February 1, 2013

SHOWBUZZDAILY @ SUNDANCE 2013: Capsule Reviews


The old truism that Park City empties out during the second half of the Sundance Film Festival, making it possible to see all the hot titles that premiered at the festival’s start, is far less true than it used to be.  It was impossible to get into the festival’s big buy, The Way, Way Back (a reported $9.75M purchase for Fox Searchlight, one of the biggest in Sundance history)–not a single Wait List hopeful was able to crack the screening.  Austenland, with The Americans star Keri Russell ($4M paid by Sony Pictures Classics) and Kill Your Darlings, with Daniel Radcliffe as Beat poet Allen Ginsberg ($2M, also Sony Pictures Classics) were virtually unseeable too for those who didn’t have all-access passes or tickets in advance. That still left plenty worth seeing, however (23 films over 6 days), for a solid if not phenomenal Sundance, which was highlighted almost as much by the remarkably balmy weather (until the snows arrived on the very last day) as for the movies.

The following are ranked in a loose order of preference, which is to say that #5 probably isn’t appreciably less good than #4, but #20 is certainly a far cry from #2. Just click on the title for the SHOWBUZZDAILY full review.

BEFORE MIDNIGHT (Sony Pictures Classics):  The veritable unicorn of independent cinema:  a thriving art-house franchise.  Richard Linklater’s collaboration with actors/fellow writers Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, going on 18 years, has given us Before Sunrise and Before Sunset and now another talkathon in the absolutely best sense, a profound, funny, sexy examination of love, trust, age, responsibility and destiny, whose revelations about its beloved characters shouldn’t be spoiled here.

EMANUEL AND THE TRUTH ABOUT FISHES (no distrib):  Emanuel is a teenage girl still tormented by the death of her mother in childbirth who becomes babysitter for the new neighbor next door, but nothing is as it seems.  Francesca Gregorini’s drama about motherhood, adolescence, delusion and grief is poetic, surprising, suspenseful and sometimes quite funny.  The relative newcomer Kaya Scodelario is a revelation in the lead, and Jessica Biel, a meaty film role finally in her grasp, blows it away.

FRUITVALE (Weinstein Company):  Ryan Coogler’s very impressive first film won both the Jury Prize and the Audience Award this year.  It’s the true-life story of the African-American 22-year old killed by a white transit cop at a train station in San Francisco in the early hours of New Year’s 2009, but its strength is that by concentrating on the day leading up to the shooting, it makes itself about the man’s life rather than his death.  Michael B. Jordan is superb in the lead, and the supporting cast includes Octavia Spencer and Melonie Diaz; this is a film that could well be heard from during 2013’s award season.

TOY’S HOUSE (CBS Films):  A delight, from director Jordan Vogt-Roberts and screenwriter Chris Galletta, that tells the story of a trio of misfit teens who run away from home and build their own house in the (comparative) wilderness.  They and their parents (most notably, the irresistible Nick Offerman as Toy’s dad) grow up in the process, in a film reminiscent of Stand By Me.

THE SPECTACULAR NOW (A24):  More teens, but in a much more serious mode.  James Ponsoldt’s film, written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (he directed last year’s underseen Smashed, and they wrote the script for (500) Days of Summer) has the kind of sensitivity we associate with My So-Called Life and Friday Night Lights, and it constantly undercuts our expectations about what a story about the popular boy (Miles Teller) and the smart girl (Shailene Woodley) should be, opting for emotional truth over cliche.  Teller and Woodley were deserving winners of a special Jury Prize for their performances, and Spectacular Now has been cast in depth, with a supporting cast that includes Jennifer Jason Leigh, Kyle Chandler, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Brie Larson.

DON JON’S ADDICTION (Relativity–this was, incidentally, the festival’s other big buy, a $4M guarantee backed by an enormous $25M marketing commitment):  No one can accuse Joseph Gordon-Levitt of avoiding the deep end of the pool with his feature writing/directing debut, a riotous, assured comedy-drama about the titular addiction, which happens to be to porn.  Scarlett Johansson and Julianne Moore are the key women in Jon’s life, and Tony Danza is hilarious as his father.  The picture may need a little cutting to qualify for an R rating, but it has a chance to find a broad audience.

