Monday, January 25, 2016

Sundance Film Festival Capsules: Day 4

Tickled, Certain Women, Love and Friendship, Under the Shadow, Plaza de la Soledad

Posted By on January 25, 2016, 6:00 AM

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Tickled [World Documentary] ★ ★ ★ ½
New Zealand journalist David Farrier thought he was just going to find a subject for his light-hearted, pop-culture-focused features when he started investigating videos he found online for “Competitive Endurance Tickling.” Instead, he found the subject for a documentary that just gets weirder, funnier, more fascinating and more layered as it goes. Farrier (who co-directed with Dylan Reeve) begins trying to understand why the media company that promoted these tickling videos responded to him with insults, harassment and legal threats, and in so doing uncovers a story that could go back 20 years. And while on some level this is an inspiring story about a reporter doing the hard, potentially dangerous work of exposing a criminal, it also digs into hidden fetish sub-cultures, and how it might twist people that those sub-cultures need to remain hidden—and does all of this while remaining thoroughly entertaining. Even as Farrier begins moving toward the possibility of exposing this story’s mysterious and elusive “villain,” Tickled also forces viewers to confront the sad, human face of what it looks like when shame turns toxic. (Scott Renshaw)

Certain Women [Premieres] ★ ★ ★
… although it'd be 3.5 or 4 stars for the first and third stories, and less than that for the middle one. The three Montana-set short stories by Maile Meloy are told consecutively with slight (and dramatically irrelevant) interlockings; three codas follow at the end, and they are not otherwise demarcated by title cards or the like. Laura Dern is a lawyer for a laborer being screwed over in a workman's-compensation case; Michelle Williams and her husband are trying to acquire stone to build an authentic home; and Lily Gladstone sits in on a school-law class taught by Kristen Stewart. The materialist Reichardt again convincingly creates a real world on the screen, a physical space of working-class, rural not-quite-poverty amid natural sounds, animals and vistas that are almost as dingy as they are gorgeous. And she doesn't play these backward backgrounds for laughs, as recent Alexander Payne might. Dern and Jared Harris as the worker give great performances in a semi-thriller that, by Reichardt's standards, moves downright briskly. In the coda, Harris seems almost happy in a context that's ... surprising. The Gladstone-Stewart segment is slow and repetitive, following the cycles of a twice-weekly class and dinner. But slowness works here, letting a (one-sided) crush grow and then show the aftermath in a lengthy drive-away close-up. The one unsuccessful segment belongs to Williams, as there are just no dramatic stakes, though Rene Auberjonois, as an old man selling his legacy, gets the film's best moment—a reflection in a window. (Victor Morton)

Under the Shadow [Midnight] ★ ★ ★ ½
You know you’re in the hands of a master when the “villain” in a horror film, whic
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h thrusts your heart into your  throat with that sudden smash cut or whip of the camera is … a piece of cloth. For all its shocks, Babak Anvari’s Under the Shadow has little gore, instead having more the aura of an old-school ghost story, like the original The Haunting or The Others. Set in Tehran near the end of the Iran-Iraq war—a period of missile attacks by Saddam Hussein and associated blackouts and bomb shelters—the film begins with a woman begging to be let back into medical school, from which she’d been suspended for Islamist unreliability; she does such satanic things as own a VCR and exercise to Jane Fonda videos in tank tops. Comparison with The Babadook—the out-of-nowhere darling here in 2014—is inevitable, beyond being slow-burn horror movies by first-time directors. Both are about a mother and child losing their sanity in a fatherless, high-stress situation, when one of the child's favorite objects becomes a cursed talisman. And in both films, the scares are not merely a visceral effect, but resonate outside the film—in this case, both the shell-shock of civilians during wartime and the status of women in Iran, where the meaning of an all-enveloping piece of cloth is obvious but (thankfully) never pushed as such. (VM)

Love and Friendship [Premieres] ★ ★ ★ ★
Mr. Whit Stillman is the master of the subordinate clause, writing characters who speak in grammatically complete compound sentences, with all the caveats, asides, subtextual hints and rhetorical flourishes such complex structures not only permit, but even encourage. Thematically, his interest is in love roundelays and character parables where people meet their matches according to merit, meaning those partners whose company and sensibility, especially in their modes of expression, they find most agreeable. Given these predilections, there is no more-congenial novelist for Mr. Stillman to adapt into a motion picture than Miss Jane Austen, whose novella Lady Susan provides the basis for Love and Friendship. The two also find a most appropriate match in Miss Kate Beckinsale whose casual self-absorption as Lady Susan communicates the sincerity and insincerity in every bon mot. On occasion, a Mr. Tom Bennett enters the picture, performing the part of a possible suitor for both Miss Beckinsale’s character and that of her daughter, impressing eligible ladies thanks to possessing a man's greatest worth—a fortune—though the bluntly unkind have been known to refer to him as a “pea brain.” One limitation on Love and Friendship, albeit not in the end a terribly significant one, is that while Lady Susan is one of Miss Austen's great creations, the eponymous novella is not up to her usual high standards, suffering from a lack of emotional stakes, notwithstanding such class-conscious lines as “we don’t live, we only visit,” and a somewhat rushed denouement—though, as always, people are matched with those whose lives and fates they deserve to share. (VM)

