Sundance 2018 – batch 2

In low key charmer Puzzle, housewife/mother Kelly Macdonald supports an ordinary, suburban, middle-class household, doing all the cooking, shopping and mom stuff for her traditional husband and sons. Then she randomly discovers she has an extreme knack for solving jigsaw puzzles, and that leads to a new friend, some new experiences, and a beautiful sequence of minor epiphanies about her own abilities, and a gradual set of larger discoveries that lead her to take control of her own life.

The heartwarming transformation from unfulfilled housewife to assertive and independent woman (and more insightful mother) is a product of beautifully paced writing and an outstanding performance by Macdonald. And this realistic and relatable coming-of-middle-age film is so simple and effective that it’s hard to notice what a quietly powerful feminist statement it is (without needing to dip into the poisonous well of postmodern feminism). B+.


Director/cowriter Ethan Hawke took the stage before the screening and introduced his movie as “our gonzo indie country western opera, Blaze”. Depicting the life of under-the-radar country singer/songwriter Blaze Foley, who died in 1989, and cowritten by his surviving wife, the film is a tribute to songwriting, to living a life with enough joy and heartbreak to inspire art, and to Foley himself.

As the film covers his on/off relationship with his wife (a vibrant and muse-worthy Alia Shawkat) and his struggles with a fringe career, a dozen or so songs written by Blaze Foley are performed with authentic lived-a-hard-life vocals and precise guitar work by singer/guitarist Ben Dickey. (His acting impressed the Sundance jury to the point where they gave him a US Dramatic Special Jury Award for Acting).

The cut shown at Sundance was over 2 hours and might benefit from some tighter editing.

In the QA following the screening, Ethan Hawke commented that most biopic films are about people who are already famous but this one is not. He also said this was a movie about human creativity. B.


Bo Burnham became a YouTube star in the mid 2000’s by posting songs dense with wordplay and biting wit, and then scored a deal with Comedy Central to release records. He is now a promising filmmaker, as evidenced by his debut feature film Eighth Grade. It follows a young student who projects a strong and confident image to her small YouTube following but struggles to fit in among classmates and move on to high school without getting slayed by her crush or crushed by her bullies.

Burnham demonstrates an ear for credible dialog and a sense of how inefficiently young people interact, which allows him to infuse this film with some painfully realistic moments. It’s almost hard to watch until the exhilarating final act, which includes an extraordinary and beautiful scene with her father, which makes it all worthwhile.

In the QA following the screening, writer/director Burnham said the story was partially inspired by watching YouTube videos of those without a lot of followers. He quipped that on YouTube boys talk about X-box but girls talk about their souls. B+.


In lightweight tale Hearts Beat Loud, Nick Offerman is the manager of a struggling record store and the single parent of a thriving daughter (Kiersey Clemons) who is on track for medical school. The two also collaborate in music, and dad’s vintage analog instruments and daughter’s modern sample-based sounds eventually merge on a song that takes off on Spotify. Its success raises the possibility of a career in music over medicine, with the difficult choices that implies. There’s credible family and musical chemistry between the two, the songs are pretty enjoyable, and it’s all feel-good and uplifting. That lack of drama doesn’t detract from this simple film, which is really about the joy of creating music.

In the QA following the screening and enthusiastic reception of the film at a packed Eccles Center, the director spoke of the difficulty of shooting live vocals, and promised that the a sound track album will be released. A-.


Pastoral adventure film Leave No Trace explores the unusual bond between an eccentric off-the-grid father haunted by PTSD and a teenage daughter who gradually begins to question her unflinching loyalty and her isolation from peers. They are homeless by choice, but don’t consider themselves homeless; they live and thrive in the woods, in a beautiful and sometimes hostile Pacific Northwest setting. Paced like a long hike in the forest, the film quietly suggests that rejecting all of modern civilization is not just quaint or quirky, it’s dangerous and possibly pathological, and the two have to decide how much of modern society and technology to accept. B+.


One of John Callahan’s many politically incorrect cartoons depicts a posse on horseback, apparently chasing a bad guy, and finding an empty wheel chair, and the sheriff says “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot”. That’s also the title of the entertaining biopic depicting the wild swings in the life of the famous, controversial, wheel-chair-bound cartoonist, whose dark, edgy work ran for many years in a Portland, Oregon weekly newspaper. (Those cartoons were frequently offensive to certain soft, humorless people who complained.)

Joaquin Phoenix ably portrays the man struggling with his own self-inflicted demons, and in his courageous performance we observe that his life as a sober paraplegic was far better than the fully ambulatory drunk phase that preceded it. So he essentially swapped an emotional disability for a physical disability and came out ahead. Jonah Hill is funny and surprising as the therapist who helps Callahan through the 12-step program to get him sober. Despite some strong elements, the film feels a bit loose and uneven. C+.


Based on the life of successful French author Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (brought to life by a luminous and occasionally incendiary Kiera Knightley), historical drama  Colette covers her first marriage and the chaotic start of her career. Her husband was already a famous author when they met, and they eventually discover that she’s actually a much more talented writer, but she cannot publish under her own name because its 1890’s Paris and she’s a woman. The two had a stormy and complex relationship that is portrayed dynamically on screen – he supported and encouraged her creativity, she liked having scandalous lesbian affairs, he preferred having slightly more conventional affairs. And, apparently, long before there were rock and roll groupies, there was novelist nookie. All the delightful wanton banging provided bountiful source material for their scandalous and popular novels, which were initially published under her husband’s name.

But he somehow squandered their earnings, and eventually Collette realized she needed to move on and assert creative control of her life and her art, and that’s the best part. So, as in several other movies at Sundance 2018, a strong and positive feminist message is embedded organically in the art. B+.


Post-apocalyptic yarn I Think We’re Alone Now is a fresh take on how one or two people might act after some unknown apocalyptic event kills almost everyone. The film draws you in as it develops slowly, with Peter Dinklage playing a serious oddball who kind of likes everyone being dead and Elle Fanning as a needy roamer looking for a friend. Eventually it shows some insight on the nature of solitude and the value of company. But then, in the final act, the film changes tone and goes off into the weeds in a severely underdeveloped attempt at a larger sci-fi message. (This film had enough merit that the Sundance judges gave director Reed Marano a special jury prize for excellence in filmmaking.) C.