Sundance 2017 Day 10 Capsules | Buzz Blog

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Sundance 2017 Day 10 Capsules

Trumped, haunted and kidnapped

Posted By on January 29, 2017, 9:54 AM

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A Ghost Story (NEXT) ****
The idea that a person in a sheet with two eyeholes could represent something transcendently mournful about humanity seems ridiculous, but that's exactly what writer/director David Lowery pulls off in this breathtaking work. It's best to go in mostly blind regarding plot details; suffice it to say that a married couple (Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara) is involved, along with the aforementioned linens-clad spectre haunting their home. But the mostly dialogue-free narrative brings a majestically Zen sensibility to the notion of attachment to places, the inability to move on from tragedy, and how we try to make sense of the purpose of anything in the face of our own mortality. Them's some heady ideas, and the fact that it's mostly dead serious—save for a couple of hilariously terse exchanges when ghosts encounter one another—is bound to leave some viewers reaching for what it all means, or if it's all just a big ponderous joke. But this is one of those achievements that reminds you of the unique power film can have to move through time and space, employing brilliantly concise edits to convey the passage of days and years, exploring our connection to music and places through memory, even exploring existential terror. It's absolutely haunting—and not just because of the person in the sheet with two eyeholes. (Scott Renshaw)

TRUMPED: Inside the Greatest Political Upset of All Time (Documentary Premieres) **
There is one scene herethat justifies reworking a season of episodes on Showtime's The Circus and the outtakes thereof as anything besides a cash grab. It involves Kellyanne Conway conversing with Mark Halperin, one of the show's three political-insider correspondents, and then having Donald Trump himself walk by, unwittingly contradict Conway, and then Conway smooths out the contradiction. It's wise about things specifically applicable to the Trump campaign, and some more general ones, but it's also unscripted and specific to this film. Nothing else in Trumped is both of those latter things. The documentary attempts to be a video-age equivalent of those 1980s Jack Germond and Jules Witcover 700-page quadrennial tomes. But since 700 pages won't fit into 105 minutes, what we get is a mere highlight reel, with two further problems: 1. Too much of the film is correspondents Halperin, Mark McKinnon and John Heilemann pundit-ing amongst themselves, or as guests on other pundit shows, which mightn't be fatal except that Trumped shows them in real time getting everything wrong about this election. And since I doubt the point was “what fools these anti-Trump MSM be!”, the film comes across now as out-of-touch. 2. What is the point of behind-the-scenes access to a candidate who is an always-”on” reality-TV star? Mitt played at Sundance three years ago, but there actually was a man behind the political persona in that case. Here? No. (Victor Morton)

The Polka King (Premieres) ***
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Not that I'd've cared much for Trumped anyway, but my view of it was hurt by the fact that the film I saw immediately afterward seemed so much more insightful of the Trump phenomenon, despite being a broadly-played commercial comedy having nothing to do with The Donald. Jan Lewan, the titular semi-antihero of The Polka King, is as Trumpian a figure as you'll see, and not just because of superficial things like Jack Black's hairdo, the beauty-queen wife and using TV and stage appearances to pitch other parts of his business empire. More deeply, Lewan is all-American con man, a glad-handing carnival barker and bullshitter who pitches “success” and debt, going from business to business, from polka performer to flavored vodka. All while—and this is the key point—genuinely winning over the marks in his not-exactly-evil-intended Ponzi schemes. Black's outsized and insanely self-regarding persona is ideal for a man who so loves America and all its opportunities even after years in the Big House (not White House). So obvious was all this to me, that I got kind of annoyed with the closing credits for not letting me leave Park City without seeing one film based on a real-life use that real-life person in its closing credits. And for lily-gilding and pandering with one photo. I got it the first time, guys. (VM)

