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Puppy love to pet zombies, Sundance highlights

Dog fanatics and domesticated zombies. Irish street musicians and writers wrestling with recalcitrant characters. Mournful military families and a teenage woman with some lethal sexual anatomy. Here are some highlights among the 120 feature films that screened at the Sundance Film Festival.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Dog fanatics and domesticated zombies. Irish street musicians and writers wrestling with recalcitrant characters. Mournful military families and a teenage woman with some lethal sexual anatomy.

The latest edition of the Sundance Film Festival, which presents its awards Saturday and wraps up Sunday with final screenings of top prize winners, offered a rich range of strange, colorful characters and stories.

Some highlights among the 120 feature films that screened:

Molly Shannon shines
Veteran Sundance writer Mike White, who’s found Hollywood success as Jack Black’s scribe and producing partner, makes a howlingly funny directing debut with “Year of the Dog,” giving the eminently talented Molly Shannon a chance to break out from bit character parts and show her chops as lead player.

Shannon alternates between hilarity and heartbreak as a woman who can’t quite connect with people but has all the love and affection she needs from her adorable pup — until he ups and dies.

What follows is a happy-sad story of obsession and near-lunacy as Shannon’s wallflower struggles to fill the void in her life with a variety of companions from the human and animal kingdom — ultimately learning that bipeds don’t necessarily make for the best company.

A boy and his zombie“Ozzie and Harriet” meets “Dawn of the Dead” in “Fido,” director Andrew Currie’s clever tale set in a gleaming 1950s world where the flesh-eating dead walk among us — as domesticated gardeners, paperboys and other menials, thanks to containment collars that curb their taste for live human red meat.

The horror comedy stars Carrie-Anne Moss as a homemaker whose husband (Dylan Baker) is terrified of their new house zombie (Billy Connolly, in a wonderfully restrained role of grunts and wistful glances).

But the couple’s young son finds a faithful friend in Fido the zombie, who becomes both pet, surrogate dad and protector — when he’s not off on an occasional carnivorous rampage.

Audiences roar, men wince
How to describe this one delicately?

“Teeth” is the story of a teenager who preaches abstinence and the hazards of premarital sex, only to learn she possesses a genital mutation that’ll leave the guys singing a different tune after they do the deed.

Director Mitchell Lichtenstein delivers a film that’s both twisted horror romp and female-empowerment saga.

As our heroine, Jess Weixler evolves from self-righteous prude to terrified victim to fearless avenger, and the film had Sundance audiences roaring with laughter, even as the menfolk tucked their legs together in instinctual sympathetic pain over the on-screen action.

A tale of Iraq and all time
John Cusack and young newcomers Shelan O’Keefe and Grace Bednarczyk left hardly a dry eye in the house with “Grace Is Gone,” a tearjerker about an emotionally restrained father struggling to break the news to his daughters that their mother has died in action in Iraq.

Director James C. Strouse has crafted a tale both timely and timeless, a portrait of one family’s grief and confusion over the cruel reality of the battlefield — and the heartache it leaves on the home front.

Wild Czech rose in Ireland
With “Once,” director John Carney captures a moment in time between potential soul mates passing in the night — or passing on a Dublin street.

Glen Hansard plays a street busker who connects with a Czech immigrant (Marketa Irglova) who peddles roses and likes the sound of his songs.

Despite a boatload of baggage both carry from past relationships, a strange kinship ebbs and flows between them as they share the sweet possibility of romance and learn to make some great, great music together.

Another inconvenient truth
A year ago at Sundance, “An Inconvenient Truth” premiered, presenting Al Gore’s urgent message that the planet was on the brink of catastrophic climate change from global warming.

Now comes the next chapter with Daniel B. Gold and Judith Helfand’s vigorous documentary “Everything’s Cool,” advancing the global-warming issue from one man’s message to the word of the masses.

Activists, climatologists, investigative journalists and a man who brews his own biodiesel fuel all tell their war stories in service of saving humanity from its addiction to fossil fuel.

If the Gore film was a call for truth, Gold and Helfand’s documentary is a call for action.

Writing describing writing
Frank Langella gives a career performance as an ailing, out-of-print novelist trying to finish one last work in “Starting Out in the Evening,” his efforts both helped and hindered by a young admirer (Lauren Ambrose) and a daughter (Lili Taylor) caught up in crises.

With restraint and fierce intelligence, the class-act production from director Andrew Wagner offers a grand study of the artist as imperfect mortal and the beholder as unreasonably demanding audience.

On the flip side of Wagner’s classical portrait of the artist is director JJ Lask’s “On the Road With Judas,” an adaptation of his novel that places a fictionalized version of himself on screen with both his actors as real people, and another set of actors playing the actors who play the real people in a movie version.

It should be painfully confusing, but Lask stitches his “real” and “movie” versions about the life of a crafty thief named Judas into an intriguing examination of what it’s like to be our lowly selves — and what it’s like to be the better selves we aspire to be.