Showing posts with label Sundance Film Festival. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Sundance Film Festival. Show all posts

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Hearts Beat Loud

Believe it or not, I actually saw a few films at the Sundance Film Festival this year that were not dark and gritty!  One such film was Hearts Beat Loud which is absolutely charming and I enjoyed it so much I decided to see it again now that it is in wide release.  It is a heartwarming story about Frank Fisher (Nick Offerman), a single father who is facing many changes including having to close his record shop, a mother (Blythe Danner) with dementia, and a daughter (Kiersey Clemons) about to leave for college.  Frank and his daughter Sam write and record a song during one of their weekly jam sessions and, when Frank uploads it to Spotify, it goes viral.  Frank begins to fantasize about recording an album and going on tour with Sam but, ultimately, he realizes that he needs to let her go to pursue her own dream.  There is a tremendous amount of humor in this film, especially when Frank hears their song playing in a coffee shop for the first time and when he begins thinking about their potential costumes.  Both Frank and Sam are incredibly sympathetic characters and the father-daughter relationship is very affecting.  Offerman, more known for his comedic roles, give a heartfelt performance as a father afraid to lose his daughter and there are moments when he looks at Sam that are so poignant.  Even more impressive is the fact that both Offerman and Clemons perform several original songs.  Clemons has an amazing voice and I really loved the song "Hearts Beat Loud."  I highly recommend this feel good movie.  It will put a smile on your face!

Monday, June 18, 2018


I saw Hereditary at the Sundance Film Festival this year and I thought it was incredibly disturbing and one of the scariest films I had ever seen.  I screamed out loud at two different scenes and I was not alone.  I had decided that I would not see this again when it had a wider release but, given the divisive response to it, I wanted to see if I had the same reaction upon a second viewing.  I saw it late Friday night in a theater by myself and, needless to say, I was scared out of my mind.  I even screamed at one point and I knew what was coming.  A woman with a long history of mental illness and a penchant for dabbling in the occult dies which has a profound effect on her daughter Annie (Toni Collette).  Annie's distress, in turn, begins to have a devastating effect upon her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), son Peter (Alex Wolff), and daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro).  As events become more and more bizarre, the audience is left to wonder if Annie is descending into madness and causing all of these events or if the family is truly being haunted.  When I watched the film the first time I found the final resolution to be deeply upsetting but I realize now that it is not the subject matter that makes this film so scary.  Rather, it is the sense of unease that is created through the sound design, lighting, and spellbinding performances (especially by Collette).  I was incredibly tense almost from the beginning of the film and that tension never lets up.  You want to know what is happening but you dread finding out.  This film is actually quite brilliant...but deeply disturbing so see it at your own risk (preferably not late at night in an empty theater).

Monday, April 23, 2018

You Were Never Really Here

You Were Never Really Here was the very first film that I saw at Sundance this year and it has haunted me ever since.  I knew that I would need to see it again. Luckily it is being screened by the Salt Lake Film Society and I got to see it yesterday afternoon.  Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) is a brutal and ruthless hit man, whose weapon of choice is a hammer.  He is clearly tormented, attempting suicide multiple times, and through flashbacks we learn that he is suffering from PTSD from a violent childhood at the hands of an abusive father, from combat duty in Iraq, and as a former FBI agent.  He is hired to rescue the daughter of a New York State Senator who has become the victim of a sex trafficking ring.  The operation to rescue the girl goes wrong and everyone involved in her rescue, except Joe who manages to escape, is brutally murdered which prompts him to seek revenge.  What I loved about this film is that a tragically flawed character is ultimately redeemed by the very person he sets out to save.  This is a theme that really resonated with me because, while this film is dark and gritty, it does end on a optimistic note.  Joaquin Phoenix gives a brilliant central performance.  There is not a lot of exposition or dialogue but you can instantly feel Joe's pain and desperation.  One scene, in particular, is incredibly powerful when he realizes that the girl he has been hoping to save will now be as damaged as he is and I was almost in tears as she attempts to comfort him.  Jonny Greenwood's pulse-pounding score adds to the almost unbearable tension and Lynne Ramsay's script is a powerful exploration of suffering.  It is beautiful in its brutality.  It is profound in its simplicity.  It is a masterpiece!

