Saturday, September 5, 2015

Sundance 7 Months later ...

The best movies that come out of Sundance are the ones that, on second viewing, maintain the exhilarating high you had when you first saw them high atop the thin rocky mountain air of the resort town. Remember when in 2002 Tadpole was bought for a ton of money then made 3 million dollars worldwide? Yeah, it’s just that kind of festival. People get high off the movies, then months later forget they ever existed. There must be something in that air. However, the fest’s rich history with discovering small, indie gems has not been lost the last few years. In fact, if an indie movie does become a breakout hit at the box office, chances are it most certainly debuted at Robert Redford’s three decade old film festival. If we look back on Sundance history we will also find another trend: Best Picture nominees. Since 2009, when new rules for the number of Best Picture nominees were instated, there were only two years in which no Sundance movie was nominated. In the past 6 years, 7 films that premiered at Sundance have made it on the Academy’s Best Picture slot.
2014 Whiplash
2014 Boyhood
2012 Beasts of the Southern Wild
2010 Winter’s Bone
2010 The Kids Are All Right
2009 Precious
2009 An Education
As we stand now, here are the films that came out of the 2015 fest with the most buzz and critical chance:
Me, and Earl and the Dying Girl
Diary of a Teenage Girl
The End of the Tour
The Witch
Of these, it would seem that Brooklyn is most likely to get Best Picture attention although there are opportunities for others in various categories. One of the best of the bunch is The Witch, which sadly is only slated for release next year! A real shame if you ask me. Robert Eggers’ haunting and spooky film was far and away the best movie I saw from Sundance 2015 and the one with the most potential to be a critical darling. Brooklyn is already being talked about as a contender, but it’s going to need a steadfast critical push. Quite a few of these “class of 2015” films have already been released this summer. All are worth checking out as counter-programming to many mindless and mind-numbing summer releases. The creative work that emerges from Sundance is the reaso I hope that this festival will always exist.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl was bought for more than 8 million dollars back in January, collecting the Grand Jury Prize and Sundance Audience prize in the process. As mentioned, recent Jury Prize winners include past Oscar nominees Whiplash, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Winter’s Bone, and Precious.Sadly, its one of those outstanding films that didn’t find its audience, racking up only 6 million dollars at the box office and puzzling the industry as a whole. The film may not be as great as the aforementioned past prize winners, but it’s still undeserving of the neglect that has emerged i the wake of its June release. The film, a sort of indie take on The Fault in our Stars but better, had high expectations laid upon its post-Sundance shoulders that were unwarranted, but it deserved a better fate. I wish we had more movies that dealt with friendship, adolescence, and illness with such visually aesthetic wonder and a heart as vast as the sky. I’m sure this isn’t the last we’ll hear of Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, a visually gifted filmmaker.
Tangerine, an ultra-low budget film shot on an iPhone for chump change and directed by Sean Baker, comes at you like an exhilarating force of nature. It doesn’t care if it shocks you or riles up your senses. It’s a fervent product of Sundance and one of many indie summer releases that first premiered over there this past January. It’s an imperfect movie but one filled with abundant energy in its every frame. Groundbreaking is the right word, for it is ultimately the first of its kind: a film shot on an iPhone with transgender actors taking on leading roles. Witness how evolving awareness of transgender issues has sparked a wealth of fresh cultural expressions. Jeffery Tambor is gut wrenchingly great in TV’s best show Transparent (with Fargo not too far behind if you must know) and if you haven’t heard of Caitlin Jenner then you’ve clearly been living under a rock. The film takes place on Christmas Eve in California and deals with a transgender sex worker who just finished serving a short sentence in prison and finds out her pimp/boyfriend cheated on her. She obviously doesn’t take the news very well and sets out to find the “fish” he cheated on her with. What ensues is a screwball comedy that never winces; in fact, it bites. It’s a hell of a good time, but more importantly it’s incredibly stylish filmmaking . Of course the fact that it was shot on an iPhone already makes it an important milestone film, but the L.A subculture that it introduces makes it all the more fresh and happening.
