Sundance 2010 – batch 4

The career of ’70’s girl-band the Runaways was as raw as a pick scratch and as fleeting as a line of coke. The biopic The Runaways captures that, turned up to 11. The two female leads – Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning – are wild and fearless as Joan Jett and Cherie Currie, and Michael Shannon is brilliant as decadent, controversial svengali Kim Fowley.

In the Q/A that followed the screening, writer/director Floria Sigismondi revealed that the role of lead guitarist Lita Ford had to be downplayed because appropriate rights could not be obtained. And she said she cast Kristen Stewart based on her performance in a small role in Into The Wild, before the whole Twilight thing.  A

Skateland is a slice-of-life tale of a young guy who works at a Texas roller skating arena in the mid 1980’s, partying with friends, struggling with family, and trying to figure out what he will do with his life. The film does a great job of capturing the music, dress, and keg-party atmosphere of that era. But the story didn’t compel me to care enough about the characters. C+

Fans of popular CBS TV series “How I Met Your Mom” will recognize Josh Radnor as Ted. His feature film writing/directing debut, with the quirky title happythankyoumoreplease, is perhaps more impressive than Zach Braf’s similar debut Sundance 2004 (Garden State). This film is a romantic tale of an aspiring writer and the ebb and flow of emotion in his relationships and those of his small circle of friends. Everything about this works, especially some heart-grabbing scenes, poignant dialog, and terrific acting performances all around. B+

A comedy about suicide bombers. You probably could not believe that summary, and, as I watched the film. I could not believe what I was seeing and hearing, and how good it was. I also could not understand what I was hearing, to some extent. That’s due to some thick British accents and slang. But Four Lions is so amazing and funny that the 80% of it I understood is plenty, and I have more reason to see it again. (The first time we saw Monty Python in the 1970’s, I think the accents and jargon threw us all a similar learning curve, but we got over it.) The script was brilliant, and reminiscent of last year’s Sundance standout “In The Loop” with the rapid fire comedic lines. This one had better physical comedy, and overall was perhaps even more hysterical. And, amid the comedy, it’s about people who blow themselves up as part of their particular brand of religious nonsense, so it actually has a profound moral message. It makes fun of terrorists, it makes fun of people who are trying to guarantee our security, and it would make fun of your mom if it had her number. This fearless and original movie is sure to offend the usual humorless offendees. A

For anyone like me who tries to balance skiing and movie watching during the Sundance Film Festival, the movie Frozen is where the two worlds collide. Set in a fictitious small New England ski area (but shot just down the road at Utah’s Snowbasin Resort), this film depicts a ski trip gone horribly wrong when a chairlift stops and the three passengers are stranded.

Every frequent skier has experienced a stall on the chairlift. Usually it’s 1-3 minutes because that once-a-year skier from Alabama got on sideways or got off upside down, or some similar loading/unloading mishap. On rare occasions, the stall is longer, due to a mechanical problem, and after 15 minutes or so they usually get it resolved. But even the 3-minute stall can seem like forever, and one’s mind can begin to wander and play out worst-case scenarios. So this movie did a respectable job of taking that speculation and turning into a nightmare. So, although you have to suspend disbelief (like you do with all horror movies), this film works hard to construct a credible scenario that causes the skiers to be stranded for a very long time. And, however sick your imagination may be, what happens in this movie is worse than you think.

In the Q/A following the screening, writer/director Adam Green described the challenges of the shoot. There was no CGI or green-screen; the three actors were filmed on an actual chair, 50 feet above the snow. Why 50 feet? It had to be low enough so that the skiers could at least consider jumping without certain death, but high enough so that they could be assured of injury. To film the shots, they needed a crane, but the biggest crane they could find didn’t quite reach. They had to build a platform out of snow, and put a trailer on top of that, and put the crane on top of the trailer.

This is an enjoyable, scary ski movie. But I will always need to go down the mountain fast, and will therefore always need to go up the mountain, and therefore I will keep riding chairlifts. B+

An weary midwestern couple with a going-through-the-motions marriage finds a spark in the touching Welcome To The Rileys, which examines the nature of parenthood, responsibility, and growing up. The film has a grim New Orleans realism, enhanced with some great performances by all three leads. In the post-screeing Q/A, the director indicated that he cast Kristen Stewart based on her small role in Into the Wild. This was the second director say that at this year’s Sundance (see The Runaways). And the writer said that the screenplay was motivated by the frequent failure of the foster care system and the consequent number of the teen-age runaways. B+

A melancholy examination of post-traumatic stress disorder, too common among Iraq vets, The Dry Land treats its subject with respect and sets its characters among the stark American southwest to make the humanity stand out. Like with the Sundance 2009 depresser “Helen”, I felt educated about the syndrome and its effects on family and friends, not really entertained. But this film was somehow more successful. B

Big emotions in a small Canadian town are on display in Grown Up Movie Star. The focus is on the love-hate relationship between a confused father, who has been abandoned by his stardom-seeking wife, and his two daughters. One daughter is at that running-off-the-rails age, and her younger sister is still normal but is taking notes. There are some really good elements in this movie, and some powerful emotions are portrayed well, but some over-the-top scenes and unlikely dialog detract a bit. B-

From Hamburg on, the history of the Beatles has been pretty well covered in film. The biopic Nowhere Boy reaches further back, focusing on the teenage John Lennon and his relationship with his mother and his aunt, the influences that led John to form a band, and his meeting with Paul and the forming of the Quarrymen. It begins with John already living with Aunt Mimi and George, and ends just as the band is about to head for Hamburg.

The sound track includes some gems including one from Screaming Jay Hawkins, which sheds a lot of light on John’s later vocal style, for example on “Twist and Shout”. But not everyone will like the movie if they expect to see any Beatles performances or even hear any Beatles songs.

In the Q/A following the screening, director Sam Taylor Wood said she got a bit of help from Yoko Ono about the relationship between John and Aunt Mimi, and from Paul about the early compositions. And Aaron Johnson, who played John said much of his research for the role came from a John Lennon interview in Rolling Stone.

The film does a good job of capturing John’s verbal style and wit, his unconventional family, and the passion for music that would later make history. It seems to get the important details right as well as some of the small ones (e. g. John’s first guitar; the 17 shillings and six pence fee for the recording of “In Spite of All the Danger”). The trickiest scene is the one that explains why John is with is aunt instead of his mother; there’s probably no fully satisfactory way to handle that. Most importantly, this film deeply respects its subject matter, and helps explain the complexity behind the boy who eventually wrote both “In My Life” and “I Am the Walrus” . B+

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