AS 2013'S BIGGEST MOVIES IN THE MAKING HOLD THEIR FIRST SCREENINGS AT THE SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL, GREG KRELENSTEIN GIVES US HIS ANNUAL REPORT OF THE HITS YOU'VE GOT TO SEE (AND THE ONES TO AVOID)
Amanda Seyfried delivers a career-changing performance in LOVELACE, an exhilarating biopic of the celebrated star of adult cinema’s most famous picture, Deep Throat, Linda Lovelace. In the film, Linda Lovelace (now a "Real Housewife of Long Island" type) states she was only in the porn business for 17 days. While Lovelace traces her rise and fall surrounding the release of the film, its structure smartly follows the blueprint of the celebrity biopic, then at its peak, rewinds to show the ugliness and pain in her private life. Plucked from the go-go dancing roller discos of Florida, Linda is “discovered” by the strip club owner Chuck Traynor (played by the menacing and brilliant Peter Sarsgaard). Within a short period of montaged bliss, it’s clear that Chuck has become an abusive Svengali and pimp, and to get himself out of debt, scores her an audition for the porn industry’s first crossover hit. With only one film, her name breaks through as the butt of Johnny Carson’s jokes and gains a stamp of approval from Playboy’s Hugh Hefner (James Franco). Sharon Stone also takes a terrific turn as Seyfried’s very unglamorous mother, disappearing completely into the role. The films presents Lovelace as a modern feminist icon, but what takes the audience in is the heartbreaking story of the individual behind the mania. It's no wonder the film was quickly picked up by Radius-Weinstein for release this year.
Based on a real-life road trip taken several years ago by the celebrated director Sebastian Silva and his brothers, we receive the gift that is CRYSTAL FAIRY. As ethereal and free-spirited as its title, the film is remarkable because of its life-affirming, largely improvised script, and the incredible comeback performance of Now & Then and 200 Cigarettes star Gaby Hoffman. My favorite performance of the festival, Hoffman bravely plays the film’s title character without any trace of vanity. Fairy, as the names suggests, is a hippie dippie (nicknamed Crystal Hairy) traveler with a book of secrets. After meeting at a party, she becomes an unexpected guest on Michael Cera’s quest to just get high on mescaline on the beaches of Chile. Speaking of Cera, that’s another comeback of sorts. While this character still possesess many of the trademarks of his well-crafted, awkward-but-lovable brand, Cera 2.0 is darker and unafraid of audiences turning on him.
The quirky-comedy torch carried by Sundance discoveries past (Napolean Dynamite, Little Miss Sunshine, Garden State) is passed on to the quirky coming-of-age comedy TOY’S HOUSE. The film draws notes from classic youth films The Goonies and Stand By Me with hints of Lord of the Flies thrown in for good measure. A more recent comparison could be Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom. The success of this true festival breakout is attributable to the feature's director, Jordan Vogt-Roberts, who makes his debut here coaching young leads Nick Robinson, Gabriel Basson and Moises Arias. Refusing to live under their parents’ house arrest, Robinson leads his two friends into the wilderness to build a house and live off the land. The film is a crowdpleaser (evident by its sale during the festival to CBS FILMS) and a very worthy inheritor to the crown of cinema’s next original creative voice.
"A revolution is never easy," and "The system is broken" are just two lines culled from the script of Zal Batmanglij's THE EAST, co-written by its lead actress and double threat, Brit Marling. (The film marks their second collaboration following last year's Sound of my Voice.) These lines can also be used to describe the actress, who is a force to be reckoned with in the current state of independent cinema. Marling—who just landed a highly coveted spot on the cover of Vanity Fair's Hollywood Issue (a rite of passage for the current crop of aspiring starlets)—has already one-upped her peers by writing and acting in all of her fiercely original scripts. And The East should be her first major break into box office green—ironic for a film that demonstrates compassion for the underground, the countercultural youth movement of anarchists, freegans, dumpster divers, queer activists, etc. These subcultures are rarely treated this sensitively in mainstream work, yet broken down, the film is a fairly conventional plot-driven thriller about an undercover operative infiltrating a domestic terrorist organization that threatens the government and large scale corporate America for their injustices through elaborate "jams." The strong ensemble cast includes Alexander Skarsgaard (as a Jesus-like "cult" leader), Ellen Page, Shiloh Fernandez, Toby Kebell and Patricia Clarkson. At one point, Page reasons that "two wrongs make a right," hammering home the film's revolutionary spirit. While the film never quite answers whether or not she's right, we can only wait with bated breath until The East hits theaters...or Marling strikes again.
Though only halfway through my visit to this year's 2013 Sundance Film Festival, I know it all ends at Midnight. Rather, BEFORE MIDNIGHT, the 3rd film in the series that follows the relationship between Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy's characters, directed by Richard Linklater (the film is co-written by all three). Beginning as star-crossed lovers on a train in 1994, this sometimes brutal, always emotionally honest drama, can almost be a companion piece to Judd Apatow's THIS IS 40, examining the changing relationships of couples growing into the middle-aged parents they never dreamed of in their Gen-X youth. Yes, Ethan Hawke, Reality does bite. And I don't think I'll see a better film at this festival, likely this year.
Drake Doremus's last Sundance entry, LIKE/CRAZY, also traced the difficult relationship between two star-crossed lovers (Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones) kept apart by U.S. immigration and was one of the most exciting films of 2011's fest. Felicity Jones is back in this year's entry, BREATHE IN, which marks a more mature effort by its filmmaker to slightly less satisfying results. Jones plays a foreign exchange student that slowly begins to tear a family apart with a dangerous affair with her acting guardian (played by Guy Pearce). The performances from the cast—which also includes Amy Ryan and breakout faces Mackenzie Davis and Matthew Daddario—are haunting, but the intimate plot of his last film is missed in this one, which at times flirts with cinematic cliches.
The first screen adaptation of a David Sedaris work, C.O.G., (written and directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez in his feature debut), tells the story of a Yale grad student who leaves studies behind for a Grapes of Wrath-inspired experience. The adventure begins in an Oregon apple-picking farm and factory, and later moves to the homes of born-again Christians (the title refers to these, the "Children Of God"). Known from his Broadway debut as the lead in Spring Awakening and later in small roles in Ang Lee's Chasing Woodstock and Glee, this should be the starmaking turn by Jonathan Groff. The film comes complete with a devastatingly painful ending, perfect for one that gets right the source material's charming, dry humor.