Film Feature: 2016 Sundance Film Festival Spotlights #2

by Carrie Kahn on February 7, 2016

Sundance 2016-2

Spinning Platters continues its coverage of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, which ended last Saturday, Jan. 30th with its evening awards presentation (all the winners can be found here).

We’re highlighting 18 of the nearly 200 films shown at the Fest, so you can know what to look for in the coming year – and what to avoid – as many of these titles are purchased and widely distributed.

As a reminder, we are using our patented Viewing Priority Level (VPL) Guide to advise you accordingly:


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.

We continue our coverage with another five feature films and one documentary:

1.) Maggie’s Plan
(USA 2015, 99 min. Directed by Rebecca Miller)

John (Ethan Hawke) asks Maggie (Greta Gerwig) for feedback on his novel.

A New York relationship comedy more than a little reminiscent of the best of Woody Allen, writer/director Rebecca Miller’s first comedic film is brainy, charming, and very funny. The always delightful Greta Gerwig stars as Maggie, who, as the picture begins, is telling her old college friend (Bill Hader, wry as ever) about her desire to have a baby via a mutual friend (a producer of homemade pickles, in one of the film’s many sly winks at hipster culture). In the midst of this plan, Maggie meets academic and struggling author John (Ethan Hawke, playing yet another variation of his lovable-but-irresponsible dad roles). John happens to be married with kids, though, to Georgette, a no-nonsense Danish intellectual (Julianne Moore, clearly enjoying herself). How all these relationships and their attendant feelings develop, shift, and shift again comprise the bulk of the film, and watching Miller’s story play out makes for a hilariously entertaining good time. At the Q&A following the film, Miller cited A Midsummer Night’s Dream as an influence, and, indeed, with its fair share of idealistic romantic manipulations, the film works well as a modern take on the always classic themes of love, fidelity, and connection. VPL: A (NOTE: Maggie’s Plan will open at the Landmark Clay Theatre in San Francisco on May 27th).

2.) Morris from America
(USA/Germany 2016, 89 min. Directed by Chad Hartigan)

German tutor Inka (Carla Juri) forms a close bond with American pupil Morris (Markees Christmas).

Writer/director Chad Hartigan won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting award for this lovely fish out of water story about Morris, a 13-year-old African-American boy living in Heidelberg, Germany with his widowed soccer coach father. As Morris, young Markees Christmas deftly captures all the joys and frustrations of being both young and out of place, but also hungry for acceptance and adventure. Craig Robinson, as Morris’s father Curtis, is exceptional, proving here that he’s just as adept at dramatic roles as comedic ones. His nuanced, thoughtful, and poignant performance earned him a special jury prize for dramatic acting. A scene in which Robinson – while driving, no less – delivers a clear-eyed but emotionally layered monologue about dating Morris’s mother is easily one of the most moving, brilliant pieces of acting I saw in any Festival film this year. Cinephiles will also relish seeing the wonderful German actress Carla Juri, who starred in the 2013 German cult hit Wetlands, cast here as a smart, funny, and sensitive English tutor who develops a special bond with Morris. An utterly unique coming of age story with fresh characters, the picture was also deservedly nominated for the Grand Jury Prize. VPL: A

3.) Trash Fire
(USA 2015, 93 min. Directed by Richard Bates, Jr.)

Owen (Adrian Grenier) and Isabel (Angela Trimbur) hash out their relationship problems with their therapist.

Cult favorite writer/director Richard Bates, Jr. returns to Park City at Midnight (the category for horror and other especially bizarre pictures) for the first time since his hit Excision played back in 2012. Introducing his new film this year, Bates called it “a romantic comedy for serial killers.” Bates also told us that he brings the viewpoint that life is a “horrific comedy” to his films, and, indeed, Trash Fire is a clever genre mash up of a bloody horror picture and an arch romantic comedy. Entourage’s Adrian Grenier plays Owen, currently in therapy with his unhappy girlfriend Isabel (Angela Trimbur). When the two attempt to reconnect with Owen’s family, things quickly go awry, as the pair becomes immersed in the southern gothic household of Owen’s righteous and odd grandmother and traumatized sister, who, along with Owen, survived a childhood disaster. Irish actress Fionnula Flanagan’s portrayal of the religiously fanatic and off-kilter grandmother rivals Carrie’s Piper Laurie in terms of sheer campiness and frightening weirdness. Bates succeeds in mining humor from the depths of despair, and while his in-your-face storytelling method may not be for everyone, horror connoisseurs will appreciate the picture’s darkly comic blend of gore and cathartic laughs. VPL: B

4.) Little Men
(USA 2016, 85 min. Directed by Ira Sachs)

Michael Barbieri (l.) and Theo Taplitz are the titular Little Men.

