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Gretta (Keira Knightley) and Dan (Mark Ruffalo) have a few things in common: they both have a passion for music, they're both lonely, and both have faith in one another. She broke up with her musician boyfriend, Dave (Adam Levine), while Dan is separated from his wife, Miriam (Catherine Keener). After quitting from the record company that he helped to create with his business partner (Mos Def), Dan goes to a local New York City pub where he sees Gretta singing and persuades her to let him produce her album for a very low cost. Their new business venture not only builds Dan's financial hopes up, but also helps to improve his relationship with his 14-year-old daughter, Violet (Hailee Steinfeld), as she spends time with him and Gretta---and even plays an instrument as part of the album.
With Once, writer/director John Carney proved that he had knack for unpretentious romantic dramas about true-to-life people who are passionate about music. With Begin Again he proves that he still has that knack intact. Every drama, whether it be romance or plain drama, should be grounded in some form of realism; it doesn't need total realism a la Eric Rohmer's film's, though. Good chemistry or rapport between characters are very important as well. Fortunately, Begin Again has that to offer because of a very well-chosen casts of actors. The chemistry between Gretta and Dan feels quite palpable throughout. Will they be just business partners, friends or more? That's a question that might be in the back of your mind while Gretta and Dan create their album together, and you might find yourself pleasantly surprised by the answer which won't be spoiled here. A few other surprises include how Carney inventively incorporates flashbacks so smoothly without distracting from the narrative flow. Admittedly, the scenes involving Dan's former record company aren't quite as organic or believable as the rest of the film because of too many "conveniences" mostly likely happen only in Hollywood movies, but those are minor issues that can easily be forgiven with a little suspension of disbelief. What separates Begin Again from most romantic dramas from Hollywood---of which there are sadly too few around these days---is that its characters seem lived-in, complex and likable despite their flaws. Even Gretta's ex, a cheater, has redeeming qualities that humanize him. Morever, Carney adds just the right amount of comic relief without going overboard or catering to the lowest common denominator like Obvious Child does.
Rule number one: Any film with Catherine Keener is at least very good. Rule number two: All rules were made to be broken except for rule number one. Begin Again, like any film with Catherine Keener, has the kind of special effects that are rare in Hollywood: wit, intelligence, warmth, charisma and, above all, humanity. Kudos to Keener and her agent for always selecting films with beautifully-written screenplays (i.e. last year's Enough Said) that feel have a well-balanced blend of commercial and art-house qualities. Begin Again, the Closing Night film of the festival, is the first great American film this year that can't be turned into a video game. It deserves to become a sleeper hit.
Love is Strange
Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) have been living together for the past 39 years, and finally get married to one another. Soon after, George loses his job as a music teacher at a Catholic school when the archdiocese learns of his gay marriage. He and Ben can no longer afford to live in their apartment, so they have no choice but to find other living arrangements while they look for an apartment they can afford with their new financial constraints. George moves in with his friends, Roberto (Manny Perez) and Ted (Cheyenne Jackson); Ben moves in with his nephew, Elliott (Darren Burrows), and his wife, Kate (Marisa Tomei), along with their teenage son, Joey (Charlie Tahan).
Character-driven, gentle and deeply human, Love is Strange ranks among the most genuinely heartfelt films of the year. Just when you think the film will go in a preachy direction by pitting Ben and George against the Catholic church, it goes in a refreshingly different direction by exploring how each of them adapt to their new living situations, and how their relationship evolves while living apart from one another. Not a moment rings false, and, unlike many films, it gets more interesting and complex as it goes along. Each character comes across as lived-in and there's more to them than meets the eye, even the supporting characters such as Joey. The fact that Sachs keeps the running time down to 94 minutes is a testament to writer/director Ira Sachs' talent and discipline as a filmmaker; if this were 2 hours or longer, it would've overstayed its welcome.
Sachs and co-writer Mauricio Zacharias trust you as an intelligent member of the audience by not force-feeding you or hitting you over the head with any messages. The moments of comic relief work well while the darker moments feel understated without veering into melodrama or pretension. None of this would have worked without the fine cast each of whom is well-cast. John Lithgow and Alfred Molina give career-best performances that deserve awards recognition. You can sense Ben and George's love of one another on a palpable level from start to finish which makes Love is Strange all the more engrossing and quietly powerful.
Sasha (Leighton Meester) and Paige (Gillian Jacobs) have been best friends since childhood despite their differences: Paige works as an environmental lawyer while Sasha slacks off more often than not while aspiring to become a musician. When Paige starts to date Tim (Adam Brody), her friendship with Sasha gets put to the test as Sasha feels envious of all the new attention that Paige gives Tim.
