Sundance Film Festival 2018: Day 7 capsules | Buzz Blog

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Sundance Film Festival 2018: Day 7 capsules

Hereditary, Damsel, A Stupid and Futile Gesture, Puzzle, Jane Fonda in Five Acts and more

Posted By and on January 25, 2018, 7:07 AM

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Hereditary [Midnight] ***1/2
I’m not saying that directors of horror films are better than other directors; I am saying that horror is a genre that is going to expose who’s got “it,” and who doesn’t. First-time feature director Ari Aster absolutely has “it” in this thriller about a woman named Annie (Toni Collette) who is dealing with the recent death of her mother when she begins to see spectral apparitions, and her family faces a variety of fresh terrors. Lurking around the edges of Aster’s story are possible metaphors for parents who fear what they might pass on to their kids—things like mental illness—but the thematic stuff is almost incidental. This is simply one creepy-ass piece of filmmaking, as Aster shows off an exquisite sense of where to put the camera so that an ominous glint of red light reflects in someone’s eye, or something unspeakable lurks in a dark corner of the frame. And he’s savvy enough at how to set up his narrative and his sound design so that a seemingly innocuous sound like a clucked tongue becomes a harbinger of doom. Hereditary gets a bit needlessly expository during its climax, part of an overall sense that there’s some pacing fat that could stand trimming. It’s absolutely worth that extra time, though, to put yourselves in the hands of someone who understands the way cinema can inspire profound unease. (Scott Renshaw)

The Devil We Know [U.S. Documentary] **
Let it be stipulated that many corporations are sociopathic repositories of corruption, that they do things that hurt people because it is profitable to do so, and that regulatory agencies rarely hold them accountable. That doesn’t mean the documentaries chronicling those evils need to be so achingly formulaic. Here director Stephanie Soechtig (Fed Up, Under the Gun) takes on the consequences of DuPont’s use of the fluorine-based chemical compound known as C-8 in its non-stick Teflon and waterproofing products, and the dire health consequences on people around the world, but most specifically in the vicinity of DuPont’s facilities in West Virginia. We get to meet several of these affected families, in sequences that grab for our sympathy with sad plinky piano music, alternating with footage from depositions that make it clear how callously DuPont disregarded its own evidence of likely toxicity. But aside from an underdeveloped, potentially intriguing look at how company towns can resist any threat to the money flowing from their corporate linchpins, The Devil We Know basically has one thing to say—DuPont is bad—and practically dares you to treat any quibbles with its style as an insult to the victims it portrays. It makes me glad that I never had to watch the Erin Brockovich story in documentary form. (SR)
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Damsel [Premieres] **
I wasn't a fan of the Zellners’ Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter, so if you thought that Fargo-based quirkfest funny or insightful … well, I hope you'd still see this as a labored, telegraphed not-quite-parody of Westerns. The tone isn't farcical; it's just weird, and not in a good way. In practically his first scene, Robert Pattinson saunters into a small-town Western saloon and asks for a pilsner. But Pattinson has such a contemporary persona, I wasn't sure if it was meant to be funny. Other dialogue was distractingly modern: “don't question the validity of my feelings,” “poppycock” and using the p-word meaning “wimp.” But the physical plant, the cinematography and dust and prairie are so utterly authentic and classical, Mia Wasikowska playing straight an Angry Strong Woman, and the film not manically paced á la Blazing Saddles or Cat Ballou, that I was just torn. By about midway through after a (functioning!) rifle with a bent barrel and a dynamite necklace, I said to myself “OK, this is a comedy.” The pacing, however, never improves, and the film then becomes way more predictable, especially the performance of the sole on-screen Native American. The last gesture—a marriage proposal—just had me spitting at the screen. (Victor Morton)

Puzzle [Premieres] ***1/2
Alfred Hitchcock once complained that Ingrid Bergman wanted to play big characters, thinking that would make a big movie; “Why can't it be a big movie about a small person?” he said. Puzzle is a big movie about a small person. Kelly Macdonald (whom I didn't spot, but doesn't deliberately ugly herself up) plays Agnes, a conventional and shy housewife in suburban Connecticut with no life beyond her family (husband and two college-age sons) and church. Agnes rediscovers a girlhood passion for jigsaw puzzles from a birthday gift, and drifts into a friendship with an Indian man (Irrfan Khan) who wants a partner for two-person puzzle-solving contests. Some of the metaphors are a bit thickly laid on, like the broken plate at the start of the film and then its reappearance. And “a bit thick” understates the pleading and syrupy score, especially at the start and the very end. But what otherwise makes this film play (and it “plays”) is Macdonald. It's obviously a self-discovery/“flower blooms” narrative, but she never pushes Agnes's actions faster than a woman like her would, nor does the character cast aside her conscience. The script also doesn't demonize her husband or sentimentalize her sons. Brief Encounter is obviously an Olympian standard for “lifelike non-heedless middle-class affair,” but Puzzle has those virtues. (VM)

