Here’s the biggest and (for my money) best Sundance survey I’ve put together so far this year. In addition to the latest films from Azazel Jacobs (Momma’s Man) and Jeff Nichols (Shotgun Stories), Miguel Arteta (Chuck and Buck, Youth in Revolt) lightens things up with Ed Helms in Cedar Rapids and Kevin Spacey makes a Margin Call. Also, the latest from Kim Jee-woon (The Good, the Bad, the Weird).

Before we get to the good stuff, a few Sundance notes:

The jury prizes were handed out last night for the best short films last night. Matt Piedmont won the Jury Prize in Short Filmmaking with Brick Novax pt 1 and 2 while the Jury Prize in International Short Filmmaking went to Ariel Kleiman’s Deeper Than Yesterday Australia. Several honorable mentions were also handed out so click the link if you’re a short film fan.

Deal making also continued yesterday as Sony Pictures Classics coughed up “7 figures” for Brendan Gleeson’s The Guard which I surveyed here. Also, The Weinstein Company made its second significant purchase of the festival forking over $8 million for the marital drama The Details starring Tobey Maguire, Elizabeth Banks and Laura Linney.  Weinstein earlier paid $6 million for Paul Rudd’s My Idiot Brother also starring Elizabeth Banks. I’ll run down the reviews of The Details along with the drama Another Earth which busy Fox Searchlight bought just today for “north of $1 million” in the next installment of 700 Miles From Sundance.

Terri (USA)

Director: Azazel Jacobs; Screenwriters: Patrick Dewitt and Azazel Jacobs. Cast: Jacob Wysocki, John C. Reilly, Creed Bratton, Olivia Crocicchia, Bridger Zadina. U.S. Dramatic Competition

Azazel Jacobs’ odd Momma’s Man was one of the great little surprises of 2008 so Terri stands as one of the Sundance movies I was most looking forward to hearing about. Terri is an overweight high schooler whose social experience consists mainly of being teased when he has any social experience at all. John C. Reilly plays the school’s vice-principal who identifies with Terri and bonds with him. Yeah, I know, but Momma’s Man didn’t sound like much either and it was fantastic.

Karina Longworth, The Village Voice:

“Humanistic without being moralistic, and very funny, Terri is a measured, observational examination of the stratification of teenage loser-dom. It sketches out the steep learning curve of high school, in which the playing field between a mean-spirited burnout and a sweet kid who simply doesn’t fit in is leveled with a single incident, and a lapse in self confidence can plunge a would-be mistress of the universe several levels down into the freakiverse. At the same time, Terri bitter-comically reveals that the disciplinary structure of teenage life is a farce compared to the muddled, endless purgatory of adulthood…Crowd pleasing without being pandering, Terri above all else feels true.”

Brandon Harris, FilmMaker Magazine:

“While less formally ambitious than Jacobs’ early work and less touching than his most recent, Terri is nonetheless humble, funny and wise, and it contains the most honest depiction of the horrors of those first, awkward baby steps into teenage sexual contact that I’ve yet come across.”

I saved the best review for last. I could’ve quoted all of Kim’s piece, but that wouldn’t be fair. If you read no other review I link to, read this one.

Kim Voynar, Movie City News:

Terri…is everything a coming-of-age story should be: it’s honest, it’s real, it’s completely unpretentious, and it utterly lacks any whiff of the preciousness that so often permeates indie films that feel as if they were made with the specific goal of getting into Sundance [ed. cough cough Homework cough]… Jacobs, who had already demonstrated a remarkable talent for creating a meaningful character, here shows that he can also tell a fully drawn story, one that draws you into the life of its main character, a gentle giant of a lonely kid named Terri, and the equally sad and lonely assistant principal…who befriends him.”

Take Shelter (USA)

Director and screenwriter: Jeff Nichols. Cast: Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain, Shea Whigham, Katy Mixon, Kathy Baker.

Take Shelter is another highly anticipated Sundance title for me based purely on how much I liked Jeff Nichols’ terrific debut film Shotgun Stories which also starred Michael Shannon. Here Shannon plays a blue collar Ohio family man who wonders whether his increasingly frightening dreams are a sign something horrible about to happen to his wife and deaf daughter or the onset of mental illness. Jessica Chastain who is soon to be famous for Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life co-stars as his wife.

Take Shelter was scooped up by Sony Pictures Classics before the festival began.

