SUNDANCE 2015 - 16 Films
DAY One - 4 films
BOB AND THE TREES
A very solid family drama about a logger in rural Massachusetts struggling to make a living when circumstances turn against him. Considering the main cast is made up entirely of non-actors, the movie holds together surprisingly well. The movie gets a little rough whenever it delves into Bob's darker impulses. It really shines when focusing on Bob's rap-laden frustrations and his stubborn will to survive in a dying industry. Cinematographer Chris Teague does a spectacular job with the snowy landscapes, finding so much beauty amongst the oily chainsaws and trucks.
Yikes, this movie did not work for me at all. This movie stars the always charming Guy Pearce and Colbie Smuthers as passionate fitness instructors. There was such potential for good comedy, but I felt like the main characters were very badly sketched. I could never figure out their motivations and each new decision just seemed to come out of the blue and have nothing to do with the already established character. It also felt very choppy in the editing, which kept pulling me right out of the jokes. I didn't care for Andrew Bujalski's last movie, COMPUTER CHESS, which many loved, so maybe I'm just not on his wavelength.
Michael Fassbender as a badass cowboy crossing the Old West. Come on, what more do you need?! I have a soft spot for Westerns, but still, this was just a hoot. If I had to be a stickler, there was a strange vein of very dark humor that ran through the film. This worked for the most part, except for right in the finale, when a note of absurdist humor had the audience laughing right when we were supposed to be moved. That being said, I loved the theme of family that ran through the film; that with so many orphans in that world, families can be formed/expanded instantly when the situation demands it. Without a doubt, this will be the most beautifully shot movie of the festival. New Zealand doesn't look a whole lot like the Old West, but wow, every shot looked like a lush green painting. One especially evocative shot had an amber wheat field posed against a brilliant blue sky, with bad guys popping up out of the wheat like Whack-a-moles. Strongly recommended.
Z FOR ZACHARIAH
I really wanted to like this more than I did. Chiwetel, Chris Pine, Margot Robbie, in a post-apocalyptic adventure. That screams 'Trevor'! Unfortunately, this is a very slow love triangle that starts out interesting but dissolves into the too familiar. Chiwetel and Robbie are fantastic here, with very nuanced work, but not too much ever happens and the movie feels much longer than it is. That being said, I really liked the honest portrayal of ingrained faith and the New Zealand views are spectacular. There is one stunningly gorgeous shot of Robbie late in the film when she is pushing a jar across a table while white dandelions float in through a window and swirl around her. That shot took my breath away.
DAY Two - 4 films
THE D TRAIN
A decent comedy about a twentieth high school reunion, the film stars Jack Black as the dorky alumni rep and an excellent James Marsden as the coolest kid from high school. It's a funny movie, even if Black's desperation gets quite sad. I won't dare be spoiler-y, but there is a mid-movie twist that changes the whole direction of the film. It's a big bold moment that I never would expected from such a broad comedy. Even though the film doesn't quite know what to do with its new direction and kind of botches the landing, I have to give the filmmakers credit for going there and taking that twist at least semi-seriously. I would love to see more movies take a chance like this. Oh and thanks Marsden, I can never look at lawn chairs the same way ever again. Could I BE more vague?!
Well screw those damning critic reviews, I quite enjoyed this movie. It stars Melissa Rauch (Bernadette from 'The Big Bang Theory') as a mean and spoiled gymnast past her prime and still living off her past glory days. There isn't too much here, it's nasty and vulgar, in fact, I think the ending is nearly ruined by a mean-spirited moment. But it is damn funny hearing all those horrid things emerge from Bernadette's mouth. In the positive column, we have enough male anti-heroes out there, I always like to see a female character pushing the likability factor with audiences. Plus, this movie has one of the funniest sex scenes ever filmed, and Rauch's description of the filming of said scene in the Q&A was uproarious.
Woah, okay, I hate to advise people to steer clear of independent films, but really, no parent should ever see this movie! It's about a girl who was kidnapped at age 4 finally returning to her birth parents in her mid-20s. The first half, quietly chronicling the girl's small steps towards recovery, is very well done, and Saoirse Roman (so good way back in ATONEMENT) is excellent. But then there is a sharp turn in the second half that gets exceedingly creepy and unbelievable. And the dawning realization you get in the film's final moments is so very horrifying, well, it's not something I am going to easily shake off. Despite a dynamite first half, I just can't recommend this.
Some of my favorite screening experiences at Sundance have been for horror movies. Midnight showings especially can be such a shared viewing bond, it's just thrilling, and the screening for IT FOLLOWS was just like that. As a whole, the audience was screaming together, then laughing at how scared we just got. Also, this is one excellent horror movie. Very minimalist, it looked like a million bucks but was probably made for a tenth of that. It shows how easy it is to scare people with a simple premise, creative visuals, and a terrifying soundtrack. It comes off as a loving homage to the original HALLOWEEN. And like the best horror movies, there is potent metaphor to be explored; from commentary on one night stands to the idea that the fall of Detroit has infected the city's society. And keep an eye out for Maika Monroe, she is going places. For anyone who likes to scare themselves silly, see this one, very highly recommended.
