Every year when I arrive at Sundance, I swear to myself that I’ll review each film there as soon as I’ve seen it, but after making the effort to keep up for the first day or two, a daily screening schedule that starts at 8:30AM each morning (earlier if you need to be on a Wait List line, and that doesn’t count transit time to the venues) and runs till 2AM makes that a recurring pipe dream. Instead, all that’s doable is the yearly compendium catch-up, the latest of which is below. The advantage (or at least the rationalization) is that with a few days to let the films kick around in one’s head, there’s more ability to discount the festival hysteria factor and view each title with some degree of proportion. Reviewing them all en masse also allows for a better picture of the festival as a whole.
I made it to an even two dozen films this year, pretty much my par, and came tantalizingly close to the seemingly logistically impossible 7 films in a day milestone (15 minutes too late for #7). The following are short reviews of those titles, listed in rough order of my personal preferences.
Me and Earl and The Dying Girl (Fox Searchlight): The festival phenom lived up to all the explosive hype. Like last year’s Whiplash, it won both the Grand Jury and Audience awards for Best US Drama, and Searchlight wanted it so much that it made production company Indian Paintbrush its virtual partner in the venture. The plot, adequately if far too blandly synopsized by the title, may sound like a Fault In Our Stars knock-off, but Me and Earl, which Jesse Andrews adapted from his own novel, is 10 times funnier, sharper and more imaginative. (The laughs of the first half make the emotional hammer blows of the second even more heartbreaking.) Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, who’s best known as house director on American Horror Story, gives every scene the visual exuberance of a Slumdog Millionaire, and yet he’s also smart enough to present two of the most important, intense scenes virtually without cuts. He can do that because of his wonderful trio of leads, all of whom will be heard from again: Thomas Mann as Greg, the titular “Me,” a wittily morose film-geek who’s skated along the edges of high school society throughout his teens until real life catches up to him; R.J. Cyler as his best friend and filmmaking partner Earl; and Olivia Cooke as Rachel, who’s so much more than just a dying girl. Those three are so good that you can almost forget Connie Britton, Nick Offerman, Molly Shannon and Jon Bernthal–all terrific–are even around. Composer Brian Eno and cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung also deserve special recognition for their sensitive, distinctive work.
Brooklyn (Fox Searchlight): Not a movie that screams “Sundance” or “indie,” being cinematically a rather traditional, even old-fashioned historical romance, but its sheer excellence raised it above almost all of the festival pack. Based on a novel by Colm Toibin and beautifully adapted for the screen by fellow novelist Nick Hornby, it tells the story of Eilis (Saoirse Ronan), an Irish immigrant who comes to live in Brooklyn in the early 1950s and starts a new life. The saga has been richly visualized by director John Crowley (who until now had been firmly in the gritty indie camp with films like Boy A and Intermission), in a way that makes it easy to count the Oscar nominations for costumes (Odile Dicks-Mireaux), production design (Francois Seguin) and cinematography (Yves Boulanger) it’s likely to earn. Ronan, making the transition from teen roles, is a marvelously stirring lead, and she’s supported by Emory Cohen and Dombhall Gleeson as the men in her life.
Dope (Open Road): Rick Famuyiwa’s smart, fast-paced (it won the festival award for editing), inventive comedy takes you by surprise with its ambition. It starts with the 1980s comedy trope of nerdy high-school innocents who get caught up in a crime-caper, in this case involving some accidentally-obtained ecstasy, but not only refreshes it with an inner-city setting and diverse characters (the three leads are respectively African-American, lesbian and of indeterminate ethnicity), but has something substantial to say about contemporary mores on race, class and gender. Protagonists Shameik Moore, Kiersey Clemons and Tony Revelori are charismatic, and they’re supported by performers who include Roger Guenveur Smith, Zoe Kravitz and producer/narrator Forrest Whitaker.
