Sundance 2010 – batch 5

Employing frequent cuts between scenes from a relationship’s hopeful past and scenes from its hopeless present, Blue Valentine details the gradual squandering of potential, where the two principals find themselves tied together in spite of not being quite right for each other. Michelle Williams brings both radiance and restless disappointment to her character, and undeniable chemistry with Ryan Gosling, who’s character both dazzles and infuriates.

In the Q/A following the screening, writer/director Derek Cianfrance said the script had been in the works since about 1998, and described an extraordinary effort by the two leads to prepare for their roles. He also considered the music very carefully, choosing Grizzly Bear for the soundtrack, and having Ryan Gosling sing in a key scene, but deliberately avoiding any heavy-handed use of music to manipulate emotions.

The story of a disintegrating marriage sounds like a bummer, but with first-rate performances, some thoughtful music, and some inspired direction that allows scenes to linger, this film is beautifully heartbreaking, and baby sometimes love just ain’t enough. B+

The title of The Romantics refers to the name a group of 7 college friends gave themselves, and also to the sort of poetry they studied. A few years after graduating, they reunite for the wedding of friends #1 and #2. But friend #3, who is best friends with #1, used to date #2, a lot. So, that triangle is the heart of this uneven but generally entertaining ensemble comedy.

As an indication of how far we have come, the characters in this film would have been born around the time “The Big Chill”, the mother of all college-friends-reuniting films, was released. Since comparisons are likely, this one has to come up way short, if only because the music isn’t used nearly as effectively, the drug-addled antics aren’t as fun, and the dialog doesn’t ring as true. B-

In the mid 1990’s, I may have fantasized that the beautiful Amber Waves from “Boogie Nights” and the librarian-hot Sydney Ellen Wade from “The American President” somehow crossed paths and started making out. Well, I have now seen Julianne Moore and Annette Bening deliver the goods. They are the two lesbian moms heading a very modern family in The Kids Are All Right, a family so modern one of the kids is named “Laser”. Laser and his half-sister each came from one of the moms and are linked by a certain anonymous donation. When one kid turns 18 and they track down the donor/biodad (played with enthusiastic charm/sleeze by an underrated Mark Ruffalo), we learn what an awesome guy he is, until he starts acting on his own fantasies. His multi-faceted impact on the family generates a lot of laughs, and a lot of drama, in a very entertaining package. A

The movie Twelve takes its title from a made-up drug that is sort of a combination of ecstasy and crack, as if either by itself was not enough. The story in this movie struck me as also being likewise synthetic, with the drug linking the affluent uptown culture with the thug culture in an unlikely and incompatible mix. It doesn’t help that conventional exposition is suppressed in favor of heavy-handed narration. So it’s difficult to enjoy this grim tale of rich NYC kids with preoccupied, ineffective parents and misguided ambition, as they begin the process of wasting their lives. C-

Sundance 2010 – batch 4

The career of ’70’s girl-band the Runaways was as raw as a pick scratch and as fleeting as a line of coke. The biopic The Runaways captures that, turned up to 11. The two female leads – Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning – are wild and fearless as Joan Jett and Cherie Currie, and Michael Shannon is brilliant as decadent, controversial svengali Kim Fowley.

In the Q/A that followed the screening, writer/director Floria Sigismondi revealed that the role of lead guitarist Lita Ford had to be downplayed because appropriate rights could not be obtained. And she said she cast Kristen Stewart based on her performance in a small role in Into The Wild, before the whole Twilight thing.  A

Skateland is a slice-of-life tale of a young guy who works at a Texas roller skating arena in the mid 1980’s, partying with friends, struggling with family, and trying to figure out what he will do with his life. The film does a great job of capturing the music, dress, and keg-party atmosphere of that era. But the story didn’t compel me to care enough about the characters. C+

Fans of popular CBS TV series “How I Met Your Mom” will recognize Josh Radnor as Ted. His feature film writing/directing debut, with the quirky title happythankyoumoreplease, is perhaps more impressive than Zach Braf’s similar debut Sundance 2004 (Garden State). This film is a romantic tale of an aspiring writer and the ebb and flow of emotion in his relationships and those of his small circle of friends. Everything about this works, especially some heart-grabbing scenes, poignant dialog, and terrific acting performances all around. B+

A comedy about suicide bombers. You probably could not believe that summary, and, as I watched the film. I could not believe what I was seeing and hearing, and how good it was. I also could not understand what I was hearing, to some extent. That’s due to some thick British accents and slang. But Four Lions is so amazing and funny that the 80% of it I understood is plenty, and I have more reason to see it again. (The first time we saw Monty Python in the 1970’s, I think the accents and jargon threw us all a similar learning curve, but we got over it.) The script was brilliant, and reminiscent of last year’s Sundance standout “In The Loop” with the rapid fire comedic lines. This one had better physical comedy, and overall was perhaps even more hysterical. And, amid the comedy, it’s about people who blow themselves up as part of their particular brand of religious nonsense, so it actually has a profound moral message. It makes fun of terrorists, it makes fun of people who are trying to guarantee our security, and it would make fun of your mom if it had her number. This fearless and original movie is sure to offend the usual humorless offendees. A

For anyone like me who tries to balance skiing and movie watching during the Sundance Film Festival, the movie Frozen is where the two worlds collide. Set in a fictitious small New England ski area (but shot just down the road at Utah’s Snowbasin Resort), this film depicts a ski trip gone horribly wrong when a chairlift stops and the three passengers are stranded.

