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In Sundance hit ‘A Real Pain,’ Kieran Culkin is an emotional time bomb

Adam Graham – The Detroit News (TNS)

There’s real pain in “A Real Pain,” and real pleasure, too.

Jesse Eisenberg’s drama about a pair of cousins on a Holocaust tour through Poland premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, which wrapped up its in-person and online screenings last month. It’s one of a handful of movies from the festival I watched virtually from the fest.

Eisenberg, who wrote and directed the movie (it’s his second film, following 2022’s “When You Finish Saving the World”), stars as David Kaplan, a neurotic-to-the-core New Yorker who joins his cousin Benji (Kieran Culkin) on a guided tour through Poland, where their grandmother survived the Holocaust. Benji couldn’t be more different than David: where David is inward, Benji is outward, and he’s the biggest personality in the room, the guy who will say whatever is on his mind and make everyone around him feel alive.

But the key to Culkin’s electrifying performance — he’s outstanding in the movie — is the emotional tightrope he constantly walks. Yes he’s big and lovable but he’s also extremely emotionally volatile. He feels more than everyone else in the room, and with those highs come crashing lows. “A Real Pain” is built around his character and how he moves through spaces, and it’s a funny, sad, touching and relatable character study about a big-hearted, larger-than-life personality, the kind of person we’ve all known, whose emotional registers run very hot and very cold, sometimes at the same time.

Culkin, so slick and oily throughout his four seasons on “Succession,” shows a different side of himself here, and it’s no doubt a performance and a movie you’ll be hearing more about in the months to come. The movie was picked up out of Sundance for $10 million by Searchlight, which will release the movie in theaters later this year.

Elsewhere in the virtual ‘Dance, “Skywalkers: A Love Story” soared high. It’s a documentary about a pair of high-climbing rooftoppers, people who scale extremely tall buildings and post photos of their death-defying feats on social media, working very hard for your Likes. “Skywalkers” concerns Russians Angela Nikolau and Vanya Kuznetsov, who were rooftopping separately before they became the sport’s premier power couple. Their ultimate goal is to ascend to the top of Malaysia’s Merdeka 118, the second-tallest building in the world, which is topped by a spire with a ladder that itself takes 90 minutes to climb.

Directors Jeff Zimbalist and Maria Bukhonina frame “Skywalkers” as a romance, a caper and a heist film, and it contains jawdropping footage of views that most humans will never get a chance to see with their own two eyes. The movie was acquired by Netflix and will likely be released later this year.

The creepy, unsettling documentary “Eternal You” details the ways in which AI is bringing back loved ones from the dead, and offering virtual chats with them from beyond the grave. At least that’s what a handful of tech companies are offering: The chance to say those things you didn’t get to say to those who are no longer with us, all through an online service which uses data and mined information to mimic human speech and texting patterns, to approximate conversations with your mom, your cousin, or your dearly departed spouse. Do these conversations put users at ease? Sometimes, sometimes not, and “Eternal You” is another example of AI and the way it’s changing our lives, and even our afterlives. It will make you shudder.

“Union” is a minimalist, sharply observed documentary about efforts to unionize at a Staten Island Amazon fulfillment center, and directors Brett Story and Stephen Maing let the players and their actions tell the story with minimal interruptions. There are no talking head interviews and few expository explainers, instead the filmmakers let their boots-on-the-ground doc speak for itself. Chris Smalls, an Amazon worker who led the charge to unionize the Amazon facility after he was fired from his job, emerges as the center of the story, and it’s a charged tale of workers’ rights at a key time in the American workforce.

René Pérez Joglar gives a vulnerable performance as a father who only sees his daughters once a year in “In the Summers,” a raw and scrappy drama from writer-director Alessandra Lacorazza Samudio. She focuses on two sisters who visit yearly with their dad in Las Cruces, New Mexico, and their stilted interactions with their father over the years and how it affects their lives. (The actresses are portrayed by different actresses over the course of the film, as it tracks them from kids to their college-age years.) We don’t see the girls go home, only their time in the summers, and Lacorazza Samudio lets what isn’t said tell the story just as much as what is. She has a finely tuned radar for emotional nuance, and “In the Summers” is an honest film about forgiveness, growth and acceptance of one’s limitations.

Finally there’s “Lolla: The Story of Loll a palooza,” a kind of by-the-books look at the origins of the Lollapalooza festival, which helped bring alternative music and culture to the mainstream in the early 1990s. There’s great footage from the fest’s formational years, but the doc — it will be released later this year on Paramount+ — loses its way as it gets away from those first few years, kind of like Lollapalooza itself did. But as a pure ’90s nostalgia trip, it gets the job done.

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