Dispatches From The 2016 Sundance Film Festival: Part 3

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Sometimes it’s easy to forget why a film festival exists. You get caught up running from screening to screening, figuring out when and what you’re having for lunch, sorting through emails about panels. And then a deal is struck and the whole town starts buzzing, remembering that the movies on display here are here hoping to strike a distribution deal.

An event like that occurred on Tuesday morning, reportedly after a handshake the previous night at the Chase Sapphire lounge on Main Street, which made Sundance history. Fox Searchlight bought Nate Parker’s wrenching, powerful new movie “The Birth of a Nation,” for $17.5 million, a record for this annual Park City tradition, and it might be the biggest thing to emerge from the festival.

That was evident on Monday night when the Eccles Theater gave two sustained standing ovations once the credits rolled, its influence confirmed when the line for the press screening needed overflow room the next morning. Maybe some of its exuberant praise feels artificially maneuvered considering its debut converged with a month that has seen the Oscar nominations’ lack of diversity spiral into hashtags and boycotts and prompt important changes to the Academy’s membership. Maybe that’s why Fox Searchlight was determined not to get outbid, hoping to capitalize on a movie that seems destined for next years’ awards circuit, especially as reparation for all of the pale skin soon to emerge upon Los Angeles. The real answer is that it wouldn’t have needed any of that cynicism to earn that rapturous response.

The movie has one of the most beautiful, unnerving scenes you’ll see – the camera floats through numerous dead black bodies – men, women, children – hanging, swaying from the Spanish moss with nooses around their necks, given lyrical punch from Nina Simone’s version of “Strange Fruit.” You’re witnessing the grim aftermath of Nat Turner’s rebellion — the violent two-day uprising in 1831 that resulted in the deaths of 60 slave-holding family members and the retaliatory killing of an estimated 200 black slaves — in which Parker has chosen to write, direct and star. His movie shares the same title as D.W. Griffith’s 1915 silent epic that glorifies the Ku Klux Klan, but Parker’s not so much winking as he is flipping his finger.

The rebellion itself is the gruesome, unflinching exclamation to the movie’s slow crescendo, capitalizing on the previous two hours of watching slaves turn their cheeks before returning to the Old Testament and channeling their best “Braveheart.” It takes time to get there, though. Before all the rage and unyielding urge for cosmic judgment is a boy that can read. Nat’s slaveholding mother (Penelope Ann Miller) notices this skill and offers him a bible, teaches him words and lets him read in front of the white churchgoing congregation, regurgitating passages that affirm their plantation practices. Years later Nat has become a preacher, and his childhood playmate, Samuel (Armie Hammer), has become his master, a relationship that strains as Samuel feels pressure to uphold his dead father’s name and Nat’s purpose finds greater, contradictory direction.

The subtle irony in this story, which doesn’t feature much of it (a fact that gains tepid annoyance), is that Samuel’s pursuit of wealth and recognition begins to uncover the glaring systemic brutality from which Nat had been previously shielded. With nudging from a local priest, Samuel monetizes Nat’s solemn, hopeful sermons for his plantation, parading him to other white owners nearby so that a black man can preach humility to other black men – to use God’s word as a justification for their, and his, powerlessness. It’s humiliating, and even Samuel knows it. The scenes need to be gruesome because they must make Nat contemplate the absurdist nature of his gathered list of approved biblical passages, spoken to the beaten and wretched, received with shame and embarrassment.

In between the evolution of Nat’s work – starting as honest, ending as a charade – he falls in love with Cherry (Aja Naomi King), a recently bought slave to help inside the house. Nat’s docile earnestness gains her affection, but their relationship, which becomes a marriage and brings a child, often feels like a device to serve his impending rage – like a scene in which three white men turn her face into a pulp, leaving her nearly indistinguishable. By the time Nat is viciously whipped by one of Samuel’s men for giving a white man a baptism, the anger bubbling in Nat’s sermons and prayers has spilled over and begun to burn those around him. This time, there is no white savior offering to mediate differences or defend punishable actions. Though Samuel begins as a kind, educated figure, even he refuses to fight with his own morality. As much as the cinematic history of slavery has been portrayed – and been portrayed with special attention to the handful of white men standing firm for equality – Parker refuses to hand out wings or frame shots of men standing in an angelic light. There is no good here.

