Sundance Update: Tuesday, Jan. 29 | Buzz Blog

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Sundance Update: Tuesday, Jan. 29

Knock Down the House, Little Monsters, Them That Follow, The Last Black Man in San Francisco and more

Posted By , and on January 29, 2019, 6:42 AM

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click to enlarge Zac Efron and Lily Collins in Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile - SUNDANCE INSTITUTE
  • Sundance Institute
  • Zac Efron and Lily Collins in Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile (Premieres) *1/2
Charismatic psycho killers are a well-established type in Hollywood mythology, but while Ted Bundy was the real deal, Joe Berlinger’s true-crimes thriller embraces the Hollywood myth. Zac Efron gives a committed performance, not as Bundy exactly, but as Bundy’s public face at its most presentable: the smooth charm and magnetism Ted turns on for single-mom Liz Kloepfer (Lily Collins), with whom he becomes involved, and others from potential victims to authorities. But first-time screenwriter Michael Werwie so wants viewers to identify with Liz—to feel that we too could be just as deceived by those closest to us—that he stacks the deck. The real Bundy could be charming, but the man Kloepfer knew was also weird, emotionally abusive and threatening from the start. Efron’s Ted, though, is nothing but sensitive, supportive and romantic toward Liz. His façade never cracks, and not one female character in Ted’s orbit shows any resistance to his charms (the nearly swooning groupies at his trial almost comically evoke Gaston’s “Bimbettes” in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast). The strategy of showing only Ted the charmer becomes an unsolvable structural problem as Liz drops out for much of the narrative, lapsing into static passivity and leaving the film with no point of view, and ultimately no real insight. (Steven D. Greydanus)

Luce (U.S. Dramatic) ***
Much of Luce is the stuff of a great film, starting with virtuoso performers (especially Octavia Spencer as a history teacher, and Kelvin Harrison Jr. in the title role as her star pupil), and the script certainly has ambition as a synoptic film of ideas. It starts with a Frantz Fanon paper, moves onto an illegal firework bag, varying whispers of drunken teen sex, sexual-harassment claims, model minorities, parent-teacher dynamics, racist vandalism, inter-racial adoption, a disturbed family member, Facebook stalking, sharing and not-sharing, and attempts at manipulation both motivated by love and using love. In short, Luce is overstuffed. What all the numerous intersecting threads have in common is people, especially Luce’s white adoptive parents Naomi Watts and Tim Roth, reacting to events based on what they “know”—“My son is a good kid,” “I heard the tone of voice,” various forms of identity politics, mitigating circumstances, alternative facts, etc.—and spinning new narratives according to what best fits their previous narratives. This isn’t Rashomon exactly; it’s more like David Mamet’s Oleanna, in which what the protagonist did or didn’t do becomes fairly clear at the end (though I rolled my eyes at the scenes that go “click”). However “what happened” has become hopelessly swallowed up by “what it means” and Lenin’s “who will overtake whom.” (Victor Morton)

Knock Down the House (U.S. Documentary) **1/2
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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has publicly tried to deflect the idea that this documentary is all about her, but let's be real here: It kind of is. Nominally, Rachel Lears is following four women gathered under the umbrella of progressive activist groups like Brand New Congress and Justice Democrats to challenge establishment Democrats in Congress during the 2018 election cycle. All three of the others—Nevada's Amy Vilela, Missouri's Cori Bush and West Virginia's Paula Jean Swearengin—get time to explain why they're mounting seemingly quixotic campaigns, but the lion's share of the screen time is devoted to AOC. And it's easy to understand why, given her natural charisma and the fact that we all know she ultimately won her race. But the problem with Knock Down the House is not so much that these stories lack cinematic drama because the conclusion is foregone and highly publicized; it's that the film is less interested in the campaigns themselves than in being the kind of campaign ad they all could have used before their elections. Lears certainly doesn't ignore the obstacles facing upstarts, whether financial or institutional, but the focus here is so squarely on making us like these women that we barely understand what Ocasio-Cortez might have done better than the others. (Scott Renshaw)

The Last Black Man in San Francisco (U.S. Dramatic) ***
Like last year’s Sundance favorite Blindspotting, this is a loosely structured, visually stylish, deeply felt Bay Area comedy-drama emerging from the childhood friendship of two Bay Area natives, one black and one white, dealing with a range of themes including male friendship, race relations, gentrification, and urban violence. Director Joe Talbot co-wrote drawing in part from the life of his star, Jimmie Fails, whose character is also named Jimmie Fails. Jonathan Majors plays Jimmie’s lifelong best friend, an artistic soul named Mont, so unlike Blindspotting it’s not a story of interracial friendship; instead, it’s about the threat to black community from white invasion. The central metaphor is Jimmie’s existential bond to his childhood home, an elegant Victorian estate Jimmie proudly tells anyone listening was built in the 1940s by his grandfather, the self-styled “first black man in San Francisco.” Jimmie visits the place regularly and even does upkeep on the exterior, despite the minor technicality that his family no longer owns it and the older white couple living there now don’t appreciate his sense of responsibility to the place. Like the climactic play staged by Mont, which tries to tie together the various themes and threads, it’s hard to imagine a satisfying resolution, which in a way is the point. (SDG)

