Friday, January 22, 2016

Sundance Film Festival Capsules: Day 1

Other People, Belgica, Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You and Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang

Posted By on January 22, 2016, 1:33 PM

click image Jesse Plemons and Molly Shannon in Other People - (PHOTO COURTESY GETTIN' RAD PRODUCTIONS)
  • (Photo courtesy Gettin' Rad Productions)
  • Jesse Plemons and Molly Shannon in Other People
Other People  [U.S. Dramatic]  ★ ★ ½

If there were a “Sundance indie comedy” bingo card, this one would hit enough boxes for a jackpot: gay artist estranged from family members; sensitive guy returning to his hometown; terminal illness; family sing-along. That alone should have been enough to sink writer/director Chris Kelly’s movie, which follows struggling comedy writer David (Jesse Plemons) as he spends a year back in Sacramento from New York to help out as his mother, Joanne (Molly Shannon), goes through treatment for a rare form of cancer. Kelly struggles with balancing the tone between observing Joanne’s wrenching battle—with Shannon showing off impressive versatility—and dropping in chunks of off-beat comedy. The problem is that those chunks—a horribly inappropriate telephone call; a flamboyant dance performance by an adolescent boy; a terrible OK Cupid first date—never feel fully integrated into the story about a man trying to re- integrate himself into his family. There’s strong emotional potential in exploring how David connects almost too strongly with his mother at the expense of his other family relationships, and it feels as though Kelly doesn’t trust that narrative to carry the movie without looking at his watch and going, “Time for some ‘wocka wocka wocka.’” (Scott Renshaw)


Belgica  [World Dramatic] ★ ★ ½

“Sex and drugs and rock & roll” is a perfectly good place to start a narrative, but it helps if there’s somewhere else that it can go. Felix von Groeningen (Broken Circle Breakdown) directs the story of two Belgian brothers—Jo (Stef Aerts) and Frank (Tom Vermeir)—who go into business together when Frank gets a big idea for expanding Jo’s small bar into a hip nightclub. The story pulses with the energy of the brothers’ venture, as coke-fueled parties turn into dramas involving the philandering of married-with-kid Frank, and the club struggling with its growing pains between neighborhood watering hole and trendy concert venue. But there’s a central dynamic—involving hinted-at estrangement between the brothers and their father—that never progresses beyond “hinted-at,” leaving holes in the understanding of what drives Jo and Frank both in the ways they’re similar, and in the ways they’re different. Naturally they begin clashing over the direction of the business, and how those potential directions reflect who they are as individuals, yet Belgica rarely reaches the point where—whenever the sex and drugs and rock & roll aren’t at the center of the action—the central relationship can maintain the same degree of interest. (SR)


Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You  [Documentary Premieres] ★ ★

Norman Lear is among the most influential figures in TV history, but a deserved hagiography remains a hagiography. One biographic detail in Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing’s film raised my distrust: Lear quit TV, we’re told, because workaholic family absences drove his wife to attempt suicide. Then a much-younger second wife appears as a talking head. So ... what happened to Wife #1, when the suicide bid is given such explanatory value? Even his seeing a therapist re father resentments in his 80s has a talking head gush, "That's so great." We do see how he actually dealt with father issues—a clip from the classic All in the Family episode where Mike and Archie are trapped in the basement, drunkenly discussing their fathers. Lear is shown crying, indicating where this film could've been great: have Lear discuss his old clips. He mentions in passing that things are too politically correct, but there’s no pushing of the fact that Maude, The Jeffersons, Good Times and All in the Family could probably not be made today, and not because of Jerry Falwell Jr. We do see a short clip of George Jefferson using the N-word, and glimpses of another path not taken (quarrels with Esther Rolle and John Amos over clownishness on Good Times.) But no, contemporary relevance means seeing Lena Dunham and Jon Stewart kiss King Lear's ring. (Victor Morton)


Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang [World Documentary] ★ ★ ½

Does “Beavis's all-time favorite movie” count as a recommendation? Artist Cai Guo-Qiang’s ambition is to build a half-kilometer ladder, suspended in the sky and covered with fireworks. His other works have involved lots of gunpowder and ’splosions, in various patterns and colors, orchestrated and choreographed like dancers. He even stuffs a hollowed-out home in the middle of Berlin with fireworks; some go off and then more go off, and it's like watching an ink- filled balloon that wants to burst but can only ooze out. And there's the money scene at the end which is as spectacular as advertised. Thematically it's … well, who really cares about such formalisms and (frankly) obscurities? Cai's works are awesome with a capital “A”; Kevin McDonald's movie doesn't even warrant a small “a.” The latter does contain the former, but it also contains a lot of filler—family backstory that isn't awful but is neither more memorable, nor more particular to Cai, than what could be told about any of a billion other people in China. There is one good scene, of Cai at a permission and “concerns” meeting with Beijing's city officials that ends with a quote from Chairman Mao. But one should also think what it means that, in McDonald’s bid for heft, Cai and Zhang Yimou are able to complain so openly about censorship. (VM)


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