Sundance Film Festival 2017 Recap – PART TWO

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Okie dokie, that was a nice break for some other writing work. Finger cramps anyone? Let’s get to it for the last eight films I saw at Sundance. My favorite of the fest is in the mix, along with a few that left me pretty meh, and one that was sadly a big letdown.

If you missed Part One, here’s the link:

Sundance Film Festival 2017 Recap – PART ONE

Now on to PART TWO.

 

Thoroughbred

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Thoroughbred was such a nice surprise for me. It feels different than most films out there, which is exactly why Sundance was a perfect home for it. The story revolves around an odd friendship between two young girls who begin to toy around with the idea of killing one of the girl’s stepfather. The scenes consist mainly of long conversations of dialogue with little action. At the Q&A the director said he initially wrote it as a play, and that’s exactly how it feels. But the acting is the centerpiece here. Its two main stars are two of the best young actresses working right now. I’ve been completely transfixed by Anya Taylor-Joy since I saw her stunning role in The Witch, and Olivia Cooke was phenomenal in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. Both were incredible past Sundance films. Together they make one of the most bizarre yet fascinating relationships I’ve seen in a while. On a sadder side note, this was Anton Yelchin’s final role, and a further reminder of what a great loss that was.

 

Walking Out

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Walking Out is definitely an exercise in minimalist cinema. The basic premise follows a teenage son that flies into the remote mountains of Montana to visit his father, who has isolated himself in the country after the divorce. The father wants to teach his “city” son how to be a man so he takes him into the mountains to kill his first moose. While deep in the snow, they run into some issues with a bear and a weapon mishap. As the title suggests, the rest of the film is spent with them trying to walk out in the freezing snow after both of them are injured. This film takes its sweet time, which I know was the director’s plan, but I kinda wished it would have sped up a bit more. Sometimes the viewer feels as bogged down as the characters. But it had some good qualities. First of all, it’s gorgeous. It takes place almost entirely in the snowy mountains. It makes you feel freezing cold, uncomfortable, and never really at ease. While the majority of the film consists of only two actors, in flashback scenes we also get a little taste of Bill Pullman as the grandfather. In my opinion this sidestory worked well, and kind of saved the film for me. Overall it wasn’t the most exciting experience, but still interesting enough. And cold. Damn cold.

 

Ingrid Goes West

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Let me say this right up front… Ingrid Goes West might be one of the most uncomfortable viewing experiences I’ve seen in long time. You know this from the very opening scene. But considering our obsession with social media, it’s also one of the most timely and intriguing. Ingrid is a total cipher who is obsessed with Instagram. These images are her only “friends.” After being released from an institution after a nervous breakdown following the death of her mother, she discovers an Instagram “celebrity” and decides she wants to be her friend. Ingrid takes all her money and travels west in order to find this girl and enter her life. This is basically a movie about a stalker and how social media is used for stalking. It’s kinda terrifying as you know situations like this are all too true. Aubrey Plaza is fantastic as Ingrid. She is completely unhinged, yet puts on such a disguise whenever she’s with her fake Instragram bestie (played by Elizabeth Olsen.) This is a complete send up of not only the social media culture and its version of “celebrity”, but also a send up of the entire Los Angeles lifestyle (Venice mainly). It’s hard to watch, but ultimately fascinating. Note* It won the screenwriting award for the fest.

 

XX

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Sigh. Okay, here goes… XX was the film I was the MOST excited for at the Festival. It’s a horror anthology (my favorite) with every story written and directed by only female directors (hell yes!) I’m so in on this idea it hurts. It consists of four unrelated stories that are connected loosely by some phenomenal stop-motion animation that reminded me of past Tool videos. Well, I’m sad to say this was my biggest disappointment of the fest. I wanted to like this so bad, but it just fell short. I know a lot of people really liked it, so this is only my opinion, but to me it just felt passionless. I thought these directors would shoot for the fences and deliver something truly special. Instead it almost felt like they phoned it in. Only one of the stories seemed like it actually even had an ending. There’s a difference between leaving something vague and just leaving something unfinished. These felt like the latter. The direction and visuals were great; that wasn’t the problem. For me the stories themselves simply felt ho-hum. And while all the stories had female actors usually playing mothers, surprisingly only the last story felt like it really delved into a female-focused/motherhood storyline. And while I’m completely used to clunky acting in horror films, a few of the stories were truly hurt by it. Dammit, maybe I was just expecting something different because a lot of people seemed to like it. Crap, I hate saying something bad about someone’s creation, especially because I have some friends of friends that were involved with the production (the horror world is small). But for me, I feel like they missed the mark with this one. Dammit. That sucked to write. I’m sorry. Okay moving on…

