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Sundance: Variety Critics Talk Mid-Fest Favorites

Variety logo Variety 1/25/2017 Owen Gleiberman
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OWEN GLEIBERMAN: I’m tempted to say, Peter, that this has been a fairly quiet Sundance so far. It’s not like there hasn’t been some noise, especially given that one title, “The Big Sick,” inspired enough love to be bought for $12 million — more than any Sundance film in history (with the exception of last year’s “The Birth of a Nation”). But maybe I’m talking about the fact that when I watch these movies now, I have a more daunting sense than I used to of how tough it will be for any of them, when they finally get released, to find a place in the newly fragmented, 1,000-entertainment-choices-a-day marketplace. Some of them will, of course, but the climb is getting steeper.

Yet enough gloom and doom! Let’s talk about “The Big Sick,” a romantic comedy that winds up being a true journey. I saw it almost as an indie “Jerry Maguire,” the story of a dude — in this case, a Pakistani-American standup comic played by the witty Kumail Nanjiani (who co-wrote the script and based it on his own life) — who falls in love (with the amazing Zoe Kazan), but then has to figure out what the stakes of love really are. It’s funny, tender, and beautifully acted, and you don’t know where it’s going. All of which is to say that Michael Showalter, who directed it, has ripened into a major talent.

PETER DEBRUGE: I’ve witnessed four standing ovations so far at this year’s Sundance, which ain’t bad, considering how hit-and-miss any festival can be. “The Big Sick” was one, of course, and is probably the most commercial film I’ve seen here — though I remain skeptical whether Amazon can make back that steep price they paid for it. It helps that Judd Apatow was involved as a producer, though it shares the same problem that most of his movies do, running a good half hour longer than needed. As a longtime fan of Nanjiani’s, I /did/ know where the story was going (it’s based on the near-death experience that cemented his relationship) and wish they’d spent a bit less time on his standup and one-man show — especially since the real-life material is so funny.

“Mudbound” and “Patti Cake$” also brought down the house, though my favorite so far has been “Call Me by Your Name,” the latest from “I Am Love” director Luca Guadagnino. The movie transports audiences to Northern Italy, where a 17-year-old remembers the intense summer fling that set the bizarre for every subsequent love in his life. The movie so vividly captures the time and place, I felt as if I was experiencing it first-hand, and by the end, never wanted to leave — which is exactly the point. Nothing gold can stay, though thanks to this indelible film, the characters’ memories are now my own.

OG: I don’t put that much stock in standing ovations at Sundance, but I’ll take your point. I agree with you, too, about “The Big Sick” being a little too long — though I think trimming eight minutes out of it would do the trick. Judd Apatow needs to introduce himself to Judd Scissorhands.

I want to mention two movies I liked that tap into the current mood, though I suspect only one of them is going to go anywhere. “Wind River” is the first film directed by Taylor Sheridan, the brilliant screenwriter of “Hell or High Water” and “Sicario,” and it’s a modern-day frontier murder mystery, set on a Native American reservation in wintry Wyoming, that extends the vision of economic desolation that coursed through those earlier films. Sheridan turns to be a natural-born filmmaker. And yet…I felt like he set the bar so high with “Hell” and “Sicario” that this film comes off as more dogged than exciting. I admired it, I thought it worked, but I can’t say I was jazzed by it. On the other hand, “Beatriz at Dinner,” which reunites the writer-director team of Mike White and Miguel Arteta, is effectively the first satire of Donald Trump: It pits Salma Hayek, terrific as a flaky Mexican-born holistic healer, against John Lithgow’s lusciously loathsome real-estate tycoon, and that’s a showdown I think people in 2017 are going to want to see.

PD: I suppose it depends on what aspect of the current mood you’re referring to, since anxiety seems to be at an all-time high as Trump’s inauguration overshadowed Sundance’s opening weekend. With demonstrators taking a break from screenings to participate in the Women’s March on Saturday (the page-one photo of the next day’s New York Times was snapped in Park City), I found myself cheering such distaff-directed movies as Ry Russo-Young’s stylish YA adaptation “Before I Fall,” Marti Noxon’s semi-autobiographical anorexia-themed “To the Bone” and the aforementioned “Mudbound” (from Dee Rees, whose “Pariah” opened the festival six years earlier).

“Mudbound” also touches on other issues, including racial tensions between black and white Americans — and specifically, the penalty a war hero faces for sleeping with a white woman while he was fighting in Europe. It’s a film I respect more than I responded to, though it has powerful things to say about the way that as a country, we could all rise up, if we stopped trying to keep one another down. Meanwhile, “Key and Peele” comic Jordan Peele may have stolen Rees’ thunder with his gutsy-as-hell horror movie “Get Out.” A riff on the fallacy of “post-racial” relations in America today, the wowza satire imagines the worst mixed-race meet-the-parents scenario possible — and though it screened here just once in a surprise midnight slot, I’d wager that it’ll be the Sundance film to make the biggest splash in theaters.

OG: Why do they always put the fun movies at midnight? I’ve seen a number of terrific documentaries at Sundance (like “Oklahoma City,” which grippingly connects the dots between the far-right movement that spawned Timothy McVeigh and the growing intolerance today), yet the one I have the most fondness for also played at midnight. It’s called “78/52,” and it’s a deep dive into the mystique of Hitchcock’s “Psycho” — and, especially, the shower scene — that’s the purest catnip for movie lovers. One is not surprised to see a film like this at Sundance, but with proper handling I think it could have a real life outside this place.

PD: No matter the festival, midnight movies are always a gamble. For every “Get Out,” there’s a “Kuso” — which is to say, a film so off-putting and/or upsetting you wish you could take your eyeballs out and scrub the experience from memory. To be honest, I’ve only just started watching midnight movies at festivals again, having sworn them off after the traumatic experience of catching the world premiere of “The Human Centipede” at Fantastic Fest years ago. Now, I tend to let other critics do the beef-eating, catching up with the non-toxic movies down the road. That said, I took considerable delight in the naughty comedy of Jeff Baena’s bawdy-nun movie “The Little Hours,” and am still in thrall of French director Julia Ducournau’s “Raw,” a stunningly original body-horror movie with a soul dark as midnight.

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