Thursday, January 28, 2016

Sundance Film Festival Capsules: Day 7

Sing Street, Christine, Yoga Hosers, Kiki, Richard Linklater: Dream Is Destiny, A Good Wife

Posted By on January 28, 2016, 9:55 AM

click to enlarge singstreet.jpg
Sing Street [Premieres] ★ ★ ★ ½
Disclaimer alert: A musical romance directed by John Carney (Once), set in Ireland and built on an affectionate skewering of 1980s MTV aesthetics might as well be custom-designed to my particular specifications. But there’s still an ocean of charm in this tale set in 1985 Dublin, where 15-year-old Connor Lawlor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) responds to life upheavals—a new school, his parents’ fighting and a crush on mysterious older girl Raphina (Lucy Boynton)—by starting a band. The resulting songs are, clearly, far more sophisticated than a group of spotty teens could craft, as Carney and his co-songwriter Gary Clark put together an infectious collection of original tunes inspired by everything from Duran Duran to Hall & Oates. And Carney has loads of fun playing with the way Connor and his bandmates experiment with their “look” based on whatever new music style has grabbed their fancy. It’s also built on charming relationships, though—and while the romance between Connor and Raphina is sweet, there’s even more appeal in Connor’s connection with his older brother Brendan (a wonderful Jack Raynor), who serves as his musical mentor and life coach. The story may meander whenever it’s not focused on the music—the villainous head priest at Connor’s school feels particularly mishandled—but Sing Street is simply lovely at conveying the beautiful foolishness of being young, in love, and moved to create. (Scott Renshaw)

A Good Wife [World Dramatic] ★ ★ ★
It’s a dicey proposition trying to turn wartime atrocities into a metaphor for a woman’s mid-life crisis, but co-writer/director Mirjana Karanović mostly pulls it off. She also stars as Milena, a 50-year-old Serbian housewife on the verge of empty-nest-hood when she discovers among the possessions of her husband, Vlada (Boris Isaković), evidence that he may have participated in ethnic cleansing while fighting in the wars that divided Yugoslavia. Karanović links this devastating revelation to a health crisis for Milena, and builds a rich performance around Milena gradually having the things that define her as a wife, a mother and a woman slip away from her. And she effectively places Milena with in a social circle—or Vlada’s army buddies and their wives—where the women seem unable to create an identity without their men. It’s something of an ill-advised choice that Karanović plays the material most closely connected to the war crimes for potential shock value that feels disconnected from the tone of this character study. The things that Vlada may or may not have done feel far less important to the story that how the idea of those things drives Milena’s actions. (SR)

Christine [U.S. Dramatic] ★ ★ ★
Some letdown was inevitable after the great Kate Plays Christine, and its takeaway of “why would anyone want to see a movie about a TV anchorwoman who commits suicide on camera?” The first image in Christine prophetically answers that question “yes, but,” showing the titular Christine Chubbuck asking President Nixon about Watergate and impeachment, only she's talking to an empty chair, a conceit that ends once station co-workers and new equipment barrel in on the set. This is a movie about professional and social failure, one almost perfectly structured (how intentionally, I was uncertain until the closing music cue) as the reverse-image of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. It's not only the superficial fact of a newsroom setting, but also the characters here are like MTM Show doppelgangers from the dark side — the “Mr. Grant” has no fuzzy quality; the “Ted Baxter” isn't as funnily self-absorbed; the “Rhoda” is no help; and the “Mary” has even worse luck with men and a biological clock that's ticking like a time bomb. And while Mary Richards was the girl next door, Rebecca Hall (brilliantly) plays Christine in an off-putting, stiff mode, the kind of person others don't know how to approach. If Mary Richards was the prototype of the successful liberated woman of the early '70s, Christine Chubbuck was her unlucky sister. But after the end, there's always ice cream (for some). (Victor Morton)

Yoga Hosers [Midnight] ★ ★ ½
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If you enjoy watching bad movies, Yoga Hosers is … quite enjoyable. By any possible objective standard, Kevin Smith's latest film is a bad movie, an incoherent shambolic mess that, worse, has elements that remind you of better movies: the Canadian jokes in South Park or Score: A Hockey Musical; the social-media meta-comedy in Scott Pilgrim; and the cheezy-hero schtick in Super. And yet, it has the eternal virtue of never being boring, because it does get across a devil-may-care attitude and has the right scenery-chewing performances. Harley Quinn Smith and Lily-Rose Melody Depp play convenience-store clerk high-schoolers who get invited to a senior party, and battle monsters and Canadian Nazis because … oh, who cares. The girls, daughters of Smith and Johnny Depp, are camera naturals, and as social-media-obsessed teens are very good at cuttingly not giving a crap except when they really really do, because … OMG. Justin Long as a pissed-off yogi, the elder Depp with absurd prosthetics and others get into a campy spirit that's winning even when it isn't actually funny. I've acknowledged enjoying as a boy C*H*O*M*P*SPorky'sElectra-Woman and Dyna-Girl and Herve Villechaize, despite all these things being indefensibly bad. Yoga Hosers is similarly indefensible. (VM)

