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Sundance 2015: Irish actress Saoirse Ronan goes 'home' with 'Brooklyn'

The period drama Brooklyn, which premiered at Sundance Monday night to a standing ovation, takes place in 1952 and follows a young Irish woman’s coming of age; played by Saoirse Ronan, her heartstrings get pulled in several different directions at the same time. The period drama An Education, meanwhile, which debuted at the 2009 festival to critical hosannas, is set in 1961 and focuses on a bright young British woman (Carey Mulligan) longing to be accepted as an adult through her love affair with a beguiling older man.

The parallels between the two movies are striking. Both An Education, based on a memoir by Lynn Barber, and Brooklyn, based on the bestselling Colm Toíbín novel, were adapted for the screen by British novelist-turned-script whiz Nick Hornby (who received a best adapted screenplay Oscar nomination for his work on the earlier movie), which is perhaps one deciding factor in the films’ overall quality. And both showcase star-making performances by their leading ladies. In 2009, Mulligan was hailed as the belle of the fest for her work in An Education by no less a Sundance eminence than Harvey Weinstein (and the festival’s “It Girl” by EW).

Now, it is Ronan’s turn to blossom in the superheated Park City environs where she is appearing in two films named after places: Brooklyn and the kidnapping-aftermath drama Stockholm, Pennsylvania. In Brooklyn, the 20-year-old Irish actress is luminous as Eilis, a young émigré from the Emerald Isle who transplants to New York’s most populous borough, where she battles homesickness and culture shock but also finds romance with Italian-American plumber Tony (Emory Cohen, who gives a career-defining performance).

It’s all “started from the bottom now we’re here” progress until tragedy strikes back home, and Eilis returns to rural Ireland to discover just about everything that compelled her to leave has improved—in no small part due to the confidence and experience she has gained in the Big Apple. Offered a good job, cornered by family commitments and winning romantic attention from County Wexford’s most eligible bachelor, the character is suddenly conflicted: Will Eilis throw away the new life she’s built in Brooklyn and move back?

The elegant film marks a new career phase for Ronan, who landed an Academy Award nomination for her third film, Atonement, at age 12. After years of solid work in such movies as Hanna (kind of like a Bourne Identity reimagined for a teenage girl), The Lovely Bones, and The Grand Budapest Hotel (which features the actress sporting a birthmark in the shape of Mexico on her face) that indicated a certain seriousness of intent unusual in such a young performer, however, Brooklyn marks her onscreen arrival as an adult—with the sex scene to prove it. Watching Ronan fall in love with Cohen’s Tony is easily the most credible movie romance this jaded Sundance veteran has observed in nine years covering the festival; that’s a testament to director John Crowley’s finesse with his actors, but more to Ronan’s maturation as a performer.

After the screening at Park City’s Eccles Theater Monday, the actress—who was born in New York but moved to Ireland at age 3—was asked from the stage what it was like observing an audience seeing the film for the first time. “I didn’t actually watch this tonight,” Ronan said. “I couldn’t. It would have messed me up too much. I was very attached to it. It was very much about home for me. I listened in from the doorway and it sounded great!

“This is so grand and beautiful and still intimate and romantic,” she continued. “I’ve never had a film that I was involved with where it’s been in my heart for so long. So I hope that youse liked it.” Again, the crowd boomed with applause. They liked it, very much.

Sundance 2015: Ewan McGregor portrays Jesus in 'The Last Days in the Desert,' but don't call it 'faith-based'

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In the elegaic drama The Last Days in the Desert, which premiered at Sundance on Sunday night, Ewan McGregor portrays a spiritual seeker who is variously addressed as “holy man,” rabbi and Yeshuwa. He is never, however, called by the name by which most people would identify him: Jesus Christ. And he’s not like any Jesus you’ve ever seen before on film.

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Sundance 2015: More indie acquisitions with sales of 'The D-Train' and 'The Witch'

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So far, the sales and acquisitions of indie films at this year’s festival have been fast and furious. Unlike 2014’s Sundance, which was relatively sluggish on the pick-up front, several fest entries landed Hollywood distribution before the proceedings in Park City even began.

