<p>Josh Pais and Allison Janney stumble upon an unexpected connection in Lynn Shelton's 'Touchy Feely,' part of this year's Sundance Film&nbsp;Festival.</p>

Josh Pais and Allison Janney stumble upon an unexpected connection in Lynn Shelton's 'Touchy Feely,' part of this year's Sundance Film Festival.

Credit: Sundance Film Festival
B-

Review: Great ensemble cast makes Lynn Shelton's 'Touchy Feely' a gentle generous new age charmer

Rosemarie DeWitt, Ron Livingston, Allison Janney, and Ellen Page head a great group of actors

PARK CITY - When I saw "Humpday" at Sundance, I thought it was a smart and funny little movie, and I ended up reviewing it when the film finally opened in limited release.  "Your Sister's Sister" was here last year, and I was really smitten with that one.  It felt like there was an exponential jump from film to film by Lynn Shelton as a storyteller, and I wasn't surprised to hear that she had a new film here this year.  Sundance obviously likes her work, and why not?  When her films are at their best, they represent the exact sort of adult emotional honesty that I find most appealing in a modern filmmaker.

When Judd Apatow talks about letting his cast improvise, people immediately imagine comic actors lobbing one-liners at each other in an effort to steal each scene.  In Shelton's films, the improvisation is more about grounding the needs of the story in language that is natural and unforced.  Shelton's work is often funny, and I think she falls in love with her characters and loves to indulge them in the choices she makes about which take to use of certain scenes.  But she is also capable of crafting an emotional moment that carries a startling amount of heft, and "Touchy Feely" seems more concerned with exploring characters than generating laughs.  That's a good thing and there are plenty of moments in "Touchy Feely" that are simply character observation.  There is certainly a plot in the film, but it's delivered in a way that never feels mechanical.  Things unfold on their own schedule, and when the film finally reaches a sort of crescendo, it isn't something you see coming.

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<p>Ambyr Childers and Julia Garner star as sisters with a dark secret in Jim Mickle's 'We Are What We Are'</p>

Ambyr Childers and Julia Garner star as sisters with a dark secret in Jim Mickle's 'We Are What We Are'

Credit: Sundance Film Festival
B-

Review: Dark family secrets drive the stylish and moody 'We Are What We Are' at Sundance midnights

Remake of a recent Mexican film plays it serious and offers strong work

Nick Damici and Jim Mickle have been working together for several films now, co-writing the films that Mickle directs, and they seem to be honing their aesthetic from film to film.  Sometimes you see a filmmaker arrive fully formed and sometimes you see a filmmaker grow from movie to movie.  In those cases, sometimes even if you don't love the movies, the growth is what's interesting, and "We Are What We Are" represents the best thing they've done together so far, no doubt about it.

From "Mulberry Street" to "Stake Land" to this latest effort, what's obvious is that they take genre seriously, and they ground the outlandish elements with an emphasis on character that one might argue is a requirement of a low budget, but that these filmmakers embrace as a virtue.  They like the slow fuse, and they are happy to save up the most shocking things in their films for a few moments instead of trying to just wear the audience down with non-stop sensation.

I haven't seen the original Mexican film, "Somos Lo Que Hay," which was released in 2010, but as I understand it, the films take the same basic idea and dramatize it in very different ways.  The Mexican film was about the father of a family who drops dead, leaving the teenage children of the family to carry on the primary responsibility of their particular family, the capture and preparation of a very particular kind of meat.  Jorge Michel Grau's film was set in the city, evidently, and that was a big part of the tension of the film.

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<p>I&nbsp;know the feeling.</p>

I know the feeling.

Credit: Sundance Film Festival
B+

Review: 'Escape From Tomorrow' is a surrealist treat that will give Disney's lawyers nightmares

One-of-a-kind film screens as part of the Sundance NEXT category

PARK CITY - Probably a half-hour into "Escape From Tomorrow," I turned to William Goss, another critic who was at the screening with me, and whispered, "How does this exist?"

