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By John Wildman | January 27, 2014

In my ever changing and constantly being revised Sundance schedule, FINDNG FELA and LOVE CHILD get dropped this morning and the first screening of the day will be INFINITELY POLAR BEAR. Ruth Mutch is one of the executive producers on the film, so I will be on ticket duty, handing a couple of hem out to some business colleagues of Ruth’s while I am standing in line to see the film. That mission is accomplished pretty easily and smoothly and soon enough all the cool kids are on their way into the theater to see the film. Sitting next to my group are three pretty women here with the films LOW DOWN and COPENHAGEN (which is in Slamdance). There are a lot of introductions going back and forth but I have no real idea who is who or what and whom because the entire time I was on the phone with my wife, Justina. After a moment, I get off the phone and re-introduce myself and apologize for being rude Sundance phone guy.

The feature film directorial debut of television and screenwriter Maya Forbes, INFINITELY POLAR BEAR stars Mark Ruffalo as Cameron, a father of two young girls who has suffered through a severe nervous breakdown and struggles mightily with his bi-polar condition. That alone would be challenge enough, but add to that, the fact that his wife Maggie (Zoe Saldana) makes the difficult decision to pursue her MBA in New York, leaving the girls in Cameron’s care in Boston throughout the week. What follows is a series of alternately nail-biting moments of “Will Cameron be able to keep it all together enough to not bring social services down on their heads?” and quirky joyful highlights that wonderful family memories are made of, as the calendar counts down to Maggie receiving her degree and being able to return home for good.

Set in 1978 and framed by the grainy (and forgiving) viewfinder of old home movies, INFINITELY POLAR BEAR benefits and suffers due to the fact this is clearly an autobiographical tale. However, the “suffering” is minor in that there isn’t a major crisis, nor is one manufactured for the sake of raising the stakes for maximum dramatic effect. Nor is there an overwhelming emotional catharsis that everything has been designed to build toward. No, instead, the film delivers an “honest” account of the family’s struggles to hold it all together – and that frankly is emotional and heart-felt enough with no need to manipulate its audience any further. It also bears saying that while Ruffalo delivers a (not unsurprising) tour-de-force performance as the bi-polar Cameron, it is Saldana that really shines as the bedrock of the film, delivering a deeply nuanced portrait of a mother and young African-American woman in the 70s, making difficult decisions and sacrifices to better the lives of her family while shouldering the weight of the love she has for her children and wild card of a husband. It isn’t a showy role, it’s just expertly performed and deserves notice.

Expected Real World Reaction:
I think the film could resonate with a wide audience and will be surprised if it doesn’t.

As we walk out of the theater, James Faust asks me what I think of the film and I say that I really liked it. Ruth Mutch (one of the executive producers) laughs at James and says, “I’m standing right here. What do you expect him to say?!” To which, I also have to laugh and assure both of them that (at least in this case) I don’t have to hedge my words about the film – so everyone’s “safe”. Then we all hop in the car, and they drop me off mid-traffic so I can hit the next press screening while they continue on to the house.

Sitting next to my friend MSN Movie’s courtly James Rocchi, I am shamed into not using my cell phone light to help me see what I’m writing on my notepad as I take notes during the film. I always take great pains to make sure I don’t disturb anyone sitting near me as I do this but following his dressing down (politely of course, with only the King’s most proper English) of the guy in front of us for not turning his phone off before the credits have even begun, I will defer to his no negotiation purist approach. This is going to suck for me as I try to make out what I’ve “written” here once I actually write this review, but I like and respect Rocchi that much to tough it out on this particular screening. He’s easily one of my favorites in film fest land.

Jeremy Salnier’s BLUE RUIN follows the path that Dwight, a low-key and peaceful vagrant takes as he seeks the ultimate vengeance against the man that killed his father and mother several years ago. An amateur assassin, he nonetheless methodically tracks down the man responsible – a member of a wealthy and feared local family and winds up placing a target on his own back and setting in motion a series of events that ultimately will pit him against the entire family of the murderer as they seek retribution against not just him but every surviving member of his family as well.

