Culture / Entertainment

Celebrity Watching at Sundance — Major Stars and Their Movie Hits and Misses

Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Benedict Cumberbatch Win and Mila Kunis Loses Despite Her Powerhouse Performance

BY // 02.01.20

PARK CITY, Utah — Although the Sundance Film Festival is about using storytelling to give voice to diverse views and to support the independent filmmaker, there is an additional benefit to attending the Festival, especially in its first weekend. That is when celebrities and major stars hit town to open their films, participate in panels and attend sponsor parties.

As film goers wait in lines to gain admittance to the theaters, or ride the shuttle buses that ferry them from venue to venue, one hears the buzz of “Hillary will be at the Filmmaker Lodge today,” or “I saw Will Farrell at the Library coffee shop.” It’s part of the allure of Sundance.

And of course if you can score a ticket to the opening night of a film, its stars will most often be there to answer questions from the audience. Where else can you get that opportunity? I was lucky enough to attend two star-studded very good films and one rather ho-hum, film all of which will be coming to Texas later this year.

Downhill Laughs?

Downhill is a modern day drama about a couple, Billie (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and Pete (Will Farrell), who while on a family ski vacation in Austria, avoid a close brush with an avalanche. As a wall of snow rumbles toward their chateau deck, Pete grabs his cellphone and bolts while Billie shields their sons.

Pete’s fear flight and ensuing shame cause an existential crisis for the marriage and Pete’s relationship with his two sons who, in the blink of an eye, see their father in a totally different light. Pete brushes the incident off and the entire film is about coming to terms with who Pete has revealed himself to be as a husband, father and a man. Sound depressing? Well it was, but interlaced with comic relief from Louis-Dreyfus and Farrell, two of the best.

The film, an adaptation of the critically acclaimed 2014 Swedish film Force Majeure, has been remade with an eye to an American audience. But more than that, it is not the depressing tome of its predecessor because of the comic chops and comfortable chemistry between Louis-Dreyfus and Farrell. Some reviewers believe that the film didn’t make the audience uncomfortable enough when everything Billie had believed in shifted in 30 seconds.

That is a fair comment. The film raises the question, “Do I really know my loved one?” and before the audience can get too sad, has a comic moment. But few American audiences have seen Force Majeure and don’t know that they are supposed to be depressed. And what is better than seeing these two talented actors play off of each other with anger, denial and comic relief?

In the question and answer session, Louis-Dreyfus and Farrell continued to crack each other up though they had never met each other prior to the film. I predict Downhill, which premieres in theaters on February 14, will do well at the box office.

British Spy Drama

Ironbark is a true story British spy drama that takes place in the 1960s Cold War Cuban missile crisis. Benedict Cumberbatch stars as an ordinary British businessman, Greville Wynne, who is recruited by British intelligence and the CIA to be a mole in the Soviet Union because of his ordinariness.

Initially he is resistant to the idea but gradually establishes a strong bond with his Russian informant, a former colonel, who is concerned that Khrushchev’s bellicose belligerence, coupled with the Soviet Union’s placement of nuclear missiles in Cuba, threatens global nuclear war.

Wynne, posing as a heavy equipment salesman (which he is), leads reciprocal trade missions with the USSR, obtaining films and drawings of the USSR’s Cuban missile locations and ranges. The exposure of this information leads Khrushchev, after tense negotiations with the United States, to withdraw the missiles.

The film’s tone changes from comic to thriller as the USSR discovers theft and captures Wynne and his Russian source. Without giving too much away, Ironbark explores themes of loyalty, duty to country and character in a manner that is edge-of seat suspenseful.

Benedict Cumberbatch plays a Cold War spy in Ironbark
Benedict Cumberbatch plays a Cold War spy in Ironbark

Cumberbatch is absolutely outstanding in this role and gives a scarily realistic portrayal of solitary confinement. He is surrounded by a superb cast including Rachel Brosnahan as a saucy CIA agent, who must deftly circumvent the stereotype of a 1960s spy, Jessie Buckley as his wife who does not know his double life and assumes the worst, and Merab Ninidze as his Russian source.

Cumberbatch was not present at the Q&A because of filming commitments in New Zealand, but recorded a clip saying how proud he was of the film. He should be. His performance will be talked about next year during awards season. While Ironbark is not the best spy movie ever made, some viewers will resonate with it because of the historical nature of the story. And who doesn’t love a good escape where virtue is rewarded?

Ironbark was acquired by Lionsgate with a theatrical release planned for later this year.

Mila Kunis, Glenn Close and a Tired Script

One of the Sundance Festival’s most anticipated films was Four Good Days starring Sundance veteran Glenn Close and Mila Kunis as a mother and her adult daughter dealing with chronic drug addiction. Kunis plays Molly, who has been to detox 14 times with only intermittent success. Close plays Deb, her mother, who has lost all trust in her daughter and in the opening scene refuses to let her child in the house.

Molly detoxes for the 15th time and learns that if she can stay clean for four days (hence the film’s title) she can get an injection that will prevent heroin for being absorbed in her body for 30 days. The film boils down to “will she or won’t she stay clean for the four days?”  And yes, there is every stereotypical behavior you can imagine in the film with some of Deb’s behaviors being so co-dependent as to make you want to scream. She takes Molly to her drug dealer and waits in the car while her daughter claims she wants to make sure a friend is OK. She gives a urine sample to Molly her daughter to submit as her own because she has fallen off the wagon. That kind of old familiar stuff.

Close and Kunis give dynamite performances. Kunis lost more than 20 pounds to accurately portray a heroin addict. Addiction is a real problem and is increasing. However, this film seems like a made for TV movie that has been done before and adds nothing new to the subject.

Four Good Days is still seeking a distributor.

Jane Howze is managing director of The Alexander Group, a national executive search firm headquartered in Houston with offices in New York, San Francisco and San Diego. For more on Jane’s daily Sundance adventures check out her Twitter and Instagram feeds.

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