Sundance Update: Friday, Jan. 25 | Buzz Blog

Sundance Update: Friday, Jan. 25

After the Wedding, Native Son, Apollo 11 and more

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Michelle Williams and Julianne Moore in After the Wedding - SUNDANCE INSTITUTE
  • Sundance Institute
  • Michelle Williams and Julianne Moore in After the Wedding
After the Wedding (Premieres)  **1/2
Virtually every time Michelle Williams gets a lead role in a movie, the inevitable response is “Michelle Williams should get a lead role in more movies." She makes for a pretty solid Mads Mikkelsen in writer/director Bart Freundlich's gender-swapped English-language remake of the 2006 Susanne Bier drama, starring as Isabelle, the manager of an orphanage in India who is summoned to New York by millionaire media tycoon Theresa (Julianne Moore, Freundlich's real-life partner) to be considered for a sizeable donation. There are secrets to be uncovered—involving Theresa's husband, Oscar (Billy Crudup) and their newlywed daughter Grace (Abby Quinn)—but a lot of the angst behind those secrets is more distracting than enriching, and it's disappointing to see a reference to a character's mental-health issues brought up only to be immediately discarded. The focus here is Williams' performance, which is beautifully tangled in knots of uncertainty over her situation; she does as much with a cluck of the tongue when she senses she's being shamed as Moore does with some Capital-A Acting involving drunken rants and ugly-crying. Like Bier, Freundlich stumbles when trying to make the premise's inherent daytime melodrama feel deathly serious; it's still worth watching Williams, a performer who simply doesn't know how to take a single on-screen moment for granted. (Scott Renshaw)

Apollo 11 (U.S. Documentary) ***1/2
There isn't a single talking head to be seen or heard in Todd Douglas Miller's documentary about the NASA mission that took humans to the moon—and it's astonishing the you-are-there intensity he gets from a 50-year-old event. Every frame of film is archival, much of it never-before-seen official footage, as Miller rather neatly breaks the 90-minute feature into three 30-minute episodes covering the preparations for liftoff as the world watches, the voyage to the moon, and the landing and return. Strewn throughout are wonderfully humanizing tidbits, from the crew's quips (Michael Collins tells mission control, when his vital-sign indicators stop working, “If I stop breathing, I'll be sure to let you know.”) to rapid-fire photo montages reminding us that these three pioneering men had childhoods, careers and families. And there are plenty of reminders of how monumental an undertaking this was, as we watch the hundreds of ground technicians sitting behind bank after bank after bank of massive computers. There are certainly moments when the rattling off of technical jargon becomes a lot to process. It's also a terrific achievement to make the actual-time countdown to ignition feel as uncertain and fraught with consequence as if you didn't know the outcome. (SR)

The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley (Documentary Premieres) ***
The ideal viewer for The Inventor, and indeed most Alex Gibney documentaries, is someone who has little or no idea of the real-life stories or issues—in this case, the rise (and guess what else…) of Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos. As you can tell from my grade, I am such a viewer. The movie doesn’t have much to add factually to John Carreyrou’s book Bad Blood and his Wall Street Journal writings and, necessarily in January 2019, the story ends at an awkwardly irresolute point. But it’s a great story, and Gibney is a crisp, efficient organizer and explainer who does give Carreyrou due interview credit. There’s also cinematic value in actually seeing and hearing Holmes perform, which says more than I think even Gibney realizes. Her pitches—that her machine could diagnose 200 diseases from a drop of finger blood that could be taken at your local Walgreen’s—are as American as cherry pie. She didn’t appear on the cover of Fortune and become friends of Obama, Clinton, Biden, Kissinger, Mattis, Shultz, etc. by accident; Silicon Valley wanted a female star, especially in the field of science. She was promising to empower you, to humanize medical care, to shake up a stolid establishment. Chapter and verse of today’s American creed. (Victor Morton)

Native Son (U.S. Dramatic) ***
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Stipulate the premise—let’s set the classic 1940 Richard Wright novel in present-day Chicago and all the built-in compromises and anachronistic weirdnesses that result—and Rashid Johnson has made the best possible version of that film I can imagine. But like the story real life handed Alex Gibney in The Inventor, Wright has handed Johnson a property that is too good not to make something of, and all the associations and details it brings remain reasonably intact. Ashton Sanders (the mid-section of Moonlight) is charismatic and angrily-repressed as protagonist Bigger Thomas, and while the underscore is repetitive, it counterpoints everything with a nice sense of bubbling-under threat. Setting the film in the present day even adds some pungencies. It’s now a world, unlike Wright’s 1930s Chicago, where not only Wright exists, but so does Ralph Ellison; practically the first image in the film is a closeup of Bigger’s copy of Invisible Man (and a gun). Johnson’s art director also garlands seemingly every wall, nook and cranny with pictures of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Shirley Chisholm and too many other recognizable faces. This makes for a less despairing milieu, in other words. But while the film is also faithful to the book’s plot, it goes off in another director just before...the second killing, which is a mistake. (VM)

The Last Tree (World Drama) **1/2
Writer/director Shola Amroo takes a lot of familiar story elements, from a lot of different kinds of stories, and too rarely finds a distinctive vitality to make you forget that familiarity. It’s the story of Femi (Sam Adewunmi), a Nigerian-born youth who is pulled from a foster mother in rural England to be returned to his single mother (Gbemisola Ikumelo) in London, where he ultimately begins working for a drug dealer. Amroo lays on the idyllic life of young Femi in the country, leaving the details of his pre-foster home life with his mother almost entirely blank. Then the plot components of teenage Femi’s life in London start to feel frustratingly rote and underdeveloped, from the dueling surrogate dads of a criminal and a teacher, to an awkward attempt to insert a romantic sub-plot. There are satisfying touches throughout—like Femi pretending he’s listening to Tupac on his headphones when he’s really into The Cure, or an effective use of the Spike Lee™ Actor-On-A-Dolly-Cam—and an effort to recognize the complexity of immigrant cultural assimilation, especially once Femi and his mother visit his father in Nigeria. It’s just not enough to bring emotional impact to a story that’s trying really hard to manufacture it. (SR)

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