Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Sundance 2012: Complete


This was my second year at Sundance, and I enjoyed it even more this time around. It was a great opportunity to see a lot of friends in person whom I normally just know as Twitter avatars, and - most importantly - it's a chance to see many of the best films of the year.

Special thanks to Joey and Free at GeekTyrant.com for giving me the opportunity to cover the festival again. I ended up seeing 27 movies (seven more than last year), and if I didn't write or record a video about them all at GeekTyrant, you can find brief thoughts on each one here. As I did last year, I'll leave you with a list of my Top 10 Movies of the Festival. Until next time...

Monday, January 30, 2012

2 Days in New York


2 Days in New York
Co-writer/Director: Julie Delpy
Starring: Julie Delpy, Chris Rock

Julie Delpy made quite the impression on me in her seminal Sundance film Before Sunrise and its sequel, Before Sunset. She's back at this year's festival, this time as a writer/director of a different sequel, 2 Days in New York. Following the events of 2 Days in Paris, Delpy plays Marion, a single mom who has moved in with her boyfriend Mingus (Chris Rock), who has a child of his own from a previous relationship. Marion is a photographer, and her exhibition is set to happen in the same week her father Jeannot (played by Delpy's real father, Albert Delpy) and sister Rose (Alexia Landeau, who co-wrote this film) fly in to visit from France. Also in tow is Manu (Alexandre Nahon), Rose's impetuous dolt of a boyfriend who used to date Marion.

While the movie features some of the hallmarks of the Before... series, I didn't like this one nearly as much. Those films are extremely dialogue heavy, but they deal with huge themes and interestingly explore the connection between what people think and what we actually say. In 2 Days in New York, the dialogue flows just as freely, but it doesn't carry nearly the same weight. Most of the movie is made up of comic misunderstandings between the French relatives and Chris Rock's character, and when comedy isn't at the forefront, the movie devolves into a cacophony of shrieking and arguing between family members. Imagine your worst family gathering, multiply the volume by five, and this is what you get. The most impressive thing about the movie is how Delpy and her editor are able to weave something coherent from all the dissonance. Some will surely find this back-and-forth funny and endearing, but for me it was mostly just grating.

The most enjoyable thing about 2 Days in New York was Chris Rock's performance; he plays the straight man who is just as confused about all of these crazy French people as the audience, and he has some pretty hysterical moments talking by himself with a cardboard cutout of Barack Obama. I won't give away all of the gags, since many of these isolated sequences are actually very funny and almost make the movie worth recommending. Overall though, this one didn't have much to offer aside from ordinary observations about cultural differences and the pressures family can put on otherwise happy relationships.

The Other Dream Team


The Other Dream Team
Director: Marius Markevicius
Starring: Arvydas Sabonis, Sarunas Marciulionis

When Americans hear "the Dream Team," sports fans conjure images of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, David Robinson, and more as the team went undefeated in the 1992 Olympics and won the gold medal. But for Lithuania, the country who won the bronze medal that year, basketball wasn't just a game - the court was a political battlefield on which their country gained independence from the Soviet Union.

The Other Dream Team gives an expansive look at the political landscape of Lithuania during the late 1980s and early 1990s, providing a perspective that most Americans (myself included) have never bothered to examine. In 1988, the USSR Olympic team defeated the United States in competition, but four out of the five starting players on that squad were Lithuanian. Occupied by the USSR at the time, Lithuania wasn't recognized as a soverign nation, so Russia pulled from the nearly 200 million residents of the USSR territories to create the finest team they could. Through interviews and news footage, we see what basketball meant to the little country of 3 million people as it fought for its independence.

The movie follows Arvydas Sabonis, Sarunas Marciulionis, and a few others as they tell their own personal stories cross-cut with the more sweeping tale of the country as a whole. It's like a real-life Mighty Ducks, but instead of a kid's movie with no real stakes involved, these guys were playing to keep their families fed. The disparity in lifestyles between American athletes at the time is shocking; while Jordan and other pros were making shoe commercials, Sabonis and his family were standing in bread lines. Director Marius Markevicius tells this remarkable true story in an entertaining way, keeping the pace up even when dour topics arise.

If you're a history nut but don't like basketball, this movie still has the potential to entertain you. It chronicles the history of Lithuania from the early 1930s to present day, concentrating on the stars of the 1992 team but also focusing on one current prospect from the country hoping to make it into the NBA. There's even a section devoted to The Grateful Dead, the jam band who bankrolled the fledgling country's trip to the Olympics and created tie-dyed T-shirts for the team that were seen and sold across the world. The Other Dream Team is an inspiring story that makes you want to jump to your feet and cheer. If the events depicted here occurred in a cheesy Disney movie, I'd roll my eyes. But for Lithuania, their country's history was forever altered by the sport of basketball and the men brave enough to play it.

The Surrogate


The Surrogate
Writer/Director: Ben Lewin
Starring: John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy

I have just witnessed the most transformative role of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. John Hawkes, who earned an Oscar nomination for his Sundance hit Winter's Bone and who made waves last year with Martha Marcy May Marlene, is back with another extraordinary performance as a man suffering from polio and who must spend most of his life confined to an iron lung machine in his house. The Surrogate is based on the true story of Mark O'Brien (Hawkes), a man who overcame his limitations to become a poet and journalist. As a 40-something-year-old virgin, Hawkes takes the opportunity to meet with a sex surrogate (Helen Hunt), a woman who has sex with him in order to prepare him for further sexual encounters in his life. During this arrangement, O'Brien procures the advice of a smoking, drinking priest played by William H. Macy.

Hawkes is magnificent to watch, completely losing himself in an role that allows him to play against type. Surprisingly, he brings a great deal of humor to a potentially dark situation. Helen Hunt - who I talked about in an early episode of The Not Just New Movies Podcast dedicated to her 1985 film, Trancers - did a lot with a taciturn character, slowly revealing her emotions as the film went on like a pinhole poked in a dam that eventually bursts. Some may call her performance "brave," but that's just because she was naked for a lot of the movie and that's apparently what you're supposed to say when actors take their clothes off. And I've gotta say: her Massachusetts accent was hideous, going in and out at random. Aside from Hawkes' enthralling work, it's William H. Macy that's the highlight. His priest character is one of the most liberal religious figures I've seen on film, and he brings a humanity to the role that's practically unheard of with an archtype like this. He offers rational human advice instead of just saying what he thinks he's "supposed" to say due to his association with the church, and provides a welcome freshness to a wonderfully written role.

