#Sundance2016 mini-update

It's only Monday, yet I get the sense that people have already started to leave. Basically having shown up to party on the weekend and them. Bouncing out, forgetting that this is actually a fest for and about movies. I'll probably be here until Friday night, but I can report that first and second day duds have been quickly forgotten. The last few days have had tremendous docs and narrative features. Much more to come, more precisely,  a full scale report at the end of the fest.

Great Moments That Shaped 2015

1. The Revenant (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2015), The Bear Attack
Yes, every single word of praise you've read and/or heard is true. One can't escape talking about The Revenant without mentioning its pièce de résistance: a bear mauling that seems to be a moment of truth not only for Leonardo Dicaprio's Hugh Glass but for the audience itself. Once you go through that sequence, you will know whether you'll be able to handle Alejandro González Iñárritu's mesmerizing but brutal film. In the sequence--and really throughout the film-- Emmanuel Lubezki’s protracted Steadicam shots make you speechless, but nowhere more so than in this frightening sequence. The setup is quite simple as our hero Hugh Glass walks through the woodland to hunt for food. Glass appears to see baby cubs at a far distance, and a moment of relief appears on his face, that is until he turns around and notices the mother bear right next to him. For a fraction of a second she horrifically investigates him, but then jumps and mauls him to near death. Lubezki makes it a long take as the CGI beast tosses DiCaprio around like a toy. Glass tries to shoot, stab, and shove his way out of the ordeal, but it only makes the bear more aggressive. The final shot of the dead bear on top of glass is both frightening and surreal.

2. Phoenix (Christian Petzold, 2014), Speak Low
The film takes place at the end of World War II, and Berlin is nothing but a city of rubble. Nelly looks at herself in a mirror and sees a stranger. She can't fathom or accept her looks after being disfigured during the war and undergoing massive plastic surgery. The only thing that tethers her to reality is her love for her lost husband. She eventually does find him at the Phoenix cabaret, and from there starts an obsession. He, of course, doesn't recognise her but acknowledges a somewhat passing resemblance to his allegedly dead wife. Heartbroken, Nelly fails to find the words or courage to tell him that she's his wife, since this is the man that might have betrayed her to an almost certain death. By the last few minutes of the movie, all of the events have unfolded and we are left with Nelly performing Tony Bennett's 'Speak Low' in front of her husband and friends. This final scene is downplayed in a manner that would have made Alfred Hitchcock giddy in excitement. It is one of the most satisfying final scenes in quite some time. By the end all you're left with are the words "The curtain descends, everything ends, too soon, too soon".

3. Creed (Ryan Coogler, 2015) Long take
As an incredibly cinematic sport, boxing films are often rife with clichés. So then, what a welcome surprise it was to have a Rocky movie that actually delivered the thrills and goosebumps that made the original 1976 film such a great film. Although the story might be familiar, the movie has the freshness and vitality that only a young, talented filmmaker and actor can bring. Cue in Ryan Coogler and Michael B Jordan, fresh off their debut triumph just two years ago with Fruitvale Station. They've infused Rocky with 21st century modernism and style that Stallone would have never been able to pull off if he were writer-director. It's around the film’s midpoint that we are given the game changer: an audacious sequence that reinvents the boxing match. Composed as a single unbroken shot, the scene follows Jordan's Adonis Creed as he squares off against Leo Sporino (Gabe Rosado) in the ring —both boxers are undefeated and ready to prove themselves to the world . The way Coogler’s camera circles its way through the ring is ground-breaking; never has a boxing match felt more intimate or gut wrenching than here. The camera, swirling in and out of the action, occasionally pans over to catch the reactions of the fighters’ trainers, but the main selling point here is making the stakes feel immediate. You feel every punch in the fight.

