Posts Tagged ‘Independent Film’

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Not every great movie is beautiful and not every beautiful movie is great. But every so often, you get a movie that is both.

Michael Caine stars as Fred Ballinger in ‘Youth,’ a lilting, dream-like film directed by Paolo Sorrentino. Set at a posh resort in Switzerland, Ballinger’s retired composer/orchestra conductor traipses through a routine of massage, upscale dining, dips in the hot tub and discussions of prostate with his longtime friend Mick, a celebrated film director played by Harvey Keitel.

He’s a tortured man, facing his own mortality and desire to live out his days quietly under pressure from his daughter to reconcile his life as a husband and father and a nagging emissary from her majesty The Queen, who would like him to perform his most famous (and pedestrian?) work one last time.

Mirroring his story is that of Mick’s, who is crafting his “testament,” a screenplay that will define his career, but one which challenges him to craft a satisfying third act.

The parallels to old age are obvious, but rather than hide from the metaphor, Sorrentino injects fantasy and levity to challenge expectations.

That the director is an Italian is no coincidence, as the film is undeniably European, interspersing bits of quiet plot between pseudo-surrealist montages of life at the resort with metaphorical and philosophical discussion between the core cast.

There’s plenty of meat for the various actors to enjoy — a brief appearance by Jane Fonda and a subplot with Paul Dano are particularly great — but the best moments are reserved for Caine and Keitel, whose friendship speaks to the melancholy pain of memory.

Grade: A-

*‘Youth’ opens in Salt Lake City on Friday, Dec. 25.

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*Portions of this review were originally published during coverage of the 2015 Sundance Film Festival

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Director Leslye Headland showed her chops for raunchy R-rated comedy with 2012’s Bachelorette, but in her follow-up, Sleeping With Other People, the filmmaker proves she can balance the belly laughs with a surprising amount of heart.

More than a decade after meeting and losing their virginity together at college, Lainey (Alison Brie) and Jake (Jason Sudeikis) reconnect at a sex addict support group. Neither are true addicts, but both are in a bit of an emotional rut and they form a platonic relationship over their mutual taste for romantic self-sabotage.

That their friendship evolves into something more complicated comes as no surprise, but the way that the film handles the emotional evolution of its comedic stars is surprising. Sudeikis, in particular, dials down his typical shtick to deliver a pseudo-dramatic and genuinely nuanced performance as a man looking for something in all the wrong ways.

The result is a charming and spirited take on modern romance that defies genre and isn’t afraid to poke at big ideas without sacrificing laughs.

Grade: A-

*Sleeping With Other People opens in Salt Lake City on Friday, October 2.

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Independent films can often run the risk of being *too* indie. They chase after a quirky and inventive style and in the process become something that dives headfirst into a hipster, movie-snob cliche.

Sundance hit ‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’ approaches this invisible line hundreds of times, tip toeing up to the abyss between art and schtick and almost daring itself to cast itself into the void of unmet potential. One slip, one false mood, it seems, would be all it takes to veer dangerously off course.

But it doesn’t. Instead, at every turn, Me and Earl stays firm with both feet planted on the ground and the result is a Russian nesting doll of themes, moods and shooting styles that tell a poignant coming-of-age story and serve as cat nip to cinephiles.

Me and Earl centers on Greg (Thomas Mann) a high school senior who prides himself on being a nation of one who has made no enemies by maintaining armed neutrality among the social cliques. The closest he comes to having an actual friend is Earl, who Greg refers to only as his “coworker” because of their shared hobby of making Sweded versions of classic cinema.

His world is shaken by the cancer diagnosis of a classmate Rachel (Bate’s Motel’s Olivia Cooke, again playing a character doomed by disease) who is thrust into Greg’s world at the insistence of his mother (Connie Britton). At first obligatory, Greg and Rachel soon blossom into an sincere and meaningful friendship that shakes and ultimately shatters Greg’s status quo of aloof isolation.

The film deals itself a hand of winning cards, chief among them being the winning performance of the three young leads, the gallery of charming supporting characters (Nick Offerman once again has a ball as the indie-movie father, a character opposite to but reminiscent of the one he played in The Kings of Summer) and, notably, a series of movie-in-movie vignettes showing Greg and Earl’s library of film re-imaginations.

But the film has a dark side as well, as Rachel’s condition deteriorates bringing her closer to her titular role and Greg, as a result, is sent flailing. Her story, and the toll it takes on the other characters, makes for a juxtoposed balancing act of quirky fun and often beautiful sadness.

Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon handles the transitions well, but some audience members may feel whiplash bouncing from comedy to drama and back in so short a time span. That majority, however, will find themselves watching the rare film that isn’t afraid of shirking convention and forging its on path, even while paying homage to familiar titles from the Hollywood canon.

Grade: A

*Me and Earl and the Dying Girl opens in select market on June 12 and in Utah on Friday, June 26.

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*Note: This review was first published during coverage of the 2014 Sundance Film Festival

[Update:] After further reflection, I’m awarding a Wood’s Stock Honorable Mention to The Babadook as Best Horror Film of 2014.

This Aussie horror, which was part of the traditionally edgy and offbeat Sundance At Midnight category in 2014, sees Essie Davis as Emelia, a single mother struggling with the behavioral quirks of her son Samuel while also grieving the loss of her husband. Samuel’s dad died in a car crash the day Sam was born and it is implied that every year on the anniversary of both her son’s birth and her husband’s death Amelia slips into a period of morose depression, which is further exacerbated by her son’s childhood fears of monsters under the bed.

But then a monster appears, or does it? After a troubling children’s book called “Mr. Babadook” mysteriously manifests on her child’s shelf, the typical menu of strange occurrences begin tormenting the family (passing shadows, strange sounds, whispered voices). Samuel insists that The Babadook has arrived but Emelia is skeptical, even while she grows increasingly unhinged.

While The Babadook treads ground laid before it by other genre films, director Jennifer Kent relies on old-school practical effects and a full plot beyond the creaks in the night to form a delightful scare. The Babadook itself, barely glimpsed in shadow and mostly depicted by the hauntingly simple sketches of a children’s book, is a strong display of restraint, with the movie relying more on a sense of escalating psychological unease than crashing cymbals to get under the audience’s skin. The final confrontation is overlong and chips away at some of the goodwill earned earlier in the film, but Kent ends the film on an perfectly eerie note of ambiguity that stops short of definitively answering whether the monster is actual entity or metaphor for something more sinister.

Grade: B+

*The Babadook opens in Utah on Friday, Dec. 19.

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Coming of age tales are to independent film what romantic comedies are to the mainstream Hollywood corporate machine. I don’t mean that as an expression of quality (the average coming of age indie is creatively and artistically miles ahead of the average Katherine Heigl starrer) but as an expression of quantity and, at times, an over-reliance on familiar tropes and rote mechanics.

On paper, you’d be forgiven for thinking The Kings of Summer is just another version of a movie you’ve seen before and will see again: three high-school age teenagers, frustrated by the oppressive hand of their obnoxious parents, set off on their own in search of life, love, freedom and adventure. It is similar in spirit to last year’s Moonrise Kingdom, and this year’s upcoming The Way, Way Back, in that its portrayal of a carefree youthful summer is nostalgic to the point of pseudo-fantasy. But it also shares with those films a vibrant, colorful and infectious joy that reminds us why we bother romanticizing childhood in the first place.

Kings tells the story of best friends Joe (Nick Robinson) and Patrick (Gabriel Basso), who head to the woods and build an impressive makeshift home to escape from their homes, families and the doldrums of teenage existence. Joe is the son of cantankerous widower Frank (a perfectly surly Nick Offerman) who we learn has drifted apart from his children after the death of his wife. Patrick is the son of an overly-involved WASP couple played by Megan Mullally (Offerman’s IRL spouse) and Marc Evan Jackson, whose smothering parenting style has cause their son to break out in hives.

Patrick and Joe are joined on their adventure by Biaggio (Moises Arias) an intense idiosyncratic enigma who appears out of nowhere and proceeds to spin comedic gold out of every second of screen time he’s given.

The film’s sparse plot follows the boys approaching a quasi-religious Nirvana in their own personal Walden while their anxious parents search with the help of a pair of small-town police officers (Thomas Middleditch and 24’s Mary Lynn Rajskub). At the same time, the movie is structured as a series of comedic vignettes, some of which inform character and plot while others are played for nonsensical comedy. It’s a winning combination of heart and wit that tells us what we need to know while conscious there’s no sense wasting a stellar cast of comedy actors.

Things eventually come to a head when the boys relationship is soured by the one thing that inevitably sours a teenage friendship in movies like these: a girl. Her interference is the ripple in the water that leads to a falling out between our three kings and to Joe being forced to confront the idea that he’s maybe not as ready for a life of self-sufficiency as he thought.

I truly loved this film, for its quiet beauty and for the hearty laughs it provides in spades. But I admit that its ending leaves something to be desired, perhaps because it’s light tone doesn’t allow for a satisfying confrontation of the emotions between parent and son. And despite the utter, tear-producing hilarity of Biaggio, the third member of our musketeers is mostly a punch line and never made into a fully-realized character.