Monday, January 29, 2018

Sundance Film Festival 2018

Another successful Sundance Film Festival has concluded and I thoroughly enjoyed my experience this year.  I was able to see fifteen films, including everything that I really wanted to see, and I liked them all, some more than others.  My first film was You Were Never Really Here which stars Joaquin Phoenix as tormented hit man, suffering from PTSD as the result of an abusive childhood and his experiences as a soldier in Iraq, whose weapon of choice is a hammer.  He is hired to rescue a young girl but, when the rescue goes awry, he discovers that he was set up and vows vengeance on everyone involved.  It is a brutal but strangely beautiful film about a deeply flawed character finding redemption which is a favorite theme of mine.  Next I saw Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot, another film starring Joaquin Phoenix.  This is the true story about cartoonist John Callahan after he becomes paralyzed in an alcohol-related car accident.  He uses his cartoons, which feature very dark humor, as a way of coping with his paralysis and as a means of achieving sobriety.  Phoenix gives a riveting performance, as does Jonah Hill as his sponsor, and I liked the inclusion of Callahan's actual cartoons.  My next film was Blindspotting which I picked it because it stars Daveed Diggs (the original Lafayette/Jefferson in Hamilton).  Diggs and Rafael Casal play Collin and Miles, two childhood best friends who now have a tense relationship.  Collin has recently been released from prison and is about to complete his probation.  We eventually learn that both of them committed the crime but, because Collin is black, he was the only one held responsible.  There are a lot of themes explored in this film but I found it to be an incredibly powerful commentary about racism that resonated with me deeply.  Diggs was at the Q&A after the film which just about blew my mind!  Next up was Lizzie, one of my most anticipated films of the festival.  It is a psychological thriller exploring the reasons behind the killing of Lizzie Borden's family.  Both Chloe Sevigny and Kristen Steward give outstanding performances and I haven't been able to stop thinking about it since I saw it.  Another highly anticipated film was Colette, which tells the true story of one of the most celebrated writers from the Belle Epoque.  Keira Knightley stars in this lush bio-pic about a woman whose husband takes credit for her work until she eventually asserts her independence.  I love a good period piece but this also taps into the current zeitgeist of female empowerment.  Next, I was able to attend a free midnight screening of the documentary Believer about Dan Reynolds, the Imagine Dragons frontman, and his attempts to reconcile his LDS faith with the church's policy towards its LGTBQ members.  This documentary is extremely well done and finds just the right balance between highlighting a significant problem within the church (suicide is currently the number one cause of death for young people in Utah) while still being respectful.  I love Imagine Dragons and I really respect Dan Reynolds for the position he has taken.  Last Monday my only film was Wildlife, the directorial debut of Paul Dano (who was at the Q&A after the film).  In the late 1950s, a family with a history of moving from place to place has recently settled in a rural town in Montana.  The teenage son must deal with the disintegration of his parents' marriage when his father leaves his mother on her own to fight wild fires.  It is a simple but tragic story, anchored by an incredible performance by Carey Mulligan as a woman trapped by her circumstances.  Tuesday night I saw Hereditary, a horror film about the devastating effect a mysterious woman's death has on her family.  This film has an almost unbearable feeling of tension leading up to the final resolution.  I like to be genuinely scared, rather than shocked, by horror films and this one legitimately scared me (and the rest of the audience as well because there was much nervous laughter and even screaming).  On Wednesday I was able to take my students to a screening of Ophelia.  In my opinion, Ophelia is the most thinly drawn character and her fate is the most unsatisfactory in Shakespeare's version so I found her backstory to be incredibly compelling and her final resolution to be empowering in this retelling.  The film is beautiful and Daisy Ridley is fantastic in the title role.  My only complaint is that the final duel deviated from Lisa Klein's novel (upon which the film is based), turning what could have been a powerful moment into a silly slow-motion melodrama.  On Saturday I had three films!  The first was An Evening With Beverly Luff Linn which is a comedy of the absurd.  I don't even know how to describe this farce except to say that the over-the-top performances by Aubrey Plaza, Emile Hirsch, and Jemaine Clement made me laugh out loud.  The next film was The Miseducation of Cameron Post, starring Chloe Grace Moretz in a truly affecting performance as a young woman who is sent by her Evangelical family to a gay conversion camp after she is found having sex with a girl.  It is a poignant look at a group of teens learning to accept themselves.  The last film of the day was Puzzle which, surprisingly, ended up being a favorite from the festival.  Kelly Macdonald plays a wife and mother living an uneventful life in the suburbs who discovers a passion for jigsaw puzzles which leads to her awakening.  Who knew that a character driven film about completing puzzles could be so compelling?  As director Marc Turtletaub stated in the Q&A, it is a coming-of-age story about a 40 year old woman and I really liked it.  Yesterday I also had three films, beginning with Hearts Beat Loud.  I loved this film so much!  It is a tender story about a father-daughter relationship starring Nick Offerman and Kiersey Clemons and it is just lovely!  During the summer before she leaves for college, a young woman begins writing songs with her father and, when one of them becomes popular on Spotify, he tries to compel her to stay in order get a record deal until he realizes that he needs to let her go.  I absolutely loved the scene where Frank hears their song being played in a coffee shop!  The next film was The Happy Prince, starring Rupert Everett as Oscar Wilde during the last years of his life after being imprisoned for gross indecency.  Everett gives an amazing performance but I sometimes found the timeline to be a bit muddled as it is framed by Wilde's recollections on his deathbed interspersed with nonlinear flashbacks.  As a teacher of British literature, I really loved the use of Wilde's writings as voice-over narration throughout the film.  My final film of the festival was The Catcher Was a Spy which was a highly coveted ticket.  Paul Rudd plays Moe Berg, a major league baseball player who joins the OSS during World War II and is tasked with determining whether Germany is building an atomic bomb.  I thought the ending was a bit anticlimactic but I enjoyed it as a fan of espionage films.  It was a wonderful ten days and, as always, my favorite part was talking to the people I met in line.  My favorite conversation was with two really cool guys about the brilliance of A Ghost Story which screened at Sundance last year!  I can hardly wait for next year!

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Sundance Student Screening 2018

I have a wonderful group of seniors this year!  I had a lot of the students as sophomores two years ago so I had an instant rapport with them.  They trust me and so they are willing to share their opinions and discuss the pieces of literature that we read.  Last semester we read Hamlet and we had some epic discussions about characterization.  One of the things I asked them to think about as we read was if they thought the characters were the architects of their own doom.  They came to the conclusion that all of the characters deserve their fate except for Ophelia.  The girls, especially, were really angry about her treatment because they saw her as a pawn for all of the men in her life.  Some of the students were so interested in Ophelia as a character that I eventually recommended the novel Ophelia, by Lisa Klein, which tells the story from her perspective.  Imagine my surprise when some of them starting reading it (one girl asked for it for Christmas!).  This is why I do what I do!  Every year I am given tickets to a student screening at the Sundance Film Festival and I was emailed a list of films to choose from in early December.  I noticed that there was a film called Ophelia and, when I read the description, I realized that it was based upon Klein's novel.  Of course I had to choose it and, when I announced it to my students, they cheered out loud.  My 50 allotted tickets were claimed within days and they have been so excited, practically counting down the days!  We were able to see the film yesterday and to say that the students loved it would be an understatement.  They discussed it all the way home on the bus! It is so special to me to be able to share my love of film with my students and the fact that they were so engaged with this particular film is something that I will never forget!  I have had so many wonderful experiences at the Sundance Film Festival this year (a full wrap-up is coming soon) but this tops them all!  A huge thank you to the Sundance Institute for offering these screenings to students free of charge.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

