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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>Thure Lindhardt gives a remarkable performance in Ira Sachs' &quot;Keep the Lights On.&quot;</p>

Thure Lindhardt gives a remarkable performance in Ira Sachs' "Keep the Lights On."

Review: Thure Lindhardt fuels remarkable gay drama 'Keep the Lights On'

Ira Sachs semi-autobiographical film his best to date

You likely haven't heard of Danish actor Thure Lindhardt, but after Ira Sachs' new drama "Keep the Lights On" finds distribution after its premiere at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival his studio and English-speaking roles should substantially increase.  Lindhardt has had small roles in American films such as "Into the Wild" and "Angels & Demons," but is best known for his critically acclaimed role in the Dutch feature "Brotherhood."  He has a reputation for becoming a chameleon-like ability to physically transform himself for a role and in "Lights" he has been given a substantial opportunity to show his vast array of acting skills.

A semi-autobiographical drama from Sachs, who won the Grand Jury Prize in 2005 for "Forty Shades of Blue," "Lights" begins in 1998 where we find gay New York resident Erik (Lindhard) satisfying himself on a now antiquated phone sex line.   He ends up connecting and hooking up for the first time with Paul (Zachary Booth), a closeted publishing industry lawyer.  To say they have enough chemistry for more than a one time shag is an understatement and the film goes on to chronicle the ups and downs over the next 10 years of their unexpected relationship.

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<p>Ryan Gosling in &quot;Drive.&quot;</p>

Ryan Gosling in "Drive."

Credit: Film District

My dream Oscar ballot: part one

Who deserves to be nominated in the crafts fields on Tuesday?

Longtime readers will know that this is something of an Oscar Nomination Eve tradition for me: with the Academy finally set to announce their nominees on Tuesday morning, I offer my own pie-in-the-sky wishlist of films and individuals I'd like to see nominated in all feature film categories. The past three years, my list and the Academy's have borne very little resemblance to each other; suffice to say I don't expect that to change this year.

For starters, while my First-Half FYC columns stuck to the pool of eligible Academy contenders, my dream ballot -- freed from even the hypothetical possibility of persuading voters -- has no such restrictions. This means that several outstanding 2011 releases that, for whatever reason, aren't on the official list of 256 titles being considered by Academy voters (a list that isn't kind to terribly kind to lesser-spotted foreign and independent titles) can come into play. After all, where's the justice in being able to consider "Dream House" but not personal top 10 inclusion "Cold Weather?" A line must be drawn erased somewhere.

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Vanilla Ice

 Vanilla Ice

Credit: HitFix

Watch: Vanilla Ice talks house flipping, reality TV and his DIY show

The 'Ice Ice Baby' rapper talks nice, nice landscaping with HitFix

Yes, the man best known for rapping his way through "Ice Ice Baby" in the '90s, Vanilla Ice (aka Robert Van Winkle), hasn't simply become a Trivial Pursuit question. The second season premiere of his DIY Network show "The Vanilla Ice Project" (Sat. Jan 21 at 10 p.m.) will give fans of Ice (and home improvement) a chance to see one thing the rapper has been up to over the last 15 years -- house flipping. I had a chance to talk to Ice last week, and not only is he an old pro at plugging product, he knows his stuff when it comes to real estate. No, really.

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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

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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<p>Alright, alright, alright: &nbsp;Matthew McCounaghey as Wooderson in 'Dazed and Confused'</p>

Alright, alright, alright:  Matthew McCounaghey as Wooderson in 'Dazed and Confused'

Credit: Universal

Watch: Matthew McConaughey gets dazed and confused in Butch Walker's 'Synthesizers'

Actor reprises classic Wooderson character

Fans of “Dazed & Confused”  are about to get as close as they can to a sequel to the iconic 1993 movie.

In the fun new video for “Synthesizers” by Butch Walker and the Black Widows, Walker mega-fan Matthew McConaughey reprises infamous stoner Wooderson.