The film deals with sex more bluntly than most, another fresh aspect to an otherwise serious movie. The entire film is ostensibly about sex, but it rarely carries that mystical air our society has created around the act. It's discussed openly and directly and depicted in a matter-of-fact way that doesn't sexualize the actors. So instead of being all about sex, it's actually about the relationship Mark O'Brien forms with the women in his life, and more importantly, the one he has with himself by the end of the film. Perhaps just as compelling as the film's treatment of sex is the way it expertly presents the living conditions of someone confined to a rolling bed; a scene in which the power goes off while O'Brien is in the iron lung is gut-wrenching.

The Surrogate is a film that will have some staying power throughout 2012, with awards for its leads almost assured before we even crown the Oscar winners from last year. If you're someone who appreciates a great lead performance, it's a must-watch.

Room 237


Room 237
Director: Rodney Ascher
Starring: Fans of The Shining

Rodney Ascher's Room 237 is a documentary exploring many of the wild theories of hidden meaning in Stanley Kubrick's 1980 classic, The Shining. Told in nine segments, the documentary features voiceovers from different Shining fanatics and uses footage from Kubrick's movie to show examples of their conclusions.

You won't find any talking heads here. Instead, Room 237 employs a unique method of illustrating stories from the voiceover participants: it uses footage from other Kubrick films. Example time: early in the movie, one of the participants talks about the first time he saw The Shining, mentioning how he saw the poster and walked into a movie theater. While he's telling this story, we see footage of Tom Cruise from Eyes Wide Shut as he stares at the poster for The Shining outside of a movie theater and walks in. Get it? The motions of these random film characters don't always match what the storyteller is saying, but it's a really cool way to avoid making those interview sections drag. It's also used to illicit laughter from the audience. After one particularly strange assertion, the film cuts to Jack Nicholson's character in The Shining incredulously saying, "Anything you say, Lloyd. Anything you say." Ascher is totally aware of how bizarre some of his subjects' conjectures are, and acknowledges that to the audience by including this little wink as if to say, "Hey, this sounds as crazy to me as it does to you."

But even if Ascher didn't use this technique, I doubt anyone could find this film boring. The sometimes-insane-but-always-entertaining theories presented are captivating, and though a majority of them sound totally bonkers, occasionally someone brings up a point that makes sense. Personally, I love hearing people's opinions about film (especially if they're wacky) because it makes me analyze the movie in a way I wouldn't have on my own. Ever heard the theory that Ferris Bueller's Day Off takes place completely in Cameron Frye's head? Readings like that - ones that make you rethink what the entire film is doing and how it works - are my favorites, and Room 237 delivers those kinds of ideas in spades.

I don't want to spoil many of these assertions because it's so much fun to hear them in the moment, but I want to give you a taste of what these people are talking about. They touch on the conspiracy theory of Kubrick shooting fake footage of the first moon landing, citing weird facts like room 237 in the film is used on purpose because the moon is 237,000 miles away. At one point, a guy superimposes The Shining playing normally and in reverse simultaneously, and talks through all kinds of insane coincidences (OR ARE THEY?!?!) that come up when the two images are shared on screen. Those are just a couple examples. This film is an in-depth video essay, linking symbols and imagery to supposed theories of The Shining's subtext in regards to Native American genocide and the Holocaust. Believe them or not; it's wildly entertaining.

In the end credits, the filmmakers claims to have the rights to all of the footage they used because of Fair Use laws, but I'm not entirely convinced of the legality of their usage. If it doesn't get purchased because of rights issues, this movie will be doomed to a life on the film festival circuit and will never be seen by a large audience. But if they somehow actually managed to secure everything they need, there's a chance this one could be available in some form or another to bigger crowds. The movie focuses on The Shining, but many of Kubrick's other works are touched on, so whether you're a big fan of the director or just a fan of wild theories like me, Room 237 has a lot to like about it.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Your Sister's Sister


Your Sister's Sister
Writer/Director: Lynn Shelton
Starring: Emily Blunt, Rosemarie DeWitt, Mark Duplass

Your Sister's Sister balances subtle comedy with a love triangle situation in a way that seems surprising given its serious premise. When Jack's (Mark Duplass) brother dies, his best friend Iris (Emily Blunt) sends him to her family's remote cabin to get some alone time and get out of his funk. Little does Jack know that Iris's sister Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt) is also at the cabin, trying to sort through some issues of her own. A drunken introduction leads to an...interesting night, and the entire situation gets even more complicated when Iris unexpectedly drops by the next day.

While I think it has some pacing issues that crop up toward the end of the movie (montage after montage slows the movie to a crawl in the last act), I'd still recommend seeing Your Sister's Sister if you can. The leads are all extremely likeable, and there's a reality to the script (written by director Lynn Shelton) and the actors' performances that gives this movie an edge over many other films I've seen at the festival so far. This is one of those rare movies in which the dialogue feels completely natural; it hasn't been put through some screenwriting formula, because this is the way that people actually speak to each other. It's honest, legitimately funny, and its idyllic setting looks like it could be one island away from the one featured in Black Rock, which Duplass coincidentally wrote. He also starred in one of my favorite movies of this year's festival, Safety Not Guaranteed, deviating greatly from that eccentric role this time around as a much more laid back man-child kind of guy. DeWitt and Blunt totally nail the relationship between sisters, with tiny looks and mannerisms adding volumes to already stellar work from them.

IFC Films has snagged distribution rights for the movie and has it slated for a summer 2012 release, so if you're looking to escape the onslaught of summer blockbusters with a solid dramedy, I'd recommend checking out Your Sister's Sister.

Smashed


Smashed
Co-writer/Director: James Ponsoldt
Starring: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Aaron Paul

Mary Elizabeth Winstead gives one of the most raw performances of any film at this year's Sundance Film Festival in Smashed, an unflinching look at the effects of alcohol on a relationship. 

Kate (Winstead) is an alcoholic who teaches elementary school during the day and spends every night getting wasted with her blogger husband Charlie (Aaron Paul). After one particularly embarrassing incident alerts Kate to her problem, she starts going to meetings with her co-worker (Nick Offerman) and her sponsor (Octavia Spencer). Charlie doesn't want to stop drinking, so he refuses to support Kate's decision and continues to be a terrible influence. But Ponsoldt isn't interested in villainizing him too much; instead, the disease is the center point through which all other conflicts are viewed.

