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Critic Says This Year's Sundance Was The 'Most Fraught' He Can Recall


This is FRESH AIR. This year's Sundance Film Festival wrapped up over the weekend. It's held every January in Park City, Utah and is attended by filmmakers, film executives, distributors, journalists, critics and film fans. Our producer Ann Marie Baldonado went to the festival to scout films for us to cover on our show in the coming months. She invited LA Times film critic Justin Chang to talk with us about this year's festival. Justin has been attending for 12 years.


JUSTIN CHANG: Thank you.

BALDONADO: Now, the Sundance Film Festival just ended this past weekend. But when the festival opened, it was still the Obama administration. And when the festival started, I think there was this effort to kind of keep politics on the sideline. That's something that Robert Redford, you know, the founder of the festival kind of said when he opened the festival, even though it did open with an Al Gore documentary. But then politics still ended up finding a way of becoming a constant undercurrent of the whole festival.

Can you talk about how it sort of started that way and kind of slowly maybe changed over?

CHANG: Yes, I would say that's right. I think that the festival found itself in a tricky position and wanting to support the political protest but without kind of making a direct show of its support, perhaps. But, you know, it's complicated because, of course, Robert Redford, I was there when he introduced "An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth To Power," you know, Al Gore's latest climate change documentary. And he was very warm and introduced Al Gore as, you know, a very good friend of his.

And of course, you know, the festival has shown any number of climate change documentaries over the years and has in general just shown a lot of films that promote the kinds of progressive causes that, I think, motivate people to stand against what the Trump administration represents. And you're right, it was funny how you kind of went up the mountain in one regime and (laughter) came down the mountain in another regime. And so that kind of - there's something kind of surreal about that. And on top of that, the inauguration, the Women's March and then we had Oscar nominations on Tuesday (laughter) right after the first weekend.


CHANG: So it was kind of the craziest, most fraught Sundance I can remember and so far as the festival was just so sort of kind of bedeviled by all these outside things going on. And even though there were very good films at Sundance, I think all of that extra noise sort of overshadowed the films a bit. And, you know, I think many good ones still got recognized and still got seen, still got reviewed, still got purchased. But overall, there was - it seemed to be, like, film is important, but it's not all about film.

There seemed to be this kind of humility, I think, in terms of how the festival regarded itself.

BALDONADO: Let's talk about some of the films that you saw at the Sundance Film Festival this year. Can you talk about what your favorite film is that you saw?

CHANG: My favorite film of the festival was "Call Me By Your Name," which is the latest film from the Italian director Luca Guadagnino. He previously directed "I Am Love" and "A Bigger Splash." This is an adaptation of a novel by Andre Aciman, which was published in 2007. It's about an American Jewish 17-year-old boy who's living in Northern Italy with his family, who are academics. And it's about the love affair that he has with someone who's staying as an academic houseguest with them over the summer.

And the boy is played by Timothee Chalamet, and the older man that he falls in love with is played by Armie Hammer. And this is just such an exquisitely sensual film that is kind of a revelation to encounter in a place like Park City, Utah. It's like you walk into a theater out of the freezing cold and suddenly you're plunged into this sun-drenched Italian paradise where people are drinking fresh fruit juice and wine. And you just - you just kind of lean back and sigh. And you just want to go to that place (laughter), you know? And for a little more than two hours, you are in that place.

BALDONADO: I want to ask you about another movie, "Beatriz At Dinner," which is...


BALDONADO: ...Written by Mike White, directed by Miguel Arteta. They together have worked on different films, including "Chuck And Buck," "The Good Girl" and the TV show "Enlightened." And it stars Salma Hayek and also John Lithgow. And of the films, perhaps it's the one that hits kind of most directly. There's kind of a Trump-like figure, like, a real estate mogul in this movie. Can you describe the movie? And by the way, it is a great turn by Salma Hayek. She's great in this film.

