<p>Helen Hunt and John Hawkes are exceptional in the new drama 'The Surrogate,' one of the biggest acquisition titles of Sundance 2012</p>

Helen Hunt and John Hawkes are exceptional in the new drama 'The Surrogate,' one of the biggest acquisition titles of Sundance 2012

Credit: Fox Searchlight

Review: 'The Surrogate' gives John Hawkes career-best role opposite Helen Hunt

HitFix
B+
Readers
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A smart adult movie about sexuality in America? Seems too good to be true

I have a dream that someday American filmmakers will finally grow up and stop being so insanely conservative about dealing with all stripes of human sexuality on film.

When we still live in a culture where a movie as ultimately restrained as "Shame" gets slapped with an NC-17, it's obvious that, on an institutional level, we are prudes.  It's ridiculous, too.  How many films do we see each year about mayhem and murder and violence and war and all manner of human horrors?  Those are all considered acceptable, and it almost feels like the more indulgent we are towards brutality, the more afraid we are to deal with sexuality in a mature manner.  Yet which subject plays a larger ongoing role in the daily lives of more people?

With "The Surrogate," writer/director Ben Lewin has taken the true story of Mark O'Brien and crafted a smart, heartfelt story about the way a lifelong polio patient, crippled and twisted by the disease, finally begins to explore his own sexuality in his late 30s, with the help of a sexual surrogate.  It is a fairly straightforward character drama distinguished by exceptional work from actor John Hawkes and strong supporting turns by William H. Macy, Moon Bloodgood, and Helen Hunt.  It is also worth paying attention to the largely clear-eyed and sophisticated approach it takes to the subject matter, including some fairly frank scenes between Hawkes and Hunt that are impressive and even moving.

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<p>Sam Worthington kept it casual at the press day for his new thriller 'Man On A Ledge'</p>

Sam Worthington kept it casual at the press day for his new thriller 'Man On A Ledge'

Credit: Summit Entertainment

Watch: Sam Worthington stands up for 'Man On A Ledge'

The 'Avatar' star discusses his latest thriller

I ran an excerpt from my conversation with Sam Worthington not long after I sat down with him to discuss his new film "Man On The Ledge," and we ran that one bit because he was talking specifically about his next film, "Wrath Of The Titans."

We spoke far longer about "Man," though, and I find Worthington's evolution as a leading man very interesting.  By the time most audiences saw him for the first time, he'd already been given several huge roles in "Avatar" and "Clash Of The Titans."  That seems to be a newer phenomenon, when someone gets anointed a movie star before they've really been seen by audiences, and it doesn't always work.

In Worthington's case, I see exactly why he was cast in those big roles, and I can also see why some audiences just haven't warmed to him.  He's not terribly interested in being a giant movie star, and I get the feeling that some of the attention has been difficult for Worthington.  In every conversation we've had so far, it strikes me that he really wants to just get better at his craft, pushing himself whenever possible.  In "Man On The Ledge," he's playing a normal guy, and he can't really hide behind giant CGI effects or a high concept.

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<p>Paul Giamatti co-stars in Don Coscarelli's adaptation of the cult novel 'John Dies At The End,' which he also co-produced.</p>

Paul Giamatti co-stars in Don Coscarelli's adaptation of the cult novel 'John Dies At The End,' which he also co-produced.

Credit: Silver Sphere Films

Review: 'John Dies At The End' offers a druggy dark comedy horror romp

HitFix
B
Readers
A
Don Coscarelli nails a note-perfect adaptation of the cult comedy novel

There's going to come a point somewhere down the road, probably sooner than I would like, when my two sons start to ask me questions about drugs, and I'm going to have to make some hard choices about what to share with them about my various chemical indiscretions over the years.

One of the ways I'll make the conversation easier is through the use of specific films as examples of how things feel when you're altered.  And now, after tonight's midnight screening at Sundance, I can add "John Dies At The End" to the list of films that I can use to illustrate how it feels when you have intentionally attempted to alter reality through the use of some sort of outside influence.  Based on a novel by David Wong, one of the founding voices of Cracked.com, "John Dies At The End" tells the story of what happens when two friends are exposed to a profoundly bizarre drug that is nicknamed "Soy Sauce," which enables them to see an invisible world full of monsters and doorways to other dimensions and things too strange to describe.

