The Best of the Sundance Early Reviews

Reviews can be dangerous. Personally, I tend not to read too many of them until after I’ve seen a film—and even then, only after I’ve processed my own thoughts. What’s the point in seeing a film if you’re just going to walk out of the theater and think, Well that was a disaster, but I know I’m supposed to love it or being profoundly moved by something but knowing that critics felt just the opposite so, I’ll keep this absolute joy to myself. Come on, now. If there’s a discussion to be had about the film before its release, it’s always more interesting to learn about the person or people behind the film and how that person made this specific piece of art and what it meant for them, so you can at least learn the intentions behind the work.

But when it comes to festivals, reviews can really make or break a long-waited anticipation—they can squash the thrill of those nine years of waiting to see if one couple gets together or elate you to know that a director whose first feature you loved didn’t fall flat in their sophomore effort. And for the movies debuting at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, most theatrical releases are still unsettled, so a long-lead review may not have the ability to hinder your perception as powerfully as it might if you knew you were seeing the film tomorrow. So for those you not in Park City this week, check out a collection of snippets from this weekend’s reviews, covering some of the most anticipated films of the festival from Linklater’s Before Midnight  to David Gordon Green’s Prince Avalanche.

Before Midnight, Richard Linklater

"It’s a brave, creative decision on the trio’s part, and it’ll be interesting to see how civilians in the real world react to the film. Falling in love is easy. Sustaining love with the complicated burden of life on top of it all is hard. Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight isn’t the most digestible picture, but its challenging, funny, painful, very present and alive depiction of relationships at 40 is so honest and real that we wouldn’t have it any other way."—Indiewire

"The previous films’ manufactured deadlines—a train departure, a trip to the airport—are no longer with us; the pair are now together until they decide not to be. Turns out, that’s as dramatic as a ticking clock."—The Hollywood Reporter

"Delivering vanity-free turns in which no apparent effort has been made to disguise wrinkles or sagging eyelids, the actors have melded so completely with their roles as to seem incapable of a false note; rewardingly, Hawke for the first time seems to truly match Delpy in emotional stature. The lightly self-reflexive script includes more than a few references to and examples of role play, reminding viewers of the artificiality of two characters who couldn’t seem more authentic."—Variety

"Physical time has to pass for both the stories and the audience, and the resulting authenticity gives the trilogy its magic. It makes the Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight unlike anything in cinema history… Every moment with the couple feels true but never overbearing. Jesse and Celine have never been symbols for all relationships; their love story stands on its own, and becomes fully fleshed out through the strength of the filmmaking and performances. These characters have never been blank slates you project your own experiences onto."—Collider

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, David Lowery

"Ain’t Them Bodies Saints maintains a strong linear approach that makes the collage of cinematic trickery more philosophically engaging than in his previous work… Lowery doesn’t leave everything up to the imagination: The tense climax, involving a superbly choreographed nighttime pursuit, breaches the subdued rhythm with supreme calculation. It’s easy to figure where Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is heading shortly after all the pieces are put in place, but the surprises of how they get there arrive in every scene." —Indiewire

"Ain’t Them Bodies Saints recalls Malick’s outlaw-lovers drama Badlands and the open-sky beauty of the fable-like Days Of Heaven. (There is, however, no voiceover in Lowery’s film.) Lowery is hardly the first filmmaker to crib Malick’s poetic aesthetic, but his clear confidence in aspiring to the same sort of enrapturing experience is undeniably impressive. When the results are this cohesive and affecting, one begrudgingly acquiesces rather than complains…In tune with the movie’s lyrical style, the performances have an elemental power that’s understated but resonant."—Screen Daily

"The film is a lovely thing to experience and possesses a measure of real power. Emerging cinematographer Bradford Young does his most impressive work yet, combining with Lowery, production designer Jade Healy and costume designer Malgosia Turzanska to deliver a kind of timeless look that feels equal parts Old West, Depression-era Texas and the slow-to-arrive modern age."— THR

