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Sundance 2015: 'Mississippi Grind' and 'The End of the Tour' are two for the road

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There’s a specific internal logic that governs road movies. Two characters—it is almost always just two—vibe off one another in the confined space of a car, revealing essential selves, embarking on what’s inevitably a journey of self-discovery, moving ever forward, together.

The genre has become something of a Sundance trope over the years, thanks to movies such as Transamerica, Liar’s Dice and The Trip to Italy. And living up to that expectation, two of the buzzier entries in the fest’s early days happen to feature duos traveling for extended periods in cars on, yes, you guessed it, journeys of self-discovery.

Mississippi Grind focuses on a pair of gamblers who meet at a nickel-and-dime poker game in Iowa before taking it on the road. Ben Mendelsohn (The Dark Knight Rises, Animal Kingdom) is Gerry, a flat-tire of a man washed up on the shoals of midlife with a crushing gambling addiction and loan shark debt to his eyeballs. When he meets Curtis (Ryan Reynolds), a loose-limbed charisma machine fond of making grand pronouncements such as “The journey is the destination” and “When you come to a fork in the road, take it,” Gerry believes he’s found good luck incarnate. They impulsively decide to travel down the Mississippi River in a beat-up Subaru, gambling at riverboat casinos and back-room betting parlors from Dubuque to New Orleans, where a high-stakes poker game (and Gerry’s expected financial salvation) awaits.

The movie makes better use of Reynolds’ chummy bro bonhomie than perhaps anything he’s ever been in. Mendelsohn, meanwhile, crystallizes the fevered dreaming and flop sweat that dictates the lives of diehard amateur gamblers. And on that level, Mississippi Grind works almost as a gambling addiction procedural.

“We wanted to make a classic, ‘70s-style road picture,” the movie’s co-director Ryan Fleck said after the screening Saturday afternoon.

The two protagonists in the talky biodrama The End of the Tour take to the highway for altogether different reasons. Based on David Lipsky’s memoir Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, the film features Jason Segel as acclaimed novelist David Foster Wallace and Jesse Eisenberg as Lipsky, the Rolling Stone journalist sent to profile the author—who had then exploded into public consciousness with his 1,079-page literary bestseller Infinite Jest—on the final leg of Wallace’s 1996 book tour.

Segel has maintained a healthy career by playing variations of the same character: a lovable man-child doofus. And until now, his bravest performance was arguably doing full-frontal nudity in Forgetting Sarah Marshall. But in The End of the Tour (directed by James Ponsoldt, whose last film, The Spectacular Now, also debuted at Sundance), Segel is a revelation.

His Wallace is a fully inhabited character: a lumbering recluse with a piercing, laser-quick intellect. A guy who, in the course of a single conversation, would be apt to footnote his thoughts and qualify the act of conducting an interview with meta-narrative gusto, all while spouting beautifully worded profundities almost as an afterthought. “There were a lot of interviews [with Wallace] that I got to watch and listen to,” Segel explained after the movie’s Friday premiere. “And I read and I read and I read. I started a book club in the little town that I live in outside of LA with three really great book dorks who have read Infinite Jest five or six times. Then we talked through it.”

“I think what’s so special about David Foster Wallace’s writing is he touches on some very universal human feelings,” he continued. “And so I really tried to pay attention to the parts of us that are the same.”

Journeying from Illinois to Minnesota together by car over the course of five days, journalist and interviewee banter about subjects across the cultural spectrum: television, suicide, drugs, junk food, depression and the unbearable heaviness of Wallace’s fame. “I don’t mind appearing in Rolling Stone,” he says in the film. “I mind seeming like I want to appear in Rolling Stone.”

A novelist in his own minimally-celebrated right, Lipsky is shown attempting to simultaneously win over the author while setting him up for a takedown; he idealizes Wallace even while agonizing and arguing with the writer about his frailties and contradictions. “What I saw in Dave and David was this kind of doppelgänger,” End of the Tour screenwriter Donald Margulies said Friday. “Two very bright, complicated guys bumping up against each other over the course of an abbreviated period of time. And encapsulated in those days was friendship, competition, so many conflicting things about the nature of art, the publicizing of art, and how do people reconcile that?”