A Ghost Story

A Ghost Story is a film that just about blew my mind at Sundance this year.  It stayed with me for quite a while and I eagerly anticipated its wide release so I could see it again.  I have to say that I found it to be even more profound upon a second viewing on Friday night and I was not alone in my reaction.  The entire audience stayed seated in absolute silence long after the credits had rolled and the lights had come back on.  The narrative revolves around a man (Casey Affleck) who dies in a car accident and returns, shrouded in a sheet, to the home he shared with his wife (Rooney Mara).  He stays and watches her as she grieves and then eventually moves away.  He continues to haunt the house for decades as it is occupied by various people, is demolished, and is replaced by a high-rise building until he is finally able to let go of his attachment.  There is another ghost haunting the house next door until he is able to leave behind a person he is waiting for.  The ghost is one of the most sympathetic characters I've ever seen on film, even completely shrouded as he is, and the long, sustained shots with very little action are strangely compelling.  The score is very evocative and greatly enhances the otherworldly mood.  As previously mentioned, I found many of the themes to be so moving.  I've always believed that the spiritual aspect of humanity is more important than the physical which is, indeed, impermanent.  We must ultimately leave behind our attachment to people, places, and things to progress on our journey.  It is enchanting to believe that we leave behind a piece of ourselves and that we will be remembered but our time here is temporary and time inevitably and inexorably moves on.  We don't really belong here in this physical plane.  I know I will be thinking about these ideas for a long time to come and I suspect that this beautiful film will provide even more philosophical musings each time I watch it.  I must admit that A Ghost Story might not appeal to everyone.  It is a high-concept film and you must commit to this concept fully in order to appreciate it but, if you can, you will be forever changed by its powerful message.

Monday, July 10, 2017

The Hero

Last night I went to see The Hero, a film I saw at Sundance and really enjoyed.  To be sure, it is a cliched character study about a man with regrets who must come to term with his own mortality but it has an incredible central performance by Sam Elliott which makes it worth watching, even twice.  Lee Hayden (Elliott) is a former Western film star well past his prime who who spends his days drinking, smoking marijuana, and recording ads for a barbecue sauce when he is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.  At the same time he meets a much younger woman (Laura Prepon) and begins a relationship with her and, after a drug-fueled speech at an awards ceremony goes viral, gets a big movie offer.  In the midst of all of this, he tries to reconcile with his estranged daughter (Krysten Ritter) and decide what to do about his diagnosis.  He has recurring dreams about being on the set of his most popular movie, in his current state, where he metaphorically fights his cancer.  Even though Elliott is essentially playing a version of himself, he is absolutely shines in this role (I have heard mention of a possible Academy Award nomination).  He is in almost every shot and I found him to be captivating.  He is able to convey more emotion with just a lift of a bushy eyebrow than most actors working today do with pages of dialogue.  While all of the supporting characters are pretty thinly drawn I found a scene with Nick Offerman, who plays a former cast member who is now Lee's drug dealer, to be hilarious and I enjoyed seeing Katharine Ross, Elliott's real-life wife, as Lee's ex-wife.   This film is a little gem that I recommend, especially if you are a fan of Sam Elliott.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Their Finest

Yesterday I spent the afternoon watching the charming and delightful film, Their Finest.  I saw this at the Sundance Film Festival this year and I enjoyed it so much I wanted to see it again in wide release.   In 1940 the Ministry of Information, Film Division, is trying to boost morale at home and convince America to enter the war during the London Blitz.  They hear of an inspiring story about two young girls who took their father's boat to rescue soldiers stranded at Dunkirk and decide to make a film about their heroism.  An advertising copywriter named Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) is hired to write the "slop," or women's perspective, in the screenplay.  At first the other screenwriters Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin) and Raymond Parfitt (Paul Ritter) are resentful of her involvement but they come to rely on her more and more and, of course, Catrin and Tom eventually develop feelings for each other.  There are some really somber scenes as almost every character deals with the effects of the nightly bombing during the Blitz (I don't know how people lived through the terror and uncertainty of the Blitz) but there are also some hilarious scenes when they begin filming on location, especially with the pompous actor Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy).  I have always been a big fan of Nighy but here he is at his most overwrought best.  He pretty much steals every scene he is in.  Both Arterton and Claflin give solid performances and I was very engaged with their romance, even upon a second viewing.  I recommend this film as a pleasant afternoon diversion.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Before I Fall

I saw Before I Fall at Sundance this year and it received a bit of a lukewarm reception at my screening and, recently, a few of my friends have panned it.  I decided to see this film again last night because I have very strong opinions about it and, for some reason, I feel the need to defend it.  Based on the best-selling novel by Lauren Oliver, Sam Kingston (Zoey Deutch) is a popular high school student who is forced to live the same day over and over again until she realizes what is most important in her life beyond her superficial happiness.  She has a trio of best friends, Lindsay (Halston Sage), Ally (Cynthy Wu), and Elody (Medalion Rahimi), who all behave badly, particularly to a classmate whom they bully mercilessly.  All Sam cares about is receiving the most roses during the school's annual "Cupid Day" (I always say that you haven't really lived unless you have spent Valentine's Day in a high school) and losing her virginity to the most popular boy in school.  Each time she relives the day she attempts to change her behavior in the hopes of changing her fate and I really enjoyed her journey as a character.  Every iteration of the day seams fresh and unique based on the choices she makes.  Obviously, I view this film through a much different filter than most people I know because I have worked with this age group for many years as a high school teacher.  The situations ring true and the dialogue is incredibly authentic (however much we might wish for the light and effervescent teen comedies we are used to).  Just yesterday I had to deal with a horrible case of bullying within the group of student leaders I work with.  Lindsay, the ringleader of the group of friends, is especially brutal in her treatment of Juliet (Elena Kampouris) but the film does a good job, in my opinion, of showing her motivation.  The two girls were once friends but Lindsay lashes out at her to cover up her own insecurities.  It has been my experience that the student who exhibits the worst behavior in class is often the one who most needs my attention and understanding.  I really liked the fact that Sam is able to find redemption after all of her bad behavior (I don't think the film glorifies this behavior at all) because I like to think that no teenager is beyond hope, no matter how unlikable they may appear to be.  She is a very different girl at the end of the movie from the one we meet at the beginning.  Just my two cents.

