Sundance 2019 Wrap-Up: 75 Movies in Brief | Buzz Blog

Sundance 2019 Wrap-Up: 75 Movies in Brief

The best, the worst, the most political, the biggest crowd-pleasers and more.

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ENRIQUE LIMÓN
  • Enrique Limón
Another Sundance Film Festival is in the books, with all the attendant buzz, Park City gridlock, celebrity sightings and good old-fashioned movie love. Our critics covered 75 features over the 11 days of the festival; here’s a roundup of that coverage.

THE BEST OF THE BEST
Queen of Hearts - SUNDANCE INSTITUTE
  • Sundance Institute
  • Queen of Hearts
Queen of Hearts (World Dramatic) ****
Queen of Hearts is centered on an incestuous relationship and is far more explicit than fellow Sundance feature Imaginary Order, but tone is everything; where the American movie is crass and twee, the Danish one is serious and morally demanding. In a great central performance, Trine Dyrholm plays a lawyer who represents rape and family-abuse victims, and is the second wife of a doctor (Magnus Krepper) who has a delinquent son (Gustav Lindh) by his first marriage. The slide into incest isn’t exactly psychologically persuasive—how could it be?—but the dynamics of this very modern Scandinavian family precisely lay out the tracks. And once it happens, every twist and turn grabs your breath as the stakes and ironies build; one late stepmother speech should be put in the dictionary under “projection.” Formally, the chilly tone matches the luxe Scandinavian home decor, and one classic 1980s hit (not by Juice Newton, as the title might suggest) gets used in a strange and more significant way than it first seemed scene. Numerous other memorable shots include a car leaving the house, which I was praying would be the last, but much more cruelty is to come. The film’s first scene plays as the leave-taking scene of a standard adultery drama. When it gets replayed, it’s something far worse. (Victor Morton)

Cold Case Hammerskjöld (World Documentary) ****
Here’s one of the best films I’ve ever seen on the day’s most important theme: will to believe, selective credulity, showmanship and truthiness. It’s a “documentary”—seldom has that word been more simultaneously accurate and misleading—about the 1961 plane crash in now-Zambia that killed United Nations Secretary-General Dag Hammerskjöld on a mission to Congo. Danish director Mads Brügger—a showman equal parts Nick Broomfield and Lars Von Trier—resolves to solve the crash, the subject of conspiracy theories and half-explanations since before he was born. How seriously this is can be inferred from, among other things, how Brügger deconstructs the conventions of investigative documentaries, his clownish persona and the kit he and Swedish activist Göran Björkdahl gather to excavate the buried plane (e.g. hats “for our Scandinavian skin”). The film takes numerous twists and turns, some rebutted as unveiled, that I won’t spoil. But the narrative closure we the audience want and Brügger “must” provide, comes mostly from an explosive side claim, unrelated to Hammerskjöld. It makes a great “wow” hook, and fits prevalent narratives. And, just like Brügger’s plan to expose North Korea in The Red Chapel, it’s obviously implausible. Thankfully, Brügger’s opening apology told us that. (VM)

One Child Nation (U.S. Documentary) ****
A vital, organic synthesis of political expose, cultural inquiry, and personal journey, Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang’s devastating, multilayered look at China’s draconian one-child policy pieces together the methods and costs of the policy and associated human-rights abuses. Emerging from Wang’s reflections on her upbringing in the one-child era, the film is substantially a first-person account drawing on Wang’s memories, interviews with family members, former local officials, affected family members and others. There are also eye-opening images of the all-consuming propaganda campaign promoting total loyalty to the infallible party and its wise policy. The range of reactions is sobering, from a conflicted former village official emphasizing how hard it was to be an official in those days to a guilt-haunted midwife who works with infertile couples to try to atone for the forced sterilizations and abortions she performed. The pattern of abuses changes after 1992, with child traffickers scooping up abandoned babies and selling them to state-run orphanages to be fraudulently marketed to Western couples. In 85 minutes, not everything is covered, and while the film does highlight the strong cultural bias against girls—as well as belated official concern over an aging population without enough young people to care for them—the alarming preponderance of boys over girls is omitted. Still, in those 85 minutes there are no missteps or wasted moments. (Steven D. Greydanus)

Light from Light (NEXT) ****
I’m tempted to call Paul Harrill’s masterfully crafted second feature (after Something, Anything) the first ghost story I’ve ever seen that I completely believe. While the characters and events are fictional, they’re as persuasively true to life as the best of (for example) Lonergan or Linklater. No whiff of horror tropes or supernatural fantasy begs our suspension of disbelief. You probably know someone who reports having experienced something uncanny; perhaps it’s happened to you. Light from Light is set amid such circumstances, but while it is about whether or not there is a ghost, it’s more about characters grappling with what it means if there is. Marin Ireland is effortlessly compelling as Sheila, a car-rental worker living in East Tennessee who may have a gift of paranormal sensitivity. A part-time paranormal investigator, she agrees to help a grieving widower (a quietly effective Jim Gaffigan) whose late wife may not be wholly gone from the farmhouse where she grew up. Absence and the relationship of meaning and stability are recurring concerns, from the wariness of Sheila’s teenage son Owen (Josh Wiggins) toward the possibility of romance with a classmate (Atheena Frizzell) to the absence of Owen’s father. Greta Zozula’s atmospheric cinematography and precise compositions enhance the mood of every scene, occasionally aided by the understated ambient score. (SDG)

Paddleton (Premieres) ****
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—to help him with the process of obtaining and using medication to end his life when the time comes. Their journey to obtain 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 connections in life. 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)

The Souvenir (World Dramatic) ***1/2
It's a testament to Joanna Hogg's skills as a director that she manages to take a mundane set-up—inexperienced young artist gets first lessons in life and love—and make it top-to-bottom fascinating. The 1980s-set story follows Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne, daughter of Tilda), a 20-something British film school student who begins an affair with Anthony (Tom Burke), who turns out to have some secrets. From the outset, we see Julie struggling to find her creative voice distinct from her upper-class upbringing, which would have made it easy for the narrative to fall back on “now I've had the difficult experiences that make for a real artist” clichés. But Byrne brings an open, vulnerable screen presence utterly distinct from that of her mother, which combine with Burke's portrayal of Anthony's practiced deception to complicate the intimacy to scenes like the two almost-lovers playfully arguing over who's taking up more of the bed. Mostly, there's Hogg's sense for using everything from period songs to slow-motion at just the right time, leading up to a pair of final shots displaying a breathtaking confidence. To the extent that there's an autobiographical component to Hogg's story, it's clear that whatever Julie needed to learn to give her artistry depth, she certainly found it. (SR)

Untitled Amazing Johnathan Documentary (U.S. Documentary) ***1/2
Andy Kaufman would be proud. As the title suggests, it’s a documentary about the comedian-magician-grossout-artist, but it becomes its own piece of documentary-film making-as-performance-art gonzo stunt. It has more layers than a wedding cake, and the groom and groom on the top (John Edward Szeles aka Johnathan, and director Ben Berman) see their relationship … tested. Szeles had retired because of health issues related to decades of drug abuse, but hits the road again after having outlived the “one year left” diagnosis by a few years, and Berman will film that tour. But to extend the wedding cake metaphor, Johnathan is already cheating on the honeymoon and is keeping around previous flings. Documentary ethics get foregrounded, but Johnathan has a light touch and a puckish sense of humor (one word: meth; another word: actor). Documentary film making gets deconstructed—every time a new film is introduced is a laugh line—and then reconstructed. Some “horrible” early scenes let Weird Al Yankovic, Carrot Top and other ubiquitous talking heads blather on about how amazing Amazing Johnathan is, and then … they come back, in a very different voice. My only reservation is that I’m not sure how funny this untangling of webs we’ve weaved is once you know everything. I’m eager to find out, though. (VM)

