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Criticwire at Sundance, Part II: Where Some Come Into Their Own, Some Fade Away and Others Polarize

Photo of Steve Greene By Steve Greene | Indiewire January 27, 2012 at 1:35PM

“Beasts of the Southern Wild” is still the most-reviewed film at the festival, but the consensus that movie embodies near-perfection has dimmed.
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Sundance "2 Days in New York."

Whether or not you missed our previous Criticwire round-up, here’s a quick recap of what’s happened since:

“Beasts of the Southern Wild” is still the most-reviewed film at the festival, but the consensus that movie embodies near perfection has dimmed. A few less-than-favorable grades have toppled it from its status as the lone Sundance narrative premiere with an A-. However, it still has momentum in the wake of Fox Searchlight’s early-week pickup. The anti-”Beasts,” “Red Lights,” is enjoying a slight critical reprieve, but the general feeling among Criticwire contributors is that this might be one to skip. The three docs we mentioned as early favorites have continued to perform well, especially the dour Michigan economics tale of “DETROPIA,” which has yet to garner anything lower than a B-.

Beasts of the Southern Wild: B+

Red Lights: C-

DETROPIA: B+

THE UNDERPERFORMING VETS

Sprinkled among the Sundance Premieres in 2012 are a handful of established filmmakers whose previous work has not only stormed through the festival world but into the periphery of the mainstream consciousness. However, that success has not translated to their customary acclaim this year. Stephen Frears, director of “High Fidelity,” “The Queen,” and “Dangerous Liaisons,” has returned with “Lay the Favorite,” a gambling flick that doesn’t seem to be clicking with Criticwire members. Even though the film is based on the memoirs of Beth Raymer, Tim Grierson points out that “these characters rarely rise above caricature.” Over at the Playlist, John Lichman writes, “By the end of the film it seems that even Frears has given up.” Despite a cast that includes Rebecca Hall, Bruce Willis and Catherine Zeta-Jones, this mix of sports and stats seems to be more “21” than “Moneyball.” It currently has a C average from Criticwire members. It’s not the “Do the Right Thing” sequel that some might have anticipated, but Spike Lee’s return to New York filmmaking still had many people going into the festival eager to see what would come out of that same world. While some early returns for his new film “Red Hook Summer” have been positive, many of them have strayed into the category of disappointment. Indiewire’s review pointed out that Lee’s unfiltered style, whether by choice or budgetary constrictions, has not translated into the raw power of his previous Brooklyn films. Instead, it “continually falls prey to histrionics that turn it into something Lee most certainly did not want -- a cheap imitation of Tyler Perry theatrics.” It currently has a C+ average from Criticwire members. As the co-star of “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset,” Julie Delpy will always be something akin to indie royalty. Her latest venture as a writer-director is “2 Days in New York,” a follow-up to her 2007 film “2 Days in Paris,” which also screened at Sundance. While this is the best reviewed in this trio of established filmmakers, the consensus seems to be that, like its predecessor, “2 Days in New York” can’t quite break out from the mold of familiarity and transcend the conventions of its storytelling (as Indiewire's review attests). It currently has a B- average from Criticwire members.

Lay the Favorite: C

Red Hook Summer: C+

2 Days in New York: B-

THE EMERGING FLOURISHES  

One returning writer/director that has seen his latest efforts rewarded with a bit more praise is Josh Radnor. Known to many as either Ted Mosby from “How I Met Your Mother” or the man behind 2010’s “happythankyoumoreplease,” the Sundance Audience Award winner from that year, this year’s Radnor output is “Liberal Arts,” the story of a romance between a thirtysomething and his accidental college-sophomore flame. While his first film pleased many festival-goers, the final Criticwire average leveled out at a C. Time will tell if his second effort can continue the streak at the festival’s award ceremony, but among film writers, his stock has risen. IFC Films has acquired “Liberal Arts,” which has yet to receive anything lower than a B. Found footage is a cinematic area that has been well-worn in recent years, but it’s one that has produced one of the best-reviewed films of the festival. The range of response isn’t quite centralized in the higher echelon and some reviews have been less enthusiastic than others, but the positive feedback (including on Indiewire) has led to a Magnolia buy.

Liberal Arts: B+

V/H/S: B+

THE NEW ERRATICS

“Black Rock” now has company in the “films with both an A and an F” realm. “Simon Killer” has managed to maintain a solid average, but now its acclaim is anything but universal. While the grade disparity of “Bachelorette” isn’t quite as extreme as those two films, the new bridesmaid-centered comedy is drawing praise from critics like Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir, but the ire of those like Kate Erbland on FilmSchoolRejects. Either way, this film seems to be getting more visceral feedback in the theaters than Kristen Wiig and Co. seemed to get last summer.

Simon Killer: B

Bachelorette: B

THE SOLID FOLLOW-UP

Quentin Dupieux’s last effort as a director, the tire-rampage satire “Rubber,” definitely made waves at Cannes 2010, for good or ill. Although the overall response to “Rubber” wasn’t overwhelmingly positive, the film does have its fervent supporters. At the very least, it’s a film that built intrigue around what Dupieux might do for a Sundancean encore. The first batch of grades for “Wrong” seem to indicate that Dupieux might have enjoyed some improvement. The “Groundhog Day”-esque tale is what Indiewire’s Eric Kohn describes as “just crazy enough for cult appeal.”  

Wrong: B

THE TEPID LET-DOWN

In Criticwire’s pre-Sundance Critical Consensus conversation between James Rocchi and Drew McWeeny, the latter critic said that he was “dying” to see the screen adaptation of David Wong’s novel “John Dies at the End.” Whether or not other critics shared McWeeny’s sentiments, early returns suggest that it hasn’t been living up to expectations. Even with the pedigree of Paul Giamatti and director Don Coscarelli, many responses have indicated an overall feeling of underwhelm.

John Dies at the End: C+

THE DOCS TO LOOK OUT FOR

Our first batch of documentaries sustained their initial praise, and this trio looks poised to do the same. As stated previously, doc feedback is always a bit more tempered, but “Room 237,” “How to Survive a Plague,” and “The Queen of Versailles” are cresting in the early grades stage.

Room 237: B+

How to Survive a Plague: A-

The Queen of Versailles: B+

Finally, do critics still love “The Raid?” In a word, yes.  

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Are you a critic at Sundance and want to contribute our Criticwire network? Shoot us an e-mail with your grades and/or links to your reviews at critic@indiewire.com.