<p>&quot;Slow West&quot;</p>

"Slow West"

Credit: Sundance

Review: 'Slow West' features a gruff Michael Fassbender and absurdist Western violence

Sundance drama has some beautiful cinematography as well

PARK CITY. This doesn't happen often, but I had to stay after the Sundance Film Festival premiere screening of "Slow West" to listen to the Q&A with director John MacLean to get a sense of what the intended tone was for his World Cinema Dramatic Competition entry. 

Large portions of the second half of the 1870-set Western made me laugh, sometimes fairly hard, but I couldn't quite tell if the aspiration was parody or misgauged sincerity. The answer? Neither. Maclean said he was going for something almost fairy-tale-esque at the bloody climax of "Slow West," which means that something heightened was an aspiration, even if fairy tales very rarely leave me laughing. 

Sometimes you're just not receiving signals on the frequency that a movie is transmitting and I accept that just may be the case, especially since the first questioner praised "Slow West" for its realism.

Realism, eh? The movie I saw was an American Western directed by a Scot, filmed in New Zealand, starring an Aussie as the Scottish main character with an Irish actor as an American outlaw and that's before I get to the giggly heightened climax. Realism and authenticity aren't things I would salute here, though the quirky humor and a few interesting narrative choices still have me within range of a recommendation. 

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<p>&quot;The Amina Profile&quot;</p>

"The Amina Profile"

Credit: Sundance

Review: 'The Amina Profile' finds intrigue in a mystery of online identity

Sophie Deraspe's doc is more interesting if you don't treat its twist as a twist

The events in "The Amina Profile," playing in Sundance's World Documentary Competition, are not being revealed for the first time in Sophie Deraspe's film.

If you Google Amina Arraf and her A Gay Girl in Damascus blog, the arc of the story plays out on the first search page.

It was a widely reported story, but not universally reported, which makes for a complication in discussing "The Amina Profile." Do I discuss what the actual movie is, even if it means stripping aside some secrecy? Or do I play coy, pretend this documentary is like "The Sixth Sense" and I'd be violating its integrity by revealing too much while, thus, give it only half the intellectual consideration it probably deserves?

I'm going with the former approach, because while obfuscation is cute and fun, "The Amina Profile" is an interesting movie that probably will have a better chance at exposure if I say what it is than if I deny two-thirds of the movie and treat it as something it isn't.

In short, I don't think I'm "spoiling" "The Amina Profile" in this review, but I am going to discuss what the movie is, which I think is more respectful than pretending otherwise. But your results may vary.

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<p>Jameis Winston&nbsp;</p>

Jameis Winston 

Credit: AP

Review: 'The Hunting Ground' give campus sexual assault harrowing Kirby Dick treatment

Jameis Winston's accuser gives an emotional account

PARK CITY. Documentarian Kirby Dick has done oddball character studies, intellectual biographies and targeted the motion picture ratings system. But if 25 or 50 years from now Dick is most remembered for scathing polemics exposing epidemics of sexual assaults in America's most powerful institutions, well that would be a pretty honorable thing upon which to hang one's hat. 

Targeting the Catholic Church ("Twist of Faith") and the military ("The Invisible War"), Kirby Dick has proven himself a master of visceral polemics that inspire outrage and culminate in aggressive calls to bear witness and take action.

But Dick's approach to institutional sexual abuse isn't just to shine light on a subject and give exposure to victims. 

When "The Invisible War" premiered at Sundance in 2012, I wrote, "'The Invisible War' may depress you and make you cry, but it'll also probably leave you inspired. It's a portrait of courage as much as victimhood."

The same is true of Dick's newest institutional condemnation, "The Hunting Ground," in which the filmmaker will surely reduce you to tears with all of the first-person accounts of rape and sexual violence, but it's the heroism in candor and openness that Dick wants to leave you with. Many of the young women here aren't just risking reputation and privacy to tell their stories, they're also leading fights for report on both micro and macro levels. They're turning what is probably the lowest moment of their lives into an act of bravery that could impact thousands or millions of lives.

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<p>&quot;The End of the Tour&quot;</p>

"The End of the Tour"

Credit: Sundance

Review: 'The End of the Tour' sees Jason Segel do right by David Foster Wallace

Jesse Eisenberg also shines in James Ponsoldt's often funny Sundance drama

PARK CITY - It would be wrong to pigeonhole Jason Segel as simply a comedic actor. Whether playing the romantically scorned Nick in "Freaks and Geeks" (or Peter in "Forgetting Sarah Marshall"), the psychotically romantically scorned Eric on "Undeclared," the romantic but, in a key arc, grieving Marshall on "How I Met Your Mother," Segel has always been able to infuse his clowns with a grounding of real pain or disappointment or passion.