How can we be good parents? How about good neighbors, good community members, and, ultimately, good people? These are the questions writer/director Ira Sachs tackles in his new film, a quiet, somewhat disjointed, but perceptive look at gentrification in Brooklyn. Collaborating again with his Love is Strange co-writer Mauricio Zacharias, Sachs here gives us a timely tale of two families: one who has inherited a property in Brooklyn, and one who may have their business displaced because of the first family’s new inheritance. The “Little Men” of the title are the young teenage sons of each family: Jake (Theo Taplitz) and Tony (Michael Barbieri) become fast friends, but their friendship becomes strained by the dispute between their parents. As Jake’s father, Greg Kinnear proves once again he’s one of Hollywood’s most underrated actors, turning in a sharp and emotionally complex performance. And Chilean actress Paulina Garcia, as Tony’s mother, who stands to lose her business if she can’t pay the new rent Jake’s parents are asking, brings a steadfast fierceness to her role. A scene in which Kinnear’s Brian and Garcia’s Leonor confront each other is breathtakingly tense and painfully incisive in its veracity. Some choppy editing, dropped story lines, and an unsatisfying ending keep the picture from being stellar, but, as a character study that showcases a relevant and complicated issue, it’s worth a look. VPL: B-

5.) Brahman Naman
(United Kingdom/India 2015, 94 min. Directed by Q)

From left, Chaitanya Varad, Tanmay Dhanania, and Shashank Arora are a trio of virgin collegiate quiz champs.

From left, Chaitanya Varad, Tanmay Dhanania, and Shashank Arora are a trio of virgin collegiate quiz champs.

This new picture, from the cutting-edge Calcutta filmmaker known as Q, garnered a lot of advance buzz when the Festival started; comparisons to Portnoy’s Complaint were being thrown about, and, while the film does deal with young men obsessed with sex, the picture isn’t nearly as literary or as smart as Roth’s classic novel. The film plays more like American Pie meets The Big Bang Theory, as a trio of nerdy Bangalore University misfits head out to a national collegiate quiz competition, hoping to lose their virginity in addition to winning the top prize. While the film features some mildly amusing sexcapades (an ingenious new way of using a ceiling fan is particularly inspired), ultimately, the picture feels borderline misogynistic, as the film’s young women aren’t treated very well, by the young men, or the screenplay. With the recent spate of sexual violence against women in India, there’s something off putting about this comedy that celebrates deceiving women and treating them primarily as sex objects. This movie seems to want to be a gentle sex comedy, but it’s missing the necessary heart. Clever animated sequences and an awesome soundtrack (the film takes place in the 1980s) unfortunately aren’t enough to recommend the picture. VPL: C-

6.) Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You
(USA 2015, 91 min. Directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady)

93-year-old Norman Lear reflects on his life and career.

At 93, famed television writer/producer Norman Lear is in better shape physically and mentally than more than a few people half his age, and, given his long and remarkable career, it’s surprising that, until now, there hadn’t yet been a documentary about him. Filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady rectify that oversight with this solid offering, which explores seminal moments in Lear’s personal and professional life. A plethora of interviews from actors, writers, friends and family anchor the film, which also features enough clips of Lear’s groundbreaking shows to please the most ardent television and cultural history fans. Lear, a Jewish WWII veteran who had the distinction of being called both “the enemy of the American people” by Jerry Falwell and a patriot by Bill Moyers, is a staunch leftist and progressive whose 1970s shows (All in the Family, Maude, Good Times, among others) were boundary pushing and far ahead of their time. The documentary works best when it explores the various controversies surrounding Lear’s output; aside from being a fascinating biography of a complex man, the film also serves as an intelligent, well-crafted examination of American social history. An ill-conceived idea to have a young actor portray Lear as a boy feels mawkish, tonally out of place, and totally unnecessary; Lear’s presence just as he is more than carries the film. VPL: B+ (NOTE: Norman Lear will be released theatrically June, followed by broadcast via the American Masters series on PBS in the fall). 








Carrie Kahn

Moving from the arthouse to the multiplex with grace, ease, and only the occasional eye roll. Proud new member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.

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