Tag Archives: Sundance Film Festival

I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore (2017)

23 Feb

It’s a cruel, cruel world. Taking place in what could only be Trump’s America, I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore details the day-to-day life of Ruth (Melanie Lynskey), a jaded medical assistant who seems disgusted by the self-centeredness of a universe where “everyone I see is an asshole.” Ruth lives at home; her only friend is Angie, a busy housewife who has no time to listen when she nearly has an emotional breakdown after becoming a crime victim. It’s enough to push Ruth over the edge and investigate the perpetrators on her own terms, enlisting the help of her violent, short-tempered neighbor Tony (Elijah Wood) who just also happens to be a skilled martial artist.

Macon Blair, a skilled actor making his directorial debut, tightly commands every moment of this pitch-black comedic thriller. The jokes are few and far between, but they are delivered in such sly fashion they have a big impact (the bar scene is awkward enough to rival any episode from The Office). Blair, who comes fresh off of acting in Jeremy Saulnier’s acclaimed indie thrillers Green Room and Blue Ruin, is obviously a big genre fan himself, and his script here takes from a variety of influences (Martin McDonagh and the Coen brothers come to mind) while still feeling fresh and original. Lynskey gives her career-best performance as someone who is constantly weighed by the anxieties of the modern world but still someone who wants to make the altruistic change she wishes she could see in other people.

The story gets bumpy at around the halfway mark, but the few narrative issues are easily put aside when the film dives headfirst into its white-knuckle, absolutely batshit-insane third act. Here Blair’s talent shines like a beacon and he creates enormous amounts of tension in an incredibly tight timeframe. Clocking in at just over 90 minutes, I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore is a taut little thriller that leaves a bigger impression than it should.

Elijah Wood and Melanie Lynskey appear in I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore by Macon Blair, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Allyson Riggs.

Bottom Line: A genre-infused piece that shows Macon Blair’s inherent directorial sensibilities,  I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore is a deliciously clever and innovative take on the vigilante revenge story. It’s also incredibly suspenseful and drop-dead hilarious. 

Rating: 8/10 

Film Recipe: Fargo + In Bruges + Straw Dogs + Gran Torino 

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The Witch (2015 Sundance)

18 Feb

Zombies and Vampires may come close, but no horror archetype has been represented and caricatured in cinema quite like that of a witch. From The Wizard of Oz to Harry Potter, to Monty Python, we have been enchanted by the mysterious figure. I walked into the “The Witch” thinking I had seen just about every form of witches out there. I was so wrong.

Directed by Robert Eggers, and based of the real-life accounts of 16th century New England puritans, The Witch tells the story of a small puritan family who have recently been banished from their immigrant village on account of religious blasphemy.  William, Katherine, Thomasin, Caleb, Jonas, and Mercy must now fend for themselves by raising a farm in the middle of a forsaken (and possibly haunted) swampland. Without the aid of any nearby villagers, the family is faced with a terrifying ultimatum: either grow food or starve to death.  When crops fail to sprout however, William (Ralph Ineson), the family patriarch, suspects his children have been involved with witchcraft and dabbling in occult affairs. Members of the family then begin one by one to descend into a terrifying spiral of religiously-fuelled madness and savagery.

Part supernatural horror, part paranoid thriller, The Witch is a genuinely spooky take on the occult and the terrorizing effects religious devotion can have on one’s psyche. Thankfully, it is a meticulously crafted as it is terrifying, making The Witch the most artistically minded horror since 2014’s Under The Skin.

The Witch is one of those rare films you just don’t watch but experience; you can feel the sense of impending dread seeping out from the screen as you watch characters slowly peel back the mystery and evil that exists within the nearby woods. Boasting an immaculate production design that effectively recalls the early 1600’s, the film accurately recalls a time and place when religious paranoia fueled all aspects of life.  The film’s dialogue is even written word-by-word from historical transcripts and rendered by the actors in heavy, old-english accents. This kind of attention to detail might throw some viewers off (especially those with an aversion to period pieces) and the slow timing during the film’s first act ensures only those with a bit a patience will brave the film’s nightmarish climax.

This film is dark – extremely dark – figuratively and literally, (I doubt some scenes will even be visible when screened in a lightened room) which adds immensely to its haunting quality. Dimly lit landscapes covered in impenetrable greys add a surreal and menacing atmosphere. With one hell of an unsettling score, The Witch creates subtle psychological tension from the things we don’t see onscreen rather than relying on tiring jump scares.

