Win Win played at the Sundance film festival as a FoxSearchlight non-competition premiere. Paul Giamatti stars in this dramedy as family man Mike Flaherty. Flaherty runs a failing elder law practice, has two young girls, a loving, practical wife (Amy Ryan, The Office, Gone Baby Gone), and he coaches the unimpressive local high school wrestling team. His doctor recently told him to exercise as a form of stress relief, but, with money troubles piling up, and the future for himself and his family hanging in the balance, his worries increase. After enduring a panic attack while jogging with friend Terry Delfino (Bobby Cannavale, Will & Grace, The Other Guys), Flaherty knows something’s gotta give; so, when an opportunity presents itself for Flaherty to cheat the legal system in order to benefit himself, he jumps at the chance. Writer and director Thomas McCarthy (The Visitor, The Station Agent) wrote this heartwarming film that proves that some filmmakers still put their story and its characters above all else.
When I reviewed The Troll Hunter, I mistakenly identified it as the only foreign film I saw at Sundance 2011. I’m not sure how the very first film I saw that week slipped my mind, especially one so crude and darkly humorous, but it’s about time I reviewed it. Irish black comedy The Guard is an immersive character study with an underlying thriller plot line. Brendan Gleeson (In Bruges, The Harry Potter Series) stars as unorthodox Sergeant Gerry Boyle. His offensive, lazy, and naïve façade make him an unlikely protagonist, but Gleeson’s performance lends this film its best attributes. The supporting cast assists him with a mixture of quirky and straight-man performances, making The Guard a colorful film despite an average plot.
What I remember from the opening moments of Drive: wide shots of glittery Los Angeles taken in the black of night, opening credits scribbled in thick pink font, electronic pop music that sounded like it could belong in a Brett Easton Ellis novel, and the feeling that I was about to witness an auteur’s breakout American film. I was not disappointed. Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn (Bronson) took home the “Best Director” award from this year’s Cannes Film Festival for Drive, an invigorating, raw crime thriller with a loaded cast, including Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, and Bryan Cranston. The beauty of this film, as a whole, is that it is purely the vision of its director, and it does not appear to be related, in any way, to the monotonous cookie cutter films that Hollywood can churn out by the dozen. Although Drive has its flaws, it is a work of art, a film that can actually be digested and dissected, scene-by-scene, with moments that are exhilarating, shockingly elegant, and beautifully brutal.
Why scheme, lie, cheat, and steal? Because an honest day’s work is so darn hard, and the payoff is usually higher; at least that’s what Mickey Prohaska would have you believe in the 2011 Sundance film The Convincer. Mickey (Greg Kinnear, As Good as It Gets, Little Miss Sunshine) enters every scene with one objective in mind: how can I get more out of this situation? His vile, unapologetic persona is always on the lookout for another scam, and he’s about to unearth his easiest con yet. Once his plot is put into motion, nothing, and no one, can stand in his way. Or, so he thinks.
Another Sundance movie sure to make an impact this year is Martha Marcy May Marlene, a taut thriller that tip toes into darkness with bone-chilling results. The film follows Martha, a broken young woman, during her first crucial weeks away from an abusive cult. Sean Durkin’s purposeful direction paints a near-perfect portrait of paranoia and fear while Elizabeth Olsen (Silent House) breaks away from her twin sisters’ joint shadow in a powerful performance as the damaged Martha. The film slips gracefully between past and present, forming a mosaic of questions on family, love, loyalty, and independence, and it is this masterful hold on time and space that creates the dream, or nightmare, that is Martha Marcy May Marlene.
The film opens inside the quiet farmhouse that houses the cult members. Martha creeps past sleeping bodies and out of her home with nothing but a backpack. As soon as she passes the front door threshold, she takes off into the woods, but her flight does not go unnoticed. From the moment Martha shutters the word “hi” into a payphone, asking her sister for help, it is obvious that she is anything but a free woman. Martha’s sister (Sarah Paulson, What Women Want, Deadwood) and wealthy husband (Hugh Dancy, Ella Enchanted, King Arthur) are unprepared to rehabilitate this mysteriously damaged girl. Her only explanation to her sister makes some sense: she had a boyfriend (Brady Corbet, Thirteen), he lied to her, they broke up. Her actions, however, expose her lack of understanding of social norms and interpersonal relationships. Her identity and sense of womanhood have been inexplicably altered.