4. Sicario (Denis Villneuve, 2015), Mexican Border Crossing
Québécois filmmaker Denis Villeneuve and genius cinematographer Roger Deakins can really shoot the living hell out of a scene. Sicario, their latest outing, has a slew of sequences that redefine the way action and atmosphere can go hand to hand in movies. The film opens with a DEA mission that goes awry, and at the climax there is a night vision tunnel sequence that feels like something out of a tense 1970s horror film. However, the sequence that had everyone talking about the film's virtues had to do with a Mexican border crossing that takes advantage of the tension that a stop-and-go traffic jam can offer in the most dire of circumstances. Hundreds of cars are lined up at the U.S.-Mexico border, while FBI agent Kate Macer (a never better Emily Blunt) and her team try to avoid the chaos that we know is inevitably going to occur. That every vehicle is utterly trapped in its current location only enhances the feeling of dread. Eventually, a full-blown shootout occurs, with Villeneuve and Deakins offering claustrophobic, almost surgical preciseness with every single one of their shot selection. Make no mistake about it, these are pros at work here and they know how turn the screw on this most tightly knit of action sequences.

5. Anomalisa (Charlie Kaufman, 2015), Stop-Motion Sex Scene
When we heard that Charlie Kaufman's latest meta-physical endeavor was going to be a puppet movie and that it was going to include a graphic sex scene, our first thoughts went back to 2004's Trey Parker and Matt Stone romp Team America: World Police and the hilariously over the top coitus featured. of course this being Charlie Kaufman, we should have known better, and what we got instead was Anomalisa -- a beautifully rendered, personal film about loneliness, depression and the connections we make. The sex in Anomalisa is both believable and heartbreaking, with two lonely strangers trying to find comfort and resolution to their never-ending problems. Our depressed hero Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis) seems to have lost faith in humanity, but finds resolve in Lisa -- indelibly voiced by an Oscar deserving Jennifer Jason Leigh. She's a shy, self-conscious woman staying at the same hotel as Michael. He first notices her by her unique voice -- the only one not voiced by Tom Noonan-- that stands out compared to every other mundane noise he hears on a daily basis. That one night they talk, have laughs, have tears and finally have sex. The scene itself is graphic, but never over the top or objectifying to its characters; instead, it's actually quite romantic - a moment when two lonely souls connect and their daily problems seem to take a pause for the most personal of connections.

6. Room (Lenny Abrahamson, 2015), Jack Escapes
Why wouldn't this be on our list? The game-changing moment of Lenny Abrahamson's Room arrives at around the 50-minute mark. It's a breathless, life-or-death escape, as our 5-year-old hero Jack (an incredible Jacob Tremblay) escapes captivity and sees his first ever glimpse of the sky. Before that, Jack, his mom (Brie Larson), and we the viewers were held captive in the most claustrophobic of environments. As we held our breath and bit off what was left of our fingernails, Jack rolling himself out of a rug in the back of a pick-up truck was enough to give us a heart attack, and if that wasn't enough, the villainous captor is right on his trail a mere few seconds away from getting him back. Helped by the kindness of a stranger Jack's escape proves to be successful. The most harrowing image of the scene is that of unequivocal freedom as the frame pans to what this wonderboy ends up seeing once freed: the sky, the trees, bewildered pedestrians - all very new things to him, and seen with the freshest of eyes by an audience enthralled by a scene that can make them look at the world in a new light.

7. Bridge of Spies (Steven Spielberg, 2015), Opening Scene
Steven Spielberg’s understated gem Bridge of Spies resembles more the dialogue driven brilliance of Munich and Lincoln than it does Indiana Jones: it's a film obsessed with the art of negotiation. If there is an action set-piece in the film, it's the brilliant opening that actually features barely any dialogue. We follow Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) through what seems to be his daily morning routine, however we come to realize that he is actually a Soviet spy as he exchanges what seems to be a coded message underneath a park bench. Enter the FBI, hot on his trail and subtly pursuing him through the streets of New York City. The whole thing is shot like the opening of a 1970s paranoid thriller, think the Parallax View or Three Days In Condor, with Spielberg and his long-time cinematographer Janusz Kaminski acing every subtle gesture or movement of this cat and mouse game. The FBI storms Abel's apartment and arrests him, but not before he brilliantly finds a way to destroy the encoded message right in front of their very eyes with something as simple as a stroke of his paint brush.

