MOVIES | Report from Sundance: Which films make the grade?


PARK CITY, UTAH—My first report from the Sundance Film Festival covers Friday through Sunday. Waking up Friday morning, on only about four hours of sleep, I made it to the first press screening of the festival, Sam Taylor Wood’s Nowhere Boy, at 8:30 a.m.

The film focuses on John Lennon’s teenage years in Liverpool, 1955, where John (a terrific Aaron Johnson, soon to be seen in this spring’s action film Kick-Ass) is struggling to find out who or what he wants to be, while under the supervision of his Aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas)—not knowing his parents are still alive. It isn’t until Lennon learns that his parents are still alive and his mother, Julia (Anne-Marie Duff in a star-making performance) gets him interested in music that he meets a young Paul McCartney, with whom he forms the Quarrymen, predecessors to the Beatles. The film has some nice performances and some inspiring musical moments, but the middle proves to be less than compelling and in fact drags a bit in its brief 93-minute run time; even though it isn’t perfect, it’s still an entertaining ride. Grade: B-

Nowhere Boy has a bit of notoriety going for it; Wood and Johnson are in a relationship though she is 23 years his senior, which sounds a bit disturbing, but it doesn’t compare to anything as wildly warped as the things seen in the Internet documentary Catfish.

When photographer and Facebook user Yaniv “Nev” Schulman starts receiving paintings of his photos from a young admirer in small-town Michigan, a flattered and surprised Nev hangs them up in his New York office that he shares with his brother Ariel, who is a filmmaker. Ariel and co-director Henry Joost begin filming Nev as he becomes (Facebook) friends with the young protégé Abby, her mother Angela, and Abby’s older, attractive, sister Megan. Megan’s profile pictures entice Nev and Megan becomes more attracted to Nev, and they start to talk and begin a “viral” relationship in an attempt to eventually meet one day. When Nev, Ariel, and Henry discover some strange music postings by Megan on a business trip to Colorado, the relationship starts to spiral and turns into a whopper of a twist, wherin the three of them decide to drive to Michigan and meet Megan, Abby, and Angela. Catfish‘s fractured romance becomes a haunting portrait of our obsession with the Internet and how we can manipulate our images and personas. Catfish buzz has been building since its premiere, catching the attention of audiences and distributors alike, and the film should find a home within the coming days. The film is a must-see and should end up being one of the most talked-about films of the year. Grade: A-

On the other hand, writer/director/star Josh Radnor’s self-indulgent and stale narrative directorial debut, Happythankyoumoreplease, went over about as well as a lead balloon. Even the title is annoying to say (and type), and after the first 20 minutes Radnor’s Sam, a failed novelist and womanizer (really?), who schleps around with a missing boy who was left on the subway, meets waitress/wannabe singer Mississippi (Kate Mara), and convinces her to come over to his cushy apartment for not a one-night stand but a three-night stand. Other good actors show up (Malin Akerman, Zoe Kazan, Tony Hale) but like Sam, they are just as annoying and bland as the many indie acoustic songs that pop up every five minutes. Grade: D+

The biggest disappointment in the first three days (and perhaps in the festival) was Spencer Susser’s chaotic Hesher, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt—who brings some of his charm to the film, but Susser and co-writer David Michod forget to make you care for anyone and anything important in this urban fairy tale. Sporting a long greasy wig, tattoo-covered and mostly shirtless, Levitt’s Hesher plays good and bad with 13-year-old loner TJ (newcomer Devin Brochu), who has been struggling in life along with his sad sack dad (a reserved Rainn Wilson) since his mom passed away—that is, until Hesher invades their life. The first 30 minutes are completely original and unpredictable and Levitt’s entrance in the film is a highlight, but shortly after Natalie Portman’s grocery store worker Nicole appears, the film suffers from not giving us a single notion of what the film is trying to be or what its characters are seeking. Is it a dark comedy with redemption? A grieving family drama? A helter-skelter adventure of lost souls? Whatever the case, Hesher does take chances in creating a story with promise, but once it turns into a rowdy farce of a cartoon family, it left me bored and unimpressed—but nonetheless was bought by U.S. distributor Newmarket on Thursday. Grade: C-

TV veteran John Wells’s The Company Men has already been drawing comparisons to Up in the Air and ends up going further into the lives of recently laid-off employees than in Air, where they would leave quietly and never return. Instead of following George Clooney flying across the country firing one person after another, we feel and see the anguish, depression, and uncertainly of these characters going home to break the news to their families, and the film becomes a bit more personal. A film with Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones, Chris Cooper, and Kevin Costner doesn’t really scream independent or Sundance; it’s flawed but is also well-acted, engaging, and shows how the recession is blowing up in everyone’s face without any promise of letting up anytime soon. The Company Men should have no problem finding a home in theaters and on DVD. Grade: B

A nice surprise came in seeing Robert Duvall play a hermit in Aaron Schneider’s complex Depression-era dramedy Get Low. Felix Bush (a sublime Duvall) is the Boo Radley of a small Tennessee town; others in town fear and are scared to talk about Felix, until he decides to throw himself a funeral party while he’s still alive. When a young undertaker (Lucas Black) gets wind of the party he and his boss (a hilarious Bill Murray) help Felix try to make the party a success, only there are many complications and secrets that slowly arise, building to a believable and satisfying climax. Get Low is an utterly original story that aided by gorgeous cinematography, brilliant editing (by Schneider as well), and great casting (including Sissy Spacek as a woman from Felix’s past). This American film is one to look for when it opens this summer. Grade: A-

