Sundance 2017 Day 2 Capsules | Buzz Blog

Sundance 2017 Day 2 Capsules

Kaiju, Russian doping, Toyko idols and more

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Colossal (Spotlight) ***
There's goofy high-concept and then there's goofy high-concept mixed with goofy allegory—and yet somehow it mostly works. Anne Hathaway plays Gloria, an alcoholic writer who get kicked out of her New York apartment by her fed-up boyfriend, and retreats to her upstate hometown, where she reconnects with an old schoolmate named Oscar (Jason Sudeikis). Oh, and she eventually figures out that she controls a giant monster that appears in the middle of Seoul, South Korea. Writer/director Nacho Vigalondo finds plenty of weird humor in the improbable scenario—it's a particular kick when you can hear the local citizens reacting to the events half a world away—and manages to navigate through several tonal shifts. Mostly, however, he's trying to craft a story about people who do (or don't) figure out how to take responsibility for the damage their actions leave in their wake. Vigalondo might never quite figure out the pacing that would allow his climax to feel more weird and jarring than truly resonant, but maybe it's okay to make a movie about dysfunctional relationships that just happens to be a kaiju movie in its spare time. (Scott Renshaw)

Last Men in Aleppo (World Documentary) ***1/2
On the morning of Sept. 11, a friend in a film discussion group put out an "everyone in NY and DC fine?" solicit. Someone in Washington excused himself as "not a major member of this group," but my friend corrected him with "there is no major or minor in death. Glad you're fine." The Last Men in Aleppo is about that moment, about men who lived by that credo and did more by it. The White Helmets are a Syrian civil-defense corps opposed to the Assad regime whose calling is to rescue people from the proliferating rubble. The film is not perfect. It 's loosely structured and drags in places (cinema verite in a war zone). And it's a bit opaque on these men's politics; it wouldn't take a Donald Trump or a Bechdel-hunting feminist to infer badly. But the power of the rescue sequences mocks facile criticisms like "death porn." Especially when counterbalanced by such joyful moments as a playground trip, and by these men's own questions about whether to stay, and what to do with families and goldfish. Differences in idiom aside, I was reminded at times of Of Gods and Men, and like that film Last Men in Aleppo is an act of witness, the Greek word for which is "martyr." (Victor Morton)

Sami Blood (Spotlight) ***1/2
Thanks to writer/director Andrea Kernell, I learned about an ethnic culture I’d never known about previously—but don’t make the mistake of thinking this is mere anthropological filmmaking. Set in 1930s Sweden, it follows a 14-year-old girl named Elle-Marja (Lene Cecilia Sparrok) attending a boarding school for children of the nomadic, reindeer-herding Sami people of that country’s north—and it’s evident quite early on that these “filthy Lapps” are considered an inferior race. That dynamic sparks the compelling character study, as Elle-Marja’s desire to distance herself from her own culture begins to manifest itself in a need to please and imitate her Swedish teacher, and imagine a life for herself far from the one in which she was raised. First-time actor Sparrok’s performance is a sparkling work, conveying a self-loathing created by the callous prodding of scientists and the cruelty of local boys; there are almost too many moments of small heartbreak in the way we watch her wrestle with shame. A framing sequence involving Elle-Marja as a now-old woman (Maj-Doris Rimpi) adds another level of emotion to a story that offers a wonderful specificity to its setting, as well as a more sadly universal story of what happens inside someone’s head when they have been made to feel less than human. (Scott Renshaw)

The Good Postman (World Documentary) **1/2
Rallies with free food, issues like immigration and access to public services, ideological divides over the meaning of the nation’s past, negative campaigning: The Good Postman has everything present in much higher-stakes political contests than the mayorship of Great Dervent, a tiny Bulgarian hamlet on the Turkish border that has seen its population plummet from 500 in the good old days of Communism to several dozen, in part because young people have emigrated from a village that’s now on the route Middle Eastern refugees take to Europe. Immigration provides much of the mayoral race’s politics; the titular Ivan wants to create a refugee haven to revitalize the village with younger people and families, while the principal depicted rival (Halachev) runs on nationalism, nostalgia and pro-Russia sentiment (Americans might see some parallels here). There’s a potential great film in this little village’s micropolitics, á la Payne’s Election or 1940s Ealing comedies, like in one bizarre scene involving a barbecue and a sound system. But the observational real-time documentary style too often muffles the impact, except when the overt score bludgeons us around the head. One scene involving a Bulgarian refugee-smuggling operation is a squirm-inducing mistake, in terms of whether this film has earned the right to use that footage. As for the election’s outcome: Review-spoiler ethics prevents me from saying more than “I felt cheated.” But I really felt cheated. (Victor Morton)

Tokyo Idols (World Documentary) ***1/2
Sundance may be at its most fascinating for me in stories like this one that have me shaking my head for 90 minutes thinking, “Really? What a strange world in which this is a thing.” Director Kyoko Miyake explores the Japanese phenomenon of “idols”: mostly teenage female internet celebrities who sing and dance their way to a fan-base of mostly adult males. Why? A few talking heads are interviewed to address the cultural conditions that fetishize youthful female innocence in Japan—it's no coincidence that anime imagery appears regularly—while focusing mostly on the generally unobjectionable interaction between an idol named Rio and one of her biggest fans, middle-aged Koji. But then Miyake introduces a few other, progressively younger idols (as young as 10), and their increasingly creepy-seeming male fans, and it becomes hard not to see this all as a manifestation of an unhealthy inability of Japanese males to deal with mature women. “If it weren't for this, I'd be alone forever,” Koji says at one point, and that's where one person's obsession becomes both completely understandable and tragically sad. (Scott Renshaw)

Icarus (World Documentary) **1/2
Sometimes, a good subject can be too good. Amateur cyclist Bryan Fogel started to make a first-person documentary in which he'd dope himself up to see if he could boost his performance and get away with it, a la Lance Armstrong. In the process, he solicits the aid of some top U.S. anti-doping officials, which leads him to Grigory Rodchenkov—and the trail goes all the way to Vladimir Putin, international investigations, Olympic expulsions and assassination threats. And it all just gets away from Fogel. He takes too much time with his personal quest, and shooting up in his thighs and butt, for it to be merely an narrative entry point that gets forgotten. In addition, that personal material doesn't otherwise relate to the international scandal, except to the extent that Fogel facilitated Rodchenkov's flight from Moscow and became a semi-advocate in certain fora. That second half of Icarus also has no revelations that weren't in the groundbreaking New York Times and German TV reports, so the last 30 minutes or so becomes a whole lot of “and then this hit the world headlines,” complete with CNN clips. It's as if Morgan Spurlock had morphed into Anderson Cooper. (Victor Morton)

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