Sundance 2017 Day 6 Capsules | Buzz Blog
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Sundance 2017 Day 6 Capsules

Rapping, stepping and dancing about architecture.


Patti Cake$ (U.S. Dramatic) ***
A gender-flipped 8 Mile with more comedic flair? Sure, sign me up. Danielle Macdonald plays Patricia Dombrowski, a 23-year-old New Jersey bartender still living with her mother (Bridget Everett) and ailing grandmother (Cathy Moriarty). But she dreams of bringing her skills as a rapper to the world as Killa P, and might even have a shot with the help of her best friend (Siddarth Dhananjay) and a taciturn anarchist experimental musician (Mamadou Athie). While there's a familiar vibe to the "kid from the wrong side of the tracks who dares to imagine a better life" narrative, and scenes like the big rap-battle showdown, there's an effective secondary level in the relationship between Patti and her mother, whose own dreams of a music career never came true. Writer/director Geremy Jasper also brings some spark to his visuals, including fantasy sequences of Patti imagining approval from her rap idol, and her pot-fueled hallucinations at a recording session. But the movie really belongs to Macdonald, who manages to evoke both the insecurity of a plus-size woman conditioned to expect failure, and the kid with the ferocity to spit out crazy rhymes. And as played-out as the "we just created an amazing work of art" scene may be, it's a little bit different when it involves Cathy Moriarty rasping out "PB&J." (Scott Renshaw)

Beach Rats (U.S. Dramatic) **
The first scene shows Frankie cruising gay chat-rooms for older men. The second has Frankie and his working-class Brooklyn male buddies (A&F bodies ready to model the Derelicte line) picking up nubile young females. I said to myself “this is going to end with a gay bashing, isn't it?” It didn't happen quite the way I expected, and Beach Rats didn't immediately “end,” though nothing that happened after was of any consequence. But still. And some of what followed the bashing was quite pointedly of no consequence, to my intense annoyance; to speak vaguely, what's the point of the "mother conversation," except that Beach Rats has no point? Director Eliza Hittman clearly has talent and a style—heavy on closeups in underlit or neon-speckled environments, isolating people from normal-looking backgrounds (I thought of Lodge Kerrigan). And as Frankie, Harrison Dickinson has screen charisma. While Beach Rats fails, it's failing at a high level of ambition. But in the end, I found no reason to give a pair of excrements about this fellow, or his milieu. He seemingly has no existence except sex and drugs, and doesn't seem to mind that. His girlfriend dumps him because, in her memorable phrase, he's a “fixer-upper” and she doesn't want to do the fixing. Me neither. (Victor Morton)

Columbus (NEXT) **** 

It's a story focused around architecture, told with an eye toward cinematic formalism, but don't believe for a second that this is simply some chilly intellectual exercise. Single-named writer/director Kogonada—a film critic making his feature debut—explores the unique modernist architecture mecca of Columbus, Indiana through the eyes of two people: Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), a native of the city recently graduated from high school and trying to decide her next life step; and Jin (John Cho), in the city to attend to his father, a visiting architecture scholar who collapsed and is in a coma. The two form a unique friendship, and Kogonada frames their initial meetings in ways that emphasizes what divides them—on opposite sides of a fence, or opposite sides of the widescreen frame.  Indeed, every shot here is a small thing of beauty, like a cut to Casey explaining what moves her about architecture in which we can only see her face, and not hear her words, allowing her expression to do all the talking. That's only one way in which Kogonada enhances Richardson's stunning performance, a mix of uncertainty and buried frustration tied up in her own complicated relationship with her mother. The way the tangled bonds of human connection play off of seemingly imposing physical spaces make this the kind of art that's equally concerned with lifting the mind and lifting the heart. (Scott Renshaw)