One place they do it? In a car.

Ryan Reynolds' cat is telling him to kill in exclusive 'The Voices' trailer

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Sweet, simple Jerry needs to tell the truth about cats and dogs: They talk to him, and his tabby, Mr. Whiskers, thinks he should murder that pretty girl at the office. That’s the plot of The Voices, the 2014 Sundance horror-comedy from Iranian filmmaker Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis).

Ryan Reynolds plays the disturbed warehouse worker who gets along with everyone at his bathroom factory, but whose best friends are Mr. Whiskers and Bosco, his loyal and ever-cautious bull mastiff. (Reynolds provided the voices for both.) But Jerry is a good-looking fella, so when the office girls get a good look at him and develop competing crushes, he has to step out of his comfort zone and speak to actual human beings. And try not to kill them, despite what Mr. Whiskers tells him. “Mr. Whiskers, he makes me do bad things,” says Jerry, in the exclusive trailer for the new movie.

The R-rated film, which also stars Anna Kendrick, Gemma Arterton, and Jacki Weaver, arrives in theaters and VOD on Feb. 6 READ FULL STORY

See Tatiana Maslany play a young Helen Mirren in the trailer for 'Woman in Gold'

Orphan Black star Tatiana Maslany plays a young version of Helen Mirren’s character in the trailer for the upcoming film Woman in Gold, from My Week with Marilyn director Simon Curtis.

The film tells the true story of Holocaust refugee Maria Altmann, who battled the Austrian government for the return of her family’s Gustave Klimt paintings, which were stolen by Nazis. Those paintings include the famous “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I,” Altmann’s aunt. The case reached the U.S. Supreme Court. (For more information on Altmann’s story, check out her New York Times obituary.) READ FULL STORY

Sundance premieres and docs 2015: Hi, James Franco!

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If the Sundance Film Festival has an unofficial spirit animal, it’s James Franco. In recent years, the crinkly-grinned polymath-movie star/filmmaker/artist/perennial grad student has become a fixture at North America’s ranking showcase for independent film. He’s come as an actor in such films as Howl and Lovelace and as director of Interior. Leather Bar and the short film Herbert White, but also as a producer of Kink, a 2013 documentary about BDSM porn. Franco even enacted a meta-art piece called Three’s Company: A Drama—transgressively riffing on the ’70s sitcom—at the festival’s New Frontier program in 2011.

With today’s announcement of Sundance’s highest-profile and arguably most anticipated offerings—its Premieres and Documentary Premieres sections—comes the news that, yes, Franco is back. He stars in I Am Michael, a biopic about a controversial gay activist who undergoes a religious transformation to become a Christian pastor and champion of heterosexuality. “We do love James Franco. The fact that he was in about 73 films that were submitted—statistically, he had a pretty good shot,” jokes Trevor Groth, director of programming for the Sundance Film Festival. “Honestly, he’s great in I Am Michael. It’s a complicated story and he has great chemistry with his two love interests, Zachary Quinto and Emma Roberts.” READ FULL STORY

Ryan Reynolds added to Kevin Costner thriller 'Criminal'

Ryan Reynolds has joined the cast of the upcoming CIA thriller Criminal, starring Kevin Costner, Gary Oldman, and Tommy Lee Jones.

Directed by Ariel Vromen (The Iceman), the film focuses on an unpredictable prisoner who has the memories, secrets, and skills of a dead CIA operative implanted into his mind. Douglas Cook and David Weisberg wrote the script, reuniting them with Jones, the star of their 1999 film Double Jeopardy. 

Reynolds will next appear in the drama Mississippi Grind from writer/directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (It’s Kind of a Funny Story) and is currently filming The Woman in Gold with Helen Mirren and Katie Holmes.

