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Out in Theaters: REVERSAL

*This is a reprint of our Sundance 2015 review.
There’s a flicker of hope early on in Reversal. A scuzzy captive batters her captor, gaining the upper hand and chaining him in the very binds she was kept in for who knows how long. She scours the house for car keys, stumbling upon a folder filled with Polaroids of similarly imprisoned females. She rages downstairs, pistol cocked, face splattered with blood from their recent altercation. Tensions run high and the stage for a decent horror flick is set. And then she opens her mouth. Read More
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Out in Theaters: THE STRONGEST MAN

Socially awkward black comedy with occasionally explosive moments of understated humor, The Strongest Man is Kenny Riches’ follow-up to Must Come Down and his first big festival debut. His surgically shrewd examination of two nobodies stewing in the melting pot of Miami presents a deep and thoughtful metaphysical exploration of life as alien experience with the stonerish tendencies of Jared Hess and the outlandish atmospheres of a dedicated daydreamer.The Napoleon Dynamite similarities don’t stop here as Riches’ two middling heroes are one dance session away from the buddy-buddy comedy stylings of Hess’ bizarre seminal work. From sharing a bike to snorting unknown substances on the beachfront, Beef (newcomer Robert Lorie) and Conan (Paul Chamberlain) are an odd couple; as physically and mentally ill-matched as Pinkie and the Brain and yet palpably, enormously close to one another.Their journey through Riches’ story – one that tells of Beef’s slip-and-slide into love, a stolen BMX bike, anxiety monsters and spirit animals – is one of stunted stuntmen. Early on in the film, Beef charges through a series of cement walls for no rhyme or reason. Most likely just to prove to himself that he could.

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Joe Swanberg, Jake Johnson and Rosemarie DeWitt Talk DIGGING FOR FIRE

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Joe Swanberg‘s got a Joe Swanberg way of making movies. Working with a cast of hot shot, big name, creme da la creme names though means Swanberg being, well, a little less Swanberg-y. Instead of just “going for it” with Digging for Fire, Swanberg penned his most complete script yet. About ten pages worth of it. But such is the Swanberg way. Have I said Swanberg enough yet?

Although we had some minor issues with Digging for Fire at its Sundance premiere, the mumblecore maestro nonetheless managed to sink his independent teeth into some interesting territory with a stunning barrage of talent, including Jake Johnson, Rosemarie DeWitt, Brie Larson, Anna Kendrick, Ron Livingston, Sam Elliot, Orlando Bloom, Sam Rockwell, Melanie Lynskey, Chris Messina and a glorified cameo from Jenny Slate. Swanberg, Johnson and DeWitt took to the stage to explore the meaning of Digging for Fire and to illuminate the process of Swanberg filmmaking, from making kids cry to spontaneously hanging dong. Read More

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Sundance Review: RESULTS

Andrew Bujalski earned an earnest little following out of Austin, Texas from his efforts in building up the mumblecore scene but his star has never shined brighter than it did two festival seasons ago with the debut of his offbeat docu-comedy Computer Chess. Expanding on that last project – which used a blend of professionals and non-actors – Bujalski had to contend with being in a whole new league. The majors to his minors, the Globo-Gym to his Average Joes. He admits that the process was very much the same as it’s always been. “I think directing is the same. Whether they’re professionals or non-professionals, everybody has their own insecurities, and their own approach.” The result is Results, an offbeat and messy gym rat comedy that’s still a little pudgy. Read More

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Leslye Headland, Jason Sudeikis and Alison Brie Talk SLEEPING WITH OTHER PEOPLE

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It’s 2015 and there are no less than 20 apps that serve to guide desperate, lonely people towards other desperate, horny people. And yet, solitude and loneliness is an issue people face more and more. The growing divide between sexual satisfaction and emotional closeness is one that interests director Leslye Headland of Bachelorette and now Sleeping With Other People. Joined by Jason Sudeikis and Alison Brie, Headland revealed – in riotous fashion – what her creative process looked like (a lot of on-set crying), what it was like working with the actors, knowing where to draw the line and her many, many movie references.

Leslye Headland: I’m sure you guys have been sitting out there since 5 a.m. or something. It’s like a Grateful Dead concert. I think that just dated me. I can hear them say my name, I’m on cloud nine! Look at all these god damn motherfuckers! You perverts, what are you doing here at 5 a.m. in the morning. Holy shit! I’m going to introduce some people who are going to do this Q & A with me. We’re so excited to talk to you about the movie, and answer any questions you might have. We’re just so excited, and so proud of this film.