But those criticisms are the difference between a perfect and near-perfect recommendation and are partly due to my personal discomfort in giving out two A grades in a single week. See this film, I beseech you! It is a captivating and inspiring piece of cinema, one of those rare gems that makes you long for the beauty of days past and yearn for the beauty of days to come.

Grade: A-

*The Kings of Summer opens in Utah on Friday, June 21.

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When nerd extraordinaire Joss Whedon took up Thor’s hammer to direct the mega-blockbuster Avengers, many fans were rightfully concerned that the auteur’s days of quiet, emotional ensemble pieces were behind him. But to their and our (and my) joyful surprise, Whedon followed up the superhero team-up extravaganza with a micro-budgeted black-and-white modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, filmed entirely at Whedon’s California home with a cast of regular Whedonverse contributors who are, in their own part, a who’s who of underrated Hollywood talent.

If reports are to be believed, Whedon was directed by his Marvel corporate bosses to take a small rest between principal photography on Avengers and the laborious post-production process. But Whedon, never one to sit on his hands (his web series Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-long Blog is one of the best things to come out of the 2007-08 writer’s strike) instead invited a gang of pals to his home for a 12-day shoot that, once Avengers was completed, the writer-director shopped around at film festivals before finally releasing for the world to enjoy.

And “enjoy” is truly the operating word, as this latest take on a Shakespeare work is one of the most effortlessly charming films to hit cinemas this year.  A sense of renegade filmmaking bleeds into every scene of  Much Ado, as the stripped down production captures all the emotion and nuance of a film 100 times its size.

The actors are loose and casual, less worried about creating a character as much as simply being a character, and rattle off Shakespearean prose with the same air as though they were gabbing with girlfriends on a Sunday morning walk down Santa Monica boulevard.

It is essentially the Greek ideal: simplicity, perfection and order.

Much Ado tells the story of two couples, the cynical combatants Beatrice and Benedick (Cabin in the Woods’ Amy Acker and HIMYM’s Alexis Desnisof) and the lovesick innocents Claudio and Hero (Cabin in the Wood’s Fran Kranz and Whedon discoveree Jillian Morgese), who are each manipulated for good and ill by the calculations of those around them. Beatrice and Benedick have individually sworn off the notion of love and collectively are engaged in a “merry war” of wits, but are moved to profess their love for one another after overhearing fictitious tales of the other’s affection.

Claudio and Hero, on the other hand, become engaged while Claudio visits the home of Leonato, Hero’s father, played by Marvel MVP Clark Gregg, but in the lead-up to their wedding day Claudio is led to believe that Hero has been unfaithful to him due to the trickery of Don Jon (Firefly’s Sean Maher), the bastard brother of Don Pedro (Franklin and Bash’s Reed Diamond), a companion of both Claudio and Benedick.

That mix up is the titular “Nothing” from which much ado arises, but after a series of misunderstandings all is made right by the bumbling actions of guardsman DogBerry, played in this film by the indispensable Nathan Fillion, whose short but sweet entrance into the film is the cherry on this already delicious cake.

I suppose that last paragraph was technically a spoiler and for that I apologize, but if you really don’t know the story it’s your own fault for sleeping during your high school English class.

Much Ado is the perfect antithesis to the summer blockbuster schedule. It is a welcome break from the barrage of explosions and carnage and had me laughing out loud and squirming in delight for the entirety of its running time. While it may not have the shiny toys of more expensive Hollywood creations, it’s probably the most fun you’ll have in a theater this season and try as I might, I can think of nothing to criticize. All we can hope is that as Whedon’s Hollywood star brightens, he continues to find time to experiment with films like this in the ever shrinking gaps in his schedule.

Grade: A

*Much Ado About Nothing opens in Utah on Friday June 21

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I realize that 5 straight Sundance posts may be a little monotonous, but I wanted to pull back from reviews and do a quick wrap-up of how the festival went this year.

2013 was my second year as a member of the press and I can tell you, it’s extra fun when you know your way around. Also, unlike Sundance 2011 where I just wandered around by myself for 10 days (not complaining, it was face melting) I was actually able to meet up with friends and family from time to time this year, which is always nice.

Also, the number 1 question I get about Sundance is always “Who did you see that’s famous?” I cannot emphasize enough how little I care about celebrity, except as an extension or a result of artistic talent, so let me merely say “lots” and let’s leave it at that.

