Tag Archives: Sundance review

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) 

True Story (2015 Sundance)

11 Feb

Longtime comedy duo James Franco and Jonah Hill bust out their dramatic skills in the Brad Pitt-produced True Story, a film about the grey areas between truth, journalism and fiction writing. Loosely based off the real-life events of American journalist Michael Finkel (played here by Jonah Hill), a New York Times reporter who comes accross the story of his life when confronted with Christian Longo (James Franco), a man accused of killing his wife and children and then using Michael’s identity while in custody. Michael, who is under his own charges of falsifying a recent story, becomes amused at why an alleged murderer would use his name, decides to investigate the story and ends up writing a book about the case in order to build credibility back to his journalistic name.

True Story documents Michael and Christian’s odd relationship as they get to know each other over a series of face-to-face interviews. What follows is a series of interactions that sets up a psychological game of cat-and-mouse for our two protagonists. While Michael strives to get to the Truth of what really happened, Christian is always one step ahead of the game, paying his own set of cards from inside his jail cell. Weather or not Christian actually killed his family or weather he was framed becomes the focal point of the film, and the main mystery which propels the drama forward. Felicity Jones plays Jill, Michael’s wife, and her involvement in the case, and in the life of Christian, intensifies as the film progresses.

What would be great material for someone like David Fincher or Roman Polanski to direct tragically falls short under the hands of director Rupert Goold. Mostly known for his theatre work, True Story is Goold’s first feature and it shows. The moments of possible tension in the story are tragically played down which all  adds up to a series of missed opportunities. The film is also much tamer that I would have guessed (I wouldn’t be surprised if it received a PG-13) and its tendency to play things safe and lean towards a minimalistic adaptation of a crime backfires.  The interactions and performances of Hill, Jones, and Franco however, are superb and True Story proves that the comedic duo can hold their own dramatically.

Bottom Line: Despite its missteps, True Story is definitely worth a watch as it greatly showcases Hill and Franco’s versatile talent.

Rating 6/10

Similar to: The Ghost Writer (2010), State of Play (2009), A Most Wanted Man (2014) 

Last Days In The Desert (Sundance 2015)

5 Feb

Ewan Mcgregor plays the characters of Satan and Jesus in this Biblical adaptation of Matthew 4. If you recall from Sunday School, this is the part in the New Testament where Jesus fasted for 40 days and becomes tempted by Lucifer to use his godly powers to feed himself. Directed by Rodrigo Garcia, and shot by the Academy Award winning Emmanuel LubezkiLast Days In The Desert is a magnificent display of one man’s search for meaning and spiritual fulfillment. Unfortunately, the audience is left searching for meaning as well, as the plot of the film becomes so thinned out it is lost in the vivid details of the desert scenery, proving Last Days to be nothing more than an exercise in style over substance.

The film starts with Jesus wandering majestical desert scenery after a long prayer. “Father, where are you?” he asks, questioning his role in God’s mighty plan. After a few surreal encounters, our wanderer stumbles upon a small unnamed family who has just left Jerusalem in order to excavate nearby rocks. The family is lead by a patriarchal figure played by Ciaran Hinds, who dying wife (played by Ayelet Zurer) and questioning son (Tye Sheridan) come to Jesus in the middle of a crisis. Jesus decides to try and help this family, as a way to resolve his continuing annoyances from the Devil and reconcile with his Heavenly Father. Sheridan and Hinds’ characters are also in the midst of a father-son dilemma; the older wanting to stay secluded from society in the desert, and the younger wanting to go and learn a trade in the city.

There are few cinematographers working today who have quite the legacy of Lubezki (Google “best cinematography” and you will get at least three of his films on the first page), and his brilliant eye works wonders for the desert scenery. Long, empty, and distant shots of towering sand dunes are contrasted with busy close-ups of desert wildlife. With such few characters to work with, Lubezki is left with the daunting task of using nature to evoke emotional responses. We see a bloodthirsty pack of wolves, violent rivers, sinister insects, and jagged cliff sides.

While it does look grandiose and vivid, the content and story of Last Days In The Desert remain hollow and frustratingly empty. Though the film clocks in at 98 min, the extreme long shots and lack of dialogue make it feel more like 150. Garcia never gives the audience enough substance to chew on, and that could be perhaps the his biggest sin here.

Rating: 5/10 

Similar to: Wings of Desire (1987), Days of Heaven (1978), Clean Shaven (1993) 

H. (Sundance 2015)

4 Feb

Artsy. Wierd. Pretentious. Experimental. Cryptic.

Whatever labels you throw at it, the 2015 Sundance film H. is a hard one to tackle. Equal parts romance, sci-fi, relationship drama, and visual poetry, H. tells the story of two couples whose lives slowly start to intersect into each others’ in conjunction with the passing of some celestial object from space.  The first characters we encounter are Helen and Roy (played by Robin Bartlett and  Julian Gamble respectively), an aging couple from Troy, New York. Helen likes to purchase life-like baby dolls and treat them like real newborn (or as she calls them “reborn” babies, which includes pretending to put them to bed, feeding, and burping them. Roy likes fishing. There is another woman named Helen (Rebecca Dayan), but she is in her 8th month of pregnancy and is into artistic photography along with her husband Alex (Will Janowitz). Both couples seem to innocently carry on with their lives until a mysterious something (natural disaster? meteor? space aliens?) causes the city to go into chaos, triggering a domino effect that weaves in and out of the city.

Featuring some fantastic imagery from this year’s festival (rivaled only perhaps by Lubezki’s work in Last Days in the Desert and the stunning visual palette from The Witch), H. was designed and experienced as a bold visceral journey. Along the way are various cryptic messages referencing the great Greek drama The Iliad. H.‘s music is also intensely compelling. If you haven’t already associated the beautiful cello and piano piece Arvo Part with great cinema after watching There Will Be Bloodyou will now; almost every scene in H. has some variation of the intense melody.

The story itself is pretty inaccessible – most of the audience’s understanding (or lack thereof) comes from subtle visual references – but H. is really a must see because of it’s ability to exhibit and celebrate a truly unique flavor of film. The tone of this thing washed right over me from the start and I was completely entranced by it’s hypnotic spell. In an age where most films feel the need to explain everything to the point of redundancy, it’s incredibly refreshing to see something trying so hard to be ambiguous. H. does feel a little like an amatuer student production at some points, but I absolutely think filmmakers Daniel Garcia and Rania Attieh have a solid future ahead of them. Its lack of a concrete explanation (or any explanation at all) for the events on-screen will surely leave some viewers frustrated, but H. is a bold execution in ambient, atmospheric filmmaking and deserves to be seen.

Screen Shot 2015-02-04 at 5.12.25 PM

 

Rating: 7/10 

Similar to: Enemy (2014), Under The Skin (2014), Upstream Color (2013) 

Check out the trailer below: