Sundance Film Festival Diary – Day 5

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sundance film festival

It’s great when one can start the second week of Sundance and the morning with a movie as good as True Story, a true crime movie in the vein of Bennett Miller’s Capote and Foxcatcher but with the storytelling intensity of something like Silence of the Lambs or Se7en.

Jonah Hill plays Mike Finkel, a New York Times writer who’s been disgraced when some of the facts from an important story are debunked. After being fired from the paper, he learns that Christian Longo (James Franco), a man accused of killing his wife and three children, has been passing himself off as Finkel down in Mexico before being captured by the authorities. Finkel writes to Longo (a fan of his writing) and gains enough of his confidence to get exclusive access with the condition that he helps the inmate with his own writing.

Much of the film takes place in the cell where the two men meet to try and size each other up, and we watch as they each try to figure the other one out. 

Hill has been proving himself as a serious actor for a few years now–having two Oscar nominations under his belt is proof–and this role involves no real humor, but he’s definitely credible in the role. Franco is absolutely amazing, giving a subdued performance that rarely conveys any emotion, which just makes Longo that much more fascinating, because he never comes across as someone who might kill anyone.

The third piece of the puzzle is Mike’s wife Jill, played by Hill’s fellow Oscar nominee Felicity Jones, who has been suffering from the time her husband has been spending with the man accused of such heinous crimes. She isn’t in the movie much, but she does get to interact with Longo in a few key scenes.

First-time film director Rupert Goold co-wrote the fantastic screenplay with David Kajganich, and his theater background comes to use with the number of intense dialogue-driven scenes.

The last act mainly takes place in the courtroom and it’s far more riveting than these things normally are, especially when Longo takes the stand and Franco delivers his testimonial with a performance that’s akin to Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men.

It really couldn’t be a better time for the release of this movie with the fascination people have with “Serial” and “True Detective,” because it offers some of the same sense of mystery with Franco’s Longo being such an interesting and perplexing character.

Although True Story will be released by Fox Searchlight in a few months, it’s such a strong piece that I would not even be remotely surprised if this is being talked about at year’s end, come awards time.

Rating: 8.5/10


grandmasundance1

I stayed at the Yarrow Hotel for the press screening of Paul Weitz’s Grandma, which doesn’t premiere until Friday as the festival’s Closing Night film. Normally, the closing night film is a bit of a dud, but they certainly were screening this for press earlier than normal and that’s probably because it isn’t that bad.

Lily Tomlin previously appeared in Weitz’s Admission as Tina Fey’s mother and this film seems like it was written specifically for her and tailor-made for what she does best. She plays feminist lesbian poet Elle, whose granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) turns up at her door saying she’s pregnant and needs money for an abortion. Elle doesn’t have any money, so the two of them spend the day trying to raise the cash by visiting various acquaintances.

This is another Sundance film that’s not particularly mindblowing because it’s such a simple premise, but it straddles the line between comedy and drama similar to some of Weitz’s other movies. As one might expect, much of that comes down to Tomlin who is so able to do both, talking sass one minute but also able to get heartfelt and intimate.

At first, Julia Garner seems completely unmatched against Tomlin, but eventually she finds her groove and is able to hold her own, but in the meantime, a lot of other actors pop in and out. Some of these encounters work better than others with the highlight being when Elle asks her ex-husband, played by Sam Elliott, for money, despite having not seen him for over 30 years. Marcia Gay Harden then turns up as Sage’s mother adding further conflict to the mix and Judy Greer is also quite good as Elle’s latest girlfriend, who she’s breaking up with as the film opens.

It’s unclear whether Weitz meant his movie to stand as a pro-life statement, although Elle and Sage do face a lot of pushback on their travels as people find out what they want the money for. (It’s not exactly clear where this story is supposed to be taking place, but I got the impression it was somewhere with a lot of older conservatives… like Park City.)

It’s a short film at just 82 minutes, but it ends up being a perfectly pleasant mix of humor and drama that will remind you how much Lily Tomlin is missed as a regular fixture in movies.

Rating: 7/10


stanfordprisonsundance

To continue the eclectic themes of the day, we started with straight drama, veered into dramedy and then went to the premiere of Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s The Stanford Prison Experiment, a tense thriller about the experiments of Dr. Philip Zimbardo, as played by Bill Crudup. ZImbardo was a psychology professor who created a simulation prison in which college students were paid to either be a guard or a prisoner just to see how they would behave in that environment.