Note:  I really think that this film will appeal more to the demographic for which it was intended.  This second screening was filled with teenage girls and they seemed to really enjoy it.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Sundance Film Festival 2017

The 2017 Sundance Film Festival is wrapping up tonight and, even though I saw fewer films than I did last year, I certainly enjoyed myself this week.  Last Saturday I saw Their Finest which stars Gemma Arterton and Sam Claflin as screenwriters who make a propaganda film about Dunkirk to boost morale at home and to persuade America to enter World War II.  Catrin Cole (Aterton) is hired to write the "slop," or women's perspective, and, at first, Tom Buckley (Claflin) is resentful but eventually the two discover romantic feelings for each other.  It is a predictable period piece but I really enjoyed it, especially the over-the-top performance of Bill Nighy as the aging but pompous actor Ambrose Hilliard and a hilarious cameo by Jeremy Irons.  Sunday night I saw Before I Fall.  Since I am a high school English teacher, I read a lot of young adult fiction and I loved Lauren Oliver's best-selling novel about a young girl who must relive the day of her death over and over until she learns an important lesson about living.  It is incredibly clever and authentic and this film is a great adaptation.  I especially enjoyed how director Ry Russo-Young was able to keep the repetition of the same day fresh and interesting and I enjoyed Zoey Deutch's portrayal of Samantha Kingston's journey.  I'm sure this film will appeal more to a younger crowd that the one at my screening.  On Wednesday I took my students to see Deidra and Laney Rob a Train.  Deidra (Ashleigh Murray), the valedictorian of her high school class, must assume the responsibility for her siblings after her mother is put in prison.  She figures out a way to rob the trains that run behind her house in order to pay the bills, enlisting the help of her sister Laney (Rachel Crow) while eluding her dead-beat Dad (David Sullivan), an over-zealous guidance counselor (Sasheer Zamata), and a bumbling railroad investigator (Tim Blake Nelson).  It is both funny and heart-warming and my students and I loved it!  Thursday night I saw Marjorie Prime, an atmospheric film about the fallibility of memory.  Set in the future, Marjorie (Lois Smith) is an 85-year-old woman struggling with memory loss who has been given a "prime," or hologram, of her dead husband Walter for companionship.  The hologram (Jon Hamm) can only learn about himself through the memories provided by Marjorie, their uptight daughter Tess (Geena Davis), and Tess's husband Jon (Tim Robbins) and each of their memories are colored by their emotions.  Eventually, after everyone has died, the holograms of Walter, Marjorie, and Tess have conversations with completely false memories. Despite the fact that the timeline was sometimes confusing, I found the film to be very powerful and I haven't been able to stop thinking about it.  Friday night I saw The Hero.  Sam Elliott is Lee Hayden, an aging actor known for the Western roles he played 40 years ago and the voice-over work he now does for a barbecue sauce, who confronts mortality after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.  He must deal with a resurgence in his popularity after a drug-fueled speech given at an award ceremony goes viral, an estranged ex-wife and daughter (Katharine Ross and Krysten Ritter, respectively), and a romance with a much younger woman (Laura Prepon).  The film has a common theme but it is entertaining, especially Nick Offerman's portrayal of Lee's drug dealer.  Last night I had a double-feature, beginning with A Ghost Story.  This film was a highly coveted ticket; in fact, there were more people wait-listed for this film than any other I have ever seen.  It has gotten quite a bit of buzz at the festival and I thought it was bizarre but brilliant.  Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara play C and M, a young couple in love until C is killed in a car accident.  After M identifies his body, C rises from the gurney, still shrouded in a large sheet, and follows M back to the house they shared which he haunts for decades in a series of vignettes until he can leave his life behind.  Affleck literally wears a sheet, complete with eye holes, for most of the film and, after a few snickers from the audience, he somehow becomes one of the most profoundly sympathetic characters I have ever seen.  With minimal dialogue and many of the scenes consisting of long, sustained shots with very little action, it is somehow entirely compelling.  I can't think of anyone I know who would like this film but I loved it.  It is a masterpiece.  The last film I saw, Rebel in the Rye, is easily my favorite of the festival because of the subject.  It is a standard biopic about J.D. Salinger (Nicholas Hoult) and how he came to write the classic novel, The Catcher in the Rye.  What made this film so enjoyable for me is that The Catcher in the Rye is one of my very favorite novels and there are many subtle references to it in the narrative, such as having a bartender named Ernie (writer/director Danny Strong called these references "easter eggs for the superfan" in the Q & A).  I liked all of the films I saw, for different reasons, and, as always, I loved the conversations I had with other film lovers while waiting in line.  The Sundance Film Festival is definitely a great way to start the new year!

Note:  There are quite a few films that I really wanted to see but couldn't, such as The Berlin Syndrome, Golden Exits, and The Discovery, but I am sure that my favorite art house theater will eventually screen them!

