Thursday, January 31, 2019

Sundance with Abe: Stieg Larsson – The Man Who Played with Fire

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the sixth time. I’m seeing as many movies as I can each day and will post reviews of each as I can.


Stieg Larsson – The Man Who Played with Fire
Directed by Henrik Georgsson
World Cinema Documentary Competition

Lisbeth Salander and the “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” series only first appeared in print fourteen years ago, but it’s fair to say that they’ve taken the world by storm. The original Swedish “Millennium” trilogy was a huge success, followed by three Swedish films starring Noomi Rapace and an American adaptation with Rooney Mara. Author Stieg Larsson only lived to age fifty, yet his characters live on in a new book and film, and have already continued beyond that. Explaining what Larson worked for most of his life helps to provide great context to the notion of this protagonist and why it is that she became so popular.

Larsson, who died in 2004 of a heart attack, is profiled in great detail in this film, which takes part of its title from the English translation of his second book, describing Salander. Larsson’s upbringing is briefly mentioned as an influence for his worldview, but much more time is spent on the effort he devoted to helping to expose far-right extremism and neo-Nazism within his country and all of Europe. Numerous colleagues, including those who are only heard and not seen because they live under the constant threat of assassination, are interviewed, sharing their perspectives on the restless dedication Larsson had to shining a spotlight on those hiding in the darkness.

It’s easy to find parallels between Larsson and Salander, as many who are interviewed do, though the goth hacker is able to fight back and take down some of the people who try to abuse and silence her. Larsson’s physical appearance, seen in archive footage and mimicked by an actor in certain recreations, indicates a man of few words who prefers to stay behind the scenes, yet so much of his passion comes through in his writing, and his determination to push and research so that those looking to revive and normalize extremist views could not stay hidden or be allowed to go unchecked. His paranoia about being targeted by those he was going after is also revealed to be very much based in fact, as he simply understood what those who hated him could actually be capable of before they acted.

This film’s title might be a misnomer since the books he wrote are only covered minimally in the beginning and end of this documentary, which instead focuses on the man and all he experienced that then led him to pour all of his knowledge into a work of fiction. This exploration is most effective when we hear from Larsson himself, speaking on television about his findings, and predicting such things as the recent shift of anti-Semitism to anti-Islamism within far-right organizations. This is undeniably an unsettling investigation, but one that pays tribute to a man whose life was cut short while he was still in the middle of his most important work.

B+

Sundance with Abe: Clemency

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the sixth time. I’m seeing as many movies as I can each day and will post reviews of each as I can.


Clemency
Directed by Chinoye Chukwu
U.S. Dramatic Competition

Many films and television shows are set within the walls of a prison. There’s plenty to contemplate and be explored regarding how someone came to be incarcerated, and those serving as guards and in other administrative positions often have just as much to offer as rich characters with their own complicated reasons for why they went into this field. There is a point at which prison stories can seem to bleed together, covering similar notions without truly discovering anything new and eye-opening along the way. This film is not one of those.

Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard) serves as warden of a men’s prison and supervises her eleventh execution, which is scrutinized after a prolonged process that indicates great suffering right before his ultimate death. As the execution date of Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge) approaches, Bernadine, a by-the-book, stern executive, finds herself disturbed by his fate and her work, which also pushes her further away from her husband (Wendell Pierce). Anthony’s lawyer (Richard Schiff) meets regularly with his increasingly desolate client, still hoping that a last-minute granting of clemency may occur.

This is a film that explores two sides of death row: the person experiencing it and the ones participating in it. Director Chinoye Chukwu shared that she was inspired by the execution of Troy Davis and having read about the emotional and psychological influences on the prison staff who had to kill him. After working on a number of clemency cases and teaching incarcerated women how to make films, Chukwu put together this project, in which meticulous details were crucial, involving death row lawyers to read and rip apart the script, wardens and chaplains on speed dial, and a corrections officer consulting on death.


Director Chinoye Chukwu and crew members discuss the film

The efforts Chukwu made to preserve authenticity are notable, and they’re matched tremendously by the actors involved. Woodard begins by giving Bernadine a hard shell, one that slowly melts away in more intimate moments even as she maintains that front to keep up the appearance of authority and certainty. Hodge is nothing short of mesmerizing, conveying so many emotions but most effective is his depiction of a complete speechlessness as he nears his end, almost immediately replaced by euphoria at the notion of what likely won’t but still could be. This is a powerful and haunting film, one that looks at a complex situation and responds without answers but with true humanity instead.

B+

Sundance with Abe: Judy and Punch

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the sixth time. I’m seeing as many movies as I can each day and will post reviews of each as I can.


Judy and Punch
Directed by Mirrah Foulkes
World Cinema Dramatic Competition

Throughout history, there is an unfortunate tradition of men manipulating and subjugating women, particularly husbands mistreating their wives. Shared successes may be trumpeted as merely the man’s achievement, and rarely did the woman get any credit for her contributions as well as her likely ability and expectation to handle more as expected head of the household. Some of these relationships can still be filled with love and positivity, even if they’re hardly an emblem of quality, while others include substantial abuse and frequent demeaning of the spouse that those not intricately involved in the relationship may not be able to see.

Punch (Damon Herriman) and Judy (Mia Wasikowska) perform a tremendous puppet show together, wowing their audience but not collecting nearly enough funds to recover from what they’ve lost as a result of Punch’s proclivity for alcohol. Punch loves the spotlight and earns all the praise, yet he finds himself so unable to function at home when his wife leaves for an hour that he chases after his dog with their baby in his arms, ultimately tripping and losing his grip. When Judy returns home, Punch brushes off the horrific accident, and proceeds to nearly beat his wife to death for daring to blame him. Thinking she is dead, he brings her body to the woods and finds a scapegoat while she recovers with the help of a band of outcasts perceived by the townspeople as witches.

This Australian film presents itself as set in Seaside, a small town nowhere near the sea, and casts its villagers as eager to satisfy their boredom with frequent executions of witches and other alleged deplorable elements. Punch latches on to this enthusiasm to ensure that he will never be suspected of a crime, whereas Judy is far more open to the idea of accepting other people and finds unexpected friendship in the woods. The puppet show serves as a clever suit of armor for Punch, who finds himself helpless to put on the show without his brilliant wife present when talent scouts arrive.

Wasikowska is a wondrously talented actress and carries this film very well as the determined woman so immediately disgusted with her husband’s almost willful incompetence. Herriman, a hilarious recurring guest on “Justified,” makes Punch as despicable as possible, wholly aware of his audience and desperate both to please and to be applauded. This film’s score helps set its strange but effective tone, approaching fantasy yet firmly grounded in all-too-human tendencies, crafting an original story with a decidedly clever approach.

B+

Sundance with Abe: The Last Black Man in San Francisco

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the sixth time. I’m seeing as many movies as I can each day and will post reviews of each as I can.


