Archive for the ‘Sundance Film Festival’ Category

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Velvet Buzzsaw

Set in the world of high-end modern art, writer-director Dan Gilroy reunites with his Nightcrawler stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo (plus Toni Collette and John Malkovitch) for this wonderfully wicked mashup of satire and horror.

The plot follows the discovery of an unknown artist’s work after his death, and the assorted bon vivant (a celebrity critic, a gallery owner, an art agent, etc.) who both admire the craft as well as see the opportunity to get in on the ground floor of the next big thing. Only one problem: the paintings appear to be imbued with some hostile and supernatural force that sets about eliminating the cast in increasingly gleeful displays of carnage.

You’re mileage will certainly vary with this one, and Gilroy’s attempts to zip two genres together (as if the Final Destination franchise had been grafted onto The Devil Wears Prada) don’t always result in a seamless delivery. But the experience is so unique, kinetic and unassuming, anchored by a hypnotically devoted Gyllenhaal, that it makes for a rare, if beguiling, treat.

Grade: B+

*Watch it NOW on Netflix

Brittany Runs a Marathon

Jillian Bell, a very funny if not yet widely known comedian, stars and shines in this semi-biographical film by debut director (and screenwriter) Paul Downs Colaizzo.

As the titular Brittany, Bell plays a woman who, after some hard truths about her health from a doctor, resolves to turn her life around by training for and running in the New York City Marathon. Brittany finds confidence and new purpose with each lost pound, but the film is far from an advertisement for Gold’s Gym memberships — it follows a woman’s search for identity and self-appreciation, trading laugh-out-loud comedy with cringing tragedy as it builds up to a powerhouse finale.

Grade: A-

Watching “The Brink,” Alison Klayman’s documentary on populist provocateur and propagandist Steve Bannon, one can’t help but wonder what the subject expected to get by granting a filmmaker such intimate access to his life.

Much like the 2016 fly-on-the-wall documentary “Weiner,” which similarly premiered at Sundance, “The Brink” finds a controversial and scandal-prone American political figure behind closed doors in the places where the public typically isn’t invited to go.

In this case it’s Bannon’s intimate meetings with far-right European leaders as he attempts to stitch together a coalition of the misfit toys to take on “the establishment” over immigration and exclusionary nationalism. At every turn Bannon insists his work is not racist, anti-Semitic or vitriolic, then he gives a smile and a wink as he’s pressed to explain his fearmongering tactics and dog whistles.

The movie is book-ended by two major setbacks for Bannon’s philosophy — the defeat of Roy Moore in Alabama and the election of a Democratic House majority in 2018 — but the lingering message from The Brink is that Bannon is always one to regroup, reinvent, and resurface.

Grade: B

The Report

In the years since the September 11 attack and the War on Terror, America’s pop culture response has incrementally shifted from the escapism of 24 to the repressed jingoism of Zero Dark Thirty to the pessimistic criticism of Looming Tower.

Into that maze steps The Report, the Adam Driver-led film by Scott Burns that zealously hopes to set the record straight on the moral shortcomings of U.S. intelligence and government leaders.

It’s vehicle in that effort is the “Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Committee Report of the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program” and its lead researcher, Daniel Jones, whose dogged pursuit of the facts despite byzantine bureaucratic intransigence exposed the truth of the C.I.A.’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” (read: torture) and the agency’s lies and misrepresentations to two presidents and the American public at large.

You might wonder how the creation of a 6,000-page government report can make for compelling drama, and The Report is initially clumsy and disjointed as it attempts to set the narrative background and cast of characters (played by a stellar supporting cast including Jon Hamm, Cory Stoll, Michael C. Hall and Annette Benning — as Sen. Diane Feinstein). The end result is an enlightening and thought-provoking film that is perhaps 30 minutes too long due to its slow start, but one that finishes strong and on an aspirational note for American democracy.

Grade: B

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The Lodge

Riley Keough (Logan Lucky) stars as Grace in this frostbit thriller by directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala about a woman snowed in while on a get-to-know-you vacation with her boyfriend’s children at a remote winter cabin. Once the storm hits, frozen pipes and a broken-down generator leave Grace and the children cut off and alarmed by an escalating series of inexplicable — supernatural? — events.

