Film Feature: 2017 Sundance Film Festival Spotlights #1

by Carrie Kahn on February 4, 2017

… in which our intrepid California-bred Senior Film Reviewer defies an epic winter storm and a fierce chest cold to bring you highlights from this year’s famous Park City fest.

The 2017 Sundance Film Festival ended last Saturday evening after ten days of showcasing over 200 films from around the globe; you can see all the winners here.

For the third year in a row, Spinning Platters was on the (snow-covered) ground trying to take in as many movies as our limited time and budget would allow. And so we bring you the first of our posts spotlighting the 17 films we managed to squeeze in to just over five days.

Many of these may receive distribution deals (if they haven’t already), so you can know what to watch for in the coming year with these handy capsule reviews, which use our patented Sundance Viewing Priority Level (VPL) Guide:

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.

We’ll start our coverage with six feature films:

1.) I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore
(USA 2016, 97 min. Directed by Macon Blair. Category: U.S. Dramatic Competition)

Unlikely allies Tony (Elijah Wood) and Ruth (Melanie Lynskey) team up to confront some not-so-nice burglars.

Returning to Sundance after finding success last year with Green Room, writer/director Macon Blair tops himself this year by taking the Grand Jury prize for this edgy, atmospheric, darkly comic revenge fantasy. I was a bit surprised it won the Grand Jury prize, honestly; while I enjoyed it, it didn’t stick with me the way several of the Festival’s other features did, but obviously it made a strong impact on the Sundance jurors. The story of a depressed woman and theft victim (the always brilliant Melanie Lynskey) who obsessively pursues her victimizers with the help of an oddball neighbor (Elijah Wood), Blair’s film benefits from a Coen Bros. Blood Simple kind of sensibility. Blair told us at the post-screening Q&A that he was inspired by southern gothic writer Flannery O’Connor and grim 70s crime dramas, and the influence of both can definitely be felt here. Grisly but also viciously funny, Blair’s picture may not appeal to everyone, but fans of well-crafted, pulpy noir should enjoy it immensely. VPL: B+

2.) The Little Hours
(USA 2016, 90 min. Directed by Jeff Baena. Category: Midnight)

Kate Micucci (l.), Alison Brie, and Aubrey Plaza are a trio of foul-mouthed nuns.

Another writer/director returning to Sundance, Jeff Baena follows up last year’s good-but-not great comedy Joshy with a similarly decent attempt at a more ribald, broad comedic picture. The funniest thing about his current effort is the film’s premise: three nuns (Alison Brie, Kate Miccuci, and Aubrey Plaza) struggle with the moral and religious limitations and hypocrisy of life in a medieval Italian convent, all the while talking and behaving in a thoroughly modern, 21st century manner. The comedic possibilities of this juxtaposition work for a bit, but, stretched into an entire film, the joke soon begins to feel tired and forced. The picture’s saving grace (pun intended) is its A-list cast: Molly Shannon, Dave Franco, Fred Armisen, Nick Offerman, Adam Pally, Jemima Kirke, and John C. Reilly join the nun trio to bring a winking joy to the proceedings that definitely helps elicit more than a few laughs, even when the farcical gags have begun to wear thin. VPL: B

3.) L.A. Times
(USA 2016, 97 min. Directed by Michelle Morgan. Category: Next)

Los Angelenos Elliot (Jorma Taccone, l.), Annette (Michelle Morgan), Baker (Dree Hemingway), and Jimmy (Adam Shapiro) people watch while at dinner.

When you live in a city where its primary industry is one built on artificiality, how do you create and sustain meaningful relationships? That’s the ponderous question asked by writer/director and L.A. native Michelle Morgan, in this wry, witty comedy of manners more than a little reminiscent of Woody Allen. When Annette (Morgan, also acting as her own lead) decides to break up with longtime boyfriend Elliot (Berkeley’s own Jorma Taccone), the two work through the fall-out with the help of various friends and lovers, with results sometimes cringeworthy, but always honest. Besides being a delightfully funny satire of Los Angeles life (“Are you really walking?” one character incredulously asks another; “It’s like 60 degrees or something!”), Morgan’s film explores contemporary dating with refreshing candor and gentle humor. Come for the mocking of L.A. pretentiousness (a bit about a Game of Thrones-like TV show is particularly inspired) and stay for the warmhearted, pleasantly charming look at modern relationships. VPL: A-

4.) Person to Person
(USA 2017, 84 min. Directed by Dustin Guy Defa. Category: Next)

Reporter Phil (Michael Cera) takes newbie Claire (Abbi Jacobson) under his wing.

