Sundance 2018 – batch 1

With their biological clocks way past prime baby-making hours, the fortyish couple in Private Life are so desperate to become parents that they try every, uh, conceivable tactic, including adoption, in-vitro fertilization and surrogacy. But it doesn’t go well, medically and socially, and this stresses their marriage and their extended family relationships. The dynamics are sometimes touching and sometimes hilarious, and done effectively with fiery Katherine Hahn and transparent Paul Giamatti in the lead roles. The story is given credibility with technical details about hormones, injections, fertility, cycles, probabilities, and possibly quantum mechanics. It seems like lot of trouble but some people do like having kids. B+.


Based on the known facts of the famous late-19th century “40 whacks” ax murders in the Borden family, historical drama Lizzy takes some liberty to fill in some missing pieces of the story, and explain, with cinematic style, why a daughter might murder an unloving mom and dad. Maybe they had it coming?

The suspense comes from watching characters develop in the first few acts with the knowledge that, eventually, the shit’s going to hit the fam. It mostly works, with moody natural lighting, some pithy dialog, and strong performances by Chloe Sevigny as assertive, rebellious, bullshit-resistant daughter Lizzie, and Kristen Stewart as her sneaky-hot Irish housemaid/friend-with-benefits. B.


Perhaps the most effective way to show the elaborate house-of-cards fragility of Pentecostal religious doctrine is to portray it even-handedly, without judgement, and watch it collapse when one of its leaders has the rare audacity to interpret biblical scripture through his own humanity. Based on the real life of Rev. Carlton Pearson from Tulsa, Come Sunday features a strong performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor as a the charismatic, thoughtful preacher and spiritual leader to thousands who attended his weekly Jesus rallies. But he was perhaps too thoughtful for that role when it occurred to him (or a god told him) that it might be unfair for a “just” god to send people to hell for the sin of not being born in a place where their parents coerced them into christianity, or at least not given a convenient way to inflict it upon themselves. Preaching that there is no hell of course is “heresy”, and that act triggered an ongoing controversy where each side found bible passages to support their own conflicting positions, (which, to an objective observer, casts doubts on the credibility of the entire source). When most of Rev. Pearson’s flock left his church because of his inclusive stance, he had to downsize, and ultimately find another form of church.

It’s an interesting story, whether you root for fundamentalism or rationality. The entire supporting cast was credible in portraying well-meaning people struggling to do the right thing while basing their notion of “right” on an ambiguous bronze-age book. Some uplifting musical interludes provide welcome relief from all the religious arguing.

The QA following the screening was especially informative. The film was based on a “This American Life” episode about heretics, and Ira Glass was present. The actual Rev. Carlton Pearson was present with his family, and received a standing ovation from a packed Eccles Center. B-.


Rock doc Bad Reputation is an important piece of rock and roll history, with an especially timely telling of the story of influential female rock-and-roll badass Joan Jett. Although the narrative flow sometimes misses a beat, the film does contain a few remarkable gems. It includes a series of testimonials from a diverse set of luminaries including Michael J. Fox (actor), Billy Joe Armstrong (musician), and Nikki Haley (WTF?). The emotional highlight is a nicely edited scene of a contemporary Joan Jett accepting her Rock and Roll Hall of Fame membership intercut with footage of a Runaways-era Joan Jett being interviewed about her ambitions. The best parts, though, are historic performances by the Runaways, the Blackhearts, and, most recently, Joan Jett filling in for Kurt Cobain in a growly “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (tuned down a half-step) with Nirvana as they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014. (She was inducted the following year, along with the Blackhearts, by Miley Cyrus.)

In the QA following the screening, Joan Jett and Kenny Laguna discussed their long-time friendship, and Joan was thanked by several long-time fans for being such a pioneer. B+.


Thriller Beirut puts Jon Hamm in the middle of Arab/Israeli/American intrigue, centered around the former Paris of the Middle East, as a ’70s-era diplomat, trying to figure out who has a hostage and then strike several bargains to get that hostage freed. It’s a bit familiar to see a troubled, bourbon-swigging Hamm character finding exactly the right words to make a deal, but this is up a notch from Don Draper, as these mad men have thick accents, leverage, and guns. The strongest element of this film is the telling of the story from the perspective of a cynical negotiator, with smartly crafted dialog, in a disorienting world where even the bad guys have some underlying decency and even the good guys are corrupt, and there’s always a deal to be made for a price. B.


