Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Sundance Film Festival Capsules: Day 5

Southside With You, Lo and Behold, Manchester By The Sea, Weiner, Sand Storm, Holy Hell

Posted By on January 26, 2016, 6:47 AM

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Southside With You [U.S. Dramatic] ★ ★ ½
On some level, this enterprise was doomed from conception, because there are only two ways you can tell this story—inspired by one long day in Chicago in the summer of 1989 that marked the first date between Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers) and his future wife Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter)—and both are fraught with peril. On the one hand, you could remind viewers that these two people were just ordinary folks like you and me: young legal intern Barack with his rusted-floorboard car and smoking habit; young associate Michelle fond of chocolate ice cream and willing to jump into the group dancing in a drum circle. Or you could turn it into one of those “origin” stories that shows us all the building blocks of the hero(es) to come: Barack delivering an inspiring speech, or deftly making his white boss feel less threatened by Do the Right Thing. At various points, writer/director Richard Tanne takes both of these paths, and it’s an awful lot of weight for a gentle romantic drama to carry. Sawyers nails the cadences of Barack’s oratory in a way that doesn’t feel like a mere impression, and the chemistry between the two leads is solid as they learn about one another, and even their own dreams for the future. It’s just hard to surrender the idea that this is a love story like so many others, when it only exists because the day that it captures is a day that changed history. (Scott Renshaw)

Weiner [U.S. Documentary] ★ ★ ★ ½
Even though I'm a political junkie, I went into Weiner with some trepidation. Clearly, Anthony Weiner intended this all-access fly-on-the-wall documentary—by a team led by a former aide—as part of his plan to rebound from the sexting scandal that forced him out of Congress, documenting his glorious run to mayor of New York. What happened instead was a real-time campaign meltdown as a new round of scandals broke. As a result, we got not only that, but also similar-in-concept yet contrasting-in-details portrayals of Weiner and wife Huma Abedin (a key Hillary Clinton aide) as political beings to the core. The film won my confidence right away by cutting from a famous Weiner rant on the House floor about the irrelevance of procedure and legalisms, to his engaging in lawyerly spin about the first round of texting scandals, a cycle that continues throughout the movie. Weiner is so convinced of his own righteousness that he can't even avoid an argument at a bakery-store door. Abedin, meanwhile, comes across as wiser but in an even more political vein, generally staying off to the side, taking advice from “Phillippe” (Reines, another key Hillary Clinton aide) and knowing that Weiner is his own worst enemy. Nor does the film duck the obvious conflict-of-interest questions; seeing Weiner order the cameras out of the room underlines that this is a man for whom “spin” and “image” are features, not bugs. (Victor Morton)

Sand Storm [World Dramatic] ★ ★ ★ ½
There may be plenty of cultural specificity to Elite Zexer’s story, but it also proves to be wonderfully universal about the often-fraught relationships between mothers and their adolescent daughters. In a Bedouin tribal village in Israel, Suliman (Haitham Omari) has just taken a second wife, creating tensions with his first wife, Jalila (Ruba Blal-Asfour), even as their teenage daughter Layla (Lamis Ammar) risks scandal by having a boyfriend. All three central performances are tremendous, as Zexer’s narrative evolves from Layla’s sense that Suliman will be the “cool parent” who will understand her independent spirit, and incorporates the connection between Jalila’s reactions to Layla and the degradation of seeming to take second place to Suliman’s younger second wife. But the key sequence may involve a brief glimpse of Jalila’s interactions with her own mother, hinting at cycles of women pulling their daughters into the rigidity and disappointment of their own lives. As both Layla and Jalila consider self-sacrificing choices to help the other, these characters become far richer and more complex than simply place-holders for finger-wagging about life in a tradition-bound society. (SR)

Manchester By The Sea
[Premieres] ★ ★ ★ ½
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Like writer/director Kenneth Lonergan’s masterpiece Margaret, Manchester By The Sea is a kind of symphony of sadness, exploring the lives of people unable to fully process the tragedies that have changed them forever. At the center of this one is Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), a Boston handyman who returns to his seaside Massachusetts hometown after the death of his brother (Kyle Chandler) to help look after his 16-year-old nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Lonergan weaves his way through many shades of grief, wise enough to understand that it never takes only one form. And he has Affleck’s tremendous performance as Lee to serve as his anchor, portraying a simple man whose response to tragedy spins from unprovoked violence to complete emotional shut-down; one crucial scene between Affleck and Michelle Williams (as his ex-wife) is almost unbearable in its authenticity. It feels as though Manchester is reaching for a wrenching emotional crescendo as Lee and Patrick deal with loss in their own unique ways, and that strain—unlike the almost supernaturally operatic quality of Margaret—is perhaps the only thing holding the movie back from greatness. It’s at its best when heartbreak exists in a place that almost can’t be spoken. (SR)

Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World [Documentary Premieres] ★ ★ ★ ½
Here's Werner Herzog in Bigthink territory, making his own version of Errol Morris's cosmos film Fast, Cheap and Out of Control. Lo and Behold is insanely ambitious, attempting to tell the history of the Internet and all its impacts—past, present and future—per the subtitle. Heady beyond belief, such a synoptic scope barrels you through, even if, as is inevitably the case, some of the talking heads and futurist predictions set off your bovine excrement detector. There's also plenty for my inner Luddite; the last image of a cleansing fire, as people sit in a radiation-free zone, feels downright cathartic. As usual for his documentaries, Herzog both narrates and includes interview footage that resembles tableaux—long-shots, blocked at odd angles, some maintaining silence, and saying strange or bizarre things in deadpan style. The narration is hilarious in that now-easily-parodied Prussian existentialist gruff, my favorite moment being when a talking head suggests that robots could be making movies “maybe even as good as yours.” One interview rubbed me the wrong way: a family describing receiving via e-mail pictures of their near-beheaded daughter, which becomes the mother calling the internet literally Satanic, and the source of evil in the world. The empathetic objectivity of Morris's Interrotron was needed here, not Stepford zombies fussily placed on the stage. (VM)

Film Hawk
[Documentary Premiere] ★ ★ ½
There’s a scene in Tai Parquet and JJ Garvine’s documentary in which their subject, Bob Hawk—an icon of the independent film world for discovering and nurturing new talent—talks with the filmmakers, unable to shed his role as a consultant. But it’s hard to imagine that, given the opportunity, he wouldn’t have recognized how much more this movie needs to be shaped into a story. Talking heads by the score praise Hawk for his generosity and his dedication to the work he thought deserved an audience, and we get scattered glimpses of the challenges Hawk likely faced as the gay son of a Methodist minister in the 1950s. It only really comes together, though, when we see Hawk interacting with the filmmakers whose lives he changed, like a baldly emotional Kevin Smith, who owes early attention to Clerks to Hawk’s championing it. The idea that the often-harsh business of trying to make art can create these odd families feels like the heart of Film Hawk, yet we too rarely get a glimpse of that heart. What remains is a nice tribute, but isn’t quite a movie. (SR)

Sleight [NEXT] ★ ★
Bashir “Bo” Wolfe (Jacob Latimore) is such a singular character that it’s hard not to wish JD Dillard had found a better story for him to be a part of. You see, Bo is an intelligent young black man whose chance at a college scholarship was lost when he had to become the guardian for his younger sister after the death of their mother, and a talented close-up street magician whose sleight-of-hand skills have made him a valuable distributor for local drug dealer Angelo (Dulé Hill). But the thriller that emerges from that character—as he tries to find an exit strategy from Angelo’s organization after a turf war turns violent—keeps grabbing at bits and pieces from far less interesting genre fare, introducing an obligatory love interest, the sophisticated-yet-abruptly-vicious crime boss, kid-in-peril business, and set pieces that never seem to build the kind of visceral intensity that seem designed for. Most surprisingly, Sleight takes an abrupt turn towards becoming what can only be described as an origin story for a super-hero franchise. That might all sound weirdly appealing, but even Wolfe’s charismatic work can’t overcome the sense of a filmmaker pushing too hard to make his movie awesome, when he hadn’t yet figured out how to make it good. (SR)

Holy Hell [U.S. Documentary] ★ ½
For too long, Holy Hell plays like a straight infomercial for Buddhafield, a vaguely defined spiritualist group of peace and love and healing and letting go and “I am God” etc., that sings slightly repurposed Linda Ronstadt hymns (“it's so easy to be in love”). For at least a half-hour, it's all happy talking heads and historical footage—made by director Will Allen himself—of group hugs and getting drunk on the divine, with no sense, beyond the occasional use of the past tense, that we aren't seeing a recruitment film. Allen is an ex-cult member who became the group's de facto film-maker, and for this film interviewed disgruntled cult members, his two sisters included. Michel, the group's guru, is accused of monetary and sexual skullduggery but Allen doesn't have the critical distance to probe how sentient adults let themselves be manipulated thus, or to detail how things ended legally. Nor does he seem to notice particularities about these sentient adults—who are, for example, whiter than the Oscar nominations. I honestly got more out of an episode of Three's Company in which Chrissy got taken in by Rama Mageesh (“peace and love be with you”). As religious cults go, Buddhafield, whose 100-odd adherents barely qualifies it as an entourage, isn't exactly Jim Jones, much less Scientology—or, heck, even Roman Catholicism or the LDS Church. At the end, I was left wondering what is the sound of one hand not clapping. (VM)
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