Give Me Liberty (NEXT) ***1/2
For an hour, I thought this the film of the festival. It covers a day in the life of Viktor, a Russian immigrant driving for a van service that shuttles handicapped people door-to-door around Milwaukee. Today, his ailing grandfather nearly burns down his kitchen preparing for a funeral with an extended circle of other Russian emigres. Their van doesn’t show, so Viktor has to bail them out like a good Russian boy. His planned wheelchair clients require an empty van for entry and exit. Protest marches block his regular route through black neighborhoods, his boss barks about being behind schedule, the Russians fret about lateness, everybody wanders around a special-needs center. In short, this is a rambunctious comedy about life’s most hectic shit day. The virtuoso juggling of loud agendas is balanced with affecting scenes of handicapped actors performing without condescension. But after a wake, the near-constant action breaks, and the balloon pops. Director Kirilk Mikhanovsky intermittently reverts to form for the second hour, but the magic is gone. We end at an “Our Streets” protest that’s confusingly choreographed, unconvincingly resolved and feels inorganic compared to the sudden turn in the similarly-structured Do The Right Thing. But saying “it’s not as good as Do The Right Thing” should tell you how good it is. (VM)

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 an uncomfortably rocky patch of that ground. Sarah O'Neill (Seána Kerslake) moves herself and her young son Chris (James Quinn Markey) to a rural Irish town, where the woods lead to 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—now confident where her boy used to be timid, now perpetually ravenous where Chris 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 a sweet young boy might someday hold the capacity for violence. (SR)

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 man 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 Death of Dick Long (NEXT) ***1/2
Spoiler alert: Dick Long dies in The Death of Dick Long, and the manner of his death is a mystery that only gradually unfolds in this dark comedy from director Daniel Scheinert (one half of The Daniels behind 2017’s Swiss Army Man) and first-time screenwriter Billy Chew. After a night of particularly hard partying, garage bandmates Zeke (Michael Abbott Jr.) and Earl (Andre Hyland) leave Dick outside an emergency room, and their attempt to cover up their involvement in his death spirals into bleak farce. The comedic material is solid, mostly built on the incompetence of the two buddies in the face of their impending discovery (though there is also one weird killer visual gag based on a unique solution to a grounds-keeping challenge). But for all the weirdness, there’s also a surprising emotional undercurrent as Zeke faces deceiving his wife Lydia (Virginia Newcomb). Like other wild high-concept Sundance comedies including Sleeping Dogs Lie and Humpday—and even Swiss Army Man, for that matter—The Death of Dick Long uses its absurd premise to poke at how people respond to startling revelations about themselves, or about the people they love. And while it might never achieve quite the insight in the best of those other examples, it’s still the kind of movie where telling you what it’s about doesn’t really tell you what it’s about. (SR)

THE CROWD-PLEASERS
Jillian Bell in Brittany Runs a Marathon - SUNDANCE INSTITUTE
  • Sundance Institute
  • Jillian Bell in Brittany Runs a Marathon
Brittany Runs a Marathon (U.S. Dramatic) ***
Body image gets tangled up with self-worth in a way that's both funny and surprisingly emotional thanks to the script by Paul Downs Colaizzo and a terrific central performance by Jillian Bell. She plays Brittany Forgler, an under-employed, hard-partying New Yorker who gets a warning from her doctor to address her weight and overall health. So Brittany decides to start running—one reluctant block at first, then gradually becoming determined to run in the New York Marathon. Colaizzo puts together a winning cast of supporting charters—including Michaela Watkins as Brittany's running buddy, and Utkarsh Ambudkar as an unmotivated pet-sitter—to build up the world around Brittany. But most of what works here revolves around Bell's work as a woman who's convinced she needs to be the “funny fat girl” to put other people at ease, and to look a different way in order to be deserving of other people's love. The thesis-point speeches are kept to a minimum, allowing the focus to remain on a self-loathing that thwarts Brittany's chances at happiness. Attempts to weave Brittany's family history into her psychology fall a bit short, and the climactic run starts to feel like a drag. It's all worth it, though, for a payoff that emphasizes Brittany's triumph as coming to believe she's a person worth cheering for. (SR)

Big Time Adolescence (U.S. Dramatic) ***
Hypothetically speaking, if this movie consisted solely of 90 minutes of Pete Davidson smiling goofily at the world and describing everything as “sick,” it might still be hella-fun to watch. It turns out to be more than that, following the friendship between 16-year-old high-school student Mo (Griffin Glick) and his unlikely best friend: 23-year-old Zeke, the pot-smoking, layabout ex-boyfriend of Mo's sister. The esteem in which Mo holds Zeke frustrates Mo's dad (Jon Cryer), and it's interesting to see paternal concern played as something more akin to jealousy. The real pleasures here, though, are in the relationship between Zeke and Mo, which allows both to get something they desperately need—for Mo, the attention of someone he thinks is cool, and for Zeke, that feeling of someone thinking he's cool. Writer/director Jason Orley breezes a bit past the loneliness at the heart of Zeke's character, though we get a glimpse of the future awaiting him when Zeke's own mentor shows up. Mostly, Davidson just gives a hilarious performance as a guy who wants all the benefits of being admired without any of the responsibilities, accentuated by Orley's sharp editing rhythms. It's a movie that understands how adults who refuse to grow up are hilarious, until they're more than a little sad. (SR)

The Elephant Queen (Kids) ***
Husband and wife wildlife filmmakers Mark Deeble and Victoria Stone’s accomplished family elephant adventure sits somewhere between pure documentary and the wildlife fiction of, say, Chimpanzee or Arctic Tale, with raw wildlife imagery edited into wholly fictional narratives. Impressively varied footage shot over four years is conflated into a narrative spanning less than a year, with an elephant matriarch called Athena leading her herd from their home territory to a spring-fed oasis and back. Yet Athena is no composite character, but a particular elephant matriarch, and the broad outlines of the narrative—finely read by Chiwetel Ejiofor—follow a real eight-month journey. Young viewers aren’t overly sheltered from harsh realities, as when little Mimi’s mother’s milk runs dry prematurely on the long trip to the oasis, and Mimi dies en route. There’s some tough going, but also quite a bit of humor, often linked to the “neighbors,” creatures like foam frogs and terrapins on the fringes of the elephant ecosystem. (Arch echoes of Animals Are Beautiful People crop up: A flying dung beetle is scored to "Flight of the Valkyrie" and even chopper blades; later, a beetle battle is accompanied by slapstick sound effects.) Still, anthropomorphism is generally kept to reasonable levels, and the total effect conveys real respect for nature. A closing title packs a punch with a postscript involving poachers and a call to action; viewers wanting more activist consciousness will be disappointed. (SDG)

Late Night (Premieres) ***
It would be the height of un-self-awareness for a white dude writer to suggest that the main thing holding back Mindy Kaling's crowd-pleaser of a script is going too easy on the stacked deck in favor of white dude writers, but, well … yeah. She plays Molly Patel, an inexperienced would-be comedy writer who lands her first gig as an openly-stated “diversity hire” for a long-lived late-night talk show hosted by Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson). But she arrives in that previously all-white-dude writer's room at a pivotal moment: The network is considering replacing Katherine because her show has grown stale and predictable. The story rides or dies on the Devil Wears Prada-esque relationship between Molly and Katherine, more specifically on Thompson's delightful, all-in performance as a taskmaster boss watching herself become irrelevant as an entertainer. Kaling lands a few body blows when taking on racism, sexism and ageism in the entertainment industry, and doesn't let Katherine off the hook in her disdain for what a 21st-century audience demands. It also feels like she's playing it a bit safe to make sure it remains comfortable for a mainstream audience ready to whoop in agreement in all the right places, provided they're not asked to think too hard about privilege. (SR)

Knock Down the House (U.S. Documentary) **1/2
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has publicly tried to deflect the idea that this documentary is all about her, but let's be real here: It kind of is. Nominally, Rachel Lears is following four women gathered under the umbrella of progressive activist groups like Brand New Congress and Justice Democrats to primary establishment Democrats in Congress. All three of the others—Nevada's Amy Vilela, Missouri's Cori Bush and West Virginia's Paula Jean Swearengin—get time to explain why they're mounting seemingly quixotic campaigns, but the lion's share of the screen time is devoted to AOC. And it's easy to understand why, given her natural charisma and the fact that we all know she ultimately won her race. But the problem with Knock Down the House is not so much that these stories lack cinematic drama because the conclusion is foregone and highly publicized; it's that the film is less interested in the campaigns themselves than in being the kind of campaign ads they all could have used before their elections. Lears certainly doesn't ignore the obstacles facing upstarts, whether financial or institutional, but the focus here is so squarely on making us like these women that we barely understand what Ocasio-Cortez might have done right that they did wrong. (SR)