The East, Zal Batmanglij

"The second picture in a fascinating collaboration with producer-writer-star Brit Marling, this clever, involving spy drama builds to a terrific level of intrigue before losing some steam in its second half. Still, the appreciable growth in filmmaking confidence here should translate into a fine return on Fox Searchlight’s investment, and generate good word-of-mouth buzz among smart thrill-seekers."—Variety

"The East is a terrific companion piece for anyone who enjoyed Sound Of My Voice… Though the script (by Batmanglij and Marling) could’ve used another polish, as a filmmaker, Batmanglij is still at the head of the class of up-and-coming directors. It’s great seeing him able to paint on a larger canvas here and provide Marling an opportunity to turn in another beguiling performance."—Indiewire

"[Batmanglij] has serious directorial chops. It’s a piece full of tension and intrigue..There isn’t enough properly at stake for the film to earn its facile pro-coporaterrorism ideas, in my opinion, and motivations feel questionable throughout. Nevertheless, I look forward to this guy’s career. He knows how to get a reaction out of an audience."—HitFix

The Look of Love, Michael Winterbottom

 "Before its measure of gravity kicks in, some viewers may find it depressing in its soulless, kitschy period portrayal of immediate gratification… Though all the performances are very good, much of Look‘s entertainment value comes from an impressive tech package that captures the shifting fashions of swinger-favored pop-culture garishness over the pic’s roughly 25-year period… While it’s seldom lingered on, the large amount of fairly graphic sexual imagery may prove a ratings challenge in some territories."—Variety

"Shockingly, for all of the topless women, the movie is surprisingly bland. Raymond is always entranced by a comely naked lady, so it’s doubtful that Winterbottom was trying to show the decline of his protagonist’s libido. More effort is put into the dangers of cocaine than any thoughtful exploration of Paul Raymond’s personality."—Collider

"The script’s biggest failing is not creating a full-bodied character out of Debbie.Loaded with music—albeit some surprisingly obvious choices from the director who made 24 Hour Party People – the film is absorbing on a scene-by-scene basis. But it connects the dots of Raymond’s life in a perfunctory way, without locating a fluid through-line or gaining emotional access to its elusive subject."—THR

The Spectacular Now, James Ponsoldt

"Ordinary in some ways and extraordinary in others, The Spectacular Now benefits from an exceptional feel for its main characters on the parts of the director and lead actors…Looking plain, even homely and singularly unadorned, Woodley is world away from the svelte little hottie she portrayed two years ago in The Descendents but again is entirely terrific. By contrast, most of the other kids are more recognizably superficial and stereotyped. The adults, particularly Chandler as the jaw-droppingly irresponsible father, are uniformly excellent."—THR

"Ponsoldt’s picture is self-possessed, mature and deeply patient, but it’s perhaps not at the exact pace some audiences are accustomed to…Don’t be surprised if the film is sold like (500) Days Of Summer (or a similar film) when it eventually makes its way to theaters, but this picture is particularly darker, sadder and pained. The Spectacular Now is wise beyond its years, charismatic, measured and authentic in its depiction of the pains, confusions and insecurities of the teenage experience, and while its deliberate rhythm may prove to be a harder sell among the teen crowd, it’s a valuable and honest film that’s worth the investment."—Indiewire

Stoker, Park Chan-Wook

"This being a Park movie—albeit one scripted by actor Wenwtworth Miller—depraved urges and grotesque outbursts linger around every turn, but Park’s formalism positions the mayhem within an alluring cinematic tapestry… Stoker may not break new ground, but it stands firmly on an effective toolbox right through its zany finale. Ultimately a subversive take on family bonds, the movie puts a wry twist on the coming-of-age mold."—Indiewire

"…delivers what the South Korean auteur does best: moody mise-en-scene with intense moments of ultra-violence. This is a dark, dark story, yet somehow Park is able to impart a safeness that allows the audience to sit back and enjoy the thrill ride."—Twitch

