PARK CITY - It's been a hectic week at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival and throw in the Oscar nominations and you've got a scenario of a massive backlog of film reactions from Park City in the cue. With that in mind, here's a rundown of some of the films this pundit has been able to take in since Saturday. Quick and easy.
Already acquired by Sony Classics before the festival began, "Taking Shelter" is a good, but not great drama about a working class man (Michael Shannon) who seems to be succumbing to irrational behavior caused by intense dreams of an impending disaster. Shannon's character becomes obsessed with expanding a storm shelter in his backyard, end ups losing his construction job and almost alienating his wife (a great Jessica Chastain) in the process. The film has numerous subplots to increase the tension, but the build up is perhaps just a bit slow. That said, it has a buzzworthy ending that will probably have most audiences feeling like they got their money's worth. Oh, and Shannon will no doubt be an early name popping up in the Oscar race for 2012.
It's been quite a long time since Tobey Maguire was able to make a movie outside of the shadow of "Spider-Man" and the talented actor does everything possible to make Jacob Aaron Estes' "The Details" a proper comeback. Part dark comedy, part serious drama, "Details" finds Jeff (Maguire) and Nealy (Elizabeth Banks) celebrating their 10-year wedding anniversary with tension in the air. Each has secrets, but Jeff, in particular, thinks he's really a "good guy" all around. He believes he doesn't do things in his best interest, but because he should. When he strays from the morally right path such as sleeping with his best friend (a nicely used Kerry Washington) or being seduced by the crazy next door neighbor (a miscast Laura Linney), it's never "his" fault. Estes wants to make a dark comedy in the vein of "Shallow Grave" or even the "War of the Roses" on this moral dilemma, but there just aren't enough laughs overall. What saves the film from being a thematic disaster is one -- just one -- hilarious scene tying everything together at the end. But does that compensate for the rest of the movie? We're not so sure.
Oh, to be a relatively well off prep school senior from the Upper West Side with the weight of the world on your shoulders (enter Freddie Highmore). Oh, to have a mother who loves you no matter how close you come to being kicked out school (Rita Wilson). Oh, to have a beautiful classmate become your best friend even though she's really fallen for you just as much as you have her (Emma "haven't I made this movie before?" Roberts). Oh, the coming of age heartache of possibly losing your one true love before summer break. It's just too much to bare sometimes, isn't it? Then again, besides one inspired turn by Michael Angarano, there is pretty much nothing in this Fox Searchlight pick up you haven't seen before on the big or small screen ad nauseam. We'll give it this, It's well lit.
"Gun Hill Road"
Similarly themed to 2009 Sundance "La Mission," except with the setting jumping from San Francisco to the Bronx, "Gun Hill Road" follows Enrique (Esai Morales), a parolee returning home to his family after three years in jail. In that time, his little Papi -- high school age son - Michael (an impressive Harmony Santana) has developed feminine tendencies he'd never recognized before. The macho Enrique can't deal with Michael's transsexual inclination or restart the romantic fire with his wife (an underused Judy Reyes). Things predictably go wrong, but why is really not clear. The picture hints that something happened to Enrique in jail, but by not revealing it his motivations become more and more cliche. The film's heart is in the right place and it is an excellent spotlight on the difficulties of the transgendered (a continuing theme at this year's fest), but director Rashaad Ernesto Green can't seem to pull all the story elements together.
Do you love Greg Kinnear movies? If so, chances are you'll really enjoy "The Convincer." I won't spoil the ending, but the movie isn't what it seems for a good 3/4 of the way through. You think Kinnear's character, a Wisconsin insurance salesman, is in the middle of a crazy scheme that has gone totally wrong. Along the way Alan Arkin and Billy Crudup show up with the latter giving the most inspired and entertaining performance in the entire movie. Unfortunately, the movie feels very familiar, because you've seen this concept many times over the past twenty years. Besides Crudup's kooky turn, you just want it all to end.
