So, we’re back at Sundance Film Festival, and this year, rather than give a detailed play-by-play of everything that happens while I’m here, I think I’ll throw in some greatest hits and funny moments in these reports and focus more on the reviews. There are going to be A LOT of reviews this year.
I’ve already experienced both the excitement that we hope to get when we make this film fest pilgrimage and shared in some disappointment. I found a favorite film after the first day, and I am open to a new favorite every day. However, I’ve also heard some disappointment and disillusionment with the fest: grumblings over the same filmmakers being brought back over and over and over again and the Sundance Lab nepotism that seems to be a recurring topic among veteran indie film patrons.
We’ll dig into the details later, but this is about the movies, so let’s start with one of the Opening Night selections that was quite the crowd pleaser:
NORMAN LEAR: JUST ANOTHER VERSION OF YOU
Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s NORMAN LEAR: JUST ANOTHER VERSION OF YOU profiles the legendary and influential television icon, giving a thorough examination of the man and the mind that created All in the Family, Maude, Good Times, and The Jeffersons, among other shows that changed the course of television as we know it, and sparked a national dialogue and debate on race relations, classism, feminism, and more. 93-years young, the man weighs in himself, along with colleagues, contemporaries, and key cast members from his shows. Current and archived interviews add commentary and context as clips from those memorable shows play across rippling theater screens in their presence. Fleshing out a full portrait of the man, the film shows Lear’s beginnings as well as the impetus for his departure from TV at the height of his career to focus on activism bringing us to the present day.
NORMAN LEAR: JUST ANOTHER VERSION OF YOU has the benefit of turning its cameras and attention on a man who is more than an influential icon. He is legitimately charming and a force to be reckoned with to this day. In fact, it is a great example of a documentary that could settle on stringing together clips from the shows and the sit down interviews and it would be entertaining, if not riveting viewing. Interestingly enough, if there is a drawback to the film, it is the theatrical framing device of a little boy avatar the filmmakers use to return to the theme of Lear still being a child at heart. While not enough to truly hurt the film, it does distract somewhat, and most definitely was not necessary. However, the film succeeds beyond the obvious reasons because Lear is such a fun and entrancing personality, that it’s great to feel like you are getting to hang out with him for a couple hours.
Expected Real World Reaction: This should get some decent theatrical play before hitting a TV date or two and then VOD.
Now, there were a couple of films set to play here that I actually caught at the Cannes Film Festival but never posted the reviews because I just ran out of time to deliver the write ups on everything I saw there. But they were both pretty great, so here are two winners from the Spotlight section this year:
Yorgos Lanthimos’s THE LOBSTER begins with an absurd premise – David (Colin Farrell), recently split from his wife, must go to a hotel where he will have 45 days to find another mate or he will be turned into the animal of his choice. Then it spirals into further crazy from there. Under pressure to find someone to love via a series of awkwardly bizarre social gatherings and exercises led by an intractable nurse, the guests either resort to lying to each other or suicide. And naturally, there is a rebel group outside the hotel (led by a militant Léa Seydoux) planning to bring the entire enterprise to its knees because they reflexively forbid emotion and intimacy. Following a disastrous attempt to play by the hotel’s rules, David joins the rebel group and quickly finds himself courting jeopardy again when he falls for one of its members (Rachel Weisz).
THE LOBSTER is pretty much an acquired taste by design – alternately hilarious and horrifying, as well as being the epitome of deadpan. There is a delight to the cruelty and absurdity that will inspire gasps in tandem with giggle fits. However, it is also patently not an “easy” film. The humor, irony and commentary on how we view the basic responsibilities and “needs” inherent in and desired by those in relationships are not spooned out for those that want the funny to be simple and obvious. If you are gauging your funny meter, this one would be on the other side of the spectrum from anything that has “mall cop” in the title or a Wayans in the cast.
Expected Real World Reaction: Some theatrical due to the stars involved, both art house for the most part and VOD where the curious will likely find it and try it out.
Jeremy Saulnier’s GREEN ROOM begins by introducing us to a punk rock group (featuring Anton Yelchin and Alia Shawkat) hardscrabbling their way through a tour that involves stealing gas to keep their van running and taking whatever gig they can just to keep eating when they aren’t playing. One of those gigs turns out to be at a club that caters to skinheads, but a gig is a gig so they take it. Unfortunately, on their way out of the club following their set, they become witness to the fact that a girl has been killed in the titular green room. After becoming holed up in that same green room, the club’s owner (played by a lethally low key Patrick Stewart) shows up and the members of the group soon realize that outnumbered and virtually weaponless, there is little chance any of them will be leaving the club alive.
For fans of Saulnier’s break through film BLUE RUIN, GREEN ROOM has been pretty eagerly anticipated since it was announced, and simply put, none of those people should be disappointed by this outing. Once again, he delivers a lean and mean thriller that keeps you guessing just enough along with characters, both heroic and villainous, that are oftentimes not exactly what you first made them out to be or have something within them that allows them to dig a little deeper for their own survival. On both sides of the equation, the audience is encouraged to keep up with the strategy being employed to either kill everyone or survive. Attention to THAT detail is somewhat novel and it fuels a film that isn’t interested in giving the audience tried and true fight climaxes or traditionally satisfactory character conclusions. Normally that could disappoint “lazy” viewers wishing to lean on the familiar signposts served up to them by studio-driven action fare, but Saulnier has a very sure and inventive hand with the action, so the uninitiated (by BLUE RUIN) should leave the theater with a smile on their faces, as well.
Expected Real World Reaction: It will likely exceed the successful run that BLUE RUIN had in theaters and via VOD.
And finally, to complete this fine set of four films to start my reviews at this year’s edition of the fest, here is my favorite film already that has reminded me why we are all here. I’ve got a lot of time to go still, but the bar has been set pretty high for the films to follow:
Agnieska Smoczyńska’s THE LURE begins with beautiful mermaid sisters Silver and Golden happening upon a musical family trio on a beach front, drawn to the song they are singing. After assuring the family that they will not eat them, the sirens are brought onto the land and naturally, are invited to join the band. Instantly becoming a hit (I mean, c’mon, hot singing mermaids!), Silver soon begins to fall in love with the handsome bassist son, while Golden starts having cravings for fresh people meat as well as growing impatient to continue their planned trip to swim to America. The act must go on, but for how much longer can it go on before someone gets eaten or some mermaid turns to sea foam over her human crush?
It isn’t going out on a limb, really, to state that THE LURE will be the only magical realism musical horror film about singing mermaids you’ll have a chance to see in the near future. It’s also pretty safe to say that this one will take care of that genre all by itself. Delightfully entertaining, cheeky, and provocative, the film is kinda crazy in all the right ways. Musically and personality-wise, the film would play nicely alongside the giddiness of STRICTLY BALLROOM. On the flip side, the luridness of the men’s attraction to the mermaids, and the looming threat of the mermaid’s hunger for the flesh, is nicely balanced as well. It isn’t often that you can say a film is unexpected, but this one is – in the best way possible.
Expected Real World Reaction: It’s Polish and there are no stars, but talk about high concept… If handled correctly, it could play some big cities before heading to VOD.