Sunday, January 24, 2016

Sundance Film Festival Capsules: Day 3

Morris from America, Swiss Army Man, NUTS!, Operation Avalanche, Green Room

Posted By on January 24, 2016, 7:59 AM

click to enlarge morris.jpg
Morris from America [U.S. Dramatic] ★ ★ ★
In some ways, it’s the most familiar kind of coming-of-age story; in other ways, it’s completely distinctive. Funny, generous and gently observational, writer/director Chad Hartigan’s story deals with 13-year-old Morris Gentry (Markees Christmas), a black kid from New York living in Heidelberg, Germany with his widowed soccer coach father (Craig Robinson) and dealing with both cultural disconnection and budding adolescent dramas like his crush on a worldly older girl. Hartigan anchors his story on a wonderfully unique father-son dynamic, as Robinson does lovely work as a still wounded guy trying to find a parenting balance between “cool dad” and the one remaining authoritarian. And Christmas evokes all the aching awkwardness of that age, while never slipping into a stereotype of buried anger. It’s not always easy to find compelling drama in a basically good kid and his basically good dad trying to figure out their “new normal” together, and at times Morris’s young object of desire feels like she’s from a much less subtle and thoughtful movie. But it’s hard not to keep cringe-smiling almost throughout, from Morris practicing his moves on a pillow girlfriend, to interactions that remind how much we’re all trying to muddle through the phase of life we’re in, no matter our age. (Scott Renshaw)

Swiss Army Man [U.S. Dramatic] ★ ★ ★ ½
Plenty of festival chatter surrounded walkouts at the premiere of Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan's funky comedy-drama, theoretically connected to the prominent role played by flatulence and erections. And if that is in fact the case, it's hard to imagine an audience missing a movie's point quite so spectacularly. Certainly it takes some benefit-of-the-doubt-granting to move beyond some of its basic premises: A man named Hank (Paul Dano) stranded after a boating accident on tiny deserted island, who finds potential salvation when a corpse he comes to call Manny (Daniel Radcliffe) washes ashore, and the body's farts power a journey that may take them to the mainland, and the body starts talking, and ... stop shaking your head now. Beyond simply being a hilariously bizarre journey—as Hank discovers the various amazing abilities of his new companion—Swiss Army Man uses the conceit of Manny's complete naivete about the human condition to dig into insecurities that keep relationships on a sadly superficial level. "The Daniels" aren't uniformly successful at keeping their philosophical musings bumping up against all the weirdness, but there's tremendous imagination in their visual style. And if you can manage to say something profound about the way we hide ourselves from others because of the things that make us uncomfortable, and do so while parading fart and boner jokes, you've got something special going on. (SR)

Embrace of the Serpent [Spotlight] ★ ★
On some level, it feels like a weird sort of remake of Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, with a Native man and a dying white man on an episodic journey of enlightenment. But writer/director Ciro Guerra’s Oscar-nominated drama bypasses any kind of deadpan charm for a stylishly-made but tediously pedantic lecture on the evils of European imperialism. The narrative weaves back and forth across several decades, focusing on two somewhat parallel early-20th-century journeys through the Colombian Amazon basin—one by ethnologist Theodor von Martius (Jan Bijvoet), later by American ethnobotanist Evan (Brionne Davis)—in search of a legendary plant called yakruna, both guided by the solitary shaman Karamakate (as a young man by Nilbio Torres, as an older man by Antonio Bolivar). The two journeys involve various encounters with indigenous people, all focused on the harm brought to the region by rubber barons, religious zealots and generally anyone Karamakate bitterly refers to as “the whites.” And while a couple of these episodes are compelling—particularly at a Spanish mission turned into the cult of a crazed self-styled Messiah—Guerra seems far less concerned with building characters or evocative images than with having Karamakate tell his white charges “You’ll devour everything” so that we can nod along. Hurray, simple wisdom vs. rapaciousness! (SR)

NUTS! [U.S. Documentary] ★ ★ ★ ½
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If you don't pay close attention to NUTS! early on, you might think you're watching a very different movie from the one you are.  It's definitely a documentary about 1920s medical pioneer John R. Brinkley, complete with talking heads, archival footage and recordings, and obviously hand-drawn animation to move the story along. And it initially seems like a po-faced hagiography about a multi-field visionary in medicine and media who wasn't afraid to be frank about sex—“the Dr. Ruth of the era,” no less! This rebel battled class prejudice, an exclusionary white male guild, busybody government bureaucrats, corrupt politicians in smoke-filled rooms stealing elections, and a medical establishment self-interestedly suppressing knowledge that'll one day be as obvious as hand-washing in surgery. I was hating that film, but among the details that had escaped me are a song's lyrics, the title of one talking head's book, the name and date on a diploma, and the precise source of the “voice of God” narration. The animation is even shown in a couple of places to match the archival footage, and director Penny Lane pushes all the right buttons in the animation. As just one example: JAMA editor Morris Fishbein (“who abandoned being a doctor”) types away in florid language his establishmentarian charges of quackery. Next to the typewriter is a cigarette-filled ashtray. [Nudges ribs and smirks] Clearly a man whose medical opinion can be ignored. (Victor Morton)