Tangerine is only the latest example of a Sundance movie that is as relevant as ever. The Diary of a Teenage Girl, a formulaic title for a startling movie, deals with adolescence, but more importantly growing up female in the 21st century. Directed by tough as nails filmmaker Marielle Heller, the film is not afraid to showcase the awkward bits of pains that come with growing up. It also features a great performance from Brit newcomer Bel Powley, whose first words of dialogue in the movie are “I just had sex”. She’s 15, and the guy is her mom’s 40-year-old boyfriend. The images that Heller crafts, sometimes painted on, are from her own pure imagination and she’s definitely a talent to watch. The pacing can sometimes be a little shaky, but the fearlessness of it all is what makes the movie worth a look. Heller is trying to show us how it feels to be a teenage girl coming to grips with adolescence in the midst of chaos that adults can sometimes inflict. It’s not easy. Earlier this year the 35-year-old director was chosen as one of Variety’s 10 directors to watch, and they are right. The most awkward phase a girl will go through in life has been told countless times in cinematic terms, most notably in Todd Solondz’ great “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” but never this way and never with such blunt truthfulness.
Another new release that deals with politically relevant issues is Dope. The film exceeded expectations by racking up $17 million at the summer box office — on a micro budget of $700,000. It is a smart and bewildering film. It aims to break past racial stereotypes that are ingrained in us all by playing with our ability to predict what’s going to happen next. With a title like “Dope” and an all-black cast, what the movie wants you to expect and what it actually delivers are complete opposites. Its main character Malcom is a smart, articulate high schooler who happens to be living in the Los Angeles “hood” Inglewood. His love for the ’90s and un-hip past trends make him the ideal target for high school bullies. He wants to go to university and the movie is narrated as he reads his college application letter. When he’s “forced” to deal drugs in unexpected circumstances, he makes sure to break the fourth wall and tell the audience not to judge because of his color. Director Rick Famuyiwa who directed the ill-received Brown Sugar and Our Family Wedding seems to want to reinvent his style and make more meaningful fare. Dope is an occaissionally messy movie that has some pacing issues, but it nevertheless is a good start.
Jason Segel’s potential Best Actor nomination has been talked about at great length the past few weeks with the release of The End of the Tour, a talky almost existential movie based on David Lipsky’s best-selling memoir “Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself”. It is an account of Lipsky’s five-day touring interview with “Infinite Jest” author David Foster Wallace. The film was made by people drunk on words. Taking clear inspiration from Linklater, director James Ponsoldt who directed the lovely Sundance hit Spectacular Now, lends his film an organic vibe that translates into an admirably well-intentioned and resonant effort. Jesse Eisenberg compliments Segel by playing Lipsky in a very Eisenberg-esque way: full of neurotic twitches and quickly delivered dialogue. Segel, a 35 year old whose high points have come in goofball comedies such as I Love You Man and Forgetting Sarah Marshall pulls a Jonah Hill by completely transforming himself into a seriously great actor. The chemistry he and Eiseinberg have is great and the conversations never less than smartly written and concisely thought out.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

