Sunday, February 1, 2015

2015 Sundance Film Festival Aftermath

Last year's Sundance Film Festival was truly amazing in its plethora of movies, in and out of the main competition. Can this year's output reach that high bar of quality? Maybe, but you can't really know for sure until they are given a release to the general public. For example, last year I talked about the oddity Frank and how it left some early critics cold, and yet it went on to be a celebrated indie movie by the end of the year. Plus, I always like to mention how the Sundance favorite The Spitfire Grill quickly went into obscurity, despite being the most talked movie of that year in the festival.

So, after first talking about the big award winner of Sundance, I will then go through all of the curious pieces, the melodramatic dreck, the failed experiments (in the literal sense for one movie), the cult gems, the horror shows, and the rest.

Once again, the U.S. Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award for Dramatic were both given to one film but sadly, it doesn't look to be the next Whiplash, despite many critics lavishing all over it and Fox Searchlight ponying up a huge purchasing price. Me & Earl & The Dying Girl sounds like easy bait for critics: An outsider teenager spends more time checking out his personal Criterion Collection and "sweding" his own takes on classics with his best friend than being a normal person. This pisses off his mother, who forcibly has him befriend a girl dying of leukemia. You know where it goes from here. Even with its peculiar cast (Thomas Mann, Connie Britton, Olivia Cooke, Nick Offerman) and notices that say that it's artfully directed and akin to Edgar Wright' style, I can't really get behind this indie-riffic take on Fault In Our Stars. Plus, does anyone really think this is a movie worth $12.5 million? Somebody should have told Fox Searchlight, who plunked down the large sum for the film.

The 2nd most talked about dramatic movie of the festival, and the one many wished would have won the Grand Jury Prize instead, was Brooklyn. The reason for the high praise was mainly for the lead performance by Saoirse Ronan, who plays a Irish lass who tries to make it on her own in New York City circa 1952. Though it sounds like critics were gushing for it solely because it's The Immigrant all over again, complete with a love triangle thrown in, it does sound like an interesting period melodrama, something that isn't standard for Sundance. Fox Searchlight also picked it up for $9 million.

Many past Sundance favorites came back with new films. James Ponsoldt (Smashed, The Spectacular Now) returned with The End of the Tour, a chronicle of the relationship between author David Foster Wallace (Jason Siegel) and journalist David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg). Both actors were praised, more so for Siegel, and the film was said to be a continuation of Ponsoldt's improvement as a director. Craig Zobel, the man who made everyone squirm with Compliance, had the most star-studded movie with Z For Zachariah. Set in the post-apocalypse, because duh, Chris Pine and Chiwetel Eijofor fight over the affections of Margot Robbie. Apparently, Pine's character is an invention for the movie, nowhere seen in the original book, so sci-fi fans will be more up in arms come general release. Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, of Half Nelson and Sugar fame, showed off Mississippi Grind, a breezy road pic where Ben Mendelshon and Ryan Reynolds are gambling addicts. Tour and Grind were both picked by the great folks at A24; Zachariah, however, didn't have any comers.

Dramedies were in full force. Rick Famuyiwa made a grand entrance with Dope, a LA tale of black geeks getting into unwanted trouble and mixing their love of 90's fashion with their attitudes of the current Internet age. Noah Baumbach and Greta Grewig reunited once again for Mistress America, a bawdy comedic tale of two future step-sisters getting into NY hijinks. Many critics were utterly shocked that Baumbach moved away from his current run of unlikable characters in favor of more lighthearted and looney players, especially in the film's polarizing middle section that is said to be completely screwballs. Results featured the most shocking development for a dramedy: Guy Pearce using his real accent! Here, he and Colbie Smulders flirt as two personal instructors and both try to help out a wealthy, out-of-shape Kevin Corrigan. I joked already but really, the most shocking element of the film is that this film is from Andrew Bujalski, the guy who gave us Computer Chess!

The charge of horror films this year was led by the critically acclaimed The Witch, from first-time director Robert Eggers. An exiled group of pilgrims are sent off to live in the woods and begin to experience strange going-ons. Eli Roth was luckily enough to pop in with Knock Knock. Some have already positioned it as his best work, thanks to its cartoonish look at how Keanu Reeves's urge for a mean a trois with goes horrifically wrong. In terms of real-life horror, however, there was The Stanford Prison Experiment, a dramatic retelling of the infamous 1971 social test where a group of college students took on the roles of players in a prison. There was also Experimenter, where Peter Sarsgaard plays Stanley Milgram, the social psychologist who infamously created an abusive test involving human obedience. Pontypool director Bruce McDonald brought forth Hellions, a horror-themed home invasion movie set on Halloween. And oddly, South Korea got a chance to mock summer camp movies with the 80's themed Seoul Searching.

