Sundance 2017 Day 5 Capsules | Buzz Blog

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Sundance 2017 Day 5 Capsules

JonBenet, Blanchetts aplenty and a laugh-your-ass-off comedy.

Posted By on January 24, 2017, 7:44 AM

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Casting JonBenet (U.S. Documentary) ****
The postmodern documentary advances with Kitty Green's Casting JonBenet, a film with nothing to say about the notorious unsolved murder of the 6-year-old pageant princess but a great deal to say about the world that made it notorious. Green does interviews and screen tests for a Ramsey docudrama, mostly of nonprofessional actors hoping to play the four Ramseys, the authorities and two outside suspects. That footage provides the bulk of the movie as they brag of ties to the case that increasingly go from tenuous to personal, from “I drove by the Ramseys' house” to “I lost three kids of my own.” These actors all have ideas about the murder from reasonable (“Patsy did it in a fit of rage, then covered up”) to WTF? (numerology; “Patsy died of uterine cancer from guilt about killing the product of her uterus”). But the actors plan to play the characters differently according to those very conceptions and personal motives. The transcendent last few minutes ties everything together on a massive set as the underlying movie gets shot. It's Nietzsche disguised as a casting call. My one minor beef is there are so many people that it's hard to keep straight who thinks what about the case and had which motivations. But that's a flaw that will no doubt evaporate on anticipated later viewings. (Victor Morton)

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Golden Exits (U.S. Dramatic) **1/2
If the prospect of "Alex Ross Perry's Interiors" sounds enticing, you probably like Interiors a hell of a lot more than I do, or think Perry's dramatic Queen of Earth was a better look on him than the caustically funny Listen Up Phillip. Structurally, Perry's got an intriguing concept for a story set during one New York spring: parallel but intertwined narratives of two pairs of sisters (Chloë Sevigny and Mary-Louise Parker, Analeigh Tipton and Lily Rabe), each where the husband of one of them (erstwhile Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz as Sevigny's spouse, Jason Schwartzman as Tipton's) is infatuated with the same newly-arrived Australian girl (Emily Browning). Perry gives his actors plenty of meaty speeches as he dabbles with the idea of which relationships in our lives are hardest to shed, and he can certainly turn an amusing phrase ("We've already caught up," one tempted man says, "there's nowhere else to catch now but down"). There's just a deadly earnestness to the way this story flits around the edges of fidelity and trust, while providing too little background information about many of these characters to understand why they're so dissatisfied with what they've got. The sun-dappled photography plays in interesting juxtaposition with the copious angst on display, but watching these people exchange unhappy monologues grows wearying. (Scott Renshaw)

XX (Midnight) **
Hooray for the idea of a horror anthology giving women directors a showcase; boo for a quartet of stories that falls flat irrespective of the gender of the filmmaker. Jovanka Vockovic's The Box explores a family beset by a mysterious refusal to eat; Annie Clark's (aka St. Vincent) The Birthday Party finds a mom (Melanie Lynskey) stressing out over a celebration for her daughter that goes horribly awry; Roxanne Benjamin's Don't Fall has campers terrorized by an ancient curse; and Karyn Kusama's Her Only Living Son  deals with a woman (Christina Kirk) worrying about what her son is becoming as he approaches his 18th birthday. Interstitial segments of Quay brothers-esque stop-motion animation by Sofia Carrillo set an appropriately creepy tone, and none of the segments are without elements that work. But where the typical problem with such omnibus pieces is that one great piece is undercut by lesser material elsewhere, every one of these stories struggles with at least one major flaw, from unsatisfying payoff to the need for more build-up to just plain not-scary-enough. Perhaps most disappointing, XX doesn't even pull together four pieces that all have a uniquely female point of view, with motherhood anxieties driving three of them but completely absent in the fourth. Surely there are ideas that are particularly horrifying to women dealing with this world, and I'd like to see those ideas turned into effectively scary movies. (SR)

