PARK CITY - It wasn't he best of times nor the worst of times at this year's 2012 Sundance Film Festival, but it clearly wasn't the most memorable.  Every festival is likely to have an off year now or then, but it was the lack of buzz among many of the narrative films and even documentaries that was so disconcerting.  There were a slew of fine or mediocre films, but few that were truly godawful (a good thing) or generated hype-worthy passion (a not so good thing).  There was even a lack of controversy or pseudo celebrity around this year's edition that made the whole endeavor seem, well, forgettable.

Of course there were some fine films.  Fox Searchlight will have to manage audience and non-Sundance press expectations on grand jury prize winner "Beasts of the Southern Wild" as well as John Hawkes lauded performance in "The Surrogate" which won a special jury prize for ensemble acting.  Focus Features has a potential art house comedy hit with "For A Good Time Call" and documentaries "How To Survive A Plague," "The Invisible War," "West of Memphis" and "Detropia" should all make some noise throughout the upcoming year. And commercial plays such as "Safety Not Guaranteed" and "The Words" should also pop with the right audiences.  However, looking over 2011's titles alone: "Like Crazy," "Martha Marcy Mae Marlene," "Take Shelter,""The Future," "Project Nim," "Bellflower," "Win Win," "Cedar Rapids," "Pariah," "Being Elmo," "Another Earth," "The Guard," "Higher Ground," "Terri" "How to Die In Oregon," "Margin Call," "Hell and Back Again," "We Were Here," "Buck," "Red State" and "The Woman"?  Considering 2011 was a good, but not great year (only one narrative Oscar nomination), that tells you just how plain Jane 2012 was. 

That being said, there were a number of films that still needed cataloging to wrap up Awards Campaign's busy week in Park City, Utah. 


"Shadow Dancer"
James Marsh has shown he can shine as a narrative director previously with "Red Riding," but the Oscar winning documentary filmmaker takes a big stumble with this period thriller with no thrills.  Set against the backdrop of the IRA's last days in 1993, Andrea Riseborough plays a mother pressured by her family and the death of her young brother into becoming a terrorist for the cause.  She becomes an informant for the British government to protect her own child, but her loyalties are severely tested.  Riseborough, Clive Owen, Gillian Anderson, Domhnall Gleeson and Aidan Gillen are all game, but Marsh's direction is almost tedious giving the film almost no dramatic thrust.  By the time the surprise informant is revealed the film has become such a bore its not even anti-climactic.

Grade: C


"Wish You Were Here"

Director Kieran Darcy-Smith and star Felicity Price were on to something when they co-wrote the screenplay for this Aussie dramatic thriller, but a compelling ingredient was missing from the final product.  The film begins with four Australians (Joel Edgerton, Teresa Palmer, Anthony Starr and Price) enjoying a holiday in a neighboring South Asian country.  Unfortunately, only three of them return with Starr's character missing.  A web of lies and affairs is slowly revealed in the weeks following as the other three vacationers try to deal with relative guilt (some more than others) of their friend.  The problem with the picture is we never learn enough about Starr's character to actually care about his fate. That turns what occurs back in their homeland into well shot soapy melodrama and a forgettable one at that.

Grace: C+

"Red Lights"
Unlike my colleague, I was a fan of Rodrigo Cortes' paranormal-esque thriller.  The picture features a great turn by Sigourney Weaver as a University professor whose lifelong mission has been to investigate and almost always debunk paranormal experiences.  Cillian Murphy plays her loyal partner in this mission and Elizabeth Olsen and Craig Roberts are on board as two students who also serve as red herrings to the drama that unfolds around them.  Things get interesting when Robert De Niro shows up as a famous psychic who has been retired for 30 years.  De Niro's character has a history with Weaver's investigations and whether his gifts are real or not is the picture's surprising revelation.  "Lights" is a slick, well-acted programmer which would have been better suited and reviewed out of the more commercially friendly Toronto Film Festival. It's not amazing, but audiences will eventually enjoy it on a plane or cable some day.

Grade: B

"The Imposter"

The case of Frédéric Bourdin is absolutely fascinating.  He's the key figure in a story that finds an El Paso, Texas family insisting a 23-year-old Frenchman found in Spain is their 16-year-old lost son and brother. Director Bart Layton expertly communicates the unbelievable turn of events that involved legal authorities on both sides of the Atlantic and gets great interviews from the family and those around them.  It's Layton's interview and treatment of Bourdin himself though that is the film's Achilles heel.  Wanted by Interpol on a slew of impersonation and possibly molestation charges, Layton lets Bourdin control so much of the narrative that he only serves to empower the criminal's legend.  Unlike many documentary filmmakers who would likely judge Bourdin too harshly, Layton ends up doing the opposite and making him sympathetic.  Add in the film's slick re-creations and it all just leaves a bad taste in your mouth.

Grade: B-


"Bachelorette"
Sometimes the wrong audience shows up for the wrong movie and that was likely the case with the world premiere of Leslye Headland's very dark and funny comedy "Bachelorette." Unfairly compared by some to "Bridesmaids," the story finds three lifelong friends (Kirsten Dunst, Lizzy Caplan, Isla Fisher) reuniting at the wedding of the one girl they never thought would get hitched before themselves, the rotund and dorky Becky (um, "Bridesmaids'" Rebel Wilson).  These ladies have serious personal issues to deal with and first time filmmaker Headlend isn't always willing to treat their problems with politically correct hands.  If "Bridesmaids" is the female version of "The Hangover," then "Bachelorette" is much closer to "The Hangover, Pt. II" in how much its willing to skirt the line between laughs and dramatic shock (no one loses a finger thankfully).  The audience at the Eccles premiere was a wee bit too old to truly enjoy it (it was "The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City" audience that night), but many of us burst out laughing at the film's original bits and a film-stealing Fisher who has her best role since "Wedding Crashers."  It's unclear who will pick up "Bachelorette," but you'll laugh wherever and whenever you see it.

