Saturday, January 31, 2015

Sundance 2015: Ranking the Best and Worst of the Festival

I could have just as easily put together a list of the movies I wished I could have seen at this year's Sundance Film Festival: The End of the Tour, Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, Going Clear, Diary of a Teenage Girl, The Forbidden Room, Tangerine, Experimenter, I Am Michael, The Stanford Prison Experiment, The Overnight....OK, you get the idea. (Plus, I have Don Hertzfeldt's acclaimed short World of Tomorrow waiting for me on my laptop. I cannot wait.) So consider the below ranking a snapshot of one person's experience in Park City. Five different critics could give you five different overviews.

I can't say I saw any slam-dunk stunners this year, as opposed to 2014 when I flipped for Boyhood and The Raid 2. You'll note my top two picks from the 2015 edition are actually films that premiered elsewhere but were included in Sundance's Spotlight section. I suspect a couple of the movies I didn't see on the list above might have competed for one of the top spots.

Looking at my rankings, I realize I'm less enthused about Brooklyn than many of my colleagues are. On the opposite side, I'm guessing I'm higher on The Nightmare than most. What's funny is that many of the best films at Sundance this year have an element of horror to them, whether it's the 17th century creepiness of The Witch, the school of the damned in The Tribe, the post-apocalyptic setting of Z for Zachariah, or the real-world terrors in the documentaries The Nightmare and Welcome to Leith. As for Eden, I bonded with two new friends at the festival because they responded to Mia Hansen-Løve's film as strongly as I did. It's not a horror movie, but it's a deeply felt character study that I haven't stopped thinking about since seeing it in Toronto last year.

On to the rankings. Links lead to individual reviews (some may be behind paywalls)...

26. Strangerland
25. A Walk in the Woods
24. Ten Thousand Saints
23. The Bronze
22. Stockholm, Pennsylvania
21. Brooklyn
20. What Happened, Miss Simone?
19. True Story
18. Results
17. The D Train
16. Homesick
15. Partisan
14. 99 Homes
13. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
12. Last Days in the Desert
11. Mistress America
10. Dope
9. Wild Tales 
8. Mississippi Grind
7. Digging for Fire
6. Z for Zachariah
5. Welcome to Leith
4. The Nightmare
3. The Witch
2. Eden
1. The Tribe

Sundance 2015: 'Me and Earl and the Dying Girl' Review

I haven't seen every film in the U.S. dramatic competition, but I'm betting that Me and Earl and the Dying Girl wins the Grand Jury Prize. Emotional, precocious, in thrall with movies, the second feature from director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon concerns a high school outcast (Thomas Mann) who befriends a classmate (Olivia Cooke) dying of cancer. This movie is for people who think Wes Anderson's movies aren't emotional enough. I liked it, with reservations. My review is up at Screen International.

Sundance 2015: 'The Bronze' Review

We've had Bad Santa and Bad Teacher ... now it's time for Bad Gymnast. Actually, the film is called The Bronze, but it stars Melissa Rauch as a former Olympic medalist still clinging to her athletic glory years later. Oh boy, is she mean and nasty! She says offensive things! Hilarity only occasionally ensues. My review is up at Screen International.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Sundance 2015: Discussing the Festival With Madeleine Brand

On today's Press Play With Madeleine Brand, I was on the show with USA Today critic Claudia Puig to discuss the highlights of this year's Sundance Film Festival. For me, that included Dope, Mississippi Grind and The Witch. You can hear the whole exchange here.

Sundance 2015: 'A Walk in the Woods' Review

It was hard not to be concerned about A Walk in the Woods, the buddy road comedy starring Robert Redford and Nick Nolte as old, long-separated friends who decide to trek the Appalachian Trail together. (It's based on travel writer Bill Bryson's book.) Look, if you're interested in this sort of thing, just see Old Joy, OK? I reviewed the dismal A Walk in the Woods for Screen International.

