Sundance 2017 – batch 3

A financial setback forces a northern white family to move to rural Mississippi to take over a struggling farm and work side by side with a southern black family in racially charged World-War-II-era drama Mudbound. At the heart of the story are the strikingly different returning-soldier experiences of a two farmhands, one black and one white, and a skillfully executed story arc where they form an unlikely bond in spite of the strong racist culture. Other story threads weave a brutally frank though sometimes melodramatic tapestry of simple people just trying make the best of their problematic farmland, with some tearing down racial barriers and some reinforcing them. Perhaps racism in the bible belt will never be completely eliminated, but it may at least help to have this vivid reminder of how bad it was in that KKK-friendly time and place. B.


Today’s iPhones and Teslas have made the 1990s a sort of primitive era, with telephones connected to the wall and car windows that rolled up and down. And in a richly detailed mid-’90s setting, the stormy relationship between a fifteen-going-on-thirty rebel and her not-ready-to-grow-up thirtyish sister is the focus of poignant period-piece comedy Landline. The parents are no picnic either, and the strained-but-never-broken bonds between family members are explored with insight and humor even though the story gets a bit messy. Agreat deal of care was taken to decorate the movie with the technological and cultural trappings of that decade – record stores, phone booths, cassette players, 10,000 Maniacs – and it just adds color to a mostly enjoyable film. B.


In the Daily Show’s prime, one of its standout correspondents was Jessica Williams. Lightweight romantic comedy The Incredible Jessica James puts her front and center and showcases quite a confident and promising movie presence.

The most interesting romantic movie chemistries are the ones that are unlikely on the surface but almost inevitable at the core. So it is with Williams’ theatre-girl character and quirkily hunkish app designer Chris O’Dowd as they get over their previous relationships and cautiously take their sweet time getting together. That relationship and Williams’ exuberant self confidence makes this otherwise underwritten film a small gem. C+.


It’s hard to describe this somewhat plausible comedic fantasy, Brigsby Bear. An extraordinary set of events causes Saturday Night Live actor Kyle Mooney’s sheltered man-child to experience our normal world partly as a normal person and partly like an alien, as if Mork and Mindy had a kid. The world takes on a fascinating perspective when viewed through the eyes of this part adult and part endlessly curious child. And the film itself has surprisingly mature aspect amidst the silly premise, as it explores the very nature of story telling and the virtue of creating a vividly detailed fantasy world out of pure imagination. B+.


Before I Fall follows a day in the life of a group of high school friends. Then it does it again and again, magically repeating and following elements of the “Ground Hog Day” movie pattern including the waking up scenes. But that’s just a framework for a fresh and arguably more profound mystery, raising the stakes far beyond scoring with Andie McDowell. It starts out with some seemingly inconsequential Mean Girls snark, then somehow gets the audience to care about some not-very-likeable characters, and ramps up beautifully in the final scenes. The message about being nice to people is a bit trite but it’s delivered with some compelling performances by a young cast, which should allow the movie to connect well with a teenage audience. B.


In the 1960’s, the old virgin men who run the Catholic Church instituted sweeping reforms, dragging that institution’s ancient murky dogma from the Bronze Age to slightly later in the Bronze Age. Among the changes in the church’s Vatican II reformation: Priests were allowed to perform their wooden mass choreography while facing the people, and to mutter their mass scripts in languages other than Latin. Another outcome was that nuns, (all of whom were women in a church run entirely by men) were sort of moved down a rung on the holiness ladder, and were encouraged to scale down their TV-antenna headgear and medieval robes, and to give preference to serving their communities rather than just praying all day. But that step toward participation in the human race was not welcome by the old-school nuns who had years ago settled in to a cloistered life and allowed a grim daily ritual to suppress their personalities. So period drama Novitiate follows a group of young probationary nun candidates trying to decide if they want to be nuns forever, and the older nuns – including Melissa Leo’s cruel Reverend Mother – whose job was to extinguish every last instinct for secular joy and fun out of the young women, and who resisted and then accepted the changes that Vatican II dictated.

It’s a stark revelation to see how creepy the whole cloistered nun experience was, at least as presented here, with young girls aspiring to metaphorically get married to their crucified Jesus. It’s portrayed as a sort of unwholesome transfer of natural young-girl erotic yearning away from age-appropriate peers and toward an invisible but somehow masculine spirit. And non-catholics may not be aware that nuns take an extraordinary and unnatural life long vow of chastity (as do priests, which some have used as cover for their pedophilia). The film does an excellent job of showing the struggle of one young woman in particular, as she breaks her mothers heart by entering the convent, takes on this new life, and tries to fit in by burying her human instincts.