 

Bottom Line: The Witch is a throwback to the great horror films of the 70’s, but delivered in such a visceral fashion that the ultimate effect is hard to shake off; I literally had dreams (nightmares?) about this thing weeks after seeing it.

 

Rating: 8/10 

Film Recipe: The Wicker Man (1973) + The Shining (1980) + The Exorcist (1973)

Anomalisa (2016 Sundance)

28 Jan

What does it mean to be human?

Perhaps no other question has plagued writer/director Charlie Kaufman throughout his work than this age-old existential dilemma. Co-directed with Duke Johnson, Anomalisa marks the first animated film from Kauffman, with all the characters taking the form of stop-motion puppets. It’s a brave choice to render a deeply human artistic vision with inhuman objects, but somehow it all works so well. These characters feel and look familiar enough to be incredibly relatable while still maintaining their foreign and still-life properties through the wall of puppetry.  Anomalisa unfolds itself in a sort of hallucinogenic, dream-like state, with each scene blending into the next until a narrative starts to take shape:

The film focuses on Thomas Stone, a sort of well known cheerleader for customer service reps nationwide, as he has been summoned to speak in Cincinnati Ohio for a business convention. Unfortunately, Stone seems to be suffering from some sort of psychological breakdown, one that makes him inept to connect with others around him – despite their obvious love and adoration for him. Stone sees everyone else in the world as “the same”; simple replicas of one another without any depth, feeling, or emotion. Stone is miserable man, plagued with the mindless existence of others, until he meets someone who, by chance is “different….. a real person.” This prompts Stone to reconsider his options, in order lead a fulfilling life of love and authentic connection.

Johnson and Kaufman pay special attention to the small details in the world of Anomalisa; it doesn’t matter if they are the physical details of the production itself (every set piece was painstakingly crafted and animated by hand) or the subtle character details that make these puppets spring to life and take on the personas of real people. Financed entirely from funds through fans from Kickstarter, Anomalisa is one of those quiet films that makes an impact through its many smaller parts. It plays like a short film actually, with a only a few interior set pieces being used, but it’s incredibly powerful in its message and, ultimately, hauntingly truthful. Though there are some jarring and awkward moments (one particular scene featuring puppet sex drags tragically for too long) it’s intimate ideas about loneliness, desperation, self-consciousness and connection somehow become incredibly poignant as the film progresses, and even more so after the credits roll and you are left to reflect on what you have just seen.  It might not have the towering ambition of Synecdoche New York, the meta, self-awareness of Adaptation, or the Inception-esc surrealism of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but Anomalisa is singularly Kaufman’s most restrained and intimate work.

Bottom Line: A labor of love from directors Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman, Anomalisa makes a profound statement about humanity through its many small (and sometimes painfully truthful) charms.

Rating: 9/10 

Film Recipe:  Happiness + Her + Being John Malkovich

Cop Car (2015)

2 Sep

“This is our cop car!” ten-year-old Harrison (Hays Wellford) yells, as he and his best friend Travis (James Freedson-Jackson), take off with a newly carjacked police vehicle. The aptly-titled film Cop Car follows these two boys as they begin their rebellious journey by committing grand theft auto in a midwest rural town. Of course, the local Sheriff  Kretzer (a wonderful Kevin Bacon) isn’t game to just let a couple of hoodlums escape with his car, especially when it contains important contraband connected with a crime of Kretzer’s own doing…

Directed by Jon Watts and co-written by Watts and Chris D. Ford, Cop Car starts out as standard teenage, lighthearted fare. The first opening lines feature Harrison and Wellford alone in a wheatfield spewing a string of curse words for the sheer thrill of it. Boys will be boys after all. As the film slowly starts to shed light on the repercussions of messing with law enforcement, it becomes obvious to the children, and to the audience, that things have gotten WAY out of control. This is when the film thematically exhausts itself, as it tries too hard to straddle the lines between 1) exploiting the jokes and fun of having a pair of innocent kids take on the cops, and 2) showing just how serious (read: deadly) the situation has become.  It’s a tough line to straddle, and there are moments in the film (like when the children try to figure out how to handle a police pistol, for example) where I wasn’t sure if I should be laughing or terrified.  It’s all fun and games until someone gets shot.