The Last Black Man in San Francisco
Directed by Joe Talbot
U.S. Dramatic Competition

One of the beautiful things about cinema is that there are so many ways to tell a story. Straightforward narrative filmmaking can have its benefits if the script and performances are strong enough, but enhancements to the way that the plot is framed can be truly magnificent. Experimental ideas don’t always go well because the narrative they follow often comes secondary, creating an intoxicating experience without much substantive literal content. And then there comes along the rare film that truly appeals to look at the world in a unique way, introducing characters and their perspectives that feel impossibly original and authentic.

Jimmie Fails (Jimmie Fails) travels each day across San Francisco with his best friend Mont (Jonathan Majors) from his grandfather’s home. They await a bus but usually end up hopping together aboard Jimmie’s skateboard. Their primary activity finds Jimmie visiting the home his grandfather built years earlier that has since been lost by his family and is now inhabited by a wealthy white couple. When those residents move out, Jimmie sees an opportunity to reclaim the home that he believes is rightfully his, moving in his belongings and feeling revitalized by the chance to once again be in a place that fills him with an incredible sense of purpose and pride.

Describing this film is difficult because, almost immediately, it gives its audience an idea of how Jimmie and Mont move through the world, looking at their surroundings and trying not to acknowledge how much the neighborhoods have changed. Jimmie works in a nursing home and Mont cleans and sells fish, but they spend just as much time dreaming about a long-lost house and writing plays, respectively. Their lives may not be anywhere near as glamorous or stable as they would like them to be, but they’re not going to let reality get in the way of pursuing their dreams.

Fails delivers a revelatory performance as a version of himself, in collaboration with his real-life best friend Joe Talbot, who directs, making this a formidable San Francisco-set meditation on race and success in the vein of a very different Sundance hit from last year, “Blindspotting.” Majors is mesmerizing as Mont, who occasionally approaches a conversation as if he has staged it and written its participants’ lines, staying true to his friend through his own passions. This film’s visual style is gorgeous and captivating, perfectly matching its magnetic story.

A-

Sundance with Abe: Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile


I'm going strong at the Sundance Film Festival, trying to post all my reviews as quickly as I can after I see films. As they're going up here, I'm continuing to report on some films for The Film Experience. You can follow all the posts there, including my take on the peculiar casting of Zac Efron as Ted Bundy in an ultimately unconvincing movie that left me with mixed feelings, "Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile."

Sundance with Abe: Monos

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the sixth time. I’m seeing as many movies as I can each day and will post reviews of each as I can.


Monos
Directed by Alejandro Landes
World Dramatic Competition

The subject of child soldiers in not an easy one, and it’s often very difficult to watch their stories portrayed on screen. The notion of corrupting a child’s mind so that they believe they must fight for a certain cause leads to irreparable damage that may prevent a person from functioning long after a conflict has ended, if they are even able to survive it since their environments are so filled with violence. Capturing the mindset of those born into and trained for war at an early age is a formidable feat, one that can be just as powerful as it is disturbing.

A unit of child soldiers travels through the mountains and the trees of an unnamed country transporting their prized prisoner, an American doctor (Julianne Nicholson). The group members – Wolf, Lady, Swede, Smurf, Dog, Boom Boom, Bigfoot, and Rambo – are trained by an older representative of The Organization, their cause, but operate mostly on their own, proceeding along in military fashion during the day and letting their guard down at night in a way that might be more expected from people of their age.

This film, which has its share of harrowing moments, best succeeds in its portrayal of these children of war, who excitedly spend time with the doctor yet fail to understand that, given the chance to escape, she will certainly try because this is not an adventure for her but a true hell. The change in demeanor when they become “off-duty” is mesmerizing, and, because they largely command themselves, those moments begin to bleed together as they travel further and further into unknown territory. The doctor knows to play along to placate her captors, but she has trouble putting on a good face when they demonstrate a clear inability to understand her situation when she participates in a proof-of-life call.


Cast and crew members discuss the film

The collection of young actors here is deeply impressive, and assembling them all is a true feat of casting and direction. Nicholson, always a dependable player, turns in a vulnerable and shaken performance as the doctor. This film is carefully shot and visually engaging, though its narrative wanes considerably as it goes on, feeling endless and inescapable by a certain point. Those sentiments may be purposefully invoked, but this nightmarish journey feels as if it wanders way too long with many more opportune moments on which to end occurring before its eventual end.

B

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Sundance with Abe: Late Night

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the sixth time. I’m seeing as many movies as I can each day and will post reviews of each as I can.


Late Night
Directed by Nisha Ganatra
Premieres

Comedy isn’t easy, and it can be considerably more difficult to get into for women. Those who do achieve success often ascend to a certain level at which they aren’t eager to interact with those just starting out, and are confident that the way they do things is the right way to do it, even if times around them are changing. Bringing a new perspective into an established and dated situation is rarely welcomed by those involved in the process but almost always entertaining and enlightening to see play out from an outside vantage point.

Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson) has been the host of a nightly talk show for twenty-eight years. A belief that she hates women prompts her to instruct her loyal producer Brad (Denis O’Hare) to hire a woman to join her all-male, all-white writing staff. Chemical plant employee Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling) is hardly her first choice, and she makes waves right away by suggesting what has gone wrong with the show and how it can be improved. Her rocky integration to the world of comedy writing comes at a crucial time as Katherine learns that she will soon be replaced by a younger, far less talented comic, giving her one last shot to prove that she’s still relevant.


Director Nisha Ganatra and Mindy Kaling discuss the film

Variety shows are recreated in a number of television series and movies, and the crucial element to make them work is that they have to actually be funny. This film succeeds wildly in that arena, covering the process of ideation in the writer’s room to its (occasionally cringe-worthy) implementation on-air. Katherine’s newfound participation in that process, spurred on by a need to retain control of something she didn’t realize she had lost, makes it all the more engaging and fun, as she makes very clear how she thinks comedy should be good, often clashing with her writers and certainly most with Molly.


Paul Walter Hauser, Reid Scott, Amy Ryan, Risha Ganatra, and Mindy Kaling discuss the film

Thompson is a wonderful actress who hasn’t had a powerhouse lead role like this in a while. She brings a hilarious ferocious energy to Katherine, and her line delivery is one of the film’s strongest assets. Kaling, who also wrote the screenplay, is fantastic opposite her, playing into her established persona to create a highly endearing protagonist. The supporting cast, which includes Reid Scott, Paul Walter Hauser, and Amy Ryan, is great, and there isn’t a lackluster element in this film. This film has already netted a spectacular acquisition from Amazon, ensuring that audiences everywhere will have the opportunity to experience this very enjoyable comedy.

B+

Sundance with Abe: Official Secrets


I'm going strong at the Sundance Film Festival, trying to post all my reviews as quickly as I can after I see films. As they're going up here, I'm continuing to report on some films for The Film Experience. You can follow all the posts there, including my review of the involving legal-political thriller "Official Secrets" starring Keira Knightley, Matt Smith, and Ralph Fiennes.

Sundance with Abe: Light from Light

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the sixth time. I’m seeing as many movies as I can each day and will post reviews of each as I can.