 

Mudbound

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And now I give you my absolute favorite film of the entire festival. Mudbound is absolutely mesmerizing. Of all the films I saw at the fest, this one has the biggest opportunity to make a big splash, both with audiences and come next awards season. Mudbound is set in the Deep South, Mississippi to be exact, during WWII and post-WWII. It shows the trials and tribulations between two families, one white and one black, trying to make their lives work the best they can. This is pre Civil Rights era where the Clan still holds power. There are many different storylines and many different narrations. In fact, the film itself is unique in that it follows six different voices, both visually via their characters, and listening to their actual narration of their inner thoughts. At first it’s a bit disconcerting, but once everything starts to line up, it’s utterly intoxicating. It’s too much to describe all the various storylines within the two families, but just know it worked. The acting is spot on. Carey Mulligan, Jason Clarke, Garrett Hedlund, Jason Mitchell, Rob Morgan, Mary J. Blige and Jonathan Banks all deserve kudos for their performances. I loved this movie. I can’t say enough about it. It was so powerful and so well done on every level. Netflix must agree because they bought it for 12.5 million. So worry not, you will be seeing it soon.

 

Killing Ground

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And now for the movie that caused the most drama at the festival amongst friends, haha. Killing Ground is a dismal little Australian film. It really is. It’s a type of horrific film that is simply not for everyone. If you’ve seen films like Last House on the Left or I Spit on Your Grave, you know exactly what you’re in for – a tough viewing experience. Killing Ground has the very basic premise of a couple that travels into the wilderness to camp and notices the campsite next to them is completely set up but with no inhabitants. Dual storylines, one in the present and one in the past, parallel each other until they meet. Eventually we discover what happened to the family at the other campsite, and what is about to happen to the current couple. Let’s just say it’s not good. I’ll be honest, I didn’t enjoy the dark and dismal places this film went. The villains were just almost too abhorrent. It felt completely devoid of any hope at all. But still, within all the darkness, I could step back and acknowledge that it was really well done and had some real craft to it. Well, my buddy did not see it this way and kinda lost his shit, vocally scolding the filmmakers who “even chose to made this shit.” I obviously took offense because, as a horror writer, I sometime “choose to make this shit” too! Haha, anyway, all is well, nothing a little differing opinions amongst friends can’t hurt.

 

Lemon

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Lemon is the type of movie that Sundance loves to wallow in – a bizarre, quirky comedy about a psychologically troubled and depressive wannabe actor. That’s all on full display here, and well, while there were some really funny moments within, and a mind-numbingly incredible cast for this kind of film, Lemon felt utterly pointless. It’s basically about a man who “used to be on broadway” and now is teaching acting classes in Hollywood and posing for Hep C advertisements. We watch his downward spiral for almost 90 minutes, and about 15 of it is fun. Every scene that Michael Cera is in is comedy gold (although truth be told I’m a huge Michael Cera fan), and all the family sequences are entertaining as hell. But that’s not the film. The film follows a horribly unlikeable person doing horribly unlikeable things. I know there’s an audience for this type of film, but once the credits rolled I couldn’t help but feel like I kind of wasted my time. Anyway, there you go.

 

Fun Mom Dinner

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My last film of the entire festival was also the one that felt the least Sundance-y in any way. Truth be told, that was kind of a nice feeling. Sometimes you can only take so much darkness and dismay and need a simple comedy with some heart. Fun Mom Dinner is exactly that. It’s about four moms that decide to break away from their kids and go out on the town. Hijinks ensue. If you’ve seen the Hangover or Bridemaids, you kinda get the gist, only this film takes place over the course of one night and is on a MUCH smaller scale. The moms are key and they are the meat of the film. Toni Collette, Katie Aselton, Molly Shannon are all fantastic, but the real scene stealer here is Bridget Everett. She is a comedy powerhouse and so much fun to watch on screen. There are some fun smaller roles by Adam Scott, Rob Huebel (one of my favorites), Paul Rudd (his wife wrote the film), and even Adam Levine. It’s goofy fun with a lot of pot and a lot of female bonding. I know moms like this. I know MANY moms like this. It’s just an enjoyable fun time that has some mass market potential.

 

And… that’s a wrap. Those are the 16 films I saw during the 2017 Sundance film festival. It’s been a few days since I’ve been back and I’m still thawing out, but overall it was yet another damn fine time. Sundance is always an incredibly inspiring time. Can’t wait to go back.

See you all in 2018.