[More after the jump...]

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<p>Robert De Niro of &quot;Red Lights&quot;</p>
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Robert De Niro of "Red Lights"

Credit: Sundance

Sundance Review: Rodrigo Cortes' 'Red Lights'

Cillian Murphy, Sigourney Weaver and Robert De Niro star in a muddled thriller
The 2012 Sundance Film Festival slogan is "Look Again," a piece of advice that has caused amusement and confusion for members of the press whose headshots are glued onto our badges adjacent only to the word "Again," as if Robert Redford himself were looking at each of us and saying, "Seriously? That guy? Again?"
Cheap juxtapositional humor aside, I gave the "Look Again" banner extra thought after it appeared on the screen following Friday (January 20) night's world premiere of Rodrigo Cortes' "Red Lights." 
The follow-up to Cortes' "Buried," a conceptually tricky thriller which went from hot Sundance title to theatrical non-event in record time two years ago, "Red Lights" is a generally infuriating and occasionally intriguing muddle of a movie that spins wildly out of control in its final half-hour, climaxing in a two-minute montage of voiceover and exposition that either does or doesn't turn the rest of the movie upside-down in maddening fashion.
The movie ended. The credits rolled. I was sitting in the back of the Eccles Theatre scratching my head and the words "Look Again" came up on the screen. 
Some viewers are definitely going to find "Red Lights" worthy of a second viewing, particularly in the aftermath of that peculiar ending. As for me? Asked to look again, I'm afraid I'm going to take a pass. Like I said, "Red Lights" is occasionally intriguing, but I don't think the things that intrigued me had anything to do with the main text or impact of the movie. That doesn't make them less interesting and I'm pretty sure that "Red Lights" is a fascinating failure -- and possibly an oddball cult film in-the-making -- but a failure none-the-less.
Full review after the break...
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<p>Amanda Hobbs, sister to one of the murdered boys in the Robin Hood Hills case, displays some of the tattoos she's gotten to remember her brother in Amy Berg's affecting 'West Of Memphis'</p>

Amanda Hobbs, sister to one of the murdered boys in the Robin Hood Hills case, displays some of the tattoos she's gotten to remember her brother in Amy Berg's affecting 'West Of Memphis'

Credit: Wingnut Films

Review: 'West Of Memphis' offers a fresh and vital take on the West Memphis 3 story

Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh lend superstar clout to an essential documentary

Like many people, I have watched the Berlinger/Sinofsky "Paradise Lost" documentaries as they've been made and aired over the years, and I had my sense of righteous indignation poked and prodded by the filmmakers in regards to the case of the West Memphis Three.  I've donated money to their legal defense on three separate occasions, and I have found myself emotionally invested in their eventual release to a degree that surprise s me, considering these are not people I know or am connected to in any way.

Several years ago, I first heard that Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh had become interested in the case, and that they were becoming involved in a very direct way.  At the time, there was no talk of a new documentary of the topic, but instead it sounded like they were working to prove who the guilty party was, hoping that would help free Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jesse Misskelly.  I was told that Fran and Peter weren't interested in having their names connected to the matter in public, but that they were simply doing this out of a sense of moral obligation.  I filed it away as "interesting information I can't do anything with" and didn't really think about it again.

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<p>Dominic Bogart in &quot;I Am Not a Hipster&quot;</p>

Dominic Bogart in "I Am Not a Hipster"

Credit: Sundance

Sundance: On the pent-up agony of 'Wuthering Heights' and 'I Am Not a Hipster'

Two films tackle internal torment from drastically different angles

PARK CITY - I really wanted Amy Berg's "West of Memphis" to happen at 8:30 this morning, but nothing doing. I hear it's a nice distillation of the Robin Hood Hills story for those who haven't seen the Berlinger/Sinofsky "Paradise Lost" series, but nothing about it seems to be blowing too many skirts up so I guess it wasn't such a fatal miss.

