Film Festival Reviews


I am always asked about the movies I see at Sundance so I thought I would put my thoughts here.  This was my sixth year at the festival and, as always, I enjoyed it enormously.  I saw 11 movies in 3 days (actually 4 days since I saw one the first night I arrived).  I would say that all of them, except one, were watchable and interesting with some clearly headed for a theater release while others, I suspect, will make it to DVD and languish there.  I have put the name of the movie with a link to its listing in the Sundance website which includes a trailer then listed the Sundance description of the movie in part a. and then my thoughts on the movie below in part b. to make it easier to follow.  I have to say in advance that I am not a movie reviewer nor do I pretend to know what makes movies good or bad.  I just like them and see about 60 a year.  Take my thoughts as just coming from an avid moviegoer and nothing more.  In order from best to worst, here are the ones I saw:
  1. SUMMARY: In 2008 Sebastian Junger (The Perfect Storm) and Tim Hetherington dug in with the men of Second Platoon for a year. Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, a stronghold of al Qaeda and the Taliban, has proven to be one of the U.S. Army’s deadliest challenges. It is here that the platoon lost their comrade, PFC Juan Restrepo, and erected an outpost in his honor. Up close and personal, Junger and Hetherington gain extraordinary insight into the surreal combination of backbreaking labor and deadly firefights that are a way of life at Outpost Restrepo.  Ever wonder what it’s really like to be in the trenches of war? Look no further. Restrepo may be one of the most experiential and visceral war films you’ll ever see. With unprecedented access, the filmmakers reveal the humor and camaraderie of men who come under daily fire, never knowing which of them won’t make it home.
  2. MY THOUGHTS:  I am not usually a major fan of documentaries and rarely like war movies but this was amazing and deserved its award for best documentary as voted by the jury (as opposed to the audience). Sebastien Junger and Time Hetherington have captured the essence of the misery of war by following a platoon of soldiers in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan.  If only they could make each senator and congressman watch the film they might think twice before sending soldiers into war.  This film is powerful, strong and sad all at the same time.
Jack Goes Boating
  1. SUMMARY:  Jack Goes Boating is a tale of love, betrayal, and friendship set against the backdrop of working-class New York City life. Jack and Connie are two single people who on their own might continue to recede into the anonymous background of the city, but in each other begin to find the courage and desire to pursue their budding relationship. In contrast, the couple who brought them together, Clyde and Lucy, are confronting the unresolved issues in their rocky marriage. The multifaceted Philip Seymour Hoffman makes his directorial debut demonstrating an assured style and grace, both behind the camera and in front of it. He leads a skilled cast, who waltz through their group scenes in perfect counterpoint, each getting what he or she needs from the other. The writing is fiercely authentic as are the performances. Lyrical and lovely, Jack Goes Boating is an offbeat love story that almost forgets to happen.
  2. MY THOUGHTS: I love Philip Seymour Hoffman and think that pretty much anything he is involved in has the chance to be great.  Pirate Radio got very little acclaim but I thought it was a great movie.  This one shows Hoffman´s talent as a director (and the lead).  I thought that the way Hoffman had his actors spend as much time not talking as talking gave a strong picture of how the two couples interacted and an insight into their characters.  Just hearing someone clear their throat reminds me that Hoffman´s character did that any time he felt anxiety and by movie´s end he all but stopped the throat thing and started feeling comfortable (or at least a bit comfortable) in his new relationship and in himself and his abilities and strengths.  The depiction of his friend´s marriage and its disintegration was also very powerful with much of the marriage problems exemplified by looks and body language as much as by the nasty interchanges about infidelity.
  1. SUMMARY: Six New Yorkers juggle love, friendship, and the keenly challenging specter of adulthood. Sam Wexler is a struggling writer who’s having a particularly bad day. When a young boy gets separated from his family on the subway, Sam makes the questionable decision to bring the child back to his apartment and thus begins a rewarding, yet complicated, friendship. Sam´s life revolves around his friends-Annie, whose self-image keeps her from commitment; Charlie and Mary Catherine, a couple whose possible move to Los Angeles tests their relationship; and Mississippi, a cabaret singer who catches Sam´s eye.  Written, directed, and starring Josh Radnor (CBS’s How I Met Your Mother), happythankyoumoreplease boasts a wryly funny script and engaging performances from its ensemble cast. With honesty and humor, Radnor captures a generational moment-young people on the cusp of truly growing up, struggling for connection, and hoping to define what it means to love and be loved.