"Another Happy Day"
An intriguing cast toplines this drama about a family getting together for a wedding of one of the oldest grandchildren. Ellen Barkin plays a stressed out mom (excellent in a role written just for her), Ellen Burstyn the family matriarch (great as usual), Thomas Hayden Church is Barkin's longtime ex and father of two of her children, Kate Bosworth is Barkin and Church's college age daughter who has battled suicide, Demi Moore is Church's Kardashian inspired new wife who essentially raised Barkin's eldest son and Ezra Miller ("City Island") is Barkin's 17-year-old son from her second marriage who has a major substance abuse problem as well as a wickedly spot on sense of humor. The tone of the film is all over the place from deathly serious to over the top comedy. Director Sam Levinson appears to want to say that tone is the emotional dynamic of large families. That's debatable, but while the roller coaster shouldn't work (and at times really doesn't) by the end you realize you've been more entertained than you thought you'd be. It's also a film, however, that's so hard to peg it could end up being picked up by a mini-major or never heard from again.
If you haven't heard of Juno Temple you soon will. While the 22-year-old daughter of director Julien Temple has credits such as "Atonement" and "Greenberg" to her name, it's upcoming roles in Gregg Araki's "Kaboom," "Dirty Girl" and eventually "The Three Musketeers" that will make her more familiar to moviegoers. In the meantime, "Kaboom" (which premiered in Toronto) is screening in Park City and she stars alongside Kay Panabaker ("No Ordinary Family")in yet another coming of age dramatic competition drama looking for a distributor, "Little Birds." The film finds Lily (Temple) convincing her good, but somewhat boring friend Alison (Panabaker) to ditch their small town near Salton Sea, CA and follow Jesse (a better than he needs to be Kyle Gallner) to Los Angeles. When the two teenagers get to the big city, they quickly find out Jesse and his two skater friends aren't as cool as they thought they'd be. Well, at least Alison makes that realization. Lily's poor decisions seem to caused by her inability to deal with her father's suicide although when that occurred in relation to the film's setting is unclear. The problem with the film isn't Temple's impressive turn, but director and writer Elgin James screenplay which puts the first act mostly out in Salton Sea where Leslie Mann and Kate Bosworth have little use dramatically as Lily's mother and aunt (although Bosworth is certainly game). The movie doesn't get interesting until it shifts to LA, but James doesn't seem to really want to dive into the more interesting world of modern teenage runaways. Especially after he's created rich characters in Jesse's two off kilter buddies. Like many mediocre Sundance films it's a mix that just doesn't come together as it should.
"Here" may feature familiar face Ben Foster, but the drama is more of an experimental road trip romance than the conventional global romance many would expect from it's simple synopsis. Set in Armenia, Foster plays a map surveyor sent to the former Eastern Bloc country to try and resolve issues with satellite mapping of the country. Alone in a land where few speak English, he befriends Gadarine (Lubna Azabal), a photographer who has just returned home after spending years working Paris. The two set out to map the countryside meeting some of Gadarine's relatives and old friends along the way. Not surprisingly, they fall for each other and a good chunk of the film has you wondering where they will end up. Gorgeously photographed, Braden King's feature debut would be more focused without the hand painted abstract frames that bookend it and immediately cry "experimental" for no real reason. It's the mood, acting and journey inbetween which is more worthwhile.
One of the most entertaining and funniest films of the festival, John Michael McDonagh's comedy pairs Brendan Gleeson as a small village Irish policeman and Don Cheadle as an FBI investigator on the hunt for a major drug shipment going through the country. Gleeson is absolutely fantastic as the extremely unorthodox Sgt. Gerry Boyle and the film uses dialogue and wit for laughs rarely succumbing to an obvious physical or stereotypically cute gag. Cheadle is essentially playing Cheadle in the "straight man" role to Gleeson's Boyle, but they are assisted by funny turns from Mark Strong and Rory Keenan. Writer and director John Michael McDonagh shows a tremendous sense of style and comedy without making it so broad that he's insulting his audience. Clearly one of the best of the fest.
And lastly, as for IFC Films pick up "The Ledge," I thought the Charlie Hunnam, Liv Tyler and Patrick Wilson drama was so bad I walked out about half way through. There always seems to be one of those every year. You've been warned.
Everything: Sundance Film Festival
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