Sundance 2012



For years, Film School Rejects has kicked off the year of film coverage with a trip to the snowy peaks of Park City, Utah, where the world of independent film spills out onto the snow-covered streets in the form of America’s most iconic film festival. This year will be no different, as we’re sending our infinitely talented team of Associate Editor Kate Erbland, Aural Fixation columnist Allison Loring and Senior Film Critic Robert Levin to Utah to once again bring industry-leading coverage to the readers of this fine website. So bookmark this page, otherwise you run the risk of missing out on all the best of what Sundance 2012 has to offer.

John_Dies_At_The_End

Editor’s note: John Dies At The End is now playing in limited theatrical release, so let’s flash back exactly one year to look at Allison’s Sundance review, originally published on January 26, 2012. We all know what it means to be sauced, but John Dies At The End shows audiences what it means to be “on the sauce” – soy sauce that is, a hallucinogenic drug that not only messes with your mind, it messes with how you perceive time. This idea could be fun, but when you know one of your best friends meets his demise somewhere in that disjointed timeline (no spoilers there, as it’s revealed in the film’s title) this time manipulation becomes both stressful and confusing. While at a party, Dave (Chase Williamson) gets into a conversation with a reggae “magician” (Tai Bennett) who Dave doesn’t believe can do real magic. But when Robert Marley (the magician’s name, of course) is able to recount, in vivid detail, a dream Dave had the night before, he gets Dave’s attention. Later that night Dave gets a call from his best friend, a panicked and confused-sounding John (Rob Mayes), who thinks he has called Dave a bunch of times already that night and needs him to come over right away.

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West_of_Memphis

Editor’s note: Nearly a year after premiering at Sundance, Amy Berg’s West of Memphis hit limited release this week. The following is a re-run of our Sundance review, originally published on January 29, 2012. At Sundance, the film notably included interviews that had been completed mere days before its festival bow. As such, the final product now appearing in theaters is slightly modified from the Sundance version, with more interviews and tighter editing. Not to worry, however, as our faithful Associate Editor Kate Erbland watched the film again, in its final form, and this review remains as applicable as it did in January. When Amy Berg‘s West of Memphis held its first Sundance screening on only the second day of the festival, audience members walked out stunned – not just because of the film’s emotional material, its often graphic crime scenes and autopsy photos and videos, or even because of how it squarely points to a singular perpetrator (one who is, of course, not part of the West Memphis 3), but because the film was undeniably fresh. So fresh, in fact, that two interviews that pop up in the film’s final third both came complete with a time stamp that indicated that they had been conducted the week before the film bowed at the fest – eight days before its opening. While the West Memphis 3 (Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley) were freed in August of last year, their nearly twenty-year ordeal remains almost frighteningly of the moment.

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Save the Date trailer

Editor’s note: Save the Date arrives in theaters this Friday. RSVP now with a re-run of our Sundance review, originally posted on January 25, 2012. It would be foolish to deny that there is a certain kind of “Sundance romance” film – minor affairs that chronicle the beautiful and directionless as they stumble through the motions in an attempt to find something real. Most of the time, these films take place somewhere in East Los Angeles (Echo Park, Silverlake, Los Feliz), and usually there’s someone in a band. There is always a bevy of navel-gazing that occurs. Meeting those criteria for this year’s festival is Michael Mohan‘s Save the Date. The film centers on a pair of sisters (Lizzy Caplan and Alison Brie, charmers both) who have very different expectations of and desires for love. Caplan’s Sarah is a commitment-phobe who is about to move in with her long-term boyfriend (Geoffrey Arend as Kevin), while Brie’s Beth is about to marry Kevin’s best friend and bandmate, Andrew (Martin Starr). Cue conflicts.

