Sundance 2020

Revenge tale Promising Young Woman places a recognizably human victim/superhero in the complex and recently fashionable moral backdrop of #MeToo. And in her relentless pursuit of a sexual predator from her past, and his enablers, Carey Mulligan’s cold-blooded avenger dispenses crowd pleasing, cinematic vigilante justice. Fans of the excellent Killing Eve TV series, whose second-season head writer also wrote and directed this film, may recognize the style of taut, comically executed, female-inflicted mayhem. Suspension of disbelief is a bit of a hurdle in some films; in this case you just have to pretend all men are complete pigs. Even with that, it taxes the viewer in the twisty final act, but is ultimately satisfying. C+.


Austere science fiction / fantasy Nine Days employs an outrageous premise to provide a beautiful celebration of simply being alive. That premise has several potential humans (who look and act like actual humans) go through a nine-day audition and interview process, where a judge evaluates their worthiness. If they pass, they get to be born and experience life as a human being; if not, there’s only a consolation prize, but a fascinating one. One candidate in particular triggers a magical sequence where the exhilarating poetry of Walt Whitman gives the film a special beauty.

This is quite an unusual film, where the sci-fi tech is mainly CRT TVs and VHS tapes; its scope is sweeping and ambitious but it was shot in only a few days on basic sets. Like the best science fiction, its power comes from its ideas, not costumes or gadgets. And, to its credit, the film remains secular, making its profound point about the privilege of life without stooping to religion and without getting mired in self-help nonsense.

The Sundance screening received a lengthy standing ovation, and in the subsequent Q/A, the writer/director indicated this film was inspired by a death in his own family and an effort to turn that into something positive. The Sundance jury later recognized his accomplishment with its screenwriting award. A-.


Someone murdered around a dozen women in the 20 year period ending around 2011, and disposed of their bodies on Long Island, New York. Lost Girls is a narrative based on the true story of the “Long Island Serial Killer” from the perspective of one of the victim’s families.

Amy Ryan is tenacious and gritty as a mother desperately pursuing the truth about the fate of her daughter, butting heads with authorities who downplay the importance of just another missing prostitute and who try to protect the residents of the posh gated community where she was last seen. Ryan’s performance is compelling as a troubled woman with limited resources and limited parenting skills, who eventually figures out how to use news media to get action from police and FBI.

In the QA following the screening, the director and producer described some difficulty filming on location, including the lack of cooperation from one of the local police jurisdictions. They expressed hope for progress on the still unsolved case. B.


Elisabeth Moss does not hold back in her warts-and-all portrayal of horror and mystery author Shirley Jackson in Shirley. It’s a sort of horror film, where the bloodshed is mainly emotional, about a horror/mystery author. It’s also a family drama, but one where a crazy, depressed loose cannon of a wife can be as scary as a monster under the bed or a clown with balloons.

The reclusive author and her husband, a professor, allow a young student couple to move in to their house and serve as domestic helpers, and also as psychological punching bags. The style of the film embraces and magnifies the chaos of human relationships, with disturbing dream sequences, jiggly hand-held shots, and closeups that look like dermatology exams. Some comfort can be found in observing the surprising friendship that develops between the author and her young female assistant. C+.


The Cuban missile crisis took place during the cold war, when the enemies of capitalism and free speech were found more often in the Soviet Union than on domestic college campuses. That crisis ended without escalating into World War III, in large part due to behind-the-scenes efforts of America’s CIA and England’s MI5. Those two intelligence agencies worked together to recruit a civilian to play an important role in obtaining information about the Soviet missile buildup. The spy thriller Ironbark takes its name from the code name of that mission.

That heroic civilian was British businessman Greville Wynne, who is portrayed by a committed Benedict Cumberbatch. Wynne was understandably reluctant at first, but eventually went far above and beyond the original mission. His repeated visits to Russia eventually led to an unlikely human-to-human bond between a Russian spy and an English courier that transcended the east/west animosity of the era. The film doesn’t focus on conventional spy lore, instead guiding the viewer to consider the notable contrast between the amorality of global political forces vs. the altruism of humans who rise to the occasion. B-.