Manifesto (Premieres) *1/2
Star-ratings are reductive. I was often hating Manifesto, and only reviewing-duty etiquette prevented me from walking out. I stand by "1-1/2 stars." Nevertheless, if you invited me to see it again tomorrow, I'd probably be game, as it was growing on me toward the end and I might've missed its ... unique ... rhythms and sensibility. Writer-director Julian Rosefeldt's takes a dozen artist manifestos—dada, pop art, futurism, Dogme 95, surrealism, etc.—re-conceives them as dramatic monologues for 12 Cate Blanchett characters: a punk-rocker, a Nazimova-type director, a funeral homilist. That Blanchett is a thespian goddess goes without saying, and she commits to the absurdism. But the manifestos, especially early, are jargon-infested, self-pleasuring bafflegab. And the sketch settings have neither a plausible historic context for the words, nor any dramatic or character give-and-take (Blanchett has practically the only speaking role). I mostly reacted to Manifesto by mentally snarking back at the screen ("We see everything and love nothing." / "You said it, Julian"). But then two late sketches gave me pause: one with a news anchor Cate interviewing a field-reporter Cate, and the other involving a schoolteacher and art class. They were extremely funny, and I thought "maybe this film has its tongue in cheek the whole time." (VM)

L.A. Times
(NEXT) ***
Sometimes the most honest thing to say about a movie is “I laughed my ass off” (or “I was scared out of my wits,” “I cried," whatever fits). Michelle Morgan's sparkling directorial debut set among the singles of lalaland is a relaxing poolside afternoon of a film, having charm, caustic wit and charismatic performers to spare. The central character is Morgan herself as a Los Angeles version of Kate Beckinsale in Whit Stillman's Last Days of Disco and Love and Friendship, tartly cutting while smilingly convinced her elaborate theories of social etiquette are clear moral imperatives. “If that's the way you feel, then those are your feelings,” she “argues” … after taking up a yoga spot … during exercises about letting everything go. The biggest laugh I've had this whole festival was at an Ozu joke; I even got a bit concerned about whether the person sitting next to me was ever gonna stop laughing. L.A. Times is slight and the romantic issues never cut deep, albeit that may be part of the point. As for Morgan's directorial skills, they seem merely functional (not the worst limit for a romantic-roundelay gabfest, but a limit. Conversations are often shot in lengthy single-take tableaux, except for sudden odd framings and angles that serve no purpose. However, I did laugh my ass off.  (VM)

Cries from Syria
(Documentary Premieres) **1/2
It's impossible not to "recommend" it on the rawest possible level. The footage from Syria's civil war is like nothing ever seen by those of us lucky enough never to have been in a war zone. The drowned boy on the beach—who became a worldwide symbol of the carnage—appears early in Cries from Syria, and it's not remotely the most-shocking thing in this film. You see people being tortured and mutilated and shot; a concrete overhang even drops onto one man. Much of it is happening to children. And yet: it's equally impossible to "recommend" it on any aesthetic level. It starts off on the wrong foot, with a flash-card explainer of Wikipedia background on post-independence Syria that tells me the hoped-for audience. The last 15 minutes especially hits you over the head with an incessant "emotional" score that frankly got up my resistance. Do these people, including Free Syrian Army commanders, have that little self-confidence? Any human being will feel pity throughout the middle two-thirds, but as the credits played, I said to myself "I'm not sure what to do about Syria; I am sure it's not Cher singing an insipid Diane Warren song." (VM)

In Loco Parentis (World Documentary) **1/2
It’s one thing to apply restraint to an “inspirational teacher” narrative, but this documentary goes just a bit too far in the opposite direction. Director Neasa Ní Chianáin spends a year at Headfort, an Irish pre-secondary boarding school, focusing largely on the work of veteran teachers (and husband and wife) John and Amanda Leyden. The journey is pleasant enough, offering a glimpse of students at work and play, with the multi-talented Leydens leading theatrical productions and music programs as deftly as they handle Latin and literature. But while the goal seems to be offering an insight into how specific students—including a painfully shy girl named Eliza and a dyslexic boy named Ted—grow and mature as a result of their Headfort experience, those individual arcs remain surprisingly sketchy, leaving it unclear how they got from Point A to Point B. It’s actually more interesting at times watching the students discover that some of their current instructors—including headmaster Dermot Dix—who were former Headfort students themselves once were troublemakers. While there’s nothing wrong with a school-based documentary that makes its teachers the most compelling characters, it feels like a missed opportunity to discover how their interactions with the students shape the people those students will become. (SR)

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