24 Frames

Movies: Past, present and future

Category: Sundance Film Festival

Slamdance 2012: 'Buffalo Girls' director fought for Thai boxing doc

January 26, 2012 |  2:02 pm

 

A scene from "Buffalo Girls."

The first time filmmaker Todd Kellstein saw Thai children boxing — two 8-year-old girls with gloves on in the ring in a rural corner of Thailand — “I thought it was horrible child abuse. I wanted to make a film that would create awareness and make it end.”

 

Now, after spending three years on a project he thought would take him 10 months, Kellstein, whose unexpected and fascinating documentary “Buffalo Girls” had its debut at the Slamdance Film Festival, sees things differently.

“It’s really not our business to say what people in other cultures should or shouldn’t do,” he says now. “In the U.S., people are adamant that it has to stop, but that’s not really the point. I tried to make a film that found a balance.”

PHOTOS: The scene at Sundance

“Buffalo Girls” took as long as it did to make partially because it took a full six months for Kellstein to gain the trust of Pet and Stam, the two girls who are the center of the film, as well as their families. “Pet’s dad thought I was working for the other side, spying on her training methods,” he says. “They didn’t understand why people would want to watch them in a film."

Kellstein’s film background was in music videos, working with acts such as Bon Jovi, but he was looking for something else here. “I wanted this to be not slick, to be on the ground, me alone, with no crew,” he explains. “If I landed in these small villages with a soundman and a crew, it would have been like a Martian landing. I intentionally used the smallest, cheapest digital video camera I could find."

Right from the get-go, Kellstein started to learn the dynamics driving young girls and boys, estimated at 30,000 total, to engage not in classic American boxing, but in muay Thai, a mixed martial arts discipline that is said to be 700 years old.

"I asked a little girl, through a translator, ‘Oh my God, what are you doing, why are you doing this?’” he reports, “and she looked up at me like the biggest idiot on the planet and said, ‘Money.’”

For in a terribly poor country, where the sex trade is an option often taken to escape grinding poverty, boxing, the filmmaker says, is an opportunity to earn essential money.

“These kids are so happy, so full of joy, and they’re full of pride at doing something that contributes to the family, that can help them buy a house,” Kellstein says. The director acknowledges that the long-term physical effects of these fights are not known, but insists that having girls involved is “a huge gender coup. Thai women are very submissive, very quiet. This is unheard of in Thai culture.”

When Kellstein returned from Thailand and told his producers about his thinking, they were aghast. “They said, ‘You can’t say its OK.’ I got into a real argument with the guy who designed our poster; this was really chancey, dangerous material to get into.”

Gradually, a film that presents both sides of the issue and asks the viewer to decide took shape.

Interested in Buddhism before his time spent in Thailand, Kellstein has a quote from the celebrated teacher Milarepa tattooed near his right hand, a quote that seems in some way to speak to the film he’s made:

“Whatever is experienced will fade to a memory. Everything that is seen will not be seen again.”

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Photo: A scene from "Buffalo Girls." Credit: Courtesy of Todd Kellstein


Sundance 2012: Spike Lee's co-writer joins the race conversation

January 26, 2012 | 12:21 pm

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Spike Lee caused a stir at the Sundance Film Festival this week when he said Hollywood studios "know nothing about black people." Now, James McBride, the co-writer  and co-producer on his latest film "Red Hook Summer," is adding his voice to the discussion.

In an open letter posted Thursday on Lee's 40 Acres & a Mule Filmworks website, McBride draws a line from President Obama's State of the Union address, to the Oscar nominations for African Americans Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer (playing maids in "The Help"), and back to Lee's comments.

He concludes: "Nothing in this world happens unless white folks says it happens. And therein lies the problem of being a professional black storyteller, writer, musician, filmmaker. Being black is like serving as Hoke, the driver in 'Driving Miss Daisy,' except it’s a kind of TV series lasts the rest of your life: You get to drive the well-meaning boss to and fro, you love that boss, your lives are stitched together, but only when the boss decides your story intersects with his or her life is your story valid. Because you’re a kind of cultural maid."