Sundance 2019

It’s hard to imagine what goes through the mind of a barbaric thug who attacks his ex-girlfriend with acid and leaves her with significant physical and emotional scars, and a small child to raise. While he ponders his actions from a jail cell, the young working class woman he disfigured has to try to salvage her life and keep from frightening her kid just by showing her face. Set in London and infused with thick cockney accents and working class strife, Dirty God is the relentlessly grim story of the poor choices the young woman keeps making as she tries to find her footing and somehow support her child. The performance by the unknown lead actress makes the character especially sympathetic and is the best thing about this otherwise difficult-to-watch film.

A simpler film might have focused on a quest for vengeance, but this one aims a bit higher, examining how you manage to cope with a bad situation, not because you have any special help or special abilities, but because that’s what you have to do. C+.


The “Pleasant Valley Sunday” world inhabited by suburban soccer mom housewives is squeezed through a surrealist meat grinder and seasoned with mutant fairy dust in absurdist filmmaking exercise Greener Grass. Occupying a layer of the crazy-sphere somewhere between “over-the-top” and “what’s a top?”, this comedic effort has some good laughs, but frequently substitutes strangeness for wit. It meanders between “funny”, which ideally elicits involuntary laughter, and “absurd”, which elicits a measured recognition of “yes, that’s absurd” or perhaps “yes, that’s very absurd”. But, within that framework, it’s a quality effort, and should find an audience who appreciates its disdain for suburban norms and its subversion of common movie tropes. C+.


If you are a certain kind of music fan, at a young age you discovered music that was so good and perhaps even life changing that you were compelled to try to persuade people to drop what they’re doing and listen to it, so that it would change their lives the way it changed yours. (The various religious missionaries that still infect the modern world apparently have that same feeling about their archaic texts and scriptures, so one can see where they are coming from, but outdated nonsense is a tough sell). During the ‘70s and ’80s it was not uncommon for young people to have that evangelical feeling about Bruce Springsteen’s music, which was especially moving and powerful. 

Set in London in 1987 (a few years after “Born in the USA”), coming-of-age gem Blinded by the Light tells the story of a high school student named Javed whose Muslim father brought his family from Pakistan to England, perhaps because he believed in a promised land, and even sent his kids to non-religious schools to help them assimilate. While the family struggled with the anti-Pakistani racism and rampant unemployment of the era, Javed had the impractical ambition to become a writer. That crazy dream found resistance from his father but support from an enlightened teacher and from neighbor who read his work. Most of all, it got turned up to 11 when a friend insisted that he take a couple of Springsteen cassettes to listen to, which demonstrated the power of well chosen words, sparked his imagination, and changed his life.

The way the lyrics from a New Jersey boy spoke so clearly to Javed’s own hungry heart, and the way it gave credence to his unlikely hopes and dreams, is the substance of this film. And it’s the source of the kind of cinematic and musical exuberance rarely portrayed so vividly on screen. It’s a grand and ambitious film, with familiar music but mostly unknown actors who do very convincing work, especially the charismatic newcomer playing Javed.

This film is based on a true story, and the real-life Javed is named Sarfraz Manzoor; he did become a writer and journalist. He wrote a book about the influence of Bruce’s music on his life, which Bruce eventually read, and that in turn led Bruce to graciously allow the filmmakers full access to his songs for the adaptation of that book into this movie. And those songs are not used as background music; they are front and center in all the pivotal scenes, with the lyrics in some cases flashed on the screen.

This is not exactly a musical – the real singing is wisely left to Bruce, but some audiences will surely join in. It’s sort of a borderline musical, and has some scenes and dialog that are a bit silly or corny, which may put off viewers who are not already Springsteen fans. The rest of us just need to suspend disbelief a bit – to “show a little faith, there’s magic in the night”. It ain’t a cinema masterpiece, but as an uplifting tale of rock and roll redemption, hey it’s all right. A-.


Even in the 21st century, parts of Africa are living on such thin margins that a single bad growing season can cause famine. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind finds inspiration in the grim desperation of the 2002 Malawi drought and famine. In one village, a resourceful young farm boy, who had been sneaking into a small library to learn about science, fought against his father’s ignorance to apply that science to the water problem that threatened their survival. He was able to turn some scrapyard mechanical equipment and bicycle pieces into a wind-driven water irrigation pump which allowed his village to grow crops and avoid starvation.