This is a formidable role for Winstead, an actress known primarily for much lighter fare. But she shines just as often in little moments of realization as melodramatic outbursts, taking on a damaged character with dedicated intensity and giving the audience a reflection of something heartbreaking in the process. The supporting cast is great, but I think they were a bit underused (though "overusing" them would have taken time away from Winstead). Paul was solid, a sort of alternate version of his "Breaking Bad" character; more than anyone else, I wish we got to see more of him. Real-life couple Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally don't play former lovers this time as they do on "Parks and Rec": Offerman plays a friend of Kate's with a creepy pervert streak, and Mullally is the principal at her school, disappointed to find out the truth about Kate's condition.

Smashed is an honest portrait of the contaminating effect of alcoholism on a person's life and a painful look at making tough decisions regarding how to handle negative influences.

Shut Up and Play the Hits


Shut Up and Play the Hits
Directors: Will Lovelace, Darren Southern
Starring: James Murphy

I've got a confession to make: before seeing Shut Up and Play The Hits, I had never heard an LCD Soundsystem song. But that gave me a unique vantage point from which to view this film, as I don't think many people who haven't heard of the band would watch a 105 minute documentary about them. Most good documentaries simultaneously educate and entertain, so did this one meet the criteria?

Unlike Michael Rappaport's superlative music documentary Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest from last year's festival, Shut Up doesn't aim to provide any context for how its musical subjects fit into the larger picture of the music scene. Instead, it concentrates almost solely on frontman James Murphy and his decision to walk away from the band and retire at age 41. Intercut with footage from their final concert at Madison Square Garden, the doc contrasts the insanity of being a rock star with the crushing normality of life after lights go down. "If it's a funeral, let's have the best funeral ever," reads the opening text as the movie begins. And there truly is a sense that something died when the group disbanded, leaving Murphy alone with his dog, busying himself with cleaning coffee makers and visiting storage warehouses full of musical equipment. It's heartbreaking, but captivating to watch since the downfall of the band was Murphy's choice.

There is a TON of concert footage here - by my count, nine songs were played in their entirety - but if you've ever watched a DVD of a live music performance, you've seen all this before. There's nothing new stylistically, and because of the repetitive nature of the lyrics in a majority of the chosen songs, these sections drag on for an interminable amount of time. I kept waiting for them to get back to the traditional documentary sections, a good portion of which consisted of a journalist doing an interview with Murphy and asking him some legitimately great questions about his decision.

If you're a fan of the band, I'd imagine this will be both a nostalgic goodbye and a way to reconcile with Murphy's decision. As a non-fan, I found the mentality behind his choice the most interesting part of the documentary. There are tiny cameos of Donald Glover, Aziz Ansari, and Reggie Watts at the concert, but no interviews with them at all. It's all about Murphy, and as someone who has made such a unique decision, it's fascinating to see the wheels turning in his head as he struggles to come to grips with his own choice and wonders if maybe, just maybe, he made the wrong call.

The Words


The Words
Writers/Directors: Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Zoe Saldana, Jeremy Irons, Dennis Quaid, Olivia Wilde

Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal co-wrote and co-directed The Words, a star-studded drama about a struggling young writer who steals someone's novel and publishes it as his own. It's nothing remarkable, just another fine film with good performances and an interesting premise.

The most interesting thing about the movie is the way it's structured. It opens with Dennis Quaid's character, a writer, reading his most recent book aloud to a sold out crowd. The movie spends most of the runtime with his book's imaginary characters, another writer, played by Bradley Cooper, and his wife, played by Zoe Saldana. Cooper publishes a novel originally written by Jeremy Irons' character and becomes wildly successful. Irons tracks him down and tells him the story of how he lost his book, taking the movie into a flashback format that stars Ben Barnes as a dead ringer for a young Irons. So we're three levels deep, and there's voiceover narrations from two different people going on as the movie crosscuts between levels. Back in level one, Quaid is seduced by Olivia Wilde, a grad student who wants to hear the end of the story.

As expected, the film brings up questions of ownership, identity, and the guilt associated with living a lie. It's all pretty basic stuff, and though it's all well-executed, it all feels very predictable. For me, it felt like a movie from the mid-90s that you'd watch at 2 in the afternoon on Starz. The concepts it touches on are much more interesting than what we see explored in depth in the movie, but it's still a nicely-acted serviceable multi-tiered drama. (Irons steals the show, much in the way he did in last year's Sundance flick Margin Call.) The ending sparked a debate among myself and a few colleagues, so the discussion factor should provide some interesting interpretations if you watch it with friends. I've heard CBS Films purchased the movie, so I imagine it'll be getting a theatrical release, but save your money - The Words would be just fine on a small screen at home.

Goats


Goats
Director: Christopher Neil
Starring: David Duchovny, Vera Farmiga, Graham Phillips

A coming-of-age story with a bizarre father figure at the center, Goats is another movie that's well-executed but isn't quite good enough to recommend. David Duchovny plays Goat Man, a weed-growing hippie who raises Ellis (Phillips) after Ellis' real father (Ty Burrell from "Modern Family") leaves at a young age. Goat Man takes Ellis on goat herds through the Arizona wilderness, teaching him about survival while Ellis' drugged-out New Age mother (Farmiga) hooks up with a new boyfriend. Ellis ends up going to a prestigious school on the east coast - the same one his real father attended - and while there, he reconnects with his dad and his new girlfriend, played by Keri Russell.

Everyone gives good performances, and there's nothing glaringly "wrong" with the movie; it's just that even with characters strange enough to be memorable, Goats doesn't ever seem to kick it into gear to make the movie itself rise above the weirdness of its characters.

John Dies at the End


John Dies at the End
Writer/Director: Don Coscarelli
Starring: Chase Williamson, Rob Mayes, Paul Giamatti

This movie had one of the best opening sequences at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. It's a great microcosm for the entire film - encompassing paranormal weirdness, violence, offbeat humor, and sarcastic voiceovers - so if you dig that one sequence, you'll probably find a lot to like in the movie as a whole. The story is crazy - a kid and his friend stumble across an insane drug called "soy sauce" which gives them supernatural powers to fight ghost creatures and the undead - and if you're into watching movies that are off the wall and kind of "out there," this is definitely one for you. It's Ghostbusters meets Bill and Ted with shotguns and hot dog phones. (And did I mention that Paul Giamatti is in this, and as you may assume, he's awesome?) It's got a ton of humor throughout to offset the weirdness, but by the end, this movie takes things to a level you never imagine.