PORTRAITS OF THE ARTIST
Anton Yelchin in Love, Antosha - SUNDANCE INSTITUTE
  • Sundance Institute
  • Anton Yelchin in Love, Antosha
Love, Antosha (Documentary Premieres) ***
This is a biopic documentary of the late actor Anton Yelchin, composed of old clips, talking heads, personal materials, etc.—cue “same-old” yawns. But Love, Antosha is valuable and moving, transcending its premise. Born 1989, Yelchin's entire life coincided with high-quality video cameras as ordinary consumer goods. That means this film, thanks to parents Viktor and Irina Yelchin, can show him as a budding actor and “director,” while comparable little-boy moments of, say, Cary Grant, are lost. Yelchin’s career also overlaps the era of social media and selfies, providing another motherlode of material. That “social media biography” is what’s valuable here; what’s moving is the title’s other word. Colleagues speak well of him, unsurprisingly, but they’re clearly not going through the motions; people far above Yelchin in the stardom pecking order (K-Stew and J-Law, say) took time for a no-budget film about him. Then there are his letters: From boyhood, Yelchin wrote birthday cards, greetings, emails, etc. to his parents, especially his mother, with a frequency and effusiveness that can’t be faked and can win over even the hardest cynic. The title comes from how he signed off everything (“Antosha” always calls his parents “mamoola” and “papoola”). This isn’t the most-rigorous critical claim in the world, but after seeing the film, I wrote a short IM to my mother telling her I love her. (VM)

Words from a Bear (Doc Premieres) ***
Words are indeed at the center of this profile of author/poet/playwright/artist N. Scott Momaday—and perhaps the best thing it has going for it are that we get to hear those words in his own voice. Jeffrey Palmer’s PBS American Masters entry offers a respectful biography of the Native American writer, from his childhood in the Oklahoma Dust Bowl, childhood challenges and eventual literary success (including a Pulitzer Prize in 1969). And we also get the obligatory laudatory words from colleagues and admirers—including Robert Redford and Jeff Bridges—to emphasize that yes, this is indeed a gifted creative mind. But that’s evident enough from listening to the snippets of Momaday’s writing read by the author himself, in a beautiful, rich voice that conveys the cultural power not just of a story, but of the oral tradition of storytelling. It’s a lovely touch that many of those narrated stories are rendered with animated characters set against real landscapes—a recognition of the link between legend and life that makes up for clunky devices like showing a dramatized stand-in for Momaday working diligently at his typewriter. It’s mostly enough simply to let the bear speak. (SR)

Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool (Documentary Premieres) **1/2
“Great artist” documentaries are … what they are, usually. They’re thorough, respectful and rise above the din strictly by how much “well, I never knew that” they manage to deliver. Director Stanley Nelson goes cradle-to-grave on the legendary jazz musician, chronicling his precocious talents from East St. Louis to Juilliard, and laying out a career full of innovations and re-inventions. In fact, the film’s subtitle seems a bit misleading, in that Nelson doesn’t emphasize Davis’ cool, but rather his uniquely instinctual approach to creating music and re-creating himself. Along the way we get all of the key life mileposts, both professional and personal, and there’s no attempt to hide Davis’ well-documented history of substance abuse and domestic violence. Cal Lumbly narrates Davis’ own words from his autobiography with a perfect impersonation of the musician’s sassy rasp, adding additional character to the talking-head commentary by many of his friends and collaborators. You still get stuff like the rapid-fire “highlights of the year” montages that accompany shifts in time period, and the inevitable challenge of having people explain why a groundbreaking artist was so unique. There’s great music, some interesting insights and a filmmaker who mostly gets out of the way of his subject. (SR)

Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen (Documentary Premieres) **1/2
The title alone makes it clear that this documentary profile of Merata Mita—the indigenous New Zealander who became the first Maori woman to direct a feature film, and was a pioneer/mentor in worldwide indigenous film making—is not likely to be hard-edged journalism. Director Hepi Mita is the late filmmaker’s son, and he spends a lot of time talking with his siblings about the effect on their lives of their mother’s commitment to her work when she was a single parent, including her controversial documentaries about racial divisions in New Zealand. There’s honest, insightful material there, but Mita fils isn’t always adept at organizing his thoughts; it’s puzzling that he opts to share previously-unseen footage from never-completed projects early in the film, before we even understand who Merata Mita was as an artist. The strongest content emerges when we get to hear Merata’s own voice, expressing her commitment to exploring issues of indigenous peoples even when they make others uncomfortable. Like many similar projects presented from a personal point of view, there are inevitable compromises involved, but it’s also likely that without the family access, you’d never get quite the same sense of the subject as a whole person. (SR)

The Disappearance of My Mother (World Documentary) **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 film making 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. (SDG)

Stieg Larsson: The Man Who Played With Fire (World Documentary) **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)

CULTURE CLASHES
Geraldine Viswanathan in Hala - SUNDANCE INSTITUTE
  • Sundance Institute
  • Geraldine Viswanathan in Hala
Hala (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. (SDG)

Top End Wedding (Premieres) ***
To the welcome, growing ranks of romantic comedies that offer distinctive racial or cultural perspectives, kindly add this charmer from co-writer/star Miranda Tapsell, centering the experience of a biracial young woman confronting her indigenous Australian heritage. Tapsell plays Lauren Ford, a recently-promoted attorney in Adelaide, Australia who is given a narrow window of 10 days by her demanding boss (Kerry Fox) for her wedding to her fiancé, Ned (Gwilym Lee), back in her home in the north of Australia. One small catch: Lauren’s mum has abruptly left Lauren’s dad (Huw Higginson) with no sense of where or why. Many of the story’s complications are forced in typical rom-com fashion—an unspoken secret will, of course, eventually throw a wrench into things—and the quest for Lauren’s mum occasionally gets a bit strained in its wackiness. But there’s also plenty of charm in the story and the performances, including a great running gag involving Lauren’s distraught dad listening to Chicago’s “If You Leave Me Now.” Mostly, there’s an appealing willingness to tackle the complexities of understanding a cultural heritage from which you’ve been distanced, and how that distance complicates other relationships. Familiar genres get more interesting when seen through new eyes. (SR)

The Farewell (U.S. Dramatic) ***
Writer/director Lulu Wang's semi-autobiographical 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 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. 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 (SR)

Blinded by the Light (Premieres) **1/2
Director Gurinder Chadha and her husband/writing partner Paul Mayeda Berges return to the crowd-pleasing generational-culture-clash comedy of their hit Bend It Like Beckham, but rarely manage to break free of the basic plot dynamics in every film of this kind. Set in 1987 in the small English industrial town of Luton, it follows a Pakistani-British teen named Javed (Viveik Kalra) who longs to be a writer, and finds a spokesman for his dreams when a friend turns him on to the music of Bruce Springsteen. At times, Chadha appears on the verge of turning the film into a juke-Boss musical, with the best sequences involving exuberant song-and-dance numbers set to “Thunder Road” and “Born to Run.” But while Kalra makes for an endearing protagonist, he’s stuck in a movie that hits every obvious beat involving tradition-bound first-generation immigrant parents, a low-key romantic interest, and even throws in an understanding teacher/mentor (Hayley Atwell) for good measure. The attempts to provide some political significance with the inclusion of anti-immigrant sentiment in Thatcher-era Britain never feel fully integrated into the too-familiar rhythms of a kid who’s got to get out while he’s young. (SR)

Abe (Kids) **1/2
Now THIS is what I call high-concept: 12-year-old Abe (he prefers that to Avram or Ibrahim) has a Jewish mother and Palestinian father and has been raised secular in Brooklyn, while extended families want him to commit to either Judaism or Islam. He takes refuge in cooking, especially fusion cooking because that joins disparate cuisines (metaphor alert!). Abe becomes fascinated with Brazilian fusion chef Chico, ducking out to his kitchen from a cooking camp designed for kids too young to use knives. You could see a Karate Kid-type mentor film, especially when Chico doesn’t let Abe do anything for a week but take out the garbage and clean the pans. Abe is lively and smart, e.g., showing how much of his chef identity is expressed online, but while I realize it’s pitched to tweens and younger, it still feels superficial (especially about religion). A divorce changes nothing obvious; Abe goes to someone else’s bar mitzvah to learn about Jewish customs but is fasting for Ramadan, a scene with huge comic possibilities that don’t get exploited. I was very impressed by the late sequence of Abe preparing a fusion Thanksgiving dinner, and I even misted up a bit when it looked like Abe might not be headed to the aforementioned “(metaphor alert!)” Alas, a head fake. (VM)