Advantageous (no distrib): This, on the other hand, is exactly the kind of film people think of when they invoke “Sundance.” It’s an original, lyrical sci-fi nightmare set in a futuristic New York where the rich can indulge themselves not only with cosmetic surgery, but with the ability to place their entire consciousness into younger bodies–except that as is always the case in dystopian fantasy, things don’t quite work that smoothly. Advantageous, which is still seeking distribution, is probably too moody and reliant on emotion over plot to ever show up at a multiplex. Hollywood, though, should note the ability of director Jennifer Phang, who co-wrote the script with star Jacqueline Kim, to stretch a tiny budget into a plausible city of the future, as well as the very fine performances she draws not just from Kim, but from young Samantha Kim and, in a convincingly low-key dramatic performance, Ken Jeong.
People, Places, Things (no distrib): Generally speaking, this was an unusually accessible Sundance, dotted with comedies that actually drew laughter. One of the best was James C. Strouse’s People, Places, Things, a charmer that puts unexpected spins on seemingly familiar situations. Much of its appeal comes from its cast, headed by Jemaine Clement in his most mainstream role to date, as Will, a teacher of cartooning and sometime graphic novelist himself, and the father of twins. He has to cope with the break-up of his relationship with the girls’ mother (and her oncoming marriage), the sudden need to learn single parenthood, and the possibility of dating the mother (Regina Hall) of one of his students (Jessica Williams, from The Daily Show). Clement provides an off-hand, surprisingly soulful drollery that recalls his cult projects like Flight of the Conchords, but this time in the service of a more conventional role, and Strouse constantly finds new and inventive ways of moving his script through its paces. Although Clement isn’t a name who automatically sells tickets, it’s a bit surprising that this very likable potential sleeper is still waiting for a studio to take it on.
Sleeping With Other People (no distrib): It’s even more surprising that this bawdy Jason Sudeikis/Alison Brie rom-com is still on the market. Writer/director Leslye Headland was behind Bachelorette, which was quite successful on VOD, and Sleeping has that same kind of tone (the money scene has Sudeikis’s character graphically instructing Brie’s in how to masturbate) meshed with a more heartwarming storyline. The result isn’t dissimilar to FX’s You’re the Worst, which also features an emotionally wrecked pair (here, Sudeikis is a cynical serial cheater, and Brie is obsessed with her barely-interested college love) insisting that they have no future together while falling in love against their better judgment. Headland’s version smooths out the edges, making the leads more good-natured (if somewhat less interesting). Sudeikis and Brie are enormously appealing together, and the cast also includes stalwarts like Adam Scott, Natasha Lyonne, Amanda Peet and Jason Mantzoukas. Its commercial prospects probably depend on how much of a “name” Sudeikis is with We’re the Millers and the Horrible Bosses franchise to his credit, but Sleeping would seem right on the cusp of being able to entice a wide-ish audience.
Z For Zachariah (no dstrib): A post-apocalyptic character study, not exactly original, but extremely well-played by Chiwetel Ejiofor and Margot Robbie as, for a while, what seem to be the last two people on an irradiated Earth, and Chris Pine as the new arrival to their peaceful and miraculously spared farm. Festival favorite director Craig Zobel and screenwriter Nissar Modi (working from a novel by Robert C. O’Brien) don’t push the melodrama too far, and the sci-fi elements are mostly off-screen. Instead, the film concentrates on issues of faith and human nature. A small but satisfying fable.
’71 (Roadside): Yann Demange’s thriller, written by Gregory Burke, was one of the small number of Sundance titles that didn’t debut at the festival, having made the rounds since Cannes. Although set in Northern Ireland at the time of the IRA’s battles against the British Army, it’s less a political story than a homage to Carol Reed’s classic Odd Man Out, with the lone, desperate figure trying to get out of enemy territory a British soldier (Jack O’Connell, who went on to star in Unbroken). Demange delivers some crackling action scenes, and the characters are crisply drawn.