Perhaps the most unusual thing I've ever seen at a film festival, "Escape From Tomorrow" is a slow descent into madness, told from the perspective of a father who finds out that he has lost his job on the final morning of a family vacation.  As he spends the day with his family, trying to make them happy, his grip on reality seems to come gradually unhinged, leading to… well, I'm not sure I could describe what it leads to even if it weren't a spoiler.  Shot in black-and-white, the film has a strange disassociated vibe to the storytelling, and writer/director Randy Moore has a very clear authorial voice.  It is not an understatement to say that it is one of the most unsettling things I've experienced in a theater in quite a while, and part of that is because, even now, even after seeing the Q&A with Moore, even after talking it over with Goss while we ate dinner, even after going over it in my head, I still don't fully understand what I just saw.

All I know is Walt Disney's lawyers are probably climbing onto helicopters and planning a raid on Park City right now.

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<p>Amari Cheatom and Trae Harris co-star in the stoner relationship comedy 'Newlyweeds' at this year's Sundance Film&nbsp;Festival</p>

Amari Cheatom and Trae Harris co-star in the stoner relationship comedy 'Newlyweeds' at this year's Sundance Film Festival

Credit: Sundance Film Festival
C+

Review: 'Newlyweeds' is a stoner's riff on the romantic comedy, but how potent is it?

An unven feature debut by Shaka King features some strong performances

PARK CITY - So far, Sundance has managed to get me ruminating on my own personal career of chemical misadventures, purely by coincidence.  Last night's film, "Crystal Fairy & The Magic Cactus and 2012," had me thinking about what it is that draws us to the extreme experiences, the personal tests that we sometimes impose on ourselves out of a drive to see if we are strong enough to handle them, and this morning's movie, "Newlyweeds," left me reflecting on the way certain relationships in my own life were defined by what substance I had in common with someone.

Shaka King's debut feature, "Newlyweeds" examines the dynamic between Lyle (Amari Cheatom) and Nina (Trae Harris), a young couple who have a mutual love of smoking marijuana.  Lyle works as a repo man for a rent-to-own company, and Nina gives museum tours, and the two of them are full of dreams and seem perfectly matched as the film begins.  There are many things to like about the way the film unfolds, and for about an hour of the running time, it seems like it works well.  Cheatom and Harris do a nice job of playing the couple, and Tone Trank also displays real charisma as Jackie, who is Lyle's partner at work.  For a while, there's an aimless quality to the film that works in its favor.  We see how Lyle and Jackie have to find ways to get into the apartments where they're supposed to repossess things, and we see how the weed manages to both bring Lyle and Nina closer together at times while also introducing real problems into their relationship.  It's great to have someone to smoke with at the end of a day when you're relaxing, someone who is on the same wavelength as you are, but when that person ends up smoking an entire eighth while you're at work and they're unwilling or unable to replace it, the strain it causes is very particular and not really like a normal relationship issue.

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<p>Michael Cera takes a psychedelic trip to Chile in the subtle, affecting 'Crystal Fairy &amp;&nbsp;The Magic Cactus And 2012,' one of the opening night films at the 2013 Sundance Film&nbsp;Festival</p>

Michael Cera takes a psychedelic trip to Chile in the subtle, affecting 'Crystal Fairy & The Magic Cactus And 2012,' one of the opening night films at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival

Credit: Sundance Film Festival
B+

Review: Michael Cera stars in the gentle, sincere mescaline-soaked road trip 'Crystal Fairy'

Sundance opens in a minor key that offers some subtle but genuine insights

PARK CITY - Movies about drug experiences are, in general, a very strange type of film.  They are either movies like the Oliver Stone school of thought, where a filmmaker uses every technique and effect possible to try to reproduce the sensation of being on a drug, visually and aurally, or they are films where we are watching characters deal with the sensations, more external experiences, and in art as in life, it can be incredibly dull to watch someone else drink or smoke or trip.

