God Help the Girl. Photo courtesy of Neil Davidson.
PARK CITY, UTAH – As soon as I hit the road toward the majestic Park City, Utah, time slowed down and it was starting to feel like “go time” again. The hustle and bustle of the Sundance Film Festival, celebrating thirty years, was again in full-swing. There would be plenty of movies to choose from, emails exchanged with publicists for tickets and times to sit down with talent, and making time to find an adequate amount of food to shovel in my mouth. During the opening weekend, I managed to squeeze in 14 films, leaving me exhausted but also thrilled to see one of the most spectacular movie moments in my life. I did get shut-out of one film over the weekend, the Michael Fassbender music drama, Frank, but I slid into another movie at that time and saw one of the worst films I’ve seen at Sundance, so that was terrible and exciting at the same time. Now, I know I’ve got to see Frank (it got picked up by Magnolia Pictures, so there is hope) and the other I never have to sit through again.
Watching the intensity of drumming wildman Ginger Baker’s face in the 2012 documentary Beware of Mr. Baker is a vivid memory in recent years on the big screen. It is no surprise then that the opening narrative film at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Whiplash, could easily be compared to Mr. Baker’s tendencies in the sparing match taking place between its two leads, Miles Teller (The Spectacular Now) and J.K. Simmons (Spider-Man). Based off his award-winning short film of the same name from 2013, writer/director Damien Chazelle (the delightful and under-seen, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench) creates an undeniable crowd-pleaser of uniting carefully crafted discipline, excitement, passion and struggle all in the confides of an elite music school. Teller’s character Andrew longs to be the best drummer and looks up to his idol Buddy Rich. He is competing for a spot on one of the top jazz bands in the country and the only opposition in his way is the militant conductor Terrance Fletcher, played with a ferocious tenacity by Simmons, who pushes Andrew to extreme limits of becoming the best drummer possible while toying with him emotionally and physically. Chazelle sets the two men against each other like an elaborate chess game of back that plays terrifically and terrifying in the final third. The only misstep is a forced love-interest for Andrew who tells his would-be girlfriend that he does not want any distraction while working on achieving greatness. The sub-plot never fully evolves as a serviceable part of the story. Highlighted by Teller and Simmons performances, and some unbearable tension of dueling drumming, Chazelle’s film makes your jaw drop and left wondering how much more can one person take before they lose their wits. That is a good thing, considering it won the U.S. Dramatic jury and the Audience Award prizes. Grade: B+. (Whiplash was picked up by Sony Picture Classics, although no release date has been determined yet.)
Everyone, I imagine, was fascinated by dinosaurs at one point in their lives. Dinosaurs are one of the most interesting creatures to every inhabit earth, that is why the documentary, Dinosaur 13, wastes no time in giving the audience an inside look in one of the greatest discoveries on U.S. soil. When Paleontologist Peter Larson and his team from the Black Hills Institute in small town Hill City, South Dakota discovered the fossils of the most complete T. Rex ever found, there was reason to celebrate. Once the discovery made world news, other outlets and organizations including the U.S. government, renowned museums, other paleontologists, and the land owner where the T. rex, (named “Sue”) was found began to investigate the findings and threatened to take “Sue” away. Director Todd Miller brings a unique case study that brings to the table the different layers of the investigation involving the 65 million year-old fossil. Dinosaur 13 will challenge your beliefs on the justice system, leaving you wondering how a terrific discovery can become another “he/said” testimonial on screen with its narrative structure slowly breaking away into another bland investigative story with plenty of bite, but with nothing to chew on. Grade: C+. (Dinosaur 13 was picked up theatrically by Lionsgate and broadcast rights by CNN Films, although no release date has been determined yet.)
