It was another super-fun year at the Sundance film festival. Since there was a severe lack of snow (so not much skiing) I was able to see a whopping 17 feature films as well as shorts collection and a pair of “Indie Episodics”

Knowing how to get around, and acquire tickets, makes it easier. Sundance has changed the way they schedule a little. There used to be a clear “passing period” between films, no matter which theater they were in. Now it’s a little more haphazard, putting a little more onus on the festival-goer to know whether it’s possible to get from The Eccles (for example) to The Egyptian. Answer: It’s not.

Another change that I think was new this year: while the festival was underway, unsold tickets for a given film would go on sale 18 hours before the film showing. During the first half, there really are no unsold tickets so this was giving us a bad feeling about the second half – when we were planning on being able to buy pretty much anything. Turns out we were once we got there. If you are thinking to attend, and want it to be easy, plan on going for the second half your first time.

As always, there seems to be a theme or themes each year. In this case there were many movies about or featuring: self–actualization/individuation, fandom vs. creating, creating children vs. creating art, leaving religion, and movies with all-capital titles. There were also a couple of films that mixed documentary style interviews into dramatizations. Or put another way, films that were essentially documentaries but most of the screen time was dramatization so they didn’t seem like docs.

Netflix and Amazon were changing the game, again, as far as what films got bought and for how much. Amazon is no longer in the market at festivals it seems, rather they are producing their own, big budget, films. Netflix is also producing their own – medium- to small-budget from the looks of it – but they hook up with the directors and producers sometime before the film shows at Sundance (or some other festival) and the festival is used to publicize the fact that the movie will be on Netflix.

Even with the ease of ticket acquisition in the second half there were, a few that I wished we’d seen: Assassination Nation looked a little scary in the schedule, high school girls with guns. I’m not sure what is actually on screen still but I gather the “Assassination” refers to character assassination as in the kind that happens on social media. Also, the Miseducation of Cameron Post was the hit of the festival, we could not get tickets.

Sundance is definitely responding to the call for diversity: of the 18 feature films I saw, four of them (and one notable short) have people of color as the leads and/or focus of the film. Eight have women in interesting and leading roles. Five were made by female writer/directors. Applause!

And so many good movies! In looking over what I’ve written about them I have to offer the disclaimer that I was probably in the “festival bubble”. Movies are just better when the theater is huge and packed with people who are excited to be there and the director and cast are coming out after the film. Different than going to the multiplex on a school night. If I’m to be believed, each of the full-length features reviewed below offers at least some reason to see it; that doesn’t mean it would be the best choice on any given day.

Official looking photos for the films as well as the one at the top of this article are thanks to the Sundance Film Festival. For the rest it’s thanks to Secret’s Festival Photographer Ray Keller who gets amazing shots of directors and actors from great distances with precious little light. Also Ray was able to see one film that I couldn’t get to: The Kindergarten Teacher, his review is included below.

The reviews are presented here in order that is some combination of how much I liked it and how easy it will be for you to see it and how soon. Most of the films I saw were excellent, only the last few in this list would be ones that I have reservations about. This first one here was made available on Netflix a day after this showing at Sundance. I (and everyone who was in the audience) wish more people could see it on a big screen, but I (we) would urge anybody to see it in any way possible:

 

A Futile and Stupid Gesture

Here is a biopic that I can heartily endorse. It is made with so much love for its subject, I think only the recently released Loving Vincent can surpass it in that category. In fact, even though both Vincent Van Gogh and the subject of this one: Douglas Kenney, meet with tragic ends, watching these two films together might cure depression.

Will Forte plays Douglas Kenney, the driving force behind the creation of National Lampoon magazine and the movies Animal House and Caddyshack – we can also thank Mr. Kenney posthumously for Saturday Night Live as it was and is simply a TV version of the radio show “National Lampoon Radio Hour” which was started by Kenney and brought John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Bill Murray and Gilda Radner together for the first time. Some of the other notables on the radio show included Harold Ramis and Christopher Guest.

The title: “A Futile and Stupid Gesture” is a quote from Animal House and there are a couple of cameos from Animal House actors in this one, but the SNL crew is played by younger actors, each doing an admirable job. Seth Green is the young Christopher Guest and Joel McHale (Community) is Chevy Chase. The film is beyond rich, not only with the personal struggle of this brilliant man but of course with comedy and comedy history ( Animal House was the largest, most successful comedy movie ever made at the time of its release).

The film draws from the 2006 biography A Futile and Stupid Gesture: How Doug Kenney and National Lampoon Changed Comedy Forever by Josh Karp and the documentary film Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon which I saw in the same theater at the 2015 Sundance. Martin Mull plays an older Doug Kinney that our world never got to see. In spite of it all, Douglas could not get past a special kind of pain that Midwestern parents seem to specialize in imparting: a wall against approval, from self or others, that no amount of success can overcome.