And on Sunday, IFC announced it has snagged the rights to the Jack Black comedy The D-Train for a reported $3 million. The directorial debut of Jarrad Paul and Andrew Mogel, it follows Black’s suburban sad sack dad character—the chairman of his high school reunion committee—as he embarks on a mission to get campus cool guy turned Hollywood actor (James Marsden) to come to their 20-year reunion. READ FULL STORY

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.

Sundance 2015: Festival acquisitions heat up with sales of 'The Bronze' and 'The End of the Tour'

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Park City, Utah — By the dawn of the second full day of screenings at North America’s preeminent showcase for independent cinema Saturday, the buying and selling of movies in this picturesque ski hamlet was already in full swing.

On the heels of a heated bidding session, the day began with the news that Relativity has snapped up distribution rights for the raunch-comedy The Bronze for a reported $3 million. The movie stars The Big Bang Theory’s Melissa Rauch as a hard-swearing, allergy meds-snorting former gymnast who becomes a reluctant mentor to a 16-year-old up-and-comer training for the Olympics. READ FULL STORY

Sundance 2015: 'The Hunting Ground' exposes an 'epidemic' of rape in American colleges

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Sundance has a way of moving the cultural thermometer. The fest can function as a discovery ground for emerging talent (Quentin Tarantino, Precious’ Gabourey Sidibe), a place where familiar performers are brushed off and made new by the transgressive strength of independent film (Patton Oswalt, Pierce Brosnan), or as one-stop shopping for major studios that snap up small, heartfelt indie efforts to bring them before a massive mainstream audience and win fancy awards (Little Miss Sunshine, Whiplash).

But every few years, a movie will arrive here to force an issue into the public consciousness just as it rises to the top of the national agenda. Acclaimed documentarian Kirby Dick did that in 2012 with The Invisible War, his blazing expose about the prevalence of sexual assault in the American armed forces, which was nominated for an Oscar and is widely credited with influencing government policy on the issue.

This year, Dick and his longtime producing partner Amy Ziering seem poised to similarly reframe the national conversation with their powerful documentary The Hunting Ground, which examines the “epidemic” of rape on U.S. college campuses. The film premiered here Friday to an awed crowd that included California senator Barbara Boxer and New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand.

Introducing the film at the Marc Theater, Sundance senior programmer Caroline Libresco hailed The Hunting Ground for “connecting all the dots where the news is just shards of information so that we understand the full picture.”

Set for a March theatrical release by Radius-TWC (and airing later in the year on CNN), it’s an unabashedly activist effort that puts a human face on an issue that has slowly been gaining momentum for the last couple of years: an estimated one in five women will face sexual assault during her time at college.

And the numbers put forward in The Hunting Ground paint a bleak portrait of personal safety during secondary education: 88 percent of women who are raped on campus do not report the assaults. And a mere 26 percent of reported rapes result in convictions.

The movie relies on startling interviews with campus rape survivors, many of whom suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder thanks to their ordeals but nonetheless speak out unflinchingly before the camera. Even more shocking than the sheer volume of rapes reported, however, is the alleged systemic cover up of those crimes by American universities. The Hunting Ground accuses, with damning detail, top-tier schools including Harvard and Yale of allegedly under-reporting campus rape and discouraging victims from contacting law enforcement as a means of upholding their “brands.” “Rape is like a football game,” survivor Annie Clark recalls being told by a college administrator in the movie. “If you look back on the game, what would you have done differently?” “My rape was bad but the way I was treated was worse,” another survivor adds.

By keeping sexual assaults off the books, the film alleges, the schools keep intact lucrative alumni endowments and prestigious rankings that entice prospective students. Moreover, according to The Hunting Ground, many colleges across the country give repeat sexual offenders a “get out of jail” card—the men are seldom expelled and some have gone on to serially assault other women.