Q: How much of the acting was improvised, and how much was written?

LH: Do you guys want to talk about that?

Alison Brie: Most of it was written, a large percentage of it was written. The script was so tight, and so amazing, from the get go. But Leslie was so wonderful about letting us loosen it up, and discover little idiosyncrasies between Jake and Laney. Obviously, Jason Mantoukas and Andrea Savage did a fair amount of improv in their scenes; the end credit bit was fully improvised. And this guy comes up with really amazing, funny stuff all the time. It’s really fun, so much of it was scripted, but it’s also fun to see the things that made it in.

Jason Sudeikis: As far as improvisation goes, I think it’s kind of a misnomer, even with us not burning film anymore, it all being digital, which you can delete and re-format and save money on. It’s not just, “Roll the camera, and do something until you find something. Say whatever you want.” Because there’s the danger of inventing some new set that hasn’t happened. I mention, “I work at NASA.” That’s bad improv. Then Jess is like, “Great! Now I’ve got to add a space station to the set!” So a lot of it more comes in terms of fast re-writing, just sort of bantering through the rehearsals, which we did. And I think Leslie, coming from the theater, you don’t have that six weeks before you show it in a preview. And then this, especially in an independent film, we’ve only got five takes, and we’ve got to move the camera. We got to do shit, we’ve got stuff to do. We’ve got a space station to get to! So the idea of it being improvised is a misnomer. You’ve just got to think of the script, and Leslie’s words, and Leslie’s heart and soul, as being a jumping off point, almost like a suggestion in an improv show. You try to improvise within the character, within the tone. It’s all about being inspired by the original voice, and the voice you’re given, as a character, from the writer, and in this case, the director as well, coming through that. It’s less making things up on the fly, it’s more about catching the wave that’s already there.

Q: I don’t think anyone’s going to look at a green tea bottle again. Can you talk a little bit about that choice?

LH: I did let Jason pick the bottle. We brought like three of them, and I was like, “Which one do you want to use?”

JS: I was in the bathroom…

LH: And you bought him dinner?

AB: Glass bottles, dinner, and the best woman blood.

Q: Did everyone know one another, before the film, or was this the first thing that brought you together?

LH: I met Jason about three years ago, right before I started shooting ‘Bachelorette’. He’s heard me tell this story a million times now, I was so… we met up, and I thought it would be sort of like, “Hi…”, “Hello…”; and we sat there for like three hours; it was a long time. I just thought, “This guy is so fucking special. His point of view is so unique.” We just talked about everything, from theater, to film, to our personal lives, it’s like a real artistic connection there. I just thought, “I really want to write this guy something. I really want to write a love story, where he’s the lead. He’s the guy.” Because I think that’s one of the things that’s so hard about making a romantic comedy, right now, are the leads. They’re usually so, they don’t have any problems. It starts out, and the girl’s got everything, except the right penis to stick inside her! And Jason’s just a complicated, awesome person, and so I was inspired by meeting him, and the work he’s done. I’m probably the largest ‘Community’ fan there is, out there. When I met Alison, it was like… I kept it together, for like fifteen minutes at least, I acted cool. Then I was like, “I’ve seen every episode of ‘Community’ at least three times.” I’ll be at home, hanging out, and I’ll be like, “Let me just watch community again. Let’s just do that.” She was someone I always wanted to work with, but I didn’t know. I didn’t know her, socially, and she had read the script, and she was kind enough to come in, and meet me, and it was just love at first sight. And I got to see them read together, as well, which was really exciting, because I think that so much of a romantic comedy is the sound… it’s one of the first genres, where they introduced sound to film. Here you go, 20th century. When I heard them speaking to each other, I was like, “This is the sound of people falling in love with each other.” And I think you guys were talking about nothing. Shooting the shit, and I was like, “We’re going to make some money off of that.” The first time we were rehearsing, and they were rehearsing the drinking scene, and we didn’t have a glass bottle, and Jason was just sort of saying the lines, “glug, glug, glug”, and he started doing it. And I was like, “Oh my god! Oh my god! Oh my god!” My dad’s going to kill me! This has to be in the movie. So many people have to see this. Anyone with retinas is going to see this. Anyway, a long-winded answer, but as you can tell, I’m brimming with love for these guys. This movie’s my heart, and they met me so hard. They didn’t flinch once, man. I came at them, hard, and they came right back at me. I’m so proud of their performances, and of the film itself.

Q: Discuss the challenge of keeping the tone right.

