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MFF ’13: That’s a Wrap! (For Now…)

May 5, 2013

In only its second year, the just-concluded Montclair Film Festival lived up to its quippy tagline: “It’s like Sundance. Only Jersier.” And never moreso than with its closing-night feature, Concussion, written and directed by Montclair’s own Stacie Passon and acquired for distribution at, yes, the Sundance Film Festival by Radius/TWC (it’ll hit 25-50 theaters and VOD in early October). Passon’s bracing debut feature stars the luminous Robin Weigert—best known as Calamity Jane on the late, great Deadwood—as a lesbian housewife who suffers the titular injury and (not necessarily as a result) begins working as a high-priced escort out of a loft she’s rehabbing in Manhattan.

Concussion's Passon and Weigert

Concussion‘s Passon and Weigert

Like many of the films that came to the Upper West Side of New Jersey (as Montclair is rightly known) via Utah this year, Concussion boasts an impressive ensemble of faces familiar to fans of quality TV, including Sons of Anarchy‘s Maggie Siff (as an ostensibly heterosexual local mom who patronizes Weigert’s services), Damages‘ Ben Shenkman (as her Goldman Sachs-banker husband) and The West Wing‘s Janel Moloney (as a pregnant pal).

Another terrific drama, The Spectacular Now, deservedly won a Special Jury Award for Acting at Sundance and the leads—The Descendants‘ Shailene Woodley (as a straight-arrow high-schooler) and Project X‘s Miles Teller (as the raging teen alcoholic who seduces her)—will no doubt earn most of the praise when it hits theaters.

The Spectacular Now's Woodley and Teller

The Spectacular Now‘s Woodley and Teller

But the cast is rounded out by a trio of TV vets—Breaking Bad‘s Bob Odenkirk as Teller’s boss at a mens’ clothing store, The Wire‘s Andre “Bubbles” Royo as his sympathetic math teacher and most spectacularly, Friday Night Lights‘ Kyle Chandler as his long-estranged dad. In a single on-screen scene, Chandler creates an indelible portrait of a pathetic dirtbag, the antithesis of Coach Eric Taylor.

Another longtime small-screener, Boston Legal alum Lake Bell, casts a couple of her Childrens Hospital costars, Rob Corddry and Ken Marino, in her first film as a writer-director, the highly amusing showbiz comedy In a World… (another Sundance fave, hitting theaters in June).

In a World...'s Bell

In a World...’s Bell

Bell also stars as the daughter of a legendary movie-trailer voiceover artist (A Serious Man‘s sublime Fred Melamed) who ends up competing with her dad and his protégé (Marino) for a gig that will revive the late Don LaFontaine’s titular tagline. Corddry’s subplot—he plays Bell’s brother-in-law, who endures a marital crisis with her hotel-concierge sister (well-cast SNL vet Michaela Watkins)—feels a bit too much like a sitcom B-storyline, but the performers (also including standups Demetri Martin, Tig Notaro and Jeff Garlin and the too-little-seen Geena Davis) consistently lift the material to grade-A status.

In a World…‘s world-class roster also encompasses Parks and Recreation‘s Nick Offerman, who stars in yet another Sundance-to-Montlcair transplant, The Kings of Summer. CBS Films has chosen to embargo reviews of the film until closer to its May 31 release date, but suffice it to say Offerman, real-life wife Megan Mullally, Community/Mad Men‘s Alison Brie, The Big C‘s Gabriel Basso and, believe it or not, Hannah Montana‘s Moises Arias (who’s poised to be the film’s breakout star) all live up to the title, which was changed from the original, somewhat misleading but less generic Toy’s House.

Finally, the Western Dead Man’s Burden—which received a limited theatrical release over the weekend after screening at MFF on Tuesday night—also benefits from a stellar lead performance from a TV star, Nashville‘s Clare Bowen. The Aussie actress-singer leaps off the screen as a post-Civil War wife who guns down her father in the film’s opening shot, then must deal with the ramifications when her presumed-dead brother (Barlow Jacobs) returns to their homestead. Another first-time filmmaker, Jared Moshe, cited Anthony Mann’s Winchester ’73, John Ford’s The Searchers and the films of Budd Boetticher among his influences in a post-screening Q&A, and he does his cinematic forefathers proud.

All these films put together can’t hope to match the $175 million Iron Man 3 earned in the US alone during its opening weekend, but the fact that I could see them in Montclair makes me even more proud to announce that I’m planning a move to the town this summer. And while I’m busy relocating, Fretts on Film will take a vacation while critic-proof box-office behemoths dominate theaters. I encourage you to seek out the films I’ve reviewed as they roll out in theaters over the next few months, and I’ll see you in the Fall, when the silly season of movies is behind us and there will be more serious films to consider.

What films are you looking forward to seeing this summer? Post a comment!

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