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

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