Sundance 2015 Spotlights: Five Feature Films
Braving the chill, the dry air, and the self-importance of the L.A. film industry folks who don’t turn off their cell phones during screenings, Senior Film Reviewer Carrie Kahn brings you these first spotlights (more to follow) from the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, UT, which closes this Sunday, February 1st.
From the good, the mediocre, to the downright horrific, some of these films may receive distribution deals and be widely released in the coming year. Lucky for you, we here at Spinning Platters are ready and willing to let you know which films to see and which to miss. We’ll start with five feature films, and our handy Viewing Priority Level (VPL) Guide will steer you in the right direction.
SUNDANCE VIEWING PRIORITY LEVEL GUIDE:
VPL A = An absolute must-see. Monitor film and entertainment news sites religiously to see if this picture will be widely released, and then plan to be first in line to see it.
VPL B = If you’re in a movie mood and your first choice is sold out or not playing at your nearby theater, this picture is a wholly acceptable substitute. It’s not stellar, but it’s perfectly enjoyable, and it won’t be a waste of your time.
VPL C = If you need to escape a family argument, duck out of work to take a break, or fill a few hours on a long and lonely rainy day, there are probably worse ways to spend your time than seeing this picture, though not many. It’s flawed, and you’ll forget about it instantly, but it’s not totally dreadful, and it has at least one or two minor reasons to recommend it.
VPL D = Don’t even think about it. Avoid at all costs. Your time, money, and sanity are too valuable to waste on this dreck.
1.) The Bronze
(USA 2015, 104 min. Directed by Bryan Buckley)
Melissa Rauch, perhaps best known for playing Bernadette on The Big Bang Theory, co-wrote with her husband Winston Rauch this very funny – if somewhat predictable – comedy (produced by Hollywood golden boys the Duplass Brothers, who are having quite the success streak). Rauch also has the starring role, as Hope Anne Gregory, a one-time gymnastics bronze medal winner who briefly becomes America’s sweetheart, only to see her star fade years later, as she, now bitter, hostile, and unlikable, mopes around her small Ohio town. The story kicks into gear when Hope is asked to coach a perky local up-and-comer (Haley Lu Richardson), much to Hope’s dismay. Rauch imbues Hope with a haughty attitude and an over-the-top, foul-mouthed disposition that provide head-shaking laughs, especially when she shares scenes with master comic actors Gary Cole, Cecily Strong, Thomas Middleditch (particularly endearing as the town’s gym manager), and Sebastian Stan, hysterical as a rival gymnast and coach. And you might never watch the summer Olympics the same way again after witnessing one of the most unique, highly acrobatic, and utterly hilarious sex scenes ever seen on screen. VPL: B
2.) The Overnight
(USA 2015, 80 min. Directed by Patrick Brice)
Another comedy produced by just one half of the magic-touch Duplass team (Mark), this picture starring Parks and Recreation’s Adam Scott, Orange is the New Black’s Taylor Schilling, and the always reliable Jason Schwartzman is one of the most highly original, ludicrously amusing features ever made. Scott and Schilling play transplants to Los Angeles, newly arrived from Seattle with their young son. In short order they meet Schwartzman’s Kurt and his wife Charlotte (French actress Judith Godrèche), fellow parents and long-time L.A. residents, who invite the newcomers over for dinner. What follows is an unanticipated long evening unlike anything the newbie arrivals have ever experienced, or could ever have imagined. The film succeeds as both a satire of the perceived Los Angeles anything-goes lifestyle, and as a meditation on the nature of trust, relationships, and trying to connect with strangers and intimates alike. Scott, known more for his supporting roles, really comes into his own here, giving a brave, sensitive, and richly comedic performance that will long be remembered after the credits role. VPL: A
(Australia/Ireland 2014, 112 min. Directed by Kim Farrant)
Perhaps the biggest reason to see this picture is to get a glimpse of what a small Australian desert town looks like; here, the New South Wales town Canowindra is called Nathgari, and we get to see the havoc that an epic dust storm can wreak on such a landscape. Travelogue and weather phenomenon aside, though, this film has an overwrought, soapy feel that makes its 112 minute running time feel even longer. Nicole Kidman and Joseph Fiennes star as a rather unhappy married couple whose beautiful yet troubled daughter goes missing (not for the first time) in the middle of the night, along with her more trusting and naïve younger brother. As the couple searches for their children, the dust storm is fast approaching, and the mounting tension gives both Kidman and Fiennes ample reasons to chew the scenery and Act with a capital A. Australian actor Hugo Weaving fares a bit better as a by-the-book cop who is as puzzled by the pair as we are, but by the time the ambiguous ending rolls around (which at least gives you something to talk about), you’ll be as glad to get out of the storm as the townspeople. VPL: C
4.) Slow West
(United Kingdom/New Zealand 2015, 84 min. Directed by John Maclean)
Like Strangerland, Slow West is an entry in the Festival’s World Cinema Dramatic Film Competition. Unlike Strangerland, however, it’s much more watchable. Set in 1870, Maclean’s film puts a new spin on the traditional American Western. Opening with the fairy tale introduction “Once upon a time,” the film transports us into a magic realism parable. Teenage Scotsman Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) makes his way West (exact locations are never named, perhaps, in part, because the picture was actually filmed in New Zealand, and perhaps also to add to the picture’s dreamlike quality) in search of his love, Rose (Caren Pistorius), who has preceded him to the U.S. with her father. Jay meets seasoned frontiersman Silas (Michael Fassbender, excellent), and the two face danger and adventure as they search for the father/daughter pair. Maclean brings a European influence to the Western genre, and gives us a sharp, character-driven story that is a tribute to the immigrants – both the men, and, notably here, the women, who often get short shrift in stories like these – who tamed the frontier. A lyrical and haunting mixture of realism and fantasy, Maclean’s picture is a fresh take on well-tread themes. VPL: A
(USA 2014, 98 min. Directed by Rick Alverson)
Rick Alverson’s 2012 film The Comedy was nominated for Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize that year, so it’s disappointing that his newest film is such a disaster. Set in and around Bakersfield and Kern County, Alverson’s latest picture follows an aging, depressed, unfunny, offensive comedian with a bad comb-over (Gregg Turkington) as he takes his stand-up routine to divey bars and clubs in the California desert on his way to meet up with an unseen grown daughter. Along the way, the Comedian has random encounters with eccentric, unstable, mean-spirited, forlorn, and outright mentally ill friends and strangers. Alverson seems to be trying to make some sort of Sam Shepard-esque statement about the West and artistic temperament, but fails spectacularly. Instead, we get a mind-numbingly slow film featuring a reprehensible protagonist whose fate we don’t care about in the slightest. Alverson may have been aiming for surreal and arty, but what he ends up with is just boring and pointless. Alverson must have called in some favors, though, since A-list actors John C. Reilly (an Oscar nominee, no less) Michael Cera, and Tye Sheridan, who was so great as the boy in Mud, show up in small vignettes, but none of them can even come close to saving this pretentious mess. VPL: D