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Sundance 2015: “The D Train,” “Don Verdean,” “The Overnight,” "Partisan," “Sleeping with Other People,” "Unexpected"

Old reunions, late night trysts and troubled childhoods are utterly familiar themes of each year's Sundance lineup. Some of those reunions are with filmmakers who have graced the festival catalog for over a decade. Others are unveiling their babies for the first time in Park City in the hopes it will be gifted with showers of praise. In this particular crop of films from Sundance 2015, what is old is still very much old, but what is new is what we will want to see again.

The social status of high school hovers over all, either as a defining period in our lives or a catalyst to be better. In "The D Train," Jack Black's Dan Landsman, despite rising to the middle class economically with a wife (a wasted Kathryn Hahn) and child is still stuck in the shell of his unpopularity decades earlier. Even as the head of his school's reunion committee, the respect of his fellow students towards his aggressive style could not be lower, as RSVP's are only trickling in. To help boost attendance and gain the confidence of his staff he sets out to find the most popular (or, at least, the most handsome) guy from their class, Oliver Lawless (James Marsden).

Despite appearing in a suntan lotion commercial, Oliver has not exactly lived up to his promise either and Dan's arrival opens something in him just as the film should be opening up too. Unfortunately, that never happens. Feeling a bit like the role reversals of jock vs. nerd explored a bit in "21 Jump Street," "The D Train" never takes full advantage of meeting these two characters on the equal ground they appear to have traveled towards. Instead, it turns into a one-joke relationship built upon their wild night in Los Angeles with double entendres taking the place of something deeper in Dan's psyche.

Writer/directors Andrew Mogel ("Yes Man") and Jarrad Paul make the mistake of introducing Dan as a not-so-lovable loser and then foisting his unlikability within decisions that affect other more sympathetic characters (such as Jeffrey Tambor's technologically-challenged boss). Marsden does the most with Oliver, but often feels like he is being fed scraps in the wake of one of Black's most grating performances. Paul (who played Kramer's intern on "Seinfeld") looks as if he was inspired by more of that classic's plotlines, most notably George's fascination with the cool "Mimbo" and his desire for a catchy nickname. Before "The D-Train" was over, I was thinking more of the “Serenity Now" episode.

It has been 11 years since Jared & Jerusha Hess brought their uniquely cartoonish "Napoleon Dynamite" to Sundance, launching its run towards cult status. Their follow-up, "Nacho Libre," almost doubled the box office success of "Napoleon" but lost nearly half of its critical support. Since then efforts by Jared ("Gentlemen Broncos") and Jerusha ("Austenland") have come under greater scrutiny and their latest, "Don Verdean", suffers a familiar fate. It stars Sam Rockwell as the title character, an archaeologist who is more like a cable access version of Indiana Jones. He is hired by a reformed pastor (Danny McBride) to seek out artifacts to put on display at his church in order to draw away parishioners from the reformed Satanist (Will Forte) who has taken up nearby.

Along with his personal Sallah in the Holy Land, Boaz (Jermaine Clement), Don finds some questionable success and newfound fandom. When an offer for more money from a competitor comes calling though, both Don and the film begin to lose their true calling. The first 45 minutes of the film has a number of solid laughs courtesy of a strong cast that is trying to out-dumb each other. Then something awful happens. The laughs just stop. This might have sufficed if this was a more subtle comedy that then drifted into a commentary on faith or became a full-on parody of Spielberg's finder of lost antiquities. Instead it fails to take the necessary shift into satiric territory and buries itself under a thickened plot of fraud that wastes valuable time in getting from Point B to Point C when the occasional non-recycled joke would have sufficed.

Clement's Boaz begins to take center stage from the more restrained Rockwell and becomes a reminder of how funny he can be in small doses (see the upcoming "What We Do In the Shadows") but feels like an unwelcome Sacha Baron Cohen creation when it's all about him. Fans of Jared Hess still holding out hope after a third strike like this, may do best to look forward to his summer comedy "Masterminds" since this is another one worth leaving in the past.

New people in a new town offers a standard setup for fish out of water and smiling platitudes that can turn into diabolical discomfort. Writer/director Patrick Brice is making an early career out of these awkward dynamics. The yet-unreleased "Creep" starring himself and Mark Duplass is about a videographer taking an eccentric job off of Craigslist. Now, "The Overnight" turns a kids' playdate into an awkward, but maybe also enlightening, evening. Alex (Adam Scott) and Emily (Taylor Schilling) are new to Los Angeles. Alex is not sure how to best go about making new adult friends until Kurt (Jason Schwartzman) introduces himself at their sons' playground and invites them over for dinner along with his wife, Charlotte (Judith Godrèche). What occurs from here on out is best left to your own discovery.

Films about the cool kids teaching the uptight ones to loosen up do not come with age restrictions (though do expect the MPAA to label this one with their own edgy label of "graphic nudity.") The ensuing naughtiness occurs after the kids have been put to bed as the adults wrestle with their insecurities and become accepting of their new friends. Brice gives us a film that begins as a lark but becomes something funnier and sensitive. It is hard to remember the last time Adam Scott was not welcome as an added comic presence to any scene and Schilling is more than his equal in the silent looks of disapproval (and in one key scene, a noted approval.)

