Sundance Reviews: ‘The D Train,’ ‘Strangerland,’ ‘I Am Michael’

By February 2, 2015
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In the immortal words of Salt-N-Pepa, let’s talk about sex! The beast with two backs is a regular topic of discussion in Sundance movies (and movies in general), often consuming the main characters’ every thought. Here are three films about people who can’t decide where, when, or with whom to get it on.

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THE D TRAIN

The D Train marks Jack Black’s first starring role since 2011’s Bernie, and it finds him a little more mature and self-restrained than we remember him. He’s still very funny, though, adept as ever at reaction shots and physical comedy. That holds true even in a film, like The D Train, that runs out of ideas long before it reaches the conclusion.

Black plays Dan Landsman, a Pittsburgh loser who heads up the class of 1994’s high school reunion committee with great fervor. The committee has been unable to drum up much support for the reunion, but that changes when Dan sees a TV commercial starring classmate Oliver Lawless (James Marsden), once the most popular guy in school and now, apparently, a successful actor. If Dan can get him confirmed as a reunion attendee, surely word will spread and others will follow suit.

Dan, who works for a consulting firm, concocts a series of lies about a potential client to justify a trip to L.A., fooling his amusingly technophobic boss (Jeffrey Tambor), as well as his sympathetic wife (Kathryn Hahn) and adolescent son (Russell Posner). In L.A., Oliver turns out to be a heavy-drinking, hard-partying bro who’s not nearly as successful as Dan thinks he is. He’s also openly bisexual. Dan is starstruck and man-crushing on Oliver, who is amused by Dan’s worship of him. They go out partying, become pals, and get involved in each other’s lies. They also share an incident of physical intimacy that means nothing to promiscuous Oliver Lawless but a lot to heretofore exclusively heterosexual Dan Landsman.

Written and directed by the team of Andrew Mogel and Jarrad Paul (Yes Man, TV’s “Allen Gregory”), the film makes good use of Black, Marsden, Hahn, and Tambor, and the part of the story committed to Dan’s web of lies is funny. The problems are in the other half of the story — the part about Dan’s confusion after his rendezvous with Oliver. The film wins points for treating Oliver’s bisexuality like it’s no big deal, but after The Incident, Mogel and Paul have no idea what to do with it. Many jokes boil down to nothing more than “tee hee, Dan did something humiliating!” If there’s a larger point to be made about male friendships, about the lengths men will go to for another man’s approval, or about the fluidity of sexuality, The D Train can’t find it. The opportunity thus missed, the film becomes just another raunchy bromantic comedy that earns a few laughs before petering out. Grade: C

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STRANGERLAND

Why can’t all bad movies be ugly to look at and pitifully acted? Why must there be movies like the sluggish Australian melodrama Strangerland — overlong, ambiguous, and unsatisfying, yet marked by beautiful cinematography and a few terrific performances? Such duality makes it hard to reduce movies into a simple Fresh or Rotten.

Strangerland, from first-time filmmaker Kim Farrant, stars Nicole Kidman and Joseph Fiennes as Catherine and Matthew Parker, parents who have just moved their family to the hot, dusty, “s***hole of a town” of Nathgari, way out in the middle of nowhere. Matthew is a pharmacist; Catherine spends her days wilting in the heat like a Tennessee William heroine, rubbing ice cubes on her neck. We aren’t told right away what prompted the move to Nathgari, only that it was necessary and nobody liked it.

Their kids, skanky Lily (Maddison Brown), 15, and sullen Tom (Nicholas Hamilton), about 12, have already fallen in with the depressed youth of the village, spending their afternoons at a makeshift skatepark. When Matthew gives the kids money for ice cream, he includes a command for Tom: “Don’t let her” — that is, Tom’s older sister — “out of your sight.” Not immediately but soon, Lily and Tom both disappear without a trace. Lily has run away before, but Tom hasn’t. Suspecting foul play, local cop David Rae (Hugo Weaving) talks to dirty skater boy Steve (Sean Keenan) and addle-pated Aborigine youth Burtie (Meyne Wyatt), both known to be Lily’s associates. Catherine, meanwhile, is convinced the children got lost in the perilous Australian desert. (Spoiler alert: they were not taken by dingos.)

Det. Rae’s investigation drags family secrets out of hiding, giving the townsfolk, already suspicious of the newcomers, new things to gossip about. Matthew acts furtively, either leading his own investigation or covering something up. Catherine weeps, yells, and behaves strangely in her own way, emulating her daughter’s exhibitionism and general sauciness.

But I fear I have made this sound more interesting than it is. Farrant lets the pace drag interminably, parceling out legitimate plot points mixed with obscure tangents (like an appeal to an Aboriginal mystic). She’s not interested in solving the mystery as much as she is in conveying a dreary, bleary tone. The gorgeous Australian landscapes suggest the hopelessness of being lost in such a vast place, but Farrant denies us the satisfaction of a coherent, rational ending to the story.

Weaving makes for a likably disheveled cop, and Kidman’s dramatic range remains impressive, even when she’s doing ridiculous things like throwing herself at neighborhood boys. Newcomer Maddison Brown plays Lily with a sultry sadness that hints at a larger, better story, not to mention a successful career ahead for the actress. But Strangerland is a letdown, a slow-moving trip to nowhere. Grade: C

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I AM MICHAEL

In 2007, a prominent gay activist named Michael Glatze produced shocked gasps and not a few eye-rolls by renouncing his homosexuality, declaring himself straight, and becoming a Christian minister. I Am Michael covers this juicy story with sympathy for everyone involved, and without casting too much judgment on anyone’s decisions — it’s not the “haw haw, look at this delusional religious buffoon!” screed you might expect (especially from a movie premiering at Sundance). But while director Justin Kelly doesn’t sensationalize the material, he doesn’t give it much personality, either. The film is competent, more or less (it’s Kelly’s first feature), but unremarkable.

James Franco, an actor whose sexuality has been the subject of much speculation and coy non-revelations, might be the perfect choice to play Michael. He starts in the ’90s as managing editor of San Francisco-based gay glossy XY Magazine before moving with his boyfriend, Bennett (Zachary Quinto), to Bennett’s hometown of Halifax, Nova Scotia. Michael and Bennett adopt a third person into their relationship (Charlie Carver) and tour the U.S. and Canada making a documentary about LGBT youth. Michael doesn’t seem to be wavering on his sexual preferences, but even from the beginning he dislikes labels. (“Gay and straight are just social constructs.”) And while he hates the fundamentalist Christian churches that make life miserable for so many gay teens, he also realizes that gay activism sometimes makes it seem like if you’re gay, you’re obligated to be part of the movement, which turns young people off.

After a few bits of religious foreshadowing, Michael suffers a health scare and then has a full-on spiritual awakening. He comes to the conclusion that identifying as gay stops you from knowing your true self, which prevents you from knowing God. “I rid myself of my abnormal desires,” he claims, leaving Bennett and the third dude heartbroken.

Kelly co-wrote the screenplay with Stacey Miller, adapting Benoit Denizet Lewis’ New York Times Magazine article. The first section meanders dully, but once Michael’s spiritual side kicks in, the story is compelling, aided by Franco’s sincere performance. Franco seems to understand that whether he was right or not, Michael Glatze earnestly believed he could (and must) change his orientation. We may not be emotionally moved, but Franco and Kelly at least help us understand Michael’s thought process. Grade: B-

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Eric D. Snider
Eric has been a film critic since 1999, and a beard wearer since 2008. He holds a degree in journalism and used to work in "the newspaper industry," back when that was a thing.