Death, mortality and one’s legacy take center stage at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival as three distinguished actors — actually legends — star in dramas that range from silly to sentimental to substantive. Sometimes the actors are so exceptional that you are still willing to watch a less-than-ideal vehicle for their talents. And the good news is that these three are coming to a theater or VOD.
Discovering a Bomb
The Discovery seemed like a sure fire winner. After all, it stars Robert Redford, Rooney Mara, Jason Segel, and Jesse Plemons and is directed by Charlie McDowell, from the 2015 surprise Sundance hit, The One I Love. The plot summary sounded interesting. Dr. Thomas Harbor (played by Redford) has proved the existence of life after death. As a result four million people have committed suicide hoping that life is better on the other side. Harbor retreats from public life with cult-like devotees who wear jump suits of different colors. His son Will, played by Segel, tries to dissuade him from pursuing further research and meets one of his suicidal followers (Mara), where a romance ensues — one with absolutely no on-screen chemistry. Harbor discovers that the afterlife (on a black and white outdated computer screen) can be viewed through a dead person’s brain waves.
I think you get the idea just from reading the above that this is one cringe-worthy movie. It was so silly that I stifled uncontrollable giggles throughout. Even the magnificent Redford could not bring this film back to life. I found myself grieving that Redford, who has stated he is retiring from acting, would exit on such an unsatisfying and, pardon the pun, deadly note.
In the question-and-answer session following the film, McDowell talked about how lucky he was to attract Redford, who is committed to independent film makers. Redford talked about how fortunate he was to work with such a talented cast, what a great future McDowell had ahead of him, and how Redford was impressed that McDowell was not afraid to take risks. All code words for “bomb.”
The Discovery will be available for streaming on Netflix on March 31, 2017.
Not so Heroic
Sam Elliott is well-known character actor. Some will remember him from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or The Big Lebowski. He got good reviews in Brett Haley’s 2015 Sundance breakout hit I’ll See You in My Dreams, where he played the romantic interest of Blythe Danner. He returned to Sundance this week with Haley’s The Hero where he gets his star turn in a flick about an over-the-hill aging movie star who is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer diagnosis, gets a new younger love interest (wonderfully played by Laura Prepon) and must decide how to live his life.
The Hero is a melancholy statement about aging, righting wrongs and getting one more opportunity to make it big. Director/writer Haley, who wrote this film for Elliott, has a wonderful gift for communicating the voice of the septuagenarian set, especially given that he is under 40 years of age. Not many movies star actors this age (Elliott is 72) or many show them partially undressed and passionately kissing younger women. Movie buffs will love that Eliott's real-life wife, Katharine Ross (The Graduate, The Stepford Wives), has a small part as the ex-wife in the film.
Elliott is in every scene and gives a nuanced and moving performance. His wry humor — and that gravely voice —make the movie a pleasant experience. Sadly, he is better than the film which is too slow and relies on clichés and gimmicks. Elliott as a pothead and the unsatisfying plot line of reconciling with his daughter seemed contrived. Unlike Redford, Elliott is not retiring and this film left me wanting to see him in stronger heroic role and Haley to try again.
The Orchard has acquired North American rights to The Hero and is planning a wide release for the film in the fall.
Frail but Feisty (Spoiler alert; plot details are revealed)
In The Last Word, Shirley MacLaine stars in a comedy about a successful, controlling and mean 80-year-old named Harriet Lauler who wants to make sure her death will be reported in a way that recognizes her greatness. She hires a reporter (played by Amanda Seyfried) to craft a glowing, dignified obituary. When the reporter finds that even Harriet’s priest hates her, they go about a formulaic redemption effort as Harriet lands a job as a DJ for an easy listening radio station, fosters a nine-year-old girl from the projects, reaches out to her estranged daughter (played by Anne Heche) and inspires the reporter to follow her dreams.
You know that at some point that Harriet’s obituary will come into play. The movie is so formulaic that when Harriet collapses with congestive heart failure, the reporter just looks on rather than calls for help.
Even though the film is corny and predictable, I was enthralled, moved and charmed by it and was one of the first in the audience to reach for a handkerchief. I’m not sure if I was mourning for the character or MacLaine, who at 82, appeared on stage to answer questions looking frail but feisty. She spoke about the value of being on time and following your dreams.
And of course, she had the last word.
The Last Word will open in theaters March 3.