Video: Ryan Reynolds is a tortured dad in 'The Captive' trailer

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On a snowy day in Ontario, Matthew’s (Ryan Reynolds) daughter disappears. Eight years later, evidence of her existence begins to reappear. That’s the basic conceit of Atom Egoyan’s The Captive, which turns into a psychological thriller involving Matthew’s wife (Mireille Enos) and the two detectives on the case (Scott Speedman and Rosario Dawson).

If the film’s structure sounds vaguely familiar—that is, like many other prestige dramas—then you’re not wrong. The Captive premiered at Cannes earlier this year, to resounding boos and reviews that damned the film for its lack of innovation.

READ FULL STORY

First Look: Ryan Reynolds does the 'Mississippi Grind' -- EXCLUSIVE

Southern drifters, gamblers, lost souls, and con-men populate the seedy world of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s Mississippi Grind.

Starring Ryan Reynolds and Ben Mendelsohn as a pair of “oddball strangers” who hit the road together to try to make a high-stakes poker tournament in New Orleans, Fleck says he and Boden just wanted to make a film that felt like those that continue to inspire them — including classic ’70s fare like Robert Altman’s California Split and Jerry Schatzberg’s Scarecrow. READ FULL STORY

Casting Net: Chiwetel Ejiofor could be the next Bond villain; Plus, Ryan Reynolds, more

• Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave) is reportedly the front-runner to antagonize James Bond in the next film in the series. According to the report, no offer has been made yet. Daniel Craig will return to star as 007, and Sam Mendes, who directed him in Skyfall, is returning to direct. Production is supposed to begin this summer on Bond 24, scheduled for a Nov. 6, 2015, release date. [The Wrap] READ FULL STORY

Sundance 2014: Ryan Reynolds talks to the animals in 'The Voices' and Aubrey Plaza goes zombie in 'Life After Beth'

There’s a certain kind of oddball film that seems like it could only have its coming-out party at a place like Sundance. Marjane Satrapi’s dark serial killer comedy The Voices is one of those films. The best way I can think to describe it is: imagine Fight Club if Brad Pitt’s part was played by a talking dog and cat.

Tyler Durden comparisons aside, Satrapi, the Iranian director of 2007’s Persepolis, has created a totally unique, genre-defying film. Which isn’t to say The Voices is great. Far from it. It’s wildly uneven and it never finds a tone and sticks with it. But it’s a boldly gutsy and giddy experiment mainly because it gives us a likable, sympathetic, gee-whiz protagonist (Ryan Reynolds) and then spends the next hour and a half showing him go on a psychotic killing spree. The hook of the film –and it’s a doozy — is that through it all, Reynolds  is egged on in his homicidal deeds by his cat (Mr. Whiskers) and cautioned against them by his dog (Bosco), both of whom talk to him. Like the devil and angel that hover over all of our shoulders, Mr. Whiskers is a nasty piece of business who speaks in a Fat Bastard Scottish brogue, while Bosco is a dumb-but-moral mutt with a southern drawl.

Despite his hunky, leading-man good looks and relative box-office currency (Green Lantern and R.I.P.D. aside), Reynolds has always been an interesting actor because he’s at least willing to take chances. Sometimes those chances pan out, sometimes they don’t. But looking at movies like The Nines and Buried, you can’t say that he plays it safe. He had to know going in that The Voices would never be a mainstream multiplex hit, but that doesn’t stop him from delivering a surprising and ballsy performance. Jerry begins the film as a bubbly, optimistic factory worker who we slowly learn through sessions with his court-appointed shrink (Jacki Weaver) has a history of mental illness. And, of course, there’s the whole talking pet thing.

When Jerry develops a crush on one of his coworkers (Gemma Arterton), Bosco encourages asking her out. Meanwhile, Mr. Whiskers only cares about whether or not he will close the deal and have sex with her (well, that and making sure that Jerry feeds him on time: “Where the f—‘s my food, f—face?”). Jerry’s date goes horribly, tragically, fatally wrong. So does the one after that with another coworker (an excellent Anna Kendrick). And as Jerry’s world starts to unravel, Bosco and Mr. Whiskers do their hilarious, chatty push-and-pull routine yanking at the wishbone of his soul.

