Saturday, January 23, 2016

Sundance Film Festival Capsules: Day 2

Author, The Free World, Sonita, Ali & Nino, The Bad Kids, The Lure, Rams

Posted By on January 23, 2016, 8:54 AM

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The Bad Kids [U.S. Documentary]★ ★ ★ ½
Like many documentaries of this kind, this year-in-the-life study—set at Black Rock High School, a continuation school in California’s 29 Palms area of the Mojave Desert, with a population of kids at high risk of dropping out—focuses on a few specific individuals. There’s Joey, the talented musician struggling with his mom’s drug addiction as well as his own; there’s Lee, trying to juggle school with sharing care of his infant son; there’s Jennifer, hoping to graduate early despite a troubled family history. But perhaps the most haunting sequence comes when directors Lou Pepe and Keith Fulton craft a sound montage of dozens of students talking about the circumstances that make it so hard for them to succeed. It’s this sense of the almost overwhelming obstacles facing these teens that makes the work of principal Vonda Viland—who rises before dawn to give individual students wake-up calls—and her staff so heroic. Every individual student’s story is full of both encouragements and despair, making it clear that it’s simply not possible for Black Rock (and Viland) to save everyone. But understanding how unlikely it might seem that they could save anyone makes the moments of triumph—and even the understanding that graduation creates its own anxieties—powerfully emotional. (Scott Renshaw)

[World Documentary] ★ ★ ½
The most compelling element of Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami’s documentary is one she doesn’t seem willing to confront head-on: Where is the line between journalistic observation and being a compassionate human being? Maghami’s ostensible subject is Sonita Alidazeh, a 15-year-old Afghan refugee living in Tehran with her older sister, dreaming of a career as a rapper while colliding both with Iran’s cultural proscriptions against female singers and her own family’s expectations for her future. The real drama begins when Sonita’s mother and brother begin insisting on her being “sold” as a bride, inspiring a powerful song and video in which Sonita pleads for autonomy in her choices. Then the filmmaker herself becomes a key player in the process through which Sonita might have a shot at a different kind of life. And while there’s plenty of drama along the way regarding how these plans will turn out, Maghami only flirts with acknowledging the extent to which she has become part of the story. It’s impossible not to root for Sonita’s happiness, but a better movie would have let us inside what it means when the director is doing more than merely rooting for it. (SR)

The Lure [World Dramatic] ★ ★
In general, my response to the prospect of a musical/horror/fantasy about generally-topless mermaid sisters would be something along the lines of, “Bring it!” But director Agnieszka Smoczynska’s tale—following the adventures of sirens Golden (Michalina Olszanska) and Silver (Marta Mazurek) as they venture onto land in Poland and join a family musical act—is such a baffling tossed salad of elements that it rarely works as any of them. The script by Robert Bolesto tries to create a unique mythology about the creatures as dangerous, asexual hunters with love as one of their few weaknesses, and Smoczynska’s set pieces aim for a wild sense of what it might be like if Jacques Demy attempted a supernatural thriller. Too bad the narrative doesn’t make any damn sense, nor do the lyrics of the persistent synth-pop tunes do anything to advance the plot or themes in a meaningful way. The relationships between characters are generally incomprehensible, to the point where the one subplot that aims for any emotional connection just gets lost in the choreography and random bursts of gore. (SR)

Rams [Spotlight] ★ ★ ★
The title as double-meaning may be a bit on-the-nose, but there’s a solidly effective story at the core of Grímur Hákonarson’s off-beat comedy drama. Set in a rural Icelandic valley, it deals with two aging, long-estranged brothers—Gummi (Sigurđur Sigurjónsson) and Kiddi (Theodór Júlíusson)—whose neighboring farms are both affected when a rare infectious disease requires that both of their prized sheep herds must be destroyed. Hákonarson keeps the reason for the brothers’ feud unspoken for a surprisingly long time, but the specific reason proves less vital than how each man responds to a situation that threatens to rob them of the only thing they have in their lives, since they no longer have each other. And there’s a vein of dark humor running throughout, most notably when Gummi has to deal with one of Kiddi’s many episodes of blackout drunkenness. There may be a bit too much burden placed on images of the stark landscape, as well as that lingering metaphor of the two stubborn males butting into one another like … well, you know. There’s still an emotional resonance to the movies final scenes, which find these two men forced to decide if there’s ultimately one thing they share that can bring them back together. (SR)

The Free World
[U. S. Dramatic] ★ ½
Every once in a while, it takes a movie approximately two minutes for it to 
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be clear that my eyes will be rolling for the next 90. Those two minutes in this case find Mohammed Lundy (Boyd Holbrook)—recently released from prison by an Innocence Project review—talking to a dog in the animal shelter where he works, because perhaps there is some kind of thematic connection to be drawn between his own years in captivity and the caged, abused animals with which he interacts. And it only goes downhill from there, as Mohammed eventually comes to harbor Doris (Elisabeth Moss), who has killed her abusive cop husband. There are hints of interesting dynamics in the character of Mohammed, a convert to Islam trying to escape the brutality of his prison life; Holbrook moves with the twitchy energy of a watchful animal. But virtually nothing ultimately rings true here—not the exposition-dump taunting of every cop he encounters, not the dialogue like “Bury the past or it’ll bury you,” not the relationship between Mohammed and Doris, not even the idea that a man who committed so much violence in prison would be released just because he might not have committed the crime that put him there. It’s the kind of movie where a tense confrontation is followed immediately by a cut to roiling storm clouds, and where the abrupt turn towards a lovers-on-the-run narrative results in a dark plot twist that’s more over-the-top absurd than genuinely harrowing. (SR)

