Sundance Review: The Hollars Lacks Perspective

A lot of actors want to direct and we seem to love actors turned directors. They still have to pick a good script though. John Krasinski has no problem with staging or directing performances, but chose a script that is trite and problematic.

John Hollar (Krasinski) returns home when his mother (character actress Margo Martindale, according to Bojack Horseman) is diagnosed with a brain tumor. His father Don (Richard Jenkins) is helpless and needy. His brother Ron (Sharlto Copley) is living at home and spying on the ex-wife whom he chose to divorce. He hasn’t grown. He’s just learned his wife was too good for him so now he wants her back.

The biggest problem with The Hollars is that all these insecure men need women to tell them they’re awesome. John is afraid of having a baby with Becca (Anna Kendrick), and doesn’t want to get married. She has more money than him and he’s a struggling artist. They say he’s a comic book artist but I guess he has a day job because that’s where Becca tells him he has to go home and she’s made all his plans and packed for him.

Becca is a frigging saint. She hangs on the phone listening to John’s problems, even when he says things that make an expectant mother stress. Kendrick is incredibly empathetic but it’s a problem that her character only exists as a reflection of the man. As for reassuring him, she may be incorrect. It doesn’t seem like John Hollar will be a good father and provider being so self-involved.

He is the prodigal son returning to fix his family. Don can’t take care of himself and Ron gets himself into trouble. The reason the tumor has gotten this bad is Don ignored the symptoms for decades. Symptoms like partial blindness and paralysis. So I relate to medically negligent relatives but this movie just piles on negligence and irresponsibility.

The problem with women is further exasperated by John’s high school flame Gwen (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). She is described as no longer desirable because she’s had a baby, but she still comes on to John because he’s just so irresistible, even though she’s remarried herself. Most of our readers know what Mary Elizabeth Winstead looks like. If you don’t, it doesn’t matter because they should not be talking about women like a prize to be won or discarded.

The Hollars wants to be a whimsical dramady but relies overbearingly on Cameron Crowe-esque needle drops. It’s specifically the kind of music Crowe likes too. John brings his mom pretzels and ice cream to eat. Isn’t that cute? He helps her escape for a night out. It’s not endearing. It’s preening. Becca designs pet clothes for a living, because isn’t that a wacky job for someone to have? (Since her family already had money I guess she’s following her dream.) Martindale has a good real moment of panic. It’s solved by the whole family singing Indigo Girls. That is eye rollingly obnoxious. It couldn’t be any worse if they pulled out hair brushes to sing into.

Everyone grieves differently and there are great movies, and touching, funny movies about reconciling near end of life relationships. There was a much more poignant one here at Sundance. The Hollars wants a medal for expressing its feelings but it seriously lacks perspective on what it’s characters’ fundamental problems really are.

Sundance Review: Hunt For The Wilderpeople Shows Thor Is In Good Hands

Writer/director Taika Waititi returns to Sundance for one more New Zealand indie movie before he directs Thor: Ragnarok. The Hunt for the Wilderpeople is different from his comedies and not as funny as the brilliant What We Do In the Shadows, but it’s also missing a lot of his New Zealand comedy buddies. It does show that Waititi has a real sense of action style so he can do well at Marvel.

Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) moves into a new foster home with Bella (Rima e Wiata) and Hector (Sam Neill), but when Bella dies, Child Services deems the home unsuitable. Rather than go back into the system, Ricky goes on the run, forcing Hector to join him.

Ricky’s innocence provides humor and causes trouble. He gets words like Caucasian wrong, although his unintentional double entendres seem like kind of lazy innuendo. He’s confronted on that though. There’s a bit of commentary on Ricky Baker becoming a media celebrity, but it’s not heavy. We’re well past Natural Born Killers and The Legend of Billie Jean, but it addresses the social media of it all.

The adventure escalates from sweeping landscape treks and a manhunt montage to a wildebeast attack and full on action climax. Waititi pays homage to action classics in both dialogue and composition. It’s also funny to see the head of Child Services as the Tommy Lee Jones character hunting a fugitive. What, was Jones not available? Couldn’t he do a New Zealand accent?

Dennison is a great discovery and Neil is a great foil. The family relationships are heartwarming and heartbreaking. Their adventure does cross paths with different cameos playing rangers, hunters and regular civilians. Rhys Darby and some newer faces make good scene partners, but some of the vampire roommates are missed.

Waititi manages the balance of tones perfectly and his eye for editing and action show both scale and restraint, so he won’t fall short and won’t go overboard. I’m more excited to see what he’ll do after Ragnarok but The Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a solid addition to his oeuvre.