PHOTOS: Spike Lee's controversial quotes

The full letter is below. Tell us what you think in the comments section.

Continue reading »

Sundance 2012: Mark Webber's unsuspecting castmate

January 25, 2012 | 11:30 pm

Mark Webber cast his two year old son in the Sundance film The End of Love

When a Sundance audience learned after a Wednesday screening of "The End of Love" that director-writer-star Mark Webber had cast his own 2-year-old son Isaac in the film, a collective "awww" went up in the theater.

The crowd seemed both surprised and impressed that Webber was the father of the precocious child, who figures heavily in the film and its story of a single father's grieving the death of his wife. What most in the audience probably didn't know, however, was that Isaac's real-life mom -- the actress Frankie Shaw -- is still very much alive. In fact, Shaw and Webber reportedly recently broke up, with the split inspiring the filmmaker to write the movie.

Indeed, the drama often straddles the line between truth and fiction. Webber's character -- named Mark -- is a struggling actor, and he goes on auditions and talks about landing roles that one imagines Webber might actually seek in real life. (Webber, best known for supporting roles in "Storytelling" and "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World," is currently starring in two other films at Sundance -- "For a Good Time, Call..." and "Save the Date.")

Meanwhile, we see Mark interact with his crowd of L.A. acting buddies -- he tries out for a film with Amanda Seyfried, borrows money from Jason Ritter and attends a party at Michael Cera's house. In a way, the film has a lot in common with Cera's 2009 Sundance premiere "Paper Heart," a similarly could-this-be-real movie about the development of a romantic relationship between the actor and Charlene Yi, who were also dating off-screen at the time.

Webber said making a film that felt true to life was important for him, saying repeatedly in a question-and-answer session after the screening that he is "obsessed with realism."

"Being an actor, more than half of your job is to pretend that a P.A. didn't just take you from your trailer to a set with lights. It's been hard for me," the 31-year-old said.

Accordingly, Webber said he never told Isaac what to say in the film. Instead, he spent a month "rehearsing" with his son and a cinematographer using a discreet camera. He informed Isaac that a friend would be taking pictures and videos of them for a while, so the child never knew he was actually taking part in a feature film.

"When you're making a film that's improvised, there's a tendency to think it's somehow easier -- but it's not. We had to be very prepared, Webber said. "There was a meticulous outline with plot points and emotional beats. But I was living in character and guiding him with the power of suggestion and knowing his moods. So anything he did would pretty much be right."

How long will Webber wait to tell Isaac that he's made his film debut?

"I can't wait to show him -- when he's 7," Webber said. "I think that's the appropriate age."

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Photo: Mark Webber's 2-year-old son, Isaac. Credit: Sundance Film Festival


Sundance 2012: An Irish spin on 'Tinker Tailor'

January 25, 2012 |  9:32 pm

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"Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" showed us that there's room in the modern world for a slow-burn spy movie, and one set in period to boot.

On Tuesday at the Sundance Film Festival, the director James Marsh (most acclaimed for his 2008 documentary "Man on Wire") tested the theory when he premiered "Shadow Dancer," his new movie about cerebral intelligence agents operating during a charged period in Northern Island.

Set five years before 1998’s historic Good Friday Agreement, the film centers on an MI5 agent (Clive Owen) who recruits a young Northern Irish woman (Andrea Riseborough) to spy on her own activist IRA family, and the crosses and double-crosses that ensue as attacks are carried out.

But more conspicuous than the plot is the mood: the film is restrained in a way that mirrors "Tinker Tailor" (and can at times make even that movie seem like "The Bourne Identity").  There’s an occasional burst of violence, but characters move slowly, often under gray skies, and there's a hushed feeling about the whole enterprise. The second scene of the film, about an attempted bombing in a London subway station, unfolds for five minutes without anyone speaking a word.