Connection – wanting it, seeking it, and trying to keep it – is the theme of writer/director Dustin Guy Defa’s tender new feature, which he expanded from a 2014 Sundance Grand Jury Prize nominated short film of the same name. Loosely linked New York City-set vignettes about an emotionally wounded boyfriend, a needy newspaper reporter and his protégée, a tenacious jazz record collector and his new girlfriend, a teenager trying to fit in, a watch store owner and a Park Avenue socialite and her recently deceased husband weave together to create a poignant and prescient commentary about urban life and our inherent, deeply human need for friendship and belonging. A terrific ensemble cast brings Defa’s lovely stories to life, with Michael Cera, Abbi Jacobson, Philip Baker Hall, and fashion blogger Tavi Gevinson each turning in sharply rendered and emotionally raw performances. A quiet, poetic film that may get overshadowed by the big premieres, Person to Person deserves to be on your radar. VPL: A

5.) The Big Sick
(USA 2016, 119 min. Directed by Michael Showalter. Category: Premieres)

Despite their different backgrounds, Emily (Zoe Kazan) and Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani) fall for each other.

Speaking of big premieres, here’s one that deserves all the attention it already has – and no doubt will continue to – receive (it sold to Amazon for $12 million, one of the biggest Sundance acquisitions ever). Directed by Michael Showalter (Hello My Name is Doris; Wet Hot American Summer) and written by husband and wife team Kumail Nanjiani (Silicon Valley) and Emily V. Gordon, The Big Sick is based on Nanjiani and Gordon’s real life courtship. Nanjiani plays himself as a stand up comic, but Gordon, an aspiring therapist, is played by Zoe Kazan, and the two have a palpable chemistry that has you rooting for them from the moment they first meet. At the heart of the story is a culture clash: Kumail comes from a traditional Pakistani family, and he knows his parents will immediately disapprove of his new American girlfriend. He thus becomes torn between loyalty and respect for his family and his undeniably strong feelings for Emily. In the midst of this conflict, Emily falls ill with a mysterious infection, and, while she is hospitalized, Kumail develops a bond with her parents (Ray Romano and Holly Hunter, whose vivid character creations deserve a movie of their own). Showalter and Nanjiani take a story as old as Shakespeare and make it fresh and fiercely relevant while treating all the story’s characters respectfully and compassionately. Nanjiani deserves credit for finding and showcasing the humor in serious topics that aren’t often successfully played for laughs. The term “crowd-pleaser” was made for films like this one, and, when it opens widely this spring, it no doubt will receive rave reviews, and an equal number of authentic audience laughs. VPL: A+

6.) The Yellow Birds
(USA 2016, 110 min. Directed by Alexandre Moors. Category: U.S. Dramatic Competition)

Murph (Tye Sheridan, l.) and Bartle (Alden Ehrenreich) look out for each other while on the front lines.

The Hurt Locker meets A Few Good Men in this Iraq War story based on the novel of the same name by Kevin Powers. Directed by Alexandre Moors with a screenplay by David Lowery and RFI Porto, the film deals with the death of Murph, a young, naïve soldier (Tye Sheridan, proving his stellar break out turn in Mud was no fluke) and how that event affects fellow soldier Bartle (Alden Ehrenreich, soon to be the young Han Solo) and Murph’s mother Maureen (Jennifer Aniston, woefully miscast). The film has a sense of importance about it that’s at odds both with its lack of originality and its thin plot, which includes some questionable character motivations that strain credulity. Sheridan and Ehrenreich are in top form, however, and elevate the picture to a level it might not reach without them. Aniston, though, is all wrong as the worried and suspicious mother of the 18-year-old Murph; she’s not believable either as the mother of a young soldier, or as a woman driven to seek out the truth from shady government corridors. Toni Collette fares much better as Bartle’s mother; she has a visceral, world-weary air that simply eludes Aniston. VPL: B-  

Carrie Kahn

Moving from the arthouse to the multiplex with grace, ease, and only the occasional eye roll.

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