In an era when science is under attack from many liberals (who claim gender is just a social construct, and who subscribe to GMO paranoia), many conservatives (who reject climate change), many religious people (who reject evolution and, let’s face it, reality) and general morons (who refuse to vaccinate their kids), it’s refreshing when science is celebrated in film, in this case a film showing how a little bit of scientific thinking made a huge difference in real life.

Chiwetel Ejiofor co-wrote and directed this ambitious, uplifting film, and gives a credible performance as the boy’s father who struggled to keep his family alive, who forbade his son to get an education, and who fought his son’s efforts to build gadgets he did not understand, eventually relenting. The young actor who played the son delivered an engaging performance.

When the world learned of his role in applying technology to save his village, the real life William Kamkwamba became a minor worldwide celebrity. He wrote the book upon which this movie is based, he did two TED talks, and attended several western schools, receiving a BA from Dartmouth in 2014. B.


The modern art scene, with its increasingly vague definition of “art” and its questionable tastemakers, is begging to be lampooned, and horror comedy Velvet Buzzsaw gives it a shot.

The tale involves greedy art-world schemers trying to profit from a discovery of the work of a recently deceased artist, going against his final wishes. It’s only fitting that such unethical behavior is punishable by artful horror-film death. Jake Gyllenhaal leads a competent cast that elevates the material they are given, but only to a point. Credit the filmmakers for not going for the obvious laughs; the comedy is in the eye of the beholder.

The film examines the question: What makes art valuable? Is it intrinsic beauty, or is it what it can signal about the owner? There’s a serious discussion to be had about what Instagram culture is doing to our perception of beauty and fame. The film flirts with this topic between the artistically conceived and colorful murders. C.

Sundance 2018 – batch 2

In low key charmer Puzzle, housewife/mother Kelly Macdonald supports an ordinary, suburban, middle-class household, doing all the cooking, shopping and mom stuff for her traditional husband and sons. Then she randomly discovers she has an extreme knack for solving jigsaw puzzles, and that leads to a new friend, some new experiences, and a beautiful sequence of minor epiphanies about her own abilities, and a gradual set of larger discoveries that lead her to take control of her own life.

The heartwarming transformation from unfulfilled housewife to assertive and independent woman (and more insightful mother) is a product of beautifully paced writing and an outstanding performance by Macdonald. And this realistic and relatable coming-of-middle-age film is so simple and effective that it’s hard to notice what a quietly powerful feminist statement it is (without needing to dip into the poisonous well of postmodern feminism). B+.


Director/cowriter Ethan Hawke took the stage before the screening and introduced his movie as “our gonzo indie country western opera, Blaze”. Depicting the life of under-the-radar country singer/songwriter Blaze Foley, who died in 1989, and cowritten by his surviving wife, the film is a tribute to songwriting, to living a life with enough joy and heartbreak to inspire art, and to Foley himself.

As the film covers his on/off relationship with his wife (a vibrant and muse-worthy Alia Shawkat) and his struggles with a fringe career, a dozen or so songs written by Blaze Foley are performed with authentic lived-a-hard-life vocals and precise guitar work by singer/guitarist Ben Dickey. (His acting impressed the Sundance jury to the point where they gave him a US Dramatic Special Jury Award for Acting).

The cut shown at Sundance was over 2 hours and might benefit from some tighter editing.

In the QA following the screening, Ethan Hawke commented that most biopic films are about people who are already famous but this one is not. He also said this was a movie about human creativity. B.


Bo Burnham became a YouTube star in the mid 2000’s by posting songs dense with wordplay and biting wit, and then scored a deal with Comedy Central to release records. He is now a promising filmmaker, as evidenced by his debut feature film Eighth Grade. It follows a young student who projects a strong and confident image to her small YouTube following but struggles to fit in among classmates and move on to high school without getting slayed by her crush or crushed by her bullies.

Burnham demonstrates an ear for credible dialog and a sense of how inefficiently young people interact, which allows him to infuse this film with some painfully realistic moments. It’s almost hard to watch until the exhilarating final act, which includes an extraordinary and beautiful scene with her father, which makes it all worthwhile.

