FILMS GONE WILD: 2015 SUNDANCE #6

REVIEWS INCLUDE:
ALOFT
DREAMCATCHER
HELLIONS
THE STRONGEST MAN
TAKE ME TO THE RIVER
 
 

Here is the third report of nothing but reviews. But one quick anecdote first: While waiting to go on the air for this morning’s Daily Buzz taping, someone mentioned that they were astounded to see that somebody had brought a baby to one of the Sundance parties the night before. I replied, that to be fair, it is the baby’s first film at the festival. Then Liz Garbus added that she heard it was a very experimental work. And with that, the reviews…

 

ALOFT
Claudia Llosa’s ALOFT begins as a mother (Jennifer Connolly), desperate to find a cure for her terminally ill little boy, takes him and her older son to see a healing guru named the Architect. However, the older boy’s pet falcon destroys the guru’s healing delicately constructed archway of twigs setting into play her fate as someone with a healing touch and their painful lifelong separation following a family tragedy. The story picks up 20 years later, as the boy, now grown to be a master falconer (Cillian Murphy) is sought out by a French documentarian (Mélanie Laurent), doing a film about his mother and her followers. He decides to go with her to see his mother located somewhere in the Arctic Circle and face her after all that time and hurt between them.

ALOFT is a film that, excuse the pun, has the loftiest ambitions as it seeks to explore how responsibility and love can be at odds within family and hope. A fiercely focused character study of two people, housed within a gritty story lightly touched on but always haunted by myth, the film uncompromisingly deals with the weight of loss and grief and the elusive and healing nature of forgiveness. Connolly gives one of her best performances to date and Murphy is equally solid. The film is not light, disposable viewing and that is meant very much as a compliment.

Expected Real World Reaction: I don’t know if I could see the film squeezing into multiplexes, but I have to think it’s a no brainer for a strong art house showing.

 

DREAMCATCHER
Kim Longinotto’s DREAMCATCHER profiles Brenda Myers-Powell, a former Chicago prostitute who works to help women and teenage girls in inner-city Chicago break the cycle of sexual abuse and exploitation. Nearly on-call 24/7, like a tireless cheerleading and counseling Energizer Bunny of hope, Myers-Powell works with incarcerated women, teaching them how to flip the script on the men that seek to control them so they can take back their lives, and visiting schools to reach young girls already dealing with the after-effects of sexual abuse, in order to steer them toward an independent and life-positive path. Throughout the journey we take with her, we learn of Myers-Powell’s own past as a drug addicted prostitute that abandoned her family and her successful struggle to find her way back, as well as seeing the current home life she has built for herself.

DREAMCATCHER shines a much-needed light on the plight of an alarming cycle of child molestation, physical and sexual abuse, and poverty that create a community of at-risk kids, female prisoners and prostitutes. And while the film doesn’t need to do much more than turn the camera toward the charismatic Myers-Powell and her efforts, it doesn’t fully contextualize the truly dire straits of the women’s lives she is touching. Therefore, the viewer must extrapolate how tenuous the care she is providing and the hope she is giving truly are because Longinotto seemingly has no interest to do that for you. For example, rarely do men even make an appearance in the film, even though the legacy of the damage they have done to the girls and the women, the ever-present threat and distrust of them is always hovering nearby. One former pimp is shown and interviewed, but not really pressed into any serious self-analysis on the male side of the equation. Similarly, and oddly, there seems to be a glossing over of heartbreaking emotional impact on the girls and the women they encounter. Those quibbles aside, the subject and the work Myers-Powell is doing deserve an audience.

Expected Real World Reaction: I think people will not find it difficult to respond to both the plight of these women or the personality of Myers-Powell.