Phil Collins - "We Said Hello Goodbye"

Phil Collins turns 64 years old today. As a lad, I was pretty familiar with his Grammy-winning 1985 album No Jacket Required. (I still remember the typically awful joke Mad made about its hit single "Sussudio," which, the magazine mentioned, he recorded in his stu-, stu-, studio.) But since my family only had the album on cassette, I never heard "We Said Hello Goodbye," which was a B-side that was added to the end of the compact disc. (I still recall a time when people didn't automatically call them CDs -- or a time when people actually owned CDs.) Anyway, only recently becoming familiar with "We Said Hello Goodbye," I have a certain fondness for its mannered orchestral elegance. Or maybe I just outright love it. I'm not even sure anymore.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Sundance 2015: 'Digging for Fire' Review

When I got out of my screening of director Joe Swanberg's Digging for Fire last night, I told a colleague that I felt like he had made his version of Eyes Wide Shut. What did I mean by that? Well, the film (starring Jake Johnson and Rosemarie DeWitt) is about a married couple who end up having separate weekends, plunging them into unexpected, emotionally complicated situations. And it all kicks off with the husband discovering a human bone and a handgun buried in the yard of the home where he and his wife are house-sitting.

The more I think about this film, the more I like its ambiguous, almost subliminal resonance. I reviewed Digging for Fire for Screen International.

Sundance 2015: 'True Story' Review

True Story, as you might imagine, is based on a true story. In 2002, celebrated New York Times writer Michael Finkel got himself fired for fudging the facts on a profile piece he was writing. Hoping to revitalize his career after the scandal, he discovered that a man in Oregon had been using his name while on the run. (He was wanted for the murder of his wife and three children.) Finkel decided to meet this man.

In the film, Jonah Hill plays Finkel and James Franco plays the man, Christian Longo. True Story is involving and intriguing -- but only to a point. I liked the movie, but it easily could have been better. I reviewed True Story for Screen International.

Sundance 2015: 'Mississippi Grind' Review

Directors Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden (Half Nelson, Sugar) like to play around in genres, not unlike Robert Altman used to do. So, it seems fitting that their latest feels like an Altman movie -- California Split, specifically. Mississippi Grind is about two gamblers (Ryan Reynolds and Ben Mendelsohn) on a road trip to New Orleans. The movie has its limitations because of the conventionality of its narrative structure, but I really came to love these two characters. (Mendelsohn is especially terrific.) My review is up at Paste.

Sundance 2015: 'Dope' Review

One of the hits of the festival has been Dope, writer-director Rick Famuyiwa's high-energy comedy-thriller about a young hip-hop nerd living in Los Angeles (played by Shameik Moore) who gets involved in a drug deal gone wrong. Dope may be a bit unfocused, but its propulsive forward momentum is something to see. Plus, Famuyiwa has a lot to say about racial inequality and media portrayals of African-Americans. Those messages are just as potent as the laughs and the throwback rap jams on the soundtrack. I reviewed Dope for Screen International.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Sundance 2015: 'The D Train' Review

Every Sundance has its share of indie comedies starring big names. They tend not to be very good, but The D Train has enough laughs and charm to make up for its shortcomings. Jack Black plays a dorky organizer of his 20th high school reunion who tries to coax the king of his graduating class (James Marsden), who's now an actor in Hollywood, to come back for the event. Both actors are funny, but Marsden is really terrific. I reviewed The D Train for Screen International.

Sundance 2015: 'Last Days in the Desert' Review

One of the boldest experiments of this year's Sundance Film Festival, Last Days in the Desert stars Ewan McGregor as Jesus wandering the desert in search of peace before he must return to Jerusalem for, well, you can probably guess why. Even bolder, he also plays a demon tormenting our hero. This uncompromising, minimalist drama is short on plot and long on atmosphere. That comes with it certain limitations, but I deeply admired the effort from writer-director Rodrigo Garcia (Nine Lives, Mother and Child). You can read my review over at Screen International.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Sundance 2015: 'Partisan' Review

In Partisan, Vincent Cassel plays the leader of a closed-off community that preaches utopian principles while training its children to assassinate random targets in the nearby city. This Sundance offering, the feature debut of filmmaker Ariel Kleiman, has an intelligent, measured calm that's nicely unsettling. But the story's real focus is on Cassel's character and one of the community's children (a superb Jeremy Chabriel) who begins to stand up to him. I reviewed the film for Screen International.