Known for his espionage novels that made him a household name, British author John le Carre gets another big screen adaptation, this time with his 2008 novel, A Most Wanted Man, directed by Dutch filmmaker and photographer Anton Corbijn (2007’s Ian Curtis biopic Control). German spy Gunter (Philip Seymour Hoffman) along with his anti-terror team have located Issa Karpov (an impressive Grigoriy Dobrygin), an escaped jihadist in Hamburg, while searching for a banker named Brue (played by Willem Dafoe) who can help Karpov claim an inheritance left by his father whom Gunter and his team think is linked to an upcoming terrorist attack. When Karpov befriends a Turkish woman and her son, they introduce Karpov to a lawyer (Rachel McAdams) who is part of a human rights organization wanting to help Karpov stay safe and retrieve the money. To complicate things more, Gunter meets with a CIA spy in Germany (played by Robin Wright) who believes there could be another attack but needs more proof from Gunter before they proceed. This is only half of the story and half of the characters in the moody and painfully slow-paced film. The film is actually brilliantly directed and acted (with three American actors branding German accents, superbly), but it favors the talking heads more so than the action. The tricky plot does reveal itself, finally, in the last fifteen minutes. Grade: C (A Most Wanted Man will be distributed by Roadside Attractions, although no release date has been determined yet.)
While Woody Allen seems to be hell-bent on making a film every year, so is documentarian Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Taxi to the Dark Side, The Armstrong Lie) who is cranking out a documentary every year, even two. He returned to Sundance with his latest infectious music doc, Finding Fela about the great Afro-beat musician Fela Kuti. With his outspoken lyrics about the Nigerian government in the 1970’s and 1980’s, Fela Kuti became a national hero and a human rights activist, even if he was atypical role model for his peers and families (he had multiple “wives” and a few of his “wives” and children are interviewed). Showcasing astonishing archival footage of Fela performing his music and charismatic stage presences, unbelievable footage of him sparking baton-long joints, and speaking out on Nigerian officials, footage from director Bill T. Jones’ 2008 Broadway play, Finding Fela delves further into the history of the complicated and talented artist. Gibney’s documentary is straightforward and solid from start to finish without being flashy or striving to be anything new in the documentary form. Many people still have no idea who Fela Kuti is or where Afro-beat music came from and this is the perfect starting point for a further education. Grade: B. (Finding Fela has not been picked up for U.S. distribution yet.)
Tim Sutton’s 2012 little seen American indie-gem Pavilion was a minor hit on the festival circuit. He brings another slice of life to the festival with the music-themed Memphis. Real-life musician Willis Earl Beal plays a fictional version of, well, Beal, who embodies a “magical” character complex. Playing a singer/poet, Beal, strolls around Memphis looking for purpose and reason to start recording his lyrics and music in order to turn his life around and get out of his funk. The city looks to have been hit by the economic recession, leaving many wondering where they fit in and what is next, including Beal. Sutton’s script at times plays with reality versus fantasy or fiction and non-fiction, which creates a strange alternate universe of dreams and nightmares and encompasses a fever dream of ideas and illuminations. On the other hand, it leaves a lot to be desired as far as a complete narrative that tends to be unfocused and unsure. Once Beal’s voice is finally unleashed, the music comes alive and we realize maybe we are witnessing, perhaps, a true profit of beautiful unheard music and a presence unlike anyone else around him. Maybe I missed the point of Memphis entirely, but Beal and Sutton are talented and ones to keep a close watch on. Grade: B-. (Memphis has not been picked up for U.S. distribution yet.)
Nothing landed more with a thud at Sundance than John Slattery’s (best known as Roger Sterling from AMC’s Mad Men) directorial debut, God’s Pocket based on the 1983 Pete Dexter novel. Despite a great cast of Philip Seymour Hoffman, Christina Hendricks, John Turturro, Richard Jenkins and Eddie Marsan, God’s Pocket is an insanely and completely atrocious take on a small town’s effects of a young man’s (accidental) death. Stepfather Mickey (Hoffman) is in charge of getting the funeral ready for his recently deceased wacko stepson Caleb. He has accepted the fact Caleb is gone and moved on, but his wife (Hendricks) thinks something is fishy about Caleb’s death and wants Mickey to investigate what happened. Right around the same time, the local alcoholic newspaper columnist (no, really?) played by Jenkins begins his own investigation for a story, which involves making eyes at Mickey’s wife. Before you can say, “I saw that coming” God’s Pocket, completely unravels into one long clichéd horrible mess of a film, complete with an unnecessary graphic violent scene involving eye-gouging, a corpse flying out of a meat-truck into the middle of street, gambling debts owed to tough guys, horse racing bets, down-and-out boozy bar patrons spouting drunken dialogue about our children being our future, and a borderline rape scene played for desperation. God’s Pocket might be a terrific and beloved novel, but I could not wait to get out of theater and away from God’s Pocket the film faster than if my hair were on fire. Grade: D-. (God’s Pocket was picked up by IFC Films, although no release date has been determined yet.)