Light from Light
Directed by Paul Harrill
NEXT

Not everyone believes in ghosts, but those who do often place great power in the notion of someone they have lost coming to visit them. In film and television, celestial entities returning is usually presented in the context of horror, either misunderstood or trying deliberately to scare those who are still alive. There are rarer depictions that take a more exploratory, peaceful direction, examining unexplained phenomena for those who are in mourning and wondering whether what they have been experiencing is someone they miss dearly trying to communicate with them.

Shelia (Marin Ireland raises her son Owen (Josh Wiggins) on her own, monitoring his relationship with his friend Lucy (Atheena Frizzell).) She works by day at an airport rental car agency, spending her free time investigating the presence of ghosts after being apparently gifted with prophetic dreams as a child. Though she is not officially on any case, she is contacted by a recently widowed man, Richard (Jim Gaffigan), who has been haunted by flickering lights and moved objects in his home. Eager to help him, Shelia begins her surveillance operation to determine whether it is in fact his dead wife who is trying to contact him.

This isn’t the kind of film that finds ghosts jumping out and startling the audience, much to the relief of this reviewer with an aversion to horror. Instead, it is an intimate and human drama that purposely stays grounded in the proven real, all while trying to reach a far less logic-based plane. It is reminiscent of “The Eclipse,” another film that found a wounded protagonist searching for his deceased spouse, and considerably more effective overall than the similarly-themed “Personal Shopper.” Richard doesn’t know whether he believes in ghosts, and Shelia never tries to convince him of anything she can’t prove.

Ireland is a wonderful actress who has been stealing scenes on “Sneaky Pete,” and it’s great to see her given a lead role like this, making Shelia feel authentic and human. Gaffigan succeeds in an atypically dramatic turn, presenting Richard as a person who has lost all direction and purpose in his life now that he is only living for himself. Wiggins, who has premiered nearly half of the eight films he has made at Sundance following “Hellion” and “Walking Out,” continues on a great trajectory, as does Frizzell, who appeared in last year’s “Never Goin’ Back.” This film is simple and poignant, smartly aware that effects and tricks are far less effective than a solid and involving story and presentation.

B+

Sundance with Abe: The Report

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the sixth time. I’m seeing as many movies as I can each day and will post reviews of each as I can.


The Report
Directed by Scott Z. Burns
Premieres

There’s so much happening in current history that’s sure to end up in movies after a bit of time. The commentary from late-night writers and comedy showrunners is that it’s hard to be funny these days since what’s happening in the United States is already so absurd all on its own. Tackling these issues through a more dramatic lens can be a more effective route, presenting recent events on screen that may be less known to audiences. Releasing such stories in the current political climate is always a gamble, but investigating the truth and trying to portray it through fiction can be more palatable than direct attacks might be.


The real Dan Jones, Annette Bening, Jon Hamm, Maura Tierney, and Scott Z. Burns discuss the film
 
Dan Jones (Adam Driver) changes all of his courses on his third day of graduate school following the attacks on September 11th, 2001 to help his country in the way he best can. That route leads him to become a staffer for Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening), who puts him in charge of an extensive investigation into the CIA’s counterterrorism program and, particularly, their use of Enhanced Interrogation Techniques of questionable legality. His research into the more than one hundred people on which these practices were carried out only furthers his belief that what the United States did was not acceptable, a conclusion that government officials understandably do not want to see publicized.


Annette Bening discusses the film
 
Zero Dark Thirty,” which is seen advertised on a television screen in this film, dramatized the capture of Osama Bin Laden and was received controversially due to its depiction of torture. This film contains plenty of disturbing imagery that is difficult to watch, yet its presentation feels necessary to drive home the extent to which these techniques were applied and justified despite their inherent abhorrence. Unlike “Vice,” which offered Dick Cheney a literal menu of reasons torture should be condoned, this film makes no joke about it, presenting the stark horror of eagerness to legitimize and aggressiveness in suppressing any evidence that what was done was illegal or unacceptable.


Jon Hamm discusses the film
 
Feinstein has been in the news over the past few months for reasons that don’t always paint her in the best light, and this portrayal, by Bening, isn’t one that shies away from the complexities of her personality and political beliefs that occasionally put her at odds with members of her party. Driver is particularly effective as the champion of what is right, relatively stoic in his investigation until he can see just how little those around him actually care about assessing the effects of their actions. Jon Hamm and Ted Levine offer appropriate support as obstacles to this report being assembled and distributed, while Maura Tierney presents a vision of results above all, regardless of what must happen to achieve them. This film, interestingly, paints bipartisanship in a questionable light as a desire not to criticize past administrations proves counterproductive to the truth, but it’s still an important and worthwhile analysis of a history that Americans may not view positively.

B+

Sundance with Abe: Blinded by the Light

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the sixth time. I’m seeing as many movies as I can each day and will post reviews of each as I can.


Blinded by the Light
Directed by Gurinder Chadha
Premieres

For this reviewer, it’s movies and television, but for many people, music is what helps them feel connected to so many different things regardless of where they grow up. Those feeling isolated and alone because of their surroundings or other things in their life can retreat into their headphones to hear music that will take them to somewhere else entirely. Discovering a particular musician can be life-changing, and there are more than a few famous singers who have thousands, if not millions, of religious devotees all around the world who have practically, and in some cases literally, memorized every song they’ve ever written.

Javed (Viveik Kalra) grows up in Luton, England as one of three siblings in a Pakistani family, and, in 1987, he is feeling hopelessly trapped by where he lives. His father (Kulvinder Ghir) urges him to stay serious and avoid any temptations that feel too “English,” while he regularly experience harassment based on his nationality. His schoolteacher (Hayley Atwell) sees potential in his writing skills, and, despite attempts to keep him in line from his father, he manages to find some inspiration from Eliza (Nell Williams), a girl in his class, and, most of all, the music of Bruce Springsteen that his friend Roops (Aaron Phagura) introduces him to, forever changing his life.

Avid Springsteen fans will likely enjoy this film very much, one that follows a more traditional narrative than, say, “Across the Universe.” This reviewer would probably be described as embarrassingly unfamiliar, but audience reaction to lyrics recited as conversation makes it clear, if it wasn’t already, when Javed is obsessing over his newfound idol and using him to propel every decision in his life. Though it may not seem all that realistic, this story is based on superfan Sarfraz Manzoor, whose enthusiasm truly does parallel Javed’s.

This movie has an entertaining vibe that is reminiscent of a more energetic “Sing Street.” There aren’t explicit performances of songs, but Javed is prone to getting too into the lyrics that he feels can define his life even though Springsteen’s background is so different that he often launches into song in public. Kalra is great, as is Ghir as his father, who is grounded in his old ways and not open to the idea of Javed going on his own path. This film has a fun spirit that overall makes it well worth watching and, for those who know the words, singing along when appropriate.

B+

Sundance with Abe: The Souvenir

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the sixth time. I’m seeing as many movies as I can each day and will post reviews of each as I can.