Ultimately, the ending is where the film fell apart for me. I was with it, craziness and all, for the first two thirds, but once other dimensions start coming into place and a Total Recall-esque creature becomes the central villain of the story, John Dies at the End lost me. I'm down for a little insanity here and there, but at some point I think there has to be a limit. This movie doesn't respect those limits, instead giving a big "eff you" to expectations and doing whatever the hell they want, regardless if the audience they've grabbed at this point is willing to come along with them. And that's why I respect this movie a lot more than I like it - it knows what it wants to be, and is uncompromising in getting there.

Safety Not Guaranteed


Safety Not Guaranteed
Director: Colin Trevorrow
Starring: Aubrey Plaza, Mark Duplass, Jake Johnson

Safety Not Guaranteed was one of my most anticipated movies of this year's Sundance Film Festival, and it certainly didn't disappoint. It has nearly everything I want to see in a film: memorable characters, a great story, comedy, drama, romance, and a time travel twist. I've been waiting a few days to be blown away by a movie, and this one fit the bill. It's the quintessential geek festival movie, but it never felt like it was pandering; it kept the characters in the forefront, and that, among many other reasons, is why I loved it.

Darius (Aubrey Plaza) is an intern at a magazine in Seattle. She's dry, funny, and sarcastic - basically the Aubrey Plaza stereotype. To avoid refilling toilet paper dispensers, Darius volunteers to accompany a writer, Jeff (Jake Johnson), to a nearby city to do a profile on a guy who placed an ad on Craigslist for a time travel partner. With nerdy intern Arnau (Karan Soni) added to their motley crew, they set off to go undercover and see what this guy is all about. They discover Kenneth Calloway (Mark Duplass), an eccentric grocery store employee who is totally serious about his ad, and who eventually takes Darius under his wing as a trainee for their upcoming "mission." As she learns more about him, Darius is charmed by his simple worldview and starts to wonder if genius lies somewhere beneath Kenneth's kooky exterior. Meanwhile, Jeff spends his time trying to hook up with an old high school love interest and getting the other intern laid for the first time.

Colin Trevorrow's direction is subdued and controlled, allowing the characters of Derek Connolly's excellent script to take us through this story without any flashy distractions or unnecessary flourishes. It's restrained, but it's there - unlike some other performance-heavy films that seem like someone just turned a camera on and left it running, Trevorrow uses his style to accent important moments. (A robbery sequence was a comedic highlight, while a nighttime campfire song was beautifully shot to enhance the romantic potential in the scene.)

Plaza's performance turns from the wry stereotype into something much more hopeful and optimistic, providing audiences with the rare opportunity to watch an Aubrey Plaza character smile unironically on screen. Duplass is tremendous, making Kenneth Calloway one of the most fascinating characters I've seen on film in recent memory. He's weird, sure, but there's a sincerity to the way he talks about his mission and dispenses combat advice that is more endearing than embarrassing. In the hands of a less capable actor, this character could have been painted more like someone with a mental illness than a childlike passion. It's a fine line, and Duplass always stays on the correct side of it.

The comedy is charming, and the dramatic moments - many involving the personal reasons for Kenneth and Darius wanting to go back to the past - are poignant and engaging. Much of the movie is spent in a back and forth regarding the legitimacy of Kenneth's time travel abilities. The entire movie builds to one singular moment, the culmination of events that will finally answer the question we've been asking the whole time: is he crazy, or is this for real? I wouldn't dare reveal the answer here, but the buildup to this scene was so effective that it gave me chills. Safety Not Guaranteed is an instant classic and a must-see for time travel junkies.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

For A Good Time, Call...


For A Good Time, Call...
Director: Jamie Travis
Starring: Ari Graynor, Lauren Miller, Justin Long, James Wolk

For A Good Time, Call... has a great premise: two girls who hate each other have to move into a New York apartment together to stay afloat, and they eventually open a phone sex line to make money. It's compelling, vulgar, and heartwarming - a strange combination for a movie, but one that works very well here.

Lauren (Lauren Miller) is an uptight conservative chick who gets dumped by her mega-douche boyfriend (James Wolk), so she's stuck in New York with no place to live. Katie (Ari Graynor) is a free spirit, and one of her many jobs is a phone sex operator. In a flashback, we find that these two met on a fateful night in college that ended with spilled urine in a moving vehicle and one person stranded in a bad neighborhood. Needless to say, they aren't the best of friends. But their mutual friend, Jesse (Justin Long), sees the only solution to both their problems and hooks them up as roommates. When Lauren discovers Katie's means of extra income, she combines her business sense with Katie's, ahem, talents, and the two form a partnership that helps them overcome their checkered past.

Ari Graynor joins Elizabeth Olsen, Lizzy Caplan, and Mark Webber in the club of people with multiple films at this year's festival: she plays a lead in For A Good Time, Call... and a small "best friend" part in Celeste & Jesse Forever. (Webber also has a small part here.) This film gives her the meatier role and she delivers, hitting all the right notes in both the comedy and drama required. Sundance seems to be the place where people are dubbed "rising stars," and since I think she has true screen presence, I'll go ahead and attach that label to Graynor. Lauren Miller, who co-wrote this movie, doesn't quite light up the screen the way her co-star does, but she's got an undeniable charm and her fresh-faced innocence is a perfect fit for her character. Justin Long does an impression of his friend Vince Vaughn with a gay twist, which - for me anyway - was amusing and entertaining. And on a personal note, it was great to see James Wolk, star of the ill-fated TV series "Lone Star", working again since I was a big fan of the show.

The movie deals a lot with themes of friendship and stepping out of your personal boundaries, and there's a ton of comedy interspersed along the way. Most of it is extremely vulgar - after all, they do run a phone sex line, but there's a realism to the dialogue that makes it all feel sincere, and the characters are all so honest and genuine that it's easy to excuse nitpicks here and there. I don't want to ruin anything for you, but there are some really funny sequences featuring cameos by some very recognizable actors, so keep an eye out for those. I dug this movie, and since it just got picked up by Focus Features, this one should be easy to see in the coming months. It's not one of my favorites of the festival, but it's a nice little comedy that accomplishes all its goals, including the most important one - making the audience laugh.

