We're officially on the down slope of the Sundance Film Festival, and it shows-- Main Street is easy to navigate, screenings are easier to get into, and I swear even the wifi is faster. This morning Matt Patches and I saw a movie together at the Library Theater, and stepped into the field of snow next door to record our newest video blog. The idea was to frame the mountains behind us-- it was a gorgeous day-- but we screwed up a little, so you're mostly going to see the snowy field and a man throwing a frisbee to his dog. It's a pretty great dog, though.
Check out the video below, and read more detailed reviews of both movies discussed here below that.
Sleepwalk With Me
Stand-up comedian and storyteller Mike Birbiglia is fairly well known thanks to his appearances on the NPR show This American Life, which occasionally plays excerpts from his one-man shows about stories from his life. Sleepwalk With Me, an adaptation of Birbiglia's first one-man show, is also his debut as a director and, technically, as a movie star; he narrates the film directly to the camera but also plays the character "Matt Pandapiglio," a guy just starting out a stand-up comedy career dealing with the fact that his long-time girlfriend is anxious to marry. Oh, and he also develops a rare sleepwalking disorder that has him doing all kinds of dangerous things while completely unconscious.
The goofy fake name Birbiglia gives himself, as a way to have a little more artistic license with the characters he creates based on his own family, is the only distancing element in the film, which is very funny but also bracing and honest about what intimacy can really require. At one point Birbiglia's narration reminds the audience that "at this point, you are on my side," and he pulls no punches in showing his bad behavior, whether spending weeks on the road doing terrible comedy gigs or agreeing to get married to avoid the effort of breaking up. He's the star and the prime mover of the film, but several of his co-stars-- especially Carol Kane as his mom-- help further develop his story, giving us reasons to root for this guy but also want to kill him when he digs himself further into his mistakes.
Because the Sleepwalk With Me story was so well-developed after years onstage, the movie seems to flow effortlessly, conflicts foreshadowed at the exact right moment and jokes landing expertly-- in recounting one particularly awful moment, Birbiglia turns to the groaning audience and says "I know, I am in the future also." It slays. Birbiglia makes it all seem easy, even though combining a first-person storytelling play with a narrative film, and a narrative film based on real life, ought to be flat-out impossible. With a sure visual sense despite a clearly limited budget, and most importantly a rock-solid understanding of storytelling, Birbiglia crafts a romantic comedy that's utterly unique, but also satisfying in a primal, familiar way. Sleepwalk With Me doesn't yet have distribution, but believe me, it's only a matter of time.
It wouldn't be Sundance without a harrowing drama about addiction, and as far as those kinds of movies go, Smashed has the goods. The primary appeal is the lead performance from Mary Elizabeth Winstead, the beauty known for intriguing roles in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and The Thing, who plays a woman spiraling into alcoholism who finally realizes she needs help. She and her husband (Breaking Bad's Aaron Paul) have spent years drinking way too much and having plenty of fun together, but one particularly brutal hangover at work one morning puts the gears in motion for Winstead's Kate to finally make a change.
Thankfully Smashed doesn't wallow too long in the "rock bottom" part of the story, allowing us to watch Kate indulging in some truly bad behaviors-- smoking crack and spending a night on the street being the worst-- but focusing the story around her efforts to recover, particularly AA meetings and new friendships with other recovering alcoholics played by Nick Offerman and Octavia Spencer. The biggest heartbreak of the film comes from the way her staying sober begins to break apart her marriage; Paul and Winstead make it obvious why these two love each other, but also why a sober wife and a drunk husband can't find common ground.
Smashed, which doesn't yet have distribution but surely will soon, will be sold based on Winstead's performance, and though it verges into some histrionics from time to time, Winstead commits full-throttle, and shines even in the smaller moments, especially when put together with Paul. Though the film's story could have been a little cleaner and more authentic, the details are all correct, and it's always good to see talented actors stretch a little, especially given Nick Offerman's recent fame as the utterly different Ron Swanson on Parks & Recreation. With a little more humor than your average addiction drama, and a willingness to have hope for its characters, Smashed has real emotional weight without putting you through the wringer-- not a small bonus at this point in a long, long film festival.
Keep checking back to this page for all of my ongoing Sundance coverage, and for more from Matt Patches, you can check out his coverage at Hollywood.com. The festival is still going strong and we're keeping busy, so there will be much more to share soon!