12 films debuting at Sundance 2016 I can’t wait to see

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I’ve been dreaming of Sundance all week! I had planned on going initially, I even had the press application ready to go last December but I decided it was cutting it too close to my Christmas trip to the East Coast. But I’ve been closely following Sundance and reading some of the buzz/reviews.

“The Sundance Film Festival is truly a place for discovery,” said festival director John Cooper (per Screendaily) and it’s so great to see a variety of genres AND many female filmmakers represented in the lineup. Seems that Sundance is far more progressive in terms of gender/race diversity than Hollywood. For this purpose, I’m only highlighting feature films, though certainly there are quite a few documentaries at Sundance that caught my eye.

Anyway, without further ado, here’s the list:

[in alphabetical order – ‘W’ marks films directed by women]

1. Ali & Nino

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Muslim prince Ali and Georgian aristocrat Nino have grown up in the Russian province of Azerbaijan. Their tragic love story sees the outbreak of the First World War and the world’s struggle for Baku’s oil. Ultimately they must choose to fight for their country’s independence or for each other.

Director: Asif Kapadia

Cast: Adam Bakri, Maria Valverde, Mandy Patinkin, Connie Nielsen, Riccardo Scamarcio, Homayoun Ershadi.

“… an epic love story set against the backdrop of the First World War, expansionist Communist Russia and the independence movement in Azerbaijan.” (per UAE’s The NationalBoy you don’t hear that every day. Nor do you hear a love story between two faiths, which is many parts of the world could be even more problematic than love story between two races. Kapadia is the filmmaker behind two acclaimed docs, Senna and Amy, so I’m curious how he’d fare with his dramatic feature.

2. Birth of a Nation

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Nat Turner, a former slave in America, leads a liberation movement in 1831 to free African-Americans in Virgina that results in a violent retaliation from whites.

Director and screenwriter: Nate Parker

Cast: Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Aja Naomi King, Jackie Earle Haley, Gabrielle Union, and Mark Boone Junior

This is perhaps the buzziest film out of Sundance this year. I had read last week about how Nate Parker quit acting for two years and raised $10 mil to get this film made. I’ve only seen him in Beyond the Lights so far and I think he’s a pretty charismatic actor. It’s been a passion project for him for years and it seemed to have paid off big time. Fox Searchlight Pictures has bought the worldwide distribution rights for the film for $17.5 million, apparently the biggest deal in the history of the Sundance Film Festival. You can read this THR article about his journey to get this film made. So far the reviews have been universally positive, at least from what I gather on Twitter. Vulture calls it ‘… a beautiful, reflective film even as it is also a brutal, visceral one.’ The subject matter is as timely as ever and it’s definitely a film I’ll keep an eye on.

3. Captain Fantastic

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In the forests of the Pacific Northwest, a father devoted to raising his six kids with a rigorous physical and intellectual education is forced to leave his paradise and enter the world, challenging his idea of what it means to be a parent.

Director and screenwriter: Matt Ross

Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Frank Langella, George MacKay, Kathryn Hahn, Steve Zahn, Ann Dowd

The premise sounds intriguing, esp. with Viggo Mortensen in the lead. It seems quirky, even bizarre on the outset, but promises a lot of heart. This Huffington Post reviewer describes it as ‘… a spirited film celebrating life and ingenuity’ that sparked his spirit after a long, hectic day at Sundance.

4. Certain Women [W]

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The lives of three woman intersect in small-town America, where each is imperfectly blazing a trail.

Director: Kelly Reichardt

Cast: Michelle Williams, Laura Dern, and Kristen Stewart

I’m not familiar with Reichardt’s work at all but I’m immediately intrigued by the premise of this film and the mostly-female cast. The Guardian says, ‘Like Reichardt’s directorial hand, the performances are understated across the board, but deeply felt.’ I should check out her earlier film Meek’s Cutoff, which also stars Michelle Williams.

5. Complete Unknown

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Michael Shannon plays Tom, a married man who, at his birthday celebration, feels sure he knows Alice (Rachel Weisz), and pursues her during a long, adventurous night.

Director: Joshua Marston

Cast: Rachel Weisz, Michael Shannon, Kathy Bates, Danny Glover, and Michael Chernus

This is one of the two Michael Shannon films that caught my eye from Sundance. Interestingly enough both have romantic tones and I haven’t seen Shannon as a romantic hero before. But I LOVE Rachel Weisz and the premise of her playing a mysterious woman definitely intrigues me. Per Screen Daily‘It’s hard to imagine Complete Unknown working as well as it does without Weisz in the lead role. She is equally adept at embodying some kind of ideal vision of a woman—charming, intelligent, and sociable—as she is revealing the vulnerabilities and insecurities that exist underneath her alluring surface.’ Sounds like it’s worth a watch just for miss Weisz!