In the QA following the screening, writer/director Burnham said the story was partially inspired by watching YouTube videos of those without a lot of followers. He quipped that on YouTube boys talk about X-box but girls talk about their souls. B+.


In lightweight tale Hearts Beat Loud, Nick Offerman is the manager of a struggling record store and the single parent of a thriving daughter (Kiersey Clemons) who is on track for medical school. The two also collaborate in music, and dad’s vintage analog instruments and daughter’s modern sample-based sounds eventually merge on a song that takes off on Spotify. Its success raises the possibility of a career in music over medicine, with the difficult choices that implies. There’s credible family and musical chemistry between the two, the songs are pretty enjoyable, and it’s all feel-good and uplifting. That lack of drama doesn’t detract from this simple film, which is really about the joy of creating music.

In the QA following the screening and enthusiastic reception of the film at a packed Eccles Center, the director spoke of the difficulty of shooting live vocals, and promised that the a sound track album will be released. A-.


Pastoral adventure film Leave No Trace explores the unusual bond between an eccentric off-the-grid father haunted by PTSD and a teenage daughter who gradually begins to question her unflinching loyalty and her isolation from peers. They are homeless by choice, but don’t consider themselves homeless; they live and thrive in the woods, in a beautiful and sometimes hostile Pacific Northwest setting. Paced like a long hike in the forest, the film quietly suggests that rejecting all of modern civilization is not just quaint or quirky, it’s dangerous and possibly pathological, and the two have to decide how much of modern society and technology to accept. B+.


One of John Callahan’s many politically incorrect cartoons depicts a posse on horseback, apparently chasing a bad guy, and finding an empty wheel chair, and the sheriff says “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot”. That’s also the title of the entertaining biopic depicting the wild swings in the life of the famous, controversial, wheel-chair-bound cartoonist, whose dark, edgy work ran for many years in a Portland, Oregon weekly newspaper. (Those cartoons were frequently offensive to certain soft, humorless people who complained.)

Joaquin Phoenix ably portrays the man struggling with his own self-inflicted demons, and in his courageous performance we observe that his life as a sober paraplegic was far better than the fully ambulatory drunk phase that preceded it. So he essentially swapped an emotional disability for a physical disability and came out ahead. Jonah Hill is funny and surprising as the therapist who helps Callahan through the 12-step program to get him sober. Despite some strong elements, the film feels a bit loose and uneven. C+.


Based on the life of successful French author Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (brought to life by a luminous and occasionally incendiary Kiera Knightley), historical drama  Colette covers her first marriage and the chaotic start of her career. Her husband was already a famous author when they met, and they eventually discover that she’s actually a much more talented writer, but she cannot publish under her own name because its 1890’s Paris and she’s a woman. The two had a stormy and complex relationship that is portrayed dynamically on screen – he supported and encouraged her creativity, she liked having scandalous lesbian affairs, he preferred having slightly more conventional affairs. And, apparently, long before there were rock and roll groupies, there was novelist nookie. All the delightful wanton banging provided bountiful source material for their scandalous and popular novels, which were initially published under her husband’s name.

But he somehow squandered their earnings, and eventually Collette realized she needed to move on and assert creative control of her life and her art, and that’s the best part. So, as in several other movies at Sundance 2018, a strong and positive feminist message is embedded organically in the art. B+.


Post-apocalyptic yarn I Think We’re Alone Now is a fresh take on how one or two people might act after some unknown apocalyptic event kills almost everyone. The film draws you in as it develops slowly, with Peter Dinklage playing a serious oddball who kind of likes everyone being dead and Elle Fanning as a needy roamer looking for a friend. Eventually it shows some insight on the nature of solitude and the value of company. But then, in the final act, the film changes tone and goes off into the weeds in a severely underdeveloped attempt at a larger sci-fi message. (This film had enough merit that the Sundance judges gave director Reed Marano a special jury prize for excellence in filmmaking.) C.