"Park’s regular d.p. Chung-hoon Chung appears to be channeling photographer Gregory Crewdson’s eerily high-key Americana in his lighting schemes, while Clint Mansell’s characteristically rich, modernist score is embellished with haunting piano duets composed specifically for the film by Philip Glass. The repeated use of the Lee Hazlewood/Nancy Sinatra number ‘Summer Wine,’ meanwhile, is typical of the director’s cockeyed take on American culture. Long may he continue to explore."—Variety

Breathe In, Drake Doremus

"Doremus doesn’t seem particularly interested in the melodramatic aspects of his story, skipping over the arguments and fallout almost entirely…The film focuses more on states of mind, using Dustin O’Halloran’s rich piano score to amplify the collective agitation, while capturing from each character’s perspective how one can occasionally feel like an outsider even while clearly part of something. Working again with cinematographer John Guleserian, Doremus opts for a cooler palette, rendering these middle-class problems in tony blues and beiges."—Variety

"…it’s the actors who crush these intense moments of desire and longing into something near breathless…Sensuous and plaintive, Dormeus’ camera once again captures that arresting emotional truth that’s marked his relationship dramas thus far, and there’s even some moments of Malick-ian wonder and beauty… "Breathe In" may telegraph where it’s going late in the game and these irrational decisions might make for some frustrated viewers, but it is without a doubt one of the most emotionally poignant and heartbreaking movies of the festival thus far."

"If the film does have a flaw it’s that the storyline follows a fairly predictable path, but the raw performances and Doremus’ inspiring direction are so effective at getting you invested in these characters that this minor quibble is quickly rendered insignificant by the film’s haunting closing sequence. The key is in the execution, and that’s where Breathe In excels."—Collider

Don Jon’s Addiction, Joseph-Gordon Levitt

"Again, Gordon-Levitt’s confident direction stops the film from going off the rails, but the plot strains trying to make Jon becomes a mature adult… When it comes to the protagonist’s inability to achieve intimacy, Don Jon’s Addiction feels like Shame but with jokes and Tony Danza."—Collider

"…here’s a heavy testosterone-driven pushiness, rather than a deeply felt sex drive as an elemental force of nature that’s crucial to this man’s self-expressiveness, that soon becomes obnoxious, and a lack of self-reflection that leaves Jon, and the film with him, frustratingly one-dimensional.Both as a director and actor, Gordon-Levitt is switched on all the time, offering little shading or nuance."—THR

"Filled with heat, emotion, verve and humor, Jon’s journey to sexual fulfillment is certainly not the most obvious rom-com path to redemption we’ve seen on screen in some time. Replete with characters who love to challenge their stereotypes, Don Jon’s Addiction is a beguiling romantic comedy with a heart, soul and pulse that will pleasure you for a full 90 minutes with hardly breaking a sweat."—Indiewire

Prince Avalanche, David Gordon Green

"What makes the performances so enjoyable and unexpectedly touching is that the parallel arcs of this twin character study are drawn with such delicacy. Hirsch is impish, abrasive and a little lost, with Lance already seeing himself as ‘fat and old’ compared to the younger, cooler guys on the dance floor. In a nuanced turn that swings from funny to angry to emotionally raw and back again, Rudd draws on stage skills that have been largely untapped in his recent films."—THR

"A somewhat surprising vehicle for smoothly commingling Green’s own seemingly unreconcilable career sides, Prince Avalanche (a title he admits makes no particular sense) has room for both very funny physical comedy and a couple of rapturous, stand-alone, near-experimental montages given superb support by Explosions in the Sky and David Wingo’s diverse original rock tracks."—Variety

"So even if Prince Avalanche feels more than a bit wobbly, it does show Green once again trying his hand at the idiosyncratic style of his promising early years, an encouraging sign one hopes isn’t just a passing fancy."—Screen Daily

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