Plaza de la Soledad [World Documentary] ★ ★ ★
They share a car ride together, listening and singing along to a mournfully romantic Mexican love song—and slightly obvious though the moment may be in its irony, it’s also a potent opener for Maya Goded’s documentary about several Mexico City prostitutes continuing to ply the trade into their middle-age (and older). The individual stories of Lety, Carmen, Esther, Ángeles and Raquel are full of all-too-typical tragedy—childhood sexual abuse, abandonment by parents, and plenty of victim-blaming—yet they also become fully-realized individual characters as they seek, between time spent with “clients,” some kind of genuinely intimate connection. At its best, it’s a fascinating way to look at the frequent disconnect between love and sex, as Goded leaves almost entirely untouched the fact that these women are well past what would be “retirement age” in America. She simply focuses on the well of sadness and loneliness within them, and on providing character studies of her subjects not just as clichés of “fallen women,” but as fully-fleshed-out characters in their faith, superstitions, humor and generosity. (SR)

Snowtime! [Sundance Kids] ★ ★ ½
It’s weird to see something that starts out looking cheap and goofy turn dark and message-y, but that’s part of what makes it hard to embrace this Quebeçois CGI effort. In a snow-covered rural town, the kids try to liven up a boring winter break by splitting into teams for a massive capture-the-fort snowball war, with shy Luke (Angela Galuppo) and new-girl-in-town Sophie (Lucinda Davis) as the respective “generals.” The complete absence of adults provides a Peanuts-like vibe, and the location has plenty of personality despite the somewhat low-rent animation. The story just never manages to find the sweet spot between the dog farts & slapstick sensibility, and the sub-plots involving Sophie and Luke’s mutual crush, and Luke’s mourning over his dead soldier father. By the time the story takes a dark turn towards “war is bad” lecturing—something you’d figure Luke would already have a pretty strong sense of—much of the loose, silly appeal of the early sequences fades into the white backgrounds. (SR)

Mammal [World Dramatic] ★ ½
How can a movie this perverted also be this discreet and this muted? Margaret abandoned her son as a baby and learns that he's vanished. Almost immediately afterwards, she comes across a teen thug of about the same size and age as her boy, bloodied up in an alley. Before long, Joe is being dressed up in his clothes; this scene occurs after she wanks him in the bathtub, but before they fornicate in that very comfortable (but special-to-them) place. There's an angry ex-husband, a jealous single mom down the block and Joe's droogs. Yet this Buñuelian situation of sublimated incest gets the dourly solemn treatment by both director Rebecca Daly and lead actress Rachel Griffiths, trying to suppress (and often succeeding) her native Australian accent in a working-class Dublin setting. But Griffiths' performance has so much interiority that there's no exterior. Everything Daly does muffles any possible emotional involvement or judgment in the name of sensitive direction. Such scenes as an abandoned kid, another thug's rape threat towards Margaret (I think; the framing is too sensitive) and an implication that her son's death was foul play—they just get dropped. It's an achievement to make an incest movie dull, but Mammal manages. (VM)

Much Ado About Nothing [World Dramatic] ★ ★ ½
There’s an intriguingly subtle touch involved in the creation of Vicente (Agustín Silva), the “hero” of Alejandro Fernández Almendras’ Chilean drama. A college student home for the summer holidays, Vicente meets some rich kids, spends a crazy night partying with several of them, then winds up being targeted to take the fall when one of those kids—the son of a senator—kills someone in a hit-and-run accident. In a story that’s all about the use and abuse of privilege, however, Vicente is hardly a patsy because he’s poor; he just happens to be slightly less wealthy, and just as blithely irresponsible. But the very thing that makes Much Ado surprising—the absence of a genuinely wronged party on whose behalf we can become infuriated—is also ultimately its undoing. There’s no momentum to the drama as the conspiracy takes shape, and no attempt to create an actual villain out of the actual driver. The only villain here is a mundane, almost understood corruption in the system that allows a scion of wealth to escape all consequences because it’s just a “mistake,” and as theoretically compelling—and depressing—as that idea may be, it makes for a film that can’t generate the visceral appeal that takes an audience from simmering frustration to righteous anger. (SR)

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