Sundance Episode 2: California Solo, Red Lights and The Ambassador

Films explore showmanship, chicanery and self-denial.

by Amber Wilkinson

There was a lot of chicanery, showmanship and self-denial on the second day of the Sundance Film Festival - on screen, at least. I have to confess that the self-denial did not extend to my eating habits (not one but two portions of chips).

I've written about Mads Brügger's elaborate African con-trick documentary The Ambassador here and showmanship and trickery were also the name of the game in writer/director Rodrigo Cortes' follow-up to Buried, psychological thriller Red Lights. And the film's elaborate plotting and involved camerawork are the polar opposite of his 'man in a box' debut.

Red Lights
Red Lights

Sigourney Weaver and Cillian Murphy - who both attended the premiere - star as scientists who travel the States debunking paranormal activity. Meeting them as they attempt to lay to rest something that goes bump in the night, the opening sequences of the film are unsettling, gripping and offers a fascinating insight into how some mediums work their 'tricks'.

Things get tricky for the scientists, however, when world-famous clairvoyant Simon Silver (Robert De Niro) announces that he is coming out of self-enforced early retirement and that he will subject himself to rigourous lab tests to prove the existence of telepathy once and for all. All young Tom (Murphy) wants to do is prove Silver's a fake but boss Dr Matheson (Weaver) doesn't want to play his game. Tom, however, is determined to take matters into his own hands...

The first two acts of the film offer up some decent psychological scares but Cortes just doesn't know when to rein things in, opting for excess almost every time - particularly in one scene of over-the-top brutal violence and the multitude of endings when one simple one would do.

There is also a fine line between leaving the audience to think about a film and leaving them confused. The latter was certainly the case at the Eccles premiere and even the director seemed a little unsure as to what destination he had intended.

"I don't exactly know what this film is about," he said. Before going on to qualify himself by adding it was about the "mechanisms of perception" and "self-acceptance".

Cortes knows how to work a room, though, and kept the crowd onside after one member of the audience asked a really long-winded question, saying, "For those who didn't hear, he asked me how is it that I am so good looking."

And when Elizabeth Olsen - who has a minor role in the film - said she had taken the job "for the script and the opportunity to work with this cast", Cortes added, "But actually it was for my body."

With one-liners like this, maybe he should consider writing a comedy next time.

My only other film of the day was California Solo a gentle character study in a minor key that marks a welcome return for Robert Carlyle, who has been missing in action in TV land for far too long. His performance in the film - about an emigre Scot in the US who, after getting caught drunk driving is forced to try to reconnect with his family if he is to stay in the country - is up to his usual standards and he is ably matched by the rest of the cast, especially Alexia Rasumussen, who has a bit of a Drew Barrymore thing going on. The narrative threatens to be a little too much of a stroll in places but writer/director Marshall Lewy deserves credit for avoiding both dodgy drunk and indie relationship cliches.

Share this with others on...

Stay-At-Home Seven: June 1-6 Streaming and TV highlights this week

That’s the way to do it Mirrah Foulkes on timelessness, theatricality and Judy & Punch

Streaming Spotlight: Sundance With Subtitles This week we look at some world cinema gems from the indie festival

Changing visions Nicholas Ashe Bateman on doing things differently in The Wanting Mare

Five to the fore in Critics’ Week Cannes sidebar maintains support for filmmakers

Wes Anderson ensures Cannes show goes on McQueen, Kawase, Ozon, Vinterberg, Maiwenn and Pixar in the selection

More news and features

We've recently been bringing you coverage of the Chattanooga Film Festival and the Tribeca Film Festival online selection.

Shortly before lockdown, we were at the New York Rendez-Vous With French Cinema, the Glasgow Film Festival, the Berlinale, Scottish feminist festival Femspectives, and Sundance in Utah.

Read our full for more.

Visit our festivals section.


More competitions coming soon.