Grade: B

"Nobody Walks"

Ry Russo-Young's third feature features a screenplay co-written by "Tiny Furniture's" Lena Dunham and focuses on what happens when a twentysomething New York artist (Olivia Thirlby) temporarily moves in with a Los Angeles family to finish an installation film.  Thirlby's character is so enamored with her own sexuality that she doesn't see how her quick fling with a good-guy sound designer (John Krasinkski) could screw up his marriage or how her hook ups with his hottie assistant (Aussie Rhys Wakefield) could cause jealousy from both Krasinski's character and his teenage step daughter ("Treme's" India Ennenga).  And when Krasinski's wife (a fantastic Rosemarie DeWitt) figures out what's been going on? Watch out.  Krasinski and DeWitt are exceptional, but Thirlby is completely miscast as the Jezebel of the picture.  She's just doesn't project the sexual compulsion or flirtatiousness we need to believe the film's central narrative.  It's a step forward for Russo-Young, but doesn't amount to much at the end.

Grade: B-

"The End of Love"
When half the audience walks out of your film mumbling to themselves "That should have been a short" you have a problem. Mark Webber ("Scott Pilgrim vs. the World") wants to make a semi-autobiographical drama about an LA actor on the cusp of success trying to raise a his two-year-old son by himself, but he doesn't have enough of an actual plotline to keep an audiences attention.  Webber excels in pulling out charming and believable lines out of the kid who plays his son and creates a great deal of sympathy for his financially struggling "character." And yet, the romance with another single mother (Shannyn Sossamon) never seems plausible and the whole endeavor drags way to long for a 90 minute feature.  On a side note, Michael Cera is very good playing a douchebag Hollywood version of his real self (a least we think it's a Hollywood douchebag version of himself).

Grade: C+

"Simon Killer"
Antonio Campos made a name for himself with his 2008 debut "Afterschool" and as a producer of Sean Durkin's "Martha Marcy May Marlene" which created a stir during last year's edition of the festival. This year he returned to Park City with his second directorial effort, "Simon Killer," and it turned out to be one of the more polarizing films of the entire fest.  Set almost exclusively in Paris, the drama centers on a young American (Brady Corbet) who has traveled to France to get his mind off a bad break up (don't you wish we could all do that?).  Lonely, he eventually ends up falling for and seducing a gorgeous, but battered prostitute (Mati Diop as the rebound).  Things start to go off the rails when he comes up with a scheme (seemingly out of character) to try and blackmail one of her regular clients for a lot of money and thereby get her out hooking.  Once they succeed he becomes increasingly bored with her, uses the money for his own means and begins dating another Parisian girl who smartly doesn't trust him. The drama escalates and eventually "Simon Killer" turns into just another morality tale where the rich American learns his lesson and races back home to the safety of the motherland. The story is full of cliches, but Campos' tedious direction including his continued use of long drawn out left to right, right to left panning shots only make the proceedings more pretentious.  Corbet is a very talented actor, but he's so unintentionally creepy you never sympathize with his character's dilemmas. The one thing "Killer" has going for it is some incredibly erotic sex scenes which should make it a nice moneymaker on VOD.

Grade: C

"Lay the Favorite"

Oy vey. There have been some bad star-filled indies to hit Park City over the years ("The Deal," "The Informers," "Motherhood," "The Nines" and "Twelve" immediately come to mind), but "Lay the Favorite" may trump them all.  Take an acclaimed filmmaker ("The Queen's" Stephen Frears), a charismatic Hollywood star always looking to branch out (Bruce Willis), a talented actress ready to become a real star (Rebecca Hall), a former Oscar winner desperately looking for good material (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and Beth Raymer's true story about going from private dancing to the world of sports betting and you should have something interesting right?  So, so, wrong.  "Favorite" is a mess of a comedy that isn't even watchable on a plane.  In fact, it might be considered cruel and unusual punishment. The film's biggest problem is Hall's character (Raymer's inspiration) needed to be played by a broader comedy actress (say an "SNL" vet) because the intended and expected laughs just aren't there. Vince Vaughn pops in at times to do his "Vince Vaughn" shtick, but that just seems increasingly tired and out of a different movie.  And poor Joshua Jackson playing the blandest straight man character ever. What a waste of his "Fringe" hiatus. Avoid at all costs.

Grade: D

"Price Check"

There are two reasons to see "Price Check." 1, you've worked in supermarket or major discount chain product marketing and never seen your profession on the big screen and/or 2, you appreciate the sublime comedic talents of Parker Posey.  The Queen of Sundance returned in this premiere comedy and, frankly, she was the best thing going in it. As Susan Fielders, Posey plays a difficult, but successful executive sent to shakeup a small grocery chain in Long Island.  She immediately keys in on Pete Cozy ("Ugly Betty's" Eric Mabius), a moderately successful manager hoping not to get noticed before he returns to working in the music business. As you would expect, Fielders turns everyone's lives upside down, but director and screenwriter Michael Walker has made all the film's other characters so bland even great character actors like Josh Pais can barely breathe any life into them.  The picture then stumbles to the finish line with possibly the most unfinished ending I've seen from a movie looking for distribution in years. But if you're looking for Parker Posey at her best?  You'll be more than satisfied.

Grade: C

Other reviews from this year's festival:

"Hello I Must Be Going"
"Leave the Lights On"
"Beasts of the Southern Wild"
"Safety Not Guaranteed"
"Arbitrage"
 

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