Every frequent skier has experienced a stall on the chairlift. Usually it’s 1-3 minutes because that once-a-year skier from Alabama got on sideways or got off upside down, or some similar loading/unloading mishap. On rare occasions, the stall is longer, due to a mechanical problem, and after 15 minutes or so they usually get it resolved. But even the 3-minute stall can seem like forever, and one’s mind can begin to wander and play out worst-case scenarios. So this movie did a respectable job of taking that speculation and turning into a nightmare. So, although you have to suspend disbelief (like you do with all horror movies), this film works hard to construct a credible scenario that causes the skiers to be stranded for a very long time. And, however sick your imagination may be, what happens in this movie is worse than you think.

In the Q/A following the screening, writer/director Adam Green described the challenges of the shoot. There was no CGI or green-screen; the three actors were filmed on an actual chair, 50 feet above the snow. Why 50 feet? It had to be low enough so that the skiers could at least consider jumping without certain death, but high enough so that they could be assured of injury. To film the shots, they needed a crane, but the biggest crane they could find didn’t quite reach. They had to build a platform out of snow, and put a trailer on top of that, and put the crane on top of the trailer.

This is an enjoyable, scary ski movie. But I will always need to go down the mountain fast, and will therefore always need to go up the mountain, and therefore I will keep riding chairlifts. B+

An weary midwestern couple with a going-through-the-motions marriage finds a spark in the touching Welcome To The Rileys, which examines the nature of parenthood, responsibility, and growing up. The film has a grim New Orleans realism, enhanced with some great performances by all three leads. In the post-screeing Q/A, the director indicated that he cast Kristen Stewart based on her small role in Into the Wild. This was the second director say that at this year’s Sundance (see The Runaways). And the writer said that the screenplay was motivated by the frequent failure of the foster care system and the consequent number of the teen-age runaways. B+

A melancholy examination of post-traumatic stress disorder, too common among Iraq vets, The Dry Land treats its subject with respect and sets its characters among the stark American southwest to make the humanity stand out. Like with the Sundance 2009 depresser “Helen”, I felt educated about the syndrome and its effects on family and friends, not really entertained. But this film was somehow more successful. B

Big emotions in a small Canadian town are on display in Grown Up Movie Star. The focus is on the love-hate relationship between a confused father, who has been abandoned by his stardom-seeking wife, and his two daughters. One daughter is at that running-off-the-rails age, and her younger sister is still normal but is taking notes. There are some really good elements in this movie, and some powerful emotions are portrayed well, but some over-the-top scenes and unlikely dialog detract a bit. B-

From Hamburg on, the history of the Beatles has been pretty well covered in film. The biopic Nowhere Boy reaches further back, focusing on the teenage John Lennon and his relationship with his mother and his aunt, the influences that led John to form a band, and his meeting with Paul and the forming of the Quarrymen. It begins with John already living with Aunt Mimi and George, and ends just as the band is about to head for Hamburg.

The sound track includes some gems including one from Screaming Jay Hawkins, which sheds a lot of light on John’s later vocal style, for example on “Twist and Shout”. But not everyone will like the movie if they expect to see any Beatles performances or even hear any Beatles songs.

In the Q/A following the screening, director Sam Taylor Wood said she got a bit of help from Yoko Ono about the relationship between John and Aunt Mimi, and from Paul about the early compositions. And Aaron Johnson, who played John said much of his research for the role came from a John Lennon interview in Rolling Stone.

The film does a good job of capturing John’s verbal style and wit, his unconventional family, and the passion for music that would later make history. It seems to get the important details right as well as some of the small ones (e. g. John’s first guitar; the 17 shillings and six pence fee for the recording of “In Spite of All the Danger”). The trickiest scene is the one that explains why John is with is aunt instead of his mother; there’s probably no fully satisfactory way to handle that. Most importantly, this film deeply respects its subject matter, and helps explain the complexity behind the boy who eventually wrote both “In My Life” and “I Am the Walrus” . B+

Sundance 2010 – batch 3

Boy (John C. Riley) loses girl (Catherine Keener), then boy meets new girl (Marisa Tomei); so far so good, we still have a recognizable story. Then, boy meets new girl’s son (Jonah Hill); now the going gets weird, and the Duplass brothers’ Cyrus takes a nicely executed left turn off the Hollywood romantic comedy main road, skids across the sidewalk, and smashes into an Oedipal crazy farm.