Story-wise though, there is enough going on to make up for the film’s self-confusion. Watts and Ford have written a fairly solid film, especially in its latter half. And the execution – from the cinematography to the editing to the action scenes – is equally solid. In a film like this though, the children obviously take in the spotlight. Wellford and Freedson-Jackson make an adorable on screen presence, but unfortunately their lack of acting experience shines right through. Of course child actors are usually tricky, and make for an easy critical targets when discussing performances, but in a film like Cop Car, so much is weighing on the kids and it’s absolutely critical to have believable young actors who can pull the whole thing off. Unfortunately, that’s not the case here.

The vast majority of Cop Car however, is as entertaining as its premise would suggest. Watts cleverly weaves multiple storylines and points of view together to create a fulfilling and suspenseful narrative, complete with an incredible third act. Some of the scenes are flat out brilliant (the final 5 minutes might be one of the best cinematic moments of the year), but others feel mismatched and inconsistent. Clocking in at a nice and neat 86 minutes doesn’t give me too much to complain about.

Bottom Line: Missed opportunities and bland child acting zap Cop Car of it’s potential, making the film a bit of an inconsistent – but always enjoyable – mixed bag. 

 

Rating: 6/10 

The Recipe: Coen Bros + Home Alone (1990) + Young Anakin from The Phantom Menace 

Diary of a Teenage Girl (Sundance 2015)

25 Aug

Very few themes have been examined more in teen cinema than that of sexual maturation and puberty. From classic films like Stand By Meto contemporary ones like Superbad or last year’s Boyhood, film culture seems to be obsessed with capturing that moment where children start see the opposite sex in a different light. Rarely though, are they done so skillfully through the eyes of a female protagonist, which is what makes Sundance Film Festival entry Diary of a Teenage Girl such a refreshing delight.

Our lead girl is Minnie (played by Bel Powley), a 15 year-old girl raised in the hippie culture of 70’s San Francisco. Raised by her single mother Charlotte (Kristen Wiig) who has since divorced Minnie’s father and is seeing a new man by the name of Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard). The film quickly establishes that Minnie has just lost her virginity to Monroe, and the two form an unconventional and highly toxic relationship that fuels the drama for most of the film. Minnie’s newfound sexuality serves as her inspiration to start an audio journal, wherein she chronicles her sexual exploits and thoughts about life in general. As you can imagine, dating a man 20 years older has its share of compilations, especially when he is also dating your mom and you are still in high school.

While intensely uncomfortable at some moments, Minnie’s adventure is told so delicately and expertly by writer/director Marielle Heller (who, up to this point has been mostly known for her acting work in the underrated Liam Neeson vehicle A Walk Among The Tombstones) that it becomes hard not to fall in line with Minnie’s innocent view of what a romantic fling entitles her to. In her mind, dating her soon-to-be stepdad is perfectly natural because the two genuinely love each other, and according to Minnie “loving someone means you touch them all over”.  In the film’s first act Heller is arguably justifying a pedophilliac relationship, and we see how idealistic and good Minnie and Monroe are for each other. Later on however, Heller expertly shows us the complexity and devastation that comes with heartbreak.

The film’s plot does get weighed down a bit in the third act by a few unnecessary moments which tragically put the brakes on the free flowing and enthusiastic pace of the first half. Heller knows she has a great story on her hands, but perhaps she became a little too enthused about telling us how it ends. There is also a lot of crude animation that some people will really fall for, but I thought it was just a distraction.

Diary of a Teenage Girl is a superbly crafted and deeply affectionate film; you get a sense the story is intensely personal to Heller but still conveyed well enough so it’s instantly relatable to a wide array of viewers. Soft lighting and incredible production design reflect the youthful optimism and rebellious independent spirit of the 70’s.  It’s easy to see how this film took the Best Cinematography Award at the Sundance Awards Ceremony – every frame is overflowing with a romantic and dreamlike idealism. Bel Powley, a British theater actress, is absolutely fantastic in one of 2015’s biggest breakthrough performances.

Bottom Line: While a widespread theatrical run might not be on the horizon (I can’t imagine many megaplexes are looking for a film this unrelinquishing about such a taboo topic), Diary of a Teenage Girl deserves to be seen by many though VOD or some other platform where it will resonate with a large audience.

