@ the Sundance Film Festival III: An Odd Year?
If you look at the winners' list at this year's Sundance Film Festival, you will notice that each of the twenty-seven awards for dramatic and documentary features go to different films. This means that not one film overwhelmed the competition. The most important awards went to two films: the dark comedy, "I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore," picked up the U.S. Grand Jury Prize, while "The Nile Hilton Incident" (set in Egypt) won World Cinema Grand Jury Prize.
I'll go out on a limb and say that it felt like an odd Sundance year. Long time attendees will tell you that usually halfway through the eleven-day festival, a few movies would be garnering some buzz, giving the opportunity for festival goers to check them out at screenings later in the festival. This year, other than the best-reviewed gay coming-of-age drama "Call Me by Your Name," no one movie stood out like "The Birth of a Nation" last year. ("Call Me by Your Name" screened out of competition.)
So here's a list of some of the movies that stood out at the festivals; some are crowd pleasers while others are more of an acquired taste:
I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore (USA)
In Macon Blair's comedy thriller, which he wrote and directed, a good-natured, but depressed woman (Melanie Lynskey) is pushed to the edge by the privileged and rude people around her. She is so intimidated that when her house is broken into, she decides to track down the culprits with the help of a neighbor (Elijah Wood). Though one may empathize with the desire to take matters into one's own hands in an era where most law enforcement agencies do not have the resources to investigate property crimes, the movie plays out like a farcical comedy where each scene is more violent than the one before. Lynskey has long played contradicting, at times self-assured supporting figures. This time around, hers is a meaty lead character that gets much more screen time, but still lacks depth.
A surprising find comes in the form of Elijah Wood, playing a mixed martial arts novice. Initially almost unrecognizable, it's a pleasure to learn that Wood can play a convincing and quirky role that generates shockingly good laughs; especially shocking since this is his best role since Frodo in "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy. It also shows Wood can establish a career outside the Hobbit universe. And look out for those ninja stars when Wood throws them. This is a skill that I wouldn't mind having.
In addition to the comedy "The Little Hours," this is another nun-centric film to play the festival this year. This time, we are taken back to 1959, the time when Vatican II was established. Under Pope John XXIII, the second Vatican Council essentially dismantled the fortress surrounding the Catholic Church. Friendship with non-Christian faiths was encouraged, and languages other than Latin were allowed during ceremonies. Against these doctoral changes, a young woman, deeply affected by the relationship between her birth parents, joins the church to train to become a nun.
What a time to set a story where a young woman questions her faith, the institution and her sexuality. It is almost disturbing to see how the young nuns celebrate around a fire becoming the brides of Jesus Christ. It's an image that leaves a person thinking in a multitude of directions. Margaret Qualley shines in this breakthrough role of the young nun, balancing her devotion to God while helpless against the realization that she needs the human touch from a fellow sister. Rebecca Dayan and Dianna Agron both have somewhat underwritten but affecting roles. The best performance comes from the ever-reliable Melissa Leo who plays the Reverend Mother who is unwilling to part with the strict traditions of the church. The revelation here comes from newcomer director Margaret Betts who is given the U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Director. The good news here is that Sony Pictures Classics has picked up this movie, hoping priming it for awards recognition with "Call Me by Your Name" somewhere down the road.
A Ghost Story (USA)
The premise of this movie is fairly simple: a man (Casey Affleck) died but stays in the house where he had lived with his girlfriend (Rooney Mara). The twist: the ghost appears in the form of a person covered in a sheet. So basically, you're looking at the person-in-sheet ghost observing and interacting (or haunting) with his environment and the subsequent occupants of the house.
Coming from Director David Lowery ("Pete's Dragon"), this film couldn't have felt simply experimental. By now, you might have heard about the painfully long and static takes of the movie, the most indulgent being a five-minute pie-eating scene with Rooney Mara. It's five minutes of my life I will never get back. There are audience members who walk out, making this essentially the polarizing "Swiss Army Man" of Sundance 2017. If you can sit through these scenes, you may be rewarded with some effective use of music, a hilarious scene of ghosts talking and the final act of the movie reminiscent of Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life."
Where is Kyra? (USA)
Michelle Pfeiffer plays the title character, a middle age woman in New York City who loses her job and her mother at the same time. Without having a chance to grieve, she embarks on a journey to find employment that only finds her low wage jobs. She seeks solace in a neighbor, played by Kiefer Sutherland, who is trying to turn his life around after incarceration. The harsh reality of survival leads Kyra to commit a desperate act.
This is another head scratcher. Director Andrew Dosunmu has Michelle Pfeiffer, one of Hollywood's most treasured actresses, in her first film in four years. Yet this movie, that is almost a one-woman show, is shot in low lighting and silhouettes. The only scenes with Michelle Pfeiffer's' face lit are close ups with unflattering lighting. This horror movie feel is probably Dosunmu's way to take the audience into this depressing nightmare of a person trying to make ends meet in a merciless city, but this falls under the style-over-substance category. This frustrating and bleak movie is not an easy one to watch.
Marjorie Prime (USA)
For this film Michael Almereyda won the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize, which is given to a film that focuses on the theme of technology. Adapted from Jordan Harrison's Pulitzer-nominated play, the film takes us into a future where we can get holograms of our loved ones who have departed. These "primes," as they are called, help us to fight loneliness and grief. Lois Smith's Marjorie shares her memories with the hologram of her deceased husband (played by Jon Hamm). Marjorie's son-in-law (Tim Robbins) makes it happen while her daughter (Geena Davis) views the technology with apprehension.
Smith, Hamm, Davis and Robbins give their best work in years. What takes the material a step further than the stage play is the ability of the film medium to show the subtle differences between the different holograms of various characters. While the hologram of the dead husband is that of a younger version of him, the "primes" of other character take on different ages and forms based on the psychological needs of the living. The last scene where the different "primes" are interacting with each other is played with a plethora of subtleties by the outstanding ensemble. This is a dialogue-heavy but an extremely satisfying movie that leaves you thinking.
With that, another Sundance Film Festival concludes, with our anticipation of seeing some of these movies again throughout the course of the year.