Sundance 2012 Showdowns 

More bang for your film buck

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The Queen of Versailles (U.S. Documentary Competition)

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Premise: A married couple starts building a 90,000-square-foot mansion with their real-estate fortune, only to see their dream crash to a halt when the economic bubble bursts. This film documents their two-year journey through murky financial waters.

Track Record: Lauren Greenfield’s first documentary, Thin, received praise for its examination of anorexia treatment when it played at Sundance in 2006. It also aired on HBO.

The Case in Favor: A lot of hopes were dashed with the bursting of the real-estate bubble. The Queen of Versailles details a particularly large-scale example.

The Case Against: In the promo stills, the film’s subjects look like the kind of folks who could feature in a freak show of wealth and excess. It would be easy for a documentarian to capture that weirdness without digging for any deeper hint of humanity.

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We’re Not Broke (U.S. Documentary Competition)

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Premise: This documentary takes the stance that the U.S.A. isn’t broke and there’s no need to slash government spending. We just need to make all the giant corporations pay their taxes. Guided by protesters who were ahead of the curve on the Occupy movement, We’re Not Broke explores the unfixed loopholes that let the country’s richest companies avoid taxes.

Track Record: Directors Karin Hayes and Victoria Bruce teamed up for three previous documentaries. In 2003, they won the Audience Award at Slamdance for The Kidnapping of Ingrid Betancourt, which won several other small awards.

The Case in Favor: Talk about good timing. Occupy Wall Street and its sister protests popped up after the Sundance submission deadline had passed, and it’ll take another year for anyone to edit a really thorough piece on the movement. But while the subject is hot, this film has it covered.

The Case Against: Not to get overly cynical, but Sundance programmers may have selected We’re Not Broke because of its topical relevance, rather than its cinematic merits.

The Verdict: The Queen of Versailles reigns. All things being equal, the personal story usually connects deeper than an essay film. Granted, We’re Not Broke could be an outstanding essay, but let’s play it safe. (Jeremy Mathews)


1/2 Revolution (World Documentary)

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Premise: As protest swells in downtown Cairo, a group of friends and activists who live near Tahrir Square witness the beginning of the Egyptian revolution. 1/2 Revolution promises to show both historic events and intimate moments that the rest of the world’s media didn’t catch.

Track Record: Co-director Omar Shargawi has won several festival awards for his past documentaries, while his partner Karim El Hakim makes his directorial debut.

The Case in Favor: This is history written immediately. We’re getting an inside look at a major historic event less than a year after it happened.

The Case Against: The words “chaotic,” “visceral” and “fiercely immediate” all appear in the press description. That could translate to “nonsensical gibberish” if the filmmakers couldn’t figure out how to assemble their footage.

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Putin’s Kiss (World Documentary)

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Premise: After meeting a group of liberal journalists, a rising star of Russia’s nationalistic youth movement ponders a detour on her path to success. Marsha, 19, begins to question the fascist tendencies of Nashi, the party that gave her a scholarship, a job and an apartment.

Track Record: Danish director Lise Birk Pedersen makes her feature debut.

The Case in Favor: The film aims to work as both an intimate character study and a critique of a corrupt system. By finding a subject who falls from such a high state of grace in the party, Pedersen ought to have a compelling story.

The Case Against: Internal struggle is both integral to this story and difficult to portray. The film’s challenge will be to make Marsha’s thoughts compelling and avoid whiny rambling.

The Verdict Putin’s Kiss may well be a clearer, deeper portrait of its subject, being detached from one big crazy moment, but the revolution in Egypt is such an exciting topic that 1/2 Revolution has the slight edge. (JM)


Safety Not Guaranteed (U.S. Dramatic Competition)

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Premise: After seeing a personal ad seeking a time-travel companion, a trio of magazine reporters visit the man who placed it to figure out what his deal is.

Track Record: With little to go on besides some rarely seen shorts and an hour-long documentary, director Colin Trevorrow is a wild card. However, he does have the backing of executive producers Jay and Mark Duplass, who have become Sundance mainstays in recent years.

Familiar Faces: Kristen Bell (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Veronica Mars), Aubrey Plaza (Funny People, Parks & Recreation), Mark Duplass (Puffy Chair, Humpday, The League)

The Case in Favor: The setup could spawn some intriguing characters, and the cast members have pleased Sundance audiences in the past.

The Case Against: Sundance has screened many films with interesting premises that turned out to be limp slogs. If Safety Not Guaranteed leans too heavily on its initial concept or is too precious in its characterizations, we could be in for another.

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John Dies at the End (Park City at Midnight)

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Premise: A new drug that causes its users to drift through time and space actually serves as a gateway for extra-terrestrial invaders. A couple of college dropouts try to stop them, but, if the title is to be believed, at least one of them dies at the end.

Track Record: Director Don Coscarelli has been making eccentric horror films since the 1970s, including the Phantasm series and 2002’s Bubba Ho-Tep. Bruce Campbell fans will remember the latter, in which an aged Elvis, now living in a nursing home, faces off against an evil ancient Egyptian entity.

Familiar Faces: Paul Giamatti

The Case in Favor: Who can resist a drug that turns you into Slaughterhouse-Five’s Billy Pilgrim? While Paul Giamatti’s Sundance appearances haven’t all been as successful as American Splendor, he always gives a film a certain something.

The Case Against: While Bubba Ho-Tep, Coscarelli’s last feature, was fun, it was merely a trifle. Given the slippery, time-shifting structure suggested by John Dies at the End’s title, Coscarelli will need to bring his A game to pull this one off.

The Verdict For fans of cult film, this is an easy win for John Dies at the End. On the other hand, Safety Not Guaranteed could be a good choice, provided it doesn’t get too precious. If nothing else, it has likable actors who will surely charm everyone at the Q&A. (JM)

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Scott Renshaw

Scott Renshaw

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