Sundance Film Festival report: "Don Jon's Addiction," "May in the Summer," "Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer," and more

Sightseeers. Image courtesy IFC Films.

PARK CITY, UTAH—It did not take long to get back into the complete insanity of the opening day at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. Running into old friends, finding out where I’d be staying, checking in with publicists, requesting tickets, and loading up on catalogs, magazines, press kits, and water, I was in full force after a mere few hours on the ground.

It never gets easy to deal with all the issues one does when walking into press headquarters and getting your bearings. Where do I go next? Was I supposed to meet someone here or there? These questions are constantly on my mind, but the conclusion that I have now come to is that nobody else is on your schedule and it will stay that way until the end of time—or at least until the end of Sundance.

A few hours later, it was time to buckle up, get comfortable, and prepare for the long haul of seven full days of movie-watching, party-going, sleeping, walking, bus-riding, and more movie-watching until my eyes, head, brain, and body could take no more. 

The festival opened with four films (two documentaries and two narratives) and a shorts program for opening night; it was somewhat of a no-brainer that I first chose to see writer/director/star Cherien Dabis’s follow-up to her wonderfully enchanting AmreekaMay in the Summer. Playing the title character May, Dabis returns home to Jordan to visit her sisters and parents who have been divorced for eight years, right before she is about to be wed to a Muslim, a marriage of which her mother (a terrific Hiam Abbass) disapproves. A successful author back in New York, May is going through a crisis regarding whether or not she is ready for marriage as she deals with family issues her entire trip. Despite some nice acting from the entire cast, especially from Abbass, May in the Summer never really takes off to separate itself from the usual family dramedies. While the characters all have similar problems and quirks, good or bad, the biggest disappointment of May in the Summer was that golden opportunities were missed to explore a story few have seen before. Instead, it settles for being a standard dramedy. Grade: C (There is currently no U.S. distribution for May in the Summer.)

A story few know about perhaps outside of the music industry was given the full center stage treatment in the thoroughly entertaining documentary Twenty Feet From Stardom, about a group of back-up singers and their journeys to fame or recognition. Director Morgan Neville sits down with heavyweight musicians—Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Mick Jagger, and Sting, to name a few—but the real stars of the film are names like Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer, Merry Clayton, Judith Hill, and a dozen others.  Everyone featured in the film has remarkable stories about how they were discovered or who they have sang with, but hearing their vocals and learning where you have heard their voices before are some of the surprises we are treated to from start to finish. Whether it is Love singing “He’s a Rebel” for “wall of sound” producer Phil Spector in the early 60s, Clayton singing back-up on the Rolling Stones classic anthem “Gimme Shelter,” or Hill’s rendition of Michael Jackson’s, “Heal the World,” Twenty Feet From Stardom showcases some of the most talented singers working today. Although they might not be household names, some are poised to become legends in their own right.  Grade: B+ (Twenty Feet From Stardom was picked up by the Weinstein Company’s distributor arm, Radius, and will be released in summer 2013.)

Minnesota screenwriter Michael Starrbury’s script, The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete, caught the eye of Hollywood director George Tillman Jr. a few years ago, and the film was selected to screen in the prestigious Premieres section of the festival. (A Daily Planet interview with Starrbury is forthcoming.) Right away there are a few Minnesota references in the film, which I won’t spoil, but the film strikes a chord immediately—then, ultimately, turns into a much longer film then it needs to be.

We are introduced to young Mister (an extraordinary Skylan Brooks), who might have to repeat the eighth grade again and is dealing with his drug addict mother (Jennifer Hudson, in a bare-bones performance), who encourages him to hang with younger Pete (Ethan Dizon), whose mother is also an addict and prostitute. All Mister wants to do over the summer is to try out for a TV show, hoping to land in Hollywood and turn his life around.  When Mister’s mom is arrested, Mister and Pete must avoid the police and social services in order to stay at their dilapidated apartment and try to survive the heat and the fuzz while waiting for Mister’s mom to return. The film includes too many subplots, too many characters with little to do, and a series of vignettes stories that cause the film to coast along as Mister jumps from one bad situation to another one. The performance from Brooks is one of the standouts in the festival, especially one scene in particular where he is describing the Coen Brothers film Fargo to Pete; it almost left me in tears of laughter.  Grade: B- (There is currently no U.S. distribution for The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete.)