The Last Tree (World Drama) **
Maybe it’s not entirely writer/director Shola Amroo’s fault that so many of the things he’s trying to do here feel like they’re cobbled together from other similar stories, without enough individual vitality. 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 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 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 nice 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)

FAMILY DYSFUNCTION
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The Magic Life of V (World Doc) ***
There’s a bit of a bait-and-switch in Tonislav Hristov’s documentary, but what emerges from this gorgeously shot story is a compelling character study. The focal point is Veera, a young Finnish woman whose participation in various live-action role-playing scenarios—including, as we see here, a Harry Potter-esque wizarding school, and a first-person shooter mutant monster attack—becomes a kind of therapy for her traumatic childhood with an abusive alcoholic father. At the outset, it seems as though these LARP events might play a larger role in providing insight into Veera’s psyche; ultimately, there’s far more time spent on Veera’s caretaker relationship with her developmentally disabled older brother, Ville, and her fears that Ville might follow in dad’s heavy-drinking footsteps. But there’s an insinuating quality to the film making that makes it often feel more like verité-style drama than documentary, accompanied by Alexander Stanishev’s stunning landscape cinematography. While there’s an almost anti-climactic quality to Veera’s ultimate confrontation with her long-estranged dad—perhaps inevitable, after the way creepy snippets of home movies make him a kind of monster—it’s still often fascinating watching Veera create for herself a character capable of facing down her demons. (SR)

Before You Know It (U.S. Dramatic) **1/2
A blandly generic title does no favors for a highly specific comedy-drama starring director and co-writer Hannah Pearl Utt and her longtime collaborator Jen Tullock as sisters in a dysfunctional New York theater family in Greenwich Village. The sisters’ lives revolve around the uncelebrated, possibly unremarkable plays of Mandy Patinkin’s cantankerous paterfamilias Mel, once an actor of note. Responsible Rachel (Utt) acts as stage manager while flighty Jackie (Tullock) joins Mel onstage—though in fact both sisters are playing parts scripted for them by their father, a reality that has begun to chafe for Rachel. This drama abruptly takes a soapy turn when the sisters lose their father, only to discover that the mother they thought was dead is alive and starring in a daytime network serial. Sherrell (Judith Light) is an extraordinary creation, as confounding as Mel but in wholly different ways, and what Rachel and Jackie hope or fear she may bring to their lives brings out new layers in themselves and their relationship. The filmmakers treat their quirky characters with great empathy and affection despite their weaknesses and failings, which helps carry the film past some of its own weakness, including an extraneous subplot with Alec Baldwin as a worthless child therapist and an underutilized Mike Colter as the film’s one reliable male. (SDG)

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 sizable 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 more 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. (SR)

NATURE IN DANGER
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Sea of Shadows (World Documentary) ***1/2
There’s a hell of a lot going on in Richard Ladkani’s documentary, but that’s why it becomes such a fascinating distillation of how big issues come to seem unfixable. The specific issue at hand involves an impending environmental catastrophe in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez, where fisherman taking advantage of a lucrative Chinese black-market for the swim bladder of the endangered totoaba fish lay gill nets that also kill vaquita whales, a species reduced to fewer than 20 remaining animals. Ladkani covers the story from multiple angles, including environmental activists patrolling the waters, local residents resisting the government ban on net fishing that threatens their livelihoods, a team attempting a risky program to catch and preserve all of the remaining vaquitas, and journalists trying to nail down the criminal links in the totoaba supply chain. Each one of those components is compellingly presented, including moments of risk and heartbreak, with the director fashioning his narrative into the shape of a political thriller. But the real success of Sea of Shadows is conveying an existential threat created by pure greed, and how hard it is to achieve change when there’s so much money at stake in making sure that nothing changes. The heroes are those who refuse to stop shouting, even when everything suggests they’re wasting their breath. (SR)

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. (SG)

Tigerland (U.S. Documentary) ***
Once you know Tigerland was supported by Discovery Channel, you know you’ll get a well-assembled, easy-going-down compilation of historical clips, infographics, documentary action on the job (here, tiger preservation) and well-spoken interviewees arguing the film’s cause (again, tiger preservation). But Tigerland does have specific virtues that make it worth seeing. One of the two widely-disparate but fully-interwoven stories is set near Russia’s Chinese and Korean borders—the last remaining haunt of the Siberian tiger—and follows the present-tense efforts of Pavel Fomenko of the World Wildlife Fund. The other is a historical profile of Kailash Sankhala, who started India’s tiger-protection program. The Russian material is far stronger, because Fomenko is a memorable character and because set pieces and mini-stories can develop—a tiger autopsy, the hunt for a mother tiger’s two missing cubs and a shocking attack. While the Indian material is basically a Wikipedia entry, it isn’t worthless because of the surprise involvement of Indira Gandhi and India’s political embrace of “if it pays, it stays,” making the tigers an economic asset. Sure enough, when a caravan of park tourists thinks a tiger’s nearby, they drop everything to look. As does the film, with one park guide comparing the moment to a peep show. As do we, at the awesome beast burning bright in the forests of the night. (VM)

PERILS OF THE MODERN WORLD
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Jawline (U.S. Documentary) ***
In 2019, the Schwabb’s soda fountain of the world is YouTube, and director Liza Mandelup chronicles the 21st-century quest for stardom through online engagement in a documentary that marks a fascinating likes-to-riches story. Her focus is Austyn Tester, a good-looking 16-year-old from small-town Tennessee who’s trying to turn his small-scale online popularity—from live broadcasts, Instagram posts and Muscial.ly videos—into big-time celebrity. Mandelup follows Tester to meet-ups with fans and on the road to his first possible tour with other online personalities, and she never shies away from the fact that most of these kids have no discernible talent besides their ability to appeal to teen girls. Yet she’s also deeply respectful of what that appeal means to those teen girls, many of whom feel like outsiders and find the sunny optimism of their online crushes a balm in their often-crushing lives. A secondary plot thread follows Michael Weist, a 21-year-old who has created for himself a career as agent for these young would-be social-media stars, and it’s useful supplemental material to convey the way this has become just as cutthroat a business as any other entertainment enterprise. But the emotional center is the unique new intersection of kids with big dreams finding an audience of fans who adore them largely because they talk about pursuing big dreams. (SR)

Share (U.S. Dramatic) ***
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 whodunit 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)

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 that 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. (VM)

GETTING POLITICAL
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The Report (Premieres) ***
An elegantly-made information dump is still an information dump, and that is indeed what writer/director/longtime Steven Soderbergh collaborator Scott Z. Burns offers in his paper-chase political thriller surrounding the investigation into the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” techniques. Adam Driver plays Dan Jones, a staffer for the Senate Intelligence Committee who heads up a task force trying to get to the bottom of why the CIA tortured prisoners, and what if anything was gained. Naturally, he runs into plenty of obstacles, and Burns does a solid job of laying out the politics that drag the process out for years, ultimately turning Jones into a target himself. Driver also serves as an effectively righteous hero, even if Burns isn’t at all interested in anything about Jones as a person that makes him such a dogged fighter. It all serves a narrative set up to inspire outrage at both the torture program and the cover-up under the guise of national security, with plenty of folks giving variations on “you need me on that wall” speeches. It’s simply a shame that Burns can rarely find a way to inject either everyday humanity or genuine tension into the story. No matter how infuriating these events might be, there are only so many times you can watch someone sit down and explain something that happened. (SR)

