Sundance Film Festival 2018: Day 5 capsules | Buzz Blog

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Sundance Film Festival 2018: Day 5 capsules

The Tale, Sorry to Bother You, Come Sunday, RBG, Studio 54 and more

Posted By and on January 23, 2018, 6:15 AM

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The Tale [U.S. Dramatic] ***1/2
It feels virtually impossible to separate Jennifer Fox’s harrowing personal memoir of childhood sexual abuse from the fact that it’s arriving at the #MeToo moment, but it’s also fascinating enough as a piece of filmmaking to make it far more than just Trigger Warning: The Motion Picture. Fox casts Laura Dern as her surrogate, a successful documentary filmmaker whose world is shaken when her mother (Ellen Burstyn) finds a story Jennifer wrote as a middle-schooler, forcing her to re-examine her memories of that time. That re-examination is embedded in Fox’s storytelling choices, as flashbacks shift the mature teenager Jennifer though she was to a shy 13-year-old girl (Isabelle Nélisse), and details about past events repeatedly shift and blur: Was it snowing? Was there a fire in the fireplace? As a result, The Tale is less a disturbing story of Jennifer’s experience being groomed by a sexual predator (Jason Ritter)—although it is decidedly that, in ways that are often hard to watch—than it is about the way memory can be bent and shaped to serve as a protective shield. Some of the structural conceits are a bit clunky—including Jennifer teaching a doc filmmaking course that allows her to hash out some issues literally—and one key revelation seems a lot more obvious than the narrative suggests. The real power, though comes less in Jennifer’s confrontation with others than in her confrontations with herself, interrogating a part of her psyche that has to admit that there was pain before she can begin to heal. (Scott Renshaw)

Sorry to Bother You [U.S. Dramatic] **1/2
Writer/director Boots Riley serves up an explosion of racial and social satire that’s sprawling, sporadically hilarious and often just too thematically ambitious for its own good. Lakeith Stanfield stars as Cassius “Cash” Green, a financially-strapped Oakland man who takes a job doing telemarketing and discovers that he’s actually great at it—once he masters talking to his leads in a “white voice.” That’s only one of the buttons Riley pushes as he tackles predatory capitalism in a wide variety of forms, including job security in the form of voluntary indentured servitude and a popular TV game show where you win money by letting someone literally beat the shit out of you. There are bursts of visual creativity everywhere you look—Cash dropping physically into the homes of the people he’s calling; a stop-motion segment that nods to the movie’s debt to Michel Gondry; an impossibly long access code for a private elevator—and charismatic performances by Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, and Armie Hammer as the CEO of Cash’s employer. Riley simply has his eye on so many targets relating to a corporatized world—sacrifices of integrity made to get ahead, militarized police supporting business interests—that many of them don’t have the opportunity to land, or to make it clear how much of the tone is amused, and how much is genuinely angry. But if you want a movie that swings its half horse/half man junk for all to see, this one’s for you. (SR)

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Come Sunday [Premieres] ***
A Catholic critic once derided the evangelical “alternative” cinema of the Kendricks or the God's Not Dead films, etc., as “Junk for Jesus.” And while Come Sunday isn't junk, it's remarkable how closely it hews to that genre's conventions, albeit for a different type of Christianity: inclusive Unitarianism. Indeed, one could even see it as a strength of (or truth of) the Christian story that it's so infinitely usable. Bishop Carlton Pearson (Chiwetel Ejiofor) leads a reprobate life as an Oral Roberts disciple, until the still-speaking God reveals to him universal salvation and a gay congregant shows him the light. The Bishop is forsaken by the Pentecostal sinners, even tried for heresy, and his church auctioned off. And the Bishop wept—then is re-reborn and baptizes himself in the waters of the river. Praise Jesus! Among the reasons Come Sunday is not junk is theological: It has the integrity to avoid the genre's secular/material triumphalism, like the football team winning the Big Game; Bishop Pearson loses his position and flock, and the final “victory” sermon is a guest speaker slot at a classroom-sized audience. But much of the reason is cinematic competence, and in some cases, excellence. Having the great Ejiofor as lead smooths away the risks of lumpy explicitness, and Martin Sheen as Oral Roberts overcomes the initial “cameo” reaction, even getting a grace-note final meeting with his lost son. (Victor Morton)

Tyrel
[U.S. Dramatic] ***
There’s a curious quality to writer/director Sebastián Silva’s psychological drama, in that it’s about a different kind of threat than you might expect at the outset. The main character is Tyler (Jason Mitchell), who joins a buddy (Christopher Abbott) for a weekend at a remote mountain home with a bunch of other guys—and where, it turns out, everyone except Tyler is white. The way the film’s title twists up Tyler’s actual name is a hint as to where Silva is going in a story about a guy who starts to feel that nobody around him gets who he really is, and Mitchell sells that thrum of discomfort with a brilliantly internalized performance. The narrative goes a bit too obviously on the nose by setting the events during Trump’s 2017 inauguration weekend, with Tyler’s fellow revelers almost aggressively obvious in their progressive bona fides, and it’s hard for the shadow of Get Out not to hang over expectations about where the story might go (plus, the presence of one specific cast member makes it feel like a potential double-feature with Get Out of “Movies Where Caleb Landry Jones Makes an Isolated Black Man Feel Really Uncomfortable”). But where Jordan Peele went for actual horror, Tyrel effectively nails the idea that being a man out of place isn’t always about physical danger, but rather about never being able to forget that you’re the “other.” (SR)

