Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Sundance ’12: Red Lights

Sigourney Weaver has gone from ghost-busting to ghost debunking. However, she may have met her match in Simon Silver, a notorious television psychic from the 1970’s, who comes out of retirement for nefarious purposes in Rodrigo Cortés’ Red Lights (trailer here), which screens during the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.

Dr. Margaret Matheson (a Richard Matheson hat tip perhaps?) is the chair of the department of skepticism. Her rival Dr. Paul Shackleton is the chair of the department of believing any spooky thing that might bring in funding. She and her colleague Dr. Tom Buckley expose psychic frauds, while Shackleton plays with his flash cards. Simon Silver was the one that got away. Supposedly vindicated by a flawed laboratory study Matheson refused to sign off on, Silver’s triumph has always been a blot on her reputation.

With the Uri Geller inspired villain back in the public eye, Buckley is spoiling for a fight, but Matheson is gun shy. Even if he does not have psychic powers, Silver is a master of finding his critics’ weak spots and exploiting them. Yet, with all the stuff suddenly going bump in the night, we are led to wonder whether or not the psychic really does command dark forces after all.

The first half of Red is a rather nifty little paranormal investigation procedural, but once Weaver’s Matheson is out of the equation, the film completely craters. Logic is treated with contempt and the indie breakout sensation Elizabeth Olsen is stuck standing around with nothing to do, besides sleep with her T.A. To make matters worse, Buckley’s closing monologue and subsequent voiceover narration invite open mockery. They are so over-the-top, they make the newly rediscovered Ed Wood film sound sharp and focused by comparison.

Weaver brings a reliably smart and mature presence to the film as Matheson and she develops a likable and realistic chemistry with Cillian Murphy’s Buckley. Frankly, the female mentor-male protégé relationship is not often seen in films and it is quite nicely turned here. Unfortunately, all the woo-woo effects get awfully sour very quickly. It is also another depressing reminder of the fall of Robert De Niro, once again playing an icily impassive villain in a dark suit.

Red really can be divided into two distinct parts. One is pretty engaging. The other is ridiculous and utterly clichéd. Sadly, the latter is the somewhat longer concluding piece, which essentially sinks the entire film. Recommended for a severe return trip to the editing bay, Red is ultimately a disappointment at this year’s Sundance, where it screens this Wednesday (1/25) and Saturday (1/25) in Park City and tomorrow (1/24) in Ogden.