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-

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