Sundance Review: The Birth of a Nation is the American Braveheart

Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation is the American Braveheart. Mel Gibson actually starred in a blatant attempt to make an American Braveheart. Among The Patriot‘s many problems, fundamental may be that the white colonists and plantation owners were not the William Wallace characters against the British. African-Americans are the American William Wallaces for surviving slavery and future civil rights battles, yet still making this country their home.

Nat Turner (Parker) was born a slave and grew up on the Turner plantation with Sam (Armie Hammer.) Sam was kind and humane but even he allowed others to commit atrocities at his home with his slaves.

As writer/director, Parker builds up the atrocities of slavery gradually to create as complete a picture as one possibly can in 120 minutes. That is a microcosm of what those 400 years of slavery were. It wasn’t nonstop atrocity, although the underlying oppression never waned. There were calm times, periods of relative comfort and even good times. Nat’s proposal to his wife Cherry (Aja Naomi King) is truly romantic and their wedding night is lit beautifully.

When we do see atrocities they are unflinching. The film handles rape tastefully. It must be addressed to hold slavers accountable, but Parker does not exploit the act on screen. It’s not just about violent acts though. Supposedly innocent acts have horrible undertones like two little girls playing with the white girl holding a rope around the black girl’s neck. Best case scenario she’s pretending that’s a leash, but it’s possible they are playing lynching.

The rebellion is also tasteful, but brutal as it needs to be. Nat allows his men their personal revenge until it conflicts with the bigger picture. It’s bloody for both sides, but necessary for progress.

I now appreciate why Parker chose the title. D.W. Griffith’s film is acknowledged as a landmark of cinema that was on the wrong side of history. It’s 100 years later. It’s time to say no, that’s not good enough. It’s time to claim what the real birth of this nation was.

Sundance Review: Sing Street Is Music To My Ears

John Carney is saving the world through music, one movie at a time. Begin Again gave me the inspiration I needed at a low point in my career, showing me that no matter how much you lose, there’s always something you can create and a way to get it out there. Sing Street shows how music can empower people who’ve been neglected, rejected or even abused and become who they want to be.

Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) starts a band with his high school friends to impress a girl, as boys tend to do. Taking a cue from the British pop of the era (this is Dublin 1985), the band Sing Street makes videos for their original songs on their way to playing a gig. The girl is Raphina (Lucy Boynton), an aspiring model who helps Sing Street with their look.

Writer/director Carney explores the subtle ways in which being creative impacts Conor’s character. Carney’s specialty is music but it could be universal for any artistic passion or even sports or clubs. The boys go from badly covering Duran Duran to developing their original voice and instrumental skills. Their videos get more ambitious, but they are unphased by their early, clumsy ones. They possess an unwavering belief that they are creating art, and it’s adorable.

The film is imbued with music philosophy, like a Nick Hornby book or Cameron Crowe movie circa Almost Famous, or rather like a John Carney movie. Conor’s older brother (Jack Reynor) may be his Lester Bangs. The soundtrack includes classics from Duran Duran, Hall and Oates, Starship and more, but even more engaging are rearranged instrumental score versions of the likes of Ah-hah. Most importantly, we get brand new ‘80s Brit Pop via the Sing Street originals.

I may not have been in the perfect point in my life journey for Sing Street to speak to me the way Begin Again did, but I can look back and appreciate what it means. By the time Carney stages a fantasy of the music video they imagine they’re shooting with full Hollywood resources, it brings everything together: the family drama, the sibling story, the love story and the heroic standing up to authority.

Becoming a musician empowers Conor with a bully because he can take a beating and write a song about it, and it empowers the bully to join something instead of hating on it. They stand up to repressive authority, a Christian headmaster who doesn’t allow unconventional expression. It doesn’t heal his broken family, but it gives him a new one.

Sing Street is Carney operating at his peak ability with peak resources. He may be going in reverse order chronologically, so a kid can be inspired by Sing Street and then discover Begin Again as he gets older, and then Once. Either way, I want the soundtrack and am happy to discover this cast of some new faces and many up and comers solidifying their star power.

Sundance Review: Indignation Is Best of the Fest

This is what Sundance magic is all about. I had not planned on seeing Indignation, but I ran into a publicist for it at another film. She asked if I was coming to see it later, and it turned out I had an opening in my schedule. So I asked for a last minute ticket, and I only got one because someone else did not show up. And it’s my favorite movie of the festival, so that’s how that works.

