Sundance Review: Sleepwalk With Me

Sometimes, all you need is a good comedy. I picked up tickets to Sleepwalk With Me sort of my accident. A woman had a bunch of different tickets to a bunch of different movies, and hawked this one off to me. And I’m very glad she did. Sleepwalk With Me is a very funny and occasionally touching film about stand-up, marriage, and sleep disorders. Like a good night’s rest, it leaves you feeling satiated and happy.

Matt is a struggling stnad-up comedian who is enjoying his 8+ year relationship with his girlfriend Abby. When is sister goes the distance and gets married, it’s all to clear that Abby wants to follow them, but Matt isn’t so sure. When he gets a break and starts doing stand-up gigs around the country, his relationship is strained further. Throw in a sleeping disorder that sees him acting out his dreams as he experiences them, and it’s safe to say that Matt has issues.

It’s nothing new, but its done very well. The script by Mike Birbiglia, who also directed and starred, and three other dudes is consistently clever, but always finds time for some more serious stuff. With the help of a talented cast that includes Lauren Ambrose, James Rebhorn, and a delightful Carol Kane, Birbiglia offers up a surprisingly intimate look at a relationship tested by things you wouldn’t expect.

Did I mention it’s hilarious? A good amount of the time is devoted to Birbiglia, as Matt, talking directly to the camera, which is always amusing, and provides great and biting commentary on the events that have transpired. The dialogue is just as good, with zingers coming a mile a minute.

The serious stuff on the other hand isn’t handled quite as well. The relationship drama between Matt and his girlfriend is just the same, rote thing we’ve seen countless times, where a couple finally asks the question, “Where are we going with this?” And not enough is done to make it stand out from it. Indeed, the times where we feel the most sympathy for Matt are the times when he is sleepwalking. Those at least display a different and darker side of the material that wouldn’t have been seen otherwise.

But, if you’re looking for solid laughs and some decent drama, you could do a lot worse than Sleepwalk With Me. This is a well written, well acted piece of comedy that strives to achieve something a bit more substantial. It’s doesn’t quite make it, but we appreciate the effort, and enjoy the film all the more for it.


Sundance Review: California Solo

It seems that every actor has that chance to break back into the limelight with a small, character driven film, that sees him or her in the central role. Jeff Bridges had it with Crazy Heart, and it won him an Oscar. Gary Oldman had it with Tinker Tailor Solider Spy, and it better win him an Oscar. And now Robert Carlyle has is with California Solo, and his performance deserves and Oscar. Movie ain’t all that bad either.

Lachlan is a former Britpop rocker who has fallen on hard times, and now finds himself working on an organic farm in California. Every night, he proceeds to drink himself into a stupor whilst recording his podcast, a dedication to music stars who died too young. One night, he is caught drunk driving, and with a previous charge of drug possession from way back when, Lachlan is facing deportation back to the UK, something he is all too keen to avoid. As his situation becomes more dire, he is forced to confront his demons and try to make amends with the people he has hurt.

So, yeah. You’ve seen this movie before. The aged rocker who was kind of a big deal, isn’t really anything now, who finds a chance at some form of redemption? Yeah, you’ve seen it. And though California Solo‘s core story is something very familiar, some of the things it does are not. For example, the scenes set on the farm, that deal with the day to day process, are very unique and given great care. Also, Lachlan isn’t trying to break back into the music business. He’s given up on it completely, and has no interest in going back, which is also a fresh take.

And Robert Carlyle, man, Robert Carlyle! He is on a-whole-nother lever here! This is easily the best performance of the festival that I’ve seen so far, one with humor, emotion, and energy. As the movie progresses, Lachlan keeps digging a bigger and bigger hole for himself, but Carlyle always makes us sympathize with him. It’s marvelous.

Supporting cast is strong as well, with special mention going to A. Martinez as Lachlan’s increasingly irritated boss. But they are merely window dressing for the powerhouse that is Carlyle. The movie is his, and his alone!

The soundtrack is awesome, with melodic, twangy guitars fitting beautifully with the rustic, desert landscape that most of the movie takes place in, and the licensed tracks are an eclectic mix of all things Britpop. The direction by Marshall Lewy is confident and precise. This one to watch out for.


Sundance Review: The Other Dream Team

So, my dad has this shirt. It’s kinda far out, and I’m pretty sure if I saw it whilst under the influence of some psychotropic drug (maybe “Soy Sauce”), that my head would explode. The shirt is tie-dye, for one, but that’s not the crazy part. The crazy part is the skeleton dunking a basketball with LITHUANIA projected behind it in big block letters.

Ok, you probably know exactly what shirt I’m talking about. What I’m getting at is this. My dad attended the screening of The Other Dream Team with me and my mother. He told me that Sarunas Marciulionis was his favorite player of that era. And he’s a HUGE fan of the Grateful Dead. So, of course he leaves the shirt at home. It was disappointing.

In 1992, it was all about The Dream Team, and rightfully so. The US had put together, quite possibly, the finest basketball team in the history of the sport, and it showed, if their domination of the medal race is anything to go on. But, they weren’t the only “Dream” team in Barcelona that year. While the US might have made the team you dream of, Lithuania made a team that was chasing a dream. Having just gained independence from the rapidly collapsing USSR, the small nation of only three million people was ready and anxious to set itself apart from its neighbor. And while the US would go on to face Croatia in the final, the big game was Lithuania vs. Russia, a game that Lithuania ultimately won.