Grabbers

Grabbers
Director: Jon Wright
Starring: Richard Coyle, Ruth Bradley

Black Rock


Black Rock
Director: Katie Aselton
Starring: Katie Aselton, Kate Bosworth, Lake Bell

The multi-talented Katie Aselton ("The League") unveiled her newest film Black Rock at the Sundance 2012 Film Festival. Though the screenplay was written by frequent collaborator and husband Mark Duplass, Asleton came up with the idea for the movie, directed it, and stars alongside Kate Bosworth and Lake Bell. It's a contained thriller, well-acted, and suspenseful in all the right moments. To me, this is the perfect VOD movie: small in scope, character-driven, violent, and sparse.

The movie begins with Sarah (Bosworth) luring her two childhood friends Lou (Bell) and Abby (Aselton) to a small, abandoned island off the coast of Maine for a camping trip. Sarah wants the girls to reconnect - the gang hasn't been together in years due to some personal issues between Lou and Abby - and to track down a time capsule they buried there years before (hmm...I wonder if that will come up later?). But an encounter with three hunters on the island turns south quickly when a flirty Abby gets a little too drunk and one of the men doesn't take kindly to rejection. In an instant, the women go from being on vacation to fighting for their lives.

Early on, we discover that the men were dishonorably discharged from the military a few weeks prior, which is one of my few complaints with the film - it feels like a lazy screenwriting tactic. Ex-military oftentimes get a bad wrap in movies, many times playing unhinged characters incapable of reintegrating themselves into normal society. They're demonized so often in fiction that they've become a cliche, but considering the setting, I guess the filmmakers had to decide between ex-military, hillbillies, or escaped convicts to give an explanation as to what they were doing on that remote island. While I'm mentioning problems with the movie, I'll add that at times it feels a bit by-the-numbers, and those of you who watch these kinds of genre flicks a lot may have more problems with it than I do as someone who doesn't watch those kinds of movies regularly.

As with many survival/stalker thrillers, the main characters commit a multitude of mistakes that would make no sense in a real world scenario but must be done to continue the drama of the story. The movie isn't interested in answering questions like, "Why wouldn't he just shoot them in the face right now?" Instead it focuses on getting the main characters into more and more trouble and keeping the audience wondering how many of them, if any, will make it out alive. Black Rock can be conventional at times, but if it's executed well, sometimes that's not a bad thing.

Arbitrage


Arbitrage
Director: Nicholas Jarecki
Starring: Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon, Brit Marling

Arbitrage reminded me a lot of last year's Sundance film Margin Call: a financial thriller with a great cast that probably won't have a great shelf life. It's solid but straightforward, sometimes predictable but always competent. Gere plays a family man financial expert who is on the verge of a giant merger worth hundreds of millions of dollars. The problem is, he's been cooking the books to make sure the deal goes through; he doesn't actually have the money he claims he does. To make matters worse, he's having an affair - and when that takes a turn for the worse, he has to think on his feet to mount a cover-up to avoid losing everything.

The film's New York setting is used beautifully to combat the dreadful truth of everything that's happening, and Tim Roth's supporting performance as a cop investigating the crime is fantastic. Unfortunately, those are the most memorable things you'll find in Arbitrage. It have the feeling of squandering potential, but instead seems content to operate in a limited scope and let the performances do the talking.

Save the Date


Save The Date
Director: Michael Mohan
Starring: Lizzy Caplan, Martin Starr, Alison Brie, Geoffrey Arend, Mark Webber

Anyone familiar with great television comedies of the last decade should be familiar with the main cast of Save The Date. The film stars Lizzy Caplan ("Party Down"), Martin Starr ("Party Down," "Freaks and Geeks"), Alison Brie ("Community"), Geoffrey Arend (Super Troopers), and Mark Webber (Scott Pilgrim vs. The World), and is one of two Lizzy Caplan films at this year's Sundance to feature a wedding theme - the other being Bachelorette. Despite the fantastic cast, I'm sad to say that this film didn't resonate with me.

The biggest problem with Save The Date is that I didn't feel like it added anything new to this type of story. We've seen it hashed and rehashed tons of times before - a young woman rejects her current life in favor of a spontaneous new relationship - and even this week, I've seen two variations on it with Hello I Must Be Going and The First Time. Director Michael Mohan failed to do much to make this movie memorable, and it's truly a shame that such a talented cast is brought together for a movie that ultimately falls flat.

Caplan doesn't quite have the charm in a lead role as, say, Rashida Jones in Celeste & Jesse Forever, but she's armed with a winning smile and has a lot of natural talent, which has taken her career in some great directions. Here, though, her character is so messed up that it's hard to justify either her decisions or the love shown her by multiple male characters throughout. On an acting level, she was great. But she's the lead here, and I could never really get past her personality flaws to connect with her. Alison Brie was solid as the uptight sister too busy planning her own wedding to invest in her sister's issues, and Martin Starr plays Brie's fiance with a mixture of comedy and drama that has defined his career so far.

Thematically, there isn't much going on here beyond what's on the surface. There is a lot of family drama, both between Caplan and Brie's sister characters and between Brie and Starr's fiance relationship. There's a love triangle between Caplan, the shunned boyfriend, and the new boyfriend. But even with all of those plot points, it still seemed as if I'd seen this movie before. "Aspirations are totally overrated," one of the characters says. Perhaps the director should have aspired to make something that would stand out among the thousands of movies that have the same tone and feel as this one.

Here's the official synopsis:

Sarah finds herself caught in an intense post-breakup rebound with new infatuation Jonathan after tragically breaking the heart of rocker Kevin. Always one to give Sarah life advice is her sister Beth, who is diligently planning her upcoming wedding to apprehensive fiancé Andrew. Both sisters fumble through the bumpy emotional landscape of modern-day relationships, forced to relearn how to love and be loved.

Filmmaker Michael Mohan returns to the Sundance Film Festival—he made his feature debut with One Too Many Mornings in NEXT in 2010. From a screenplay he wrote with famed graphic novelist Jeffrey Brown and co-writer Egan Reich, this bittersweet story about the trials of maturing love carefully balances intimate moments of pain and happiness. Delicately captured by cinematographer Elisha Christian, with standout lead performances by Lizzy Caplan and Alison Brie, Save the Date charms anyone lost in his or her own state of love. - C.R.

Celeste & Jesse Forever


Celeste & Jesse Forever
Director: Lee Toland Krieger
Starring: Rashida Jones, Andy Samberg

Co-written by Rashida Jones and co-star Will McCormack, Celeste & Jesse Forever is one of the more lighthearted films at Sundance 2012. It's about Celeste (Jones) and Jesse (Samberg), a separated married couple that still act as if they're together. They hang out all the time, joking around and doing normal couple things as if nothing's wrong, much to the chagrin of all their friends. They're both clearly not over each other, but through a series of other relationships, the movie reveals the true relationship between these characters and what role they will ultimately play in each other's lives. There's a similarity to (500) Days of Summer, from the Los Angeles setting, to the way the leads act together, to a sequence involving furniture from Ikea. Small roles for Emma Roberts, Ari Graynor, Eric Christen Olsen, and Rich Sommer are highlights.

