Sundance 2009

Davis Guggenheim’s documentary It Might Get Loud rattled the roof at Park City’s new Temple Theater on the first morning of Sundance 2009. This film profiles and contrasts the influences, styles, and careers of Jimmy Page (Yardbirds, Led Zeppelin), The Edge (U2), and Jack White (White Stripes, Raconteurs). Highly entertaining and informative, this is a must-see for fans of those bands and for all guitar players. The influence of those three musicians is undeniable, and their contrast in styles is laid out clearly, from Edge’s reliance on electronic effects that turn mundane riffs into vast soundscapes to Jack White’s enthusiasm for squeezing soulful joy out of minimal and even primitive guitars. A.

This year’s crop of Sundance films had perhaps more than the usual set of high-school movies. I’m always looking for the next “Breakfast Club” or “Fast Times At Ridgemont High”, so I saw Toe to Toe based on a description that suggested it might at least be the lacrosse version of “Bend it Like Beckham”. In this film, a rich white girl and a poor black girl strike up a friendship and then battle over a Muslim guy, while hip-hop fills the sound track. The story seems to try too hard to touch all the demographic bases, and ultimately left me feeling nostalgic for Jeff Spicole and Mr. Hand.  C-.

Helen is the depressing story of a deeply troubled character, with mournful cello music on the soundtrack. The film follows the decline of a happy wife, mother, and teacher, as she succumbs to clinical depression, and portrays in vivid detail its devastating effects on her family and friends… and, ultimately, the audience. Although the performances are strong, I felt educated about the disease, as if I had taken a two-hour seminar, but not so much entertained. Kind of bummed out. C-.

My bummed-out mood was re-enforced with Antoine Fuqua’s Brooklyn’s Finest. I saw this mainly to see what sort of chemistry Don Cheadle, Ethan Hawke, and Richard Gere would have, as the movie follows their struggles with good and evil as cops. But their stories have only minimal connection, and I felt like the screenplay missed a great opportunity to explore something beyond a lot of shooting and bleeding, and bleeding. And the rough cut screened at Sundance had an over-the top bummer of an ending. C-.

So, after back-to-back Sundance bummers, I thought I might be getting punk’d. Hmm. Ashton? I was happy to finally see a comedy, and a raunchy one: Spread, with an Entourage-like vibe and lots of fun, and maybe the best closing credits ever. The film portrays life in LA for a guy who is supported by the various women he meets, getting by on, let’s say, his charm. Since Ashton Kutcher was the lead, this might arguably have been mistaken for a documentary about his pre-Demi days. But it was a tale about having too much fun, and the consequences. Enjoyable ride. B+.

I’m trying to imagine the pitch meeting that led to the green-lighting of I Love You Phillip Morris. “I’ve got this idea for a movie about these two guys who meet in prison and fall in love. We could get, I don’t know, Jim Carrey and, what the hell, Ewan MacGregor…” Huh? Well, that movie got made. Despite the title, it is not some activist documentary, it’s actually a comedic love story centered around the incredible con-man achievements of a real ex-policeman named Steve Russell.  According to the writers, its “85% true”. And it’s surprisingly fun. B.

Adventureland is a slice-of-life film that follows a new college graduate as he tries to score that big career job in the city but settles for a small summer job at an amusement park. It’s a nice little story about the lead character falling for a girl who is way too complex for that summer fling, but there some added elements that make this movie memorable: A guy playing air-drums to Rush’s Limelight, a couple of whacked-out characters played by SNL actors, and unexpected soundtrack gems like Husker Du’s “I Don’t Want to Know” playing on a car radio.  A

It was back to high-school again for The Winning Season. This time the girl’s sport is basketball, and the tension is between Sam Rockwell, as the reluctant coach, and his Bad News Bears mix of a team. He struggles with alcohol, they struggle with being teenage girls, and there’s some comedy, but it’s mainly entertaining and uplifting in the way it all comes together. B.

The Missing Person is a noir film, and as such it’s all about the brooding guy pursuing the mystery, and it needs to build to the big payoff. This one’s brooding guy was well played by Michael Shannon, the crazy guy from Revolutionary Road. It had stylish and interesting build, and Amy Ryan, but for me the payoff didn’t pay off. C+.

Many of us would pay to watch Uma Thurman read the phone book. Fortunately the screenplay for Motherhood was interesting. I saw a lot of mother-age women in the audience expressing recognition and it’s clear this movie captured that experience with humor. C.

The whole self-help book thing is just asking to be made fun of. But the quirky romantic comedy Arlen Faber has an original perspective, with the always surprising Jeff Daniels as a comedically reclusive best-selling author and the always compelling Lauren Graham as the one who ultimately triggers the real insights. Lots of fun. A.

Alec Baldwin is perfectly cast as a real estate salesman in LymeLife, which examines the complex interactions between and within two Long Island families in the 70’s. Also well cast are the McCulkin brothers playing on-screen brothers. The film is a bit reminiscent of Ice Storm, but very original. B-.

Still in search of the ultimate high-school movie, I saw Dare. This was a pretty wild love triangle with a twist (a Möbius triangle, I guess), and with compelling performances by the three leads. B.

It’s a safe bet that the Memorable Quotes section of imdb.com for the English comedy In The Loop will set some sort of record (assuming this movie gets distributed). These great one liners fly by quickly as the story drives home the absurdity of contemporary geo-political posturing. It’s a farce, sort of like the bureaucracies, politicians, and pundits it makes fun of. It’s perhaps too smart for U. S. audiences. Very funny. A.

What might have been an ordinary love story is given a time-warp twist in Peter and Vandy. By frequently leaping forward and backward in the relationship between the two leads, the film lets the audience experience the constants and variables in the romantic equation. In addition to the mathematics, there’s organic chemistry between Jason Ritter and Jess Wexler. B.

You can usually count on Peter Sarsgaard to pick interesting indie projects, and he did not disappoint with An Education, where he played an only slightly creepy older guy with an interest in a mature-beyond-her-years school girl. The film was very firmly set in pre-Beatles England, and was entertaining in the nuanced performances all around, especially that of relatively unknown (only for now) Carey Mulligan. The Sundance audiences were justified in voting this one their favorite. The closing credits feature a perfectly chosen contemporary song (performed by Duffy) that sounds as authentically 60’s as any Lulu or Petula Clark song. A.