The Souvenir
Directed by Joanna Hogg
World Cinema Dramatic Competition

Creative people with the sharpest and most incisive talent are often most blinded by the negative elements in their own lives. A failure to see toxic influencers that they would easily be able to identify in their characters or works of art can be truly crippling, offering some inspiration but also holding them back from their true potential. Watching these portraits of the oppressed or dejected can be grueling, and any story featuring such a narrative must include a worthwhile backdrop and frame of reference in which to portray its protagonist’s misery and make it palatable.

Julie (Honor Swinton-Byrne) is a film student in the 1980s who meets a mysterious older man named Anthony (Tom Burke). Sharing that he works for the foreign service but little else, he becomes a consistent fixture in Julie’s life, staying with her for long periods of time and frequently asking her for money that she in turn borrows from her parents under the guise of needing film equipment. When she discovers that he is a regular drug user, Julie pauses to consider whether this man is right for her but is ultimately hopeless to resist his bullying charm.

Those watching this movie will likely want to yell at the screen whenever Anthony does something clearly manipulative to make Julie feel terrible about herself and essentially apologize for whatever he has done wrong. Anthony is an enigma, somehow busy and productive yet never really seen doing anything specific. Julie, on the other hand, is immersed in the filmmaking world, learning from those around her and managing to express a creative vision even while Anthony threatens to overwhelm her life with his selfish presence.

The undeniably strongest reason to see this film is the starring debut of Swinton-Byrne, whose real-life mother Tilda plays that same role here. Swinton-Byrne projects an aura of confidence and comfort, which makes her submissive relationship all the more disconcerting and magnetic to watch. Though he’s easy to hate, Burke also plays his part very well, making it clear just how Julia could be so relinquishing of her autonomy around him. This film is visually appealing, though its story runs considerably longer than it might need to. A previously-announced sequel from writer-director Joanna Hogg starring Swinton-Byrne and Robert Pattison should be worth watching, as the power of this film’s narrative ultimately outweighs its slow pacing.

B

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Sundance with Abe: The Wolf Hour

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the sixth time. I’m seeing as many movies as I can each day and will post reviews of each as I can.


The Wolf Hour
Directed by Alistair Banks Griffin
NEXT

Not going outside can truly affect a person’s psyche. Agoraphobia can trap people within a certain place, afraid to leave either because they worry what lies beyond their safe boundaries or they fear being surrounded by familiar elements they cannot handle. Not leaving home usually translates to not interacting with other people, which changes the way a person behaves, particularly in a manner that may prohibit them from being able to assess their own mental and physical health. In an age before electronics and technology that keep people connected from anywhere, being alone in an apartment with no visitors is a scenario with the potential to create great harm.

June Leigh (Naomi Watts) lives in her grandmother’s Bronx apartment in the summer of 1977, accepting grocery deliveries and silently sliding her rent under the door whenever the landlord approaches. As she watches news coverage of a serial killer stalking the city, June begins to unravel when her doorbell is rung multiple times a night with no one answering at the other end. Her friend Margot (Jennifer Ehle) comes to visit in an effort to help her, urging her that she must get back to work on the book she has been commissioned to write, a difficult effort considering the negative fallout of the publication of her previous work.

This is a lonely and relatively bleak film, one that finds June so trapped within herself that she is unable to open up even to those who arrive with open arms. She defends her state to Margot, accuses the man delivering her groceries of having nefarious intentions, and mistakenly trusts a police officer who quickly demonstrates that his help in finding her tormentor comes with strings attached. It’s difficult to connect with June because little of her character is established in any sort of positive way, and spending time with her within the confines of her apartment hardly feels inviting or appealing.

Watts is a terrific actress who does the best she can with this role, though it doesn’t offer much. Empathizing with her is not easy, and even just becoming invested in her staying sane and alive is cumbersome. This is a film that feels like it has to be headed somewhere that will make the journey worth it, yet it never finds that direction or purpose, merely sitting in misery with its protagonist in a lackluster setting.

C

Sundance with Arielle: Hala

It’s my pleasure to introduce Arielle, my wife and an eager new contributor who is covering the Slamdance Film Festival in Park City this year, along with a few Sundance selections.


Hala
Directed by Minhal Baig
U.S. Dramatic Competition

Before I had the tremendous privilege to watch Hala, I was lucky enough to be seated just ten feet away from the brains behind it at Chase Sapphire on Main: director, screenwriter, and producer, Minhal Baig; executive producer, Jada Pinkett Smith; lead actress, Geraldine Viswanathan (Hala); and supporting actors Azad Khan (Zahid), Anna Chlumsky (Shannon), and Gabriel Luna (Mr. Lawrence). Without knowing anything about the film beforehand, it was fascinating to learn where the idea for this film began.


Director Minhal Baig and executive producer Jada Pinkett Smith

Baig explained that growing up, she didn’t see family dynamics that looked like hers depicted in media. She wanted to capture the nuances of a religious, but more importantly, culturally Muslim family on camera, and she wanted to shed light on the issues that she faced as a teenager coming of age within the boundaries that delineated. While she stressed that Hala is not her, she ingrained bits of her own story into every character in the film. Viswanathan was excited to do an in-depth character study like the one this film offered her; she was excited by the complexities that Hala offered as a teenage woman figuring out who she is and what she wants, a feeling many of us can understand regardless of our heritage or upbringing. As his debut film, Khan found the parallels of playing a Pakistani Muslim who had spent his first thirty or so years in Pakistan were uncanny to his own life, and similar to the actress playing his daughter, he feels this storyline has the capacity to resonate with everyone. And once Pinkett Smith knew was this film was about, she jumped on board. She felt that Baig’s voice needed to be heard and she wanted to make it happen. In fact, she wanted to ensure that the voices of all those who tend to be underrepresented was heard loud and clear throughout the process, which is why an inclusion rider was adopted by Overbrook Entertainment and Endeavor Content during the making of this film.


Cast and crew discuss the film at Chase Sapphire on Main

The film is told from Hala’s perspective, but there are things that even she does not know that unfold as the characters and the story develop. Baig intentionally created her characters that way, hoping that they would deepen as the film progressed. “They may be the supporting character in her story, but they’re the protagonist in their own, and it was important for every character to feel that way.”

While Baig has yet to tell her own mother that she made a movie (as of now, her mother just knows she worked on one) because of the cultural norms she feels she is pushing through its content, I think Apple’s purchase of the film may be the catalyst that pushes her to come clean. And from my perspective, this film is one that Baig and of which every member of the cast and crew should be tremendously proud.

A

Slamdance with Arielle: Kifaru

It’s my pleasure to introduce Arielle, my wife and an eager new contributor who is covering the Slamdance Film Festival in Park City this year, along with a few Sundance selections.


Director David Hambridge and producer Andrew Harrison Brown discuss the film

Kifaru
Directed by David Hambridge
Documentary Features

I walked into Kifaru assuming it was going to be a straightforward documentary about Northern White Rhinoceroses. What I did not expect was that the film would document the lives of the rhinos’ caregivers as much as it would the animals themselves. I did not expect that I would be able to witness the moment of extinction for an entire species. I did not expect to feel attached to people halfway around the world because they care for animals in much the same way I do for humans at the end of life. But Kifaru gave me all of this and more.