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<p>Alex Reeder is about to learn the hard way that some footage should never be found in the terrifying anthology film 'V/H/S'</p>

Alex Reeder is about to learn the hard way that some footage should never be found in the terrifying anthology film 'V/H/S'

Credit: Bloody Disgusting/The Collective

Review: Terrifying anthology 'V/H/S' creates new ghost stories for the video age

HitFix
A
Readers
B
What could have easily been a failed experiment delivers massively at midnight debut

Anthology movies are incredibly difficult to pull off, and when you add "anthology film" to "found footage," a genre buzzword that is starting to wear out its welcome thanks to countless awful examples, it sounded to me like "V/H/S" was about as big a risk as anything playing here this week.

Hats off, then, to the entire team of filmmakers who collaborated on what I would honestly call one of the scariest movies I've seen in recent memory.  And unlike many anthology films, "V/H/S" works as a cohesive piece, which is even more surprising because at the Q&A tonight, it was apparent that the filmmakers did not compare notes on their individual segments.  What works first and foremost is the aesthetic of the film.  One of the things that drove me crazy about "The Pact" the other night is just how threadbare most of the ideas were.  We live in a world full of technology and marvels that horror films almost seem to resist acknowledging.  How many horror films have you seen that treat cell phones as little more than an inconvenience to be explained away?  How many horror films rely on tropes that have been around since before you were born?  While I love the genre, I often get frustrated at how few new ideas there are in horror, and how slow filmmakers often are to even try innovation.

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<p>Lake Bell, Katie Aselton, and Kate Bosworth seem like a pretty formidable trio, and that's just during the interview, much less in 'Black Rock'</p>

Lake Bell, Katie Aselton, and Kate Bosworth seem like a pretty formidable trio, and that's just during the interview, much less in 'Black Rock'

Credit: HitFix

Watch: Kate Bosworth, Lake Bell, and Katie Aselton share 'Black Rock' memories

We sat down with the director of the survival thriller and her co-stars

This was a nice way to wake up.

Back in 2009, which was the first HitFix trip to Sundance, I enjoyed two of the movies we saw, "Humpday" and "The Freebie."  This year, both creative teams are here in different combinations, and again, I think it's interesting work.  In the case of "Black Rock," this is about as far away from Katie Aselton's first film as it could be.

"The Freebie" told the story of a married couple, played by Aselton and Dax Shepherd, who decide to give each other the night off from marriage, with no consequences, allowing their partner to sleep with anyone they want. There are, of course, ramifications to a choice like that, and the film did a nice job of showing how that fallout might land.  This time, Aselton is working in a very different genre, one that she's not a fan of for the most part, and she had to develop a tight relationship with the two women who co-star both with and for her.

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<p>I still almost look like I'm coherent at this point in the Sundance Film Festival, but there's plenty of fatigue a-comin'</p>

I still almost look like I'm coherent at this point in the Sundance Film Festival, but there's plenty of fatigue a-comin'

Credit: HitFix

Sundance Diary Day Two: Coscarelli, red carpets, and midnight movies

We share more of the experience on the ground in Park City

Day two of Sundance was really my first full day, starting around 7:00 AM and ending at about 2:30 the next morning.  I did my best to capture images and moments and a few on-the-fly chats as I went, and hopefully this should give you some sense of things.

One of the things that's a little hard to fully convey, even in video, is the random nature of encounters up here.  You'll be sitting in the Yarrow lobby writing and suddenly Mike Judge walks by, or you're walking out at the end of the movie and Malin Ackerman is in front of you, excitedly discussing the movie with her friends, or, as you'll see in this piece, you might even run into a director as he arrives at the festival, film literally in hand.

It was great to catch up with Don Coscarelli, who I got to know a little bit during the "Masters Of Horror" process, and I'm excited to see what he's done with David Wong's novel "John Dies At The End."  It amazes me how filmmakers never really get over that nervousness about showing their film to an audience for the first time, and I spent some time talking to him about this movie, our experiences on "Masters," and just catching up in general.  We'll have a more formal sit-down in a few days, but it was a great moment.

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<p>Damien Echols, one of the subjects of the excellent new documentary 'West Of Memphis,' had a moment on the red carpet that you have to see to believe</p>

Damien Echols, one of the subjects of the excellent new documentary 'West Of Memphis,' had a moment on the red carpet that you have to see to believe

Credit: AP Photo/Chris Pizzello

Want to see the best photo from Sundance 2012?

The 'West Of Memphis' premiere results in a truly amazing moment caught on film

The other day, as I was working at the Yarrow Hotel, I ran into Chris Pizzello.  Chris is an AP photographer, and we feature his work here on HitFix on a regular basis.  I've been seeing his name go by for years now when I'm editing stories, but this was the first time I ended up actually running into any of the AP guys, and it was great to put face to name finally.

He was busy uploading some photos to the AP site, and as we started talking about the festival, he showed me a photo which seemed to have him almost giddy.

