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Sundance 2017. Correspondences #4

In this Sundance dispatch, Lawrence N Garcia finds success and failure amongst a diverse array of titles.
Call Me By Your Name
Dear Josh,
You asked me whether I’ve found my one film yet, the one that makes the festival experience worth remembering. And I’m pleased to report that with Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name, I finally have. In fact, I was so taken with the film that I’ll dispense with the throat-clearing and get right to it.  Set in an expansive villa “somewhere in Northern Italy” in the summer of 1983, the film centers on Elio (Timothée Chalamet), an Italian-American Jewish teenager, who spends his days swimming by the river, going out with friends, transcribing music and just “waiting for the summer to end.” It opens with the arrival of Oliver (Armie Hammer), a Jewish-American academic who's come to help Elio's father (Michael Stuhlbarg) with his research. His arrival is a disruption; it shakes Elio in ways that he probably never anticipated.
Guadagnino’s previous efforts—I Am Love and A Bigger Splash—both struck me as overindulgent, memorably sensual, but too captivated with surface beauty to really resonate. Here, though, working a script co-written by James Ivory (yes, that James Ivory) and Walter Fasano (who also penned I Am Love), itself adapted from a novel by André Aciman, he's finally found the perfect material for his sensibility. The lush setting provides him ample room to indulge in sheer visual beauty; the film literally drips with sensuality—the yellow-ochre of the title credits flows into the golden center of a boiled egg, a glass of apricot juice, a pair of wet swim shorts, a ripe peach. But whether it's the grounding provided by the source material, or the balancing sensibility of someone like Ivory (the first section may well be titled A Room With a View), Call Me By Your Name achieves a depth that's heretofore eluded Guadagnino. The romance that forms between Elio and Oliver is limned with such tenderness, sensuality and bracing honesty (often recalling André Techine's superb Wild Reeds). But it's 1983, and as Oliver says: “It means we can't talk about these things.” So they don't—at least not in words. Emotions flow into gesture and movement; questions are coded in history and legend; language itself is sublimated into Art. In a departure from the classical or then-contemporary music that suffuses the soundtrack, Sufjan Stevens plays over key moments—an expectant silhouette; the roaring rush of a waterfall (a nod to Wong Kar-Wai’s Happy Together)—practically establishing their love outside of Time. “Remember everything,” says Oliver towards the end. I certainly plan to.
City of Ghosts
Another film I’m not likely to forget: City of Ghosts, Matthew Heineman’s documentary on the activist group “Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently” (RBSS), a group of “citizen journalists” who’ve been reporting on the human rights abuses in Raqqa since it became the headquarters of the Islamic State. Heineman’s last documentary, Cartel Land, split its time between two major threads, an approach that he repeats here by intercutting the group’s astonishing efforts (and footage) since 2014 with their present-day situation (all of them having since fled Syria). It’s a visceral experience, to put it mildly, particularly given the footage provided by RBSS: a camera thrown by the force of a grenade; various beheadings and live executions; the terrifying beauty of a rain of cluster bombs. Heineman’s own footage follows the group as they migrate across Europe to undisclosed safe-houses, capturing not just their journalistic efforts, but also their brief moments of joy (a snowball fight on the streets of Germany) and deep sorrow (the loss of several group members). The film as a whole seems too unfocused, too thin in some respects—particularly when it comes to the “media war” that ISIS is waging—to really be a first-rate documentary. When faced with footage of Aziz (the group’s spokesperson) grief-stricken and wracked by physical convulsions, however, I found myself asking: How much does that matter? But then I think of the low-angle shot that follows: of Aziz, slowly craning his neck up at a Syrian flag in the safehouse room. Whether the shot is staged or not, I think I may have my answer.
You mentioned generally avoiding documentaries—a position I'm not entirely unsympathetic to, though one that I'm sure would ruffle more than a few feathers. A stance that most would probably concur with, though, is keeping the stereotypically “Sundance-y” films to a minimum. Case in point: Wilson, about a middle-aged man (Woody Harrelson) who reconnects with his estranged wife (Laura Dern) and “gets a shot at happiness” when he learns he has a teenage daughter he never met. Yeah, no thanks. But director Craig Johnson was also responsible for the equally “Sundance-y,” but surprisingly good (and superbly acted) Skeleton Twins, so I decided to give it a shot. Jump ahead 90 minutes to me gritting my teeth in frustration. Just as genre films like Killing Ground now seem to require a postmodern sense of play, films like Wilson are at a point where self-reflexive, precocious irony is a given. For all its attempts to subvert formula, it simply becomes predictable in a different way. (Only a cut to wide shot after Wilson and his wife Pippy first reconnect—dimly lit by a neon sign, revealing the empty street behind—manages to surprise.) As Wilson the character can attest to: Sometimes, self-awareness just isn't enough; you have to grow up, too.
Self-aware isn't how I'd describe the title character in Miguel Arteta’s Beatriz at Dinner, which is, by a comfortable distance, the funniest film I've seen at Sundance thus far. Within minutes of its opening, Arteta attunes us to the soothing temperament of Beatriz (Salma Hayek), a health therapist who works at a clinic that provides various alternative treatments. After driving out to see a wealthy client, her car refuses to start, so she finds herself invited to a business dinner with Doug Strutt (John Lithgow, superb as an infamous business mogul) and his wife (Amy Landecker), a successful power-couple (Jay Duplass and Chloë Sevigny) and their hosts (Connie Britton and David Warshovsky). So begins the most serene cringe comedy-cum-comedy of manners that I've ever seen (if that's not too much of a contradiction). The conversations flow with such rhythmic grace, each line, cut and reaction shot just so perfectly in sync, grounded by the placid, “healing” center that is Beatriz. Perhaps even more impressive is that it manages to satirize without contempt, to criticize without condescension—a testament to the able cast and a stellar script by Mike White (who pens Enlightened). That said, the film's final minutes take a dramatic turn that—at least on first pass—feels both unconvincing and imbalanced. But comedies this sharp, intelligent and consistently funny are a rare commodity nowadays (especially compared to the labored wit of something like L.A. Times, playing in the festival's NEXT program). A low-key triumph.
Finally, a quick word on Manifesto, an experimental whatsit featuring Cate Blanchett in thirteen different roles, reciting various—you'll never guess—manifestos, from Dadaism to Futurism to Stridentism to Dogme 95 (which provides the film's sole excellent scene). Directed by Julian Rosefeldt, the film was adapted from a 13-screen art installation, so it's hard not to compare the film to that version. For one thing, it'd probably be 13 times shorter. For another, perhaps the option to leave would make it more palatable. But because so much—if not all—of the film is tongue-in-cheek and practically critiques itself, there's ultimately not much to say about it beyond the actual premise. (A fellow critic’s unimprovable description: “It's something that now exists.”) Curious what you'll make of it.
We've both found at least one film that we can fully get behind. But as the festival's halfway point approaches, may the best be still to come. How was your day?
Warmly,
Lawrence

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