Sundance 2017 Day 7 Capsules | Buzz Blog

Sundance 2017 Day 7 Capsules

Bad girls, bad cops and a bad take on societal isolation.

by

comment
30623722694_54c82b840f_k.jpg
The Last Word (Premieres) **1/2
Were she to die tomorrow, the first sentence of Shirley MacLaine's obituary would read: “Oscar-winning actress who starred in such films as The Apartment and Terms of Endearment, and became known for New Age beliefs.” Her headstrong elderly doyenne Harriet in The Last Word wants to know how her obituary will read now, while she's alive. But as another character puts it, “she put the 'bitch' in obituary,” leaving the local paper's obituary writer (Amanda Seyfried) a tall task. This is a high-concept sitcom about a tart, vain, unlovable control freak. I laughed at the nastier material; the best moments involves a priest and Harriet's obit-polishing with an “at risk” black girl. But whaddya wanna bet her heart will melt over the next 108 minutes, and touch others for the better, and learn to embrace life and all that? The formulas grind and the comedy “lightens” as the film continues, and I'd've been in full finger-esophagus-massage mode were it anyone but MacLaine. You can see a lot of Terms of Endearment's Aurora, and some of her co-stars have not been kind recalling working with her, too. But in a way she's earned my indulgence, just like your own crazy old granny/aunt/uncle, etc. (Victor Morton)

Their Finest (Premieres) **
Here and in An Education, director Lone Scherfig may do less with more than any major director I can think of. The premises are there on paper, the surrounding talent is top-notch, but the final product comes out rote, thin and obvious, marching directly from A to B, with quick nods to F, O, V and Q. In Their Finest, Gemma Arterton gets a job working on women's scripts and dialogue at a British film studio in 1940, and gets assigned to a Dunkirk-rescue script based on two sisters using their father's fishing boat. There are good moments in Their Finest; there can't not be when you've got Arterton, Bill Nighy as a fading-but-still-vain star, and a one-scene movie-stealing cameo by F. Jeremy Irons. The movie milieu also sets up cinephile-catnip jokes, the best involving Nighy and a special-effects mirror. But it's a failure of nerve and/or taste to show a clothing-store bombing, have someone be shocked by body parts, be relieved when it turns out they're from mannequins, and then be shocked by a real corpse. Between relationships breaking up and forming, deaths in the blitz and a show to put on, a lot of stuff happens in Their Finest. But it's really just a lot of stuff happening. (VM)

Thoroughbred (NEXT) ***1/2
30968548340_cce987cd79_b.jpg

If writer/director Cory Finley had played this same concept with a straighter face, it might have collapsed as over-earnest satire of upper-class mores; instead, it's a pretty terrific piece of dark comedy. The focus is the renewed friendship between Lilly (Anya Taylor-Joy), a Connecticut rich kid, and Amanda (Olivia Cooke), a self-admitted sociopath who's considered something of a freak for having killed the family race horse. But Amanda's unique personality makes her a possible accomplice when Lilly considers getting her hated stepfather (Paul Sparks) out of her life. Finley puts together an ace team of technical credits—notably composer Erik Friedlander, who crafts a marvelously evocative score of percussive beats and strings that yip and whine—to accentuate two lead performances  that evoke different sides of moral responsibility. And perhaps it's too obvious a step to build a narrative around the idea that the girl with no emotions might have a stronger inner compass for right and wrong than her mansion-dwelling friend. Cooke finds a surprisingly poignant core in that character, though, while Finley keeps the action moving with bursts of sly humor. By the time he gets to the climactic moment—directed with bravura restraint—Finley's fable may have a fairly clear moral, but the touch of acidity with which he delivers it makes it go down easier. (Scott Renshaw)

Brigsby Bear (U.S. Dramatic) *
This premise could make a good movie, with threads on fandom, cheesy TV, arrested development. Brigsby Bear is not that movie. Indeed, this vehicle for Saturday Night Live's Kyle Mooney veers into some distasteful territory, making its hyper-earnest tweeness play even worse than it might've. (I don't have the world's highest tolerance for cutesiness anyway; Wes Anderson and Mike Mills fans should calibrate accordingly.) James, played by Mooney, is a devoted fan of Brigsby Bear, which he thinks is the world's only TV show but is actually a brainwashing project of VHS tapes by his father (Mark Hamill). James, now 25, had been kidnapped as a newborn and raised to remain unaware of the outside world. The FBI rescues him and returns him to his real parents, but he can only deal with the world in terms the Brigsby Cinematic Universe and all its impenetrable jargon about Ilyudium Pu-36 Whatevers had taught him. There are shades of such recent classics as Home and the Greek Dogtooth, but this movie and its characters completely indulge James, becoming an apologia for arrested development. A late scene definitively tore it for me, getting a voice to dub the Brigsby movie James is making, and thereby redeeming one of the two people in the film who absolutely must not be. (VM)

The Force (U.S. Documentary) ***
Reality has a funny way of upending the way a documentary narrative is shaping up. Director Peter Nicks appears to be crafting a heroic profile in his story beginning in fall 2014, as Oakland Police Department chief Sean Whent attempts to change the culture of a department plagued by allegations of misconduct necessitating federal oversight. Much of the first half of The Force keeps that narrative at the forefront, with impressive access to the training procedures for new recruits, and how the department attempts to handle transparency when a police-involved shooting does occur. And the shadow of the Black Lives Matter movement, folding in the actions of police in many other cities, hangs heavy over the timeline. But then ... something happens, the details of which would veer into spoiler territory, but make it clear how hard it might be to overhaul an institution so imbued with power and privilege, and where never snitching on the misbehavior of a fellow cop is part of the culture. There's an uncomfortable scene in which a community activist argues, "We do not believe there are 'good cops,'" and as horrifying as that concept seems, The Force at the very least forces an acknowledgement of how much work needs to be done when, as one minister tells a group of officers, "The past has stolen your identity, and run up a very high bill." (SR)

Menashe (NEXT) **1/2
Regional and cultural specificity can take a story a reasonably long way, but perhaps only so far. Menashe (Menashe Lustig) is a widowed Hasidic grocery clerk with a young son, Rieven—and as is the custom of this community, his son is expected to be raised by his wife's family until he remarries, which Menashe is in no hurry to do. Co-writer/director Joshua Z. Weinstein builds Menashe as a unique charater, a shlimazel who shows his low-key rebellion through his resistance to wearing a hat and coat. Indeed, Menashe joins Novitiate as Sundance 2017 films in which the values of a conservative religious community aren't automatically deemed obsolete or deserving of scorn. But once you get past the intriguing details about the setting, there's an underlying rote quality to the narrative where it's fairly easy to anticipate every particular plot turn; if you don't see what's coming the moment Menashe puts a kugel in the oven, I'm not even sure you've ever seen a movie before. The interaction between Menashe and Rieven brings some complexity to a tale that's basically about a hapless guy trying to do his best; there's just more to hope for from any movie than, "Well, that was nice." (SR)

Add a comment