Sundance 2015 Spotlights: Six Feature Films
The Sundance Film Festival in Park City, UT, closed last Sunday, February 1st, and the award winners were announced that day; they can be found here.
Spinning Platters Sr. Film Reviewer Carrie Kahn continues her coverage of Festival films, so you can know what to look for in the coming year – and what to avoid – as many of these titles are purchased and widely distributed
As a reminder, we are using our patented Viewing Priority Level (VPL) Guide to advise you accordingly:
SUNDANCE VIEWING PRIORITY LEVEL GUIDE:
VPL A = An absolute must-see. Monitor film and entertainment news sites religiously to see if this picture will be widely released, and then plan to be first in line to see it.
VPL B = If you’re in a movie mood and your first choice is sold out or not playing at your nearby theater, this picture is a wholly acceptable substitute. It’s not stellar, but it’s perfectly enjoyable, and it won’t be a waste of your time.
VPL C = If you need to escape a family argument, duck out of work to take a break, or fill a few hours on a long and lonely rainy day, there are probably worse ways to spend your time than seeing this picture, though not many. It’s flawed, and you’ll forget about it instantly, but it’s not totally dreadful, and it has at least one or two minor reasons to recommend it.
VPL D = Don’t even think about it. Avoid at all costs. Your time, money, and sanity are too valuable to waste on this dreck.
1.) Sleeping with Other People
(USA 2015, 92 min. Directed by Leslye Headland)
At the film’s Q&A following its premier screening, writer/director Leslye Headland described her picture as, “When Harry Met Sally with assholes,” and that’s indeed an apt description of this thoroughly modern update of Nora Ephron’s classic (in a nice touch, on screen text messages replace the old split screen phone calls here). Alison Brie and Jason Sudeikis have terrific, palpable chemistry, and winningly inhabit their lead roles as college classmates who lose their virginity to each other, only to reconnect years later in various stages of relationship crises. As such, they decide a friendship is in order, but, of course, that darn attraction thing just keeps getting in the way. The picture is exceedingly derivative; it pays homage not only to Ephron’s film, but also to Annie Hall, Manhattan, Casablanca, and, in one of the picture’s best comic bits, The Graduate (all you need to know is that Brie’s character’s name is Lainey, which is short for – you guessed it – Elaine). That said, however, the film is also exceptionally charming, beautifully shot (as in all great romantic comedies, Manhattan becomes a character itself), and filled with such richly humorous and raw, honest moments and dialogue that it is a true pleasure to watch, and its inevitable ending becomes forgivable. Supporting turns from Natasha Lyon (unabashedly channeling Carrie Fisher’s best friend role from WHMS), Amanda Peet, Jason Mantzoukas, and especially Adam Scott, cast against type as a hilariously buttoned up OB-GYN, round out the well-directed ensemble. VPL: A
2.) The D Train
(USA 2014, 97 min. Directed by Jarrad Paul and Andrew Mogel)
Writers Jarrad Paul and Andrew Mogel make their directorial debut with this comedy that turns the tired bromance genre on its head. A surprising plot point makes what could have been an otherwise lightweight comedy into a very funny and wholly original picture. Jack Black plays Dan, a nerdy, tries-too-hard-to-please business man who never left his small Pennsylvania town. Dan becomes obsessed with inviting Oliver Lawless (Marsden), the high school’s golden boy-turned-Hollywood-actor to the upcoming 20th class reunion. When Dan concocts an elaborate ruse in order to go to L.A. and convince Oliver to come to the reunion, hilarity – as well as something wildly unexpected – ensues. The repercussions that follow that event make up the bulk of the film, and Kathryn Hahn continues to prove herself a deft comedienne in her role as Dan’s confused but loyal wife. The film wraps up perhaps a little too pat, and has a sugary “be true to yourself” message that feels a bit too forced, but this saccharine taste is made palatable by masterful comic performances from Black and especially Marsden, who brings complexity to a role that could have been one-note in lesser hands. VPL: B
(USA 2015, 85 min. Directed by Kris Swanberg)