  2. MY THOUGHTS:  This was our last movie of the last day and quite a nice surprise.  Although it won the audience award for best drama I had not heard much in the way of good buzz and was wondering if a movie written, directed and starring Radnor would be more of a vehicle to highlight him than to share a view of relationships.  What a surprise!  Radnor´s dialogue is excellent and his characters were likable and clearly flawed.  I hope that the odd title does not hinder its release although the movie does explain the last four words, the first one (happy) is never brought into the discussion but an appropriate statement, I think, of the end result of the relationships.  I know that the idea of someone taking a lost boy into his home is a bit unbelievable, but somehow it works and the kid is amazing, cute and brings out the best in Radnor´s character Sam (or Sam #1).
Winter´s Bone
  1. SUMMARY: Deep in the Ozark Mountains, clans live by a code of conduct that no one dares defy-until an intrepid teenage girl has no other choice. When Ree Dolly’s crystal-meth-making father skips bail and goes missing, her family home is on the line. Unless she finds him, she and her young siblings and disabled mother face destitution. In a heroic quest, Ree traverses the county to confront her kin, break their silent collusion, and bring her father home.  With thrilling tension, Winter´s Bone depicts an archetypal rite of passage from adolescence to adulthood. Only this time, the young warrior is a girl. As our heroine braves immoveable obstacles, she redefines the notion of family loyalty and, in the process, discovers her own power. The spare precision of Debra Granik´s direction is effortlessly profound. Stunningly genuine performances and exquisite visual details capture the textures and rhythms of a world where the mythic and the naturalistic intermingle.
  2. MY THOUGHTS:  This movie won both the grand jury prize for drama as well as for screenwriting and both awards were well deserved.  Jennifer Lawrence, who played Ree, the 17-year-old who was forced to both care for her younger brother and sister but also find her father who had skipped town and was about to forfeit his bail which was secured by the house she lived in, was nothing short of fantastic. Her characterization of a woman both older and younger than her age and her relentless search which brought her into contact and conflict with a segment of Ozark Mountain “society” that I had never seen, was stupendous and I think you will see more of her to come.  I only hope that this movie does not go the way of Frozen River which won the same award two years ago and got a best actress nomination for Melissa Leo.  That movie, which was also an excellent portrayal of a society that was foreign to me, seemed to get very little play in the theaters and went to DVD before people could see it on the big screen. If this comes to a theater near you go see it. It is not an easy movie to watch but the portrayal of Ree as well as her uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes) were worth the price of admission.
Holy Rollers
  1. SUMMARY: Inspired by actual events, Holy Rollers uses the incredible story of Hasidic Jews smuggling Ecstasy in the late ´90s as a backdrop to examine the difference between faith and “blind” faith. Sam Gold, an insulated Hasid on the cusp of manhood, is frustrated by the constraints of his beliefs and his father´s poor business decisions. When Sam is presented with an opportunity to make some real money smuggling Ecstasy between Amsterdam and New York, he cautiously accepts it-and quickly finds himself seduced by the allure of the secular world. Caught between life as a smuggler and the path back to God, Sam and his worlds begin to unravel. In the lead role, Jesse Eisenberg deftly displays the internal moral struggle of a young man torn between polar-opposite cultures and ideologies. Director Kevin Asch fleshes out the disparate outer worlds of Brooklyn´s Hasidic community and the drug scene in Amsterdam, while revealing the complex interior lives of his characters and the taut dynamics among them.
  2. MY THOUGHTS:  This was a real surprise to me. It got a lot of pre-Sundance buzz but I had low expectations given the plot.  Jesse Eisenberg did such a great job as the Hasidic kid who moves from his religious world to a drug smuggling, money laden scene complete with visits to clubs (could have used fewer of these to make the same point) and the rest of the cast (particularly Justin Bartha who plays Yosef who gets Sam into transporting Ecstasy from Amsterdam to the U.S.
  1. SUMMARY:  It´s 1983, and Skateland, the roller rink and local hangout of a small town, is becoming a fading memory of an earlier time, when disco and roller-skating were king. The party scene is getting stale, and 19-year-old Ritchie’s romantic life is as cloudy as his future. He struggles to make sense of it all, and decisions do not come easily to the carefree young man. When tragedy strikes his friends and family, Ritchie must face the music-and make the biggest decision of his life. Without the benefit of a studio budget or name casting, Anthony Burns and Brandon and Heath Freeman capture the ’80s in startling detail. The result: a cinematic scrapbook of a time and place, a visceral visual, and an aural experience that reclaims the decade for those of us lucky enough to have lived through it once. While the atmosphere is time specific, the themes of the joys and pains of growing up are universal.
