Sundance Journal

They can't all have Oscar potential: At Sundance, bad movies come in threes

They can't all have Oscar potential: At Sundance, bad movies come in threes

PARK CITY, Utah — A popular saying is that bad things come in threes. Who knew this included Sundance films? On the first full day of the festival, traffic resembled Houston’s West Loop, stars were out in full force and there was not a ticket to be had. 

My first stop was the 1,200-seat Eccles Theatre, which was screening the highly anticipated Simon Killer, from Afterschool director Antonio Campos, whose Martha Marcy May Marlene, starring Elizabeth Olsen (sister of Mary Kate and Ashley), was one of the break-out hits of 2011 Sundance.

Because the movie was so highly touted, I invited a friend who had never attended a Sundance movie to accompany me, figuring it would be a memorable introduction to the festival.

The Eccles Theatre is a coveted venue for filmmakers, but unlike movie theaters, each row is 50 seats across. Wanting my friend to have the full Sundance experience, I arrived early enough to get us seats in the exact middle of the theater — 25 seats from either aisle. Yep, you can guess where this is going.

 Usually the Q&A from the director and cast is the most anticipated part of the film.  Not so here. You would have thought someone had yelled “Fire!” when the final credits of Simon Killer rolled.

 When festival director John Cooper introduced the film, he said, “This film has strobe sequences, so if that causes discomfort for anyone, we will be happy to give you a refund,” adding that he didn’t want to be a downer for such a great movie.

Little did we know that the strobe lights would be one of the best parts of this dismal, self-indulgent movie that tells the story of Simon (Bradley Corbet), who escapes to Paris after ending a five-year relationship in an attempt to find himself and quickly takes up with a beautiful and kind prostitute (Mati Diop).

What follows is bad and pointless soft pornography as Simon exhibits sociopathic misogynist tendencies.

Did I forget to mention that it's crushingly boring? It's one of those movies where you have to decide either to keep watching, hoping it will get better, or run as fast as you can for the exit. Because option two was not available to us, we were stuck in the world’s longest theater row for 105 minutes of agony.

Usually the Q&A from the director and cast is the most-anticipated part of a Sundance film. Not so here. The theater emptied so fast when the final credits rolled that you would have thought someone had yelled “Fire!”

Campos explained the film, saying it was loosely modeled on Joran van der Sloot, the Dutchman suspected in the 2005 disappearance of Natalee Holloway and who confessed to murdering a woman five years later in Peru.

As we exited the theater, I overheard one person say, “Wow, if this was good pornography, no one would ever have sex again.” My friend declared she has seen her first and last Sundance film. 

Movie No. 2: Red Lights disaster

After purging the memories of such a disturbing film with a good steak, I returned to the Eccles Theatre for another highly touted movie, Red Lightswith an all-star cast of Robert De Niro, Sigourney Weaver and Elizabeth Olsen. It was written and directed by Rodrigo Cortés, who achieved break-out fame for his 2010 Sundance debut, Buried, starring Ryan Reynolds.

Weaver plays Dr. Margaret Matheson, an ultra-rational college professor who, with physicist sidekick Tom Buckley (Cillian Murphy), debunks paranormal phenomena.

De Niro is Matheson's longtime adversary, Simon Silver, a legendary blind psychic who emerges from a 30-year absence armed with every available power that has appeared in Ghostbuster, X-Files and many other sci-fi flicks: The ability to bend spoons, make lights flicker, and even cause one of his critics to mysteriously drop dead. 

The stage is set for an epic battle between the noble scientists and the televangelist-like psychic. 

 The plot of Red Light didn't make a lick of sense and at a run time of 119 minutes, the audience started trickling out at the one hour mark.

 Although the first 30 minutes has some great dialogue and offers an intriguing debate between scientific evidence and the metaphysical, the movie sadly devolves into a teen horror flick with so many cheap tricks — slamming doors, lights going out, offices destroyed, an imposing black man suddenly appearing — that the audience was snickering by the end.

The plot didn't make a lick of sense and at a run time of 119 minutes, the audience started trickling out at the one hour mark. I was seated by one of the nation’s top film critics, who shook his head at the end and said, “That was terrible, just terrible.”

In the Q&A following the screening, one audience member asked Cortés to explain the film’s ending. He declined, hoping that viewers would draw their own conclusions. He also mentioned that “Bob De Niro really, really wanted to be here…” 

But I’m guessing that De Niro, like the psychic he portrayed, knew something the rest of us didn’t.

Movie No. 3: The horror theme continues

My bad luck film trilogy concluded with Young & Wild, Chilean director Marialy Rivas’ first Sundance appearance. The movie chronicles the life of a 17-year-old Chilean girl, torn between her evangelical upbringing and adolescent lust, who finds an outlet through an online sexual blog that she hosts.

I felt like I had seen some variation of the film many times, though perhaps not as graphically. Moreover, the young girl is so repressed that the viewer — this viewer, anyway — could not relate. 

In defense of the film, it is Chilean, and Chileans have only recently been allowed free expression in filmmaking. Even so, it lacks the necessary sophistication for a North American audience, even in an art house. 

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A scene from Simon Killer Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival
News_Sundance_Young & Wild_Jan 2012
A scene from Young & Wild Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival
News_Sundance_Red Lights_Jan 2012
Cillian Murphy in Red Lights Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival