The 2017 Sundance Film Festival has come to a close and it was interesting to actually be in Park City to experience an event I’ve only heard about all these years. So to finish off all things Sundance related below are seven final feature film reviews including Bitch, XX, Where Is Kyra?, The New Radical, Nobody Speak: Hulk Hogan, Gawker And Trials Of A Free Press, Axolotl Overkill and Gook, a short review with the apt title F@cking Bunnies, plus a Sundance Thoughts section where I get honest about everything from venues to the films that played. (Candid commentary alert!) Plus as an extra bonus I’m doing a retro-review on a Slamdance 2017 documentary that took both the Audience and Jury prize titled Strad Style. So slap on your snow boots and follow me into movie review territory for a final gander at all things Sundance 2017!
Titled for it’s affinity towards the female gender of the canine species, Bitch is an odd and impressive story about a frustrated housewife who one day snaps and takes on the persona of a growling unfriendly dog. On the surface the premise of the film may seem like a gimmick, but in the hands of ample writer/director Marianna Polka – who does double duty playing the intense leading lady – there’s thoughtful underlying themes running rampant dealing with everything from spousal neglect to accepting responsibility. Of course, all of the above is engulfed in a very eerie (seeing Polka on all fours with a look of hate is unsettling!) and surprisingly funny (husband Jason Ritter brings some of the amazing humor that made his father famous – great work!) film that serves as a cautionary tale – love the one your with or face Mrs. Fido’s fury.
What’s most amusing about XX, an all female directed anthology horror film, is that the three stories that work best are from gals I’m not all that familiar with. So the segments The Box (an eerie tale of a family that decides food optional!), The Birthday Party (a cool comical concoction about death in the humorous vein of the Robert Zemeckis’s Tales from the Crypt short And All Through The House!) and The Fall (a purely grisly creature feature!) all provide very different but equally haunting horror via some female filmmakers to watch for. It’s actually seasoned vet and The Invitation (loved it!) director Karyn Kusama’s contribution Her Only Living Son that’s the weak link in the creepy chain here and it’s a shame given her success so far. But overall this ladies night out proves that women can be just as picture perverse as the men – good genre knows no gender.
WHERE IS KYRA?
A drama about making ends meat in our world where adults are struggling for even menial work is tad preachy and at times far-fetched, but is also dramatically rich thanks to the work of the fabulous cast. As a couple living day-to-day, paycheck-to-paycheck, Michelle Pfeiffer and Kiefer Sutherland skillfully portray the desperation of living below the poverty line and their nuanced work here grounds the more fantastical elements of the story. (Not to mention their chemistry here is good!) In a tale about what folks mid-life will do to survive, this one is less about Where is Kyra than rather Who is Kyra – a skilled actress who elevates the material that’s who.
THE NEW RADICAL
A doc dealing with crypto-anarchists (aka online sh@t disturbers!) – in this case the likes of Cody Wilson (creator of the printable gun) and radical thinker and British programmer Amir Taaki who started their own form of online currency laundering under the name Dark Wallet. Watching them undergo scrutiny and surveillance via government agencies is certainly fascinating, as is candid insight from close concerned family members, but the freedoms they fight for (do folks really need a gun that can be made using a 3D printer?!) are a tad trivial and make for a doc that lacks full audience investment.
NOBODY SPEAK: HULK HOGAN, GAWKER AND TRIALS OF A FREE PRESS
Dug elements of this examination of the trial between Hulk Hogan and Gawker over his famed ‘sex tape’ and all the tiny trappings buried underneath the surface do make for fine film fodder. But with this doc being one-sided (free press is under attack – fight back!) I found myself missing the bits where reputable folks on the opposing side would bring perspective and most of the times hang themselves with their own words. As a result the doc here feels more agenda based and not out to simply seek and expose the truth. (Plus Gawker does comes off a tad sleazy!) Even if one side is overwhelmingly in the right, there are two sides to every story for a reason.
