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“Drop the mind.”Last year’s installment of the Sundance Film Festival was warm and sunny. This year? Not so much. There was snow (lots of it), there was black ice (lots of it), and there was Sting (lots of him). But the weather didn’t matter much considering we spent most of our waking hours stowed away inside theaters all across Park City, Utah. Or holed up in our condo typing thousands of words on the dozens of films we digested. It’s fun being a film critic.
For our sophomore year of Sundance coverage, the Sundance Three — Justin Gerber, Dominick Suzanne-Mayer, and myself — managed to review nearly 35 films from January 21st to the 29th. There was the good (Manchester by the Sea, The Lure), the bad (Carnage Park, Yoga Hosers), and the ugly (31, Antibirth). Once again, there were even a few Oscar contenders in the batch, specifically one extraordinary debut that secured one extraordinary deal.
While this year lacked an oomph in certain fields — the documentary features, namely — the great outlasted the abysmal, making Robert Redford’s annual tradition a customary treat for cinephiles everywhere. As Justin Gerber proclaimed last year, “We came. We saw. We reviewed a lot of movies.” Because it’s been a week, as they say, we’ve ranked them all in order from worst to best for your leisure. Aren’t we nice?
Next stop: Austin, Texas. Oooh, somebody stop me!
Hardly has a film felt so transparent in its creative bankruptcy. There isn’t a single second of originality to the whole production, from robbing Carpenter’s score for The Fog all the way to the surprise ending ripped straight out of The Purge. Once the credits roll, the only reassuring notion is knowing that Rob Zombie can’t possibly make another movie like this, that he has to try something else, that he has to find a new way to scare his audiences. Sure, it’s an ugly place to be in, but it’s no more despicable than the mess that’s 31. You’d be better off thumbing through r/wtf. [Read Michael Roffman’s full review.]
There are at least six different movies in Antibirth, and none of them work in tandem. Director, writer, and AnCo buddy Danny Perez tries too many things all at once without any of the finesse to make this either gel or implode in a brilliant mess. Instead, it’s just a mess, one that sputters in all sorts of oddball, incoherent directions that are mostly frustrating and dull. [Read Michael Roffman’s full review.]
Carnage Park is an exploitation movie down to its very bones, from the lurid real-life trappings to the excessive, lingering violence throughout, but writer-director Mickey Keating never really finds a handle on which sort of throwback film he wants to make. He solves this riddle by making quite a few of them, none of which seem to fit anything that comes before or after, until the film descends into a murky fugue that destroys most of that aforementioned early goodwill. The most interesting of its modes is the one that sees Wyatt square off against Vivian (Ashley Bell), who finds herself in the middle of Wyatt’s living hell after being taken hostage during a bank heist gone terribly awry. [Read Dominick Suzanne-Mayer’s full review.]
While Yoga Hosers continues Kevin Smith’s quest to push himself into increasingly strange and uncomfortable directions as a filmmaker, it’s either too derivative or too malformed to work the vast majority of the time. Characters are introduced with Technicolor cutaways to a faux-Instagram page, canted angles appear and disappear again, and at one point Smith even introduces a black-and-white flashback to provide some context regarding the Nazi imagery that the film crassly invokes for shock value without really having even the slightest idea what to do with it. [Read Dominick Suzanne-Mayer’s full review.]
The Fundamentals of Caring
By the time the film gets around to slipping a lesson or two about DMD into the dialogue, The Fundamentals of Caring reveals itself as a message movie in the business of warming hearts at the expense of any kind of more honest or meaningful storytelling. It’s true that few movies are this aw-shucks nice these days, and for a short while The Fundamentals of Caring finds ways of retaining that kindness without lapsing into platitudes. But by the time it’s over, the film instead offers a reminder of why most movies, about this topic or otherwise, aren’t so aggressively nice. [Read Dominick Suzanne-Mayer’s full review.]
The Free World
The Free World works when dealing with the themes found within its title. When we have our freedoms taken away, how difficult is it to get them back? Is it wholly possible? Somewhere along the way, Lew decided such a story wasn’t compelling enough. Mohammad’s boss tells him at one point, “You bury the past, or it’ll bury you.” Jason Lew surrenders to the past, and while it doesn’t completely bury The Free World, it drops a good amount of dirt on it. [Read Justin Gerber’s full review.]
Joshy has not one but two sex worker scenes. It’s got boys being boys on vacay. It even manages to toss in a subplot that follows a married man on the verge of cheating with another woman (Jenny Slate, who does a lot with what could have been a nothing role). Jeff Baena’s crime is that he tries to make it a dramedy at the last minute and doesn’t come close to earning it. It’s a shame, because while the comedy beats are familiar, the uber-talented cast of Joshy give them a new vibe. [Read Justin Gerber’s full review.]
For whatever one could say about Miles Ahead, Don Cheadle’s long-gestating passion project about a particularly fraught period in the late ‘70s in Miles Davis’ life, it can never be said that Cheadle hasn’t given everything he has to the film. In addition to stepping into the legendary jazz musician’s complicated shoes, Cheadle also directed the film, co-wrote it with Steven Baigelman, and even contributed to some of the film’s original musical arrangements. That’s to say nothing of him learning how to play the trumpet, in order to do proper justice to Davis’ work as authentically as possible. [Read Dominick Suzanne-Mayer’s full review.]
The performances are so strong in Other People that they just about make up for the weak storytelling. Maybe “weak” isn’t the best definition for writer/director Chris Kelly’s debut feature film, but its structure definitely pales in comparison to all the effort given on screen. We get vets Paul Dooley and June Squibb alongside sketch comedy icons Matt Walsh and Kerri Kenney. Another scene brings us Retta and Lennon Parham. The movie is loaded with talent from start to finish, but the movie they’re in doesn’t have the focus they deserve. [Read Justin Gerber’s full review.]
Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall
Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall is a whole lotta fluff, but tasty fluff. It’s an enjoyable watch that should satiate the fans and offer an alternative for those uninterested in poring through the Internet for clips and backstories. And at a time when we’re still mourning the loss of a similar icon — ahem, the Starman himself — there’s never been a better time to wax nostalgic and celebrate the loss of our idols. [Read Michael Roffman’s full review here.]