One of the other things we should all be thanking Douglas Kinney for is the very notion of a food fight. During the Q&A a woman relayed the experience of having one break-out during her daughter’s wedding. She didn’t know what it was and was mortified. And she thought it was hilarious. I can tell you this, I’ve spent a fair amount of time planning when and where to go when I finally acquire a time machine but my plans have changed. The first place I will go is back to the Q&A, in the Marc Theater, Jan 25, 2018, this time properly armed with a handful of shrimp cocktail.

 

Sorry to Bother You

I’m bumping this one up in the order a little bit; I cannot transition directly to the non-comedy films after thinking about A Futile and Stupid Gesture. I had it a little lower on the list because as funny and great as Sorry to Bother You is, I thought it might be hard to find. I hope not, it did sell to Annapurna films at the festival, the distribution company is quoted as saying “We f**king love this movie.” So far so good then.

The reason I’m concerned is that the film depicts not only a nut-job mega-rich CEO type (played by Armie Hammer) but (or dear!) a successful work-stoppage and strike. Just not something we see much of.

You might actually miss that fact amongst all of the other crazy goings-on in this movie. We start with young African-American Cassius Green as he lies about his experience in order to land a telemarketing job, but that is completely unnecessary, they’ll hire anybody and pay is 100% commission anyway. It’s a win-win in this case though as it turns out that when he uses his “white voice” as instructed by a co-worker (Danny Glover), Cassius is a star. He quickly makes his way “upstairs” where the sales calls are made to CEO’s of major international companies and the product being sold is far more distasteful. And that is not even the half of it.

The “white voice” is a dubbed, especially nasal, David Cross. Using this voice, Cassius is transported right into the living rooms of his customers – shown in the film in Michel Gondry style as Cassius’ desk crashes through walls, landing on top of the couch or whatever. There are many such references to filmmakers that the Hip Hop artist and serious student of film Boots Riley added to the film. In an intro to the screening Mr. Riley said that he chose music after attending film school because film is expensive to do. He did manage to get this one made, telling us that he wanted to make a movie where even he couldn’t guess what was going to happen next. Success!

In the Q&A Riley mentioned that there are many things in the movie that would only be noticed upon repeated viewings. This would be a great midnight movie if such things still exist. There’s great music by Tune Yards and Riley’s own band, the Coup so it might happen.

While the overall message might seem be simply “stick it to the man,” Riley went on to say though that all of the characters do something wrong, all of us are implicated in the support of this system that isn’t working. Actress Tessa Thompson plays Cassius’ girlfriend – a performance artist. When the character does her performance art even her voice changed – in this case overdubbed by English actress Lilly James (though it might be a little hard to tell that it is happening). The point being made is that regardless of color, we all have an idea about what trappings go along with certain identities.

 

And Breathe Normally

This Icelandic drama is one of the many women-centered stories and absolutely the most moving film I saw at this year’s festival. In introducing the film, director Ísold Uggadóttir said that she believes that film writers never get too far from who they are – the short films she had made in the past have to do with refugees and homelessness. And Breathe Normally combines those along with a nice dose of Icelandic weather in an engrossing and moving film. Kristín Thóra Haraldsdóttir plays Lara, a single mother of a small boy, Eldar. Unable to pay rent or find a place with friends that would be suitable for her and her son, the pair end up living in her car. She does eventually manage to find a new job as one of the people checking passports in immigration control at the airport. In Iceland this means checking the passport of people who are simply connecting, trying to get from the place they are escaping from to some place that they hope to call home. If their passport has issues, Iceland is where they will stay. At least until an unseen immigration court decides their fate. One such person is Adja (Babetida Sadjo), a refugee, along with her daughter, attempting to escape a terrible situation in her home country in Africa. This is just the first circumstance that brings these three characters together.

This film is full of the incredible messiness of real life and the very fine threads that allow us to escape even bigger messes. Threads that come into being through kindness and brave choices. The characters and the dangers in this film are so real, and the film-making so skilled, there is never a moment when you are not there, in cold-cold, rainy Iceland, gripping tight to whatever is near. (And Breathe Normally won the Directing Award in the World Cinema Dramatic category.) And the end, it will stick with you.

 

Juliet, Naked

Based on the Nick Hornby novel of the same name and starring Rose Byrne (Annie), Ethan Hawke (as Tucker Crowe) and Chris O’Dowd (Duncan).

This Hornby tale revisits the themes of High Fidelity: what it means to make art, to appreciate art, and relationships under the umbrella of shared culture. This movie plays a little more on the comedy side than did High Fidelity. While there’s no Jack Black in this one, there is Chris O’Dowd (played the police-officer boyfriend to Kristen Wiig’s character) and the setup: Annie and Duncan have been living together for most of their adult lives, Duncan teaches at a local college in their English sea-side town, refuses to have children and obsesses over an indie-rocker (Tucker Crowe) who is lost to age if not the ages. Annie curates a small museum in town, secretly longs to have children and suffers through Duncan’s fan-boyhood as best she can. When an acoustic version of Tucker Crowe’s masterpiece record “Juliet” shows up in the post it is easily the most significant event ever in the history of Duncan’s Tucker Crowe fan site. Annie is moved to post her own (anonymous) disapproving review. There’s only one person on the site who agrees with her, and it ain’t Duncan.