Featuring infectious performances by Jones and Samberg, a sometimes-heartbreaking script, and a catchy soundtrack, Celeste & Jesse Forever is a mainstream success waiting to happen.

Liberal Arts

Liberal Arts
Writer/Director: Josh Radnor
Starring: Josh Radnor, Elizabeth Olsen, Richard Jenkins

Following the debut of HappyThankYouMorePlease in 2010, Josh Radnor returns to Sundance with his second directorial feature, Liberal Arts. Written by, directed by, and starring the "How I Met Your Mother" actor, the film co-stars Elizabeth Olsen, Richard Jenkins, Zac Efron, and Allison Janney. I liked the movie quite a bit; it's one of the few true crowd-pleasers I've seen at the festival so far. Since it has already secured distribution, it will probably receive some sort of release sometime later this year.

The story centers on Jesse Fisher (Radnor), a 35-year-old who works in the admissions department of a New York university. When he returns to Ohio to speak at his former professor's (Jenkins) retirement, he meets Zibby (Olsen), a 19-year-old sophomore with whom he feels a geniuine connection. They find common ground in a love of classical music, and though Jesse heads back to New York, they continue their relationship through a series of hand-written letters. I know, I know - it all sounds so cloying and impossibly cute. And it is, but a solid script makes up for all of the cheesy montages and sometimes cliched stylistic choices. In other words, it's very much an independent film, but it's a good one.

Jesse loves being back at his alma mater, and spends time wandering through campus and soaking up the atmosphere. The film was shot at Kenyon College, Radnor's real life alma mater, and the director's affection for the location comes across in the movie. On one of his random forays across the quad, he meets Nat, a carefree hippie played by Zac Efron who encourages Jesse with all kinds of Bohemian sentiments ("be love, man!"). Efron totally steals the movie, adding a much needed comedic interlude to some of the more heady discussions you may assume would be in a film with this title. Also tossed into the mix is Dean (John Magaro), another student at the college that had a manic attack the year before and provides a point of dramatic conflict for Jesse, who takes a liking to the kid because they like the same author. It's a nice subplot handled well, given just enough time to feel like a fleshed out story that never dominates the main plotline.

Truth be told, though, this film belongs to Radnor and Olsen, both giving aggressively good performances and further cementing Olsen's status as a star on the rise. I've heard the film being compared to the works of Woody Allen, and while I think that may be a bit hyperbolic, Radnor unquestionably has a lot of talent as a writer, actor, and director. Liberal Arts is another in a long list of good films I've seen at the festival this year, but I'm still waiting to truly be blown away by a dramatic movie here. Stay tuned for more coverage as the week continues.

Lay the Favorite


Lay the Favorite
Director: Steven Frears
Starring: Bruce Willis, Rebecca Hall

I heard a lot of negative buzz about Lay The Favorite before I saw it, and thanks to lowered expectations, I didn't think it was as terrible as everyone claimed. I don't see the point of the film, or why acclaimed director Steven Frears decided to direct it, but I found the movie to be a pretty straightforward dramedy that didn't disappoint or excite. It's just sort of...there.

For one of the most star-studded films of Sundance 2012, I'm surprised at how tepid the final product is. Bruce Willis looked like he was really having fun with his character, a rare feat for the usually stoic actor. But Rebecca Hall, an actress I believe has the potential to reach superstar status, doesn't do herself any favors in this one: she adopts a strange high-pitched voice and the air of a teenage ditz that belies her character's amazing talent with numbers. It's a strange choice on Hall's part - one, I'm guessing, that stems from the real life woman she's portraying. (Since it's based on a true story, perhaps that gimmick alone attracted all of this talent to the project.) I also didn't care much for her character, a flighty flip-flopping woman who can't be bothered to make up her mind about much of anything. She's the main character of the film, and we're supposed to be on a journey with her, but her constant wavering makes it hard to pull for her success, since we can only assume it will be short-lived (if it happens at all).

Vince Vaughn, Joshua Jackson, Laura Prepon, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Frank Grillo round out the cast, but no one is particularly memorable. This seems to be too dull a story for the quality of people involved with the production, almost as if they were all doing someone a favor by participating. There's a lot of standard stuff here in terms of the Vegas setting (the obligatory montage driving down the strip), exposition on how to gamble, extracting money from people who won't pay up, etc. Stylistically, there's not much that Frears brings to the table. It's really straightforward, with no noticeable flair at all.

Lay The Favorite is the type of movie you'll see on IFC a few years from now, and it's worth seeing if you're looking to watch some interesting performances while killing some time.

Official Synopsis:

Beth Raymer is a beautiful girl with a big heart who leaves her dancing job at a Florida strip club to become a Las Vegas cocktail waitress. Not exactly an ideal career choice, but her borderline-ditzy personality doesn’t give her many options. In walks Dink, a professional sports bettor who sees through her bubbly exterior and offers her a job placing wagers all over town to gain an advantage over the casinos. Her surprisingly impeccable mind for numbers soon cements her status as Dink’s good-luck charm, until his gorgeous-but-frigid wife, Tulip, starts to get jealous. Faced with no other choice but to fire Beth, Dink’s luck runs out when she heads to New York to work for a smarmy bookie, a turn of events that lands her squarely on the wrong side of the law.

Acclaimed director Stephen Frears first wowed Sundance Film Festival audiences in 1985 with his sardonic thriller The Hit, and returned in 1991 with The Grifters, which garnered several Oscar nominations. With LAY THE FAVORITE, Frears nimbly displays his penchant for interweaving comedy and drama to create a thoroughly satisfying tale of improbable friendship found in the unlikeliest of places. - A.M.

The First Time


The First Time
Writer/Director: Jonathan Kasdan
Starring: Dylan O'Brien, Britt Robertson, Victoria Justice

Jonathan Kasdan's sophomore film The First Time is an enchanting story of young love aimed squarely at millenials, but its comical dialogue and cheerful tone give it much broader appeal. Similar to last year's Like Crazy, this movie can conjure desire for first love among younger crowds and nostalgia for it in older audiences.