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Editor’s note: Lay The Favorite hits limited release this Friday, though it doesn’t seem like a solid bet for your movie-going dollar. Find out why with the following Sundance review, originally published on January 23, 2012. There’s one thing that becomes quite clear, quite quickly as Stephen Frears‘s Lay The Favorite begins: not everyone should do voiceover work. Rebecca Hall (who stars as Beth Raymer) sadly falls squarely into that category and her baby voice stays with her throughout the entire film, grating on already-frayed nerves. Lay The Favorite tells Beth’s baby-voiced story as she tries to figure out her purpose in life at a job that will be stimulating and make her good money (don’t we all, Beth). The best place to pursue such a dream? Las Vegas, of course! Beth packs up her life (and dog Otis) and heads west with stars in her eyes. Ready and willing to do anything, Beth quickly makes friends with Holly (Laura Prepon) who turns her on to a job with Dink Heimowtiz (Bruce Willis) who runs a legal (at least in Vegas) gambling company (Dink Inc., of course) that bets on anything and everything, but mainly sporting events. Dink’s world is filled with exactly the type of excitement and stimulation Beth was hoping for and despite her baby talk, daddy issues (no matter what she says) and constant hair chewing, Dink takes a shine to her and agrees to bring her on.

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Price Check

Editor’s note: Sundance premiere Price Check hits limited release tomorrow. Here’s a re-run of our Sundance review of the film, originally published on January 26, 2012. Michael Walker‘s feature directorial debut, Price Check, starts off innocently enough, sort of a twist on Office Space if Lumbergh was actually a nice guy who wanted his unmotivated employees to succeed. Eric Mabius stars as Pete, who lost his dream job in music and is now forced to work in a regional pricing and marketing division for a failing division of a multi-brand grocery store company. Like most people these days, Pete is concerned about finances – he’s the only breadwinner in the house, and he and his wife have credit card bills to pay and a three-year-old to raise and probably a new car to get – and the recent departure of his beloved boss isn’t helping matters much. Who is going to replace him? And how is that going to affect Pete and his life? If this plotline doesn’t sound just a bit boring, that’s okay, it is. But instead of beefing up his film with great lines and performances from more than just Mabius’ co-star, Parker Posey, Walker decides to go for some cheap switcheroos that left the audience at Eccles Theatre (where the film premiered) groaning.

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The Comedy Trailer

Editor’s note: Thinking about seeing The Comedy this weekend? Perhaps you should read our Sundance review, first published on January 25, 2012, first… As George Bush once bastardized, “There’s an old saying in Tennessee — I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee — that says, fool me once, shame on — [pauses] — shame on you. Fool me — [pauses] — You can’t get fooled again.” Although I have the feeling that the filmmakers behind The Comedy probably enjoy P.T. Barnum’s statement a lot more, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” By filling theaters full of willing film festival audiences at Sundance 2012, they’ve put together groups of suckers, just waiting to be taken in. Just heed our warning and don’t take the bait. Does that sound drastic? It might, but I hope that a moment of drastic reading for you can spare you from 90 minutes of pain where the only Comedy is the feeling that the filmmakers are laughing at you behind your back. No doubt they would do the same thing upon reading this review. To quote even more (I’m going for a quota of three quotes in this piece, and here’s the last one), let’s remember what Mark Twain said in Huckleberry Finn, “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot. While I’m not hoping that a bullet finds […]

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28 Hotel Rooms Trailer

Editor’s note: One of Allison’s favorites from this year’s Sundance hits theaters this week, so please get hot and heavy with her original review, first posted on January 29, 2012. What starts off as a seemingly innocent conversation between two strangers in a hotel restaurant quickly devolves into those same two strangers (played by Chris Messina and Marin Ireland) falling into bed together. It is not a new idea – two people, away from home, deciding to vacate their real lives for a night of anonymous pleasure – but director/screenwriter Matt Ross’ 28 Hotel Rooms begins to paint two characters who are a bit more interesting than they might seem at first blush, and who become increasingly so as their relationship twists and turns. After their first night together, Ireland’s character is revealed to be a newlywed and, while Messina’s character does not seem thrown by that fact, it also makes you wonder why someone so new to her marriage would be willing to cheat on it. It is revealed that Ireland is less than comfortable with the indiscretion she just gave in to and one would think things would end here, but despite her tears and seeming regret, this does not end up being the last time these two reach out to each other.

