Harlan Jacobson's Sundance Diary, part one


"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 southern Louisiana 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 "Love Liza,"  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 Connecticut 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 humor.

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," 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 Bill."

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.

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