8. Max Mad: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015), The Whole Movie
 Max Mad: Fury Road single-handily redefined what an action movie could do this decade. George Miller worked on his baby for the better part of 30 years and his vision was finally unleashed on screens this summer to the ravest of rave reviews. Which scene could we choose? The answer: All of them. Max Mad: Fury Road flows so effortlessly and in such stunningly synchronous fashion, that it's quite literally impossible to choose a single moment that stunned us. Fact of the matter is, every single scene wowed us, even the rare quieter moments where out characters take time to ponder the world's end. When the movie was done all I could think of was how all these young, hip, new superhero movie directors coming from the indie scene just got schooled on how an action movie should be made…by a 70-year-old filmmaker. You can’t deny the sheer impact of Max Mad: Fury Road . Director George Miller’s Fourth installment of the film franchise is proof that not all blockbusters should be greeted with an indifferent shrug. If anything, this brutal action film is even more intense and exciting than its predecessors. With its nihilistic outlook on human nature, and a nasty, in-your-face style, this is Miller’s triumph through and through. The amount of detail that he brings to every frame is as obsessively meticulous as any Wes Anderson picture I’ve seen, as is the editing by Margaret Sixel, which – as we stand – is most deserving of next year’s Film Editing Oscar. Edited at breakneck pace and staged with manic fury, Sixel is the unheralded hero here. The celebrated one is of course Miller, whose passion and vision comes through in every frame. The total control he must have had with this project to pull off what he did on screen is unheard of, which is good for him and great for us.

9. The Walk (Robert Zemeckis, 2015), The Stunt
You can easily nitpick the flaws of Robert Zemeckis' The Walk - and there are plenty - but once all the phony French accents and abysmally lengthy setups have been dealt with, what we are left with is an extraordinary, unhurried 17-minute scene that uses 3D to its fullest potential, making you feel like you're right there walking the tightrope with Phillipe Petit. That is the only thing the film does better than the great 2008 documentary Man On Wiree, for which this movie is based on. It is the best possible recreation of a stunt so absurdly dangerous that it crosses every line in the book and becomes a beautiful work of performance art. Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Petit walks on the one-inch steel braided cable with the elegance of a dancer high on his abilities to perform. An audience gathers around the front entrance of the World Trade Center, amazed, and in awe. The movie audience is right there with him every step of the way. Peeking down at the 110 stories that separates the rope and the ground, one can easily get the feeling of queasiness or nausea, and in fact some screening reports have mentioned people getting physically sick during the film. The rest of us sat there amazed and the sight and touched by the extraordinary things a human being can achieve.

10. Mission Impossible - Rogue Nation (Christopher McQuarrie, 2015), The Vienna Opera
You can always count on the Mission Impossible movies to deliver much needed jolts during the summer movie season. It helps tremendously that Tom Cruise, playing Ethan Hawke, always wants to do his own stunts, which brings an authentic feel to the set pieces that many summer blockbusters would lack in their CGI-filled action. Ghost Protocol had Tom Cruise hanging on for dear life on the Burj Khalifa skyscraper. In Mission Impossible - Rogue Nation , one of the chief pleasures is how director Christopher McQuarrie can shoot the living hell out of an action sequence. The Vienna State Opera House scene is the highlight, bringing in a Hitchcockian vibe to the film. The setup has Ethan Hunt, Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), Ilsa Faust(Rebecca Ferguson), and a menacing bad guy knock around the opera sets, the rafters, and the balconies—as Hunt attempts to find a terrorist and prevent an assassination. McQuarrie was clearly inspired by Hitchcock, as he uses shadows, darkness and flashes of color to grab the viewers attention and bring a little clarity to a logistically complicated series of fights and chases, measures and counter-measures. Its 12 minutes or so are as terrific a bit of pure filmmaking as anything in the series and might only be rivaled by another sequence in the film -- an underwater stunt that has Cruise holding his breath for nearly 6 minutes. You can never fault Cruise for not trying to entertain us with these movies.