The Overnight (Orchard): Patrick Brice updates Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice with a more contemporary (if overlapping) set of taboos for its pair of prosperous LA couples (Taylor Schilling and Adam Scott, and Judith Godreche and Jason Schwartzman) to consider breaking. There are some very funny sequences in what feels at times like a filmed play, and the acting is impeccable, but Brice doesn’t really want to upset anyone with transgressiveness, so in the end, despite the brandished (prosthetic) penises, it’s all tamer than it might have been.
The Stanford Prison Experiment (no distrib): Tim Talbott’s intelligent, gripping script won the festival screenwriting award for this powerful if grim retelling of the real-life psychology study that divided volunteer students into guards and prisoners in a pretend “prison,” and almost immediately had the participants pushed to a breaking point of violence and emotional punishment. It’s impossible to watch without thinking about Abu Ghraib and current issues involving police and civilians, which is presumably the point. The film, directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez, is somewhat dryly factual but intense, with a strong cast headed by Billy Crudup as the professor who discovers his own heart of darkness in the course of the study, Nelsan Ellis as an ex-convict who serves as a consultant, and Ezra Miller and Michael Angarano as two standouts among the students.
I Am Michael (no distrib): James Franco’s performances often seem to come encased in ironic quotation marks, but he gives a serious, substantive performance in this fascinating true-life story about a gay activist who over the course of a decade became a fundamentalist Christian pastor who renounced his homosexuality and counseled teens and other congregants that they would face everlasting hell if they gave in to their gay desires. First-time feature director Justin Kelly (who co-wrote the script with Stacey Miller) avoids caricaturing the character, and although the result is no more than a compelling docudrama, it effectively raises plenty of topics for debate.
The Bronze (Relativity): It was no surprise to see this sure-to-be-R-rated comedy bought for theatrical distribution, as it’s basically a cross between Bad Teacher and every Danny McBride movie ever. Big Bang Theory‘s Melissa Rauch (who co-wrote the script with her husband Winston) plays a one-time America’s Sweetheart who carried the US gymnastics team to a bronze medal in the movie’s equivalent of the Olympics with a gutsy routine performed on a broken ankle, but who 10 years later is a slovenly, foul-mouthed, narcissistic disaster who leeches off her postman father (Gary Cole). A plot contrivance forces her to coach her small town’s new, fresh-faced gymnastics medal contender, and darned if along the way the reluctant coach doesn’t become a Better Human Being, complete with a romance with the nice guy (Silicon Valley‘s Thomas Middlechurch) she’d belittled for years. There’s a money scene to remember when Rauch’s character has truly gymnastic sex with a rival coach (Sebastian Stan, surprisingly funny), and while Bryan Buckley’s direction doesn’t add much dimension, he knows how to set things up for his star. Only a few unnecessary late plot developments keep the movie from sticking its landing.
Results (Magnolia): One of the quiet heroines of the festival was Cobie Smulders, who took a step away from her sitcom/Marvel career to star in not one, but two micro-budgeted indies, and did smart, appealing jobs in both of them. Results marks the most “commercial” film of writer/director Andrew Bujalski’s career to date, but that word is in quotes because Bujalski, whose Funny Ha-Ha did as much to kick off the mumblecore movement as anything, is still far from a Hollywood craftsman. Still, this qualifies as a rom-com, with Smulders as a driven personal trainer pursued by two wildly contrasting men: her ambitious, fitness-conscious boss (Guy Pearce) and a very out-of-shape, accidentally rich client (Kevin Corrigan). Things eventually end up where you’d expect, but the cast is quite likable, and Bujalski’s cheerfully loose-limbed spin on a familiar genre gives it some fresh oxygen.