This is another of the films we saw that have a woman becoming her own woman at the festival. Definitely something in the air. This is the first feature directed by Jesse Peretz in quite some time, his experience directing Girls and New Girl (and others) has imparted an ability to mix comedy and drama well. Rose Byrne has the same ability and is quietly perfect in the role.

In the Q&A Chris O’Dowd rightfully pointed out that while his character was an obsessive fan, he was speaking to an audience who had travelled to come to a place where they could trudge through snow in single-digit temps to see a movie at 8:30 in the morning. Guilty. Clearly an obsessive fan chose the incredible music in this movie; I thought it might be Jesse Peretz (he was the bassist for The Lemonheads before he was a director) but the credited Music Supervisor is Marguerite Phillips (she has the same credit for another film that played at the festival, The Miseducation of Cameron Post).

 

American Animals

Based on the true story of the 2004 theft of some rare books from the library of the University of Transylvania in Lexington, Kentucky, including “The Origin of Species” by Charles Darwin. The film starts with a quote from the book: “On my view we must suppose that American animals, having in most cases ordinary powers of vision, slowly migrated by successive generations from the outer world into the deeper and deeper recesses of the Kentucky caves, as did European animals into the caves of Europe.”

Darwin was referring specifically to blind animals and not animals in general but either way you look at it the quote is so apt for explaining the extraordinary (ok, crazy) actions of four young men, college students, seeking to make their lives extraordinary in some way. Escape from the suburbs. In the Q&A director Bart Layton noted that there seems to be a pressure on young people to do that and at the time of this incident, our current, common outlet for such feelings – social media, was not available for that purpose. So, they plotted and executed the theft. Being young and inexperienced with such things, the heist did not go off as planned.

The movie starts on a somewhat confusing note as it switches from actors playing the roles of the four men to present day interviews with the men and then back. Confusing in part because the actors do bare some bit of resemblance to their real-life counterparts and also because you might not be sure what kind of movie you’re watching. It gets sorted though as the interviews are set aside and some rather compelling story telling, with great music, takes over. The movie ends with a brief report on what each of them is doing now, after their prison sentences.

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This really is a great story and very well done movie. Events spiral out of control as you might think they would and the tensions on and between the four are expertly captured. In the Q&A director Bart Layton made it clear that he did not want his actors talking to their real-life counterparts, not because of any ethical concerns but because he wanted the actors to bring their own versions of the characters, not imitations. This strikes me as a bold move by someone who knows what he wants from the actors and how to get it. Layton has extensive directing experience for television and documentary films so we can start to see how this one came together.

There is some un-ease upon deriving entertainment from events that were not just illegal but did cause some harm and trauma to at least one person, the librarian in charge of the rare book room at this university. It is not treated lightly in the film (and I assume that was true to how the men felt about it when it happened). In the Q&A it was reported that she has seen the film and feels like she can understand the perpetrators better. Those guys were in the theater watching the film for the first time. They did not go on stage for the Q&A and indeed the director reported that each of them was resistant to the notion of this movie, they had made a mistake and wanted to move on. This Vanity Fair article however reports that the men stated that they have no regrets.

Vanity Fair magazine

Don’t know which is right. Maybe their feelings have changed.

MoviePass bought this film along with the established distribution company, The Orchard. I have been avoiding MoviePass as it seems weird to me – why pay $1 for a movie when you can pay $50-60 at a film festival? Not counting airfare and lodging of course. Anyway, Moviepass remains as mysterious as a rare book heist, it will be interesting to see how this film is distributed.

 

Wildlife

Directorial debut from Paul Dano (There Will be Blood, Little Miss Sunshine, Prisoners ), based on novel of the same name by Richard Ford and adapted by Dano along with Zoe Kazan.

Set in 1960 Montana, a time and place when a family could move into town, rent a house and get by on the wages of the husband. The mechanics of this movie – the super-tight execution from the accomplished actor but first time director, the script, costumes and sets are enough reason(s) to see this, but there are rewards way beyond the trappings.

Carey Mulligan is Jeanette Brinson, a nuanced character and great role for her. For a while Jeanette seems to be doing everything expected from a 1960 housewife but it unravels. She acts selfishly, and with way less than proper regard for her child when she finally loses her patience. “Understated” is probably the word for Gyllenhaal’s part as her husband – he seems to know that he’s not the most sophisticated man, or the strongest, certainly not the wealthiest. He does love his family but he’s a serial job-loser. He doesn’t know what his role is in the world of men. In the family, when his role as the decision-maker slips away, so does he. The two of them keep their teenage son, Joe, firmly in the middle of the fight and it is from Joe’s point of view that the story is told. Ed Oxenbould plays Joe. He is an Australian actor with just a few credits to his name. This could be a breakout role, much of the movie is carried on his face.