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Sundance Student Screening 2017

The Sundance Film Festival is in full swing (a wrap-up of my Sundance experience is coming soon) and one of my favorite aspects of the festival is the opportunity to bring my students to a screening free of charge.  Yesterday I took a group to see the film Deidra and Laney Rob a Train and, despite a severe winter storm which made driving downtown a lot of fun, it was an amazing experience for both me and my students!  This field trip has become something of a tradition at Hunter High (I had kids asking me about it before Christmas break) and this year the response was overwhelming.  I asked for 50 tickets, like I usually do, but I had so many students sign up that I asked the director for more!  Even so, I still turned kids away.  I can't tell you how happy it made me to see my students so excited about independent film!  Even if I teach them nothing else, I want my students to know that there are stories that need to be told and voices that need to be heard (maybe now more than ever)!  The best part of this whole adventure is that my students absolutely loved the film!  I could hear them laughing during the screening and they talked about it all the way back to school on the bus!  Most of the students in my afternoon class were still talking about it which made some of the students who couldn't go really jealous.  I guess I'll have to request even more tickets next year because many of my sophomores asked if me if they can go again even if they are not in my class any more!  Yesterday was a good day!

Note:  Deidra and Laney Rob a Train was filmed in Utah!  I recognized the Heber Valley Railroad and my friend Adia, who came with me to help chaperone, went to Judge Memorial High School which was also featured!

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Manchester by the Sea

I live equidistant from a large and state-of-the-art multiplex, where I go to see the latest blockbusters, and a quaint and charming art house theater downtown, where I go to see independent films and documentaries.  I spend an equal amount of time at both:  Thursday night I was at the multiplex and last night found me at the Broadway for a screening of Manchester by the Sea.  This film was easily my favorite at the Sundance Film Festival last year and I was quite eager to see it again now that it is in wide release.  Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a janitor working in Boston with a habit of getting written up at work and getting into fights at the local bar.  He is clearly tortured but there are flashbacks to happier times with his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) and young nephew on their boat in Manchester.  When his brother dies, Lee learns that, unbeknownst to him, he has been made guardian to his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges), now sixteen years old.  Patrick does not want to leave his life (and multiple girlfriends) in Manchester to move to Boston but Lee doesn't want to move back to Manchester because he is haunted by the memory of a tragic accident for which he, his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams), and most of the town hold him responsible.  Lee attempts to make it work but finally realizes that he cannot live with his demons and makes other arrangements for Patrick, although the film ends beautifully with Lee and Patrick on the boat trying to forge a relationship.  This movie is brilliant!  It is getting quite a bit of Oscar buzz (it has been nominated for multiple Golden Globe awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor for Affleck, and Best Supporting Actress for Williams) and, should the Academy request my opinion, it definitely has my vote for Best Picture!  The flashbacks of the accident with Albinoni's Adagio for Strings, one of the most mournful pieces in the classical repertoire, underneath it is absolutely gut-wrenching as is the scene where Randi tells Lee that she still loves him.  Affleck gives the performance of his career and, upon a second viewing, I was even more impressed with his portrayal of a man so consumed by past grief that he cannot face the future.  I highly recommend this film, although some might find the excessive profanity to be offensive.

Note:  At Sundance it received one of the biggest distribution deals in festival history, second only to The Birth of a Nation.  Good stuff!

Sunday, July 10, 2016

The Lobster

No other film that I saw at Sundance this year generated more conversations than The Lobster.  Most people that I talked to didn't quite know what to make of it and that is probably how I would sum up my feelings about it as well.  I knew that I definitely wanted to see it again and I had the opportunity Thursday night.  Hmmm.  In a dystopian future everyone must have a mate and anyone who is single must report to a hotel to find one within 45 days or be turned into an animal of their choice. A recently divorced man, David (Colin Farrell), reports to the hotel and attempts to find a mate, preferably someone who shares his defining characteristic which is shortsightedness.  There are many rules and rituals involved in finding a mate (I especially enjoyed the fact that everyone is required to dress exactly alike). Periodically the guests at the hotel are sent into the woods to capture loners who are hiding.  They can receive an extra day to find a mate for every loner that they catch.  Eventually David decides to escape into the woods and join the loners where, ironically, there are even more rules to follow.  They are punished if they attempt to form attachments with other loners.  Of course, David finds his soulmate (Rachel Weisz), who shares his defining characteristic, but they are soon discovered and punished.  There are many funny moments in this film, such as the propaganda plays put on by the hotel staff advocating the benefits of being a couple and the electronic music played by the loners to encourage people to dance alone.  However, underneath all of the humor lies a scathing indictment of social norms.  It is weird and sometimes disturbing but it is entertaining and I recommend it with that in mind.

Note:  Even after seeing it a second time I'm still not sure about the ending...

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Maggie's Plan

Another favorite from the Sundance Film Festival that I wanted to see again is Maggie's Plan.  It is a typical offbeat Greta Gerwig comedy (I was talking about this film with someone I met in line at another screening at Sundance and he called it very "Gerwig-y") and it is hilarious.  Maggie (Gerwig) is in her mid-thirties and wants to have a baby on her own because she is tired of waiting for the right relationship to happen so she comes up with an elaborate plan.  She picks a friend from college (a hilarious Travis Fimmel) as a sperm donor and even plans the exact date to inseminate herself.  Then she meets John (Ethan Hawke), an angst-ridden anthropology professor who is trying to write a novel and is trapped in a combative marriage to Georgette (Julianne Moore), another eccentric anthropologist, and he disrupts her plan.  Three years later, after marrying John and having a baby, she realizes that she doesn't love him any more and comes up with yet another elaborate plan to reunite him with Georgette.  Of course, things go awry, with a funny twist at the end, and Maggie learns that you can't plan love.  Gerwig has brilliant comedic timing but she also plays Maggie with a sensitivity that makes us truly care about and empathize with her.  Hawke is getting typecast as a clueless and absentee father lately (see here and here) but he is just so great at it and his portrayal of John is highly amusing, especially when he tries to find a place to spend the night.  Moore is absolutely hilarious as Georgette with her Danish accent, tight bun, and ethnic clothing.  I laughed out loud just about every time she was on the screen.  Add Maya Rudolph and Bill Hader as Maggie's best friends and you have a comedy filled with zany characters that is perfect for a night out with friends.

