Sundance Update: Sunday, Jan. 27 | Buzz Blog

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Sundance Update: Sunday, Jan. 27

Late Night, The Nightingale, The Lodge, Dirty God, The Sound of Silence and more

Posted By on January 27, 2019, 7:02 AM

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click to enlarge Emma Thompson in Late Night - SUNDANCE INSTITUTE
  • Sundance Institute
  • Emma Thompson in Late Night
Late Night (Premieres)  ***
It would be the height of un-self-awareness for a white dude writer to suggest that the main thing holding back Mindy Kaling's crowd-pleaser of a script is going too easy on the stacked deck in favor of white dude writers, but, well … yeah. She plays Molly Patel, an inexperienced would-be comedy writer who lands her first gig as an openly-stated “diversity hire” for a long-lived late-night talk show hosted by Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson). But she arrives in that previously all-white-dude-writer's room at a pivotal moment: The network is considering replacing Katherine because her show has grown stale and predictable. The story rides or dies on the Devil Wears Prada-esque relationship between Molly and Katherine, more specifically on Thompson's delightful, all-in performance as a taskmaster boss watching herself become irrelevant as an entertainer. Kaling lands a few body blows when taking on racism, sexism and ageism in the entertainment industry, and doesn't let Katherine off the hook in her disdain for what a 21st-century audience demands. It also feels like she's playing it a bit safe to make sure it remains comfortable for a mainstream audience ready to whoop in agreement in all the right places, provided they're not asked to think too hard about privilege (like mine). (Scott Renshaw)

Dirty God (World Drama) ***
Sacha Polak brilliantly directs a story that feels a couple of rewrites away from fully realizing its potential. Vicky Knight plays Jade Nugent, a London single mother who has survived being doused in acid by her daughter’s father/her estranged boyfriend, and now tries to restart her life coming to terms with her disfigurement. Polak opens with a terrific sequence that turns close-up images of Jade’s scars into a kind of topographical map, immediately conveying the extent of her injuries. And that introduction provides an indication of the ways the director injects burst of theatricality into an often verité-style approach—dramatic lighting accentuating Jade at the sentencing of her attacker, or the strange fantasies Jade continues to have about him. Knight’s performance effectively captures the bitterness of a party girl now certain she’ll always be ignored by men, and who feels she must hide under the covers to do a puppet show for her frightened little girl. The narrative eventually focuses on Jade’s efforts to get cheap plastic surgery in Morocco, and her flirtation with the boyfriend of her best friend. While there’s strong material in Jade’s ongoing delusions that everything can go back to the way it was, some loosely connected story elements distract from a uniquely intriguing character study. (SR)

The Nightingale
(Spotlight) **
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This intersectional-feminist I Spit On Your Grave is also a superbly made movie in most respects, so it doesn’t offend with its artlessness as Grave did. But it’s a relentless one-dimensional rape-revenge movie. Set in early 19th century Tasmania—a frontier area populated almost-entirely with British soldiers, Irish criminal indentured servants and Aborigines—The Nightingale builds to one of the most searingly brutal double rape/double murders you’ll ever see, and the rest of the movie involves survivor Clare’s chase to catch the perpetrators and exact revenge. End of movie to a beautiful sunrise. To her credit, director Jennifer Kent (The Babadook) avoids fetishizing the (multiple) rapes in the film but still luxuriates in the kill shots, including body-penetrating spears and all manner of violence deployed against practically every named character. The Foley effects are turned up to 11, the shock cuts come swiftly, and the one time Clare tries to use a gun, it fails and she has to get her hands (and dress and face) bloody with multiple stabs and rifle butts to the face. And the villains are so flamboyantly, cartoonishly, one-dimensionally evil (see: the two child killings) that, even though the violence isn’t “entertaining” we’re being pushed to cheer like a walkabout Death Wish. (Victor Morton)

Untitled Amazing Johnathan Documentary
(U.S. Documentary) ***1/2
Andy Kaufman would be proud. As the title suggests, it’s a documentary about the comedian-magician-grossout-artist, but it becomes its own piece of documentary-filmmaking-as-performance-art gonzo stunt. It has more layers than a wedding cake, and the groom and groom on the top (John Edward Szeles aka Johnathan, and director Ben Berman) see their relationship … tested. Szeles had retired because of health issues related to decades of drug abuse, but hits the road again after having outlived the “one year left” diagnosis by a few years, and Berman will film that tour. But to extend the wedding cake metaphor, Johnathan is already cheating on the honeymoon and is keeping around previous flings. Like yesterday’s The Disappearance of My Mother, documentary ethics get foregrounded, only Johnathan has a light touch and a puckish sense of humor (one word: meth; another word: actor). Documentary filmmaking gets deconstructed—every time a new film is introduced is a laugh line—and then reconstructed. Some “horrible” early scenes let Weird Al Yankovic, Carrot Top and other ubiquitous talking heads blather on about how amazing Amazing Johnathan is, and then … they come back, in a  different voice. My only reservation is that I’m not sure how funny this untangling of webs we’ve weaved is once you know everything. I’m eager to find out, though. (VM)