STOKER (Fox Searchlight):  The celebrated Korean director Park Chan-Wook’s first American film (his Oldboy is currently being remade by Spike Lee) is an icy,stylish spin on Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, written by the actor Wentworth Miller.  Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode and Nicole Kidman gradually reveal their very dark secrets after the death of their father/brother/husband, and before the movie ends, much blood is elegantly spilled.

SWEETWATER (no distrib):  A neo-western by Logan and Noah Miller, with a flamboyant Ed Harris as a 19th century detective, January Jones utterly un-Betty Draper-like as a flinty ex-prostitute with deadly aim… and unfortunately, Jason Isaacs (not his fault) as the same ranting, homicidal preacher character we’ve seen in a dozen other thrillers.  Sweetwater flirts heavily with silliness, but for the most part it’s a tense, impressive exercise in vengeance.

THE EAST (Fox Searchlight):  Director/co-writer Zal Batmanglij and star/co-writer Brit Marling’s follow-up to the too-obscure Sound of My Voice places Marling as a private security agent (working for Patricia Clarkson) undercover with a group of eco-terrorists who include Alexander Skarsgard and Ellen Page.  The set-up is terrific, and it could have had real sleeper possibilities if it didn’t bury itself with too many multiple doublecrosses and reveals in the closing stretch.  Still, an awful lot of talent on display here.

IN A WORLD… (no distrib):  The actress Lake Bell’s writing/directing feature debut isn’t much for style, and too much of it is over the top.  The setting in the world of movie trailer voiceovers is fresh, though, and Bell has gathered a terrific cast (Rob Corddry, Ken Marino, Michaela Watkins, Nick Offerman, Fred Melamed), with Demetri Martin as the possible breakout romantic lead, and there are plenty of solid laughs.

MAGIC MAGIC (no distrib):  A strange and finally incoherent psychological thriller from writer/director Sebastian Silva, about a girl (Juno Temple) going insane among a group of friends in a remote Chilean lake house.  Until it throws up its hands and stops trying to make sense, it’s a disturbing piece about the sometimes thin line between social dysfunctionality and madness, and Temple’s very fine work is joined by Agustin Silva, Emily Browning, Catalina Sandina Moreno, and especially Michael Cera as the most obnoxious, and maybe the second-craziest, of the group.

A.C.O.D. (no distrib):  With a cast that includes Adam Scott, Amy Poehler, Jessica Alba, Catherine O’Hara, Richard Jenkins, Jane Lynch, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and more, you just expect something better than this uneven, overly broad comedy from director Stuart Zicherman (who co-wrote with former Daily Show head writer Ben Karlin) about being an Adult Child Of Divorce.  The movie never finds the right tone, and it doesn’t help itself with a needlessly inconclusive ending that drew groans from the audience.

VERY GOOD GIRLS (no distrib):  The veteran screenwriter Naomi Foner’s directing debut is set in contemporary Brooklyn, but looks as gauzy as a European perfume commercial.  It feels weirdly dated and just isn’t very interesting, as two virgins during (inevitably) the summer before college fall for the same hunky guy, endangering their friendship.  A waste of wonderful work by Dakota Fanning and Elizabeth Olsen, and a supporting cast that includes Ellen Barkin, Peter Sarsgaard, Richard Dreyfuss, and Demi Moore.

AIN’T THEM BODIES SAINTS (IFC):  A slow pace and lots of brooding, magic hour shots of nature don’t make you Terence Malick, or for that matter any other 1970s film master (in this case, the Robert Altman of Thieves Like Us and McCabe and Mrs. Miller).  David Lowery’s film about an escaped convict (Casey Affleck) on his very long way to see his love (Rooney Mara) is thin, never developing the kind of cosmic head of steam that Malick can pull off.  However, Mara, softer than she’s been in Dragon Tattoo and other films, is marvelous, Ben Foster and Keith Carradine are strong as men who also care about her, and the film deservedly won the Festival’s cinematography award.

THE INEVITABLE DEFEAT OF MISTER AND PETE (no distrib):  A very earnest urban fable from director George Tillman Jr and writer Michael Starrbury, about two sons of junkie prostitutes fending for themselves during a hot, dangerous summer in the Brooklyn projects.  There are wonderful performances by young actors Skylan Brooks and Ethan Dizon in the leads, but it founders a bit on clumsy plotting and a soapy ending.