But it is Schwartzman who will have most people on the floor and agreeing that Kurt is his best and most rounded comic creation since he debuted as "Rushmore"'s Max Fischer back in 1998. In some respects "The Overnight" is a film for those who found Stanley Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut" a bit too esoteric, but it may just be a gateway to go back and give it a second look. A really funny gateway certainly worthy of its own second look.

Ariel Kleiman is a name I suspect we will be hearing again at Sundance in the coming years. Audience pleasers are in no short supply at the festival but finding unique ways to reflect on old themes (and successfully) is a rarer find. Particularly coming-of-age stories. Our first meeting of "Partisan"'s antagonist, Gregori, suggests we are watching a homeless man making a supply closet out of an underground lair. In fact, he is the leader of a closed off community that looks like a ghetto but is filled with life. Namely single mothers and their children. Gregori is a new dad himself and as the story moves forward to the 11th birthday of Alexander (Jeremy Chabriel), we begin to see what the only man of this society is teaching his cadre of surrogates.

As events become clear (and yet still purposefully vague) about Gregori's "business", his dictatorial rule begins to get challenged by one boy who, mentally, fails to see the world through the same eyes and then his own son who begins to understand the nature of right and wrong. Observed as a metaphor for fascism or another variation of the sins passed down from father-to-son, "Partisan" is rife with additional angles for discussion for those that find its plotting too obtuse. Viewed through the eyes of a child, the film is a sad and riveting account of growing up and rebellion.

Young Chabriel is at his best when silently surveying the horror around him and learning to empathize with those who have been wronged or simply in trying to make his mom happy when their dinner hits the floor. Cassel has played countless varieties of criminals and villains, but Gregori is all the more menacing as the smiling devil teaching others how to do his dirty work. Ariel Kleiman is the first name seen after the screen goes to black. You will be as keen to remember it as you will one of the most arresting final shots of any film in some time.

Less than a year after the success of "Bridesmaids", writer/director Leslye Headland came to Sundance with the similarly-themed "Bachelorette." Just last year she lent her name to the rather abysmal screenplay for the remake of 1986's "About Last Night," which already had its roots in David Mamet's play "Sexual Perversity in Chicago." "Sleeping with Other People" almost sounds like an appropriate label for Headland as she once again finds another '80s relationship fave to poach from. This time though, the results are far more successful.

Jake (Jason Sudeikis) and Lainey (Alison Brie) met back in college, and within a few hours after a reassuring conversation about their own worth to the opposite sex, lost their virginity to each other. Over a decade later they meet again. He has hardly become a one-woman guy and she is still hung up on the one (Adam Scott) who has strung her along for years. They become friends and you can pretty much guess the rest. Or can you? The film which clearly wears "When Harry Met Sally" like a security blanket (one character even utters the immortal "men and women cannot be friends" line) nevertheless finds just enough heart to prevent this from becoming just another refurbished wannabe.

Much of this is due to the appeal of its two leads. Brie lit up TV's "Community" for five seasons and although her character has the unfortunate definition of being enslaved to her emotions for a married jerk, there is never a moment where her energy and likability fail her. Sudeikis, who has stolen films in supporting parts, does his best screen work to date here in just his second lead role. Unlike in "We're the Millers," which was played primarily for yuks, Sudeikis adds a great degree of heart to a character who clearly does not take life as seriously as when he is around his new best friend. "Sleeping with Other People" has a lot of solid laughs, but it is the final half-hour that makes it a rom-com worth remembering. The strong work of Brie and Sudeikis aid Headland in showing that the best parts of our lives can be directly related to the people we surround ourselves with.

Friends of the minimalist filmmaking movement (crudely labeled as "Mumblecore") have made significant advances over the years in form, budget and established actors. Many of them like Andrew Bujalski ("Results") and Joe Swanberg ("Digging for Fire") continued that trend over the course of this year's Sundance and now Kris Swanberg has made her own leap. In "Unexpected," Cobie Smulders stars as Samantha, a Chicago high school teacher who discovers she is pregnant. The title gives away that this was an unplanned event, but with a supportive boyfriend (Anders Holm of "Workaholics") they decide to start a family even as she is on the verge of losing her job due to a wave of school closings.

One of her best students, Jasmine (a very good Gail Bean), also arrives at an unexpected pregnancy, and, as she decides to move forward as well, her college future comes into question. On similar paths, Samantha takes additional time in Jasmine's life to guide her toward the opportunity in having both an education and motherhood even as she is personally forced to make a choice between the two. Kris Swanberg smartly approaches this story through the prism of its socioeconomic concerns while subtly presenting the inherent sacrifices that come for women once the nine months are over.

Much like another Chicago-set tale, John Hughes' "She's Having a Baby" (whose Elizabeth McGovern plays Samantha's concerned mother here), "Unexpected" thankfully spends little time on the physical effects of pregnancy and focuses instead on the other transformations that can define a lifetime. The film certainly has the feel of a personal story for Swanberg (a former high school teacher herself) yet it has a universal focus that sees Samantha and Jasmine not separated by racial, age or economic boundaries but as women who do not want to believe that their choices are limited.


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