A fictionalized account of an experience writer/director Kris Swanberg had while working as a teacher while pregnant, her film tells the story of Sam (Cobie Smulders), a 30-something science teacher at an inner-city high school in Chicago. Sam’s pregnancy is contrasted with that of one of her teenage students, Jasmine (Gail Bean, exceptional, and a young actress to watch). The film is a thoughtful examination of pregnancy across the socioeconomic and cultural divide, as it looks at both the similarities and differences of Sam and Jasmine’s situations. Sam, financially well off and engaged to a supportive boyfriend (Anders Holm), struggles with career versus family issues, whereas Jasmine faces tough decisions about possibly going away to college as a single mother and leaving behind a large family who need her to stay nearby. Despite some borderline movie-of-the-week heartstring-tugging moments, the characters are well-drawn and complex, and we always are fully vested in both Jasmine and Sam. Smulders and Holm share some particularly strong scenes, as their discussions and heated arguments will resonate with any couple dealing with pregnancy and child-rearing choices. VPL: B
4.) Ten Thousand Saints
(USA 2014, 104 min. Directed by Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman)
Ethan Hawke plays a version of his Boyhood irresponsible-but-wise Dad character here, except this time, in another coming-of-age film (that’s not nearly as good as Boyhood), the emphasis is much more on the irresponsible than on the wise. Set in Vermont and the gritty-but-gentrifying Alphabet City section of New York City in the early 1980s, the film follows Jude (Asa Butterfield) as he moves from Vermont to the East Village to live with his drug dealing father, Les (Hawke), after Jude’s best friend dies unexpectedly. The film is based on a novel, and often borders on melodrama, but Butterfield’s sensitive, heartfelt performance is worth watching. Emily Mortimer is a bit grating as Les’s girlfriend Diane, but Hailee Steinfeld as Diane’s daughter Eliza brings nuance and depth to her role as a world-weary teenager. Emile Hirsch, on the other hand, teeters on the edge of caricature in his depiction of a flakey musician in a “clean-living” cult-like band. Ultimately, though, the picture’s message of family and the fragility of life give it an air of grace that help keep the soap bubbles at bay. VPL: B
(Australia 2014, 98 min. Directed by Ariel Kleiman)
Australian director Ariel Kleiman read an article about child assassins in Colombia, he told us at the film’s post-screening Q&A, and was inspired to make this tense, often difficult to watch, drama about children raised in a cult-like compound who are trained to be assassins. The story is not pretty, and the picture has the feel of a biblical allegory, with the great French actor Vincent Cassel giving a chilling performance as Gregori, the compound’s de facto husband, father, teacher, leader, and ultimate commander. The film focuses on Greogori’s relationship with Alexander (Jeremy Chabriel), a smart, watchful, precocious 12-year-old who Gregori takes in at birth, along with Alexander’s mother, with whom Gregori has a romantic relationship. The film’s conflict arises when Alexander begins to question Gregori’s leadership, and, ultimately, Gregori’s orders. The film’s initial exposition is much too long, and too many scenes are meandering and repetitive. But young Chabriel is already an incredible, impressive actor, showing range and sensitivity beyond his years. He more than holds his own with Cassel, and their scenes together are the best in the movie. The ending, especially, makes up for the languidness that precedes it, with an unbearably tense scene that will leave you breathless and give you plenty to talk about after the credits role. VPL: B
6.) Digging for Fire
(USA 2015, 85 min. Directed by Joe Swanberg)
Mumblecore darling Joe Swanberg, who recently had mainstream successes with the excellent Drinking Buddies and Happy Christmas, makes a misstep here with this heavy-handed, tonally off, and utterly unbelievable film about a Los Angeles couple trying to retain their individuality after they’ve settled into the marriage-and-children routine. Jake Johnson, who also fared much better in Drinking Buddies, and Rosemarie DeWitt, who essentially here reprises her frustrated-wife role from last year’s Men, Women & Children, play the couple Tim and Lee, who spend a night apart having different adventures involving random strangers. These encounters seem to be meant to feel magical and fairy-tale like, but instead are unrealistic to the point of distraction, and filled with contrived, unnecessary coincidences. This movie wants to say something Big and Important about relationships and commitment, but is too bogged down with clunky metaphors and cheesy dialog to accomplish such a goal. A few supporting performances somewhat salvage the film: Sam Elliott and Judith Light are both excellent as Lee’s parents, and Sam Rockwell brings much-needed energy to the moody picture as an emotionally-charged friend of Tim’s. VPL: C