Movies

This year I was able to see 17 films over a 9-day period. It helped that I now live 30 minutes from park city (instead of the 2-hour drive I took every day while at USU) and thanks to some convenient work scheduling around the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, I was able to spend 4 straight, uninterrupted days basking in the mecca of moviedom (in addition to driving up every night after work. I’m still catching up on lost sleep.)

Of the 17, there was only one flat-out bomb (Ass Backwards) and I generally enjoyed the remainder. If I were to pick a top 5 to watch out for, I would say (in order) A.C.O.D., Don Jon’s Addiction, In A World…, The Way, Way Back and After Tiller (already there’s titles I want to add to that list. If you want to know more about the individual films click here, here, here and here).

I can say that this year I definitely gravitated more toward the comedies and dramedies, but there were a number of dramas (Two Mothers, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Breathe In) that I enjoyed very much and you should catch if, and when, you can.

I was also able to do some interviews with the cast of May In The Summer, a perk I usually haven’t taken advantage of. Bill Pullman was completely charming and conversational and I made an utter fool of myself trying to question Alia Shawkat.

I also ran into my sister Mandie by happenstance at a screening of Austenland. The woman pictured to my left is the winner of the International Shorts competition.

Austenland is based on a book by Shannon Hale and produced by Twilight creator Stephanie Meyer. The crowd was filled with Twilight sympathizers and we actually ended up walking out of the post-screening Q&A because all anybody wanted to ask the director about was Meyer. Gag.

Music

As always, one of the best parts of Sundance is the live bands that invade Park City as an auxiliary to the festival. Generally speaking I choose a screening over the ASCAP music cafe unless it’s a band that I particularly like, which this year was the case with The Head and The Heart.

I love THATH. I saw them last fall in Salt Lake City and while their Sundance set was short (about 30 minutes) it was basically just tightly compressed awesome-ness. They played 3 new songs (they claimed for the “first time” but I doubt it, bands always say stuff like that. They’re kind of like bad girlfriends that way) which I can’t wait to hear again, and rocked some colossal facial hair and a pimp hat.

On closing weekend, my cousin-in-law’s band “Van Lady Love” played a set at Cisero’s on main. Of his two bands (that I know of) I had never heard VLL and it was nice to sit down and relax and take in a nice local bar-show. People often ask me what they should do if they “go up to Sundance.” Honestly, there’s not much you CAN do without either planning ahead or spending some serious coin (or both) but on the weekends you can pretty much bet that any bar on Main is rocking some live tunes.

But the crème de la crème of the music category came courtesy of my BFF (best female friend) Emily, whose connections got us into the Fender Music Lodge on opening weekend where no other than Corey F*ing Feldman was spinning some tunes with his “band” Corey’s Angles. I put “band” in quotes because the act consisted of Feldman in a shiny suit, screaming nearly-unintelligible lyrics into a microphone while winged lingerie-clad women swayed from side to side behind him.

The party was a weird amalgam of SWAG. It was apparently sponsored by Fender (free beanies), a potato chip company (our connection to the party), Hatch Family Chocolates (delicious) and some company that makes vegan chicken (don’t ask me how, but also delicious).

We caught a good hour of Feldman’s set (which included the chart-topping hit “Duh,” the lyrics of which consisted mostly of the word “Duh”) And, to top the night off, we were able to get pictures with “Mouth” himself.

Bonus

Beside the films, the best thing about Sundance was getting out of the nasty haze in Salt Lake City. We got some snow toward the end, but the first days of the festival was nothing but clear skies and sunshine. The first day driving up, I actually had this weird moment where I was confused and disoriented when the sun hit my eyes. It took me about 2 minutes before I remembered that I had sunglasses in the car and that it was appropriate to use them.

The opening day press conference was also interesting this year. Redford was asked about the Newtown shooting and what role violence in the media played in mass shootings.

It’s an old debate, and media people tend to brush it away. But Redford remarked about how often guns are featured in movie advertisements and suggested Hollywood needs to ask itself whether it’s ok to use guns to sell tickets.

And, once again, I was able to bookend the festival with one of my favorite events: Film Church. Essentially, on the last day of Sundance, festival director John Cooper and director of programming Trevor Groth host a group small group of festival-goers for a casual discussion on their favorite moments of the festival. They share backstage anecdotes (such as whether or not Shia Lebouf was high on acid) and bring in the winner of the Grand Jury award and essentially shoot the breeze about independent film. It’s magical.

I can only hope that I’ll be able to get credentials for next year. If not I suppose I’ll just have to fork over the cash for a festival package like everyone else (It would’ve cost me $250 to buy individual tickets to the 17 movies I saw, not to mention the concerts and extra events, so the packages really are a good deal).

Until then, I’ve got a lot of catching up on Hulu to do.

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