Building on the success of their previous mumblecore films, The Puffy Chair and Baghead, the Duplass Brothers, Mark and Jay, returned to Sundance with their biggest budget and most successful outing yet: the bizarre and funny Cyrus. John C. Reilly plays John, who meets Molly, the woman of his dreams (Marisa Tomei), at his ex-wife’s engagement party. When John and Molly hit it off right away, John is in heaven and wonders how he was able to land the beautiful and seemingly perfect Molly. Little does he know that Molly’s son Cyrus (Jonah Hill as you’ve never seem him before) is a bit off, and it isn’t until John sees Molly and Cyrus interact with one another that he begins to think something is really odd with the two of them. Reilly’s performance as a leading man is wonderful, while his counterpart Hill goes from creepy, dark, and altogether unhinged in his most serious performance to date, but part of me wanted the directors to push the envelope even farther into unknown terrain. Grade: B

Man with painting

I’m Pat “Expletive” Tillman was the original announced title of what is now simply called The Tillman Story, a terrific and emotionally-charged documentary by Amir Bar-Lev (My Kid Can Paint That). It tells the story of Pat Tillman, a former professional football player, who gave up his career to join the military with his brother Kevin. It’s an eye-opening story about how deceitfully the government can treats its soldiers, dead or alive. Tillman’s death became a national story, but was used as propaganda by the American government and turned into a recruiting campaign—that is, until Tillman’s family became the voice of reason, challenging them by finding out the truth behind their son’s death. Bar-Lev’s film sheds light on Tillman’s death through testimonies, interviews, and reactions from other soldiers stationed with Pat in Afghanistan; some comply with the government by saying nothing or by telling a completely different story. The documentary also features Pat’s mother, father, brothers, and wife, who question the official story of Pat’s death and wonder what really happened. The ending will leave many shaking their head in frustration and wondering if the idea of America as “the land of the free” isn’t a well-spun story too. Grade: B+

Sympathy for Delicious, the worst-named film in the festival, was also the worst thing I saw. Actor Mark Ruffalo makes his directorial debut with this dud, filling the screen with endless banal dialogue written by star Christopher Thornton. Thornton plays a former DJ named “Delicious,” a paraplegic who’s living out of his car in Los Angeles. He gets a tryout with an up-and-coming rock band fronted by “The Stain” (Orlando Bloom, horribly overacting) and their mouthy bass player Ariel Lee (Juliette Lewis, sneering more than ever), who wants Delicious to join there band. When Delicious is blessed with unexpected magical powers from a crazy evangelist (what?!), he is able to help others around him—for example, he helps a blind woman see again—and Sympathy wonders if he has become a self appointed God or a gimmick to be exploited. Ruffalo shows up as the saintly Father Joe; besides some nice spot cinematography, Sympathy is nothing more then some unintelligent yet pretentious religious mumbo-jumbo. Grade: D

After missing out on the opening night film, Howl, I was able to get into the jam-packed press screening—and left wondering why it was chosen as the opening night film. James Franco’s portrayal of Allen Ginsberg is servicable, but Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s film—produced by the Twin Cities’ Werc Werk Works—comes across too scattered and flat to recommend. Going through the motions of a quasi-narrative based on court records, interviews and poetry readings, Howl feels repetitive with its use of courtroom drama and animation sequences; further, Franco’s strange cadence reading the poem Howl in voiceover is less than thrilling. What would have been nice would have been some interaction with the poem rather then cutting to animation and Franco’s bizarre style, which took me out of the film every time. There is an audience for Howl, and fans of the Beat authors may find more to love about it than I did. Grade: C

The last film I saw opening weekend was the world premiere of Katie Aselton’s unexpected treat The Freebie. (Look for an interview with Aselton in the Daily Planet soon.) Working from a six-page treatment for a film that was largely improvised, the story involves married couple Darren (Dax Shepared, surprisingly effective) and Annie (director Aselton) as they figure out how to add spark to their marriage. After a dinner party, Annie and Darren return home and instead of having sex, they talk about having sex and do crossword puzzles in bed instead. They decide the best way to get through their slump is to give each other the night off and find someone else to sleep with to rekindle their sexless marriage. The circumstance sounds outlandish, but it works as both actors dive in and bring an unexpected bliss to their performances, working wonders with the paper-thin story and making you care about them as individuals and as a couple. As the date approaches, both wonder if they have made the right decision, blowing their marriage on a one-night stand. The ambiguous ending will lead to endless discussion, but The Freebie, with its ultra low-budget and 11-day shoot makes the most out of its story, and other writers and directors could learn something from its honesty. Grade: B

I’ll be reporting more on Sundance films from Monday through Wednesday, including Michael Winterbottom’s adaptation of Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me, Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine starring Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, the documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work by Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern, Eli Craig’s Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, and the few films I saw at the Slamdance Film Festival.