<p>Elijah seems excited, no?</p>

Elijah seems excited, no?

Credit: HitFix

Elijah Wood and his production partners on how they caught 'Cooties'

Plus the backstory behind 'A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night'

PARK CITY - Elijah Wood has become a mainstay on the festival circuit, but not because he has a film playing every festival. Instead, he's one of those guys who I see showing up at an event like Fantastic Fest simply because he genuinely lives and breathes movies. He is a fan first, and I've had so many great conversations with him over the years after staggering out of something, flattened by what I saw, seeing that same love of movies reflected back in his own response.

As a result, I knew he was one of the people I had to sit down with at Sundance this year to discuss the various films playing here that he's involved with, along with his producing partners. Daniel Noah and Josh C. Waller are listed alongside Elijah on both "Cooties" and "A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night," and so it seemed perfectly natural for them to join him to talk about developing those two very different films.

In both cases, whether you like the films or not, you can't help but be struck by how strong the voices of the filmmakers are, and that's a real testament to what Noah, Waller, and Wood set out to do as a production team. They are all about supporting the filmmakers they choose to work with, giving them room to try to come up with something singular, and they don't seem to be afraid of challenging or even shattering formula in the process.

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<p>Sheila Vand is mesmerizing in the Iranian-language vampire film 'A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night'</p>

Sheila Vand is mesmerizing in the Iranian-language vampire film 'A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night'

Credit: Sundance Film Festival

Review: 'A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night' is a new twist on the familiar vampire tale

A lovely new voice finds a home at Sundance this year

PARK CITY - The easy joke is to call this film "the best Iranian vampire film I've ever seen," but that's reductive and unfair to this gorgeous, sad, haunting accomplishment by writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour.

Why do we make so many movies about monsters? What do they tell us about ourselves? At this point, if someone's making a film about a vampire, they have to be doing something else at the same time or there's no point. Amirpour draws on the traditions of the genre, but by setting her story in Bad City, an Iranian town on the edge of an oil field, she is also telling us about the dreams and frustrations and fears of being a woman in this society, powerless by definition, empowered by this fantasy. The Girl (Sheila Vand) rarely speaks, but we know what she wants and how she feels based on who she makes victims and who she spares.

Fans of "Let The Right One In" may get a similar vibe from some scenes in this movie, but The Girl is no child, nor is Arash (Arash Marandi), a gardener struggling with his feelings about his junkie father Hossein (Marshall Manesh). Hossein keeps buying heroin long past his ability to pay for it, leaving Arash to pick up his mess and deal with Saeed (Dominic Rains), a drug dealing pimp who proves that every society has its own variation on the Guido. One night, Saeed makes the mistake of inviting The Girl into his home, taking her silence as a sort of cowed obedience. Once she feeds on him, she leaves, and when Arash arrives a few moments later, he realizes that he has an opportunity. He takes Saeed's briefcase full of drugs and money and sets himself up as the new Saeed, dealing drugs to anyone except his father, who is trapped in their apartment, grappling with withdrawal.

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<p>Aubrey, you have something on your face.</p>

Aubrey, you have something on your face.

Credit: Sundance Film Festival

Review: Aubrey Plaza stretches in gory horror-comedy 'Life After Beth'

And Dane DeHaan's funny... who knew?

PARK CITY - Well, at least now I know why smooth jazz exists.

It's uncommon to see more than one good horror-comedy in a year, much less two within 24 hours, but "Life After Beth" proved to be a fascinating follow-up to "Cooties," both films ostensibly building off of the current fascination with zombies in pop culture, but each approaching the subject in totally different ways.

"Cooties" really does want to scare you and freak you out, and the humor is mainly from watching those particular characters handle an otherwise not particularly funny situation. "Life After Beth," on the other hand, is a comedy first and foremost, and it showcases a great cast, including two leads who both seem to be stretching here in ways that are exciting to see.

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<p>Yeah, that's probably how I'd react, too.</p>

Yeah, that's probably how I'd react, too.

Credit: Sundance Film Festival

Review: Elijah Wood and Rainn Wilson battle elementary school zombies in 'Cooties'

Can this lunatic horror-comedy find the right audience?

PARK CITY - Ten years to the day after "Saw" made its midnight premiere at the Egyptian Theater as part of Sundance's midnight lineup, co-writer Leigh Whannell showed up with a whole different team of collaborators to premiere "Cooties," a horror-comedy that manages the very difficult trick of fulfilling both halves of that equation with equal skill.

