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

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-

Sundance 2015 – batch 2

We have already seen the horror film idea where Halloween visitors are actual monsters in a Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode. But in Hellionsthat old idea is executed with a creative twist, where it is intertwined skillfully with a nightmare teen pregnancy. The non-linear, dream-like story meanders a bit, but does so with stunning visual style. C+


The mindless Christian superstitions that plagued early 17th century New England were used to justify countless barbaric executions for witchcraft. In elegant horror fable The Witch, that same religion-addled culture enables family members on a small Puritan farm to assume that occult forces or god’s-will forces are causing various tragedies. That leads to a form of paranoia where they eventually turn against each other and maybe even go supernatural themselves.

But more engaging than the horror story is the look and sound of this film, with beautiful subdued colors and odd-sounding but authentic early American dialect delivered intrepidly by a first-rate English cast. The hardships and grinding minutiae of running the farm are presented with gritty detail, and the camera finds original and memorable ways to frame it all.

The Q/A after the screening revealed the degree to which the details of the period, locale, and culture were accurately recreated, down to the clothing, the farm equipment, the accents, and the dialog.

This film was smarter than its genre. B+


Kickstarter-funded geriatric rom-com I’ll See You In My Dreams features some Hollywood veterans as well as a Freaks and Geeks alum. The culture clash within that sentence is representative of the film itself, with some tragedy thrown in to give perspective to the romance and comedy. Blythe Danner, finding perhaps her best role late in her career, portrays a widow who is content hanging out with her old-folks-homies. Then she discovers a common interest with young-but-uncool pool cleaner Martin Starr, and then discovers a cool-at-any-age Sam Elliot. Nicely paced comedy and romance ensues, and the comedy includes a strong endorsement for medical marijuana.

Loss is a fact of life, especially so in the golden years, and that’s part of the movie as well. The film makes the point that it’s OK to take risks at any age, and not dwell on who you were but rather who you are.

In the Q/A after the screening, Ms. Danner was asked (based on a vocal performance in the film) if she had any plans to release her own vocal CD. But she said that won’t happen. B+


Gritty comedy romp Dope is an unlikely but brilliantly blended mix of high school nerd culture and ghetto thug culture. It tells an uplifting tale centered on three friends just tying to avoid the criminals in their ‘hood so they can complete their senior year and get into a good college. Stuck in a rough school full of thugs and drugs, the three defy stereotype by killing time as a punk rock trio, by riding BMX bikes, by favoring ‘90s hip hop over modern rap, and most of all by pursuing good grades. They are the high achievers among peers who are just high. They also fight bad guys with Bitcoins instead of Glocks.

Sundance audiences enthusiastically applauded the film. It has elements in common with the John Hughes teen movies of the ’80s, including snappy teen-age dialog, occasionally frenetic pacing, cool music (including tracks by Pharrell Williams), awkwardly charismatic leads, and going a bit over the top in places, if that’s where the best comedy is. A

Sundance 2015 – batch 1

Big Bang theorist Melissa Rauch vaults to a starring role in her own movie with the raunchy and sometimes hilarious gymnastics farce The BronzeCowritten by Ms. Rauch and her husband, the story centers on a bronze-medal gymnast who is past her prime but still reliving her glory days with a high-degree-of-difficulty temper, and who may or may not be hiding a heart of gold. There is humor in Rauch’s over-the-top diva behavior and inventive cursing, but the biggest bang is the gold-medal gymnastic sex scene, where a variety of carnal landings were gratuitously and comedically stuck.

Although the bitchy-bronze-medal-babe gets a little shrieky after a while, possible romantic interest Thomas Middleditch provides a pleasant counterpoint. He is also a geek-TV star in HBO’s hilarious “Silicon Valley”, and was funny in the Q/A following the screening. B


If Modern Family’s Phil Dunphy is trying too hard to be the “cool dad” in this decade, his 1980’s precursor might have been Ethan Hawke’s pot-smoking, womanizing dad in coming-of-age drama Ten Thousand Saints

In a grim New York in the early 1980s, the music scene was reacting against the decadence of punk rock by evolving a straight edge scene, with hardcore music, boys with shaved heads, and drug-free behavior. With some characters tied to that scene, the film tells a gritty and engaging story of teen-age bad decisions and severe consequences. But despite some heavy drama there is fun to be had along the way, especially in the excellent comic timing and gusto Hawke brings to the dad character, and in the realistically wise-yet-naive performance of Hailee Steinfeld. The story examines big topics – like adoption and the dynamic definition of family, and the profound impact of an early death – with small, magical moments of humor and insight.