We learned at the Q&A that only a few exterior shots were filmed in Montana, the rest in Oklahoma. Oklahoma? You might not believe it. And yes, for those keeping track, Ed Oxenbould’s face is a lot like Paul Dano’s. Maybe we all have a younger, handsomer, Australian counterpart.

 

Puzzle

This one epitomized the theme of people, especially women, breaking away from societal norms and expectations. The film is set in modern times but for the first few minutes I was unsure. Housewife Agnes (Kelly MacDonald) is so demure and so subservient, I tend to think this is a person from a bygone age. At a certain point however, cell phones are introduced, so that would be present day.

Kelly MacDonald is one of those actresses that you’ve seen a lot and probably taken for granted. Her most prominent roles have been in Trainspotting (and T2), Boardwalk Empire and many others. She is the center of this film, in practically every shot. In the beginning she is looking after her husband and two boys, full time. Her husband (Louie) most definitely takes her for granted. An early scene has Agnes delivering a birthday cake to Louie and the family, but after setting it down, it is Agnes that blows out the candles. Such is the life of a housewife.

One of her birthday presents is a jigsaw puzzle, another is a cell phone. Agnes quickly discovers an (amazing) aptitude for jigsaw puzzles and eventually uses her cell phone to find a partner (Irrfan Kahn). It’s a little hard to buy into Agnes’ keen interest in the puzzles at first, assembling a jigsaw puzzle does not seem particularly liberating for the character. But it turns out that there are contests for jigsaw puzzles, with big prizes and world travel. Irrfan Kahn is perfect as the exotic foreigner, wealthy thanks to an earlier, one time invention and now with an excess of time to ponder existence.

This movie walks a funny line, on the one hand the performances and cinematography are so excellent, you know you are watching a high quality film, but at times some opportunities are lost. At a certain point Agnes and others in the family start to swear, it’s like a jump from the 50’s to the 70’s. And that would be in keeping with the theme but there seems to be no reaction, the change isn’t processed by the family, they just start doing it.

But there’s plenty of good stuff here, David Denman delivers an excellent performance as the old-school husband. Anges’ changes are simply above the head of Louie but we can see him emotionally-busting-his-tail to adapt and not react as his own father would have. The movie is definitely worth seeing. Sony Pictures Classics purchased the film so it will be in theaters.

 

Private Life

Writer/Director Tamara Jenkins is a product of the Sundance Institute. In introducing this film she told the story of how they encouraged her to work on her first feature (Slums of Beverly Hills), calling her and begging her to keep working at it. That film eventually played at the festival and her 2007 film did as well – Savages with Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney. Ms. Jenkins reported in the Q&A that Private Life was born out of her own experiences with fertility treatments since Savages came out.

Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn play Richard and Rachel, a couple burning through their life savings on various fertility treatments. There are some healthy doses of humor as you might expect with these two but this is mostly drama as the pain of wanting is met with repeated failures (and expense). Finally resorting to trying a donor egg, they take the unusual step of asking someone they know, Sadie. Sadie is the step-daughter of Richard’s brother, recently dropped out of college, in part to get away from the pretentious fellow students that she cannot stand. She needs a place to stay and there could be nothing better than living with her aunt and uncle – real artists.

The movie is a semi-complete catalogue of the modern fertility treatments as Richard and Rachel try everything. Even with that, some scenes could have been a little longer in my book. Molly Shannon is Richard’s sister-in-law and is there to comment on the couple’s endeavors – perhaps they should just let go of the notion of having a kid? She is great in her role, as is everyone else in this film, but a couple of scenes with her seem just one sentence too short.

This film directly deals with the creativity in art played against the notion of creating a family as Richard and Rachel are both artists (playwright and novelist) and there is wonderful plot-interplay between their efforts and Sadie’s attitude towards them and own romantic possibilities. Kayli Carter is new to movies and she throws herself into this role with powerful results.

The cinematography was complemented in the Q&A – the shooting was digital but it has a film look.

Bought by Netflix (sometime before the festival), unlike A Futile and Stupid Gesture, it isn’t available for watching as of this writing.

 

Foxtrot

Israeli entry in the Oscars (Best Foreign Language Film), it has already won the Grand Jury Prize Silver Lion at the Venice International Film Festival. It was also shown at Telluride last year but we were unable to squeeze it in. Sundance showed it this year in its Spotlight section – these are movies that, most likely due to the timing of the release, can’t premier and/or be in one of the juried competitions (Dramatic or World Dramatic in this case) but are so good they must play at the festival.

Foxtrot is a word historically used in military parlance, simply as a more-clear stand in for the letter ‘F’ so that communications can happen without error. More than that however, it is a dance, a few steps, forward, sideways and back with the dancer ending up where they started. This movie makes a masterful combination of military, communications and ending up where one started, or near there anyway. All of those things, as messy and crazy and pointless as can be, distilled with some skillful filmmaking into something that gripped me throughout.

