SUNDANCE 2017: PART THREE

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My final dispatch from Park City ponders movies and meditations, thrilled by some philosophical sci-fi from an old pro and bored by more New York nattering from an up-and-comer. There’s also the festival’s most essential documentary and another Casey Affleck picture about death, this one so strange and wonderful I’m not quite sure how to describe it.

MARJORIE PRIME  * * * 1 / 2

GOLDEN EXITS  * * 

LAST MEN IN ALEPPO  * * * *

A GHOST STORY  * * * *

“It’s been described as a meditation,” sighed an oddly defensive Michael Almereyda while introducing an early morning screening of his latest film, Marjorie Prime. “I hope it’s not. It’s a movie,” he quipped, seemingly bruised by some sour quickie reviews from the previous evening’s premiere, warning us that the film has no chase scenes and is not a conventional sci-fi thriller. I’m frankly baffled as to why anyone (especially a critic) would go to a Michael Almereyda movie expecting such things in the first place, but if you’re looking for another slippery, soulful mind-bender from an iconoclastic filmmaker getting better with age, you’ve come to the right meditation.

Jon Hamm is almost too-perfectly cast as an A.I. enhanced hologram programmed in the dashing likeness of co-star Lois Smith’s long-dead husband. She’s slowly fading away from Alzheimer’s and he’s been purchased as a gift from her son-in-law (Tim Robbins) to keep the old gal company during these final weeks. Hamm’s digital reincarnation creeps out daughter Geena Davis, and what begins as a question of medical ethics soon mushrooms into considerations of memory and its malleability, eventually musing on what it means to be human. Adapted from a play by Jordan Harrison, Marjorie Prime gives Davis and Robbins their best roles in ages — deftly building a future world out of words in a Long Island living room. It’s a small-scaled movie with cosmic concerns.

Writer-director Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up Philip wasn’t just my favorite film I saw at Sundance in 2014, it was my favorite movie of that whole damn year. I wasn’t crazy about his follow up, Queen Of Earth, for which Perry ditched his caustic, hyper-literate New Yorkers to pay tribute to the bucolic dysfunction of Allen’s Interiors and Altman’s Images. Golden Exits brings the filmmaker back to Brooklyn, where a band of passive-aggressive creative-types once again constantly undercut one another, and I’m surprised and saddened to report that it was by far my biggest disappointment of this year’s festival.

Feeling like an uncanny homage to one of those late-period Woody movies where he just filmed the first draft, Exits stars Emily Browning as an Australian grad student whose arrival disrupts a couple of neighboring families complacent in their semi-middle-aged unhappiness. Adam Horovitz and Jason Schwartzman play two milquetoast married dudes trying to talk their way out of impure thoughts regarding the new girl, while Chloe Sevigny, Analeigh Tipton and Lily Rabe all loiter around stewing in misery. These characters all carefully avoid confrontations the way Philip’s folks thrived on them, which I suppose is a useful writing exercise for a young artist trying not to get pigeonholed but it’s dramatically inert, no matter how many jagged cuts to street scenes and classical music needle-drops might lend the illusion that something more is happening here.

The most immersive and emotional experience I had at Sundance this year, Last Men In Aleppo plunges us into the collapsing capital with precious little in the way of exposition. We ride along with Syrian Civil Defense volunteers – aka “White Helmets” – as they dodge bombs and dig through the rubble rescuing survivors and burying the dead, day in and day out. Filmed at what appears to be incredible personal risk by director Feras Fayyad, co-director and editor Steen Johannessen and cinematographer Fadi al Halabi, this winner of the Grand Jury Prize for World Documentary features some of the most extraordinary footage yet captured of the conflict. The scale of destruction is indescribable, the human cost unfathomable.

Yet what could have been a bludgeoning experience is really quite a warm and empathetic movie, thanks to Kahled and Mahmoud — our two main subjects who roll on through the ruins with the unflappable repartee of blue collar workers stuck in the world’s most horrifying profession. (It’s the kind of gallows humor you hear sometimes from firemen and ambulance drivers who’ve seen it all and wish they hadn’t.) We really like hanging out with these guys, and what makes the movie work as well as it does are the glimpses of normalcy amid all the chaos and destruction – like a quiet afternoon when they’re trying to take the kids to the park before those goddamn bombs start dropping again. There’s a universality and camaraderie to Last Men In Aleppo that brings a faraway crisis up close and personal.

Finally, for the second year in a row my favorite film of the festival was a Casey Affleck movie about coping (or more accurately, *not coping*) with loss. David Lowery’s A Ghost Story is just the damnedest thing I’ve seen in some time – weird, haunting, absurd, devastating and occasionally hilarious. The film reunites Affleck with Rooney Mara, who both starred in this director’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, which I wasn’t exactly bowled over by when it screened here back in 2013.

I was far more taken with Lowery’s Pete’s Dragon this past summer, in which the director brought a gentle, retro sensibility to a mega-budget Disney franchise picture. A Ghost Story was reportedly knocked out in a few weeks as something of a throat-clearing exercise after the laborious Pete’s shoot, and it’s got the kicky, experimental sensibility of an artist cutting loose and going for broke. Until now Lowery has always struck me as one of those filmmakers a little too beholden to influences he wears on his sleeve, but A Ghost Story is his Punch-Drunk Love – that movie when the inspirations all metastasize into an original vision of his own.

I find myself loath to spill too much about the story, which is weird because there’s really not much of one at all. (And even less dialogue.) Casey and Rooney are a married couple madly in love, then he’s suddenly killed in a car accident. After she identifies the body, Affleck’s ghost sits up at the morgue and silently follows her home, still wearing the sheet she’s just pulled over his head like it’s the world’s sorriest Halloween costume. It’s a slightly silly, weirdly heartbreaking image, this slouchy Peanuts-looking character in a bedsheet, quietly hanging out in the corner watching Mara pack up his belongings or –in a bravura, unbroken take that was the talk of the festival– stress-eat an entire pie while sitting barefoot on the kitchen floor, crying.

In its own peculiarly elliptical, affecting way, A Ghost Story zeroes in on primal feelings about loneliness and loss — before spanning time and space into something so much stranger and even more beautiful that I should probably shut up about until the film is released later this year. But yes, one could indeed call it “a meditation.” It’s also a movie, and a great one.

 

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