Sundance 2018 – batch 1

With their biological clocks way past prime baby-making hours, the fortyish couple in Private Life are so desperate to become parents that they try every, uh, conceivable tactic, including adoption, in-vitro fertilization and surrogacy. But it doesn’t go well, medically and socially, and this stresses their marriage and their extended family relationships. The dynamics are sometimes touching and sometimes hilarious, and done effectively with fiery Katherine Hahn and transparent Paul Giamatti in the lead roles. The story is given credibility with technical details about hormones, injections, fertility, cycles, probabilities, and possibly quantum mechanics. It seems like lot of trouble but some people do like having kids. B+.


Based on the known facts of the famous late-19th century “40 whacks” ax murders in the Borden family, historical drama Lizzy takes some liberty to fill in some missing pieces of the story, and explain, with cinematic style, why a daughter might murder an unloving mom and dad. Maybe they had it coming?

The suspense comes from watching characters develop in the first few acts with the knowledge that, eventually, the shit’s going to hit the fam. It mostly works, with moody natural lighting, some pithy dialog, and strong performances by Chloe Sevigny as assertive, rebellious, bullshit-resistant daughter Lizzie, and Kristen Stewart as her sneaky-hot Irish housemaid/friend-with-benefits. B.


Perhaps the most effective way to show the elaborate house-of-cards fragility of Pentecostal religious doctrine is to portray it even-handedly, without judgement, and watch it collapse when one of its leaders has the rare audacity to interpret biblical scripture through his own humanity. Based on the real life of Rev. Carlton Pearson from Tulsa, Come Sunday features a strong performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor as a the charismatic, thoughtful preacher and spiritual leader to thousands who attended his weekly Jesus rallies. But he was perhaps too thoughtful for that role when it occurred to him (or a god told him) that it might be unfair for a “just” god to send people to hell for the sin of not being born in a place where their parents coerced them into christianity, or at least not given a convenient way to inflict it upon themselves. Preaching that there is no hell of course is “heresy”, and that act triggered an ongoing controversy where each side found bible passages to support their own conflicting positions, (which, to an objective observer, casts doubts on the credibility of the entire source). When most of Rev. Pearson’s flock left his church because of his inclusive stance, he had to downsize, and ultimately find another form of church.

It’s an interesting story, whether you root for fundamentalism or rationality. The entire supporting cast was credible in portraying well-meaning people struggling to do the right thing while basing their notion of “right” on an ambiguous bronze-age book. Some uplifting musical interludes provide welcome relief from all the religious arguing.

The QA following the screening was especially informative. The film was based on a “This American Life” episode about heretics, and Ira Glass was present. The actual Rev. Carlton Pearson was present with his family, and received a standing ovation from a packed Eccles Center. B-.


Rock doc Bad Reputation is an important piece of rock and roll history, with an especially timely telling of the story of influential female rock-and-roll badass Joan Jett. Although the narrative flow sometimes misses a beat, the film does contain a few remarkable gems. It includes a series of testimonials from a diverse set of luminaries including Michael J. Fox (actor), Billy Joe Armstrong (musician), and Nikki Haley (WTF?). The emotional highlight is a nicely edited scene of a contemporary Joan Jett accepting her Rock and Roll Hall of Fame membership intercut with footage of a Runaways-era Joan Jett being interviewed about her ambitions. The best parts, though, are historic performances by the Runaways, the Blackhearts, and, most recently, Joan Jett filling in for Kurt Cobain in a growly “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (tuned down a half-step) with Nirvana as they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014. (She was inducted the following year, along with the Blackhearts, by Miley Cyrus.)

In the QA following the screening, Joan Jett and Kenny Laguna discussed their long-time friendship, and Joan was thanked by several long-time fans for being such a pioneer. B+.


Thriller Beirut puts Jon Hamm in the middle of Arab/Israeli/American intrigue, centered around the former Paris of the Middle East, as a ’70s-era diplomat, trying to figure out who has a hostage and then strike several bargains to get that hostage freed. It’s a bit familiar to see a troubled, bourbon-swigging Hamm character finding exactly the right words to make a deal, but this is up a notch from Don Draper, as these mad men have thick accents, leverage, and guns. The strongest element of this film is the telling of the story from the perspective of a cynical negotiator, with smartly crafted dialog, in a disorienting world where even the bad guys have some underlying decency and even the good guys are corrupt, and there’s always a deal to be made for a price. B.