 

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Sundance Film Festival 2017 Recap – PART ONE

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Hey gang. I’ve been asked to do a recap of my experience this year at the Sundance Film Festival. As many of you know I spend a week at Sundance every year. I’m a homegrown Utah boy and grew up not far from Park City, so I’ve been one lucky bastard that I’ve been able to attend every single fest since I was in high school. The one exception to that was a few years ago when I had to cancel the day before my flight in order to save my TV series (only to have it disappear later that year.) But I digress…

Even though I mainly go to the fest to check out all the horror titles that I can, I’ve had a connection to Sundance in some way, shape, or form for about 20 years now. My university (go Utes!) dealt closely with it. Many of us volunteered for it back in the day. I’ve had many friends with flicks there. Every year is filled with once-in-a-lifetime experiences and insane stories. This includes everything from sharing a condo for the week with the delightful Martin Starr, to hanging at a cast party with Kurt Russell (one of my all-time idols), only to have one of my dear friends imbibe a bit too much and rush to the bathroom where the sweet Goldie Hawn followed and held her hair as she threw up. Ahh, good times. I swear I could write a book about all the bonkers Sundance experiences over the years.

Regardless, this year felt different. Much different. Mainly because the entire world feels different. Even though I work in the film industry, it all feels kind of trivial right now because of what’s going on in the country. Regardless, I tried my best to focus on the films and the experiences, and dammit if I don’t have some of the best friends a guy could ask for to help with this. So yeah, we made the absolute best of it.

Saying all of this, instead of a full recap of the fest and all the experiences, I’m just going to give a quick recap of the 16 films I saw while I was there. My average is 18 films so I slipped a little this year, but I still saw some dandies. I’m going to break it up into two parts recapping eight films each.

Here’s PART ONE. I was pretty lucky because all eight of these movies I enjoyed in various degrees. No stinkers in this bunch (can’t necessarily say that about some of the movies in PART TWO, but you’ll have to wait and see.) Anyway, here goes…

 

Wind River

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The first film I saw at the festival was Wind River, and for the majority of the week it was my absolute favorite film I saw there. Only one film beat it out for being my favorite, but more on that one in Part Two. Wind River was written and directed by Taylor Sheridan, the fantastic screenwriter of Sicario and Hell or High Water. It’s a dramatic mystery about a Fish & Game Employee who must team up with an FBI agent to solve a murder on an Indian reservation. It’s insanely well done with a surprisingly complex performance by Jeremy Renner. The entire film takes place on the Wind River Indian Reservation, and in nearby Lander, Wyoming. This hit close to home for me because my sister both lived in Lander and worked as a doctor on the rez to help pay off her med school loans. The relationships between those on the rez and who they see as the outsiders is as accurate as it gets. It’s an amazing film all around. And on a side note, it was a nice surprise to see a friend of mine, Matt Del Negro, in a supporting role. Matt, I had no idea you could play such an asshole. You’re way too nice in real life. Well done, man.

 

Raw

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Next on the docket was Raw. This wasn’t a premiere in that it’s played some fests before, but that only made me more excited because of what I’d already heard. Raw is a nasty (in a good way) little French film about a girl that gets accepted into a notorious vet school and must go through insane hazing along the way. The girl, who is a devout vegetarian, undergoes a hazing ritual where she has to not only eat a rabbit kidney, but also has blood thrown on her (and in her mouth.) Well, let’s just say that this taste of meat starts to change her. Her body starts getting horrific rashes and she feels like she’s going insane. But that’s nothing since now she’s starting to desire human flesh. Yep, it’s a movie about that blossoming of a cannibal. It’s messed up and fun as hell. Although personally, what’s insane to me is how much more horrific the hazing rituals are compared to the flesh eating. I guess that says something about me, huh?

 

Dave Made a Maze

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Dave Made a Maze was the only Slamdance film I saw this year. I try to catch as many of the genre films as I can at the festivals so this one caught my eye. It’s about a guy who makes a cardboard fort in his apartment only to go inside and get lost. When his friends go in after him they discover that it’s now somehow an insanely huge and intricate cardboard labyrinth filled with booby traps, monsters, and even a cardboard Minotaur chasing them. As you can guess from the premise, it’s complete madness, but damn if it isn’t also one of the most inventive little flicks I’ve seen in a while. Almost everything in the film was created completely out of cardboard so the practical effects junky in me was in heaven. Even when someone is killed violently, the “blood” is nothing but red confetti. Insane, but trust me, it works. It’s just a bizarre and outrageously fun movie with a lot of heart.