One of the joys of Sundance is an unexpected surprise, which I found it in the Norwegian drama Blind, directed by Eskil Vogt who is best known in America as the co-writer of Joachim Trier’s acclaimed Reprise and Oslo, August 31st. Ingrid (a magnificent Ellen Dorrit Petersen) is blind and rarely leaves her apartment. She starts to wonder if her husband, Morten (Henrik Rafaelsen), is actually going to work like he claims to be. When Morten runs into an old college friend, Einar (an excellent, Marius Kolbenstvedt), at a movie theater, the two begin reminiscing. Einar begins spying on his neighbor Elin (Vera Vitali) a recently divorcee with a young daughter who’s been inflicted with a mysterious illness.The four characters are all connected in one way or another, but what begins to happen with them seems to be controlled by Ingrid who is working on a story that incorporates all these characters. Is her memory of her vision starting to fade away? Is she starting to forget people all together? Has she started to blend reality and fantasy into one world? The high-concept idea works immediately and transports you into a completely different exciting world. Either way, Vogt remarkably balances worlds with an assured sense of command in his script and direction, leaving the viewer longing for another adventure of Ingrid’s beautiful and seductive vision complemented by Greek cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis (Dogtooth, Keep the Lights On). The real star is Petersen’s breakthrough emotional performance of stunning complexity and desire. Grade: A-. (Blind has not been picked up for U.S. distribution yet.)
American writer/director/cinematographer Jeremy Saulnier’s second feature Blue Ruin, already a hit at Cannes, Locarno and Toronto film festivals in 2013, is a suspenseful ride from its opening moments to its wham-bam ending. Seemingly living off the grid for some time (the ragged beard is the biggest giveaway), Dwight Evans’ (Macon Blair) life is thrown for a loop when he is told that his parent’s murderer, Will Cleland, has been released from jail. Dwight is determined to follow through with his plan on getting revenge, even if he does not know how to fire a gun and protect his estranged sister and her kids. When he does the deed in a nearby bar not far from the jail, the ol’ knife to the head, little does he know that the Cleland family would rather handle Dwight on their own instead of notifying the authorities. What starts out as a quick kill, slowly becomes a survival of the fittest character study of Dwight’s will not only against the Cleland family but his own survival tactics. We find ourselves rooting for an anti-hero right before our eyes. Saulnier’s twisty, tight script keeps the action moving. His cinematographing is exquisite with suspense flowing like the blood spilled. Thisbackwoods thriller is clever and a remarkable piece of pulp fiction. Grade: A-. (Blue Ruin will be distributed by Radius-TWC, in theaters, iTunes and on-demand, Friday, April 25.)
Co-writer/director Ira Sachs’ Love is Strange is a moving and tender drama. Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) are a gay couple who, after 39 years together, finally tie the knot in New York City. Ben is retired but still manages to paint when he can and when George is fired from his teaching position at a Catholic school they are forced to leave their apartment in hopes of finding a cheaper place. In the short term, George lives with another gay couple down the hall while Ben moves in with his nephew Eliot, his novelist wife (played by Marisi Tomei) and their teenage son. Living apart for the first time in decades, the two men struggle to keep their marriage alive and find it harder and harder to stay together. Lithgow and Molina are excellent and give career best performances as the new couple looking for a new home and start, but are thrown off course trying to reconnect only miles apart. Sachs, along with Mauricio Zacharias script, gives the characters plenty of life; you get the sense that Ben and George have been together for almost four decades during moments like playing the piano and singing together after the marriage ceremony to the minor argument about a classical opera show. Despite a questionable and tacked-on ending, Sachs delivers a much needed and welcoming narrative on contemporary same-sex marriage in America. Grade: B. (Love is Strange was picked up by Sony Picture Classics, although no release date has been determined yet.)
