Sundance 2017 – batch 3

A financial setback forces a northern white family to move to rural Mississippi to take over a struggling farm and work side by side with a southern black family in racially charged World-War-II-era drama Mudbound. At the heart of the story are the strikingly different returning-soldier experiences of a two farmhands, one black and one white, and a skillfully executed story arc where they form an unlikely bond in spite of the strong racist culture. Other story threads weave a brutally frank though sometimes melodramatic tapestry of simple people just trying make the best of their problematic farmland, with some tearing down racial barriers and some reinforcing them. Perhaps racism in the bible belt will never be completely eliminated, but it may at least help to have this vivid reminder of how bad it was in that KKK-friendly time and place. B.

 

Today’s iPhones and Teslas have made the 1990s a sort of primitive era, with telephones connected to the wall and car windows that rolled up and down. And in a richly detailed mid-’90s setting, the stormy relationship between a fifteen-going-on-thirty rebel and her not-ready-to-grow-up thirtyish sister is the focus of poignant period-piece comedy Landline. The parents are no picnic either, and the strained-but-never-broken bonds between family members are explored with insight and humor even though the story gets a bit messy. Agreat deal of care was taken to decorate the movie with the technological and cultural trappings of that decade – record stores, phone booths, cassette players, 10,000 Maniacs – and it just adds color to a mostly enjoyable film. B.

 

In the Daily Show’s prime, one of its standout correspondents was Jessica Williams. Lightweight romantic comedy The Incredible Jessica James puts her front and center and showcases quite a confident and promising movie presence.

The most interesting romantic movie chemistries are the ones that are unlikely on the surface but almost inevitable at the core. So it is with Williams’ theatre-girl character and quirkily hunkish app designer Chris O’Dowd as they get over their previous relationships and cautiously take their sweet time getting together. That relationship and Williams’ exuberant self confidence makes this otherwise underwritten film a small gem. C+.

 

It’s hard to describe this somewhat plausible comedic fantasy, Brigsby Bear. An extraordinary set of events causes Saturday Night Live actor Kyle Mooney’s sheltered man-child to experience our normal world partly as a normal person and partly like an alien, as if Mork and Mindy had a kid. The world takes on a fascinating perspective when viewed through the eyes of this part adult and part endlessly curious child. And the film itself has surprisingly mature aspect amidst the silly premise, as it explores the very nature of story telling and the virtue of creating a vividly detailed fantasy world out of pure imagination. B+.

 

Before I Fall follows a day in the life of a group of high school friends. Then it does it again and again, magically repeating and following elements of the “Ground Hog Day” movie pattern including the waking up scenes. But that’s just a framework for a fresh and arguably more profound mystery, raising the stakes far beyond scoring with Andie McDowell. It starts out with some seemingly inconsequential Mean Girls snark, then somehow gets the audience to care about some not-very-likeable characters, and ramps up beautifully in the final scenes. The message about being nice to people is a bit trite but it’s delivered with some compelling performances by a young cast, which should allow the movie to connect well with a teenage audience. B.

 

In the 1960’s, the old virgin men who run the Catholic Church instituted sweeping reforms, dragging that institution’s ancient murky dogma from the Bronze Age to slightly later in the Bronze Age. Among the changes in the church’s Vatican II reformation: Priests were allowed to perform their wooden mass choreography while facing the people, and to mutter their mass scripts in languages other than Latin. Another outcome was that nuns, (all of whom were women in a church run entirely by men) were sort of moved down a rung on the holiness ladder, and were encouraged to scale down their TV-antenna headgear and medieval robes, and to give preference to serving their communities rather than just praying all day. But that step toward participation in the human race was not welcome by the old-school nuns who had years ago settled in to a cloistered life and allowed a grim daily ritual to suppress their personalities. So period drama Novitiate follows a group of young probationary nun candidates trying to decide if they want to be nuns forever, and the older nuns – including Melissa Leo’s cruel Reverend Mother – whose job was to extinguish every last instinct for secular joy and fun out of the young women, and who resisted and then accepted the changes that Vatican II dictated.

It’s a stark revelation to see how creepy the whole cloistered nun experience was, at least as presented here, with young girls aspiring to metaphorically get married to their crucified Jesus. It’s portrayed as a sort of unwholesome transfer of natural young-girl erotic yearning away from age-appropriate peers and toward an invisible but somehow masculine spirit. And non-catholics may not be aware that nuns take an extraordinary and unnatural life long vow of chastity (as do priests, which some have used as cover for their pedophilia). The film does an excellent job of showing the struggle of one young woman in particular, as she breaks her mothers heart by entering the convent, takes on this new life, and tries to fit in by burying her human instincts.

Is the film a sort of sad drama, where women with good intentions devoted their lives to their faith to get closer to their god, and then had the rules changed on them? Or is it a sort of horror film, without ghosts or zombies but with women emotionally abusing each other with the support of their ancient institution, flagellating themselves for having “impure” thoughts, and trading normal human lives for decades of ritualized isolation in hopes of a reserved parking space in the afterlife? However the viewer interprets it, the first rate performances and solid pacing of the film drive home some insightful reflections on the limits of faith and the strength of womanhood. A-.