 11. Magic Mike: XXL (Gregory Jacobs, 2015), Richie's Mini-Mart Striptease
We are lucky to live in a time whenMagic Mike: XXL can actually be accepted by the mainstream. Just a decade ago it might have been shunned off, but Gregory Jacob's sequel to the 2012 original turned out to be a fantastic treat. By far the best--and most talked about--moment exemplifies the smarts that come with Jacobs' astute direction. During a mini-mart pit stop, Mike (Channing Tatum) challenges Big Dick Richie (Joe Manganiello) to make the day of the frowning clerk at the cash register. She seems to not be having a good day, but as the Backstreet Boys’ hit ballad “I Want It That Way” starts playing on the radio, Manganiello joyously improvises a striptease with whatever is at his disposal at the store -watch out party snack and soda pops. While the audience laughs in hilarity and our young cashier watches in stunned amazement, Manganiello's dedication to turning the cashier's frown upside down symbolizes something deeper. Men can learn a lesson or two from this scene, primary among them is that sometimes a woman just wants to feel special. The smile that appears on the cashiers face at the end of Manganiello's private show says it all.

12. Carol (Todd Haynes, 2015), The Dinner Scene
Of all the great romantic, wordless, understated and invigorating scenes director Todd Haynes delivered in his masterpiece Carol, the dinner scene that opens and closes the film is the piece de resistance. So much of the romance at the center of Todd Hayne's s film is challenged by the crushing weight of oppression that when the words " I love you" finally get delivered it's like a moment of release. The cruel society that surrounds Carol (Cate Blanchett) and Therese (Rooney Mara) has made it impossible for them to be in love, yet all throughout the film's 2 hours they try to fight back these odds. This scene which opens and closes the film (and ultimately turns out to be a flash-forward in its chronology), is seen in two totally different contexts. The first time we are emotionally unattached and on the outside, but the second time when the words "I love you" get uttered and you gloriously melt in heartbreak. It all plays out in a pair of precise, smoky framings. When the scene replays at the closing Haynes has changed a few minor things, but the pain and longing largely suppressed up to that point comes out into a sharp, devastating focus.

Interview: Mark Rylance

Interviewing Mary Rylance earlier this year I would have never suspected that I'd be talking to a major 2015 awards contender. He was promoting The Gunman, a no frills action movie starring Sean Penn. Rylance's supporting work in the film was unsurprisingly one of the -rare- great moments of the film. For an actor that's always shied away from the Hollywood spotlight and opted for the rush of theatre plays , Rylance surely did not expect the storm that was about to happen for his role as Rudolf Abel in Steven Spielberg's Bridge of Spies. Then he's a legend in his own right. Gaining the reputation as one of the great Shakespearian actors of our time, Sean Penn has said that Rylance is "probably the closest thing to a magician we have in the field”, Al Pacino has chmed in with the upmost respect for the guy "“Rylance speaks Shakespeare as if it was written for him the night before.” said Pacino a few years back and even Steven Spielberg chimed in by saying Rylance was “one of the most extraordinary actors working anywhere”.

 In 1987 Rylance famously turned down a role in Steven Spielberg's "Empire of the Sun" and instead opted to follow his muse for other more personal projects. "I met my wife by turning him down," says Rylance, smiling Meeting the actor you'd never think for one second that you're talking to a three time Tony winner and future Oscar nominee, Rylance is the gentlest most sincerely humble interviewee I've had the chance of meeting this year. His bushy eyebrows and calming eyes don't necessarily stare at you as much as wander around the room and then look back. A very spiritual man, an animal rights activist that told the Guardian earlier this year “And on the news the other day there was this amazing thing about dogs smelling prostate cancer in urine! And cats being trained to detect breast cancer in women! Maybe in 50 years they’ll just see not only how cruel we were to torture and kill and eat animals, but how foolish not to develop a healing relationship with them.”