Dave (Dylan O'Brien) is a senior in high school hung up on Jane (Victoria Justice), the girl he's been crushing on for years. Outside the type of lavish, extravagant party that only appear in high school sex comedies, Dave meets Aubrey (Britt Robertson), a junior from another school who catches him rehearsing an embarrassing speech as he's about to profess his love for Jane. In the film's long opening scene, the two strike up a conversation that lays the groundwork for their entire relationship, building up to a "will they, won't they" surrounding their first times having sex.

The movie is undoubtedly a teen sex comedy, and in the wave of post-Superbad films that fill the genre, it can be tough to separate one film from others in the pack. The First Time stands out thanks to excellent performances from its leads, Britt Robertson and Dylan O'Brien. Robertson is magnetic, a beautiful actress who imbues her character with a sense of realism that makes her all the more likeable. Manic Pixie Dream Girl she is not; she feels like someone you knew in high school. This is star-making work from her, and though she's been around in the TV world for a few years, with a performance as compelling as this one I can't imagine a successful film career being too far away. O'Brien is also enjoyable, playing a guy who has seen too many romantic movies and who believes all of the lovey dovey stuff that goes along with them.

Secondary characters, including Craig Robertson (who was excellent in last year's Submarine), fill out the standard best friend roles, and there's even the Wise Younger Sister character so often found in this genre to help Dave get the girl. But instead of being in junior high or something, the sister is only five or six years old - comically young to fit the archetype. Writer/director Kasdan has seen enough of these types of films to be aware of the cliche, so he adds a little variation in there to switch things up for the audience. There are long scenes of nothing but dialogue, but the characters have so much charisma that it's easy to forgive any moments that still feel rote.

I think The First Time will be for this generation what Can't Hardly Wait was to mine: a plausible examination of growing up through a series of parties, emotions, confessions, and infatuation. It's a harmless film with legitimately adorable moments, and ultimately The First Time was just as alluring to me as the main characters were to each other.

The Raid (Video Review)

(For my written review of this movie, click here.)

The Raid


The Raid
Writer/Director: Gareth Evans
Starring: Iko Uwais, Ananda George, Ray Sahetapy

Not only is The Raid one of my favorite films of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, it's also one of my favorite action movies of all time. I hope you understand that I'm not being hyperbolic when I say that. This film has pretty much everything I want to see in an action movie. If you've listened to the Die Hard episode of The Not Just New Movies Podcast, you know how much I love how that film uses a singular location as a character, with the geography of Nakatomi Plaza being an integral element into our understanding of John McClane's actions throughout the film. The same goes for The Raid, with a singular building hosting all of the crazed action that happens and simultaneously providing the audience with a visual marker of how high our heroes must climb to accomplish their mission.

Gareth Evans utilizes a lot of hand-held camera to bring us into the action, much in the same way Jose Padilla did with Elite Squad: The Enemy Within. There are a lot of similarities with that film, actually, but this one is far more impressive to me because of the hand-to-hand factor that dominates the action. There's a 2-on-1 fight sequence in The Raid that I'd put up against any Tony Jaa film in a battle for supreme badassery, and as much as I love Jaa's work, I think The Raid would come out on top. I had a chance to interview the director at Sundance, and he talked about the challenges of making the movie and hinted at its upcoming sequel, so be sure to check that out if you're interested.

Red Lights


Red Lights
Writer/Director: Rodrigo Cortes
Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Cillian Murphy, Robert De Niro, Elizabeth Olsen 

Director Rodrigo Cortes lit Sundance 2010 on fire with Buried, and two years later, he's back with another thriller - one with a much more expanded scope. Red Lights follows veteran paranormal expert Margaret Matheson (Sigourney Weaver) and her assistant Tom Buckley (Cillian Murphy) as they track strange cases around the country, proving them all to be hoaxes. The mysterious emergence of renowned psychic Simon Silver (Robert De Niro) captivates Buckley, and the young physicist becomes obsessed with proving the legend to be a fraud. But Silver and Matheson share a past, and the doctor warns her eager assistant not to get involved. Guess how that turns out?

The acting is terrific from everyone involved, and this film showcases some of my favorite performances of Sundance 2012. Weaver is stoic and steadfast, Murphy is logical but compulsive, and De Niro actually commits to a character in a way I haven't seen from him in years. Sundance darling Elizabeth Olsen returns in a small role, and if you need more convincing after last year that she's the real deal, here you go. (The girl has had an astonishing four movies at the past two Sundance Film Festivals: Martha Marcy May Marlene and Silent House in '11; Red Lights and Liberal Arts in '12.) There are also some shades of Chris Nolan's The Prestige here as Murphy explores the theme of obsession onscreen, and Olsen plays the Scarlett Johansson role in this metaphor, warning him against the dangers of his infatuation.

While there are sequences in which not much physically happens on screen, like an extended McLaughlin Group-style television interview that lasts 5 or 10 minutes, Cortes is still able to make them visually compelling (as one might expect from someone whose last film contained nothing but one man in a coffin). Heavy use of close-ups is perfect for tension building, and though I haven't mentioned it until now, the movie is definitely a thriller. There are some horror-esque moments sprinkled throughout, but as Venkman said when we walked out of the theater, it reminded him of the early works of Roman Polanski. Weird stuff happens regularly, and there's an unsettling quality that seeps into the film even from its early moments, a creepy seance that is frightening to me (and, dare I say, the general public) because of our personal unfamiliarity with those sorts of acts. The score is superb, blending strings and brass in an effective way to heighten the mood at some points and punctuate scares at others. The dialogue is also fantastic, and seeing as how Cortes also wrote and edited this film, it's safe to say he's a filmmaking force to be reckoned with.

But...the ending. I loved the film up until the last two minutes, and then everything came crashing down. Cortes has seemed to carve out a niche for himself in which he angers people with the endings of his films, and this one left me even more confused than angry. It's not so much one of those "it's up to your interpretation" endings, either - I don't want to give too much away, but on a very basic story level, by the end of the movie I'm not exactly sure what happened. Everything is wrapped up very quickly and there's a dreamlike quality to the conclusion, adding to the confusion and disorientation as the story comes to a close. But ultimately, here I am talking about it, so Cortes has accomplished his mission.

Despite the questionable ending, this film is absolutely worth seeing and will almost certainly receive a wide release due to the cast alone. It's a tremendous movie up until the final minutes, and I'll need a few hours to fully digest it, but there's a good chance this will end up on my Favorites of the Festival list.

