Sundance 2017 Day 4 Capsules | Buzz Blog
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Sundance 2017 Day 4 Capsules

Nuns, guns and Sam Elliott.


Novitiate (U.S. Dramatic) ***
Does a closing title card tell you what a film is about? That's too abstract a question to answer here, but the more it does, the more writer/director Maggie Betts' feature—set mostly in the early 1960s—becomes the most pointed critique of the Second Vatican Council from a traditionalist POV we're likely to see in a contemporary American movie. That title card noted that after the Council, American nuns left their convents in droves. And a late scene shows a very traditional Mother Superior (deliciously played by Melissa “turned up to 11” Leo) announce a series of reforms ordered by the (all-male) Council, including lowering the status of nuns to laypersons. The reaction in the room is unsurprising. From Doubt to Silence, the best religious movies are those that tell nobody in the audience exactly what it wants to hear going in, and Novitiate does that by also following the template of the contemporary “bad nuns” movie, with authoritarian abbesses, lesbian urges and corporal mortification. Novitiate has too many missteps to be in the class of those other two titles—a silly scene of a nun wearing nothing but a habit; a document worded impossibly for the immediate post-Conciliar period; ducking the most basic qualification (is the central novitiate a Catholic?)—and a very on-the-nose score. But Novitiate does tell both traditionalists and progressives what they don't want to hear. As a good religion does. (Victor Morton)

The Hero (U.S. Dramatic) ***1/2
A formula only feels like a formula when it's not working—and Sam Elliott owns this one in a way that makes it easy not to care. He plays Lee Hayden, an iconic Western actor now spending most of his time stoned or getting occasional gigs as (wait for it) a voice-over pitchman; a hilarious opening segment leans on Elliott's gravelly drawl repeatedly touting a barbecue sauce. When he gets a likely-terminal pancreatic cancer diagnosis, he starts shaking up his life, including a relationship with a young woman (Laura Prepon) and attempting to make amends with his estranged daughter (Krysten Ritter).  The role is tailor-made for Elliott—co-writer/director Brett Haley contributed to the 2015 mini-Elliott-aissance with I'll See You in My Dreams—and it's a blast watching him answer questions we  never knew we needed answered, like "What would it be like if Sam Elliott were rolling on molly?" But the actor also shows a sweet emotional range, selling the obvious subtext in a YA-adaptation blockbuster role for which he's being considered (running lines with his pot dealer pal, a perfectly Nick Offerman-y Nick Offerman). If the relationship with Prepon feels forced—and the third act conflict between them particularly low-stakes—it's only because on some level the movie isn't about whatever Lee Hayden learns about himself. It's more about the audience learning how great it is to watch Sam Elliott play himself. (Scott Renshaw)

Mudbound (Premieres) ***1/2

Dee Rees' adaptation of Hillary Jordan's novel is something of a master class in turning a sprawling book into something that's tight and smartly focused. It spirals around two families on a Mississippi farm from 1939-1946: new white landowners Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) and his wife Laura (Carey Mulligan), and their black tenants Hap (Rob Morgan) and Florence Jackson (Mary J. Blige). But the most compelling relationship involves Henry's brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) and the Jacksons' son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), both emotionally damaged World War II veterans who improbably find a sympathetic ear in one another. It's entirely to Rees' (and co-screenwriter Virgil Williams') credit that she understands how to build that friendship, even if it means paying less attention to Laura (who was in some ways the novel's primary protagonist) in order to fully explore Ronsel's simmering anger at the country for which he fought. Beautifully shot by Rachel Williams and wonderfully immersed in its setting, it tells a story about the racial and gender politics of the era without ever feeling pedantic. The intense, difficult-to-watch climax feels fully earned—even when the score goes a bit over the top—in the kind of richly detailed storytelling that offers the best of both a literary source and the impact of cinema. (SR)

