Sundance 2014

review dear white people

Racism is over in America. That’s the conclusion reached by far too many people in the real world apparently, and the new film Dear White People sets out to address those opinions on both sides of the color-divide through a combination of frequent laughs and a sharply farcical commentary. If Higher Learning and P.C.U. spent a drunken night together this would be the frowned-upon result of that union. Just don’t call it a movilatto. Winchester University is an Ivy League school populated primarily with white students, but the campus ignites with controversy after one of the houses hosts a racially-fueled party inviting people to come celebrate and liberate their “inner negro.”  We then jump back several weeks in the lives of a quartet of black students who find their own personal agendas intertwined and altered leading up to the party.

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Kristen Stewart in CAMP X-RAY

Kristen Stewart has long been maligned for her seemingly unshakeable performance tics – the hair-playing, the lip-biting, the huffy breathing – and despite being gifted with a compelling character in Peter Sattler’s ambitious Camp X-Ray, Stewart simply can’t kick her bad habits in service to a good performance. Sattler’s debut feature is set at Guantanamo Bay, requiring Stewart to play a young U.S. soldier who finds her worldview forever altered by her experiences, and the actress simply isn’t up to the task, bringing down the quality and power of the entire film in the process. The film opens with a shot of the Twin Towers smoking on 9/11, as seen on television in a foreign country that we only, much later, learn is Germany. Aware of the events and confoundingly kitted out with a bag of cell phones, Ali Amir (Payman Maadi) turns his attention away from the news for afternoon prayer. He doesn’t finish those prayers, because a black bag is soon thrown over his head and he’s carted off to Gitmo. Beaten, caged, and imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay, the film then flashes forward to eight years later, and the arrival of Stewart’s Private Amy Cole.

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The Trip to Italy

“We aren’t going to do any impersonations, are we? Because we talked about that.” Prolific filmmaker Michael Winterbottom returns to the wonderful and witty world of Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon eating a lot of tasty-looking food and trying to one-up each other with uncanny celebrity impersonations in The Trip to Italy, a satisfying follow-up to 2010’s The Trip. Again retained by The Observer to put together a round of lightly fictionalized restaurant reviews with some trademark color commentary (this time in Italy), the film opens with Brydon inviting Coogan along for another adventure in eating, drinking, and just giving each other a lot of shit. Fortunately, Coogan accepts the offer (and all the five-star accommodations that go along with it). Though it may sound just a bit cliché and a tad trite, it also just so happens to be true: if you loved The Trip, you’ll love The Trip to Italy. Winterbottom and the lads have essentially changed locations, mixed around a bit of drama, and served up a film very much like their first one. Luckily, The Trip and The Trip to Italy are not films that rely on large-scale plot movements and big character revelations, and the things that worked well the first time work almost as well the second. The food looks better, too.

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Wish I Was Here

In spite of the Kickstarter hoopla and general hype surrounding Zach Braff’s return to feature filmmaking following a decade-long absence, Wish I Was Here is just about the movie you’d expect. It’s not technically a sequel to Garden State, but this is Braff exploring the same ideas in nearly-identical fashion. Imagine Braff’s Andrew Largeman ten years later but stuck-in-the-mud as ever and there’s Aidan Bloom, his protagonist here. Throw in the trademark Braff blend of fast, broad humor and unabashed sentimentality, plus a soundtrack packed with indie rock and lots of slow motion, and you can pretty much fill in the blanks. There’s nothing inherently wrong with returning to a familiar template, especially when it worked so well the first time around. There are considerable pleasures to be had in experiencing this story centered on a crisis-ridden moment in Largeman’s Bloom’s thirties, where a whole lot of negative news converges at once. It’s simply to say that when it comes to tone, structure and dialogue-construction, the picture seems awfully familiar.

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review i origins

Editor’s note: Our review of I Origins originally ran during this year’s Sundance Film Festival, but we’re re-posting it now as the film opens in limited release. Ian Gray (Michael Pitt) is a molecular biologist primarily interested in the function, capability, and evolution of the human eye. He’s worked on curing color blindness and takes photos of people’s eyes in his free time, but it’s his latest project that sets him on a spectacular course. Hoping to eliminate the sharpest arrow from creationists’ quiver of arguments against evolution (and for intelligent design), he sets out to map the various stages of human eye evolution. Karen (Brit Marling), a first-year student assigned to his lab, excitedly assists the project by searching for a currently sightless species that nonetheless feature the genetic material needed to create even the simplest eye. Running parallel to Ian’s work in the lab is his newly blossomed love life with Sofi (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey), a girl he meets at a Halloween party. The mask she wears prevents him from seeing her face, but some quality time spent bumping and grinding together atop a toilet combined with her memorable eyes makes the experience unforgettable for him. His quest to find her is aided by a seemingly predestined series of numbers, and soon the two are deep in love. He’s a pragmatic scientist, and she’s a believer in spirituality and fate, but after tragedy strikes those two worlds come together in unexpected fashion.