Operation Avalanche [NEXT] ★ ★ ★
The “fake(ry) documentary” genre is getting sufficiently crowded as to have spawned subgenres—Operation Avalanche belonging to the category “fiction film about characters who make a 'documentary' intended to deceive,” though there's plenty of “meta” and “4th-wall-breaking” throughout. This deception is that the moon landing was faked, and not by Stanley Kubrick as The Officially Unofficial Story goes but by a couple of fresh-faced CIA numskulls out to save NASA from its inability to build a lunar craft that can return from the moon. Operation Avalanche is cinephile catnip in some ways, even beyond the “making a film” premise: all the movie posters on the wall, the Stanley Kubrick thread, even an allusive The Martian joke. Matt Johnson and Owen Williams, of whom I was previously ignorant, play the Abbot & Costello-like duo getting bright ideas in a mostly comic vein, and then eventually in over their heads. It's extremely impressive technically, mixing color and black-and-white footage, various types of film and video stocks (catnip alert: one discussion of film vs. video “looks”), and the “fading” colors typical of that era's stocks. Operation Avalanche really does looks like a film made in 1969. When a friend asked as I left, “What was the point?”, I struggled to answer beyond “being a funny and entertaining tour de force” (one of the posters on the wall was 8 ½,) so I'm happy with that as an answer. (VM)

Green Room [Spotlight] ★ ★ ★
With Blue Ruin in 2014 and now Green Room, Jeremy Saulnier is specializing in providing Sundance with supremely efficient, lurid and kinda unpleasant gorefests. This time around, we have a punk band so desperate (they live out their van and must siphon gas to get from gig to gig) that they agree to play at a skinhead club. After delivering a literal eff-you to their audience by covering a Dead Kennedys song about “Nazi Punks,” they go backstage, witness a murder and quickly find themselves trapped / barricaded in the titular dressing facility. The managers don't want unsympathetic witnesses and, what with being Nazis and all, they are willing to break moral rules and cut ethical corners (and break and cut other things). Patrick Stewart has a lot of fun(?) as the club owner, and Imogen Poots (as the initial murder victim's gal pal) provides spark, but neither the other band member nor the other skinheads are at all memorable. Like the film as a whole, the visual look is brilliant and ugly—the sparing light gives off a bluish glow, and the sets are cramped, filthy and tattooed with white-supremacist and Nazi symbols. As a totally irrelevant aside, Stewart deploys the n-word once (once more than needed, frankly), and not with a Tarantinesque fetish. This relative paucity didn't make him seem less racist. And Creedence Clearwater Revival might be my Desert Island Band, so good job with the ending, Jeremy. (VM)

The Lovers & the Despot [World Documentary] ★ ★ ★ ½
… or The Dangers of Cinephilic Dictators. The Lovers & the Despot tells an unlikely story from a Cold War that is still not over: North Korea's 1978 kidnappings of South Korean film star Choi Eun-hee and her husband-director Shin Sang-ok. Dictator Kim Jong-il (who has published an actual film-criticism treatise I highly “recommend”) is jealous of South Korean cinema's international prestige, and thinks the North's movies simplistic propaganda. So, let's remedy that by “persuading” a Southern star and director to make Northern movies. Kim was genuinely taken by, and thus trusting of, Choi, which meant she could surreptitiously make priceless audio recordings of Kim—explaining himself, apologizing and critiquing South Korea's freedom in uncomfortable terms. Cinephilia suffuses this movie in other ways; the real-life story obviously makes for a spy thriller, but footage from Shin's films illustrate key plot points and psychological feelings. Choi and Shin also describe in interviews how their professions let them survive, and even kinda thrive. The film also attributes the unlikely plot to Kim being a moody, uncharismatic artist-type who didn't have a real childhood, in contrast to his despot-father Kim Il-sung, who was at least a natural politician (the shots of the two dictators-for-life together are really telling). Thus the last shot is something extra special. (VM)

Maggie's Plan [Premieres] ★ ★
If you can get Ethan Hawke in the Before movies out of your head, can forget Greta Gertwig in Mistress America, never saw Julianne Moore in The Big Lebowski and don't know who Woody Allen is (or “was”) … well, Maggie's Plan would still feel like a pretty ordinary movie, but maybe not such a wasted opportunity. Gerwig is the titular character, and her plan is to have a baby via turkey baster. But a man, married and with two children already, enters the picture at the exact wrong time. There are roles and players here for a great farce about post-modern marital mores among the New York Smart Set, and there's some good stuff here—details like how Hawke's first-marriage kids speak Icelandic around Gerwig. And Moore, along with “pickle entrepreneur” Travis Fimmel and sounding board Bill Hader, chews the scenery with gusto. But the passive-aggressive Gerwig and the man-boy Hawke give performances that belong in different movies, and not from inability to play farce. Hawke plays the same flighty dreamer he always does, and while Miller is (properly) harder on that character than Richard Linklater ever is, her wan direction means everything is paced too slowly and comes off too gently, as if she's a fighter afraid of punching too hard. (VM)
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