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Screenings and Meanings

By Gerald Schmitz

 

Highlighting top dramas from Sundance Film Festival

03/04/2015

Gerald SchmitzMy festival overview last month has already mentioned the hugely entertaining Oscar-nominated Wild Tales from Argentina and the genial A Walk in the Woods which stars festival founder Robert Redford. Last week I noted several fine Canadian features and co-productions — François Delisle’s Chorus and Robert Eggers’ The Witch. Here are more top titles from more than 30 narrative films I was able to see.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (U.S.)

Winner of both the grand jury and audience awards, this is a terrific story about a trio of high school seniors that never verges into maudlin or weepy sentimentality of The Fault in Our Stars variety.

That’s a tribute to director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon and his young actors. Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann) is an amiable underachiever who spends much of his time with his hipper friend Earl (RJ Cyler) making mock versions of famous movies, until he has to take life more seriously when his mother pushes him into befriending Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a classmate who’s been diagnosed with leukemia. It could be a set up for another tragic teen romance. Instead, Greg’s emotional journey is a remarkably fresh, affectionate and often humorous take on the joys and sorrows of growing up.

'71 (U.K.)

Earning accolades since premiering at the 2014 Berlin film festival, Yann Demange’s searing drama about a young British soldier caught up in the merciless violence of a divided Northern Ireland during “The Troubles” shows how deeply prejudice and a vicious cycle of revenge can warp a society. Jack O’Connell is brilliant as Private Gary Hook who, finding himself stranded in a deadly crossfire zone with no side to be trusted, must depend on the conscience of strangers to survive.

I Am Michael (U.S.)

There’s a lot more to James Franco than the notorious anti-North Korea “comedy” The Interview that made news in December. The polymath thespian/director/producer has been in cinematic overdrive. Between Palm Springs, Sundance, Slamdance (its edgy alternative fest that runs concurrently), and Berlin, he’s in six premieres so far this year, including new films from German masters Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders.

Although I wasn’t able to see Franco’s other Sundance film, True Story, I was mesmerized by his lead performance in the dramatized stranger-than-fiction true story of Michael Glatze, a longtime gay-rights activist who caused consternation in 2007 when he renounced homosexual identity, left his partner and studied to become a conservative Christian pastor. I Am Michael, also a Berlin selection, is an extremely promising debut feature by writer-director Justin Kelly. I’ll leave the many fascinating details of this ongoing story for a later review.

Last Days in the Desert (U.S.)

Ewan McGregor masters the dual role of Son of God and Devil’s Advocate in this haunting biblically based drama from writer-director Rodrigo Garcia that features stunning cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki (Birdman). As Jesus fasts in the desert in a hallucinatory state he wrestles with his faith, calling out to the silent Father while fending off the doubting temptations of his demonic alter ego. An encounter with a family of desert dwellers provides a further test of his mission before going to Jerusalem to take up his cross.

Don Verdean (U.S.)

One of a handful of Sundance premieres dealing with faith issues (more on that in a subsequent column), Utah-based writer-director Jared Hess hits a home run with this frequently hilarious satire of a Christian pseudo-archeologist who teams up with a preacher keen to boost his ministry by peddling products claiming to be genuine biblical artifacts from the Holy Land. Don Verdean (Sam Rockwell) seems almost sincere and his loyal assistant Carol is a true believer. His fixers, Israeli Jews Boaz and Shem, have fewer scruples and things careen out of hand when evangelical rivalries and corrupting money from a Chinese billionaire force Don to come to terms with a choice of faith over fiction.

White God (Hungary)

You may never look at man’s best friend the same way again. A young girl is separated from her precious dog when abandoned by her mother to the care of an exasperated father. As she desperately seeks to be reunited with her pet, what follows in this Cannes prize-winner are scenes of canine abuse at the hands of humans leading to a collective four-legged retribution and climax that is simply astonishing.

The Stanford Prison Experiment (U.S.)

Director Kyle Patrick Alvarez does a superb job of recreating this infamous 1971 study of prison psychology led by Stanford university professor Philip Zimbardo (played by Billy Crudup). He recruited 24 male students and assigned half to be guards; the other half were prisoners. The video-monitored simulation escalated so quickly to the point of sadistic abuse it had to be terminated after six days. Winner of the Alfred P. Sloan prize and Waldo Salt screenwriting award.