Kifaru told the story of the Northern White Rhino, not from the finger-wagging perspective to shame us for what we, as human beings, have done to the species, but from the perspective of the men who care for them, who feed, bathe, socialize, and offer companionship to these massive, regal animals. The men sacrifice ten months with their families to be care for these rhinos in good and bad, understanding the value of their work and the extent to which foreign tourism enables them to feed their families. Despite not being able to communicate in ways we might understand, the animals valued and understood their relationships with their human caregivers, playing, cuddling, and respecting them in all the right ways. Tight shots of the men’s hands and faces allowed us to peer into their deep-seated worries and concerns for the animals they cared so much about, and although I could not fully understand the level of connection that could exist between a while animal and its human caregiver, the intense moments of death demonstrate in entirely authentic and vulnerable ways how cherished and mutual the love was between them.

The filmmakers were revolutionary in their ability to capture the actual moment of extinction of a special on camera. Although the science is still in process for resurrecting the Northern White Rhinoceros species through cloning or in-vitro fertilization, this film is sure to help the memory and beauty of the last original Northern White Rhinoceroses live on forever.

A-

Slamdance with Arielle: High Flying Bird

It’s my pleasure to introduce Arielle, my wife and an eager new contributor who is covering the Slamdance Film Festival in Park City this year, along with a few Sundance selections.


Cast and crew of the film at Slamdance, photo credit Lauren Desberg

High Flying Bird
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Special Screenings

Slamdance’s premiere of High Flying Bird seemed extraordinarily popular, with attendees even sitting on the floor to be part of the action. Part of the appeal I think came from the chance to listen to Steven Soderbergh share his thoughts on past successes and failures, his passion for making films using an iPhone 8, and his desire to help other filmmakers succeed. He claims he helps people out of a selfish desire to be around talent, but he asserts that “people who are truly talented don’t really need a lot of help.... Sometimes all they need is help getting into the room,” a nudge he is always happy to provide. While I had only seen a handful of the films he’s produced (“Pleasantville” and “Rumor Has It”) and directed (“Erin Brockovich” and “Traffic”), it was clear to see from his in-person demeanor why he is so adored - he emanated humility, warmth, and an eagerness to help others.

The film itself was interesting. André Holland plays a sports agent who, when faced with a months-long lockout, finds himself negotiating and manipulating the agency he works for, the Player’s Association, and one particular rookie he represents. Despite some of their decisions, I found all of the characters to be quite likeable, which I’m not sure I would have expected given the premise of the film.

All in all, I thought the film was enjoyable, though I think it resonated and stayed with me about as much as “Moneyball” did in 2011 – I don’t remember any of the details, but I have a slightly better understanding of a sports concept I didn’t understand at all before. Without being familiar with the nuances of sports management, I was not only able to follow the storyline, but found it engaging and captivating. My only moment of confusion came at the very end of the film, which, don’t worry, I won’t spoil for you! I wasn’t sure exactly what had happened to get us to that point, but I did understand the end result and sometimes maybe that’s enough!

B

Slamdance with Arielle: Hurry Slowly

It’s my pleasure to introduce Arielle, my wife and an eager new contributor who is covering the Slamdance Film Festival in Park City this year, along with a few Sundance selections.


Cinematographer Jeremy Stewart and director Anders Emblem discuss the film

Hurry Slowly
Directed by Anders Emblem
Narrative Features

"Hurry Slowly" is a beautiful expression of the trials, tribulations, and joys that go into caring for a loved one. Fiona (Amalie Ibsen Jensen) has cared for her younger brother, Tom (David Jakobsen), who demonstrates developmental disabilities, since their grandparents passed away, balancing work and her love for songwriting. Tom respects and loves his sister, helping her around the house and following her every direction, turning their sibling relationship into one that resembles a parent and child. Though Fiona does not seem to begrudge her brother or her circumstances, she inquires about extending Tom’s care at the group home, wondering if that might be better for him, and for her. Through Fiona’s vivid expressions, the audience is able to tangibly feel the dilemma she faces within and is intrigued to be on the journey of her decision alongside her.

When asked what sparked his desire to create a film of this nature, Anders Emblem, the film’s director, screenwriter, co-producer, and editor, remarked that he wrote from a place of personal connection and love as he has been a social worker for years. Using slow cinema – a technique which involves reduced camera movement, holding the edit longer, and not necessarily following a story in a shot – Emblem and his cinematographer, Jeremy Stewart, are able to offer painting-like views of scenery and moments. While stunning, I found myself wondering how many of the film’s 68 minutes could have been shaved off by shortening those lengthy shots, but I think it did help to slow the story and agonizing decision-making process down. Being from Norway, Emblem is in communication with Norwegian distributors, though he seemed open to distributing the film himself – possibly for free online – because “since it cost nothing, [he has] nothing to lose.” While he tried to convey a message of personal freedom, Emblem intentionally designed the film to be open to interpretation so that audiences can find their own meanings to take away from it.

B

Slamdance with Arielle: Ski Bum

It’s my pleasure to introduce Arielle, my wife and an eager new contributor who is covering the Slamdance Film Festival in Park City this year, along with a few Sundance selections.


Cast and crew of the film at Slamdance

Ski Bum: The Warren Miller Story
Directed by Patrick Creadon
Breakout Features

I’m not a “sports person,” even less so a “ski person,” but this film intrigued me nonetheless, in part because I had a feeling that its placement as Slamdance’s opening night film meant it had to appeal to more than just sports fans. But even more than that, I was eager to see the film because I had the great fortune of speaking to the film’s director, Patrick Creadon, co-producer Jeff Conroy, and cast member John Egan on a press line before the film and found them to be incredibly kind, warm, and excited for others to hear about the incredible man Warren Miller was and the legacy he left behind.

And what a legacy he left! It was quite fitting that this film’s world premiere was in Park City at Slamdance as it tells the story of Warren Miller, a skier and filmmaker who changed the face of extreme sports and brought adventure into the lives and homes of people everywhere. Warren was an outdoorsman through and through, sacrificing his comfort and ease in order to capture the perfect moment on camera. He felt that audiences perceived his life as just that – perfect – while it was anything but. “He inspired me to go places because I watched a film. But what was more interesting to me was the idea that there was this whole other complicated guy behind the persona he was portraying,” remarked Conroy. “His honesty surprised me, his willingness to tell the whole truth. In fact, he sits down and I’m like, ‘I gotta tell the bad things too,’ and he’s like, ‘It wouldn’t be a good story without it.’” Warren persisted in the face of every obstacle he encountered, choosing to see the best in others and to pursue his dreams, whatever it took. “Warren was one of America’s original independent filmmakers and independent film distributors, and I don’t think he gets enough credit for that,” Creadon said. “He was doing that since 1950, long before the independent film movement happened in Hollywood….We wanted to really give him the credit that he deserves for paving the way for so many filmmakers, not just skiers.” Warren committed himself to sharing his love of skiing with anyone who would listen, though this film eloquently and artistically demonstrates that he gave the world and all those who knew him so much more.

