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Sundance 2017. Correspondences #6

A wild, four-hour Grateful Dead documentary, a young literary success goes missing, and two girls plan a murder in our latest dispatch.
Long Strange Trip
Dear Josh,
If there's one minor upside to Sundance, it's that the films typically aren't very long. Since the festival is dedicated to indie film—or whatever mutated strain that it's become in recent years—runtimes typically average around 90 minutes, sometimes less. (This certainly isn't Cannes, where three-hour art films are the norm.) So when I was making my schedule, Amir Bar-Lev’s four-hour Grateful Dead documentary Long Strange Trip immediately stood out. (It apparently did so for a lot of other critics, too, given that this was, by far, the most sparsely attended press screening I went to.)
Split into six “acts” (plus an intermission), the film chronicles the Grateful Dead from their start in the 1960s (“Act I: It's Alive!”) to the death of founding member Jerry Garcia in 1995 (“Act VI: It Becomes Everything”). Given the wealth of detail in the film—which covers everything from their time in Haight Ashbury, to their Europe ‘72 tour, to the disbanding in 1974, to their massive success and overwhelming popularity in the 1980s and 90s—the film seems targeted at both Dead Heads (to whom Act V is devoted) and neophytes (like myself) alike. Like the band, Bar-Lev only seems to have one goal: “to take the audience on a trip.” And for those unfamiliar with them, at least, it certainly succeeds. With some furiously rhythmic editing, Long Strange Trip mixes its wealth of archival footage, present-day interviews and, of course, the band's music in an appropriately psychedelic swirl. There's an invigorating fascination in the material Bar-Lev chooses to include, which range from technical (the design of the “Wall of Sound,” a set of over 500 speakers that the band toured with in 1974) to anecdotal (the recording of “Morning Dew”) to offhand (a rehearsal video that discusses the “velocity of sliding a note"). The unprecedented extent to which the band was recorded is a particularly engaging interlude, illustrating the “collective improvisation” that the Grateful Dead were and are so known for. Despite its title, the film isn't nearly as strange as it could (or should) be, and its enervating conclusion slips into the strictly biographical mode that the rest of the film had so effectively avoided. But for the most part, it's a wild, often thrilling ride; the destination almost doesn't matter.
Unfortunately, the same can't be said for Sidney Hall, whose conclusion doesn't just disappoint, but also cheapens everything that precedes it. That's a shame, since the film manages to hint at so much more for a good portion of its runtime. The premise is simple: Sidney Hall (Logan Lerman) achieves massive literary success at a young age, and then subsequently disappears. What engages—at least for a time—is the way the film weaves together Sidney's last year of high school, his initial success (and Pulitzer prize nomination) and the time after his disappearance in a kind of literary mystery. Crosscutting between these three periods, director (and co-writer) Shawn Christensen manages to obfuscate and disorient, burying his intentions beneath some confident (though occasionally clumsy) narrative gamesmanship, tied together by the film's eponymous center. There's a personal mystery involving Brett (Blake Jenner), a football jock who goes to Sidney's high school; a thread that tracks an FBI agent looking for Sidney; and Sidney's faltering relationship with his wife, Melody (Elle Fanning). But there's a stark disjunction between the film's literary aspirations and its quality of writing (both in tone and dialogue); the material simply doesn't support the structural conceit. It's not quite “one long, intoxicating masturbation session with no climax,” but neither is it clever enough to justify the labor and bland contrivance. The thing about “manipulative” films, though, is that you still want to find out what happens next.
Sidney Hall was making its world premiere, so there wasn't much to go by when deciding to see it. But at this point in the festival, when most critics have already found various films to champion, figuring out what to see next shouldn't really be much of a challenge. But it certainly doesn't feel like it's getting any easier. Most seem to agree that Call Me By Your Name is a triumph, but Golden Exits—by far my favorite of Alex Ross Perry's work—is treated like a whiff, while something like Mudbound is a breakout success. Perhaps I'm just reading the wrong “takes,” as you put it before. But that's exactly why I resolved to see the black comedy Thoroughbred, which multiple critics had deemed a festival highlight. Cue disappointment.
To be fair, it's not hard to see the appeal. Two wealthy girls living in suburban Connecticut, Amanda (Olivia Cooke) and Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) reconnect after having grown apart, and slowly determine that a murder might be their only way to relieve their present situation. Intriguing, no? Here making his directorial debut, writer-director Cory Finley proves adept at keeping unnecessary exposition to a minimum. Details are parceled out confidently, accompanied by rhythmic follow-shots and an appropriately percussive score. Eventually we discover that Amanda is a kind of sociopath (“I don't have any feelings—ever”) on probation for animal cruelty towards her horse (which she put down herself), while Lily was expelled from boarding school and is stifled by having to live with her asshole of a stepdad. Cooke (who played Me and Earl’s dying girl) and Taylor-Joy (following her breakout performance in The Witch) are both excellent here, savoring the perverse dysfunction of their characters' relationship; Anton Yelchin, too—in one of his last roles—does well as Tim, a wannabe drug dealer that the girls draw into their scheme. But the plotting and overall narrative beats are far too over-determined to resonate beyond sharp one-liners, the script's admirable attempt to go beyond rote midnight movie appeal notwithstanding. Finley isn't untalented, and it will be interesting to see what he comes up with next. For now, at least, the attempt is appreciated.
Any finds on your end?
Best,
Lawrence

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