Sundance Update: Monday, Jan. 28 | Buzz Blog
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Sundance Update: Monday, Jan. 28

The Wolf Hour, The Hole in the Ground, Hala, The Farewell and more

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Naomi Watts in The Wolf Hour - SUNDANCE INSTITUTE
  • Sundance Institute
  • Naomi Watts in The Wolf Hour
The Wolf Hour (NEXT) **1/2
If you want to see Chekhov’s gun rule violated, the Son of Sam (or is it?) not kill someone, a novel get written in a week, a chain-smoking Naomi Watts and the 1977 New York City blackout as the third-act instigator—here is your movie. OK, that’s unfair and reductive. You can make a great movie with those elements, and director Alistair Banks Griffin clearly has the chops to do so. Watts plays a hit novelist who ruined her career, and has now shut herself up in a South Bronx apartment where crippling depression has left her unable to leave her house. She has her groceries delivered, lifts her garbage down onto the street via a rope, and hands the rent off under the door. Setting aside the subsequent tonal and plot differences, this is roughly the set-up of Can You Ever Forgive Me? Restricted to basically a single set, Griffin gets as much mood mileage as he can out of the Fincher-grunge look and lighting. He’s aiming for a slow-burn catharsis, and Watts is both luminous and ragged, but his script betrays him with all the red herrings and implausibilities. Even the continuous door buzzes, which promise a Sorry, Wrong Number-type thriller, don’t pay off. Eventually you just get annoyed with the football being yanked away. (Victor Morton)

The Farewell
(U.S. Dramatic) ***
Writer/director Lulu Wang's semi-autobiographical tale may ultimately be more emotionally satisfying than it is insightful, but she certainly pours freely from the fountain of emotional satisfaction. Awkwafina plays Billi, a Chinese-American would-be writer in New York who's caught up in a grand familial lie: Her grandmother Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) has been given a terminal cancer diagnosis, but rather than tell her about it, the family keeps it secret from her, and organizes a pseudo-fake wedding for Billi's cousin in China as an excuse to gather everyone together. The star isn't given all that many performance notes to play, as Billi generally wrestles silently with a plan she disagrees with. Her best moment comes as Billi lays out her confusion over feeling alienated from the country where she was born, which is just one of the many conversations about East/West cultural divides that Wang handles with restraint, and not merely as "This Is Our Thesis" monologues. Mostly, however, it's a portrait of a loving family doing the best they can for those they care for, seasoned liberally with engaging punch lines and Wang showing off her directing skills best in the climactic wedding. No manufactured conflict is needed when the simple stuff of being in a family together is enough (Scott Renshaw)

The Hole in the Ground
(Midnight) ***1/2

Parental anxiety continues to provide fertile ground for metaphorical horror, and this offering—from Irish co-writer/director Lee Cronin—digs into a patch of that ground I can't recall ever being cultivated before. Sarah O'Neill (Seána Kerslake) moves herself and her young son Chris (James Quinn Markey) to a rural Irish town, where the nearby woods include a massive, mysterious sinkhole. And when it seems that Chris has ventured too near to it one night, Sarah becomes convinced that the boy now in her house isn't actually Chris; he's now confident where he used to be timid, now perpetually ravenous where he was once picky. Cronin builds plenty of effective jump-scares, and makes great use of the remote, creepy house with its creaky floors and banging doors. But he finds the richest vein of material as he hints at Sarah having fled domestic abuse at the hands of Chris's father, and connects that history to Sarah's fears. Effectively, The Hole in the Ground becomes a nightmare about a mother looking at her son and beginning to wonder if that son could become the same kind of monster who fathered him. As a genre entry, it hits all the right beats, then takes it up a notch by asking what you do as a parent with the knowledge that every cruel man was once a sweet young boy who, at some undefinable moment, turned into something else. (SR)

Premature (NEXT) **1/2
Quiet interiority and a hanging-out vibe are fine things in a movie, but Premature abuses the privilege. It’s the kind of movie so featherweight that you hope a strong gust of wind doesn’t show up; it would blow it away. Co-writer Zora Howard stars as college-ready Harlem teen Ayana, who falls for an older boy (Isaiah, played by Joshua Boone) after a meeting on the subway while Ayana is fussin’ with her girlfriends. They spend time together as Isaiah works on producing a record and Ayana writes sweetly sentimental poetry (to a very sweetly sentimental score and a low voice-over). There’s a debate about politicization of art, which Joshua rejects, saying music seeks to touch the divine, disagreeing with his performers as Ayana watches. The fact that I’m describing this discussion should tell you how little dramatic tension or juice there in this perfectly pleasant trifle. Unless one develops a crush on Howard, it’s hard to care much about anything until a third-act health crisis, which turns Premature into a perfectly pleasant After-School Special. And noway nohow am I buying that last shot. Not only because it leaves the concluding plot point undetermined but—speaking vaguely—given what happened in the previous five minutes, why on Earth is [Person X] even there? (VM)