The Lodge
(Midnight) *1/2
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There are a hundred different ways that a movie can irritate the hell out of me, and congratulations to Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala (Goodnight Mommy) for checking nearly every box. The setup finds a pair of siblings, Aidan (Jaeden Martell) and Mia (Lia McHugh), reluctantly on a holiday getaway with their father's fiancée, Grace (Riley Keough), then stuck together when they're snowed in while dad (Richard Armitage) is away. Some of the offenses are mundane but avoidable, like foolishly including footage of a much better movie about people stuck together in a snowy isolated locale (in this case, Carpenter's The Thing). Some are simply personal, like my disdain for using children in peril as a narrative crutch. Some are indicative of lazy writing, like setting up eventual payoffs in ways that either make no sense, or don't provide sufficient backstory to pack an emotional punch, or refuse to go for the throat. And then there are those that are icky and irresponsible, like using childhood trauma, the legacy of conservative religion and mental illness as plot points without any real desire to take them seriously. The atmosphere is effectively moody some of the time but rarely genuinely scary, leaving little more than that ignominious checklist. (SR)

American Factory
(U.S. Documentary) ***
The title card for this movie reads “American Factory 美国工厂”, telling you right away that “American” in the title is going to be heavily qualified. Chinese billionaire Cao Dewang reopens a closed GM plant in Ohio as Fuyao Glass America, and brings in a Chinese staff, but also hires American managers and workers, saying he wants FGA to be an American company. It had to not-work-out, or there wouldn’t be a movie. What follows is equal parts Gung Ho (from back when the economic “Yellow Peril” referred to Japan, not China) and Norma Rae. The latter gives Factory some heft, while the former makes it go down as a pleasant experience, if nothing ground-breaking, dramatic or even that non-obvious. The workers, both American and Chinese, are rather undifferentiated, and the union election is milked for more suspense then the footage can handle. The funniest scene involves a team of American workers traveling to China for the New Year’s celebration, jaws agape at happy propagandistic kitsch that has barely changed since Mao’s time, though it’s now talking about corporate earnings and market share rather than the Great Proletarian Struggle. (That’s progress.)  And it’s two-sided: The conversations Chinese managers have with Chinese workers about how to handle Americans are … shockingly blunt, and therefore discomfitingly funny. (VM)

The Magic Life of V
(World Doc) ***
There’s a bit of a bait-and-switch in Tonislav Hristov’s documentary, but what emerges from this gorgeously shot story is still a compelling character study. The focal point is Veera, a young Finnish woman whose participation in various live-action role-playing scenarios—including, as we see here, a Harry Potter-esque wizarding school, and a first-person shooter mutant monster attack—becomes a kind of therapy for her traumatic childhood with an abusive alcoholic father. At the outset, it seems as though these LARP events might play a larger role in providing insight into Veera’s psyche; ultimately, there’s far more time spent on Veera’s caretaker relationship with her developmentally disabled older brother, Ville, and her fears that Ville might follow in dad’s heavy-drinking footsteps. But there’s an insinuating quality to the filmmaking that makes it often feel more like verité-style drama than documentary—like occasionally filming Veera full in the face from the front, rather than unobtrusively to one side—accompanied by Alexander Stanishev’s stunning landscape cinematography. While there’s an almost anti-climactic quality to Veera’s ultimate confrontation with her long-estranged dad—perhaps inevitable, after the way creepy snippets of home movies make him a kind of monster—it remains fascinating watching Veera create for herself a character capable of facing down her demons. (SR)

The Sound of Silence (U.S. Dramatic) **
Occasionally, a movie just hands you an easy metaphor for why it just isn't quite working for you—and this one is entirely about whether something in your environment is or isn't hitting the right notes. Peter Sarsgaard plays Peter Lucian, a New York musicologist who has devoted himself single-mindedly to researching the impact of sound on people's mental and emotional state, from the frequencies of entire neighborhoods to the way your household radiator might be hitting a dissonant chord relative to your kitchen appliances. That work is thrown out of whack when one of his “house tuning” clients, Ellen (Rashida Jones), doesn't seem to respond to Peter's prescription of a new toaster. It all sounds preposterous on paper, but Sarsgaard plays Lucian's obsessions with utter earnestness, hinting at stuff that co-writers Michael Tyburski (who also directed) and Ben Nabors ultimately don't trust to remain subtextual; “I think you miss out on connecting yourself” feels like a sentiment we don't need to hear Ellen say out loud. But while the plot eventually slides between elements including oddball romance, deadpan comedy and corporate espionage, Tyburski's tonal choices ultimately remain as frustratingly internalized as his protagonist, even while the director oversees a terrifically complex sound design. It's a tune waiting for a crescendo that never comes. (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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