Creadon noted, “Warren was the pied piper, not only of skiing, but of adventure, and he really saw value in getting out and pushing your own limits and exploring the world and exploring mother nature and spending time with your family and friends.” You may not care much about sports or filmmaking, but I can assure you that by the end of “Ski Bum: The Warren Miller Story,” you’ll wish you had grown up watching his movies. And if you were one of the lucky ones who did, share those videos with your loved ones. Either way, do yourself a favor and watch this film; let Warren Miller change your life, through the stories he was famous for telling and the stories his loved ones shared about him. After all, as Warren would say, “If you don't do it this year, you'll just be one year older when you do.”

B+

Monday, January 28, 2019

Sundance with Abe: The Farewell

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the sixth time. I’m seeing as many movies as I can each day and will post reviews of each as I can.


The Farewell
Directed by Lulu Wang
U.S. Dramatic Competition

Saying goodbye to a loved one is one of the most difficult parts of a person’s life. When someone receives a terminal diagnosis, they may be reluctant to share the news with the people who are important to them for fear of changing how they are looked at and affecting whatever time they have left to spend together, though that does not necessarily help the hurt those left behind will eventually feel. Hiding someone’s own medical prognosis from them is far less common, but it too presents ethical and emotional issues since the closure desperately needed by those who remain after someone dies will be impossible to achieve.

Billi (Awkwafina) feels a very strong connection to Nai Nai, her grandmother (Shuzhen Zhou), calling her regularly from New York to say hello. When she finds out that her parents (Tzi Ma and Diana Lin) are traveling to China under the guise of celebrating her cousin’s wedding, Billi insists on tagging along so that she can participate in the true purpose of the trip, to spend time with Nai Nai before the cancer she has been diagnosed with worsens and kills her. Billi struggles to maintain the agreement her family has come to: not to tell Nai Nai about her condition.

Awkwafina is a very talented and funny actress who had a truly memorable supporting role in last year’s “Crazy Rich Asians.” Following that film breakout up with this lead role is a truly terrific choice, especially since it once again surrounds her with an all-Asian cast. While this might seem like a repeat trip to an Asian country, this film is extremely different from the romantic comedy megahit, telling a dramatic story through a distinctly humorous lens. Much of the film is subtitled, though Billi expresses that her Chinese really isn’t great, and her cousin’s bride doesn’t even speak any of the language.

This is a sweet and endearing film, based, as declared by the opening titles, “on a true lie,” and one that grapples with conflicting notions over what control someone should have over their own life, especially at the end. The dynamics of Chinese culture, including a heartwarming visit to the grave of Nai Nai’s late husband where family members offer him cigarettes and other mementos of his life, are compellingly explored, with Billi fighting back less against her heritage and more against the questionable ethics of hiding a person’s medical diagnosis from them. This is a winning film that succeeds both comedically and dramatically, a sure sign that Awkwafina has a bright and exciting future ahead of her.

B+

Sundance with Abe: Honey Boy


I'm going strong at the Sundance Film Festival, trying to post all my reviews as quickly as I can after I see films. As they're going up here, I'm continuing to report on some films for The Film Experience. You can follow all the posts there, including my take on the terrific performances from Shia LaBeouf and Noah Jupe in one of my favorites so far, "Honey Boy."

Sundance with Abe: Abe

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the sixth time. I’m seeing as many movies as I can each day and will post reviews of each as I can.


Abe
Directed by Fernando Grostein Andrade
Kids

I’ve gone by Abe since I was in seventh grade, and as a result some people are surprised to learn that my full name is Abraham. When I reveal that information to strangers, they often ask if I’m Jewish, and, aside from affirming that and that I’m named for my great-grandfather Arnold, there’s not much more to say. My background is relatively straightforward, far less complicated than the title character with a name I like a lot here, whose nickname serves not only as a shorter way to refer to himself but a helpful abbreviation designed to simplify a contradictory heritage.

Abe (Noah Schnapp) grows up in Brooklyn, the son of an Israeli mother (Dagmara Dominczyk) and Palestinian father (Arian Moayed). His grandparents come over for meals and refer to him as Avraham or Ibrahim, pulling him in different directions related to their own upbringings. His parents prefer a more mainstream, religion-free life, but they fail to see Abe’s true passion: cooking. Under the guise of going to a cooking camp for teenagers that he finds hopelessly below his ability level, Abe begins an unofficial internship in a kitchen learning all about what fusion really means from a Brazilian chef named Chico (Seu Jorge).

This concept is a clever one, boiling down a complicated situation in the Middle East to how it affects one boy. Though his grandparents contradict each other and often argue in front of them, they all transmit to him positive elements of their cultures, while his parents attempt to best prepare him for a productive secular life. Abe is eager to try to mix things together, bringing ingredients from all the influences in his life, though he quickly learns that not all combinations go together easily simply because their pairings are unlikely. That’s a larger metaphor for Abe’s life.

Schnapp should be familiar to audiences from his role as Will on “Stranger Things,” and this part allows him to open up and come out of his shell without the fear of otherworldly beings trapping him forever. Jorge is probably the next strongest actor, as those portraying Abe’s family members offer relatively standard and broadly-defined characterizations. This film is fun, mildly appetizing, and ultimately unserious, a decent and light exploration of multiculturalism and what it means to go up in today’s society. It doesn’t try to be anything more than that and does just fine being what it wants to be.

B

Sundance with Abe: I Am Mother

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the sixth time. I’m seeing as many movies as I can each day and will post reviews of each as I can.


I Am Mother
Directed by Grant Sputore
Premieres

Growing up without any human interaction is something that most people can’t imagine. Jokes are often made about what aliens would think if they came across the remnants of our civilization, and what misconceptions they might have about certain practices and customs that can only be understood by experiencing them. Studying archive records of everything that has been accomplished in human history can only provide so much context, since interacting with others and seeing how situations elicit responses is integral to true education. Being introduced to someone else after years of living alone is certain to have transformative effects on a person and their worldview.

Following the extinction of humanity, a robot (Rose Byrne) begins the repopulation effort in an underground bunker. A saved embryo grows up to become her daughter (Clara Rugaard), referring to her creator as Mother. The two spend their days together as Daughter learns all about her people, always aware that she cannot go outside for fear of contamination. When she finds an animal and her curiosity gets the best of her, Daughter opens the door and lets in a wounded woman (Hilary Swank), who quickly prompts her to question everything she knows due to the mere fact that she is alive and her insistence that her robot mother cannot be trusted.

This film features just three characters, all female, interacting together on screen (with only Byrne’s voice). That intimate dynamic presents an incredible opportunity for truly getting to know them, as Mother’s monotone voice indicates perseverance and affection, while Daughter exhibits intelligence and loneliness. The Woman’s arrival changes all of that, since her sentences are short, coarse, and impolite, and, like the threat Mother always warned her daughter about, once she’s entered, their sensitive and peaceful ecosystem has become irreversibly infected.