Is the film a sort of sad drama, where women with good intentions devoted their lives to their faith to get closer to their god, and then had the rules changed on them? Or is it a sort of horror film, without ghosts or zombies but with women emotionally abusing each other with the support of their ancient institution, flagellating themselves for having “impure” thoughts, and trading normal human lives for decades of ritualized isolation in hopes of a reserved parking space in the afterlife? However the viewer interprets it, the first rate performances and solid pacing of the film drive home some insightful reflections on the limits of faith and the strength of womanhood. A-.

Sundance 2017 – batch 2

As a marriage starts to lose its novelty and the inevitable disagreements become more problematic for a thirtyish couple, they stumble upon the idea of reinventing their arguments as songs, and forming a rock band to perform them. This unusual marriage therapy is the basis of domestic comedy Band Aid, which features skillful performances from leads Zoe Lister-Jones (who also wrote and directed) and Adam Pally, who mix the comedy and drama well. The several songs composed for the film are entertaining and work in this context but don’t really stand on their own. This distinctive and original turning-pain-into-art story provides a unique perspective on marriage, and has some fun moments. B.


Instagram is a useful app for people who like to amass followers and enjoy the sort of admiration and praise the more enthusiastic followers bestow on every posted photo. But the dark side is that it also provides a natural means for celebrity-infatuated, problematic stalkers to pursue their obsessions. So modern cautionary tale Ingrid Goes West examines that dark side, through the eyes and iPhone of the gifted Aubrey Plaza as a disturbed young woman who travels west from Instagram’s fanland suburbs to the creepytown section of stalkerville. The story is told with a lot of comedy, in the sort of style that uniquely suits Plaza, but it eventually becomes uncomfortable as her charater’s virtual-world infatuations become real-world obsessions and become a real threat to her target. C+.


Not to be confused with the biopic of J. D. Salinger, which also premiered at Sundance 2017, fictional mystery Sydney Hall also tells the story of a young author who achieves success at a young age and then becomes reclusive in later years. The mystery is drawn out a bit, in a film that visits the characters at the ages of 18, 24, and 30, and which puzzles the audience by flashing forward and backwards in time. The time shifting detracted from some otherwise fine performances by the cast. C.


Apparently, dating apps make it easier than ever for pretty millennials who have a mutual interest in immediate boning to find each other and get on with it, without the inefficient old-school formality of a first date. Ultra-modern romance Newness is set in this world where your next iBang is just a few iPhone swipes and texts away.

After a frenetic first act where the handsome couple find each other, hook up, and do some creative humping, the film settles in to a more conventional study of the next step in their romance. Once the duo determine they have more in common than looking awesome and shagging, they want to stay together, but they still crave the novelty of new nookie and so they forge an open relationship, with rules about honesty. As the film explores the nature of modern relationships, it suggests that monogamy may not be natural for beautiful young people, but the alternative is tricky AF LOL. B.


Privileged teenage white girl angst drives smart dark comedy/thriller Thoroughbred. With an ineffectual mom and an insufferable step-dad, in a big house in a really nice part of Connecticut, a somewhat sociopathic daughter and her more sociopathic BFF pool their skills and their complementary disorders to find a surprisingly effective solution to the dad problem.

All the elements of this film are first rate, including the performances by the two young actresses, the smart dialog, and the Hitchcockian direction where the horrible things happen off screen and the viewer’s imagination fills in the grim details. It’s made more effective by a deranged musical score, and by the final performance of the late Anton Yelchin, bringing depth to his role as a lightweight wannabe thug.

As the writer director explained in the post-screening QA, this film was intended to “walk the comedy/thriller/drama tightrope”, and it succeeds in keeping its audience unbalanced, teetering and tittering. A-.


Sundance 2017 – batch 1

Seemingly designed for the enjoyment of modern ex-catholics, but actually based on a collection of short stories from the 13th century, religious farce The Little Hours is full of divinely inspired shenanigans, including hot nuns talking dirty, saucy confessions, and a nookie-in-the-nunnery sin-fest. There’s even a boy toy, but for the nuns, not the priests.