 

HELLIONS
Bruce McDonald’s HELLIONS unleashes a nightmare of a Halloween evening on Dora Vogel, a teenage girl who has just learned that she is pregnant. Unable to muster the courage to tell her mother before she departs with Dora’s little brother to take him trick or treating, Dora soon finds herself the target of a growing group of demonic masked children. Under siege, Dora tries to defend herself against their attacks and warn those that come to help her about a lethal threat she cannot explain or fully grasp herself. When the town’s sheriff (Robert Patrick) manages to make it through to her, the two of them descend further down a surreal rabbit hole of evil that previously had been visited upon his wife years ago. Now, Dora must figure out a way to fight back against the mysterious little attackers and protect herself or she may suffer a similar fate under a blood moon.

With elements of TRICK OR TREAT, CHILDREN OF THE CORN and even THE WIZARD OF OZ, McDonald serves up a film that is ripe with images and implications to lodge themselves securely in one’s dreams to haunt them for days on end. Of course, violently surreal images and scenarios are one thing, and real result implications are quite another. Therefore, while HELLIONS is quite an accomplished descent into madness, and an effort at commenting on the abject terror and self-recrimination that might be in the head of a young girl facing an unplanned/unwanted pregnancy (although, the fact that both the director and screenwriter are both men possibly undercuts the depth of that pursuit), the film blurs the line between reality and what is in Dora’s head maybe too successfully. In other words, do “kills” onscreen have less of a devastating impact if they didn’t actually happen? That’s a question that might undermine how successfully “scary” HELLIONS turns out to be for some people.

Expected Real World Reaction:
This is made-to-order as a Halloween programmer. Ca-ching.

 

THE STRONGEST MAN
Kenny Riches’ THE STRONGEST MAN offers a slice of life story about a beefy Cuban man named Beef, his smaller Korean buddy Conan, and friend and potential love interest Illy. Beef believes he is the strongest man in the world, his friend Conan is full of insights such as the fact that Beef thinks in Spanish while he speaks in English and Illy is adorable and perky. Beef faces a crisis when his prized possession, a gold BMX bicycle, is stolen and Illy’s aunt, a wealthy collector of provocative art, fires him and tells him he must stay away from her niece. Now, with Conan’s help, Beef must face his inner animal – a chicken, and determine what his future will have in store for him.

THE STRONGEST MAN wears its laconic quirky on its sleeve. By overtly calculated design, we are to be charmed by these offbeat characters as well as be bemused by what passes for villains in the film: Lisa Banes’ flinty aunt and Patrick Fugit’s Dieter-lite German muse and yogi of sorts (one wonders if they were both were on loan from the GONE GIRL set during film). Deliberately paced and led by the monotone performance by Robert Lorie as the title character, the film is a portrait in slow burn humor that will be just what the doctor ordered for fans of that style, but will likely not thrill those demanding more comedy with a brisk pace.

Expected Real World Reaction: Likely a light art house showing with word-of-mouth from the devoted fans leading people to VOD viewings.

 

TAKE ME TO THE RIVER
Matt Sobel’s debut feature film, TAKE ME TO THE RIVER focuses on Ryder, a gay, artistic teen, who joins his parents on a trip from California to a family reunion in Nebraska. Ryder begrudgingly agrees to keep his sexual orientation to himself while in the company of their conservative family members. However, after an incident behind barn doors between himself and his nine-year-old cousin Molly makes him the target of suspicion and the accusations of her father and his uncle (Josh Hamilton), Ryder learns that the nature of his secrets may just pale in comparison to those that bubble just under the surface of his family – particularly between his mom and his uncle.

A thrilling piece of drama, deceptively modest in approach, TAKE ME TO THE RIVER places us in a setting that at its best contains memories of agitation for any family outsider, and at its worst, holds memories of heightened anxiety. Sobel builds on that uncomfortable foundation to place Ryder in one scenario after another that escalates from confusion to fear to low-grade terror and uneasy reconciliation. Hamilton, as Ryder’s uncle, houses sibling anger and Cheshire Cat taunts in a barely contained powder keg of a performance that defines the entire film. Simply put, the film is a great debut.

Expected Real World Reaction: With its indie friendly cast (Hamilton, Robin Weigert, Richard Schiff), a nice art house run and VOD play seems to be likely in the film’s future.

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