THE LOOK OF LOVE (IFC):  Thinking of “inevitable,” the director Michael Winterbottom is an ubiquitous film festival presence, and this year’s contribution continued the festival theme of porn (of which more below), with Steve Coogan as Paul Raymond, a virtually unknown figure in the US, but apparently the British equivalent of Hugh Hefner.  The first half, charting Raymond’s road to riches, is a lot of fun; then it settles down to the “wages of sin” part of the story where everyone ends up dead or miserable, and becomes much less interesting.

TOUCHY FEELY (no distrib):  Lynn Shelton’s new film is a disappointment after Humpday and Your Sister’s Sister, a more serious and New Age-y drama about a masseuse who develops a revulsion to touching human flesh, even as her brother, a dentist, develops a magic touch, able to cure his patients by feel.  A handsome, well-mounted film, but the narrative parallels never add up to anything satisfying, and Rosemarie DeWitt, Josh Pais, Ellen Page, Allison Janney and Scoot McNairy are all muted and mostly unable to break through the film’s general haze.

THE LIFEGUARD (no distrib):  The year’s catalogue of Sundance cliches:  early midlife crisis in a small town, dysfunctional family, inappropriate relationship, etc.  Kristen Bell doesn’t get to do anything she does well as a disillusioned 30-year old who moves back home to take back her high school lifeguard job (and not coincidentally, take up a high school student as well), and it’s all very dreary.  Mamie Gummer, as Bell’s best friend, now a school Vice-Principal with regrets, is the only one who manages to liven things up.

LOVELACE (Radius, aka the VOD branch of The Weinstein Company):  A waste.  The provocative, multi-faceted story of Linda Lovelace, star of Deep Throat, is played as a light comedy for the first half, then as a Lifetime movie for the second.  Amanda Seyfried is fine in the lead, but Peter Sarsgaard, Chris Noth, Bobby Cannavale, Juno Temple, Hank Azaria, Sharon Stone, Robert Patrick and James Franco are among those left adrift in a version of the tale (directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, and written by Andy Bellin) that has literally nothing interesting to say about the subject, and can’t even manage a believable simulation of the era.

BIG SUR (no distrib):  For those who thought the recent adaptation of On the Road wasn’t respectful or pretentious enough.  Jean-Marc Barr, as Jack Kerouac, reads at great (very great) length from the novel Big Sur on the soundtrack, while we watch gorgeously photographed roiling waves and pensive stares, along with a remarkable amount of drinking.  It’s the James Ivory version of the Beat Generation, and Josh Lucas (as a dull Neal Cassidy), Radha Mitchell, Kate Bosworth, Anthony Edwards, Balthazar Getty and Stana Katic are among those embalmed in it.

AFTERNOON DELIGHT (no distrib):  A seemingly audacious premise–a Los Angeles housewife (Kathryn Hahn) brings home a stripper/hooker (the very busy Juno Temple) to be her son’s nanny and spice up her dull life–becomes a painfully conventional treatise on the importance of traditional values in Jill Soloway’s directing debut (which somehow won the festival’s Directing award).  It takes a while to realize just how bad this movie is, and then you want to throw something at the screen.

THE NECESSARY DEATH OF CHARLIE COUNTRYMAN (no distrib):  Hey, the 1990s called, and they want their music video cliches back!  Fredrik Bond’s feature directing debut (written, badly, by Matt Drake), randomly plops Shia LaBeouf in Bucharest so he can fall in love with a beautiful cellist (Evan Rachel Wood) who’s involved with a vicious gangster (Mads Mikkelsen).  Also, Charlie can talk to dead people, but apparently not resuscitate dead movies.  It’s all drenched in slow-motion and hand-held camerawork, and narrated, in a very windy way, by John Hurt.  Imagine a 1950s film noir shot like a post-Purple Rain Prince movie, and you’ll get the idea.

ASS BACKWARDS (no distrib):  Casey Wilson and June Diane Raphael are very appealing, funny performers, but not every thespian should write a script, and the one they’ve written for themselves here (directed by Chris Nelson), playing clueless losers on the road to a reunion of the beauty pageant they lost as girls, is a flat-out disaster, devoid of laughs or even self-awareness.  You know how Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion was a smart movie about idiots?  This one is just the idiot part, 90 minutes of thudding, failing jokes that feel like a week and a half.  The theater needed an exorcism after it was over.



About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."