The Q/A after the screening included discussion of musical influences (e. g. The Replacements) and how they shot the film in modern New York in a way that made it look like ‘80s New York. B+


Low key sci-fi parable Advantageous takes our current Internet- and mobile-device-based civilization, with its larger than ever premium on looking young and attractive, and extrapolates it forward just a few decades. It centers on a financially struggling mother who will do anything to place her young daughter in the best possible school. But in this vision of the near future, the advanced technology gives her options that are drastic and risky, and which call into question the very nature of consciousness, and what it means for us to be who we are. Although some fascinating ideas were explored, it did not seem to go far enough, and a slow pace diluted the drama. C+


A pleasant, muscular construction worker and his pleasant friend find ways to entertain themselves killing time and biking around Miami in small gem The Strongest ManThis lightweight lark is similar in tone to Napoleon Dynamite, with its quirky humor and dry line readings, but has less energy. Although there are some charming moments and some very entertaining scenes synthesized from the thinnest of substance, it felt somewhat underdeveloped. C+

Sundance 2014 – batch 3

If Groucho Marx crashed “Airplane” into “When Harry Met Sally”, the self-aware, rapid-fire romantic comedy debris would take the form of They Came Together. The pleasantly predictable cliches of the dozen or so rom-coms that women openly love and men secretly love are upended, lampooned, skewered, and filtered through a juvenile YouTube sensibility. The result is a trope-trampling treat of a movie; perhaps one that tries a bit too hard, but we forgive it because it brought us flowers and gave us that look.

The Q/A after the screening was as hilarious and chaotic as the film, with director/co-writer David Wain and cast Amy Poehler and Paul Rudd describing the fun they had shooting. Rudd characterized the movie as “relentlessly silly” and at one point ran into the audience to propose to a questioner. A-


Partly funded to the tune of about $2M by Kickstarter, director/cowriter Zach Braff’s, Wish I Was Here has all the resonance and quirkiness of his Sundance 2004 classic “Garden State”, but not quite as much magic. This more mature effort has Braff and spouse Kate Hudson struggling with imperfect solutions to the grown-up problems of parents on the decline and children on rise, with some keenly observed insights along the way.

In the Q/A following the screening, Braff thanked the Kickstarter supporters and apologized for the typos on the closing credits that were still being finalized. He also said that he did not cast himself in “Garden State” so he could make out with Natalie Portman, and that he did not cast himself in this movie so he could squeeze the buns of Kate Hudson. B


Crowd pleasing melodrama Whiplash (winner of Sundance’s audience and jury prizes) follows the aspirations of a young jazz drummer at an elite music academy. Miles Teller, who others have compared to a young John Cusack and who was so good in last year’s Sundance hit “The Spectacular Now”, is spot-on as the drummer with the heart of a lion, and J. K. Simmons (Juno’s dad) is a force of nature as his wrath-of-god music teacher. The film is energized by powerful big-band-jazz performance sequences, including a remarkable finishing number.

Below the surface, there are similarities to Sundance 2013’s “Jobs”, with both films examining the very definition of greatness, the struggle to achieve it, the personal costs involved, and most importantly, the flawed leaders who who somehow inspire it.  B+


Sundance 2014 – batch 2

Former SNL standouts Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader show their known comedy chops as well as impressive dramatic range portraying a brother and sister with major life issues as The Skeleton Twins. Hader’s pragmatic and nuanced gay character here is at the other end of the spectrum from the hilariously one-dimensional Stefon. The story explores the simultaneously supportive and combative relationships that only siblings can have, and does so with enough laughs to avoid being a debbie downer. B


A happy couple with possibly the cutest 2-year old in cinematic history have their lives disrupted by an open-ended visit from a well-meaning but irresponsible party girl (a convincing Anna Kendrick), whose antics threaten their Happy Christmas. But the new chemistry injects some creative energy into everyone’s lives, and we get to witness some pleasant moments and some good lines from Lena Dunham as one of the friends.