Rating: 8/10 

Film Recipe: Fish Tank (2010), +  It Felt Like Love (2014),  + Blue Is The Warmest Color (2013) 

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015 Sundance Review)

13 Apr

On paper, Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl seems like your typical teenage indie rom com. Quirky middle-class white filmmaker meets girl with cancer and they have all sorts of zany adventures with a black kid providing the film’s comic relief. Throw in a few songs from Radiohead, some stop-motion animated title sequences, and angsty talk about existentialism and you have the perfect embodiment of what a “sundance movie” should be…. on paper anyway. Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon seems to know this formula well however, and gives us enough voice and spontaneity to keep the twee, offbeat romance subgenre seem fresh again.

Based on the novel by the same name, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is told to us in chapters by Greg (Thomas Mann), our self-aware high school protagonist who narrates everything on-screen (“This is the part where I try drugs for the first time”) before we see it, Brechtian-style.  Greg spends his days recreating/parodying scenes from his favorite films with his best friend Earl (RJ Cyler). Some of their masterworks include “A Sockwork Orange”, “Senior Citizen Cane”, and “Don’t Look Now Because A Creepy Ass Dwarf Is About To Kill You Damn” (Seriously though – when was the last time you met a high schooler who had even heard of Nicholas Roeg?).  Things get complicated when Greg’s classmate and neighbor Rachel (Olivia Cooke) is diagnosed with leukemia, and the two form a tightly-knit friendship. Yep, you know exactly where this is going.  Supporting parental roles are provided by Nick Offerman, who plays a cool-dad version of himself, and Molly Shannon as Rachel’s carefree and flirtatious mom.

The film moves along at a brisk pace and is clever enough to avoid getting weighed down in it’s many pop culture references. Though it is essentially just another version of Garden State for the younger siblings of kids who actually remember how cool Garden State was, Me & Earl & the Dying Girl is a playful and entertaining film that actually was more emotionally poignant that I expected.

Bottom Line: Winning both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the film is certain to be a huge crowd-pleaser, and deserves all the critical praise it will surely get from those who thought Juno was the best film of 2007.

Rating 7/10 

Film Recipe: Garden State (2005) + 50/50 (2011) + Me, You, And Everyone We Know (2005) + The Perks Of Being A Wallflower (2012) + Criterion collecting snobs

 

Take Me To The River (2015 Sundance)

8 Apr

Ryder, our 17-year-old Californian protagonist, has just recently come to terms with the fact that he is gay. He wants to let others know too, including his mother’s conservative extended family.  “Does Grandma know I’m gay?” Ryder (Logan Miller) asks from the back of the car, en route to a family reunion. Cindy, his mother (played by Robin Weigert) is much more reserved about her son’s sexuality. Hesitant to let the cat out of the bag in front of her family she hasn’t been close with in years, Cindy tells her son to hold off on coming out until the timing is right.

Directed by Matt Sobel, Take Me To The River, aka – “The Family Reunion From Hell” delicately examines one boy’s newfound identity in the midst of exceptional circumstances. What results is an incredibly uncomfortable 85 minutes as the implications arise of being a closeted gay teen at an ultra-conservative rural Nebraska barbeque. Later, an unnamed incident involving Molly (Ursula Parker), the youngest daughter of Cindy’s temperamental brother Keith (Josh Hamilton) triggers a series of events that shake the entire family. Take Me To The River is a deeply felt and hypnotic film that overflows with anxiety and a bubbling tension. Miller is great as Ryder, the angsty and frustrated teen who rightfully rages against his family’s prejudices.  Hamilton might have the least well-written character (typical right-wing stereotypes abound) but he also gives a solid performance, though Weigert’s is the best of the bunch as the morally conflicted mother who cares for her son but who is also desperate to mend ties with her emotionally-distant family.

Shot on an ultra-low budget, Take Me To The River is Matt Sobel’s first feature, but you wouldn’t know it as the film shows a mature sense of storytelling and making hidden conflict manifest on the big screen. Premiering in Sundance Film Festival’s NEXT section (my favorite section of the fest) Sobel shows great promise as a new indie director and I can’t wait to see what he does next.

Bottom Line: Take Me To The River is a surprisingly suspenseful and genuinely heartfelt coming of age film showing great promise for director Matt Sobel and newcomer Logan Miller.

Rating: 8/10 

Film Recipe: Compliance (2012) + The Hunt (2013) + August, Osage County (2013)