Sundance 2017 – batch 2

As a marriage starts to lose its novelty and the inevitable disagreements become more problematic for a thirtyish couple, they stumble upon the idea of reinventing their arguments as songs, and forming a rock band to perform them. This unusual marriage therapy is the basis of domestic comedy Band Aid, which features skillful performances from leads Zoe Lister-Jones (who also wrote and directed) and Adam Pally, who mix the comedy and drama well. The several songs composed for the film are entertaining and work in this context but don’t really stand on their own. This distinctive and original turning-pain-into-art story provides a unique perspective on marriage, and has some fun moments. B.

 

Instagram is a useful app for people who like to amass followers and enjoy the sort of admiration and praise the more enthusiastic followers bestow on every posted photo. But the dark side is that it also provides a natural means for celebrity-infatuated, problematic stalkers to pursue their obsessions. So modern cautionary tale Ingrid Goes West examines that dark side, through the eyes and iPhone of the gifted Aubrey Plaza as a disturbed young woman who travels west from Instagram’s fanland suburbs to the creepytown section of stalkerville. The story is told with a lot of comedy, in the sort of style that uniquely suits Plaza, but it eventually becomes uncomfortable as her charater’s virtual-world infatuations become real-world obsessions and become a real threat to her target. C+.

 

Not to be confused with the biopic of J. D. Salinger, which also premiered at Sundance 2017, fictional mystery Sydney Hall also tells the story of a young author who achieves success at a young age and then becomes reclusive in later years. The mystery is drawn out a bit, in a film that visits the characters at the ages of 18, 24, and 30, and which puzzles the audience by flashing forward and backwards in time. The time shifting detracted from some otherwise fine performances by the cast. C.

 

Apparently, dating apps make it easier than ever for pretty millennials who have a mutual interest in immediate boning to find each other and get on with it, without the inefficient old-school formality of a first date. Ultra-modern romance Newness is set in this world where your next iBang is just a few iPhone swipes and texts away.

After a frenetic first act where the handsome couple find each other, hook up, and do some creative humping, the film settles in to a more conventional study of the next step in their romance. Once the duo determine they have more in common than looking awesome and shagging, they want to stay together, but they still crave the novelty of new nookie and so they forge an open relationship, with rules about honesty. As the film explores the nature of modern relationships, it suggests that monogamy may not be natural for beautiful young people, but the alternative is tricky AF LOL. B.

 

Privileged teenage white girl angst drives smart dark comedy/thriller Thoroughbred. With an ineffectual mom and an insufferable step-dad, in a big house in a really nice part of Connecticut, a somewhat sociopathic daughter and her more sociopathic BFF pool their skills and their complementary disorders to find a surprisingly effective solution to the dad problem.

All the elements of this film are first rate, including the performances by the two young actresses, the smart dialog, and the Hitchcockian direction where the horrible things happen off screen and the viewer’s imagination fills in the grim details. It’s made more effective by a deranged musical score, and by the final performance of the late Anton Yelchin, bringing depth to his role as a lightweight wannabe thug.

As the writer director explained in the post-screening QA, this film was intended to “walk the comedy/thriller/drama tightrope”, and it succeeds in keeping its audience unbalanced, teetering and tittering. A-.

 

Sundance 2017 – batch 1

Seemingly designed for the enjoyment of modern ex-catholics, but actually based on a collection of short stories from the 13th century, religious farce The Little Hours is full of divinely inspired shenanigans, including hot nuns talking dirty, saucy confessions, and a nookie-in-the-nunnery sin-fest. There’s even a boy toy, but for the nuns, not the priests.

The anachronism of a cast of contemporary comedy stars portraying nuns and priests in medieval Tuscany, gossiping like modern teenagers, and conducting ribald merriment and carnal commingling is much more fun than whatever prayers the nuns were supposed to be mumbling all day. The rampant hypocrisy inherent in religious institutions is not exactly well hidden, so it’s no major accomplishment for a movie to uncover some, but this is not a Spotlight-style exposé nor even a Life-of-Brian-style skewering, just a fun fable where the pious are collateral damage.

Certain religious types thrive on considering themselves persecuted, and we can only hope this harmless, delightful comedy gets their attention so that the ensuing fake outrage will expand its audience. B

 

The clash between 7th century religious dogma and common-sense-based 21st century values is a major world problem. This timely issue is at the heart of the timeless story of young star-crossed lovers in The Big Sick, where the Romeo comes from a Muslim family and the Juliet does not. A star of HBO’s Silicon Valley and a talented comedian, Pakistan-born Kumail Nunjaini cowrote this somewhat autobiographical story with his American-born wife. It’s sad to witness his immigrant family putting their religion ahead of their humanity and disowning him for dating a non-Muslim, but it’s rewarding to see how he stands up to them and asserts his right to question his indoctrination. It’s uniquely entertaining to see that done in a comedic context.

A lot of the charm of this movie comes from quirky-perfect Zoe Kazan, who brings real depth to the role as the girlfriend who develops the sickness referred to in the title, and her bewildered parents played with ideal comic timing by Ray Romano and Holly Hunter. It’s almost a Shakespearian triumph that the unlikely relationship can survive such outrageous fortune, and more so that the comedy can remain edgy and engaging with so much drama. A.