Directed by Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion (collectively known as "Honest" when they co-direct) and written by Ian Brennan & Leigh Whannell, "Cooties" tells the story of a rapdily-spreading infection that turns all the kids at an elementary school into rabid little flesh-eating monsters, and what happens on the day the situation spins out of control. Clint (Elijah Wood) is a substitute who actually went to that same elementary school when he was a kid. He's only teaching for a little while as he works on his first novel, "Keel Them All," a story about a haunted boat. He's delighted to see that one of his childhood friends Lucy (Allison Pill) is also teaching at the school, but slightly less delighted when he meets her current boyfriend, PE coach Wade (Rainn Wilson). For the first twenty minutes or so, "Cooties" is basically just a comedy about a guy who isn't where he wants to be in his life trying to cope with returning to his elementary school, but in a new role, while also trying to navigate the bizarre social hierarchy of the teachers who are there full-time.

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<p>Michael Pitt and Astrid Berges-Frisbey fall in love and then fall into tragedy in Mike Cahill's ambitious but unsatisfying 'I&nbsp;Origins'</p>

Michael Pitt and Astrid Berges-Frisbey fall in love and then fall into tragedy in Mike Cahill's ambitious but unsatisfying 'I Origins'

Credit: Sundance Film Festival

Review: Sci-fi and metaphysics make for an uneasy mix in ambitious 'I Origins'

Mike Cahill's second film is too on the nose for us

PARK CITY - It's hard to believe it was 2009 when Mike Cahill was here with "Another Earth," one of the two films that put Brit Marling on the map during that year's Sundance. I'm not sure I ever got around to reviewing "Another Earth," a film that just didn't work for me. I thought there were some interesting ideas in the movie, but almost all of them were pushed to the background in favor of a familiar story about guilt and grief, which left me frustrated more than anything.

After seeing his new film, "I Origins," I think it's time for me to admit that I'm simply not on the same storytelling wavelength as Cahill at all. This time, he's once again using what is ostensibly a science-fiction hook to tell what is ultimately a story about emotional states, and I have no problem with that in theory. My biggest problem with "I Origins" is that it telegraphs its ending a good hour earlier, and then spends that hour spinning its wheels through slow-motion plot mechanics to get to what could have been a fairly powerful moment in the right context. This is a film that wants you to be rocked when that final piece falls into place at the end, but it's one of the least surprising surprises I've seen in a movie.

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<p>Aidan and his kids take an unorthodox field trip from home schooling in the wise and funny 'Wish I Was Here'</p>

Aidan and his kids take an unorthodox field trip from home schooling in the wise and funny 'Wish I Was Here'

Credit: Sundance Film Festival

Review: Zach Braff's 'Wish I Was Here' is an emotional powerhouse

Ten years after 'Garden State,' Braff is back at Sundance with another triumph

PARK CITY - Certain films show up at festivals or in theaters with targets painted on them.

The best example of that this year at Sundance is Zach Braff's long-awaited follow-up to "Garden State," and I can understand why. After all, this is the film that he took to Kickstarter, even as people complained about the idea of a millionaire asking people for hand-outs. Beyond that, though, hating "Garden State" has become a cottage industry. The only thing Braff could possibly do to counter all of the naysayers would be to make a genuinely great movie.

Which, thankfully, is exactly what he did.

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<p>Even the most devoted 'Downton Abbey' fan might not recognize Dan Stevens in the completely bananas new film 'The Guest'</p>

Even the most devoted 'Downton Abbey' fan might not recognize Dan Stevens in the completely bananas new film 'The Guest'

Credit: HenWay Films/Snoot Films

Review: 'Downton Abbey' star Dan Stevens goes mad in delirious throwback 'The Guest'

The 'You're Next' team returns to Sundance with a lunatic new thriller

PARK CITY - If John Carpenter made "The Terminator" for Cannon Films in 1987, it would be "The Guest."

And it would rule.

One of the hardest things to do with a film where you decide to wear your influences on your sleeve is making something that feels genuine. I like each half of "Grindhouse" to different degrees, but there's never a moment in the complete assembled 3-hour experience where you're not keenly aware of both Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino winking at you. I just recently caught up with "Machete Kills," and it's the same thing. Robert isn't remotely pretending that his film is the real thing. It's a goof. It's fun, but it's also somewhat disposable because of how knowingly ridiculous it is.

