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Sundance 2016 Reviews
South Park Blue Suit
Just wrapped up my 21st and final film at Sundance this year, and figure I'd pass along my quick & dirty recaps of each. I'll cover the shorts at the end, as I caught 3 shorts programs, in addition to 18 full length movies/documentaries.

Just to disclaim my reviews, all of these films were selected (out of thousands of possible submissions) by juries who have a much better eye for quality, and taste is a very subjective and personal matter. As I'm not much of a ratings guy, I figure I'll just rank in order based on which ones I'd recommend to a more time constrained version of my past self if I got into a time machine and traveled back to the beginning of the festival.

Also, for the sake of the filmmakers (who probably could care less about what a random moviegoer thinks), I figure I'd play armchair director, and share any changes I'd make if I remade the movie.

Awesome (top 5 / 18)

Birth of a Nation - I ended sundance on a high note catching this epic historical tale of the Nat Turner slave uprising from 1831. Everything in the film was compelling as it demonstrated gorgeous cinematography, a tremendous story arc, brilliant soundtrack, and a meaningful chapter of American History that is relevant in today's social and racial climate.

What I'd Change: The movie presented a powerful story that needs to be shared by a broad audience including today's youth. The brief nudity and violence in today's screening would probably result in an MPAA R-rating, but a few quick edits could get it down to a PG-13. I think sharing the message would be worth making the necessary cuts.

Author: The JT Leroy Story - This documentary did a good job of explaining why the fictitious author character was developed and gave us a window into Laura Albert's mental terpitude as she created, developed, and evolved JT. The available primary source material of the hundreds of phone conversations held between the character and others lent itself to a rich and deep story.

What I'd Change: Given the magnitude of the deception, I really wanted to know more about the post-revelation reaction to the deception from those who attempted to get close to the JT character. I'm not sure the budget would have allowed for interviews with Billy Corgan, Wynona Ryder, etc.., but they would have been interesting.

Weiner - This fascinating documentary intimately capturing the NYC mayoral campaign of Anthony Weiner included a goldmine of real-time reactions to the follow-on bombshells that dropped during his Mayoral campaign. Being able to look into nearly every critical conversation & phone call he and his campaign team made as he slid from being the polling leader (despite the known first twitter clothed dick-pic) to only earning 5% of the popular vote at the election following additional revelations was like watching a train wreck. I loved his candid final post-hoc interview with the director after some time helped him gain more perspective.

What I'd Change: The movie opened with some of his background in congress, etc.. still, I'd have liked to better understand the man and what drove his decisions with a touch more earlier history (family, childhood, etc..).

Suited - A stunning documentary covering a New York custom suit taylor company that specializes in suits for trans-gender customers. Each customers' story was compelling, seamlessly presented, humanized the person, and left me with a much better understanding of the world of gender identity.

What I'd Change: The movie left me hanging on what happened (for both the outfit and legal case outcome) for the older lawyer customer.

Trash Fire - Odd midnight series film that managed to grip your attention with its crazy characters, odd plot twists, and edgy style. Although you need to suspend some of your beliefs throughout the course of film, most of the story held together from start to finish, showing some strong character development. Despite the odd story, the acting from both Adrian Grenier and Fionnula Flanagan was exceptional.

What I'd Change: I kept on asking myself why the main characters stuck around as long as they did given the insanity of the grandma and experiences with the snake (i.e. geico commercial where the teenagers decided to go to hide in the abandoned shack instead of leaving in their car to escape the chainsaw clad murderer).

Pretty Good (6-12)

Belgica -
Filmmakers did a great job of catching the vibe and essence of the Belgian bar/club scene in this dramatic feature about two brothers who expand their bar into a full fledged nightclub. Definitely the best soundtrack by far at Sundance as it underscored the energy of the environment.

What I'd Change: I spent the movie waiting for the big catastrophic fail but instead just watched the protagonists slowly descend deeper into their ongoing woes as the plot advanced at a snails pace as they drank bottle after bottle of booze, and snorted coke nearly every 5 minutes. I think the movie might have done better at 90 minutes vs. the full 120, but that may have been due to me seeing it at midnight the same day I flew in from the east coast.

Equity - Fascinating fictional look at several overambitious wall street women's greed-driven spiraling descents into moral turpitude, and social manipulation in the name of getting ahead.

What I'd Change: The ending just didn't seem fair for all involved parties and left me with a bitter taste.

Linklater Dream is Destiny - Good comprehensive retrospective documentary on director Richard Linklater with some vanilla insights on his genius (spoiler: he worked hard, got in lots of practice with the basics, assembled a crew, let actors drive the script, let interpersonal interaction & time drive stories, didn't avoid Hollywood but didn't embrace it).