 

A 2016 best picture nominee, Hell or High Water was an exciting story centered around charismatic bad guys and their pursuers. In murder mystery Wind River, the same gifted screen writer provides another compelling but more subdued story of the new American frontier, with an exploration of life on a Native American reservation. The timeless character of a skilled hunter in the American west is the perfect centerpiece for this contemporary story of grim reality in a harsh landscape. Jeremy Renner’s old-school hunter is contrasted effectively with Elizabeth Olsen’s inexperienced but scrappy FBI agent as they team up to investigate a baffling tragedy.

In the QA following the screening, writer/first-time-director Taylor Sheridan indicated that he directed his own screenplay because he wanted to insure that his vision was executed, and that the two lead actors were bascially his first choices, and that all of his movies are intended to examine the consequences of settling the American west. B+.

 

Woody Harrelson is annoying and endearing as the blurry focus of wild comedy Wilson. His offbeat character is undisciplined and clumsy, but tempered by a certain charm, and that can be said of this film, which tells the tale of this needy and overly-honest weirdo as he engages with his family, who sort of tolerate him, and with random strangers, who, to varying degrees, do not.

When he discovers late in life that he has a daughter and tries to find her, he starts making a variety of bad decisions that are kind of funny but mainly sad. The Wilson story was derived from the graphic novel, by the same author who wrote the Ghost World, and it shares a darkly comedic tone.

In the QA following the screening, Harrelson talked about balancing his gregarious side and his curmudgeonly side for the role. B-.

 

In low-key sci-fi tale Marjorie Prime, memory-infused holograms that have been programmed to simulate lost loved ones interact with surviving family members. The film is based on a play, which was perhaps a better vehicle for the dialog-driven but not-very-cinematic story. This slow-paced film (described by the director as a meditation) examines the nature of what it means to be who we are. As it flashes backwards and forwards in the lives of one small family, it does present some insight about the very nature of memory – How we form memories, how they change, how they can be selectively lost as we age, and perhaps how they could be enhanced or manipulated with artificial intelligence. The small ensemble, including Jon Hamm and Laura Dern, delivers the material capably, but overall it seems like a missed opportunity to stray further from the play and find more human excitement. And that would have been more memorable. C+.

 

A movie about the life of a great writer had better be very well written, and engaging biography Rebel in the Rye succeeds, both in the smart dialog and in the overall story and pacing. Especially engaging are the ambitious writing student vs. skillful teacher scenes between Kevin Spacey, as a Columbia professor, and Nicholas Holt as J. D. Salinger, as the student learns how to balance his strong voice against the need to sometimes let his stories breathe. It’s fascinating to see this portrayal of the author honing the skills that will allow him to later speak so boldly to generations of young people with “The Catcher in the Rye”.

Salinger the man may have been as intriguing as his Holden Caulfield was insufferable. But he was notoriously reclusive, especially in his later years, and the film struggles a bit with that paradox. B.

Sundance 2016 – batch 3

Greed is good for gals, and the women steal the scenes and also part of your portfolio in female-driven Wall Street financial thriller Equity. It’s progress of a sort that female characters can be bad guys, and a woman seeking to raise her status in a brokerage firm can be as power hungry and opportunistic as any man. While it’s unfair to expect this small movie to generate the electricity in every scene like Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street”, or to raise decadence to the level of art like “Wolf of Wall Street”, this story of a tech stock IPO, shaky ethics, and sexual politics has some timely and compelling elements.

In the Q/A following the screening, the filmmakers described how they constructed a story based on interviews with Wall Street players in a variety of roles. They also shared stories about hiding pregnancy to delay its impact on a career. B.

 

In highly-regarded TV series “The Office”, John Krasinski’s boy-next-door “Jim” was a sort of normal guy interacting with eccentric coworkers. That model is shifted into a home setting and given the additional dimension of family drama, while retaining the quirky comedy, in emotionally rich and enjoyable comedic weeper The Hollars, which Krasinski directed and stars in. The story has his character struggling with his own career and relationships, having fled his home town and family, in part because things there are a bit crazy. So when a serious illness of the mostly beloved family matriarch draws him back home, he has to find a way to be the supportive son, brother and friend to the misfit crew he thought he had escaped. The film is executed with a graceful balance of comedy and drama, where heavy family moments are rescued by insightful humor, delivered by an excellent ensemble. There’s also an unexpected one-of-a-kind musical performance embedded at a perfect point in the film.

In the Q/A following the screening, Krasinski walked on stage to a lengthy standing ovation from a packed Eccles theater. He discussed the intense editing process for the film, where what he called the hairpin turns between comedy and drama were fine tuned. A.

 

A wheelchair-bound teenager makes a stunning, hilarious entrance, and shocks the poor guy interviewing for a position as his care giver, who then fights back with his own sense of humor. That fair fight between these two cripples, one physically handicapped and one emotionally scarred, somehow finds comedy in a yin and yang of disability and sets the tone for handi-comedy The Fundamentals of Caring.

And we are willing to play along with emotional manipulation game that follows, because the uneasy and politically incorrect chemistry between wry care giver Paul Rudd and handicapped smartass Craig Roberts is so much fun, and includes appalling pranks and stupid bro hijinks. There’s nothing lame about the comedy in this one-of-a-kind buddy film / road trip adventure, where the two even find an excuse to bring a delightfully foul-mouthed Disney actress into the mix.

