Archive for the ‘Sundance 2016’ Category

Note: This review was first published during coverage of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival

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Rebecca Hall stars as Christine Chubbuck, the real-life Florida newswoman who, in 1974, committed suicide on live television. The film follows Chubbuck’s final months, as loneliness, social anxiety and mounting pressure from work pull at her fraying nerves.

Hall is excellent, convincingly playing the barely-contained eruptions behind her character’s fixed expressions. Her Christine is simultaneously off-putting and sympathetic, perpetually getting in the way of her own happiness, which seems just one good day away but always out of reach.

Beyond Hall, however, the film is thin. Aside from her infamous death, Christine Chubbuck was an otherwise uneventful person, a small-market television reporter who lived with her mother and focused on her work. Director Antonio Campos attempts to compensate with a pleasant ensemble of coworkers (played by Dexter’s Michael C. Hall, Veep’s Timothy Simons) but the end results feels undercooked.

Grade: B-

‘Christine’ opens in Salt Lake City on Friday, Nov. 4.

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*Note: Portions of this review were originally published during coverage of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.

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During the course of an extremely long first date, future president Barack Obama won over a disinterested Michelle Robinson, despite several biting arguments, by demonstrating his oratorical prowess and sneaking a kiss over some dessert. At least, that’s the version shown in “Southside With You,” the Before Sunrise-esque film about the First Couple’s early relationship.

Unfortunately, writer-director Richard Tanne’s script lacks the depth and subtlety of Richard Linklater’s classic. “Southside With You” is bogged down by the weight of its characters’ futures and so concerned with what is to be that it forgets that its actually telling a story set in the present tense. What should be a love story between two young and promising adults in Chicago is instead a pseudo-mythic “Obama: Origins” story, as if at any moment a radioactive spider will jump out and transform them into their full potential.

For his part, Parker Sawyers is an effortlessly convincing young-B.O., slipping skillfully into 44’s mannerisms without resorting to gross caricature. The same can’t be said for Tika Sumpter (also one of the film’s producers) who is stilted as Michelle Obama and who relies on sullenness as a substitute for the future first lady’s principled strength.

“Southside With You” bets every chip it has on the allure of young POTUS and FLOTUS. But imagine for a moment not knowing who Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson grow up to be, and what’s left is an overly presumptive film about an otherwise generic meet cute, in which the budding romance between its protagonists is too short on chemistry to be convincing.

Grade: B-

*Southside With You opens in Salt Lake City and select theaters nationwide on Friday, August 26.

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Weiner

It’s easy to imagine a parallel universe in which Anthony Weiner successfully repented of his sins (or never committed them in the first place) and won an unlikely victory in the race for mayor of New York City. In that universe, one can only speculate on what could have been in the embattled politician’s future.

The contrast between that once-bright future and Weiner’s corresponding fall from grace, is made all the more Shakespearean in this searing, at-times-uncomfortably intimate documentary, which tracks the meteoric rise, fall, resurgence and final explosion of an American political career.

“Weiner,” the film, is shot with astounding access to Weiner, the man’s, inner circle. That access was no doubt expected to produce a much different, and much more positive story, and it makes the inevitable trainwreck all the more daunting as it approaches.

But the film also succeeds at humanizing a man who became a national punchline. Weiner is shown here as passionate, energetic, sympathetic and deeply, deeply flawed. The film juggles the laugh out loud humor of a campaign in crisis with the profound sadness of watching a family and marriage nearly torn apart by scandall.

That no other politician would allow this level of exposure, combined with the singular drama of Weiner’s personal story, creates a documentary experience with few equals.

Grade: A

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Joshy

After his wedding is canceled, Josh (Thomas Middleditch) and his friends meet up for what would have been Josh’s bachelor party.

Boasting a strong ensemble of those-guys-you-know-from-tv (Adam Pally, Nick Kroll, Jenny Slate, etc.) Joshy is an ambling, improvisational dramedy that, were it not for the charm of its actors, would likely fall flat. But the energy from the ensemble manages to keep the aimlessness on the rails and distract from the otherwise thin goings-on.

Grade: B-

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Sand Storm

Set in a Bedouin village in southern Israel, “Sand Storm” is a quietly powerful story about women trapped in a suffocatingly patriarchal community. The film is centered on Layla (Lamis Ammar) and her mother Jalila (Ruba Blal-Asfour), separated by a generation that overlaps traditional and modernism. Layla is allowed to study, but is hiding a boyfriend from her father, who has recently taken a second wife while ignoring Jalila and her children.