After reinventing the home-invasion thriller in last year’s scary You’re Next, screenwriter Simon Barrett and director Adam Wingard reteam for another somewhat home-invasion thriller in Sundance’s midnight selection The Guest. Shedding his Downton Abbey persona, Dan Stevens plays David, a recently returning soldier who visits the Peterson home, who have just lost their son Caleb, who David claims to be good friends with. The two soldiers are in a picture together in Caleb’s room, so the Petersons welcome him in and treat him just like another son. Their daughter, Anna, suspects something is up with David, even though there is some sexual tension between her and the soldier. When bodies start turning up dead around town, Anna makes inquires about David and his past and gets some startling results. Stevens, perfectly cast, generates enough laughs, tension, and anger in his “Terminator” portrayal of the mysterious stranger. The elaborate set piece at a high school Halloween party is a blast and features an image any child of the 80s will remember with laughs and frights. The 80s Goth and Electronic synth score by Steve Moore, notably of the rock duo Zombi, sets up the rhythmic scenes of Stevens knocking beers and bodies back; the opening credits are even a hoot. Never losing sight of its obvious intention, Barrett and Wingard bring another genre throwback thriller back to its origins, not without giving us one last cold stare from the villain played as a hilarious and terrifying shrink. Grade: B+. (The Guest has not been picked up for U.S. distribution yet and an interview with both Barrett and Wingard is forthcoming on Twin Cities Daily Planet.)
One of the most talked about films before its premiere was the MN filmed college satire Dear White People, written and directed by first director Justin Simien. The film provides plenty of laughs and discussion but focuses on too many characters and subplots to bring everything full circle. Leading the charge for change at an Ivy League school (Winchester University) is Samantha White (Tessa Thompson) who’s working to change the black culture at a predominantly white school through her radio show on campus. When she decides to run for hall president and unexpectedly wins, she takes the spot of her ex-boyfriend and popular student Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P. Bell). The power shift begins despite the fact that Troy’s dad is the Dean of Winchester (Dennis Haysbert) and has his own plans. This also sets off a chain-reaction with another conflicted student, Lionel Simmons (scene stealer, Tyler James Williams), working on breaking the story for the school newspaper, run mostly by white students, as Lionel does not really identify or understand black culture, even though he is black. At one point, Sam makes a student film called The Rebirth of a Nation and illustrates the fact that she secretly enjoys Taylor Swift, but also makes fun of Tyler Perry films. It all leads up to the all-white fraternity throwing a blackface/black themed party at frat house bringing all the characters together. It is always nice to see some Minnesota landmarks on film (Women’s Club, Summit Avenue, Falwell Hall, Northrup Auditorium, etc.). Simien’s script is often very funny and edgy but juggles too many characters and subplots and really bogs down the narrative leading to unsatisfying and too tidy of a conclusion. Give Simien and the cast credit for exploring racial classes among young adults and exposing some of the downfalls in our cracked educational system. Grade: B-. (Dear White People has not been picked up for U.S. distribution yet and an interview with writer/director Justin Simien is forthcoming on Twin Cities Daily Planet.)
Stuart Murdoch, best known as the lead singer and songwriter of the Scottish band Belle & Sebastian, flips the script and takes a stroll behind the camera instead the microphone with his charming directional debut God Help the Girl, a bona-fide hit from the get-go. Eve (the lovely Emily Browning) is going through a hard time and dealing with depression, but has so much energy when it comes to music that she begins writing songs and routinely escapes the hospital in search of live music in Glasgow. When she meets a young rocker James (Olly Alexander) at a show, the two connect and get the idea to start a band based on Eve’s songs pertaining to everyday life. James has been giving music lessons to Cassie (Hannah Murray, best known from BBC’s Skins) and the three embark on going the distance in creating some of the best pop music in town. What really brings God Help the Girl to life is the music, clearly. Within the first act, there are two song and dance numbers that might not be a gimmick everyone will go for, but it does bring a smile to your face. The trio of actors are terrific, especially Browning who makes every moment count on screen, whether its singing and dancing with Cassie in a school gymnasium or dancing with James in a synchronized skit; the actress shines in bringing Murdoch’s lively lyrics and songs to life. God Help the Girl may not be a perfect musical narrative, or the most technically sound production ever made, but it was a nice change of pace to see our youth alive and doing so well. Grade: B+. (God Help the Girl has not been picked up for U.S. distribution yet.)