The anachronism of a cast of contemporary comedy stars portraying nuns and priests in medieval Tuscany, gossiping like modern teenagers, and conducting ribald merriment and carnal commingling is much more fun than whatever prayers the nuns were supposed to be mumbling all day. The rampant hypocrisy inherent in religious institutions is not exactly well hidden, so it’s no major accomplishment for a movie to uncover some, but this is not a Spotlight-style exposé nor even a Life-of-Brian-style skewering, just a fun fable where the pious are collateral damage.

Certain religious types thrive on considering themselves persecuted, and we can only hope this harmless, delightful comedy gets their attention so that the ensuing fake outrage will expand its audience. B


The clash between 7th century religious dogma and common-sense-based 21st century values is a major world problem. This timely issue is at the heart of the timeless story of young star-crossed lovers in The Big Sick, where the Romeo comes from a Muslim family and the Juliet does not. A star of HBO’s Silicon Valley and a talented comedian, Pakistan-born Kumail Nunjaini cowrote this somewhat autobiographical story with his American-born wife. It’s sad to witness his immigrant family putting their religion ahead of their humanity and disowning him for dating a non-Muslim, but it’s rewarding to see how he stands up to them and asserts his right to question his indoctrination. It’s uniquely entertaining to see that done in a comedic context.

A lot of the charm of this movie comes from quirky-perfect Zoe Kazan, who brings real depth to the role as the girlfriend who develops the sickness referred to in the title, and her bewildered parents played with ideal comic timing by Ray Romano and Holly Hunter. It’s almost a Shakespearian triumph that the unlikely relationship can survive such outrageous fortune, and more so that the comedy can remain edgy and engaging with so much drama. A.


A 2016 best picture nominee, Hell or High Water was an exciting story centered around charismatic bad guys and their pursuers. In murder mystery Wind River, the same gifted screen writer provides another compelling but more subdued story of the new American frontier, with an exploration of life on a Native American reservation. The timeless character of a skilled hunter in the American west is the perfect centerpiece for this contemporary story of grim reality in a harsh landscape. Jeremy Renner’s old-school hunter is contrasted effectively with Elizabeth Olsen’s inexperienced but scrappy FBI agent as they team up to investigate a baffling tragedy.

In the QA following the screening, writer/first-time-director Taylor Sheridan indicated that he directed his own screenplay because he wanted to insure that his vision was executed, and that the two lead actors were bascially his first choices, and that all of his movies are intended to examine the consequences of settling the American west. B+.


Woody Harrelson is annoying and endearing as the blurry focus of wild comedy Wilson. His offbeat character is undisciplined and clumsy, but tempered by a certain charm, and that can be said of this film, which tells the tale of this needy and overly-honest weirdo as he engages with his family, who sort of tolerate him, and with random strangers, who, to varying degrees, do not.

When he discovers late in life that he has a daughter and tries to find her, he starts making a variety of bad decisions that are kind of funny but mainly sad. The Wilson story was derived from the graphic novel, by the same author who wrote the Ghost World, and it shares a darkly comedic tone.

In the QA following the screening, Harrelson talked about balancing his gregarious side and his curmudgeonly side for the role. B-.


In low-key sci-fi tale Marjorie Prime, memory-infused holograms that have been programmed to simulate lost loved ones interact with surviving family members. The film is based on a play, which was perhaps a better vehicle for the dialog-driven but not-very-cinematic story. This slow-paced film (described by the director as a meditation) examines the nature of what it means to be who we are. As it flashes backwards and forwards in the lives of one small family, it does present some insight about the very nature of memory – How we form memories, how they change, how they can be selectively lost as we age, and perhaps how they could be enhanced or manipulated with artificial intelligence. The small ensemble, including Jon Hamm and Laura Dern, delivers the material capably, but overall it seems like a missed opportunity to stray further from the play and find more human excitement. And that would have been more memorable. C+.


A movie about the life of a great writer had better be very well written, and engaging biography Rebel in the Rye succeeds, both in the smart dialog and in the overall story and pacing. Especially engaging are the ambitious writing student vs. skillful teacher scenes between Kevin Spacey, as a Columbia professor, and Nicholas Holt as J. D. Salinger, as the student learns how to balance his strong voice against the need to sometimes let his stories breathe. It’s fascinating to see this portrayal of the author honing the skills that will allow him to later speak so boldly to generations of young people with “The Catcher in the Rye”.

Salinger the man may have been as intriguing as his Holden Caulfield was insufferable. But he was notoriously reclusive, especially in his later years, and the film struggles a bit with that paradox. B.