“Frank” **1/2 (Ireland)
Director Lenny Abrahamson, who brought us the brilliant psychological drama “What Richard Did”, may not seem like the most likely candidate to make a comedy, but “Frank” is a deftly handled, bizarre and charming comedy. Michael Fassbender plays the eponymous Frank, a talented musician whose main quirk is that he walks around inside a giant cartoon paper maché head, clearly a symptom of a deeper mental health problem. Although we never see Frank’s face, Fassbender works wonders with his voice and body to keep us emotionally engaged. When Frank’s band loses one of its members, they end up grabbing a local pianist and loner, Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), and inviting him to rural Ireland to record an album, where he discovers just how strange and troubled the band-members are. The clash between Jon and the band, and Jon’s uncrushable optimism about their potential give the story momentum, and create an immense amount of laugh-out-loud comedy, both physical and dialogue-driven. Screens 4/26 @ 9:15PM & 4/28 @ 4PM at Sundance Kabuki Cinema.
“Happiness” **1/2 (France/Finland)
This documentary won this year’s Sundance World Documentary Cinematography award, and that’s the main reason to see it: there is stunning photography of the film’s subjects, Buddhist monks in red robes, set against the breathtaking backdrop of the Himalayas in Bhutan. The film focusses on Peyangki, a nine-year-old who gets sent to a monastery by his mother, in search of a better life for her son. They live in a small town on the brink of finally getting electricity installed, that even monks have felt compelled to leave in search of more modern living conditions. Much of the film laments this technological progress and romanticizes the antiquated lifestyle that the town is about to lose; it’s convenient that no one ever has a medical problem that requires electricity for proper care. The film is an interesting inside look at monastic life and the price of progress, but the subjects often feel too stiff in their scenes together, their dialogue seemingly forced and scripted. Screens 4/27 @12:15PM & 4/30 @1PM at Sundance Kabuki Cinema.
“Heaven Adores You” **1/2 (USA) – World Premiere
This Kickstarter-funded documentary about the late singer-songwriter Elliott Smith, best known for his Oscar-nominated composition for “Good Will Hunting”, is more interested in eulogizing Smith than understanding the man or his music. The films suggests that the Oscar nomination that shot him to fame may also have precipitated his suicide, but this never leads to a deeper discussion of the price of fame. There’s a paucity of historical footage of Smith, largely because he was a private and enigmatic man, and even those that knew him best can’t fully fill in the blanks. Director Nickolas Rossi compensates by setting radio interviews and Smith’s music to beautifully shot montages of Portland scenery, but the images rarely seem connected to Smith’s story. We learn that Smith was an introvert who had a difficult childhood and that he was a musician’s musician well before he became the darling of Portland and later the American indie pop scene. Despite repeated testimonials stating Smith’s genius, the film never really explores what made his music resonate and endure, a real missed opportunity. “Heaven Adores You” will be a minor curiosity for diehard Smith fans, but can’t hold its own against great music docs like “Shine the Light” or “It Might Get Loud”. Screens 5/5 @9PM, 5/7 @ 3:45PM at Sundance Kabuki Cinema & 5/8 @6PM at New People Cinema.
“Hellion” ** (USA)
SFFS-supported “Hellion” was expanded from writer-director Kat Candler’s short film of the same name, and it shows in the thinness of the plot. It’s the story of a grieving father (Aaron Paul) and his two boys, one always on the brink of trouble, partly from being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the other young enough to not have been corrupted. Candler gets strong performances from both her young cast and adult players, including a nice supporting turn from Juliette Lewis as the boys’ aunt: there are many touching, quiet family moments. Unfortunately, this gets overshadowed by the predictable plot – involving a literal Chekhov’s gun – and the distractingly shaky camera angles meant to give the film added grit. Screens 4/25 @ 6:30PM & 4/29 @4PM at Sundance Kabuki Cinema.
“The Militant” **1/2 (Uruguay/Argentina)
This Uruguyan drama tells the story of a twenty-something man, formerly active in campus politics and political protests, who returns to his home town upon learning of his father’s death. Although he’s a fairly ambivalent and directionless young man, he soon finds himself engaged again in local political protests where he meets a girl who strikes his fancy. The trouble is he doesn’t seem to have much ambition or even conviction, which may be fairly common amongst so-called militants, but it makes it difficult to care deeply about his goings-on and whatever protest-of-the-week he’s up to. Screens 4/26 @9PM at New People Cinema & 4/27 @3:15PM at Sundance Kabuki Cinema.