Saturday, June 18, 2016


I tend to favor narrative films over documentaries but this year at the Sundance Film Festival I saw quite a few documentaries.  Without question, the best one was Weiner.  It was so compelling that I decided to see it again Thursday night and I found it to be just as entertaining, and disturbing, as I did upon the first viewing.  In 2013 disgraced former Congressman Anthony Weiner made a bid for the Democratic nomination in the New York mayoral race.  He allowed filmmakers Josh Kriegman, a former staffer, and Elyse Steinberg unprecedented access to his campaign which, in the beginning, was incredibly successful.  He was leading in the polls and drawing huge crowds to his events when another sexting scandal, similar to the one which forced his resignation from Congress, erupted.  The cameras kept rolling as the campaign imploded and it became clear to everyone, except Weiner himself, that the nomination was lost.  It is fascinating to watch the spin where every move is carefully choregraphed, especially when Weiner practices different inflections for the line, "...and for that I am profoundly sorry" and, when asked for a comment by his communications officer, he struggles to remember what he said in another interview.  There are also some disturbing elements (where you simply can't look away), particularly with regard to Weiner's wife Huma Abedin, one of Hillary Clinton's top aides.  When the scandal first breaks there is a scene where Huma is visibly shaken and then Weiner asks the cameras to leave the room.  In the next scene she is standing at his side and speaking out in support of his campaign at a press conference.  It made me wonder what went on behind those closed doors.  In another scene, he is bullying her into accompanying him on election day and in the next scene he and his staff members are coming up with reasons why she is not with him.  One of the most interesting scenes is when Weiner watches a replay of his shouting match with political pundit Lawrence O'Donnell over and over while laughing hysterically and Huma leaves the room in tears.  It is a fascinating anatomy of a political scandal involving a a charismatic but deeply flawed individual and, I hate to admit it, but I certainly enjoyed watching it play out on the big screen.

Note:  Weiner won the 2016 Documentary Grand Jury Prize at Sundance.  Good stuff.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Love & Friendship

I am a huge fan of Jane Austen and when I first heard of the movie Love & Friendship, based on Austen's novella Lady Susan, it went near the top of my must see list at the Sundance Film Festival this year!  I thought it was absolutely hilarious so I was thrilled to be able to see it again in wide release.  The recently widowed, and penniless, Lady Susan (Kate Beckinsale) is forced to stay with her brother-in-law and his family after a scandalous affair with the husband of her friend and hostess.  She immediately sets her sights on her sister-in-law's brother, the handsome Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel), to the dismay of his family.  She also contrives a match for her daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) with the dimwitted Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett).  Despite all of her scheming and manipulations, Lady Susan's plans go awry much to the delight of everyone in the audience!  I loved James Fleet and Jemma Redgrave as Sir and Lady DeCourcy and there is a delightful scene where they attempt to read a letter from their daughter (the original novella is epistolary).  I also really enjoyed Chloe Sevigny as Alicia Johnson, Lady Susan's closest confidante, and Stephen Fry as Mr. Johnson, Alicia's disapproving husband ("He's too old to regulate but too young to die.")  However, it is Tom Bennett who steals the show as Sir James.  I laughed out loud at just about every scene he is in, particularly when he dances, when he discusses the Twelve Commandments, and when he eats peas at the dinner table.  So funny! I loved just about every aspect of this film, the stately country homes, the opulent costumes, and the charming score by Mark Suozzo, but perhaps my favorite device was introducing the dramtis personae with fish-eye close-ups with and amusing character descriptions (Lady Susan's companion is described as someone who packs and unpacks things and Sir James is described as a bit of a rattle).  If you like a good comedy of manners, then do yourself a favor and see this delightful film as soon as possible.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Sundance Film Festival 2016