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Sundance 2014

Seems like just twelve days ago that Kate Erbland and I posted a list of our most anticipated films playing at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Our choices were based on elements as diverse as cast, premise, the filmmaker’s previous work, and even the two-word concept of an “abortion comedy.” As is always the case, though, expectations are never fully met, and while some movies we expected to love ended up disappointing us others that weren’t even on our radar completely blew us away. That, in a lanyard-wearing nutshell, is the beauty of film festivals. Unlike movies that open at your local cineplex or release onto Blu-ray and DVD each week, the majority of festival titles are unknown entities. There are no trailers or other marketing materials for these films, and the talent involved are often barely familiar faces at best. Most of the screenings are complete crapshoots, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. This year’s Sundance was one of the most rewarding film festivals I’ve attended in regard to quality, and it’s evident in the high number of films already picked up for distribution. It’s telling that I had to exclude great and/or highly entertaining movies like Dear White People, Cooties, Kumiko the Treasure Hunter, and The Battered Bastards of Baseball to narrow down my list below. Keep reading to see Kate’s and my top fourteen films of Sundance 2014.

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Sundance

And thus ends another Sundance Film Festival. This year’s festival provided us with plenty of feature fodder to examine for the next eleven or so months, despite the lack of any big breakout a la Fruitvale Station or Beasts of the Southern Wild. As ever, though, the festival featured some recurring trope and tricks (a few of which we identified early), but not all of them seemed rote or repetitive. In fact, there are more than a few themes and players that popped up throughout the festival that we would like to see more of – either at Sundance or out in the wide release world. So what kept showing up in this year’s Sundance selections that deserves a bigger stage? Read on, and make some notes.

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Small town life and big tragedy take to the big screen in filmmaker Sarah Colangelo’s feature film debut, Little Accidents, a slice of life drama about what happens when a town is hit by a pair of twin tragedies that may or may not be related to each other. Centered on three connected storylines that frequently bump up against each other before finally blending into one full-scale disaster, the film attempts to tackle big questions about grief and blame and responsibility through interpersonal examples. But despite strong acting (including a tear-stained performance by Elizabeth Banks, usually flexing her acting muscles in comedic situations), Little Accidents doesn’t pack much of an emotional punch, weighed down by predictable plotting and an uncomfortable sense that it’s primarily interested in piling on bad situation under bad situation, until everyone involved (characters and audience) simply crumbles under the weight of more cliché. The film opens months after a mining accident has rocked a small town that’s seemingly wholly dependent on its local coal operations. The sole survivor of a mine cave-in, young Amos (Boyd Holbrook) is clearly uncomfortable with the attention his designation has begun affording him, from people declaring that his survival was a miracle to the local union who is putting pressure on him to speak out against the mining company in order to punish them (read: give more money to all of the victims, including Amos). Both physically and emotionally damaged, Amos just wants his life back, and sets about returning to […]

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Newly-minted feature film director David Cross makes his stance on his debut film’s subject matter before a single image even flickers across the screen, as a title card announces “Based on a true story” before tacking on “that hasn’t happened yet.” Hits, the comedian’s first feature film as screenwriter and director, cleverly mocks and satirizes social media insanity, celebrity obsession, fame hunger, and most of what makes modern pop culture at large utterly ridiculous in a mostly neat little package. Matt Walsh stars as small town shit-starter Dave Stuben, a disaffected citizen who spends most of his free time showing up at city council meetings and bitching about the latest government conspiracy to stiff its population. Dave may not be popular around town, but he’s about to make it big, all thanks to the Internet (and also YouTube and a pack of hipsters desperate for a cause).

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review blind

Movies about blind women seem to fall into a subgenre all their own, and the overwhelming majority of them (including Wait Until Dark, Julia’s Eyes, The Eye, Blink, South Korea’s Blind) are suspense thrillers. The women are seemingly helpless victims-to-be forced to survive some malevolent outside force threatening their lives. The new Norwegian film, Blind, has chosen a different route. Ingrid (Ellen Dorritt Petersen) has recently lost her sight to a degenerative disease, and she has made her apartment the entirety of her new world. Her husband Moreten (Henrik Rafaelsen) is supportive, but she ignores his suggestions that she venture outside again. Her alone time already allows her mind to wander, but it also comes with thoughts on her husband’s infidelity, the lives of strangers, and the distinct sound of breathing in the apartment when she should be alone. But are these things real or imagined?