While most humans are unfixable in some way, that fact is distilled into a concentrated form among the physically disabled. So with that focus, this film allows an important message to limp in behind the comedy, which is that we should not take the happy accident of life too seriously. In fact we should joke about it, a lot. And we see the characters heal each other somewhat by doing that very thing.

In the Q/A following the Sundance screening, writer/director Rob Burnett described how he rose through the ranks at the David Letterman show, and how the humor in this film is more character-driven in contrast to Letterman-style jokes. He described the process of finding inspiration for this film by reading the novel “The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving”. He also pointed out that the role of care giver required strong comedy skills and genuine acting skills, and the only real choice was Paul Rudd. B+.

 

Home-schooling frequently means parents who substitute creationist nonsense and a religion-addled world view for the reality of science, and it therefore means kids sent off into the real world as closed-minded little scripture-bots. But exhilarating fable Captain Fantastic examines a brighter scenario, where an extreme form of home schooling is provided by eccentric, well educated, free thinking super-dad Viggo Mortensen. His enlightened but unusual life style / curriculum has his six kids learning wilderness survival skills as well as conventional school subjects with unconventional discipline, with unflinching respect for knowledge, and with a healthy dose of skepticism.

In this cinematic thought experiment, we see the upside, when the natural, unbounded curiosity of small humans is nurtured rather than being suppressed by indoctrination into bronze-age dogma. But we also see the downside, where a childhood separated from mainstream culture and from socialization with the full spectrum of peers can put even whip-smart kids on their own sort of short bus. Several beautifully executed scenes explore the obvious culture clash among adolescents realistically. A bigger clash arises at the adult level between Mortensen and the mainstream conservative grandfather, but the film wisely avoids siding with either perspective, allowing the audience to form their own opinion as to which of the two well-meaning figures can provide the best guidance for the kids.

If the film takes slight liberties with reality, or flirts with moral hyperbole, that is easy to forgive in the light of many beautiful elements, including a hilarious birds-and-bees lecture, and a glorious rock-and-roll sendoff for a departing character.

In the Q/A following the screening, writer/director Matt Ross (who plays Gavin Belson on HBO’s brilliant “Silicon Valley”) said his inspiration was simply being a father, and wanted to explore the idea of a father who might give up his career to devote his life to raising his kids. He also alluded to his own rural upbringing which impacted his own socialization. A.

 

Much of the writing/directing/acting team from eighties-yuppie-skewering chat-fest “Last Days of Disco” are reunited for Geogian-era-English-society-skewering chat-fest Love & Friendship. But this effort is more successful, as it benefits from the wit of Jane Austen, who wrote the novella on which this period piece is based.

That ridicule of English society comes with a celebration of the English language, with some delicious dialogue delivered by Kate Beckinsale as the manipulative and shameless Lady Susan Vernon. While she bounces around households, half-heartedly trying to find a proper match for her daughter, she doesn’t even try to disguise her actual intentions of finding a match of her own. The comedy is all smart and mostly subtle, but is elevated to LOL from time to time by a somehow-wealthy suitor who shows up and tries to be cool but achieves the opposite, with comedically awkward dialog in stark contrast to that of the characters he is trying to charm. B+.

 

A Virginia slave rebellion in 1831, and the characters and motivations behind it, are the unpleasant subjects of historical drama The Birth of a Nation. It’s a compelling and important story, told from the perspective of slave Nat Turner, who was allowed to receive an education and who became a Christian preacher. But the story is told with a melodramatic and heavy-handed style that may actually work against it by polarizing some audiences. It’s a visionary undertaking that will probably win awards for writer/director Nate Parker who also plays the lead, but the film suffers from mundane dialog, and from story telling that lacked nuance and restraint.

The film’s surprising redeeming quality is an observation of how people can rationalize their actions, however appalling. With the Christian slave owners justifying their barbaric actions from the Bible, and actually hiring Nat Turner to preach the Bible to other slaves to keep them in line, it’s obvious to the objective viewer that Bible has very little credibility as a moral compass. In fact quite the contrary. B.

Sundance 2016 – batch 2

The stupid, barbaric, and occasionally fatal rituals of fraternity hazing are given their own 90 minute hell week in drama Goat. And with a story centered around the organic bond of a pair of actual brothers, the fratboy notion of forced artificial brotherhood is held up to scrutiny and given a metaphorical wedgie.

It’s a comically disturbing fact that many of the judges, doctors, entrepreneurs, and corporate executives of tomorrow are at some point beginning their college education by enduring the specific homoerotic hazing ritual of their chosen fraternity, sitting in their underwear with their freshman pledge brothers, getting paddled by equally moronic but slightly older brozos, reciting a vapid frat slogan, barfing up cheap beer, and possibly deflowering a goat.

This film, based on the book “Goat: A Memoir”, is not exactly an exposé, because everyone already knows about the hazing, and people still join fraternities anyway. But it does illuminate the darker side of the overcooked testosterone-based world view in those fraternities that still have not shed their infantile old world rituals. While presenting the bros and cons of frat life, the movie even briefly examines the only justification given for hazing, something about a tradition going back many years. (That shallow thinking is not limited to fraternity hazing of course; some people even in 2016 continue other old traditions whose utility has expired, such as accordion music and religion.) B.