LH: Oh, the tone. That’s one of those ethereal words, isn’t it? Keeping the tone right… I don’t really know how to answer that question, because I feel like it’s something that’s usually very difficult. With this film, even when I watched the assembly – if you don’t know what an assembly is, it’s when you basically see the entire movie cut together. It’s usually about three hours long. And you basically think, “Why did I do this? Why did I decide to become a director? I’m going to fade away into obscurity, and everyone’s going to find out that I’m a hack.” Maybe I should just go kill myself, in a peaceful way. And no one will ever see this. And so, that’s usually the reaction. And I have to say, when I saw the assembly, the tone was really there, already there. It is a little bit magical chemistry, kind of thing that I’m really grateful for. It wasn’t something at the forefront of our minds. We put a lot of work, my department heads did a lot of work. My editor, my production designer, my costume designer, my DP, line producer, Jessica, everybody.

AB: I want to say something about this, because I want to give you more credit! A lot of the material, especially with the Sobvechik/Laney scene, could be very intense! And I think that Leslie was very great about taking the temperature of it, every time we were shooting it, and getting a read on, like, “Okay, we’ve done the REALLY intense version. And now let’s do some where no one’s going to slit their wrists, right away.” And things like that. And I was also going to say, because I think it’s funny, with Adam’s schedule, we had to shoot all the Sobvechik scenes, the first week of production. And it was super weird, because we kept being like, “Are we just making a sexual, psychological thriller? What is this movie? It’s crazy intense!” And then Jason, suddenly, would have a scene, with some casual walking time, and we’d be like, “It’s fun and bubbly! Oh, thank God!”

LH: Poor Jessica would be like, “Holy shit!” I also wanted to add to that, the Adam Brody scene, in which Adam was so incredible in. He did me such a solid, to come in for one day, and do that scene. I just remembered, that day…

AB: I want to immediately piggyback on it, before you even get to say anything about it! Also, what you were saying about it, in terms of, not necessarily improving, but Leslye’s so great with rehearsal, that even without a lot of time, we would get to set, read through the scene, and figure it out. The Adam Brody scene, which I think plays so funny, and he’s so funny in it, but meanwhile, Laney’s going through really deep emotions! And it’s just one of those things, when we first got there, it was like, “Here’s the super serious version. Here’s the more silly version. Where’s the happy medium?” And once it finally clicked, everyone was like, “Ah, it’s clicking.” I think the same way, with the bottle fingering scene, that even going into it, Leslye was like, “All right guys, I hope this doesn’t turn out super creepy.” The more we did it, it ended up being sweet and romantic, I think. It was just great, and educational!

Q: With all of the references you made, you really reveal yourself as a movie nerd.

LH: You mean the movie references? Yes, absolutely! I’m a human. Speaks English. All of the references were very planned. I’m a huge, huge film nerd; really, it’s my first love, it’s my only love. Literally, the first shot is clipped from ‘The Shining’, that’s a shot from ‘The Shining’. When she sees Sobhichev on the bridge, that’s a sequence from ‘Jaws’. Jake’s first line to her, the ginger reference, is from ‘Casablanca’, and is also referenced in ‘When Harry Met Sally’, not to mention all the references to ‘When Harry Met Sally’, including the text montage. It’s almost exactly like the voiceover, when they’re on the phone with each other. It’s how people will spend their whole days interacting with each other, even though they may never see each other. Especially ‘Graduate’ references, from ‘The Graduate’… it’s a great film, I get a little bored after Mrs. Robinson leaves, but she deserves her own movie… Maybe that’s the next one. But yeah, they were all very planned. I think it’s just because I love movies. I think even the last shot, her and Ann… I love movies. I love referencing them, because they are my church, they’re my lover, they’re my friends. In a weird way, when you’re referencing things, you’re just saying thank you for being there, in a weird way. You’re just saying, “Thank you for giving me a chance to do this, and as a result, I’m going to give you a loving butt tap.” ‘The Graduate’ booty touch. Hashtag that, guys. I don’t know how to spell it.

Q: Can you illuminate us on the choreography of the fight scene? How was that all worked out?