Moe Berg’s major league baseball career was the least remarkable part of his extraordinary life as portrayed in historical biopic The Catcher Was a Spy. He was good enough for the big leagues, but the only way he stood out was by shattering every facet of the jock stereotype – by being definitely Jewish and possibly gay, by achieving multiple college degrees, and by mastering several languages. That unique set of qualities caught the attention of the US government’s spy agencies, and he was recruited and employed on a critical World War II mission. The storytelling in this film is mostly solid, though it’s a bit jarring to see Paul Rudd play such a serious character.

In the QA following the screening, director Ben Levin indicated that Hollywood has been trying to tell the Moe Berg story for many years, and that Paul Rudd wanted to do something outside his comfort zone. B-.


If you were born in the right decade, you were of college age when the National Lampoon magazine was at its commercial and artistic peak, and its unholy mix of smart, not-quite-literary humor and fuck-the-rules surrealistic madness aligned perfectly with the tastes of college boys hungry for both intellectual growth and panty raids. So for those of us who were making the transition from spitballs and basic cursing to big words and lofty metaphors, the ’70s era National Lampoon was a beacon of childish nonsense in a sea of grown-up civilization. Comedy A Futile snd Stupid Gesture tells the story of the smart, damaged minds behind the magazine, and tries to emulate its wild, anarchic style, focusing on the magazine’s co-founder and chief creative force, the unstable genius Doug Kenney. But it’s probably impossible to hit that level of smart-crazy and still tell a coherent story, so the film feels a bit forced and loopy. It’s entertaining to see the barely-rational basis for the magazine’s origin, the accidental comedy-lottery success of Animal House, and the coke-fueled slapping together of box office disappointment (but eventual cult hit) Caddy Shack. Also, Joel MacHale is surprisingly funny playing early Chevy Chase.

See the great documentary “Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead” for a better telling of the National Lampoon story, and see this move for more insight into Doug Kenney and the making of the movies, and some laughs, and titties. B.


Set in the early ’90s, drama The Miseducation of Cameron Post follows relatively well-adjusted high school student Cameron (a nuanced Chloë Grace Moretz) spending time with her girlfriend. But when the two are caught making out, she is confronted and eventually sent off by her religious family to a christian gay conversion clinic, way out in the woods (literally and intellectually). She and other gay minors are forced to live at the facility and endure daily browbeating from adult staff, with the message that “SSA” (same sex attraction) is some sort of aberrant behavioral choice, and of course a big sin. Cameron sincerely tries to make the program work, but it obviously can’t. (Note: The Committee on Adolescence of the American Academy of Pediatrics has stated that such therapy is not effective and may be harmful to LGBTQ individuals.) Fortunately she makes friends with some of her peers, and they share techniques for maintaining their humanity while getting through the day by telling the counselors what they want to hear.

It seems such clinics filter the most egregious religious teachings through completely unfounded pseudo-science, accompanied by shitty music, to achieve nothing but making kids either hate themselves or hate the family and religion that decided that emotional abuse of minors was a good idea. The film is a bit hard to watch, but the ending does suggest that, for some, it actually does get better. (This film was awarded the Sundance U. S.  Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic.)

The QA following the screening included a discussion about how to get this film in front of people who need to see it, and pointed out that the abominable practice of gay conversion therapy is currently legal in all but 9 states. (I’m imagining a world where creationists are forced to attend science camp.) B+.


The writer/director team of Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman teamed up in 2007 to deliver teen pregnancy classic Juno, and have teamed up again for their take on motherhood with Tully. Charlize Theron’s work load as a mom-of-two is already maxed out, and the arrival of number three pushes her to another level. Dad is not available to help much due to a demanding job and an equally demanding video game habit. (The relentless and exhausting routine of baby care is depicted dramatically in a frantically edited 3-minute montage that is surely the most effective birth control PSA ever.) So mom agrees to accept help from a “night nanny”, who does such an amazing job sharing the load that it transforms her life, in a miraculous way that can only happen in the mother of all motherhood movies. C+.