But thinking back over Segel's resume, it was hard to point to any role that indicated Segel might be a chameleon. He's always come across as too large in stature, too modern in tone to be invited to do period films or biopics or really any kind of project skewed towards the dramatic. 

I'd never have described Segel as limited in his acting range, but whether by his choice or Hollywood's perception of him, Segel's CV was dominated by one particular type of performance.

The perception is about to undergo a significant shift once audiences begin to be exposed to "The End of the Tour," which debuted as part of the Premieres selection at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival on Friday (January 23) evening.

I haven't watched enough interview footage of David Foster Wallace to know if what Segel is doing in "The End of the Tour" is channeling the "Infinite Jest" author in a literal way, but it's still a transformative performance in terms of vocal timbre and cadence and in terms of physicality. Segel captures the intellect and loneliness and discomfort that we sensed Wallace to have and even when Segel plays Wallace's considerable sense of humor, the timing and rhythms are different from what he honed in his years on Judd Apatow productions. 

Segel is equalled by Jesse Eisenberg, whose character may be even trickier at times, in James Ponsoldt's latest Sundance entry, which works in a smart and often soulful key, even if it also feels intimate and small.

[More after the break...]

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<p>&quot;A Walk in the Woods&quot;</p>

"A Walk in the Woods"

Credit: Sundance

Review: Bland 'A Walk in the Woods' is 'Grumpy Old Outdoorsmen'

If you only see one movie where Robert Redford faces nature, don't see this one

Maybe if "Wild" hadn't done such a solid and visually rich job of portraying one woman's determination to restart her life by hiking 2000 miles, the banal platitudes and strange visual monotony of two older guys' determination to restart their lives by hiking 2000 miles in "A Walk in the Woods" wouldn't seem so subpar.

Maybe if Robert Redford hadn't done such harrowing, committed and honest work as a man battling nature in "All Is Lost," Robert Redford's lax, barely engaged work as a man meandering through nature in "A Walk in the Woods" wouldn't seem so subpar.

Maybe if "A Walk in the Woods" weren't having its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, a venue that doesn't always demand artistic or narrative experimentation but certainly rewards the work of risk-taking, it's bland and peculiar artistic and narrative flatness wouldn't seem so subpar.

But here we are in Park City, where "A Walk in the Woods" had a soft-premiere on Friday (January 23) morning before a gala launch in Salt Lake City, where presumably the distance from Sundance may make its innocuous nothingness feel less disappointing.

Surely there's an audience out there in the world for "Grumpy Old Outdoorsmen," even if Robert Redford & Nick Nolte are no Matthau & Lemmon. 

But there's absolutely no way to shake the certainty that were one of its stars not the Founder & Grand Poobah of The Festival, Sundance never would have glanced in the direction of a film as mediocre as "A Walk in the Woods."

[More after the break...]

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<p>&quot;Finders Keepers&quot;</p>

"Finders Keepers"

Credit: Sundance

Review: 'Finders Keepers' blends sensationalistic story, sensational characters

Foot-in-a-grill documentary is surprisingly humane in addition to being wacky

Bryan Carberry and Clay Tweel's US Documentary Competition entry "Finders Keepers" has one of the most salacious loglines of any film at Sundance this year.

"Recovering addict and amputee John Wood finds himself in a stranger-than-fiction battle to reclaim his mummified leg from Southern entrepreneur Shannon Whisnant, who found it in a grill he bought at an auction."

It's a synopsis with a review blurb practically built in, because Sundance is often a haven for the quirky and absurd and, at least on the surface, "Finders Keepers" has the sort of plot that no screenwriter in his or her right mind would ever dream up.

And were "Finders Keepers" just the story of a couple of North Carolina bumpkins bickering over a mummified leg that one of them lost in a tragic plane accident and the other purchased in a storage locker auction, it would be fun and sensationalistic and probably ultimately condescending, but we wouldn't care about that because of the fun inherent in giggling at rednecks. 

And "Finders Keepers" isn't that at all. 

The reason why Carberry and Tweel's film works is practically the opposite of its stranger-than-fiction freak show trappings. Despite a very reasonable running time of under 90 minutes, "Finders Keepers" digs underneath its initial craziness and finds two very real, damaged humans at the center. "Finders Keepers" may, indeed, be stranger-than-fiction, but it's finally significantly less strange and far more relatable than you would initially guess or perhaps fear. 

