Sundance 2015 – batch 4

Sara Silverman is such a fearless and gifted comedian that it’s not surprising she would bring that fearlessness to a dramatic role. It’s still a bit jarring though, to see her raw, vanity-be-damned performance in I Smile Back, as as a soccer mom losing a battle with her inner coke-and-booze mom. That Dr.-Jeckyl-and-Mrs.-Hyde performance is the strongest element of this film, and as her life spirals dramatically downward, and as she sees the heartbreaking effect on her children, the film tries, with some success, to provide insight into the causes and consequences of deception, addiction and self-loathing.

After being saddened by the film, as we exited into the lobby of Park City’s Eccles Theater, we were all comforted by Sundance volunteers handing out suckers. C+

 

Sundance 2009 documentary The Cove won an Oscar and made a serious dent into the illegal dolphin hunting it exposed. That film’s award-wining and difference-making director is back this year with Racing Extinction, and time will tell how much of a difference it makes. It seems to hit the right emotional notes in its shocking story of a recent increase in the rate species are going extinct, for reasons ranging from illegal fishing, to an increase in superstition-based dining choices like shark-fin soup, to a CO2-induced increase in the acidity of the oceans.

The extraordinary claim that we are “losing all of nature” requires extraordinary evidence to elevate it from an emotional argument that preaches mainly to the choir to a scientific one that might convert more skeptics. The film seemed a bit too reluctant to trust the audience’s ability to tolerate scientific data, which is understandable to a point.

In the Q/A after the screening, director lamented that, due to some of the confrontations in the film, he may not be able to revisit certain countries. B

 

Carey Mulligan raised her standing a notch at Sundance 2009 in 1960s romance “An Education” written by Nick Hornby, and fellow UK actress Saoirse Ronan may do the same with her quietly strong performance in this year’s Hornby-adapted 1950s romance Brooklyn. She plays an ambitious lass who gets a chance to escape from her backwater Irish town to the excitement of New York, and struggles over the years as she makes easy friends and hard choices, and travels far to find what being at home really means. It’s a rich but still simple story told in a suitably old-fashion and sentimental style, to the point where it could easily be a classic film from the mid-20th century were it not for the modern production values. The film was enhanced by exceptional music, with a beautiful score and a breathtaking Irish ballad. B+

 

Relentlessly funny, visually dazzling, emotionally draining, surprisingly insightful – a dozen hyperbolic adverb/adjective combinations would still understate the amazing experience of the sadly happy Me and Earl and the Dying GirlThe narration and camera angles engage from the outset, and the viewer knows after about 5 minutes that there is something special going on. That feeling is sustained until the credits roll, and you realize that people are surprising, creative and awesome.

This vaguely Fault-In-Our-Stars-ish story is told through the eyes, ears and engaging voice of a clever, acerbic, square-peg teenage boy who has an impossibly cool friend named Earl with whom he coproduces hilariously warped alternate versions of famous films, for fun. (Viewers with a deep knowledge of film will have a special appreciation for the more obscure titles). His mechanism for navigating the rough waters of high school is to get along with all the different groups, while being very careful to avoid forming any actual friendships. But while he is dying to stay detached, he has occasion to befriend a female classmate who is dying of cancer. And then a not-exactly-love story begins.

The script is smart, funny and self-aware; the acting performances are spot on, certainly by the three relatively unknown leads and also the smaller roles by TV aces including Connie Britton and Nick Offerman.

In the QA following the screening, the discussion included the distinctive point of view of the narrator, and the good fortune the filmmaker had in casting the film, including the confident newcomer who plays Earl. A+

 

Filmmaker Crystal Moselle had a chance meeting with members of an unusual New York family, got to know them, and several years later completed documentary film The Wolfpack telling their extraordinary story. Some details are left out, but the film chronicles how these six brothers grew up imprisoned in their apartment, due to their dad’s eccentric fear of the outside, and were home schooled by their mom. Considering that sheltered life, they turned out smart, charismatic and amazingly well adjusted, in part because they found stimulation in a shared, deep obsession in movies. They grew up mining the treasures of the Hollywood film catalog by watching, studying, and reenacting their favorite scenes, with home-crafted props and costumes. And as they eventually seized their own freedom, the camera captured them joyfully experiencing things for the first time, like plucking an apple from a tree.