The authenticity of the culture depicted in “Sand Storm” is elaborately but not showingly detailed. But much of the film’s tension relies on social constructs that could benefit from more explanation for an international audience. It’s apparent that there are deeply rooted customs at play, which threaten the livelihood and happiness of these women, but without knowing that those customs are, its difficult to gauge some of the stakes.

Grade: B

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The Hollars

The quirky family dramedy is a perennial staple at Sundance, and the genre’s demands are thoroughly satisfied by “The Hollars,” directed by The Office’s John Krasinski. This is a film where an aloof son (Krasinski) is summoned home due to the ill health of a parent (in this case, character actress Margo Martindale) and the reconnection to his past jars him out of a rut so he can face his future.

It’s a familiar formula, but one that is successfully executed by the incredible ensemble cast, which includes Charlie Day, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Richard Jenkins, Sharlto Copley, Josh Groban and perfect human Anna Kendrick. It’s funny, it’s heartfelt, and it goes down smooth.

Grade: B+

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Jim: The James Foley Story

James Foley, a freelance war correspondent, was the first American citizen killed by ISIS. His 2014 death, a grueling videotaped beheading after almost two years in captivity, was a watershed moment for the nation, and one that is given the weight it deserves in “Jim: The James Foley Story.”

Both a tribute to Foley and conflict journalism, “Jim” follows Foley’s work in Libya and Syria, before transitioning to his capture and the failed attempts by his family to negotiate a release. The story benefits greatly from first-hand interviews with Foley’s fellow captives, which are dramatized in understated, quasi-abstract vignettes that keep the emotion right where it belongs: the harrowing account of torture, resilience and camaraderie among a group of international journalists.

The film captures the anger and frustration of Foley’s family, openly critical of the U.S. government’s response to his abduction, and also blend of pride and regret they feel out of love for their brother and son and the weight of his absence. Both intimate and sprawling, told in quiet moments and scenes of explosive horror, “Jim” is the kind of documentary that takes days to shake off.

Grade: A

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Sleight

Jacob Latimore stars as Bo, a street magician by day and drug dealer by night who gets in too deep with his criminal employer and has to rely on his illusions to get his family out of a jam.

Written and directed by J.D. Dillard, “Sleight” has a winning combination of playful charm and a dangerous edge. His protagonist is sympathetic and flawed, a balance capably handled by Latimore, whose career appears to be full of potential.

There are echoes to last year’s Sundance darling, “Dope,” albeit with a tone that plays like a superhero origin story. And while there’s plenty of familiar beat’s in Dillard’s script, the director carefully builds to well executed climax that stays just this side of fantasy.

Grade: B

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The Birth of a Nation

Writer-director-star Nate Parker blew the doors off Sundance with this historical epic, which netted a record $17.5 million pickup. The film tells the story of Nat Turner, who led a violent slave revolt in Virginia in 1831, and is filled to the brim with commentary on America’s past, present and future.

While limited by a independent budget, Parker’s camera captures plenty of stomach-churning horrors. Prior to his rebellion, Turner visits neighboring plantations as a preacher-for-hire, providing a window into the disparate treatment eked out by slaveowners reacting and adapting to economic downturn.

The film seems perfectly poised to drop into the current national conversation on race in America. Its rough edges could slow it down in the mainstream market, but it’s a meaningful, boldly-made film with plenty to say.

Grade: B+

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The Bad Kids

Set in an alternative high school in California, “The Bad Kids” is a fly-on-the-wall documentary about empathy in education.

The school at the heart of the film is the proverbial one where the bad kids go, only directors Keith Fulton and Lou Pepe are more interested in how a dedicated educator, in the case the school’s principal, can have a profound effect on an otherwise neglected child’s chances for success.

The stories in the film are intensely personal, and Fulton and Pepe handle them with care. But that same focus on a single school and its students has a myopic quality, making it unclear how the lessons learned would be applied elsewhere.

Grade: B

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How to Let Go of the World (and Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change)

The subject of climate change has been treated by many documentary filmmakers, to varying degrees of success. “How to Let Go of the World” is one of the more effective examples, showing the physical effects of a warming world, from families displaced by major storms to island nations vanishing under rising seas and air so polluted by fossil-fuel dependency that children can’t play outside.