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In 2010, a tiny and malnourished baby girl died alone in her parents’ cheap apartment in Seoul, South Korea, having grown so weak in her three months on earth that she had actually lost weight since she’d been born. Her mother had participated in no prenatal care. She had last been fed rotten milk. Her parents didn’t call the police until they consulted the Internet for advice. And she had died alone because her parents were in the midst of one of their daily hours-long online gaming sessions that took them away from home. Her name was Sarang. It means “love” in Korean. The subject of Valerie Veatch’s Love Child may sound vaguely familiar – the story of Sarang Kim and her neglectful parents was minimally reported when it happened, a modern story about the perils of apparent “online gaming addiction” – but the director attempts to delve deeper into what exactly happened, why it happened, what that has to say about the Internet-obsessed culture of South Korea. Unfortunately, despite compelling and timely subject matter, Veatch’s film is a generally flaccid affair, with an already-slim 75-minute runtime bolstered by inessential and repetitive interviews, time-killing establishing shots, and painfully unemotional animations and re-creations.

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review the guest

The Peterson family lost their oldest son Caleb to the war in Afghanistan, and the four remaining members have carried on in their grief. A brief respite comes in the form of an unexpected visitor named David (Dan Stevens) who served with the family’s son/brother and was with him when he died. He’s come to share Caleb’s last words and to fulfill his promise to help the family in any way he can. Each member of the family finds a friend in David as he offers a shoulder, an ear, or a pair of fists. Mom (Sheila Kelley) needs consolation, and dad (Leland Orser) is having trouble at work. Luke (Brendan Meyer) is being bullied at school, and Anna (Maika Monroe) is struggling with a relationship she’s hiding from her parents. Luckily David has a solution for all of their problems. The Guest bears a happy similarity to You’re Next in every way but the narrative. The tone blends between thriller and comedy, with a heavy tilt toward the latter, and not even the script’s multiple hiccups can’t deflate the film’s sense of fun.

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Mitt

“What do you think you say in a concession speech?” Greg Whiteley’s illuminating and often funny Mitt opens on Election Night 2012, in one of many nondescript hotel rooms viewers will become acquainted with as the insider documentary winds on, as the Romney family grapples with the news that their patriarch will not be winning the presidency tonight (or, if they are to be believed when it comes to Romney’s political career, ever). Mitt Romney calmly accepts the news while reclining on a couch, his brow furrowed as he attempts to come up with a concession speech. “What do you think you say in a concession speech?” he asks and, distracted and dismayed, no one can give him an answer.

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Kids. You can’t live with them, and you can’t bash their head in with a fire extinguisher. But what this movie presupposes is… maybe you can. In fact, sometimes you have to if you want to live. Clint (Elijah Wood) is starting his first day as a substitute teacher, but in his mind it’s only a temporary way station on the way to the bestseller lists. Sure he’s living back at home and drives a beaten up Prius with “Eat my cock” scrawled into the dusty grime, but if he can just nail his horror novel’s opening line (“The boat was evil…”) he’ll be on his way. But when an outbreak infects the kids and turns them into little carnivorous bastards, Clint and a gaggle of other teachers are forced into the second biggest fight of their lives (after trying to survive on teacher salary and lack of respect). Cooties is horror comedy done right. It’s laugh out loud funny but never shies away from the gory, violent bits involving adults and children. See it with a child you love.

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review a most wanted man

The 9/11 attacks were planned from the beautiful, immigrant-friendly city of Hamburg, and Germany swore afterwards that it would never happen again. In addition to tightening security for those coming into the country, part of their efforts to stop terrorist cells from operating so freely within their borders included the creation of a small intelligence unit whose sole purpose is prevention. Günther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman) heads up the team (which also includes Daniel Brühl and Nina Hoss), but his latest mission challenges more than his skill-set and determination. It shakes his drive, moral compass, and dedication to “making the world a safer place.” A Most Wanted Man is exactly what you’d expect from the director of The American, and while that assessment will mean different things to different people the film remains a meticulously crafted adaptation of John le Carre‘s bestselling novel.