“Ping Pong Summer” ** (USA)
In “Ping Pong Summer”, director Michael Tully has managed to distill everything awful about eighties movies – the fashion, cheesy dialogue, political incorrectness and afternoon-special endings – minus the heart. When Rad (Marcello Conte) ends up in Ocean City in the summer for a family vacation, all he wants to do is play ping pong indoors. But the rich kids keep sneaking into the corner of the frame to bully him and destroy his fun. There are a few truly great moments in the film, like when Rad sits awkwardly on the beach with his crush (the radiant Emmi Shockley) failing to kiss her; when he puts on a newly acquired hip hop tape, lying on his bed with his head lodged between two speakers smiling with joy; and when the sounds of the ping pong rally are set to a complementary hip hop soundtrack. But these few small triumphs hardly compensate for the trite and wholly predictable plot, even though it’s helped by a whimsical turn from Susan Sarandon as the female Mr. Miyagi of ping pong. Screens 5/4 @6:30PM at Sundance Kabuki Cinema & 5/7 @8:45PM at New People Cinema.
“Pioneer” *** (Norway)
This Norwegian thriller centers on a couple of brothers who are thrill-seeking deep sea divers involved in laying the first Norwegian petroleum pipes in the North Sea to harvest oil. It’s a fascinating look at the physical challenges of diving so deep and this untold part of the offshore oil drilling story. Director Erik Skjoldbjærg crafts a suspenseful thriller around this project, which involves the Norwegian’s need to borrow expertise from Americans who are not quite fully trustworthy, especially the seemingly shady American diver (Wes Bentley). It’s an edge-of-your-seat film, with some stunning footage deep underwater, but the basic suspense plot frequently strains believability. Screens 5/1 @9:30PM & 5/3 @ 3:30PM at Sundance Kabuki Cinema.
“The Trip to Italy” ***1/2 (UK)
Director Michael Winterbottom’s mostly improvised sequel to his “The Trip”, also starring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon as versions of themselves on a culinary voyage, is even funnier than its predecessor but lacks some of its pathos. The two friends have now swapped places emotionally – Coogan has sorted out his relationship with his son and is comfortable in his career, while Brydon is struggling to maintain a positive relationship with his wife under the strain of raising a small child – which makes the series a thoughtful chronicle of the changing tides of friendship. Coogan and Brydon re-unite to trade impeccable Michael Caine and Tom Hardy impressions, make apt cultural references from “Roman Holiday” to “Hamlet”, and engage in non-stop witty banter. It’s less effective as a meditation on loneliness and the limits of friendship than “The Trip”, but it’s even more fun. Screens 4/29 @6:30PM & 5/2 @1:30PM at Sundance Kabuki Cinema.
“We Are The Best!” **** (Sweden)
Lukas Moodysson’s (“Show Me Love”) new film, “We Are The Best!”, may be set in 1980s Stockholm, but it will resonate with contemporary audiences of all ages. This tender and touching film is about a trio of smart, gutsy, adolescent girls who worship punk music. They want to start their own band, but have no musical skills. Two of the girls have been best friends for years: we see the ups and downs of this friendship, which is a source of solace, support, competition, and insecurity. When they recruit a quiet girl in their class, who is a talented musician, to join their band, we see how much she gains from their friendship but also the degree to which they hold her at arm’s length. Moodysson gets authentic performances from his young actresses, which reveal the complicated and contradictory parts of their friendships: they love each other dearly but they can also hurt each other terribly. The film will move you to tears – not with sadness, but with recognition – just like a good episode of “Friday Night Lights”. Screens 5/5 @6:30PM & 5/7 @1:30PM at Sundance Kabuki Cinema.
“Young & Beautiful” *** (France)
François Ozon’s “Young & Beautiful” is a thoughtful and feminist exploration of the limited sexual and romantic options available to a beautiful young woman when society too frequently defines her primarily by these qualities. Seventeen-year-old Isabelle’s (Marine Vacth) uninspiring romantic exploits with boys her own age – men that make sex all about them, are too emotionally needy, or can’t come close to satisfying her even if they try – lead her to take on a double life as a prostitute. The film ignores the very real dangers of this occupation, but Ozon is more interested in exploring how romantic and sexual relationships work rather than dealing with the sex industry: prostitution merely offers a heightened reality through which to interrogate social norms. If no one can see past Isabelle’s good looks, or engage sexually with her without becoming selfish or overly needy, doesn’t prostitution offer her a cleaner transaction? At least, as a prostitute, she doesn’t have to pretend that she isn’t being treated like an object. The film works as an effective, if chilling, satire. Screens 4/28 @9:30PM & 5/1 @3:45PM at Sundance Kabuki Cinema.