Returning to Sundance in consecutive years is American horror director Jim Mickle who went from psychological horror in the Catskills Mountains with last year’s underrated We Are What We Are to psychological film noir in the burning hot Texas steam in Cold in July, another impressive film from Mickle and his frequent co-collaborator/writer/actor, Nick Damici. When Richard Dane (an exceptional, Michael C. Hall) shoots home invader Freddy Russell in the cold dark night, he is deemed a hero from the local townspeople. Dane gets word that Russell’s criminal father has just been released from jail and will be hot on the tail of Dane for revenge. With the help from the local sheriff’s office (well sort of) Dane fears for his family safety, but also finds out that once Freddy’s father, Ben (a completely scary, Sam Shepard), returns in search for Dane, the police have other plans for Ben. So begins the first twist in Cold in July, with many more to follow. To go any further would ruin the unexpected surprises awaiting for audiences, and while the story is brutal and grotesque at times, the narrative completely unfolds and refolds itself over and over again. It could have been a fiasco, but falls into the capable hands of Damici and Mickle’s dynamic commitment to the complicated screenplay, based on a novel Joe R. Lansdale. Think about the grand mysteries hiding beneath something of another noir like L.A. Confidential and you are in the similar terrain. It is also great fun watching Hall and Shepard and not to mention in a superb supporting role, Don Johnson, working side by side to get down to the bloody brass tacks and uncover everything hiding in the dark shadows. Grade: A-. (Cold in July was picked up by IFC Films, although no release date has been determined yet.)
Only announced four days before Sundance kicked off the festival is one of the monumental film experiences in my years at Sundance and perhaps even in the festival’s own: Boyhood by writer/director Richard Linklater (The Before Trilogy, Dazed & Confused). The utterly breathless, marvelous, and beautifully stunning coming-of-age film was 12 years in the making. Filmed in Austin and Houston, Texas, the basic story follows divorced parents Olivia and Mason (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke) working on raising their two children, daughter Samantha (Linklater’s own daughter, Lorelei) and son Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane). While the children live with mom, Mason takes the kids every other weekend and we see the progression of the family growing up and apart, and what brings them together. Boyhood uses music cues to clue the audience in on what year we’re now in—the story opens with Coldplay’s “Yellow” and makes its way through the Britany Spears, “Oops, I Did it Again”, and Weezer’s “Island in the Sun.” The song choices are terrific in setting up the coming years to follow and feature riotous moments in the story, especially Samantha dancing to Ms. Spears song and annoying Mason. Olivia does eventually meet another man and weds two others through the process, whereas Mason does find another woman. But we’re more concerned with the stories of the children. I one scene in particular, we’re watching both kids in costumes waiting for a bookstore to open to get the newest copy of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter & the Half Blood-Prince. How can that not put a smile on your face? With each growing year (they only shot for a total of 39 days, with shoots lasting 3-4 days each year), the natural changes take shape in Samantha and Mason Jr. growing from young kids to teenagers and eventuall adults. The changes are presented with such grace and importance it is as if they are our own kids growing up in front of our eyes. (It does bring to mind British director Michael Apted’s “7-Up series” filming 14 British teenagers every seven years since 1964, and checking in with them every year.) The camera choices from the start of Boyhood to the closing moments looks as if the film was at times shot on 35mm and video, but then once HD took storm, Linklater shifted even in the camera style. Trying to think about my last 12 years is hard to fathom, but as Mason Jr. goes from age 7 to 19 in just under three hours (164 min, running time to be exact), it is all up on screen: the boring, the dull, the exciting, the difficult, the compromising, but most importantly, the story and coming of age of actor, Ellar Coltrane. Grade: A+. (Boyhood was financed by IFC Films and will be in competition at next month’s Berlinale Film Festival, and there is no-time table set for a proper release. One can hope that not one frame is removed either.)
My next Sundance report will feature another Minnesota-made feature in the Zellner brothers Fargo-inspired urban legend Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter; Gregg Araki’s coming-of-age story White Bird in a Blizzard, the Nick Cave music doc, 20,000 Days on Earth and the new feature from Aaron Katz (Cold Weather) & Martha Stephens (Pilgrom Song) Land Ho!