Katey Rich, CinemaBlend:

“Nichols unfolds his story and Curtis’s gradual unraveling with meticulous, slooooow care. A whole hour goes by before Curtis’s wife confronts him about his erratic behavior, and the full scope of his growing paranoia only becomes clear in the final half hour. The languid pace of Take Shelter is maddening at times, waiting for the shoe, any shoe, to drop, or for the promises of natural disaster to actually come true. But looking back through the film it’s hard to imagine what to cut. Shannon possesses the frame with such confidence and escalating pain, and makes Curtis fall apart in such slow, imperceptible explosions that it’s riveting just to see what happens next. Chastain’s Samantha takes longer to develop, but by the final act of the film Take Shelter is a powerful two-hander between the two of them, husband and wife trying their hardest to love each other despite everything getting in their way. Without ever drawing attention to its authenticity the rural, blue-collar milieu establishes itself forcefully, the isolation forcing Samantha and Curtis to rely on each other if only because there’s nowhere else to go.”

Eric Kohn, indieWIRE:

“Part family drama, part psychological thriller, Take Shelter manages to succeed as an otherworldly blend of Field of Dreams and Noah’s Ark… As with Shotgun Stories, Nichols assembles a tense portrait of blue-collar life, while deepening his thematic interests and working on a bigger scale. Burrowing into the subconscious of a damaged man, he delivers a modern American epic with extraordinary restraint… Nichols allows the movie to inhabit his protagonist’s awareness so well that he maintains the possibility of a prophetic dimension to Curtis’s dreams without pushing the movie into sci-fi territory. Hardly the familiar sob story about the challenges of coping with a disease, Take Shelter develops into a larger conceptual project about the durability of convictions in the face of self-doubt.”

David Rooney, The Hollywood Reporter:

“With his sad-eyed intensity and a towering physicality almost like that of Frankenstein’s monster, there’s possibly no more mesmerizing American actor working in any medium today than Michael Shannon. His talents are put to exceptional use in writer-director Jeff Nichols’ devastating Take Shelter… this knockout prestige picture is a masterfully controlled piece of work on every level — from its precise modulation of mood to its piercing emotional accuracy, its impeccable craftsmanship and breathtaking imagery… While at times it conjures suggestions of vintage Polanski-style paranoia in rural America, this haunting psychological thriller is also a quasi-horror movie firmly rooted in slice-of-life reality. An allegory for the troubles of the world bearing down on ordinary people in an age of natural, industrial and economic cataclysms, it taps into pervasive anxiety more acutely than any film since Todd Haynes’ Safe.”

Justin Chang, Variety (behind pay wall):

“A hallucinatory thriller anchored by a deeply resonant sense of unease, “Take Shelter” finds writer-director Jeff Nichols honing, polishing and amply confirming the raw filmmaking talent he displayed in Shotgun Stories. Like that auspicious 2007 debut, this deliberately paced psychological drama builds an ever-tightening knot of tension around an excellent Michael Shannon… As in Shotgun Stories, Nichols locates a compelling domestic drama within a small American town whose codes and customs are observed with rigorous attention to detail. Having amassed critical and commercial cachet, the director here avails himself of a larger budget and studio-caliber production values, including a lyrical score by David Wingo and an array of sophisticated visual effects…to pull off the film’s forays into disaster-movie territory. Adam Stone’s widescreen cinematography is simply pristine, making poetic use of shadows and capturing the dolorous beauty of the film’s Midwestern landscape… Skillfully tapping into a nameless but all-too-familiar sense of dread, of being powerless to hold danger at bay, Take Shelter emerges a study of troubled masculinity in a troubled world.”

I Saw the Devil (South Korea)

Director and screenwriter: Kim Jee-woon. Cast: Byung-hun Lee, Min-sik Choi. Spotlight. U.S. Premiere.

Everything else I’ve covered so far has been a world premiere, but I’m making an exception in this case. I Saw the Devil premiered at Toronto in 2010 and hits US theaters in March, but Kim Jee-woon’s last film The Good, the Bad, the Wierd was one of the more purely entertaining pictures of last year and I’m looking forward to this one. Here Kim reunites with Wierd‘s Lee Byung-hun (“the Bad”) in a twisted revenge tale about a agent on the trail of a serial killer who murdered his pregnant fiancée. Suffice it to say if he captures him he has no intention of turning the killer over to the authorities.

Christopher Campbell, Spout:

I Saw the Devil is no ordinary one-way revenge movie… it ultimately shares a lot more in common with Se7en than it does recent films like Taken, Edge of Darkness, Hong Kong’s Vengeance and any of this film’s South Korean brethren (including Oldboy). If I had to lump it in with the latter group, I’d say it’s the revenge movie to end all revenge movies. Or, at least the current trend—though it will probably be remade, so there’s no reason to think this will be the case.”

