Sundance 2016 – batch 2

The stupid, barbaric, and occasionally fatal rituals of fraternity hazing are given their own 90 minute hell week in drama Goat. And with a story centered around the organic bond of a pair of actual brothers, the fratboy notion of forced artificial brotherhood is held up to scrutiny and given a metaphorical wedgie.

It’s a comically disturbing fact that many of the judges, doctors, entrepreneurs, and corporate executives of tomorrow are at some point beginning their college education by enduring the specific homoerotic hazing ritual of their chosen fraternity, sitting in their underwear with their freshman pledge brothers, getting paddled by equally moronic but slightly older brozos, reciting a vapid frat slogan, barfing up cheap beer, and possibly deflowering a goat.

This film, based on the book “Goat: A Memoir”, is not exactly an exposé, because everyone already knows about the hazing, and people still join fraternities anyway. But it does illuminate the darker side of the overcooked testosterone-based world view in those fraternities that still have not shed their infantile old world rituals. While presenting the bros and cons of frat life, the movie even briefly examines the only justification given for hazing, something about a tradition going back many years. (That shallow thinking is not limited to fraternity hazing of course; some people even in 2016 continue other old traditions whose utility has expired, such as accordion music and religion.) B.

 

Set in the South Caucasus region where Asia and Europe meet awkwardly, beautiful epic love story Ali and Nino spans several years in the World War I era, from the unique perspective of a Muslim boy from Azerbaijan and a Christian girl from neighboring Georgia. The film follows the classically star-crossed lovers as they struggle to find a way to stay together in a world falling apart, and presents a sort of a history lesson, with the fascinating backdrop of Azerbaijan briefly gaining status as an independent nation in 1918, with Muslims somehow forming a democratic republic and allowing women to vote, before being conquered again by the Russians a few years later.

But this grand story was unavoidably melodramatic, and the flat dialog lacked a “we’ll always have Paris” sort of hook. And although stunning cinematography made the film a joy to watch, the finish was a bit over the top.

In the Q/A following the screening, there was discussion of the significant challenge in adapting the popular novel into a film, and of the surprising relevance of this old story to today’s environment where oil, Muslims, and an imperial Russia are still making news. B.

 

Thrilling rock and roll documentary and winner of a Sundance Best Editing award, We Are X immerses the audience in concert footage, behind the scenes drama, and interviews with fans and band members, to tell the story of huge Japanese band “X Japan” (who changed their name from “X” to avoid confusion with the American punkish band who already had that name).

As bombastic as Queen, with theatrics influenced by Kiss, and with a mixture of Metallica-style guitar/drum riffs and melodic piano ballads, X Japan forged a style known as “visual rock” in Japan, where they became a cultural phenomenon and sold 30 million records. But not in the USA; the film shows Gene Simmons explaining that if they recorded songs in English they might be the biggest band in the world.

The film includes plenty of Behind-the-Music style tragedy and triumph, with the band’s charismatic leader/drummer/pianist/songwriter Yoshiko heroically performing in spite of overuse injuries, with a couple of band members committing suicide, and with lead singer Toshi leaving the band for several years to join a we-can-improve-your-life-if-you-give-us-your-money cult before regaining his rationality. The happy ending finds the remnants of the band reuniting for a Madison Square Garden show in 2014. B+.

 

With just enough plot to give the characters something to do beyond exchanging funny quips, talky comedy Joshy is sort of a lessor “Big Chill” for the now coming-of-age offspring of that ’80s classic. And like the Big Chill, there’s a death and some light drama, but there’s no real menace. The film feels more like a stitched-together sequence of fun improvised scenes, from a first rate comic ensemble who find themselves thrown together for a weekend at sort of a bachelor party. And the final parallel with the Big Chill is that this generation also likes liquor, weed, coke, and arguing about music. B-.

Sundance 2016 – batch 1

Being openly skeptical about an invisible man in the sky is common now, but was rare in the mid 20th century. So it was uncommonly bold of a non-religious but culturally Jewish college student to defend his lack of irrational beliefs when challenged on it by his stern, Christian dean. And the beautifully written 18 minute scene in the dean’s office where the two argue their cases, with escalating passion bounded by old-fashioned respect, is a memorable, almost Sorokin-esque high point of Indignation, based on the novel by the great Philip Roth. But that scene is a small part of the larger story, examining the student’s relationship with an extraordinary young lady who befriends him, and in that story we see how people’s lives intersect in surprising and random ways, and we see how the student somehow ends up in the Korean war. The writing alone is worthwhile, but the performances in this little gem of a movie are also first rate. B+.

