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Sundance Showdowns Page 2

How to pick a winning movie when you have to make a choice.

By Scott Renshaw & Jeremy Mathews
Posted // January 19,2011 -

Recent Sundance parallel: Rocket Science (2007)

Submarine.jpgGun1.jpgSubmarine (Spotlight)

Premise: 15-year-old Oliver carries a briefcase, peruses the dictionary regularly for new words, and suspects his mother of having an affair with their New Age neighbor. But foremost on Oliver’s mind is finding a girlfriend.

Track Record: Director Richard Ayoade is a comedian best known for British television’s The IT Crowd and Man to Man with Dean Learner, with a few TV episodes and music videos to his credit. This is his first feature.

Familiar Faces: Supporting players Paddy Considine (The Bourne Ultimatum) and Sally Hawkins (Happy Go Lucky, Made in Dagenham) may be familiar to regular watchers of British film.

The Case in Favor: The Joe Dunthorne novel on which the film is based has plentiful Nick Hornby-by-way-of-Wales charms, and Ayoade is a cult favorite among fans of Brit comedy.

The Case Against: It might prove difficult to capture the novel’s first-person voice in cinematic form; Ayoade might know what’s funny, but that doesn’t mean he knows how to make a movie.

Homework.jpgGun1.jpgHomework (U.S. Dramatic Competition)

Premise: George (Freddie Highmore), a smart teenage loner, has made it to his senior year despite the fact that he has never completed an assignment; Sally (Emma Roberts) hides her melancholy behind the protective mask of popularity. An unlikely connection blooms as these kindred spirits bond over troubled parental relationships.

Track Record: It’s the first feature for writer/director Gavin Wiesen, whose only previous credit is the 2008 short Kill the Day.

Familiar Faces: Highmore, graduating from child roles in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Finding Neverland; Roberts (It’s Kind of a Funny Story).

The Case in Favor: Intriguing prospect of seeing whether Highmore’s precocious acting skills continue to mature.

The Case Against: It sounds like a lot of indie quirkiness for an inexperienced filmmaker to mold into something that won’t be grating; historical kid-actor odds not exactly in Highmore’s favor.

THE VERDICT: What we do know about Submarine—Ayoade’s comedic sensibility, the supporting cast and Dunthorne’s book—is enough to provide solid expectations. And for some reason, oddball characters with British accents generally prove more ingratiating than oddball characters with American accents. (Scott Renshaw)

Recent Sundance parallel: Tucker and Dale vs. Evil (2010)

LesbianAlien.jpgGun1.jpgCodependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same (Midnight)

Premise: Three lesbian aliens are sent to Earth. Their mission? To have their hearts broken by earthlings so their overactive emotions won’t destroy the ozone of their planet.

Track Record: This is the first feature for writer/director Madeleine Olnek; her shorts Holdup (2006) and Countertransference (2009) have appeared at previous festivals.

Familiar Faces: Jackie Monahan is a stand-up comic seen on gay-themed networks; supporting player Alex Karpovsky is in the current indie comedy Tiny Furniture.

The Case in Favor: The description of Ed Wood-like low-budget special effects sounds endearing.

The Case Against: “Black-and-white DIY lesbian romantic comedy” sounds a bit too much like Go Fish—which may be a compliment for some, but not from our perspective.

HoboShotgun.jpgGun1.jpgHobo With a Shotgun (Midnight)

Premise: A hobo hops from a train with dreams of a fresh life in a new city, but instead finds himself trapped in an urban hell. When he witnesses a brutal robbery, he realizes the only way to deliver justice is with a shotgun in his hands and two shells in the chamber.

Track Record: First feature for director Jason Eisener, but this becomes the second feature expanded from one of Grindhouse’s fake trailers, and Eisener’s hilarious 2008 short Treevenge played at Sundance in 2008

Familiar Faces: Action/exploitation icon Rutger Hauer (The Hitcher) as The Hobo.

The Case in Favor: Treevenge suggests that Eisener is likely to lace his ass-kicking with copious dollops of black humor.

The Case Against: This is a movie with Rutger Hauer as its protagonist.