CHANG: It's a terrific performance by Salma Hayek. Possibly her best, I would say. And it's so controlled. And she plays this Mexican-born masseuse or therapist. And she is visiting a client in this Newport Beach estate and her car breaks down, and so she has to stay for dinner. And dinner is with this, as you say, Trumpian kind of figure played wonderfully by John Lithgow. And so it was so interesting to walk into this movie and be confronted with the first kind of real cinematic allegory of the Trump era.

I mean, it feels like it went into production on November 9 (laughter), you know, and somehow miraculously was finished by then. I mean, I think, you know, during the Q and A afterward Mike White, the screenwriter, did say of course he meant it to be timely, but he did not realize just how timely it would become.


CHANG: And that's an interesting phenomenon with Sundance in general because, you know, the programmers, you know, who were selecting the films were doing so at a time when it was assumed that even though it was not necessarily a slam dunk, but that Hillary Clinton would win the election. And so in a way, the films that were selected have a different kind of resonance now, now that we're living in a different reality. But "Beatriz At Dinner" is a really, really good film. It's really absorbing. At first it seems a little bit like the satire - the kind of class satire, you know, the haves and have-nots - is a little forced and over-calculated. But I think it really takes it into a really interesting place.

BALDONADO: One of the things that usually gets reported coming out of Sundance is how much certain movies went for, who buys a movie in order to release it in theaters. And last year was the first time that screening services like Netflix and Amazon Studios started to buy films in a big way. For example, last year, Amazon paid $10 million for "Manchester By The Sea," which, you know, is still in the news right now because it's - has a lot of Oscar nominations.

And, of course, the other big story from last year was how Fox Searchlight paid over $17 million for the film "The Birth Of A Nation," which was the biggest Sundance buy in history and for various reasons, one of them being the resurfacing of a rape trial of the writer, director and star, Nate Parker, that sort of got in the way of that film. Do you see any similar stories this year?

CHANG: Yeah. It's interesting because one of the films at Sundance, "Mudbound," directed by Dee Rees, sort of, I think, drew some early comparisons to "Birth Of A Nation," which is a bit unfair just because they happen to be largely about black people and black subjects. You know, and "Mudbound" is a very good film which is set during the 1940s, during World War II. And it's kind of focused on two Mississippi families, one black and one white, kind of in the shadow of World War II. And so it's a study of racial discord during that period. So - and I think that there was a bit of a bidding war over this film. It eventually sold to Netflix, I believe. I was not privy to the negotiations or anything, of course.

But I - you know, I believe that, you know, a film like "The Birth Of A Nation," fairly or not, was probably in their minds as they were trying to figure out the right price. And, you know, distributors wondering how much they - how enthusiastically they wanted to bid on this. You know, another film, "The Big Sick," sold to Amazon for $12 million. And I think this film is going to be a real hit. And I certainly hope it is.

This is Kumail Nanjiani's film, or he co-wrote it and stars in it. It's directed by Michael Showalter. And it's a semi-autobiographical film about the early days of his relationship with his now-wife, Emily V. Gordon, who's played in the film by Zoe Kazan, and Mr. Nanjiani plays himself. And it's a wonderful film. And it's very stealthily radical, I think, because on the surface it's just this, you know, very sweet and funny crowd-pleasing comedy with a sort of dramatic, borderline tear-jerking element.

But because it's about an interracial relationship, that kind of radicalizes it for me in some ways. And I think we're just so not used to seeing a relationship between a white woman and a Pakistani-American man who happens to be a struggling stand-up comedian as well. And this movie just gets into so many different layers of cross-generational conflict, cross-cultural conflict, the generation gap between, you know, immigrant parents and their children. I think it's really a really deft film that walks that line between all those tensions and also the tension between comedy and drama with enormous grace and flair. And I really hope that people will see this movie.

GROSS: Justin Chang spoke with FRESH AIR producer Ann Marie Baldonado. Justin is a film critic for The LA Times.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about President Trump's Supreme Court nominee - oops - I think we're taking a break here and then getting back to more of the interview with Justin Chang. So we'll be right back after this break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the conversation our producer Ann Marie Baldonado recorded with LA Times film critic Justin Chang about the Sundance Film Festival which they both attended. It wrapped up over the weekend.