Parker, who wrote the script to his directorial debut, is somewhat of a revelation here, though he’s been at this a long time (he starred in last year’s “Beyond The Lights”). That’s not to say every choice he makes is ideal – his decision to insert visions of African tribes feels calculated and distracting, and some of his transitions between scenes and faces lack imagination. But his filmmaking also finds room to tell stories during scenes that remain silent – one image captures him standing beside a stained glass window after committing murder. “Our God is also one of wrath,” he says to another slave as he contemplates his attack. The imagery feels cut from the same cloth as “12 Years A Slave,” but loses some of that film’s intensely personal, soulful features, namely in its desire to extrapolate its rebellion into a generational calling.

This doesn’t seem to serve the public as a rebellious movie except, due to recent events, it’s likely be championed as one as the year progresses and the buzz picks up. In subtler terms, ones Parker probably envisioned, this exists as more of a corrective – an opportunity to give strong black actors strong roles with strong messages (even Gabrielle Union, playing a nameless, speechless slave throws daggers instead of looks). The brutality that follows in the film’s climactic sequence – a blend of bullets and axes, blood and smoke – shows these strengths in unrelenting, muscular form. The scene mimics “Birth of a Nation” – quiet then bold, blunt then sharp and, as Nat’s perilous defiance hoped to achieve, completely inspiring.

Kyle Chandler, Casey Affleck

Kyle Chandler, Casey Affleck

The only time you see Casey Affleck smile in Kenneth Lonergan’s riveting portrait of New England family turmoil, “Manchester by the Sea,” is when he’s on a boat. Those images help bookend the movie – first teaching his nephew to fish, then watching him steer – and they envelop a fascinating, dark and riveting performance that unpeels over the course of several months of pain, regret and resistance.

Affleck plays Lee, living in Boston as a handyman, who returns to Massachusetts’ North Shore upon the news that his older fisherman brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has died suddenly from a heart attack. Lee is made guardian of his 16-year-old nephew (Lucas Hedges), a reality he treats as more of a burden then a willing responsibility. Lee’s journey back to his home town carries unbearable emotional weight and forces him to grapple with the separation from his wife Randi (Michelle Williams) and the tragic circumstances that brought it.

This is Lonergan’s first movie since his messy 2011 masterpiece “Margaret,” and the playwright-turned-writer-director remains patient in his filmmaking, finding nuances in his stories and letting his actors relate them. One of the joys of this film, which settles itself into the melancholic grays and blues of New England winter, is the way it toys with expectation. You’re ready to find redemption in this uncle fostering his nephew – the editing flashes back seamlessly with memories of them fishing together with Joe – but Lonergan knows grief works in mysterious, untimely ways. Patrick continues with his life unfazed – he has friends come over and frequently sees two of his girlfriends. But he also remains eager to keep his father’s boat and way of life. Lee, mired in isolation, toggles between apathy and arbitrary parenting. There’s humor in some of these interactions, but they’re grounded in formal misunderstandings and dire remembrances.

A lot of the movie focuses on this generational relationship, and its authenticity stems from the belief that a character may not always heal right when a movie stops recording. Maybe the finest scene of the festival, one that articulates this exact theory, comes in a reunion between Lee and Randi, a conversation that turns into a transaction of tears and apologies of which neither has the correct currency. These are two people grappling with a reality they’ve only now begun to accept. It feels true. It feels like they’ve lived in this intensely communal town that soaks its problems in beer and loathing and like they might finally hang them up to dry. But these are imperfect people dealing with life’s imperfections, and Lonergan, for the sake of sharing their heartache, doesn’t pretend otherwise.

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Two weekends set three years apart sets the foundation for “Lovesong,” a meditation on unspoken affection and heartbreak. The two women negotiating those two feelings are Sarah (a breakout performance from Riley Keough) and Mindy (Jena Malone), former best friends that have drifted apart since college. Sarah lives and raises a daughter alone – her husband always travels and is rarely home – which contributes to a life feeling unfulfilled. A visit from Mindy and a subsequent road trip re establishes their bond, which grows increasingly intimate as they stop by county fairs and ride a ferris-wheel that serves as the movie’s seminal moment together.

The director, So Young Kim, has a made a movie that feels ideal for Sundance, carefully examining and observing the girls’ relationship in the presence of her own daughters, who share screen time as younger and older versions of Sarah’s child. The latter half of the film sees these two lost women still struggling with their history as Mindy prepares for her wedding. Keough, who has a similar look and feel to Kristen Stewart, embodies her character’s internal pain, which always seems to be lurking even when she’s smiling. Both of these women have moved on with their lives, but they’ve also remained magnetized, and magnetizing.

Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz

Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz

Every once in a while, you see a movie you can’t stop thinking about. “The Lobster” is a good example, and it feels that way after just its first scene. It begins with an old woman, seen in profile, driving her car through the countryside. Soon she pulls over, gets out of the vehicle and takes a few paces towards some donkeys grazing in a nearby field. There she raises a pistol and fires it three times into one of the animals heads. It falls down instantly and she returns to her car, driving away to clear room for the title card.

My theater broke out into an uneasy laughter, which characterized the majority of noises made in reaction to this strange, entrancing new movie from Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos. The setup for his movie, which takes place in a dystopian future, is something like this: single people are captured and taken to a hotel where they are intended to find a romantic partner in 45 days, otherwise they are turned into animals of their choice and released into the forest.

Collin Farrell stars as one of these unfortunate lonely people and takes us through his initiation at the hotel, where he meets John C. Reilly and Ben Whishaw, other single men, trying desperately to find a connection with a woman on the premises. For most, that means finding, or faking, a common characteristic – in one case that means suffering from frequent bloody noses – to escape the countdown and start a relationship. The first half of this movie, narrated by Rachel Weisz, who becomes a love interest for Farrell later on, commits fully to this bizarre and comical premise. For a morning lecture, the hotel staff performs a skit about the perils of living alone – one of them includes a man who pretends to choke on his food with nobody to perform the Heimlich. It’s the hardest I laughed at Sundance.

Eventually the movie ventures outside the neatly structured hotel walls and its narrative limitations and introduces us to Weisz, in person, along with Lea Seydoux, the leader of a group of loners living illegally in the woods, constantly turning their heads to prevent capture. This is a movie the deserves to be seen because it’s giving you so much to chew on in such preposterous ways. It also has an ending that had the entire theater shaking its heads, laughing, covering its eyes and squealing. In other words, par for this movie’s course.

Tika Sumpter, Parker Sawyers

Tika Sumpter, Parker Sawyers

What is the purpose of “Southside With You?” More importantly, why does it need to exist now? If you haven’t heard, it’s a movie about the first date between President Barack Obama and his wife, and eventual First Lady, Michelle, and it’s slightly more than baffling. A movie like this isn’t inherently bad – in fact, it’s has a lot of opportunity – there’s just not much to meaningfully cull. The director, Richard Tanne, said the information he received about this specific day in Chicago, which starts at an art museum and ends with an ice cream kiss, was pulled together reading various interviews and sections of books and biographies. What you end up getting is a script that feels written around a Wikipedia page.

The dialogue is well-meaning, but it doesn’t feel natural. In the vain of Richard Linklater’s’ i but nowhere near that film’s intellectual grace, the movie relies upon on entire day of walking conversations. It begins, and stays with, Michelle Robinson’s perspective, which is one that would never view an invitation from Barack to join him at a community meeting as a date. She’s adamant about this fact in just about every scene – she is his adviser at a Chicago law firm during the summer, and it would be inappropriate – but Barack keeps pressing. He picks her up in his beat-down yellow car (there’s a hole on the floor of the passenger side) and takes her to an art museum, then to the park, then to a church where he gives an inspiring speech to his former community, then to a bar, then to see “Do The Right Thing” and then a trip to Baskin Robbins. The two of them mostly get each’s mannerisms down along the way.

Their conversations feel like checking off boxes — family, religion, ambitions, dating history (you shake your head when the pair stops by a group of drummers and dancers in the park, prompting Barack to explain that those drums had the colors of the Kenyan flag, a cue to describe his father’s story growing up in Africa). When it doesn’t feel the need to biographically assert itself, the movie finds its footing. That occurs in the church that Barack has taken Michelle. The group waiting welcomes him back and eagerly anticipates a speech about their rejected community center by the city government. He urges his friends to have compassion, to understand the pressures and reasons these faceless officials who rejected their bid might have. Michelle realizes this man isn’t just a Marlboro-smoking smooth talker. He actually has something to say.

If only the movie had more of these moments. But even while it doesn’t work, it also serves as a reminder: Not everything at Sundance does, and that’s a good thing. In that same speech, Barack tells people to turn the government’s “No” into an “On,” as in “Carry On.” You see the makings of a President there, and if five days in Park City has proven anything, it’s that filmmakers have heeded that advice.

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