 

Set in the South Caucasus region where Asia and Europe meet awkwardly, beautiful epic love story Ali and Nino spans several years in the World War I era, from the unique perspective of a Muslim boy from Azerbaijan and a Christian girl from neighboring Georgia. The film follows the classically star-crossed lovers as they struggle to find a way to stay together in a world falling apart, and presents a sort of a history lesson, with the fascinating backdrop of Azerbaijan briefly gaining status as an independent nation in 1918, with Muslims somehow forming a democratic republic and allowing women to vote, before being conquered again by the Russians a few years later.

But this grand story was unavoidably melodramatic, and the flat dialog lacked a “we’ll always have Paris” sort of hook. And although stunning cinematography made the film a joy to watch, the finish was a bit over the top.

In the Q/A following the screening, there was discussion of the significant challenge in adapting the popular novel into a film, and of the surprising relevance of this old story to today’s environment where oil, Muslims, and an imperial Russia are still making news. B.

 

Thrilling rock and roll documentary and winner of a Sundance Best Editing award, We Are X immerses the audience in concert footage, behind the scenes drama, and interviews with fans and band members, to tell the story of huge Japanese band “X Japan” (who changed their name from “X” to avoid confusion with the American punkish band who already had that name).

As bombastic as Queen, with theatrics influenced by Kiss, and with a mixture of Metallica-style guitar/drum riffs and melodic piano ballads, X Japan forged a style known as “visual rock” in Japan, where they became a cultural phenomenon and sold 30 million records. But not in the USA; the film shows Gene Simmons explaining that if they recorded songs in English they might be the biggest band in the world.

The film includes plenty of Behind-the-Music style tragedy and triumph, with the band’s charismatic leader/drummer/pianist/songwriter Yoshiko heroically performing in spite of overuse injuries, with a couple of band members committing suicide, and with lead singer Toshi leaving the band for several years to join a we-can-improve-your-life-if-you-give-us-your-money cult before regaining his rationality. The happy ending finds the remnants of the band reuniting for a Madison Square Garden show in 2014. B+.

 

With just enough plot to give the characters something to do beyond exchanging funny quips, talky comedy Joshy is sort of a lessor “Big Chill” for the now coming-of-age offspring of that ’80s classic. And like the Big Chill, there’s a death and some light drama, but there’s no real menace. The film feels more like a stitched-together sequence of fun improvised scenes, from a first rate comic ensemble who find themselves thrown together for a weekend at sort of a bachelor party. And the final parallel with the Big Chill is that this generation also likes liquor, weed, coke, and arguing about music. B-.

Sundance 2016 – batch 1

Being openly skeptical about an invisible man in the sky is common now, but was rare in the mid 20th century. So it was uncommonly bold of a non-religious but culturally Jewish college student to defend his lack of irrational beliefs when challenged on it by his stern, Christian dean. And the beautifully written 18 minute scene in the dean’s office where the two argue their cases, with escalating passion bounded by old-fashioned respect, is a memorable, almost Sorokin-esque high point of Indignation, based on the novel by the great Philip Roth. But that scene is a small part of the larger story, examining the student’s relationship with an extraordinary young lady who befriends him, and in that story we see how people’s lives intersect in surprising and random ways, and we see how the student somehow ends up in the Korean war. The writing alone is worthwhile, but the performances in this little gem of a movie are also first rate. B+.

 

A work of fiction based on true events, psychological thriller Christine has been summarized as “the movie about that reporter who shot herself on live TV in 1974”. Since the crucial event of the story is a matter of public record and we know what happens near the end, the film relies heavily on the lead character’s inner turmoil for suspense. So it’s not so much a thriller as a study in the conflicts and stresses within the mind of an awkward, joyless young journalist, trying to succeed with integrity in a local TV news business struggling for ratings at a time when the profession was shifting away from actual news and toward sensationalism.

The TV newsroom scenes give the film some authentic energy. Other scenes where Christine has grim and uncomfortable interactions with her peers and family help define a character who was increasingly frustrated at having her instincts guide her toward mediocrity. So toward the end, the viewer may understand why she decided to end her life the way she did, by creating the sort of sensationalist news story she despised.

And what if, say, the entire Fox “News” organization took inspiration from this story, realized how far its own business has strayed from actual journalism, and, in a final moment truly “fair and balanced”, suddenly and violently terminated its own operations?

In the Q/A following the screening, the director described the difficulty in finding actual ’70s era video tape equipment to use in the control room scenes, and their luck in hiring a guy who knew how to operate it. B.

 

In metal murder-fest Green Room, a young, struggling thrash metal band, happy just to have a gig, performs on a crappy stage before a grunting crowd of neo-Nazi thugtards in a divy rural club. That sounds like fun, but the real fun begins when they finish the gig and retreat to the green dressing room and try to get the hell out of there. Some very bad things happen to the band, and they ultimately have to rely on their creative instincts to figure out how to defeat some bad guys so they can live to play their shitty music somewhere else.

And the bad guys have considerable resources, captained by Patrick Stewart, who, with clear British diction, directs his backwoods gestapo to “make it so” scary for the band, ideally by killing them for about 90 minutes.

