa’s original, which was a contemporary story when it was made and not a period piece.  Living simply doesn’t have the energy that Kurosawa brought to even his contemplative works; it somehow manages to feel slower than the earlier film despite being 40 minutes shorter.  As finely crafted as Living is, it’s confined by its “prestige” veneer.

CALL JANE (no distrib):  The filmmakers no doubt wish that Call Jane were less timely than it currently is, but that may make this exactly the right moment for a feel-good story about the struggle for safe abortions in the pre Roe v. Wade era.  Although the network of women known anonymously as The Jane Collective who provided secure and often free abortions when the procedure was illegal is also the subject of a documentary at this year’s Sundance, the Call Jane script by Hayley Schore and Roshan Sethi (director Phyllis Nagy is herself the award-winning screenwriter of Carol) is fictional.  It’s presented through the eyes of suburban Chicago housewife Joy (Elizabeth Banks, in a rare dramatic lead role), who finds herself in 1968 unable to get the consent of an all-male medical tribunal to terminate a pregnancy that has a 50/50 chance of killing her.  She happens upon the ragtag Janes, here headed by veteran radical Virginia (Sigourney Weaver), and after they help her, she becomes increasingly committed to their cause.  Call Jane is a radicalization saga, and the arc of its story isn’t unfamiliar, but Nagy and the writers do an effective job of avoiding polemic and telling the tale matter-of-factly.  Banks was an inspired choice for the lead, her presence buttressing the film’s decision to emphasize the sunny side of a difficult history, and Weaver, Wunmi Mosaku, and Cory Michael Smith (as the group’s proficient if sleazy abortionist) are among those providing strong support.  There are flaws, including underwritten roles for Chris Messina as Joy’s unsuspecting lawyer husband and Kate Mara as their neighbor, and sometimes the peppy earnestness is overplayed.  Nevertheless, this is a surprisingly entertaining take on an story that sadly needs once again to be heard.

WATCHER (no distrib):  A fairly ordinary thriller that plays the old standards, especially Hitchcock (and thus DePalma) and Polanski, without much of an original spin.  When Julia (Maika Monroe) moves to Bucharest with her Romanian-American husband Francis (Karl Glusman) for his job, she becomes convinced that the man she sees in the (yes, rear) window across the courtyard is stalking her, and more than that, he’s the serial killer known as The Spider who’s been terrorizing the city.  Is she right, or is her isolation in a town where she doesn’t speak the language and where her husband leaves her alone almost constantly turning her into an obsessive paranoid?  Screenwriters Zack Ford and director Chloe Okuno toy with the idea that the movie’s innermost model may be Repulsion rather than Rear Window, but in the end they stick to the most obvious reveals–except for the last 5 minutes, which stumble to the absurd.  As a director, Okuno provides plenty of spare, wide frames (cinematography by Benjamin Kirk Nielsen) to allow for a constant threat of invasion, and Nathan Halpern’s score ratchets up the tension.  Monroe, whose genre chops date back to the lead role of It Follows, gives Julia the determination befitting a Last Girl, and Burn Gorham, as the neighbor, has all the creepy his role could need.  Watcher is watchable, but at the level of something Screen Gems might have released fifteen years ago.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."