There were some pretty interesting cult films laying around. Shot entirely with a iPhone 5S, Tangerine follows two transgender prostitutes as they walk the streets of LA, looking for the pimp that double-crossed them. Turbo Kid relished everything 80's, as a BMX-riding hero and his "space cadet" female companion fight off evil in the war-torn year of 1997. For western fans, Slow West has Michael Fassbender and Kodi Smit-McPhee go on a perilous journey, before concluding with a violent gunfight and a sick joke that had audiences applauding. Advantageous held a strict feminist bent to a sci-fi tale of a mother trying to provide for the future of her daughter. Neo-noir returned with Cop Car, where corrupt cop Kevin Bacon tries to reacquire his dead-body-storing police vehicle from two youths. And finally, you can't think of the idea of a cult film without thinking of Guy Maddin. He unleashed his latest opus The Forbidden Room, which again features him exploiting his lust for the early age of cinema.

As for the ones that misfired or worse: Despite featuring an easy black comedy scenario of a disgruntled Olympic gymnast teaching a younger noob, The Bronze left many feeling dirty, especially given it introduces its heroine (played by Melissa Rauch) weirdly masturbating to her old exploits. Swearing, drug use, and other "hilarious" bad behavior ensue. Relativity though it was funny, and acquired its distribution rights. Nasty Baby has Kristen Wiig be the surrogate mother for a gay couple, in a movie that reportedly goes off the deep end in the second half. Rick Alverson, who pissed off practically everybody with The Comedy, somehow went even more darker and anti-comedic with Entertainment. Gregg Turkington plays a stand-up comedian that spends the entire movie bombing on stage and fighting with hecklers.

The most talked about documentary of the festival was of course Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief. Do I really need to explain? Courtesy of ironman documentarian Alex Gibney, the highly-charged product will premiere on HBO.

Documentary about true life horror stories seemed to be the main theme this year. The Wolfpack, which won the Grand Jury Prize for Documentary, focuses on how two oppressive parents living the projects of NYC have banned their children (teens to 20s) for exiting their small apartment, only for the kids to find solace in movies and staged recreations of them. Rodney Ascher followed up his masterful Room 237 with The Nightmare, an examination of eight people's personal takes with hallucinations, sleep paralysis and the like. Their recounts, plus Ascher's use of Morris-like recreations, help make it a very scary sit. Welcome To Leith creepily recounts how a group of Neo-Nazis try to take over a North Dakotan town. The Hunting Ground, courtesy of Kirby Dick, is sure to be much talked pic upon its limited release, due to its focus on how universities try to hide away the issue of campus rape. Hot Girls Wanted drew a lot of notices, due to the producing involvement of Rashida Jones and his hard-to-stomach look at the amateur porn scene. 3 1/2 Minutes took a close look at how a black teenager was shot and killed by a white man over his loud music. And, in what had to be the most boldest picture, Pervert Park had its makers entering into a nest of sex offenders and try to careful show them in an objective light.

Not all docs this year had to be completely frightening or disturbing to sit through. The festival opened up with What Happened, Miss Simone?, a casual look at Nina Simone, the blues singer that wowed many in 60's before then completely disappearing off the face of the Earth. The documentary/concert film is already locked to premiere on Netflix. Producer Johnny Knoxville help bring attention to Being Evel, a bio on the crazy exploits of famed stunt performer Evel Knievel. Best of Enemies showed how the intense televised feuds between conservative William F. Buckley Jr. and liberal Gore Vidal help create the current cable news landscape. The Amina Profile looked back at the controversy and catfishing of “A Gay Girl In Damascus”. The awesomely titled Chuck Norris vs. Communism stretched out a small topic, in how smuggled 80's actionsploitation movies help crush the political regime of Romania. Bobcat Goldthwait showed off his first documentary Call Me Lucky, on the life and times of Barry Crimmins. Finder Keepers takes a black comedy approach in its recounting of how a man brought a bargain hunter to court over an amputated foot that was found in an auction-bought grill.

Finally, there was another Nymphomaniac-like surprise for Sundance goers. That is, if you were a normal audience member, as any and all critics were banned from its secret screening. Not making a lick of sense, Warner Bros. decided to publicly premiere Jupiter Ascending. Who in marketing thought that would be a good idea, especially considering the difference in cinematic taste? Sure enough, the movie flopped, with many reported as saying that several rows were left empty and those who were fortunate enough to see it complained.

Other premiered movies to consider in the next year or so: Sarah Silverman goes full-on dramatic, and earned much praise, for her lead role in I Smile Back; Jason Sudeikis and Alison Brie try to correct this sexual identities with Sleeping With Other People; the spouse-swapping farce The Overnight; the comedic aspects of holiday tree shopping are exploited in Christmas, Again; the feel-good documentary Dark Horse, on how a Welsh village pooled their money together to breed a racing horse; an adaptation of the graphic novel The Diary of a Teenage Girl; and the blandly titled James White, a standard movie featuring stilted adulthood and movie cancer.

But it's not nice to walk away without mentioning the Slamdance Film Festival, which had some standouts of its own, namely Kidnapped for Christ, a distressing documentary about a cruel Christian gay conversion camp in the Dominic Republic, and Elliot, which looks to be the karate version of American Movie.

No comments:

Post a Comment