This year at the Sundance Film Festival I had the opportunity to see sixteen films in nine days in five venues and I would say that I had an even greater experience than last year!  I loved every minute!  A week ago last Saturday I saw Maggie's Plan at the Grand Theatre and it was really funny!  A woman (Greta Gerwig) decides that she wants to have a baby and devises a plan to do it.  However, she soon falls in love with a married man (Ethan Hawke) and realizes that you can't plan love.  This is a typical offbeat Greta Gerwig comedy and I really enjoyed it, especially the hilarious supporting cast: Julianne Moore, Maya Rudolph, and Bill Hader.  Later that night I drove to Ogden (which is not as far away as it used to be now that I live in Bountiful) to see The Lobster.  This was the strangest film I saw at Sundance but I admit that it is pretty intriguing.  In a dystopian future everyone who is not married by a certain age must report to a hotel for 45 days to find a match or be turned into an animal of his or her choice.  David (Colin Farrell), recently divorced, enters the hotel and goes through the motions of finding a mate (in some hilarious scenes) but soon escapes to join the "singles" who are frequently hunted down by the hotel guests.  Ironically, the "singles" have even stricter rules, especially against coupling, and, of course, David finds his soulmate (Rachel Weiss).  It is a fascinating indictment against social norms, but it's pretty weird. Sunday morning I was back at the Grand for a documentary about Gloria Vanderbilt and her son Anderson Cooper called Nothing Left Unsaid.  I really enjoy documentaries about interesting people and this one was very well done (as were all of the documentaries I saw at Sundance this year).  Vanderbilt's story of notoriety and heartbreak is told through her art and I thought it was an effective device.  Anderson Cooper was there to conduct the Q & A after the screening, to my delight, and he was charming and quite funny.  Later that evening I saw Love & Friendship, which was one of my most coveted tickets because it is based on a Jane Austen novella called Lady Susan.  For those of you who don't know this, I love Jane Austen!  Recently widowed and penniless, Lady Susan (Kate Beckinsale) schemes to marry off her daughter to a foolish, but wealthy, man and to marry the eligible brother of her sister-in-law.  It is an engaging comedy of manners with a fabulous cast, especially Tom Bennett who steals the show as the dim-witted Sir James.  I also loved the the introductions of the dramatis personae with fish-eye close-ups and amusing character descriptions.  So much fun!  Monday night I drove up to the Sundance Mountain Resort to see the documentary Weiner.  Filmmaker Josh Kriegman had unprecedented access to Anthony Weiner as the embattled politician attempted a comeback run as New York mayor.  Just when it looks like he has a chance of winning the nomination, another sexting scandal, similar to the one which forced him to resign from Congress, erupts which causes his campaign to derail while the cameras continue to roll.  It is a fascinating look at politics today, where every move is choreographed.  I especially loved when Weiner practices different inflections of "...and for that I am profoundly sorry."  Good stuff!  Tuesday morning I took a group of my students to see The Fits at the Rose Wagner Theatre.   Toni (Royalty Hightower) is an eleven year old tomboy who trains to be a boxer with her brother at a local community center.  One day she watches a drill team practicing and eventually decides to join.  It is a powerful story about identity and fitting in and my students loved it (so did I).  That night I drove back to Ogden to see Manchester by the Sea which was another highly coveted ticket.  Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a janitor/handyman in Boston who is clearly tormented.  When he receives the news that his brother has died, he returns to his hometown for the funeral and learns that he has been appointed as guardian to his nephew (Lucas Hedges) which leaves him reeling.  He does not want to stay because he is constantly reminded of a tragedy that occurred, which is revealed through perfectly timed flashbacks, and his nephew doesn't want to leave his life.  What I loved about this movie, aside from the brilliant performances, is that, while there is a sort of resolution, there isn't a happy ending where Lee's grief is magically abated.  This film is definitely my favorite of the festival.  Wednesday night I was back in Ogden for Little Men, which I thought was a lovely little gem.  When Jake's (Theo Taplitz) grandfather dies, his family moves back to Brooklyn to live in his grandfather's apartment.  A single mother from Chile runs the shop downstairs, paying significantly less rent than market value.  Her son Tony (Michael Barbieri) befriends the shy Jake and their friendship deepens as their parents battle over rent.  The boys give very affecting performances, especially Barbieri, and I really enjoyed it.  Thursday night I had a double feature at the Rose Wagner beginning with Certain Women.  It is a tale of three desperately sad and lonely women living in Montana who search for a connection.  Laura (Laura Dern) is a lawyer whose client will not accept that he doesn't have a Worker's Compensation case.  She spends all of her time trying to help him, eventually even visiting him in prison.  Gina (Michelle Williams), emotionally estranged from her husband and daughter, is obsessed with building a vacation house in the wilderness and badgers a family friend to give her the sandstone on his property.  A nameless ranch hand (Lily Gladstone) with nothing to do follows a group of people into a school for an adult education class on school law taught by a lawyer (Kristen Stewart) who lives hundreds of miles away.  She becomes fascinated by the lawyer and attends the class every night with the hope of talking to her afterwards at the local diner.  It is simultaneously beautiful and depressing and I can't get the scene where Gina's family is inside a tent eating dinner while she sits outside staring at the pile of sandstone out of my mind.  Some of my friends met me for Lovesong next.  A frazzled young mother (Riley Keough) who feels neglected by her husband goes on a road trip with Mindy (Jena Malone), her best friend from college.  Their feelings deepen for each other and they begin an affair.  Three years later they must deal with their feelings before Mindy gets married.  It is very intense, particularly a scene where the women look at each other while on a Ferris wheel.  Friday night I had another double feature, this time back at the Grand Theatre.  The documentary Gleason follows Steve Gleason, a former NFL football player, from his diagnosis with ALS to the present.  It began as a video journal to his unborn son and turned into a triumphant story about living life to the fullest!  It is very powerful and his wife, Michel Varisco, was there for a powerful Q & A.  Next up (it is quite amusing to walk out of a movie and get right back in line for another one) was The Intervention which is hilarious!  A group of friends plan a weekend getaway to stage a marriage intervention for Ruby and Peter (Cobie Smulders and Vincent Piazza) unbeknownst to them.  In the process, each of them must deal with their own problems.  Melanie Lynskey is absolutely brilliant in this film and I laughed and laughed (which was good after crying through Gleason).  Saturday was a full day at the festival with three screenings at three different venues!  First was Newtown, a documentary about the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, at the Rose Wagner.  It follows the lives of three families who lost children that day and how the tragedy impacted the entire community.  I cried so hard that I had to find Kleenex in my bag and the woman sitting next to me asked for some, too.  One of the mothers was there for the Q & A which was also very moving.  Next was Richard Linklater: Dream is Destiny at the Broadway.  This documentary follows Richard Linklater, one of my favorite directors, as a Hollywood outsider who makes movies on his own terms with discussions about all of his movies from Slacker to Boyhood (which I think is a masterpiece).  I really enjoyed it.  Finally, I saw Michael Jackson's Journey from Motown to Off the Wall with my sister Marilyn at the Grand.  Marilyn loves Michael Jackson and I'm so glad that we were able to see it (another very coveted ticket).  Spike Lee focuses on Michael Jackson's transition from a member of the Jackson 5 to a solo artist with archival footage and interviews with those who were there.  I know that most people view Thriller as Jackson's masterpiece but I have always really loved Off the Wall because it is brilliant (I had a copy on vinyl when I was in Jr. High) and it is before he became so weird.  Marilyn loved it and so did I.  Yesterday was my final screening at Sundance!  I saw Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures at the Rose Wagner.  This documentary explores the scandalous life of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and his controversial photographs.  I found it to be fascinating but it is not for everyone (in fact, it was the only film that required ID to enter).  Once again, I loved talking to people about film (and, occasionally, snowshoeing) while standing in line.  I had a conversation with a guy from Florida about all the films we had seen at the festival (most notably, The Lobster) which turned into an epic discussion about Wes Anderson.  Talking to people who are just as passionate about the things that I am makes me come alive!  It was a wonderful nine days and I'm already looking forward to next year!