JS: It was always… in the script, both Alison’s sex scene, and my sex scene, with Amanda, with the character, and the fight scene, were all conceived in the written way as being done in masters – only one shot, all the information. For the sex scenes, it’s a nice little lithmus test, seeing what kind of gumption the people reading it would have. It was like, “Would you be willing to do this? We’re not going to have you do this.” I asked him if we were really going to show d’s in b’s and penetration, the day before… Not that I’m shy with that kind of stuff. I just made the assumption that we probably would be bucking for an NC-17. But the fight scene maintained that, and it was done with that one tracking shot. I can’t remember how many takes we did; it was really hot that day. We had to do the fight choreography, with great stunt guys, and that was probably a couple of hours, and little bit, piece by piece, learning it. It was kind of like a dance – this, and this, and this, and sort of added things to it. Adam was super into it. He and I had tons of mutual friends, as well; we all kind of met during this movie. Pertaining to the fight scene, it was very intimate. You don’t want to hurt someone, or get a boner, or not get a boner. There’s all this stuff – your right brain’s in a different mode than your left brain. You’ve got to hit your mark, but you can’t hit it too hard. We’re just constantly checking in, right-click, and the foley sound effects help. It really makes it look like I’m hitting him harder. I remember watching, before the sound was done, and I was like, “I look like a first season WWE wrestler.” I didn’t have quite the comfort level, as the rest of it, but I see it here, and it all flows. I was standing outside, and I heard you guys react to it. I heard the music shift. My friend Julian and I were like, “It sounds like a horror movie, all of a sudden!” I didn’t realize that until I was watching it, then you hear the audio, it helps tremendously, to add that visceral nature to the fight. It was just checking in – I think we did three takes of it, only. No cutaways, or anything like that. And that was all written.

Q: With the synergy of the cast, was that something that was difficult to conceive and get together and make it all work?

LH: I would love to speak to the cast, and how that all came together, but I can say that once everyone was together, I really put my entire heart on the line with this film, emotionally. I cried on every take – even funny takes. Coming up to them, and really giving them that energy, “here it is.” Really not speaking a lot, or giving a lot of direction, but just standing and in this case, with Jason and Ali and Eva, especially Adam… Adam Scott… I think I gave Adam one piece of direction, the whole movie. The energy was so reverberating, and really experiencing it, emotionally, telepathically, spiritually, with the actors, as opposed to dictating to them, “Do this thing.” Because I feel like many directors do not do this – I feel like it is my job to make myself emotionally vulnerable for the actors, and to stand there with them, and go, “I know this is hard.” I have lived these moments, not specifically in the movie, but I’ve had heartbreak. I’ve had romantic obsessions. I’ve had rage. And I want to be there with you guys, and I want to feel that with you. Once we’re together, I felt like that was the emotional glue that held us together. I don’t know if you want to talk about the actual physical act of putting everybody together, really brainstorming about who should be in this movie.

Q: Please tell us a little more about your creative process, Leslye.

LH: That’s a great question but really difficult to answer. It’s incredibly ethereal; it’s weird. I had an ex that called it “montage-ing”; I’ll just go out and walk around. I’ll listen to music, or see a lot of films. I’m inspired, definitely, by things that happen in real life. I think if you’re an aspiring writer, give yourself that time to just stew in it. A lot of the ideas that this movie came from, are nothing like this movie, if that makes sense. Even the first idea I had for this movie, the very first inkling, was to tell ‘Fatal Attraction’ from Glenn Close’s point of view. And that’s where I came up with the character of Laney. I was like, “What if we just told it really sympathetically?” This poor chick is REALLY obsessed with this guy, and he’s being a dick! And definitely Jake’s pattern, the way that he spoke – I don’t if I ever told you this – not really by Jason, who I really wanted to work with, but I remember seeing Jen going… and watching Christoph Waltz just talk people into everything. I was like, “What if there was a dude who could just talk his way into everything!” His motive, instead of revenge, was just pussy. There’s this weird little balls that go on. For me, the creative process is just noticing which ones fall by the wayside, as you continue to gestate the idea, and you start doing drafts, and re-writes, and then starting to collaborate with the actors and getting their input, The wheat gets separated from the chaff, and you start to really see what the movie’s going to be, and what the story’s going to be. As far as comedy goes, which is really what your original question was, I had no idea that I was a funny writer. When I first did this, when I first started producing my plays, in black box theaters and basements and stuff. I was just mortified, when people started laughing at it. I thought I had written ‘Glengary Glenn Ross’, and I was like, “Here you are. The female voice of a generation.” And people were just like, laughing, they were dying, and I was just like, “God damn it!” No one is ever going to take me seriously. I think the key to comedy is, don’t write jokes, write people. I put that in a piece I wrote, about last night, this kind of heart thing that I wrote. I really don’t come from a place of jokes. I’ve gotten better at writing them, I think, but I really want to start with the characters. People are very funny, and pain is very funny. You can just trust that, if you’re working on something, that’s coming from your heart. If you want it to be funny, don’t worry too much about… but maybe you’ll disagree, though, with, like, SNL, and Joe Friday, and things like that. I just come from a place of “Are these people speaking truthfully?”

