Posts Tagged ‘Sundance Film Festival’

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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2016 was bad. Just ugly, toxic, divisive, terrible, horrible, no good, very bad.

Except for film. In that one category, 2016 was *awesome*! It was a year when filmmakers took risks, writers bucked convention, directors toyed with genre and even the stiffest franchise fare from the major studios flexed their creative muscles — for good or ill.

The annual Top 10 is coming soon. But as always, and in particular this year, there was an abundance of quality film that demands recognition.

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Best Box Office Flop: The Nice Guys

It is a crime, an honest-to-God, should-be-prosecuted crime that The Nice Guys failed to find an audience. It’s a neo-noir action comedy, pairing Ryan Gosling and Russel Crowe as wise-cracking private detectives in late-70s Los Angeles, and is writer-director Shane Black’s follow-up to Iron Man 3. (Black, by the way, also wrote and directed Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which if you haven’t seen yet WHY ARE YOU STILL READING THIS PARAGRAPH AND NOT RECTIFYING YOUR WASTED LIFE?)

Black has a talent for structured chaos, in which everyman characters save the day through a combination of ingenuity and dumb luck as dominoes fall around them. His action scenes are like Rube Goldberg contraptions, which burst outward in unexpected ways without every sacrificing credibility. And his scripts, meanwhile, are filled to the brim with smart, winking dialogue that  sizzles with energy. It’s a delightful recipe that in Nice Guys puts a modern spin on the old gum-shoe tale with jazzy, retro setting.

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Best Superhero: Doctor Strange

In a year of strong competition (Deadpool, Civil War) and weak competition (Batman v Superman) it’s Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sorcerer Supreme that turns in the most memorable comic-book tale of the year. As satisfying as the other entries are (or aren’t), they still amount to “Who Punches Hardest?” while Dr. Strange culminates around a kaleidoscopic phantasmagoria and the manipulation of time and space. And while the Marvel movies are routinely lacking by way of compelling antagonists, Strange scores by revealing its big bad to be an amorphous mass while setting up more personal threats down the road. The line for DS-2 starts here.

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Best Documentary: Tickled

Welcome to the wonderful of competitive endurance tickling, where teams of young, male athletes take turns tying each other down and tickling the stuffing out of each other. If that sounds like some weird kinky fetish, well…it kind of is.

What starts as a passing curiosity for journalist David Farrier quickly turns increasingly bizarre and sinister as Farrier falls further down the rabbit whole of internet tickling videos. There’s not much more to say without spoiling the films myriad twists, suffice to say that Tickled tells the kind of true story that gives meaning to the phrase “stranger than fiction.”

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Best Indie (tie): The Witch, Love & Friendship

Two Sundance Festival breakouts share the distinction of 2016’s best indie. Both period pieces, albeit on opposite ends of the genre spectrum, one is a minimalist thriller about a frontier family battling a malicious entity and the other is a Regency-era comedy about a master of manipulation. They’re also among the eeriest and funniest, respectively, cinema produced this year. In either case the filmmakers show an impeccable attention to detail and atmosphere, giving the scenes a lived-in quality in which the actors can disappear, serving spine tingles and belly-laughs in spades.

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Best Western: The Magnificent Seven

In today’s landscape of sequels, prequels, sidequels and all other -quels, its refreshing to see a movie with a healthy budget and recognizable actors commit to telling a single story rather than twisting itself into a narrative pretzel for future installments. And movies are meant to entertain, and sometimes an old fashioned shoot-em-up is exactly what the doctor ordered.

Such are the strengths of The Magnificent Seven, a saddles and spurs yarn about a motley crew of assorted scoundrels teaming up to take out a mustache-twirling villain, with no larger ambitions then to tell its tale of camaraderie and derring-do. It’s a pleasure watching the pieces come together, and it builds to a bombastic climax this is remarkably satisfying for its ability to avoid the pratfalls of lesser efforts while honoring expectations.