It’s sort of poetic that this film, which was the catalyst for the brothers’ eventual escape, won the Documentary Grand Jury prize. All who saw the movie hope that its Sundance success is a foreshadowing of a happily-ever-after finale, or perhaps a triumphant sequel in a few years, for the newly emancipated brothers as they pursue careers in the film industry. B

Sundance 2015 – batch 3

Jack Black portrays a trying-too-hard loser who aspires to be the MVP in a big win by organizing his important high-school reunion, and to make it succeed he will do almost anything to get his newly famous classmate to show up, in odd buddy pic The D TrainWhile it’s fun, if a bit uncomfortable, to watch Black react to the awkward situations he creates for himself, there is a darker undertone that explores the intoxicating effect of celebrity. Considering the risks taken, this should have been funnier. C+

 

The biblical myths that should have produced physical evidence if they were real have motivated die-hard believers to try to dig up that physical evidence, practicing a comical fringe version of archaeology. And of course when they don’t find the artifacts they have to pretend they did. That fringe is explored with mixed results in divinely-devilish comedy Don Verdean, which was written and directed by the same team as Sundance 2004 hit Napoleon Dynamite. Sam Rockwell is on a mission from God as a preacher trying to bring home the relics, but he can’t save the film from being less biting than it needed to be. Lampooning evangelical stereotypes is a bit too easy, like shooting Jesus-fish in a barrel. The sanctimonious will be offended anyway, so this was a missed opportunity to really bring the comedy fire and brimstone.

In the QA following the screening, cowriter/director Jared Hess said he was a fan of fringe archaeology and wanted to explore that world. B-

 

Stuck between a documentary and a fiction film, the slice-of-prarie-life story in Songs My Brothers Taught Me is light on plot but grounded in a realistic portrayal of the modern life of a specific extended family on a South Dakota Indian reservation. The film slowly makes the point about the contemporary problems facing a society rooted in ancient culture, but could have done so in a more engaging fashion. A moving and beautiful but too brief segment near the end suggested what a powerful film this could have been.

In the QA following the screening, the audience was treated to a unique vocal performance of a Native American chant by one of the leads. C

 

Being gay is not a choice, but suppressing your own gayness in favor of a bronze-age religious belief system was an actual, baffling choice made by influential gay activist Michael Glatze. So on the surface, the much-buzzed-about biopic I Am Michael sounds like a tragedy, recounting Glatze’s life as he succumbed to those religious notions he was taught as a youth to become an anti-gay minister, dispensing horrible advice to young gay people. It’s still a sad story, but the film reveals Michael as a complex, restless, and conflicted searcher, and, through a tight script and a heartfelt performance by James Franco, helps shed light on his thought process even though it remains a paradox. The most compelling scenes are the ones between Franco and his companion (the excellent Zachary Quinto) that evolve from exemplary mutual support at the outset to a sad chasm at the end, when ideology finally trumps family with sword-of-Abraham single-mindedness.

In the QA after the screening, the insightful writer/director Justin Kelly indicated that he wouldn’t want to see a version of this movie that vilified the gays, nor a version that vilified the fundamentalists. He also indicated that the actual Michael enjoyed a private screening the film, and that he continues to evolve and search, has become less dogmatic, and no longer speaks out against gay people. B

 

While it’s a minor jolt for a not-quite-engaged high-school science teacher (Cobie Smulders) to learn she is pregnant, it’s devastating when one of her best students learns she is also pregnant, in light drama Unexpected. So in spite of their divergent backgrounds, the two find common ground in their unexpected situations, and in the now complex problem of keeping the student on the proper college trajectory. As the teacher becomes perhaps too involved in the student’s life, some big topics are explored with small moments that are skillfully written and acted.

In the QA after the screening, the discussion touched on whether college is really appropriate for everyone. The filmmaker said she drew on her own experience teaching in an urban high school, and that Ms. Smulders was actually pregnant during the filming. B-

Sundance 2015 – batch 2

We have already seen the horror film idea where Halloween visitors are actual monsters in a Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode. But in Hellionsthat old idea is executed with a creative twist, where it is intertwined skillfully with a nightmare teen pregnancy. The non-linear, dream-like story meanders a bit, but does so with stunning visual style. C+

 

The mindless Christian superstitions that plagued early 17th century New England were used to justify countless barbaric executions for witchcraft. In elegant horror fable The Witch, that same religion-addled culture enables family members on a small Puritan farm to assume that occult forces or god’s-will forces are causing various tragedies. That leads to a form of paranoia where they eventually turn against each other and maybe even go supernatural themselves.

But more engaging than the horror story is the look and sound of this film, with beautiful subdued colors and odd-sounding but authentic early American dialect delivered intrepidly by a first-rate English cast. The hardships and grinding minutiae of running the farm are presented with gritty detail, and the camera finds original and memorable ways to frame it all.