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Sundance Review: MISTRESS AMERICA

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Noah Baumbach again arrives in auspicious fashion, delivering a fast-talking farcical bumblebee of a film whose honey is sweet and sting is bruising. It’s as much a diatribe about the fickle nature of youth as it is a pure slapstick comedy, featuring a humdinger of a hipster prophet in the form of a footloose Greta Gerwig. Baumbach’s latest is also decidedly his lightest, opting for a kind of 21st century update to the surrealist verisimilitude of “I Love Lucy” or a feminist take on “The Three Stooges” – that is, it’s his brand of “But ours goes to 11” absurd. Everything he and his characters touch upon is based in reality – on someone, on something, on somewhere – but is forcefully exaggerated in its screwy presentation. As such, Mistress America has allowed Baumbach and Gerwig to craft modern day archetypes – the awkwardly desirable nerd, the college-bound tabula rasa, the hipster goddess – and mock them to high heavens in pure unapologetically absurdist manner.

Looking back at the early days of Noah Baumbach, you’d have difficulty coupling wry dark dramas like The Squid and the Whale with the bouncy playfulness of a film like Mistress America. And that’s because Baumbach is really a changed man. In the light of his muse Greta Gerwig, he’s adopted a younger, hipper, more feminist persona – one that casts mockery on the exploits of youngsters while genuinely addressing their palpable toil. Again writing with star Gerwig, Baumbach has constructed what is easily his most exuberantly brash film yet – chartering a collision course with contemporary beatnik culture at neck break speeds and spilling out a messy monument in its wake.    

Mistress America circles the risible exploits of nubile NYU freshman Tracy (breakout star Lola Kirke). Arriving at college full of aspirations but unsure of the channels to her academic and social success, she falls in with the lower tier of wannabe student authors, all scrambling to join the elitist, “self-elected” lot of Mobius Lit Society. Struggling with low-grade depression via ennui, Tracy – at the behest of her mother – reaches out to Brooke (Gerwig), her soon-to-be-stepsister. Within no time, Tracy’s head over heels for this desperately chic new friend/family member, beginning an odd cycle of shaggy glamor and fantastical aspirations that caps off in a single-location third act that’s cunningly madcap.   

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All of Baumbach and Gerwig’s witticisms boil down to one central character desire: Brooke’s dream of opening a community restaurant simply named “Mom’s”. It’s a place where you’ll feel at home; where writers will toil in the corner over carafes of wine; a place that will double as an European-style shoppe in the daytime; where the chefs and waiters will share humble plates of pasta after their shift; a venue where you can go to get your hair styled and cut. Wait what? Brooke’s business notions are idealistic and infantile, the result of society egging on an overdeveloped sense of “Yes, We Can!” But if there’s one thing Brooke can do, it’s talk. And talk and talk and talk. Wheeling herself in circles, those surrounding her are apt to agree with her undeveloped business ideas because of her overdeveloped enthusiasm.

Baumbach and Gerwig’s commentary applies not only to the flighty youth at their center but to the capricious investors willing to back such an unlikely success. The fact that Brooke is able to secure a small litany of people willing to involve themselves in such a blatant fiasco is a testament to her charmed people skills but also a representation of business dinosaurs not knowing shit from Shinola.  

It’s literal insanity by way of investment, our filmmakers’ way of mocking old business moguls desperate for a social media foot-in-the-door. Our generation’s method of marketing and e-commerce may look obtuse from the outside in but it’s representative of a system that’s been irrevocably altered. That the Old Guard is largely unable to discern brilliant ideas from featherbrained ones only adds to the mess. Only new-age affluence – in the form of Sundance 2015-frequenter Michael Chernus – can discern the hogwash through Brooke’s fog of whimsical idealism.

All of Mistress America‘s silly-serious discourse adds up to a statement on how the youth of today is itself silly-serious – self-distracted, partially arrogant and full of hot air – and is lovingly executed by a talented duo moving forward at blinding speeds. Their sophomore feature admittedly never reaches the dramatic heights of their previous collaboration, Frances Ha, but nor is it attempting to dig in that selfsame plot. Instead, they’ve crafted something that errs more on the side of the theater; a brash caricature of modernity scarified with bang-up wit. The second resulting love child of Baumbach and Gerwig is unlike most; an uneven, playful, totally daffy farce totally worthy of its lofty asking price.

