Sunday, January 29, 2017

2017 Sundance Film Festival Overview

So how about that Sundance Film Festival, huh? No, I'm not joking. The annual film festival based out of Park City did take place. I absolutely understand that you had no knowledge of it because even I had a hard time remembering. There are far more pressing concerns right now in our nation than some dumb collection of overrated movies being given fat paychecks for their distribution rights.

However, I wanted to still take a look at the festival, especially since I gave it the cold shoulder last year and didn't cover it at all. Honestly though, my decision to forgo the 2016 edition ended up being a wise one: nearly all of the notable features bombed and/or quickly faded into obscurity (remember Morris From America? How about Other People?) save for the two much bid upon titles/Oscar hopefuls Manchester By The Sea and Birth of a Nation and the curious documentary piece that was Tickled.

So, as per usual, I'll first talk about the big award winner of Sundance, then go through all of the curious pieces, the melodramatic dreck, the failed experiments, the cult gems, the horror shows, and the rest that I see fit to print.

Finally breaking the seemingly unending cycle, the U.S. Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award for Dramatic didn't go to the same film. The Grand Jury Prize went to I Don't Feel At Home In This World Anymore, directed by Jeremy Saulnier's childhood friend/lucky charm Macon Blair. The black comedy crime film follows a fed-up Melanie Lynskey as she tries to locate the punks who burglarized her home and stole her silverware. It was already picked up by Netflix in advance, to the point where the trailer even premiered online, and is set to hit the platform on February 24. I have very mixed feelings about this movie. I'm all for praising Blair's acting chops but the film looks like he just copied everything off his best friend Saulnier. You have poor and not too bright people getting way over their heads, general suburban misery, dark lighting, flashes of bleak humor, and violent set pieces in a forest environment. Could be good but most definitely will not be remembered by the end of the year, let alone by summertime.

The Audience Award for Dramatic went to Crown Heights, a drama adaptation of a real life story that aired on This American Life. It tells of how Colin Warner was wrongly arrested and convicted of a murder he didn't commit and how his best friend Carl King spent years trying to free him. Amazon Studios picked up the distribution. I know we are all still riding on the true crime gravy train but this sounds like just another throwaway, despite the efforts of newcomer Matt Buskin. Critics also weren't so hot on it so expect to put this in your Amazon Prime Watchlist, keep it baking for a long spell before eventually deleting when you eventually realize that you will never have the time or interest in seeing it.

The two Sundance movies I was looking forward into hearing more about both kinda received some raves but generally were split down the middle. The Big Sick gives a fictional view of the real life courtship between stand-up comedian/actor Kumail Nanjiani and his future wife Emily Gordon. Nanjiani plays himself while resident indie darling Zoe Kazan steps in for Gordon. Ray Romano and Holly Hunter also appear as Emily's parents, who proceed to bring more trouble to the couple than help. The well received dramedy, directed by Michael Showalter (Wet Hot American Summer), had several studios feverishly bidding for it, with Amazon Studios forking over $12 million for it. With the right marketing strategy, which will come easy since Judd Apatow is one of the film's producers, the company can certainly make back that high investment before the eventual premiere on their Prime platform. While that movie earned much adoration from critics, Landline kinda fell by the wayside. This dramedy reunited Obvious Child director Gillian Robespierre with her star Jenny Slate, who travels back to 1995 to play a woman who tries to balance a dangerous love triangle between her, her fiancee, and a former flame while looking out for her younger sister and the ongoing turmoil between their parents. Amazon Studios also picked this one up but will have a tougher time selling it. Many critics enjoyed the always pleasing Slate but the film itself was seen as a sophomore slump for Robespierre.

Sundance often contains a bunch of future cult gems in the rough and this year was no exception. David Lowery, the man who wowed critics and the public with the quiet family remake of Pete's Dragon, got his stars of Ain't Them Bodies Saints to reunite for A Ghost Story. Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara plays a bickering couple whose house is haunted by, what else, a ghost. However, the ghost itself is eventually revealed in the form of the standard kiddie version, as in a person wearing a white sheet with two eye holes. Very odd but it could work with Lowery's penchant for Malick-esque flourishes. Mara also shows up in The Discovery, another sci-fi mindbender from Charlie McDowell (The One I Love). Jason Segel tries to confront his scientist father Robert Redford at his New England home, some time after the elder man discovered proof of an afterlife and the consequences that it brings. Comic book fans rejoiced at the premiere of Wilson, the film adaptation of the acclaimed graphic novel by Daniel Clowes, with Woody Harrelson stepping in as the titular misanthrope. For those looking something along the lines of mean girls being mean, Thoroughbred has you covered. New Sundance sweethearts Anya Taylor-Joy and Olivia Cooke star as former best friends who start to hang out again, largely since the latter's mother is paying the former, only to engage in antisocial behavior. And for those who want to see female rappers get their chance at a biopic, Roxanne Roxanne retells how one NYC teenager dared to sing out against popular rap act U.T.F.O. and helped create one of the most famous beefs ever in hip-hop history.

As for the ones that misfired or worse: Fox Searchlight spent $10.5 million for Patti Cake$, a supposedly winning dramedy about an overweight white female rapper from New Jersey, but critics largely rejected it for being predictably generic. An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth To Power continued the boring lecturing adventures of Al Gore about global warming but many questioned how the globetrotting aspect made it look cheap and at how Gore spends a lot of time giving himself a high five for his actions. The Yellow Birds was hailed for its cinematography from Daniel Landin (Under The Skin) but its heavy "war is hell" message and a waste of a mystery brought cat-calls. Alex Ross Perry struck out with Golden Exits, a boring romantic drama starring nobody's favorite actress Emily Browning. And last but not least, Taylor Sheridan moved away from his award-winning screenplay work to direct the seemingly disappointing Wind River, which has game hunter Jeremy Renner and FBI agent Elizabeth Olsen trying to solve a murder on a Native American reservation in the harsh winter of Wyoming.

Not a lot of buzz came from the documentary side of the festival this year besides mainly An Incovenient Sequel. The only other one that's interesting to talk about is Nobody Speak: Hulk Hogan, Gawker and Trials of a Free Press. This hastily produced picture of course talks about the timely news story of how retired professional wrestler Hulk Hogan helped take down a prominent gossip-mongering website after much scandal, largely thanks to a rich benefactor.

Finally, the super special secret screening this year wasn't for some awful, forgettable sci-fi movie but surprisingly for Get Out. A good pick for the festival and by all accounts a very praiseworthy film for our current times.

I could go on and talk about some more titles like Mudbound and Beach Rats but they have the usual stink of Sundance indie tripe. That, plus I just simply have no interest in talking about them. I also sadly don't have the urge to look at the Slamdance Film Festival this time around. Maybe next year, we will all have a great iteration of the Sundance Film Festival to wash away the two years of less-than-stellar efforts.

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