Although this is a horror movie, it doesn’t go the stupid route by relying on supernatural elements like ghosts or devils. It’s mainly just people, you know, being themselves, exercising their second amendment rights. The movie shreds, metaphorically and literally; it shows the consequences of actions both smart and stupid; and it celebrates, in a way, creativity and courage.

Not for the whole family, just the psychopaths. Or drummers. B-.

 

Not related to the Louisa May Alcott novel, Little Men is a little story about two teenage boys who become friends and whose friendship is tested when their respective financially struggling parents start feuding over a business situation. But at that age kids aren’t that fond of their parents anyway, and so they become aligned and try to get their parents to sort things out. It’s a small movie telling a smallish story, but it has larger implications about how and why childhood friendships end. It also has a solid, flawed-dad performance from Greg Kinnear, and is shot with a great affection for a surprisingly photogenic Brooklyn. B.

 

Intense action love story The Free World features a wrongly convicted ex con trying to adapt to life outside of prison, who finds himself thrust into a relationship with a desperate woman who has also just won her freedom but in an entirely different way. Some unlikely events force him to make some difficult moral choices, where doing the right thing puts his freedom at risk.

The film works as an unusual love story and has some strong performances by Sundance vet Boyd Holbrook and Mad Woman Elisabeth Moss. But it suffered a bit from some forced melodrama, some distracting pro-Islam propaganda, and an unfocused payoff. C.

 

The death of Curt Cobain in 1994 hit certain people of a certain age hard, and that public tragedy is part of the cultural landscape for the three young characters in coming-of-age drama As You Are. With its title derived from a Nirvana song, the film follows the outcast teenagers who accept each other as they are and eventually experience a tragedy of their own.

It starts with the two boys who are forced to meet when the troubled single mom of one starts dating the strict single dad of the other, but the boys quickly bond over a shared taste in the music and drugs of the era. They are befriended by one of their female classmates, and the film does a beautiful job of portraying authentic interactions among three friends who really support each other, and the film also lets the relationship take twists and turns and evolve realistically.

But the film is less effective in resolving the relationship; there is a lot of buildup with a big mystery, but the payoff was a bit of a letdown.  B-.

Sundance 2015 – batch 4

Sara Silverman is such a fearless and gifted comedian that it’s not surprising she would bring that fearlessness to a dramatic role. It’s still a bit jarring though, to see her raw, vanity-be-damned performance in I Smile Back, as as a soccer mom losing a battle with her inner coke-and-booze mom. That Dr.-Jeckyl-and-Mrs.-Hyde performance is the strongest element of this film, and as her life spirals dramatically downward, and as she sees the heartbreaking effect on her children, the film tries, with some success, to provide insight into the causes and consequences of deception, addiction and self-loathing.

After being saddened by the film, as we exited into the lobby of Park City’s Eccles Theater, we were all comforted by Sundance volunteers handing out suckers. C+

 

Sundance 2009 documentary The Cove won an Oscar and made a serious dent into the illegal dolphin hunting it exposed. That film’s award-wining and difference-making director is back this year with Racing Extinction, and time will tell how much of a difference it makes. It seems to hit the right emotional notes in its shocking story of a recent increase in the rate species are going extinct, for reasons ranging from illegal fishing, to an increase in superstition-based dining choices like shark-fin soup, to a CO2-induced increase in the acidity of the oceans.

The extraordinary claim that we are “losing all of nature” requires extraordinary evidence to elevate it from an emotional argument that preaches mainly to the choir to a scientific one that might convert more skeptics. The film seemed a bit too reluctant to trust the audience’s ability to tolerate scientific data, which is understandable to a point.

In the Q/A after the screening, director lamented that, due to some of the confrontations in the film, he may not be able to revisit certain countries. B

 

Carey Mulligan raised her standing a notch at Sundance 2009 in 1960s romance “An Education” written by Nick Hornby, and fellow UK actress Saoirse Ronan may do the same with her quietly strong performance in this year’s Hornby-adapted 1950s romance Brooklyn. She plays an ambitious lass who gets a chance to escape from her backwater Irish town to the excitement of New York, and struggles over the years as she makes easy friends and hard choices, and travels far to find what being at home really means. It’s a rich but still simple story told in a suitably old-fashion and sentimental style, to the point where it could easily be a classic film from the mid-20th century were it not for the modern production values. The film was enhanced by exceptional music, with a beautiful score and a breathtaking Irish ballad. B+

 

Relentlessly funny, visually dazzling, emotionally draining, surprisingly insightful – a dozen hyperbolic adverb/adjective combinations would still understate the amazing experience of the sadly happy Me and Earl and the Dying GirlThe narration and camera angles engage from the outset, and the viewer knows after about 5 minutes that there is something special going on. That feeling is sustained until the credits roll, and you realize that people are surprising, creative and awesome.

This vaguely Fault-In-Our-Stars-ish story is told through the eyes, ears and engaging voice of a clever, acerbic, square-peg teenage boy who has an impossibly cool friend named Earl with whom he coproduces hilariously warped alternate versions of famous films, for fun. (Viewers with a deep knowledge of film will have a special appreciation for the more obscure titles). His mechanism for navigating the rough waters of high school is to get along with all the different groups, while being very careful to avoid forming any actual friendships. But while he is dying to stay detached, he has occasion to befriend a female classmate who is dying of cancer. And then a not-exactly-love story begins.