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My-Prairie-Home

Chelsea McMullan‘s debut feature documentary, My Prairie Home, is a different sort of trip through the Canadian West. It’s a nonfiction portrait of a musician, singer/songwriter Rae Spoon, but it goes beyond the biographical details and the concert footage. Every documentary is a collaboration between filmmaker and subject to some degree, but in this case the combination of talents and ideas is even more obvious. Somewhere between biography and visual album, My Prairie Home fuses McMullan’s skill and Spoon’s musical style into a singularly beautiful journey through the occasionally unfriendly but often breathtaking air of Alberta. The film is built primarily from a trip across the Prairie, following Spoon as they take Greyhound from gig to gig. There are a number of visual motifs that return time and again along the way, most notably the persistence of indecision in front of public washrooms. Spoon is transgender and uses the pronoun “they.” This is the jumping off point for the film’s narrative, a personal look at the musician’s childhood in Alberta, with devout evangelical parents in a province that is often considered one of the least progressive in Canada. READ MORE

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review the babadook

A child’s imagination is fertile ground for monstrous explanations of things that go bump in the night, but what would it take for an adult mind to succumb to those same fears? Amelia (Essie Davis) and her son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), haven’t had an easy go of life. Her husband died six years prior while driving her to the hospital pregnant with Samuel, and she still grieves at the loss. The boy’s birthday is a particularly painful reminder each year, but this time things worsen in dramatic fashion. Samuel’s been having nightmares, and when a mysterious pop-up book appears on his shelf the boy is finally able to put a name to the terror. Amelia tries to handle him with patience and pills, but his increasing aggression and her growing lack of sleep lead toward a horrific conclusion. The Babadook is a child’s tale brought to life by a lethal combination of fear and grief, and as Amelia’s already tenuous affection for her son threatens to sever completely it adds a moving, psychologically devastating layer of terror to potential supernatural threat. It’s a simple tale, wonderfully told, and pretty much guaranteed to send chills coursing through your body.

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“Are you a women’s studies major?” And thus begins a beautiful friendship – sort of. The sweetly neurotic Margaret (Lisa Haas) has just moved to New York City (for reasons never fully explained, like much of the narrative action in The Foxy Merkins) and, without a job or a home, has flirted with prostitution as a possible career path. Margaret’s apparent aim is to hook (literally) closeted housewives, preppy upper crust ladies, country club bunnies, and the like, but she’s woefully inept at landing her prey, and she’s in dire need of both a friend and a little direction. Jo (Jackie Monahan) is a gal with a little bit of experience when it comes to hustling (life) and hustling (street). The duo become fast friends outside a downtown Manhattan diner, with Jo winning both Margaret and the audience over with that crisply tossed-off women’s studies remark, a joke that would fall flat if delivered from a less salty mouth. Margaret soon moves in with Jo at her pied-a-terre – a bathroom at the Port Authority bus station, where Jo stashes both her body (under the sink, every night) and a bottle of good tequila (behind a toilet) – and the pair begin hooking around town together, principally centering their operations outside a neighborhood Talbots store (smart clothes, preppy women, and they don’t kick you out). While Margaret is unschooled at her new profession, and her neuroses and asthma seem to inhibit her success at every turn, Jo is so experienced […]

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Small towns are a big deal these days, particularly for documentaries focusing on the disappearance of that part of America. But most of those films are focused on places that are shrinking, where poverty and crime are rampant due to factory shutdowns and other economic causes. The Overnighters shows a different dilemma. Williston, North Dakota, is experiencing a boom in population thanks to a rise in nearby oil drilling and therefore a rise in available jobs. But crime rates also increase along with the growth of towns, and while poverty isn’t technically an issue given that unemployment is officially near-nonexistent and the minimum wage is much higher than required, Williston does have a homeless problem. Its housing market just can’t catch up with the number of people arriving daily, so new residents are sleeping in their cars and filling shopping center lots with their RVs. Pastor Jay Reinke of the Concordia Lutheran Church is one man trying to alleviate the problem by opening the doors of his Congregation to men and women in need of at least floor space and a roof over their head. These are mainly employed people with no other option for shelter, but some are guys who’ve just arrived and have criminal records that Reinke may be willing to forgive so long as it doesn’t keep them from finding work. Unfortunately, not everyone is so merciful. READ MORE

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While the Sundance Film Festival has not necessarily buried the logline of Todd Miller’s documentary, Dinosaur 13, early versions of the festival’s film guide promised to deliver the true story of one of the greatest discoveries in human history – the 1990 unearthing of a the world’s largest and most complete T. rex skeleton in an unassuming South Dakota bluff. Despite a more full synopsis of the film now floating around, it’s best to approach Miller’s film with the minimum of previous knowledge. Depending on your age and interest in dino bones, pieces of the story will likely ring a bell, but Miller’s film chronicles a shocking, unnerving, and often very surprising story. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that one of the film’s many talking heads briefly mentions that what sounds like a rousing story about discovery and human interest has “a bad ending,” hinting early on that Dinosaur 13 has a very different story to tell – and it does, it’s just unfortunate that it’s buried underneath whole piles of cinematic refuse.

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published: 12.23.2014
B+
published: 12.22.2014
C-
published: 12.19.2014
A-


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