 

The Polka King

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Polka King is another showcase for Jack Black to show his chops. He really is such an amazing actor to watch and one of my favorites. He’s got more energy than 10 men. If anyone saw Bernie from a few years ago, you know exactly what to expect with Polka King. It’s a quirky character study based on a true story, where Jack Black fully inhabits a crazy persona and harsh accent. If you’re unfamiliar with the story of Jan Lewan, the polka showman/Ponzi-scheme mastermind, you’re in for a treat. It’s one of those stories that you can NOT believe is true, and yet is. All the actors here give it their all and I fully enjoyed this film. It does falter from the Sundance curse of being a bit too long, but overall it’s an insanely enjoyable experience. If you’re a Jack Black fan, see this one immediately. I think Netflix bought it.

 

Bad Day For The Cut

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This little Irish revenge thriller is exactly what I’ve come to love about Sundance. Small movie. Simple premise. Down and dirty. I probably would have never sought this movie out if it weren’t for the festival, but I’m glad I did. This revenge thriller travels on some tried and true territory – man goes on violent streak for revenge after someone he loves is killed. But what I enjoyed about this movie was the brutal Irish spin on the material. Some of the characters are unique as are some of the reveals. Overall it’s nothing new, but a damn good yarn of violent Irish revenge.

 

Surprise Midnight (Get Out)

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This was one of the more entertaining nights of the entire festival. This year in the catalog they simply had a spot for a “Surprise Midnight” movie. Since I usually see every single movie in the “Midnight” section of the catalog, AND I love surprises, this was basically tailor made for me. I was not disappointed to find out that the surprise was Jordan Peele’s directorial debut horror film, Get Out. Get Out is a racially charged little ditty that could not be more aptly timed because of the state of things right now. It’s about a white girl who takes her black boyfriend home to meet her extremely white family and all their friends. But slowly the boyfriend starts noticing some strange things about all the “help” at the estate (that all happen to be black.) I don’t want to ruin anything more than that because figuring it all out is part of the fun (although truth be told I did figure things out pretty early because it treads on the territory of another film I love.) Yet, even if you figure it all out it really doesn’t matter because Get Out is just a damn fun ride. The acting is spot on all around. How much do I love Bradley Whitford? All in all Jordan Peele did a fantastic job. You can tell he truly is a horror junky. God bless him for that. Oh, and this screening did end on a fun note where at the Q&A a man sitting directly behind us stood up to ask a question and it was none other than Patton Oswald. You just never know who you’re sitting near at a Sundance screening.

 

Band Aid

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Band Aid was a cute little relationship movie that many people I know personally can connect to strongly. At first I thought, uh oh, it’s going to be another pretentious and boring millennial-minded movie about “artists” who just smoke pot and talk about how life isn’t fair to them. But guess what? It was actually a quite delightful millennial-minded movie about artists who just smoke pot and talk about how life isn’t fair to them. It’s about a couple that’s been together for a long time. Both are artists that haven’t achieved their dreams, and they bicker and fight constantly. Anyone who’s been in any relationship ever can relate here. But they discover that it works for them to write and sings song about their issues with each other instead of fighting, and it becomes a wonderfully cathartic and creative invention. The characters are likable, the songs are wonderful, and the story is full of heart and insight. I liked this film much more than I thought I would. And trust me, the entire movie is worth Fred Armisen’s performance alone. He truly is one of the funniest people working today. He could stare at the screen and do nothing for 5 minutes and I laugh. God bless that man.

 

78/52

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Lately it seems every year at the festival there is a documentary that is a movie nerd’s wet dream. This year it was 78/52, a talking head documentary entirely about the shower sequence in the original Psycho. Now at first you’re thinking, “How do they make an entire movie about one sequence in one film?” Well, the answer is, they don’t. While yes, most of the film is filled with an INSANE amount of details and interesting tidbits about the sequence itself, the movie also fills the gaps with various Alfred Hitchcock anecdotes as well. Let’s be honest, this movie is for the movie nerds only. I myself enjoyed the hell out of it. Even the moments that were a little info-heavy and dry, the film junky part of me was fascinated. I’m guessing normal viewers could easily be bored by the in depth study of this sequence, but if you’re a Hitchcock fan, it’s definitely worth a view. As a bonus, Marli Renfro, Janet Leigh’s body double for the shooting of the shower scene (it was mostly her you saw), attended our screening and took part in the fascinating Q&A along with the director.

 

Okay, that’s it for now. I’m going to take a break from writing for a minute. Part Two should be up later tonight!

UPDATE: Here’s the link to PART TWO:

Sundance Film Festival 2017 Recap – PART TWO