Having shown us different aspects of American life in his delicate storytelling in his previous features, Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter, director/writer Jeff Nichols returns with a similar structure in his latest feature, Mud, uniting families and driving them apart. When young Ellis and Neckbone go into the woods in their small Arkansas town, they make a discovery that will change their lives forever: a boat caught up in a tree with a fugitive hiding out. The fugitive named Mud, played by a charismatic Matthew McCoughney, has come back to reunite with his first love Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), who is being followed by bounty hunters and needs the boys’ help to find Juniper and to get the boat up and running for his getaway. Nichols’s story has some thrilling and unexpected moments throughout; the biggest crime of the film is that it runs about 20 minutes too long and finally arrives at an ending that could have been tighter. McCoughney, who has turned in some great performances over the past year (Killer Joe, Magic Mike, and Bernie) really shines again as a man searching for purpose and salvation. Another star of the film is cinematographer Adam Stone, who brings an exceptional eye of detail to the Deep South, casting it in deep auburns and dark hues, really helping the scenery pop. Grade: B (Mud will be released by Roadside Attractions/Lionsgate in late April.)

What had to be one of the quickest films ever made is also one of the most dynamic: the music/criminal-justice documentary Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer. Three women, Nadia, Masha, and Katia—also known as the feminist art collective Pussy Riot—performed inside Russia’s main church cathedral, only to face seven years in Russian prison. It was not even a year ago that the performance took place (February 21, 2012), and now, 11 months later, their story continues to fascinate and discourage many of their fans and followers around the world: they were only trying to speak out against the reelection of Vladimir Putin through public performance art.

The main focus of the documentary is coverage from their arrests and their trial; co-directors Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin delve deep into the trial with interviews from not only the members, sitting behind a glass window cage in the court house, to their parents (Nadia’s father helped with some of their lyrics), to personal stories about the back history of the Pussy Riot members including religion, politics, art, and how the group came together. Throughout the film, Twitter updates are used to give specific dates, times, and places—the first time I've seen that technique in a documentary, it's used to great effect. Only when they are told for the first time that Madonna, who performed in Russia while they were in jail, dedicated her performance of “Like A Virgin” to them, wearing a balaclava and taking her shirt off with the words “Pussy Riot” written on her back, did the members all understand that their act was going global. Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer is a rock doc that goes deeper than the music and becomes an important history lesson about civil rights and freedom of speech. Grade: A- (Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer was picked up by HBO Films, and no release date has been set.)

Some were dubbing Sundance as “Sexdance” and “Porndance” this year, due to the all the sexually explicit content in this year’s program. One of those films grouped in that category was actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s highly entertaining and, yes, sexually explicit writer/directional debut: Don Jon’s Addiction. Taking on the lead role, JGL’s Don is a jersey man who prefers masturbation to sex and has a serious porn addiction—that is, until he meets Barbara (Scarlett Johansson) clubbing one night. The two begin to date and Don’s life begins to turn around, although he lies to Barbara and says he has stopped for good. Even when he attends church with his parents (Glenn Headley and his former Angels in the Outfield co-star, Tony Danza, in a vulgar and scene-stealing role), his confessions to the priest explain everything in full detail, and his friends begin to wonder what is going on with him  It isn’t until he meets an older woman (Julianne Moore) that Don begins to fully realize how to love a woman and how sex can be about more than just physical pleasure. The film has a cartoonish and sitcom-like feel at times, and if it's not cut from the Sundance version, it could receive an NC-17 rating; Don Jon’s Addiction nevertheless proves Gordon-Levitt to be a capable writer/director. His standout performance, along with those of Danza and Moore, makes for a charming, funny, and, most unexpectedly, complex romantic comedy. Grade: B+ (Don Jon’s Addiction was picked up by Relatively Media and has no release date set.)