 In the late 80's Rylance met composer Claire van Kampen, then married with two small daughters, Nataasha and Juliet. Rylance became the father figure for those two girls, but tragedy struck when Nataasha died suddenly, aged 28, of a brain haemorrhage on a flight in July 2012. “To some degree, all my principles went out the window when my daughter died. I couldn’t quite see the point of anything. It seemed like nothing really mattered. Why the fuck does it, you know? So I’m only kind of recovering my sense that what I do makes a difference.” I stutter condolences. “Well, lots of people have very difficult things happen.” He's good friends with the Coen Brothers and almost got the lead role in their 2009 classic "A Serious Man", the experience of not getting it was "upsetting" and a role in the 2011 Jason Statham vehicle Blitz sealed the deal "I've made some bad films, too, that have not been enjoyable, At a certain point after one of them I did a few years back, I said, 'That's it. I'm not interested in this anymore ... I was done, I fired my agent and I decided to concentrate on theater ... I had forgotten how satisfying it was being a theatre actor and this venture I had was just greediness"

For Rylance it was a challenging time "I thought: I need to be happy with who I am, where I am. That can be the kind of miners' dust of being an actor," he says. "For an actor, being dissatisfied with who you are can be the reason for becoming an actor, but it can become an illness." Then came Spielberg, reigniting a cinematic interest in Rylance. "I wanted to work with Spielberg. I'd seen his Lincoln and I bumped into Daniel Daniel Day-Lewis for the first time in 20 years and he spoke so warmly about working with Steven. I think he got me the job." Spielberg was urged to see Rylance in "Twelfth Night by Daniel Day-Lewis. "He sent Steven along to see me in Twelfth Night; Steven came backstage and, later, offered me the part." He calls him "a shape-shifter, a man of a thousand faces and voices who can play any part." Two weeks into shooting Bridge of Spies, Spielberg asked Rylance if he would be interested in taking the leading role as the titular giant in next year’s The BFG. 'Seldom has an actor been around for so many distinguished years on the stage and yet had not been fully discovered for the screen,' said Spielberg by email “Mark understands that the camera records stillness better than in any other media. His transition from the stage to ‘Bridge of Spies’ was graceful and invisible.”

Set at the height of American/Soviet paranoia in the early 60's, Bridge of Spies has Rylance playing Rudolf Abel a Russian spy caught in New York and put on trial. Tom Hanks plays his lawyer James B Donovan in a perfectly delicate performance that only Hanks could pull off. The powers that be – prosecutors, judge and the CIA – want the death penalty, and a short-sharp trial with a sure guilty verdict. After everything that's been mentioned it is no surprise that the screenplay is by the Coens and Rylance gives a beautiful performance that could well bag him his first Oscar nomination.

Perfectly explaining Rylance's real-life persona when Hanks’s character asks Abel why he’s not worried, he replies: “Would it help?” The same exchange gets repeated three times throughout the movie “That sense of shrugging the shoulders, that sense of nihilism ... why get worked up about this?” comments Rylance. “It feels like that’s a part of the Russian character.” "Tom's character takes an ethical stance," explains Rylance. "His character says: The only thing that makes us Americans is the rule book." "What are you fighting for," wonders Rylance, "if you're not fighting for the standards that define you as a nation? "I surprise myself – on a few occasions; I frighten myself, maybe. I'm more ashamed of myself; I suffer shame – I’ve been ashamed at how angry I can get with people.” he loves a story and his 'story' is that he rescued me from theatre and brought me into film.

