Sundance Capsule Reviews Jan. 27 | Buzz Blog

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Sundance Capsule Reviews Jan. 27

Posted By on January 27, 2015, 11:45 AM

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Mistress America **1/2
Noah Baumbach has long been one of the funniest, most generous observers of the honest foibles of youth, so it's kind of crushing to see him steer towards a particularly aggravating brand of farce. The solid set-up follows new Barnard College freshman Tracy (Lola Kirke) as she struggles to adjust socially to her new environs, then finds a ready-made friend and life-tour-guide in Brooke (Greta Gerwig, Baumbach's partner and co-writer), a charismatic whirlwind of big ideas that never quite go anywhere. The first half is genuinely charming, both in capturing Tracy's initial sense of insecurity and loneliness, and in giving Gerwig another great showcase for the kind of alpha-girl she played so well in Damsels in Distress. And then the plot shifts abruptly to focus on Brooke's trip to Connecticut to beg an old flame for funds to invest in her planned restaurant, and the whole thing turns into a parade of people bouncing from room to room, accusing and misunderstanding one another, trading recriminations and generally building the need for some sort of headache medication. Whatever Baumbach and Gerwig want to say about the inspirational charms of life's colorful, flaky characters, they need to find a way to say it without shouting. (Scott Renshaw)

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl ****
“I have no idea how to tell this story,” writes Greg (Thomas Mann), high school senior and titular “Me”—a sentiment which could not possibly be less true of the filmmakers in Alfonso Gomez-Rejon's lovely, hilarious adaptation of Jesse Andrews' novel. The story follows the deliberately anonymous Greg through his senior year, after his mother's insistence that he show kindness to leukemia-stricken classmate Rachel (Olivia Cooke) results in what captions describe as a “doomed friendship.” Andrews' own screenplay retains the tart, self-deprecating sensibility of the book in terrific dialogue passages and an eye-catching performance by Mann, while bringing to life the “homages” to classic films made by Greg and his pal Earl (RJ Cyler), among Gomez-Rejon's many lively visual touches. But the impressive part is how they manage to make something that's both wildly entertaining and genuinely touching, exploring a different kind of coming-of-age story: one in which a young man comes to understand how much he stands to lose if he keeps the possibility of getting hurt at arm's length. It's both the funniest tear-jerker and the most richly emotional young-adult comedy in years. (SR)

3 ½ Minutes ****
A magnificently accomplished piece of filmmaking and rhetorical argument, 3 ½ Minutes relates the story of the November 2012 murder of Florida teenager Jordan Davis and the subsequent trial of his murderer, Michael Dunn. Director Marc Silver does not entirely forgo talking head interviews, but does not lean on them as his only means of exposition, and at no point intrudes to tell the audience what to think. This is one of the traps to which documentary filmmakers, especially ones working with hot-button social issues, often succumb. Silver uses every advantage afforded him by his access—including some inadvertently damning audio recordings—and then, once he has laid out the pieces for all to see, largely stays out of the way. What he does do is make the city of Jacksonville, Fla., never particularly renowned for its photogenic qualities, come alive. And with it, its people: Jordan Davis' friends are presented, without comment or manipulation, as ordinary teenagers, far from the “thugs” Dunn's perception registered them as. This failure—and the tragedy it led to with the aid of the bizarre, deliberately vague “Stand Your Ground” law—is the true subject of 3 ½ Minutes. It is a story that never should have happened. (Danny Bowes)

The Amina Profile ***
Alternately fascinating and frustrating—and sometimes for the same reasons—Sophie Deraspe’s documentary explores the story behind “Gay Girl in Damascus,” a blog that introduced the world to Amina Arraf, an out lesbian reporting on the “Arab Spring” uprisings in Syria in 2011. Sandra Bagaria began an online relationship with Amina at the same time, and the story builds to a moment when Sandra gets news that Amina has been kidnapped by Syrian secret police, launching an international effort to find her. The ensuing story echoes a documentary the mere name of which would spill too many beans, but Deraspe does take familiar ideas in some new directions, including the perils of sloppy journalism and big-picture consequences of sad human frailties. But those ideas occasionally get in the way of the simple, emotional story of Sandra’s quest for answers, just as Desrape’s stylish visuals get in the way of a dramatic, climactic face-to-face confrontation. It just misses being able to perfectly balance a love story, a detective story and a meditation on the perils of the modern world. (SR)

Unexpected ***
Overwritten in places and dramatically a bit slight (to understate), Kris Swanberg's Unexpected is nonetheless a charming tale of the friendship that develops between a white high school science teacher (Cobie Smulders) and her black student (Gail Bean) when they both become pregnant at roughly the same time. Extensive precedent has led to that plot synopsis being cause for alarm, to wit: Unexpected feels, for almost its entire running time, as if it's on the brink of becoming a White Savior movie. It never does, as Swanberg and co-writer Megan Mercier see the issue coming and address it head-on. Instead, the fact of their having written a movie about pregnancy where the heroines are neither super-mommies nor trainwrecks, but instead, of all the things, normal human beings, should be praised. And the performances Smulders and Bean give are charming and harmonious with each other; along those lines, the casting of Elizabeth McGovern as Smulders' mother is uncanny, as they look eerily alike. That bit of serendipity is much like that which graces Unexpected as a whole: It may not be some grand masterpiece, but its heart is in the right place, and it's the kind of movie where that is wholly sufficient. (DB)

Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of The National Lampoon ***
I'm prepared to cut a documentary filmmaker a lot of slack if he shows me stuff I'd never seen before, and am happy that someone decided to show me. Douglas Tirola charts the course of the titular, seminal no-holds-barred humor magazine, from its origins in the late 1960s under the leadership of Harvard Lampoon alums Doug Kenney and Henry Beard, through its expansion into recordings, theater and movies, and its influence as the cultural force that gave birth to Saturday Night Live, The Simpsons and other spiritual pop-culture children. The basic structure is about as conventional as documentaries get, with key alums from the era—including writers Anne Beatts, Tony Hendra and P.J. O'Rourke—describing the creative environment and occasional personal clashes. But Tirola punctuates virtually everything with magnificent original pieces from the magazine's heyday—material that's likely to make you gasp while you're laughing—and period footage of performances and rehearsals for the National Lampoon Radio Hour and off-Broadway Lemmings show featuring Chevy Chase, John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray and other legends. The third-act focus on Kenney's struggles with drugs and depression may be a necessary part of the story, but feels like an unfortunate detour from a scrapbook reminder of what satire with teeth looked like, at a time before anyone else even considered trying to take a bite. (SR)

Bob and the Trees **
Somewhere in here, there might be a trenchant commentary about contemporary masculinity, but it’s one strong performance away from revealing it. In contemporary rural New England, 50-something farmer/logger Bob (Bob Tarasuk) faces a financial crisis one snowy winter when a risky decision to buy a large parcel for logging doesn’t pay off. Co-writer/director Diego Ongaro sets a terrific scene in a starkly-filmed winter landscape, and spends time on a struggling working-class milieu that’s rarely the center of movie stories, including the fragility of a livelihood based on a man’s inevitably-waning physical strength. But Bob is both too simply conceived as a character—his twin fascinations of golf and gangster rap too clearly signposting the tug of war in his heart between upper-class ambition and remaining tough—and portrayed by Tarasuk without a finesse that might have found a bit more subtlety. Every scene that should build a mounting sense of Bob’s desperation instead just kind of moseys along, never fully nailing the fear of a man’s man who wonders how much longer he can be the man he imagines himself to be. (SR)

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