Editor's note: Sundance Curiosities is a new feature that will run each week between now and the beginning of the Sundance Film Festival and analyze five aspects of the upcoming program. For more details on the latest Sundance announcements, go here. For the last installment of Sundance Curiosities, go here.
The Sequel to "VHS": Well, That Was Fast
Only a year ago, the anthology found footage horror production "V/H/S" premiered in Sundance's midnight section and surprised nearly everyone for one reason alone: It was really, really good. Anthology movies in general don't tend to generate a lot of buzz, the involvement of filmmaker Joe Swanberg seemed kind of random, while other segment directors like Ti West could have easily phoned it in with unremarkable short work for this ambitious project.
Instead, the omnibus effort, produced by Bloody Disgusting, not only presented a fresh take on the found footage gimmick but flowed together incredibly well while presenting a series of first-rate jump scares and ominous events that kept viewers hooked from start to finish. The project went so well that it naturally generated talk of a sequel, which was reported in these parts less than a month ago. Yet here we go with "S-VHS" in the 2013 midnight section, another anthology effort that features familiar names from the genre realm, including "The Raid: Redemption" director Gareth Evans and "The Blair Witch Project" co-director Eduardo Sanchez, arguably one of the godfathers of the approach.
The speed with which "S-VHS" came together echoes a conversation at last year's festival about the rising power of film collectives in the American independent film community, which includes the tight-knit team at Borderline Films (which premiered "Simon Killer" at Sundance last year) and the various names and faces associated with "V/H/S" who have also collaborated on various other projects (see: Ti West in Swanberg movies, Swanberg in "S-VHS" contributor Adam Wingard's "A Horrible Way to Die," and so on). So we know that they can work together efficiently; whether they can energize the found footage genre twice in a row is a different story. Audiences tend to expect scares and roll their eyes when they don't work, and Sundance's midnight crowd is an especially hard-to-please bunch.
"Charlie Victor Romeo": Come Again?
"You might never want to fly in a plane again" after viewing this movie, according to Sundance director of programming Trevor Groth, who recommended this movie when I asked him if there was anything in this year's festival unlike anything we've seen before. Certainly the description implies as much: Shot in 3-D, the production solely consists of actors reading transcripts of black box conversations from plane crashes. It's the sort of thing that may keep squeamish types away while exciting others seeking a wholly unique and potentially overwhelming cinematic experience, not unlike the mixed buzz for "The Act of Killing" on the fall festival circuit. At Sundance, a movie that generates curiosity early on might be DOA after its first screening, when we'll know for certain whether "Charlie Victor Romeo" has more to offer beyond the unsettling nature of its concept. The decision to shoot the movie in 3-D, however, suggests that there's a greater dimension of viewer involvement in this project that could elevate it to "Must See" status, if not for repeat viewings.
The Franco Factor
James Franco tends to make movies the way some people have conversations — which is to say, frequently and on a wide range of topics that happen to interest him at the moment. In addition to acting in several projects over the past two year, he also directed and starred in the Hart Crane biopic "The Broken Tower," the Sal Mineo biopic "Sal" and the experimental portrait of his "General Hospital" stint "Francophrenia (Or Don't Kill Me, I Know Where the Baby Is").
So it's no surprise that he's all over this year's Sundance lineup, having co-directed the New Frontiers entry "Interior. Leather Bar," which re-imagines the alleged 40 minutes of gay S&M footage from William Friedkin's "Cruising" supposedly cut before its 1980 release. Furthering Franco's association with provocative takes on sexual antics, he's also involved in the production of "kink," Christina Voros' midnight documentary about the pornographers involved in the website Kink.com. As The New York Times points out, if the Linda Lovelace biopic "Loveless" winds up elsewhere in the festival, Franco will be involved with three Sundance productions, since he plays Hugh Hefner there. Not only that, but all three movies deal with sexuality in the context of its tendency to generate controversy. As strange it sounds, now that we've been subjected to a couple of years worth of Franco's bizarre provocations, it looks like Sundance might be a vintage year for the actor.
Is Spotlight Unofficially a World Cinema Section?
Sundance's Spotlight section is specifically designed to single out movies that have already generated plenty of acclaim at other festivals. This year's lineup is particularly strong, stretching all the way back to last year's Cannes program for Chilean director Pablo Larrain's first-rate political thriller "No," the Israeli intelligence documentary "The Gatekeepers" and U.K. auteur Ben Wheatley's dark comedy "Sightseers." Also noteworthy: Spotlight contains only a single U.S. entry, Jeff Nichols' Cannes competition entry "Mud." Eliminate that, and the section is an intriguing alternative to the World Cinema sections at the festival, which usually pale in comparison to the quality of the American films in the lineup.
This year's World Cinema competition might get interesting with "Crystal Ferry," a thriller directed by Chilean filmmaker Sebastian Silva ("The Maid") and starring Michael Cera, if only because Silva's naturalistic comedy-dramas are always very involving experiences. Nevertheless, sifting through the unquestionably first-rate content in Spotlight, it's hard not to wonder if the festival might benefit from simply shifting these films into its World Cinema competition slots, where they would surely continue to generate interest among Sundance's predominantly American crowd.
Walking Through Art
Over the years, a lot of people have complained about the clutter on Park City's Main Street, the short road where countless parties compete for space and invite hordes of people not remotely interested in actually watching movies. But the festival's use of installation art provides a better reason to wander around that area than simply bar-hopping or (more likely) waiting in one line all night. Among this year's selections, Joanie Lemercier's "Eyjafjallalokull," named for the Icelandic volcano that erupted in 2010 and stunted air traffic around the globe, looks particularly fascinating as it promises an "audiovisual mapping" of the eruption that will allow attendees to wander through the New Frontiers space, literally consumed by the explosion. With an even greater degree of interactivity, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer's "Pulse Index" promises the ability to render users' heartbeats in visual terms, "breathing the flesh of its visitors." Fascinating and maybe a little creepy, these options provide a nice reminder that there's a lot more worth checking out at Sundance aside from the screening rooms.