Sundance 2020 reviews: Day 5 | Buzz Blog

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Sundance 2020 reviews: Day 5

Minari, The Nest, Wendy, Be Water, The Evening Hour, Into the Deep and more

Posted By on January 28, 2020, 7:14 AM

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click to enlarge Alan Kim and Steven Yuen in Minari
  • Alan Kim and Steven Yuen in Minari
Minari **** [U.S. Dramatic]
Lee Isaac Chung’s debut feature Munyurangabo was one of the best films of 2007; I missed Chung’s two subsequent features—an oversight that this emotionally involving, frequently hilarious semi-autobiographical drama is more than enough to persuade me to rectify. Ideally cast and exquisitely acted, Minari follows a Korean family moving from California to the Arkansas Ozarks, where Jacob Yi (Steven Yeun) hopes to farm. Monica (Han Ye-ri) resents this new life, but the arrival of her elderly mother (Youn Yuh-Jung) from Korea helps to mollify her—though it creates new issues for little David (Alan Kim, in a pivotal role). While the bones of the story are familiar, the complexity and persuasiveness of the characters and their relationships are deeply compelling and fleshed out with arresting details (the children’s attempt to disrupt a parental quarrel with paper planes bearing “Don’t fight” messages; Monica bursting into tears when her mother produces packages of Korean chili powder and anchovies; the Sunday cross-bearing ritual of an eccentric, big-hearted Pentecostal fundamentalist who becomes Jacob’s right-hand man). Named for a hardy Korean herb, Minari is ultimately about what we do or don’t put our faith in: reason, superstition, Jesus, ourselves, one another. So many things in life can go wrong—but even if everything works out, is that enough? (Steven D. Greydanus)

The Nest ***1/2 [U.S. Dramatic]
Is Sean Durkin's tense domestic drama a haunted-house story? I suppose that's a matter of how you define your terms. The location certainly plays a key role in the events: a country estate in Surrey where commodities broker Rory O'Hara (Jude Law) relocates his wife Alison (Carrie Coon) and two children (Oona Roche and Charlie Shotwell), uprooting them from their lives in New York so he can try for a big career score. The setting of the story circa 1986 is not incidental, nor is the fact that the friction between Rory and Alison is largely built around the assumption that his high-powered job makes her just an accessory to his life. Durkin employs his unnerving shot compositions and mastery of sound design to take what is in some ways a simple story of familial upheaval, and make it something primal about the way a man can twist his idea of being a “breadwinner” into a threat to the stability of the family he thinks he's supporting. Coon's terrific performance provides the perfect foundation for a tale that recognizes the darkest forces in any house as the ones that keep the people who live in it together from living in it together. (Scott Renshaw)

click to enlarge Devin France in Wendy
  • Devin France in Wendy
Wendy ***1/2 [Premieres]
Of this festival’s two films with a black Peter Pan, J.M. Barrie’s mischievous, heartless whimsy is far better served by this anarchic film from Benh Zeitlin than by Brenda Chapman’s Come Away. Transposing Barrie’s Victorian fairy tale as a Southern-wild fever dream, Wendy is a bit reminiscent of Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are, though with higher spirits and less melancholy. This startlingly young Peter (Yashua Mack, with an implacable gaze) doesn’t fly, but fearlessly runs atop the trains barreling past the Darlings’ New Orleans home. That’s invitation enough for Wendy (Devin France), moved by angst about the compromises of adulthood, to leap from her bedroom window to the train, followed by her brothers, here twins renamed Douglas and James (Gage and Gavin Naquin). Zeitland’s Neverland is a volcanic Caribbean island, and, in place of Barrie’s fairies and mermaids, there’s a mystical leviathan whose maternal presence spares Wendy any motherly obligations. Mothers, in fact, replace fairies in the equivalent of the clapping scene, and represent the preservation of childhood rather than liability to growing up. Very much in the spirit of Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, this is daredevil filmmaking without a safety net—inspired, messy, exhilarating, bewildering, dangerous. In a word, defiantly itself. (SDG)