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Best Head Trip: The Invitation

When Will arrives at his former home, to attend a dinner party hosted by his ex-wife, something is just a little…off. Thus begins one of the most effective thrillers in years, that takes “slow burn” to a new level, incrementally dialing up Will’s paranoia and building up to a climax that is both inevitable and shocking when it arrives. Director Karyn Kusama is almost too effective at making the audience sense the unease, aided by stellar work by Game of Throne’s Michiel Huisman and jack-of-all-trades John Carroll Lynch, and the final moments of the film’s kicker ending are expertly composed to haunting results.

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Best Setup: 10 Cloverfield Lane

10 Cloverfield Lane, the second film in the barely-defined anthology universe of Cloverfield, has third act problems. Your mileage may vary on the ending, but whether you like or loath the climax, there is no denying that what comes before it is Grade-A mystery box storytelling. For two-thirds of the movie, the audience is kept at arms length about what is or is not going on in an underground bunker and the world above it. At the center is John Goodman, who makes poetry of his doomsday prepper who is either a reluctant savior or an unhinged predator, or both, or neither.

Things go a little sideways, to say the least, when the Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s heroine makes it outside. But even if you turned off the film at that point it would be time well spent.

And finally, the 2016 Wood’s Stock Balls-To-The-Wall Award goes to:

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Green Room

Writer-director Jeremy Saulnier made a splash in the indie scene with his film Blue Ruin, a revenge tale that took a nuts-and-bolts approach to on-camera violence. In his follow-up, Green Room, Saulnier flexes those same muscles but with a greater degree of confidence as a storyteller.

The film, which features one of the final performances by the extremely talented and tragically gone-too-soon Anton Yelchin, revolves around a punk rock band fighting for survival after a gig at a skinhead bar goes south. It’s a story of colliding motivations, and told in a way that feels raw and human, within the realm of possibility and prone to the errors of casual mistakes.

Oh, and did I mention that Patrick Stewart plays a neo-Nazi?

Not for the faint of heart, the walls of Green Room are painted red with blood. But Saulnier’s style is not one of torture-porn exploitation. It focuses instead on the lengths people can and do go when backed into a corner, and it makes for a wild ride.

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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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Writer-director-star Nate Parker blew the doors off Sundance with this historical epic, which netted a record $17.5 million pickup. The film tells the story of Nat Turner, who led a violent slave revolt in Virginia in 1831, and is filled to the brim with commentary on America’s past, present and future.

While limited by a independent budget, Parker’s camera captures plenty of stomach-churning horrors. Prior to his rebellion, Turner visits neighboring plantations as a preacher-for-hire, providing a window into the disparate treatment eked out by slaveowners reacting and adapting to economic downturn.

The film seems perfectly poised to drop into the current national conversation on race in America. Its rough edges could slow it down in the mainstream market, but it’s a meaningful, boldly-made film with plenty to say.

^That^ is what I wrote about “Birth of a Nation” when I saw it January, back when Nate Parker was the belle of the Sundance ball and before his past as an accused rapist had been shouted from the rafters by dogged and necessary criticism. In the months since, Parker has failed to mitigate those criticisms, instead holding adamant to his acquittal, refusing to apologize for whatever part he played in the victimization of a now-deceased woman  (she committed suicide in 2012) and clinging to his perceived status as a wrongly-accused, innocent man.

The problem, Mr. Parker, is that as one character explained in “Hannibal,” innocent isn’t a verdict, not guilty is.

In light of the off-screen drama that now surrounds “The Birth of a Nation,” the film’s flaws are all-the-more glaring. Under Parker’s relatively inexperienced direction, the movie lacks any subtlety, with its depictions of barbarism delivered as bluntly – and literally – as a hammer to the teeth. There is a dearth of chemistry between the film’s romantic leads, and a stiffness to the dialogue that undercuts the character beats and dramatic tension.

From the lens of a low-budgeted drama by a novice multi-hyphenate director and star, those flaws are forgivable in service of a lesser-known piece of American history worthy of dramatization. But the increasing weight of Parker’s personal issues drags the movie down into the dirt.

For those able to separate art from artist, “The Birth of a Nation” remains and interesting and ambitious project. But for many, and unfortunately for the myriad professionals involved in the making of this film, the quality is not high enough to distract from the mistakes of its director and star.

Grade: B

*The Birth of a Nation opens nationwide on Friday, October 7.

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