In the Q/A after the screening, after the tell-us-about-the-baby question, director Joe Swanberg said the film was shot from his 12-page outline with dialog improvised by the actors. (That process of course results in realistic but not always well-crafted dialog.) He also pointed out that supportive, happily married couples are underrepresented in film, and he wanted to offset that. B-


All who attend Sundance know that the films can sometimes be wild and over the top. But for the 40 or so viewers who walked out early during the screening of slasher-comedy The Voices, the psychopathic and bloody antics of Ryan Reynolds’ deeply disturbed factory worker were too much to handle. And that meant walking out without even waiting to see if Reynolds would eventually remove his shirt. Perhaps a few hundred more coped with the comedic carnage by covering their eyes. In any case, this is an unforgettable, genre-mutilating, occasionally hilarious film with a killer performance by a gore-geous Reynolds, who finds enough twisted charm to make this unconventional villain non-hateable. And what is the absolute last element one would expect in this cheerfully chilling chop-spree? Yes, talking pets, and they have some of the best lines.

In the Q/A after the screening, director Marjane Satrapi presented herself as articulate, smart and funny, and revealed that considerable thought was put into the portrayal of this unique character. B.


Three computer savvy MIT students are engaged in an on-line feud with a mysterious internet presence, and their attempt to find the source takes them into the desert, and into some horror-movie atmosphere in what looks like an abandoned house. Then the bits hit the fan in ambitious WiFi/sci-fi iThriller The Signal. There are twists, and the tone shifts later when the students try to figure out what happened to them, and what sort of extraordinary discovery they have made. Overall, the interesting buildup does not quite hold together toward the end. C+


Stuart Murdoch, the lead singer and songwriter for alternative-pop band Belle and Sebastian, has made his film debut with musical God Help the Girl. Set in a beautifully shot Glasgow, the film is an obvious homage to the filmmaker’s home city and its vibrant music scene. The central character is a troubled high-school student who befriends a nerdy musician, and finds a path to a better life in the joy of creating music. We suspend our disbelief for movies, and we just need to suspend it a notch further for the somewhat sketchy plots of musicals that have fun and accessible songs, like this one. B+


The conflict between fact-based science and wishful-thinking-based faith or magic is not often explored responsibly in film, but Mike Cahill, the director of Sundance 2012’s prize-winning “Another Earth”, is taking on that topic with attempted mind-bender I OriginsThe plot develops with two researchers, including Sundance fave Brit Marling, doing interesting and authentic science in the field of iris recognition biometrics. But the discipline gets quite a bit looser at the end, as it would have to in order to allow the dramatic payoff. Like Cahill’s previous film, this is another interesting exercise in light science-fiction. B

Sundance 2014 – batch 1

In the darkly comedic, richly detailed world of The Double, the industrial revolution has apparently gone a bit off the rails and left office workers with a clunky, comically malfunctioning work-scape, with a deranged bureaucracy to match. Also slightly broken are the grim people who inhabit this bleak place, in particular a pair of damaged characters who share more than just the same face, played skillfully by Jesse Eisenberg. All these vividly drawn elements come together with heavy handed but dazzling style, which will remind viewers of Terry Gilliam’s duct-infested “Brazil”. The masterful lighting, art direction, and cinematography combine to create a gleefully depressing world that makes the unlikely narrative seem plausible. B


Romantic comedy Laggies manages to entertain sweetly while delivering a lesson about growing up, and does so even without a lot of romance or an abundance of comedy. Lead Keira Knightley excels with cheerful frustration as a woman-child, well into her twenties, struggling with the looming responsibilities of adulthood. She escapes her real life for a bit by joining the simpler social circle of some actual high-school kids, and of course it’s in that place where she gains the insights that allow her to start making the hard decisions her real life demands. On this journey she is surrounded by a talented cast, including a charmingly brusque Sam Rockwell. A