The Sunlit Night (Premieres) **
Rebecca Dinerstein's source-material novel was full of gorgeously descriptive writing in service of a story that always felt forced and implausible—in other words, not exactly ideal fodder for cinematic adaptation. Director David Wnendt does take advantage of gorgeous scenery in telling the story of two New Yorkers at life crossroads who improbably cross paths in Norway's remote northern islands: Frances (Jenny Slate), a would-be artist licking her personal and professional wounds in a summer internship; and Yasha (Alex Sharp), a Russian-American teenager fulfilling his recently-deceased father's last request to be buried “at the top of the world.” It's hard to get past the fact that the central kind-of-romance between Frances and Yasha makes little more sense here—with Dinerstein providing the screenplay—than it does in literary form, although a wordless bonding sequence is nicely handled. But this interpretation also makes it feel more like Quirky Indie Comedy 101 than mournful character study, complete with Gillian Anderson going full Natasha Fatale as Yasha's Russian mother, and Zach Galifianakis as another American expatriate just a bit too infatuated with his live-action role-playing as a Viking. Too much of the life-lesson-learning is draped in forced wackiness, and the pretty prose that helped salvage the book is here simply replaced with pretty pictures. (SR)

Little Monsters (Midnight) **
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The “kids in peril” trope in serious movies usually turns me off as cheap manipulation; about comedies I’m less certain. But Little Monsters—a zombie comedy that’s equal parts Night of the Living Dead and Kindergarten Cop—felt so tonally bizarre that it never found my comic groove. This typically-broad Aussie farce’s opening credits is a montage of screaming lovers’ quarrels between slacker Dave (Alexander England) and his now-ex. A rebounding Dave helps chaperone a field trip by 5-year-old nephew Felix’s class, in part because of a crush on teacher Miss Caroline (Lupita Nyong’o). But the zoo borders a military base engaging in a zombie experiment, and Little Monsters becomes a George Romero movie with state-of-the-art gore, and the comic element of Miss Caroline and Dave trying to calm the children by telling them it’s just a game. “Strawberry jam,” she tells the kids about the stains on her dress after venturing outside … “don’t eat it.” Nyong’o does the best a person can do with this role, but her character’s efforts, including ukulele singalongs of Taylor Swift, made the whole thing play like a would-be-family-friendly South Park. We get repeated vulgarities and hyper-adult subject matter, AND an earnest sequence with Dave and Miss Caroline bonding as a couple and seriously taking stock of their lives. The bets-hedging makes the film simultaneously too dark and not dark enough. (VM)

Them That Follow (U.S. Dramatic) ***
There's a razor's-edge margin for error in telling a story of Pentecostal snake-handlers in rural West Virginia that doesn't play as pointing at the yokels and chuckling, so all credit to Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage for turning it into an effective meditation on insular communities of faith. Alice Englert plays Mara, the daughter of this community's pastor (Walton Goggins), whose furtive relationship with an apostate member of their church (Thomas Mann) results in a pregnancy she must hide, especially when another church member (Lewis Pullman) asks to marry her. While Poulton and Savage certainly depict the ceremonial snake-handling, the intent is never to single out this belief system as particularly weird. Instead, they're taking a thoughtful look at how people within religious groups deal with feeling like they don't belong, when admitting such feelings might lead to ostracism. And there's a particularly effective subplot involving Olivia Colman, superbly depicting a convert to the faith who truly believes it saved her life. The climax plays out with surprising excess relative to the restrained tone of the rest of the film—it practically becomes Requiem for a Dream's montage of horrors—but using this exotic sect does allow for a wider-ranging exploration of how you move on when you can't believe in the God of your fathers. (SR)

Mope (Midnight) **
A very good movie could be made with this script, but Mope is not it. It would be cruel and unfair to expect Boogie Nightsthe film about wanting to be a porn star, made by one of cinema’s great virtuosos. Like Boogie Nights, Mope really has a different subject than porn itself: the tragedy of an incompetent convinced he can dream the dream into reality. The execution here, however, only sometimes reaches competence. The story is fine—two male friends, one black and one Asian, badly want to become stars and develop several routes to stardom that come to naught for various reasons, some quite funny and with escalating levels of desperation. But Mope—the title refers to the lowest level of male performer and is an insult equivalent to calling a fighter a “ham-and-egger”—lost my confidence early during the “we can be great” conversation between the two wannabes. For no discernible reason, it cut from a close-up to extreme long shot in the middle of a line. And this was far from the only bit of directorial clumsiness. Also, the photography is ugly to look at, the composition clumsy, the acting wildly uneven and the score too often porn’s looped electronica. I’m tempted to take this as meta-commentary on the execution of porn movies themselves. But tedious with a point remains tedious. (VM)

Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen (Documentary Premieres) **1/2
The title alone makes it clear that this documentary profile of Merata Mita—the indigenous New Zealander who became the first Maori woman to direct a feature film, and was a pioneer/mentor in worldwide indigenous filmmaking—is not likely to be hard-edged journalism. Director Hepi Mita is the late filmmaker’s son, and he spends a lot of time talking with his siblings about the effect on their lives of their mother’s commitment to her work when she was a single parent, including her controversial documentaries about racial divisions in New Zealand. There’s honest, insightful material there, but Mita fils isn’t always adept at organizing his thoughts; it’s puzzling that he opts to share previously-unseen footage from never-completed projects early in the film, before we even understand who Merata Mita was as an artist. The strongest content emerges when we get to hear Merata’s own voice, expressing her commitment to exploring issues of indigenous peoples even when they make others uncomfortable. Like many similar projects presented from a personal point of view, there are inevitable compromises involved, but it’s also likely that without the family access, you’d never get quite the same sense of the subject as a whole person. (SR)

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