Sundance Update: Thursday, Jan. 31 | Buzz Blog

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Sundance Update: Thursday, Jan. 31

The Report, Cold Case Hammerskjold, Official Secrets, Light from Light and more

Posted By , and on January 31, 2019, 8:52 AM

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click to enlarge Adam Driver in The Report - SUNDANCE INSTITUTE
  • Sundance Institute
  • Adam Driver in The Report
The Report (Premieres) ***
An elegantly-made information dump is still an information dump, and that is indeed what writer/director/longtime Steven Soderbergh collaborator Scott Z. Burns offers in his paper-chase political thriller surrounding the investigation into the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” techniques. Adam Driver plays Dan Jones, a staffer for the Senate Intelligence Committee who heads up a task force trying to get to the bottom of why the CIA tortured prisoners, and what if anything was gained. Naturally, he runs into plenty of obstacles, and Burns does a solid job of laying out the politics that drag the process out for years, ultimately turning Jones into a target himself. Driver also serves as an effectively righteous hero, even if Burns isn’t at all interested in anything about Jones as a person that makes him such a dogged fighter. It all serves a narrative set up to inspire outrage at both the torture program and the cover-up under the guise of national security, with plenty of folks giving variations on “you need me on that wall” speeches. It’s simply a shame that Burns can rarely find a way to inject either everyday humanity or genuine tension into the story. No matter how infuriating these events might be, there are only so many times you can watch someone sit down and explain something that happened. (Scott Renshaw)

Cold Case Hammerskjöld
(World Documentary) ****
After a Sundance week in which I only graded one film higher than 3 stars, the lukewarmness ends. This is is one of the best films I’ve ever seen on the day’s most important theme: will to believe, selective credulity, showmanship and truthiness. It’s a “documentary”—seldom has that word been more simultaneously accurate and misleading—about the 1961 plane crash in now-Zambia that killed United Nations Secretary-General Dag Hammerskjöld on a mission to Congo. Danish director Mads Brügger—a showman equal parts Nick Broomfield and Lars Von Trier—resolves to solve the crash, the subject of conspiracy theories and half-explanations since before he was born. How seriously this is can be inferred from, among other things, how Brügger deconstructs the conventions of investigative documentaries, his clownish persona and the kit he and Swedish activist Göran Björkdahl gather to excavate the buried plane (e.g. hats “for our Scandinavian skin”). The film takes numerous twists and turns, some rebutted as unveiled, that I won’t spoil. But the narrative closure we the audience want and Brügger “must” provide, comes mostly from an explosive side claim, unrelated to Hammerskjöld. It makes a great “wow” hook, and fits prevalent narratives. And, just like Brügger’s plan to expose North Korea in The Red Chapel, it’s obviously implausible. Thankfully, Brügger’s opening apology told us that. (Victor Morton)

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Light from Light (NEXT) ****
I’m tempted to call Paul Harrill’s masterfully crafted second feature (after Something, Anything) the first ghost story I’ve ever seen that I completely believe. While the characters and events are fictional, they’re as persuasively true to life as the best of (for example) Lonergan or Linklater. No whiff of horror tropes or supernatural fantasy begs our suspension of disbelief. You probably know someone who reports having experienced something uncanny; perhaps it’s happened to you. Light From Light is set amid such circumstances, but while it is about whether or not there is a ghost, it’s more about characters grappling with what it means if there is. Marin Ireland is effortlessly compelling as Sheila, a car-rental worker living in East Tennessee who may have a gift of paranormal sensitivity. A part-time paranormal investigator, she agrees to help a grieving widower (a quietly effective Jim Gaffigan) whose late wife may not be wholly gone from the farmhouse where she grew up. Absence and the relationship of meaning and stability are recurring concerns, from the wariness of Sheila’s teenaged son Owen (Josh Wiggins) toward the possibility of romance with a classmate (Atheena Frizzell) to the absence of Owen’s father. Greta Zozula’s atmospheric cinematography and precise compositions enhance the mood of every scene, occasionally aided by the understated ambient score. (Steven D. Greydanus)

Sea of Shadows (World Documentary) ***1/2
There’s a hell of a lot going on in Richard Ladkani’s documentary, but that’s why it becomes such a fascinating distillation of how big issues come to seem unfixable. The specific issue at hand involves an impending environmental catastrophe in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez, where fisherman taking advantage of a lucrative Chinese black-market for the swim bladder of the endangered totoaba fish lay gill nets that also kill vaquita whales, a species reduced to fewer than 20 remaining animals. Ladkani covers the story from multiple angles, including environmental activists patrolling the waters, local residents resisting the government ban on net fishing that threatens their livelihoods, a team attempting a risky program to catch and preserve all of the remaining vaquitas, and journalists trying to nail down the criminal links in the totoaba supply chain. Each one of those components is compellingly presented, including moments of risk and heartbreak, with the director fashioning his narrative into the shape of a political thriller. But the real success of Sea of Shadows is conveying an existential threat created by pure greed, and how hard it is to achieve change when there’s so much money at stake in making sure that nothing changes. The heroes are those who refuse to stop shouting, even when everything suggests they’re wasting their breath. (SR)

