We Are What We Are is a suspenseful horror flick with some delightfully creepy atmosphere. Although it’s centered around the familiar premise of a normal-seeming family that turns out to be far from normal, it benefits greatly from a nicely shot rural, rainy setting, and some better-than-the-genre acting performances. It suffers a bit from a WTF payoff. C+
On the surface the story of a summer romance triangle, Very Good Girls is at the heart a story of female friendship. College-bound high-school friends share several common interests including one who happens to be a summer-fling-worthy boy, and their BFF-ness is tested as they lean on each other and yet keep secrets from each other. An enthusiastic performance by Elizabeth Olsen and a contrasting, thoughtful effort from Dakota Fanning keep things interesting. B
Everyone’s afflicted with a certain endearing oddness in the extended family of Touchy Feely, including a dentist who is not good at what he does in a conventional way, and his sister who is a massage therapist with some unexpected hangups. These and the other characters have relationships that it takes a bit too long to sort out in this slow paced film. It’s a bit of a disappointment after the director’s promising Sundance 2012 effort My Sister’s Sister. C
Google was incorporated in 1998, became an accepted verb according to the OED in 2006, and is now an indispensable knowledge tool. All along, searching web sites has been a byproduct of Google’s much more ambitious quest to organize the world’s information, effectively building a “world brain”. Documentary Google and the World Brain focuses on the controversy around a big part of that task: Google’s massive effort to digitize all the world’s books, including copyrighted ones. Much of the controversy is just uninformed fear of the consequences of technology. But copyright holders do have a legitimate claim against copying books, while Google claims their actions are allowed as fair use. The film provides some historical background on the concept of a world brain, including the writing of H. G. Wells, has some well-researched technical detail, and presents the copyright issue fairly, but overreaches a bit trying to make a case that Google’s effort is evil. B-
Set entirely in remote Texas woodlands, Prince Avalanche uses the placid scenery as backdrop for an unorthodox buddy movie. Paul Rudd is likable even as an impatient roadway maintenance worker / father figure and Emile Hirsch shows range as his young horn-dog jerk of an apprentice. There’s an element of this film that tries with limited success to make a statement about the solitude that nature can provide. Overall it’s a pleasant and original story, not quite a comedy. C+
In Afternoon Delight, female sexuality is explored through the shenanigans of a soccer mom who tries to liven up her marriage and stumbles into a friendship with a young hooker who becomes her nanny and rescue project. This is all a bit unlikely, but there are plenty of comedic moments, especially from mom Kathryn Hahn, and plenty of sincerity from Juno Temple as the wise-beyond-her-years hooker who doesn’t need saving. B+
If Fellini, David Lynch, and Tinker Bell had a three-way, their odd, illegitimate movie-baby would be Escape from Tomorrow. Because it was shot surreptitiously and without permission in Disney amusement parks, it was among the most buzzed-about titles at this year’s Sundance (along with jOBS). Despite its guerrilla-film origin, it’s no home movie; it’s a highly stylized, wildly imaginative, unconventional film that has an impressive musical score and magnificently realized vision. For most viewers, this black-and-white psychedelic-nightmare of a movie was a bit of a puzzle; some found that a reason to despise the movie and some found that an essential part of its bizarro appeal. It can be described as the story of a family that goes to Disney World, where the father gets distracted by a pair of young girls and starts following them, and things take a weird turn. But that doesn’t do it justice; the story is lacking but the telling of the story is redeeming.
In the Q/A after the screening, writer/director Randy Moore described the process of filming without getting caught. They made many trips to the Disney parks; they bought season passes; they shot video with an advanced SLR style camera that was inconspicuous; they did extensive planning and had every shot laid out in advance; they shot the riskiest scenes last in case they were discovered (and they almost were on the final shoot). As a child growing up near Orlando, Moore visited Disney World, and if there’s a meaning to the film, it is his attempt to make sense of those artificially constructed fantasy worlds, and how those facades are embraced by our culture.
Disney has apparently not yet weighed in on this film, so it’s not clear whether it will be released. B+
The too-short yet immense and extraordinary life of Steve Jobs is barely contained in Walter Isaacson’s 656 page biography, and is certainly beyond the scope of a single movie. The larger-budget movie, currently in the works by Sony Pictures, is an Aaron Sorkin adaptation of the book; smaller indy effort jOBS is already completed and scheduled for official release on April 19. Its premier at this year’s Sundance was a motherboard-hot ticket, with an obviously compelling subject, and with star-power casting choice Ashton Kutcher seeming to bear a physical resemblance to a young Steve Jobs.
Opening with an Apple employee meeting in 2001, right before the introduction of the first iPod (1,000 songs!), the story flashes back to Steve’s college years, and takes us through a wild universe-denting trip before it mellows out on a perfect note with Steve in a recording studio, a few years after his return to rejuvenate a floundering Apple in the late ’90s. Along the way we get to know key players, including a soulful Josh Gad as humble tech-genius Woz, and a stiff Dermot Mulroney as adult supervision Mike Markkula.
The garage scenes were shot in the actual now-historic Los Altos house where Steve lived. And overall, Kutcher and crew get quite a few other things right, notably Steve Jobs’ look, voice, walk, and mannerisms, but more importantly, the paradox of an ambitious, inspirational, we-can-change-the-wold leader with a dangerous, impatient, walk-on-water-or-you’re-out arrogance. As the film moves through later eras, it covers board room maneuvering, a sympathetic portrayal of grown-up Steve’s family life, and his eventual return to Apple, highlighted in a terrific scene with the Jonathan Ive character. But, necessarily, the film omits a lot, including Pixar and NeXT.
The right music can help the narrative by defining time lines in any historical movie, and of course music is critical in this movie since it was such an influence in Steve’s life. Yet expensive synchronization rights for master recordings of landmark songs can drain an indy film budget, so the producers should be praised for coming up with a credible sound track including Joe Walsh and a crucial Dylan song.
Critics of the movie will likely focus on whether the movie confirms or refutes their biases about Steve’s character flaws, whether it accurately portrays the personalities involved in the earliest years, and whether it artistically rises to the insanely great level of Apple’s best innovations. If it fails on some of those impossible tests, it’s still a smart, entertaining, and essential film. B