I wish I could say that the second half of the film lived up to the promise of the first. Or that the film probably won’t offend some folks with its glib, played-for-laughs treatment of mental illness. Still, The Voices is never less than unpredictable and amusing in a that’s-so-wrong kind of way. For those who take their comedy black, you could do a lot worse.

Like Ryan Reynolds, Aubrey Plaza is an actor who’s drawn to rolling the dice and taking risks — usually with a deadpan expression on her face. In Safety Not Guaranteed, The To Do List, and on Parks and Recreation, Plaza has a special and all-too-rare gift for totally committing to embarrassing situations and finding the absurd humor in them. Which is exactly what she does again in the gonzo zombie rom-com Life After Beth.

I could say that Plaza’s new film is the funniest zombie comedy since Shaun of the Dead, but the truth is there haven’t been many decent contenders for that title. I laughed while watching Life After Beth, but not as much, or as hard, as I felt like I should have. Like The Voices, it promises more than it ultimately delivers.

Written and directed by Jeff Baena, Life After Beth stars Dane DeHaan as Zack, who, at the opening of the film, is grieving over the death of his girlfriend (Plaza), who was bit by a snake while hiking. As he mourns along with her parents (a pair of aces John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon), he beats himself up over all of the things he never got to say to her while she was alive. But he soon gets a second chance when Beth reappears. She’s not a zombie exactly — not yet, at least. And the film has fun with the nonchalance with which Reilly and Shannon meet her return. After all, why look a gift horse in the mouth?

At first, Zack is freaked out. But soon he’s taking advantage of his romantic do-over with the girl he loves — even if she is acting a bit…odd.  Plaza’s Beth is moody, violent, horny, and what’s the deal with her new sweet tooth for smooth jazz and the strange decomposing rash on her face? Scared that she’s becoming one of the walking dead, Zack asks her: “You don’t want to, like, eat me, do you?” Plaza’s response: “Zack, not with my parents around!”

Things get worse when other deceased folks start turning up wanting to listen to smooth jazz and eat people too. It turns out World War Z has arrived and its soundtrack is Spyro Gyra and Chuck Mangione.

Life After Beth has a slew of strong supporting performances from Reilly and Shannon, Paul Reiser and Cheryl Hines (as Zack’s oblivious parents), and Anna Kendrick (there she is again!). But it’s Plaza who literally and figuratively chews the movie up. With a premise as absurd as Life After Beth‘s is, it’s a testament to Plaza that she gives it everything she’s got. The sight of this wonderful actress — bloody, foaming at the mouth, and lumbering around with a stove strapped to her back is one I won’t forget anytime soon.

Sundance 2014: Ryan Reynolds does not like cats, especially the one that tells him to kill in 'The Voices'

Iranian filmmaker Marjane Satrapi is known best for Persepolis, the award-winning 2007 animated film based on her own graphic novel about growing up during Iran’s Islamic Revolution. But she’s turned that reputation upside down with the Sundance film The Voices, a twisted, disturbing horror-comedy that stars Ryan Reynolds as Jerry, a man with few friends — but two talking pets. During the day, Jerry is the sweet but slightly-off warehouse worker who catches the eyes of the office girls at a bathroom factory in a small blue-collar town called Milton. At night, he comes home to discuss his life with Bosco, his loyal bull mastiff, and Mr. Whiskers, a brogue-accented tabby who fans the flames of Jerry’s darker urges. When Jerry sorta accidentally-on-purpose kills one of his pretty co-workers, he finds it difficult to cap those tendencies, and before long, his apartment is full of body parts packed neatly in Tupperwear and a fridge full of severed heads.

Um, what gives, Marjane?

“When first I read the script and I said to my producer, ‘We are not going to do any gore,'” the director said on Sunday after the film’s world premiere in Utah. “I don’t like blood. No way I’m going to do this kind of stuff. Then there was that first scene where there’s blood all over [Gemma Arterton] and I was like, ‘More blood! More blood!’ And I realized actually that I really liked that. I showed my mom a version of the movie, and she told me, ‘You’re completely sick in your brain.'” READ FULL STORY

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