Critic’s Notebook: At Sundance 2015, Ladies First

25 Jan 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Critic’s Notebook: At Sundance 2015, Ladies First.

The independent movie hothouse chaired by Robert Redford kicked off with the satire “The Bronze,” about a mopey ex-Olympic star reduced to small potatoes.It’s been well and widely documented: the paucity of women both behind the camera and in front of it is a systemic American movie industry problem that’s not going away. 2014, especially, was singled out as a particularly impoverished period for female performances, and — the salt on the wound — the year’s most celebrated woman filmmaker, Selma’s Ava DuVernay, found herself locked out of the boys’ club that is the Best Director Oscar field.PARK CITY, Utah — What are normally ski shops, art galleries and boutiques on Park City’s Main Street have transformed into celebrity lounges during the first weekend of the Sundance Film Festival where celebrities load up on swag, from backpacks to boots.

This year, stars like Nicole Kidman, Hailee Steinfeld, and Jason Sudeikis were among the thousands who trekked to the tiny town outside of Salt Lake City to promote their new films and enjoy some of the best parties of the year – and PEOPLE was there to catch all the fun moments. 1:56 a.m., Tao Nightclub at Sundance: After Danny Masterson (aka DJ MomJeans) finished his set at the Skullcandy Sundance Kickoff party, he made the cold walk down Main Street to the Elyx-hosted pop-up of the Las Vegas hotspot along with Zoe Kravitz, Chris Pine and Kellan Lutz. 1:43 a.m., Tao Nightclub at Sundance: James Marsden sipped on a Stella Artois beer and sang along to every word of Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “N—-s in Paris” while sitting on the back of a booth at the crowded venue. 12:43 a.m., Ten Thousand Saints party, Grey Goose Blue Door Lounge: Emile Hirsch put his arm around his costar Hailee Steinfeld as they sat on a couch celebrating their new film. While the movie earned mixed reviews, people were buzzing about a jokey bedroom scene, in which star/co-writer Melissa Rauch’s (“The Big Bang Theory”) character has a comedic coupling with another former gymnast (Sebastian Stan).

The opening days of Sundance 2015 unfolded like a corrective to that grim state of affairs, reminding us that while the line between studios and independents is increasingly blurred, there are a few areas — gender diversity among them — in which there’s a clear and unmistakable difference. Kevin Smith popped into Park City Live, a conglomeration of celebrity suites including Billboard’s Winterfest concert space (set to feature Iggy Azalea on Saturday night) and the Birchbox cosmetics center, where visitors could get makeovers and collect a slew of beauty samples. The pair were earlier spotted snapping photos together at The Hollywood Reporter & Hollywood Foreign Press Association co-hosted Next Gen Cocktail Party before leaving together with Hirsch holding Steinfeld’s arms from behind as she led him towards the exit. 7:55 p.m., Eddie Bauer Limited Edition by Ilaria Urbinati exclusive preview: Walking Dead alert! Though creatively filmed with body doubles, the scene has enough aerials, dismounts, arch positions and stick landings to bound into the Movie Sex Hall of Fame.

Screening schedules on Thursday, Friday and Saturday were indeed packed with female-driven works — movies directed by or about women, featuring the kind of plum roles we rarely see actresses enjoying in multiplex fare. This year’s festival lineup even includes two TV shows, while the Sundance Institute, the body behind the festival, has set up a separate “laboratory” for young filmmakers interested in making television rather than movies. Friday found close encounters of another kind in “The Overnight.” A quirky quartet piece about two sets of parents finding they have different ideas of friendship. So you know, television is film,” said the 78-year-old movie icon, who named the festival after his character in the 1969 classic “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” “They’re blurring, and there’s a reason why: mainstream film is shrinking, obviously.

After the screening, Scott — who gets the short end of the stick in the movie — wanted to make one thing clear: “Prosthetics were used for both sizes! That film, a raunchy-sweet feature-length debut from Bryan Buckley, got a lukewarm reception, with many complaining that the main character played by Rauch was too unlikeable. The girls excitedly ran to the nearest sidewalk to look at the shots they had just taken. 2:39 pm., Main Street: was mobbed by fans looking to take a photo with the Pitch Perfect 2 actress. It’s harder and harder for an artist to find their way in the major film business, so television offers more opportunities.” But the exponential rise of new distribution formats, from DVDs to Video on Demand (VOD), premium cable channels like HBO and now Netflix, Amazon, Vimeo and other streaming outlets has changed the game for good.

I just want everyone to know that!” “Nasty Baby” unspooled Saturday night for an even darker look at partnerships, as a woman (Kristen Wiig returning to the fest in another gritty drama) agrees to have a baby for a gay couple before things take a deadly serious turn. A pathologically foul-mouthed, foul-humored former gymnast who accepts a gig coaching a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed up-and-comer, Rauch’s Hope Annabelle Greggory is the latest protagonist in the “mean lady” sub-genre of American comedy that includes works like Young Adult, Bad Teacher and Identity Thief.