The Lodge has atmosphere in spades, utilizing the dark setting and inhospitable weather to great effect. But its plot and character work is considerably less artful, ham-fisting symbolism for religion and family onto the screen as though the writers were standing nearby shouting “See! It has layers!” into your face while you watch.

The story’s big moment comes in the flip between Act II and III and a twist (?) is handled so poorly that the film — serviceably eerie until that point — careens into farce and slumps its way to the closing credits leaving little more than head-scratching uncertainty about what transpired.

Grade: D

State of the Union

Confession: Despite State of the Union‘s inclusion in Sundance’s Indie Episodic category — for indie TV pilots and series — I walked in expecting a traditional narrative film. Even so, the 10 relatively short chapters combine perfectly into a not-quite-2-hours single sitting, as the vignettes blend seamlessly into a coherent arc for its characters.

Written by the great Nick Hornby (About a Boy, An Education, Wild) and consisting of little more than a pub setting and two characters, (Played by a wonderfully comedic Rosamund Pike and the winning every-man Chris O’Dowd) SOTU tells the story of Tom a Louise, an on-the-rocks couple who meet up for a drink each week before a marital counseling session to talk strategy.

The dialogue is superb, insightful, witty and heartbreaking as Tom and Louise track the evolution of their relationship, looking for what went wrong, what is salvageable, and how to move forward. It’s real and raw and touching in that sad-funny sweet spot that Hornby does so well.

Watch out for it when it launches (likely on Sundance TV but presumably available elsewhere afterward) is it’s not one to miss.

Grade: A

Big Time Adolescence

“Coming-of-age” is the classic, quintessential staple of the stereotypical *SUNDANCE* movie, and Big Time Adolescence fits that trope in spades, following Mo (American Vandal‘s Griffin Gluck) as he navigates high school, first dates and being a well-intentioned teenage drug dealer.

But the film also flips that narrative with its co-lead Zeke (SNL’s Pete Davidson) who remains-of-age smoking dope, getting blitzed and hanging with his buds, including his best bed Mo the 16-year-old brother of an ex girlfriend Zeke never quite stopped pining for.

The characters both support each other and feed into a destructive impulse that stunts their emotional development, with the big question of whether the inevitable crash will shake them lose and allow them to mature or doom them to perpetual childhood.

It doesn’t quite satisfy that question in its final moments, falling just shy of a perfect landing, but it still manages an impressive launch through some universal, meaningful territory.

Grade: B+


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Note: Portions of this review were first published during coverage of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival

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Written by and based on the life of Kumail Nanjiani, The Big Sick functions like an inter-nationality take on “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” for the millennial generation.

Before he was an anchor player on TV Comedies like Silicon Valley, Nanjiani was a stand-up comedian slumming it on his way up the food chain and a closeted agnostic in a family of strict adherents to Islam and Pakistani culture, which includes arranged marriages. In the dramatized version, he meets the decidedly *not* Pakistani Emily (Zoe Kazan) after a gig, kicking off a courtship that is tested first by his reluctance to reveal all to his disapproving parents and second by a mystery ailment that places Emily in a medically-induced coma.

The writing is sharp, with a sharp blend of comedy and drama as Kumail deals with the titular “Big Sick” Emily experiences. It also includes knock-out supporting roles by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano as Emily’s parents, who arrive with their own marital demons in tow to the bedside of their ailing daughter. The film’s best moments derive from the stuttered progress Nanjiani makes winning over the parents of a woman he scorned as the three characters hope for the best but fear the worst.

That the based-on-a-true-story film ends on a positive note isn’t spoiling much , but “Big Sick” keeps the tension under the breezy humor and the film easily earns its sentimental finish.

Grade: A

*The Big Sick opens in Salt Lake City on Friday, July 7.

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The Incredible Jessica James

Jessica Williams stars as the titular Jessica James, an aspiring New York City playwright on the bad end of a breakup. It’s a showcase for the comedian, consisting largely of her character’s whimsical take on life, love and ambition with little by way of plot besides wanting to make it big and maybe meet a nice guy while she’s at it.

It provides enough laughs for the price of admission, and is an encouraging argument in favor of Williams as protagonist. But there’s not a lot of there, there, and not much to say beyond what a million other young-in-New-York films have said before.