A Most Wanted Man is a slow-paced but well-crafted and very well-acted spy story, not quite a thriller. In examining the tactics of several agencies involved in tracking Islamic terrorists in Germany, the film makes the case that there are good guys and bad guys getting hunted and also good guys and bad guys doing the hunting. It’s refreshing to see a realistic portrayal of flawed people doing their jobs, without super powers or kung fu or any fu. The film succeeds in building tension, to a point, but it’s ultimately dissipated in what felt like an unsatisfactory manner. B-


Set in a barren future where water has become so scarce that people fight and die over it like gold in the old west, Young Ones focuses on one family’s struggle to survive the bad luck they experience and bad guys they attract. The film benefits from some well-executed futuristic robot technology, a realistically stark setting, and strong acting, but falls short, with a narrative that seemed to lay the foundation for a for a dramatic payoff that never came. C+


Reminiscent of “Once” from Sundance 2006, Song One is a simple film that revolves around young people who produce and enjoy music. With only minimal dramatic tension, the story has Anne Hathaway’s character befriend a famous singer-songwriter, and serves as a framework for some nicely crafted original songs written by Jonathan Rice and Jenny Lewis, soulfully interpreted by actor-musician Johnny Flynn. B


The skillfully twisted director of last year’s Sundance blood-fest “We Are What We Are” is back with a stylish and more accessible thriller, Cold in July.. With considerable skill, Michael C. Hall plays an ordinary family man thrust into extraordinary circumstances when a guy breaks into his house. That’s just the start of a wild story with a few nicely jarring twists and some horrific fun. And just like he did with “Tin Cup”, a grinny Don Johnson shows up well into the film and bumps the energy up a notch.

In the Q/A after the screening, Hall said he enjoyed playing a character who, in contrast to Dexter, killed somebody but didn’t enjoy it. B


Sundance 2013 – batch 4

Part not-quite dark comedy, part not-quite horror film, Emanuel and the Truth about Fishes presents a unique view of motherhood from a fascinating and warped perspective. The story centers on a young adult who is haunted by the circumstances of her own birth. She gets to know her neighbor, a young single mother with her own issues, played with a creepy form of sincerity by a version of Jessica Biel we have not seen before. Overall, oddly entertaining. B


Shot recently but with authentic low-fi black-and-white video equipment from a bygone era, Computer Chess places the viewer convincingly in 1980, when computer chess-playing programs were just starting to become viable and nerd culture was beginning to get excited about it. Following the events and participants in a fictional human vs. computer chess tournament held at a hotel, this bold film nails the atmosphere, through details such as equipment, decor, clothing, and hair style. But while the story delivers some comical hotel hijinks and some splendid awkward moments, it somehow fails to impress the way the style does. C


It Felt Like Love is the tale of an awkward young girl who is trying follow the example set by her more mature friend, with an interest in sex that is a few steps ahead of her ability to manage it. The story squanders an opportunity to celebrate youth and discovery, and instead presents a sad series of joyless, uncomfortable situations. C-


Centered on a popular high school student who enjoys his popularity in the present to the exclusion of any prospect for growth or accomplishment in his own future, The Spectacular Now teaches a time-to-grow-up moral lesson with unusual candor and humanity for a high-school movie. Especially effective are the scenes with the two leads, including one with sincerely beautiful dialog, where they point out the the good qualities in each other and make it almost believable that 2 > 1+1 . B+


Road trip film Ass Backwards had the potential to give us a fresh perspective on Romy and Michelle’s journey from a few years back. Two girlfriends decide to hit the road to revisit the beauty pageant they failed at in previous years, and maybe not lose this time because they have become awesome. There were some funny segments that were elevated by the skillful comedic fervor of the two leads, but overall it seemed to be lacking some element of script or direction. C


The deep-voiced guy who starts movie trailers with “In a world…”, and people like him, are voice-over artists, in some cases highly valued; and their weird, highly competitive little world is the setting for innovative and enjoyable comedy  In a World…. The comedically skilled ensemble includes Demetri Martin and Rob Corddry, but Writer/Director/Actress Lake Bell is the delightful main attraction, delivering lots of funny dialog in a framework with enough Hollywood-insider authenticity to make it believable. B+

Sundance 2013 – batch 3

We Are What We Are is a suspenseful horror flick with some delightfully creepy atmosphere. Although it’s centered around the familiar premise of a normal-seeming family that turns out to be far from normal, it benefits greatly from a nicely shot rural, rainy setting, and some better-than-the-genre acting performances. It suffers a bit from a WTF payoff. C+