  2. MY THOUGHTS:  Initially, as the second movie that I saw, I liked this film.  But unlike many films, this one did not grow on me.  In fact, it seemed to pale in comparison to the better films listed above.  The acting was good, not great, but good. Shiloh Fernandez played Ritchie well, I thought and Heath Freeman, one of the writers, was also good in his role.  All in all, it was nice to see a movie that dealt with male friendships in an era when they were difficult and often awkward.  Some of the party scenes could have been cut to make the movie a tad shorter but still this is a movie worth seeing.
Please Give
  1. SUMMARY:  Kate (Catherine Keener) and Alex (Oliver Platt), a married couple who run a successful business reselling estate-sale furniture, live in Manhattan with their teenage daughter, Abby. Wanting to expand their two-bedroom apartment, they buy the unit next door, planning to knock the walls out. However, before doing so, they have to wait for the occupant, Andra, a cranky elderly woman, to die. The wait becomes complicated when the family develops relationships with Andra and her two grown granddaughters. Nicole Holofcener infuses her story of love, death, and liberal guilt with a rare balance of humor and complexity that stems from her uncanny ability to understand people-their motivations, interactions, and contradictions. Her characters go to great pains to navigate a world of moral confusion; we want to feel good about ourselves, but we never feel quite good enough. In avoiding judgment, she offers a funny and philosophical reflection on the give and take of modern life.
  2. MY THOUGHTS:  This is a movie that probably deserved to be higher on my list since it has continued to grow on me over the last few days. Obviously with a great cast, the movie is more about how everyone is unhappy with their lives and how they deal with those feelings.  I did like it that Oliver Platt mentioned Howard Stern and Artie Lang twice!
Animal Kingdom
  1. SUMMARY: Welcome to the jungle known as the Melbourne underworld. Animal Kingdom uses this edgy locale to unspool a gripping tale of survival and revenge. Pope Cody, an armed robber on the run from a gang of renegade detectives, is in hiding, surrounded by his roughneck friends and family. Soon, Pope´s nephew, Joshua “J” Cody, arrives and moves in with his hitherto-estranged relatives. When tensions between the family and the police reach a bloody peak, “J” finds himself at the center of a cold-blooded revenge plot that turns the family upside down. Wielding a formidable cinematic lexicon, writer/director David Michôd shows complete command of every frame as he shifts between simmering intensity and gut-wrenching drama. There isn’t a false note in the film as it follows through on the tantalizing promise displayed in his short films and unleashes a fierce new voice in Australian cinema.
  2. MY THOUGHTS: This Aussie film won the World Cinema Jury Prize for Drama and I think that I sort of liked it although it was gruesome and difficult to watch.  I came away with the feeling that I was watching true and utter evil in action.  The two leads – Ben Mendelsohn and James Frecheville – did an excellent job in displaying their talents as an evil man who would do anything including killing a woman who had nothing to do with his criminal activities (Mendelsohn) and a nephew (Frecheville) who was trying to understand and deal with his family´s criminal activities and willingness to kill anyone who represented a perceived roadblock.
The Man Next Door
  1. SUMMARY: Leonardo, a successful industrial designer, lives with his family in an architectural wonder, a midcentury Le Corbusier home. One morning, he wakes to an irksome noise and is appalled to discover that workmen next door are constructing a large window that faces directly into his home. Leonardo protests, using a number of excuses (privacy, building codes, his wife), in an attempt to coerce his neighbor, Victor, into scrapping his plan. But Victor just wants a patch of sun to catch some rays. Thus, one man´s light is another man´s blight.  Enamored of architecture, the film is meticulously designed. Mariano Cohn and Gastón Duprat give it a carefully crafted weirdness as well as a figurative quality. Its caustic humor comes in contemplating why the window completely undermines Leonardo. Does it reveal his arrogance, affectation, and lack of compassion; or dispel his bourgeois illusion of power? The Man Next Door offers a biting critique of moral shallowness-and what happens when thou dost not love thy neighbor´s window.
  2. MY THOUGHTS: This movie from Argentina won the World Cinema Cinematography Award for Drama which was well deserved.  I love architecture and the Le Corbusier home was amazing.  I can´t imagine what it must be like to live in a house that is all white walls (and most of the floors) and has windows (huge ones) everywhere. It was the brightest house I have ever seen and deserving of the cinematography award.  The plot, well, that was a tad weak and the movie was way too long. I think it would have made a good short, perhaps 30 minutes or so.  I never quite understood why the family in the Le Corbusier house didn´t just simply put up blinds over the one window that faced the neighbor´s new window.  Having said that, I think that it is worth seeing this one on the big screen just to see the filming of the house in all its glory.
