Sundance 2016 – batch 3

Greed is good for gals, and the women steal the scenes and also part of your portfolio in female-driven Wall Street financial thriller Equity. It’s progress of a sort that female characters can be bad guys, and a woman seeking to raise her status in a brokerage firm can be as power hungry and opportunistic as any man. While it’s unfair to expect this small movie to generate the electricity in every scene like Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street”, or to raise decadence to the level of art like “Wolf of Wall Street”, this story of a tech stock IPO, shaky ethics, and sexual politics has some timely and compelling elements.

In the Q/A following the screening, the filmmakers described how they constructed a story based on interviews with Wall Street players in a variety of roles. They also shared stories about hiding pregnancy to delay its impact on a career. B.


In highly-regarded TV series “The Office”, John Krasinski’s boy-next-door “Jim” was a sort of normal guy interacting with eccentric coworkers. That model is shifted into a home setting and given the additional dimension of family drama, while retaining the quirky comedy, in emotionally rich and enjoyable comedic weeper The Hollars, which Krasinski directed and stars in. The story has his character struggling with his own career and relationships, having fled his home town and family, in part because things there are a bit crazy. So when a serious illness of the mostly beloved family matriarch draws him back home, he has to find a way to be the supportive son, brother and friend to the misfit crew he thought he had escaped. The film is executed with a graceful balance of comedy and drama, where heavy family moments are rescued by insightful humor, delivered by an excellent ensemble. There’s also an unexpected one-of-a-kind musical performance embedded at a perfect point in the film.

In the Q/A following the screening, Krasinski walked on stage to a lengthy standing ovation from a packed Eccles theater. He discussed the intense editing process for the film, where what he called the hairpin turns between comedy and drama were fine tuned. A.


A wheelchair-bound teenager makes a stunning, hilarious entrance, and shocks the poor guy interviewing for a position as his care giver, who then fights back with his own sense of humor. That fair fight between these two cripples, one physically handicapped and one emotionally scarred, somehow finds comedy in a yin and yang of disability and sets the tone for handi-comedy The Fundamentals of Caring.

And we are willing to play along with emotional manipulation game that follows, because the uneasy and politically incorrect chemistry between wry care giver Paul Rudd and handicapped smartass Craig Roberts is so much fun, and includes appalling pranks and stupid bro hijinks. There’s nothing lame about the comedy in this one-of-a-kind buddy film / road trip adventure, where the two even find an excuse to bring a delightfully foul-mouthed Disney actress into the mix.

While most humans are unfixable in some way, that fact is distilled into a concentrated form among the physically disabled. So with that focus, this film allows an important message to limp in behind the comedy, which is that we should not take the happy accident of life too seriously. In fact we should joke about it, a lot. And we see the characters heal each other somewhat by doing that very thing.

In the Q/A following the Sundance screening, writer/director Rob Burnett described how he rose through the ranks at the David Letterman show, and how the humor in this film is more character-driven in contrast to Letterman-style jokes. He described the process of finding inspiration for this film by reading the novel “The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving”. He also pointed out that the role of care giver required strong comedy skills and genuine acting skills, and the only real choice was Paul Rudd. B+.


Home-schooling frequently means parents who substitute creationist nonsense and a religion-addled world view for the reality of science, and it therefore means kids sent off into the real world as closed-minded little scripture-bots. But exhilarating fable Captain Fantastic examines a brighter scenario, where an extreme form of home schooling is provided by eccentric, well educated, free thinking super-dad Viggo Mortensen. His enlightened but unusual life style / curriculum has his six kids learning wilderness survival skills as well as conventional school subjects with unconventional discipline, with unflinching respect for knowledge, and with a healthy dose of skepticism.

In this cinematic thought experiment, we see the upside, when the natural, unbounded curiosity of small humans is nurtured rather than being suppressed by indoctrination into bronze-age dogma. But we also see the downside, where a childhood separated from mainstream culture and from socialization with the full spectrum of peers can put even whip-smart kids on their own sort of short bus. Several beautifully executed scenes explore the obvious culture clash among adolescents realistically. A bigger clash arises at the adult level between Mortensen and the mainstream conservative grandfather, but the film wisely avoids siding with either perspective, allowing the audience to form their own opinion as to which of the two well-meaning figures can provide the best guidance for the kids.

If the film takes slight liberties with reality, or flirts with moral hyperbole, that is easy to forgive in the light of many beautiful elements, including a hilarious birds-and-bees lecture, and a glorious rock-and-roll sendoff for a departing character.

In the Q/A following the screening, writer/director Matt Ross (who plays Gavin Belson on HBO’s brilliant “Silicon Valley”) said his inspiration was simply being a father, and wanted to explore the idea of a father who might give up his career to devote his life to raising his kids. He also alluded to his own rural upbringing which impacted his own socialization. A.


Much of the writing/directing/acting team from eighties-yuppie-skewering chat-fest “Last Days of Disco” are reunited for Geogian-era-English-society-skewering chat-fest Love & Friendship. But this effort is more successful, as it benefits from the wit of Jane Austen, who wrote the novella on which this period piece is based.

That ridicule of English society comes with a celebration of the English language, with some delicious dialogue delivered by Kate Beckinsale as the manipulative and shameless Lady Susan Vernon. While she bounces around households, half-heartedly trying to find a proper match for her daughter, she doesn’t even try to disguise her actual intentions of finding a match of her own. The comedy is all smart and mostly subtle, but is elevated to LOL from time to time by a somehow-wealthy suitor who shows up and tries to be cool but achieves the opposite, with comedically awkward dialog in stark contrast to that of the characters he is trying to charm. B+.


A Virginia slave rebellion in 1831, and the characters and motivations behind it, are the unpleasant subjects of historical drama The Birth of a Nation. It’s a compelling and important story, told from the perspective of slave Nat Turner, who was allowed to receive an education and who became a Christian preacher. But the story is told with a melodramatic and heavy-handed style that may actually work against it by polarizing some audiences. It’s a visionary undertaking that will probably win awards for writer/director Nate Parker who also plays the lead, but the film suffers from mundane dialog, and from story telling that lacked nuance and restraint.

The film’s surprising redeeming quality is an observation of how people can rationalize their actions, however appalling. With the Christian slave owners justifying their barbaric actions from the Bible, and actually hiring Nat Turner to preach the Bible to other slaves to keep them in line, it’s obvious to the objective viewer that Bible has very little credibility as a moral compass. In fact quite the contrary. B.

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