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-

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