Marsh, who has toggled between documentaries and features--the Oscar winner's two most recent films were the primate-research documentary "Project Nim" and a crime feature in Britain's "Red Riding" trilogy--said he thought the low pitch worked to his advantage.  "I wanted the film to gather weight as it went along," Marsh told 24 Frames at a reception for the film, which is based on a novel by the thriller author Tom Bradby.

Marsh smiled a little at the "Tinker Tailor" comparison" but noted wryly that the Gary Oldman film cost a lot more to make than his low-budget independent. Still, the period details, and the brown and gray tones that Tomas Alfredson used in painting “Tinker Tailor,” are very much on the palette here.

No one’s yet bought the movie, which is hunting for distribution at the festival. The nearly $20 million in box office for “Tinker Tailor” may suggest a sizable audience, though John Le Carre’s name goes a lot further than Bradby’s.

More than “Tinker Tailor,” this movie weaves a lot of politics into its fabric—there’s a showdown between British police and IRA members at the funeral of an IRA member, for instance—but Marsh, who like Riseborough is English, said at a post-screening Q&A session that he was concerned primarily with a “universal human politics.”

Still, Riseborough added that the desperate situation of the Northern Irish shouldn’t be overlooked. “They were so angry,” she said. There was “pain and unemployment. It's almost too much for words.”

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--Steven Zeitchik

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Photo: Andrea Riseborough in "Shadow Dancer." Credit: Sundance Film Festival


Sundance 2012: 'For Ellen' puts focus on the father

January 25, 2012 |  8:40 pm

  So yong kim
Have breakfast with writer-director So Yong Kim, tell her how remarkable her new film is, and you'll see her put her menu in front of her face in embarrassment. But hearing compliments on the quietly exquisite “For Ellen” is something the filmmaker is going to have to get used to. It's that good.

The film, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this week, stars an excellent Paul Dano as the hard-edged and distraught Joby, a twenty-something hipster rock performer who's lived only for his music and, on the verge of an unavoidable divorce, has to decide if he can live for something else as well, his young daughter, Ellen.

The role is a change of pace from Dano, and with its brooding central male character, “For Ellen” is something of a departure as well for Kim, whose previous films, “Treeless Mountain” and “In Between Days,” dealt with girls. “I didn't really want to, I felt really terrified of starting,” she said of the new direction. “But it felt like the right thing to do at that point.”

What unites “For Ellen” with Kim's earlier films is its focus on family, which stems from her own background.

“I grew up in a really weird situation in Korea,” the director, 42, said. “My parents divorced when I was 4 or 5, my father disappeared, and my mother went to America. For five years I lived with my grandparents or aunts; it was kind of a nomadic lifestyle.

“So I'm very interested in stories about individuals within a family, how that person is shaped by family or lack of family. They're always like a search for me, I'm trying to find out if other people felt the same way I did. It's a learning thing.”

One of the starting points of “For Ellen's” script, Kim said, was “a memory of my father visiting, such a little blip, but when you are in a vulnerable phase, you tend to remember things.”

So the Joby character started “as my father now, then he turned white, became younger, and when I finished he was in his late 30s, an Adrien Brody  type.”

That is far from Dano's age (he's 27), but Kim gave him the script because she was thinking he might be good for the role of Joby's divorce attorney.

“He called back and said in his soft-spoken way that he didn't want to step on my toes but the [character Joby] could be younger, that would be really interesting.”

The filmmaker considered carefully, gave Dano the part and never looked back.

“Working with Paul was an incredible experience; he takes the character to another level, explores all the dimensions I could not express,” Kim said. “He totally spoiled me.”

Playing Joby's super-serious daughter Ellen is Shaylena Mandigo, discovered in a first-grade physical education class in Massena, N.Y., where the film was shot.

“She was one of the most serious little girls I'd ever seen, even doing skipping and jumping jacks in P.E.,” the director remembered. “She was meticulous, she would not stop until she finished,” a trait that pays off in a wonderful scene in the film where Ellen carefully picks out a doll with her dad.