6. Equity [W]

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The first female-driven Wall Street film, follows a senior investment banker who is threatened by a financial scandal and must untangle a web of corruption.

Director: Meera Menon

Cast: Anna Gunn, James Purefoy, Sarah Megan Thomas, and Alysia Reiner

Ok so Working Girl was technically a female-driven Wall Street film, but this one is not about a woman trying to get into the male-driven industry. As Variety puts it, it’s a female spin of The Big Short and Margin Call about a group of women caught up in the world of high finance. The fact that there’s a female director at the helm naturally made me even more intrigued by it. Oh, and having James Purefoy here doesn’t hurt either. Sony Pictures Classics has bought it so it’s likely we’ll see this in cinemas soon.

7. Frank & Lola

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Set in Las Vegas and Paris, this love story covers the full circle of emotions: love, obsession, sex, betrayal, revenge and eventually the search for redemption.

Director & Screenwriter: Matthew M. Ross

Cast: Imogen Poots, Michael Shannon, Justin Long, Rosanna Arquette

Check out this short clip:

It’s billed as a romantic thriller and it’s got Shannon in the romantic lead. Color me intrigued. As I mentioned before, I haven’t seen Shannon in a romantic role before, but he’s a terrific and versatile actor so I’m sure he’d acquit himself well. I haven’t seen Rosanna Arquette in anything for a long time, I wonder what role she’ll be playing here.

8. Love & Friendship

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Set in the 1790s, Love and Friendship centers on beautiful widow Lady Susan Vernon, who has come to the estate of her in-laws to wait out colorful rumors about her dalliances circulating through polite society. Whilst there, she decides to secure a husband for herself and her rather reluctant debutante daughter, Frederica.

Director: Whit Stillman

Cast: Kate Beckinsale, Chloë Sevigny, Xavier Samuel

You already know I have a penchant for Jane Austen. Per Variety, this film is an adaptation of Austen’s earlier work called “Lady Susan” that was published posthumously in 1871. I haven’t seen Kate Beckinsale in ages (I think the last time it was the ghastly Total Recall sequel) so nice to see her in a period drama once again. Here she stars as Lady Susan, described as the most irresistibly devious of Austen protagonists. Yes please! Interesting to see Chloe Sevigny here, I don’t think I’ve seen her in this genre before.

9. Maggie’s Plan [W]

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A young woman’s determination to have a child catapults her into a nervy love triangle with a heart-throb academic and his eccentric critical-theorist wife.

Director: Rebecca Miller

Cast: Greta Gerwig, Ethan Hawke, Julianne Moore, Bill Hader, Maya Rudolph, Travis Fimmel.

I had missed a lot of Greta Gerwig’s films though I realize she’s quite the indie darling. So perhaps this will be my first movie I see her in. But what intrigued me right away was Rebecca Miller directing. She’s the daughter of playwright Arthur Miller and she’s married to acting legend Daniel Day-Lewis, but she’s a multi-talented artist herself being a painter/sculptor/writer/director. This is her fifth film and yet I haven’t seen a single one. [Note to self: watch The Ballad of Jack and Rose which stars Day Lewis)

10. Sophie And The Rising Sun [W]

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In a small Southern town in the autumn of 1941, Sophie’s lonely life is transformed when an Asian man arrives under mysterious circumstances. Their love affair becomes the lightning rod for long-buried conflicts that erupt in bigotry and violence with the outbreak of World War ll.

Director: Maggie Greenwald

Cast: Julianne Nicholson, Margo Martindale, Lorraine Toussaint, Takashi Yamaguchi, Diane Ladd, Joel Murray.

Check out this short clip:

Interesting seeing Nicholson and Martindale in a film together again since August, Osage County. Last time Nicholson was paired with Benedict Cumberbatch whose relationship ended up being a shocking revelation in the plot. Well, this time around it’s her relationship with a Japanese man that causes a stir in her community. The whole ‘forbidden love story’ thing always intrigues me, too. As for Greenwald, I haven’t seen any of her work but I really should check out Songcatcher (2000) starring Janet McTeer and Aidan Quinn.

11. Sing Street

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A boy growing up in Dublin during the ’80s escapes his strained family life and tough new school by starting a band to win the heart of a beautiful and mysterious girl.