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Editor’s note: With Sundance winner The Sessions (formerly titled The Surrogate) hitting limited release, here is a re-run of our festival review, originally published on January 25, 2012. Based on the article, Seeing A Sex Surrogate, The Sessions takes you into the life thirty-eight year old Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) who has lived with polio since the age of six. Only able to be out of his iron lung for a few hours a day, Mark is otherwise stuck inside with just his thoughts, poetry, and faith. Most would resent a life like this, but Mark finds the humor in his situation, always putting those around him at ease and never letting the fact that he can barely move his head from side to side limit his ambition. Having graduated from the University of Berkeley, Mark now has even bigger aspirations in his life – he wants to lose his virginity. Mark takes a shine to one of his aids and while it seems she seems to return his affection, when he expresses it, she gets scared and runs away. Mark jokes to his priest (William H. Macy) that he tried to go about his sexual revolution the “proper” way, but now he has another option he is considering – a sex surrogate who specializes in helping the disabled not only have sex, but teach them the tools and skills to have their own sexual relationships.

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Mary-Elizabeth-Winstead-and-Octavia-Spencer-in-Smashed

Editor’s note: With Smashed hitting limited release this week, please delicately sip (or chug down, your preference) our Sundance review of the film, first published on January 24, 2012. Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) seems to lead a charmed life – she has a loving husband, friends, and a job teaching first grade that she is passionate about. But the one thing that is always present in Kate’s life is alcohol. She and her husband, Charlie (Aaron Paul), spend every night getting (wait for it) smashed on beer, liquor, really just whatever alcohol is available. The drinking (while excessive) appears to be just a harmless part of their lifestyle, but when Kate shows up hungover to work (and throws up in front of her class), one of her students asks if she is pregnant and Kate confirms the lie, figuring it is a better excuse than the truth.

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Editor’s note: Sundance screamfest V/H/S finally hits theaters this week after a successful VOD run, so here’s a re-run of our original review, first posted on January 26, 2012. Chilling! The brainchild of producer Brad Miska, horror anthology film V/H/S features five shorts (and one wrap-around story) from a variety of genre directors, writers, and actors handily proves that the found footage genre is far from dead and there’s plenty of new material to bleed. The film’s “wrap-around” section features a group of Jackass-inspired wankers who get their kicks by filming mayhem and destruction. Dispatched by a mysterious person to break into a house and steal something, they agree – partly for the laughs, partly for the pay-off. The item they must procure? A simple, singular VHS tape. The actual mission? Multi-level and rife with unexpected complications.

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The House I Live In Review

Editor’s note: With The House I Live In beginning its theatrical roll-out this Friday (check out cities and theaters HERE), here is a well-timed re-run of our Sundance Film Festival review of the film, first published on January 29, 2012. Documentarian Eugene Jarecki‘s latest film, The House I Live In, ponders the implications and elements of the United States’ woefully misdirected “War on Drugs,” but Jarecki’s interest in the subject is surprisingly personal. As the film opens, Jarecki explains that his subject matter is dear to him for two reasons – because the Jarecki family as a whole believes it is their responsibility to help others who are suffering from injustice (the Jarecki parents escaped certain death under Nazi regimes) and because Jarecki’s own beloved childhood nanny, Nanny Jetter, lost a child to drugs. But while the film is of personal importance to its director, an overabundance of information often robs the film from leaving a lasting emotional mark.

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Arbitrage 2012 Film

Editor’s note: With Arbitrage hitting theaters this week, here is a re-run (totally free! no financial risks to you!) of our Sundance review, originally posted on January 22, 2012. Last year’s Sundance Film Festival featured a break-out hit with J.C. Chandor’s Margin Call, a taut and talky tale of investment bankers trying to chuck bad money and bad books in the early days of the financial crisis. Chandor’s film cleaned up nicely on the awards circuit, and it’s surely paved the way for screenwriter and documentarian Nicholas Jarecki‘s feature film debut, a sexier sister to Margin Call.  Arbitrage brings out the big guns to tell its twisted story – starring Richard Gere as hedge fund magnate Robert Miller attempting to sell his family business, with Susan Sarandon as his charitable wife Ellen, Brit Marling as smarty-pants daughter Brooke, and the ever-solid Tim Roth as a police detective steadily cracking open their rarefied lives. Here, Jarecki has crafted great atmosphere – we understand the Millers’ lifestyle and relationships within mere minutes, and the film holds that tone and that feel throughout its perhaps slightly-too-long runtime. Arbitrage is slick and watchable, well-made and with some nice surprises, but it’s void of any sense of humanity, and seeing rich people doing bad stuff doesn’t amount to stick-to-your-ribs cinema.