 

A work of fiction based on true events, psychological thriller Christine has been summarized as “the movie about that reporter who shot herself on live TV in 1974”. Since the crucial event of the story is a matter of public record and we know what happens near the end, the film relies heavily on the lead character’s inner turmoil for suspense. So it’s not so much a thriller as a study in the conflicts and stresses within the mind of an awkward, joyless young journalist, trying to succeed with integrity in a local TV news business struggling for ratings at a time when the profession was shifting away from actual news and toward sensationalism.

The TV newsroom scenes give the film some authentic energy. Other scenes where Christine has grim and uncomfortable interactions with her peers and family help define a character who was increasingly frustrated at having her instincts guide her toward mediocrity. So toward the end, the viewer may understand why she decided to end her life the way she did, by creating the sort of sensationalist news story she despised.

And what if, say, the entire Fox “News” organization took inspiration from this story, realized how far its own business has strayed from actual journalism, and, in a final moment truly “fair and balanced”, suddenly and violently terminated its own operations?

In the Q/A following the screening, the director described the difficulty in finding actual ’70s era video tape equipment to use in the control room scenes, and their luck in hiring a guy who knew how to operate it. B.

 

In metal murder-fest Green Room, a young, struggling thrash metal band, happy just to have a gig, performs on a crappy stage before a grunting crowd of neo-Nazi thugtards in a divy rural club. That sounds like fun, but the real fun begins when they finish the gig and retreat to the green dressing room and try to get the hell out of there. Some very bad things happen to the band, and they ultimately have to rely on their creative instincts to figure out how to defeat some bad guys so they can live to play their shitty music somewhere else.

And the bad guys have considerable resources, captained by Patrick Stewart, who, with clear British diction, directs his backwoods gestapo to “make it so” scary for the band, ideally by killing them for about 90 minutes.

Although this is a horror movie, it doesn’t go the stupid route by relying on supernatural elements like ghosts or devils. It’s mainly just people, you know, being themselves, exercising their second amendment rights. The movie shreds, metaphorically and literally; it shows the consequences of actions both smart and stupid; and it celebrates, in a way, creativity and courage.

Not for the whole family, just the psychopaths. Or drummers. B-.

 

Not related to the Louisa May Alcott novel, Little Men is a little story about two teenage boys who become friends and whose friendship is tested when their respective financially struggling parents start feuding over a business situation. But at that age kids aren’t that fond of their parents anyway, and so they become aligned and try to get their parents to sort things out. It’s a small movie telling a smallish story, but it has larger implications about how and why childhood friendships end. It also has a solid, flawed-dad performance from Greg Kinnear, and is shot with a great affection for a surprisingly photogenic Brooklyn. B.

 

Intense action love story The Free World features a wrongly convicted ex con trying to adapt to life outside of prison, who finds himself thrust into a relationship with a desperate woman who has also just won her freedom but in an entirely different way. Some unlikely events force him to make some difficult moral choices, where doing the right thing puts his freedom at risk.

The film works as an unusual love story and has some strong performances by Sundance vet Boyd Holbrook and Mad Woman Elisabeth Moss. But it suffered a bit from some forced melodrama, some distracting pro-Islam propaganda, and an unfocused payoff. C.

 

The death of Curt Cobain in 1994 hit certain people of a certain age hard, and that public tragedy is part of the cultural landscape for the three young characters in coming-of-age drama As You Are. With its title derived from a Nirvana song, the film follows the outcast teenagers who accept each other as they are and eventually experience a tragedy of their own.

It starts with the two boys who are forced to meet when the troubled single mom of one starts dating the strict single dad of the other, but the boys quickly bond over a shared taste in the music and drugs of the era. They are befriended by one of their female classmates, and the film does a beautiful job of portraying authentic interactions among three friends who really support each other, and the film also lets the relationship take twists and turns and evolve realistically.

But the film is less effective in resolving the relationship; there is a lot of buildup with a big mystery, but the payoff was a bit of a letdown.  B-.