A Stupid and Futile Gesture [Premieres] ***
Yeah, this is a Netflix movie that'll be on your TV screen Friday, but at least that makes reviewing it a smart and impactful gesture—a recommendation within y'all's memory span. The first two-thirds of the film is simply the funniest one at this festival, and one of the most inventively put together, especially for the genre of “conventional biopics” (of National Lampoon co-founder Doug Kenney, in this case) to which Gesture superficially belongs. It mostly isn't the borrowed glory of famous bits, like how Bad Reputation stops cold to play the video for “I Love Rock N Roll” for more than a minute, unfiltered. Rather, everyone in the whole movie talks, even during routine conversations, in comedic style, and usually in the particular Lampoon style—irreverent, tossed-off gallows humor, groan-inducing puns and deliberate taste violations. Talk of that sort that has become the comedic norm and even a social norm, all the way down to Twitter wiseacres (Victor nervously tugs at his collar). It's got biopic shapelessness, and the film won't please a certain sort of critic—issues the film at least makes a joke of, via Martin Mull's fourth-wall-breaking narrator, playing Kenney as an old man. Don't worry … it's a narrative device. (VM)

The Oslo Diaries
[World Documentary] ***
The heartbreaking story of a peace that almost was anchors this documentary by Mor Loushy and Daniel Sivan, but it becomes even more heartbreaking as it gets more personal. Loushy and Sivan track the period from 1992 to 1996 when representatives from Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization—initially through secret back-channel meetings in Oslo—began negotiations that would lead to a landmark treaty signing in 1993, which eventually collapsed in violence and tragedy. Per the title, first-hand accounts of those negotiations from the historical backbone of the film, while present-day talking-head reflections add context to the rollercoaster of optimism and pessimism that defined the multi-year process. Some of the archival footage is fascinating, including scenes inside the Israeli Knesset that capture the uphill battle Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was fighting against any “capitulation” to the Palestinians. But the real emotional material comes from the comments by participants on both sides, describing how they were able to begin seeing one another not as evil enemies, but as people trying to find a way forward. The treaty might never have been fully implemented, but The Oslo Diaries conveys the small individual victories of at least trying to see your political adversary as something besides a monster. (SR)

Jane Fonda in Five Acts [Documentary Premieres] ***
The life story of anyone can be a shapeless thing, so it’s a good thing that the title suggests a structure being used to explore the life and career of Jane Fonda. Director Susan Lacy (HBO’s Spielberg) follows Fonda through the key periods in her life, with each chapter defined by the most crucial figure in each one: her father, Henry; her husbands; etc. Fonda herself provides plenty of new interview material to accompany the movie clips and historical footage, all proceeding from the complex nature of her relationship with her parents—her attempts to please the often-distant Henry, and the trauma of her mother’s suicide. The chameleonic nature of Fonda’s life—from sex kitten to Serious Actress to controversial activist to workout-video entrepreneur—makes a lot more sense as each evolution connects with the men in her life, and while Lacy certainly paints a generally sympathetic portrait, she also includes plenty of the Vietnam War-era events that made Jane Fonda one of the most despised women in America. Plenty of folks might not be sympathetic towards someone who grew up in celebrity privilege and made some terrible life choices, but Five Acts builds a cohesive case for one person’s messy process of just trying to figure out who the hell she really is. (SR)

Holiday [World Dramatic] **
Holiday takes its title way too literally. Too much of the film is tourist footage of a group of Danes cavorting around a tropical resort—here Bodrum, Turkey—while some of them talk vaguely about business deals and the Russian and other mobs. The central character, Sascha, is a young moll/sex-toy played by Victoria Carmen Sonne, and I suppose the idea was “make a gangster movie from the moll's POV.” The problem is that the moll's POV is uninteresting and unexciting if the gangster runs his business properly, on the need-to-know basis that keeps molls in the dark. Director Isabella Eklof has some chops, cutting away from scenes upon a sound crescendo into something disturbingly quiet, or placing Sascha right on the extreme edge of the frame while her gangster-lover beats his tribute out of her. And one very “good” scene juxtaposes two forms of assault and their aftermaths. But Sascha is too passive to build a narrative around, the film only stirring to life with the presence of a second couple, a pair of Dutch boaters who arouse the green-eyed monster. Even then, a scene of Sascha in a Turkish police station deliberately goes nowhere. Out of the Past or The Maltese Falcon this ain't. (VM)

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