This film is the latest in a series of subtler science fiction that deals with the implications of technology, reminiscent most of “Ex Machina.” All three performers are terrific, with Byrne turning in a particularly effective effort as the voice of Mother. Swank doesn’t usually play this type of part but does so well, and twenty-one-year-old Rugaard demonstrates extraordinary potential in a very focused and sympathetic breakout. The plot may not cover an entirely new concept, but it does show that it’s well worth exploring the idea of what restarting with the human race looks like and the dangers that come along with it.

B+

Sundance with Abe: The Infiltrators

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the sixth time. I’m seeing as many movies as I can each day and will post reviews of each as I can.


The Infiltrators
Directed by Alex Rivera and Cristina Ibarra
NEXT

It’s fair to assume that most, if not almost all, of the people attending the Sundance Film Festival consider themselves liberals. The content is not always in line with what the more conservative state of Utah endorses, and it tends to cover a variety of themes that are progressive and eye-opening, featuring all types of characters on screen in fiction narratives and exploring new ideas and concepts in documentaries. Overt politics aren’t quite as common but they can still be found in many films, representing what attendees are thinking about and want to see featured in the programming.

This documentary-narrative hybrid tells the story of members of the National Immigrant Youth Alliance, a group of illegal immigrants who broadcast their status publicly as a way to help others and to fight the system of discrimination and constant fear that rules the daily lives of their families. When Claudio Rojas is arrested and sent to a detention center in Broward County, Florida, his son contacts NIYA, prompting two of their members, Marco Saavedra and Viridiana Martinez, to purposely get arrested so that they can begin to create change from the inside, working with detainees to fight their deportations.

Each scene that takes place within the detention center features actors portraying the real-life people interviewed throughout the rest of the film, a decision made by directors Alex Rivera and Cristina Ibarra because they knew they couldn’t shoot inside the center and wanted to convey those moments to audiences. The caliber of the acting and the dialogue is not strong, and it feels very staged in a way that dilutes the experience of watching the actual Marco and Viridiana work with fellow NIYA members on the outside to help give those with no previous hope a chance at ending their indefinite internments. A straight documentary would have been more effective with the events on the inside recounted rather than replayed.


It’s astonishing to think that this film takes place in 2012 when Obama was President, a far cry from the current debate on immigration that involves a border wall and a much-increased ICE presence and persistence. The work done by NIYA is truly incredible, and audience members at the Sundance premiere screening gave a rousing standing ovation to the very large number of cast and crew members present. This is a film that shines a light on a part of this system that isn’t always discussed, and, as Sundance programmers clearly believed, it’s an important and relevant look at what it means to live in America today.

B

Sundance with Abe: Adam

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the sixth time. I’m seeing as many movies as I can each day and will post reviews of each as I can.


Adam
Directed by Rhys Ernst
NEXT

Everyone always talks about teenage years as a transformative time in a person’s life, where puberty and other changes can drastically affect how someone behaves and experiences the world. For some, it’s a particularly rough time, and it can take until young adulthood to truly be able to find yourself and live comfortably in your own skin. As times change, being different and expressing sexual orientations and gender identities that are not heteronormative becomes more commonplace and accepted in some circles. Most films find someone struggling to fit in because they’re not anyone’s definition of normal, and it’s fun to see a film that flips that idea on its head.

Adam (Nicholas Alexander) isn’t excited about spending the summer with his parents, and decides instead to come to New York to stay with his sister Casey (Margaret Qualley). While she hides the fact that she’s gay from her parents, Casey expresses herself freely when they’re not around, and Adam gets pulled into a circle of people he’s not at all accustomed to being around, attending marches for gay rights and events for transgender inclusion. When he meets a girl, Gillian (India Menuez), at a party, Adam is overcome with attraction and fails to correct one small misconception that the lifelong lesbian has about him: that he is a trans man.

Adam’s visit to New York is set in 2006, where terms like “cisgender” were just coming into popular use while the gay and trans scene was fully vibrant. Adam is completely unaware of any of its existence, and he gets to experience it from a transfixed, innocent perspective, one that threatens to become corrupted when he borders on appropriating other people’s experiences for his own personal gain. Casey goes to great lengths to correct his lack of comprehension of what it means to be trans, and posing as something that he’s definitely not gives him a window into what it’s like to feel out of sync with your body, and how, as someone who is not trans, he can’t possibly understand how it feels.

Alexander, who has done mostly television to this point, makes a terrific leading film debut with this role, making Adam equally awkward and endearing, hopeless to take charge of his life as events beyond his control force him to trade bewilderment for acceptance. The ubiquitous Qualley delivers another fine performance, and Menuez makes Gillian into a very compelling character of her own. Trans director Rhys Ernst’s vision of Ariel Schrag’s novel of the same name is an affirming, entertaining exploration of youth and how the unexpected can be extremely interesting and educational.

B+

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Sundance with Abe: MERATA: How Mum Decolonised the Screen

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the sixth time. I’m seeing as many movies as I can each day and will post reviews of each as I can.


MERATA: How Mum Decolonised the Screen
Directed by Hepi Mita
Documentary Premieres

Filmmaking is such an immense, international industry that it’s often easy to forget how many countries there are out there with their own unique cinematic identities. Each nation’s contributions to film bear some traces of their cultural context, and that’s especially true of documentaries, which are usually inspired by life experiences and a desire to unmask and broadcast phenomena not properly explored. A particular documentarian’s heritage may play a large part in the type of subjects they choose, bringing to the screen stories that feel personal to them and inherently will feel intimate on the screen as a result of their close connection to the material.

The life and work of Merata Mita is presented in this film by her youngest son, Hepi, who looks at the many films she made over a thirty-year span in New Zealand. Merata faced many obstacles due to her being Māori, a member of her country’s native population, exposing racism from her fellow New Zealanders. Being a working mother and a working woman proved just as difficult, but Merata persevered, seeking to find a voice for indigenous people across the world that felt honest and represented the society that those on the sidelines knew well.

Though this film was made after Merata’s death, which happened without much warning in 2010, she is very much a central presence whose many recorded interviews offer ample footage of her commentary on the work she did. Hepi describes how his mom having worked as an archivist means that she is truly with him in every frame, and this film provides the opportunity for her story to be told almost entirely through her own voice. Presenting most of the footage within a physical filmstrip on screen is a visual device that mirrors what Merata did, but the true strength of this film is in the narrative it follows throughout Merata’s career.

This tribute to Merata is a rich and moving exploration of her struggles to achieve success on multiple fronts, fighting against the subjugation of women within Māori culture and discrimination against the Māori people within New Zealand society in general. Merata jokes about how her international travels, which included the starting of a program through Sundance to help indigenous filmmakers, showed her that some regarded her as a valuable resource rather than the nuisance that those from her home country considered her to be. What Merata declares as her goal at the start of this documentary is to “decolonize the screen and indigenize a lot of what we see up there,” and this film offers a spectacular look at how much she persevered and helped to open up the notion of diverse and truly representative filmmaking to many different communities at home and around the world.