Wind River (Premieres) **1/2
Taylor Sheridan, the writer of last year's great Hell or High Water, has tried his hand as a director with another "frontier noir," this one set in the Wyoming winter rather than a Texas summer. The opening sequence is smashingly directed—an unexplained girl running through the snow barefoot to a poem—with the subsequent plot centering on the investigation of that girl's death. Elizabeth Olsen plays a green Florida-born FBI agent who doesn't get the local ways, starting with how to dress for blizzards, and Jeremy Renner is a predator-hunter who aids the investigation. Wind River moves and is generally entertaining, but Renner's too-perfect backstory and some of the purple recitations are the weak screenwritery elements that hold back the film. And the flashback to the night of the crime is a structural head-scratcher. That adverb "smashingly" applies to Wind River in numerous not-always-good ways, especially in the sound design, which has some of the loudest and most-sudden gunshots I've ever heard. Meanwhile, the softer-spoken dialog was sometimes hard to discern. (VM)

Dina (U. S. Documentary) ****
The first great film of Sundance 2017 has arrived, and it demonstrates (in a good sense) just how little I demand of films. All Dina does is observe the lives of two ordinary people, an affianced couple as their wedding approaches, and I'm more than entertained. But what makes Dina and Scott's courtship special (what's with the singular title there, guys?) is that they're people with Asperger's Syndrome, who also have such related autism-spectrum issues as OCD and social awkwardness. Dina is often very funny but never exactly at the expense of its characters, any more than is inherent with observational documentaries. All hail directors Dan Sickles and Antonio Santini for winning this couple's confidence sufficiently to display moments that every couple has but shown with a rare lack of calculation; Richard Marx is even ironically affecting. In one emblematic scene, Dina decides to remedy Scott's lack of interest in sex and so buys him a gift—the book The Joy of Sex. When Scott opens it, he sees and cover promo and remarks “wow … this sold 12 million copies.” The utter lack of guile in both of them is both why the scene is funny and poignant. And at the very end, you'll never root harder for a sex scene. (Victor Morton)

Oklahoma City (Documentary Premieres) ***
Well-researched journalism isn’t always cinematically spectacular, but Barak Goodman lays out the details of the infamous 1995 domestic terrorism bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in a way that both chronicles the specifics of the actual event, and illuminates the path that led to it. That path is one specifically driven by white nationalism and anti-government sentiment—fueled by the ill-fated raids on Ruby Ridge, Idaho and the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Tex.—and Goodman does an effective job of laying out the interconnection of these events and the rise of militia and other fringe right-wing movements. Things get a bit more complicated as the narrative explores the bombing itself, attempting both a nuts-and-bolts procedural about how Timothy McVeigh accomplished his goals and how investigators ultimately tracked him down, and a sensitive memorial to those who died in the attack, including children in the building’s day-care facility. Well-intentioned—and even necessary—though the focus on the victims may be, it presents a tonal shift that makes it harder to give forensics one’s undivided attention. Still, Oklahoma City offers a reminder that the face of terrorism isn’t always brown, and that the political anger of our own time can have much deeper roots than we remember. (SR)

Killing Ground (Midnight) **
A cat-and-mouse thriller generally lives and dies by rising tension; Australian writer/director Damien Power loses his way in a narrative that completely misunderstands how easy it is for that tension to evaporate. Happy young couple Sam (Harriet Dyer) and Ian (Ian Meadows) take a New Year’s Eve camping trip to a remote lakeside spot, where they’re made uneasy by a seemingly empty tent nearby—and even uneasier by a couple of unwelcome arrivals. The story of that empty tent comes to play a fairly significant role, as Power repeatedly cuts away from his present-day story to circle back to what exactly happened to that family, and it's true that at some point he needed to clarify the stakes for our protagonists. But the back-and-forth nature of the storytelling—including providing a few fairly unnecessary back-story scenes of the bad guys—robs the film of any intensity it might have (beyond the moments of profoundly discomfiting violence, that is) as Sam and Ian gradually come to understand the danger they're in. By the time we reach an emotional climax in which it's clear that Power wants to examine gender relationship dynamics a la The Loneliest Planet or Force Majeure, Killing Ground has gotten too distracted by the past to make the present unsettling enough. (SR)