After opening credits that show the printing of the ads calling for students, we meet a bunch of the candidates as they’re being interviewed, not really sure of what they’re in for but willing to do whatever it takes to make some cash. The students are divided into the two factions with the mere flip of a coin and at first, everyone seems to be having fun, but the student guards almost immediately begin to abuse their power as they start to mistreat the “prisoners.” Meanwhile, Zimbardo and his team observe from another room, deciding not to interfere when the guards start to get physical just to see how things play out.

The Stanford experiment was previously documented in Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Das Experiment in 2001, but what makes the experiment in this movie so eerily relevant now is that things haven’t seemed to change a lot in the 40 years since it was conducted. Look at the way suspects are treated by police officers with so many incidents of police brutality and abuse of power documented and you wonder if anything was really learned from ZImbardo’s experiment.

This is a movie with a large and varied ensemble cast with some of the standouts being Ezra Miller as one of the more rebellious prisoners and Michael Angarano as the most zealous and creative guard in terms of abusing the prisoners. There are quite a few young actors like Jack Kilmer, Callan McAuliffe, Tye Sheridan and James Frecheville, who I didn’t even recognize, because when you give them long hair and a moustache or beard, many of them are almost unrecognizable. (For instance, I didn’t realize that Thomas Mann played one of the prisoners after seeing him in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.)

The film wouldn’t be nearly as interesting if you didn’t have Zimbardo interfering with things and fighting with other faculty about the conditions of the experiment, and Crudup is excellent in that anti-hero type of role. Nelsan Ellis from “True Blood” plays Jesse, an ex-convict brought on board to try to keep things accurate to what goes on in prison, while the only woman in the entire movie is Olivia Thirlby in a minor role as Dr. Zimbardo’s student/girlfriend who also starts to question his techniques.

For a film that mostly takes place in one location and could easily get boring visually, Alvarez does a good job, although the movie does look cheap at times, particularly some of the fake-looking facial hair. There are also structural issues, because when the experiment comes to an end, Alvarez decides to have some of his actors give on-camera testimonials about their experiences which softens the impact of the movie. These probably would have been better off sprinkled through the movie since it’s not a way to end things.

If you know anything about the Stanford Prison Experiment, then you’ll already know the results of how things go. While this is going to be a polarizing and divisive film, it’s one that people will talk about after seeing it, almost as if it was made as an experiment itself.

Rating: 7.5/10


diggingforfiresundance

Maybe I was tired and didn’t get what Joe Swanberg was trying to achieve with his latest movie Digging for Fire, co-written by and starring Jake Johnson, and featuring a slew of actors including Rosemarie DeWitt, Sam Rockwell, Brie Larson, Orlando Bloom, Anna Kendrick and lots more.

Johnson plays Tim, a man who finds a bone and a gun in a hill behind the house where he’s staying with his wife Lee (DeWitt) and young son and when she goes off to see her parents, he has a party with his friends and they start digging in the backyard unsure of what else they might find.

That’s pretty much the whole story and if you think that might be lacking on plot you’d be right because that’s basically what the movie is—90 minutes of Johnson and others (like Brie Larson) digging for stuff and partying while his wife is off on a far more interesting spiritual journey of her own.

There just doesn’t seem to be much plot at work here and it’s not quite a slice-of-life style movie as Swanberg has done in the past, although it does feature some of the filmmaker’s best production values to date.

DeWitt eventually goes to a bar and meets Orlando Bloom and they have a little tryst (they just make-out a bit) unbeknownst to her husband who is trying to resist the temptation of Brie Larson. This is a no-brainer role for DeWitt and she’s great, making her scenes more interesting, but again, nothing really happens other than a bit of kissing.

What the movie does have is Swanberg’s 3-year-old son Jude, who literally steals every scene from the older actors and other than DeWitt and Larson, he ends up being one of the film’s main saving graces.

One assumes that Swanberg and Johnson were trying to say something about the sanctity of marriage and how being interested in other people is like going digging in your backyard looking for possible dead bodies. And what exactly do you do when you find them?

We never find out, and while there’s probably a lot more hidden metaphors that I missed, the movie just ends without really explaining anything, making Digging for Fire the Seinfeld of this year’s Sundance, basically a movie with a lot of talking about nothing.

Rating: 6/10