Sundance Film Festival report, part 2: "Ain't Them Bodies Saints," "C.O.G.," "The Spectacular Now," and more

Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller in The Spectacular Now.

PARK CITY, UTAH—My opening weekend at Sundance was an enjoyable ride of discovering new faces, ideas, proclamations, and stories. I was geared up more than ever and there was plenty on my plate. Yes, the four-to-five-hour sleep schedule and the constant stomach growling were pushing the limits of my body and mind, but some of the most anticipated films of the festival were coming up and there was nothing holding me back. Well, I could have been shut out of a screening…but thankfully, I got tickets to everything I needed and wanted to see.

The 8:30 a.m. screenings are definitely not my favorites; they’re not ideal for most audiences or filmmakers, but the new Richard Linklater romantic drama Before Midnight proved to be the eye-opener I needed to make the wait to get into the MARC theater worthwhile. The third film directed by Linklater in the “Before” series, once again starring Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke as Celine and Jesse, with all three again getting screenplay credit, might be the best in the trilogy.

This time around it’s nine years after Before Sunset, Celine and Jesse are living in Greece as a couple and are spending the final days of summer at a friend’s house for a mini-vacation. Much like the two previous entries, many of the scenes are set up around long concentrated and marvelous dialogue with friends, telling their life stories to the group—mostly about past loves—and looking forward to the future. At first Jesse and Celine’s story is no different than anyone else’s, sitting around for a beautiful and lavish lunch. When one of the couples offer Celine and Jesse a romantic getaway for the evening at a resort hotel, they’re unsure if they want to even go, they decide it might be a perfect way to end their vacation. 

Once they arrive at the hotel, things start to go awry and we’re in the middle of perhaps the end of their relationship, which started on the train 18 years earlier in Before Sunrise. The on-screen chemistry between Hawke and Delpy is dynamic, funny, tender, and tragic; it’s one of the best on-screen relationships ever shown in any American independent film. Both actors convey a sense of wiliness to open up, unlike in either of the other two previous films, as both characters have matured and shifted into grown-ups and parents. At times, you’re laughing with them and other times you’re scared out of your mind for what they will say next to one another. Words become weapons, touching becomes toxic, and the danger in each of their eyes is completely convincing; the complexity of their marriage is frightening yet feels very natural and authentic in the capable hands of Linklater, Delpy, and Hawke. With a picturesque setting in Greece, Before Midnight is a gorgeously detailed and suffocating story unsure on how love really functions.  Grade: A- (Before Midnight was picked up by Sony Picture Classics, although no release date has been determined yet.)

26-year-old writer/director Ryan Coogler was one of the breakout stars of the festival, winning both the U.S. Dramatic Competition and Audience Award for his remarkable debut Fruitvale, based on true events that took place in the Oakland Bay area in 2009. The film is based on the New Year’s Day shooting of 22-year-old father Oscar Grant (extraordinarily played by last year’s Chronicle star, Michael B. Jordan), which was captured on cell phones by people riding the train—showing Grant being roughed up and then ultimately shot by a BART officer at the Fruitvale subway station.

Within the first few minutes of the film, we’re shown the coverage of the shooting and then brought back to the beginning of New Year’s Eve day, where we see Oscar getting ready for the day with his girlfriend Sophina (an always terrific screen presence, Melonie Diaz) and dropping off his adorable daughter off at school. It’s revealed in flashbacks that Oscar was also in prison for a short stint where his mother (Oscar winner Octavia Spencer) refused to come to visit him; he made one enemy in particular there, and he is now a man trying to get his life back on track. Things seem to be working out in his favor when Oscar, Sophina, and friends decide to spend New Year Eve’s in Oakland. Rather than driving, they took the train at the suggestion of Oscar’s mother.

Coogler’s dramatic set-up works brilliantly for a good 75 minutes, until the pivotal scene where the violence occurs, after which Fruitvale falls into a somewhat unbelievably coincidental sequence that took me right out of the film. Coogler’s script is heartbreaking and genuine throughout most of the film; however, taking a true story and dramatizing it into a narrative can be tricky. Yes, sometimes suspension of disbelief does need to happen in order to keep the story moving forward and for dramatic purposes, but in fact, this sequence left me in a stunned silence thinking, really, is this how Oscar was recognized on the train, which led to his untimely death? This is a minor flaw in a very well-made feature; the performances from Jordan, Diaz and Spencer are all impressive in this gripping story and there is no doubt that Coogler is new voice in American independent film that many will be looking forward to hearing from for years to come. Grade: B+ (Fruitvale was picked up by the Weinstein Company, although no release date has been set yet.)