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Clemency (U.S. Dramatic) *1/2
On paper, Clemency is the kind of movie I love to champion: a morally serious drama about a social issue—capital punishment—I care deeply about. It stars the brilliant Alfre Woodard, and writer-director Chinonye Chukwu is also a woman of color. The plot is broadly well structured and doesn’t cheat the denouement. What’s not to love? First, the dialogue. It's the kind of movie in which characters explicitly spell out everything. “I know it’s your job not to get personally involved,” the mother of a condemned prisoner (Aldis Hodge) tells Woodard’s prison warden, “but an you imagine how hard this is for a mother?” Later Woodard’s husband (Wendell Pierce) tells her, “I don’t think you want to live in fragments any more. I think you want to be whole.” Everyone talks like this all the time, until finally someone blurts, “You’re trying to explain something to me, but I know”—the irony being that this one time, the film’s best scene by far, the explanation really must be given. Then there’s the cinematography, which is often distractingly dark and carelessly composed. (Watch for the priest’s head and the payphones. An exception: Hodge agitatedly dribbling a basketball in a small outdoor enclosure, going in circles.) Woodard’s chilliness doesn’t seem like a writing or acting choice, but a failure of imagination in a movie that can’t fathom why anyone wouldn’t oppose the death penalty. (SDG)

The Biggest Little Farm (Spotlight) *1/2
This is a very, very, very nice movie. About the circle of life. Our interrelatedness with nature and beautiful biodiversity. All the beasts and the children living in perfect harmony. Like ebony and ivory. (Are you gagging yet?) The problem with The Biggest Little Farm is baked into its very premise: Director John Chester is also its primary subject, along with wife Molly. The Chesters are urban foodies who move to the country to farm all their own food, also in part to let their dog have space. The resulting documentary has the style of an infomercial or corporate presentation. Treacly mood music abounds, as do panoramic time-lapse photos of the sky and even the whole Milky Way as Chester narrates about the kosmos. Since the client here is a lifestyle—coincidentally the director’s own—it gives The Biggest Little Farm the feel of evangelism. And it’s so relentlessly upbeat, not because there’s no conflict; the Chesters deal with animal diseases, coyotes, insect pests, drought and other woes. It’s that everything works out, under the wise principles of guru Alan York. It even starts with a forest fire, flashes back to the story’s beginning, but by the time we get back to the fire, it’s only the subject of a joke about Molly’s packing priorities. (VM)

Official Secrets (Premieres) ***
In our increasingly authoritarian times, it’s hard to imagine a government employee leaking a top-secret memo about government crimes to the press, confessing to the crime, being arrested and charged, and ultimately going scot-free—particularly in the extraordinary way depicted in the climax of Gavin Hood’s decent fact-based politico-legal thriller, a courtroom scene unlike anything I’ve seen in any other movie. But that’s essentially what happened some 15 years ago to Katherine Gun, then a translator for the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters or GCHQ. Keira Knightley blends naïveté and toughness as Gun, a specialist in Mandarin Chinese whose private outrage over false WMD claims during the buildup to the 2003 invasion of Iraq boils over into precipitous action when her department receives a classified memo regarding an illegal plan to spy on UN Security Council member states, to facilitate pressuring them to support a resolution for war. Matt Smith plays Martin Bright, the Observer journalist who acquires the leaked memo, and Ralph Fiennes plays the crusading human rights lawyer Ben Emmerson, whose daring defense strategy has far-reaching implications. Despite obvious echoes of The Post in particular, Official Secrets is ultimately a tribute not to journalists or lawyers, but to heroic individuals willing to defy orders and even break the law in order to oppose the abuse of authority and serve the common good. (SDG)

Monos (World Dramatic) ***1/2
The first two weren’t bad, but my third Colombian film this festival is the one that hits it out of the park. Monos is set in the Colombian wilderness, first the high mountains, then the jungle, among some extremely youthful militia members guarding an American hostage (played by Julianne Nicholson with terror, tenderness and steeliness). Like the terrorist teens in 2017’s great Nocturama, the precise political motives and the specifics of The Organization are kept vague. In neither film do the politics matter, as the point is to illustrate their respective teens’ group dynamics and the qualities of their souls. Director Alejandro Landes pulls off the tricky effect of leaving no doubt that these are kids (they inadvertently kill a cow, dish out rambunctious 15th-birthday licks) and that they are playing adult games (the cow is killed by a semi-automatic rifle, the licks are by belt and only count if hard). In one hard-to-watch sequence, an adult deliberately strangles and drowns a child—but had no real alternative. Especially with nature as unforgiving as it is, too. Landes orchestrates the dangers—from insects to Colombian army artillery—with verve and style, special honors going to the alternately haunting and thunderous score by Mica Levi. In the last shot, the person we see is equal parts adult and child, as orders await on what to do—and that is the tragedy. (VM)

Dolce Fine Giornata (World Dramatic) **
There is, of course, no requirement that a film’s protagonist should be likeable, but it would help if there’s some larger notion behind an anti-protagonist’s insufferability. The central character here is Maria Linde (Krystyna Janda), a Nobel Prize-winning, Polish-born Jewish writer living in her adopted home in Tuscany, who creates a furor when a video of her giving a speech—in which she describes a recent terrorist bombing in Rome as “art”—goes viral. Anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe is a major undercurrent here, and it would be one thing if co-writer/director Jacek Borcuch were telling a story about a respected artist risking her standing to speak against injustice. But Maria seems less like a rebel than like a jerk—not just because she’s carrying on an emotional affair with an Egyptian innkeeper, and not just because she sniffs at giving interviews because “everything I have to say, I’ve said in my writing.” Even the notion that she’s less driven by principle than by self-identifying as a rebel would be interesting, if she ultimately demonstrated some self-awareness. Borcuch’s skills behind the camera—including a gorgeous long final shot—can’t overcome so much time spent in the company of an unrepentant pain-in-the-ass. (SR)

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