YA movies

Turning Young Adult novels into feature films has been all the rage this decade. Never has the prospect of adapting a YA novel to the big screen been so profitable for Hollywood. Just this past month Paper Towns came out to decent reviews, then Dark Places to less than decent. If looking at the Hollywood's current itinerary is any indication, we have more YA movies coming out this fall: a movie based on R.L Stine's hugely popular Goosebumps series, and the final chapter to the Hunger Games Franchise. There's much more to come, but here are a few that got it done right and helped the Young Adult film movement advance into the 21st century.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)

It is not surprising that the best, most expertly made movie of the Harry Potter franchise is The Prisoner of Azkaban. All credit must go to the best director to have helmed a Potter movie: Alfonso CuarĂ³n. The director of Children of MenGravity and Y Tu Mama Tambien used his visual wizardry in this 2004 movie. This is when the Potter books got dark, gritty and went a completely different direction. Based on J.K Rowling's wildly successful series of books, Azkaban has Harry and the gang trying to deal with Sirius Black, frenetically played by Gary Oldman, a man whom they believe is out to get revenge on Harry for his imprisonment.

Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist (2008)

Adapted from Rachel Cohn and David Levithan's darkly giddy novel of the same name, Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist plays like a Young Adult version of Martin Scorsese's underrated 1985 picture After Hours. Just like Scorsese's picture, this film takes place in the wee-wee hours of the night in New York City. Michael Cera and the infectiously adorable Kat Dennings play strangers of the night who have just met. Nick is trying to figure out where his favorite band's secret show will take place, while Norah is searching for her missing drunken friend. Director Peter Stollett makes sure the film lives up to its stylish source material by infusing it with - as he stated - "the best music you haven't heard yet". The result is a compulsively likable movie that romanticizes the after hours.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

The Hunger Games is like Battle Royale but tampered down for the Young Adult crowd. Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily. Proof can be found in the second installment of the movie franchise which was a clear improvement from the first one and upped the ante in terms of drama and action. Author Suzanne Collin's mega-popular series of novels benefited from the casting of Jennifer Lawrence, an indie queen at the time who stunned critics in the film Winter's Bone. In Catching Fire Lawrence seems to finally be comfortable with her new-found mainstream popularity by embracing the role of Katniss Everdeen. In the film, Everdeen, having won the Hunger Games, returns home but realizes the battle for a democratic state has just begun and that another set of pivotal games is about to happen.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2011)

Stephen Chobsky's novel about a shy, wounded, introverted high schooler named Charlie is a singular achievement in its own right.. The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a staple of the YA form and a well-written ode to young outcasts everywhere.  It helps that Chobsky actually wrote and directed the film, with an uncredited John Hughes helping him out! The words come out like fine wine, as does the tone of the movie, which retains the dark, melancholic feel of the source material. The cast was also thoughtfully chosen: Logan Lerman, Emma Watson, and Ezra Miller invest so much into their roles that they have no problem whatsoever fully fleshing out their characters. The friendship these three form in the movie is refreshingly real: Every detail and every line of The Perks of Being a Wallflower is sheer perfection.

The Spectacular Now (2012)

If there is a theme that we keep running into with the films on this list, it's that they are almost all "coming of age" stories, a staple of the YA novel. The Spectacular Now is in fact that, but so much more. Based on Tim Tharp's novel of the same name, the story's protagonist, Sutter Keely (Miles Teller), is a national book award finalist. He is also the guy you want at your party, a charming teenager so high on living for the moment that the viewer might be tricked into thinking all is right in Keely's life. It's not. He has no plans for college, no clear set career, carries a flask filled with alcohol everywhere he goes, and seems content with his job folding clothes at a retail store. Of course his girlfriend breaks up with him, but soon after he meets Aimee (Shailene Woodley) and a new relationship begins. Teller and Woodley are phenomenal in showing us the ups and downs of a relationship that was doomed to fail from the start, and director James Ponsoldt - right now on a career high with The End of the Tour - keeps the novel's moral reality check intact.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015)

Having won the Grand Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl came out this summer with a slew of expectations. The film deals with a teenager who has stage IV cancer and focuses on a friendship that was doomed to fail just because of the diagnosis. If that plot description isn't reminiscent of The Fault in Our Stars, then what is? That's where comparisons should end, though. Jesse Andrews wrote the novel and ended up writing the screenplay for the movie adaptation and the film plays out almost like an anti-Fault in Our Stars.  It skips the love story and decides to concentrate on the oddball characters that populate the story.

The Princess Bride (1987)

One can understand why Rob Reiner’s movie adaptation of William Goldman's fantasy novel was such an enigma when it first came out in 1987. It was supposed to be primarily aimed at the YA crowd but ended up pleasing all ages with its deadpan, Monty Python-esque humor and a bold, satirical narrative that never took itself too seriously. However, the love story deftly told by a grandfather to his ill grandson about a beautiful princess called Buttercup who gets kidnapped is a touching one. What works in Reiner’s tale - just like in the novel - is that every character is a delight, and there isn’t a dull one in the bunch. Most importantly, the true heart of the story is Mandy Patinkin’s Inigo Montoya as a heroic swordsman with a secret and a debt to settle – “Hello, My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”

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