Crown Heights (U.S. Dramatic) **
If righteous anger and earnestness were sufficient for the creation of a great movie, Matt Ruskin's Crown Heights would most certainly be one. But they aren't. And it isn't. Ruskin tells he fact-based story of Colin Warner (Lakeith Stanfield), a Trinidad-born Brooklyn man accused of a murder he didn't commit in 1980, and who spends more than 20 years attempting to clear his name. What follows over the course of the first hour is certain to inspire outrage, because that's all it's really built to do: show the sneering detectives threatening witnesses; observe as cruel guards brutalize Colin; watch as a high-priced appeals attorney fumbles incompetently with his papers, or the parole board lectures him. It's pure melodrama—including Colin getting a chance at the love of a good woman (Natalie Paul)—except that it rarely even works as pure melodrama, because Colin is less an actual character here than a cog in the wheels of history, represented by time-appropriate clips of politicians asserting the need for tough-on-crime policies. The second half gets at least a little more dramatically interesting, as Colin's brother (ex-NFL player Nnamdi Asomugha, in a surprisingly good performance) puts in the investigative legwork to help him on the outside. Yet even then, the subplot wrestles with cliches like the frustrated wife who doesn't understand why he's not paying enough attention to his own family etc. Somewhere along the way, a few minutes of subtlety could have done Colin Warner's case more justice.  (SR)

Berlin Syndrome (World Dramatic) ***1/2
Even in the worst tyranny—like, to pick a not-so-random example, East Germany—some form of normal life exists. Tyrannies are set up by brutality, but they don't maintain themselves that way. Except when they must. Which they'd really rather not. These truths underlie the so-called Stockholm Syndrome, and Berlin Syndrome applies them to the “kidnap victim” genre and the city's history, giving it heft beyond being a mere tension machine. It's the first whole film (that I've seen) that could illustrate MacKinnon and Dworkin's theory that all sex under patriarchy is rape. Sorry, I'm making this sound waaaay more academic than it is. Even if it were a mere tension machine that stopped your breath like an expert wrestler, Berlin Syndrome still would be one of the best you'll see. Clare (Teresa Palmer) is an Australian photographer fascinated by East German architecture, and she runs into Andi (Max Riemelt), an English teacher in present-day Berlin with ideas about the communist era that are neither hers nor his scholar-father's. After a night (or two) of pickup sex, he keeps her imprisoned. By force. At first. Then she comes to consent. Or “consent.” Apparently. You can debate how a trip to the woods applies to the Berlin Wall and tourist visas, but you're not thinking about that while the film unspools. (VM)

Machines (World Documentary) ***
"People just come here, look at our problems and leave," says one man near the end of director Rahul Jain's documentary about a massive textile factory in Gujarat, India. "Why aren't you doing anything about it? Why have you come here?" That's a bold coda for a movie that has been finding a kind of hypnotic beauty in the world these workers inhabit; Rodgrigo Trejo Villanueva's cinematography captures massive waterfalls of fabric as they unspool into piles, bright barrels of dye, the stoking of a fire. But Jain never lets us forget that in the middle of this strange place, there are men, worn down by 12-hour shifts making the equivalent of $3 per day and sometimes falling asleep on the piles of the fabric created by their labor. Nor does the film let off the hook those who profit from the labor, as buyers look at the latest samples.  The result is a work with a conscience that sneaks up on you, as minutes-long takes of a single person at a single task says more about the mundane sameness of this work than any words.  That doesn't mean the film itself doesn't become a bit wearying in portraying that sameness, but it's hard not to feel a little punch in the gut at realizing a viewer has the luxury of turning away from that repetition, which isn't afforded to the worker who honestly says, "My only satisfaction is that everyone dies." (SR)

About The Author

Scott Renshaw

Scott Renshaw

Scott Renshaw has been a City Weekly staff member since 1999, including assuming the role of primary film critic in 2001 and Arts & Entertainment Editor in 2003. Scott has covered the Sundance Film Festival for 25 years, and provided coverage of local arts including theater, pop-culture conventions, comedy, literature,... more

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