The Q/A after the screening revealed the degree to which the details of the period, locale, and culture were accurately recreated, down to the clothing, the farm equipment, the accents, and the dialog.

This film was smarter than its genre. B+

 

Kickstarter-funded geriatric rom-com I’ll See You In My Dreams features some Hollywood veterans as well as a Freaks and Geeks alum. The culture clash within that sentence is representative of the film itself, with some tragedy thrown in to give perspective to the romance and comedy. Blythe Danner, finding perhaps her best role late in her career, portrays a widow who is content hanging out with her old-folks-homies. Then she discovers a common interest with young-but-uncool pool cleaner Martin Starr, and then discovers a cool-at-any-age Sam Elliot. Nicely paced comedy and romance ensues, and the comedy includes a strong endorsement for medical marijuana.

Loss is a fact of life, especially so in the golden years, and that’s part of the movie as well. The film makes the point that it’s OK to take risks at any age, and not dwell on who you were but rather who you are.

In the Q/A after the screening, Ms. Danner was asked (based on a vocal performance in the film) if she had any plans to release her own vocal CD. But she said that won’t happen. B+

 

Gritty comedy romp Dope is an unlikely but brilliantly blended mix of high school nerd culture and ghetto thug culture. It tells an uplifting tale centered on three friends just tying to avoid the criminals in their ‘hood so they can complete their senior year and get into a good college. Stuck in a rough school full of thugs and drugs, the three defy stereotype by killing time as a punk rock trio, by riding BMX bikes, by favoring ‘90s hip hop over modern rap, and most of all by pursuing good grades. They are the high achievers among peers who are just high. They also fight bad guys with Bitcoins instead of Glocks.

Sundance audiences enthusiastically applauded the film. It has elements in common with the John Hughes teen movies of the ’80s, including snappy teen-age dialog, occasionally frenetic pacing, cool music (including tracks by Pharrell Williams), awkwardly charismatic leads, and going a bit over the top in places, if that’s where the best comedy is. A

Sundance 2015 – batch 1

Big Bang theorist Melissa Rauch vaults to a starring role in her own movie with the raunchy and sometimes hilarious gymnastics farce The BronzeCowritten by Ms. Rauch and her husband, the story centers on a bronze-medal gymnast who is past her prime but still reliving her glory days with a high-degree-of-difficulty temper, and who may or may not be hiding a heart of gold. There is humor in Rauch’s over-the-top diva behavior and inventive cursing, but the biggest bang is the gold-medal gymnastic sex scene, where a variety of carnal landings were gratuitously and comedically stuck.

Although the bitchy-bronze-medal-babe gets a little shrieky after a while, possible romantic interest Thomas Middleditch provides a pleasant counterpoint. He is also a geek-TV star in HBO’s hilarious “Silicon Valley”, and was funny in the Q/A following the screening. B

 

If Modern Family’s Phil Dunphy is trying too hard to be the “cool dad” in this decade, his 1980’s precursor might have been Ethan Hawke’s pot-smoking, womanizing dad in coming-of-age drama Ten Thousand Saints

In a grim New York in the early 1980s, the music scene was reacting against the decadence of punk rock by evolving a straight edge scene, with hardcore music, boys with shaved heads, and drug-free behavior. With some characters tied to that scene, the film tells a gritty and engaging story of teen-age bad decisions and severe consequences. But despite some heavy drama there is fun to be had along the way, especially in the excellent comic timing and gusto Hawke brings to the dad character, and in the realistically wise-yet-naive performance of Hailee Steinfeld. The story examines big topics – like adoption and the dynamic definition of family, and the profound impact of an early death – with small, magical moments of humor and insight.

The Q/A after the screening included discussion of musical influences (e. g. The Replacements) and how they shot the film in modern New York in a way that made it look like ‘80s New York. B+

 

Low key sci-fi parable Advantageous takes our current Internet- and mobile-device-based civilization, with its larger than ever premium on looking young and attractive, and extrapolates it forward just a few decades. It centers on a financially struggling mother who will do anything to place her young daughter in the best possible school. But in this vision of the near future, the advanced technology gives her options that are drastic and risky, and which call into question the very nature of consciousness, and what it means for us to be who we are. Although some fascinating ideas were explored, it did not seem to go far enough, and a slow pace diluted the drama. C+

 

A pleasant, muscular construction worker and his pleasant friend find ways to entertain themselves killing time and biking around Miami in small gem The Strongest ManThis lightweight lark is similar in tone to Napoleon Dynamite, with its quirky humor and dry line readings, but has less energy. Although there are some charming moments and some very entertaining scenes synthesized from the thinnest of substance, it felt somewhat underdeveloped. C+