Ghosts of Sundance Past #4: Frozen River (dir by Courtney Hunt)


The 2008 film, Frozen River, tells the story of two desperate mothers.

Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo) has spent two years working as a clerk in a discount store and still cannot convince her boss to promote her to full time because, in his opinion, she’s just not “long-term employee” material.  Ray’s husband, a compulsive gambler, has vanished and taken the majority of their money with him.  Ray and her two sons live in a mobile home, where they subsist on a diet of popcorn and tang.  Every few days, a man comes by and threatens to repossess the home and leave Ray and her children homeless.  Ray always manages to talk him out of it.  If there’s anything that Ray can do, it’s talk her way out of trouble.

Lila Littlewolf (Misty Upham) is a Native American who lives on the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation and who works at a bingo parlor.  Because Lila is struggling financially and often resorts to illegal means to make ends meet, Lila’s mother-in-law has taken away her infant son.  If Ray’s defining characteristic seems to be her ability to talk her way out of trouble, Lila is quiet and often seems to be hiding from the world.

One day, while Ray is out looking for her husband, she spots Lila driving his car.  Lila claims that she found the car, sitting deserted at a gas station.  (It’s never established whether Lila is telling the truth or if she actually stole the car.)  Ray discovers that Lila makes her money by smuggling undocumented immigrants over the Canadian border and Ray soon joins her.

Frozen River takes place a few days before Christmas in Upstate New York.  There’s snow on the ground and a Christmas tree in the mobile home but there’s little holiday cheer to be found in the film.  In order to smuggle people across the border, Ray and Lila take them across the frozen St. Lawrence River and, just like the ice on the river, Ray’s occasional moments of happiness seem to be destined to only be temporary.  Just as the ice is eventually going to break, so is Ray and Lila’s operation.  One gets the feeling that it’s only a matter of time.  Ray and Lila almost immediately attract the attention of the stern State Trooper Finnerty (Michael O’Keefe).  Significantly , Finnerty’s suspicions are initially limited to only Lila and he even tries to warn Ray that she’s hanging out with a known smuggler.

Frozen River is dominated by two strong lead performances.  Melissa Leo is the one who was nominated for best actress but I actually think that Misty Upham (who tragically died a few years after this film was released) is even better.  Leo is the one who gets the big scenes and who gets to deliver all of the best lines and she does a great job with a richly written character.  Upham, meanwhile, has to largely create her character in silence.  She rarely speaks but, when she does, she makes it count.  When Ray and Lila get pulled over by Finnerty and Lila snaps that Ray will be okay because she’s white, the way Upham delivers that one line tells you so much about what has led her to be in her current situation.  When you see Upham in the background, watching Ray or Finnerty or anyone else who is standing in the way of her seeing her baby, her glare is worth a thousand monologues.  Both Leo and Upham are so good that they hold your interest even when the film’s script and direction veers towards the heavy-handed.  (Director Courtney Hunt, for the most part, does a good job of keeping things credible but it’s hard not to roll your eyes a bit when a duffel bag being carried by two refugees turns out to not contain, as Ray originally suspects, explosives but a baby instead.)

Frozen River was a hit at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize.  Leo went on to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Actress, though she lost to Kate Winslet in The Reader.

Ghosts of Sundance Past #3: Crown Heights (dir by Matt Ruskin)


The 2017 film, Crown Heights, tells the story of two friends and a miscarriage of justice.

In 1980, a 19 year-old Trinidadian named Colin Warner (Lakeith Stanfield) is arrested in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn.  Taken down to the police station, Colin is told that he has been arrested for the murder of Marvin Grant, a man who he has never heard of.  When Colin says that he is innocencent, he’s informed that eyewitnesses saw him at the scene of the crime.  Though he continues to protest his innocence, Colin is transferred to a jail where he is to await his trial.

From the start, it’s obvious that Colin didn’t have anything to do with the shooting of Marvin Grant.  What’s messed up is that the people prosecuting him know it as well.  When another prisoner tell the detectives the name of the man who actually committed the murder, his statement is ignored because he refuses to name his source.  When one of the prosecution’s witnesses testifies that he saw someone other than Colin fire the gun, the prosecutor “corrects” his witnesses’s testimony in open court. After the jury returns a guilty of verdict for Colin and another man, the judge says that he can’t be sure whether or not Colin is guilty but that he can only follow the law.  And the law says that, as an adult convicted of a crime, Colin is going to spend the rest of his life in prison.  No one in the legal establishment cares that Colin is obviously not guilty.  He’s a young black man with a minor criminal history and, by convicting him, the police can close one homicide investigation and move on to the next one.

