2015 Sundance Film Festival Kicks Off: What Happened, Miss Simone?, The Overnight, True Story...

ScreenerBlog

A tangible excitement has taken over the streets of Park City one more time, as the 2015 edition of Sundance Film Festival, which kicked off on Thursday, is well underway. Last year’s festival is still fresh in minds, largely due to its rich crop of critically-acclaimed titles such as Whiplash (2014 opening night film), Boyhood, Life Itself, Love is Strange, The Babadook, Obvious Child and A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night proving to have legs beyond the mountains, and with the first two even scoring a number of Academy Awards nominations in major categories. This year’s festival has certainly a lot to live up to and during the festival’s Day 1 press conference, festival director John Cooper (joined by Robert Redford and Sundance Institute’s Executive Director Keri Putnam) promised nothing less in saying that the audiences would feel a wild ride.

As he often does, Robert Redford celebrated the notion of “change” –how it affects the world and the society we live in- during the conversation moderated by Salt Lake Tribune film critic Sean Means, setting the stage for the days ahead. The trio focused on interconnected topics around episodic storytelling in response to the blurring lines between TV and Film (reminding everyone that their lab model has expanded to offer help to filmmakers and storytellers in building episodic content), documentaries, distribution models and diversity issues in film industry. 
Tackling a question related to distribution (especially of the currently distribution-less Sundance title A Walk In The Woods starring Redford himself), Redford said he’s had some experiences with his own films that had either no or poor distribution, perhaps subtly referring to his remarks around All Is Lost in last year’s press conference that Roadside Attractions has handled the film unsatisfactorily (which was on the same day as Academy Awards nominations when he didn’t get a Best Actor nod.) “What’s the mindset of a distributor? What moves and galvanizes them? I don’t know. It’s weird,” said Redford. Touching upon alternate alleys of distribution while not alienating the traditional models, Putnam talked about “The Artist Services Program” carried out by the Sundance Institute year around to help artists both creatively tell their stories, and tactically and strategically connect with audiences. “It is about providing opportunities to filmmakers who want to be more entrepreneurial about releasing their films after the festival or at any point,” said Putnam. “We have a new partner we’re very excited about this year: Quiver Digital. They built a dashboard where all filmmakers using this tool can see how their film is doing. It’s really great transparency of data.”
Speaking of a visible festival trend this year, Cooper mentioned documentary filmmakers thinking about the cinematic experience from a use of story and character standpoint. “It’s not just about getting the information out there but also about how to engage an audience.” Answering a question from the crowd about why there seems to be a disconnect between Hollywood and the independent world in Sundance when it comes to the diversity of players, Putnam said; “If we had the answer to that question, we would be publicizing it pretty widely. We have done our own research with USC. The pipeline of young talent interested in telling stories is there but somewhere along the way, they fall out of the equation. When money comes in, it changes. One of the biggest obstacles towards changing it is there wasn’t even awareness this was a problem.” Then Cooper added, “I will just say that Ava DuVernay won the best directing award here with Middle of Nowhere,” delicately driving attention to her snub at the Oscars as a Best Director nominee and highlighting an attitude that sets Sundance apart from mainstream Hollywood.
The opening night films of the festival didn’t offer up the next Whiplash perhaps, but Liz Garbus’ Nina Simone documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? (screening as part of festival’s Doc Premieres slate) was a showstopper, and in many ways, brought home the points made at the press conference around documentaries and diversity. With the use of an extensive, stunning wealth of archival footage and a number of talking heads interviews, Garbus evidently chose to tell the well-known and widely unknown parts of the icon’s life story in a steady, straightforward manner and let the wonderful music and rich archival material speak for themselves. And what a deeply affecting result she has achieved in building Nina Simone first and foremost as an inimitably talented artist, but also as a fragile human being whose talents and eventual artistry were hindered by systemic racism of the time, despite her stardom and influential role at the Civil Rights movement. Nina Simone was originally trained to become a classical pianist, but she could never realize her true dream after getting rejected by the music school she applied to; a decision made due to her race. With her film, Garbus gracefully explores the truth about an international talent who never felt she was given a chance to rise up to her true calling in life. What Happened, Miss Simone? was especially powerful when the story reached to the heat of the Civil Rights movement, pointedly blasting Simone’s emotionally gripping “Mississippi Goddam” as well as footage of the Selma march and its aftermath; in a way, bridging the conversations the film industry has been having the past couple of weeks around Selma’s absence at the Oscars, with Sundance. Selma director Ava DuVernay was also at the screening. So was John Legend –an Oscar nominee this year for Best Original Song (“Glory” from Selma)- who sang a number of Nina Simone songs on the piano at the end of the screening; making a memorable night at Sundance even more special with “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.”