Official Secrets (Premieres) ***
In our increasingly authoritarian times, it’s hard to imagine a government employee leaking a top-secret memo about government crimes to the press, confessing to the crime, being arrested and charged, and ultimately going scot-free—particularly in the extraordinary way depicted in the climax of Gavin Hood’s decent fact-based politico-legal thriller, a courtroom scene unlike anything I’ve seen in any other movie. But that’s essentially what happened some 15 years ago to Katherine Gun, then a translator for the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters or GCHQ. Keira Knightley blends naïveté and toughness as Gun, a specialist in Mandarin Chinese whose private outrage over false WMD claims during the buildup to the 2003 invasion of Iraq boils over into precipitous action when her department receives a classified memo regarding an illegal plan to spy on UN Security Council member states, to facilitate pressuring them to support a resolution for war. Matt Smith plays Martin Bright, the Observer journalist who acquires the leaked memo, and Ralph Fiennes plays the crusading human rights lawyer Ben Emmerson, whose daring defense strategy has far-reaching implications. Despite obvious echoes of The Post in particular, Official Secrets is ultimately a tribute not to journalists or lawyers, but to heroic individuals willing to defy orders and even break the law in order to oppose the abuse of authority and serve the common good. (SDG)

The Brink (Documentary Premieres) ***
At least director Alison Klayman is doing something different from what Errol Morris did in his Steve Bannon documentary American Dharma (which even makes a brief supporting appearance here). While Morris conducted an extended one-on-one interview with Donald Trump’s former campaign chief, and gussied his film up visually with old movie sets and clips—the better to unpack and explore Bannon’s self-mythology—Klayman mostly uses old-school cinema-verité. She only comments three or so times from behind the camera as she follows Bannon on his post-White House career—recruiting candidates for the U.S. midterms, touring Europe to bring together its populist right-wing parties, and then campaigning in those midterms. Those who found Morris’s movie a sop to Satan will have the same complaint with The Brink; Bannon mostly comes across as a personable mensch (which makes the opening scene, of Bannon on Auschwitz, up the authorial POV) with a sense of humor and self-irony, while being a jerk to failing underlings. But the environment tells the story. It’s a build to … (spoiler alert) … a rebuke to Bannon’s efforts, which Klayman emphasizes in various ways without jumping before the camera. And one of the exceptions is the best scene—a crackling, contentious interview with a Guardian journalist about anti-Semitism and the colorful cast of characters we’d just seen Bannon gather. (VM)

Clemency (U.S. Dramatic) *1/2
On paper, Clemency is the kind of movie I love to champion: a morally serious drama about a social issue—capital punishment—I care deeply about. It stars the brilliant Alfre Woodard, and writer-director Chinonye Chukwu is also a woman of color. The plot is broadly well structured and doesn’t cheat the denouement. What’s not to love? First, the dialogue. It's the kind of movie in which characters explicitly spell out everything. “I know it’s your job not to get personally involved,” the mother of a condemned prisoner (Aldis Hodge) tells Woodard’s prison warden, “but an you imagine how hard this is for a mother?” Later Woodard’s husband (Wendell Pierce) tells her, “I don’t think you want to live in fragments any more. I think you want to be whole.” Everyone talks like this all the time, until finally someone blurts, “You’re trying to explain something to me, but I know”—the irony being that this one time, the film’s best scene by far, the explanation really must be given. Then there’s the cinematography, which is often distractedly dark and carelessly composed. (Watch for the priest’s head and the payphones. An exception: Hodge agitatedly dribbling a basketball in a small outdoor enclosure, going in circles.) Woodard’s chilliness doesn’t seem like a writing or acting choice, but a failure of imagination in a movie that can’t fathom why anyone wouldn’t oppose the death penalty. (SDG)

Paradise Hills (NEXT) **
Allegorical science-fiction is hard enough to pull off without profound confusion as to what you’re being allegorical about. Emma Roberts plays Uma, a young woman involuntarily committed by her mother to an idyllic “center for emotional healing” where she and other young women are trained to be what other people want them to be. That’s sort of the extent of it for most of the running time, as Uma and her fellow “students”—including Awkwafina, Danielle Macdonald and Eiza González—resist the various treatments implemented by Paradise Hills’ headmistress (a gleefully sinister Milla Jovovich). Director Alice Waddington designs an imaginative physical production for this feminist mash-up of The Prisoner and A Clockwork Orange—one procedure involves having the women strapped to a carousel horse—but doesn’t offer much variation on her theme. Then, out of nowhere, the third act finds her and her co-screenwriters heading off into a completely different direction about the purpose of Paradise Hills. In some ways, it’s a more interesting direction, but it also makes it hard to understand exactly who the villains are in this story. The generous way to describe it would be “intersectional,” although that presumes that the multiple thematic notions are informing one another, rather than slamming into one another. (SR)

THE COLOMBIAN "TRILOGY"
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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)

Lapü (World Documentary) **1/2
Before Sundance released its films’ descriptions, I had never heard of Colombia’s Wayuu Indians. Between Lapü and Birds of Passage, I’ve now seen as many Wayuu films as I have seen from Colombia’s dominant Spanish culture. While Birds transposed a gang-warfare plot into Mayuu society, Lapü is a full-bore UNESCO-style ethnographic documentary. It’s visually striking and evocative, too, from the very first shot that might be black-and-white images of what might be hills, as drifting clouds might be smoke or mist as the wind (?) howls. I have no idea how this lengthy shot related to the rest of the film, but I was enthralled. Without voice-over and using only the indigenous language, the “plot” concerns a woman, Doris, who has dreamed a visit from a recently-deceased relative. According to custom, she now must dig up the relative’s body, cleanse the bones and then be cleansed herself, and that’s basically the movie (some of this was also in Birds of Passage). The manual detachment of the skull for polishing and the method of cleansing—some of the water is first sloshed around in her grandmother’s mouth—are among the sparse film’s highlights, At 75 minutes, its languorous rhythms never exactly wear out their welcome, but I’d be lying if I said restlessness never stirred. I even started to hope a drug gang would appear and liven things up a bit. (VM)

Monos (World Dramatic) ***1/2
The first two weren’t bad, but my third Colombian film this festival is the one that hits it out of the park. Monos is set in the Colombian wilderness, first the high mountains, then the jungle, among some extremely youthful militia members guarding an American hostage (played by Julianne Nicholson with terror, tenderness and steeliness). Like the terrorist teens in 2017’s great Nocturama, the precise political motives and the specifics of The Organization are kept vague. In neither film do the politics matter, as the point is to illustrate their respective teens’ group dynamics and the qualities of their souls. Director Alejandro Landes pulls off the tricky effect of leaving no doubt that these are kids (they inadvertently kill a cow, dish out rambunctious 15th-birthday licks) and that they are playing adult games (the cow is killed by a semi-automatic rifle, the licks are by belt and only count if hard). In one hard-to-watch sequence, an adult deliberately strangles and drowns a child—but had no real alternative. Especially with nature as unforgiving as it is, too. Landes orchestrates the dangers—from insects to Colombian army artillery—with verve and style, special honors going to the alternately haunting and thunderous score by Mica Levi. In the last shot, the person we see is equal parts adult and child, as orders await on what to do—and that is the tragedy. (VM)

FAITH FOCUS
Alice Englert in Them That Follow - SUNDANCE INSTITUTE
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  • Alice Englert in Them That Follow
Them That Follow (U.S. Dramatic) ***
There's a razor's-edge margin for error in telling a story of Pentecostal snake-handlers in rural West Virginia that doesn't play as pointing at the yokels and chuckling, so all credit to Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage for turning it into an effective meditation on insular communities of faith. Alice Englert plays Mara, the daughter of this community's pastor (Walton Goggins), whose furtive relationship with an apostate member of their church (Thomas Mann) results in a pregnancy she must hide, especially when another church member (Lewis Pullman) asks to marry her. While Poulton and Savage certainly depict the ceremonial snake-handling, the intent is never to single out this belief system as particularly weird. Instead, they're taking a thoughtful look at how people within religious groups deal with feeling like they don't belong, when admitting such feelings might lead to ostracism. And there's a particularly effective subplot involving Olivia Colman, superbly depicting a convert to the faith who truly believes it saved her life. The climax plays out with surprising excess relative to the restrained tone of the rest of the film—it practically becomes Requiem for a Dream's montage of horrors—but using this exotic sect does allow for a wider-ranging exploration of how you move on when you can't believe in the God of your fathers. (SR)