Brooklyn (U.K./Ireland/Canada)

In this wonderfully evocative adaptation of the Colm Toíbin novel, Saoirse Ronan is radiant as a young Irish woman who emigrates to 1950s America and finds married love there but still feels the pull of her homeland, leading to a choice between two men representing the past and the future. (Ronan also excels in a dramatically different role in the U.S. competition feature Stockholm, Pennsylvania, playing a repressed, deeply troubled young woman returned to her parents after having been abducted and held captive in a basement for 17 years.)

Slow West (U.K./New Zealand)

Winner of the world cinema jury prize, writer-director John Maclean creates an enchanting if unforgiving 19th century frontier world in this tragic romance that follows a lovestruck young Scot, Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee), on a perilous quest to find a Rose with a bounty on her head. Michael Fassbender plays the hardened horseman who protects Jay until the slow dream ends in a spectacular shootout.

The End of the Tour (U.S.)

In 1996 David Foster Wallace, an obscure Midwest writer, stunned the literary world with his novel Infinite Jest. Following his 2008 suicide Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky wrote about his never-published five days of interviews with Wallace. Director James Ponsoldt brings that unusual encounter to life with Jesse Eisenberg as Lipsky and Jason Segel as Wallace capturing the troubled soul-searching that lies beneath the surface.

Ten Thousand Saints (U.S.)

After a tragic accident Jude (Asa Butterfield) is sent to live with his pot-smoking hippie dad Les (Ethan Hawke) amid the 1980s chaos and excitement of New York City’s East Village. Things get complicated quickly involving a dead friend as posthumous father, his closeted brother in a puritanical punk band, and the cool daughter of dad’s girlfriend who’s a mother to be. The bizarre scene is richly realized by writer-directors Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman who somehow hold it all together.

Some brief notes on others seen:

Advantageous (special jury award for collaborative vision) follows a mother and daughter in a near-future dystopia where the demands of youth and beauty force a self-denying decision.

Jack Reynor gives an intense performance (earning a special jury award) in Glassland as a Dublin taxi driver coping with an alcoholic mother and the pressures of criminal associations. Christopher Abbott is also compelling as a delinquent New Yorker who nonetheless tries to care for a dying mother in James White (audience award in the “Next” program).

In the Turkish feature Ivy tensions explode among a cargo ship crew when they are trapped for months near an Egyptian port after the owner’s bankruptcy. (Another Turkish feature Across the Sea won the audience award at Slamdance.)

In The Second Mother (Brazil), the subservient status of a longtime nanny/housekeeper is challenged when her teenage daughter comes to live with her (special jury award to lead actresses Regina Case and Camila Mardila).

There’s a catchy hip-hop vibe running through the wild and crazy action of Dope (jury editing award) about a trio of misfit teens from a drug and crime-infested California ghetto who find ingenious if illicit means to overcome their circumstances. (What I didn’t like is the incessant profanity of n- and f-words. Racist stereotypes about minority youth from the ‘hood are bad enough as it is.)

I also have strong reservations about The Tribe (Ukraine), a controversial sensation at Cannes 2014. Set in a boarding school for the deaf with only ambient sound as the actors use sign language (without narration or subtitles), the story grows more scandalous up to a shockingly savage conclusion. There’s nothing positive about this depiction of disability. Indeed a deaf audience is likely to recoil in horror.

Much more enjoyable was the Norwegian Operation Arctic in the Sundance Kids program, an adventure survival story about three children who get stranded on a deserted Svalbard island after stowing away on a helicopter.

Finally, Gabrielle Demeestere’s Yosemite, which closed Slamdance, follows 11-year-old Chris and two boyhood friends who venture beyond the confines of 1985 suburban Palo Alto amid reports sighting a mountain lion on the prowl. Drawing on interlinked stories by Palo Alto native and executive producer James Franco, who also plays Chris’s dad, this small unassuming film effectively conveys the fragility of life.

******

On Friday, March 20, 2015, at 7:00 p.m., Gerald Schmitz will discuss "When the movies go to war." The event will be held at St. Thomas More College in Saskatoon, Fr. O'Donnell Auditorium.