The script is smart, funny and self-aware; the acting performances are spot on, certainly by the three relatively unknown leads and also the smaller roles by TV aces including Connie Britton and Nick Offerman.

In the QA following the screening, the discussion included the distinctive point of view of the narrator, and the good fortune the filmmaker had in casting the film, including the confident newcomer who plays Earl. A+

 

Filmmaker Crystal Moselle had a chance meeting with members of an unusual New York family, got to know them, and several years later completed documentary film The Wolfpack telling their extraordinary story. Some details are left out, but the film chronicles how these six brothers grew up imprisoned in their apartment, due to their dad’s eccentric fear of the outside, and were home schooled by their mom. Considering that sheltered life, they turned out smart, charismatic and amazingly well adjusted, in part because they found stimulation in a shared, deep obsession in movies. They grew up mining the treasures of the Hollywood film catalog by watching, studying, and reenacting their favorite scenes, with home-crafted props and costumes. And as they eventually seized their own freedom, the camera captured them joyfully experiencing things for the first time, like plucking an apple from a tree.

It’s sort of poetic that this film, which was the catalyst for the brothers’ eventual escape, won the Documentary Grand Jury prize. All who saw the movie hope that its Sundance success is a foreshadowing of a happily-ever-after finale, or perhaps a triumphant sequel in a few years, for the newly emancipated brothers as they pursue careers in the film industry. B

Sundance 2015 – batch 3

Jack Black portrays a trying-too-hard loser who aspires to be the MVP in a big win by organizing his important high-school reunion, and to make it succeed he will do almost anything to get his newly famous classmate to show up, in odd buddy pic The D TrainWhile it’s fun, if a bit uncomfortable, to watch Black react to the awkward situations he creates for himself, there is a darker undertone that explores the intoxicating effect of celebrity. Considering the risks taken, this should have been funnier. C+

 

The biblical myths that should have produced physical evidence if they were real have motivated die-hard believers to try to dig up that physical evidence, practicing a comical fringe version of archaeology. And of course when they don’t find the artifacts they have to pretend they did. That fringe is explored with mixed results in divinely-devilish comedy Don Verdean, which was written and directed by the same team as Sundance 2004 hit Napoleon Dynamite. Sam Rockwell is on a mission from God as a preacher trying to bring home the relics, but he can’t save the film from being less biting than it needed to be. Lampooning evangelical stereotypes is a bit too easy, like shooting Jesus-fish in a barrel. The sanctimonious will be offended anyway, so this was a missed opportunity to really bring the comedy fire and brimstone.

In the QA following the screening, cowriter/director Jared Hess said he was a fan of fringe archaeology and wanted to explore that world. B-

 

Stuck between a documentary and a fiction film, the slice-of-prarie-life story in Songs My Brothers Taught Me is light on plot but grounded in a realistic portrayal of the modern life of a specific extended family on a South Dakota Indian reservation. The film slowly makes the point about the contemporary problems facing a society rooted in ancient culture, but could have done so in a more engaging fashion. A moving and beautiful but too brief segment near the end suggested what a powerful film this could have been.

In the QA following the screening, the audience was treated to a unique vocal performance of a Native American chant by one of the leads. C

 

Being gay is not a choice, but suppressing your own gayness in favor of a bronze-age religious belief system was an actual, baffling choice made by influential gay activist Michael Glatze. So on the surface, the much-buzzed-about biopic I Am Michael sounds like a tragedy, recounting Glatze’s life as he succumbed to those religious notions he was taught as a youth to become an anti-gay minister, dispensing horrible advice to young gay people. It’s still a sad story, but the film reveals Michael as a complex, restless, and conflicted searcher, and, through a tight script and a heartfelt performance by James Franco, helps shed light on his thought process even though it remains a paradox. The most compelling scenes are the ones between Franco and his companion (the excellent Zachary Quinto) that evolve from exemplary mutual support at the outset to a sad chasm at the end, when ideology finally trumps family with sword-of-Abraham single-mindedness.

In the QA after the screening, the insightful writer/director Justin Kelly indicated that he wouldn’t want to see a version of this movie that vilified the gays, nor a version that vilified the fundamentalists. He also indicated that the actual Michael enjoyed a private screening the film, and that he continues to evolve and search, has become less dogmatic, and no longer speaks out against gay people. B

 

While it’s a minor jolt for a not-quite-engaged high-school science teacher (Cobie Smulders) to learn she is pregnant, it’s devastating when one of her best students learns she is also pregnant, in light drama Unexpected. So in spite of their divergent backgrounds, the two find common ground in their unexpected situations, and in the now complex problem of keeping the student on the proper college trajectory. As the teacher becomes perhaps too involved in the student’s life, some big topics are explored with small moments that are skillfully written and acted.

In the QA after the screening, the discussion touched on whether college is really appropriate for everyone. The filmmaker said she drew on her own experience teaching in an urban high school, and that Ms. Smulders was actually pregnant during the filming. B-

Sundance 2015 – batch 2

We have already seen the horror film idea where Halloween visitors are actual monsters in a Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode. But in Hellionsthat old idea is executed with a creative twist, where it is intertwined skillfully with a nightmare teen pregnancy. The non-linear, dream-like story meanders a bit, but does so with stunning visual style. C+

 

The mindless Christian superstitions that plagued early 17th century New England were used to justify countless barbaric executions for witchcraft. In elegant horror fable The Witch, that same religion-addled culture enables family members on a small Puritan farm to assume that occult forces or god’s-will forces are causing various tragedies. That leads to a form of paranoia where they eventually turn against each other and maybe even go supernatural themselves.