On the surface the story of a summer romance triangle, Very Good Girls is at the heart a story of female friendship. College-bound high-school friends share several common interests including one who happens to be a summer-fling-worthy boy, and their BFF-ness is tested as they lean on each other and yet keep secrets from each other. An enthusiastic performance by Elizabeth Olsen and a contrasting, thoughtful effort from Dakota Fanning keep things interesting. B


Everyone’s afflicted with a certain endearing oddness in the extended family of Touchy Feely, including a dentist who is not good at what he does in a conventional way, and his sister who is a massage therapist with some unexpected hangups. These and the other characters have relationships that it takes a bit too long to sort out in this slow paced film. It’s a bit of a disappointment after the director’s promising Sundance 2012 effort My Sister’s Sister. C


Google was incorporated in 1998, became an accepted verb according to the OED in 2006, and is now an indispensable knowledge tool. All along, searching web sites has been a byproduct of Google’s much more ambitious quest to organize the world’s information, effectively building a “world brain”. Documentary Google and the World Brain focuses on the controversy around a big part of that task: Google’s massive effort to digitize all the world’s books, including copyrighted ones. Much of the controversy is just uninformed fear of the consequences of technology. But copyright holders do have a legitimate claim against copying books, while Google claims their actions are allowed as fair use. The film provides some historical background on the concept of a world brain, including the writing of H. G. Wells, has some well-researched technical detail, and presents the copyright issue fairly, but overreaches a bit trying to make a case that Google’s effort is evil. B-


Set entirely in remote Texas woodlands, Prince Avalanche uses the placid scenery as backdrop for an unorthodox buddy movie. Paul Rudd is likable even as an impatient roadway maintenance worker / father figure and Emile Hirsch shows range as his young horn-dog jerk of an apprentice. There’s an element of this film that tries with limited success to make a statement about the solitude that nature can provide. Overall it’s a pleasant and original story, not quite a comedy. C+


In Afternoon Delight, female sexuality is explored through the shenanigans of a soccer mom who tries to liven up her marriage and stumbles into a friendship with a young hooker who becomes her nanny and rescue project. This is all a bit unlikely, but there are plenty of comedic moments, especially from mom Kathryn Hahn, and plenty of sincerity from Juno Temple as the wise-beyond-her-years hooker who doesn’t need saving. B+


If Fellini, David Lynch, and Tinker Bell had a three-way, their odd, illegitimate movie-baby would be Escape from Tomorrow. Because it was shot surreptitiously and without permission in Disney amusement parks, it was among the most buzzed-about titles at this year’s Sundance (along with jOBS). Despite its guerrilla-film origin, it’s no home movie; it’s a highly stylized, wildly imaginative, unconventional film that has an impressive musical score and magnificently realized vision. For most viewers, this black-and-white psychedelic-nightmare of a movie was a bit of a puzzle; some found that a reason to despise the movie and some found that an essential part of its bizarro appeal. It can be described as the story of a family that goes to Disney World, where the father gets distracted by a pair of young girls and starts following them, and things take a weird turn. But that doesn’t do it justice; the story is lacking but the telling of the story is redeeming.

In the Q/A after the screening, writer/director Randy Moore described the process of filming without getting caught. They made many trips to the Disney parks; they bought season passes; they shot video with an advanced SLR style camera that was inconspicuous; they did extensive planning and had every shot laid out in advance; they shot the riskiest scenes last in case they were discovered (and they almost were on the final shoot).  As a child growing up near Orlando, Moore visited Disney World, and if there’s a meaning to the film, it is his attempt to make sense of those artificially constructed fantasy worlds, and how those facades are embraced by our culture.

Disney has apparently not yet weighed in on this film, so it’s not clear whether it will be released. B+


The too-short yet immense and extraordinary life of Steve Jobs is barely contained in Walter Isaacson’s 656 page biography, and is certainly beyond the scope of a single movie. The larger-budget movie, currently in the works by Sony Pictures, is an Aaron Sorkin adaptation of the book; smaller indy effort jOBS is already completed and scheduled for official release on April 19. Its premier at this year’s Sundance was a motherboard-hot ticket, with an obviously compelling subject, and with star-power casting choice Ashton Kutcher seeming to bear a physical resemblance to a young Steve Jobs.

