Sundance review roundup from The Fien Print
All the crazy documentaries that weren't reviewed at the Festival
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I know that the Sundance Film Festival ended over a week ago, but in the six days I was at Sundance (and on screeners in the days before), I saw 25 movies.
I wrote full reviews for 13 of them.
My Full Sundance reviews:
But that left 12 movies that I just didn't have the time to write my usual 1000-to-1750 words on. Since getting back from Park City, I've been slowly working my way through capsule reviews for those 12 movies. These are roughly the length of my Take Me To The Pilots entries, which means that in this format, people are going to complain about all of the text and the lack of paragraphs.
Because I'm just one part of HitFix's awesome Sundance team, which included Greg Ellwood, Drew McWeeny, Guy Lodge and Katie Hasty, I saw an odd assortment of movies at the Fest, with only six narrative films on my list. Instead, I saw a ton of documentaries and so a lot of these movies probably didn't get more than a few reviews out of Sundance from any outlets.
So click through for 12 capsule reviews of tiny Sundance movies. Who knows? Maybe your interest will be piqued for when one of them comes to TV or Netflix or whatever... The reviews are stretched over three pages. Because otherwise, this would be too long.
"All the Beautiful Things" (Dir. John Harkrider)
I complain so much about the lack of formal experimentation from the documentaries selected Sundance competition slots, which almost all seem to fit into the exact same "Good story, traditionally told" niche. So it makes me sad to have to report that John Harkrider's "All the Beautiful Things" was probably the most risky and format-breaking doc I saw in Park City and... it stunk. For reasons best understand by Harkrider, he decided to reframe his longtime friendship and partial estrangement with photographer Barron Claiborne over a long, excruciatingly staged conversation inexplicably set at a jazz club, inexplicably moderated by a hot bartender and inexplicably extended into a long, overnight walk through New York City, all meant to expose some really banal truths about race, class and forgiveness. In the process of staging this conversation, Harkrider has sucked everything truthful from the exchange, since neither he nor Claiborne is an actor and yet they mug for the camera relentlessly. "All the Beautiful Things" stands out from the documentary fray with rather glossy, 35mm lensing courtesy of Brian O'Carroll, but even that stands out as discordant amidst the attempts by these two friends to get to something resembling the "truth" in their relationship. Every once in a while, the banter between the two men hits the jazzy beats they aspire to, but more often I was left perplexed by the glibness with which the chums toss aside the allegations of sexual assault that split them up in the first place. The doc hits its nadir when the two men separately go out to piss in an alley and have enlightening and clunky conversations with A Wise Jazzman. Only the Sundance programmers know why they bothered putting this in the doc field, but at least it's more innovative here than in the narrative category. No better. But more innovative.
MY GRADE: C
"The Battered Bastards of Baseball" (Dir. Chapman Way & Maclain Way)
Yes, there's something a wee bit self-serving/nepotistic about Chapman and Maclain Way paying tribute to grandfather Bing Russell's great Portland Mavericks independent baseball experiment of the '70s and using Kurt Russell as the highest of high profile talking heads. But so what? Like the best of ESPN's 30 for 30 docs, "The Battered Bastards of Baseball" works because it has two storytellers with a very personal desire to tell a story that nobody else seems to have wanted to tell. So what if it's a glorified home movie? The directors approach the story mostly as a quirky character piece, looking at former "Bonanza" star Bing and a small selection of people associated with the Mavericks, perhaps logically focusing quite heavily on the reminiscences of a young batboy who went on to become "In the Bedroom" director Todd Field. Really, there aren't nearly enough former players on-camera, but I suppose that more involvement from Mavericks would have diluted the story around Bing, which is amusingly and sentimentally recalled by by Russell and his mother Louise. [Nothing I learned about the baseball in this movie was anywhere near as revelatory as seeing that Kurt is a dead-ringer for his mother.] The Ways cobbled together an impressive amount of archival footage of the Mavericks, which is put to good use, even if some of that use is obscuring that the through-line narrative for the baseball team doesn't quite work as a story. There's a reason why a group of seasoned, older players would be successful against teams of Single-A minor leaguers and that's because the minor league system is designed to send the best players up, with a focus on youth and advancement. Of *course* a team with a win-now mentality and players who major league teams thought were good enough for AAA, but not for the majors, would be able to win, at least to some degree. "Battered Bastards" plays up the underdog angle and ignores a lot of the nuts-and-bolts baseball, but probably works better for that decision. It's full of laughs and, towards the end, I even got a bit choked up in places. I'd put this one in the mid-to-upper tier of 30 for 30 docs, had it actually been a 30 for 30 doc, if ESPN fans are looking for qualitative perspective.