Marcus (Logan Lerman) leaves his Jewish family for a Catholic boarding school. He is focused on his studies so he can get a good job, but he falls for Olivia Hutton (Sara Gadon). On their first date, they have a sexual experience that leaves his virgin heart conflicted. As Marcus navigates his first romantic relationship, he also must defend his atheism and intellect in a setting that encourages conformity.

The screenplay by writer/director James Schamus, based on the novel by Philip Roth, brilliantly captures the complexity of a human reaction to intimacy. In the cinema, we are exposed to many portraits of hormonal teenagers who want to get laid at all costs. In reality, most boys are just as sensitive as anyone else. Even if they’re attracted to a woman, engaging with her can be confusing. There’s a sort of naive unfamiliarity that requires an adjustment period, at an age where the other party is no more equipped to help their partner through this development.

As much as there are sex acts and intellectual analysis of relationships and feelings, the characters of Marcus and Olivia are sweet. I wish all kids thought thought this much about their feelings rather than just acting out, as many of the other characters surrounding Marcus do.

Marcus’ roommates are of the latter variety, attention whores who can’t just be quiet and let Marcus be. It leads to a conflict and a confrontation between Marcus and Dean Caudwell (Tracy Lets) in the Dean’s office. It is one of the all time epic confrontation scenes, up there with the most heated of Aaron Sorkin scenes. Marcus can speak to authority with authority, being strong but not disrespectful.

The Dean is actually proud of the thought process Marcus exhibits, although he still has his own agenda. Caudwell has a minor point. Being strong-minded raises red flags, so you have to be careful. And sometimes just humor the establishment. The school requires attending chapel services. While Marcus has a point that his beliefs should be respected, just enjoy the pageantry of the services and dismiss the beliefs quietly. It’s not worth getting yourself on the watch list as a “difficult” student.

Another interesting dilemma faces Marcus with his mother towards the end, so I don’t want to spoil it. Essentially, she makes an impossible request using emotional blackmail. Her concern is founded on compassion, but it’s unfathomable to put this on her son. Fortunately, the way it plays out proves more complex than just a generational conflict.

I am so grateful for the chance to meet an intellectual, emotional behemoth like Marcus. Thank you, James Schamus for bringing this to the screen and essentially recommending the book for me too. This was a complete discovery for me and the kind of life-impacting cinema I come to Sundance to discover.

Sundance Review: Belgica, the Belgian Night Club Owner Movie Of The Year

Belgica is an infuriating story of friends in business, and not an uncommon one either. It is crafted to provoke that response so in this regard it is highly successful.

Frank (Tom Vermeir) gets a job as a bartender at Belgica, and has the idea to turn it into a hip music club. They do and Belgica is a happening joint, but Frank’s dangerous personality threatens it all. Meanwhile Jo (Stef Aerts) becomes a responsible businessman, if not a good boyfriend.

Director Felix van Groeningen really captures the appeal of partying at Belgica. Since I hate loud crowded nightclubs, that’s saying a lot. It’s photographed sexily with couples making out to the music, pulsating sound design that made the nn ts nn ts nn ts nn ts sound like art. Maybe because it’s Belgian it sounds more exotic than American club music to me.

But there have been stories about great business that fell apart due to one particular wild card. The story Belgica reminded me of the most was Casino and Frank is the Joe Pesci. He does cocaine, like everywhere, but even if he weren’t on drugs his anger would be a dangerous problem. That means Vermeir gives a great performance because he made me truly disgusted with Frank.

It’s interesting watching the boys learn how to manage a club the hard way. Dealing with rowdy patrons isn’t quite cut and dry. Club owners have liability. Mostly it’s Frank who reacts excessively and gets them in trouble. Hey, maybe if you didn’t stay up all night doing coke you’d have an easier time managing your finances!

Along the way we also see Frank’s marriage and Jo’s relationship as the struggle and blossom respectively. It adds a slice of life to the business story but the main heart is Frank and Jo becoming estranged as Jo learns how to be quite a responsible manager and Frank… doesn’t.

A Belgian night club drama might not be the first thing you look for at the movies, but if you’re exploring festival selections and foreign cinema, Belgica puts on a good show. Probably best not to see if you’re already stressed about something because Frank will push you over the edge.