Peepli Live
  1. SUMMARY: On the eve of national elections in the Indian village of Peepli, two poor farmers, Natha and Budhia, face losing their land over an unpaid government loan. Desperate, they seek help from an apathetic local politician, who suggests they commit suicide to benefit from a government program that aids the families of indebted deceased farmers. When a journalist overhears Budhia urge Natha to “do what needs to be done” for the sake of their families, a media frenzy ignites around whether or not Natha will commit suicide. Soon Natha becomes a cause célèbre, who draws out the true character and motivations of those who cross his path. Anusha Rizvi´s auspicious first feature, Peepli Live, is a fresh and intelligently spun satire of the real-life epidemic of farmer suicides that have plagued India for the past decade. With a deft hand, Rizvi infuses humor and buoyancy in depicting this tragic predicament, illuminating the true colors of many corridors of Indian society.
  2. MY THOUGHTS:  As much as I wanted to like this movie from India I just felt that it was self-serving. When I found out in the Q&A that the director and screen writer (Rizvi) had been a journalist I think it helped understand her emphasis on the chaos that occurred when all the various media outlets converged on the little town of Peepli.  I did get the message that the farmers (who represent 70% of the population of India according to Rizvi) have a miserable life and the government seems to not really care.  It was somewhat comical to realize that every time someone in the government wanted to deal with the situation of struggling poor farmers their solution was to try to throw money at it … and then change their minds in the next day or two. It seemed like Indian politics were at the route of the problem and perhaps my lack of knowledge about how the country works is what made this film feel way too long and the message being pounded into me.
New Low
  1. SUMMARY: The worst thing about Wendell isn’t his slightly balding head, skinny frame, or thin lips; it’s that he´s a bit of an idiot. He just started dating Vicky, an angry drunk, who conveniently shares his lack of ambition and cleanliness. But he might prefer a relationship with Joanna because she´s a selfless social worker who doesn’t have lip acne. Eventually, Wendell is going to have to decide who he really belongs with: the best girl he’s ever known-or the worst. Twenty-five-year-old Adam Bowers writes, directs, and stars in this deadpan comedic love triangle for questionable romantics, which was shot on borrowed equipment by whichever one of his friends was available that day. This sharply scripted debut feature out of Gainesville, Florida, charms with Bowers’s natural comedic timing and endless supply of one-liners while questioning not only who we should spend our life with but who we truly are under all our neuroses.
  2. MY THOUGHTS: I really wanted to like this movie but it just didn´t cut it. I didn´t find the main character, Wendell, interesting or believable and perhaps that was because Adam wrote this movie (and directed it) as a platform for his comedic talents.  The characters were shallow and I never felt that either of the women had any depth, or at least the writer didn´t give them anything to work with, instead concentrating on Wendell´s misery. It also didn´t help that the film was shot in a way that made it look like a home movie. I had a difficult time getting over the choices made in how to shoot the movie with such lack of cinematographic excellence that is easily available.  I guess I just thought that this was a very self-indulgent movie and I actually fell asleep for a few moments which should say something. In the Q&A afterwards with Adam, it became clear why I didn´t like his character and his movie.  He just acted arrogant and tried to be funny which fell flat.
Drunken History: Douglass and Lincoln
  1. SUMMARY: On March 22, Jen Kirkman drank two bottles of wine and then discussed a historical event.
  2. MY THOUGHTS: With the one line summary I had no idea that this six minute short would be so hilarious.  The young woman, who was clearly very bright, drank two bottles of wine and proceeded to tell all she knew about Lincoln and Douglass.  Three actors – Will Ferrell, Don Cheedle, and Zooey Deschanel (how did they get these three major stars?) – in garish costumes, mouthed her words as she put sometimes bizarre, drunken thoughts into their mouths.  I laughed so much it hurt and I really wanted to see the second in this series (Tesla and Edison) but never made it. I know that the filmmaker mentioned that the short was going to be on HBO so watch for it.

So yet another Sundance has come and gone and some great movies and only one that was truly miserable.  This year was not close to last year where we saw Precious and (500) Days of Summer among other greats.  But it was a good year and I look forward to next year. One final note: The weather was beautiful with sunny skies and temperatures in the high 20s, low 30s during the day and teens at night.  When we emerged from the theater after the final movie (HappyThankYouMorePlease) the snow as coming down in floating flakes which I thought was very fitting. Our first snow flurry as we finished our movies.  All in all a very fun time.

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