MY GRADE: B+
"Difret" (Dir. Zeresenay Berhane Mehari)
I get why Angelina Jolie signed on as a "presenting" producer for "Difret." The Ethopian drama is, as a narrative, purely empowering and reductive in a way that doesn't force you to think about any of the issues too hard. After all, does it get any more black-and-white than "Abducting and raping young women as prelude to marriage is bad"? Mehari seems almost terrified of finding any ambiguity in the story, lest anybody think the film isn't decisive, so any time you start wondering why Character X is behaving in the way they do, the movie skips over motivation and returns to "Retrograde old ways... bad. Progressive new ways... good." The answer, ultimately, for why anybody in "Difret" does anything bad is "Because they're stuck in the past and don't know any better," which allows the story to compartmentalize any cultural clashes in Ethiopia as a thing of the past, which feels disingenuous at every turn. It's like the black-and-white American civil rights dramas that are structured around the fallacy of "Then this boundary was broken and racism was cured forever more." The world is more complicated than "Difret" wants to show, but I get the feeling that audiences loved the lack of complexity. It really helps that leading lady Meron Getnet, playing a crusading Addis Abeba attorney, is terrific. She's beautiful, feisty and interesting enough as an actress that I had questions about her character that "Difret" has very little interest in answering. Newcomer Tizita Hagere, as the abducted 14-year-old, is committed and earnest, but the character could have been sketched more interestingly. "Difret" is more interested in showing that its heart and politics are in the right place -- They are! -- than in doing anything that isn't clear and simplistic. It won the Audience Award, so I guess it works for some viewers. For me, it felt like a thoroughly well-intentioned Ethiopian Lifetime Movie.
MY GRADE: C+
Continue to Page 2 for Reviews of "Happiness," "Hellion," "Imperial Dreams" and "No-No: A Dockumentary."
"Happiness" (Dir. Thomas Balmes)
I wouldn't have even hazarded a guess on 95 percent of the Sundance jury prizes, because Sundance movies are way too personal to guarantee which films will resonate with a small body of voters. However, I would have bet every penny I have on "Happiness" winning the World Doc cinematography prize. Nobody, of course, would have taken that bet, but of course I'd have won. Granted that there's a certain fish-in-a-barrel to what DPs Thomas Balmes and Nina Bernfeld had to work with here. The mountainside village of Laya in Bhutan is a gorgeous backdrop and, in child-monk Peyangki, they have a subject so adept at expressing wonderment that you'd think he was a Stephen Spielberg star, not an actual child. But having good materials and capturing them aren't the same thing and the footage of Peyangki doing cartwheels across a corrugated tin rooftop, orange vestments flowing, with the Himalayas as a backdrop was breathtaking, the finest imagery I saw all Festival. "Happiness," which looks at the arrival of television in Laya, moves with the deliberate gait of one of the yaks who serve transportation, labor and as top-notch currency in the region. For at least an hour, the movie is a lot of monks wordlessly going through their rituals and kids being kids, again against a Himalayan backdrop. You just have to give yourself up to the beauty and accept that "Happiness" can't be rushed. Then, as modernity pushes in -- as Peyangki gets his first taste of the city and of technology, as he does, indeed, experience TV for the first time -- you can start thinking about the implications of progress in a world that resisted progress for centuries. What does it mean when natural beauty and purity are no longer enough? What does it mean for rural ways of life? What does it mean for spiritual ways of life? Or you can just ignore those questions and smile at Peyangki's unforced, natural humor and gape at the cinematography. It's only 90 minutes, so it's enriching either way.
