Sundance Film Festival 2015

Check out all of the reviews straight from Park City!

Review: Ava DuVernay's 'Selma'

Starring David Oyelowo

Review: Rob Marshall's 'Into The Woods'

Starring Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, and Anna Kendrick

Tim Burton's 'Big Eyes'

Starring Christoph Waltz and Amy Adams

1/26/2015

David Oyelowo and Ava DuVernay Reteaming for Hurricane Katrina Film


While anger continues to build over the Oscar love Ava DuVernay and David Oyelowo didn't receive for Selma, the duo is pushing ahead on their third collaboration anyway. Variety reports the two will team up on a film set during the 2005 Hurricane Katrina disaster.

DuVernay will produce, write, and direct while Oyelowo will produce and lead the film, which is described as a love story and murder mystery. The two first worked together on the indie drama, Middle of Nowhere, which won her Best Director at Sundance back in 2012.

No word on when filming could begin but this is pretty exciting news that DuVernay and Oyelowo are back in business together and tackling another event with deep societal impact. The two have been traveling the globe promoting Selma and clearly have developed a personal and creative bond that hopefully will lead to more projects in the future. Go here to check out my recent interview with them both for Selma.

Luke Evans Drops Out of 'The Crow' Reboot


Well, the reboot of The Crow has suffered yet another setback. The long-developing, extremely troubled film was close to losing its star, Luke Evans, just last month and now it's official that he's dropped out of the role.

Corin Hardy is still attached to direct the film, an adaptation of James O'Barr's comic about the murdered Eric Draven who comes back to avenge the killing. Evans joins Mark Wahlberg and Bradley Cooper on the list of big name stars who have been attached only to leave the project for various reasons.

Filming is to begin later this year but at this rate who can really trust that to happen? [TheWrap]

Sundance Review: 'Dope' starring Shameik Moore, Tony Revolori, and Zoe Kravitz


Having grown up in the '90s and been deep into the hip-hop culture, I have a pretty good sense for those who have a genuine feel for the era. It was a time when hip-hop was at its creative peak from a musical and fashion sense, but also in the way rappers expressed themselves as individuals. Being "real" is at the core of Rick Famuyiwa's kinetic comedy Dope, a fast-paced throwback that is a little like a mix of House Party and Boyz n the Hood. At the time of this review Dope is the big winner of the Sundance Film Festival, sparking a bidding war that ultimately scored a whopping $7M. Normally the financials are the last thing one should be concerned with, but in the case of Dope it's an indication of the film's wide crossover appeal that may surpass last year's breakout comedy, Dear White People.

But is Dope worth all of the attention it's getting? Absolutely, but to say it isn't a little overhyped would be lying. The film's greatest hook is in the opening 30 minutes as we're introduced to geeky best friends Malcolm (Shameik Moore), Jib (The Grand Budapest Hotel's Tony Revolori), and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons). Although the film is set in contemporary Inglewood, CA in the tough part of town known as "The Bottoms", Malcolm and his crew are old school. He rocks a high-top fade, wears Cross Colours, and indulges in other "white things" like Donald Glover and manga comics. They even speak in the slang of the time which everybody thinks is pretty wack.  Growing up in the 'hood is tough enough with the ever-present threat of street violence, but Malcolm and his crew are obvious targets for bullies.

The charm comes in the nostalgic hip-hop packaging with beats by Naughty by Nature, Nas, along with original tracks by Pharrell. And at least through the opening minutes as Malcolm and his crew establish themselves as 'hood outsiders, the film is incredibly entertaining and hilarious. Malcolm is a smart kid with dreams of graduating high school and going to Harvard, but kids from "The Bottoms" rarely get that far. Famuyiwa has plenty to say about the tough circumstances for those growing up in a neighborhood where there is little hope for success, and those who strive to better themselves are looked at as weak. If Malcolm is going to go to Harvard, it's going to take a move of legendary proportions to do it. Fortunately that opportunity arrives after a chance encounter with Dom (A$AP Rocky), a local hood who needs Malcolm's help hooking up with Nakia (Zoe Kravitz), who is hoping to earn her GED and escape to a better life.

