Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Sundance Film Festival Capsules: Day 6

Birth of a Nation, Kate Plays Christine, Wiener-Dog, Newtown, Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Posted By on January 27, 2016, 9:17 AM

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Wiener-Dog [Premieres] ★ ★ ★
Todd Solondz’s caustic view of the world hasn’t changed much in the 20 years since Welcome to the Dollhouse, but sometimes he can deliver just enough pitch-black humor to sweeten the despair. Here he follows a forlorn-looking dachshund through several owners: a boy (Keaton Nigel Cooke) recently recovered from illness; a film studies professor (Danny DeVito) whose own writing career is going nowhere; an elderly woman (Ellen Burstyn); and even Dollhouse’s own Dawn Wiener (Greta Gerwig). Solondz has shown a tendency over the years to punish his unhappy characters, and there aren’t many happy endings to be found in these episodes built around the perpetual threat of doom. But he can still nail a perversely funny bit of business like Burstyn’s character having a vision of young girls representing life paths not taken, or a brief intermission set to “The Ballad of Wiener-Dog.” It’s far from profound, but it’s memorably absurd. Your laugh vs. cringe vs. groan mileage most decidedly may vary. (Scott Renshaw)

Hunt for the Wilderpeople [Premieres] ★ ★ ★
There’s virtually nothing in writer/director Taika Waititi’s (What We Do in the Shadows) rambunctious comedy that isn’t built on formula, but when a formula is this well-executed, it’s awfully hard to complain. In rural New Zealand, 13-year-old foster kid Ricky (Julian Dennison) gets what may be his last chance at a home when he’s taken in by Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and her crusty husband Hec (Sam Neill). But when Bella dies, Ricky and Hec are left alone—and improbably become fugitives when Hec is suspected of foul play. Neill and Dennison make for a terrific pair, riffing off the familiar premise of a surly adult reluctantly (but ultimately gratefully) dragged into surrogate parenting. But it really soars thanks to Waititi’s off-beat sense of humor, like turning a child welfare agent into a relentless pseudo-Javert comparing herself to The Terminator while also repeating the mantra “no child left behind.” While it may be utterly weightless, and starts to drag a bit as its premise wears thin, there’s always room in the world for something that nails effervescent silliness. (SR)

Kate Plays Christine
[U.S. Documentary] ★ ★ ★ ★
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Is the world ready for the documentary equivalent of Funny Games? About 2/3 of the way through, I wrote in my notes, “Pretty good, but painted itself into a corner. Can't satisfactorily end except with actress or subject’s actual suicide.” I can happily report that director Robert Greene hasn’t made a snuff film; actress-subject Kate Lyn Shiel is alive and well. But the way Greene did end the movie is elevated by the very dilemma that it tackles right into the ground. For much of its length, Kate follows Shiel doing biographical research to play Christine Chubbuck, a Florida TV anchorwoman who committed suicide on live camera in the 1970s. Shiel’s hampered by, among other things, the logic of suicide, both psychological and sociological. There are rumors that a single tape exists of the suicide, and Shiel and Greene’s investigation nears it. We also see footage of the hypothesized low-budget biopic (made by Greene himself), and the acting is … hard-core porn stars would look at it and sigh. In this vein—an Emile Durkheim thesis disguised as a method-acting doc—Kate is sometimes even a bit too self-conscious and declamatory. But red herrings abound. Greene is now a major documentary auteur with a style and subject (re-use the name of his second film Fake It So Real) as recognizable as Wiseman’s institutional observation or Herzog’s sane madmen. (Victor Morton)

Birth of a Nation [U.S. Dramatic] ★ ★ ★ ★
Even more than Selma, Nate Parker's Birth of a Nation is about how religion fostered black Americans' struggle against official racism. Indeed, it's no exaggeration to call it one man's great awakening—and thus, in miniature, the entire history of Christianity and slavery. The account of an 1831 Virginia slave rebellion, it begins with a quote by Thomas Jefferson about God's justice not sleeping forever, and it ends with a Transfiguration. Nat Turner was literate even as a boy, but that gift is fostered by the kindly mistress using the Bible because, she explains, the books for which young Nat grasped in the library were too difficult for blacks. Turner becomes a preacher, his literacy used by his masters to defuse slave discontent. Before it becomes Spartacus, per history, much of Birth concerns these travels, with Turner preaching to slaves and seeing their treatment. Like Jefferson, Christianity was born into a world in which slavery was ubiquitous, and several New Testament passages reflect at least acceptance of it as a fact. So Christianity could in fact be used as a defense. But in its egalitarianism, its teaching on sin, the divine wrath against unjust rulers, and man as God's instrument, Christianity also has revolutionary potential. Birth of a Nation is about those seeds blossoming in Turner into a then-strange fruit. My favorite sequences are citations of “dying by the sword” and a discussion about the God of love and the God of wrath—not primarily for content, but discomfort for 2016 audiences of who's saying what. (VM)