I wished I could have my brain and memory swept up after seeing the ridiculously pretentious and mind-numbing The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman, which could very well be in the running for the worst film I’ve ever seen at Sundance. It boasts a decent cast: Shia LeBeouf, Evan Rachel Wood, Mads Mikkelsen, Melissa Leo, and John Hurt serving as the unnecessary narrator for this hodgepodge of action/adventure/suspense tale.

Charlie (LeBeouf) leaves Chicago after the death of his mother (Leo), whose spirit of some sort tells Charlie to go to Bucharest, Romania, without a plan. (If only it were that easy for everyone.) When a Romanian gentleman on the plane dies next to Charlie after telling him about his daughter and what he knows, Charlie must tell the man’s daughter Gabi (Wood). A minute later on the street, in a foreign country no less, Charlie randomly see Gabi in her car and tells her to move aside into the passenger seat, so he can drive. What?

What becomes apparent soon after is that Charlie has already fallen for Gabi. She is married to a local mobster Nigel (Mikkelsen), but Charlie doesn’t care and still chases after Gabi, while Nigel has his sights on taking Charlie out of the picture.

The approach of first-time feature director Fredrik Bond is heavily stylish and features some stunning visuals; I’m sure his next film will be better. He does his best to punch the story up, but little else excites as Matt Drake’s screenplay is bloated and overblown with plot holes, no credibility, a complete waste of Hurt’s time as the unnecessary narrator, and a haphazard incoherent story unfolding slower than molasses. It is amazing the film even got made. Grade: F (The Necessary Death of Charlie Country currently has no U.S. distribution, a fact for which we can be thankful.) 

After their exceptional collaboration in the 2011 film (released only last year) Sound of My Voice, director/co-writer Zal Batmanglij and co-writer/star Brit Marling team up again in the suspenseful espionage thriller The East. When ex-FBI agent Sarah Moss (Marling) is hired by a private intelligence group (led by Patricia Clarkson) about going undercover to infiltrate an eco-collective underground group called “the East,” Sarah must find out if they are responsible for seizing products from corporate CEO’s and turning their harmful product against them. When Sarah finally becomes part of the group, after some startling revelations, she starts getting closer to the members of the group including Ellen Page (Juno), Alexander Skarsgard (HBO’s True Blood), and scene-stealer, Toby Kebbell (The Conspirator) playing the group’s “doctor.” Sarah must decide whether or not to go through with their plans—or “jams” as they are called—or if she needs to tell her superiors and her little-seen boyfriend what is going on.

The East is riveting for its entire first hour. Even if it loses some steam in its second half as the story starts sliding off the tracks with too many subplots, The East is still an entertaining suspense yarn, almost reminiscent of classic 1970’s paranoia thrillers (The Parallax View, 3 Days of the Condor, etc), thanks in large part to a smart script and great acting. Working as a contemporary cautionary tale of corporate big businesses selling consumers prescription drugs and products, which have yet to be certified or downright work, Marling and Batmanglij’s approach to the material is at times complicated but never forced and their willingness to push the envelope toward a satisfying ending makes The East a thrilling adventure.  Grade: B (Fox Searchlight will be releasing The East later in 2013.) 

One of the more curious titles at Sundance was C.O.G., the first David Sedaris essay/story to be adapted into a feature-length film. Writer/director/editor Kyle Patrick Alvarez, in his sophomore effort (Easier With Practice), takes the reins. C.O.G. (“Child of God”), follows David (Jonathan Groff) as he travels from New York to Oregon to spend the summer with his best friend Jennifer as they both decide to work on an apple farm. When she bails on him, David (changing his identity to Samuel now) stays on at the apple farm and begins to blend into working full time there. He meets a strange assortment of characters including folk-lift operator Curly (Corey Stoll), owner of the Apple farm Dobbs (Dean Stockwell), a local townie handing out C.O.G. fliers, and local clock maker Jon (brilliantly played by Denis O’Hare).