Studio 54 [Documentary Premieres] **
I consider myself a loyal adherent to the disco movement, but this easily digestible historical highlight reel—about the eponymous New York disco, and founders Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell—makes me nostalgic for the few years, maybe many years, when disco was misrepresented, caricatured and sneered at or (worse) completely ignored. The opening credits included a card for “A&E Indie Films,” and Studio 54 is the kind of TV special that might be informative if you know nothing about the subject. But while Schrager is apparently giving his first lengthy interview on the era (Rubell died of AIDS in 1989), it's not exactly an untold story, and this movie doesn't provide much new detail or break new interpretive ground. This genre inclines toward overinflated claims or bids for heft, so the great Nile Rodgers blames the 1980 collapse of disco and Studio 54 in part on racism and sexism, which is dubious (as many black or female artists as before were playing on U.S. radio in early ’80s). The moment I said “that tears it” was a montage of People magazine covers while a talking head calls the 1977-79 heyday of Studio 54 “the beginning of the age of celebrity,” which is indefensible. Head-desk territory. To paraphrase The Last Days of Disco: Sorry, I was just trying to get revved up, but … most of what I said, I, um … believe. (VM)

RBG
[Documentary Premieres] ***
If you’re the sort of person whose ideas about Ruth Bader Ginsburg tend towards those expressed on conservative talk radio clips played here—sentiments like “she’s an absolute disgrace to the Supreme Court”—this mostly hagiographic profile isn’t likely to change your mind. It’s a soup-to-nuts primer on the 84-year-old associate justice, tracing her life from her childhood in 1930s Brooklyn, to being one of the few women at Harvard Law School in the 1950s, to her work on landmark gender-equality cases before the Supreme Court as an attorney. It’s all dutifully and respectfully presented in exactly the way you might predict from a CNN documentary, right down to when the cello music will play on the underscore and the stock-footage images of 1970s women’s rights protests. Still, there are insightful moments throughout, whether it’s a look at how she responds to her own status as a pop-culture icon, her friendship with the late Justice Antonin Scalia, or her relationship with her late husband, Marty Ginsburg. If her introvert nature keeps her from revealing much of herself to the camera, there’s plenty in her words as a jurist that convey the passion that drives her. (SR)

Assassination Nation [Midnight] (zero stars)
There's no point in mincing words: I hated every minute of this hateful and hate-inspiring film. Pointedly set in Salem—the better for witch-hunt parallels—writer-director Sam Levinson tosses in every evil, cause or grievance that was ever the subject of a Slate thinkpiece and produces a script that reads like a Tumblr rage fit. It starts with computers being hacked and embarrassing sexual information posted and spread around, first on the mayor. The mayor being pushed to a press conference suicide is great, one of the four heroes helpfully explains, because he was “anti-LGBTQIAA.” Then it's the principal, then a score of students, and the townsfolk blame (the film isn't clear why) the hacking on hero Lily and her circle of besties. Then the gore and the sadism ramp up, culminating in the perpetrator being found and saying he hacked the town and posted everything “for the lulz.” Stylistically, Assassination Nation is the opposite of my inclinations: loudly scored and mixed, heavily edited, fast camera movements and impossible angles, as if Levinson had free-based the Requiem for a Dream quadrilateral climax. By the end, with Lily directly addressing the camera with more thinkpiecey dialogue that 16-year-olds soooo talk in and following a fantasy-empowerment bloodbath and an armed-to-the-teeth stand-off, Assassination Nation simply becomes an exhortation to civil war. For the lulz. (VM)

Butterflies [World Dramatic] **
The first scene has an astronaut “immolate” himself on TV to protest space-budget cuts. It's also the start of a much better film. The second hour especially has the ingredients for a Turkish rural farce in the vein of Green Acres or Funny Farm—exploding chickens, an astronaut suit, an imam who thinks God doesn't answer prayers, a will in which a man makes some odd requests for his funeral, and more. The three protagonists are the dead man's children (we never see him) who come back to their native village to bury him. Brothers Cemal and Kenan and younger sister Suzan varyingly resent their parents and have drifted apart from each other. Butterflies spends way too much time getting the siblings together and to the village, and with soporific scenes in which they hash out “issues” with such lumpy dialogue as “I'm trying to remember a memory I've never lived.” And then the three start rockin' out to Cemali's 1990s Turkish standard “Duymak Istiyorum.” And then they start screaming at each other like Ingmar Bergman characters at the father's graveside, which the imam has just abandoned. The soggy family-drama weighs down a potentially fine 90-minute screwball comedy, turning it into a 2-hour tonal mess. (VM)

Read more Sundance 2018 dispatches here.

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