Sundance 2015: 'Strangerland' Review

Nicole Kidman gives it her all in Strangerland, an Australian drama where she plays a woman (married to Joseph Fiennes) whose two children go missing one morning. Were they kidnapped or did they run away? Director Kim Farrant turns this mystery into an overwrought morality tale heavy with thematic import. I admired the seriousness of purpose but really, really disliked the execution. I reviewed the film for Screen International.

Sundance 2015: 'Homesick' Review

Homesick sports a premise that will, to use a cliche, raise an eyebrow. A young woman (Ine Wilmann) decides to meet her estranged half-brother (Simon J. Berger), and soon they discover a powerful sexual attraction between them. But this romantic drama, from Norwegian director Anne Sewitsky, is less about shattering taboos as it is about exploring longing and identity. It's a modest heartbreaker -- and I reviewed the film for Screen International.

Sundance 2015: 'Z for Zachariah' Review

My most anticipated film of this year's Sundance, Z for Zachariah isn't as violently divisive as director Craig Zobel's last movie, Compliance, was. Still, I once again think I like it more than my colleagues do. A look at the end of the world populated by three mismatched individuals (played superbly by Chiwetel Ejiofor, Margot Robbie and Chris Pine), this low-key drama is very effective as a study of human behavior, a specialty of Zobel's. You can read my review over at Screen International.

Sundance 2015: 'Mistress America' Review

In recent years, writer-director Noah Baumbach has turned away from the misanthropic comedy of his earlier films to embrace a rich warmth. Maybe that has something to do with his new creative and romantic partner Greta Gerwig. Like their Frances Ha, Mistress America explores the lives of young New Yorkers with affection but also insight. In the new film, Gerwig plays a super-confident woman showing her soon-to-be younger sister (Lola Kirke) around the Big Apple. It may be slight, but it sure is funny. My review of Mistress America is up at Screen International.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Sundance 2015: 'Ten Thousand Saints' Review

If you told me a film starred (among others) Ethan Hawke, Emily Mortimer and Julianne Nicholson, I'd be down. Unfortunately, Ten Thousand Saints is the second straight misfire from directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini. (Their last was the rather unfortunate Imogene, which was later renamed Girl Most Likely.) The new film stars Asa Butterfield who's on a coming-of-age quest in 1980s New York. Lots of heart in this movie, but not a lot of memorable moments. I reviewed Ten Thousand Saints for Screen International.

Sundance 2015: 'Stockholm, Pennsylvania' Review

Sometimes, you have to tip your hat at ambition. But that doesn't mean you also have to recommend the movie. Stockholm, Pennsylvania, from first-timer Nikole Beckwith, concerns a young woman (Saoirse Ronan) who has just been rescued after being kidnapped and living in a man's basement for 17 years. Can she adjust to life with her birth parents, whom she doesn't remember at all? And where will Beckwith take this story? In very unexpected places, it turns out. I wish I liked this character study/psychological drama better. I reviewed the film for Screen International.

Sundance 2015: 'The Witch' Review

As much as I hate using the word "buzz," one of the buzzier titles of Sundance 2015 is The Witch, from first-time filmmaker Robert Eggers. Playing in the U.S. dramatic competition, this is an elegant horror film about a luckless 1630s New England family living on their own out in the middle of nowhere. Oh, and there might be a witch in the dark forest just outside their property. Eggers' film may be little more than an excellent exercise in dread but, hey, it creeped me out mighty sufficiently. I reviewed The Witch for Screen International.

Sundance 2015: 'What Happened, Miss Simone?' Review

Historically, the opening night at Sundance isn't considered a hot bed of stunning cinematic achievement. (Translation: The movies tend to be only so-so, or worse.) Last year snapped that pattern with Whiplash, but this year's festival kicked off with the frustratingly pedestrian What Happened, Miss Simone?, a documentary about the beloved, acclaimed singer Nina Simone. It'll be playing on Netflix soon enough, but here's my review right now.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Tricky - "Christiansands"

Adrian Nicholas Matthews Thaws turns 47 next week. Sort of a love song, sort of a deep dive into the darkness, "Christiansands" remains my favorite of his tracks.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

SAG Foundation: My Conversation With Ellar Coltrane and Richard Linklater

I have had a very fun year interviewing the folks from Boyhood. First, I talked to Richard Linklater for a Backstage cover story. Then, I conducted a Q&A with Linklater, Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette and Ellar Coltrane. (Sorry, no video for that.) Then, for the SAG Foundation, I spoke with just Arquette and Hawke. Then, in December, I conducted a Q&A with the film's casting director (Beth Sepko), co-production designer (Rodney Becker) and editor (Sandra Adair). (Sorry, no video for that.) And then on Wednesday, right before I left for Sundance, I chatted with Coltrane and Linklater for the SAG Foundation. I never get tired of hanging out with these people.