C.O.G. is based on a short story that runs right around 50 pages, so one might wonder how long can the film actually be and how much of the story makes it into the film. The film runs just over 90 minutes, and at times, it feels even longer with some scenes landing with a thud or playing very. However, most of Alvarez’s dialogue feels very fresh, outrageous, and quick-witted with many scenes playing to huge laughs and awkward moments, as only Sedaris’s stories can make you feel—especially when Curly has a surprise for “Samuel” and the moment we understand Jon’s true intentions with “Samuel.” Groff, standing in as the Sedaris surrogate, plays the part splendidly and has enough screen presence and comedic timing to pull off most of his scenes of being a loner and looking for friendship in a foreign place to him despite his flaws. Grade: B- (C.O.G. currently has no U.S. distribution.)

I Used to Be Darker, the third feature from Baltimore-based filmmaker Matthew Porterfield (Hamilton, Putty Hill) could very well be his most personal film to date and, in fact, his best. Working again with mostly non-professional actors, and shooting in a cinema verite documentary style, the heart of the story is about families, surviving the effects of divorce and dealing with the repercussions of moving on. 

Taryn (Deragh Campbell), a Northern Irish girl, has run away from her coastal town and shows up in Maryland; within moments at a party, we see that something is wrong as she rushes back inside the house and downs a shot. She’s looking to stay with her aunt and uncle, Bill and Kim (Ned Oldham and Kim Taylor, both real-life musicians) and her childhood friend and cousin Abby (Hannah Gross), who is back home from her first year of college. Abby’s parents are having problems in their own marriage and might be heading for a divorce, making things a bit uncomfortable for Taryn, who hasn’t called home yet to let her own parents know where she has gone. Not knowing what the outcome will be, Taryn looks for salvation in herself, even hiding a big secret of her own, as she looks toward friends and family to help her move her life into another direction.

I Used to Be Darker slowly unravels all the questions that are asked early on in a graceful approach to the tender story, co-written by Porterfield and Amy Belk, and makes great use of every character’s predicament, especially the heartbreaking performances from both Campbell and Gross. It also features beautifully orchestrated musical numbers by both Oldham and Taylor conveying every sense of their worlds as they are dealing with their own separation; the scenes are magical and haunting. I Used to Be Darker should catapult director Porterfield into the ranks of the most exciting American independent directors to watch out for. Grade: B+ (I Used to Be Darker was picked up by Monterey Media for U.S. distribution and has a 2013 summer release date.)

After winning an adapted screenplay Oscars for the George Clooney dramedy The Descendants, writers/directors/stars Nat Faxon and Jim Rash make their directorial debuts with the coming-of-age comedy The Way, Way Back. The film features an A-list cast in Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Allison Janney, Maya Rudolph, AnnaSophia Robb, Sam Rockwell, and relative newcomer Liam James (AMC’s The Killing).

Spending the summer vacation with his mom Pam (Collette) and her not-so-friendly boyfriend Trent (a despicable turn by Carell), 14-year-old Duncan (James) is an awkward shy teen, looking for a father figure in the worst way; Duncan soon senses this summer vacation will be more painful than fun. He’s not sure what to do with himself as Pam, Trent and their other friends are enjoying there time drinking and boating almost nonstop. Duncan finds comfort in going to the local water park, where he makes the most unlikely friend in Owen (a wonderfully carefree and riotous Rockwell), the water park manager who seems to losing interest in his career and life. Owen offers Duncan a job at the water park and shortly, after a few days, he starts enjoying his summer working at there and becomes a model employee. All the while, his mom and Trent’s relationship is thrown for a curve and Pam can’t figure out where Duncan has been all summer. 

Much of the story relies on Duncan being a sad, and we’re beaten over the head with it before he starts working at the park as Faxon and Rash (both have bit parts in the film, working at the water park too) dial up the awkwardness of the relationship Duncan has not only with his mother, but also with her villainous boyfriend. The script is a hit-or-miss affair with a fair number of laughs (mostly coming from the boozy neighbor played by Janney and the no-nonsense Rockwell) but features too many lulls in the story, especially in its longish middle section and missed opportunities in exploring the dysfunctional family setup we’re shown from the get-go with really no payoff. The Way, Way Back will have its admirers and some will view it as an underdog story, similar to Little Miss Sunshine, but never did it come across as anything more than a mash-up of laughs and tacked-on drama, leaving me feeling like I had just spent time with a friend’s family on a very forgettable summer vacation. Grade: C (Fox Searchlight picked up The Way, Way Back for U.S. distribution and are planning a 2013 summer release.)