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)

Sister Aimee (NEXT) **
So this is the movie that people who didn’t like I, Tonya thought they saw. It tells a mostly-imagined account—the opening title card says 5 1/2 percent is true—of the 1926 several-week staged disappearance / Divine Disintegration of famed Pentecostal faith healer Aimee Semple MacPherson, “America’s second-biggest religious star behind the Pope” (a line I winced at, one of many indications that directors Samantha Buck and Marie Schlingmann have their minds in 2019, not 1926). Two parallel tracks follow: Investigators interviewing people who knew Sister Aimee; and MacPherson, her dingbat journalist-paramour Kenny and their badass Mexican guide Rey trekking across the U.S.-Mexico border region. Sister Aimee’s fatal flaw is that it never really justifies either the former track or its post-modern style—snarky, big-font title cards and highly stylized acting. The two stories never come together, and the film plainly has no interest in the religious culture of the time or in Pentecostalism. A movie consisting solely of the southwestern sojourners, with only early set-up context, would have felt better-controlled, and preserved all the existing film’s best moments, like a great performance by Andrea Suarez Paz as Rey, a campfire meeting with some outlaws and the climactic bit of WTF-ery—a musical number. None of these things have anything to do with the known history of Aimee Semple MacPherson—which is telling. (VM)

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 prayers 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. (VM)

RACE, GENDER & SEXUALITY
Tim Roth, Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Naomi Watts in Luce - SUNDANCE INSTITUTE
  • Sundance Institute
  • Tim Roth, Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Naomi Watts in Luce
Luce (U.S. Dramatic) ***
Much of Luce is the stuff of a great film, starting with virtuoso performers (especially Octavia Spencer as a history teacher, and Kelvin Harrison Jr. in the title role as her star pupil), and the script certainly has ambition as a synoptic film of ideas. It starts with a Frantz Fanon paper, moves onto an illegal firework bag, varying whispers of drunken teen sex, sexual-harassment claims, model minorities, parent-teacher dynamics, racist vandalism, inter-racial adoption, a disturbed family member, Facebook stalking, sharing and not-sharing, and attempts at manipulation both motivated by love and using love. In short, Luce is overstuffed. What all the numerous intersecting threads have in common is people, especially Luce’s white adoptive parents Naomi Watts and Tim Roth, reacting to events based on what they “know”—“My son is a good kid,” “I heard the tone of voice,” various forms of identity politics, mitigating circumstances, alternative facts, etc.—and spinning new narratives according to what best fits their previous narratives. This isn’t Rashomon exactly; it’s more like David Mamet’s Oleanna, in which what the protagonist did or didn’t do becomes fairly clear at the end (though I rolled my eyes at the scenes that go “click”). However “what happened” has become hopelessly swallowed up by “what it means” and Lenin’s “who will overtake whom.” (VM)

Native Son (U.S. Dramatic) ***
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 Black Man in San Francisco (U.S. Dramatic) ***
Like last year’s Sundance favorite Blindspotting, this is a loosely structured, visually stylish, deeply felt Bay Area comedy-drama emerging from the childhood friendship of two Bay Area natives, one black and one white, dealing with a range of themes including male friendship, race relations, gentrification and urban violence. Director Joe Talbot co-wrote drawing in part from the life of his star, Jimmie Fails, whose character is also named Jimmie Fails. Jonathan Majors plays Jimmie’s lifelong best friend, an artistic soul named Mont, so unlike Blindspotting it’s not a story of interracial friendship; instead, it’s about the threat to black community from white invasion. The central metaphor is Jimmie’s existential bond to his childhood home, an elegant Victorian estate Jimmie proudly tells anyone listening was built in the 1940s by his grandfather, the self-styled “first black man in San Francisco.” Jimmie visits the place regularly and even does upkeep on the exterior, despite the minor technicality that his family no longer owns it and the older white couple living there now don’t appreciate his sense of responsibility to the place. Like the climactic play staged by Mont, which tries to tie together the various themes and threads, it’s hard to imagine a satisfying resolution, which in a way is the point. (SDG)

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)

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 same-sex 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 likable, young-Michael-Cera-esque protagonist as he grows up in his understanding. This is a story deeply committed to exploring the fluidity of sexuality and gender identity, and 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 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)

CHARACTER STUDY
Vicky Knight in Dirty God - SUNDANCE INSTITUTE
  • Sundance Institute
  • Vicky Knight in Dirty God
Dirty God (World Drama) ***
Sacha Polak brilliantly directs a story that feels a couple of rewrites away from fully realizing its potential. Vicky Knight plays Jade Nugent, a London single mother who has survived being doused in acid by her daughter’s father/estranged boyfriend, and now tries to restart her life coming to terms with her disfigurement. Polak opens with a terrific sequence that turns close-up images of Jade’s scars into a kind of topographical map, immediately conveying the extent of her injuries. And that introduction provides an indication of the ways the director injects burst of theatricality into an often verité-style approach—dramatic lighting accentuating Jade at the sentencing of her attacker, or the strange fantasies Jade continues to have about him. Knight’s performance effectively captures the bitterness of a party girl now certain she’ll always be ignored by men, and who feels she must under the covers to do a puppet show for her frightened little girl. The narrative eventually focuses on Jade’s efforts to get cheap plastic surgery in Morocco, and her flirtation with the boyfriend of her best friend. While there’s strong material in Jade’s ongoing delusions that everything can go back to the way it was, some loosely connected story elements distract from a uniquely intriguing character study. (SR)

Midnight Family (U.S. Documentary) ***
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)

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)

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. (VM)

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 voice-over 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 voice-over says/laments to a black screen. And it is anyway. (VM)

Mope (Midnight) **
A very good movie could be made with this script, but Mope is not it. It would be cruel and unfair to expect Boogie NightsThe Film about wanting to be a porn star, made by one of cinema’s great virtuosos. Like Boogie Nights, Mope really has a different subject than porn itself: the tragedy of an incompetent convinced he can dream the dream into reality. But the execution here only sometimes reaches competence. The story is fine—two male friends, one black and one Asian, badly want to become stars and develop several routes to stardom that come to naught for various reasons, some quite funny and with escalating levels of desperation. But Mope—the title refers to the lowest level of male performer and is an insult equivalent to calling a fighter a “ham-and-egger”—lost my confidence early during the “we can be great” conversation between the two wannabes. For no discernible reason, it cut from a close-up to extreme long shot in the middle of a line. And this was far from the only bit of directorial clumsiness. Also, the photography is ugly to look at, the composition clumsy, the acting wildly uneven and the score too often porn’s looped electronica. I’m tempted to take this as meta-commentary on the execution of porn movies themselves. But tedious with a point remains tedious. (VM)

The Sound of Silence (U.S. Dramatic) **
Occasionally, a movie just hands you an easy metaphor for why it just isn't quite working for you—and this one is entirely about whether something in your environment is or isn't hitting the right notes. Peter Sarsgaard plays Peter Lucian, a musicologist who has devoted himself single-mindedly to researching the impact of sound on people's mental and emotional state, from the frequencies of entire neighborhoods to the way your household radiator might be hitting the wrong note relative to your kitchen appliances. That work is thrown out of whack when one of his “house tuning” clients, Ellen (Rashida Jones), doesn't seem to respond to Peter's prescription of a new toaster. It all sounds preposterous on paper, but Sarsgaard plays Lucian's obsession with utter earnestness, hinting at stuff that co-writers Michael Tyburski (who also directed) and Ben Nabors ultimately don't trust to remain subtextual; “I think you miss out on connecting yourself” feels like a sentiment we don't need to hear Ellen say out loud. But while the plot eventually slides between elements including oddball romance, deadpan comedy and corporate espionage, Tyburski ultimately remains as frustratingly internal as his protagonist, even while overseeing a terrifically complex sound design. It's a tune waiting for a crescendo that never comes. (SR)