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Liberal Arts Movie 2012

Editor’s note: Liberal Arts opens in limited release this Friday (just in time for back-to-school!), so please enjoy our Sundance review of the film, originally published on January 23, 2012. Triple threat Josh Radnor‘s first feature, happythankyoumoreplease, debuted at Sundance in 2010, hitting big with the crowds and ultimately winning the Audience Award. The film was written and directed by Radnor, who also starred in it as a disaffected twentysomething struggling to make meaningful connections with others in big, bad New York City. Radnor’s latest outing, Liberal Arts, is written and directed by Radnor, and stars the multi-hyphenate as– well, you probably know the rest. But while happythankyoumoreplease was perhaps too much of a classic first feature – complete with overly precious touches and too much reliance on the magic of coincidence and not enough emphasis on the sort of things that actually happen in the real world – Liberal Arts sees Radnor and his craft maturing wonderfully, which is startlingly in-line with the aims of the actual film.

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Bachelorette Movie 2012

Editor’s note: After big success on VOD, Bachelorette hits theaters today, so ready your champagne flutes and raise a glass to our Sundance review of the film, originally published on January 24, 2012. We’ll get this out of the way right off the bat – Bachelorette is not Bridesmaids, though the film’s premise (three girls embark on a bachelorette party adventure for a bride they hate!) sounds like the perfect post-Bridesmaids feature for a ladies’ night out. In reality, Leslye Headland‘s film is a production that’s perfectly crafted for people who hate their friends. Toxic, nasty, and ugly, Bachelorette reaffirms stereotypes about women (they are bitches! they are sluts! they are emotionally unstable!) and their relationships (they secretly all hate each other!) that should have disappeared from cinema (and the world) long ago. We never quite know why Regan (Kirsten Dunst), Katie (Isla Fisher), and Jenna (Lizzy Caplan) are still friends – we can only assume it’s because no one else wants to associated with such horrible shrews. Pals since high school, the trio call themselves “the b-faces” and appear to spend most of their time bitching about other things and people. They are all unhappy in different ways – control freak Regan thinks she’s done everything right and still nothing is happening to her (hint, no one cares if you went to Princeton if you’re a huge, raging bitch to every single person you meet), airhead Katie is sick of work retail but thinks she’s not smart enough for anything else […]

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The Words Movie Review

Editor’s note: With The Words hitting theaters today, brush up on our Sundance review of the film, first published on January 26, 2012. Writing is a difficult task whether you have to do it for school, work, or simply because you have words in you that you must get out. But even if you are a writer, those words don’t always come easily and staring at a blank Word document or page is always intimidating. In The Words, we come to know Rory Jenson (Bradley Cooper), a struggling writer who has penned his first novel – a work that is good, but not good enough to get published. Slightly disheartened and with a new bride Dora (Zoe Saldana) to support, Rory takes a job in the mailroom of a publishing house, hoping to make some contacts and advance his career. While on their honeymoon in Paris, Dora drags Rory into yet another antique shop and Rory ends up finding an old leather briefcase that is classy and sophisticated – a symbol of a true writer and a gift Dora quickly buys for her new husband. As he later starts filling it with his own work, Rory comes to find a weathered manuscript he neglected to notice when he first purchased the briefcase. Upon reading the first page (typed on the back of a handwritten letter), Rory cannot put the manuscript down and reads it from beginning to end.