From the moment writer/director David Lowery’s 1970s Texas drama Ain’t Them Bodies Saints hit the screen, a very intense slow-burning drama unfolded; within its opening minutes, it had me completely astounded. The set-up of the story is fairly simple: we meet Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck) and Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara) holed up at a farmhouse after going on a crime spree, firing off shots at the local authorities, when Ruth wounds one of the officers. Not wanting her to take the blame, Bob takes responsibility for the shooting and in the first of many exquisite scenes shot by cinematographer Bradford Young (winning an cinematography award for Saints and Mother of George) the lens slowly melts this vision of the two in cuffs before they are separated for good. It is a very stirring and captivating sequence.

Four years later, Bob has escaped from prison and is looking to return back home to meet up with Ruth and their young child, who was born while he was in prison.  Young officer Patrick (earnestly played by Ben Foster) starts taking a liking to Ruth and begins to stop by the house more and more, although, he was the young officer who Ruth wounded in the beginning; Patrick still thinks it was Bob. A semi-love triangle does develop and we can tell Ruth is torn between her love for Bob, who she may never see again, and Patrick, who is around her frequently.  When Bob starts getting closer he relies on some old friends to help him keep his cover as just about everybody is looking to take him down, especially some other hoodlums, who are after Bob for some money that he has now recovered—which might have started the whole crime spree in the first place.

Many have compared Lowery’s approach to Terrance Malick or even Arthur Penn: a cross between, Badlands and Bonnie and Clyde; those clearly come across as influences, but Lowery’s story is still a striking and visually stunning masterpiece. Besides the great work by Young, shooting the film in a crisp yellowish shade, it features top-notch performances from all three leads and an impressive supporting turn by Keith Carradine. A story that while might be a little slow for some viewers really sneaks up in the third act and becomes an outstanding love story—and a fine crime drama in the process. Grade: A- (IFC Films picked up Ain’t Them Bodies Saints for U.S. distribution, although no release date has been set.)

The final film of the festival I saw was one that had many thinking it could compete for winning the U.S. Dramatic prize (the prize Fruitvale ended up winning). It was a film people were raving about from its first screening. At first director James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now didn’t strike me as something I thought I wanted to see, but was glad I caught it.

Based on the novel by Tim Tharp and adapted for the screen by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (writers of [500] Days of Summer), this intelligent and thoughtful coming-of-age story features two standout performances from Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley (both picking up a special Sundance award for their performances), should be one of the most talked about films of the year, when it is finally released commercially.

Sutter Keely (Teller) is a popular guy at school—sort of for the wrong reasons, as he drinks and is the life of parties—but has barely been making passing grades and is strictly living in the moment, instead of looking at his future. After being dumped by his girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson), Sutter goes out drinking and finds himself passed out on the lawn of Aimee Finicky (Woodley), a sweet girl from school. He offers to help her with her mom’s paper route, since he needs to find his car anyway. The two begin to see more and more of each other and eventually become a couple, much to the surprise of each other’s friends: Sutter is more outgoing and irresponsible, compared to Aimee’s more shy approach. When it is revealed later on that both Sutter and Aimee have family issues that neither want to face, they help each other out in finding out and standing up to their unstable families and begin to shape their own lives.

The Spectacular Now is a rare teen drama film that hits all the right chords and one that finally stands up to a comparison to John Hughes’s 1980s classics. Everyone in high school faces uncertainty about where they are headed next: they’re unsure where to turn or begin when facing problems or looking for guidance. Neustadter’s and Weber’s screenplay elevates these characters into realistic and complicated situations, without offering easy answers. Ponsoldt has also crafted a thoughtful and completely convincing story of two young lovers looking for help in moving on with their lives. Anchored by two dynamic leading performances from Teller and, especially, Woodley and nice supporting turns from Jennifer Jason Leigh and Kyle Chandler, The Spectacular Now is an extremely well-acted, surprisingly funny and moving love story that turned out to be a spectacular Sundance moment.  Grade: A (A24 picked up The Spectacular Now and is planned to have a 2013 summer release.)

In my next article from Park City, I’ll be reporting on films I saw at the Slamdance Film Festival.

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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).