"Crystal Fairy & The Magic Cactus And 2012" tells the story of a young American named Jamie who is living in Chile for a while, desperate for experience, open to pretty much anything he can get his hand on.  Michael Cera is perfectly cast in the role, and this is a lovely, nuanced turn from him.  As the film opens, he's at a party with his friend Champa, played by Juan Andrea Silva, and Jamie's one of those guys who has decided that taking drugs is his thing.  He's read Aldous Huxley.  He's read some Terrence McKenna.  He's ready to have his heroic experiences, and so he's pretty much always saying yes.  He smokes some weed, tries some coke, drinks whatever's being served, and he and Champa are planning a trip to the beach, where they are going to prepare some San Pedro cactus and take a mescaline trip.  There's a sort of young-man's urgency to the way Jamie tries things.  He's looking for that moment where taking these drugs is more than a diversion, where it actually changes him.  He wants to be transformed.  He's ready to be the person who can speak about these things with authority instead of the person reading about the ones who have already done it.

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<p>Mia Wasikowska stars as India, a young girl who finds herself in a terrible bind in Park Chan-wook's 'Stoker,' which is about to debut at the Sundance Film Festival.</p>

Mia Wasikowska stars as India, a young girl who finds herself in a terrible bind in Park Chan-wook's 'Stoker,' which is about to debut at the Sundance Film Festival.

Credit: Fox Searchlight

Exclusive: Nicole Kidman, Mia Wasikowska and Matthew Goode in new 'Stoker' images

A new peek at Park Chan-wook's new film on the eve of its Sundance premiere

One of the films I watched over the Christmas holiday was Alfred Hitchcock's "Shadow Of A Doubt." I watched it because I was in the midst of watching several Alfred Hitchock titles recently released on Blu-ray, I watched it because it's a great movie that I hadn't seen in many years, and I watched it because I suspect it is the spiritual godfather of Park Chan-wook's first American film, "Stoker," which I'll be seeing in just a few days here at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.

If you're not familiar with "Shadow Of A Doubt," it tells the story of a bright young woman named Charlie (Teresa Wright) who is excited when her beloved Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten) comes to stay with her family.  When she begins to suspect that her uncle may be a killer on the run from the law, the film turns into an exercise in tension.  "Stoker," written by Wentworth Miller and Erin Cressida Wilson, tells the story of a young woman named India (Mia Wasikowska) whose father dies.  An Uncle Charlie she never knew about shows up, played by Matthew Goode, and moves in with India and her mother (Nicole Kidman), and the first trailer made it look like it also turns into an exercise in tension.

Obviously the lesson here is that you can never ever trust an Uncle Charlie, no matter what.

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<p>Sure, I could have found and printed a picture of what Jessica Chastain is looking at in this scene in 'Mama,' but what fun would that be?</p>

Sure, I could have found and printed a picture of what Jessica Chastain is looking at in this scene in 'Mama,' but what fun would that be?

Credit: Universal Pictures
B-

Review: Del Toro-produced 'Mama' features a heartbroken monster and some serious mood

A sad and somber ghost story features strong design and performances

One thing becomes clear if you watch the horror films that Guillermo Del Toro is involved in:  more often than not, he sympathizes with the monsters more than any of the "regular" humans who appear in the films.  No doubt that was one of the things that drew him to "Mama," a project that began as a short film and that is now a full-length feature starring Jessica Chastain, opening in theaters everywhere on Friday.  While the titular specter is creepy and at times very threatening, there is a sadness that ultimately defines who or what "Mama" really is, and that seems more important than the scares.

It's an interesting choice considering how often modern horror films seem to exist merely to service cheap shock gags, but Del Toro is nothing if not a lover of the classic tropes of the genre.  His movie "The Devil's Backbone" is a good example of a ghost story that has more on its mind than just SCARE SCARE SCARE SCARE, and his movie "Pan's Labyrinth" may include monsters and supernatural landscapes, but it's hardly an empty thrill ride.  And while Del Toro is not the primary author of "Mama," his name is certainly being used prominently to help sell this to the public because Universal believes (correctly, I suspect) that Del Toro has managed to define a certain kind of horror that he is associated with.  I didn't love "Don't Be Afraid Of The Dark," but I think it's another solid example of the sensibility that Del Toro responds to in other filmmakers.  In that case, he and Matthew Robbins wrote a script that Troy Nixey ended up directing, and you can definitely feel his influence in the film's DNA.

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<p>Arnold is, indeed, back.</p>

Arnold is, indeed, back.