Bad Day for the Cut (Midnight)  ***
About halfway through Chris Baugh's neo-noir revenge film, I said to myself “wow, a film set in Northern Ireland that has nothing to do with the Troubles” (I honestly don't think I've ever seen one). Wrong, Victor. You know better than that. In Northern Ireland, everything has to do with the Troubles, even 20 years after the Good Friday agreement and another 20 years since peak mayhem. People who did bad things then are still alive. And revenge still tastes good cold. Bad Day for the Cut starts out with Donal, who's handy with a shotgun, seeking to avenge (there's that word again) the death of the elderly mother with whom he shared his farm. Like the best noirs, there's a lot of hidden pasts, a prostitute to save, several gory scenes, and frankly one too many plot turns (what the Polish brother does at the end). As rural everyman Donal, Nigel O'Neill is suitably disheveled, but it's femme fatale Susan Lynch who stands out as so much more impossibly glamorous than anyone in the film that she has to be so much worse. At the end, the last man standing is sitting on the beach, and in another 20 years, Northern Ireland films will still be about revenge and the Troubles. (VM)

Step (U.S. Documentary) ***1/2
If you were to consider the Platonic form of the crowd-pleasing Sundance documentary, it would look a lot like this: part "underdog sports movie," part "inspirational teacher movie," part "people who seem to have no chance in the world get a shot at success movie." That might make for a bit of a narrative sprawl, but it still makes for a satisfying payoff. Director Amanda Lipitz spends a year following the step-dancing team at the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women, a charter school focused on sending every one of its African-American female students to college. The time frame corresponds to the senior year of three of the step team's founding members, and Lipitz observes in detail as they contend with the circumstances of their lives—parents with mental illness, not enough money to keep the electricity bill paid—while still trying to excel academically. Naturally, there's a big performance at the end of it all, one this team has never won before, and the percussive performances themselves are full of energy and edited with a zip that makes them even more entertaining. If it's never entirely clear to what extent the experience of starting and participating on this team improves—or even occasionally distracts from—their chances of succeeding as students, but when it all builds up to a slow-mo hero walk that you know these girls have earned, it's hard to be a nit-picker. (SR)

Bushwick (Midnight) *1/2
The 1980s called, and they want their Golan-Globus movies back. Even they would have rejected as too ridiculous the premise that several Southern states invade the very non-contiguous Brooklyn hipster haven to force the federal government to recognize their secession. Huh? Don't question scenes involving captured Pvt. Cleetus Exposition. I guess if you buy white supremacists who think racial minorities don't have guns, stuff like a “Church of God” that has “Fathers” who wear Roman collars but refer to “congregations” is nothing. Besides such script clumsiness, the highly-variable acting on display resembles Cannon Group schlock, though Dave Bautista as Stupe, a badass ex-Marine with a secret past, wouldn't pass the exacting standards of Bronson and Norris. However, the film-making in Bushwick is very contemporary and accomplished. The extremely lengthy takes that small digital cameras now make possible let us follow Stupe and college student Lucy (Brittany Snow) through multiple locations within a single neighborhood on a single day, uncovering the confusing war as they do. The result is like a cross between a found-footage horror film and a warfighting RPG. Indeed, Bushwick lampshades the latter comparison by having a pothead say she slept through a street battle, thinking the neighbors were playing Call of Duty. (VM)

Water & Power: A California Heist (U.S. Documentary) ***
It's a piece of investigation itself, to be sure, but on some level it's more of a testament to others who do the hard work of holding power to account. The subject at hand is the complex, often shady politics of water rights in California, a state recently beset by prolonged drought and in which the interests of residential water-users collide with the state's massive agriculture industry. Setting up the subject requires a lot of digging into history, and it's easy to imagine viewers' eyes glazing over as director Marina Zenovich (Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired) explains aqueducts and complex agreements between various water agencies. But she finds a human face in the residents of cities like Porterville, whose homes are completely without water, and a couple of great villains in agriculture tycoon Stewart Resnick, who has managed to parlay his control over water sources into a personal fortune. More significantly, she gives plenty of time to journalists like Mark Arax and the advocacy groups who sort through documents, attend board meetings and do leg-work to find the connections between shell companies and those who control the water.  There might not be much that's sexy about investigating public utilities, but Water & Power recognizes that where the very stuff of life is concerned, it's crucial to have people on the side of the public. (SR)