Director Josh Fox (“Gasland”), banjo in tow, globe-trots while documenting the creeping environmental crisis and the steps both made and ignored as danger. The film runs unnecessarily long, buoyed by distracting insertions of Fox into the story, but the overall portrait is sufficiently alarming while also clinging to hope that mankind can save itself from the edge.

Grade: B+

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White Girl

After moving from Oklahoma to New York City for school, Leah (Homeland’s Morgan Saylor) embraces the freedom of adulthood through nonstop partying and drug use. That leads her into the arms of Blue, the friendly neighborhood drug dealer, who is promptly scooped up by the law, leaving a heartsick Leah with a bag of cocaine and the drive to rescue Blue from America’s arcane mandatory minimum laws.

“White Girl” is aggressively non-puritanical, but it’s still challenging to look past what amounts to Bad Decisions: The Movie. Leah’s quest to free Blue is dogged by a consistent stream of failures that are either the result of everyone in the world of the movie being a disgusting creep or the result of our heroin insisting on snorting one more line.

There’s a commentary here about our modern times, drug laws and racial privilege. But any nuance is buried under layers of exhaustion as an unsympathetic protagonist stumbles from one disaster to the next.

Grade: C

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Jacqueline (Argentine)

Imagine a documentary in which nothing happens, and what little does happen is made up. That’s Jacqueline (Argentine), the difficult-to-describe film directed by The Daily Show’s Bernardo Britto.

Ostensibly about a French government employee living in exile in Argentina because she unearthed a CIA assassination conspiracy, the film spends it’s first half unconvincingly pretending to be real before fully revealing itself as fiction in part two. The cracks begin to show as glaringly rehearsed embellishments give way to recognizable actors like Richard Kind playing “real” people. All of which is drowned under the incessant, monotonous and ham-fisted narration of Britto who waxes philosophical about benign details in an attempt to hide that there is nothing to see here.

Grade: C-

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Christine

Rebecca Hall stars as Christine Chubbuck, the real-life Florida newswoman who, in 1974, committed suicide on live television. The film follows Chubbuck’s final months, as loneliness, social anxiety and mounting pressure from work pull at her fraying nerves.

Hall is excellent, convincingly playing the barely-contained eruptions behind her character’s fixed expressions. Her Christine is simultaneously off-putting and sympathetic, perpetually getting in the way of her own happiness, which seems just one good day away but always out of reach.

Beyond Hall, however, the film is thin. Aside from her infamous death, Christine Chubbuck was an otherwise uneventful person, a small-market television reporter who lived with her mother and focused on her work. Director Antonio Campos attempts to compensate with a pleasant ensemble of coworkers (played by Dexter’s Michael C. Hall, Veep’s Timothy Simons) but the end results feels undercooked.

Grade: B-

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Newtown

The community of Newtown, Connecticut, where 20 children and 6 adults were murdered in the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting in 2012, is ripe for documentary attention, and in “Newtown,” director Kim Snyder proves she is up to the task. A comprehensive examination of community grief, with dozens of subjects interviewed over the space of three years, the film paints a picture of collective tragedy, mourning, resilience and, ultimately, resolve to move forward.

Grade: B+

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Under The Gun

Stephanie Soechtig and Katie Couric, the team behind “Fed Up”, 2014 searing takedown of the sugar and soda industries, return to Sundance this year with “Under the Gun,” a searing takedown of the nation’s gun laws.

Some of those laws are (relatively) well known, like the loopholes that allow individuals to sell and purchase guns without background checks. Others, however, have flown under the national radar, like the prohibition against the ATF digitizing its innumerable amount of paper records or the restrictions on gun research by the CDC.

“Under the Gun” dissects those laws and their histories, as well as turning the camera on  the mass shootings that have overturned American communities and the ongoing and largely overlooked gun violence in cities like Chicago. But more than a simple crusade against guns, the film looks at the broad consensus (including majorities within NRA membership) for closing background check loopholes and excluding suspected terrorists from gun purchases.

America, according to “Under The Gun” is a nation ignored by its leaders while citizens are hurt and dying.

Grade: A-

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Southside With You

During the course of an extremely long first date, future president Barack Obama won over a disinterested Michelle Robinson, despite several biting arguments, by demonstrating his oratorial prowess and sneaking a kiss over some dessert. At least, that’s the version shown in “Southside With You,” the Before Sunrise-esque origin story of the First Couple.

