Sundance Update: Saturday, Jan. 26 | Buzz Blog

Sundance Update: Saturday, Jan. 26

Paddleton, Hail Satan?, Share, The Disappearance of My Mother and more

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SUNDANCE INSTITUTE
  • Sundance Institute
Paddleton (Premieres) ***1/2
There's a moment about mid-way through Paddleton when Michael (Mark Duplass) and Andy (Ray Romano) are checking into a hotel while on a road trip together, and the proprietor just assumes that they must be a gay couple. There's a deep connection between them, she senses, and culturally we simply don't have a language for love between two men that is purely platonic. That's the hook for this rich comedy co-written by Duplass and director Alex Lehmann, though the premise is a bit more serious: Michael has learned that he has terminal cancer, and he wants Andy—his upstairs neighbor and best friend, with whom he shares kung-fu movie nights and puzzles—to help him with the process of obtaining and using medication to end his life when the time comes. Their journey to procure the meds is full of breezy comedic moments, to the point where it's occasionally possible to forget the more serious undertones of the story. But it all hinges on the relationship between these two men, and while Duplass's Michael feels a bit underwritten, Romano is simply revelatory as a guy it's clear makes few deep human connections in life, and values this one immensely. By the time the film reaches its gut-punch of an emotional climax, you'll despair that we have to use a word like “bromance” to describe what these two people share. (Scott Renshaw)

Hail Satan? (U.S. Documentary) **
“How come whenever they have Satan in a video, it’s never the real Satan just some dork in a red suit … Yeah, the real Satan doesn’t do videos; except maybe for Danzig.” That exchange between Butt-head and Beavis captures the oddity of Satan worship, that it makes sense as attitude but not as credal religion. There is a good 25-minute short within Hail Satan? on the Satanic Temple as a troll act and as people’s demonstrative rejection of Christianity. The Temple’s political and legal disputes over Ten Commandments displays and public prayer is part of the story, but director Penny Lane pads it out with repetitive segments on every such high-profile dispute, covering the same ground. At those times, the film doesn’t distinguish itself from any MSNBC segment, and at its worst it edges close to plain hagiography. A clip from a lawsuit against a Missouri abortion limit is shown for the applause line, but the case outcome is not. Meanwhile, a more original film—about internal Temple politics—gets hinted at but dropped. Did you know of splits between radical and mainstream Satanism, or of efforts to develop a Satanic creed to which branches must adhere? I sure didn’t, and those matters raise some thorny questions that would make a better film than does jeering at Arkansas yokels and Charlton Heston clips. (Victor Morton)

Anthropocene: The Human Epoch (Spotlight) ***
A dark twin of sorts to the BBC’s Planet Earth nature documentary series, the ambitious nonfiction film series from Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier—in collaboration with photographer Edward Burtynsky, addressing the impact of human activity to the Earth itself—builds to a thesis in this third installment: According to a group of scientists investigating the question, the effects of human activity on the Earth’s systems now outweighs that of all natural processes combined, marking the dawn of the Anthropocene geological epoch. While no one shot here rivals the impact of Manufactured Landscapes’ stunning eight-minute opening tracking shot, Anthropocene is full of visual drama. Towers of thousands of elephant tusks seized from poachers pack a wallop; giant coal excavators rise out of mist in Germany, looking like dragons; a backhoe struggles to move a giant block of Carrera marble on an immense quarry face resembling a mountain of blocks by negation, like an inversion of Wall-E’s rubbish-cube skyscrapers. Later we see the marble being carved into replicas of Michelangelo’s David and such. What do these striking images add up to? The modest conclusion of Alicia Vikander’s sporadic narration: Recognizing our complicity is the beginning of change. (Steven Greydanus)

Share (U.S. Dramatic) ***
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Writer/director Pippa Bianco pokes at some deeply uncomfortable stuff in this expansion of her own 2015 short film, and the extent to which it ultimately feels frustrating might be a feature, not a bug. It follows Mandy (Rhianne Barreto), a high-school student who wakes up on her front lawn after a night of hard partying, then discovers the next day that a video is making the rounds of her, unconscious, with several guys. The video itself only hints at the possibility of a sexual assault, and Mandy remembers nothing, but the situation begins consuming her entire life. Barreto's performance latches onto a kind of toughness that informs Mandy's refusal to be seen as a victim, and there's a subtly powerful secondary performance by Poorna Jaggannathan, as Mandy's mother, whose own history might be informing her reaction to Mandy's dilemma. Occasionally Bianco leans a bit too hard into the whodunnit element, and some of the pacing gets repetitive. Yet it's impossible to ignore the way Share conveys the no-win scenario facing those who are sexually assaulted: the stigmatization, the victim-blaming, the wishing that it could all just go away, the desire not to ruin the life of guys who “aren't really like that.” If you're looking for a cathartic approach to this issue, you won't find it here. (SR)