THE VERDICT: Hobo With a Shotgun by a couple of lengths. A specialized audience is bound to find more humor in Lesbian Space Alien, but the combination of B-movie anti-heroism and Eisener’s sensibility feels like a no-brainer. (Scott Renshaw)

Recent Sundance parallel: The Taqwacores (2010)

CatechismCataclysm.jpgGun1.jpgThe Catechism Cataclysm (Midnight)

Premise: A priest with diminishing interest in Catholicism reconnects with his metalhead friend from high school. The two embark on a canoeing trip in which they reflect upon the directions their lives took.

Track Record: Director Todd Rohal’s last film, The Guatamalan Handshake (2006), played at Slamdance.

Familiar Faces: Steve Little, who plays Kenny’s sidekick Stevie in Eastbound & Down; Walter Dalton, who some may remember as the security guard from Wendy and Lucy.

The Case in Favor: Dalton is forever a bright spot after his work in Wendy and Lucy.

The Case Against: Unless you've seen The Guatamalan Handshake, all you have to go on is the film’s YouTube trailer, which is nothing but a bunch of shots played in reverse. And who knows how much we’ll see of Dalton.

Abraxas.jpgGun1.jpgAbraxas (World Dramatic)

Premise: A Buddhist who was once a punk rocker has a crisis of faith. After a public breakdown, he realizes the importance of music in his life and decides to put on a show.

Track Record: Director Naoki Kat made Konjaku monogatari: The new edition. We don’t know if this is a good or bad thing.

Familiar Faces: Actress Reiko Kusamura appeared in Shall We Dance (1996) and The Twilight Samurai (2002). Several other cast members have lengthy filmographies, but not much of their work has been released stateside.

The Case in Favor: It isn’t every day we Americans get to look at Buddhism from a perspective other than “look how holy it all is.”

The Case Against: He puts on a concert? This could be a tedious “let’s get the band back together” thing. The last Sundance film with heavy references to Buddhism, The Clone Returns Home, proved rather confusing for those with no background in the religion.

THE VERDICT: The safer bet has to be Abraxas, but The Catechism Cataclysm presents a high-risk/high-reward situation. Sure, a film that attempts to meld a zany canoe trip, a metalhead, a priest and, oh yeah, Mark Twain, could be a disaster, but it could be kind of great. (Jeremy Mathews)

Recent Sundance parallel: Winter’s Bone (2010)

BenavidesBorn.jpgGun1.jpgBenavides Born (U.S. Dramatic)

Premise: A high school senior wants to get out of her “forgotten South Texas town.” But she can’t afford to go to college in Austin unless she wins the State Powerlifting Championship and the scholarship that comes with it.

Track Record: Director Amy Wendel won awards at the Nashville and Ojai film festivals for her short films.

Familiar Faces: Star Corina Calderon has no credits. Julio Cedillo appeared in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada and Prison Break. Julia Vera is a go-to actress when TV shows (The X-Files, countless others) need an old Latina woman.

The Case in Favor: It’s a story about perseverance that will either fill you with optimism or depress the hell out of you, depending how the plot turns out. And it could introduce some young talent.

The Case Against: For every hidden gem at Sundance, there’s an unimaginitively made, amateurishly acted slog. You won’t know which one you’re watching until the lights go down.

Attenberg.jpgGun1.jpgAttenberg (Spotlight)

Premise: This Greek film follows Marina, who lives in a once-booming, now deserted industrial town with her dying father, an architect who designed the town around a high rise apartment. Marina has yet to find a direction in life—she only knows she loves her home, even if it’s an experimental development with no remaining function.

Track Record: Director Athina Rachel Tsangari’s last film won Best Narrative Feature at the New York Underground Film Festival in 2000. She also served as associate producer on the divisive Dogtooth, which made several 2010 top-10 lists.

Familiar Faces: Giorgos Lanthimos, director of Dogtooth, is as recognizable as the cast members get.

The Case in Favor: In 2010, Sundance’s new Spotlight sidebar proved the safest bet for quality of all of the festival’s categories. While the festival generally focuses on premieres, Spotlight showcases films that have already splashed at other festivals.

The Case Against: Sometimes watching a movie about someone finding their way in life is the same thing as watching someone be a jerk for two hours.

THE VERDICT: Attenberg has already proved popular with festival audiences, and the architectural oddity of its setting makes it a little more intriguing than Your Average Small Texas Town. (Jeremy Mathews)

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