Before making it to the next opening night film in my schedule, I accepted Anne Thompson’s kind invitation to stop by Indiewire’s infamous annual chili party at their condo and somehow managed to grab a bowl of delicious chili and a glass of wine, before running back to the Eccles Theater in time for Bryan Buckley’s US Competition title The Bronze – a film that only deserves a gold medal for featuring the raunchiest, funniest and the most borderline ridiculous sex scene in recent memory (hint: it’s a sex scene between competing gymnasts, so use your imagination.) However, the film itself was largely a flop, despite conjuring many uncomfortable laughs from the audience, unsure of what to do with poorly written material, delivered by its hilarious lead Melissa Rauch with distinguished comic timing. In The Bronze, Rauch plays a once-upon-a-time bronze medalist gymnast who’s now wasting her days in her dad’s basement watching videos of her expired glory, consuming thousands of calories a day (yet, still managing to stay inexplicably skinny) and swearing like a sailor to whomever and whatever crosses her path. I give it credit for its female-driven story where we get to watch women obsessing about things that have nothing to do with men and are given the luxury of being and acting gross, but The Bronze unfortunately uses up this credit of goodwill too quickly by becoming an often unfunny comedy, about 20 minutes too long.
Festival’s second day –which is its first full day with screenings starting as early as 8:30am- offered many hotly anticipated titles across a variety of programs. I gave my best shot to get into the Press & Industry screening of Robert Eggers’ US Dramatic Competition title The Witch, but unfortunately got shut out of it despite showing up 45 minutes early, and decided to see Mark Cousins’ 6 Desires: DH Lawrence and Sardinia instead (showing in Documentary Spotlight) which was the next viable option. Constructed as a letter to Lawrence in the accompaniment of footage of Sardinia as well as cinematic clips as references, I am sorry to say this project would have been better off if it stayed solely as a written essay. Offering no visual interest or imagery that is remotely cinematic (it takes a lot for one to make Sardinia look ugly), this little experiment was a puzzling choice for spotlight, not to mention for a slot at the press screenings, where the theaters are already small and crowded.
Next, I watched Nikole Bekwith’s Saoirse Ronan-starrer Stockholm, Pennsylvania, a harrowing abduction story founded on a pretty unsound metaphor around love. The film, like Ronan’s character who returns in her early 20s after living in the captivity of her abductor for over 15 years, asks the question whether love evokes and fuels a sense of ownership and entitlement over one and other. Ronan, and Cynthia Nixon (who plays her mother) deliver fine performances, but the film only resonates to a limited degree.
The US Dramatic Competition title The Overnight (directed by Patrick Brice), if my prophecy holds, might become a sleeper hit of sorts of this year’s festival. The crowd at the Eccles certainly signaled it. Produced by Adam Scott and the Duplass Brothers (who are synonymous with Sundance at this point) and starring Scott, Jason Schwartzman, "Orange Is The New Black"’s Taylor Schilling and Judith Godreche, The Overnight is a sharply written comedy that dares to be a hipster-ized, 21st Century “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, with intellectualism replaced with sexual humor. Watch out for plenty of full-frontal shots of Schwartzman and Scott (who ruined the fun by revealing "They are both prosthetics!" at the premiere's Q&A at the Eccles.)
My last stop on Friday was Jonah Hill, James Franco and Felicity Jones-starrer True Story, one of this year’s bigger fares which distributor Fox Searchlight along with Plan B producers brought to Park City. The screening was attended by the director Rupert Goold, James Franco and to everyone’s surprise, Brad Pitt as one of the film’s Executive Producers at Plan B. True Story tells, um, a true story adapted from Michael Finkel’s book with same title. As a now jobless but once on-the-rise journalist (played by Jonah Hill), Finkel is confronted by the disturbing news that a potential killer of his wife and three young children (played by Franco) has used his identity when he was captured in Mexico. Interviewing the suspect in building an exclusive story with hopes of a comeback, Finkel unveils dark secrets amid a cat and mouse game where truth takes many shapes. Confidently directed and shot, True Story only falls short when it comes to a miscast James Franco (an artist whose versatility I generally admire), who frequently shows he’s ‘acting’ as opposed to ‘being’. Plus, an under-utilized Felicity Jones –who plays Finkel’s wife- makes one wish for more scenes with her. Still a respectable, competent feature debut that makes me look forward to theater-hailer Goold’s next feature. 
Friday ended with a quick stop at True Story’s after-party at Main Street, but in an effort to save my energy for Saturday morning’s 9am screening of The End Of The Tour, I called it an early night in anticipation of the days ahead.