Kurt Halfyard, Twitch:

I Saw The Devil is a movie of oneupmanship usually reserved for comedies – here it is a oneupmanship of tragedies that ripple outward from the two crazy men at the center… Anyone expecting to find deeper spiritual or moral probing along the lines of Park Chan-Wook’s trilogy is asking too much. It seems that Kim Ji-Woon has been on the path where his films get less deep and more in love with their own excesses with each entry… Kim’s films, I Saw The Devil included, remain fun and exciting affairs, but do not engage the brain or the soul much beyond the basic concept.”

James Rocchi, indieWIRE:

“Revenge flicks are generally easy for audiences to get behind—show a person devastatingly wronged and we’re down to see him get some payback… There’ve been a few pictures to examine its fruitlessness, (Jeff Nichols’s Shotgun Stories comes to mind) but leave it to Ji-Woon Kim…to really critique the genre and give it some depth with the hearty punch to the face titled I Saw The Devil.”

Cedar Rapids (USA)

Director: Miguel Arteta; Screenwriter: Phil Johnston. Cast: Ed Helms, John C Reilly, Anne Heche, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Alia Shawkat, Sigourney Weaver.

Miguel Arteta (Chuck and Buck, Youth in Revolt) returns to Sundance with a high profile Alexander Payne-produced comedy that already has a distributor (Fox Searchlight) and a release date (February 11th). Ed Helms plays a pathologically innocent and naive insurance representative from a small town in Wisconsin whose mind is blown when he travels to the big city (Cedar Rapids, natch) for an industry conference. John C. Reilly plays a loose-living co-rep who encourages him down the path of debauchery.

David Rooney, The Hollywood Reporter:

“Ed Helms lands a sturdy showcase for his trademark awkwardness and nerdy charms in Cedar Rapids, a kind of delayed coming-of-age comedy about a sheltered innocent that in many ways recalls The 40-Year-Old Virgin… The early part of the movie doesn’t quite hit the mark, in part because it’s impossible to buy any woman played by [Sigourney] Weaver hooking up with an unsophisticated dweeb like [Helms’ character] Tim. But the comedy settles in soon as [he] gets out of town… Helms’ awestruck delight as he experiences basics like plane travel and car rental for the first time is endearing and funny… If the film is on the slight side, it has an unquestionable asset…in Helms, who is both goofy and dignified. It’s impossible not to root for Tim as he discovers a resourcefulness he didn’t know he had, without losing sight of the inherent decency and optimism that make him a magnet for true friendships.”

Raffi Aadourian, The Film Stage:

“John C. Reilly steals nearly every scene he’s in, as the devilish Dean Ziegler, who shoots off hilarious one-liners every chance he gets. Helms is able to lead the film as Lippe, whose transformation from naive conservative to risk taking salesman is genuine and tinted with his trademark humorous style. And while the film feels like something Will Ferrell would produce, it still has moments of sincerity that make it stand apart from the typical slapstick fare. Cedar Rapids is a great film if your in the mood for some light hearted comedy that also delivers some heartfelt emotion.”

Ben P., Geek Tyrant:

“This movie balances sweetness and naivety perfectly with broad comedy, inserting small moments of drama, but never letting them drag on too long without a quick joke thrown in the mix… Aside from the excellent script by Phil Johnston, the reason the film works so well is Ed Helms’ earnest performance as Tim. He’s fresh-faced and innocent – disgustingly so at times – but he’s one of the very few working actors able to pull off a performance like this (interestingly enough, I think his co-star John C. Reilly is another who could do something similar). It’s easy to see how this movie could have turned into another collaboration between Will Ferrell and Reilly, but it operates on a bit more personal scale than their buffoonish antics in Step Brothers and the like. Helms sells it, and we’re buying.”

Drew McWeeny, HitFix:

“This may be a studio-scale film, but its heart is in the right place… Ultimately, your feelings on Cedar Rapidswill depend on how much heart matters to you, because as a film, it’s a little soft, but it means well, and there is a genuine charm to it… The epiphanies feel honest, if unspectacular, and by the end of the film, I did have an affection for the chemistry between the leads in the film… Arteta’s work is solid, and the film looks like a big bright studio comedy.  I can’t honestly say that you’ll be blown away by Cedar Rapids or that it’s a must-see, but the film’s gentle charms are persuasive, and on the whole, I enjoyed the time I spent with it.”

