Live from the 2016 Sundance Film Festival: Wednesday, Jan. 27

January 28, 2016


Watching “Outlaws and Angels” in a nearly empty press screening at 8:30 Wednesday morning, I was struck by an analogy:

If the films that are released by Hollywood and the larger film companies each year are the major leagues, then the films that show up at Sundance are AAA and AA prospects, looking for their slot on the roster and a shot at the majors. And Sundance is spring training.

Obviously, there are titles that are immediately ready for the majors – such as this year’s most talked-about acquisitions, “Manchester by the Sea” and “The Birth of a Nation.” Then there are films like “Outlaws and Angels,” from newcomer JT Mollner, which is strictly Single-A ball, if I may stretch this analogy. It’s faux Tarantino, a splatter western with brief flashes of both wit and suspense and an overabundance of pretension.

There is the skeleton of a solid western here, about bank robbers on the run holing up with a churchy family in an isolated farmhouse and taking them hostage. But Mollner, writing in “Deadwood” argot, swings wildly here, as though the film were a piñata from which he only occasionally reaps rewards. Meanwhile, the film is littered with extraneous shots and scenes, including a rape that turns into a seduction. Sorry, no. There’s a little too much of everything for the film’s own good.

Plus, Mollner is in need of both a better editor and a different makeup artist. The editor would slice a solid 30 minutes out of this film and make it more propulsive and tense, instead of slack and draggy. As for the makeup artist, put it this way: I thought prettyboy badman Chad Michael Murray had a green Gummi worm stuck to his cheek until someone referenced it as a knife scar.

On the other hand , actress Clea Duvall’s “Big Chill”-like “The Intervention ” is engaging and emotionally intelligent, if a little less witty than it might be. Her set-up — eight friends gather at a summer house to perform an intervention on one couple’s failing marriage — offers smart takes on the nature of commitment, lust, romance and matrimony.

It offers a bright cast, led by Melanie Lynskey as the pushy friend who has organized this bout of buttinsky-ism. She’s supported by Duvall herself, Natasha Lyonne, Josh Ritter and Cobie Smulders, among others.

Duvall has a solid sense of both timing and proportion, two key elements in a film as carefully constructed as this one. If it never quite soars, it does glide along nicely and finds its moments without pushing them.


So does “Morris from America,” a unique coming-of-age story about a 13-year-old African-American transplanted to Heidelberg, Germany, where his widowed father (Craig Robinson) works. Being a new kid in a school is hard enough; being the only black kid and the only American – and not speaking the language – makes life tough for young Morris Gentry (Markees Christmas).

But he slowly begins to navigate these waters, thanks to a sympathetic tutor (Carla Juri) and his understanding dad. Neither, however, can prepare him for young love with an older girl; the pitfalls are obvious to the audience from the start, but Christmas makes Morris both a savvy kid and a naïf. Robinson is especially good as a concerned father who remembers himself at that age. It’s a charmer of a film.

I also liked “Equity,” a business drama with psychological thriller elements and a feminist overlay. Anna Gunn, so good on “Breaking Bad,” plays Naomi Bishop, one of the top investment bankers at her firm – but she discovers she’s about to be passed over for a promotion yet again. So she needs a major IPO to turn her into the kind of rainmaker that gets the big steps up the corporate ladder.

Gunn embraces the steely discipline and pitbull instincts of a woman who has had to fight for everything she’s earned. But she also captures the vulnerability when she finds that she may, in fact, have been played. The question is: Who betrayed her?

The film by Meera Menon recalls “Margin Call,” another tale of a company at a moment of crisis. The script, by Amy Fox, is streamlined without losing complexity, creating characters with hidden facets and agendas. The cast, which also includes James Purefoy and Craig Bierko, offer able support as the film charges along.

“The Fits,” on the other hand, was only 72 minutes long but seemed endless. It follows an inner-city preteen named Toni (played by the delightfully named Royalty Hightower) as she trains to get into shape at a boxing gym, then auditions for a local competitive dance team at a community center.

But older girls on the team are suffering seizures and fainting spells that are freaking everyone out. Toni worries that she’ll never get her chance to perform if the “fits” lead to the group’s season being cancelled.

Writer-director Anna Rose Holmer wants to make a connection between the transcendent feeling of performance and the fits. But the story-telling is more impressionistic than story-driven and winds up feeling ephemeral to the point of flimsiness, despite the fascinating discipline of Hightower as Toni, whose joy in her own physicality is contagious.

“Tallulah” reminded me why I don’t like movies in which the plot is built on someone telling a lie. It’s also constructed around someone who is both pathetic and preposterous: the title character, played by Ellen Page.

She’s a “free spirit” who lives in her van, scrounges food from dumpsters and otherwise begs, steals and scavenges her existence. Through a ridiculous plot twist, she is hired as a temporary babysitter and ends up running away with the baby to raise it as her own.

Her impulse is as ill-conceived as this film, which eventually puts her in the orbit of Allison Janney, as an unhappy divorced woman whose long-absent son was Tallulah’s last boyfriend. It may have an award-winning cast, but it’s strictly a minor-league effort.

And now I’m out of here. Check back tomorrow for my wrap-up about my brief Sundance foray.

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Live from the Sundance Film Festival: Tuesday, Jan. 26

January 27, 2016


So what do you do when a three-and-a-half-day film festival trip gets shortened by a travel-halting blizzard?

That’s my situation this year at the Sundance Film Festival: I was booked to arrive in Park City on Sunday afternoon, departing on Thursday. But weather cancellations of flights from the East Coast to Salt Lake City meant I didn’t get here until the wee early hours of Tuesday.

So, with just two days on the ground here before I have to leave, I did the only thing I could: I’m trying to see 10 movies in two days. And I’m more than halfway there. (More…)