Monday, January 28, 2013

Sundance 2013 Quick Reviews, Part III



A.C.O.D

After opening with a home-video style recording of a child's ninth birthday, disrupted by the angry shouting of parents nearby, A.C.O.D. (short for "Adult Children of Divorce") jumps ahead two decades where we find now-adult Carter (Adam Scott) a successful restaurant owner with a beautiful girlfriend (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). But when Carter's younger brother announces his engagement, Carter is called in to broker a peace between their long divorced parents.

That catalyst is the first domino that sends Carter's world unraveling, as he is forced to face demons quietly held at bay for years and tucked away in the dark corners of his bruised emotional psyche. Guiding him through that process is Jane Lynch, who plays a novelist and researcher who worked with Carter as a young boy for a self-help book on children of divorce and now, years later, hopes to write a sequel about the "least parented generation in American history."

A.C.O.D. is, simply, brilliant. Hilariously funny, movingly sincere, effortlessly directed and superbly acted. Scott, already a poster boy for relatable everymen, crushes it as the damaged but determined Carter and his supporting cast (an A-list of veteran character actors like Richard Jenkins and Catherine O'Hara) gels together with precision comic timing and better emotion, actually, than a real family. Then, in Act III, the movie builds organically to a poignant, satisfying and also perfectly ambiguous ending.

Grade: A



May In The Summer

This year's first-day premiere film, May In The Summer is the second feature directed by writer and star Cherien Dabis and tells the story of a Jordan-American family who travels to the homeland to plan the wedding of oldest daughter May (Dabis). Once there, May encounters hostility from her family over her mixed-cultural relationship and confronts her own cold feet about marriage while navigating the rocky tensions lingering between her separated parents (Bill Pullman and The Visitor's Hiam Abbass).

MITS' greatest strength is it's showcasing of Jordan, a seldom-photographed locale which also becomes a ghost character in the film as characters casually remark about the Christian-Muslim tensions in the regions, Palestinian nationhood and the westernization of Jordanian culture. For example, a younger sister (played by Arrested Development's Alia Shawkat) refers to the Burka-shrouded orthodox women as "Ninjas" and several scenes of May being ogled while jogging double are used to provide a stranger-in-a-strange land visual for the film.

Ultimately enjoyable but not altogether memorable, May In The Summer is an impressive creation for a young director-actress. While it may not make an enormous splash, Dabis is likely to see more projects coming her way.

Grade: B



C.O.G.

Based on a short story by David Sedaris, C.O.G. tells the story of David, a Yale collegiate who decides he needs a change of pace, heading out to the Oregon coast to work as a laborer in an apple orchard. The title is an acronym for "Child Of God," part of a religious undertone that runs underneath the film's central plot as the atheistic David is (eventually) taken under the wing of a proselytizer.

C.O.G. has several winning, Sedaris-esque moments -- such as one show-stopping line where star Jonathan Groff attempts to diffuse a tense situation by remarking on the furniture -- but the film ultimately suffers from a poorly constructed and loosely connected narrative. The movie is essentially two stories jutted haphazardly together, as Act I is concerned with David move to Oregon and work in the apple industry -- a "Cog" in a machine, if you will -- and Act II transforming entirely into a sort of buddy drama as David learns the trade of stoneworking.

When the screen ultimately fades to black, it's unclear what it is our protagonist was meant to have learned or why we, the audience, is expected to care.

Grade: B-



Breathe In

During the Q&A with director Drake Doremus (Like Crazy) and the crew of "Breathe In" that followed the film's screening, I saw something I've never seen. First, an audience member bluntly asked the filmmakers about the decisions behind what he felt was a predictable script and second, the audience turned on the questioner with a level of boos and hisses that typically accompanies road show melodramas.

It's not that the man's question didn't have merit. Breathe In tells the story of a discontented high school music teacher/semi-professional cello player who suddenly confronts the lingering dissonance he feels for his quiet, suburban life when a beautiful and mysterious foreign exchange student arrives in his home. From start to finish, the film follows what could be described as a pre-set path, as attraction leads to temptation, which shifts into action and conflict.

The difference however, is the directorial style of Doremus, a sort of hand-held eavesdropping technique which makes every movement and word hum with artistic significance, and the screenwriter's efforts to create an intellectual romance, rather than a run-of-the-mill story of lust and physicality.

Life, after all, is unpredictable, but in Doremus' hands Breathe In manages to entertain and enthrall while still maintaining every ounce of realism and relatability. It does not quite reach the emotional heights of Like Crazy (which won the grand jury award at the 2011 festival), but Doremus nonetheless presents an immersive, tragic tale filled with tenderness and sincerity.

Grade: B+



Dirty Wars

In this documentary, journalist Jeremy Scahill leads us on a globe-trotting examination of the United States war on terror. Beginning in a remote village of Yemen where a series of covert night raids had been executed and eventually making it's way to regions of Africa where U.S.-sponsored war lords roam the streets with small armies hunting down America's enemies, Dirty Wars argues that the War On Terror serves little more purpose than perpetuating a war on terror and in the 10 year's since 9/11 the government's power to carry out targeted killings has only increased while transparency and oversight have diminished.

The first half of the film is hard to follow, with Scahill conducting interviews with the families of the dead without adequately explaining why we, the audience are meant to be outraged. In Act II, however, the film hits its stride, with a set of sit-down chats with bonafide warlords and anonymous voice-masked interviews with inside sources about the illegalities and gray-area actions of the Joint Special Operations Command.

All in all, Dirty Wars makes a number of interesting points and raises some profound questions, but it does so amidst a cloud of directorial white noise that makes it all-too-easy to miss the point.

Grade: B



The Way, Way Back

After picking up a pair of Oscars for their work writing The Descendants, actor-writers Jim Rash and Nat Faxon (Community's Dean Pelton and Ben & Kate's Ben Fox) took their long-in-limbo script for The Way, Way Back and decided to make the darned thing themselves.

They got plenty of help, namely their all-star cast of Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Toni Collette, Rob Corddry, Amanda Peet, Allison Janney and Maya Rudolph.

TWWB tells the story of Duncan (Liam James) a teenager smack-dab in the middle of his "awkward phase" who is dragged against his will on a summer vacation with his mom (Collette) and her new boyfriend (Carell). Once there, he struggles to find his place between the boozy adults and their Ken and Barbie children, ultimately finding his way to a nearby waterpark where he's taken under the wing of the endearingly-arrested man-child manager (Rockwell).  It is there, with his new family of waterpark misfits, that Duncan feels comfortable enough to poke his head out of the teenage cocoon and find a voice.

The movie starts out slow, and Carell's arc doesn't seem fully realized, but the introduction of Rockwell and Water Wizz inject this coming-of-age tale with a shot of adrenaline as the plot comes alive with wit, nostalgia and the kind of heartfelt inspiration showcased in similar indies like Little Miss Sunshine and It's Kind of a Funny Story. James as Duncan is exceptional, almost off-putting in his early on-screen awkwardness before transforming organically in front of your eyes. Faxon and Rash also pop up in a pair of understated bit parts, contributing to some of the most memorable moments and, for those of us paying attention behind the scenes, making the success of the story all the more personal.

After getting acquired by Fox Searchlight for nearly $10 million, this indie charmer will be making it's way to a theater near you very soon.

Grade: A-

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