Credit: Lionsgate
B+

Review: Arnold Schwarzenegger's 'Last Stand' delivers big action fun

Acclaimed Korean filmmaker Kim Jee-woon makes a strong US debut

There are very few actors who could walk away from the world of film for a decade and expect to be welcomed back by an audience, but Arnold Schwarzenegger has made a career out of defying the odds.  No one would have expected that a muscle-bound Austrian with a thick accent would be able to carve out a successful career starring in not only action films but comedies as well.  No one would have believed that America would embrace an action icon with the last name "Schwarzenegger."  And now, he manages another truly astonishing feat, returning to the world of movies after his time spent as the Governor of California, and to complicate things, he did it in a really good movie.

I am amazed that "The Last Stand" is as fun as it is, but I shouldn't be.  After all, it's directed by one of the few filmmakers to place not one but two films on my end-of-the-year top ten lists in the last decade.  Kim Jee-woon has more than proven himself as a significant voice in Korean cinema with movies like "The Foul King," "A Tale Of Two Sisters," and "A Bittersweet Life," but it was the back-to-back punch of "The Good, The Bad and the Weird" and "I Saw The Devil" that convinced me that he is an important voice in genre film.  He has a remarkable gift for staging action sequences, and he has a knack for building in all sorts of surprises into each sequence.  I honestly believe we'll be discussing his work for as long as I'm writing about film, and now we'll be able to add a chapter to that conversation in which we talk about how he snuck into the American system making a better-than-it-should-be Arnold Schwarzenegger action movie.

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<p>Bounty Hunter Embo was introduced in a 'Seven Samurai'-inspired episode of 'The Clone Wars,' and now Zack Snyder is apparently using the same film to inspire a stand-alone 'Star Wars' movie.</p>

Bounty Hunter Embo was introduced in a 'Seven Samurai'-inspired episode of 'The Clone Wars,' and now Zack Snyder is apparently using the same film to inspire a stand-alone 'Star Wars' movie.

Credit: Lucasfilm/Warner Home Video

Zack Snyder developing stand-alone 'Star Wars' film inspired by 'Seven Samurai'?

Kurosawa and 'Star Wars' have always gone hand-in-hand

The true test of the ongoing commercial appeal of "Star Wars" will not come with the release of Episodes VII, VIII, and IX.  The true test will come when they finally leave the story of the Skywalker family behind and begin telling stories that are set in the universe that George Lucas created, but that explore new corners and new characters.

That test may be coming sooner than anticipated, and I am eager to see how it plays out.  Zack Snyder is developing a stand-alone film that uses Kurosawa's "Seven Samurai" as a foundation, according to a report this morning on Vulture, and that seems like a perfectly logical development.  After all, "Star Wars" has Kurosawa in its DNA in a major way.  The first film in 1977 was directly inspired by elements from "The Hidden Fortress," and when Lucas began casting the movie, they made overtures to Toshiro Mifune to play Obi-Wan Kenobi.

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<p>Josh Brolin was in an unusually outgoing mood when we sat down to talk about his work in this weekend's new release, 'Gangster Squad'</p>

Josh Brolin was in an unusually outgoing mood when we sat down to talk about his work in this weekend's new release, 'Gangster Squad'

Credit: HitFix

Josh Brolin talks about throwing punches with Sean Penn in 'Gangster Squad'

Plus he threatens to report me to Penn over a comment

One of the most distinct memories I have involving Josh Brolin took place on the set of "Jonah Hex," where we interviewed him standing outside on a muggy New Orleans night, a few yards away from a swamp where there were alligators visibly checking us out.  Brolin's extensive prosthetic work in the film made it nearly impossible to understand him when he spoke, but he seemed delighted by the way it affected him.

Brolin strikes me as the kind of guy who loves to immerse himself in a role, losing himself in the little details.  I think the way he has evolved as a performer has been impressive, and it would have been impossible to guess back in the early days of "The Goonies" and "Thrashin'" that he would evolve into one of our most interesting leading men.  As I mentioned to him at the end of this interview, I value his presence in movies precisely because of the mileage that is so evident on him these days.  This is a guy who has lived, and who has built up his fair share of scar tissue.

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