Things start to get serious when Malcolm gets involved in a drug deal involving Dom and some rival gangsters who bust up in a nightclub ready to kill. For a good stretch of the film it becomes, essentially, a crime movie as Malcolm is stuck with a huge stash of drugs and no good options for getting rid of them.  The film is all about making the best of a bad situation, and Famuyiwa cleverly weaves in all of Malcolm's various subplots into one. Showing that he's got a handle on modern technology, Famuyiwa's screenplay includes references to the underground currency Bitcoin, Snapchat, and more. One of the funniest sequences involves a viral campaign, a drug nicknamed #Lily for a slutty chick Malcolm encounters, and a hilarious use of the word "poundcake".  The film remains entertaining throughout but the lengthy drug selling plot takes away from what worked best which is Malcolm and his friends just hanging out. That they never really try to conform is also one of the story's finest qualities, and the film works best when it doesn't try to fit into any specific genre, either. That makes a closing speech by Malcolm, done in the badly-overused "college application" trope, all the less effective. While what he says about race factoring into his future prospects is powerful, it's a little too serious and on-the-nose to fit with the tone of the rest of the film. That he then immediately takes a symbolic action that contradicts his non-conformist personality also doesn't make sense given the message Famuyiwa had spent the entire film sending.

When Dope refuses to fall into any direct labels it's one of the smartest and funniest urban comedies we've seen in a long time. Even when it's less than perfect, Dope is pretty fresh.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

1/25/2015

Sundance Review: 'The Diary of a Teenage Girl' starring Bel Powley and Kristen Wiig


The indie scene is chock full of films about female sexual awakening, and most attempt to tell the  same edgy story. Few pull it off; either they're too soft or exploit the subject in ways that can be considered ugly. Marielle Heller's assertive directorial debut The Diary of a Teenage Girl does what many other films attempt which is push the limits in exploring the unchecked sexual desires of one atypical girl in 1976 San Francisco.

Anchored by a raw, untamed central performance by British actress Bel Powley, the film grabs your attention right away as 15-year-old Minnie reveals she just had sex for the first time. Against the backdrop of the west coast hippie and feminist movement there's an endearing spirit of rebellion against societal norms, and Minnie is swept up in it. But for all her hope that she's made the transition into womanhood, she's still very much an immature child. Blabbing into her tape recorder she reveals that her lover was Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard), the boyfriend to her mother Charlotte (Kristen Wiig), an alcoholic with trouble holding on to men. That Charlotte perceives her daughter as a rival isn't lost on Minnie, but it actually drives her to pursue the relationship further. She begins to revel in the danger of it, but also the feeling of being sexually attractive to men because she always perceived herself as ugly and fat.

The road Minnie travels is a familiar one of sexual experimentation bordering on nymphomania. There's of course sex with Monroe, but also sex with strangers, group sex, and a disturbing bout with prostitution that nearly crosses the line into bad taste. Hellner's unflinching portrayal of it is refreshing but Minnie's story is also consistently predictable. Based on the graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner, Hellner attempts to weave in brief, American Splendor-esque animated sequences that are beautiful but seem divorced from the narrative. While the case isn't completely made that all of Minnie's questionable behavior will build her into a confident woman, it does celebrate that she'll always be true to herself without the need for male validation. At a time when Hollywood is often and rightly criticized for its negative portrayals of women,  The Diary of a Teenage Girl sends a valuable message message about the value of self-worth.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Sundance Review: 'Seoul Searching', Starring Justin Chon and Jessika Van


What do you get when you throw a bunch of teenagers together in one place and call it summer camp? Well, director Benson Lee calls it Seoul Searching. Based on his own childhood experience growing up, Korean migrants make it back to Seoul, Korea for a summer camp that their parents send them to in order to learn more about their mother culture. Because all of these teens are 2nd generation Koreans whose parents moved to different parts of the world (Germany, America, England, etc.) after the Korean war split the country into two different factions, their parents think they have assimilated too much into their new culture and have lost touch with their roots.

Children who belong to "the third space" can most definitely understand this film since being caught between two cultures can often be difficult to live through, but in general the film is also heavy on the rifts between parents and children and anyone of any culture can understand this. It focuses on this during the second half of the movie and spends the first half being more innocent and filled with teen fun, although this aspect gets heavy handed at times.

It's the '80s, so the style and music of that era dominate the film and for the most part this aspect works. The story doesn't really focus on one or two characters, but several of them at once, and because of this, each of the characters has their own unique style and qualities, almost to a stereotypical fault. For example, the Korean-Americans (Justin Chon, Jessika Van) have more attitude issues and try really hard at being cool. The Korean-German is clean-cut and more serious, and the Korean-Mexican is always chasing girls and trying to charm the opposite sex. So, the roles obviously play to the stereotypes of whatever culture the teens come from and that sometimes gets a bit frustrating.