Jonathan Feldmann is one of four Israeli soldiers manning a desolate remote checkpoint – a great setup for humor. When we first see the soldiers they are opening the squeaky checkpoint gate to let a camel through. But even at a dusty checkpoint, things happen. The very first scene of the film is at the door of Jonathan’s parents as the military knocks, there to inform about the death of their son. Most of the film is spent with these parents, mourning the loss of their son. That probably sounds like this one is hard to watch. Yes and no. The film always has something to say, something being communicated beyond what is foremost on the screen. And the acting and filmmaking are so good it should be in the running for the Oscar’s Best Picture rather than Best Foreign Language Picture. Such is the cost of subtitles.

There is considerable controversy in Israel about whether the film is critical of the state or state policies. This is really overblown as it could be any nationalities and any border where guns and tension are present, the film has broader aspirations than commenting on a particular conflict. In the Q&A director Samuel Maoz relayed a story that was influential in his writing of this film. On the day he decided that he would no longer drive his daughter to school – a consequence necessitated by letting her sleep in, he got her up and out the door but she still just missed getting on the bus. The bus that she would have been on was the target of a terrorist bombing. The hour after he heard the news but was unable to reach her was the worst in his life, worse than his own military experience.

 

Night Comes On

This is one of the few films that I attended that did not have a Q&A. I saw it at the last showing (out of five) and the theater was sold out. But it was two days before the festival end and no doubt the director and actors had to get back to their lives.

There are a couple of lovely interviews with the director (Jordana Spiro), co-writer (Angelica Nwandu) and stars (Dominique Fishback and Tatum Marilyn Hall) available on youtube:

Ms. Spiro’s experience volunteering in a foster-care organization (Peace4Kids) is put to good use here. Similarly, her desire to create a story for a strong female protagonist going through something complex is fulfilled. This is the kind of movie that Netflix used to buy, I so hope it finds an audience.

Dominque Fishback plays Angel, a young woman who has been in juvenile detention for weapon possession. Released on her 18th birthday, she wants to find her little sister, and a gun. It was their father that created this situation, time to set it right.

All that might read like this is some kind of bloodthirsty revenge story but that is so not the case. It’s a coming of age story for someone who is and has been on their own. It may well bring some tears.

 

Butterflies

This is one to seek out. If it had not won the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize in the Dramatic category I would say that you would have to go to a festival to see it. With that prize we can hope that it is bought by a distributor but that is not the case yet. In the Q&A, writer director Tolga Karaçelik said that he is currently blacklisted in Turkey due to the political situation; that might complicate a distribution deal.

He relayed some other things in the Q&A: He said his life was ruined as a young boy when his uncle started him reading Homer’s Iliad at the age of seven and Kafka at the age of 11. Later when he had his own fanzine that same uncle quipped that he wished he could be an underground poet like his nephew. And then later, when that uncle passed away, Tolga said that finally his uncle has gotten his wish. No one laughed. But, he went home and immediately started writing this movie with the desire to have death as a character but not the main character.

The main characters in this case are a set of three siblings, brothers Cemal and Kenan, their sister Suzan. They grew up in a remote village and have long since gone their separate ways. The oldest, Cemal receives a phone call from their father, demanding that they return to the village immediately. We first see Cemal in the opening scene of the film, he has emigrated to Germany and joined the astronaut program there. Trouble is, the government trains astronauts but does not fund anything that would send them to space. Cemal lights his space suit on fire on the evening news in protest. The broadcaster watches and dutifully asks if the suit is government property. Welcome to Butterflies. As the siblings eventually get together and start their trek back to their childhood home, the humor starts to hit you in your heart, brothers and sisters dealing together with the absurdity of life and death. Defiantly meeting it with some absurdity of their own.

Some real-life absurdity and beauty associated with the film: A consequence of the director being blacklisted in his home country means no state funding to make the film. So it was shot in 18 days (two to three times that would be typical). The director’s cameo in the movie is as the (absurd) husband of Suzan (Tuğçe Altuğ). The two are now engaged.

 

Search

John Cho plays the single father (David) of a teenage girl (Margot) who disappears under mysterious circumstances. The movie plays as a tight thriller with escalating action and tension.

But the twist in the film is not in the plot, it’s the presentation. The entire story is told through a computer screen. Any live action is either something that one of the characters filmed and put online or the news, etc. or at a minimum, the Facetime view of David as he sits at his computer. There is camera movement within the videos he is seeing so it is more like a regular movie than you might think. The plot is engrossing so it doesn’t take long to forget about what is on the periphery of the screen. Might be worth checking out on a second view however. During the Q&A the filmmakers said the periphery does have interesting stuff going on. For example, Cho is playing a single father so a careful examination of his email window would reveal some online dating attempts. Get ready to use the pause button on this one.