After last year’s surprising moving comedy, Your Sister’s Sister, writer/director Lynn Shelton’s Touchy Feely features wonderful performances by Rosemarie DeWitt, Allison Janney, and a breakthrough performance by character actor, Josh Pais—all entangled in finding happiness and love. Dewitt plays a massage therapist, Abby, who is on the verge of moving in with her boyfriend until she suddenly can no longer touch anyone or anything that has skin, which becomes a problem for both her professional and romantic life. Her dentist brother Paul (Pais), an awkward man to say the least, has been struggling with his practice until he fixes a former singer’s jaw; his business takes off and he becomes a savior to the jaw-ailment community.

Not knowing what to do next, Abby seeks help in the form of another healer, Bronwyn (played by Janney), who asks to see her brother to help him out with his awkwardness. When Paul and Bronwyn meet, sparks fly as Abby looks for answers about her own personal struggle with her practice and her life. Shelton delivers another smart relationship dramedy where her characters are unpredictable, funny, and flawed (and in one part, seem to come out of nowhere without much explanation of where they have been for two-thirds of the film); working again with cinematographer Ben Kasulke, who provides an elegant vision of Shelton’s hometown Seattle, Touchy Feely once again proves that Shelton is a one of the most exciting directors working outside of the studio system today. Grade: B (There is currently no U.S. distribution for Touchy Feely.)

Based on a true story, John Krokidas’s feature debut, Kill Your Darlings, takes another look into the lives of members of the Beat Generation and how they were involved in a murder back in 1944. Shedding his Harry Potter character, Daniel Radcliffe, in a solid performance, plays Allen Ginsberg, who has just been accepted to Columbia University, where Allen becomes intrigued by another student, Lucien Carr (a seductive and scary Dane Dehaan), as they begin to work together with other writers including William Burroughs (a reserved Ben Foster) and Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston). When it becomes clear that Ginsberg has started to fall under the spell of Carr, we meet the much-older professional David Krammerer (played by Michael C. Hall), who has been lusting after Carr for years, which then turns the story into a half-baked murder mystery. Krokidas’s script is hit-or-miss and some performances feel more like caricatures than others (Dehaan’s performance is fantastic), but the essence of a great story gets lost in the last half since we know the ending before it happens and the finale is somewhat muddled, turning Kill Your Darlings into another run-of-the-mill lover’s quandary. Grade: C+ (Kill Your Darlings was picked up by Sony Pictures Classics, although no release date has been determined yet.)

One of the few films to have distribution before Sundance started is British director Ben Wheatley’s razor-sharp dark comedy, Sightseers. It improves over his two previous films Down Terrace and Kill List, and I have a feeling we still haven’t seen the best film to come from the talented Wheatley. Going away on holiday for a week, new couple Chris and Tina (Steve Oram and Alice Lowe, also the screenwriters) are getting ready to hit the road when disaster strikes around every corner. Tina’s mum still blames her for the death of their dog, Banjo, a hilarious motif throughout the film; from the moment the beginning credits start to run with Soft Cell’s classic “Tainted Love,” you know trouble is not far behind.

Whether it is litterbugs, noisy neighbors, or a bride about to marry, the couple's adventure turns into a Bonnie and Clyde nightmare of accidental and intentional deaths, visits to the Cumberland Pencil Museum, and short-tempered pub stops. Sightseers dares us to laugh with and at Tina and Chris’s hijinks, and at times we don’t know if we should be shocked or laughing; either way, it completely hits the target and contains one of the best endings I’ve seen in ages. Grade: A (Sightseers will be released by IFC Films in mid-May.)

After shooting studio films (Your Highness and The Sitter) and working on HBO’s Eastbound and Down, writer/director David Gordon Green presents his newest film Prince Avalanche, a remake of the 2011 Icelandic film Either Way. I haven't seen the original, but Green's version is an genuine treat.