Having said this however, the main characters also have more depth to them than what we first realize. They're torn between trying to fit into two worlds and living up to their parents' expectations of them, especially the expectations from traditions and a culture they may not fully understand. This makes for some interesting material, which is sometimes overshadowed by teenage angst. The film is a comedy, but spends most of its time trying really hard to be funnier than it actually is. There are occasionally amusing moments, but the overall film doesn't feel genuinely funny enough.

The cast, the majority of which is made up of newcomers, do a fair enough job trying to give their characters layering, but more often than not the script doesn't help them very much. One of the most touching scenes though, comes during a confrontation between Sid (Justin Cho) and his summer camp teacher Mr. Kim (In-Pyo Cha). Mr. Kim's demons are confronted as he's trying to understand Sid and why he carries around this big attitude. The scene is genuine, heartfelt, and is one of the most enjoyable scenes from the film. As is the scene between Kris (Rosalina Leigh) and her biological mother. These scenes are great and prove that regardless of what you think of the film, it has a lot of potential.

'80s music, a teenage-filled atmosphere, some fun, some contrived drama are what make up Seoul Searching. The stereotypes are sometimes too out there to really ignore, and the ending happens a bit too fast in order to wrap everything up neatly, and doesn't feel overtly natural in its finishing touches. Director Benson Lee has a unique plot (how many movies send us to summer camp in Korea?) and the idea to explore these multi-cultural teens is something not many people can easily take on, but the execution and script need a bit of polishing.



Sundance Review: 'I Am Michael' starring James Franco and Zachary Quinto


If it's Sundance, then James Franco probably has two or three movies there and this year is no different. When not indulging in stoner comedies with his pals, Franco's drive as an indie filmmaker and actor has seen him exploring themes of sexual identity, especially when it pertains to homosexuality. Franco's latest film, I Am Michael, is easily the most thought-provoking work he has done in this milieu yet as it deals with the true story of a formerly gay man who renounce his homosexuality.

This isn't just any ordinary man, though, as Franco plays rabble-rousing gay activist Michael Glatze, former editor of popular gay magazine 'XY'. When we first meet him it's much later on during his time as a Christian pastor, warning a young man not to give in to his homosexual urges. As a mocking counterpoint, of which the film has many, we are jumped back ten years to 1998 San Francisco when Michael was a very different man. Then he was energetic, young, and very gay; living in domestic bliss with his architect boyfriend Bennett (Zachary Quinto) and running 'XY' as the editor and lead voice. A move to Halifax puts a strain on their relationship, but it is soon bolstered by the presence of Tyler (Charlie Carver), a young college student who shares their bed. Michael continues to fight for gay causes and even embarks on a road trip to mount a documentary on gay youth. After once encouraging homosexuals to be loud and proud about who they are, he begins to adopt the notion that labels of any kind are misguided. It's a fair assessment to make, but Michael soon begins to question everything he thought he knew. Despite the evil acts committed by Christians against gays, such as the Matthew Shepard murder, is it fair to label all Christians as "evil"?

When a series of health problems arise, Michael finds himself turning towards God in a way he never has before. He's consumed with the desire to be reunited with his late mother and to be seen favorably in the eyes of the Lord, and this change naturally has a dramatic effect on Bennett, as well, who openly wonders where the Michael he knew has gone. But Michael insists that he's still only trying to break through stereotypes and go beyond the labels, even as his increased use of extreme fundamentalist dogma says otherwise. It isn't long before Michael has pulled away from the life he knew completely, renouncing his homosexuality and proclaiming that he is and always has been a heterosexual with "homosexual problem".

For writer/director Justin Kelly, Michael's evolution, if one can call it that, is clearly a confused one filled with contradictions. The film begins mostly in biographical fashion, free of judgment as Michael lives his life as a gay rights activist. Kelly is quick to show how truly happy Michael was during this time as a contrast to the somber, conflicted man he appears to be later on after his conversion. But Kelly also manages to consider Michael on an even level for the most part, taking great pains not to ridicule his choices no matter how ridiculous some of them may seem. His transformation is depicted honestly, if curiously, as an alienated man simply trying to find some sense of belonging. All of the babble he piles on about reaching Heaven and earning God's favor comes off as slightly disingenuous, and it's during those brief, somber moments when he reaches out (usually by phone) to Bennett that he's truly himself again. When Michael joins a Bible school and forges a romantic heterosexual relationship with a young classmate (Emma Roberts), it's perhaps the surest step in the new direction he is going. If the screenplay is perhaps a bit simplistic and laborious at times, it's kind of understandable because Michael is a constant work-in-progress. To completely understand him is impossible given that he barely seems to understand himself.  Franco is in charge of practically every scene and it's one of the most textured performances he's ever given considering the world of difference between the vibrant young Michael and the mysterious, closed-off individual he becomes later on.

