Film Feature: 2016 Sundance Film Festival Spotlights #3

by Carrie Kahn on February 21, 2016

Sundance Photo 3

With this third and final post, Spinning Platters completes its coverage of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, which ended on Jan. 30th.  All the winners can be found here (and our other two posts about this year’s Festival can be found here and here).

Our coverage concludes with a look at four more feature films and two more documentaries. 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.

1.) Manchester by the Sea
(USA 2015, 135 min. Directed by Kenneth Lonergan)

Kyle Chandler (l.) and Casey Affleck play brothers Joe and Lee.

How do we recover from unspeakable tragedy? Is redemption always possible? These are the weighty questions writer/director Kenneth Lonergan explores in his absolutely stunning new film, my personal Festival favorite this year. Lonergan won the Grand Jury Prize in 2000 with You Can Count on Me, and his last picture was 2011’s character study Margaret. With Manchester by the Sea, Lonergan continues probing the depths of the human heart and psyche; what he delivers here is a unique and powerful meditation on family, love, loss, and grief the likes of which we’ve never before seen on screen. When Lee’s (Casey Affleck) beloved brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) dies, Lee returns to his coastal Massachusetts hometown to help settle Joe’s affairs and to look after his nephew, Joe’s headstrong teenage son Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Returning home brings up memories of an earlier tragedy that Lee must confront anew, with ramifications for others in Lee’s life, including Patrick, as well as Lee’s ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams). The cast is uniformly superb, and an especially raw and wrenching scene between Affleck and Williams will no doubt be the clip played at the Oscars, for which they – and Lonergan’s devastatingly brilliant screenplay – will undoubtedly be nominated. (Yes, it’s only February, but I’m making the prediction – this film is just that worthy, and the performances just that stellar). VPLA+ (Manchester by the Sea will be widely released on November 18th).

2.) Complete Unknown
(USA 2015, 90 min. Directed by Joshua Marston)

Rachel Weisz as the mysterious Alice.

Sixteen years ago, writer/director Joshua Marston electrified Sundance with his feature Maria Full of Grace; it won the Audience Award, was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize, and went on to win over 30 awards and nominations after its wide release. Since then, Marston has done mostly TV work, so it’s beyond disappointing that his return to both filmmaking and Sundance is with this altogether banal, boring picture. That the same filmmaker could have also made the hauntingly beautiful and critically acclaimed Maria is simply shocking. In contrast, Complete Unknown is a pointless, vapid, pretentious waste of time and talent. Michael Shannon and Rachel Weisz, here proving that even great actors can make poor choices, star as former lovers who reunite 15 years later, thanks to manipulative machinations by Weisz’s character Alice. The painfully unrealistic plot has Alice moving across cities and countries, changing her identity every few years (pianist, biologist, doctor, magician’s assistant – her talents know no bounds), and, unlike poor Tom (Shannon), we never care why, except to ponder how exactly she has the resources to pull off these undertakings, which, of course, is never made clear. A brief side story involving a couple (Danny Glover and Kathy Bates) duped by Alice is awkward, unfunny, and unnecessary, but, then again, so is the entire film. The real unknown here is why such talented actors would choose to appear in such an insipid picture. VPL: D

3.) Captain Fanstastic
(USA 2015, 120 min. Directed by Matt Ross)

Unconventional Dad Ben (Viggo Mortensen) takes his kids on a road trip to a funeral.

Audiences may best know Matt Ross from his roles in Silicon Valley and Big Love, but the actor is also a sharp writer/director, who made his Sundance debut back in 2012 with the chamber piece 28 Hotel Rooms. Moving up into the Premieres category this year, Ross returns with this witty and joyful celebration of an eccentric family, who encounter challenges when they venture from their off-the-grid Washington forest home into suburban New Mexico to attend a funeral. The picture boasts a terrific cast of young, relatively unknown actors, as well as a top-notch performance by Viggo Mortensen. Mortensen plays Ben, a father of six, who has home-schooled his children and offered them an alternative upbringing that may or may not have prepared them for the “real” world. The culture clash the brood faces on their road trip underscores the questions asked by Ross’s funny, smart screenplay: what is the best way to raise thoughtful, involved, empathetic adults? Have Ben and his wife made the right decision here? Ross offers no easy answers, but his gently humorous and warmly introspective picture allows viewers to consider these questions on their own; he provides plenty of material for provocative discussion long after the credits roll. VPL: A (NOTE: Captain Fantastic will be widely released on July 8th, and will open in the Bay Area on July 15th.)