The Killing of Two Lovers ***1/2 [NEXT]
Robert Machoian’s earthy drama feels like it’s not messing around about its title right out of the gate: Our first images are of David (Clayne Crawford) standing in the bedroom of his estranged wife, Nikki (Sepideh Moafi), who is sleeping with the man she has started dating. It wouldn’t be fair to reveal exactly where it goes from there, but Machoian’s character study evokes some particular things about a couple from a small town, ranging from the single tracking shot showing the proximity of the house where David grow up to the one where he lived with Nikki and their children, to the sense of how quickly youthful dreams disappear. The filmmaker is also somewhat daring in his sound design, as he repeatedly uses non-diegetic noises like slamming doors to convey the tumult perpetually in David’s head. And there’s great material involving the complexities of a family trying to navigate a new chapter in their lives, from David and Nikki’s post-separation weekend “dates” to the differing ways their four children respond to the separation. Right up to its somewhat unexpected ending, The Killing of Two Lovers plays a tricky, naturalistic game with asking what, if anything, would actually constitute a happy ending for these characters. (SR)

click to enlarge Philip Ettinger in The Evening Hour
  • Philip Ettinger in The Evening Hour
The Evening Hour ** [U.S. Dramatic]
Knowing the source material can be a curse, and that's how it plays out as director Braden King and screenwriter Elizabeth Palmore adapt Carter Sickels' novel. Set in rural Kentucky coal mining country, it follows Cole (Philip Ettinger), an aide at an elder-care facility who supplements his income buying and selling prescription opioids. While he deals with the death of the grandfather who raised him, he's faced with complications from two people returning from his past: his long-absent mother (Lili Taylor), and Terry (Cosmo Jarvis), his perpetual screw-up of a childhood best friend. King opens with a terrific landscape shot that sets up the juxtaposition of this beautiful place with the mining operation stripping the hillsides bare, but this adaptation almost completely abandons the role of the mining company in upending these people's lives. And all of the key relationships feel like they're missing key components, sacrificing a fully-realized portrait of a community in crisis in favor of a simple drug thriller. Ettinger—who was so indelible as the apocalypse-obsessed parishioner in First Reformed—continues to who show his depth as an actor, but he's working with a character, and a narrative, that left a huge chunk of its emotional force in some early draft. (SR)

A Thousand Cuts *** [U.S. Documentary]
“We stupidly believe that goodness wins over evil,” Filipino journalist Maria Ressa says with nervous laughter in a private moment with her sister. It’s a nearly despairing sentiment she would never express in public, where Ressa remains indomitably upbeat in the face of harassment and threats amid the ongoing erosion of democracy and ascendancy of the authoritarian populism of Philippines strongman Rodrigo Duterte. Documentarian Ramona S. Diaz (Motherland) takes her title from Stanford political scientist Larry Diamond’s 2019 observation that “The death of democracy is now typically administered in a thousand cuts.” Since free speech and a free press are an important target of those cuts, Ray documents Duterte’s tactics through the lens of Ressa’s fearless work as co-founder and CEO of the news website Rappler, headlines of which frequently punctuate the film’s timeline of Duterte’s actions. To American eyes, the portrait of the Duterte regime is often like looking in a dark mirror—a connection Ressa eventually makes explicit, though no culprit is identified for the suggestion that Duterte’s rise represents an experiment for later application in America. The moral urgency of Diaz’s film, like Ressa’s journalism, speaks for itself, although not all of its 110 minutes adds to the whole, and the second half in particular would have benefited from trimming. (SDG)