Mistress America (Fox Searchlight): Noah Baumbach’s latest comedy (co-written, like Frances Ha, with star Greta Gerwig), coasts on fizzy charm for a while. Gerwig plays another neo-Holly Golightly very similar to her character in Frances, and Lola Kirke (the star of Amazon’s Mozart In the Jungle) is the naïve college freshman and aspiring writer captivated by the woman who’s due to become her step-sister. Eventually, though, it all rather curdles, unfortunately just at the point where it’s supposed to be building to its comic peak. The film never really recovers from that, insubstantial as it is, and it’s a bit of a step backwards for Gerwig after the more adult drama of The Humbling.
The D Train (IFC): Something genuinely surprising happens in the course of The D Train, at least in the context of a more or less mainstream American comedy, and that’s certain to get the movie some notice. Apart from that plot development, which probably shouldn’t be spoiled, this is another humiliation comedy, in which Jack Black’s schlumpy Ordinary Guy seeks glory among his disdainful fellow high school reunion committee members by luring their coolest former classmate (James Marsden), who went to LA to become an actor, back home for the 20-year celebration. Considering that the cast also includes Jeffrey Tambor, Kathryn Hahn and Mike White, there should be more laughs here, and it all sort of peters out toward the end. Give the movie credit, though, for taking a step you won’t find in a Seth Rogen or Will Ferrell comedy anytime soon, even though it’s the subtext of plenty of their material.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl (Sony Classics): Marielle Heller’s film was much praised at the festival (it ended up winning an award for Brandon Trost’s cinematography), but it suffers from a certain feeling of familiarity. Based by Heller on a novel by Phoebe Gloeckner, it’s the story of 15-year old Minnie’s (Bel Powley) sexual awakening in 1970s San Francisco, at the hands of the boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgard) of her somewhat bohemian mother (Kristen Wiig). Minnie is an aspiring cartoonist of the R Crumb school, and like other movies at this year’s festival, this one mixes in some animation throughout the drama, although with less originality than the others featuring that gimmick. Powley is an impressively unconventional choice as the heroine, the film steps bravely into the world of teen sexuality (in real life, Powley is in her 20s), and there are some sharp and moving sequences, but overall Diary felt like an indie combination plate, with some Ghost World mixed with Low Down and other festival coming-of-age dramas.
I Smile Back (no distrib): Sarah Silverman has been toying with dramatic acting for the last several years, including supporting roles in Take This Waltz and last season’s Masters of Sex, and she goes full-on dark in Adam Salky’s adaptation of Amy Koppelman’s novel (screenwritten by Koppelman and Paige Dylan), playing a suburban housewife with bipolar disorder, a drug problem and daddy issues, among other things. Silverman is convincingly desperate (and, less surprisingly, cuttingly funny when the script allows her to be), and Josh Charles and Thomas Sadoski are both strong in support as her husband and lover, yet this is another Sundance feature that feels like many other festival dramas of the past, without any extra layers or insight that could make it stand apart.
Unexpected (no distrib): Cobie Smulders’ other festival title, directed by Kris Swanberg from a script co-written with Megan Mercier, has the unusual wrinkle of the actress playing a pregnant character in a film shot during her real-life pregnancy, which allows for a naturalism that movies featuring fake stomachs and other special effects can’t duplicate. The movie concentrates on the relationship that builds between an inner-city teacher (Smulders) and her promising student who’s also in the midst of an unplanned pregnancy (Gail Bean). Nothing particularly–well, unexpected happens, and physical condition aside, this is a less interesting role for Smulders than the one she plays in Results. The script does, however, deal in an admirably honest manner with the ways class and income play into the disparate experiences of the two women.
Lila & Eve (no distrib): It’s Death Wish meets… well, it wouldn’t be fair to name the other title that comes to mind when explaining the plot of Lila & Eve, since that would give away the not-so-difficult-to-guess Big Twist. The part of the story that can be told has Lila (Viola Davis, commanding as always) as the mother of a young man gunned down because he was in the wrong place as a drug-dealer was being shot. When the police (represented by Shea Whigham and–rather amusingly, given his history on The Wire–Andre Royo) pay little attention to solving the crime, Lila partners up with Eve (Jennifer Lopez), another mother of a murdered child, to track down, and ultimately eliminate, the perpetrators. Pat Gilfillan’s script is both unlikely and gimmicky, and neither the gritty direction by Charles Stone III nor Davis’s piercing performance can paper over all the holes in the storyline.
