"Boston Phoenix" stalwart correspondent Harlan Jacobson is busy watching movies and breathing thin air at the Sundance Film Festival. Here's the first of his dispatches from the event that will be the arbiter of the year's independent movies:
It's raining in Park
City, which only has snow and Sundance to
recommend coming here, the way Palm Springs only
has the sun and no dance, or Tombstone
only has a graveyard. One full day in, and I'm wet behind the ears. In terms of
pictures worth crossing the continent to see, all of them so far in the US
dramatic competition, I'm one, maybe a little more, for four.
"Beasts of the Southern Wild,"
directed by Benh Zeitlin, is so good it might make up for the others. It's a
story about a little black six-year-old girl named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané
Wallis), who's a handful for Wink, her pretty crazed back to nature survivalist
daddy (Dwight Henry), who unloads his shotgun at Katrina. They're both part of
a small group of mixed race swamp varmints with about 12 teeth between them,
all clinging to a ramshackle spit of land called The Bathtub located on the
wrong side of the levee. When Katrina (or something very like it) swamps the
place, the waters rise, but their resistance to leaving rises even faster.
There's a little "Winter's Bone" Loozyanna gothic in the milieu, with a
narrative style and camera like Terrence Malick. And there's some big, classic
American storytelling going on here in Zeitlin and co-writer Lucy Alibar's
script. But with "Treme" heading back to HBO and "Beasts" on the loose, Louisiana survivalist
chic could be the new trick. Wild boar run rampant across this film in metaphor
from the time animals ran the planet, and the Wallis kid actually is more than
cute. I'm waiting to see who picks this Hushpuppy up.
"Hello I Must be Going"
invokes the Marx Brothers "Animal Crackers" for no pressing reason, and throws
in a scene or two from "Horse Feathers" and "Duck Soup." Melanie Lynskey plays
a 35-year-old now pudgy but formerly fat fuck-up, who's returned to her
Westport CT family home from a failed marriage and falls into -- you wouldn't
call it an affair exactly - with the 19-year-old Oberlin-bound son of a man her
lawyer dad desperately needs to sign as a client or lose the house and make mom
(Blythe Danner) even crazier than she already is. New Zealander Lynskey played
the best friend of Kate Winslet in Peter Jackson's 1994 "Heavenly Creatures,"
and while Winslet has since inflicted on the movie world "Titanic" levels of "Carnage,"
Lynskey has done a bunch of character bits on TV and knocked around
in the background of a few features ("Up in the Air," "Win Win"). Her good
showing here, however, in Todd Louiso's sweet "Georgy Girl" update coincides
with an uptick in her career activity. Louiso was last at Sundance in 2002 with
with Philip Seymour Hoffman in his pre-star days playing a fat loser huffing
glue, also growing up way after it's time.
As the boy-lover, Christopher Abbott looks like a cleaned-up
version of Sal Mineo without the curls and does nervous as if he sat on an electric
socket. Think of this film as the current generation's "The Graduate," only
lighter and lacking Anne Bancroft's vampire teeth, but with some upside down
That was the good news. Bad news is two films made in Europe mostly in English with vaguely Euro trash
sensibilities but aimed at the American Market. Hmmm...
Antonio Campos's "Simon Killer"
sets Brady Corbet lose in Paris as a depressive American who you just know
sooner or later is gonna go off on one or all of the jeune tartes tatins Frenchie girls he manipulates, lies to, sniffs,
and smacks around. He's either in Paris
because his American girlfriend dumped him, or he killed her - either is
possible. Then there's some nonsense in the middle about blackmail, between his
NC-17 trigger sex acts with the North African whore with the heart of gold, the
golden white butter cake French girl, yadda yadda, and a pirouette on to a
psychopath's wailing "Mom" into a phone call home. Campos said post screening that Corbet's
character comes out of Dutch killer Joran Van Der Sloot, but I'm not buying it
as anything more than a felicitous reference to a headline. Van Der Sloot is a
monster. This one's a poodle you want to kick. Big buzz
on this film before it screened - the film just forgot to be interesting.
There was a day when this festival premiered Lodge
Kerrigan's "Clean, Shaven," http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0106579/ about a
character that suggested sociopath but finally was about audience
preconceptions clouding its vision. "Clean, Shaven" was unforgettable. There
are plenty of lines in French to lend "Simon Killer" une aire de famille, but the whole enterprise
requires pharmaceuticals to forget.
Then we get to "Red Lights," by Rodrigo Cortes, who two years ago did "Buried,"
a very good film about my least favorite fantasy, being buried alive. Ryan
Reynolds played a guy in a casket with a cel phone, one up on Uma Thurman in "Kill
In "Red Lights," Cortes got a lot more room to breathe and
12 million Euros to film a paranormal, woo-woo story, with Barcelona and
Toronto standing in for Cleveland (!) in English, with Cillian Murphy,
Sigourney Weaver, Robert De Niro, Elizabeth Olsen, and Toby Jones. Weaver and
sidekick Murphy work unmasking garden variety psychics and séance maestros as
frauds with a sideline as academics debunking paranormal quackery. Their
biggest fish is Simon Silver (De Niro), the greatest para-charlatan of all time
who dropped from sight some years earlier but is now back and bent on shaking
Ohioans and their concert hall chandeliers to their core by telepathically
bending spoons and such. (I'm from Ohio,
and you gotta bend pitchforks before anyone leaves a bar mitzvah gift.)
There's a whole complicated emotional backstory reason
Weaver is in this "Ghostbusters"-descendant-without-the-yucks fight, and a
thick slathering of pop psychology layered over it. If Cortes had filmed this
in Cleveland instead of a quick trip to Barcelona, you wouldn't
have to be a psychic to figure that Sigourney and De Niro might've passed on
this script in a New York minute.