I saw one foreign film while at Sundance 2011, a Norwegian picture, aptly named The Troll Hunter. In this documentary-style film, a group of students hunt down an accused bear poacher (Otto Jespersen, a Norwegian comedian and actor) in the hopes of capturing his actions for their documentary on poaching. This unwashed, misanthropic man urges them to leave him alone, but as one of the students (Glenn Erland Tosterud) observes, “Do you think Michael Moore gave up after the first try?” They do not heed his advice. Instead, the students follow him deep into the woods with their camera until they catch him trying to kill gigantic… menacing… TROLLS. The Troll Hunter is full of laughs in this mockumentary film that utilizes engaging actors and a decently smart script; in fact, the only place the movie fails is exactly where we really want it to succeed: the trolls themselves.
Everyday life in the ‘burbs comes with its fair share of mundane problems. Just don’t sweat the small stuff, right? Unfortunately for the characters in The Details, they fail to let go of the small stuff and, before they know it, their suburban life is on the edge of complete disaster. Jacob Aaron Estes, director and writer of The Details, reminds us just how absurd these suburban issues can be with an exceptional cast and a darkly comedic plot that entertains but doesn’t really bother to go past the superficial.
Tobey Maguire (Spiderman, Pleasantville) and Elizabeth Banks (Wet Hot American Summer, The 40 Year Old Virgin) star as unhappily married couple Dr. Jeff and Nealy Lang. They decide it’s time to expand their family and have another child. Jeff takes this opportunity to focus on landscaping his backyard in a mission to create the perfect backyard lawn. He puts down new sod one day, and, the next, he wakes up to a catastrophe: raccoons have torn up the grass. Thus, this wildly absurdist film begins, and the actions Jeff takes to rid himself of the raccoons simultaneously mirror and enhance his problems.
Sony Pictures Classics bought Take Shelter blindly before it had even premiered at Sundance 2011, a rare occurrence in the indie film world. This happened for one main reason: Michael Shannon. Shannon (Oscar-nominated for Revolutionary Road) gives a gripping, powerhouse performance as Curtis LaForche, a man plagued by apocalyptic visions. Thanks to great writing and direction by Jeff Nichols (Shotgun Stories), the story, pacing, and supporting cast add to Shannon’s performance, which serves to sink us deeper into this sci-fi, psychological drama.
LaForche lives in rural Ohio and is husband to a beautiful wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain), and the father of a young, hearing-impaired daughter, Hannah (Tova Stewart). He works for a construction company day-in and day-out, but, slowly, nightmarish visions paint an entirely different picture of his life and future. His love for his family and his desire to protect them heighten his fears, and he focuses his anxiety-ridden energy into building a costly storm shelter in his backyard. The shelter becomes the focal point of the film, and his drive to complete it mirrors his rising level of worry.
I was lucky to attend the Sundance premiere of Kevin Smith’s highly anticipated horror flick Red State, starring up-and-coming actors Michael Angarano, Kyle Gallner, and Nicholas Braun, as well as established actors Michael Parks (Then Came Bronson, Twin Peaks, Kill Bill Vol. 1 & 2, Grindhouse), Oscar-winner Melissa Leo, and John Goodman. When I arrived at Eccles Theater in Park City, Utah, I was greeted by a huge line and a mix of protesters: half, serious religious picketers, half, ironical picketers, which included Kevin Smith himself, as well as a teen with my favorite sign that read: God Hates That I Couldn’t Get Tickets To Red State. The film centers on a trio of high school youngsters (Angarano, Gallner, and Braun) who, out of a combination of sheer boredom and raging hormones, respond to a woman’s internet sex ad in the hopes of having an ill-planned, and ill-fated, gangbang. Smith leaves his signature mark on this film with witty banter, unapologetic plot twists, and overt social critique, but his own style ultimately ends up hurting the film. Watching Red State was a hard-to-swallow experience, as there is as much good as there are short comings, and I was left with the frustrating—and not uncommon—sentiment that hidden somewhere in this film was the potential for greatness.