I Am Michael isn't a feel-good story by any means. It's not the story of a man who came to discover his true place in the world. Instead it's a sad but fascinating look at a man who was unable to see that the one thing he wanted most in the world, acceptance, was already in his grasp and he threw it all away.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

1/24/2015

Sundance Review: 'Z for Zachariah' starring Margot Robbie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Chris Pine


In 2012 Craig Zobel's impressive but difficult to endure directorial debut Compliance looked with dim-colored glasses at the ways power can be used to control others. His follow-up, the sci-fi flavored Z for Zachariah also looks at authority, albeit a much higher one, and how one's faith can be manipulated by others to achieve their ends, but also how we use it to lie to ourselves about our own desires.

Only three characters occupy space in this intimate but gripping thriller set in the wake of a disaster that has destroyed the human population and rendered much of the planet uninhabitable.  Margot Robbie trades in the glamorous characters we're accustomed to seeing her in for the role of Ann, the lone survivor in a pocket of unaffected land. More than capable of surviving on her own, although her trusty dog is by her side, Ann hunts and farms to eke out a meager, lonely existence.  That changes when she encounters Loomis (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the first human she's seen in ages and a lifeline out of her despair. It's clear he's been in much the same boat, and after an accident leaves him sick with radiation poisoning the two set aside their mutual mistrust to take care of one another.

Anytime two lonely people are placed in such close proximity the spark of romance is probable, but it's inevitable given the extreme nature of their circumstances.  And while Zobel slowly builds to that passion through their work to build a sustainable life, he's more interested in the ideological differences that could derail everything.  She's driven by the power of her religious convictions, believing to the core of her being that God has done all of this for a reason. Loomis, while not an outright atheist, is a scientist who has no qualms about tearing down her father's old church to build a power source to survive a harsh winter. While there are no pointed, heated debates, the film is too elegantly constructed for that,  it's never far out of mind as new temptations creep into their lives. The arrival of a shady but charming drifter named Caleb (Chris Pine) awakens the passion in Ann, while also providing her an outlet to express her faith. Naturally it doesn't please Loomis to nearly the same degree, and soon the pressure builds between both men as they subtly one-up each other to win Ann's love.

Rich with themes of jealousy, contempt, and lust, Z for Zachariah explores the internal conflict between the needs of the flesh and of the soul. It's a powerful follow-up for Zobel, and he's proving to be a director capable of pulling the best from his actors. It's refreshing to see Robbie in a complicated, vanity-free role like this as she was already getting pigeonholed as a screen vixen. As Ann she gets to show a vulnerability we've yet to see from her before, and at this point one has to recognize how integral she's been to the success of every film she's been in. Ejiofor is simply amazing once again, and perhaps has the most complicated, wide-ranging role to play. Once again Ejiofor is placed in the role of a man forced to endure hardships, both great and small, for a chance to live the life he imagined. Pine's role is less defined than the others but its good to see him outside of a larger ensemble for once.

While predicting which films will go on to greater things outside of the festival is always tricky, Z for Zachariah is a masterfully done film of deep complexity that everyone would be wise to seek out.
Rating: 4 out of 5

Teaser for Eli Roth's Sundance Horror 'Knock Knock' with Keanu Reeves '


Fresh off last night's premier here at Sundance in the Park City at Midnight section, Eli Roth has released the teaser for his latest horror, Knock Knock. Starring Keanu Reeves, Colleen Camp, Lorenza Izzo, Ana de Armas, Aaron Burns, and Ignacia Allamand, the film centers on a successful family man who opens the door to chaos when he invites two wild girls into his home. The result is something that looks resembles Funny Games, only given Roth's twisted touch.

Check out the official synopsis followed by the teaser.

Evan Webber (Keanu Reeves) is living the dream. Just look at his beautiful, successful wife, his two wonderful kids, and his truly stunning house—which he designed himself. Of course he did. Things are going so well, Evan doesn't even mind spending Father's Day alone while the rest of his family heads out for a beach weekend. And then there’s a knock on the door.

The two young women (Lorenza Izzo and Ana de Armas) standing on Evan's doorstep are where Evan's dream takes a nightmarish turn. Given co-writer/director Eli Roth's well-deserved reputation for creating cinematic discomfort, it should come as no surprise what happens next: Things get weird, and then dark, and then much, much, much darker. But this is no splatter film, so Roth keeps the horror nice and psychological as Evan's life—and house—get ripped apart, piece by beautiful piece.