In prison, Colin finds himself isolated, both literally and figuratively.  When he refuses to get involved with any of the prison gangs, the other prisoners shun him and he finds himself being targeted.  When a prison guard pushes Colin until Colin finally snaps and throws a punch, Colin ends up spending two years in solitary confinement.

Meanwhile, on the outside, Colin’s best friend, Carl King (Nnamdi Asomugha), attempts to prove that his friend is innocent.  That proves to be even more difficult than Carl initially expects.  No one is interested in reopening a closed case and Carl can’t even afford a good attorney to help him pursue Colin’s appeal.  Still, Carl never gives up.  He even trains to become a process server so that he can have an excuse to hang out at the court house and hopefully meet a lawyer who will be willing to take on Colin’s case.  Amazingly, that’s exactly what happens.

Of course, by this point, Colin Warner has been in prison for 20 years….

Based on a true story, Crown Heights was a hit at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, winning the Audience Award for the U.S. Dramatic Film competition.  Watching the film, you can easily see why it was such a crowd pleaser.  Not only does the film deal with serious issues of race and economic disparity but, when watching the film, it’s impossible not to be moved by the strength of Carl and Colin’s friendship.  Despite all of the difficulties that are placed in front of him, Carl never gives up in his quest to prove Colin’s innocence and get him out of prison.  The film works as both a cry for freedom and a celebration of friendship.

The film’s execution is not quite as strong as its message.  Matt Ruskin’s direction occasionally veer towards made-for-TV (or, at the very least, made-for-HBO) territory and the film’s constant switching back and forth between Colin in prison and Carl searching for witnesses sometimes seems to prevent either storyline for really maintaining a consistent momentum.  20 years is a long time to cover in just 90 minutes and sometimes, it’s hard not to feel as if important parts of the story have been left out or, at the very least, glossed over.  That said, it’s a heartfelt film and it’s blessed with two wonderful lead performances from Lakeith Stanfield and Nnamdi Asomugha.

Crown Heights is not a perfect film but the story and the performances are powerful enough to make you think and to leave you moved.

Ghosts of Sundance Past #2: The Report (dir by Scott Z. Burns)


Remember The Report?

The Report premiered at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, where it was a hit with the critics who saw it.  Amazon acquired the distribution rights and, for the first part of 2019, The Report was one of those films that was regularly discussed as being a potential Oscar nominee.  Not only was it based on a true story but it starred Adam Driver and Annette Bening.  There are several online film critics and award bloggers who are convinced that any film featuring Annette Bening will automatically be an Oscar contender, despite the fact that it rarely seems to work out that way.

Certainly, that ended up being the case with The Report.  Despite all of the hype from Sundance, The Report kind of fizzled when it was finally released.  That it didn’t do much business at the box office makes sense because it was only given a limited release and everyone knew that it would soon be available to stream on Prime.  But even after it was made available on Prime, The Report never really seemed to make much of a dent in the public consciousness.  When the Oscar nominations were announced, The Report was not mentioned once.  Adam Driver did receive a nomination for Best Actor but it was for Marriage Story.

What happened to The Report?  It may have been too low-key for audiences (and, let’s be honest, critics) who have come to expect even a movie about a Senate committee to be experimental and overly stylized.  It could be that, even though the film was critical of the CIA and the War on Terror, it wasn’t angry enough for the same people who thought Adam McKay’s Vice was a brilliantly conceived work of political cinema.  A more realistic explanation is probably that, in this hyper political age, people didn’t want to watch a 2-hour movie about a senate staffer.  Instead, people wanted an escape from all that.

It’s understandable but it’s also a shame because The Report is a very good film.  I mean, I usually hate films like this but I was surprised by how much I liked it.

The Report deals with the efforts of Senate staffer Daniel Jones (Adam Driver) and the members of the Senate Intelligence Committee to investigate the CIA’s use of torture in the aftermath of 9-11.  Skipping back and forth through time, the film shows us how Jones was first assigned to lead an investigation into the CIA’s activities in 2005 and how, over the course of seven years, Jones puts together not one but two reports that absolutely nobody wants released.  Along the way, Jones goes from being a generally idealistic and optimistic staffer to eventually becoming the type of paranoid and obsessive man who meets with reporters in underground garages and who considers leaking classified information.  Daniel has what he believes to be proof that using torture is not only unethical but also counter-productive but, as he discovers, even the members of his own political party aren’t particularly interested in releasing his report.  Adam Driver gives a memorably intense performance of Daniel, playing him as someone whose obsession with his report sometimes threatens to push him over the edge and transform him from being a crusader to being a zealot.

Annette Bening plays Daniel’s boss, Sen. Dianne Feinstein.  It’s interesting casting and, to be honest, it doesn’t quite work.  I almost feel like it would have been better for the film to have either kept Feinstein off-screen or to have at least minimized her role.  The problem is that Dianne Feinstein is a widely-known figure and it’s jarring to see Annette Bening, another well-known figure (at least among film fans), in the role.  Bening plays Feinstein as being a ethical and serious-minded stateswoman and she does what she can with what the film gives her but, at the same time, it’s still kind of a boring performance.  The film presents Feinstein, a not uncontroversial figure, in a positive light and I’m sure some, on both the Right and the Left would say that it’s perhaps a bit too positive.  One gets the feeling that Feinstein’s main role in the film is to assure us that the system works but we just have to take one look at Adam Driver losing his mind to realize that it doesn’t.

That misstep aside, The Report still works far better than I was expecting it too.  Taking obvious inspiration from All The President’s Men, Scott Z. Burns directs the film as if it were a thriller and the deeper that Adam Driver gets into his research, the darker and more shadowy Washington D.C. seems to become.  Even though the film clearly has an agenda, Burns gives the other side a chance to make their case without presenting them as being cartoonish villains.  In other words, this is the opposite of an Aaron Sorkin or Adam McKay-style diatribe.  Instead, this is an intelligent movie about intelligent people.  It’s a film that makes some of the same points as many other similarly liberal films but it makes them without taking cheap shots or resorting to a heavy hand. Long after Vice has been forgotten, The Report will be remembered.

And, if you haven’t seen it yet, it’s on Prime!

Sundance Film Review: Moon (dir by Duncan Jones)


With this year’s Sundance Film Festival getting underway in Colorado, I’m going to be spending the next few days looking at some films that caused a stir at previous Sundance Film Festivals.  Today, I’m taking a look at the 2009’s Moon.

It’s time for all good people to praise Sam Rockwell.

As far as I’m concerned, Sam Rockwell is one of the patron saints of character acting.  Is there anything that he can’t do?  He can do comedy.  He can do drama.  He can play the cool, older guy, like he did in The Way, Way Back.  He can play the nerdy, weirdo as he’s done in too many movies for me to list.  He can play a mentor and he can play a student.  He can make you laugh and he can make you cry.  He’s one of those actors who can seamlessly transition from small indie films to huge blockbusters without missing a beat.  Rockwell won an Oscar for his performance in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and he might just win another one for playing President George W. Bush in Vice.  He can even dance, as anyone who has seen him in Iron Man 2 can tell you.  Rockwell’s been acting since he was a teenager and he’s definitely earned the right to be known as one of our greatest actors.

For that reason, it can sometimes be a little bit difficult to decide just which performance is Rockwell’s best.  He’s appeared in so many different movies and he’s played so many different characters.  Even when the movie’s bad, Rockwell is usually great.  However, if I had to sit down and pick one Rockwell performance as being the epitome of everything that makes him a great actor, I’d probably go with his performance in Duncan Jones’s contemplative sci-fi film, Moon.

In Moon, Rockwell plays a man named Sam.  Sam has spent three years living on the dark side of the moon.  He works for shadowy Lunar Industries.  His job is to mine the moon for helium-3, an alternative energy source that is now all the rage on Earth.  It’s a lonely job for Sam.  He gets up every day.  He rides his lunar rover across the stage.  He returns to the sterile facility, where he lives.  Sometimes, if he’s lucky, he gets recorded messages from his wife and daughter.  His only companion is a robot named GERTY.  Though Sam trusts GERTY, we know better, if just because GERTY speaks with the voice of Kevin Spacey.