Was unsure what the premise of this odd indie from Germany was about and frankly the program description didn’t help either. Something about a young girl whose mom is dead, father is busy (never got this from watching the film!) and is forced to fend for herself in the complex and sexual world of adults. While the filmmaker Helene Hegemann does have a keen eye for stark visuals, savvy camera work and does sensual here with loving gusto, her story is a mash up of teen angst and nightlife all void of cohesive narrative. So while this one may look good on the surface, the ‘everything and the kitchen sink’ approach to storytelling proves to be the overkill.
Gook, set on the eve of the famed LA riots, is a flick that seems like it would be more at home in the Spike Lee Do The Right Thing era. With a slew of colorful stereotypes (both sassy Korean brothers and a gang of African American toughs are represented), a shocking event that puts petty in it’s place (what are we fighting for?!) and an affinity to be utterly predictable (you can see the tragedy coming in this one from a mile away!), the film could have been a contender if not for past work that has done such drama before and frankly done it better. I’m all for adding ethnicity and wide racial makeup to our indies, but make the written work equally worthy – a stunning story speaks volumes.
This Midnight Short sees a buttoned down middle-class guy having to deal with sex and death when a Satan-worshipping sex cult moves in next door. With torture, open acts of debauchery and weirdness on the menu, this sick short is sinfully sweet.
I’d heard about the famed Egyptian Theatre on Main Street forever, but the actual venue in person reminds one of a rundown small town theater that plays more to the nostalgia factor. Hard seats, run down décor, seats with lines of sight that inhibit viewing (I had to stick my head in the middle aisle to see The Killing Ground over a tall dude in front of me!), sound that comes from the front only and a balcony that was never open (why have one?!) make it my least favorite of the screens at Sundance. (Plus there’s no fresh popped corn here – it’s all sadly pre-packaged film fans!) The Library Theater featured a big tent waiting room that was colder than being outside (the theater merely okay!), but at least the Prospector Square Theater felt like an actual movie theatre. Best of the bunch was actually away from Park City in Salt Lake City at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center. Complete with theater amenities (coat check y’all!), a high screen and multiple old school side balcony seat sections, this is where movies go when they die. (Forget Park City – Salt Lake does cinema right!)
Total disappointment in terms of the crop of indies this year. The Midnight section that in the past featured titles like Oldboy and Hard Candy was an onslaught of crappy flicks (who the hell programmed these?!) and of all the films I saw at Sundance this year only ONE turned out to be a five-star piece of work. (All hail Bad Day For The Cut!) With few ups and mostly of downs (sorry guys, the years of Clerks, Reservoir Dogs and sex, lies, and videotape are long gone!), Sundance 2017 strangely felt like every other fest I’ve ever attended – just okay. (The highlight appeared to be a retro screening of Dogs – guess we have to live in the past for perfection now huh Sundance!) Though the good news is the stigma of the illusive “it” fest plaguing me for years has been nicely humbled having finally attended in person and seeing the so-so wares spool out.
Would I ever attend the fest again? Hardly. Having availability to attend local LA fests like LA Film Festival, Dances With Films, the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, Cinequest and even Screamfest there’s more than enough fine film fun here to trump the missing prestige of heading to Park City for unattainable cinematic satisfaction. Overpriced (films range from $22-$25 dollars a shot!) overblown and not the mecca for film viewing (there were people texting near me while the film was playing at EVERY screening I went to – what gives?!!), to Sundance I say so long!
SLAMDANCE LEFTOVER DOCUMENTARY
This engrossing doc involving rural Ohio man and amateur violin maker Danny Houck trying to make a replica of the illusive Il Cannone violin for preeminent violinist Razvan Stoica is a fantastic example of savvy storytelling. By focusing on the everyman Danny, a regular guy trying to take his love of creating a perfect violin and making it a reality for one of the modern masters, the eager audience is fully engaged in the plight and outcome of the challenge right from the get go. Will Danny’s love and passion for the difficult task equal a masterpiece – Strad Style makes sure both the story journey and destination don’t disappoint.