Grade: B-

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The Big Sick

Written by and based on the life of Kumail Nanjiani, The Big Sick functions like an inter-nationality take on “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” for the millennial generation.

Before he was an anchor player on TV Comedies like Silicon Valley, Nanjiani was a stand-up comedian slumming it on his way up the food chain and a closeted agnostic in a family of strict adherents to Islam and Pakistani culture, which includes arranged marriages. In the dramatized version, he meets the decided *not* Pakistani Emily (Zoe Kazan) after a gig, kicking off a courtship that is tested first by his reluctance to reveal all to his disapproving parents and second by a mystery ailment that places Emily in a medically-induced coma.

The writing is sharp and funny, with a nice blend of comedy and drama as Kumail deals with the titular “Big Sick” Emily is going through. It also includes knock-out supporting roles by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano. That the movie ends on a positive note isn’t spoiling much, and the film easily earns its sentimental finish.

Grade: A

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An Inconvenient Sequel

In a way its frightening that we’ve had 10 years since Al Gore first delivered his power point presentation on climate change in “An Inconvenient Truth” only to still be debating the science of carbon emission.  But at least the ensuing decade has given the once-and-future president plenty of material for a round two.

Yes, the ice has melted, the waters have risen, the storms have worsened and myriad other Gore predictions have manifested, but “Sequel” also goes beyond the doom and gloom to track the real and significant political efforts made, notably the Paris Agreement of last year. Naturally, President Trump’s pledge to tear up that agreement and double down on fossil fuels is a bummer for Gore, and a bit of a thorn in the third act of “Sequel,” the documentary still manages a message of optimism among its impressively researched call to arms.

Grade: B+

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Rememory

The best way to describe “Rememory” is that it is relentlessly serious. Peter Dinklage stars as one of several broken souls in a pseudo-science fiction world in which a machine has been created that can record and display the mind’s memories. When the machine’s inventor dies under suspicious circumstances, Dinklage’s Sam steals the memory machine in order to both probe his own dark past and solve the inventor’s murder. But the final reveal on both points is underwhelming and bogged down by the slog of dull greys and moody glances.

It’s a notable film, largely due being one of the final performances of the late Anton Yelchin, and there are a lot of lofty ideas about how life’s experiences shape us into who we are. But its ambitions our ground into powder by its crushing atmosphere.

Grade: C+

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Landline

In this 90’s-set ensemble dramedy, a woman (Jenny Slate) learns of her father’s affair while having one of her own. There’s a lot of talent on screen, with Jay Duplass, John Turturro and Edie Falco rounding out the top billing, but the movie never seems to alchemize its components into something more.

It’s a pleasant and charming enough film, doing interesting work with its web of familial and romantic relationships. Turturro and Falco, in particular, shine as two halves of a strained marriage.

It never quite pops though, resulting in a film that seems to simply exist and then  promptly evaporate when the credits roll.

Grade: C+

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Nobody Speak: Hulk Hogan, Gawker and Trials of a Free Press

It’s a tough time to be in the news business. Budgets are tight, left bare by the departure of traditional revenue sources, and the national readership is increasingly lacking in media literacy. According to Nobody Speak, those factors create an opening for the rich and powerful to bury the Constitutionally-protected voices that challenge them.

It’s a growing and disturbing trend expertly documented by director Brian Knappenberger, who focuses on the Hulk Hogan sex tape lawsuit that shuttered Gawker before spiraling outward to include the Silicon Valley billionaire that bankrolled that lawsuit as a personal vendetta, the Las Vegas casino titan that secretly purchased Nevada’s major newspaper to tailor coverage to his worldview, and finally to newly-inaugurated President Trump, who was pledged to “open up” libel laws to make it even easier to torpedo news outlets with crippling lawsuits if they step out of line.

For media junkies, the documentary is catnip. But to even the casual observer of politics and the free press it’s a chilling warning that the worst days for transparency are ahead of us.

Grade: A-

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In Loco Parentis

There’s a long tradition of the quirky school documentary at Sundance, but even within the limits of that at-times tired formula, In Loco Parentis woos with its charm and subtlety.