What I'd Change: Given the creative genius of his finished products, I wanted even more depth on what he was thinking when he took his biggest stylistic risks and deviations from the norm. Also, given he seems to live a pretty straightforward clean lifestyle, I'm wondering where the hell Waking Life's long meandering semi-incoherent ramblings came from.

Spa Night - This Korean-American coming of age film did a tremendous job of shedding light on the conflicts experienced by kids of first generation immigrants, including the difficulties they face when their vocational and biological orientations don't match their families' expectations.

What I'd Change: It didn't take long to figure out that the protagonist was interested in the inappropriate activities taking place in the spa, but the director gratuitously included about 15 scenes of his voyerism to get that point across.

Jacqueline (Argentina) - Lighthearted mockumentary of a deep international conspiracy and a quirky exiled participant who was set on exposing it.

What I'd Change: Midway through the film/story, it meanders off topic for a while without getting anywhere or really advancing the story, but at least it had some funny moments.

How to Tell You're a Douchebag - Creative singular story line, well developed nuanced characters, with a plot that resonated with millennials in the crowd.

What I'd Change: Dialogue seemed forced and unnatural from the female lead, and the secondary plot line (best friends' contrasting relationship) wasn't as well developed as I would have liked given how awesome of a character he was.

Trapped - Straightforward documentary covering how southern states are gradually pushing back on Roe vs. Wade via over 200 state red tape regulations, resulting in almost a quarter million backroom/at home abortions due to restricted access.

What I'd Change: The message would be even more effective if it covered more around the women's health risk implications of making abortion inaccessible.

OK (13-15)

Frank Zappa: In his own words - The director pieced together a good chronological narrative fully exploring Frank's biting cynicism and wit from just using interviews with the artist.

What I'd Change: I'd rather see this film made 15 years ago when they could probe more from others on their reaction to Frank. Making it this far after his death makes it harder to dig in and further understand the man.

Maya Angelou - Straightforward chronological documentary exploring an incredibly fascinating woman.

What I'd Change: Meander less towards the end as the content from the last 45 minutes doesn't fit as well into the timeline/narrative.

We are X - Fascinating look into the psychological dysfunction of a relatively unknown (to the USA) Japanese hair metal band. The dysfunction was an odd mix of standard US band artistic angst alongside traditional Japanese cultural strains (excessive work effort and suicide).

What I'd Change: Unlike most music documentaries, it really didn't explore where the music and style developed from (influences, musical collaboration process), and it left too many lo
ose ends on a handful of threads it kicked off (family, reasons for band member exclusions & replacements). It also felt a bit like a commercial for the band because it failed to expose these warts.

Bottom (16-18)

- This bachelor party/guys weekend flick took a slight twist on the usual themes of group debauchery, hookers, drugs, gambling, and hot tub mischief by holding it for a guy who is recovering from his fiancee's suicide, but the film otherwise followed a pretty traditional script.

What I'd Change: Brett Gelman tried too hard to be this movie's Zach Galifianakis. The title character was hardly featured, and little resolution appeared to emerge from the chaos of the adventure leaving the story without much of an arc.

Eddie the Eagle - I can't think of a single sports movie cliché that the director failed to include in this 1980s era pic - including the requisite mid-film training montage. Soundtrack was over the top, but in a really good way.

What I'd Change: Given the goal was to create a mass-consumed cheesey disney style feel good film with little artistic or dramatic value, it did it well. I'm just not into that sort of thing, so if I could change anything, I should have skipped the showing and attended a real festival film.

The Illinois Parables -
A superficial review of 11 historical tragedies in Illinois shown through slow crawling 1960s educational film style shots of corn fields and wetlands, layered with an equally drawn out post modern piano soundtrack. Without any narration, it attempted to cover historical events through flashing newspaper headlines, historical marker signs, and pictures while playing semi-related music in the background to explain some history.

What I'd Change: Everything. Personally, I'd rather gouge out my eyes than re watch this, but if you are into grainy stock film footage of agricultural landscapes, and historical documentaries lacking analysis, it might be your cup of tea.

Best Shorts You Should Dig Up and Watch (likely on youtube)

Bacon & God's Wrath - Recounting of a 94 year old kosher women's first experience with eating bacon

A Reasonable Request - This exploration of a hypothetical was unbelievably wrong, but had me rolling on the floor

Thunder Road - Incredibly funny-awkward take on a eulogy

Dogsitter - A simple, cute, and amusing story with an awesome actress, a very odd predicament, and an O'Henry twist

Too Legit - An absurd look at campus rape

Metube two - A entirely gratuitiously awesome take on Carmina Burana

I am Yu'Pik - Incredible documentary on basketball's role in uniting a disparate remote native alaskan community