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<p>Noah Wiseman and Essie Davis are a toxic combination in the creepy 'The Babadook'</p>

Noah Wiseman and Essie Davis are a toxic combination in the creepy 'The Babadook'

Credit: Sundance Film Festival

Review: Disturbing Aussie midnight movie 'The Babadook' makes a nightmare out of parenting

Jennifer Kent makes a strong and personal horror debut

PARK CITY - Anyone who reads my work here on the site with any regularity knows that I place a very high priority on my job as a father. Before I had my kids, I would not have predicted the depth of feeling that I have for them. I honestly thought it would be more of a chore than anything. But on the night my first son was born, when they put him into my hands for the first time, something shifted inside me and some part of me opened that I didn't even realize had been closed. I felt such a flood of love and duty in that moment that I was overwhelmed, and I wept. To my enormous surprise, those feelings have only grown in the years since then, and I can honestly say that before I define myself as anything else, I define myself as a father.

There is a dark side to parenthood, though, and there is plenty of despair that comes with the job. There are times where I am mystified by the way my children approach a situation, times where they drive me absolutely crazy, and times where I genuinely wonder when their moral compass and sense of self-preservation will kick in. We've had it easy compared to many parents, of course, and in those moments where I am feeling most frustrated or helpless, I can tell myself how much worse things could be. And now, when I'm really at my wit's end, I can always just think of "The Babadook" and thank god that things will never go this wrong.

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<p>Chloe Grace-Moretz and Keira Knightley make unlikely friends in 'Laggies'</p>

Chloe Grace-Moretz and Keira Knightley make unlikely friends in 'Laggies'

Credit: Sundance Film Festival

Review: Keira Knightley anchors a winning ensemble in Lynn Shelton's 'Laggies'

Chloe Grace-Moretz and Sam Rockwell lend strong support as well

PARK CITY - Lynn Shelton has brought four of her films to Sundance, and I've been here for all four of them. Before now, "Your Sister's Sister" was my favorite of her films, while last year's "Touchy Feely" was the one with the most problems. She has rebounded in fine form with "Laggies," the first film she's directed from a script someone else wrote, and I suspect she's looking at her first possible cross-over hit here, due in part to the winning ensemble she put together.

Andrea Seigel's script is one of those tricky pieces of screenwriting where the wrong tone or the wrong cast could have sunk the film completely. Shelton's always had a strong rapport with her actors, though, and she cast this one perfectly. I feel at this point like I owe Keira Knightley some sort of apology. It has taken me a long time to connect to her as a performer, and in some of her early films, she is the ingredient that actively pulled me out. When I saw "Can A Song Save Your Life?" at Toronto last year, I found her enormously winning, though, and in this film, she gives a very smart, deeply felt performance, and she owns the film from start to finish.

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<p>Kristen Stewart struggles to maintain her distance as a young recruit assigned to Guantanamo Bay in 'Camp X-Ray'</p>

Kristen Stewart struggles to maintain her distance as a young recruit assigned to Guantanamo Bay in 'Camp X-Ray'

Credit: Sundance Film Festival

Review: Kristen Stewart's solid performance anchors the probing, human 'Camp X-Ray'

A sober look at life at Guantanamo Bay features solid performances all around

PARK CITY - Kristen Stewart's involvement will no doubt bring a certain amount of attention to Peter Sattler's debut feature film, "Camp X-Ray," which is probably the best use she could make of the stardom she seemed so uncomfortable with in the wake of the massive success of the "Twilight" series.

That discomfort, evident in pretty much any interview or red carpet she's ever done, is one of the her assets as a performer, and in the right role, it can be a very compelling thing. She stars as Cole, a young soldier stationed as a guard at Guantanamo Bay eight years after the events of 9/11. The movie unfolds in a very deliberate, experiential way. It actually opens with the smoking World Trade Center on TV. We see that we're in a hotel room. There's a man with several cell phones praying to Mecca. In mid-prayer, he is grabbed, a bag pulled over his head, and then we see a series of images of various people being transferred to Guantanamo. Our last glimpse of him is huddled in a cage, face bloodied and bruised, with armed soldiers all around.

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