Newtown [U.S. Documentary] ★ ★ ★
Every time it feels like Kim A. Snyder might drift into an exploitative approach to her subject—the December 2012 shooting spree that left 20 children and six educators dead at Newtown, Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School—she weaves back towards the focus that makes it most emotionally wrenching. She spends time with a few families that lost children on that horrible day, conveying the individual personalities of the victims and the different ways that their grieving parents try to move on, including political activism. Yet Snyder also deftly approaches the subject of survivor guilt, talking with parents whose children survived through sheer chance, and who don’t always know how to process that realization in their ongoing relationships with friends and neighbors who weren’t so fortunate. There’s a heartbreaking specificity to the way the parents tell the stories of their lost kids—one autistic, another so “high energy” that he required a reward system for not hitting or biting—that makes it clear they weren’t perfect, yet show how a parent might now miss all the petty things that can be so frustrating about parenting. And while there may be a one-note reverential quality to the way Snyder approaches her subjects, it’s still a consistently lump-in-the-throat experience. When one victim’s mother gives the father of a surviving boy what amounts to “permission” not to feel sorry about his own luck, it captures something particularly powerful about coming to terms with the terrifying arbitrariness of so much tragedy. (SR)

Joshy [U.S. Dramatic] ★ ★
You can see a glimpse in writer/director Jeff Baena’s movie of the satisfying ensemble farce it could have been, perhaps three or four script drafts down the road. But there are dead-ends aplenty in this tale that finds a group of friends gathering for what would have been the bachelor party weekend for Josh (Thomas Middleditch)—if his fiancée hadn’t committed suicide several months earlier. Most of those friends are also going through relationship crisis—Adam (Alex Ross Perry) dumped by his long-time girlfriend; married new dad Ari (Adam Pally) flirting with a girl they meet (Jenny Slate)—and Baena might have found something sincere in the contrast between those problems and the wild weekend of bro-bonding. But while some of the character humor occasionally lands—most of it thanks to Perry’s hopelessly nerdy Adam—the episodic business feels more like a bunch of ideas stitched together than an organic story. And it starts to feel painfully awkward every time Baena aims for a sincere emotional moment, especially after the late introduction of a bizarre sequence where the parents of Josh’s late fiancée think he may have murdered her. It feels perfectly in keeping with the jumbled feeling in Joshy that it doesn’t actually have an ending. It simply ends. (SR)

As You Are [U.S. Dramatic] ★ ½
There’s something particularly dispiriting about a movie that seems predicated on edgy authenticity, then goes soaring over the melodramatic top without any self-awareness. Miles Joris-Peyrafitte’s drama is framed by an ominous gunshot and a series of police interrogation interviews, somehow connected to Jack (Owen Campbell) and Mark (Charlie Heaton), two high-school seniors who meet when Jack’s mom and Mark’s dad begin dating. There are a few weirdly playful touches in Joris-Peyrafitte’s direction—like a POV camera through a spin-the-bottle—and a unique dynamic as the two boys become friends with Sarah (Amandla Stenberg). But the tale quickly takes a turn for the lurid, with domestic violence scored to distorted guitars, and an effort to make the boys’ complex relationship somehow more “dangerous” by making the time frame just after the suicide of Kurt Cobain. The hand-held jitter-cam clangs hard against elements that feel like they belong in a parody of the kind of movie this becomes. If you feared you’d never find a movie where repressed homosexuality is manifested through someone shattering a car window with a dildo, lay those fears to rest. (SR)

The Land of the Enlightened [World Documentary] ★ ★ ★
As President Obama announces the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, some tweens hatch an unspecified plan, and a red kerchief blows around ominous nature shots of Afghanistan. An offscreen narrator tells a story involving Genghis Khan, God splitting up the world, and a literal cat-fight that becomes an omen haunting the titular land to this day. U.S. troops also appear, but mostly just direct heavy-weapons fire and cheer the effects in between weightlifting sessions and bro' tomfoolery. We have no idea who are the targets those huge explosions kill, and director Pieter-Jan De Pue's cuts as if it may be, or may as well be, one of the Afghan groups we've seen. The Land of the Enlightened is a rare film that is both unapologetically gorgeous (indeed, it sometimes tries too hard in that respect) and utterly without illusion. There are ultra-long shots of tiny groups of men inching across vast landscapes, and sudden splashes of color from a flower field. But then you remember these are poppies, which is to say, opium. These kids are not naifs, but an assault-weapon-wielding drug-gang (and yes, they get used) that raids convoys, deals in black heroin, sells mines for scrap and kills a goat on camera only to squabble over who eats the brains and eyes. And yet … these kids still aren't Lord of the Flies monsters. They're just who they are. (VM)

A Flag Without a Country [World Documentary] ★ ★
You can see what veteran Kurdish director Bahman Ghobadi was going for: a semi-ironic diptych of pilot Nariman Anwar and singer Helly Luv trying to recruit Kurdish children displaced by ISIS and the Syrian civil war. The pair have peaceful pursuits in mind, specifically building a commercial airplane and finding extras to shoot a video. But the children, victims of the third major displacement of Kurds in the last few decades (the adults were involved in the first two when children themselves), have other ideas. When asked to perform music, one boy starts a war song, and another plays a funereal dirge (the other kids respond well to both). And when asked why they want to learn to fly, the kids want to destroy ISIS. Not only do the adults' plans not go well, but by the end, both have taken up arms themselves. Reading over that, it sounds intriguing, right—and a little bit like “rain on your wedding day”? But Ghobadi doesn't cut for comedy, and there's just no dramatic juice, as the kids are an undifferentiated mass and Anwar and Luv are symbols, not characters. Ghobadi also flashes back to Anwar's and Luv's childhoods via re-creations that can best be described as rote and awkwardly acted. Flag really feels more like a 60 Minutes segment or a video report for UNESCO than a movie. (VM)
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