Birds of Passage (Spotlight) **1/2
More “intriguing” and “interesting” than actually “successful,” this Colombian film tells a standard drug-war story set in the 1970s. A group develops a market, tensions grow between the pragmatist and the hothead, family loyalty tugs various ways, there’s a bigger neighboring gang with whom relations start cordial and end ... not. But what provides its intrigue and interest is that the “gangs” are clans of Wayuu Indians in northern Colombia, and the conventions of gangster films are refracted back into their cultural terms. Instead of stuffing his face with cocaine as Scarface does, the rising star shows off a dowry herd of 30 goats, 20 cows and five sacred talisman necklaces. The Wayuu are intensely suspicious of “Alijunas” (“gringos” of all shades), and the fatal end-game grows from the Alijuna-influenced breaking of a ritual taboo, one common in traditional societies but which the Jews of Once Upon A Time in America or the Sicilians of The Godfather would’ve snickered at. Unfortunately, this “translation” bogs the film down via the explaining to make as much sense as the film does (and frankly, some still feels obscure). In a late scene, several trucks drive over the horizon, and one tribal character asks another, “Is that a sacred messenger?” The reply: “No, it’s the clan elders.” It’s intrusive Basil Exposition, played straight. (VM)

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Stieg Larsson: The Man Who Played With Fire (World Doc) **1/2
Author Stieg Larsson had already died when his Millennium trilogy became a phenomenon; Henrik Georgsson’s documentary profile leans heavily into the years before Larsson created dragon-tattooed Lisbeth Salander. The overwhelming majority of that time is spent on Larsson’s journalistic career—as photographer, graphic designer and reporter—investigating far-right nationalist groups in his native Sweden and other European countries, up to and including his co-founding of the fascist-fighting journal Expo. In fact, the narrative is so heavily-weighted toward that subject—even the few minutes devoted to Larsson’s childhood in the care of his grandfather focus on how Granddad’s anti-Nazi politics might have shaped young Stieg—that it feels less like a biography and more like a history of post-World War II Swedish neo-Nazism. Larsson himself remains fairly enigmatic as a character, despite dramatic recreations featuring actor Emil Almén playing Larsson, and insights from family members and Larsson’s longtime partner Eva Gabrielsson. No matter how passionate the writer might have been about the subject—and no matter how prescient he might have been about the ongoing rise of nationalist politics around the world—it’s still frustrating that there’s a lot more here about the fire the man played with than about the man. (SR)

Shooting the Mafia (World Documentary) **1/2
Apparently, this is going to be a trend: Documentaries that appear to be about an individual, then take a detour to be too much about the subject of that individual’s journalistic obsession. Like the Stieg Larsson doc, this one begins as a profile of an artist—in this case, Sicilian photographer Letizia Battaglia, whose late-bloomer career chronicled the violence of Sicily’s Mafia killings. And she’s certainly an intriguing character, a still-lively octogenarian whose earthy appeal to men becomes a running story as we see her interact with multiple ex-lovers. There are moments that convey the significance of a woman finding her creative and personal independence in a deeply sexist culture, and snippets suggesting the price she paid for that independence as a single mother to two daughters. But then director Kim Longinotto spends far too much time on the details of the 1970s/1980s mob wars, and the challenges of judges and law-enforcement officials trying to bring Mafiosi to justice. That history too rarely connects to Battaglia, except when she emerges to note that yes, she knew this judge, or no, your first photo of a murder “never leaves you.” Two documentaries are taking place here, more often side by side than intertwined. (SR)

The Disappearance of My Mother (World Doc) **1/2
“The history of cinema is boys photographing girls,” said Goddard. One of the world’s most photographed women—Italian heiress, supermodel and actress Benedetta Barzini—has become bitterly resentful of the camera’s gaze, but the boy behind this particular camera is her son, Beniamino Barrese, in his directorial debut. Once an intimate of the worlds of Warhol and Dalí, Barzini became a radical feminist, Marxist and university lecturer. Now in her 70s, Barzini professes to find not only imagery and male imagination but memory itself, and possibly her own body, instruments of oppression. Her wish to turn her back on everything and vanish is alarming to Barrese, who regards his mother as his lifelong muse—but a muse is exactly what she does not wish to be. Ethical questions of nonfiction filmmaking are thrown into sharp relief in the ensuing tug of war: Barrese openly acknowledges Barzini’s antipathy for the whole project, which she only agreed to because “in the end I preferred to hurt myself” rather than her son. Does including his mother’s indignant objections to being filmed while sleeping justify including the images? Does the camera give a son access to his mother, or is it an obstacle between them? What matters most is precisely what we can’t see: what happens when the camera is turned off. (SG)

Adam (NEXT) **1/2
Gender farce boasts a rich comedic legacy running from Shakespeare to Some Like It Hot to Tootsie; it's hard to know what to do with a take on that genre that isn't particularly interested in the comedy. Director Rhys Ernst and screenwriter Ariel Schrag adapt Schrag's novel set in pre-gay marriage 2006, when baby-faced, sexually-frustrated high-schooler Adam (Nicholas Alexander) heads to New York to spend the summer with his gay older sister, Casey (Margaret Qualley), among her LGBTQIA cohorts. There he falls for Gillian (Bobbi Salvör Menuez), and tells a little white lie: that he's a transgender man. Complications, as they are wont to do, ensue, and Alexander makes for a likeable, young-Michael-Cera-esque protagonist as he grows up in his understanding. This is a story deeply committed to exploring the sexual and gender-identity fluidity of the 21st century, and it does so with compassion and a deft touch. But Ernst seems unsure what to do with set-ups that should burst with comedic possibilities, like Adam finding himself at a fetish club where Casey also shows up, or how a straight cisgender guy handles buckling himself into a strap-on. The pace and timing are that of a drama, but it should be possible to laugh at an idea while still taking it seriously. (SR)

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