Richard Linklater: Dream Is Destiny [Documentary Premieres] ★ ★ ★
There's a sense in which it's impossible to dislike or even not-recommend a film like this; director Richard Linklater is an engaging and affable onscreen personality in ways that some great filmmakers simply aren't. And co-director Louis Black—founder of the Austin Chronicle and a Linklater booster and companion since before the beginning—thereby had access and rapport with his subject that few makers of these sorts of American Masters episodes will ever get. There's more than access on display, though. Linklater has been filmed working on-set since making Slacker in 1990, so it's fitting to see him change throughout time, and you do (and tellingly don't) in ways beyond the merely physical. His best films—the Before trilogy and Boyhood—are after all about the passage of time, and seeing people change (and tellingly not) over the years. In addition, such films as Dazed and Confused, Slacker and A Scanner Darkly are essentially plotless collections of moments, so when clips are played here from them and other Linklater films, the “holy moment” effect (as Waking Life calls it) feels organic to a film about Richard Linklater, and not a biopic genre requirement. But there's also a sense in which it's impossible to think a film like this is great. It is, at the end of the day, filled with talking heads and actor-collaborators saying how great Thy Subject art, and thus an American Masters episode. (VM)

Kiki [U.S. Documentary] ★ ★ ½
More than 25 years after Paris is Burning introduced documentary audiences to New York’s underground LGBT “balls,” Jordenö Sara re-visits the world of vogueing and “house” competitions. And unfair though it might be to compare this movie to that ground-breaking work, it’s hard not to wish for more of a sense of discovery. The individual character studies are often compelling and heartbreaking—Sara makes a powerful filmmaking choice by often holding sustained takes on faces as we hear their stories—capturing black and Latino kids trying to survive in a world where homelessness, sex work, family rejection and AIDS conspire to crush their spirits. But with a relatively small amount of time spent on the vitality of the ball performances themselves, Kiki bounces between characters in a way that too rarely pulls them together into a narrative, and makes the stories more about individuals than about the sometimes life-saving relationships between them. There’s important material here in the recognition that social changes like marriage equality don’t instantly trickle down to better lives for all marginalized people; there’s just that missing piece that doesn’t quite capture how these “houses” become a home. (SR)

Audrie & Daisy [U.S. Documentary] ★ ★ ½
It’s hard to watch a documentary approach an important, challenging subject, and walk away thinking, “What exactly was that supposed to be about?” On the most basic level, Jon Shenk and Bonni Cohen’s movie is about teen girls who are sexually assaulted while they were intoxicated, filtered through the two specific cases of Audrie Pott and Daisy Coleman. The social-media “slut-shaming” both girls endured on top of being raped becomes an element of the story, and for a little while it seems as though this 21st-century phenomenon might be the central idea. But as the narrative comes to spend considerably more time on Daisy’s story than Audrie’s, it becomes harder to grasp onto a focus. Is it about the elusiveness of justice for victims, especially in a small town where alleged perpetrators are privileged? Is it about victim-blaming, or the laws that make prosecution so difficult? Is it about the rise of an activist community of survivors trying to draw attention to something that’s still often perceived as not a crime? Audrie & Daisy certainly hits a few powerful emotional moments, but it points at so many different things you could potentially be outraged about that it feels less like a story than an 95-minute venting of frustrations. (SR)

Agnus Dei [Premieres] ★ ★
The situation is intriguing, and the early details well parceled out: December 1945 and a Polish convent has about a half-dozen of its nuns are pregnant. Unlike the similar sounding Agnes of God, there's no question of immaculate conception; this was from rape by conquering Soviet troops early in the year. As births start happening, these nuns have to find a woman with medical knowledge at a nearby French Red Cross camp, because they have no such expertise themselves (at one point, the nuns say they don't need penicillin for post-partum care because “our herbal remedies are sufficient”). The order's rules of modesty plus the era's shame codes make caring for the nuns difficult, and then there's the “what do you do with the babies” question. The French nurse is not religious, of course, but the Polish nuns are believably variegated (though this is no Ida in that genre). But the third act pushes too hard into melodrama, including one turn into outright villainy that comes complete with “murderer” hisses. And then comes the ending, which is so "pat" it should be played by Julia Sweeney. One would also think that a self-styled “progressive” movie about sexual repressions would be past using STDs to punish a character its makers see as insufficiently virtuous. One would think. (VM)
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