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In the end credits of That Awkward Moment, we’re treated to a blooper reel. The footage is typically goofy stuff — stars flubbing lines, knocking over props, cracking dirty jokes, and generally getting silly — but it’s a pleasure to watch because the actors are so damn fun. Zac Efron, Miles Teller, and Michael B. Jordan come across as warm and funny people, and the rapport between them is inviting. I can only imagine that the set must have been a blast.

The film itself, however, is not. Although the premise should, in theory, provide plenty of opportunities for sparks to fly and for the cast’s magnetic personalities to shine through, as they do in the blooper reel, writer/director Tom Gormican seems more interested in shoving the characters along predictable plotlines. The result is a tedious romantic comedy that can’t sell the romance, the comedy, or even the bromance.

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There’s an implied threat in the title of the film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. Those words together suggest menace and victimization. An image forms, not of a woman out for an enjoyable stroll, but of one who might not make it home.

A reversal of that threat is the core of this vampire film written and directed by Ana Lily Amirpour. Luminescent black and white photography buttresses a very spare approach to story. Into the tale are woven supernatural tropes, and elements of westerns and ’50s rebel movies. Shot in California but set in Iran, with dialogue in Farsi, the film’s images and characters are a collision of Iranian and American cultures, specifically with respect to social politics of sex and gender. This is an inversion of classic horror, because it is not about victimization of the person described in the title, but rather that person’s retaliation against forces that seek to dominate and subjugate.

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Ping Pong Summer

“The year is 1985. Rad Miracle is a shy, 13-year-old white kid obsessed with two things: Ping-Pong and hip-hop.” That’s the first sentence of the Sundance description of Ping Pong Summer, a new film by writer/director Michael Tully. The instant I read that, I had to see the film. It just so happened that the screening was my final film of the festival. I couldn’t have asked for a more appropriate send-off. The film blends sports and coming of age traditions, wrapped in Eighties nostalgia, resulting in a sweet, funny film that just feels right. Read More »

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Maybe this is the Twilight Zone, where mundane beginnings lead to extraordinary situations. In The One I Love, a married couple played by Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass are having problems. Nothing outlandish, just garden-variety issues such as resentment, boredom, and an erosion of respect. So: off to couples therapy. Their analyst advocates a retreat which, he promises, has worked wonders for many others.

What happens next is… well, something people associated with the film have tried to keep quiet. Frankly, that’s a bit absurd, as the material in question is the premise of the film, not a spoiler. Trailers will eventually give some of it up. But I’ll play along, because doing so is a fun exercise.

To be circumspect: This isn’t a romantic comedy, nor a weepy drama. Unusual, clever, and bitterly funny, The One I Love seeks to expose the impulses that can stall a relationship, or foster growth. While the idea’s deepest potential is not exploited, Duplass and Moss — very nearly the only actors in the movie — perform with nicely-pitched intensity and utter command of their craft. If this had premiered earlier in the Sundance schedule it might have become the must-see film of the fest; the late debut doesn’t change the fact that it is among this year’s early standouts.  Read More »

Skeleton Twins

When Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig were building their careers on Saturday Night Live, they played multiple characters every single week. That took incredible acting chops. Though they’ve since left the show and are concentrating mostly on comedy films, Craig Johnson‘s second film The Skeleton Twins proves these skilled comedic performers can be dramatic as well.

The Skeleton Twins is about estranged siblings, Maggie and Milo, who haven’t spoken in a decade. After they are reunited by tragedy their relationship is quickly rekindled, but deep old wounds re-open. That may sound overly solemn and, at its heart, The Skeleton Twins is certainly a drama. But you don’t cast Hader and Wiig just to cry and be depressed. The chemistry they built for years on TV sizzles on the big screen in characters with an exuberant realism. The movie itself is good, but Hader and Wiig make it great. Read More »

Calvary

The opening scene of John Michael McDonagh‘s Calvary is a frightening juxtaposition that perfectly sets the tone for what’s to come. Father James (Brendan Gleeson) is taking confession from a mysterious man who admits to being molested by a priest as a child. Not this specific priest, though, another one, and to get revenge he tells Father James he’s going to kill him for no good reason. In an instant, McDonagh has sucked the audience in.

Much like McDonagh and Gleeson’s previous film The Guard, Calvary is wholly original. It blends elements of mystery, a detective story and comedy with lots of philosophical ruminations. As Father James spends what might be his final week alive dealing with the townspeople, one of which is his would-be murderer, he tries to solve the riddle by delving into their problems (alcoholism, depression, adultery, etc) through his Catholic beliefs. The result is an ambitious, slow-burn drama with dynamite performances from top to bottom that just misses the mark because it’s trying to do too much. Read More »

TheBatteredBastardsofBaseball

Everyone knows Kurt Russell as one of his generation’s most recognizable and badass actors. Some might even know that he was once a professional athlete. What most people don’t know, however, is that Russell’s father, Bing Russell, was even more eclectic. A famous actor in his own right, the elder Russell eventually used his Hollywood fame to start an independent minor league baseball team called the Portland Mavericks.

That incredible story acts as the epicenter of The Battered Bastards of Baseball, a documentary that premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. Co-directed by Chapman Way and Maclain Way (Two of Bing Russell’s grandsons), it’s a fascinating and fun look at one of baseball’s hidden and heartwarming stories. Read More »

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The Signal is the kind of science fiction movie that I love — intense, mysterious, original and extremely ambitious. What is The Signal? It’s a puzzle that keeps you guessing and working to figure it out.

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