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Sundance Film Festival 2018: Day 9 capsules

Blaze, I Think We're Alone Now, Minding the Gap, Arizona, Monster and more

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Blaze [U.S. Dramatic] ***1/2
In a world where filmmakers still haven’t learned lessons from Walk Hard’s mockery of Tortured Artist tropes, here’s a cure for the common biopic. Director Ethan Hawke explores the life of Blaze Foley (Ben Dickey)—nee Michael Fuller—a country-music singer-songwriter whose compositions were recorded by stars like Merle Haggard and John Prine, but who never himself managed any success in his lifetime. Some of the usual suspects are involved—including alcoholism connected to growing up with an abusive father (Kris Kristofferson)—which would have made it easy for Blaze to fall victim to cliché. But in adapting the memoir by Foley’s wife, Sybil Rosen, Hawke employs an achronological structure that weaves between Foley’s life with Sybil (Alia Shawkat), a late live performance at an Austin, Texas bar, and a radio interview given by his friends Z (Josh Hamilton) and Townes Van Zandt (Charlie Sexton) after his death. The result isn’t simply unconventional, but heartbreaking, allowing us to watch Foley during his happiest times even as we know the fate awaiting him. Dickey, a non-professional actor, does remarkable work as Foley, capturing a man who is both a lively raconteur and a vaguely haunted soul. Mostly, it’s a story of how isolated the life of an artist can be; where so many films of this kind would emphasize the moment when people realize they’re listening to the work of a genius, the defining shots here involve performances where musicians are generally ignored, with characters wandering out of frame as the songs play somewhere in the distance. (Scott Renshaw)

A Boy. A Girl. A Dream. [NEXT] **1/2
Director Qasim Basir offers such an earnest paean to the important of underrepresented artistic voices that it’s a shame the movie itself is alternately over-stuffed and half-baked. Over the course of one Los Angeles evening, in real time, we see the initial meeting and connection between two people: Cass (Omari Hardwick), a club promoter whose dreams of being a filmmaker are on the backburner; and Frida (Meagan Good), an attorney in town for business who harbors her own buried creative passions. The fact that the evening in question is Election Night 2016 amps up the significance of the proceedings as a tale of people responding to a watershed moment, while simultaneously making one wonder why Basir didn’t consider the title Before Trumprise. It’s also a story that’s loaded with stylistic flourishes—attempting a Rope trick of making the 89-minute movie look like one continuous take; text messages and other online info appearing on-screen—even as there are long stretches of walking or silence that make it feel like there’s not a lot of there there. The chemistry between Hardwick and Good carries the narrative surprisingly far, along with the simmering awareness that some voices can no longer afford to be silent. It’s also possible to believe that same story could be told in about half the time. (SR)

I Think We're Alone Now [U.S. Dramatic] *1/2
I wish I could make the people who dissed The Road watch this as punishment. It’s set during a nicely-appointed bourgeois post-apocalyptic environment, in which only two people are supposedly alive, but it's possible to drive from New York to California. Peter Dinklage plays a librarian who didn't care all that much for people when they were around, while Elle Fanning is a teen who suddenly arrives in the town Dinklage has been comfortably scavenging and burying the dead single-handedly. I didn't care that during the first three-quarters of the film, the apocalypse wasn't explained (no explanation could possibly suffice given the few details we learn; one character compares it to the Rapture). But I minded a lot when two more characters and an awful plot twist arrive at the 75 percent mark, and not only because they have pancakes at the ready. It foregrounds and underlines the natural plausibility questions, while also undermining what had been the film's theme to that point—the natural human need for connection and community—and pushing the film into even-shakier thematic territory (to be vague, “The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”). (Victor Morton)

Arizona [Midnight] ****
The blend is four parts comedy to one part gory action—which hits right in my wheelhouse, as I tend to check out when realistic action or gore makes comedy come across as invitations to sadism. Gags like the hoodie hood and the BMW (5-series!) explosion are fun, sure. But two things make Arizona great: 1) A film-carrying performance by Danny McBride as the homicidal Sonny, a man whose home is being foreclosed on, and who blames the real-estate agency, sorta-led by co-lead Rosemarie Dewitt. Imagine Otto from A Fish Called Wanda if he just tossed Cleese off the building rather than hanging him and demanding he apologize unreservedly—and then blamed Cleese and Curtis with lines like “look what we did,” because he insists on his rightness and (again, key to Arizona’s greatness) he is far from the only one. 2) The violence has a point, using standard horror tropes in an inventive and relevant way: walking like a zombie because you've thrown out your back on a golf swing; Sonny getting set off by home comparisons; or the Final Girl running through suburbia, only it's a ghost town because every home's been foreclosed. That is, the bursting of the housing bubble is both setting and subtext, without ever becoming text. My “best film at 2018 Sundance” is still Madeline's Madeline, but when friends at home ask me for recommendations, my first word will be Arizona. (VM)

