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For this “Films Gone Wild” Sundance film roundup, we have two films that received big money, which means you will be seeing them soon because someone thought that audiences would flock to see them on a multiplex screen OR they would be clamoring to lavish prestigious awards all over them. Frankly, I was probably among the few that weren’t completely taken by their majesty on the critical front.

BIRTH OF A NATION

Nate Parker’s BIRTH OF A NATION tells the true life story of Nat Turner, a slave in Virginia during the 1800s, who was taught to read – and due to that ability and an early introduction to the Bible – developed a talent as a preacher to his fellow slaves. However, when that talent for preaching is exploited by his plantation master to earn money via a tour of the surrounding plantations, Turner quickly learns the extent of inhumanity and cruel treatment of the slaves and he is led to the conclusion that his calling is to lead his brethren to learn a different lesson from the good book – that doesn’t involve turning the other cheek.

BIRTH OF A NATION is a classic treatment of a historical figure via a bio pic that used to be standard issue from movie studios. And frankly, it is only due to the fact that the life celebrated here is a man that led a courageous slave rebellion and that it is a independently produced on a relatively modest budget that it seems a revelation. It is effective enough to draw people into the causes and effects that led to Turner’s actions and it admirably allows moments to dig into the emotions of both the slaves and their oppressors. In fact, the film hews closely to the BRAVEHEART template of lionizing a charismatic and idealistic leader doomed to failure. And that is a formula that audiences never tire of.

Expected Real World Reaction: The subject of a record-breaking sale ($17.5 million to Fox Searchlight) means this one is going to be groomed for an Oscar consideration release.

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA

Kenneth Lonergan’s MANCHESTER BY THE SEA follows Lee (Casey Affleck), brooding handyman in Boston who is shaken out of his dour day-to-day when he receives a call alerting him that his brother has died, and he must return to his hometown and take on the guardianship of his 16-year old nephew. However, if the sadness of the loss of his brother and being blindsided by the news that he is now responsible for caring for a teenager wasn’t enough – Lee must now face head-on the memories of the tragedy that caused him to leave home and cut ties with everyone in the first place.

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA has been described by some as “grief-porn”, and that tag is not entirely unearned. Lee’s journey back is fraught with upset after upset as neither he, nor the townspeople he left behind seem as though they will ever be ready to move forward from the tragic past. Present day run-ins with his ex-wife (Michelle Williams) and flashbacks to the events in his past threaten to send the emotionally fragile Lee off the deep end tie and time again with immense credit due Affleck for a very effective understated performance eschewing overt dramatics in favor of a seething hurt just under the surface. It is a film that defines the term “heartfelt” and possibly for some “crushing” as we watch his attempt(s) to reconcile where his life is now and prioritize his nephew’s life before the broken one that is his own.  

Expected Real World Reaction: This should play in a fair amount of theatrical venues aiming for audiences that want to come to the theater ready to cry with tissues in hand.

The second couple of films are from the Park City at Midnight category, which is routinely my favorite section here being that I’m a genre guy. And the pickings were slim this year overall in that section as far as I and some other journalists I spoke to were concerned. Really disappointing, frankly. But these two films should satisfy the blood and guts crowd fairly decently.  

CARNAGE PARK

Mickey Keating’s CARNAGE PARK opens with one of those grave introductions alerting you or warning you to the fact that the film you are about to see is based on something that actually happened. So, as you are caught up in the horror of it all, you can either underline or bold that horror because this wasn’t just some made up shit that came out of someone’s head or you can shake your head at the horror that actually exists in our world. Soon after, we are introduced to Scorpion Joe and Lenny, a couple of small-time criminals with big bank robber ambitions and the woman they have taken hostage during their caper. Unfortunately, for Lenny, he also has taken a bullet hostage in his belly, so after Scorpion Joe takes to the back roads to escape the cops, he and his hostage soon find themselves minus a living Lenny and lost in a patch of desert “patrolled” by a crazy ex-military sniper who isn’t a big fan of company. And naturally, a battle of wills and skills to survive and get out alive is quickly underway.  

Shot well and delivering the expected (maybe even hoped-for) scary and gory tropes and beats, CARNAGE PARK is a solid, if modestly ambitious horror-thriller. Is their “carnage”? Why yes, there is. Does it take place in a park? You could make that argument both in a metaphorical and literal sense, sure. Truth in advertising. The question would be, does it deliver anything beyond the basic survivor “final girl”-type template, for an audience member craving more depth or underlying message and meaning? And, here is where the film is buoyed by another great left-of-center performance by Pat Healy as the sniper and a solid turn as a stronger than she looks Ashley Bell. In the minds of the very discerning genre-philes, it still may come up a little short, however most should feel quite secure that they’ll be seeing the film that’s being promised.     

Expected Real World Reaction: A decent to strong VOD title.

31

Rob Zombie’s 31 follows a van full of road-hardened carnies as they make their way to the next town and the next round of suckers for them to prey upon with their grimy shows and whores to soak dry and pay for the gas and weed to get them to the another stop on their tour. Unfortunately, that little tour runs into a literal roadblock manned by marauding clowns dressed in old-timey prison stripes, and the survivors soon find themselves trapped in a warehouse as pawns in a game called “31”, where a trio of sociopathic players dressed in Restoration-era finery, powdered wigs and makeup, send lethal killer after lethal killer their way, reassessing the odds of each survivor making it alive to see the dawn of the next day.

31 is essentially “Rob Zombie plays the hits!”. This includes, naturally, killer clowns, sleazy women, production design that will inspire another shower regardless of how recently you took the last one, appearances by a troupe of regulars from past films (Malcolm McDowell, Lew Temple, Ginger Lynn, E.G. Daily, Meg Foster, and of course – Sheri Moon Zombie), and lots of groovy, yet country-tinged 70s rock on the soundtrack to hum along to in tune with the sweet sound of chainsaws. So, Rob Zombie devotees will be able to happily go down that familiar checklist and not miss a beat as they cheer each kill. However, for those looking for the next level of artistry or commentary in Zombie’s oeuvre are likely to be left wanting more than a little bit. In fact, the most innovation is saved for the look of the killers – so much so, that you can see the inspiration for 2016/2017s horror convention cosplayers. And, again, not that any of that is a bad thing, it’s just a matter of managing one’s expectations.

Expected Real World Reaction: A solid seasonal programmer (Wait for Halloween, kids…) and then off to VOD.