BLUE RUIN is an action film that is a rarity in that it eschews bombastic high concept set pieces for the personal and intimate tension of one man’s multiple moments of truth as he faces down an unrepentant clan that destroyed his family. The film successfully places the audience in a world where personal justice and retribution is plausible, and each bloody action will assuredly have an equally bloody (if not worse) reaction – as it makes its way like a backwoods Bataan death march toward what is very likely a tragic inevitable conclusion for all parties. It also dramatically displays the very real mindset that the NRA and our unchecked gun loving culture has now ingrained in the very fiber of a significant portion of our country. And it isn’t pretty.

Expected Real World Reaction:
As well made as the film is, the lack of a “name” among the cast (other than the “Is that really her?” appearance of Eve Plumb), since it is an action film, will make this tough for large audiences to take note of it. The people that find it will definitely be rewarded for doing so, but they may need to do some detective work to get there.

Following the screening, I run to catch the next shuttle and then speed walk up Main Street to catch Slamdance’s Christopher Nolan Honors event, passing by former dinner table guest Boyd Holbrooke walking along with his girlfriend Elizabeth Olsen and then Krysten Ritter taking part in a fan’s selfie. Next, it’s Nicolas Hoult with an impressive entourage and then some teen girls screaming that they just saw Harry Styles on the other side of the street.

I finally get there and am immediately pulled aside and embraced by a filmmaker that was at one of my past film festivals. He’s happy to see me, and I know that I really liked this guy but I can not remember at this very moment what his name is. Crap! As my mind races, I am just as immediately plucked by Slamdance’s Melanie Marquez and escorted to the theater. As I wait to go in, I start Googling and IMDBing like a mad man until I’s Jacob Medjuk! His film SUMMERHOOD was an award winner at The Feel Good Film Festival a few years back and he was/is a dynamic fun personality as well. Now, I really can’t wait to see him so I can properly catch up.

Inside the screening room, I see IDPR’s Bebe Lerner (who reps Nolan) and get the quick hug before I’m seated next to Deadline’s Mike Fleming. This is great as I’ve never actually met Mike in person, despite the countless emails through the years. So, this thing is already a “win”. The screening room is packed with enough people to give a fire marshall nervous twitches and then Slamdance’s Peter Baxter introduces Nolan. The conversation is pretty standard stuff, though it’s nice to see Nolan give his wife Emma substantial credit for her work as his producer throughout his career (beyond, you know, the “wife stuff”) and he discusses how Brad Pitt had read the MEMENTO script but was not in any serious dialogue about actually playing the role that Guy Pearce made famous, among other topics. In fact, the biggest lesson learned was that if there happens to be a cosplay Wonder Woman in your audience, do not under any circumstances allow her to ask a question because she just may be from Argentina or some other country with a near undecipherable accent and she may just ask the person that is possibly your most valued alumni the whereabouts of Superman at this very moment. I’m just sayin’ – word to the wise.

I make a quick search of the Slamdance hallways and lounges to see if I can find Jacob, but he’s nowhere to be found and my schedule is tight, so it’s right back to the Holiday for the next press screening.

Gillian Robespierre’s OBVIOUS CHILD is the feature film adaptation of her own short film made in 2009. The film focuses on Donna Stern, an aspiring 27-year old comedienne living in Brooklyn. Donna’s style – both on stage and off – is to actively riff on every single thing that is happening to her, with nothing being off limits. And that material grows exponentially as she is first dumped by a two-timing boyfriend and then finds herself pregnant following a one-night stand with Max, a sweet but square young professional (“He’s so Christian he’s a Christmas Tree.”) that would never in any normal circumstance be in her orbit. What follows is Donna’s journey, possibly with or without Max toward a date with Planned Parenthood to have an abortion.

To refer to the film as an “abortion rom-com” is to greatly short change what OBVIOUS CHILD actually delivers as a film. Anchored by an entertaining and charming performance by Jenny Slate and supported by a strong cast including Jake Lacy, Gaby Hoffman, David Cross, and Polly Draper, the film ironically side steps the obvious laugh track lowest common denominator gags auto-tuned into your standard issue romantic comedies while still playing in a familiar world where scatological and self-referential humor is actually expected. It is sweet without becoming cloying and also deftly clears the hurdle of portraying a stand-up comic onstage with material that comes out of the character’s experiences whether they are certified laugh-riot polished or not. It’s equally funny and sweet – enough said.