Monster [U.S. Dramatic] **
Considering that a film studies class plays a significant role here, director Anthony Mandler and his screenwriting team violate a cardinal rule any film studies teacher would instill in his students: If you’re making a movie, never name-check another, much better movie as your touchstone. This adaptation of the book by Walter Dean Myers tells the story of Steve Harmon (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.), a 17-year-old aspiring filmmaker in Harlem who finds himself on trial as accessory to murder, accused of being the lookout for a bodega robbery in which the owner ends up dead. The narrative weaves back and forth between time frames—Steve’s ordinary life before the crime, his experience in jail and the trial itself—and attempts to play with Steve imagining his own life as a movie through heightened settings like a courtroom designed entirely in shades of grey. But despite the great supporting cast—Jennifer Hudson and Jeffrey Wright as Steve’s parents; Jennifer Ehle as his public defender; Tim Blake Nelson as his film teacher—the story mostly plods through too-familiar scenarios like the trial itself and the tough talk on Steve’s neighborhood streets. And it’s hard to justify the fact that Monster begins to fashion itself explicity as a variation on Rashomon: Did Steve actually do the thing he’s accused of doing? Nothing here explores that idea in an interesting enough way to avoid the conclusion that there’s only one “true” point-of-view: Rashomon, it ain’t. (SR)

Minding the Gap [U.S. Documentary] ***
If you can dodge the inevitable issues of a filmmaker making a documentary in part about himself, and some of the accompanying uncomfortable moments, you’ll find a fairly wrenching portrait of cycles of abuse. Director Bing Liu returns to his hometown of Rockford, Ill. to visit with a pair of his long-time friends and fellow skateboarders—Zack Mulligan and Keire Johnson—and see how life is treating them as they cruise into their 20s. Not particularly well, as it turns out, though Zack—expecting a baby with his girlfriend, struggling to keep a job, drinking and getting high too much—appears to be in the worst shape. But the shadow of being physically abused as children hangs over Bing, Zack and Keire, in a city where the crumbling economy seems to be connected to high rates of domestic violence. There’s an almost matter-of-fact way in which these characters refer to “getting my ass whooped,” and Zack’s jarring observation that “bitches need to get slapped sometimes,” and considering that the three principal protagonists here are white, black and Chinese-American, respectively, it’s clear that there’s something about the place that transcends culture. It feels almost exploitative, and more about personal therapy, when the director puts his mother on camera to interrogate her about violence in the family; it feels more powerful when we see people fumbling with lives forever scarred by unseen others. (SR)

Shirkers [World Documentary] ***
Slackers,” I kept calling Shirkers in a post-screening conversation with a friend, which tells you the impression this new film made. In the early 1990s—inspired by Jarmusch, the Coens and other Amer-indie icons—Singapore film buff Sandi Tan and her friends made a film called Shirkers guerrilla-style in the politically free but socially repressive nation. But “thanks” to the mercurial (the politest possible adjective) quality of director Georges Cardona, the footage disappeared, never having been cut into a usable movie. But that unmade film—according to 2018's Shirkers, the self-aggrandizement of which I didn't quite trust—still gained legendary status in the small Southeast Asian film community, until the footage shows up upon Cardona's death, and Tan decides to unravel Cardona's back story. The unraveling matters more to the persons affected than to us, and the footage itself doesn't have the expressionistic, drop-dead-gorgeous quality of the Romy Schneider scenes in the similarly premised Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno. But Tan's footage is intriguing and shocking as a time capsule of what was ordinary a generation ago and impossible today. The 16mm color footage pops like nothing made today does. The comparisons of the 1992 Shirkers and canonical films from Breathless to Rushmore seems both a pander and apropos. Cardona and Tan are linked as people whose being was cinephilia, and whose imaginations, for better or worse, were the movies they loved. (VM)