Unfortunately, writer-director Richard Tanne’s script lacks the depth and subtlety of Richard Linklater’s classic. “Southside With You” is bogged down by the weight of its characters’ futures and so concerned with what is to be that it forgets that its actually telling a story set in the present tense. What should be a love story between two young and promising adults in Chicago is instead a pseudo-mythic Obamas: Origins story, as if at any moment a radioactive spider will jump out and transform them into their full potential.

Grade: B-

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Green Room

Director Jeremy Saulnier prefers no-frills violence, free of manicured choreography and unrealistic precision. In his films, like “Blue Ruin” and now “Green Room,” the characters are clumsy, prone to mistakes and victims to unpredictable chaos: like actual human beings.

In “Green Room,” an indie hardcore punk band is wrapping up a tour when they book a gig at a forested venue popular among the shaved-head-and-swastika-tattoo crowd. After their set, they witness an act of violence that triggers a chain of events that sees the band fighting for survival against a small army of aggressors led by a chilling calm and sinister Patrick Stewart.

After setting the chess board, every beat in Saulnier’s tight script feels natural and brutally real. But the film is also full of surprises, as Saulnier intentionally steers the action into seemingly predictable territory only to have a sly reversal tucked up his sleeve.

Grade: B+

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The Lure

“The Lure” is a musical from Poland about two mermaids, Silver and Golden, who wash up on shore and find a surrogate family in a trio of nightclub performers.  Their act is a smash hit, but Golden clings to her past as a violent sea creature while Silver longs for a fully-human life.

Thematically, there’s some interesting threads to pull on here — immigration, transphobia, exploitatio — and director Agnieszka Smoczynska ties it all together in a package with no shortage of delightful atmostphere and style. Problem is, “The Lure” is not one for subtlety. And just when you think you’re getting somewhere it halts for a full-production musical number, which suffer from diminishing returns and lyrical work that suffers in translation.

Unique, for certain, with plenty onscreen to keep you entertained, but more memorably for its bizarre qualities than its actual quality.

Grade: C

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Swiss Army Man

On paper, the story of “Swiss Army Man” is full of promise: like the deranged blend of “Weekend at Bernies” and “MacGyver”. A shipwrecked and desperate man (Paul Dano) is about to commit suicide when he spots a dead body washed up on shore. The body’s utility becomes essential for survival, and he strikes up a friendship with the corpse as he searches for a way home.

But it becomes apparent, very quickly, that directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert and only interested in using their film as a delivery mechanism for 90 minutes of juvenile body humor. This is a film where most of the critical plot developments hinge on flatulence and erections.

The Daniels seem to be actively fighting against letting their movie become inadvertently good, making sure to throw in some gross-out gags every few minutes to interrupt what could have otherwise be a beautifully-shot, musically-inventive, psychologically-ambiguous piece of surrealist pop.

What makes “Swiss Army Man” truly offensive is that there’s the bones of a very different, and very interesting film under the layers of asinine filth. Instead, a considerable amount of indie talent is squandered.

Grade: D

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Under The Shadow

Get ready to start hearing a lot of chatter about “Under The Shadow,” the early breakout from this year’s Midnight category at Sundance, a quirky clearinghouse for genre films where Aussie import “The Babadook” premiered last year. And like “The Babadook” before it, UTS centers on a mother trying to protect herself and her child from an unseen evil that doubles as the physical representation of the mother’s anxieties.

But unique, and particularly brilliant, to “Under the Shadow” is that the film is set in the middle of the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. Almost every night, the lights go out and sirens wail as bombs fall from the sky, and that’s only the start of the bumps in the night. And the demon in question is, presumably, a Djin, a malignant spirit that blends religion and Middle Eastern folklore.

The period setting and cultural notes are just two of the feathers in director Babak Anvari’s cap. His film is a crescendo of unease, deepened by the political subtext and punctuated by effective scares that sent literal chills down this reviewer’s spine. There’s plenty to unpack in this movie, with the protagonist dealing with the death of a parent, abandoned by her doctor husband who is drafted into the combat zone and her own stagnant medical education, from which she is barricaded by the attitudes of her time and place.

Anvari isn’t about to explain what it all means, but his film holds all those threads in a tight grip while also offering a fresh spin on the traditional Haunted House  tale.

Grade: A-

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