Sundance Review: Other People Is Long Overdue

Other People does something rather extraordinary that made me realize how far we still have to come in cinema. By telling a story of grief from the perspective of a gay man, it made me realize this was the first time I’ve ever seen a gay lead in the fairly common subgenre of grief movies. Sure, there have been plenty of movies about gay friends mourning the loss of a friend or lover to AIDS, but Other People is just about a guy losing his mom to cancer. Everyone has a mom and cancer doesn’t suggest a subtext about how she contracted it. Grief is so universal it shouldn’t have to be specifically gay or straight, and Other People proves that it doesn’t.

David (Jesse Plemons) returns home to Sacramento from New York to be with his mother Joanne (Molly Shannon) as she goes through chemotherapy. Spoiler alert, this isn’t one of those movies where chemotherapy works and she goes into remission.

The immediate family unit is actually fairly strong, except that David’s father Norman (Bradley Whitford) can’t quite get comfortable with his son being gay. The more extended family is full of oblivious caricatures, but they’re true. There’s the uncle (Matt Walsh)’s bad jokes that everyone tolerates because it’s all he has and the only time he can feel popular is with the whole family. Since David is a screenwriter, everyone in the family thinks they could be material for the shows he rights. (Note to everyone who knows someone in the industry: Your experiences would not make a good script.)

The film goes monthly as Joanne’s treatment and symptoms get worse and worse. It’s sweet and honest about the difficult conversations you have to have, especially when one family member has an agenda.

When David goes back to New York we see his relationship with Paul (Zach Woods) and it is given intimate attention. When they share stories about teenage masturbation, it’s so relatable you again realize we’re all the same, just like how we all face grief at some point. Or maybe writer/director Chris Kelly is just on my wavelength.

The worse Joanne’s condition gets, there are scenes that accurately portray how well meaning people try to help but only make her feel more of a burden. She loses her voice and people try to let her keep talking, but they really can’t hear her and it’s only more frustrating for her. Of course, Shannon plays the hell out of the heartbreak of that scene. The whole cast really knows how to cry. That’s a particular skill to make it effective.

There is some effective comedy about mundane frustrations, like inattentive cashiers, that reinforces the perspective. David’s losing his mom and these people can’t even take a fast food order? Other humor is a bit too obvious, like an overly precocious gay teenager and overdosing on medicinal marijuana. There’s an extended sequence at Upright Citizens Brigade that feels like an ad for UCB. It wouldn’t even really be improvised since it’s specific to the fictional movie character. And singing in the car. My God, when will people admit that singing in the car is not funny? But that bit is short and used to show David’s frustration.

Other People is also modern enough to reveal a plot point by having David check his Twitter @ mentions. You see, for at least 10 years cinema has incorporated technology and social media so they are normal parts of the plot. You don’t even have to explain to an audience what it is anymore. The fact that cinematic Twitter became normal before movies about gay people grieving did is a problem.

Yes, I’m sure I missed a mainstream movie about a gay child losing a parent. The fact that it’s rare enough that I can’t think of another is what struck me. It was only 20 years ago that the only gay characters in mainstream movies were comic relief, and not too much longer that there were simply none. Maybe I’m part of the problem by even classifying it as gay. One day it will just be a movie about a family grieving, and that is the world Other People makes me foresee.

Dope Blu-ray and Digital Review

Now available on Blu-ray and digital

Now available on Blu-ray and digital

Dope was one of the big hits of the Sundance Film Festival. A bombastic, energetic twist on hood movies, Dope earned a quick distribution deal and was out in theaters by June. Only the version in theaters didn’t quite capture the energy of Sundance. I saw it again and was concerned that the sound mix was rather subdued, and it wasn’t just the theater I went to. People reported the same muffled quality even in private screening rooms tailored to press screenings.

Fortunately, the Blu-ray of Dope is what I remember seeing at Sundance. The music is no longer layered into the background. It intersects with the dialogue and sound effects. You don’t need to have a high tech surround sound system. Just the speakers on your TV are enough to capture the chaos of Dope. The digital copy too, and that’s just playing through your laptop speakers.

It looks beautiful on Blu-ray too. Filmed mostly outside on the streets of Inglewood, the sunlight shines off the locations and characters. The greenery surrounding everything looks rather suburban, and the pastels of the characters’ ‘90s inspired wardrobe really pop. There are only two short three minute bonus features, but they got everyone, even big producers like Pharrell Williams and Forest Whitaker.

Shameik Moore stars as Malcolm, a self-professed geek who just wants to get good grades and go to Harvard. When a drug dealer puts his stash in his backpack, Malcolm and his friends Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) and Jib (Tony Revolori) have to navigate rival gangs and college admissions officers. Writer/director Rick Famuyiwa keeps everything fun and not too message-y, though it does have a good message about education and individual passion.