Sundance Film Festival 2018: Day 6 capsules | Buzz Blog

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Sundance Film Festival 2018: Day 6 capsules

Wildlife, King in the Wilderness, Bad Reputation, You Were Never Really Here and more.

Posted By and on January 24, 2018, 6:52 AM

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Wildlife [U.S. Dramatic] **1/2
Unlike many actors-turned-directors, Paul Dano shows a real visual sensibility for his first feature behind the camera; it’s too bad he’s not working with a story that has more meat on its bones to sustain that feature. Dano and Zoe Kazan adapt Richard Ford’s novel set in 1960 Great Falls, Montana, where peripatetic Jerry Brinson (Jake Gyllenhaal) has moved his wife Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) and 14-year-old son Joe (Ed Oxenbould) to take a job as a golf pro. But when he loses that job, and turns to fighting the fall brush fires to support the family, strains appear in the marriage. There’s not a lot here besides a teenager’s point of view on his parents drifting apart, and the moon-faced Oxenbould’s reactions—to hearing his father get fired, to catching his mother with another man—have to do a lot more heavy lifting than he really seems up to handling. Far stronger is Mulligan, who embodies a pre-women’s lib homemaker with more vitality than she can express in her life, a vitality that makes Joe pretty uncomfortable. Dano crafts sequences with unexpected perspectives—there’s a great moment involving the simple arrival and departure of a bus—that make him a talent to watch. He’s simply trying to stay true to a narrative that’s fundamentally literary, a bit too sedate to convey genuine emotional consequence without a novel's interior monologue. (Scott Renshaw)

King in the Wilderness [Documentary Premieres] ***
Even if you think you never need to see another documentary about Martin Luther King, Jr., this one offers a unique perspective on the complicated man. Director Peter Kunhardt talks to people who knew King personally—John Lewis, Andrew Young, Harry Belafonte, Marian Wright Edelman and many more—for a focus on the final two years of his life, as new issues made that life even more difficult. Those first-person accounts are plenty insightful, as the film explores the expansion of King’s mission to address the unique challenges for Northern urban blacks as well as the Vietnam War. But the archival footage is even more fascinating at providing a little-seen side of King—marching with Stokely Carmichael even though Carmichael couldn’t accede to King’s commitment to non-violence, and even an appearance on the Merv Griffin Show. The final 20 minutes, focusing on the aftermath of the assassination and details about King’s funeral, feels like a miscalculation in steering the emphasis away from King the living man, wrestling with the limits of his own physical and emotional capabilities while dealing with early variations on “stay in your lane” editorializing. It’s somehow empowering to know that even so towering a figure faced times when he just didn’t know if he was doing the right thing. (SR)
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Bad Reputation [Documentary Premieres] *1/2
Not every documentary should try to be (or could be) The Act of Killing or Grizzly Man. I get that, and went into this expecting a biopic documentary. Joan Jett is obviously an amazing artist, the first woman to lead a rock band while strutting about like Mick Jagger or Freddie Mercury. As such she's an inspiration (and sometimes more than that) for every woman in rock since she and her band the Blackhearts topped the charts with “I Love Rock N Roll,” building on her earlier cult success with the Runaways. But Bad Reputation belies its title, shading over into mere hagiography. Studio 54 isn't a great film, but at least the real-life events imposed some conflict and trajectory. Director Kevin Kerslake just piles on The Awesomeness of St. Joan. Come hear about her support for American troops abroad! For animal rights and vegetarianism! Her relationship with her manager being like a marriage! But don't ask too much about the Mia Zapata case, which hurriedly leaves a misleading impression about the investigation. Or why the shot at Joni Mitchell. Or with the bald phase (we see a Roseanne interview), especially since Jett today very much resembles her early-80s look. She's an engaging interview, as direct and clear-eyed as ever; she could have handled some tougher questions. (Victor Morton)

You Were Never Really Here
[Spotlight] ***
I haven't seen a better-directed film at Sundance this year; I also haven't seen a more-frustrating one. Every shot in this film by Scottish auteur Lynne Ramsey, every camera movement, every film and print speed, every lighting scheme, every music cue is the work of a woman with an original eye and ear, with a sensibility, with a detestation for cliché. She scores a loving death scene between two men to Charlene's “I've Never Been to Me” and overcame my initial laughter; she photographs a hammer-wielding rampage through a teen brothel from the perspectives of numerous black-and-white no-sound security cameras, working against the obvious Taxi Driver parallels; and a banal request by several Asian girls that a stranger take their photo suddenly shows unspoken tearful horror in one of the girls. All this is superb—but in service of an opaque story that Ramsey metaphorically mumbles through, and her characters sometimes mumble literally. Joaquin Phoenix plays a private contractor/vigilante hired to rescue a politician’s underage daughter from prostitution. He's as traumatized as Travis Bickle, and Ramsey constantly interjects several confusing and incomplete expanding-flashbacks to some traumatic events in his past. There's also a deliberately anti-cathartic emotional constipation typified by the last scene. However, people who, unlike me, preferred Ramsey's Morvern Callar to We Need to Talk About Kevin should ignore my reservations. (VM)