From the minute we meet Sam, we can see how living on the Moon has affected him.  He’s quiet and a bit meek.  After three years of isolation, Sam accepts whatever he has to accept to survive.  He doesn’t complain about rarely getting to talk to his family.  He doesn’t question why he has to work alone.  Whatever fight Sam once had in him is gone.  Now, Sam just wants to finish out his time and go home.

And then, one day, Sam is driving the lunar rover when he has a sudden hallucination and then passes out.  He ends up crashing into a crater….

Suddenly, Sam wakes up at the facility.  However, it doesn’t take long to notice that this Sam seems different from the Sam who we met at the start of the movie.  The Sam who wakes up in the facility is younger and angrier than the Sam who we first met.  This new Sam is less willing to accept everything that GERTY tells him.  Even more strangely, this new Sam is convinced that he’s just arrived on the moon….

And then the new Sam meets the old Sam….

In Moon, Sam Rockwell gives two empathetic and memorable performances as the same person.  Old Sam is beaten down by life.  New Sam is angry and just a little bit arrogant.  And yet, what makes the performance so brilliant is that you can easily see how the New Sam could eventually transform into the Old Sam.  Thanks to both Rockwell’s performance and the film’s stark imagery, it’s easy to see how the isolation could eventually rob Sam of his passion, his will to fight, and his intellectual curiosity.  When the Old Sam meets the New Sam, he’s reminded that there used to be more to his life than just the drudgery of his daily routine.  And when the New Sam meets the Old Sam, he’s confronted with what a future of isolation means to him.

Of course, the new Sam and the Old Sam weren’t meant to meet.  And now that they have met, Lunar Industries is on their way to clean up the mess….

Released in the same year as James Cameron’s bombastic Avatar, Moon is a low-key and thoughtful science fiction film, a meditation on isolation and identity.  Duncan Jones directs the film in a stark and low-key style, allowing the film’s story to play out at its own pace.  As visualized by Jones, the lunar landscape is impressive the first time you see it and increasingly bleak with each subsequent look.  Far more than Ridley Scott did in The Martian, Jones captures what it actually is to be totally alone.  (That no critics compared The Martian and Moon, despite their obvious similarities, is astounding to me.)

Featuring Sam Rockwell at his absolute best, Moon is a sci-fi film that remains haunting and powerful, even after films with bigger budgets and flashier special effects have faded into obscurity.

Sundance Film Review: Searching (dir by Aneesh Chaganty)


With this year’s Sundance Film Festival getting underway in Colorado, I’m going to be spending the next two weeks looking at some films that caused a stir at previous Sundance Film Festivals.  Today, I’m taking a look at the 2018’s Searching.

Searching tells the story of David Kim (John Cho) and his daughter, Margot (Michelle La).

David thinks that he has a close relationship with his daughter but, in reality, they’ve been drifting apart ever since David’s wife died two years earlier.  Now, Margot is away at college and David is alone at home.  They still communicate, of course.  They message each other on Facebook.  They Skype.  David sill sends Margot money for her piano lessons.

And yet, even if he can’t bring himself to fully admit it, David knows that they’re not as close as they once were.  Their conversations are often awkward and he doesn’t really know much about the friends that Margot has made at college.  Too often, he finds himself starting to ask her about what’s really going on in her life, just to then erase the message before sending.  One night, when Margot tells David that she’s going to a friend’s house for a study group, he has no reason not to believe her.  It’s not until Margot fails to return from studying that David is forced to confront how little he actually knows about his daughter’s life.

As a film, Searching is set almost entirely on smartphones and computer screens.  Considering that the movie could have just as easily been called Unfriended 3: Searching, this is a surprisingly good and emotionally resonant film.  We watch as David helplessly sends out messages to his daughters, messages that are destined to be unanswered.  We watch as David looks at old pictures and videos of the family he once had, searching for some sort of answer hidden in the past.  And, as we watch all of this, we come to realize that David is not just searching for his daughter’s whereabouts.  Instead, in a world dominated by social media, he’s also searching for a human connection, for something more than just a tweet or a cryptic status update.