I can see why.

If you've been following the story of the West Memphis Three since the first "Paradise Lost" was released in 1996, then the photo that Pizzello took would have been unthinkable for most of the past fifteen years.  Impossible.  Absolutely absurd to even mention.

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<p>Is it just me, or does everyone always look cooler in snow gear?&nbsp; It's definitely true of Joel Edgerton and Teresa Palmer, here to support their film 'Wish You Were Here'</p>

Is it just me, or does everyone always look cooler in snow gear?  It's definitely true of Joel Edgerton and Teresa Palmer, here to support their film 'Wish You Were Here'

Credit: HitFix

Watch: Joel Edgerton and Teresa Palmer discuss 'Wish You Were Here'

A relaxed chat with two of the stars from this year's Sundance opening night movie

While we've got Team HitFix here, we're trying to do as many interviews as we can.  We've got our awesome video team of Alex Dorn and Michiel Thomas with us on-site, and we've kept them running.  On Saturday morning, we all met at the Bing Bar on Main Street, and I sat down with the filmmakers behind the film "Wish You Were Here."

This was the opening night movie that I reviewed, and I wanted to discuss the movie with the cast.  I've interviewed Joel Edgerton before, most recently for "Warrior," so there was a slight comfort level there, and Teresa Palmer joined him for our chat, which is never a bad thing.

I like that Palmer gets to play Australian in the film, and it is that national identity for the film itself that I thought was most interesting and worth discussion.  Australian cinema has had a number of different ebbs and flows over the years, and it feels to me like Blue-Tongue Films, a production collective that includes Edgerton, his brother Nash, and director Kieran Darcy-Smith, is one of the companies that is part of this new moment that's happening. 

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<p>Sean Penn did not actually ingest Robert Smith for 'This Must Be The Place'.. it just looks like he did.</p>

Sean Penn did not actually ingest Robert Smith for 'This Must Be The Place'.. it just looks like he did.

Credit: The Weinstein Company

Review: 'This Must Be The Place' makes 'I Am Sam' look like 'Dead Man Walking'

Sean Penn goes so gloriously off the rails that you have to see it to believe it

Just so we're clear, I have enormous respect for Sean Penn.

I've been a fan since the early days of "Taps" and "Fast Times At Ridgemont High" and "Bad Boys," and watching the choices he's made over the years, both in front of the camera and occasionally behind it as well, I've remained impressed by his talent.

Like many truly gifted people, though, he is capable of spectacular flame outs when they push themselves, and Penn has had his share of terrible moments onscreen.  He's been let down by directors sometimes, but he's also made some big crazy choices that haven't paid off in the end, and I think it's only when you are capable of greatness that you are also capable of doing something almost unspeakably bad.

I am still wrestling with "This Must Be The Place," a new film he stars in for director Paolo Sorrentino, because it is a narrative disaster, but a fascinating disaster.  The movie's so bad in so many ways, and yet I was riveted by the display I saw unfolding.  This is the sort of bad movie that is almost a textbook study.  I want to spend time with it and try to really pull apart how many things just plain misfire, starting with the core concept of the picture.

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<p>'The Pact' was the opening midnight movie for the 2012 Sundance Film Festival</p>

'The Pact' was the opening midnight movie for the 2012 Sundance Film Festival

Credit: Preferred Content

Review: 'The Pact' kicks off Sundance midnights with a thud

HitFix
D
Readers
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A horror film for people who have never seen horror films, this one does not work

When we bring the entire team to Sundance or Toronto or any other festival, we try to each pick one part of the festival to cover.  That doesn't mean we're restricted to only one section, but that's our general focus.  For me, any time a festival has a Midnight Movies section, I'll be the one covering that.  Sundance is no exception, and tonight, I was at one of the two midnight screenings.  They showed "Tim & Eric's Billion $ Movie" at the Library, and I'll catch up with that in a few days.  They also screened "The Pact" at the Egyptian, and that's where I was.

I may have chosen poorly.

Last year, Nicholas McCarthy was here with a short film, also called "The Pact," and it appears someone who saw the film decided to give McCarthy the chance to expand it to feature-length.  I just saw the short film for the first time on Thursday, and I liked the short.  I thought it was stylish and effective, and it demonstrated a clear ability on the part of McCarthy to craft chilling suspense and strong visuals.  The short starred Jewel Staite and Sam Ball as a brother and sister who are called back to the house they grew up in to deal with the death of their mother.  In the short, it's obvious that these two didn't get along with Mom while she was alive, and it seems that although she's dead, she lingers on in spirit form.

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