Amazingly there was never a screen capture to create the computer screen presentation, it is all animated. Also for authenticity, since the moving images on the computer screen are from different characters, different cameras were used throughout to make it look authentic.

I said the twist is not in the plot but there are a couple of Law and Order style left turns in there. And, true to the notion of our modern, online, lives, a major sub-plot is that David is of course trolled by well, trolls, saying that he must have done it. The details are well handled here so that you are never distracted from the thriller-nature of the plot. Much of the communication between characters is via texting which is shown on the screen. This is one of the few if not the only movie I’ve seen to get that right. The pacing and editing of the texts always adds and doesn’t subtract. I think this film will be studied in the future to see how it is done (hint: it’s done quickly, not at a second grade reading pace). This is another film with a very short shooting schedule but in this case the bulk of the work was in the editing, which went on for more than a year.

Sony Pictures Worldwide snatched up this film for $5 million. Likely they will earn that back many times over.

 

The Kindergarten Teacher

(Review by Ray Keller) Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Lisa Spinelli, a kindergarten teacher and mother, who struggles to wake up her inner artist by taking a poetry night class. She tries to impress her class and handsome poetry teacher, played by Gael Garcia Bernal, but her poetry is nothing special. When Jimmy Roy (Parker Sevak), a five-year-old Indian boy she teaches, makes up an amazing poem, she recognizes his genius. Lisa, disappointed with how average her own two children have turned out, becomes obsessed with making sure this young boy’s family support him as an artist.

A remake of a Nadav Lapid’s 2014 Israeli film by the same name, the Kindergarten Teacher grapples with a modern world that doesn’t support art or artistic endeavors and how Lisa becomes determined to make sure this young artist gets the support he needs, at all costs.

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It’s clear from early on in the film that Lisa is mentally unsound so nothing she does comes as a surprise. There were several moments in the film when Lisa’s poor choices elicited audible groans from the audience. Also, in a few places Lisa sabotages herself. Perhaps this represents her inner struggle, but these abrupt changes seemed odd and unmotivated.

Gyllenhaal does an amazing job here, and her performance might be the best reason to see the film, but we never fully develop the empathy towards her that could have made this a great film.

 

A BOY, A GIRL, A DREAM

In coming to Sundance over the years I’ve gotten a sense of LA as a place where there is a surplus of talent. The mainstream movie industry falls way short of keeping all of the talented people busy. This is a good thing because we get films like this. The talent I’m thinking of here is director Qasim Basir, cinematographer Steven Holleran and whoever else served on the crew because it was shot in one, 89-minute, continuous take. Not all in one location by the way. The action takes place in one night, in clubs, on the street, at a party, in a car. 89 minutes is not the record for the longest single-take movie but I think film students will factor in overall complexity when looking to place this in cinema history.

Whoever wrote the blurb for A BOY, A GIRL, A DREAM in the Sundance schedule couldn’t quite believe it either, it says “seemingly in one continuous take.” But the Q&A featured abundant description of the process of making the film, the custom “anti-gravity” steady-cam rig that was used as well as the planning and rehearsal and so the audience asked and the director confirmed that indeed, just one shot for the entire film. Qasim Basir cited a scene from The Revenant as his reason for wanting to do this: “(The Indian attack on their encampment)… why are you so engrossed? Because they don’t turn away. (So) Let’s not turn away from these characters and what they’re going through.” He also mentioned that he thought it might help get the filming done more quickly but learned that the amount of rehearsal and planning completely overwhelms the savings in shooting time.

Speaking to the story, Mr. Basir said that the idea came before that fateful election last fall, it was meant to be a lighter film, purely a love story and the dream of love and a life with a partner who inspires you but when the election happened: “It hit me in the chest, so deep”. So, the woman and man meet on election night 2016, and the feelings and consequences of that night play a major role. How to carry on, hold onto your dreams, when the world is against you? We are all in that boat to a greater or lesser degree at the moment but black people (the woman and man in this case are African-American) have an even greater tide against them. The title of the film on imdb.com is A Boy. A Girl. A Dream: Love on Election Night.

The boy and girl parts are clear. The dream part is conveyed in dialogue. Cass (Omari Hardwick) has followed his dream – to be a filmmaker, and in speaking to Frida (Meagan Good), he forcefully makes the case that everyone should follow their dream. But something is off, in spite of being a hero to aspiring filmmakers that recognize him on the street, he’s stalling on finishing his current project. Frida calls him on that, challenges him to get on with it. This and a few other scenes are ones where I think the script could have offered a little more. I wasn’t always believing what the actors were saying, like the actors were struggling to find a way to make the words fit the emotions that they were supposed to have.

