Sundance 2011 – batch 2

In Another Happy Day, a gathering for a wedding is the excuse for family members to reunite and catch up, and argue. This family suffers a variety of physical and behavioral disorders, and as you might imagine it’s not really a “happy” day. The central character is played at full throttle by the great Ellen Barkin, who does a lot of shouting and weeping. She’s really good at it, but it all eventually wears thin.

In the Q/A following the screening, 25-year-old writer/director Sam Levinson was endearingly humble, struggling to hold it together while facing the audience of 1300 in the Eccles theater at the world premier. But the evidence was on the screen that he somehow managed to write a script that pulls together a complex story full of authentic family dynamics, and then elicited compelling performances from a cast that included Hollywood pros two or three times his age. C+

Like the unfortunate professor in the Coen brothers’ “A Serious Man”,  Toby Maguire’s quirky but otherwise unremarkable suburban professional in dark comedy The Details has some bad luck, compounded by some bad decisions. The poor guy goes through a tragicomic sequence of screwing up, and then getting penalized after trying to make amends. There is plenty of darkness, but the comedy writing isn’t as sharp as that of the Coens. Most interesting is a completely uninhibited comic performance by Laura Linney as a crazy cat lady neighbor. C+

In Sound of My Voice, emergent Sundance star Brit Marling (who also cowrote) portrays a charismatic visitor claiming to be from the near future, who appears to be forming a cult. We see events unfold through the skeptical eyes of two journalists who infiltrate. This is a nicely crafted suspense story with some appropriately creepy aspects, and a thought-provoking payoff.

In the Q/A following the screening, the filmmakers indicated that the web postings of purported time traveler John Titor were a partial inspiration. B

A mapmaker finds more than he is looking for in Armenia. An unorthodox road trip romance, HERE has lots of exotic local color. The story’s presentation is plagued a bit by a fuzzy reach for cosmic grandeur. And the cinematography and framing is first rate, but it could have been more enjoyable if the editing moved things along. C-

Little Birds is set vividly in two carefully chosen locales: the decaying Salton Sea coast, and a seedy part of Los Angeles. This well-executed road movie / coming-of-age movie / buddy movie follows two teenage girls, one adventurous and the other careful, as they grow bored by their surroundings, and then cross paths with some hoodlum boys from LA. The step-by-step increase in risky behavior by teenagers seems authentic here. The unique chemistry and tension between the two leads, and a persuasive performance by (yet another standout Sundance British import) Juno Temple, make this rough ride ultimately rewarding. B+

If “rock” music emphasizes feeling rather than thinking, its proudly-retarded step-child “punk” specifically emphasizes feeling angry. And it works best if you don’t parse the lyrics but just experience the emotion. This is the only way to enjoy I Melt With You. If you ignore the implausible aspects of the story, you can find entertainment in certain intriguing elements, including a killer sound track, some creatively decadent man-talk, and a coked-up Jeremy Piven character. It’s illuminating to note that this over-long movie was directed by the guy who directed Pearl Jam’s Jeremy video, because this unfolds in some respects more like a 125 minute music video – the arty kind with dialog – than a credible movie narrative. C-

Sundance 2011 – batch 1

Rarely has the conflict between religious faith and human reason been examined so frankly on screen as in writer/director Matthew Chapman’s The Ledge. Of course the topic has been covered in essay and non-fiction form recently by Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. But seeing it on screen brings a new perspective, putting a guy on a ledge and flashing back to help us figure out why he is apparently ready to jump. The cast turns in strong performances all around (film industry: More Liv Tyler, please), but it’s the smart dialog that makes this thriller entertaining in spite of some strained plausibility. B+

Last year’s favorite Sundance love story was the time-warped Blue Valentine; this year’s update is the more linear but equally beautiful Like Crazy. While the lovers in Blue Valentine had to overcome themselves, with Like Crazy, they battle circumstance. The many small details, such as gifts and text messages,  are finely crafted here. The piano-driven score is heavy on the emotional manipulation, but it works. And last year’s Sundance breakout star Jennifer Lawrence is very effective in a small role, but, as the formula dictates, much of the burden is on the lead actress. Like Sundance ’09’s An Education allowed US audiences to discover Carrey Mulligan, this year’s find is Felicity Jones. A

In My Idiot Brother, the subject is a shaggy man who navigates his world with a dog-like innocence, and who will metaphorically drink out of your toilet or hump your leg whenever he wants to. He is the simple tail-wagging, well-intentioned brother to some siblings with complicated lives, and it’s a family dynamic with plenty of comedic potential, well executed. Paul Rudd is always likable and funny, and in this one he fetches and retrieves. Plus, Rashida Jones and Zooey Deschanel make out, so hell yeah.

In the Q/A following the screening, one of the obvious questions was what sort of, uh, research Paul Rudd conducted for his stoner role. His answer: surprisingly little. (A more insightful audience question was about any intended parallel between Paul Rudd’s random injection of blunt honesty into his family discussions, and the WikiLeaks unleashing of embarrassing truths into the public discourse. But no.) A

The promise of surviving your own death is a strong enticement to suspend reason in favor of faith, and we know some people latch on to that idea and go overboard. So, Higher Ground examines the effects of such faith on the life of an otherwise intelligent central character, played with great skill by Vera Farmiga, who also directed. This movie resisted what must have been a temptation to portray the faithful as one dimensional or plain evil. Instead, it showed how supportive and familial the flock can be, though only if all tow the line, especially the women folk. The central character struggles to resolve her own observations and skepticism against the party line, and it’s fascinating to watch. This finely crafted story is enhanced by some authentic folkish church music, is beautifully acted, and is a promising directorial debut. B+

Lost in Translation took Bill Murray’s character far from home to Tokyo, and took him on an emotional journey within his business trip. Likewise, Cedar Rapids takes naive unspoiled Ed Helms’ insurance salesman to a business convention in the seemingly less exotic Iowa town, but his emotional journey is even more transforming, and also hilarious.

Ed Helms brings a credible innocence to his role, and we enjoy the tension as the strong ensemble surrounding him pulls him gradually toward the mayhem. Ann Heche is always fun to watch and she’s a treat here, but it’s John C. Reilly’s character that steals every scene and provides a hilarious thesaurus of colorfully disgusting names for body parts and functions. B+

Low key mind bender Another Earth explores the idea of a mirror Earth suddenly appearing in the sky. That would be kind of a big deal, like The Day the Earth Stood Still. But instead of proposing a grand change of planetary behavior, this modest thought experiment examines a few specific troubled lives, and how such an event might simply provide another option to the residents of this earth. It’s not quite science fiction, and it’s also something more. As Spock once said: Fascinating. Lead actress Brit Marling, who also co-wrote the screenplay, is making an auspicious debut at this Sundance, with a compelling acting/cowriting contribution to two movies (see Sound of My Voice below). Sometimes “what if” is more vivid than “what is”. B+