In this conversation, I wanted to talk about what the experience has been like for them since Boyhood premiered a little over a year ago at Sundance. Coltrane is especially interesting when he talks about how he's tried to cope with the rush of attention he's received. But both men are warm and engaging, as always. (And Linklater's right in his response to my observation that his movies celebrate families.)

2014 in Review: The Year's Best Film Effects

This was a lot of fun: For Popular Mechanics, I (and Lauren Bans) wrote about some of the most impressive technical feats in cinema from last year. That includes The Grand Budapest Hotel, Foxcatcher, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Edge of Tomorrow and Under the Skin. We chatted with the wizards who brought these effects to life, which was plenty illuminating. I hope you enjoy.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

My Interview With Charlie Day

Charlie Day, one of the stars of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia (and Horrible Bosses and The Lego Movie), was a lot of fun to interview. For Backstage, we chatted about his long-running show, how he gets "into character" to play Charlie Kelly, and why he's still doing the sitcom after 10 years (with more years to go). That's just part of our conversation -- I had a blast with this one. Hope you enjoy.

'Strange Magic' Review

First, an anecdote. I pride myself on being early to screenings. I hate being late for anything, but especially when it comes to my job, I don't like to make others wait for me. (Even worse, I don't want to miss the start of the movie if the publicists decide to start without me.) Last night, though, I was stuck in absolutely horrible traffic -- which was even more annoying because I had planned for that by leaving my home earlier than normal. I got to the screening of Strange Magic about 10 minutes late, but the very nice folks at Disney held it for me, which I so appreciate. (And maybe they didn't hold it just for me -- I don't have that kind of power, believe me -- but it was a nice reminder that, sometimes, stuff happens, and we need other folks to help us out.)

I say all that as a preface to my review of Strange Magic. The movie is terrible, and a reminder that any film billed as "from the mind of George Lucas" should be treated with suspicion. I didn't want to dislike Strange Magic as much as I did considering everything that led up to me seeing it but, hey, part of the job is to call like I see it.

My review is up at Screen International.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Sundance 2015 Preview: 10 Must-Sees

Calling a festival preview a selection of "must-see films" is always risky. None of us have seen them, so how do we know if we truly must see them? So for purposes of accuracy, let me just say that the piece I wrote for Deadspin highlights 10 films I'm most curious to check out while at Park City. They run the gamut from horror-documentaries to the latest from the filmmaker of Compliance. Here they all are.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Sleater-Kinney - "The Fox"

On Tuesday, Sleater-Kinney release their first album in 10 years with No Cities to Love. Here's "The Fox," the volcanic opening track from their last disc, The Woods.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

'Wild Card' Review

On Super Bowl weekend, Jason Statham returns to our theaters with Wild Card, a remake of the Burt Reynolds flick Heat. (That movie, of course, is not to be confused with Michael Mann's Heat.) I've long worshiped at the altar of Mr. Statham, but a movie like Wild Card makes me wonder about the wisdom of such devotion. It's not bad -- in fact, the film can be enjoyably loopy -- but it just doesn't add up to much in the end. I reviewed Wild Card -- spoiler alert, Statham's character is named Nick Wild -- for Screen International.

What Is the Greatest Sci-Fi Film of the 1970s?

That's what the fine folks at Rolling Stone are here to find out, with a little help from myself and my colleagues. On the website, my editors ranked the 50 best science-fiction movies of the '70s, and I did the write-ups for Alien, A Clockwork Orange and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Enjoy!

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

'Blackhat' Review

Normally, a Michael Mann movie wouldn't open during the dregs of January. So, you can imagine the amount of curiosity and anxiety surrounding Blackhat, his cyber-thriller starring Thor star Chris Hemsworth.