B

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Sundance Review: LAST DAYS IN THE DESERT

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Director Rodrigo García claimed two themes interested him most in his articulation of Jesus’ untold 40 day fast in the desert. The first: the primordial idea of how a boy becomes a man, a step that Garcia contents happens “with or without his father’s help of permission.” The second theme surrounds the notion of creationism, both in a spiritual and storyteller’s sense. García himself underwent a creation process in the construction of Last Days in the Desert, weaving a fictitious narrative out of a notable absence in Jesus’ origin story – only mentioned in passing in the Gospels but entirely bereft of detail. This absence of a story drew García to the project, offering him an entrance into a narrative that felt to him inspired, fresh and wildly important.  

In Last Days in the Desert, the first theme is tackled with obvious symmetry. On the last leg of his sandy spirit journey, Yeshua (Ewan McGregor) a.k.a. Jesus is heading home to Gaililee, a community that has praised and forsaken him in equal measure. Entering the home stretch and somewhat disappointed that his Dad has gone all hush-hush on him, Jesus feels just the slightest bit forsaken. His food- and spirit-hungry skepticism is only exacerbated by the arrival of the Devil (again, Ewan McGregor) a personified shadow demon whispering doubt at the robes wearing deity.

As his faith is bent but not broken, he comes upon the desolate home of a few essentially human folk, barley living off the arid sterility of this harsh desert land. Soon, his spiritual self-actualization is at odds with his inherently human desire to help these people in needs. Deciding to give himself over to the toil of these hard-working but flawed mortals, Yeshua must remain focused on his own metaphysical well-being while playing mediator to the internal familial strife of these desert clan (problems that include stilted interpersonal relationships and a dying matriarch.)

As Yeshua contents with the difficulty of his own distant, difficult to please father figure, the offspring of this newfound family, a boy known only as Boy (Tye Sheridan), struggles with his own unideal paternal rapport. The boy projects a warm intelligent in his penchant towards self-satisfied riddles and Sheridan ably reflects a brand of hushed  acumen. Wanting to travel to Jerusalem to take on an apprenticeship doing anything other than this deserted carpentry, he asks to take up with Yeshua on his travels, offering to abandon his family in the night and pretending to be his son. There’s no WWJD contemplation as the little-big-man-upstairs gives him a brusk “Uh uh.” Sensing his son’s withdrawal, the father (Ciarán Hinds) seeks advice on how to bond with his son, eventually proving that even the best riddle cannot bring together two men clashing over something as fundamental as maturation.

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In Christian Scripture, 40 days and 40 nights is the gold standard for spiritual enlightenment – with Moses also forgoing food and company for a 40 day stretch before penning (hacking?) the Ten Commandments – but García’s Last Days in the Desert wrapped in just five weeks. Filmed mostly in the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park of Southern California, Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity, Birdman) adds his own signature touch to the visual flourish of García’s gazes into gritty nothingness. Though his product here is a distant cousin to the uninterrupted camerawork of both Birdman and Gravity, Lubezki illuminates the desert into otherworldly effect, predominately only with the use of natural light.

Unlike those aforementioned features that were by definition go-go-go, Last Days in the Desert is periodically immobilized by its sense of stagnancy. Through solid performances, dazzling cinematography and an alluringly minimalist narrative, it closely resembles the devil on Jesus’ shoulder in not ever being quite bewitching enough to fully tempt us onto its side. Though it does get tigerishly close.

García delivers some surprisingly compelling, though sleepy, material for a “Jesus in the Desert” art film but his post-screening testaments that this is a tale of unquestionable divinity (he contents that the Yeshua onscreen is most definitely a God, and not just a man. Here, I was thinking he was telling the story of a man, and only a man) only managed to chill my lukewarm reception of this sun-scorched film even more.

C+

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Sundance Review: THE STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT

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Things came in twos at this year’s Sundance Film Festival with a pair of Cobie Smulders’ features competing against one another for the Dramatic Competition prize, a set of unexpected pregnancy comedy/dramas, Tye Sheridans (who actually was showcased in three films: Last Days in the Desert, Entertainment and this film we’re in the midst of reviewing) and, most notably, a duo of 1960-70s social psychology experiment films. One of which, The Experimenter told the story of Stanley Milgram, administer of increasing electrical shocks and student of peer pressure. The feature starred Peter Sarsgaard and was met with middling reviews.