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Sundance Student Screening 2016

Last Tuesday I had the opportunity to take some of my students to see the film The Fits as part of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.  Every year the Sundance Institute, through the support of generous donors such as the Dolores Dore Eccles Foundation and the Zoo, Arts, and Parks (ZAP) Program, provides free tickets for high school students to experience the power of independent film and I've been taking my students since 2010.  I think this is such a great opportunity!  Even though arranging a field trip can be a bit daunting, being able to share my passion for independent film with my students makes it so worthwhile!  My students absolutely loved the film (so did I) and, because it had a very ambiguous ending, they have been talking about it ever since the screening!  In fact, the entire theatre (filled with high school students) erupted when the screen went black at the end of the film!  One of my favorite aspects of the Sundance Film Festival is having a Q & A with the filmmakers (and sometimes cast members) after the screening.  Royalty Hightower, who gave an absolutely incredible performance, was there for the Q & A much to the delight of the audience.  Many of my students were able to get pictures with her!  It was an incredible experience and I am very grateful to the Sundance Institute for the opportunity they give to my students!  (A full wrap-up of my Sundance experience is coming soon).


Note:  I was interviewed by The Salt Lake Tribune a few years ago about my experiences taking my students to the Sundance Film Festival.  Go here to read it.

Monday, December 7, 2015


The film Brooklyn premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last year and it got so much buzz that I really wanted to see it.  The only way I could get a ticket was to see it in Ogden, about an hour away from my house, on a school night.  It was worth it!  I liked it so much that I wanted to see it again now that it is in wide release.  Marilyn and I went Saturday night and she liked it just as much as I did.  Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) is a young girl living in a small town in Ireland in the 1950s with no prospects for the future.  A priest arranges for her to emigrate to America and finds her a boarding house and a job in a department store in Brooklyn.  At first she is almost debilitated by homesickness but she eventually meets Tony (Emory Cohen), starts a course in bookkeeping, and begins to make a life for herself.  When a tragedy occurs, she goes back to Ireland for a visit.  She is viewed as a glamorous American in her small town, a young man (Domhnall Gleason) begins to pursue her, and her bookkeeping qualification lands her a job.  She must decide whether her home is in Ireland or Brooklyn.  It is a sweet and sentimental story and Saoirse Ronan gives an affecting performance.  She is simply luminous on screen.  Emory Cohen is incredibly endearing as Tony and I loved Julie Walters as Mrs. Kehoe, the no-nonsense owner of the boardinghouse, especially when she warns her boarders against being  "giddy girls."  Marilyn and I laughed and laughed at that because we have been accused of being giddy once or twice!  The cinematography is beautiful and I loved the use of light.  The scenes in Ireland before Eilis goes to America are all very dark and dreary but when she returns the scenes are dazzling.  I also loved all of the period costumes and vintage cars.  I definitely recommend this lovely film.

Note:  After Brooklyn premiered at Sundance, there was a bidding war for the distribution rights.  Fox Searchlight eventually won in one of the biggest deals to come out of Sundance.  Good stuff!

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The Diary of a Teenage Girl

On Sunday night my weekend film trifecta was complete when I saw The Diary of a Teenage Girl.  In my opinion, seeing three movies in three nights is a perfect way to spend your time!  I saw Diary of a Teenage Girl at Sundance this year but I wanted to see it again because it is incredibly powerful with an astonishing performance by Bel Powley.  Minnie Goetze (Powley) is a typical teenager, who enjoys drawing comics and lives in San Francisco during the late 1970s.  Her mother Charlotte (Kristen Wiig) is a party girl and leaves her to her own devices most of the time and her father is not in her life.  One evening, as she is roughhousing with her mother's boyfriend Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard), she inadvertently gets him aroused and feels a tremendous sense of power by her ability to excite him.  She then pursues him and loses her virginity to him.  They have an on-again off-again affair because Monroe knows what they are doing is wrong but can't seem to help himself.  Minnie really enjoys her new-found sexuality and begins a relationship with a boy at school and even pretends to be a prostitute to make Monroe jealous.  When she receives a response to a fan letter from Aline Kominsky encouraging her to continue drawing comics, she realizes that she has more to offer than just her body and says goodbye to Monroe.  I love so many things about this movie!  Minnie narrates the story into a tape recorder as an audio diary so we hear everything from her perspective, including all of her teenage delusions about love, her insecurities, and her inconsistencies.  I love that no one rescues Minnie from her behavior.  She sees for herself that she is not emotionally ready for a sexual relationship and that Monroe is weak and not worthy of her.  Powley, who is in every scene, is absolutely brilliant as Minnie and her portrayal is real and honest.  I loved the 1970s rock and roll soundtrack and the art direction is fabulous (her house has a sort of Wes Anderson vibe to it).  Some people may object to the subject matter (there is a lot of sex and nudity in this movie) but Minnie's journey is ultimately so empowering, especially for girls, that I would highly recommend it.
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