Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Sundance Capsule Reviews Jan. 28

Posted By on January 28, 2015, 8:02 AM

click to enlarge brooklyn.jpg
Brooklyn ***1/2
Director John Crowley and screenwriter Nick Hornby take the story from Colm Tóibín's brilliant novel in a much more conventionally satisfying direction—but boy do they ever succeed at conventional satisfaction. In 1951 Ireland, young Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) gets a chance to move to New York and get a job to help her widowed mother. Profound homesickness eventually gives way to a romance with an Italian boy (Emory Cohen), but tragic circumstances might still pull her heart back to Ireland. Ronan is a perfect casting choice in the festival's second film that rests on her watchful discomfort with her surroundings (after Stockholm, Pennsylvania), and there's a wonderful blend of crisp dialogue (with a splendid Julie Walters' as Eilis' landlady) and tentative romantic connection. That this version of Brooklyn opts to bypass the darker implications of a choice Eilis ultimately faces—between two options that both limit her future in some way—in favor of an immigrant story built on a shifting understanding of what constitutes “home” is no failing, considering how effectively they build a period love story with a big heart. (Scott Renshaw)

Mississippi Grind ***
The new film by the writer-director team Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson) is bound to please moviegoers who dislike excessive expository hand-holding. It may not play as well with those who expect traditional character development and motivation, since it's about gambling and the inexorable role luck plays in it, reflected structurally in a narrative with action that's based entirely on coincidence and happenstance. Given all of this, it's only natural that underlying truth, to the extent it's even present, is a bit inscrutable. All of this opacity is made a lot more palatable by the two lead performances. Ben Mendelsohn and Ryan Reynolds are both very good (particularly Reynolds) and extremely appealing, as two different types of compulsive gamblers who fall in a kind of platonic-love-at-first-sight and embark on an impromptu journey gambling down the Mississippi River from Iowa to New Orleans. Neither are exactly as they initially appear, and the resistance by Boden and Fleck to putting them through conventional gambling movie hijinks forces Mendelsohn and Reynolds to really act. As a film, Mississippi Grind is imperfect, and is so by design, but is definitely an engaging, leisurely ride. (Danny Bowes)

The Russian Woodpecker ****
Featuring a wonderfully strange (in the most exalted and complimentary sense of the term) protagonist and a fascinating premise, Chad Gracia's documentary clinches the deal with crisp pacing and creative editing. Ukranian artist Fedor Alexandrovich, who was a small child when the 1986 Chernobyl disaster forever altered the course of his life, decides to get to the bottom of how and why it happened. What he discovers is a mesmerizing, labyrinthine tour through Soviet bureaucracy and the kind of literally insane ideas yielded by the Cold War, one of which lends the movie its title. Although ostensibly a non-fiction film, The Russian Woodpecker plays so much with the notion of contradictory stories—and the ultimate unknowability of truth in a totalitarian state that edits its own reality (to say nothing of Fedor's glorious inherent theatricality)—that it ultimately is simply a film rather than a fiction or non-fiction one. And it's a really good one. Cinematographer Artem Ryzhykov, who also appears on screen, captures and creates some lovely images, and Gracia's flexibility—given some unexpected, yet hauntingly thematically relevant turns of events—is to be commended. It feels weird to call this film a “delight,” but it's a must-see. (DB)

The Chinese Mayor **1/2
Not every documentary story feels ideally suited to feature-length, and this one feels like 25 minutes of killer and an hour of filler. Director Zhou Hao follows Geng Yanbo, the mayor of the Chinese industrial city of Datong, as he continues an ambitious plan to relocate half a million residents to change the city’s image from “most polluted place in the country” to “cultural tourism destination.” There’s some terrific material here about a guy trying to do big things in a society where there’s no real incentive to take risks, since re-elections consist of Communist Party meetings where delegates “select one out of one candidate;” also, why risk the wrath of a wife who responds to your long hours with constant cries of, “Are you tired of living?” But the detours to show us the residents displaced by Geng’s plans become repetitive in their focus on the bureaucracy that nobody is quite able to navigate. It’s a character study that hints at a more sprawling portrait of contemporary China, but keeps making you want to go back to that one character. (SR)

’71 **
Somewhere on the continuum between “spells absolutely everything out” and “bordering on incomprehensible”—nearer to the latter than to the former—is this “come on, throw us a bone” narrative. Jack O’Connell (Unbroken) plays Pvt. Gary Hook, a British soldier deployed to Belfast in 1971, and who finds himself left behind by his unit in a city where plenty of people want him dead. Director Yann Demange keeps up a propulsive pace as Hook tries to stay alive, with a particular burst of energy when Hook finds assistance from a hard-nosed young Protestant boy. But while trying to portray a place where even people who are supposed to be on the same side are at each other’s throats, screenwriter Gregory Burke tangles his story in a way that often makes it hard to understand who’s trying to kill whom, and why. And Hook himself is little more than a cipher of innocence with a back story that’s too enigmatic to make an impression. When he throws a way his dog tags, as though symbolically starting a new life, it would have helped to really understand much of anything about his old one. (SR)

How to Dance in Ohio ***
There's such a fundamental sweetness and sensitivity at the core of Alexandra Shiva's documentary that it often doesn't matter that it's not profoundly insightful. Shiva spends several months observing activities at the Amigo Counseling Center in Columbus, Ohio, which works with high-functioning autistic youth and young adults to help them with social and life skills, like preparing for the spring formal that gives the film its title. Three girls—22-year-old Jessica Sullivan, 20-year-old Caroline McKenzie and 16-year-old Marideth Bridges—provide the focus, and Shiva shows us how unique these individuals are beyond the simple catch-all label “autistic.” And while there's a kind of superficial feel-good sheen that keeps the film from feeling like a game-changer, there are several lump-in-the-throat moments, from Jessica's blind-sided, emotional response to criticism of her social skills by a work supervisor, to Jessica and Caroline trying on their formal dresses together. While it might have benefited from even more exploration of the things that make these young people unlike many of their peers, it reaches its climax with a lovely portrait of one special occasion, when they (and their parents) enjoy a rite of passage it might have seemed they'd never experience. (SR)
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