4.) Joshy
(USA 2015, 82 min. Directed by Jeff Baena)

Joshy (Thomas Middleditch, back left) bonds with his friends at his salvaged bachelor party.

Following 2014’s Life With Beth, writer/director Jeff Baena’s second Sundance feature is also his second to earn a Grand Jury Prize nomination. That the I Heart Huckabees screenwriter has garnered two noms but no wins for his writing/directing projects speaks to a definite but raw talent that no doubt will soon yield award-winning pictures. Here, Baena brings us the story of Josh (Thomas Middleditch), whose engagement to Rachel (Alison Brie) has ended unexpectedly and tragically. In a set-up better suited to a sitcom, Josh still goes through with his bachelor party, in which a group of his disparate buddies descend on an idyllic house in Ojai for a weekend of debauchery and catharsis. Adam Pally, Alex Ross Perry, Nick Kroll and Brett Gelman are all game as the various friends, and, as an exploration of the dynamics and limits of masculine friendship, the picture works well. But Baena runs into some tone problems, as the picture can’t seem to decide if it’s a comedy or a drama, and a few intense, emotionally charged scenes, while well acted, often feel out of place. That Baena also had a small part in last year’s Digging for Fire will come as no surprise to astute viewers, who will notice thematic and narrative similarities between the two pictures. A few stand-out performances make the film feel fresh, though; Jenny Slate, as a woman the guys meet at an Ojai bar, brings warmth and complexity to what could have been a one-note character. And Middleditch’s titular performance alone makes the film worth seeing; sensitive and nuanced, his portrayal of Josh is the most original, honest part of the film. VPL: B

5.) Weiner
(USA 2015, 100 min. Directed by Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg)

Former Congressman Anthony Weiner and his wife Huma Abedin face yet another unwelcome press conference during his 2013 NYC mayoral campaign.

Deservedly winning the Grand Jury Prize for Documentary this year, this film about former New York Congressman and failed New York City mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner was initially envisioned as a comeback story by its makers, documentarians Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg, who set the tone of their compelling new film with a perfect epigraph from Marshall McLuhan: “The name of a man is a crushing blow from which he never recovers.” Indeed, Kriegman, a former staffer to the Congressman, initially thought the film would be a story about Weiner’s rebound from an embarrassing sexting scandal to doing well in – or even possibly winning – the 2013 New York City mayor’s race. Instead, when a second sexting scandal surfaced in the middle of the campaign (which, many forget, Weiner was actually winning at one point), Kriegman and Steinberg’s picture turned into something else instead: an intimate portrait of a deeply flawed but ambitious man, and a broader look at the frenzied, mostly unforgiving, and nearly always titillating pairing of the media and American politics. Kriegman and Steinberg here humanize the story behind the headlines, examining how the political narrative is too often shaped by gossip, innuendo, and cheap punchlines. The picture also works as a fascinating portrait of marriage under stress, as both Weiner and his loyal but angry wife Huma Abedin are portrayed at their best and worst. “There are no second acts in American lives,” F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote; Kriegman and Steinberg just may have made the film to prove him correct. VPL: A (NOTE: Weiner will be widely released in May). 

6.) Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures
(USA 2015, 108 min. Directed by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato)

A very young Robert Mapplethore and Patti Smith.

“Look at the pictures!” conservative senator Jesse Helms famously screamed at the US Congress nearly 30 years ago, denouncing an exhibit by controversial photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Filmmakers Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato repurpose the Helms quote to great effect in their excellent new documentary, which asks us to look not only at Mapplethorpe’s pictures, but also the artist himself, and to consider his life and career again, with fresh eyes. My guess is if Helms were alive today, he’d deride this picture just as he did Mapplethorpe’s, which is reason enough to recommend the film. Bailey and Barbato, who have specialized in examining marginalized figures on the fringes of society (The Eyes of Tammy Faye, Inside Deep Throat, and Party Monster), bring us an exceptionally well-rounded portrait of an artist who yes, courted controversy with his sexually explicit photographs, but who also was so much more than that infamous work. The filmmakers succeed in humanizing a contentious personality, allowing us to see the boy Mapplethorpe once was, the artist he strived to be, and, most importantly, the man he became. Featuring interviews with family members, fellow artists and subjects, friends and lovers, art world experts and archivists, Mapplethorpe is a must-see for anyone who values and appreciates art, freedom of expression, and a life well-lived. VPL: A (NOTE: Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures will premiere on HBO in April). 




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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