The process used by the Duplass brothers, as they described in the Q/A following the screening, encourages a lot of improvised dialog, and then a lot of editing to find the good film in the many hours of footage. This cast of indy-film pros clearly delivered some first-rate performances, and the editor found an enjoyable, original story. A

After wowing Sundance audiences in previous years with “Brick” and “(500) Days of Summer”, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is doing it again, stealing every scene as an offensive, charismatic metalhead in this year’s Hesher. It’s an unconventional film about a family coping with loss, and the extraordinary way they ultimately deal with it. It’s dissonant, painful and surprisingly sweet, like a Hallmark Mothers Day card tattooed on your face by Motorhead. It’s not clear whether this is a masterpiece that some will hate, or a failure that some will love. But either way it’s a fun ride, and it also gets to the heart of what heavy metal music means. But, like the most extreme metal, it might need to be watered down a bit in order to find a mainstream audience. B

Sundance 2010 – batch 2

In Winter’s Bone, the 17-year-old daughter of an absent, meth-cooking dad and a barely-present mom has to take care of her younger brother and sister, and has to deal with the grim reality that her barely-scraping-by situation could get much worse. To resolve the mess, she has to cross paths with some scummy and dangerous relatives. So, no dancing in this one. But there were a few authentic back-country bluegrassy folkish living room musical performances that added to the dense Missouri Ozark atmosphere. The real hook of this movie, though, was the taught, crafted dialog, with characters who are victims of their barren surroundings made more vivid by their own limited vocabulary, saying what needs to be said and little else.

In the Q/A that followed the film’s premier Sundance screening, director/cowriter Debra Granik gave due credit to the film’s editor, Affonso Gonçalves, who found the sweet spot of pacing that allowed the audience to soak up the rich detail of the bleak interiors and landscapes but also increased the movie’s pulse over time to build tension. Overall this film was moderately successful as a meticulous study of how people will do whatever it takes to survive, and how they rely on other people for their own strength. B

Ben Affleck is back in Boston, but Will Hunting is nowhere to be found. He and a few other Hollywood heavyweights inhabit the grim corporate world of  The Company Men. Whereas 2009’s wonderful Up In The Air used the corporate layoff process as a backdrop for the growth of its lead character, this movie tells the layoff-related stories of several men at different levels of management within the same downsizing company, and extends the story to include the families and the details of change over time. And it’s that gradual change in the circumstances over time, dollar by dollar, that is the most interesting and powerful aspect of this film.

In the Q/A that followed the screening, writer/director John Wells described the history of this film. He had this screenplay around for a while but it didn’t resonate with the studios until the economy started going down the crapper; then the film fell into place. His research had included interviews with people who had lost their jobs, and from those interviews he gained the insight that the blue-collar workers were able to cope with losing their jobs and houses better than the white collar workers in some ways: The people who built things could point to a car they helped assemble or a building whose concrete they poured, whereas some of the white collar worker’s had measured their accomplishments in terms of the size of their houses and their country club memberships, and when their jobs and houses were gone they really had no lasting work product to point to.

This movie succeeds at telling a resonant contemporary story with strong performances all around, and provides a sobering examination of the relationship between our jobs and our self-worth. B+

Sundance 2010 – batch 1

The less-than-capacity audience that braved the snow and wind on the first morning of Sundance 2010 to get to the 8:30 AM premier of Bran Nue Dae realized, about 10 minutes in, that it was definitely worth the trip, and that the empty seats were missed opportunities for the timid no-shows. About 10 songs and 20+ LOLs later as the credits ended, much of the audience stood to applaud a rough gem of a movie.

With implausible plot turns, loosely-shot dance sequences, and a cast featuring some sketchy newcomers and some wild scenes with Aussie vet Geoffrey Rush, this Aussie film shows Hollywood that rough edges can be beautiful. And the unlikely story developments are easily overlooked (and in fact celebrated) when you are enjoying the most unlikely thing of all, which is people suddenly singing and dancing. This over-the-top charmer of a musical road movie succeeds in putting you in a very specific place and making a character out of the beautifully-shot Australian landscape. And it features a collection of pleasant-enough songs that are showcased nicely by sincere vocal performances in a delightful throwback to the pre-AutoTune era.

A film about Aborigines set in 1969 cannot help reflecting the unfairness of that era, but it is to the filmmakers’ credit that the political backdrop never lets the film get bogged down and in fact makes it more exuberant. In that aspect, this movie has something in common with one of my favorite political songs and music videos of the MTV era, “Beds Are Burning“, which was big hit here in the USA by Australian alt-rockers Midnight Oil. After seeing this wonderful movie, I went to the Vevo we site and re-experienced that video with a new perspective. Be sure to see the video if you haven’t. And I highly recommend the movie: A