DAY Three - 5 films
STRANGERLAND has Nicole Kidman and Joseph Fiennes searching for their lost children in the Australian outback. Honestly, this one just fell apart. It seemed like the director wanted to explore so many possible directions for the film that they failed to successfully commit to any one choice. At times it becomes a police procedural, at others a spiritual quest, at others a purely emotional journey. This felt very fractured and unfulfilling. The ending was so frustrating that the audience verbally disapproved as the end credits rolled. Kidman puts in good work, but especially by the end, you could feel her 'Acting' with a capital 'A'. The Australian outback looks amazing and the dust-storm scene is a thing of beauty. Very frustrating to see an interesting story told so poorly.
THE OVERNIGHT is just a blast of fun, a film starring Adam Scott, Taylor Schilling, and Jason Schwartzman, about two couples on a very strange dinner date. A word of warning, this movie is extremely raunchy, but it's hilarious and has a very sweet heart. Not only is it a great comedy, but it touches on a lot of interesting topics. It addresses the changing sexual needs of couples deep into a marriage and how important it is to keep lines of communication open, even if honesty may hurt one's partner. Scott and Schwartzman in particular really go the distance here and it was just a delight to have such a funny movie break up the day.
THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL
THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL is about a 15-year old girl in 1970s San Francisco learning about her sexuality while sleeping with her mothers boyfriend. It was a little hard for me to get onboard with the idea of a such a young girl sleeping with an older man, but the narrative really charms you into the story by approaching this controversy openly with emotional honesty. But let's be clear, this is Bel Powley's movie and she is spectacular. She plays the teenage girl of the title and she is a revelation; warm and charming, vulnerable and witty, passionate and fearless. With the zero experience I have of womanhood, I have heard that this is the closest any movie has ever come to depicting the emotional turmoil that hits females as they begin to transform from girls into women. Wiig is good in a small part and Skarsgard really commits to a tricky part. The film exudes the 70s, as if it were actually shot then and the visuals are often graced with cartoon drawings overlays that compliment the film's whimsy and insight.
MISSISSIPPI GRIND is my kind of film, a shaggy dog hang-out film that captures place and time almost as if it were a documentary. A vulnerable Ryan Reynolds and a fantastic Ben Mendelsohn play two gamblers making their way down to a big tournament in New Orleans. There are multiple endings that dilute the power of the last 20 minutes, but as they say, the journey is the destination and the true joys of the film lie in the easy boozy interplay between the leads as they gamble their way South. The movie is soaked in Southern dives: it feels like if you could wring out the film like a wet towel, a fine bourbon would dribble down into your glass. At this point, writer/directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck are so assured in their style and dialogue, so in love with place and speech, it is a pleasure to see any new work they create. This movie is excellent.
SLEEPING WITH OTHER PEOPLE
SLEEPING WITH OTHER PEOPLE is pretty slight, more like a raunchier big studio rom-com, but it is still very funny and sweet. It's almost exactly an updated version of WHEN HARRY MET SALLY, just this time with Jason Sudeikis and Alison Brie, and much more filthy. Everything is very slick, smooth, and entertaining, and the leads really do have good chemistry. Hell at this point, I would pay to see Brie read the phone book, she is always excellent. The problem I sometimes have with these types of rom-coms is that I fall for the wrong couple. Late in the film, a certain couple breaks up to pave the way for the predictable ending coupling and damn if I didn't prefer the pairing that broke up. That being said, I loved the in-jokes for Columbia alumni, especially the disrepair of Wein Hall and the couch that used to reside on the roof of Shapiro. Brings me back!
DAY Four - 3 films
THE STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT
Wow, this is excellent. The film reenacts the famous social experiment conducted at Stanford in the 70s. Volunteer students were assigned as either 'prisoners' or 'guards' in a campus prison for 2 weeks. Things went wrong very quickly. Social behavior dramas really work well at Sundance. Fantastic films like THE WAVE and COMPLIANCE explore similar topics about power and most of humanity's sheep-like tendency to just follow. It is so shocking to see what normal people can turn into when given a little power or a new title. The prison scenes are harrowing and difficult to watch at times. The only problem is that the film seems to vilify the professor in charge of the experiment (well-played by Billy Crudup), but the. A closing bit of screen text claims he was a visionary. It was a confusing flip-flop of opinion. Despite that small flaw, this is a powerful movie that looks into some of the stranger corners of the human psyche. Also, I don't want to spoil it, but the film has one particular moment that is one of the best uses of onscreen text that I have seen in awhile.
THE WITCH might best be described as a historical horror movie about the titular being terrorizing a Puritan family in the 1600s. The time period is beautifully evoked and I especially liked how much of the film hints at the witch trials yet to come in American history. Religion plays a fascinatingly large role in the plot and leads to some dark questions about belief and piety. Yes, this a dark, dank, and terrifying film that really holds nothing back. If that kind of thing is up your alley, you will find this to be an excellent exploration of the American past seen through the prism of horror.
ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL
A fantastically funny and moving film about teenagers living through senior year of high school, won both the Grand Jury and Audience Awards this year. It is clear why this was so beloved at Sundance; so much of the film is about the transformative healing power of film. The lead characters make silly and terrible parody films with titles like 'A Sockwork Orange' and 'Senior Citizen Kane', but everything is so charming and witty, it all works. And wow, the finale just knocked me on my butt. The scene gently reminded me of a personal moment in my own life and once I made that connection, I was gone. My tear ducts were off to the races! There is also one line near the end about family and about loss that I don't think I'll ever forget. A really lovely film, well shot, brilliantly written and performed, highly recommended.