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.

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