Expected Real World Reaction:
While modest in its goals, I think this one has a strong chance to go wide. If introduced/marketed properly, there is real potential for people to connect with the film in multiplexes.

Walking out of the theater, I ran into filmmaker and former Dallas Film Society Artistic Director Michael Cain and filmmaker (and major film fest veteran) Trevor Anderson. It’s great to see both of them. Michael is working on a brand new documentary on Dallas’ legendary Starck Club and Trevor (who I put on his first red carpet at AFI FEST with his film ROCK POCKETS in 2007) is the best kind of prolific – each new film is a creative leap from his last one. The reunions continue as I next see and catch up with Dina Gachman. Beautiful and talented, she (among other things) writes for and I also was able to put her through her red carpet paces – this time at DALLAS IFF – with her short film ARCHER HOUSE (also in 2007).

Following a some fish and chips and a nice visit with filmmaker and Movie City News writer Kim Voynar, her fellow MCN writer Ray Pride, Daily Buzz producer Irene Cho and former Film Society Executive Director Rose Kuo, I’m off to the final screening of the night. Another Park City At Midnight selection at the Egyptian, this one is COOTIES.

After I make the connection with one of the film’s publicists and get my ticket I head back into the line of ticket holders and finally make my way into the theater. However, by this point there are no more seats left to be had. Mathematically this doesn’t make sense, but there you go – ticket but no where to sit. So, as the film begins I decide to sit on the steps leading down to the seats. Nope – a Sundance usher tells me that isn’t allowed, so I’ll have to stand and just lean against the railing. Which is fine. At least I get to stay and watch the film. I smile as another guy immediately takes my place sitting on the steps. But then about ten or fifteen minutes into the film, something not great happens, as I quickly start to get nauseous. And then a wave of heat washes over me, the kind that usually precedes a standard issue fainting. I mean, what the hell? I look around and back myself up and sit on the floor leaning against the back wall. There is no way I’m going to be that “guy that fainted during a horror film”. And I also can’t go home because I don’t want to be the “guy that fainted on the streets of Sundance”. I actually don’t know if that’s a thing but even if it isn’t, I don’t want to be the namesake. My mind races through the options and potential causes. I haven’t felt remotely sick – no Sundance flu or crud, not even a scratch throat to point to with any of this.

Then, as I listen to mayhem happening onscreen – all caused by one little girl’s bite into a corrupted chicken nugget, I reflect on the battered fish I just had at the Yarrow Bar and the possibility that I’ll be Patient Zero for the Sundance infected. Uh uh. Not gonna happen. I will that s**t away, recover and stand back up just as another Sundance usher comes by to tell me that some seats have opened up since a couple people walked out already. Whew. I make my way down the aisle, sit my a*s down and continue to watch the film.

Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion’s COOTIES is a horror comedy that tracks the events following the infection of a school’s children via bad chicken nuggets that has turned them into blood-thirsty cannibal zombies bent on killing and eating the remaining teaching staff that didn’t perish during the initial outbreak. Co-written by SAW’s Leigh Whannel and “Glee” co-creator Ian Brennan, the film gleefully pits a motley group of emotionally arrested and clueless adult characters against the diseased and dangerous moppets.

Featuring a cast that would be looked upon as a motherlode of comic talent by any measure (including Elijah Wood, Rainn Wilson, Alison Pill, Jack McBrayer, Leigh Whannell and Nasim Pedrad), the film unfortunately suffers from any kind of restraint or cohesion regarding their efforts. Striking the proper balance between the “horror” and the “comedy” is always tricky and truthfully, COOTIES has no real interest in horror as opposed to gross-out gore with the threat from the child monsters clearly being pushed aside in favor of the jokes, which is fine as a choice, but in this case makes for middling enjoyment. There are truly brilliant and weird moments of hilarity (usually courtesy of Whannell’s socially awkward character or Wilson’s P.E. teacher), but they don’t come often enough to justify the joke parade. Yes, there is commentary on what the education system really delivers or “feeds” kids today both literally and figuratively – but to be fair – the film really just has the gags on its mind. And while, the film hits the expected notes, it never actually sings with hilarity.

Expected Real World Reaction:
Personal disappointment aside, I think the film is just successful enough delivering on its high concept premise to do decently in multiplexes and then satisfactorily on VOD and DVD.

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