The Last Race [U.S. Documentary] ***
Long Island is the birthplace of stock-car racing, but no longer its heartland, a decline noticeable at the Riverhead, the island's last remaining track. From the small circuit to the smaller crowds sitting on tiny bleachers, Bristol or Daytona this ain't. The Last Race is a story of hobbyists, not stars. Some of the drivers are apprenticing teens, while the adults have day jobs that director Michael Dweck shows us, from insect killer to a towman touting his garden. Elderly track owners Barbara and Jim are ambivalent about the whole enterprise, knowing that as development encroaches, the land the track sits on is worth millions to mall developers—far more than the track. Dweck mixes scenes of actual races with material from an empathetic observational doc. The latter scenes are hit-and-miss regionalism—no “voice of God” or title chyrons, making the film reminiscent of early Errol Morris or perhaps Les Blank. But the former scenes are spectacular, as the camera is mounted in driver's cabins, on bumpers, on hoods, throwing the viewer right into the middle of the action in a way rare and exciting for sports films. And the soaring classical music accompanying these scenes gives the hobbyists a grandeur that their humble means don't seem to demand, but do deserve. (VM)

Science Fair [Sundance Kids] **1/2
It’s not hard to spot the influence of Spellbound on this earnest documentary, but there’s a key missing component that makes it hard to achieve optimum effectiveness. Cristina Costantini and Darren Foster examine the International Science and Engineering Fair, an event pitting high-school-age students from around the world against one another with experiments and inventions that could change the world, and certainly the participants’ lives. The filmmakers methodically set up the story with profiles of half a dozen or so primary subjects, to develop their personalities and set up our rooting interests, and the students are indeed generally engaging to follow, mixing precocity with the anxiety of youth. The problems emerge once the story reaches the actual competition—including a few obvious drama-building bits like one student getting sick, or a possibly absentee translator—and it becomes clear that there can’t really be an equivalent to Spellbound’s tension-filled final on-stage competition. Not only are the filmmakers not permitted to shoot the actual judging, but it’s simply harder to know as a layperson which of these intricately-designed projects is actually the best, or how a presentation might assist or sink their chances. That lack of a satisfying payoff doesn’t change the fact that it’s great to celebrate science, and kids who dive into it with enthusiasm. As filmmaking, it’s simply an experiment that doesn’t always yield the desired results. (SR)

Colette [Premieres] **
There’s always something particularly dispiriting about seeing the life of a revolutionary artist turned into a conventional cinematic biography, and that’s more or less what you get in this profile of Gabrielle Colette (Kiera Knightley), the French author and performer whose stories of a modern French girl named Claudine—ghost-written for her husband, literary entrepreneur Henry “Willy” Gauthier-Villars (Dominic West)—became an eyebrow-raising sensation in turn-of-the-century France. There are some tartly funny turns of phrase in the script—credited to Rebecca Lenkiewicz, director Wash Westmoreland (Still Alice) and Westmoreland’s late partner, Richard Glatzer—and West turns in a lively performance as the bon vivant Willy. There’s simply a predictable, rote quality to the chronological story, which in theory tracks Colette’s evolution from simple country girl to openly bisexual celebrity with a transgender lover (Denise Gough), but misses that arc as Knightley never seems anything less than supremely confident. The French countryside is lovely, and audience members get to applaud Colette standing up for herself as the real author of the Claudine stories, but this is a life story that demands direction with more edgy vitality, rather than the patina of middlebrow respectability. (SR)

Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist [World Documentary] **1/2
Lorna Tucker’s profile of British fashion designer Dame Vivienne Westwood benefits from its subjects iconoclastic sensibility, and similarly suffers from her reluctance to do the expected thing. Westwood remains a vital force in the industry into her 70s, and Tucker certainly offers a strong sense of her high standards (“I don’t know if I want to show any of this shit,” she says about one line when she finally gets a look at it) and determination to keep control of the business that bears her name, even if that means passing over chances to expand. But it’s hard to ignore that her greatest historical significance is connected to her designs for the Sex Pistols while she was involved with their manager, Malcolm MacLaren, and Westwood has little interest in talking about that part of her life. It’s not as though Tucker ignores that era, making use of archival footage and other interview subjects to fill in the gaps, and the contemporary footage is generally engaging. There’s simply a frustrating gap where the filmmaker wants to draw a line between the present day and the anarchic chic Westwood pioneered 40 years ago, and Westwood herself just isn’t willing to play along. (SR)

Read more Sundance 2018 dispatches here.

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