MY GRADE: B+
"Hellion" (Dir. Kat Candler)
In adapting her 2012 Sundance short into a feature, Kat Candler has cobbled together an assortment of half-developed genre pieces that ultimately don't entirely gel. I think the elements work better as parts than "Hellion" does as a whole. There's a coming-of-age story involving motocross-loving Jacob (newcomer Josh Wiggins) and his teenage buddies that plays reasonably well because Wiggins is a find and because the largely improvised dialogue between the kids has an unforced and naturalistic flow. You'll have to decide for yourself, though, whether you buy that the story has earned the dark place it ends up going towards the end. My own read was, "Close, but not quite." There's a grieving-father-trying-to-do-right story that works because Aaron Paul is a great actor and he does "alcoholic" and "emotionally hollowed" well enough that you only sometimes stop and quibble about his relative youth, though the problem with having an actor as good as Paul is that you get frustrated when the storylines focusing just on that character feel truncated. I think there's a difference between capturing the slightly unformed energy of '70s movies and maybe not emerging fully formed from the editing room. If you love "Hellion," you'll think it achieves the former. If you're frustrated by "Hellion," you'll think it suffers from the latter.
MY GRADE: B-
"Imperial Dreams" (Dir. Malik Vitthal)
I don't get how this low-key Watts-set drama topped "Land Ho!" for the Best of NEXT Audience Award. Or maybe my screenings of the two movies really weren't representative? Dunno. I felt like perhaps the most admirable thing that Malik Vitthal did in this story of an aspiring writer recently released from prison and trying to stay straight for the sake of his young son was to avoid exactly the sort of manipulative moments that audiences respond to, but that make "Just when I thought I was out, they PULL me back in" stories like this so predictable. There's a version of "Imperial Dreams" that's basically "Poetic Justice" and I'm relieved that's not what Vitthal went for. However, if you take away the genre-friendly histrionics, you're left with very little else to move the story forward and the result is muted, meandering and, sadly, not especially profound. I guess the hope was that situating a drama in the midst of the fully mythologized gangster world of South Central, but removing all of the familiar cliches, the stripped-down result might be illuminating. Sadly, it's not. What keeps "Imperial Dreams" watchable is the assertive and fully inhabited performance by John Boyega, who probably should have been elevated to stardom by "Attack the Block," but was not. Sporting a flawless American accent and the required mixture of physicality and intellect, Boyega is the reason to check this movie out. [He was cast in a Jesse Owens biopic on the day I saw "Imperial Dreams." I wish Boyega well, his stature is all wrong for the track superstar. Unless he's gonna reshape himself entirely, I'm skeptical.] Opposite Boyega, there are a mixture of actors taking the indie path to career redefinition, with minimal success. I get why Glenn Plummer would want to try playing a badass kingpin, but it doesn't work. And I get why Keke Palmer would want to scuff up her image a bit to play the main character's incarcerated ex, but she doesn't have enough to do to make it worth it. And I guess Anika Noni Rose, Nora Zehetner and Todd Louiso were just supporting the Sundance Labs and whatnot. "Imperial Dreams" is, ultimately, a John Boyega clip reel. If you want to cast him in something, check this one out. Otherwise? You can pass.
MY GRADE: C+
"No-No: A Dockumentary" (Dir. Jeffrey Radice)
Dock Ellis was an above average major league pitcher elevated to the status of cult hero largely by virtue of his 1970 no-hitter, thrown while tripping on LSD. That's the old conventional wisdom on Dock, canonized in the James Blagden animated short "Dock Ellis and the LSD No-No." Kudos to Jeffrey Radice for making the Ellis no-hitter into little more than a small incident in his feature-length documentary on the pitcher. The most effective achievement in Radice's "Dockumentary" is debunking the wacky glamour around Ellis' career of drug-use by not shying away from the dark side of his substance abuse -- several instances of spousal abuse are acknowledged -- or his determination to help other people once he achieved sobriety. It's not that Radice doesn't want to canonize Ellis, but he has a different agenda, positioning the pitcher as a transitional figure in baseball race relations, a key piece of the bridge between Jackie Robinson's generation and contemporary stars. The problem with this disjointed documentary is that Radice makes a lot of broad pronouncements, but he lacks the tangible evidence to back it up, other than an instance when Ellis was disciplined for wearing hair curlers on the field and the year Ellis passive-aggressively lobbied his way into starting the All-Star game. Yes, Ellis was flamboyant and stylish in a way that broke from the norm, but the film makes generalized claims about influence and importance that aren't close to substantiated. Was Ellis the only player testing baseball's boundaries of perception? Did he influence any subsequent players? Or was he just a colorful player who was respected by teammates and... maybe not much else? It's unclear. Rather than building one argument, Radice tip-toes around several and while it amounts to a portrait of an interesting man, there are some big claims made but left unjustified. It's better than a rehash of the same hallucinogenic celebrations of the 1970 no-hitter, but not as good as it could have been.