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Editor’s note: Festival favorite Sleepwalk With Me hits limited release this week, so what follows is a re-run of our Sundance review of the film, originally posted on January 27, 2012. Kate loved the film so much that she saw it again just two months later at SXSW. From its very first moments, Mike Birbiglia‘s Sleepwalk With Me establishes a very specific relationship with its audience – Birbiglia, playing a version of himself, turns to the camera and reassures us that what we’re about to hear is indeed true, and then he makes us laugh. Birbiglia is a stand-up comedian, writer, and actor, and Sleepwalk With Me is his directorial debut, which is loosely based on his own life. A mix of painful personal stories about a failing relationship, try-and-fail outings at his primary career, and the unraveling of his life by way of a serious medical condition (yup, sleepwalking), the film is (genuinely) both hilarious and heartfelt. Birbiglia directed, co-wrote, and stars in the film. Which is based on his one-man show of the same name and his 2010 comedic memoir, “Sleepwalk With Me and Other Painfully True Stories.” Which probably all sounds incredibly self-indulgent, but it’s not, because Birbiglia is more than willing to make himself look like a loser and an asshole and untalented wanker (even though he’s none of those things). At one point, during one of his conversations with the audience and before the recounting of a particularly painful and embarrassing tale, Birbiglia reminds us that we’re on his side. It’s […]

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Editor’s note: With Sundance’s most controversial film hitting theaters today, here is a re-run of our Compliance review from that festival, originally published on January 25. It seems that there is always at least one film at Sundance that stirs up some sort of controversy – the kind the leads to people running out of screenings or ends with people screaming at post-movie question-and-answer sessions. In 2011, it was Lucky McKee’s The Woman, this year, it’s undoubtedly Craig Zobel‘s Compliance. Much like McKee was taken to task about presumed misogyny in his film, Zobel endured post-screenings Q&As in which the film was damned as being exploitative. In those cases, however, the hecklers were quite wrong. Compliance is an exceedingly well-made interpersonal drama that hinges on the limits (and, oftentimes, depths) of human nature and people’s response to certain carefully calibrated psychological tricks.

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Robot and Frank

Editor’s note: With Robot and Frank hitting limited release this week, here is a re-run of our review from Sundance, originally published on January 22, 2012. If Jake Schreier‘s Robot and Frank is too believed, the near future is very similar to the present – just with more hipsters enamored of things they don’t understand and more robots consigned to help with everyday tasks. Both come, oddly enough, to a head in Schreier’s feature debut about a man, his robot, and the things that bond them (including a distaste for said hipsters). The film is a wily mix of genres – Robot and Frank is a buddy comedy, a fish out of water story, a heist film, and a drama about aging in its many forms – and it mostly delivers on its immense promise when it works within the bounds of dry and clever comedy. But when the film allows itself to slack, it slumps almost irrevocably, and it never quite recovers from an unsatisfying and overemotional middle.

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Editor’s note: Goats lands in limited this week, determined to gnaw on theater chairs, popcorn buckets, and actual moviegoers, so give our Sundance review a read before heading into that situation. This review was originally published on January 27, 2012. Ellis (Graham Phillips) has grown up in a less-than-average household. Ellis lives in Tuscon, Arizona with his mother Wendy (Vera Farmiga), a free spirit who relies on Ellis to make sure their bills are paid on time while she seems to still be “finding herself.” Add to this Goat Man (David Duchovny), who tends to their pool and garden (as well as his own “garden”) and lives on the property with, you guessed it, his goats. Despite this rather unusual upbringing, Ellis seems more than well-adjusted and the film focuses on his recent decision to attend an East Coast prep school, Gates Academy, which his father Frank (Ty Burrell) also attended. Considering Wendy refers to Frank as “Fucker Frank,” it is clear this decision is not one she is happy about.

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2 Days in New York

Editor’s note: With 2 Days in New York opening in limited release this Friday, here is a re-run of our review from Sundance, when it was the only film that could perk an exhausted Kate up on Festival Day 26. This review was originally posted on January 29, 2012. Picking up a few years where her 2 Days in Paris left off, Julie Delpy‘s 2 Days in New York has moved the sometimes-messy life of Marion (Delpy) to Gotham. Marion has now taken up with Mingus (Chris Rock, playing a pitch-perfect straight man), a former co-worker who offered dry humor and personal understanding when her previous relationship crumbled. The pair live together in a cozy and artistic apartment, joined by Marion’s young son Lulu (Owen Shipman) and Mingus’ daughter Willow (Talen Ruth Riley). As calm and lovely as their life together seems, everything is about to be tested over a brief two-day period, marked by the arrival of Marion’s insane family, the opening of an important gallery exhibition of Marion’s photos, and the unspoken pressure that one of Marion’s other artistic endeavors is putting her under.

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