SUNDANCE 2017: PART TWO

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My second dispatch from Park City muses on the medium-rare pleasures of a well-done potboiler and when bad movies happen to good intentions. Two of my favorite actors don’t let me down in my most anticipated film of the festival, but the movie they’re in sure does. Finally, a break from looking for the next big thing to reflect on some cinema history. 

WIND RIVER  * * *

TO THE BONE  * *

WILSON  * * 1 / 2

78/52  * * *

At a festival characterized by dysfunctional family dramas, quirky romances and over-the-top midnight genre offerings, the meat-and-potatoes pleasures of a well-told procedural feel more exotic than they probably should. Wind River was quickly dismissed by the younger crowd as Sundance’s designated “Dad Movie,” and although I’m merely an uncle, its solid craftsmanship and old-fashioned storytelling nonetheless fell right into my wheelhouse.

The directorial debut of Taylor Sheridan, who penned the terrific Hell Or High Water and the not-so-terrific Sicario, Wind River begins with the murder of a teenage girl on a Wyoming Indian Reservation and quickly sinks into a jurisdictional quagmire. Elizabeth Olsen plays a wet-behind-the-ears FBI agent (perhaps too close to Emily Blunt’s character in Sicario) while Jeremy Renner gives his best performance since The Hurt Locker as a gruff local ranger assisting her with the investigation. There are sharp supporting turns from Gil Birmingham, Hugh Dillion, and especially Graham Greene — who I’m always absurdly happy to see whenever he pops up in a movie.

As with Hell Or High Water, Sheridan shows he can spin a ripping yarn with a distinctive sense of place. But he still doesn’t know when to put the pencil down, his characters prone to spelling out the obvious subtext in extremely labored dialogue. Luckily, Renner doesn’t talk much and Wind River’s third act boasts some blistering action sequences, as well as a final scene that’s just about perfect. (Sheridan’s really good at those.) I liked it about as much as your dad probably will.

The worst part of this job is trashing a movie with good intentions. So the heartfelt post-screening Q&A with To The Bone writer-director Marti Noxon and star Lily Collins –during which the two frankly discussed their personal struggles with anorexia that inspired and informed the film– made me feel like a monster for having to inform you that the picture just isn’t very good at all. (I know, I know. This is a well-meaning movie about an important subject. And I’m a great big jerk.)

Collins stars as a sarcastic, sickly teen shuttled in and out of institutions as her weight dips to precipitously low levels. Her beleaguered stepmother eventually places her in a group home run by a kooky, unconventional doctor (Keanu Reeves) packed with wise-cracking, sitcom-ready archetypes and plot twists you’ll see coming half-an-hour away. Noxon has a long resume in episodic television and To The Bone never escapes its TV trappings. It feels like a pilot for a promising Showtime series that, despite game performances from Special Guest Stars Reeves and Lili Taylor, still isn’t ready for prime time.

My most-anticipated movie of the festival, Wilson, turns out to be a testament as to how far two heroic performers can carry a muddled, directionless mess. Adapted by Ghost World’s Daniel Clowes from his own comic, the movie stars Woody Harrelson as a gregarious misanthrope who, after the death of his father, tries to reunite with his unstable ex (Laura Dern) and the surly teenage daughter (Isabella Amara) they long ago put up for adoption.

Harrelson and Dern are every bit as marvelous together as you’d expect. He’s constantly leaning too hard into social interactions and profanely exploding at the slightest hint of rejection. She’s a disaster waiting to happen, struggling to keep chaos at bay while we can see she not-so-secretly loves it. These are a couple of wild, rubber-faced performances in a movie that has no idea what to do with them.

Director Craig Johnson (last seen at Sundance with 2014’s The Skeleton Twins) can’t find a rhythm for Clowes’ punchy, anecdotal script. A lot of individual moments made me laugh – inevitably, as Harrelson and Dern are two of the funniest people on the planet right now – but there’s nothing driving the scenes into one another, with all sorts of lurches and abrupt time-jumps leaving the viewer feeling disconnected and puzzled. Wilson needed a unifying vision larger than just letting two great talents vamp.

The title 78/52 refers to the number of setups and edits in the shower scene of Hitchcock’s Psycho, and Alexandre O. Phillipe’s documentary is a wonky dissection of that iconic sequence and its place in cinema history. A giant leap forward from the filmmaker’s odious, 2010 nerd-rage jack-off The People Vs. George Lucas, this is a sprightly and informative breakdown marred by only a couple of questionable aesthetic decisions and a regrettably dude-heavy panel of talking heads.

I would have liked to hear more of what Illeana Douglas and Karyn Kusama were saying about what the sequence *means* in addition to all the talk about how it works. But then, leave it to me to complain that a feature-length movie about a single scene doesn’t go deep enough.

 

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