The Sunlit Night (Premieres) **
Rebecca Dinerstein's source-material novel was full of gorgeously descriptive writing in service of a story that always felt forced and implausible—in other words, not exactly ideal fodder for cinematic adaptation. Director David Wnendt does take advantage of gorgeous scenery in telling the story of two New Yorkers at life crossroads who improbably cross paths in Norway's remote northern islands: Frances (Jenny Slate), a would-be artist licking her personal and professional wounds in a summer internship; and Yasha (Alex Sharp), a Russian-American teenager fulfilling his recently-deceased father's last request to be buried “at the top of the world.” It's hard to get past the fact that the central kind-of-romance between Frances and Yasha makes little more sense here—with Dinerstein providing the screenplay—than it does in literary form, although a wordless bonding sequence is nicely handled. But this interpretation also makes it feel more like quirky indie comedy than mournful character study, complete with Gillian Anderson going full Natasha Fatale as Yasha's Russian mother, and Zach Galifianakis as another American expatriate just a bit too infatuated with his live-action role-playing as a Viking. Too much of the life-lesson-learning is draped in forced wackiness, and the pretty prose that helped salvage the book is here simply replaced with pretty pictures. (SR)

Dolce Fine Giornata (World Dramatic) **
There is, of course, no requirement that a film’s protagonist should be likable, but it would help if there’s some larger notion behind an anti-protagonist’s insufferability. The central character here is Maria Linde (Krystyna Janda), a Nobel Prize-winning, Polish-born Jewish writer living in her adopted home in Tuscany, who creates a furor when a video of her giving a speech—in which she describes a recent terrorist bombing in Rome as “art”—goes viral. Anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe is a major undercurrent here, and it would be one thing if co-writer/director Jacek Borcuch were telling a story about a respected artist risking her standing to speak against injustice. But Maria seems less like a rebel than like a jerk—not just because she’s carrying on an emotional affair with an Egyptian innkeeper, and not just because she sniffs at giving interviews because “everything I have to say, I’ve said in my writing.” Even the notion that she’s less driven by principle than by self-identifying as a rebel would be interesting, if she ultimately demonstrated some self-awareness. Borcuch’s skills behind the camera—including a gorgeous long final shot—can’t overcome so much time spent in the company of an unrepentant pain-in-the-ass. (SR)

BLOOD & GUTS
Rene Russo and Jake Gyllenhaal in Velvet Buzzsaw - SUNDANCE INSTITUTE
  • Sundance Institute
  • Rene Russo and Jake Gyllenhaal in Velvet Buzzsaw
Velvet Buzzsaw (Premieres) **1/2
Writer/director Dan Gilroy takes aim and empties his magazine at the barrel of fish that is the high-end art world in a supernatural thriller that’s simultaneously silly, obvious and kind of entertaining. The narrative surrounds the death of a reclusive man, and the discovery in his apartment of a huge stockpile of paintings that he has expressly indicated he never wants to be seen. That doesn’t stop a whole bunch of people from trying to profit from that work—including a gallery owner (Rene Russo), her ambitious would-be protégé (Zawe Ashton) and an influential critic (Jake Gyllenhaal)—and potentially face a creepy comeuppance. It’s basically a Twilight Zone variation on the Sundance 2018 “art shouldn’t be big business” documentary The Price of Everything, taking broad shots at artsy-fartsy folks who do things like look at bags of garbage in the middle of an artist’s loft and mistake it for a profound new creation. Gilroy is way too obvious in his contempt for his characters—especially Gyllenhaal’s critic, who does things like mock the color of the coffin at a funeral—but the performances are often a hoot, and the movie gets engagingly nuts as characters are picked off by homicidal artworks. “Satire” might be too generous a descriptor, but you gotta chuckle at a movie where a critic earnestly pronounces, “I further the realm!” (SR)

Corporate Animals (Midnight) **1/2
There’s nothing exactly wrong with the kind of movie Corporate Animals is; it’s just not nearly as interesting as the kind of movie it seemed poised to be. In the New Mexico desert, a group of employees goes on a team-building trip into a cave system, and find themselves trapped when their only exit blocked after an earthquake. The scenario is played for laughs, by the way, with Demi Moore as the company’s universally-loathed CEO and a solid cast of supporting characters—including Nasim Pedrad, Jessica Williams, Isiah Whitlock Jr.—gradually going feral as they run out of supplies and hope of rescue. Somewhere in there is a ruthless pitch-black comedy about the disposable pieces of a late-capitalist American company, but director Patrick Brice (the 2015 Sundance comedy The Overnight), working from a script by Sam Bain, is content to leave a lot of the laughs in the realm of silliness rather than savagery. Enough of the gags land—the best ones involving an injured intern played by Calum Worthy hallucinating—that it’s an amusing diversion. But considering some of the subject matter here, you might hope for a comedy that can actually reach blackness, rather than barely achieving navy-blue. (SR)

Sweetheart (Midnight) **1/2
It’s a damned shame when a filmmaker has a perfectly terrific premise on his hands, only to muck it up with a misguided sense of adding complexity. That premise, at least initially, finds a young woman named Jenn (Kiersey Clemons) washed up on a deserted island, apparently the only survivor of a boating accident, where she has to survive not only the absence of civilization, but the presence of a carnivorous beast that emerges from the sea nightly to feed. Thus begins something that plays out like Cast Away if Tom Hanks also had to run away from a monster, with Clemons doing great work as the resourceful heroine; she has a terrific moment where, in the midst of the horror, a slight smile plays around her lips with pride over solving a problem. And then comes a massive miscalculation by writer/director J.D. Dillard (Sleight), as a radical shift in Jenn’s situation results in awkward attempts to complicate her psychology, in addition to introducing plot threads that turn into a veritable armory of unfired Checkhovian guns. When Dillard aims for simple genre pleasures—like the shot introducing the creature, silhouetted against a dying flare—he nails it. Sometimes, it’s all about knowing when one more piece might cause a structure to topple. (SR)

Little Monsters (Midnight) **
The “kids in peril” trope in serious movies usually turns me off as cheap manipulation; about comedies I’m less certain. But Little Monsters—a zombie comedy that’s equal parts Night of the Living Dead and Kindergarten Cop—felt so tonally bizarre that it never found my comic groove. This typically-broad Aussie farce’s opening credits is a montage of screaming lovers’ quarrels between slacker Dave (Alexander England) and his now-ex. A rebounding Dave helps chaperone a field trip by 5-year-old nephew Felix’s class, in part because of a crush on teacher Miss Caroline (Lupita Nyong’o). But the zoo borders a military base engaging in a zombie experiment, and Little Monsters becomes a George Romero movie with state-of-the-art gore, and the comic element of Miss Caroline and Dave trying to calm the children by telling them it’s just a game. “Strawberry jam,” she tells the kids about the stains on her dress after venturing outside … “don’t eat it.” Nyong’o does the best a person can do with this role, but her character’s efforts, including ukulele singalongs of Taylor Swift, made the whole thing play like a would-be-family-friendly South Park. We get repeated vulgarities and hyper-adult subject matter, AND an earnest sequence with Dave and Miss Caroline bonding as a couple and seriously taking stock of their lives. The bets-hedging makes the film simultaneously too dark and not dark enough. (VM)

The Nightingale (Spotlight) **
This intersectional-feminist I Spit On Your Grave is also a superbly made movie in most respects, so it doesn’t offend with its artlessness as Grave did. But it’s a relentless one-dimensional rape-revenge movie. Set in early 19th century Tasmania—a frontier area populated almost-entirely with British soldiers, Irish criminal indentured servants and Aborigines—The Nightingale builds to one of the most searingly brutal double rape/double murders you’ll ever see, and the rest of the movie involves survivor Clare’s chase to catch the perpetrators and exact revenge. End of movie to a beautiful sunrise. To her credit, director Jennifer Kent (The Babadook) avoids fetishizing the (multiple) rapes in the film but still luxuriates in the kill shots, including body-penetrating spears and all manner of violence deployed against practically every named character. The Foley effects are turned up to 11, the shock cuts come swiftly, and the one time Clare tries to use a gun, it fails and she has to get her hands (and dress and face) bloody with multiple stabs and rifle butts to the face. And the villains are so flamboyantly, cartoonishly, one-dimensionally evil (see: the two child killings) that, even though the violence isn’t “entertaining” we’re being pushed to cheer like a walkabout Death Wish. (VM)