I suspect I will be in the minority for liking it. To be sure, I like it with massive reservations but, good heavens, what a gorgeous movie. Three absolutely ace action sequences combined with a generally propulsive, hypnotic sense of mood and movement: That's (just barely) enough for me to recommend this otherwise disposable genre offering.

I reviewed Blackhat for Screen International.

Monday, January 12, 2015

2014 Pazz & Jop Poll Predictions

Almost 30 years after its release, Brothers in Arms is going to win Pazz & Jop. The War on Drugs' third album, Lost in the Dream, is my pick to top the annual music critics poll, whose results will be announced on January 14. I like Lost in the Dream -- its pretty guitar textures get to me when I'm in a certain mood -- but it mostly reminds me of Dire Straits' 1985 record, which I would describe as "elegant" and "accomplished" and "sophisticated" and "dreamlike" and "perfectly fine but also a bit much." (By the way, Brothers in Arms landed at No. 20 on that year's Pazz & Jop poll, just barely beating "Money for Nothing" guest vocalist Sting's first solo album, The Dream of the Blue Turtles.)

If Lost in the Dream does win, it'll be the first time a straight-up indie-rock band won the poll since Animal Collective's Merriweather Post Pavilion in 2009. The War on Drugs' strongest challenger will be St. Vincent, the only good thing that's ever come out of the Polyphonic Spree.

Here are the rest of my predictions for the Top 10....

1. The War on Drugs, Lost in the Dream
2. St. Vincent, St. Vincent
3. Run the Jewels, Run the Jewels 2
4. D'Angelo and the Vanguard, Black Messiah
5. FKA twigs, LP1
6. Taylor Swift, 1989
7. Beck, Morning Phase
8. Angel Olsen, Burn Your Fire for No Witness 
9. Aphex Twin, Syro 
10. Sharon Van Etten, Are We There  

I'll talk about my own ballot once the Pazz & Jop results go live Wednesday. But for now, I'll just say that two of the albums I'm guessing hit the Top 10 made my own album list.

(Update: Wow, I was wrong. I assumed that the very late arrival of Black Messiah at the end of the year would keep it from topping the poll. But D'Angelo is indeed your winner. I got the top five right, but in a different order. Overall, I was correct about seven of the top 10, which isn't too shabby. My own ballot is here.)

Friday, January 09, 2015

Elvis Presley - "Return to Sender"

As you may know, Elvis Presley's birthday was yesterday. (He would have been 80, which means he's almost been dead now as long as he was alive.) No great expert on the man, I've always preferred this endlessly catchy bauble of his.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Why Are Hollywood Movies Always Picking on the Internet?

During a short span of time in the summer and early fall, I noticed that I was watching a handful of films in which the bad guy was always the Internet, be it in the form of social media or YouTube. So I started wondering why. For The Dissolve, I look at Men, Women & Children (pictured above), Chef and Birdman to compare/contrast their portrayals of the World Wide Web -- and why their attitudes toward the Internet say more about Hollywood than it does Twitter. I hope you enjoy.

2015's Must-See Movies

Happy New Year: It's time to start thinking about the films in 2015 we're all excited to see. Will and I put together a list of our 20 most-anticipated titles for Deadspin -- and should you require more words on the subject, I contributed to Rolling Stone's massive 2015 preview, which features movies as well as TV shows and music.

Friday, January 02, 2015

Sun Kil Moon - "Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes"

To my ears, the best metal and rap albums of 2014 were Sun Kil Moon's Benji. Of course, no one would classify Mark Kozelek's latest singer-songwriter effort as either genre. But consider this: Benji is emotionally brutal like the best hard rock and dazzling in its wordplay like the finest hip-hop.

A dizzying onslaught of austere arrangements and twisty panic attacks, Benji has so many words on its 11 tracks, so many stories it's anxious to tell. Recalling lost loves, his bad back, the parents he deeply loves, his difficult friendship with Death Cab for Cutie's Ben Gibbard, Kozelek spews narratives all over the album, but the specificity of his memoiristic tales makes them oddly universal. Aging, failure, family: They're at the heart of Benji, and we can all relate.

"Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes" is about the notorious serial killer but, in typical Benji fashion, it's about a lot of other things, too. I can't even imagine what it would sound like coming out of Jay Z's mouth.