Opening with an Apple employee meeting in 2001, right before the introduction of the first iPod (1,000 songs!), the story flashes back to Steve’s college years, and takes us through a wild universe-denting trip before it mellows out on a perfect note with Steve in a recording studio, a few years after his return to rejuvenate a floundering Apple in the late ’90s. Along the way we get to know key players, including a soulful Josh Gad as humble tech-genius Woz, and a stiff Dermot Mulroney as adult supervision Mike Markkula.

The garage scenes were shot in the actual now-historic Los Altos house where Steve lived. And overall, Kutcher and crew get quite a few other things right, notably Steve Jobs’ look, voice, walk, and mannerisms, but more importantly, the paradox of an ambitious, inspirational, we-can-change-the-wold leader with a dangerous, impatient, walk-on-water-or-you’re-out arrogance. As the film moves through later eras, it covers board room maneuvering, a sympathetic portrayal of grown-up Steve’s family life, and his eventual return to Apple, highlighted in a terrific scene with the Jonathan Ive character. But, necessarily, the film omits a lot, including Pixar and NeXT.

The right music can help the narrative by defining time lines in any historical movie, and of course music is critical in this movie since it was such an influence in Steve’s life. Yet expensive synchronization rights for master recordings of landmark songs can drain an indy film budget, so the producers should be praised for coming up with a credible sound track including Joe Walsh and a crucial Dylan song.

Critics of the movie will likely focus on whether the movie confirms or refutes their biases about Steve’s character flaws, whether it accurately portrays the personalities involved in the earliest years, and whether it artistically rises to the insanely great level of Apple’s best innovations. If it fails on some of those impossible tests, it’s still a smart, entertaining, and essential film. B

Sundance 2013 – batch 2

In movies, it seems, normal suburban families are only normal for the first reel. Then problems surface; in Breathe In it happens after the family accepts a visit from a fetching and musically talented exchange student, played with easy charm by Felicity Jones. The script paces the will-they-or-won’t-they-get-together expertly, and a few beautiful musical performances elevate the romance in this bittersweet movie. B+


Documentary Salma tells the extraordinary story of a Tamil woman’s life of resistance against the mindless tradition of her Muslim village in India, and the lengthy home imprisonment she endured as a consequence of her efforts to assert her basic rights and educate herself. She ultimately succeeded in gaining notoriety by getting her poetry published, but only by getting it smuggled out of her home.

Salma was present at the Q/A following the screening, and, through a translator, made it clear that the key to effecting change for women in that culture is to allow them to receive an education. B


The writing/directing team behind 2011’s twilight-zony Sound of My Voice returns to Sundance with the more ambitious thriller The East. The tale follows the exploits of a young, ambitious, corporate security consultant who mixes with a band of anarchists bent on righting the various wrongs corporate America has inflicted on the masses.

The film explores the motivation of the domestic terrorists as they debate tactics. It turns out that if you are spurning a society’s laws and social norms to achieve your own agenda, reaching a consensus on how to go about it is, gosh, so hard. With some engaging action scenes, solid performances, especially by cowriter and lead actress Brit Marling, and a few creepy moments, this film survives a muddled anti-corporate agenda to provide a fun ride. B


Slow paced and occasionally messy, like life on a cow farm, documentary The Moo Man spends 98 minutes telling the story of one year on a small family-owned cow farm in England. The film is rich with detail on the daily operations, on the surprisingly personal relationship the workers have with the livestock, and also on the large-scale market economics that are working against small farms. The people were interesting; some of the cows had personalities but were still cows. C+


During an angst-filled summer vacation on Cape Cod, a meek teenage boy stumbles into some friendships that raise his confidence a few notches in The Way, Way Back. A nicely crafted script and direction by oscar-winning writers / cult-TV characters Nat Faxon and Jim Rash provides heart warming comedy, and gives Sam Rockwell and Alison Janney some great parts that they deliver with comic perfection. The amusement-park-as-life-changing-experience theme is not exactly original; for example, it was done with style in Sundance 2009’s period piece Adventureland. This one has a bit more substance. A


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