Ali & Nino
[Premieres] ★ ★ ½
Here’s a classic case of the “it is what it is” movie whose is-ness is something you either like, or you don’t; I do, though with some specific reservations here. In this case, it’s an unapologetic throwback to grandly sweeping historical melodramas and adaptations of 19th-century or Edwardian social literature. The story has elements of Romeo & Juliet and Doctor Zhivago, as Georgian woman Nino (Maria Valverde) and Azeri man Ali (Adam Bakri) play star-crossed lovers in the late 1910s, as World War I and the Russian Revolution get in the way. In a bad way, this is the kind of movie where characters have expository lines they would never need to say to each other—“our family ruled Azerbaijan for 700 years” type stuff. Nino’s prince father is played by Mandy Patinkin, and while his being probably the most recognizable name in the cast is a warning, this at least means the major roles go to actors who look right, rather than to white stars feigning ethnicity. Also, director Asif Kapadia commits to the melodrama and literary qualities, and successfully portrays honor societies where snubs and appearances matter. Dario Marinelli’s propulsive and romantic score mostly keeps things humming along agreeably, if never exactly unforgettably. (Victor Morton)

Author: The JT Leroy Story
[U.S. Documentary] ★ ★ ★ ★
Jeff Feuerzig's documentary takes the form of an apologia for literary fraudster Laura Albert, who narrates and looks into the camera explaining (away) the events. Albert wrote works attributed to 1990s cult novelist JT Leroy and took calls as him, but rather than appear as him in public, had a female friend play him (she played other members of an entourage) while her stories were praised for authenticity and relevance. So this went beyond Samuel Clemens' use of a pen name. But it's an apologia we can easily see around, especially when Albert begins citing "truth" claims against others. Like other lying narrator documentaries such as Tabloid or Forbidden Lies, Author portrays its liar as a charmer or conman, and thus audiences as willing to be conned. But what were the conned buying here? Garish memoirs of backwoods-hick prostitution, drugs, genital mutilation, sex abuse, AIDS and more—all before puberty. What tropes were being pandered to, and who held them about whom? I wish “Author” had pressed harder on that, but I'm grateful it's there, and at the core of the film's being. If one swallows Herzog's maxim about “ecstatic truth,” takes as an article of faith that identity is fluid, praises the blurring of fiction/nonfiction line, and thinks memoir merely a subset of fiction, it's hard to see what Author is about. (VM)

Mi Amiga del Parque
[World Dramatic] ★ ★
Liz isn't exactly a single mother, but given how often her Skype-husband travels, she may as well be. “Mi Amiga del Parque” starts with a harried “typical day” montage in which everything Liz does is about caring for her newborn Nicanor. It ends with a shot of her crying in the shower, then stopping to coo at her soon, then closing the curtain and crying some more. That's a potentially interesting film in metaphoric miniature. But in a feature you need a plot or some other Something More, and “Mi Amiga” only has Something Less. While walking in a park, Liz befriends another single mom Rosa, no doubt finding her less-chipper manner more congenial than the Mom Terrifics'. But Rosa seems “off” — she walks out on a bar tab, she borrows excessively, some parts of her personal story don't seem to add up and I was ready for a distaff “With a Friend Like Harry.” Lots of potential threats never pay off, lots of potential alleys are hinted at but never followed … and there's not much discernible point to the non-payoff or the non-following. “Mi Amiga” is obviously going for something about post-partum depression and/or “new mother” paranoia, but the effect is anti-dramatic. It's not exactly boring, but it is kinda pointless. (VM)

Halal Love (And Sex) [World Dramatic] ★ ★ ½
I'd be higher on this Lebanon-set network narrative of Muslim romances if I had a surer sense of what tone it was going for. A great opening scene involves a teacher explaining the source of babies to a class of young girls, but her euphemisms—they involve "worms"—are taken a bit literally by one of the girls. At home, she lets her little sister in on this terrible secret, and the pair take needed protective steps to avoid unplanned pregnancy, to very funny results. This promises a farcical sitcom—a similar premise was in fact an episode of Diff'rent Strokes—and Halal Love (And Sex) has the visual look of classic-era color-video sitcoms, with high-key even lighting, heavy use of closeups and bright colors. Some of the other threads have indicators pointing in the same direction, like a girl who wants her husband to take a second wife to lighten her chores (both in bed and elsewhere). But the thread involving an impulsively jealous newlywed husband has scenes pitched as high as A Streetcar Named Desire, and the fate of the aforementioned second wife comes across (again, assuming this is a comedy) as a mean-spirited evasion that just clangs. (VM)
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