Dispatches From The 2016 Sundance Film Festival: Part 2

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After four days at a festival, people start to get antsy. Residents are figuring out when they’ll hit the slopes and get away from the movies. People are yelling at bus drivers to drop them off at unspecified stops. They’re trying to determine which theater they being driven towards – hint: it’s probably the wrong one. Some are taking a break from the theater altogether and hitting some lounges offering demonstrations of virtual reality experiences.

It’s the big non-movie buzz this year. The representatives handing out goggles to wear seem confident that this will be the next big consumer item (you just need six go pros, a 3-D printed mounting device and the technology to convert the footage into a 360 visual). I tried out a couple, and besides making you dizzy, they offer a unique immersion—look beneath you to see sharks swimming, turn to your left and spot elephants on a safari! – and filmmakers are already working on projects directly for this type of technology.

Anthony Weiner

That’s one option to change the way we watch and interact with movies. But there’s already a documentary here providing the same kind of unfiltered access without any of the head spinning, and it’s best thing at Sundance. “Weiner,” directed by Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg, is a documentary that probably would have been just fine with its original premise (“Let’s cover Anthony Weiner’s redemption run for New York City Mayor”) until it turned into something spectacular (“Let’s keep covering his mayoral bid while his sexting scandal finds a second, damaging uproar”). The result is a profound look into a political crisis as it unfolds, an exploration into a bad decision becoming worse and worse every day.

The filmmakers let Marshall McLuhan set the stage with a quote: “The name of a man is a numbing blow from which he never recovers,” which could very well be the extension of the movie’s title. And yes, even Weiner admits his name is part of what fuels the emerging fiasco plastered in puns on the New York Post headlines. He’s introduced first, however, in his element, championing the middle class and 9/11 rescue workers on one of his many famous YouTube rants on the congress floor. He’s the man. He’s the guy that isn’t afraid to call out politicians on their self-interest. And then the underwear photo, the mistaken direct message tweeted out to the masses that turned his career as a congressman flaccid. The film promptly picks up two years later to document the “comeback” and his bid to redeem himself and take over New York City.

It’s cheery in the beginning. His family is introduced in his apartment – notably his wife, Huma Abedin, the top aide to Hilary Clinton of Indian-Pakistani decent, the woman who forgave her husband enough to stand by him for another campaign promising to thrust both of them into the spotlight again. As a political advisor, this is a questionable move, but Abedin commits because of, well, love. And it seems to be paying off, too. Weiner quickly disposes questions about his past in front of the media (which plays a huge role in this film – from press conferences, to scrolling talking heads to phone interviews with reporters) and he gains a strong following. One scene sees him get on a subway with his publicist and passengers start to recognize his face from their personal newspapers.

His campaign office is barely decorated, bustling with phone calls, when it quickly goes silent. News breaks of more sexts and photos, and his PR team starts scrambling – calculating responses with Weiner, who once again becomes a punching bag for the entire media – a left from John Oliver, a right from Colbert. Then there’s the humiliation factor for Abedin, forced to stand by her husband at a press conference, shaking with nerves, and wearing a transparent smile that asks why on earth she got involved with this decision. More judging ensues, and a campaign that began with Weiner running down 5th Avenue hugging Jamaicans and waving gay pride flags in parades now stoops down to hordes of cameras following his every move. His headquarters transform into damage control central. “It’s like living a nightmare,” Abedin says at one point.

None of this seems staged, though some scenes feel unbelievably choreographed to expose Weiner’s marital divide. For instance, after Weiner blows up on Lawrence O’Donnell’s TV show, he sits staring at his computer the next morning, watching his antagonism from the night before with pure joy. Abedin stands on the opposing side of the screen with a look of revulsion. The filmmakers continue to play “fly on the wall” for most of the movie, a lot of which takes place traveling in the back of an SUV, escorting Weiner to his various campaign spots. Kriegman and Steinberg do interject occasionally, asking pertinent, innocent questions, which defeats the purpose of being a fly, Weiner suggests jokingly.

In the midst of the polls collapsing, Weiner’s security starts tracking down Pineapple, the code name for Sydney Leathers, the girl who outed Weiner’s sexual exchanges and then promoted herself on a full media blitz. He remains committed to fighting through the “off-topic” questions at rallies in an attempt to save face (and his poor publicist learns to smile at all times walking out of a building), but he’s also prone to inciting even more of it – like when he gets into a shouting match at a bakery with a heckler or flips off the media after his loss on election day at a bar. Just before that, the film follows Weiner through a back entrance of it, with security ushering him through a McDonald’s only to avoid Leathers, who is hoping to confront him. It’s an unbelievable moment for a man who keeps managing to do unbelievable things. By the end of the film, he’s lamenting his “unlimited ability to fuck up things.” To which the filmmakers reply: “Why did you let me film this?” We should all be glad he did.

Ben Schnetzer, Nick Jonas

Ben Schnetzer, Nick Jonas

Weiner says at one point that “at least nobody’s been physically hurt” in an effort to keep the mood light and the scandal in proper context. Not the case in “Goat,” directed by Andrew Neel, where the penis jokes continue but in a much darker and uglier way. In fact, the first sequence features a high school grad Brad (Ben Schnetzer) getting brutally beaten by two street thugs off the side of the road. His face becomes nearly unrecognizable and the image, plus its ongoing trauma, haunts the rest of the movie and its protagonist. That’s primarily because he’s eager to join a college frat, aiming to become a Phi Sigma Mew brother with his actual older brother Brett, played by Nick Jonas.