Director: John Carney

Cast: Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Lucy Boynton, Jack Reynor, Aidan Gillen, Mark McKenna.

Having loved two of Carney’s earlier films, Once and Begin Again, naturally I’m looking forward to what he’s going to do next. Surely it’ll be music-related and who doesn’t love 80s music? I love movies set in Ireland and this one has an Irish cast, too, including Jack Reynor whom I met during his Transformers 4 press tour. The Guardian says Carney ‘…hits the bullseye again with a goodnatured 80s-set comedy’ and many reviewers have called it ‘joyful.’ I can’t wait to see this one!

12. Tallulah [W]

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Desperate to be rid of her toddler, a dissatisfied Beverly Hills housewife hires a stranger to babysit and ends up getting much more than she bargained for.

Director and screenwriter: Sian Heder

Cast: Ellen Page, Allison Janney, Tammy Blanchard, Evan Jonigkeit, and Uzo Aduba

My pal Kirsten Gregerson gave me some updates right from from Park City. The reason she was able to attend Sundance in the first place was because her dear friend, Stacey Thunder, played the reporter in Tallulah.  She and Heather Rae, Tallulah‘s producer, have been friend’s for some time, meeting through Kimberly Guerrero who also was in The Jingle Dress with Stacey.

“I was very thankful to be a part of the Tallulah weekend as well as help Stacey with her new show called Indigenous with Stacey Thunder.  I was able to attend the Sundance Native Forum Brunch and take pictures behind the scenes of her interview with Chris Eyre who directed the film Smoke Signals.” – Kirsten

Tallulah‘s written & directed by Sian Heder (Orange is the new Black), who was pregnant during the shoot and is now the mother of two young children. This is her mini review of the film:

A smart and touching comedy about taking the risk of needing someone and being needed.  I have often felt judged as a mother by other moms, probably the hardest though on myself. This film helped me to realize that mothering is not black or white but shades of grey.  The role of Carolyn played by Tammy Blanchard was a difficult one to play and she nailed it.  She is a woman that desperately wants to feel needed but, like many of us, looks to fill that void with alcohol and men.  She has a child that so desperately needs her and wants her but she can’t see that until that child is taken away from her.

The two leads, Allison Janey and Ellen Page, are magic on screen as we have seen before in Juno. Some scenes are dramatic, others are really funny, kind of like life. It was also refreshing to see the woman who plays Crazy Eyes in Orange Is The New Black (Uzo Aduba) as a reporter in this film, who is also a mother.  Although he had limited screen time, Lu’s (Ellen Page) boyfriend, played by Evan Jonigkeit, gave a memorable and truthful performance.  You will definitely be seeing more of him.

In a nutshell, I absolutely loved the film and left the theater feeling good about what kind of mom I have been over the years.  We are all just trying are best and want to feel loved and needed, but in a healthy way.

I can’t wait to see this one. I’ve mentioned in this post that Netflix has bought this film for $5mil and an unnamed theatrical partner will release the film in the latter part of 2016.

For more info on which films have been sold at Sundance so far » The Wrap

……

NOTABLE MENTIONS:

Christine
Christine

The story of 1970s TV reporter Christine Chubbuck who committed suicide on live TV.

Director: Antonio Campos

Cast: Rebecca Hall, Michael C. Hall, Maria Dizzia, Tracy Letts, and J. Smith-Cameron

Manchester By the Sea

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After his older brother passes away, Lee Chandler is forced to return home to care for his 16-year-old nephew. There he is compelled to deal with a tragic past that separated him from his family and the community where he was born and raised.

Director: Kenneth Lonergan

Cast: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Lucas Hedges, Kyle Chandler.

The Hollars

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Aspiring New York City artist John Hollar returns to his Middle America hometown on the eve of his mother’s brain surgery. Joined by his girlfriend, eight months pregnant with their first child, John is forced to navigate the crazy world he left behind.

Director: John Krasinski

Cast: John Krasinski, Anna Kendrick, Margo Martindale, Richard Jenkins, Sharlto Copley, Charlie Day.


Sources: Variety | Screen Daily | Buzzfeed


Have you been keeping up with Sundance? Which film(s) are YOU looking forward to the most?

FlixChatter Double Reviews: Beyond the Lights & Begin Again

Neither one of these two indie films were even on my radar but I’m sure glad I got to see them!  Beyond the Lights is currently out in select theaters and Begin Again are now available on VOD.