BALDONADO: Now, another thing we haven't touched on that much is the documentaries that premiered at Sundance, and there were a lot of them that were very well received and also that were purchased and - which means that people will either see them in theaters or on a streaming service. Were there any documentaries that you'd like to highlight?

CHANG: Yeah. One documentary that I really liked was "Icarus" in which the filmmaker, Brian Fogleman - you know, it starts off as kind of a Morgan Spurlock "Super Size Me" kind of premise where he's trying to see if he can get away with doping for a bicycle race, you know, kind of this is sort of happening in the shadow of Lance Armstrong's downfall. And so he's trying to - while being very transparent about it, of course, with the camera to see if he can, you know, get away with it what is - and to kind of get a sense of just how extensive, you know, doping is in cycling.

And he calls on this Russian doctor, and the film takes just an extraordinary turn where it effectively becomes an expose of the Russian doping scandal that caused such an uproar at the past Olympics. And, you know, it's a really compelling documentary, a little bit long, perhaps. I think there - you know, there's some room for some restructuring partly because I think they're trying to prepare this twist and even - and I haven't given anything away. It's just fascinating the twists and turns that this movie takes. And, again, another documentary that's very hard to watch without thinking about our current situation and kind of the rumors of, you know, Russian involvement elsewhere on the international stage.

Another documentary that I liked which is, perhaps, about a much more frivolous subject, but just goes to show that there is no subject too frivolous to be made into a documentary. And that was "78/52" which is Alexandre O. Philippe's film completely devoted to the shower scene in "Psycho," and this movie is sort of catnip for critics, I think, who, you know - as I - you know, Hitchcock and "Psycho" in particular - really formative experiences for me. And so to have a film that is devoted just to minute by minute, second to second analysis of, perhaps, the most famous scene in movie history and one of the most kind of significant, it's just a joy.

And he interviews so many people like Peter Bogdanovich, the filmmaker, Elijah Wood, Walter Murch, people who just analyze and pick apart the scene and all of its meanings and implications. It's just a really, really wonderful piece of film scholarship, and it's shot completely in black and white which is very appropriate, of course.

BALDONADO: So one of the big prizes at Sundance is the U.S. Grand Jury Prize Dramatic, so that's for dramatic fictional films. And over the past couple of years, some of the winners have included "Whiplash" which is Damien Chazelle's movie, "Me And Earl And The Dying Girl," "Fruitvale Station." Last year's was "The Birth Of A Nation." Can you talk about this year's winner?

CHANG: The Grand Jury Prize went to a very good film that I liked - "I Don't Feel At Home In This World Anymore," directed by Macon Blair. And it stars Melanie Lynskey, who's terrific as this woman who is robbed, her home is burglarized, and she is just so beaten down by life. And the movie is just the story of how she takes control and just decides to not take it lying down anymore. And it takes some extremely funny, extremely violent turns - very risky.

It was kind of a surprising pick, I think, for the Grand Jury Prize-winner, not only because it's such a dark and funny and tonally kind of, you know, weird movie, but also because it screened on the very first day of the festival. But then again, so did "Whiplash" two years ago. So sometimes they just like what they like best.

BALDONADO: Justin Chang, thanks for coming to talk about Sundance.

CHANG: Thank you, Ann Marie. It's been a pleasure.

GROSS: Justin Chang spoke with FRESH AIR producer Ann Marie Baldonado. Justin is film critic for The LA Times. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about President Trump's Supreme Court nominee, as well as constitutional and legal questions raised by actions of the Trump administration with legal journalist Jeffrey Rosen who is now the president of the National Constitution Center. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Therese Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Justin Chang incorrectly identifies Icarus director Bryan Fogel as Bryan Fogelman.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: January 31, 2017 at 11:00 PM CST
In the audio of this story, Justin Chang incorrectly identifies Icarus director Bryan Fogel as Bryan Fogelman.
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