He and his freshman roommate are two of several new pledges who proceed to lose their humanity over the course of “hell week,” the seven days of nauseating hazing the “bros” of this brotherhood inflict upon the weak and vulnerable, all of whom are trying to become part of this for…? The motives for each pledge are unclear, especially when you witness the pain being inflicted — shoving beer and liquor down their throats, punching and slapping them for vomiting, chucking things at their heads, duck taping their faces, forcing bananas, which they believe to be feces, down their mouths. Several people left the theater halfway through the movie, including someone next to me around the time pledges, called goats by frat members, were told they would be having sex with an actual one if they didn’t comply with their rules.

The movie, written by Neel, David Gordon Green and Mike Roberts, and based off a memoir from Brad Land, thrives in these scenes even as they cause you to wince. The film feels at its most alive in the ritualistic components of this cult, which later sees a former member in James Franco return to the house and begin a ridiculous tribal huddle slobbered in beer. He’s not quite Alien from “Spring Breakers,” but the movie’s opening — a slow motion shot of college boys with their shirts off, jumping up and down screaming — mimics that movie’s surrealist pop-art sensibility.

What it really does is force you to pay attention to the ludicrousness of their masculinity, pretending to give blow jobs to their victims, repeating the words “pussy” and ” man up,” commands that hit Brad deeper based on his recent, abused history. It’s something Brett notices, prompting him to disassociate from the proceedings. It’s a different step from other frat movies, an alternative to “Animal House” and “Old School,” by showing the often tragic consequences of their behavior. It’s a bunch of privileged white guys finding out, or adamantly forgetting, that their privilege only has meaning for a few years and will be defined by blacking out and inflicting pain. Like them, it will be wasted.

Location images of Love & Friendship, a Jane Austen film adaptation starring Kate Bekinsdale and Chloe Sevigny, directed by Whit Stillman. CHURCHILL PRODUCTIONS LIMITED. Producers Katie Holly, Whit Stillman, Lauranne Bourrachot. Co-Producer Raymond Van Der Kaaij. Also Starring: Xavier Samuel, Emma Greenwell & Morfydd Clark

Location images of Love & Friendship, a Jane Austen film adaptation starring Kate Bekinsdale and Chloe Sevigny, directed by Whit Stillman. CHURCHILL PRODUCTIONS LIMITED. Producers Katie Holly, Whit Stillman, Lauranne Bourrachot. Co-Producer Raymond Van Der Kaaij. Also Starring: Xavier Samuel, Emma Greenwell & Morfydd Clark

Sometimes you know a movie is going to work after just a few scenes. You can watch this unfold on the screen or you can just listen to the crowd. In this case, it was a crowd of 1,200 settled into the Eccles Theater, the biggest venue at Sundance, eating up what director and writer Whit Stillman was serving them. For his newest film, “Love and Friendship,” he’s wrapped up Jane Austen on a dainty tea dish and made her Victorian dialogue a mostly accessible and completely enjoyable period comedy.

The film, based on Austen’s novella “Lady Susan,” begins with humorous introductions of each character, and it takes a while to find out who is related to whom and where each one lives. Principally, Kate Beckinsale plays Lady Susan, a widower whose flirtatious reputation precedes her visit from London to Churchill, where her sister-in-law’s family stays. There she finds favor in Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel) though the rest of the family believes Susan’s musically-gifted daughter and recently expelled student Frederica (Morfydd Clark), would be the proper, more logical match. But their intentions rarely stand a chance to Susan’s cunning, self-assured approach to life, and it’s Beckinsale who steals this movie with such wicked grace and comical naiveté.

Involved in the crosshairs are Susan’s dearest friend Alicia Johnson, played by Chloe Sevigny, unhappily married to Mr. Johnson (Stephen Fry), as well as a delightfully persistent suitor in Sir James Martin (a scene grabbing Tom Bennett). He invites himself to the Churchill residence to make wobbly passes at Frederica, often becoming the punchline of the family. And it’s in the funny, loquacious vocabulary and beautifully set interiors – and those voluptuous hats! – that “Love and Friendship” never loses your attention, oftentimes the symptom of an English drama that slows its momentum over trivial scenes. Stillman described adapting this Austen story like pulling out a piece of chocolate cake from a wooden crate. The metaphor is apt because Stillman has given you something sweet and made you want more.

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I’m not sure you can find more polar opposite women than in Kelly Reichardt‘s latest slow-burning feature, “Certain Women,” set in the miserable mundanity of Montana, and seemingly made only to extend that mundanity right to your seat. Like “Love and Friendship,” the first scene – a train slowly chugging its way from the distance into the foreground — prepares you for the next 100 odd minutes. With the possible exception of “Night Moves,” Reichardt’s last feature, this movie continues the glacial nature of her previous work, which is to say it tests your patience, which is to say that “Certain Women” can often feel like a six-year-old staring at the SAT.

It centers on four women, told in three stories, living near the same area of the state, all at different points in their lives and careers. One is a lawyer (Laura Dern), who we meet after a lunch break affair with a married man, and is struggling to provide counsel for a client (Jared Harris) regarding a work-related injury. The other follows a mother (Michelle Williams) attempting to build her family a home from sandstone, which requires help from an old friend. The third, and most resonant section of the triptych, revolves around a struggling law school grad (Kristen Stewart), who commutes four hours to start teaching a night class on education law, which a quiet horse farmer (Lilly Gladstone) from a remote area finds intriguing. The two of them share dinner and some sort of emotional connection at a local diner after each class before parting ways at night.

The women’s lives don’t intersect so much as gently nudge. Each of them exists in an isolated world, one where they each struggle with their own goals and regrets, living them in unhealthy relationships or in abject loneliness. Reichardt doesn’t allow for any music until a heartbreaking moment near the end, which means each of these stories operate in the unspoken dialogue being relayed between glances and reactions. You can’t help but wonder about the film’s title, and how many more of them this movie has chosen not to portray.

– Jake Kring-Schreifels

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