Beyond the Lights 

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The first time I learned about this movie was when I saw a photo of Gugu Mbatha-Raw in full S&M getup with purple hair and I thought, is that the actress from Belle? I absolutely loved her in that movie so she’s definitely the main draw for me to see this.

The film introduces us to the protagonist Noni Jean when she’s in her early teens. Raised by her driven & ruthless single mother Macy (Minnie Driver) who took her to various talent contests, it’s apparent that failure is not an option for her. Fast forward over a decade later, Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) has blossomed into a Rihana-like pop star on the brink of superstardom. She’s just won a Billboard Music award as part of a hip-hop duo with Kid Culprit (played by real life rapper Machine Gun Kelly). Noni is seemingly at the top of her game, being touted as a hot new artist with fans and paparazzi and throng of fans hot on her trail. But the pressure of fame drives Noni to the point of self destruction, as the more famous she becomes, the more she feels invisible. Kaz Nicol (Nate Parker), a young cop who’s assigned to be her security that night saves her just in the nick of time. ‘I see you,’ he says, and somehow that gives Noni just enough hope in her to keep going.

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Noni and Kaz are inevitably drawn to each other, and it’s no brainer that the two end up together. Some people compare this film to The Bodyguard but I honestly never thought of that movie the entire time I was watching this. For one, the relationship between the two characters are more on equal footing as Kaz isn’t technically working for Noni here and Noni herself isn’t quite in the same level as Whitney Huston’s character who’s already reached superstar status.

Though at first glance this film may appear as a romantic drama, it’s actually so much more than that. Yes there are romance and romantic scenes, but it’s all part of Noni’s journey of self-discovery and being able to stand on her own two feet. It’s also a commentary on the image-obsessed music industry that exploit female sexuality to sell records. The outfits that Noni wear in the movie would make even Lady Gaga blush [or maybe not], there’s one particular outfit where her upper body is only covered by a string of chains and nothing else. It’s a not-so-subtle hint that Noni is metaphorically and literally in chains, the fact that she’s always in the shadow of her rapper partner and is also controlled by her mother within an inch of her life.

BeyondtheLights_StillsBy the same token, Kaz’s life is in a way also controlled by external influences who push him for a political career. He’s also got an ambitious police captain father (Danny Glover) with his powerful allies and the pressure is getting to him as well. It’s an interesting parallel life story but the movie is more about Noni, which is truly the beating heart of the movie.

Mbatha-Raw is astounding in yet another career-making performance that shows her acting chops and versatility. Noni requires a tremendous physical as well as emotional commitment from the actor, and the British actress totally owned her role. I certainly hope she’ll get some kind of recognition come award season and that Hollywood continue to cast her in prominent roles. I also love the casting of Minnie Driver here, who I think is an underrated actress. Though I don’t agree with Macy’s actions, I don’t see her as a *villain* and the film does give us a glimpse into her character’s motivations.

The film itself is not perfect, there are moments that feel awkward or too schmaltzy. Pacing also feels a bit off as some scenes feel more drawn-out than they should be. The scene of Noni & Kaz on the plane makes me cringe, and Nate Parker‘s constant shirtless scenes also feel gratuitous that it made me laugh. That said, I’m impressed by Gina Prince-Bythewood‘s direction and the story kept me engaged and fully-invested in the main character. Last but not least, the music is definitely the highlight here, thanks to Mark Isham‘s emotive score. The song Blackbird holds a special meaning to Noni and by the time she sung a rendition of it towards the end, I wanted to get up and cheer for her!

This film seems to be under most people’s radar but I really hope that people would give it a look. I know I’d readily watch this again and the soundtrack is definitely worth buying!

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Begin Again

BeginAgainBnrThis movie wasn’t even on my radar until fairly recently, and I haven’t seen Once yet which was Director John Carnet‘s critically-acclaimed debut. Well, I like Carney’s storytelling style and he’s assembled a great cast to tell the story.

Mark Ruffalo plays Dan, a distressed record producer of an indie label who’s been having a very bad day. Clashing with his business partner that leads to him losing his job and feeling estranged from his ex-wife and teenage daughter, he ends his day at a bar to drink his woes away. Meanwhile, Keira Knightley‘s Greta is nursing a broken heart having just split from his musician boyfriend and was dragged to perform a song by his BFF in attempt to cheer her up. Well it’s not exactly a meet cute, but you know that their encounter somehow would change their lives profoundly.

