Follow HitFix Follow @hitfix
Sundance review roundup from The Fien Print
All the crazy documentaries that weren't reviewed at the Festival
I know that the Sundance Film Festival ended over a week ago, but in the six days I was at Sundance (and on screeners in the days before), I saw 25 movies.
I wrote full reviews for 13 of them.
My Full Sundance reviews:
But that left 12 movies that I just didn't have the time to write my usual 1000-to-1750 words on. Since getting back from Park City, I've been slowly working my way through capsule reviews for those 12 movies. These are roughly the length of my Take Me To The Pilots entries, which means that in this format, people are going to complain about all of the text and the lack of paragraphs.
Because I'm just one part of HitFix's awesome Sundance team, which included Greg Ellwood, Drew McWeeny, Guy Lodge and Katie Hasty, I saw an odd assortment of movies at the Fest, with only six narrative films on my list. Instead, I saw a ton of documentaries and so a lot of these movies probably didn't get more than a few reviews out of Sundance from any outlets.
So click through for 12 capsule reviews of tiny Sundance movies. Who knows? Maybe your interest will be piqued for when one of them comes to TV or Netflix or whatever... The reviews are stretched over three pages. Because otherwise, this would be too long.
"All the Beautiful Things" (Dir. John Harkrider)
I complain so much about the lack of formal experimentation from the documentaries selected Sundance competition slots, which almost all seem to fit into the exact same "Good story, traditionally told" niche. So it makes me sad to have to report that John Harkrider's "All the Beautiful Things" was probably the most risky and format-breaking doc I saw in Park City and... it stunk. For reasons best understand by Harkrider, he decided to reframe his longtime friendship and partial estrangement with photographer Barron Claiborne over a long, excruciatingly staged conversation inexplicably set at a jazz club, inexplicably moderated by a hot bartender and inexplicably extended into a long, overnight walk through New York City, all meant to expose some really banal truths about race, class and forgiveness. In the process of staging this conversation, Harkrider has sucked everything truthful from the exchange, since neither he nor Claiborne is an actor and yet they mug for the camera relentlessly. "All the Beautiful Things" stands out from the documentary fray with rather glossy, 35mm lensing courtesy of Brian O'Carroll, but even that stands out as discordant amidst the attempts by these two friends to get to something resembling the "truth" in their relationship. Every once in a while, the banter between the two men hits the jazzy beats they aspire to, but more often I was left perplexed by the glibness with which the chums toss aside the allegations of sexual assault that split them up in the first place. The doc hits its nadir when the two men separately go out to piss in an alley and have enlightening and clunky conversations with A Wise Jazzman. Only the Sundance programmers know why they bothered putting this in the doc field, but at least it's more innovative here than in the narrative category. No better. But more innovative.
MY GRADE: C
"The Battered Bastards of Baseball" (Dir. Chapman Way & Maclain Way)
Yes, there's something a wee bit self-serving/nepotistic about Chapman and Maclain Way paying tribute to grandfather Bing Russell's great Portland Mavericks independent baseball experiment of the '70s and using Kurt Russell as the highest of high profile talking heads. But so what? Like the best of ESPN's 30 for 30 docs, "The Battered Bastards of Baseball" works because it has two storytellers with a very personal desire to tell a story that nobody else seems to have wanted to tell. So what if it's a glorified home movie? The directors approach the story mostly as a quirky character piece, looking at former "Bonanza" star Bing and a small selection of people associated with the Mavericks, perhaps logically focusing quite heavily on the reminiscences of a young batboy who went on to become "In the Bedroom" director Todd Field. Really, there aren't nearly enough former players on-camera, but I suppose that more involvement from Mavericks would have diluted the story around Bing, which is amusingly and sentimentally recalled by by Russell and his mother Louise. [Nothing I learned about the baseball in this movie was anywhere near as revelatory as seeing that Kurt is a dead-ringer for his mother.] The Ways cobbled together an impressive amount of archival footage of the Mavericks, which is put to good use, even if some of that use is obscuring that the through-line narrative for the baseball team doesn't quite work as a story. There's a reason why a group of seasoned, older players would be successful against teams of Single-A minor leaguers and that's because the minor league system is designed to send the best players up, with a focus on youth and advancement. Of *course* a team with a win-now mentality and players who major league teams thought were good enough for AAA, but not for the majors, would be able to win, at least to some degree. "Battered Bastards" plays up the underdog angle and ignores a lot of the nuts-and-bolts baseball, but probably works better for that decision. It's full of laughs and, towards the end, I even got a bit choked up in places. I'd put this one in the mid-to-upper tier of 30 for 30 docs, had it actually been a 30 for 30 doc, if ESPN fans are looking for qualitative perspective.
MY GRADE: B+
"Difret" (Dir. Zeresenay Berhane Mehari)
I get why Angelina Jolie signed on as a "presenting" producer for "Difret." The Ethopian drama is, as a narrative, purely empowering and reductive in a way that doesn't force you to think about any of the issues too hard. After all, does it get any more black-and-white than "Abducting and raping young women as prelude to marriage is bad"? Mehari seems almost terrified of finding any ambiguity in the story, lest anybody think the film isn't decisive, so any time you start wondering why Character X is behaving in the way they do, the movie skips over motivation and returns to "Retrograde old ways... bad. Progressive new ways... good." The answer, ultimately, for why anybody in "Difret" does anything bad is "Because they're stuck in the past and don't know any better," which allows the story to compartmentalize any cultural clashes in Ethiopia as a thing of the past, which feels disingenuous at every turn. It's like the black-and-white American civil rights dramas that are structured around the fallacy of "Then this boundary was broken and racism was cured forever more." The world is more complicated than "Difret" wants to show, but I get the feeling that audiences loved the lack of complexity. It really helps that leading lady Meron Getnet, playing a crusading Addis Abeba attorney, is terrific. She's beautiful, feisty and interesting enough as an actress that I had questions about her character that "Difret" has very little interest in answering. Newcomer Tizita Hagere, as the abducted 14-year-old, is committed and earnest, but the character could have been sketched more interestingly. "Difret" is more interested in showing that its heart and politics are in the right place -- They are! -- than in doing anything that isn't clear and simplistic. It won the Audience Award, so I guess it works for some viewers. For me, it felt like a thoroughly well-intentioned Ethiopian Lifetime Movie.
MY GRADE: C+
Continue to Page 2 for Reviews of "Happiness," "Hellion," "Imperial Dreams" and "No-No: A Dockumentary."