Moe Berg’s major league baseball career was the least remarkable part of his extraordinary life as portrayed in historical biopic The Catcher Was a Spy. He was good enough for the big leagues, but the only way he stood out was by shattering every facet of the jock stereotype – by being definitely Jewish and possibly gay, by achieving multiple college degrees, and by mastering several languages. That unique set of qualities caught the attention of the US government’s spy agencies, and he was recruited and employed on a critical World War II mission. The storytelling in this film is mostly solid, though it’s a bit jarring to see Paul Rudd play such a serious character.

In the QA following the screening, director Ben Levin indicated that Hollywood has been trying to tell the Moe Berg story for many years, and that Paul Rudd wanted to do something outside his comfort zone. B-.


If you were born in the right decade, you were of college age when the National Lampoon magazine was at its commercial and artistic peak, and its unholy mix of smart, not-quite-literary humor and fuck-the-rules surrealistic madness aligned perfectly with the tastes of college boys hungry for both intellectual growth and panty raids. So for those of us who were making the transition from spitballs and basic cursing to big words and lofty metaphors, the ’70s era National Lampoon was a beacon of childish nonsense in a sea of grown-up civilization. Comedy A Futile snd Stupid Gesture tells the story of the smart, damaged minds behind the magazine, and tries to emulate its wild, anarchic style, focusing on the magazine’s co-founder and chief creative force, the unstable genius Doug Kenney. But it’s probably impossible to hit that level of smart-crazy and still tell a coherent story, so the film feels a bit forced and loopy. It’s entertaining to see the barely-rational basis for the magazine’s origin, the accidental comedy-lottery success of Animal House, and the coke-fueled slapping together of box office disappointment (but eventual cult hit) Caddy Shack. Also, Joel MacHale is surprisingly funny playing early Chevy Chase.

See the great documentary “Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead” for a better telling of the National Lampoon story, and see this move for more insight into Doug Kenney and the making of the movies, and some laughs, and titties. B.


Set in the early ’90s, drama The Miseducation of Cameron Post follows relatively well-adjusted high school student Cameron (a nuanced Chloë Grace Moretz) spending time with her girlfriend. But when the two are caught making out, she is confronted and eventually sent off by her religious family to a christian gay conversion clinic, way out in the woods (literally and intellectually). She and other gay minors are forced to live at the facility and endure daily browbeating from adult staff, with the message that “SSA” (same sex attraction) is some sort of aberrant behavioral choice, and of course a big sin. Cameron sincerely tries to make the program work, but it obviously can’t. (Note: The Committee on Adolescence of the American Academy of Pediatrics has stated that such therapy is not effective and may be harmful to LGBTQ individuals.) Fortunately she makes friends with some of her peers, and they share techniques for maintaining their humanity while getting through the day by telling the counselors what they want to hear.

It seems such clinics filter the most egregious religious teachings through completely unfounded pseudo-science, accompanied by shitty music, to achieve nothing but making kids either hate themselves or hate the family and religion that decided that emotional abuse of minors was a good idea. The film is a bit hard to watch, but the ending does suggest that, for some, it actually does get better. (This film was awarded the Sundance U. S.  Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic.)

The QA following the screening included a discussion about how to get this film in front of people who need to see it, and pointed out that the abominable practice of gay conversion therapy is currently legal in all but 9 states. (I’m imagining a world where creationists are forced to attend science camp.) B+.


The writer/director team of Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman teamed up in 2007 to deliver teen pregnancy classic Juno, and have teamed up again for their take on motherhood with Tully. Charlize Theron’s work load as a mom-of-two is already maxed out, and the arrival of number three pushes her to another level. Dad is not available to help much due to a demanding job and an equally demanding video game habit. (The relentless and exhausting routine of baby care is depicted dramatically in a frantically edited 3-minute montage that is surely the most effective birth control PSA ever.) So mom agrees to accept help from a “night nanny”, who does such an amazing job sharing the load that it transforms her life, in a miraculous way that can only happen in the mother of all motherhood movies. C+.

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-.

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