Of course, the film does occasionally threaten to take its format just a bit too far.  Sometimes, you really do find yourself wishing that David would just get offline and go outside and look for his daughter.  (Actually, he does do that but, because of the film’s narrative structure, we don’t really get to witness it.)  By the time David is having nightly FaceTime sessions with the detective (Debra Messing) assigned to his daughter’s case, you can be excused for fearing that the film’s style is going to end up collapsing in on itself.

Fortunately, Searching is held together by the lead performance of John Cho.  Whenever Searching threatens to veer into self-parody, Cho is there to bring it back on track.  Before this film came out, I guess Cho was probably best known for appearing in the Star Trek movies.  Searching made him the first Asian-American to headline a mainstream thriller in Hollywood and Cho gives such a sympathetic and compelling performance that you’re willing to excuse whatever flaws might be present in the film’s narrative.  Because he’s played by John Cho, you want David to find his daughter.  You want him to find that for which he’s searching.

Sundance Film Review: Three Identical Strangers (dir by Tim Wardle)


With this year’s Sundance Film Festival getting underway in Colorado, I’m going to be spending the next two weeks looking at some films that caused a stir at previous Sundance Film Festivals.  Today, I’m taking a look at the 2018 documentary, Three Identical Strangers.

It’s generally agreed that last year was a great year for documentaries.  Between RBG, Would You Like To Be My Neighbor?, and Free Solo cleaning up at the box office, 2018 was the year that proved the audiences were willing to pay money to see reality captured on film.  For me, there was no better documentary released last year than Three Identical Strangers.

Three Identical Strangers starts out like a Hallmark movie and then slowly turns into a horror movie.  In New York, in the early 1980s, three young men who have previously never met discover that they’re triplets.  At first, they’re a media sensation.  Young, handsome, and charismatic, Edward Galland, David Kellman, and Robert Shafran become instantly celebrities.  We watch archival footage of them appearing on a talk show and talking about how they discovered each other and everything that they have in common.  They all smoke the same brand of cigarette.  They all tend to have the same fashion sense and interests.  All three of them smile while announcing that they’re single and they like women, which causes the audience to break into applause.

It was the 80s and we’re told that meant sex, drugs, and rock and roll.  There are the three brothers at a club.  There they are walking down the streets of New York, with three huge grins on their faces.  There they are making a cameo appearance in a film with Madonna.  Soon, they’re opening up a restaurant together, they’re getting married, and they’re starting families of their own….

And yet, as we watch all of this happy footage, we’re also watching present-day interviews with David Kellman and Robert Shafran.  It’s impossible not to notice that, in the present, both of them speak in voices tinged with weariness.  In the present day interviews, neither one of the brothers smile.  Both of them have their guard up.  To put it simply, neither one of them appears to be particularly happy.

It’s also impossible not to notice that Edward Galland, who is frequently described as having been the most charismatic of the triplets, is nowhere to be seen.

While the three triplets are becoming celebrities, the families that adopted them are wondering why they never knew about the other brothers.  All three of the brothers were adopted through the same adoption agency and, interestingly, all three of them were put into families that had just recently adopted a daughter as well.  One brother was given to an upper class family while another was adopted by a middle class family and finally, the third brother was given to a lower class family.  It quickly becomes clear that this was not a coincidence.

Instead, the three brothers were a part of a social experiment, one designed to see how growing up at different economic levels would effect them.  And, as quickly becomes clear, Edward, David, and Robert weren’t the only part of that experiment.  Under the direction of psychologists Viola W. Bernard and Peter B. Neubauer, several sets of twins and triplets were separated for the exact same reason….

To say anything else about this haunting documentary would run the risk of spoiling it.  It’s a thought-provoking film, as well as a rather disturbing one.  Watching the film, it’s impossible not to mourn for the childhoods that the brothers lost.  At the same time, you do find yourself wondering if all of the triplets’s subsequent problems can be blamed on the experiment or if they would have happened even if they all had been raised in the same family?  The documentary leaves the answer to that question ambiguous.  Much like the triplets, the audience is left wondering what could have been.

Oddly, Three Identical Strangers was not nominated for the Best Documentary Feature Oscar.  Well, that’s the Academy’s loss because this film was the best documentary of a very good year.

