Sundance Capsule Reviews Jan. 24 | Buzz Blog

Sundance Capsule Reviews Jan. 24

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Dark Horse ****
It’s a true story that unfolds almost exactly like a Weinstein-produced fictionalized remake would—and it’s still almost absurdly satisfying. Director Louise Osmond tracks the remarkable tale of working-class residents in a Wales coal-mining town—led by barmaid/grocery store custodian Jan Vokes—who join financial forces to breed and train a steeplechase race horse they dub Dream Alliance. The unadorned, improbable tale of Dream Alliance’s career alone would make for a terrific bit of journalism, but Osmond does a near-perfect job of putting the elements together—archival footage where available, only the most necessary background information about the key players, dreamy images of the Welsh landscape, and talking-head interviews that bubble over with the charm and personality of the subjects. In some ways, every bend and twist of the narrative might feel manipulative if they were part of a purely-fabricated script, right down to the anthropomorphizing of Dream Alliance as an embodiment of his hometown’s feisty spirit. Yet the exuberant emotions of the real-life participants make Dark Horse a rarity among retrospective documentaries: a lump-in-the-throat, tears-in-the-eyes crowd-pleaser. (Scott Renshaw)

Stockholm, Pennsylvania ***
How many things does a movie need to do wrong to screw up a killer concept, a terrific performance and an uncomfortably insightful resolution. Nikole Beckwith dodges a bullet in her story of Leia (Saoirse Ronan), a young woman returning to her birth parents (Cynthia Nixon and David Warhofsky) as a 22-year-old, more than 17 years after she was abducted and raised in isolation by a lone man (Jason Isaacs). The title is a tip-off to the idea that Leia is more than slightly conflicted about returning to parents she doesn't remember, and Ronan does a terrific job of taking what could have been mere blankness and converting it to a sense of being completely unmoored from the only things she previously understood about the world. The third-act, unfortunately, takes a detour into an angle that doesn't do Nixon's performance any favors, and the theatrical conceit of how Beckwith stages Leia's flashbacks doesn't seem to make sense relative to what we know about her life. And then it's salvaged again by a killer conclusion that frames the whole story as about a particular brand of dysfunctional parenting: always circling around to try to correct some past mistake. (SR)

Meru ***1/2
It says a lot about the effectiveness of a documentary when you see its subjects talking about something that has already happened, yet you’re still gripping the armrests wondering if they’ll make it out alive. Co-directors Jimmy Chin and E. Chai Vasarhelyi track the multi-year quest by alpinists Chin, Conrad Anker and Renan Ozturk to conquer the never-before-summitted “shark fin” peak of India’s Mount Meru, through two separate attempts and several intervening near-disasters that could have killed one or more of them before they even had a chance to try. The filmmakers introduce just enough history to establish the three climbers as characters, while author Jon Krakauer serves as a terrific de facto narrator explaining the particular dangers of this mountain and the general drive that pushes climbers to attempt the seemingly impossible. But the real star is the intensity of Chin and Ozturk’s GoPro footage of the Meru expeditions, capturing not just the vertiginous reality of the climbs themselves, but the moments at rest when they have a chance to ponder the dangers ahead, and how much they’re willing to risk for an opportunity to stand in a place where no human has ever stood before. (SR)

A Walk in the Woods **1/2
Ken Kwapis' film of Bill Bryson's book is not one that conjures ferocious superlatives, but adjectives like “mild” and “pleasant.” Its mild pleasantness is its greatest strength, principally in the amiable chemistry between Robert Redford (as Bryson) and Nick Nolte (as his old friend Stephen Katz) as they undertake the mildly foolish—if pleasantly so—task of hiking the Appalachian Trail, beginning in Georgia and ending in Maine. There is nothing in the way of dramatic stakes, or even conflict, to disturb the reverie; it's just two old guys with razor-sharp comic timing walking through the woods and occasionally running into irritating young people. Redford in particular is a marvel to watch, hitting every note perfectly and with grace. Nolte, although his growl frequently defeats the best efforts of the sound mix to contain him, also gives an affecting performance as the disreputable Mr. Katz. Some of the comic business falls flat, but enough of it works that the enterprise succeeds in its modest, unobtrusive goals. It also serves as a reminder that Mary Steenburgen (who appears briefly) is one of America's greatest treasures, and any movie that does so is allowed to exist for that alone. (Danny Bowes)

What Happened, Miss Simone? ***

Here's a well-intentioned documentary about a fascinating figure—singer, musician and activist Nina Simone—featuring some astonishing primary source footage of Simone both at her height in the 1960s as an accidental pop star, and later in her “comeback” appearances at the Montreux Jazz Festival. As a performer, she was mesmerizing, a classically trained pianist with seemingly effortless fluidity in genre, with a one-of-a-kind singing voice that made her interpretations of standards and her own original works surge with emotion. Seeing her in action is an almost overwhelming experience, and the selections of clips are very carefully chosen and used well. It's simply unfortunate that those clips are not the whole film; the talking heads and filmed diary pages (and attendant simplistic postmortem psychoanalysis of Simone) drag the otherwise sublime experience back into the terrestrial realm. Still, it's a chance to see Nina Simone move in the world, and sing, and play music, and that is an experience that must be had if one is to say one truly lived. One anecdote, late in the film, relates a night on which Simone blew Miles Davis' mind. That is not an achievement many people can claim. (DB)

In Football We Trust ***

The Utah “Polynesian pipeline” for football prospects gets a compelling perspective from directors Tony Vainuku and Erika Cohn in this profile of four (then)-high-school athletes from the Beehive State circa 2010-2011: Harvey Langi, Fihi Kafusi, and brothers Vita and Leva Bloomfield. The filmmakers do a terrific job of capturing the pressure on these young men—all from families facing financial or other hardships—to find athletic success that can help; it’s jarring to hear Langi’s mother openly state, “The salvation for the Langi family is Harvey.” All of the subjects also face challenges to their goals during the course of the time covered—sometimes legal, sometimes physical—and the editing feels perhaps a bit too schematic in coordinating the crises to build third-act drama. But while the interviews with former and current Polynesian NFL players never really provide the contest they seem intended to provide, and it’s hard to shake the echoes of Hoop Dreams, the access Vainuku and Cohn are granted allows for a keen insight into some unique cultural dimensions. (SR)

The Overnight ***
It feels almost churlish to fault writer/director Patrick Brice for not finding something more insightful in a simply satisfying comedy. Adam Scott and Taylor Schilling play Alex and Emily, newly relocated to Los Angeles and looking for some kind of new connections when their son starts playing with another boy in the park, and they're soon invited to dinner by the new boy's parents, Kurt and Charlotte (Jason Schwartzman and Judith Godrèche). A very peculiar night ensues, built on the growing realization by the slightly square Alex and Emily that Kurt and Charlotte may be somewhat … out there. Schwartzman is terrific as the uber-confident dilettante, and Scott's nearly as good playing a guy trying to bolster his sense of his own masculinity. The story starts to sag in the middle third as it proceeds inevitably towards more or less exactly where it seemed likely to go, and there are missed opportunities to dig into what married couples are willing to admit they fantasize about. Ultimately, it's just a solidly funny exploration of clashing personality types—and if it's not particularly profound, the next laugh is right around the corner. (SR)

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