Beasts of the Southern Wild (Video Review)

(For my written review of this movie, click here.)

Beasts of the Southern Wild


Beasts of the Southern Wild
Co-writer/Director: Benh Zeitlin
Starring: Quvenzhane Wallis, Dwight Henry 

Though all films are technically "unique," Beasts of the Southern Wild deserves that title perhaps more than most. Directed by Benh Zeitlin and shot with non-trained actors, the film is told through the eyes of a six-year-old girl named Hushpuppy in the Louisiana bayou. At times feeling like a documentary because of the real-life locations decimated by Hurricane Katrina, the story revolves around a massive storm tearing through the area and the relationship between Hushpuppy, her father, and the community around them.

Though the film has a central plot, it's not really a traditional story. It's very ethereal, and in periodic narrations - many of which include wise-beyond-her-years sayings that are supposed to resonate like, "When you're small, you've gotta fix what you can" - Hushpuppy reveals that she likes to commune with nature, listening to the life forces of random animals and plant life. There's all kinds of talk about the end of the world, cave drawings, an eccentric boat captain who hoards discarded chicken biscuit wrappers, and giant creatures who were frozen during the ice age who return to life and stalk the characters for the duration of the film. Sound weird? That's not the half of it.

The cinematography seems to mirror the wild lifestyle of the film's characters, shaking and snaking through woods and brambles attempting to keep up with the protagonist. She's a precocious girl, trained by her father in the ways of survival (think of last year's Hanna, but not nearly as intense), and the atmosphere and dialogue contributes to a real sense of place that is unlike any I've ever seen on film. A storm sequence early in the movie has some incredible sound design, transitioning from the crashing thunder and rushing water to a peaceful, quiet dripping as the scene turns to the aftermath.

The locations and devastation hit a bit too close to home sometimes, with Hushpuppy and her father cruising around in a fishing boat made out of a truck bed. There is trash and debris everywhere, and if absolutely nothing else, the film provides a gut-punching reminder of the horror some people in America actually live through. But that's not the point of the movie - the residents of "The Bathtub," the small community in which the film takes place, love it there and don't want to leave, even in the face of the coming storm. A subplot involving a mandatory evacuation brings a bit more of a political slant into the story, and, more importantly, allows Hushpuppy to discover her true identity when it is stripped away from her. (It should be mentioned that the young star, Quvenzhane Wallis, owns the screen for every frame she's on it.)

All that being said, this is definitely not my kind of movie. It's much too heady for my tastes, and while I was swept away with the look of the movie, the story and characters never really connected with me. It's a bold movie, especially for a first time filmmaker, but the minutiae was lost on me.

Apparently audiences gave Beasts of the Southern Wild a standing ovation at its premiere here, and buyers are scrambling to pick it up. I have no idea why, though - there's no way this can ever be marketed as a successful commercial film, and it's a story that seems perfectly confined to a festival crowd and playing to audiences seemingly bred to appreciate it.

Hello I Must Be Going


Hello I Must Be Going
Director: Todd Louiso
Starring: Melanie Lynskey, Christopher Abbott, Blythe Danner

Hello I Must Be Going begins like every student film you've ever seen: a woman slowly wakes up and brushes her teeth. But the film hurdles this obstacle quickly and becomes a charming tale of personal growth, discovery, and, of course, love.

While going through a divorce, Amy (Melanie Lynskey) moves back in with her parents (Blythe Danner and John Rubinstein) and sinks into a depression, slumming around the house in the same ratty shirt day after day. When her dad hosts a party at the house to impress a new client, the client's 19-year-old son Jeremy (Christopher Abbott) makes an impression on Amy. They're both treated like children at dinner, with their families carrying on conversations about them as if they weren't even there, and the two share a moment after dinner. What starts as a quick fling evolves into a relationship that will change them forever, allowing them both to grow up even though there's a large age gap between them.

It's not the most original concept, especially for a film festival seemingly built for these types of movies, but it's got a lot of heart and the acting is excellent. Lynskey balances palpable realism and conservative comedy in her performance and she's a joy to watch, never straying into melodramatic or over the top territory. Danner adds to her impressive resume with some more solid work, and though I found Abbott to be the weak link, he was still agreeable in the role of the young suitor. The script is compelling and brisk enough, with no noticeable lag time and some fascinating relationships at play between families.

Ultimately, Hello I Must Be Going succeeds or fails on the virtues of Lynskey's performance, and I was totally invested from the start. (OK, maybe right after the teeth brushing scene.) I'm very interested to see what she's got coming up next, but in the meantime, check this one out if you get a chance. It's a small little love story with a good twist on the standard coming-of-age tales you see every year. Until next time...

This Must Be The Place


This Must Be The Place
Co-writer/Director: Paolo Sorrentino
Starring: Sean Penn, Frances McDormand, Judd Hirsch

Paolo Sorrentino's This Must Be The Place centers around Sean Penn's character, a burned out former rock star named Cheyenne, as he searches for his dead father's tormenter, a now 95-year-old Nazi hiding in the United States. The director scored with his last film, Il Divo - which I haven't seen, but have heard great things about - but his follow-up is a total disappointment on nearly every level.

Some of that synopsis may sound interesting, and there are occasionally interesting moments in the film that seem to hint at something deeper happening beneath the surface. But these moments ultimately don't lead anywhere, leaving me frustrated and wishing I could see these loose ends tied up instead of what actually unfolds on screen. Early in the film, a downcast Penn walks through a mall and an ironic fan comes up and snaps a photo of him without permission, celebrating as he walks away. Perhaps this movie will deal with the nature of celebrity. Nope. Aside from the occasional person recognizing Penn's character, that's about all it offers on the subject. There's also a very interesting subplot involving Penn producing the debut album of a band that was playing at said mall, but this is mentioned briefly and then never returned to. Where's THAT movie? That's the one I want to see.

Instead, Sean Penn takes on this bizarre affectation that reminds me of a grandmother: pasty white skin, bright lipstick, a weirdly high-pitched titter of a laugh, and long (and I mean LONG) pauses in between words. The film runs 118 minutes, but feels like an eternity; if he had spoken at a normal rate, it could have easily been over in 90 minutes. Non-sequiturs abound, and the transitions from location to location are awkwardly handled and never smoothly executed. The entire movie hinges on the audience investing in his character, but I found him utterly insufferable from beginning to end. Side characters played by Frances McDormand and Judd Hirsch are bright spots in an otherwise dull film, and This Must Be The Place certainly isn't a place I ever want to visit again.