Sundance Review: 'Stockholm, Pennsylvania' starring Saoirse Ronan and Cynthia Nixon


The return of a kidnapped child should be a happy thing, and in the movies or some TV drama perhaps it is. But the reality is that's only the beginning of the story and the road to recovery for the victim and her parents alike. Nicole Beckwith's directorial debut Stockholm, PA begins as a powerful look at a family whose lives were ripped apart by such a tragedy and the continued pain of reforming that familial bond once it has been severed, but then the film devolves into ugly, useless histrionics that are more laughable than meaningful.

Saoirse Ronan stars as Leia, although her actual name is Leanne. That's what her parents (Cynthia Nixon as Marcy and David Warshovsky as the barely-present father) named her, before she was kidnapped from them 18 years earlier. Now she's suddenly returned, but having lived a life under the "loving" care of her captor  (Jason Isaacs), trapped in a basement with no exposure to the outside world, Leanne is basically beginning again from scratch.  She has no memory of her life before; all she's ever really known is the life she had in that basement, taught oddly-cultist teachings about the universe and the supposed destruction of humanity.

At first it looks as if Beckwith intends to take a We Need to Talk About Kevin-type look at what happens when the maternal bond is either nonexistent or destroyed. Both women have no idea how to move on beyond the tragedy, and being stuck in the past has left them incapable of coming together. Marcy sees the daughter she loved as a child and treats her as she used to, but Leanne sees her parents as complete strangers.  Complicating the matter is that Leanne's abductor was never cruel; he loved her as his own child, and her feelings for him haven't dimmed even as he rots away in prison. She doesn't understand why others think of him as a monster. As the two women fail to connect, a schism forms between Marcy and her husband who doesn't understand why everybody can't just move on. It's not that simple, and Beckwith  treats the issue with the nuance it deserves.

But then...it's like a light flips and the whole thing goes skidding over the cliff. Perhaps Beckwith didn't have faith in the material, or didn't know how to resolve it, but soon Marcy becomes increasingly demanding and possessive. Locking Leanne away and basically keeping her captive, her mental state spirals out of control until she becomes kind of a joke. Fed on a strict schedule and kept away from the prying eyes of others, Leanne becomes prisoner to an entirely new captor, but another who claims to do so out of love. There's an ugly cycle being spun and Beckwith's attempts to explore that are lost as the film becomes a complete joke of cornball theatrics and angry tirades, the kind of which you'd see on some bad telefilm. Nixon, looking thin and twitchy and less Miranda than ever, is forced to match the incoherence of the screenplay. For Ronan it's at least the fourth time she's played a character with a limited view of the world (Atonement, Hanna, The Host being the others) and she again taps into that innocence in another great performance.

Stockholm, Pennsylvania deals with complicated subject matter, and while there was no easy path to finding a satisfying resolution it doesn't excuse the crucial mistake in tone Beckwith commits.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5

Andy Serkis' Rumored Role in 'Avengers: Age of Ultron'; Mantis could Appear in Key Role


Ever since the first Avengers:Age of Ultron trailer debuted speculation has been running rampant about the unspecified role played by Andy Serkis. When rumors surfaced that Black Panther could make an appearance, the popular theory was that Serkis would play his nemesis Ulysses Klaw. Now a new rumor from Schmoes Know backs that up, while the site also has word on a female Avenger who could turn up in a major role.

The site's trusted source says that Serkis would play a sort of combination of Klaw and his father, Fritz Klaue.  Klaw is obsessed with the rare sound - absorbing metal Vibranium which can only be found in the Panther's nation of Wakanda. He eventually becomes a costumed villain made of pure sound. It's possible Fritz could only be mentioned in passing rather than appear on screen, but it sounds like either way we'll be seeing Klaw,  likely as a setup to a future Black Panther film with Chadwick Boseman.


Plus it's possible the incredibly convoluted female Avenger, Mantis,  could have a role in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Schmoes Know, who seem to be speculating a great deal on this one, claim the character could show up because of her ties to Scarlet Witch, Vision, and The Guardians of the Galaxy, which is all true but the same could be said for others. Mantis was a young girl who was trained to be an assassin by the Priests of Pama, a small sect of the alien Kree. She was also believed to be the Celestial Madonna, but after having her mind wiped she goes out to experience the world and becomes an Avenger. She fell in love with the Vision at one point, and has used her marital arts and telepathic abilities to battle Thanos, the big-bad of the Marvel cinematic universe.

Mantis is a relatively minor character and its doubtful Marvel would bother including her in any major way when there are so many others who would fit in better and carry less baggage. But you never know. Avengers: Age of Ultron opens May 1st 2015.