MY GRADE: B
Continue to Page 3 for reviews of "Private Violence," "Return to Homs," "Watchers of the Sky," "We Are The Giant" and "Whitey."
"Private Violence" (Dir. Cynthia Hill)
The challenge between celebrating the subject matter of a documentary and the way it presents the subject matter is alive and well in Cynthia Hill's "Private Violence," which has a tremendous lead character in domestic violence advocate Kit Gruelle, a heartbreaking main case study and genuinely difficulties telling its actual story. Gruelle, who roams North Carolina appearing in court houses, shelters and police training seminars, is a great hero, candid about her own history of abuse and able to look at the myriad failings of the system. And with Deanna Walters, "Private Violence" has a centerpiece case that is simultaneously horrifying, but also hopeful, again raising questions about how the system fails abused women. But there's an inherent problem in doing a documentary that focuses very heavily on impediments presented by the legal system, but builds around a main case study that goes to a trial held in a courtroom that prohibits cameras. It leaves the movie building to a third act that's mostly the reading of court transcripts. That's flat drama and it's a bad closing argument. I understand that doesn't mean that "Private Violence" isn't enlightening and inspiring and tear-jerking. How could it not be? The main camera subjects are crying through most of the documentary. But a documentary is about storytelling and "Private Violence" is structured very much like a law-and-order procedural, so an investigation and a build-up to a trial that can't be featured on-screen is anti-climactic storytelling. It's also strange storytelling for Hill to begin the documentary with an intense in medias res sequence in which a terrified woman and a confident advocate work with the police to capture her abusive spouse, only to have these "characters" -- so-to-speak -- never appear again in the documentary. "Private Violence" will appear on HBO and I think it has a lot of value as an instructional movie, especially for viewers who have never considered the issues posed before. It will instigate conversations. I just wish "Private Violence" was slightly better as a stand-alone movie.
MY GRADE: B-
"Return to Homs" (Dir. Talal Derki)
Talal Derki's harrowing look at the Syrian revolution was a deserving jury winner in the World Documentary Competition, an achievement of immersion that thrusts viewers into a small group of increasingly militarized protestors in a single city over two years. Derki isn't interested in giving viewers context. If you don't know the basics of the Syrian conflict, you'll just have to accept that ignorance. If you don't know much about the city of Homs, we're told that it's associated with youth culture, but no real evidence is presented. Mostly, we're introduced to two men -- Basset is a 19-year-old soccer player and singer, while Ossama is a media activist and videographer -- and we see how two years of army assaults, sieges and combat change them. We see youthful idealism turn to hardened pragmatism, witness a commitment to peaceful insurrection go sour. Bullets fly, bombs explode and the camera is right there, given intimate access to moments that are rousing, disheartening, sometimes humorous and sometimes so unflinching that they verge on snuff. Derki's access is staggering and his eye is simultaneously journalistic, but also cinematic. There are definitely shades of Kubrick to the long, uninterrupted shots that take us through bombed out buildings, a labyrinth of ruins that still have poignant ties to all of our heroes. The director's focus is narrow and sometimes claustrophobic and the lack of ideology or context sometimes obscures what these men are risking their lives for. To some degree that's Derki universalizing the experience of war on young men, but Basset repeatedly expresses his desire to bring the world's attention to this particular struggle and plight, but the movie's pull is more visceral than either intellectual or emotional. Watching "Return to Homs" is a rousing experience, but there's something uncomfortable about not knowing what you're being roused toward.
MY GRADE: B+ (I'm wavering somewhere in the direction of an A-)
"Watchers of the Sky" (Dir. Edet Belzberg)
Edet Belzberg's "Watchers of the Sky" is a fascinating and tricky film, because it's about a man who died 55 years ago and a concept that'll be difficult for many people to wrap their heads around. The primary subject is Raphael Lemkin, who coined the word genocide and made it his life's work to earn recognition for the term and to campaign for international laws against genocide. Using Lemkin's words as a backdrop, weaved over archival footage and also impressionistic animation, Belzberg tells the story of four people who continue the fight for global human rights law. It's easy to think "Well of course genocide should be illegal," but the International Criminal Court and its actual efficacy are in their nascent stage and the struggles for international legislation, enforcement and intervention are far more compelling than it sounds on the page. Luis Moreno-Ocampo, Samantha Power, Emmanuel Uwurukundo and Ben Ferencz are passionate crusaders for Lemkin's cause, offering their perspectives on mass killings in Darfur, Bosnia, Rwanda and, in the case of Nuremberg prosecutor Ferencz, the Holocaust. This is a story of the utmost righteousness and human compassion and a story that gets to the root of ethical imperatives. What can we learn from the horrors of the past? What can we do to impose punishment for the horrors of the present? And how can we stop horrors in the future? Social justice is a hard and often nebulous concept to depict in a documentary Belzberg actually revels in the elevated aspects of the discussion. She wants this to be a documentary that doesn't just prompt casual discussion, but rather raises the biggest issues imaginable. Her approach is analytical, poetic and, when one of the subject tells the story that gives the film its name, unexpectedly emotional.