THE BOTTOM OF THE BARREL
Riley Keough in The Lodge - SUNDANCE INSTITUTE
  • Sundance Institute
  • Riley Keough in The Lodge
The Lodge (Midnight) *
There are a hundred different ways that a movie can irritate the hell out of me, and congratulations to Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala (Goodnight Mommy) for checking nearly every box. The setup finds a pair of siblings, Aidan (Jaeden Martell) and Mia (Lia McHugh), reluctantly on a holiday getaway with their father's fiancée, Grace (Riley Keough), then stuck together when they're snowed in while dad (Richard Armitage) is away. Some of the offenses are mundane but avoidable, like foolishly including footage of a much better movie about people stuck together in a snowy isolated locale (in this case, Carpenter's The Thing). Some are simply personal, like my disdain for using children in peril as a narrative crutch. Some are indicative of lazy writing, like setting up eventual payoffs in ways that either make no sense, or don't provide sufficient backstory to pack an emotional punch, or refuse to go for the throat. And then there are those that are icky and irresponsible, like using childhood trauma, the legacy of conservative religion and mental illness as plot points without any real desire to take them seriously. The atmosphere is effectively moody some of the time but rarely genuinely scary, leaving little more than that ignominious checklist. (SR)

Honey Boy (U.S. Dramatic) *
No point in mincing words: I found this enterprise distasteful—essentially a Daddy Dearest for the therapeutic society. Scripted by Shia LeBeouf, it tells two parallel stories involving Otis, a child-adult star very like LeBeouf. In the present tense, Lucas Hedges (back from the far superior Ben is Back) plays Otis in rehab after multiple drinking-drug arrests, and mostly resisting therapists. In the past tense, he constantly flashes back to his time in a Los Angeles extended-stay motel with his abusive, alcoholic father. In these scenes, LeBeouf plays (essentially) his own father, which makes Honey Boy an exercise in score-settling, and made me feel like a dirty voyeur for watching. Every sequence in the flashback is some variation on “Otis tries to please daddy; daddy gets mad,” whether it's what he does on set, talking to mommy, interacting with other motel residents, or having a Big Brother program friend. The issue is not truth, exactly, but discretion and believably. If writing the script while in rehab—for whatever among what Hedges does in the opening montage is applicable—helped LeBeouf wrestle through problems he might have been having, great. That’s not a reason to make public his daddy issues about a specific man, subjecting the rest of us to them. (VM)

Sonja – The White Swan (Premieres) *1/2
I’ve seen more old movies than most, but have to confess a complete blank on Sonja Henie’s oeuvre. And there is no more-damning criticism of this movie than its giving me no desire to remedy that. At least Sister Aimee was trying; Sonja is the kind of Wikipic so relentlessly formulaic that, by law, the credits must have pictures and clips of the real-life Henie. From its running-time apportionment, Sonja apparently thinks it matters more how much Henie drank, alienated family, screamed at collaborators and screwed other stars and underlings than to show us ... her skating and/or acting. It’s more interesting, apparently, to smash an idol than show why she ever was one, i.e. what justifies the movie’s existence. There are about three short re-creations of movie scenes, and the film begins with a ritualistic and hardly-seen third Olympic gold medal at the 1936 Winter Games in Germany, a scene popping with red Nazi banners. Speaking of which: Henie tells 20th Century Fox brass she can save the studio, struggling with European grosses, because she can call her friend Goebbels and have her films shown in Germany and elsewhere. If you include her saying that, and then not show the call, you’re engaging in gossip or checking a historic box, not trying make a drama. (VM)

Imaginary Order (U.S. Dramatic) *1/2
A scene late in Imaginary Order features a teenage boy and a married middle-aged woman sitting in a car. The woman has already screwed the boy’s father, and had lesser intimate contact with his mother. The boy had earlier tried to forcefully kiss the woman, and is now expressing interest in her 12-ish daughter, who knows none of this backstory. In this conversation, the woman wants the boy to stay away and the boy agrees—on condition that the mom take his virginity. When she acts appalled, he starts rubbing one out. Imaginary Order imagines it’s a comedy, so if that description sounds funny to you, here’s your film [starts backing off warily]. It goes without saying that bad taste can be funny, including bad taste in sex comedies. But this one is paced and directed like Thirtysomething-ish late-80s dramedy, and many scenes in this rich, suburban environment of comfortable concentration camps are played in earnest—family woes, failure to communicate, generation gaps and the rest of the Ordinary People litany. Except all of writer-director Debra Eisenstadt’s characters—basically two families—are sociopaths, and neither they nor their auteur realize this. I didn’t laugh once. (VM)

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile (Premieres) *1/2
Charismatic psycho killers are a well-established type in Hollywood mythology, but while Ted Bundy was the real deal, Joe Berlinger’s true-crimes thriller embraces the Hollywood myth. Zac Efron gives a committed performance, not as Bundy exactly, but as Bundy’s public face at its most presentable: the smooth charm and magnetism Ted turns on for single-mom Liz Kloepfer (Lily Collins), with whom he becomes involved, and others from potential victims to authorities. But first-time screenwriter Michael Werwie so wants viewers to identify with Liz—to feel that we too could be just as deceived by those closest to us—that he stacks the deck. The real Bundy could be charming, but the man Kloepfer knew was also weird, emotionally abusive and threatening from the start. Efron’s Ted, though, is nothing but sensitive, supportive and romantic toward Liz. His façade never cracks, and not one female character in Ted’s orbit shows any resistance to his charms (the nearly swooning groupies at his trial almost comically evoke Gaston’s “Bimbettes” in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast). The strategy of showing only Ted the charmer becomes an unsolvable structural problem as Liz drops out for much of the narrative, lapsing into static passivity and leaving the film with no point of view, and ultimately no real insight. (SDG)

The Biggest Little Farm (Spotlight) *1/2
This is a very, very, very nice movie. About the circle of life. Our interrelatedness with nature and beautiful biodiversity. All the beasts and the children living in perfect harmony. Like ebony and ivory. (Are you gagging yet?) The problem with The Biggest Little Farm is baked into its very premise: Director John Chester is also its primary subject, along with wife Molly. The Chesters are urban foodies who move to the country to farm all their own food, also in part to let their dog have space. The resulting documentary has the style of an infomercial or corporate presentation. Treacly mood music abounds, as do panoramic time-lapse photos of the sky and even the whole Milky Way as Chester narrates about the cosmos. Since the client here is a lifestyle—coincidentally the director’s own—it gives The Biggest Little Farm the feel of evangelism. And it’s so relentlessly upbeat, not because there’s no conflict; the Chesters deal with animal diseases, coyotes, insect pests, drought and other woes. It’s that everything works out, under the wise principles of guru Alan York. It even starts with a forest fire, flashes back to the story’s beginning, but by the time we get back to the fire, it’s only the subject of a joke about Molly’s packing priorities. (VM)

Judy & Punch (World Dramatic) *1/2
It’s saying something that Damon Herriman—Punch to Mia Wasikowska’s Judy in Mirrah Foulkes’ revisionist gloss on the traditional slapstick puppet show—does not play Sundance 2019’s most odious male antagonist in an Australian period feminist revenge drama about a mother brutalized and left for dead after suffering the horrific loss of her baby. That distinction goes to Sam Clafin’s monstrous British officer in Jennifer Kent’s relentlessly brutal The Nightingale—a film that posed for me some of the problems I have with many revenge movies, but which at least made no bones about the shattering psychic cost of extreme violence for both culprits and victims. Here the tone is macabre but mischievous fairy tale; even the baby’s death is couched as an outrageously sickening Punch line. I know, I know, it’s all rooted in puppet-show violence, but this Punch—an ambitious but unsuccessful puppeteer—is more venal and pathetic than violently anarchic; he has at least some remorse for his failings and affection for Judy, his wife and performing partner. The film does cross-examine revenge with some conviction, but of course cake can be had and eaten. Foulkes’ Australian sensibilities are particularly evident in the grotesque witch trials and utopian “heretic camp” hiding in the Black Forest, but the feel-good transformative denouement feels glib and unconvincing on any continent. (SDG)

And that's a wrap for another year. Look for many of these titles in local theaters, on streaming services and on cable networks throughout 2019, then meet us back on the mountain in 2020 for more coverage of the cutting edge in filmmaking.

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