The Stanford Prison Experiment featured no such A-list star in its telling of the infamous study of the role of the situation but, from what we’ve gathered, is the superior feature of the two – the Prestige to its Illusionist (2006), the Jurassic Park to its Carnosaur (1993), the John Wick to its Equalizer (2014)- amounting to a chilling, procedural experiment of authority and influence that toys with the variable of structural familiarity. It’s dangerously close to being great – and truly is in some scenes – but it’s true-to-life messiness doesn’t coalesce into the kind of form-fitting narrative perfection that defines stronger films.  

You can train a dog to sit, shake and roll over. You should not however force a human to learn the same tricks. What takes place in The Stanford Prison Experiment is very much an exercise in teaching an old dog a new trick by way of unchecked domination. The result is a harrowing, hard-to-watch dissection of the role of power and the all-encompassing effect of the situation on the perception of those inside of it.

In 1971, 24 college-aged students were divided into two groups – prisoner and correctional officers – for a study intended to examine the seemingly unavoidable clash between military guards and their prisoners. If Tim Talbott‘s script can be believe, all participants uniformly preferred to be selected as the “prisoner” in the study. One particular rationale for such preference was: “It will probably be easier.” As The Stanford Prison Experiment unfolds, nothing could have been further off the mark.

Over the course of only the first day, Dr. Phillip Zimbardo (Billy Crudup), the chief psychologist in charge of the study, realizes the data is going to be much more exaggerated than he first hypothesized. From go, those selected as guards assimilate into the role with cowboyish abandon, with one exuberant guard later labeled “John Wayne” going so far as to adopt a southern lawman drawl and persona. Just as Zimbardo smirks and smiles through his mock arrest, the bogus guards find it their simulated duty to wipe that smile off as quickly as possible. Stripped of his clothes and dignity in mere minutes, they achieve their goal with unthinkable menace.  

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Operating under the presumption that they were selected because of their better standing as students, workers or citizens, the guards take on a hulking superiority complex, one that is exaggerated by director Kyle Patrick Alvarez‘s no-holds-barred grasp on the psychological tension of the situation. Having the consolation of the real Dr. Zimbardo gives the film further credibility, especially in the context of its least humane moments.

Treating the prisons like bonafide wrongdoers and extending so far as to physically beat them (a breach of contractual agreements), each set of guards – morning, day and night – has its own alpha male personality that takes the lead. Not to stoop to obvious parallels but Hitler Youth is written all over these psuedo-sherriffs who’ve tasked themselves with the responsibility of robbing the inmates of their most basic human privileges. The knowledge that they are indeed just peers, unluckily assigned at the flip of a coin, has all but escaped them. The extent of their malicious humiliation is enough to turn blood to ice, creating a hellish arena cloaked in uniforms and aviators well beyond what one would expect your average 18-year-old capable of.

All the authenticity The Stanford Prison Experiment brings to the table establishes an alarming, visceral sense of reality but is also accountable for a skosh of its failures. Because of its strict adherence to factual truths, some of the most intriguing characters disappear before we want them to. A minor complaint in the fact of a lofty accomplishment but one I had none the less.   

B

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Sundance Review: MISSISSIPPI GRIND

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There are some people who just can’t help but roll the dice. No matter how far ahead or behind they are, they just need to have one more go at the “big win”. And as any longtime gambler knows, the win is incomparable elation. Though in the long run, this mentality always loses. Statically, a lifetime of gambling is bankrupting. It leads to broken relationships, distrust and disquieting desperation. With some, the influence to bet it all becomes a certifiable addiction the likes of crack or caffeine or Lost. Those able to delude themselves blindly forgo the notion that the odds are never in their favor. The house always wins.

Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn) is one of these people. Though affable and a confirmed good time, even Gerry knows he’s not a good guy, and he’s willing to tell you the truth of it. A lifetime of horse tracks, slot machines, poker tables, greyhound races and blackjack has left him penniless, alone and in debt to most he knows. He hasn’t spoken with his daughter in years and his ex-wife wants nothing to do with his devious, sock-drawer-thieving ways. Even while Gerry attempts to portray a glass-is-half-full image, it’s understoof that his cup hath runneth dry.

Enter Curtis (Ryan Reynolds), a shamrock of a drifter with an immeasurable penchant for knowing when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em. At a small-time Texas Hold ‘Em tourney, the implacable Curtis squares off against Gerry, throwing a crux to Gerry’s audiobook-trained read on rival players. Woodfords are ordered and shared and Curtis’ hard-working mouth extends just enough outsider anecdotes to win over the small-town folk, most especially Gerry. A night of darts cement their favor for one another. A post-Woodford stabbing proves that sans Curtis, Gerry is a man shit out of luck.