I would still recommend this film however; it’s gorgeous to look at and there is a lot of substance. Regarding my criticisms – it occurred to me that the leading man, Omari Hardwick has such a commanding presence – both physically and in his demeanor – it became easy to believe that he had everything under control, that he knew what he wanted and could get it, harder to believe that he suffered from self-doubt or the consequences of the election and everything else he was facing. There is an event in the film, an encounter with the police, that does have an effect on Cass – as it would anyone. In looking back at the film as a whole, I have to think that it might be the privileged existence I live as a white male (and the countless times I’ve watched such harassment in films with no apparent consequences) that made me think it was not having a lingering effect. He toughened up after a while, acted like he was over it, and I bought it. Maybe that was my mistake, wishing that it were that easy.

 

NANCY

This film won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award: U.S. Dramatic award for Christina Choe. That’s quite an achievement for the first full length feature from this writer/director. I think the award came about because the goals for the movie are unique and ambitious. My first thought upon seeing it was that the motivation for making this movie was simply to arrange for the final scenes which portray the depth of feeling people have for family, especially when you don’t have one. The ending of this movie is powerful in that regard. However, in the Q&A Ms. Choe stated that her motivations in writing it were to “ create a female-anti hero who was complex and morally ambiguous… and not just the girlfriend or best friend.” And, she relayed a story about an imposter in her life: “A college writing professor that was inspiring, he said he was a playwright as well as ghost writer in Hollywood… but that was all a lie.” She went on though: “Does it really matter that it was a lie if he really inspired me and the experience felt authentic and genuine. Still to this day I think of the principles he taught us when I’m writing”

Nancy is played by Andrea Riseborough, 35 years old and living with her mother who is in her last days. It has only ever been the two of them (and a cat). Nancy has aspirations, one of which is to be a writer, even though her submissions (to major magazines) are consistently rejected. She also longs for connections, and she’s willing to let the truth slide a little bit in trying to establish those connections with people she converses with via internet forums.

When she hears the story of a couple whose daughter was snatched away at an early age however, the facts seem to fit. She contacts them and arranges to meet.

The movie suffers from some continuity flaws that took me out of the experience a couple of times. You might not notice them so I won’t bother to list them but they are the kind of thing that can sink a film’s prospects for getting distribution. On the other hand the cast is stellar, Steve Buscemi is Leo, the husband-half of the couple, J. Smith-Cameron (who has had many significant television roles) superbly portrays the delicate emotions of a mother who had her daughter stolen from her. John Leguizamo and Ann Dowd are excellent in supporting roles, so keep an eye out.

Andrea Riseborough as Nancy is the star of this one though, she holds the film together and I recognized who she was only after looking her up. Wow, here is a partial list of films from her last few years: Oblivion, Birdman, Nocturnal Animals, Battle of the Sexes, Waco (TV mini-series), Burden and Nancy. Those last three were all at Sundance this year.

 

Come Sunday

A biopic based on the episode “Heretic” from the NPR program This American Life – which told the story of a bishop (Carlton Pearson) who was ostracized from the Pentecostal Church when he started reading more broadly in the Bible and concluding that hell is not a real place.

In fact, This American Life is the producer, they arranged for the screenplay to be written and called up director Joshua Marston (Maria Full of Grace). Ira Glass was there at the Q&A, stating that the story was attractive because it would be possible to see the story from the perspective of the people inside the church, not from the outside where the typical portrayal is almost cartoonish. Chiwetel Ejiofor as Bishop Carlton Pearson is compelling – depicting the struggle and bravery of a man realizing that there are serious, serious flaws in what he has been teaching, and making a fine living from. My concern is that real people experienced real suffering from what this man did, and that church continues to do. He got better, let’s hope they did too.

As for the typical cartoonish portrayal of church members, it is earned isn’t it? Carlton Pearson was a bishop in the Pentecostal Church. His mentor was Oral Roberts (his son killed himself after coming out as gay). A peer to Mr. Roberts was Jimmie Swaggart (resigned from church after being caught with sex workers). How many stories like this that we don’t know? While I’m glad this particular man had the courage to think for himself, eventually, it is a stretch for me to like this movie which to my mind doesn’t portray the full horrors that are visited on the members who listen to these people who exploit their own charisma for financial gain and insist that they are right. It’s not that the movie shows none of that, not enough though for me.

Production and acting are all first rate and as biopics go this one is right up there. Martin Sheen plays Oral Roberts and Jason Segal is an assistant in Pearson’s church.

 

On Netflix in April.

 

Monsters and Men

The director of this one (Reinaldo Marcus Green) lives in the Staten Island neighborhood where Eric Garner was murdered by police in 2014. It was a conversation with a police officer about the killing, where he realized that they watched the same tape but their conclusions were completely different, that led to the making of this movie. He wanted to explore more about the impact of these killings on communities: “We hear these stories all the time but we don’t hear the story of the guy who videotaped it, what happened to him”?

