Independent cinema is where some actors go to defy expectations and try roles outside of their comfort zone. You'll find dramatic stars trying out small comedies, and big comedians putting on their best serious face. With I Smile Back, an adaptation of Amy Koppelman's book of the same name, we get the latter. But this isn't just a gimmick of a raunchy comic trying to get dark just for shock value as Sarah Silverman steps into the lead role with flying colors, delivering a brutal, relentless depiction of addiction and sadness as a mother struggling with substance abuse everyday, popping pills, snorting coke and chugging vodka.
Years ago, the documentary American Teen focused on a group of teenagers living in Indiana, focusing on their everyday high school lives. This time a new documentary heads back to the Midwest with How to Dance in Ohio. However, the young adults at the center of this documentary aren't your ordinary teens, because they all have varying autistic spectrum disorders. The film from Alexandra Shiva turns the camera on these socially anxious teens as they prepare for their first spring formal. This is something that can be daunting for teens who don't have to deal with autism, and with these kids it could be disastrous.
There are a growing number of recent films that have tried to make a fun joke out of religion, which can sometimes be a sensitive subject (at least in this country). Not many of them are that good, as sometimes they get too dumb with the humor (e.g. Year One), but sometimes they strike the right chord, touching upon both the importance of and hilarity of modern religion. Don Verdean is the latest film from Jared Hess & Jerusha Hess, the husband/wife filmmaker team that brought us Napoleon Dynamite and Gentlemen Broncos previously. Don Verdean is the name of religious artifacts collector who gets into some deep shit.
Would you be a better guard or a better prisoner? How would you act? Most of us are inherently familiar with the "Stanford Prison Experiment", the infamously legendary psychology experiment conducted in the 1970s involving a mock prison testing the limits of prisoners against the guards. Many have been trying to adapt this for years, and we finally have a take on it - literally called The Stanford Prison Experiment. Director Kyle Patrick Alvarez (of C.O.G. from Sundance 2013) along with screenwriter Tim Talbott bring to life the intense, brutal mock prison setup in the basement of a Stanford building. It's riveting to watch, and will be divisive just based on how crazy it gets. But we all knew it would go this far, right? Right?
It's best not to get too sappy, but I can't help it with this film. It had me, and almost everyone in the theater, wiping away tears. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is another wonderful surprise gem from Sundance 2015 that is inspiring, entertaining, moving and made for anyone who has a heart (which is, technically, everyone but you know what I mean). It's a film made by die-hard film lovers that tells a very heartbreaking but sincere story not of young romance, but of young enthusiasm, a love for people and the joy of making them smile. It's built around sadness yet inspired by the pursuit of happiness, and it will make everyone cry.
In the world of indie films, the coming-of-age storyline is a popular one. But because we're all different, maturing in ways that aren't identical, that makes for a variety of great stories with similar themes. In this case, director Marielle Heller launches her career with The Diary of a Teenage Girl, based on the graphic novel of the same name by Phoebe Gloeckner, which follows 15-year old Minnie Goetze (Bel Powley) growing up in the heart of San Francisco in the drug friendly 1970s, quickly and aggressively exploring her sexuality. However, making things complicated is the fact that this happens with Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard), the boyfriend of her mother (Kristen Wiig). The result is a stupendous film.
A few years ago at Sundance, director Craig Zobel unleashed his film Compliance upon audiences, earning rave reviews and critical responses from those who felt it went too far. Zobel, who has a steady hand and refined vision, returns to Sundance this year with Z for Zachariah, and adaptation of a book that takes place in a very small town with the few remaining people that have survived after a nuclear apocalypse. The central character is Ann, played by the astonishing Margot Robbie (from The Wolf of Wall Street), who ends up in a bit of a love triangle after two different men show up. This invigorating sci-fi is my kind of film.
Sundance 2015: National Lampoon's 'Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead' is a Must-See Lesson in Comedy History
Sadly, for anyone under the age of 30, the name National Lampoon is synonymous with terrible straight-to-DVD comedies, with the exception of the more celebrated films of the Vacation franchise (the original and Christmas Vacation). However, National Lampoon has a legacy that stretches decades as it served as the launching point for some of the most iconic talents in comedy, both in front of the camera and behind it. Without National Lampoon, there may not be a "Saturday Night Live" or Ghostbusters. The documentary Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead takes an in-depth look at the rise and fall of the adult humor magazine.
One of my favorite romantic comedies of all time is When Harry Met Sally. It's classic, timeless and delivers the perfect depiction of friendship between the opposite sexes, dating and relationships. And while countless films have tried to duplicate the brilliance of director Rob Reiner and writer Nora Eprhon, many of them fall tragically short. But thankfully, we have Sleeping with Other People from Bachelorette writer and director Leslye Headland, and this is hopefully as close as we'll get to what is essentially a remake of the aforementioned 1989 romantic comedy staple. But the film has a style and attitude all its own.
Wow. This was the film I was waiting to discover at Sundance 2015. Rick Famuyiwa's Dope is one of the best films I've seen at Sundance so far: refreshingly unique, incredibly smart, hilarious throughout, edgy, and subversive in the way it challenges typical cliches of urban storytelling. Dope is a coming-of-age film about a kid from "the bottoms" in Inglewood, California who is a big geek, not the expected thug, and in his final year of high school ends up in a wacky debacle that may help him end up right where he belongs. It's awesome, really, this film rules and everyone is going to be talking about it. I loved it, from the soundtrack to the performances, it's a breakout from this year's festival and should connect with many movie lovers.
Over the past decade, we've seen the rise of the bromance, mostly popularized by Seth Rogen and James Franco with films like Pineapple Express and The Interview, or even Jonah Hill with Michael Cera and Channing Tatum in Superbad and 21 Jump Street repectively. But the new indie The D-Train starring Jack Black and James Marsden takes the bromantic comedy to a whole new level, and it makes for an absolutely hilarious and wild ride. If you want to keep aspects of this comedy in the dark (which I recommend), then stop reading after the fourth paragraph and then just come back for the final paragraph.
When Robert Redford, the founder of the Sundance Film Festival, has a film playing here in Park City, you hope for the best. It wasn't Redford's idea to premiere A Walk in the Woods at Sundance, but instead that decision came from John Cooper, director of programming. Perhaps it would have been better to let the film lie, because it does not belong here in the mountains as part of the most prestigious independent film festival in the United States. A Walk in the Woods is a massive disappointment across the board with mediocre performances, poor production quality, and a story that meanders more than the characters.
Comedy is one of those magical things that can bring complete strangers together, all laughing as an instinctual response to a stand-up comedian, an online sketch, a motion picture, or a television series. And while we all know what we find funny, it's seemingly impossible to truly pinpoint just where the comedy comes from. These comedians, writers, actors, etc. all know how to make us laugh, but how do they know? Actor and first-time filmmaker Kevin Pollak sets out to answer the question of whether or not comedians have to be miserable in order to be funny, based on the frequency of talents with tragedy early in their lives.
Let me say this upfront because I must confess: it is very hard to analyze a documentary on its technical merits when it is so excruciatingly emotional. The first documentary world premiere I caught at Sundance 2015 was The Hunting Ground, the new doc from acclaimed filmmaker Kirby Dick (of This Film Is Not Yet Rated and The Invisible War). This is such an important documentary that two senators were in the audience, but it's also important because it's showing the truth in the face of resistance, it's allowing us to actually hear from and listen to real people. The Hunting Ground is a film that explores the epidemic (yes) of campus rape occurring for decades at the most prestigious universities in America. And it's appalling.