(U.S. Dramatic) ***1/2

There’s a wonderful moment in Minhal Baig's winning coming-of-age drama, of a kind rare in such films: Teenaged Hala (Geraldine Viswanathan) sits in the back seat smiling as her parents in the front seat sing along to the car sound system, her father (Azad Khan) playful and teasing, her mother (Purbi Joshi) reluctant but smiling. Family conflict is a staple for coming-of-age stories, and Hala has its fair share and then some. But in this happy moment of domestic tranquility—more poignantly significant than it initially seems—we see what all the members of this family, including Hala, really want and hope for. But life is complicated, and life in America is differently complicated than life in Pakistan, Hala’s parents’ native country. Hala seems to struggle more in her relationship with her devout, scolding mother than with her father, a lawyer who takes pride in (and credit for) his daughter’s intellect and language skills. But as Hala increasingly finds her own way in life, among other things becoming increasingly attached to a charming, conspicuously non-Muslim boy named Jesse (Jack Kilmer), the destabilizing effects on her family spiral in unexpected directions. In many ways a film about disappointment and consequences, it’s also very much about rebuilding and hope. (Steven D. Greydanus)

To the Stars (U.S. Dramatic) **1/2
The word “quaint” kept coming to mind while watching director Martha Stephens' period drama, and that's not entirely a compliment. Set in a small Oklahoma town circa 1960 (it's never explicitly stated, but The Magnificent Seven is showing at the local theater), the story follows a shy high-school senior named Iris (Kara Hayward) who's generally ostracized because of problems with a weak bladder. Into town comes Maggie (Liana Liberato), a vivacious new classmate relocated from the big city, who rejects the popular mean girls and takes Iris under her wing. There's a whisper of The Last Picture Show in the way Stephens uses black-and-white cinematography in a rural setting to suggest young people itching for a less constraining place, and there's a solid chemistry between the two leads as their friendship grows. But Shannon Bradley-Colleary's script feels a bit too infatuated with hick-town clichés, like gossipy matrons at the local beauty salon, and Iris's boozy, chain-smoking, flirty, I-used-to-be-a-beauty-queen-before-domesticity-crushed-me mother (Jordana Spiro). There's simply not a turn this narrative takes that you couldn't see coming from down a long country road—and letting an audience know that residents in a small Oklahoma town circa 1960 aren't likely to be paragons of tolerance isn't exactly breaking new ground. (SR)

Midnight Family (U.S. Doc) ***
Documentaries that introduce you to a world you never knew about can be intriguing enough; better still are those that dig deeper, even while remaining deceptively straightforward. Director Luke Lorentzen explores the phenomenon of Mexico City’s private ambulance industry—the city of 9 million people is woefully underserved by publicly-run ambulances—through a night-shift service operated by paramedic Fernando Ochoa and his 17-year-old son, Juan. Some details about the family remain frustratingly enigmatic—there’s no mention of why Juan’s mother is never seen—so that the Ochoas don’t become as fully-realized as they could have been as characters. But Lorentzen provides fascinating insight into the intersection between the Ochoa family business and a city full of poverty (many of their clients are unable to pay) and corruption (police demanding bribes so they can continue to operate); it’s wrenching to watch the family, often living day to day with little money, pleading with the mother of a recently-deceased patient to pay something for their services. Bold cinematography and minimalist editing preserve the urgency of life-and-death moments as they connect to a different kind of day-to-day survival. (SR)

Midnight Traveler  (World Doc) **1/2
Once you know the premise—a Taliban bounty forces an Afghan film-maker and his family to flee for Europe, and they document the journey on their smart-phone cameras—you know what kind of documentary you’re going to get. With one exception: “I hate cinema.” Because embedded video selfies are embedded video selfies, Midnight Traveler often barely differs from your own vacation-drivetime footage. Especially in the first 25-30 minutes or so, what we actually see has no real drama, except for title cards telling us what is happening or has happened off-screen. Things start cooking, though, once the family reaches Bulgaria. We see the first signs of local backlash, smuggler evils, family pressures, bureaucrats bureaucrat-ing and long delays visibly aging the family’s two young girls. None become the harrowing hell the opening voiceover promises, but a collage of moments happen. As for that one cinema-hating exception, it should have been the last scene, but fidelity to “what happened” prevents that: One of the girls goes missing. Midnight Traveler doesn’t go full Michael Haneke scold, but it does make you (well, me) morally doubt the early “they’re not showing anything” restlessness. “This is the best scene in the film,” the father-director’s voiceover says/laments to a black screen. And it is anyway. (VM)

Divine Love (World Dramatic) **
“Divine Love,” in Gabriel Moscaro’s semi-satiric vision of a possible Brazilian near-future, is at once the name of a quasi-theocratic political party, a festival that has eclipsed Carnaval and a Christian-flavored fringe sect, strictly for married couples, blending Evangelical piety and emotionalism with elements of polyamory and pagan fertility cults. How these disparate institutions are related is far from clear, but if the world-building is sketchy, the portrait of toxic religious culture and the tension between the demands of blind faith and real-world struggles and doubts is anything but. Joana (Dira Paes, in a complex performance) is an ardent member of the Divine Love cult who embraces her work as a notary as a platform for encouraging divorcing couples to reconcile—ideally via Divine Love. Yet, despite unstinting service to God, she and her husband are childless. Paes makes Joana’s struggles psychologically coherent, and Moscaro hits his satiric targets without resorting to cheap shots. The cultural trappings of the Divine Love cult, from maudlin Christian pop to small-group sharing, are queasily persuasive, but Moscaro overcooks the aestheticized, sometimes absurdly athletic sex scenes and undercooks themes around politics and bureaucracy. Third-act complications serve Joana’s emotional trajectory but nothing else, with a denouement that seems to want to be more revelatory than it is. (SDG)