Exhibit A: The woman who accused Florida State University quarterback Jameis Winston of rape in 2012 relates a hair-raising ordeal of being roofied in a local bar, kidnapped and allegedly assaulted. Then, after coming forward, she faced death threats and personal confrontations by FSU students that compelled her to drop out. Winston, meanwhile, went on to win the Heisman Trophy. 

But in an era when consciousness about campus sexual assaults is having a “watershed moment,” when President Obama called the issue “an affront to our basic humanity,” The Hunting Ground puts forward heroes of the movement such as Andrea Pino and Annie Clark. Their grass-roots activism has compelled women to take steps to politicize their experience—to put a face and a name on an issue—and has contributed to 90 colleges across the country being investigated by the government for failing to prevent and handle cases of sexual assault.

Many people in the audience (including myself) left the theater feeling a mixture of outrage and despair. It was one of those indelible Sundance moments when the festival opens your eyes and breaks your heart.

Sundance 2015: 'The Bronze' kicks off the festival with gymnastic sex

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The 31st installment of North America’s preeminent showcase for independent cinema kicked off Thursday night in a torrent of female genitalia jokes, toilet humor, and an inspired flourish of gymnastic sex.

That is, sex literally involving gymnastics during which the actors perform back flips, splits, and pommel-horse dismounts onto and off of each other’s naked bodies.

Leading the Sundance Film Festival’s narrative features section, the raunch comedy The Bronze played to a packed house at Park City’s Eccles Theater. By way of introduction, the movie’s director Bryan Buckley heaped credit on star-screenwriter Melissa Rauch (The Big Bang Theory‘s intimidating Dr. Bernadette), who wrote the film with her husband Winston Rauch. “They are husband and wife,” Buckley said. “Just keep that in mind and it will make it that much better.”

The Bronze centers on Rauch’s hard-swearing adul-escent character Hope Ann Greggory, a washed-up former gymnast whose small-town glory rests on her Olympic legacy. She claimed a bronze medal 12 years earlier by sticking an uneven bars landing after injuring her foot, a la Kerri Strug. Content to while away what’s left of her youth chugging Fanta, tearing around Ohio in an immense gold Buick, and snorting lines of allergy medicine, Hope Ann is shaken from her stasis by the sudden death of her gymnastics mentor Coach P. In a suicide letter, the coach pledges to leave her past-prime protégé $500,000 if Hope Ann will train 16-year-old gymnastics up-and-comer Maggie (Haley Lu Richardson) for the Toronto Games.

Hope Ann’s initial impulse toward Tonya Harding-like ruination for the younger gymnast compels an unusual fitness regime—casual sex, a diet of fried foods, and marijuana smoothies—but eventually gives way to serious intent. And Rauch’s character ends up reclaiming a certain “Eye of the Tiger” focus pursuing Olympic gold. Along the way, there’s a romantic subplot involving nerdy gym owner Twitchy (Thomas Middlemarch of HBO’s Silicon Valley) and Hope Ann’s ex-flame-turned-gymnastics coaching nemesis Lance (Captain America: The Winter Soldier’s Sebastian Stan) that culminates in that back-flipping sex scene. “When you’re 4″10″-and-a-half and 6’1″, you have to get creative,” Rauch said in a Q&A session after the screening, and added, “You write what you know.”

But overall, The Bronze functions mostly as a showcase for tiny dynamo Rauch, who can now rightly lay claim to a new renown as America’s top female comedian under 5’ tall. Milking her vertical challenges—and the kind of visceral jolt that comes from hearing a child-sized woman utter words such as “clit jizz”—for maximum laughs, Rauch used the Sundance spotlight to showcase herself as a kind of proto-Melissa McCarthy.

None of that, however, prepared viewers for the sight of indie mogul Harvey Weinstein serving as a kind of exit liason at the screening. He was stationed just outside the theater’s velvet ropes Thursday night dressed in a Simon Cowell-esque fitted black T-shirt, greeting and hugging a long-line of industry well-wishers as they left the theater.

