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-.

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