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Sundance Diaries: Mother Nature pays a visit on Sundance's busiest days

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The snow coming down on Park City. Photo by Brian Kelley
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Austin Photo Set: News_Brian Kelley Sundance_ storm_jan 2012_indie game
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Austin Photo: Author_Brian Kelley

Waking up on Saturday morning in Park City, Utah I didn't even think to check the weather. It became clear early, though, that on this the first day of the big weekend at Sundance, Mother Nature had no intentions of making things easy as the first flakes of what would later add up to eight or nine inches of snow began to fall. Loading up my backpack with an iPad, my festival guides and plenty of water, I head out ready to tackle the busiest of festival weekends.

The first film of the day was Simon Killer, a movie that had very clearly divided the press who attended the premier. Coming from the production team behind Martha Marcy May Marlene (one of the best films to come out of Sundance 2011) and Afterschool, the film is a character study about the titular Simon's decline in mental stability as he explores the streets of Paris, having escaped to the city from America after a breakup.

Attempting to console himself in the arms of various women, he eventually falls for a prostitute with whom he tries to settle down. Soon, however, it becomes apparent that there are very dark layers to Simon and he just may be capable of violence. Simon Killer features a stunning central performance by Brady Corbet (co-star of the 2007 version of Funny Games) and patient, observant direction by Antonio Campos (Afterschool). It's a character study with none of the boring parts cut out, a more realistic portrayal of the descent into madness than usually seen where, much like a stick, the psyche spends some time bending before it finally snaps.

The Raid, a massive hit at the Toronto International Film Festival, came next. The plot is simple, a SWAT team attempts a raid upon a high rise building in control of a ruthless crime lord but find out quickly they are outnumbered and under prepared. The plot really plays a supporting role with the real star being expertly staged action sequences.

 Taking a quick break at the Yarrow Hotel, I spot Paul Giamatti (in town for the world premier of Don Coscarelli's John Dies at the End) near the hotel bar. I'm rarely star struck but when in the presence of such a great talent, it's hard not to feel a rush of joy. 

Director Gareth Evans (Merantau) has a keen grip on what makes a good action scene work- fluid camera movement, unobtrusive but exciting cutting and faith in able stars to carry a scene with their athletic abilities. The intense (and frequently violent) action scenes begin early and each one ups the ante, making The Raid a veritable guidebook on how to make an action movie. The Raid also has a loose connection to Austin as one of the executive producers of the film, Todd Brown, is a programmer for Austin's own Fantastic FestThe Raid already has already been picked up for distribution by Sony, look for it soon.

I enjoyed a pair of documentaries next. Detropia is a profoundly sad scrapbook of Detroit in decline. Profiling several residents (both longtime and, surprisingly, some new), the film paints a grim picture with only the tiniest sliver of hope. It's a powerful film that also serves as a rather frightening warning as the impetus for the city's decay, the outsourcing of good old fashioned American manufacturing jobs, is a problem that extends far beyond just that city.

Next was a more light-hearted film, Indie Game: The Movie. The film focuses mainly on two teams working tirelessly to finish their games which are completely independently produced. Like any great documentary profiling a fun subject, the personalities here are big, the drama palpable and it is a crowd pleaser. 

Saturday night ends not with partying but with struggle, as several inches of snow have fallen while I was enjoying back-to-back-to-back-to-back films. After a slippery walk home (the buses are scarce in what feels like near-blizzard like conditions) I catch up on the best aggregator for festival opinions- Twitter. 

I like to call Sunday my "mini-Fantastic Fest" day. It started off with the new film by Quentin Dupieux (Rubber, the killer tire movie), Wrong. The film is about a man named Dolph who wakes up one day to discover his dog Paul is missing. His quest to find Paul is complicated by several things including the palm tree in his back yard that has mysteriously turned into an evergreen, an obsessive pizza store girl and the strange Master Chang (William Fitchtner). The film is absolutely hilarious and seemed designed specifically so people who "get it" can laugh after the film at people trying to discuss its abstract brilliance (hint: it's just a wacky, funny movie). 

Taking a quick break at the Yarrow Hotel, I spot Paul Giamatti (in town for the world premier of Don Coscarelli's John Dies at the End) near the hotel bar. I'm rarely star struck but when in the presence of such a great talent, it's hard not to feel a rush of joy.

The next screening was preceded by a short called Lazarov, a comedic piece documenting Russian experiments to resurrect the carcass of a dead chicken. This short played Fantastic Fest just last September. The feature, Excision, is an expansion of a short film by the same name that showed at Fantastic Fest in 2009.

The movie is about an awkward high school girl named Pauline (AnnaLynne McCord) who has a hard time getting along with her mother (Traci Lords) and father and doesn't fit in any recognizable social circles. She has curiously erotic dreams involving surgery (she has aspirations of becoming a doctor) and the only person she seems to care about is her sister who suffers from cystic fibrosis. The film has a tone wholly indescribable, whipping back and forth between funny, vile, serious and totally weird. It's a bit rough around the edges (some editing comes off as completely amateur and some directorial choices seem not quite thought out) but it's not like anything you've ever seen. 

For the next screening, I headed over to a venue called The Library which is an auditorium inside a functioning elementary school. I was there for the world premier of V/H/S. The project is especially interesting to anyone who has been to Fantastic Fest or SXSW and seen prior work from several filmmakers involved in the found footage anthology horror film. The film is about a group of hooligans who are hired to break into a home to steal a VHS tape. While there, they find a room with TVs and a VCR and one by one watch tapes laying around, each one becoming its own story in the anthology.

The film successfully circumvents the typical found footage problem of needing to establish characters and setting through an entire act of people sitting around talking while someone is mysteriously filming. Instead these are bite size horror nuggets, each one finding a clever way to integrate the various types of cameras into the narrative.

The audience ate it up, with loud screams and applause throughout. The directors of V/H/S include David Brucker (The Signal), Glenn McQuaid (I Sell the Dead), Joe Swanberg (Hannah Takes the Stairs), Ti West (The Innkeepers), Adam Wingard (You're Next) and the Radio Silence collective. Simon Barrett (writer of A Horrible Way to DieYou're Next, etc.) has a writing credit on the film. 

The night ended with the V/H/S after party which, like most Sundance parties, is a high class affair with bouncers, RSVP lists and free booze. A DJ spun tunes for eager dancers and the V/H/S team mingled with fans and other filmmakers alike. After the party, a failed attempt to get on the karaoke RV (turns out it closes at 4 AM) ends the night.

A long, jam-packed weekend is a but taste of what is to come. For the week ahead I have more movies, more parities, a visit to Slamdance and several Austin filmmaker premiers to attend.

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