BeginAgainStillsThe film is told partly in parallel between the two characters, giving us a glimpse into their lives and how they intersect. The acting felt so natural and right away I connected with the two leads and their journey. This might be one of my fave Keira Knightley‘s performances and nice to see her portraying a plain and relatable girl, a role she seems to relish and have fun playing. Ruffalo is a reliable and charming actor and he’s just so likable and endearing here even at the moment of a life crisis. He embodies an artistic and idealistic guy who can *see* and feel music so deeply and he’s so convincing at it. The film took us on a ride with Dan & Greta sharing music on their iPods and hanging out together around NYC (which could double as the city’s tourism video). Music is infused throughout the film and so there are lovely musical moments here. Two of my fave scenes are featured in this week’s music break, but there’s also a fun one when the group play on a rooftop.

I LOVE the spontaneity and adventurous spirit as Dan assemble a group of amateur talents to make up a band for Greta and the recording process in various places – in an alley, rooftop and even a subway station – is fun to watch. This movie is so enjoyable and engaging that I even tolerate seeing Adam Levine playing a douche bag (convincingly, natch) but I have to admit he’s pretty decent here and I could see why they cast him. James Corden and Hailee Steinfeld also lend memorable supporting roles as Keira’s BFF and Mark’s daughter respectively, though Catherine Keener is a bit underutilized. Overall though, this is Dan and Greta’s story and both Ruffalo and Knightley shine in their roles.

The finale isn’t tied up in a neat little bow which I think gives the story even more poignancy, the way Roman Holiday was to me. Of course parts of me want a happy ending, but the more I think about it, I like it the way it is and there’s a genuine element of surprise when things don’t go as you expect it. I can’t recommend this movie enough, and trust me folks, you won’t be disappointed!

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Have you seen these films? Well, what did you think?

Rental Pick: Arbitrage (2012)

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It’s been a while since I saw Richard Gere in anything. It must’ve been a good five years or so. Well, it’s nice to see him in a meaty role that proves he’s got the dramatic chops to go with his good looks. At 63, he’s still quite a looker. Even paired with someone half his age, he somehow makes it look far less creepy than it could’ve been.

Gere plays Robert Miller, a multi-billionaire who seems to have it all. He has a successful career and a beautiful wife. He’s about to sell the seemingly profitable hedge fund he’s been managing with his daughter for a boatload of money. But of course, within minutes of the film’s opening we realize that Mr. Miller is in over his head, financially AND personally. I don’t know how this guy sleeps at night with all the lies he’s trying to cover up from everyone, especially those close to him.

One night, a tragic accident that kills his mistress propels his situation from bad to worse. Robert then turns to an unlikely person for help, which gets him even deeper into the rabbit hole, though it’s all his own doing. What I like about this film is the in-depth character study of about a person we could totally see happening in real life. Robert is not some fantastical character, there’s a ring of truth that made me think it could’ve been based on a real person. The kind of decisions he makes throughout the film reveals so much about his character and the film becomes an intriguing morality tale.

Richard Gere is in top form here, he certainly has the elite look and gravitas that makes him perfectly suited for a person of power. But he also displays a fine layer of vulnerability here that makes us still sympathize with Robert despite all the VERY bad things he’s done in his life. At times the film feels like a procedural drama when Robert is being investigated by a resolute detective Bryer (Tim Roth), but overall the film never loses its focus.

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The supporting cast is superb all around. I like Brit Marling‘s understated performance in After Earth, but here she proves her versatility as an actress. There’s an explosive scene between her and Gere that’s quite thrilling to watch. Nate Parker and French model/actress Laetitia Casta have small but very crucial roles here, and both of them did a decent job. Last but not least, Susan Sarandon once again lends a memorable performance as Gere’s loyal wife. Like Gere, the 66-year old actress still looks luminous for her age, and still has the sex appeal to hold her own against even a former Victoria’s Secret model!

Though some of the financial/investment jargon at times got lost on me, the film manages to keep me engaged from start to finish. The plot is complex enough where I didn’t see the twists from miles away, and that finale at a banquet in his honor is pretty darn satisfying. Kudos to Nicholas Jarecki who wrote and directed his debut film with such an adept hand, he’s definitely a newbie filmmaker to watch for. This film proves that you don’t need bombastic shoot outs or crazy car chases to create genuine tension.

Final Thoughts: I LOVE cerebral thrillers like this that blends mystery and morality tale, more of a slow burn but it really makes an impact when the time is right. The real thrill here isn’t the special effects or clever camera work, but more in the taut script and performances. Though the film is aesthetically-shot and full of beautiful people, the story still takes center stage and that to me, is the beauty of this film.

4.5/5 stars


Have you seen Arbitrage? Well, what did you think?