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-.

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