I wish I could rate this movie higher, it really does little wrong, it just tries to do too much. When the director referred to it as a “tryptic” in the Q&A, I understood it better. This is one time where seeing a film at a festival, without knowing anything about it, might have hampered the experience. The three parts of the film are Manny (who made the video), a police officer that is on the force with the officer who did the killing and a young African-American athlete who has to decide whether to join protests when it might jeopardize his future. There is no resolution for these characters (except perhaps the last one) and that was a problem for me as I watched it. I could probably be ok with it though if I had known the setup when I went in. As it was I spent a fair amount of time expecting each of the three to come back at some point. However, even if I had known, I still think I would have wanted to see resolution, or at least a check-in, for these characters. Each of them is a well-drawn, unique person, facing a choice. The high quality movie-making that made me care about them made me want to see more of what happened to them. More than that, the one character that connects the two boys (Officer Williams, played by John David Washington, son of Denzel) is in a position to change things, we don’t know if he does but I had some expectation that something would happen. Maybe this is the way it goes with police shootings.

Bought by Neon Films so expecting this to be in theaters.

 

The Tale

Here is a film for our times.

A memoir from director Jennifer Fox. The title refers to a story she wrote for a junior high school assignment. A story that strongly suggested that she had been molested. Her teacher was happy to dismiss it as something the young girl had made up.

The abuse happened at a horse-riding summer camp that Ms. Fox attended as a teenager but we first meet her as a present-day adult (documentary film maker and University teacher, as in real life). When her mother (Ellen Burstyn) discovers the short story in a box of keepsakes, memories start to come. The back-and-forth, slow dismantling of denial are well done here. One of Jennifer’s stops along the way is the notion that she was older, perhaps seventeen, when it all occurred. That doesn’t hold up though; she was 13.

The molestation scenes, though done with a proper level of restraint, still show enough to be profoundly disturbing. I did eventually realize that we’ve all seen child molestation in film to varying degrees but this seemed the most disturbing. The slimy seduction, which is going on almost continually when Jennifer is at the training facility is what makes it so. The first question from the audience was about what precautions were taken on set. The worst of the scenes were done with an older body double and they told us a long list of other things that were done, including no physical contact, even when it looked like there was. Still, actor Jason Ritter teared up when he talked about filming it. The actress playing the part of the young Jennifer was eleven when it was being filmed. Why couldn’t they find someone older? Nonetheless, it was clear that the film was made with great care around this issue.

The Q&A didn’t leave much time for other questions but one obvious one is what happened to the perpetrators? They might have died from old age at this point, don’t know.

There are many issues that prevent the film as a whole from being a success. There are a lot of cell-phone conversations that could have been done in some more interesting way, or edited out.

Common plays the boyfriend of the older Jennifer Fox and is poorly used. For example, at a very key time his one line is “I’m here for you” and then he disappears. Laura Dern plays Jennifer and is excellent as always – though she is simply on the phone too many times early on.

When Jennifer Fox introduced the film she seemed quite frightened, I chalked it up to fear of public speaking. When the end credits rolled and pictures of her as a teenager are shown, the film is about her, I saw that fear in a different light. She received a standing ovation, for bravery.

Given the technical shortcomings and subject matter I thought this film would be something that was hard to find but it was bought by HBO for $7 million, so coming to a screen very near you.

 

Shorts and Indie Episodic

In the last few years Sundance has started to showcase potential new TV or web series in programs called “Indie Episodic.” We tried one for the first time this year. In “Indie Episodic Program 6” the newly built 500 seat, “The Ray” theater had well less than 100 people in it. Two series were presented: “Leimert Park” and “The Adulterers.” I’ve seen movies at Sundance that were clearly the result of some talented people, living in LA, making use of their spare time and a video camera to make a movie. The results have always been worthy of the time, that of the creators and the audience. It’s harder to say that here. Certainly the intent of both of these was not too serious, in the intro and Q&A it was clear that there is an exploratory element to these things… “Let’s push the boundaries” or “Let’s explore what this would look like,” and if it happens to lead to something, that would be great. I applaud the notion and the people but clearly a smaller theater would be enough for these.

In the short film category, the Sundance festival has a particular taste that I have yet to acquire. We opted to see only the award-winning shorts, hoping for the best. Not so much, it turns out. Every film program at this year’s festival was preceded with a clip featuring many quotes, from many artists, about the importance of “Story.” For instance, Robert Redford’s was something like: “Stories define us, enlighten us and ultimately connect us.” I think the full version must be like this: “Stories define us, enlighten us and ultimately connect us but if you make a short film with a story you can forget about showing it at Sundance.” Ok, a little over the top but only a little. And, as always, there was a lengthy animated short with techno-music and computer drawings of bizarre, computer-game style images with little to no meaning except for the creator. There is some version of this same short every year at this festival.

There was heart and effort put into many of these, and humor (something that shorts are especially good at) was dripping out of “Hair Wolf,” a short about an evil white girl stealing the hair styles and souls of black people in a hair salon. The Princess Leia-styled afro buns, each bigger than actress Kara Young’s head, were easily worth the price of admission. Can we have a world with big hair again please?