Reagan (USA/UK)

Director: Eugene Jarecki

Actor turned union rep turned conservative turned governor turned president turned focal point of an entire political movement, Ronald Reagan gets his story told by Why We Fight documentarian Eugene Jarecki. Reagan is already lined up for a run HBO. Doc Premieres

Marshall Fine, Hollywood & Fine:

“To Jarecki’s credit, he offers a voice to Reagan’s insiders and partisans – from Pat Buchanan and Grover Norquist to George Schultz and James Baker to Reagan’s sons, Ron and Michael. Thankfully, he also speaks to people with a more clear-eyed view of the damage that Reagan’s policies and terms as president wrought. Mythologized as avuncular and wise, the Reagan that Jarecki shows in archival footage – both from his terms as California governor and his first term as president – reveal just how angry and mean-spirited Reagan could be… Ultimately, Jarecki gives the last word to the historians, who use the film’s final section to debunk the myths that Norquist’s Reagan Legacy Project are trying to entrench in history books… this even-handed documentary may help take a little of the gloss off the legend.”

Duane Bygre, The Hollywood Reporter,

“In this probing and fascinating HBO documentary, filmmaker Eugene Jarecki impressively distinguishes Reagan the man from Reagan the myth. With its astute political and psychological observations, it will impress both sides of the political aisle… Jarecki, kindly but keenly shows that for every excellency that there is an accompanying downside. His chronological and comprehensive presentation of Reagan’s ascendant career presents starkly the contradictions of a man who responded to individual calamity but could not comprehend the hardships of millions. We see Reagan as a man of little introspection but deep paradoxes.”

Alan Bacchus, Daily Film Dose:

“Like Reagan’s conservative politics, Jarecki sticks to a traditional approach to the story… Talking heads from his family and close political advisors paint the picture of the man we saw in office. Reagan comes off as both the shrewd conservative that presided over the voodoo economic policies which transferred enormous wealth from the rich to the poor [sic] as well as that flag waving friendly cowboy that patriotically united the country… Surprises are few. Jareki confirms some of the tales of Reagan as an aloof simpleton who left much of the decision-making to either his wife or his trusted and more experienced colleagues. He also rips through the hyperbole of Reaganites such as Grover Norquist who deify him. “

Margin Call (USA)

Director and screenwriter: JC Chandor. Cast: Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Zachary Quinto, Demi Moore, and Stanley Tucci.

Featured on the 2010 Black List of best unproduced screenplays, JC Chandor’s Margin Call is a thriller set in the financial industry taking place over the course of a single day in 2008 when what has turned out to be the deepest economic calamity since the Great Depression began to rear its head. Margin Call actually screened for critics a few days ago, but the paying public had their first chance to see it on Tuesday and that’s the schedule I’m following. It was purchased by Lionsgate on Sunday morning.

Jeremy Kay, Guardian UK:

“There’s so much male energy coursing through JC Chandor’s promising financial crisis thriller Margin Call that by the end of it you’d be clamouring for an oestrogen bath, if such a thing were to exist. Drawing on the dialogue-laden energy of Boiler Room and Glengarry Glen Ross, the movie boasts a terrific performance by Kevin Spacey at the heart of an impressive ensemble… Margin Call feels small and drags in places, but it looks good and there’s some great dialogue. With a little trim here and there it could emerge as a neat time capsule of an appalling episode of human behaviour.”

Laremy Legel, Film.com:

“Margin Call works. Carefully crafted performances and taut pacing carry the day, but the topic featured, the precise moment when we looked at our economy and realized it had been lying to us, is also desperately in need of cinematic exposition… The most interesting facet of Margin Call is the balance with which each character is presented… The only negative aspects of Margin Call are the rare moments it attempts to pull at the heartstrings. Certain scenes are meant to humanize, but far too many humans are involved for one or two of them to attain emotional significance.”

Justing Chang, Variety (behind pay wall):

“The latest in a string of dramas seeking to take the pulse of white-collar America, Margin Call is a methodical, coolly absorbing boardroom thriller… J.C. Chandor’s precocious writing-directing debut is fastidious, smart and more than a bit portentous as it probes the human costs of unchecked greed… The escalating stakes allow for a multifaceted portrait of how each of these power players responds to a moral and logistical dilemma — a bold approach, insofar as it invites viewers to identify with some of the primary engineers of the ongoing crisis. The actors meet the challenge head-on: Quinto and Penn Badgley offer sharply contrasting studies of young guns trying to survive in a high-powered industry; Moore is bitterly restrained as a woman struggling to be heard in a male-dominated context; and Irons tosses off delectable bon mots as the imperious chief executive. Best of all is Spacey, whose ability to hide his true feelings behind a veneer of sarcasm makes Rogers the most intriguingly torn figure in the steadily mounting drama.”

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