The reason "Finders Keepers" will probably be better than most of the narrative films at Sundance this year isn't that no screenwriter could ever make up a story this wacky, but that no screenwriter would be able to craft characters as layered as John Wood and Shannon Whisnant.

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<p>&quot;How To Change The World&quot;</p>

"How To Change The World"

Credit: Sundance

Review: 'How To Change The World' looks at the birth of Greenpeace with some stumbles

Jerry Rothwell's Sundance documentary is structurally frustrating

There are good ideas aplenty in Jerry Rothwell's "How To Change The World," which earned an Opening Night slot at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival and will be part of the World Documentary Competition.

Although its heroes are the founders of Greenpeace and pioneers of the modern environmental movement, "How To Change The World" isn't a blindly unquestioning piece of hero-worship. It's a warts-and-all look at idealism realized, idealism diverted and the fallibility of people with those highest of ideals.

Rothwell's film has interesting ideas about the power of propaganda and the manufacturing of a political movement. It also has impressive participation from the available principles in the movement, many of whom have changed perspectives intriguingly in the 40 years since the instigating events in the story, events that astoundingly well-documented at the time.

The back-and-forth between the self-representation of the early Greenpeace home movies and Rothwell's contemporary check-in offer both insight and dramatic irony and would seem to provide "How To Change The World" with all the structure it could possibly need.

Somehow, though, Rothwell doesn't realize which things are or aren't holding his film together and he imposes a number of extra, barely motivating devices onto the documentary, resulting in a jumble of tones and structure that leave "How To Change The World" feeling at least an hour longer than its already wearisome 115 minutes.

I liked "How To Change The World" more than I initially thought I might, but less than I probably could have if its focus had lived up to its potential.

[More after the break.]

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<p>&quot;What Happened, Miss Simone?&quot;</p>

"What Happened, Miss Simone?"

Credit: Sundance

Review: 'What Happened, Miss Simone?' only sings when Nina Simone sings

Liz Garbus' Sundance opener makes great use of performance footage

Liz Garbus' "What Happened, Miss Simone?" begins with footage of Nina Simone taking the stage at the 1976 Montreaux Jazz Festival. It was a performance that simultaneously represented a comeback from self-imposed exile for the iconic chanteuse, but also has been used as an example of the mercurial, erratic and occasionally bizarre work that characterized the middle of Simone's career. 

Simone stands in front of her piano and takes a prolonged bow. She stares into the audience and seemingly off into space. There's almost no way to read  her. Is she embracing the applause? Is she alienated in the spotlight? Is this her dream? Is it her nightmare? 

It's a perfect prelude to the film's title, which comes from a 1970 Redbook piece by Maya Angelou.

That enigmatic opening and the interrogative title lead, somewhat disappointingly, into a rather conventional cradle-to-the-grave documentary.

But even if there's a sense that a woman as uncontainable as Nina Simone deserved a documentary less eager to contain her in easy-to-understand terms, "What Happened, Miss Simone?" remains engaging by virtue of the wealth of archival and concert footage Garbus has assembled.

One of the Opening Night films at this year's Sundance Film Festival, "What Happened, Miss Simone?" is screening out-of-competition here and will premiere on Netflix this spring.

[More after the break...]

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<p>Taraji P. Henson of &quot;Empire&quot;</p>

Taraji P. Henson of "Empire"

Credit: FOX

TV Ratings: 'Empire' rises again, 'America Idol' also up for FOX Wednesday

'Criminal Minds,' 'Law & Order: Special Victims Unit' eye series lows

Fast National ratings for Wednesday, January 21, 2015.

After doing something unprecedented for the season by rising in its second week, FOX's "Empire" did something fairly unprecedented in this writer's memory and also rose in its third airing. With "American Idol" also getting a big bump, FOX dominated Wednesday in all measures.

Per FOX, "The Finder" three years ago actually rose in its second and third weeks as well, but those numbers were on an entirely different scale.

Elsewhere, "Criminal Minds" and "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" both hit series lows against the "Empire" juggernaut

On to the numbers...

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<p>Jacob Tolliver of &quot;American Idol&quot;</p>

Jacob Tolliver of "American Idol"

Credit: FOX

Recap: 'American Idol' Auditions - Minneapolis

Prince's hometown yields very little soul or funk or rock

We've reached that intriguing place in the "Idol" audition schedule that overlaps with Sundance, so there's a distinct chance that between now and next Thursday, a few of the audition episodes may not get recapped. 

Instead? You can expect a lot of reviews for documentaries you've never heard of!


Follow along with my recap for Wednesday (January 21) night's auditions from Minneapolis...

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