Sundance 2017 Day 3 Capsules | Buzz Blog
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Sundance 2017 Day 3 Capsules

Men at war, men on the hunt and a boy fighting the power.


The Yellow Birds (U.S. Dramatic) **
The adaptation hews fairly closely to Iraq veteran Kevin Powers' novel, which is part of the problem; the key way in which it diverges presents an entirely different problem. Alden Ehrenreich plays Bartles, an Army private deployed to Iraq; upon his return, he appears traumatized, a condition in some way related to the fate of his buddy Murph (Tye Sheridan). Like in the book, a backtracking narrative structure plays coy with the specific nature of that fate, while offering scenes of sudden violence that add little to the legacy of stories about what warfare does to men's souls; this one even includes the now-obligatory "mortar goes off and the sound design is abruptly reduced to a you-were-there high-pitched ring."  Unlike the book, the screenplay diverges from Bartles' point of view periodically to focus on Murph's mother (Jennifer Aniston) and her crusade to find The Truth, in scenes that just feel like they were written to get her to take the role. Ehrenreich does his best to offer a unique spin on shellshock, but the problem with his performance is built into the source material: Bartles is less a fully-realized character than a kind of Everysoldier, whose war was just as hellish as every other war was hell. (Scott Renshaw)

Trophy (U.S. Documentary) ***1/2
I mostly hate “issue docs,” because I constantly perceive intellectual pandering to their presumed audiences and to prejudices I can always rebut leaving the theater. This is the only “issue” film I can think of where it wasn't howlingly obvious what side of “the issue” the filmmakers were pushing. That issue is hunting, rare animal conservation, and the relationship between the two. In just its second scene, Trophy shows a rhinoceros hunt and a horn being cut off with an electric knife, and I had the natural “ugh” reaction (this film is filled with unfaked carnage; consider yourself warned). But then we learn about who is doing this, why, and some facts about rhino biology. Director Shaul Schwarz constantly complicates matters, reminding us, for example, that rural Africans live in fear of lions eating their cattle (and eating them). The people who hunt, who run safari tours, who sue to overturn a ban on rhino-horn sales all get their time without Mooresque authorial contempt, especially on “if it pays, it stays” grounds. I let out a huge guffaw as Trophy showed a Las Vegas demonstrator sad about Cecil the lion bragging about how she's a vegan, and then the film cut to an overhead shot of chickens being tossed into a cage filled with lions. I enjoyed the burger I had right after this film. (Victor Morton)

Carpinteros (World Dramatic) **1/2
“Dominican prison movie” has a ring, like “Romanian abortion movie” and “3-hour German comedy.” But that's also a curse. Have you seen a prison movie before? If so, Carpinteros doesn't really do much you haven't seen and you need to buy in advance a contrivance in the setup (a male prison and a female prison are adjacent to one another; what could ever go wrong?). But Carpinteros does have novelty value and what it does do, it does rather well. The charismatic Jean Jean plays a thief held for trial who wins protection by, among other things, helping the block boss message his girlfriend. You surely know what complications now ensue, right? Director Jose Maria Cabral hits the right levers, girlfriend Judith Rodrigues Perez is nobody's fool, and the technical side is all first-rate, including some delirious tracks through prison jungles. The plot twists and coincidences in the last reel get to be a bit much, though. A “wedding night” on a tight deadline before a marriage ceremony; a newly-freed woman with a record allowed to roam through and out of a male penitentiary; the timing of a mass uprising? If you say so, Mr. Cabral. (VM)

Landline (U.S. Dramatic) ***
First, and most obvious, question: Was there any particular reason for Gillian Robespierre and Elisabeth Holm's screenplay to be set in 1995, and provide multiple signifiers for that era? Mostly, it's a story of the Jacobs family of Manhattan: oldest daughter Dana (Jenny Slate), engaged to marry  Ben (Jay Duplass); teenage daughter Ali (Abby Quinn), experimenting with youthful rebellion; and their parents Alan (John Turturro) and Pat (Edie Falco). Much of the plot turns on Abi's discovery that her father may be having an affair, and the story is at its most affecting as the two sisters—presumably a decade apart in age—bond for perhaps the first time over their shared familial crisis. It's unfortunate that Robespierre (who also directed) starts to spread the story so thin—including Dana's doubts about here impending marriage—in a way that doesn't seem to recognize that the sisters' story carries all the narrative energy. The same off-beat energy and humor goes a long way here, as it did in the Robespierre/Slate collaboration Obvious Child, making it easier to overlook the scattered storytelling, and one too many nudging references to pay phones, floppy disks and CD listening stations. (SR)