 

Sundance Film Review: The Tale (dir by Jennifer Fox)


With this year’s Sundance Film Festival getting underway in Colorado, I’m going to be spending the next two weeks looking at some films that caused a stir at previous Sundances.  Today, I’m taking a look at 2018’s The Tale.

The Tale is all about memory.

Jennifer Fox (Laura Dern) is, as her mother (Ellen Burstyn) often reminds her, nearly fifty years old and childless.  She’s been engaged to the sensitive Martin (Common) for three years but she’s in no hurry to get married.  As for children — well, she decided a long time ago that she didn’t want to have children.  Jennifer is a documentarian and a teacher.  She not only records real life but she also teaches others how to do the same thing.  She makes films that, in the decades to come, will be used by future students of history who want to know what it was like to live in the late 20th and early 21st Century.  And yet, it’s her own history that Jennifer has never come to terms with.

When her mother comes across a school essay that a 13 year-old Jennifer once wrote about her relationship with her riding instructor, Mrs. G (Elizabeth Debicki), and her running coach, Bill (Jason Ritter), Jennifer dismisses her concerns.  As Jennifer explains it to Martin, her mother is just upset because Jennifer once had a boyfriend who was “older.”  Of course, that older boyfriend was in his 40s.  What’s obvious to everyone but Jennifer is that her coach took advantage of and raped her.  Jennifer, however, refuses to accept that.  She refers to the coach as being her “lover” and, more than a few times, she attempts to dismiss the whole topic by shrugging and saying, “It was the 70s.”

It’s not that Jennifer doesn’t realize the truth about what actually happened.  Laura Dern gives a fiercely intelligent performance as Jennifer, one that slowly and deliberately peels away at the layers of defensive protection that Jennifer has spent the past 35 years developing.  Jennifer knows what happened but she’s allowed her memory to cloud the reality of it, largely because that’s the only way that she could deal with the aftereffects of Bill’s sexual abuse.  When Jennifer thinks back to the summer that she spent with Mrs. G and Bill, she first sees herself as she was when she was 15 years old, curious and headstrong.  It’s only when Jennifer looks at a photograph that was taken that summer that she sees starts to see herself as she really was, an introverted and vulnerable 13 year-old (played by Isabelle Nelisse) who was groomed and abused by two predators.

As Jennifer investigates her past and finally begins to understand what really happened over the course of that summer, her memories begin to change.  Hazily-remembered conversations take on new meaning and she begins to understand that terrible truth between the looks that were often exchanged between Bill and Mrs. G.  At times, the older Jennifer finds herself interrogating her memories of Bill, Mrs. G, and even her younger self.  She demands to know how they could have done what they did and their answers leave you wondering whether you’re hearing what they would really say or if your just hearing what Jennifer would hope they would say.  When Jennifer talks to others who were around that summer, she’s shocked to learn that she wasn’t the only one who Bill abused and her insistence that she was Bill’s lover (as opposed to his victim) sounds more and more hollow.  When Jennifer finally does track down some of her abusers, you wonder if their somewhat confused reactions are due to guilt or if it’s possible that there were so many victims that they don’t even remember what they did to Jenny Fox.  And if they do remember, they seem to be either horrifically ignorant or curelly unconcerned about the consequences of their actions.

It’s a brave and powerful film, one that is made all the more disturbing by the fact that director and screenwriter Jennifer Fox is telling her own story.   At least year’s Sundance Film Festival, it premiered to acclaim and controversy.  There was also some surprise when, instead of securing a theatrical release, the film was instead sold to HBO.  At the time, there was a lot of concern that the film’s power would somehow be diluted as a result of playing on television as opposed to a big screen.  However, in hindsight, the small screen — with its unavoidable vulnerability — was the perfect place for this uncompromising and emotionally raw film.

The Tale is not an easy film to watch but it is an important one.  It’s a film for anyone who has ever struggled to come to terms with the past.  It’s both a reminder that you’re not alone and a warning to not ignore or laugh off your suspicions.  It’s also a good example of the type of film that probably would never have been discovered if not for Sundance.  There’s a lot of legitimate criticism that one can direct towards the Sundance Film Festival but occasionally, it does do what it’s supposed to do.