B+

Sundance with Abe: Queen of Hearts

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the sixth time. I’m seeing as many movies as I can each day and will post reviews of each as I can.


Queen of Hearts
Directed by May el-Toukhy
World Dramatic Competition

There are a number of films that deal with incest, a socially unacceptable practice that usually involves some sort of coercion and, in addition to mental issues, can present health risks if such a union leads to a pregnancy. While this concept is almost universally decried as problematic, and portrayed that way on screen, a romantic or sexual relationship between people who aren’t actually related but instead are linked by a remarriage or adoption are more complicated. As a result, they can be the subject of films with a comedic slant, though it’s rare that anything undisclosed and secretive will ever end well given the inevitability of it becoming public knowledge.

Anne (Trine Dyrholm) lives in Denmark with her husband Peter (Magnus Krepper) and her two young daughters. When Peter’s son from his first marriage, Gustav (Gustav Lindh), comes to stay with them, he exhibits rebellious behavior that makes Peter question whether he should instead be sent to boarding school. Despite being a successful lawyer with a loving family, Anne yearns for something more, which she finds in Gustav, and the two begin an illicit sexual relationship, one that makes Gustav more cooperative and Anne feeling fresher and more fulfilled than she has in a long time.

This is a distinctly European film, one that casually includes explicit content in its sex scenes and presents its subject matter in a relatively straightforward manner. What is captured most is the passion that exists between Anne and Gustav, temporarily causing them to forget the harm that they will both do to the man that they each love most should he ever find out. Peter is not a terribly appealing or dynamic personality, perfectly likeable but lacking a certain energy or individuality that might allow even the initial personal connection that leads to the tryst between his wife and his son.

The best reason to see this film is Dyrholm, who has starred in films like “In a Better World” and “Love Is All You Need,” delivering a completely different English-language performance in last year’s “Nico, 1988.” Here, she makes Anne a believable and relatable protagonist who has much more of an idea of what she’s doing than she indicates, earning the film’s title as a descriptor. Lindh also impresses opposite him, delivering an equally guarded but appropriately less mature turn. This film’s narrative drags on a good deal longer than it should, starting from an interesting place but likely losing audience interest towards the end of its 127-minute runtime.

B

Sundance with Abe: The Mountain

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the sixth time. I’m seeing as many movies as I can each day and will post reviews of each as I can.


The Mountain
Directed by Rick Alverson
Spotlight

There exists a consensus that many medical practices that were once normal are archaic and even barbaric in nature. Technological advancements help to create new processes that can skip steps and, in many cases, help people ensure good health and prevent diseases long before they become life-threatening. Many conditions and disorders that were thought to be abhorrent or indicative of an inability to function in the world have now been reclassified, and trips back in time to see the prevalence of things done to essentially put people out of their misery feel especially troubling because of the wasted potential in a purposely limited and artificially diminished life.

Andy (Tye Sheridan) is a quiet teenager in the 1950s who works as a Zamboni driver. His father’s sudden death and his mother’s institutionalization leave him alone and directionless, prompting him to accept the offer of Dr. Wallace Fiennes (Jeff Goldblum) to accompany him on his cross-country tour of mental hospitals, photographing the subjects of the lobotomies he performs. As Dr. Fiennes finds that his services are no longer as in demand, Andy begins to see the world through a different lens, constantly meeting people who, moments later, are no longer the same, reflecting his own slow disconnection from reality.

This is a film that starts out from an interesting point, as Dr. Fiennes sees a quiet, obedient assistant in Andy and wants to bring him along for a chance to see things from his perspective. As it progresses, however, it becomes more and more embroiled in the almost unfeeling gaze that Andy casts upon everyone and everything he photographs, making for an eerie and uninviting experience. It might seem worth it if the film’s plot or themes were powerful on their own, but this just feels like the descent of a lonely person into the irresponsible care of a man who believes that problems can be made “innocuous,” a word he slowly spells for Andy early on in the film as he types up one of his reports.

Sheridan, who made his mainstream breakthrough this past year with “Ready Player One,” is no stranger to Sundance, appearing previously in films like “Mud” and “The Yellow Birds.” This performance, unfortunately, is most similar to the one he delivered in South by Southwest entry “Friday’s Child,” though it’s considerably less engaging, as if Sheridan was told merely to stare at the camera whenever he wasn’t saying any one of his five lines. Goldblum, as always, is magnetic, but his twisted charisma can’t save this film that values its visual arts more than it does a need to tell a cohesive, even moderately involving story.

C

Sundance with Abe: Native Son

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the sixth time. I’m seeing as many movies as I can each day and will post reviews of each as I can.


Native Son
Directed by Rashid Johnson
U.S. Documentary Competition

There is an understandable desire to want to tell stories written long ago in a more modern, relatable way by setting them in the present. The most classic books are inherently tied to the times in which they were written, bringing to light social issues embedded within their narratives. It would be unrealistic at best to presume that, despite legal advancements, the status and experience of people of color in the United States has changed as much as it should have in almost ninety years, and that’s likely one of the motivations for the making of this film.

Bigger Thomas (Ashton Sanders), better known as Big, grows up in Chicago with his mother (Sanaa Lathan) and two siblings following the sudden death years earlier of his father. Though his green hair, attire, and tendency to indulge in drug use don’t indicate a level of seriousness about the direction of his life, Big goes for a job interview recommended by his mother’s boyfriend and immediately lands the gig as the driver for local real estate mogul Henry Dalton (Bill Camp). Thrust into a completely different world, Big is torn between his friends and girlfriend Bessie (Kiki Layne) and the countercultural allure of Dalton’s daughter Mary (Margaret Qualley).

There is an incredible amount of apologetic racism that comes from the Dalton family members, as Mary attempts to channel a supposed rage against the system on Big and his people’s behalf and her father, unprompted, proudly champions his longstanding support for the NAACP. The 1940 novel by Richard Wright was descriptive of what it means to be black in America, and this notion of cultural appropriation and presumptions are frequently invoked in the present day. When he accompanies Mary to a symphony performance, Big, even while dressed in a suit, gets a lengthy glance from the usher that indicates tremendous judgment and doubt that he belongs there.

Though it stays true to the plot direction of its source material, this film feels like it wants to be many different things at once. It could be the latest in a wave of films like “Get Out” that add horror to the everyday lives of black people just trying to get by, but it’s just as much a drama about succeeding through both perseverance and individuality. Every scene and moment feels so carefully crafted to be referenced later that the sum of the parts feels unnecessary after seeing each played out, resulting in an off-putting trajectory that gradually becomes less inviting and engaging, and present-day adaptations of 1940s-era plot points don’t work smoothly. The central character, Big, feels at first like he’s just trying to fit in and play to his audience, acting differently based on who he’s around, but then it all feels much less focused and instead becomes scattered and incoherent. There was potential here, but the way it is structured and played out proves ultimately less than satisfying.

C+