Sundance Critic’s Notebook

Film: Sundance Capsule Reviews

Keeping it in the Family

Sundance Movies Norman Lear

Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You

Norman Lear: Another Version of You (Directed by Rachel Grady, Heidi Ewing. Featuring Norman Lear, Carl Reiner, Rob Reiner, Mel Brooks)

Norman Lear revolutionized the small screen by creating characters such as Archie Bunker, Maude and the Jeffersons, but as this sweet documentary portrait makes abundantly clear, he was also a true Mensch. Constantly striving to make the world a better place by forcing his fellow citizens to face intolerance and prejudice through narrative, Lear found the fussy fulcrum between entertainment and enlightenment. Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s (Jesus Camp, Detropia) opening night feature doesn’t reinvent any wheels of form as it relates the story of Lear’s fascinating life, but it does try some different techniques, such as archival projections over re-enacted moments, and the irritating use of a young actor to play Lear’s inner child and former self. Because Lear is such a grand storyteller, and because the directors give him ample time and space to articulate his compassionate world view and life philosophy, the movie isn’t just a moving portrait of one man, it opens a unique window on the evolution of American popular culture and reaffirms the power of creative intelligence in a world that often forgets how to think. — Katherine Monk


Kids dealt a high ACE hand used to lose

sundance movies


Resilience (Directed by James Redford. Featuring Nadine Burke Harris, Vincent Felitti, Robert Anda)

Inevitably, some of the most urgent documentaries at Sundance are the ones few people see. Only a dozen people were at the press screening for James Redford’s (yes, he is the son of festival founder Robert Redford) Resilience, but of all the movies here at the festival, Resilience is the one that could have the most profound effect on society at large. A by-the-book doc that focuses on a revolutionary research study called ACE (for Adverse Childhood Experiences), Resilience explores the link between psychological scars and longterm physical health. Authored by Dr. Vincent Felitti and the CDC’s Dr. Robert Anda, the ACE study essentially proves a connection between mental health and physical health. People who were molested, beaten or put in unsafe situations as children will face an uphill health battle, and on average, have a shorter life expectancy. It makes common sense, but the establishment medical community greeted the results with ridicule. A decade later, just about everyone has come around and now the ACE study is used as a template for policy-makers, as well as front-line caregivers. Redford animates all the science through personal anecdotes, mostly from a pediatrician named Nadine Burke Harris. Harris was working with at-risk youth in a disadvantaged area of San Francisco, and noticed some of her kids were suffering from so much life stress, it was affecting their physical health. This “toxic stress” had the same effect on their physiology as an ambient poison, but by reaching out with compassion and some specific emotional tools, Burke Harris made progress and once she found the ACE study, her clinic became a beacon of hope for kids who were already considered doomed. Resilience is a classic talking head piece of filmmaking, but that’s for the best. When the data is this glaring, and the results so positive, you can let the facts speak for themselves.  — Katherine Monk


Off The Wall and into outer space

Michael Jackson Sundance Spike Lee

Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall

Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall (Directed by Spike Lee. Featuring Marlon Jackson, Berry Gordy, Mark Ronson, Kobe Bryant)

You can see why Spike Lee wanted to make this movie: Michael Jackson remains a pop icon, even now, years after his death from pharmaceutically-induced cardiac arrest. Just watching the footage of Jackson perform at the height of his talents is a visual feast that’s hard to resist, and Lee includes as much as he could get his hands on: Low-resolution video footage of Jacko in sparkly clothes twisting and turning to the sound of his own, carefully constructed songs has been carefully edited and restored to give us a sense of his genius. And if there were any doubt about how visionary he was, Lee enlists a friendly crew of interview subjects to eulogize and emphasize his undeniable skills as a performer. We hear from producer Berry Gordy that he was a perfectionist. We hear from Amy Winehouse producer Mark Ronson that he changed music. And for reasons that are completely beyond me, we also hear from the executor of his will — not about his finances or his problematic family life, but about his musical legacy. If anyone knew anything about Jackson, they’re in front of the camera, gushing. There’s nothing wrong with that, but by the same token, it’s not exactly novel content. What is fresh is the angle: Lee narrows his focus to Jackson’s solo breakthrough album, Off the Wall. Released in 1979 by Epic Records, Off the Wall repositioned Jackson as a performer in his own right as well as a gifted R&B artist. Lee’s film takes us through the tracks one by one, asking his interview subjects to wax on about what made that one piece of vinyl revolutionary. They do not fail in their mission. By the end of this feature documentary, you’re longing to flip through your old LPs to rediscover the music, but in the end, this feels like an extended tribute — something you’d see at the Grammys before a lifetime achievement award is handed out posthumously. For fans of Jackson and his music, it’s a gift to see all this archival footage of Michael Jackson before plastic surgery and child abuse charges turned him into the most world’s most famous eccentric and alleged pedophile. But those without an interest may be wondering why they’re watching Kobe Bryant talk about music instead of sports. — Katherine Monk

Katherine Monk is on assignment at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, and there’s lots more to come. 

Above: Viggo Mortensen and the cast of Captain Fantastic at the Sundance Film Festival, photo by K. Monk


1 Reply to "Sundance Critic's Notebook"

  • joan Monk January 27, 2016 (3:41 pm)

    Yes, yes yes, we all have suspected what this documentary is showing. For example first nation “residential” schools, children with shocks of war, and even child soldiers. These will all be are our society’s burden to correct. Children who are physically and emotionally harmed, have a hard time to heal their scars. We all have scarring, but on a continuum we can chalk up our “regular” scars to “experience”.But the grave and serious scarring has to be dealt with by our society in general.

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