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.

Of the five-and-a-half films I took in (I sampled “Lovesong” for a half-hour while killing time between two other movies and was not sorry to walk out early), the three best ones all dealt with issues of family in emotionally complex, compelling and sometimes funny ways.

My favorite of the day was “Captain Fantastic,” written and directed by actor Matt Ross (Gavin Belson on “Silicon Valley”). Starring Viggo Mortensen and a cast of kids (along with Frank Langella, Steve Zahn and Kathryn Hahn), it’s about a father who has raised his brood of six completely off the grid in the northwest mountains, and who now has to bring them back to civilization for the funeral of their mother.

The writing offers a very funny social critique of American popular culture, as a vapid wasteland filled with violently gaudy excess and legions of the obese. Mortensen plays Ben, who has rejected all of this and trained his kids with both a physical and an intellectual rigor that has turned them into imaginative, intelligent, free-spirited – and polite – group of individuals.

Yet Ross is dealing with something more complex than the culture-clash of the independent man against the smothering of the human spirit by modern society. Ben, initially viewed as wise and calm, eventually shows another side that, from the right angle, looks selfish and self-serving. He’s not perfect – but he is fascinatingly real. Mortensen, with his beard looking like a coloring experiment at a barber college, gives a wonderfully controlled and witty performance, supported by George MacKay (who will be seen in “11.22.63”) and the ever-reliable Hahn and Zahn. It’s a funny film with heart that will have you in tears and leave you thinking.

So will Ira Sachs’ “Little Men.” It’s a portrait of a friendship between two pre-teens: Jake (Theo Taplitz) is a bit of a nerd with no friends who spends his time drawing. When his grandfather dies, his parents (Greg Kinnear and Jennifer Ehle) take the opportunity to shed an expensive apartment in Manhattan to move into the grandfather’s old place in Brooklyn.

That apartment is the upper floor of a building the grandfather owned; the lower floor is a store, a dress shop run by a Chilean émigré, Leonore (Paulina Garcia) who has been there for more than a decade. She has a son, Tony (Michael Barbieri), who immediately becomes Jake’s best friend. But the inseparable buddies find themselves caught in the middle when Jake’s parents decide they need to raise Leonore’s rent and she resists.

Sachs’ slice of life is less about plot than character, showing the way kids relate to each other and the way they wind up storm-tossed by the upheaval in their parents’ lives. With wonderful subtlety, Sachs focuses on the resilience of kids, who, in the end, have very little say over their own lives – including who they can and can’t be friends with – because parental business takes priority. In a sense, it’s almost the opposite of “Captain Fantastic” at its conclusion.


The final family-centered film I saw was “The Hollars,” directed by John Krasinski, who also stars, along with Richard Jenkins, Sharlto Copley, Anna Kendrick and the amazing Margo Martindale. Krasinski plays the guy who escaped small-town life for New York. But he’s called back to his Midwestern hometown when his mother, played by Martindale, is diagnosed with a brain tumor.

Working from a script by James Strouse (“People Places Things”), Krasinski puts together a familiar story of a dysfunctional family pushed to a crisis point. The father’s business is failing and the oldest son is both unemployed and unhappily divorced, living in the folks’ basement. The returning son works an unfulfilling job while working on a graphic novel; he and his girlfriend are expecting a baby but can’t quite commit to marriage.

As I understand it, the plot echoes that of another film at this festival, “Other People,” which I didn’t see. But if this feels like it fits a popular Sundance mold too closely, well, Krasinski and Strouse, along with this outstanding cast, make the characters intriguing individuals, capable of hilarious self-involvement but, eventually, self-awareness. The strength of the performances balances the occasional sentimentality of the script.

Speaking of movies that echo other works, I was momentarily fascinated by Joshua Marston’s “Complete Unknown” for the mysterious and creepy vibe it creates. At a birthday party for a man named Tom (Michael Shannon), his colleague shows up with a new woman who looks familiar to Tom – but under a different name. Her name is Ann (Rachel Weisz), but Tom wants to call her Jenny, convinced that he knew her more than a decade ago before she disappeared.

The stranger-at-a-dinner-party set-up is similar to that of David Hare’s 1985 film, “Wetherby,” but the pay-off isn’t. Oddly, I had just screened the first episodes of the new season of “Better Call Saul” and a large chunk of this film’s second half mirrors the plot of the second season’s first episode: about the thrill of being an imposter and pretending to be someone else.

As luminous as Weisz is, as edgy and offbeat as Shannon can be, “Complete Unknown” falls apart in its second half. It’s an outstanding premise – the exhilaration of shaping your own reality by frequently changing your identity – but a film that fizzles before it truly catches fire.

I was disappointed in the one documentary I saw, “Eat That Question – Frank Zappa in his Own Words.” Director Thorsten Schutte had a trove of previously unseen interviews and performance footage of Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. But what he does is simply string it together, like some rough assemblage, minus anything that identifies any of the other musicians we see, the interviewers with whom Zappa spars or the bizarre assortment of TV shows he appeared on.

If nothing else, the film shows that Zappa seemingly never met an interviewer who asked him an intelligent question. In lampooning the media and the corporate mentality of the music business in the 1960s and 70s, Zappa aimed for outrage, both in the way he looked and the things he talked about. But the press rarely seemed to see beyond the costumes and attitude, pigeonholing him as controversial simply because he went against the norm.

In fact, the interviews from the early years right up through his battle over censorship with Tipper Gore in the 1980s reveal a Zappa whose philosophy sounds an awful lot like the things Bernie Sanders is saying now about corporatization. But, as this film reveals, TV interviewers were only looking for the shock value in Zappa, when his message was significantly deeper than saying naughty words.

As a result, “Eat That Question” winds up as a curiosity that will be strictly for Zappa aficionados. Newcomers to his oeuvre won’t walk out saying, “Wow, I want to hear more of his music,” because Schutte samples almost nothing that would compel you to do so. If you aren’t a Zappa fan before you see this film, it will do nothing to convert you.

One more day here: Hoping to do that revolving-door thing of walking out of one movie and straight into another all day.