Set at a boarding school in Ireland, In Loco Parentis takes a fly-on-the-wall approach, soaking in the daily life of the school, with a particular focus on a married teaching couple in the twilight years of their careers. The decidedly European education style is half the fun, as the magicless Hogwarts nature of the boarding school differs from the traditional American school system. But the directors are also able to capture the special something that makes schooling special as kids open their eyes to a world of music, art, literature and discovery.

Grade: B

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Tell them We Are Rising: The Story Of Historically Black Colleges And Universities

Stanley Nelson is an extremely accomplished documentarian who is unafraid to capture difficult subjects. That said, his latest film, Tell Them We Are Rising, is boringly dull in its telling of America’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities, or HBCUs.

The first two-thirds of the film play like a discount Ken Burns, full of black and white still photos backed by dramatic voice-over reading of journal entires and other texts. It’s an extremely important subject and an often ignored piece of U.S. history, but by the time the film hits the modern era, injecting the screen with living images and color, the feeling of drag has already set in.

Grade: B-

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Chasing Coral

There’s any number of great documentaries out there that make the case that mankind is making devastating and potentially irreversible changes to the global ecosystem. Chasing Coral makes for a worthy addition that list, narrowing its focus to the damage that climate change inflicts on our oceans, in particular the life-giving coral that sustains marine activity.

It begins with the underwater photography of Richard Vevers before touching on the widespread bleaching that is occurring around the world. That leads to an Ocean’s 11-style assembly of a team to capture underwater time lapse of the bleaching in order to proof, in vivid detail the catastrophe occurring underwater.

It’s increasingly depressing stuff, as the vibrant and breathtaking coral scenes make way for images of death and decay. But the film allows for some optimism at the end, highlight the efforts underway to reverse climate trends, and a call to arms to push back against the dying of the light.

Grade: B+

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Wilson

Woody Harrelson’s “Wilson” is the type of movie that people will either love or loathe. The laughter in the screening venue proved that there are plenty of the former, while my own experience and the groans of patrons exiting afterward confirm a significant shareof the latter.

Harrelson stars as the titular Wilson, a loud-mouthed buffoon with no regard to personal boundaries or polite norms. After his father dies and his friend moves out of state, Wilson realizes he’s alone, prompting him to seek out his ex wife (the fantastic Laura Dern), which leads to the discovery that his presumed-aborted daughter is alive and living with an adoptive family.

The comedic punches lie solely on the shoulders of Harrelson, who plays his character in an uncomfortable grey area between clueless and mental illness. Dern elevates every film she’s in, but too much weight is carried by Harrelson, who prattles of an unending stream of listless dialogue. It has its moments, but they are very few and too far in between.

Grade: D

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Colossal

Anne Hathaway stars in this pseudo-monster story, in which an adrift woman moves home after a break-up and discovers that she shares a mental link with a Kaiju terrorizing the people of Seoul, South Korea.

It sounds like the set-up to a quirky dark comedy but “Colossal” remains paralyzed between genres, managing only to be too serious to be funny and to offbeat to be taken seriously. The result is an off-putting mishmash of tone that wastes what minimal goodwill is brought by the cast, including Jason Sudeikis and Tim Blake Nelson. The plot itself hinges on a series of plot contrivances that make less and less sense as the conclusion nears.

Grade: C-

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Raw

In “Raw” a bright, talented and unflinchingly vegetarian student, Justine, enrolls at a veterinary school and struggles to find her place amidst a tradition of byzantine and tiresome hazing rituals. After one such task requires her to eat a rabbit kidney, Justine takes a liking to the taste of meat, which slowly escalates to an insatiable and (ahem) taboo extreme.

It’s an impressive slow-burn and an increasingly unsettling piece of work by director Julia Ducournau. It take a minimalist approach to the grotesque, creating squirm-inducing images with an air of high art. Under a different director, particularly an American one, “Raw” would likely be a vapid, gore-porn slog. But with its European sensibilities and restrained amusement in the unpleasant, the film makes for something truly special.

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Ingrid Goes West

Think of it as “Instagram Millenials: THE MOVIE!” Aubrey Plaza stars as Ingrid, a delusional and social-media addicted stalker who, after seeing a magazine profile of a California socialite (Elizabeth Olsen), decides to move to Los Angeles and become best friends with her new internet obsession.