Knock Knock (Lionsgate): Eli Roth, creator of the Hostel franchise, delivers his version of a classy thriller. It’s actually a remake of a 1977 grindhouse item called Death Game, about a family man (Keanu Reeves) who invites two hot young women (Lorenza Izzo and Ana de Armas) into his home when they claim to be lost, on a weekend when his wife and kids are out of town. As the Michael D9uglas of Fatal Attraction could have told him, no good can come of this, and there’s some nasty fun in the ways the girls abuse Reeves, who never seems seriously at risk even when they’re torturing him. This is midnight movie genre stuff (which is how it was programmed at Sundance), and Roth (who co-wrote with Nicolas Lopez and Guillermo Amoedo) gets out of his depth when the invaders invoke statutory rape and pedophilia. It should please the audience that will be enticed enough to see it.
Zipper (Alchemy):Mora Stephens’ melodrama (co-written with Joel Viertel) is well-produced and extremely well-cast, but it doesn’t have much to say that we haven’t seen elsewhere and better on the subject of a rising politician who can’t restrain his own sexual excesses. What works here are the performances, notably Patrick Wilson as the charismatic but weak candidate, Lena Headey as his far from recessive wife, Richard Dreyfuss as a political advisor who’s seen it all, and Penelope Mitchell as one of the hookers Wilson’s character gets to know well.
A Walk In the Woods (Broad Green): Grumpy Old Hikers is unfortunately an all too accurate summary of this Robert Redford/Nick Nolte vehicle (based somewhat loosely on Bill Bryson’s autobiographical book, and directed by TV vet Ken Kwapis from a script by Bill Holderman and Rick Kerb). Redford is the aging travel writer who decides to walk the Appalachian Trail–the real Bryson was in his 40s at the time; Redford is an admittedly well-preserved 78– with an old buddy who’s in even worse shape. This certainly isn’t to be compared to Tracks or Wild among recent hiking movies–it’s an insult to sitcoms to say that the comedy is sitcom level–and although fine performers like Emma Thompson, Nick Offerman and Kristen Schaal turn up along the way, none of the writing is worthy of them, and the film doesn’t even deliver much visually beyond tourist-level landscapes.
Don Verdean (Lionsgate): With the somewhat freakish exception of Napoleon Dynamite, filmmaker Jared Hess’s eccentric sense of humor is an acquired taste, and one I frankly haven’t acquired. This latest oddball spree, co-written with Hess’s wife Jerusha, revolves around the titular biblical archeologist (eternal festival fave Sam Rockwell) who may or may not be a fake, his Israeli colleague (Jemaine Clement) who certainly is one, and Don’s worshipful assistant (Amy Ryan). Let’s just say this: any comedy where Danny McBride (as the preacher who hires Don) is the most restrained figure on screen is definitely not going for “subtle.” Will Forte does liven things up as McBride’s nemesis, a former devil worshipper who’s turned to the Lord.
Chorus (no distrib): A deep dive into grief. This black and white, subtitled French Canadian dirge from writer-director Francois Delisle is a bit like what The Missing might have been without a mystery plot, as a couple (Sebastien Ricard, Fanny Mallette) who split up a decade ago after their 8-year old son went missing have to see each other again after a convict confesses to having raped and murdered the boy. It’s all misery, all the time, without even any catharsis, because the confessed killer is himself dead before the main action of the movie begins. And “dirge” is literally the right word, considering that the wife’s one hobby is sensing with a church choir that only performs medieval hymns. Well-acted, but the festival volunteers should have confiscated all belts and sharp objects before seating the audience. Don’t hold your breath waiting for this one to turn up at a theater near you.
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