Sundance 2013 – batch 3

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

Sundance 2013 – batch 2

In movies, it seems, normal suburban families are only normal for the first reel. Then problems surface; in Breathe In it happens after the family accepts a visit from a fetching and musically talented exchange student, played with easy charm by Felicity Jones. The script paces the will-they-or-won’t-they-get-together expertly, and a few beautiful musical performances elevate the romance in this bittersweet movie. B+


Documentary Salma tells the extraordinary story of a Tamil woman’s life of resistance against the mindless tradition of her Muslim village in India, and the lengthy home imprisonment she endured as a consequence of her efforts to assert her basic rights and educate herself. She ultimately succeeded in gaining notoriety by getting her poetry published, but only by getting it smuggled out of her home.

Salma was present at the Q/A following the screening, and, through a translator, made it clear that the key to effecting change for women in that culture is to allow them to receive an education. B


The writing/directing team behind 2011’s twilight-zony Sound of My Voice returns to Sundance with the more ambitious thriller The East. The tale follows the exploits of a young, ambitious, corporate security consultant who mixes with a band of anarchists bent on righting the various wrongs corporate America has inflicted on the masses.

The film explores the motivation of the domestic terrorists as they debate tactics. It turns out that if you are spurning a society’s laws and social norms to achieve your own agenda, reaching a consensus on how to go about it is, gosh, so hard. With some engaging action scenes, solid performances, especially by cowriter and lead actress Brit Marling, and a few creepy moments, this film survives a muddled anti-corporate agenda to provide a fun ride. B


Slow paced and occasionally messy, like life on a cow farm, documentary The Moo Man spends 98 minutes telling the story of one year on a small family-owned cow farm in England. The film is rich with detail on the daily operations, on the surprisingly personal relationship the workers have with the livestock, and also on the large-scale market economics that are working against small farms. The people were interesting; some of the cows had personalities but were still cows. C+


During an angst-filled summer vacation on Cape Cod, a meek teenage boy stumbles into some friendships that raise his confidence a few notches in The Way, Way Back. A nicely crafted script and direction by oscar-winning writers / cult-TV characters Nat Faxon and Jim Rash provides heart warming comedy, and gives Sam Rockwell and Alison Janney some great parts that they deliver with comic perfection. The amusement-park-as-life-changing-experience theme is not exactly original; for example, it was done with style in Sundance 2009’s period piece Adventureland. This one has a bit more substance. A


Sundance 2013 – batch 1

Crystal Fairy begins at a party in Chile, where a drug-obsessed but otherwise rational American, played by a less-girlish-than-usual Michael Cera, is planning a road trip with some local friends in pursuit of magic-cactus mescaline and a mind-opening experience. He accidentally invites a new-age hippy American, played with uninhibited loony fervor by Gaby Hoffmann, to join them. The escalating clash of those two personalities bewilders their laid-back Chilean hosts and also provides the central element of this well-acted but sometimes tedious story. The film eventually takes an interesting turn as we learn that people can be more than they seem.

In the Q/A following the screening, some of the cast suggested that they prepared for their roles by actually taking mescaline. In humorous contrast, Michael Cera said he prepared by googling mescaline. And oddly, Gaby Hoffmann talked about the Mayan apocalypse as if it was still going on. Perhaps she was still in character. C+.


By documenting the efforts of a few young activists among the thousands who occupied Cairo’s Tahrir Squire during the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, The Square shows the events with all their chaos and urgency from a perspective we could not see in mainstream American media.

Fueled by an abundance of idealism and energy, but ultimately limited by lack of a solid post-Mubarak plan, the leaders at the focus of this film helped get rid of one menace only to find it replaced by another, when the army apparently turned against them and then the elections brought in a disappointing replacement. (A question facing the entire region, and parts of the US for that matter, is whether democracy can work at all in a culture where for many people religion trumps reason. But that would be another movie.) The film provides a memorable protestor-level view of historic events. B.


As uplifting and well-crafted as the best Foo Fighters music, David Grohl’s rocking documentary Sound City has been receiving well-deserved standing ovations at Sundance screenings. Housed in an industrial mall near LA, with a decor more like an abandoned vehicle than a top recording studio, the legendary Sound City Studios became the birthplace of many of huge records of the ’70s, and known for its big drum sound. In its heyday it was patronized by the likes of Fleetwood Mac, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Metallica and Nirvana.

In more recent years, the low cost and convenience of computer-based recording systems undercut and displaced big tape-based studios, with a digital perfection that threatened to eliminate the natural drum sounds and unique emotional performances common in the analog days. But this film largely succeeds in demonstrating its claim that the essence of great music is in the human feel of individual musicians, and the natural interaction among multiple musicians, even if the result includes slight flaws in timing and pitch; in fact such a flawed performance is likely a better listening experience than an artificially perfect one. Any fan of real music will appreciate this film for that message and for the power chord bravado with which it is delivered. A.


In the visually engaging but uneven Il Futuro (The Future), we follow the story of two siblings in Rome as they try to move on after the loss of their parents. The brother finds some dead-end friends while the sister embarks on an odd and artificial relationship with an aging body builder. The film suffers a bit from a slow pace and subtle story telling. C.