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In a last ditch effort to reconcile his outstanding debts before the squeeze becomes too much to bear, Gerry teams up with his new good luck charm Curtis on a hunt for a big score in New Orleans. What follows is a Tom Sawyer-nodding tramp down the Mississippi in which we can’t quite place who is Tom and who is Jim. As their odd-couple road trip ambles down the banks of the surging river, they stop off at various intersections – here a upscale whorehouse housing an old flame, there a familiar casino where Curtis once held VIP status.

Each terminal casts glimpses into the perennial migrant that is Curtis, without giving him away before the final card is dealt. As Curtis remains a bit of a mystery throughout – providing a curious counterpart to Gerry’s transparent distress – he becomes a bit of a noble savage of the open road. But Reynolds handles the character better than most, injecting Curtis with just the right amount of playboy charm without trotting into the obnoxious snark that too often characterizes him as an actor.

As the duo near their final destination, Gerry’s unconscionable side sees the light of day and Mendelsohn is able to work the character into empathic though despicable territory. With a losing streak this hot, we pity Gerry rather than cheer him to a win because we know that one win inevitably leads to five losses.

Strong chemistry between Mendelsohn and Reynolds ease the more predictable elements from taking hold and directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck‘s ability to slam the occasional magical surrealism into his pragmatic sentiment makes Mississippi Grind a well-played victory, if not a chip-sweeping royal flush.

B-

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Sundance Review: DIGGING FOR FIRE

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Displaying the kind of laid back candor that sums up the mumblecore founding member, Joe Swanberg revealed that once you have kids, “life is a clusterfuck.” And so is Digging For Fire. Kinda. A lesser effort in the aftermath of two eruptively sweet victories (Drinking Buddies and Happy Christmas), Digging for Fire takes on the humps and bumps of marriage and the battle of young parenthood with an enviable cast for any director.

 

Swanberg has never really made anything bad (though mediocre wouldn’t be a huge stretch with this one) but with all the talent gathered, Swanberg’s narrative wanderlust  oses focus, leaving Digging for Fire feeling the strain of Swanberg’s scriptless tendencies. According to the director, Digging for Fire had a more complete, “bigger” script than any of his other projects – mostly because he had so much talent involved and needed to schedule like a really Hollywood dog. In true Swanberg fashion, his final treatment was about ten pages. Famous for crafting just the barebones of a story before shooting, the mumblecore man demands his actors to make choices once the camera are rolling to get from an established Point A to an established Point B. All that middle ground is fair game for improvisation.

At times, his distinctive make of cinematic vagrancy allows for some great unscripted scenes – Jake Johnson‘s hindmost digging moment, Chris Messina‘s unscripted pool nudity, Sam Rockwell doing any and every thing, Swanberg’s adorable baby boy doing any and every thing – but also opens the door for some less compelling episodes – Rosemarie DeWitt‘s beachside interlude with Orlando Bloom, Anna Kendrick and Brie Larson‘s casual disppearance from the action, unsatisfying relationship arcs.

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Digging For Fire opens with a familiar Swanberg platitude; stressed out adults talk about stressed out adult problems; strong women trying to gain the reins on their less-than-model husband; secret undertones of dreaming about the highlife of the young freewheeler. Tim (Johnson) and Lee (DeWitt) have just arrived at a client of Lee’s to housesit their upper-decker mansion and get a vacation from their less-than-model home. In between bouts of nagging about preschools and taxes, Tim discovers a rusty gun and a human bone buried in the backyard (a story idea culled straight from an odd incident in Johnson’s life.)

When the couple soon after separate for a weekend, each decide to pursue a side of themselves that has seemed to snuff out in the face of marriage. After dumping their kid with Grandma and PopPop (Sam Elliot), Lee meets up with an old friend (Melanie Lynskey) to air out their marital snafus. Obsessed with the mystery of the gun and the rusty bone, Tim calls together a posse of friends old and new to put shovels to dirt over beers and a few lines of cocaine.

Each half of the couple contents with the ghost of their old selves, opening doors that uncover new demons. Problem is, those doors sometimes seem as random as briefcases on Let’s Make a Deal. Many of Swanberg’s characters work in their own right but don’t add enough to the makeup of the final product to legitimize all their erratic appearances. Although Swanberg seems to be dipping his toes in more mature, less jejune waters, he’s able to maintain his very distinctive voice and worldview. If only he could have equally inserted the tangy sharpness and sweet comedy of his last films in this creation by man at crossroads.

C+

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