MY GRADE: Another B+/A-
"We Are The Giant" (Dir. Greg Barker)
I liked Greg Barker's "Manhunt," which premiered at Sundance last year and later played on HBO. His new doc is, however, a total conceptual mess. "We Are The Giant" showcases three different pairings of people who have, via different paths, become revolutionaries. Unfortunately, there's a vast disparity in the interest level generated by each of the three segments. The first segment, in Libya, is a so-so "60 Minutes" segment. The second segment, in Syria, is a woefully uninteresting version of [see above] "Return to Homs." The final segment, focusing on sisters fighting the ruling regime in Bahrain, should have been a movie on its own. The three segments are mostly unified by a logline in the press notes, but then Barker pushes really, really, really, really hard to make sure you get the connection by blasting the screen with punchy propaganda-stye imagery and quotes from revolutionaries as different as Jesus, Stalin and Castro, accompanied by a bombastic score by Philip Sheppard. I think that this was a really intriguing approach for a docuseries, something like HBO's "Witness," but it's dismally unsatisfying as a feature documentary. There are too many things about revolution that get suggested in the on-screen quotes that can't begin to be explored in the three segments. Rather than making the message expansive, the quotes actually make the stories really reductive. It's all the more confusing because Barker's "Manhunt" was practically a CIA recruitment video, so seeing the same director shift to something so wildly anti-establishment produces an ideological muddle. The bottom line is that I watched "Return to Homs" the day after "We Are The Giant" and I thought, "Oh. Now I see what Barker was going for, only done right." I heard some people raving about "We Are The Giant" and I don't get it. At all.
MY GRADE: C
"Whitey" (Dir. Joe Berlinger)
Virtually every talking head in Joe Berlinger's "Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger" has a primary profession -- lawyer, gangster, federal agent -- and then a secondary career as an author of a book about the legendary Boston gangster. There is a Whitey Industrial Complex that has built up in New England over the past decade and somehow Berlinger wasn't able to find many people to talk to for his exhaustive documentary who weren't in some way suckling on a Whitey-associated teat. Basically every subject in the documentary has a financial stake in their version of a story that apparently has multifarious truths and they all yell their version of the truth to the sky, with the certitude of somebody whose next meal depends on being heard the loudest. This results in a cacophony that plays out over 130 minutes. With the primary government agencies all refusing to go on the record about a case that only reached its verdict in November, there's certainly one version of the story that isn't represented at all, but "fortunately" there are 75 other versions that get a thorough airing, which actually makes the storytelling feel even more lopsided. The versions all point to a mixture of FBI corruption and ineptitude in the investigation, plus Whitey Bulger being a vicious monster/mobster, but not a snitch, which is what happens when you get a documentary where Bulger goes on the record -- via recorded calls with his lawyer -- but none of the FBI investigators do. Because the trial was never about Bulger's "innocence," Berlinger doesn't run any risk of making an argument that will outrage anybody, so he just lets everybody say their piece and offers no new investigation of his own. That's fine, except that the truth in "Whitey" because a tyranny of who wants to present their opinions most assertively. On one hand, the documentary is gripping, because we love a good mobster story and Bulger's saga, one of the inspirations for the Jack Nicholson character in "The Departed" and likely to be the subject of its own movie possibly starring Johnny Depp, is straight out of Hollywood. I wish, though, that Berlinger had taken a more self-aware approach to the fact that all of his interview subjects had an investment in this story. The mythologizing of Whitey Bulger is, at this point, more interesting than the truth, whatever that is. Since Berlinger can't carve out any new terrain, his documentary is just a pastiche of mythologizing and in a documentary this long, that approach goes from exhaustive to exhausting.
MY GRADE: B