Tag Archives: Utah

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) 

Slow West (2015 Sundance)

9 Feb

A 19th century western set in the great nation of New Zealand? Sure, why not? Slow West tells the story of Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and Rose (Karen Pistorius), two lovers separated by tragic circumstances. Jay, a proper british aristocrat decides he will journey solo out west in order to be reunited with his true soulmate. What he doesn’t know is that he isn’t the only one looking for Rose, as she is wanted by the law and has a large bounty on her head.  Michael Fassbender plays Silas, a lone wolf frontiersman who agrees to help escort Jay to California – for a price of course. Along the way the duo runs into thier fair share of obstacles, treacherous characters and drunken adventures.

It’s a small-scale indie film, but there is still a quality to Slow West that makes it feel like a full blown epic. We see our heros traverse a wide array of terrain that only New Zealand can offer – from harsh desert landscapes to wheat fields so picturesque they’re surreal – and every frame is shot in vivid detail from cinematographer Robbie Ryan (Philomena, Fish Tank).  Fassbender is great as always, and he totally dissolves into his machismo mountain-man character. Smit-McPhee is different. Playing the brooding and plain-faced adolescent, he never is quite expressive enough to convincingly play the part; you get a sense Smit-McPhee was cast more for his eye candy appeal than his dramatic chops. Thankfully, most of the film he keeps to himself and lets Fassbender do all the talking.

In the way of narrative, Slow West is fairly simple film that borrows heavily on various genre influences. You get an adventurous touch of Sergio Leone mixed in with the revenge tendencies of Tarantino, peppered with some Coen-esc dark comedy.  These elements work great individually, but as a sum total of its parts, Slow West should be more impressive than it actually is. At a tidy 84 minutes, however, there isn’t much to be complain about, and the film’s latter half far outshines its monotonous first.

Bottom Line: Though it falls short of the epic masterpiece it’s pretenses would suggest, Slow West still provides a wonderful journey for audiences and a much-needed revision to the western genre.

slowwest

Rating: 7/10 

Similar to: True Grit (2010), The Assassination of Jesse James (2007),  Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013) 

Mississippi Grind (2015 Sundance)

8 Feb

Director Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson) hits the fast-paced world of gambling with his latest Sundance Film Festival entry Mississippi Grind. Set at various casinos up and down the Mississippi River, the film follows Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn), a longtime gambling addict, and Curtis (Ryan Reynolds), a fellow gambler.  Gerry, (who is long overdue on his payments and owes money to half his friends and family) plays the poker game as a last-effort resort to make his payments. Curtis is just in it for the fun, or as he says “I like meeting gamblers”. The two form a tight friendship and decide to enter a high profile tournament in New Orleans.

It becomes clear early on that Gerry needs to win big and will either be coming back home as a winner or not at all. His technique involves playing a CD with hundreds of audio tips (“…number 85 – A player with a furrowed brow indicates disappointment. He or she might be holding a bad hand…”) in his car as the two journey together. Curtis on the other hand, has enough money, but is just a traveler by nature, never staying in one town for two long. According to him, the journey is more important than the destination.

Most of Mississippi Grind takes the form of a road movie, with Curtis and Gerry meeting a colorful assortment of characters and playing a series of small-time games together as they make their way down south.  Heartbeat Ryan Reynolds gives a solid performance, but it is really Ben Mendelsohn who steals the show. Mendelsohn, who has long been underrated character actor, totally dissolves into his character and shows the many mannerisms of a gambling addict. To such a person, every little thing becomes something to bet against (at one point, Gerry impulsively bets $1000 on whether or not the next person walking out of the restroom will have glasses on) and their only way of coping with life’s stresses is to constantly be winning.

Watching these two characters on screen is incredibly satisfying, but their chemistry is sadly restrained by the simple story. The atmosphere is there, the acting is there, the music is fantastic – but what this film is missing is a narrative dramatic enough to match the performances. We never really get a sense of how much this poker tournament means to each character, and it feels like they are just onscreen to fill time and space.  Without much of a purpose or a need to be there, the film just feels like an unnecessary road trip.  It has its moments for sure (the final 15 minutes is quite incredible) but as a whole, Mississippi Grind just isn’t compelling enough to merit much other than a simple bromance between two gambling addicts.

Rating: 6/10 

Similar to: The Gambler (1974), Hard Eight (1996), Sideways (2004) 

Dope (Sundance 2015)

7 Feb

What do you do if you are a black kid growing up in a black neighborhood (Inglewood CA to be precise) who is into white culture? For Malcom (Shameik Moore),  the protagonist of Sundance Film Festival film Dope, the answer isn’t so easy. Malcom is self-descirbed as a huge 90’s hip hop fan. Him and his two best friends Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) and Jib (Tony Revolri) play in a punk rock band called Oreo. He also gets good grades and wants to go to Harvard after he graduates. One night, a chance encounter at a local drug dealer’s party leads Malcom down a series of crazy adventures as he tries to evade law enforcement and rival dealers.