Life Partners is a perfect example of how quality dramedies can only be found outside of Hollywood nowadays. The screenplay by writer/director Susanna Fogel and co-writer Joni Lefkowitz not only has interesting, dynamic female characters (which in-and-of itself is quite rare to find), but also boasts wit, charm and warmth while remaining grounded in humanism. Fogel and Lefkowitz clearly know and understand what that their film is truly about friendship and the important of growing up to face reality. Fortunately, the blend of comedy and drama works quite well without any uneveness or, most importantly, sans attempts to cater to the lowest common demoninator. In other words, this is a movie for adults, although it can also be enjoyed by teenagers who are sick of being bombarded with mean-spirited, dumb Hollywood films.
It's also refreshing to see Leighton Meester displaying her acting chops and sinking her teeth into a meaty role which films like The Roommate, That's My Boy and The Oranges didn't allow her to do in the past because of their weak, shallow, inane screenplays. Hopefully, she will continue to make wise decisions after Life Parters. This equally funny, wise and tender film would make for a very good thematic double feature with the Australian film Muriel's Wedding.
16-year-old Eric Love (Jack O’Connell) has just entered adult prison because he has repeated his violent crimes. At the prison, he meets two individuals who will shape him for better or worse: his estranged father, Neville (Ben Mendelsohn), who happens to be a prisoner in the same wing, and Oliver (Rupert Friend), a therapist who leads group sessions with inmates in hope of helping them to escape their cycle of violence. Between run-ins with prison gangs, dealing with his father and the corruption of the prison system, Eric has a lot on his plate if he wants to not only survive prison, but to escape his violent tendencies which brought him there in the first place.
Gritty, intense, unflinching and taut, Starred Up is the kind of film that punches you right in the gut without letting up and takes you on a roller coaster ride of powerful emotions. The screenplay by Jonathan Asser doesn't resort to sugar-coating anything, but at the same time it presents you with a few glimmers of hope for Eric. If Eric's predicament were entirely hopeless, that wouldn't be very thrilling: it'd be the equivalent of watching someone falling off a roof when you know he'll hit the pavement very soon. In the case of Eric, it's not 100% certain if he'll smack the ground so-to-speak even though he's often heading in that direction. Eric makes for a very compelling character despite his many flaws, and it's wise of Asser to explore the dynamics of him and his father because it helps to enlighten you as to where Eric's destructive, immature behavior comes from fundamentally.
Part of what makes Starred Up so effective on an emotional level is Jack O'Connell's bravura, breakthrough performance. He's incredibly gifted because he tackles a wide range of emotions so convincingly and honestly. With the help of the screenplay and director David Mackenzie, he has found the core or truth of his character and brings it to life with utter conviction. Ben Mendelsohn is terrific as always, and Rupert Friend also impresses. Hopefully, we'll see much more of Jack O'Connell in the future. He's a star in the making. A minor caveat, though: subtitles might be needed while watching this film because the British accents sound too thick to be decipherable at times. At a running time of 1 hour and 47 minutes, Starred Up is the best prison drama since A Prophet.
If you're into horror, The Canal by
writer/director Ivan Kavanagh, will satisfy because it's terrifying on a palpable level without
relying on cheap scares or grossing you out via gore like most modern horror films do. David (Rupert
Evans), a film archivist, suspects that his wife Alice (Hannah Hoekstra) is having an affair with
Alex (Carl Shaaban). He soon learns something that creates even more trouble: a murder had taken
place at his house years ago, and there's a creepy ghost haunting it. Kavanagh makes the most out of
the lighting, sound effects, editing, colors and camera angles to generate plenty of intensity along
with style. It must be experienced on the big screen to maximize the impact of the visual and sound
effects. The Canal might be the scariest horror film since The Ring. Another visual
stylish film is Gueros, about two brothers, Frede (Tenoch Huerta) and Tomás (Sebastián
Aguirre), who travel around Mexico City after getting booted out of their apartment. Writer/director
Alonso Ruiz Palacios and co-writer Gibrán Portela don't offer much in terms of plot or character
development for that matter, but instead the cinematography, atmosphere and dry humor help to
invigorate the film. You can help but feel that Gueros is part of the New Mexican Wave much
like the French New Wave. For a more plot and character-driven film, there's Traitors about
Malika (Chaimae Ben Acha), the leader of a punk rock band who risks her life to become a drug mule
to make enough money so that her family won't become evicted. Just like with Life Partners,
it's very refreshing to see strong female characters here thanks to a complex, sensitively written
screenplay. Writer/director Sean Gullette infuses the film with humanity as well as some suspense
while never becoming banal. He's also lucky to have newcomer Chaimae Ben Acha as his star because
she brings charisma and panache to her role yet undercut with a hint of fragility. She's an absolute
revelation. The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq is a very unusual film that's hard to
categorize in just one genre. The plot involving three individuals who kidnap an author, Michel
Houellebecq (playing himself), and holding him hostage in their home, sounds like it should be just
a crime thriller. But, alas, no---it's much more than that. Writer/director Guillaume Nicloux
includes dry, witty humor and a few surprises along the way as Michel and his captors get to know
one another by talking. The dynamics of how their relationships evolve turn The Kidnapping of
Michel Houellebecq into a surprisingly warm and poignant film that's essentially a roller
coaster ride of emotions. For something a little (ok, a lot) different, check out Zombeavers about a group of friends who must deal with, you guessed it, zombie beavers that terrorize them
they're vacationing at a lakeside cabin. Writer/director Jordan Rubin together with co-writers Al
Kaplan and Jon Kaplan aren't afraid to cater to the lowest common denominator from start to finish
while providing lots of laughs as long as you're willing to check your brain out the door. Campy,
dumb, silly and outrageous, Zombeavers is in the vein of a Roger Corman film that has
similarly cheap-looking special effects. It's an absolute guilty pleasure that deserves to become a
midnight cult classic, and is best seen with a crowd of drunk and/or stoned audience members.
