January 27, 2020

SHOWBUZZDAILY Sundance Film Reviews: “Worth,” “Dream Horse” & “Uncle Frank”


WORTH (no distrib):  A dry but fascinating angle on the story of 9/11, Worth centers on the real-life Ken Feinberg (Michael Keaton), an attorney with a very specific expertise:  he and his firm calculated and negotiated compensation payouts to victims and survivors of disasters, in order to settle suits brought for their losses.  In the case of 9/11, the sheer magnitude of the pool of claimants (and some pressure from the airline industry, which feared being driven into bankruptcy) caused Congress to create a government fund of billions of dollars, to be distributed as mandated by Feinberg as Special Master.  Sarah Colangelo’s film, from a script by Max Borenstein, touches on the many complications of attempting to get a grasp on this particular set of facts, which involved victims ranging from multi-million dollar CEOs to undocumented dishwashers to first responders who didn’t even show signs of illness until months after their duty.  The question of how a dollar value is put on human pain and death is one rarely touched upon by docudramas, and Worth is absorbing as Feinberg finds his contact with the victims poking holes into his dispassionate, numbers-driven approach.  Borenstein’s screenplay gets a bit prosaic as it sets out a few basic story arcs as an illustration of the wide range of the issues involved, and there’s a familiar “clock” dramatic mechanism as Feinberg gradually allows his heart to grow a few sizes while he races the Congressional deadline to sign up a minimum number of claimants.  Even with those limitations, Keaton’s performance is superbly controlled, and the people Feinberg comes into contact with include characters played beautifully by Stanley Tucci and Laura Benanti among others.  This isn’t imaginative filmmaking, but it serves its subject well.

DREAM HORSE (Bleecker Street – TBD):  Although based on a true story (already the subject of a Sundance-winning documentary), Dream Horse feels like the union of two well-trodden genres, the inspirational sports story (Secretariat, Seabiscuit) about the horse that had no business winning the races it did, combined with the colorful, good-natured comedy about a wild scheme imagined by the residents of some small British town (Kinky Boots, The Full Monty, Calendar Girls).  In this case, the town was in Wales, and the racehorse was financed by a local syndicate that was the brainchild of Jan Vokes (Toni Collette), a one-time animal trainer, and run by accountant Howard Davies (Damian Lewis).  The story hits all the beats you’d expect, including the heroes who just won’t give up, the marriage strained by the story’s events, and the second-act crisis that leads to the third-act’s big final race.  Director Euros Lyn and screenwriter Neil McKay are eager to please (the closing credits feature not one but two singalongs), and even if the movie provides almost no information about how the stallion Dream Alliance was actually trained, how can one help but root for a charming group of humble townspeople, with the always-winning Collette as their chief, and their miracle horse?  There’s no spontaneity in Dream Horse at all, but that doesn’t mean it won’t cash winning tickets for many audiences.

UNCLE FRANK (no distrib):  The writer/director Alan Ball in a lower key than his TV sensation True Blood or his previous feature film Towelhead.  This time he uses the form of a fictional memory piece, the recollections of the woman we meet as the teenaged Beth (Sophia Lillis), an NYU freshman in the 1970s.  A big part of the reason she traveled from South Carolina to NY for her education was her fondness for her Uncle Frank (Paul Bettany), more intelligent and sophisticated than anyone else in the family… and somewhat secretive about his life in the big city.  It doesn’t take long for Beth to find out that Uncle Frank is gay, with a Saudi Arabian domestic partner named Wally (Peter Macdissi), and the bulk of Uncle Frank involves the road trip the three of them take and their destination of the family home, where Frank will finally have to deal with coming out to his relatives.  Uncle Frank seems like a piece of history in more ways than one:  not only does it tell a story set more than four decades ago, but it’s the kind of story that was told in the era of Philadelphia, itself more than a quarter-century old (with a touch of Tennessee Williams-era Southern gothic).  Bigotry and compassion, of course, are ever-topical subjects, and Ball is served very well by his cast.  Bettany hasn’t had a part this rich in years, and he brings a wry, gentlemanly melancholy to the role, and the lesser-known Macdissi is a delight as Wally, while Lillas confirms the dramatic strength she showed in It.  Uncle Frank has been made with care (although the sepia-toned photography may be a bit much), and while it’s unlikely to generate mainstream excitement, it should receive some respect.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."