The Eddie Bauer suite boasts an indoor climbing wall, while the Chase Sapphire Preferred lounge offers drinks, bites and a chance to try Oculus virtual-reality technology. While there are legitimate arguments to be made against all those films (particularly the latter two), it’s hard not to notice how uneasy women who don’t play nice can make viewers — especially given the whoops and cheers that the Hangover bros and Seth Rogen & Co. elicit from audiences. The appearance of “Netflix” on a film’s credits elicited spontaneous applause in at least one screening this week. “Thirty years ago, when you came out of film school as a 22-year-old, you probably had to take your first job in television, but you said ‘What I really want to do is direct features,’” he told AFP. “If I were a 22-year-old coming out of film school now and a genie comes out of a bottle and says you can either have a feature film or be the showrunner for a series on HBO or Amazon Prime…

Once Upon a Time star Jennifer Morrison chatted with a pal as she patiently waited to pick up screening tickets. 12:30 p.m., Kari Feinstein’s Sundance Style Lounge: Glassland Toni Collette looked stunning as she entered the suite, which is presented by Aruba, but was completely unrecognizable when she left just minutes later, thanks to her big sunglasses and Third Piece hooded scarf. “I walked right past her and didn’t even know it was her,” a festival-goer tells PEOPLE. Ethan Hawke — an Oscar nominee for his performance in “Boyhood” — here plays a messed-up pop, reconnecting with his troubled teenage son (Asa Butterfield) who comes down from Vermont. But the film and its talented star (best known for her work on TV series The Big Bang Theory) commit fully to the rude, crude creature at the center of it all: with her high pony tail and harsh bangs, unflattering track suit and dyspeptic demeanor, Hope is a bracing comic creation, and the movie allows her to behave badly — punching her father, poisoning her protégé, hurling insults at anyone who nears her toxic orbit — without humiliating her. To the filmmakers’ credit, and Rauch’s, Hope doesn’t start out monstrous and end up endearing; she’s both at once, all along — a ferocious caricature of a woman with shades of realness.

Spiky, complex female characters were also on display in Stockholm, Pennsylvania, another debut feature that screened early in the fest — this one directed by a woman, Nikole Beckwith. First came “A Walk in the Woods,” in which Redford himself stars with Nick Nolte as college friends reconnecting after 40 years to hike the Appalachian Trail. (It was only the second time in three decades that Redford appeared in a movie featured at his own festival.) Then James Franco and Jonah Hill starred in the taut “True Story,” about a reporter trying for regained relevance by interviewing a murderer on trial for his life.

Revolving around a young woman (Saoirse Ronan) who struggles to readjust to the outside world, and reconnect with her mother (Cynthia Nixon), after spending 20 years with her kidnapper, the film begins as a bleak, low-key drama before careening off the rails into psycho-thriller territory. If there’s a (nearly) saving grace, it’s the distinctive duo of actresses, both of whom give richly realized performances in roles that don’t always make sense.

The film, co-produced by Brad Pitt — who joined Franco and director Rupert Goold onstage afterward — took Franco to a dark place. “I hate this character,” he said, “but you have to find something to attach yourself to when playing him. Another selection from a first-time female director about children gone missing and mothers left reeling, Kim Farrant’s tense and atmospheric Strangerland also features Nicole Kidman’s strongest performance in a while. The film, directed by James Ponsoldt (“The Spectacular Now”), is a smart, absorbing look at loneliness, professional jealousy and the strange place real creativity occupies in the American landscape.

Kidman has played a lot of famous figures, divas and head cases, diving into “big” roles with an intensity that too often translates into an excess of actressy sighing. Here, it’s refreshing to see her slip into the skin of an ostensibly “ordinary” woman — an Outback housewife whose troubled teen daughter and young son vanish into the dusty vastness — and embrace the Aussie accent she always seems to be struggling to suppress in her American roles. The second half of Strangerland lunges from procedural toward something riskier and trickier — an exploration of the interplay between motherhood and sexual identity — and Farrant loses control, injecting the narrative with a lurid nightmarishness that feels overheated.

What a pleasant surprise, then, to see people swoon for The Diary of a Teenage Girl, a full-hearted, visually inventive, nearly note-perfect adaptation of Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic novel about a San Francisco high-schooler having an affair with her mother’s boyfriend. A smashing directorial debut by Marielle Heller, this is the rare American crowd-pleaser to bring us right inside a young woman’s sexual awakening: the lust and self-loathing, the longing and the narcissism, but also the all-consuming sensory pull of it. Heller achieves a warm tonal balance, blending an insider’s empathy and an adult’s knowing wryness, and draws superb supporting turns from Kristen Wiig as the flighty mother and Alexander Skarsgard as the object of desire.

The discovery of a new female director and actress who may be destined for great things was a thrill — and further proof that Sundance, whatever its annoyances, does sometimes make good on its mission of nudging talented people from the margins into the spotlight.

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