Dope is a terribly exciting mash-up film of several themes and ideas that dominate today’s pop culture landscape. An envelope pusher for sure, Dope brings all sorts of cultural issues to the forefront including racial bias, party culture, LGBT issues, drug abuse, and the need to stay relevant in an increasingly viral society. The story is told through shifting perspectives that highlight multiple events reminiscent of films like Pulp Fiction or Run Lola Run. Featuring a healthy dose of snappy dialogue, Dope starts off with a bang and builds upon itself until the film’s final act. It’s so tempting to caught up in the rush and energy of this thing, that it’s easy to forget how bad parts of it are. Most of the characters are one-dimensional stereotypes you only see in the worst kind of comedies, and the story jumps around from place to place without much explanation. But there was this inexplicable charm from Dope that kept me intrigued, even as the film tragically falls of the rails during it’s last half (about the point where our main trio sporadically decide to become drug dealers in order to impress a Harvard alumni).

Dope then turns into an atypical R-rated stoner comedy fueled by sugarcoated pop songs by Pharrell Williams, cameos by ASAP Rocky and Zoe Kravitz, and some Morgan Freeman-esc narration by Forest Whitaker. Too ambitious for its own good, the film reaches some major pacing issues during its last half hour and is in desperate need of a skilled editor’s cut. As it stands, Dope is a fun, fast-paced mashup that will be loved by the internet generation, but a possible disappointment for those looking for something more substantial. As a potential mainstream crowdpleaser though, the film sold at an unusually high amount at Sundance to Open Road Films (somewhere around 7 million?), and should have a very healthy theatrical release sometime this summer. Keep your eyes peeled.

Rating: 6/10 

Similar to: Dear White People, Pinapple Express, The Lego Movie 

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) 

Digging For Fire (2015 Sundance)

4 Feb

Joe Swanberg is a bit of an enigma. On one hand, he is known for his nasty bad-guy characters from recent horror films like V.H.S., Proxy and You’re Next! On the other hand, his work as a director fits nicely into the mumblecore fare, with films like Happy Christmas and Drinking Buddies about as far away from the horror genre as you can get. When I first read the discription for his latest Sundance Film Festival entry Digging For Fire, I was expecting something with a bit more thrills (after all, the film’s premise revolves around a man digging up a bone and a gun from someone’s backyard), but I left feeling uplifted but slightly underwhelmed.

The main protagonists here are Lee (played by an always enjoyable Rosemarie DeWitt) who is married to slacker husband Tim (Jake Johnson doing his thing). Lee is a yoga instructor who is trusted by her boss to watch an expensive house while she is away. While Lee is out doing business, Tim takes up the responsibility of preparing the couple’s tax returns with their toddler son (played by Joe Swanberg’s real life son Jude) to keep him company. Of course Tim does what any good slacker husband would do and invites his buddies over for a few drinks and to enjoy their host’s expensive swimming pool. Thier drunken night together leads to a discovery of certain artifacts buried deep under the earth, and this soon starts an obsessive Tim on a journey to solve the mystery.

Aesthetically, Digging For Fire is pretty solid thanks to a wonderful soundtrack from Dan Romer (Beasts of the Southern Wild) and cinematography from Ben Richardson (The Fault in our Stars); together, they create a distinct tone for the film that is situated somewhere between romance, adventure and cynicism. Like many films of his contemporaries (the Duplass brothers or Andrew Bujalski come to mind), Swanberg’s narrative fits into the no-man’s-land between comedy, romance, and family drama. Unlike other mumblecore stories however, Digging For Fire is tragically missing the charming spark that keeps the sub-genre feeling fresh and interesting. Most of the supporting cast (several of whom are big-name indie personalities like Sam Rockwell, Jenny Slate, Anna Kendrick, or Brie Larson) feel unnecessarily invented as a way to show off a clever cameo, and the backbone of the story is revealed to be a simple mcguffin plot device. DeWitt and Johnson have a cool chemistry between them, and a few good laughs are in store, but it simply isn’t enough to carry the entirety of film. While Digging For Fire doesn’t quite have the substance that I was looking for, it still provides another light-hearted and intriguing filmic experience.

Rating: 6/10 

Similar to: Safety Not Guaranteed (2012), Greenberg (2010), Men, Women and Children (2014)