Art and Craft is about art forger Mark Landis. Co-directors Sam Cullman and Jennefer Grausman gained direct access to their subject throughout the interviews. In a particularly memorable scene, you get to watch how Landis meticulously goes about forging the paintings which he then donates to museums whose curators he successfully dupes. You'll have to observe his brilliant techniques of forgery to believe them. How has has managed to con curators for 30 years is quite interesting, but what's even more intriguing is when the doc ponders why he's done it for so long without profiting from it financially. What's in it for him? Cullman and Grausman, wisely, distance themselves from their subject while avoiding the temptation to judge him even as the ex-registrar of the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, Matthew Leininger, tries to stop Landis and have him prosecuted. More dramatic tension could have been mined from the attempts to prosecute Landis, but that's not as important as focusing on Landis because, from start to finish, he makes for a very increasingly complex subject who walks a fine line between genius and madness. On top of that, he may or may not be telling you the truth. If he's duping curators, who's to say he's not also duping the filmmakers? That's part of what makes this Art and Craft so thoroughly compelling. Oscilloscope Laboratories opens it on September 19th, 2014 at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and Angelika Film Center. The doc 1971, directed Johanna Hamilton, feels just as riveting and illuminating as The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentegon Papers. Both films combine dramatic re-enactments, archival footage along with talking-head interviews to tell their story. In this case, 1971 refers to the year when 8 ordinary American citizens broke into an FBI office in Pennsylvania and stole docuemnts that revealed many secrets that threaten democracy, including the existence of an illegal surveillance program, COINTELPRO. Why they stole the documents turns out to be just as fascinating as how they stole them and got away with it. Given what's going on nowadays with Big Brother's surveillance and how Edward Snowden, this is quite a timely doc that shows you that history tends to repeat itself. It would make a great double feature with Citizenfour. The most poignant and heartbreaking doc of the fest is Ne Me Quitte Pas directed Sabine Lubbe Bakker and Niels van Koevorden. It follows the friendship of two middle aged men, Marcel and Bob, both of whom struggle with alcoholism, regret and sadness. Marcel's wife had left him, and all he has to hold onto now is his friendship with Bob. This is quite an emotional roller coaster ride that's, surprisingly, not entirely grim and depressing: there are some pockets of comic relief. Most importantly, though, the co-directors capture plenty of humanism and warmth onscreen. If you've about the age of the two men in Ne Me Quitte Pas, chances are you'll be able to relate to them to a certain degree, but everyone should appreciate these mens' honesty and courage when it comes to sharing their emotions with you. Bravo to the filmmakers for reach such a level a trust and openness with their subjects. For much lighter fare, I recommend you to see The Search for General Tso which traces the origins of the popular Chinese-American dish General Tso's Chicken, and questions who that titular General Tso actually is.
For a doc that focuses on such a narrow topic, it's quite amazing how many surprises and insights director Ian Cheney finds along the way. What's the authentic recipe for General Tso's Chicken? That's among the questions you'll find answers to as Cheney travels far to investigate. He squeezes as much suspense and amusement as possible while includes plenty of images of delicious-looking variations of General Tso's Chicken. Fortunately, he's wise enough to know that if The Search for General Tso if it were longer than 71 minutes, it would've overstayed its welcome, meandered and probably repeated itself. Good luck not being hungry watching this. You'll never look at General Tso's Chicken the same way again. Sundance Selects opens it at the IFC Center on January 2nd, 2015.