Instead I got a late start with a 3pm press screening of Andrea Arnold's "Wuthering Heights" at the Holiday Village, my first Sundance flick. And it was a good one.

Look, Emily Brontë's novel is a bad love story full of deplorable characters. It's a brutal vision of love (which, this combined with "Fish Tank" makes Arnold a fascinating person to analyze on that subject) and it's wrought even more brutally here.

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<p>John Noble and Joshua Jackson of &quot;Fringe&quot;</p>
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John Noble and Joshua Jackson of "Fringe"

Credit: FOX

Recap: 'Fringe' - 'Enemy of My Enemy'

Jones is back, in an episode that would have been a series highlight in another universe
Producing a television show is a tricky thing. There are so many ways to go wrong that it’s a miracle when anything goes right. Starting around the halfway point of Season 1, and stretching through the penultimate episode of Season 3, “Fringe” did almost everything right. Moreover, they did it in a way that gave the illusion that television is in fact quite easy to pull off. Nothing could be further from the truth, and not for a single second would I ever retroactively take back anything positive I had to say about those two and a half years. But this fourth season is a prime example of how quickly a show can go off the rails.
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<p>&quot;The Invisible War&quot;</p>
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"The Invisible War"

Credit: Sundance

Sundance Review: Kirby Dick's 'The Invisible War'

It's hard to remain unmoved by this polemic about sexual assaults in the military
A lot of the time, I sit down for Sundance documentaries just itching for a dose of righteous indignation.
I suspect I'm not alone.
But too often, even documentaries with the best of intentions deliver only partially or else fail to deliver at all.
You read the description of the documentary in the Sundance guide and the topic/thesis is one that you agree with passionately, but then you watch in misery as one thing after another goes wrong. The filmmaker stretches their point beyond its breaking point, or comes up short of a full treatise. The filmmaker properly targets a problem, but has no interest in even hinting at a solution. The filmmaker loses faith in the inherent power of the subject matter and resorts to manipulative editing or overbearing music to jerk the audience around like a puppet. Or the filmmaker is so condescending or full of contempt for the alternative viewpoint that their actual point gets lost in facile name-calling.
You'd think it'd be easy to make a film that stirs the emotions of a Sundance audience that's often easily moved, but I've found that it's far simpler to stumble and squander good will. 
That why I'm able to resist criticizing Kirby Dick's "The Invisible War" for not being especially artistically adventurous.
Yes, "The Invisible War" is a reasonably straightforward talking head-driven documentary, opened up mainly with stock footage and a couple scenes taking the characters on the road. Dick ("Sick" "This Film Is Not Yet Rated"), an Oscar and Emmy nominee, has made several previous films that more aggressively challenge viewers in terms of formalism or, more frequently, audience identification with off-kilter characters or circumstances. 
What Dick has done with "The Invisible War" is make an audience-mobilizing documentary that hits you in the gut in the opening minutes and doesn't let up, but also avoids a great majority of easy pratfalls. "The Invisible War" doesn't overstay its welcome at 90 minutes, nor does it ever lose confidence in the ability of its subjects to be powerful on their own, without anybody putting their thumb on the scale. It finds a way to be ideologically pragmatic, without ever sacrificing its laser focus, and unrelentingly outraged, without forgetting the need to include a call to action.
And perhaps most importantly, "The Invisible War" may depress you and make you cry, but it'll also probably leave you inspired. It's a portrait of courage as much as victimhood. 
[More after the break...]
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<p>&nbsp;Quvenzhan&eacute; Wallis in &quot;Beasts of the Southern Wild.&quot;</p>

 Quvenzhané Wallis in "Beasts of the Southern Wild."

Review: 'Beasts of the Southern Wild' is a cinematic wonder

Story issues aside director Behn Zeitlin shows true talent

PARK CITY - It's rare that a first-time feature filmmaker delivers something truly memorable with their debut - even at a festival such as Sundance - but Benh Zeitlin has done just that with "Beasts of the Southern Wild" which premiered Friday on the first full day of the festival.

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