The Other Dream Team is just as much the story of a sports team triumph, as it is the story of Lithuania’s fight for independence. While the sport of basketball and the members of the 1992 Olympic team are the focus, an equal amount of time is dedicated to exploring the political climate of the time. The film offers what amounts to, more or less, a crash course in USSR occupied Lithuania, with a focus on how the sport of basketball became a the thing that Lithuania could use to set itself apart from the rest of the Soviet nations.

And it’s really engrossing. I had just come out of another movie, and got right back in line for this one, so I was afraid I was gonna be dozing off. Never! Even! Came! Close! I was glued to the edge of my seat as I witnessed Sarunas Marciulionis’ first foray into the NBA, the atrocities committed in Lithuania during the fight for independence, and, of course, how the Grateful Dead got involved.

You really get a sense of the gravity of the whole situation. Lithuania was the first country to declare independence from the USSR, and then to face them in their national sport not long after, fighting for the bronze at the Olympics. I mean, those guys had a lot on their shoulders. Not only were they competing for a medal, but they were setting the example for all the other nations still under Soviet control. If a small nation could beat the biggest super power in the world, anyone can. And that moment of triumph in the end is glorious! Absolutely glorious!!!


Sundance Review: Shadow Dancer

Remember a while back when I said that you should all check out the Red Riding Trilogy, and how it was a steely, cool slice of seedy, British crime. One of the directors that gave us that awesome series is James Marsh, who is more well known the Oscar winning documentary Man On Wire. He returns to the realm of middle class, British Isle based criminals and terrorists, and it’s a return that could not have been more welcome.

Colette McVeigh saw her brother killed at a young age by the British, and has been a member of the IRA ever since. On a mission to bomb the London Underground, she is blown and taken into custody. In order to protect her young son, she strikes up a deal with and MI5 agent, Mac, and agrees to become an informer. She returns to Belfast and all seems well. But as suspicion for her mounts, she feels the net starting to close in around her. So does Mac, who goes to great lengths to protect her and her son, and soon discovers that there’s more to this apparent deal than initially meets the eye.

Based on the novel by Tom Bradby, Shadow Dancer is a slow-burn crime thriller of grace and method. Suspense is the name of the game, and the film has that in spades. And there’s not a whole lot of violence either. The bloodiest scene comes at the very beginning, and after that, there’s only two or three scenes of quick, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it bloodshed. The rest is all sprinting to hide a piece of incriminating evidence just in time, telling looks from across a bar, and conversations where what’s being said isn’t ever the point.

The cast is all superb, with a good bevy of strong, British character actors. Clive Owen gets top billing (naturally) as Mac, and he’s very good. To be fair, an MI5 agent is a role he could play in sleep, but he does a good job regardless. Andrea Riseborough is equally adept as Colette, painting an elegant portrait of maternal drive. Aiden Gillen, Domhnall Gleeson, and Gillian Anderson also show up in meaty supporting roles, and shine just a bright.

Though it is a little slow at points, but the story really picks up as the tension rackets. And the ending is unexpected and quite shocking. Shadow Dancer could have benefitted from some edits and maybe a few more scenes where the suspense is paramount, but as it stands, it’s one mighty fine piece of middle class, British crime.


Sundance Review: Red Lights

One of my biggest… I wouldn’t say fears, but concerns with our world is the fact that there, in fact, might be other forces at work other than what we know to be true. Like it or not, there are some things that just cannot be explained… and that sort of terrifies me. I got into Rodrigo Cotrés’ Red Lights sort of by accident. The ticket was purchased when the screening was still listed as TBA, but I must say, I am very glad things worked out the way they did. Red Lights is rock solid, with superb performances, a gripping sense of suspense, and sublime direction. Though it does go off the rails in the final five minutes, it’s still a tense and thrilling ride.

Tom Buckley makes a living off debunking paranormal occurrences, revealing them to be nothing more than an elaborate hoax. In tandem with his boss, Margaret Matheson, they travel the country, putting to bed myths of ghosts and demons, while teaching a course on paranormal investigation at an upscale university. When Simon Silver, an enigmatic psychic, reappears after a 30 year absence however, things start to get weird. Tom soon develops an obsession with outing Silver as a hoax, which proves to be increasingly difficult as the strange, unexplainable events start to ramp up.

It’s Paranormal Activity with a brain. Director Cortés said in the Q&A that he didn’t want to answer any questions, rather provide occurrences that have more than one explanation, and he succeeds admirably. Everything that happens in this movie disproves previous theories and stirs up new ones, keeping the audience invested in what’s going on at all times.

This is helped by a stellar cast. Cillian Murphy is superb as Tom, and Sirgourney Weaver is just as good as his level headed boss. Elizabeth Olsen is also wonderful as a student who assists Tom in more ways than one, and Toby Jones is good as a fellow professor.

The real standout, though, is Robert De Niro, once again showing that films like Killer Elite and New Years Eve are just not enough to squash his talent. He is fascinating as Silver, delivering a complex and scary performance.

Rodrigo Cortés is great at creating suspense and keeping the audience on the edge of their seat. Right from the beginning scene, which see’s Tom and Margaret traveling to a remote house to “deal with it’s demon problem”, Cortés ratchets up the tension. Followed by an opening credits sequence that would be right at home in a Fincher film, the rest of the movie doesn’t slow down at all. This is helped by some brilliant cinematography, courtesy of Xavi Giménez, and some chilling sound work. There were dozens of times where people in the audience gasped or jumped. One woman actually screamed.

And though the final five minutes don’t really do it for me, the rest of Red Lights is top shelf. The performances all resonate, and the direction is impeccable. This is one the most entertaining films I’ve seen during the festival, and one of the most successful in terms of what it said out to do. It’s a mind trip of the highest order, and it’s one that leaves you breathless.