The Case For 99 Homes

It's 2010 and we open in the bathroom of a modest, suburban home. Reflected in the mirror is a leg hanging over the bathtub's edge and blood splattered on the wall. A left camera pan gives us a brief, but shocking glimpse of a dead man's body before the camera tightly focuses its grip on real estate agent Rick Carver who seems un-scarred by the scene and all business. In this single, beautifully unedited shot the world of 99 Homes is established and you'd be hard pressed to not remember this world. It is a world just after the housing bubble burst in which horror scene after horror scene was not uncommon and the government bailed out the big banks with little thought for the individual families affected by adjustable rate loans and easy-to-get second mortgages who were dumped onto the streets or into seedy motels with little monetary resources.
Here's the deal with 99 Homes: It made the festival rounds in 2014 showing up at Teluride, TIFF and Venice -among many other fests. Michael Shannon, Andrew Garfield and the film itself were very well received. Not too long after that Broad Green acquired distribution rights for the film and set it for release in 2015. My review from TIFF 2014 for AwardsDaily read as follows: “99 Homes” is not a perfect movie but the artistry is major and director Ramin Bahrani creates a movie that you’ll keep thinking about for days on end" - I was right, more than 15 months later I'm still thinking about the film. Whenever a movie is released almost a year after its film fest premiere doubts starts to emerge, why was it delayed for so long? The ultimate answer is only in the hands of the Broad Green team, but that hasn't stopped the critics from showering the film with praise. Its 91 percent RottenTomatoes ascore speaks volumes about how this film truly hits home.

Michael Shannon has also emerged as a very viable Best Supporting Actor threat with a Golden Globe nod and an L.A. Film Critics Association win. Here's an actor that is among one of the very best of his generation with incredibly masterful turns in Revolutionary Road and Take Shelter among others. Ramin Bahrani’s tense, but terrific film stars Andrew Garfield as Dennis Nash, a man whose family home gets foreclosed by arrogant, money-hungry real estate mogul Ray Carver, devilishly played by Michael Shannon. Circumstances lead the desperate Dennis to work for Carver to get his home back. Both are excellent, and Laura Dern as Dennis’ mother is heartbreaking in an exceptionally resonant role, showing us the immense talents this underused actress possesses. It all plays out like an unrelenting tragedy One that plays like an action film with its episodic structure of different homes being foreclosed and the families heartbreakingly powerless to authorities. Bahrani brings an authentic documentary-style feel to the whole thing, using handheld cameras to swerve with the characters and raise the tension.

This is about a society gone astray (hell, a country gone astray) and a poisonous system that doesn’t just seem unfair, but criminal. This is a movie for its time about its time, that is frighteningly urgent and has more than enough relevance to pack a punch. Though laws and regulations have helped repair the real estate market in America, there is still a rapidly growing. Every setting in the film holds illustrative significance; Carver's posh estate for his three daughters is built off the robbery of other families' homes, and the unfurnished mansion were Craver and Nash meet speaks to the former's emotional detachment and suggests the latter's fruitless departure from his honest carpenter days.

Bahrani never lets you forget the dooming decisions that are constantly made. Sparse injections of snappy vulgarity fail to humorously cultivate within Shannon's sphere of authentic monotone character mentality. His Craver preaches, "Don't get attached to real estate." But, of course, you do. How could you not? Any right-minded person with a heart would cringe at every family desperately pleading to keep their homes. On the surface, it seems like a typical good versus evil story against corrupt business. It is, but the film's convention plays this a little different. First of all, Michael Shannon not only makes Rick's despicable character a love-to-hate guy, but we do get an insight into his profession and how the housing crash worked to his playing field. The film establishes that he had the personality to pull this off, not many could have the stomach of watching the sheer desperation of people when it comes to this situation. Their livelihood is at stake and all that Craver does is watch from aback as authorities force their way into the homes and kick out the tenants. 

In its entirety 99 Homes is an absolutely devastating film, one of the saddest, yet most relevant, I've seen of this decade. Its narrative essentially operates on a field of landmines. Much credit must go to Director Bahrani, whose previous films were as low-budget as professional indie filmmaking could get. Check out his 2009 film Goodbye Solo if you feel like watching an unheralded masterpiece. Late film critic Roger Ebert was a staunch supporter of Bahrani’s films and for good reason despite some of the concessions that had to be made for a big studio movie -primarily a tacked on "action" finale- the artistry is major in this film and Bahrani creates a movie that’ll give you nightmares.

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