Quest (U.S. Documentary) ***
There are times when one just has to admit that one isn't entirely sure what a filmmaker is trying to say, even if the experience of watching is still generally interesting. Director Jonathan Olshefsky spends nearly a decade following one African-American North Philly family: Christopher "Quest" Rainey, whose home recording studio has become a neighborhood gathering place; his wife, shelter worker Christine'a; their young daughter, P.J.; and Christine'a's older son, William. They face plenty of struggles over the course of the movie's span, most of them specific to their demographic circumstances, from the mundane of a perpetually-leaky roof to the tragic of a shooting that changes one of their lives forever. But while there are more than enough dramatic turns to keep you watching, it's just not clear why this family, unless the answer is why not this family. They're perhaps representative in their struggles simply to survive in a place where survival is never a given, and they allow an exploration of any number of issues a contemporary family faces (including an uncomfortable parental conversation about which one of them might be to "blame" for their daughter's personality). It also feels a little bit like a filmmaker invested so much time in these people that he had to give us a movie, even if that movie feels slightly incomplete as a narrative. (SR)

Plastic China (World Documentary) ***
Like plastic itself, the title promises something other than what the film is, and also other than what it does in fact deliver. This isn't the expected visionary synoptic documentary, one showing the costs of bonkers economic growth (for that, see Zhao Liang's great Behemoth). Jiu-liang Wang has made a more-modest documentary, a domestic drama about two families who both scratch out a kind of living from China's massive plastic recycling industry, i.e., trash imported from abroad. To use Marxist terminology (there are a couple of telling Mao references), one family is led by a petite-bourgeois boss, at least in aspiration, while the other's patriarch is a lumpenproletarian, specifically a drunk. They work alongside one another, while their children mix work and play, while giving themselves their only schooling from rich countries' advertising inserts and foreign-language kids books that have made this far through the recycling process. Neither man is above finding “treasure” among the trash either; in a telling moment of how variably technologies penetrate different societies, one family finds a small unused tube of some kind of beauty product, and then use high-speed internet to figure out what the precious drops are for. The families start to grow apart over … schooling, and this sets up a fight between the two men, a chilling scene (this is a documentary remember) of family loyalties and boundaries. By the time we get to a train station, I had a bit of a lump in my throat as face was saved (only not really). (VM)

Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower (World Documentary) **
What kind of person becomes an activist against a totalitarian government—risking their freedom or even their life—at the age of 13? That’s the fascinating question that should have fueled this profile of Hong Kong student leader Joshua Wong—and it’s one that director Joe Piscatella never really bothers to explore. The film follows Wong over the course of four years, as he builds a student-run group called Scholarism in opposition to the Chinese government’s proposed patriotism-based guidelines for Hong Kong schools, encroaching on the greater freedom still generally granted since the handover of Hong Kong by the British in 1997. And there’s definitely inspiring material—particularly given certain American current events—in watching people so devoted to direct action against tyranny. But Wong himself remains an enigma, with virtually no material here looking at what motivated him to action at such an early age, why his parents allowed it, or what happens to the personality (and ego) of a teenager who is on national magazine covers, celebrated as a freedom-fighter. It’s a frustratingly shallow approach that finds it sufficient to let Wong remain an icon rather than dig deep enough to make him human. (SR)

God's Own Country (World Dramatic) ***
Gay sheepherders? Check. One taciturn? Check. Consummated on a night on the mountain? Check. Animals die a result? Check. Faithlessness issues? Check. God's Own Country hews so closely to the Brokeback Mountain ingredients that you can almost call it a remake. Almost. Josh O'Connor plays a sulking wastrel Johnny who neglects his family-farm duties in favor of drinking and anonymous sex (we see a pickup in a cattle car). His ailing father hires a Romanian laborer Gheorgiu (Alec Secareanu) who's much more accomplished with farm tasks (details of animal husbandry uneuphemized). If this were a Forster or Hardy novel, he'd be replacing Johnny and take over the farm. So obvious is this that Johhny disparages Gheorgiu as a "gypsy" and their dirt-infested first encounter is resultantly a cross between wrestling and hate-sex. However in 2005, the Taiwanese-American director Ang Lee made a 1960s-set tragedy of wrecked families. British director Francis Lee made a present-day film in 2017 and thus, something else. (VM)