“Ingrid” keeps things light, plumbing the comedy out of its protagonist’s mania, while also keeping a hard edge that churns under the surface of its characters seemingly blase narcissism. Olsen, who got her start in the excellent and Sundance-premiered “Martha Marcy May Marlete” is able to flex dramatic muscles that have been kept in a box while she endlessly hand-waves in Marvel Movies. But her character is largely caricature, leaving a vacuum for supporting actors Wyatt Russell and O’Shea Jackson Jr. to steal every scene they’re in.

Grade: B

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Oklahoma City

The 1995 Oklahoma City bombing is the worst act of domestic terrorism in American history, and in “Oklahoma City,” it gets the documentary treatment it deserves.

Director Barak Goodman’s piece is a disciplined, thorough and haunting examination of the event itself, while also paying due diligence to the connect the threads that led to the killing of 168 people in the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. From Ruby Ridge to Waco, Texas, Goodman connects the threads with elegance, showing the rise of anti-government extremism and white nationalism that motivated Tim McVeigh, all backed up with an impressive catalog of archival footage and first-person testimonials.

Grade: A

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Killing Ground

A couple on a camping trip arrive at a picturesque bend in the river, with a tent standing where another group is camping nearby. But when those campers fail to return to their possessions, the couple begins to worry that something has gone wrong.

The set up is great, as is much of the execution. One tracking shot, in particular, is perfect, shifting from Act I to Act II like a bolt of lightening.

But the film is also too eager to show its hand, doling out information in abundance when mystery should be preserved. The fate of the other camping group, best left for a later reveal, is all but disclosed immediately in broad strokes, leaving nothing but the specific details to work out. “Killing Ground” also makes several wise choices with the relationship of its central characters, but those strengths are undercut by brutally violent scenes that tend to distract more than strengthen investment in the story.

Grade: B-

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Before I Fall

In this mashup of “Groundhog Day” and “Mean Girls,” based on the YA novel of the same name, Zoey Deutch stars as sam, a high school senior who is trapped in a one-day time loop after her friends are involved in a car crash after a party.

The device allows for the type of evolution you would expect, as Sam is forced to reevaluate her loyalty to her rude and WASPy best friend and her treatment of her family and classmates. But what “Before I Fall” does well is allow for all of its characters to evolve, from two-dimensional archetypes in the first act to sympathetic and layered personas by the film’s end. It’s still hobbled by its YA mood, where high school is life and death and mean girls are dictators, but it has more in its head than its peers and Deutch is a winning lead, making for an altogether positive results that exceeds expectations.

Grade: B

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L.A. Times

Much like “Ingrid Goes West,” “L.A. Times” has a lot to say, and mock, about modern young adults, but doesn’t quite have the substance to hold it all together. There’s plenty of smart parody and satire to justify the price of admission, but it never quite adds up to anything.

Telling several separate stories simultaneously, “L.A. Times” follows a group of friends as they navigate today’s dating scene. One couple breaks up after comparing themselves to seemingly successful relationships, another woman fights off the impulse of a bad relationship while being consistently stood up by her cousin’s coworker. The plot is largely irrelevant, and it’s used to serve up commentary on love and living by writer, director and star Michelle Morgan, who is not as clever, nor as good an actress, as she thinks she is.

Grade: B-

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Note: This review was first published during coverage of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival

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Rebecca Hall stars as Christine Chubbuck, the real-life Florida newswoman who, in 1974, committed suicide on live television. The film follows Chubbuck’s final months, as loneliness, social anxiety and mounting pressure from work pull at her fraying nerves.

Hall is excellent, convincingly playing the barely-contained eruptions behind her character’s fixed expressions. Her Christine is simultaneously off-putting and sympathetic, perpetually getting in the way of her own happiness, which seems just one good day away but always out of reach.

Beyond Hall, however, the film is thin. Aside from her infamous death, Christine Chubbuck was an otherwise uneventful person, a small-market television reporter who lived with her mother and focused on her work. Director Antonio Campos attempts to compensate with a pleasant ensemble of coworkers (played by Dexter’s Michael C. Hall, Veep’s Timothy Simons) but the end results feels undercooked.

Grade: B-

‘Christine’ opens in Salt Lake City on Friday, Nov. 4.

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