But more engaging than the horror story is the look and sound of this film, with beautiful subdued colors and odd-sounding but authentic early American dialect delivered intrepidly by a first-rate English cast. The hardships and grinding minutiae of running the farm are presented with gritty detail, and the camera finds original and memorable ways to frame it all.

The Q/A after the screening revealed the degree to which the details of the period, locale, and culture were accurately recreated, down to the clothing, the farm equipment, the accents, and the dialog.

This film was smarter than its genre. B+

 

Kickstarter-funded geriatric rom-com I’ll See You In My Dreams features some Hollywood veterans as well as a Freaks and Geeks alum. The culture clash within that sentence is representative of the film itself, with some tragedy thrown in to give perspective to the romance and comedy. Blythe Danner, finding perhaps her best role late in her career, portrays a widow who is content hanging out with her old-folks-homies. Then she discovers a common interest with young-but-uncool pool cleaner Martin Starr, and then discovers a cool-at-any-age Sam Elliot. Nicely paced comedy and romance ensues, and the comedy includes a strong endorsement for medical marijuana.

Loss is a fact of life, especially so in the golden years, and that’s part of the movie as well. The film makes the point that it’s OK to take risks at any age, and not dwell on who you were but rather who you are.

In the Q/A after the screening, Ms. Danner was asked (based on a vocal performance in the film) if she had any plans to release her own vocal CD. But she said that won’t happen. B+

 

Gritty comedy romp Dope is an unlikely but brilliantly blended mix of high school nerd culture and ghetto thug culture. It tells an uplifting tale centered on three friends just tying to avoid the criminals in their ‘hood so they can complete their senior year and get into a good college. Stuck in a rough school full of thugs and drugs, the three defy stereotype by killing time as a punk rock trio, by riding BMX bikes, by favoring ‘90s hip hop over modern rap, and most of all by pursuing good grades. They are the high achievers among peers who are just high. They also fight bad guys with Bitcoins instead of Glocks.

Sundance audiences enthusiastically applauded the film. It has elements in common with the John Hughes teen movies of the ’80s, including snappy teen-age dialog, occasionally frenetic pacing, cool music (including tracks by Pharrell Williams), awkwardly charismatic leads, and going a bit over the top in places, if that’s where the best comedy is. A

Sundance 2015 – batch 1

Big Bang theorist Melissa Rauch vaults to a starring role in her own movie with the raunchy and sometimes hilarious gymnastics farce The BronzeCowritten by Ms. Rauch and her husband, the story centers on a bronze-medal gymnast who is past her prime but still reliving her glory days with a high-degree-of-difficulty temper, and who may or may not be hiding a heart of gold. There is humor in Rauch’s over-the-top diva behavior and inventive cursing, but the biggest bang is the gold-medal gymnastic sex scene, where a variety of carnal landings were gratuitously and comedically stuck.

Although the bitchy-bronze-medal-babe gets a little shrieky after a while, possible romantic interest Thomas Middleditch provides a pleasant counterpoint. He is also a geek-TV star in HBO’s hilarious “Silicon Valley”, and was funny in the Q/A following the screening. B

 

If Modern Family’s Phil Dunphy is trying too hard to be the “cool dad” in this decade, his 1980’s precursor might have been Ethan Hawke’s pot-smoking, womanizing dad in coming-of-age drama Ten Thousand Saints

In a grim New York in the early 1980s, the music scene was reacting against the decadence of punk rock by evolving a straight edge scene, with hardcore music, boys with shaved heads, and drug-free behavior. With some characters tied to that scene, the film tells a gritty and engaging story of teen-age bad decisions and severe consequences. But despite some heavy drama there is fun to be had along the way, especially in the excellent comic timing and gusto Hawke brings to the dad character, and in the realistically wise-yet-naive performance of Hailee Steinfeld. The story examines big topics – like adoption and the dynamic definition of family, and the profound impact of an early death – with small, magical moments of humor and insight.

The Q/A after the screening included discussion of musical influences (e. g. The Replacements) and how they shot the film in modern New York in a way that made it look like ‘80s New York. B+

 

Low key sci-fi parable Advantageous takes our current Internet- and mobile-device-based civilization, with its larger than ever premium on looking young and attractive, and extrapolates it forward just a few decades. It centers on a financially struggling mother who will do anything to place her young daughter in the best possible school. But in this vision of the near future, the advanced technology gives her options that are drastic and risky, and which call into question the very nature of consciousness, and what it means for us to be who we are. Although some fascinating ideas were explored, it did not seem to go far enough, and a slow pace diluted the drama. C+

 

A pleasant, muscular construction worker and his pleasant friend find ways to entertain themselves killing time and biking around Miami in small gem The Strongest ManThis lightweight lark is similar in tone to Napoleon Dynamite, with its quirky humor and dry line readings, but has less energy. Although there are some charming moments and some very entertaining scenes synthesized from the thinnest of substance, it felt somewhat underdeveloped. C+

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