Into the Deep **1/2 [World Documentary]
Here’s a rare case of a movie reinventing itself and getting “better” (if that’s le mot juste) as it goes along—though it’s purely happenstance, of a most unhappy sort. Director Emma Sullivan was shooting a documentary of Danish inventor Peter Madsen when the charismatic submarine-builder and would-be-space-explorer was arrested in the disappearance of Swedish journalist Kim Wall. The disappearance and arrest occur in the first few minutes of Into the Deep, so I spent much of the first hour actively hating both the fact the movie had spoiled the “twist,” and that so much of what Sullivan was showing as she was jumping around in time to no obvious end was footage from her planned movie, which struck me as annoyingly overedited and overscored in that contemporary TV-doc way. But once the trial begins, Into the Deep becomes its own self-critique, as the volunteers and interns with Madsen’s company progressively both change their tune about him and wonder “why didn’t we see that coming?” The “we” doesn’t exclude Sullivan, who basically ends the film with footage of Madsen idly musing about the nature of psychopaths and human predators. Or … idle musings if they were from you or me. (VJM)

click to enlarge Bruce Lee in Be Water
  • Bruce Lee in Be Water
Be Water *** [U.S. Documentary]
Toward the end of Bao Nguyen’s celebratory Bruce Lee documentary comes a rare note of ambiguity, as various voices lament the tragic irony that Lee didn’t live to see his greatest success, the posthumously released Enter the Dragon. One commentator proposes a slightly different interpretation: Lee’s death in his prime helped to make Enter the Dragon the phenomenon it became; as Roger Ebert put it, Lee’s legend was cemented by the fact that, “like James Dean, [he] did something original and then died.” Nguyen tells Lee’s story with voiceover narration constructed from interviews with family, friends, students, and other commentators, paired with a diverse range of archival footage and imagery, sometimes drawing metaphorical resonances between clips from Lee’s movies and voiceover remarks about Lee’s life. American racism, the legacy of colonialism, negative Asian stereotypes and offensive cultural portrayals are a major theme framing the challenges Lee faced in Hollywood, from the frustrating limitations of the role of Kato in The Green Hornet to the humiliation of Kung Fu, developed by Lee himself, going to David Carradine. Is there any ambiguity to the portrait of Lee? Beyond a bitter remark from an early student about Lee becoming “a product, not a friend” and an aside about the insecurity of actors qualifying Lee’s ostensible self-confidence, not much. (SDG)

Time *** [U.S. Documentary]
Time is the sort of movie that makes you wish issue documentaries—this one is about Sibil Fox Richardson’s campaign to get her husband out of prison after 20 years—weren’t so frequently so slapdash in their execution. It’s not just the black-and-white images, but also the soundtrack. The soft piano of Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou feeds into the reverie quality of the images and the film’s pacing, which jumps around in time and eschews legal melodrama. Instead, Time is a movie about time, partially conveyed by the mixture of present-day shooting and the copious archival and home movies, made over the decades by and about Richardson. She’s a charismatic speaker who can turn from laughing to fury in seconds when discussing a phone call, and can hold a church spellbound talking about forgiveness. But she also was implicated in the bank robbery that sent Robert inside—and therein lies the film’s limit. It’s so clearly not trying to be a procedural that you can’t hold against it that her role, the robbery itself, and the precise nature of the legal case are all very murky. Said murkiness, though, makes it tough to see a particular injustice and justify the outrage factor the film-makers (and certainly her subjects) want to stoke. (Victor J. Morton)

La Leyenda Negra **1/2 [NEXT]
Writer/director Patricia Vidal Delgado crafts a well-meaning narrative approaching the intersection of the American immigrant experience and the American queer experience, but struggles to flesh out the world into which she drops her central character. Aleteia Benavides (Monica Betancourt) is a Salvadorean-born high school senior in Compton, Calif., staring down possible deportation as the result of Trump administration policies and drawn to radical action, even as she hopes for a college scholarship. She unexpectedly befriends Rosarito (Kailei Lopez), a member of her school’s popular clique intrigued by Aleteia’s outspokenness. Aleteia herself is a solidly built character, observing a world of antagonism toward her national identity and unable to find comfort among other Latino-Americans as a result of antagonism toward her sexual identity. But there’s a thinness to the rest of the characterizations, most particularly and disappointingly in Rosarito; we get almost no chance to understand her life, so that her unusual choices make sense. Delgado offers a provocative tug-of-war between fitting in and fighting back, but lacks much depth beyond her distinctive protagonist. (SR)

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