The film stars Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch as Alvin and Lance, two roadside workers drifting a summer away in 1988, working in areas devastated by a forest fire. Alvin is dating Lance’s sister and the two are at odds with one another, as Lance is still a bit immature, while Alvin is focused and serious about saving money to give to his girlfriend. When Lance goes into town for the weekend and returns with some bad personal news, the film shifts into a different character study where both actors excel in rare dramatic turns. Prince Avalanche also reteams Green with cinematographer Tim Orr, who gave shape to Green's early features like George Washington and All the Real Girls. Orr creates an incredible vision of the state of mind both characters are reeling in and opens up new avenues for both Hirsch and Rudd in their unique performances. Composer David Wingo and rockers Explosions in the Sky create haunting sounds and wave patterns throughout Prince Avalanche, adding emotional depth to characters we probably know and are looking for ways to solve their problems, heightening every inch of their surroundings and leaving them and us yearning for more. Grade: A- (Prince Avalanche was picked up by Magnolia Pictures, which will release the film in the summer of 2013.)

There comes a time during the festival every year, where you should leave a film early and you don’t. In this case, I should have walked out of writer/director Eliza Hittman’s feature debut, It Felt Like Love, after about 15 minutes—but I made it all the way through the painstaking 80 minutes. As young fourteen-year-old Lila (Gina Piersanti) admires her friend Chiara’s love life, Lila would like a boyfriend of her own. In an attempt to find a boyfriend along with Chiara, Lila seeks out older Sammy who works at a billiards hall and almost begins stalking him at every turn. She does get invited to parties with Sammy; whether he's interested or not Lila doesn’t know, although she goes to great length to find a connection.  Hittman’s film never changes its tone and many scenes drag on and on as we witness Lila’s infatuation grow; the narrative never seems to take off. It Felt Like Love may show a different side of pursuing a relationship, especially from a teenage girl's point of view, but even toward the end, scenes ring false, characters act out of character, and it tells us nothing new about awkward teenage relationships. Grade: D (There is currently no U.S. distribution for It Felt Like Love.)

One of the most buzzed about films in the festival may never see the light of day outside of Sundance due to the fact it was secretly shot inside Disney World, Disneyland, and EPCOT Center without permission. Writer/director Randy Moore’s surrealist fantasy, Escape From Tomorrow, is Moore’s take on the family vacation: daring, horrific, and somewhat messy.  Shot in black and white, using Disney’s trademark “D” in the opening credits, and a delightful musical score by Abel Korzeniowski, the vacation starts out like gangbusters until father Jim White (a very game Roy Abramsohn) gets a phone call saying that he has been fired; he doesn’t want to break the news to his family on the last day of their vacation. Instead, Jim, his wife and two children retreat into the park and Jim begins to see two young French girls wandering around the park; he becomes increasingly fascinated by them.

As Jim follows them around, his mind begins to slip and he begins to drink—a lot. Soon, we are unsure if he is living in reality or fantasy. Some visions have hilarious effect, others are sheer evil. His son develops huge black eyes, cheery animatronic dolls grow demonic faces, an older woman turns out to be in her own Disney fantasy, and at one point, the entire EPCOT Center blows up.

Escape From Tomorrow is a crazy enough gimmick that mostly works in its overlong 100 minutes. It's a sly satire on the family vacation, featuring many laugh-out-loud moments, including an “Intermission” title card, roughly 70 minutes into the feature; the fact the film got made is a reward in itself and hopefully it will come to a theater near you sometime in the not-too-distant future. Grade: B+ (Escape From Tomorrow may never find distribution or a commercial audience, unless some distributor wants to deal with Disney.) 

In my next Sundance article, I’ll feature films including Richard Linklater’s romantic drama Before Midnight, Matt Porterfield’s music drama I Used to Be Darker, Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s David Sedaris adaptation C.O.G., and David Lowery’s 1970s Texas drama Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.

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    Jim Brunzell III's picture
    Jim Brunzell III

    Jim Brunzell III (djguamwins [at] yahoo [dot] com) was born in the 70's, went to school in the 80's, played sports in the 90's, and has been writing on film for the Daily Planet since 2007.  He is also the Festival Director and programmer for the Sound Unseen Music/Film/Art festival in the Twin Cities, lead programmer for the Flyway Film Festival in Pepin and Stockholm WI, the creator of "The Defenders" series at the Trylon microcinema and has been working on a novel since finishing college.  You can follow Jim on Twitter at (@JimBrunzell_3).