'Big Bang Theory' star's gymnastic sex scene scores a '10' at Sundance

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Melissa Rauch has heads spinning at Sundance after her new film, The Bronze, opened the Park City film festival Thursday night.

In the film, the Big Bang Theory star plays a former Olympic gymnast who has descended into a lackadaisical life of boozing and smoking pot in a small Ohio town. Variety described one scene between Rauch and co-star Sebastian Stan as “one of the raunchiest sex sequences in movie history,” noting it involves “pole vaults, cartwheels and pirouettes.” Mashable panned the film, but said the sex scene was “a perfect 10.” While The Slanted raved about the film and said the scene has “everything from tumbles, to vaults to cartwheels thrown into the mix to create one of the funniest/raunchiest events you could hope for.”

The Bronze was co-written by Rauch and her husband, Winston Rauch. The actress told critics in the post-screening Q&A that, “as for the sex scene, you write what you know,” and Winston said that the scene gave his wife the chance to “show you what we do in our bedroom.”

But before Big Bang Theory fans get too revved up by the prospect of seeing Dr. Bernadette Rostenkowski-Wolowitz stick the landing in the bedroom, the actress revealed that she used a body double for the gymnastic parts of the scene.

Marlon Brando stars in serene Sundance doc clip

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Marlon Brando was a philosophical soul who wrestled with the trappings of celebrity that came with a profession he never put on a pedestal. When he died in 2004, after a career that reshaped cinema, he left behind more than 200 hours of personal audio tape that contained his musings about life. Filmmaker Stevan Riley and Showtime built a documentary around them, Listen to Me Marlon, which premieres Jan. 24 at the Sundance Film Festival.

Brando’s voice is the only one featured in the entire two-hour film. Deadline posted a clip, and there’s something soothing about it, even without the lush setting of Tetiaroa, the French Polynesian island he purchased in 1966.  READ FULL STORY

Sundance exclusive: Johnny Knoxville promises 'big revelations' in Evel Knievel doc

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Evel Knievel is synonymous with daredevil, but unless you saw him at his heights in the late 1960s and early 1970s, it’s difficult to imagine how he built that reputation into something millions of people actually cared about. Beginning with Knievel’s disastrous attempt to jump the fountains at Caesar’s Palace in 1967—which made him a star once it aired on ABC’s Wide World of Sports—millions tuned into his stunts to see if he could defy death one more time.

In Being Evel, the documentary that debuts on Jan. 25 at the Sundance Film Festival, director Daniel Junge (They Killed Sister Dorothy) tells the real story of Robert Craig Knievel, the charismatic showman who discovered the most lucrative way to support his family was to risk life and limb in highly orchestrated and heavily promoted motorcycle leaps.

If it sounds hokey in hindsight, it wasn’t so at the time—and a generation of kids eagerly inhaled the danger and the glamour. One of those was Johnny Knoxville, who brought Knievel’s rebellious and thrill-seeking spirit to the Jackass stunts that made his crew famous. “I think we’re hovering right somewhere in between bravery and stupidity,” Knoxville admits, describing the thin line that he and his idol straddled. “Possibly more on the stupidity side.”

Knoxville teamed up with Junge, and producer pals Jeff Tremaine and Mat Hoffman to reexamine Knievel’s life—not just the showstopping highlights everyone remembers, but the tough behind-the-scenes events and relationships that were kept mostly out of the spotlight. “We take a very honest look back on his life,” says Knoxville. “He lived a certain way and we talk about that. We worked a lot with [Evel’s son] Kelly Knievel and the family and couldn’t have made it without the family being involved.”

Knoxville, who’s currently playing Elvis’s bodyguard Sonny West in Elvis & Nixon, with Kevin Spacey and Michael Shannon, spoke to EW about his hero in advance of the doc’s Sundance premiere. And EW also has the exclusive poster for Being Evel, which demonstrates how he liked to live close to the edge. READ FULL STORY

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