Given what a gifted filmmaker the New York-based Kim has turned out to be, it is a bit surprising to discover that she went to the Art Institute of Chicago determined to be an artist.

“But a professor told me I was a horrible painter, I didn't have the touch,” she remembers. “I had to do something else with my life, and I started doing multimedia and experimental videos.”

It was at the Art Institute that she met her future husband and fellow director Bradley Rust Gray (“The Exploding Girl”).

“Brad had been to USC, a proper production school, and when I saw him shooting it seemed so natural in a way, I thought ‘This is how you do it.'”

Despite her experimental background, Kim makes films she considers to be “not cutting edge, not pushing the boundaries of cinema. I really want to do traditional filmmaking very well, that's my focus at the moment. I want to get really good at telling stories in a way that conveys emotional journeys.”

In this she is helped by Gray, who co-produced and co-edited “For Ellen” with Kim. (When he makes a movie, she returns the favor.) “It's up and down, interesting and challenging, but it makes our work better,” said Kim, who's hoping to find a distributor at Sundance.

“I do the first cut on my films, I include all the precious pieces I love and don't want to let go. We battle over every cut, even four frames. ‘If you cut that, he's not going to blink. What's what going to mean?'

“When you're writing, you put as much as you can into the script, you don't know what might be important. When you're editing you take a lot out, you take out everything that distracts from the focus. A little extra fat is not necessary. It's not perfect until everything is out that doesn't need to be there.”

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-- Kenneth Turan in Park City, Utah

Photo: Director So Yong Kim poses for a portrait at the Sundance Film Festival. Her latest film is "For Ellen." Credit: Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times


Sundance 2012: Gere, De Niro films bound for theaters

January 25, 2012 |  6:28 pm

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The deals continued to come at the Sundance Film Festival on Wednesday, ensuring that a few more films will have a life outside the Park City, Utah, bubble.

Jake Schreier's drama "Robot & Frank" was acquired by Samuel Goldwyn and Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions. Set in the near future, the movie centers on a lonely seventysomething man (Frank Langella) who is given a robot companion by his children and then forms an odd bond with it.

Nicholas Jarecki's "Arbitrage" also went to two companies: Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions co-acquired the film and will team up to release it. The companies paired on the release of last year's Sundance financial drama, "Margin Call," to which this film has been compared. In the 2012 picture, Richard Gere plays a master-of-the-universe banker who scrambles to prevent his life from coming apart after becoming involved in a shady investment and a fatal car accident.

And "Red Lights," Rodrigo Cortes' follow-up to his 2010 Sundance pic "Buried," has also found a home. The supernatural thriller has been acquired by Millennium Entertainment; the movie stars Robert De Niro as a world-famous psychic and Cillian Murphy and Elizabeth Olsen as two paranormal experts who seek him out. No release dates have been given for any of the films.

Nearly every major specialty company has now bought a film (Focus, Sony Pictures Classics, Magnolia and Fox Searchlight bought at least one earlier in the festival) -- save for the Weinstein Co., a rarity in a period when Harvey Weinstein has been one of the most active festival buyers. The firm does have a busy fall, with new films from Quentin Tarantinio, Paul Thomas Anderson and David O. Russell set for release.

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Photo: Richard Gere in "Arbitrage." Credit: Sundance Film Festival


Sundance 2012: Real-life scares at screening of 'V/H/S'

January 25, 2012 |  1:41 pm

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A late-night screening of the found-footage horror film "V/H/S" at Sundance yielded disturbing news: Shortly into the screening, one person had left the theater and fainted in the lobby while another had exited with nausea.

Producer Roxanne Benjamin, posting on Twitter, said that EMTs were called to the scene, that the event was not staged and "it was scary and not fun, and everyone is grateful the guy and his girlfriend are OK. And they wanted to go back in the theatre!" Benjamin would later post that the cause of the couple's problems were "altitude sickness, exhaustion, dehydration and alcohol” and not directly related to the film.

Either way, the movie is not for the faint of heart. Benjamin and fellow producer Brad Miska brought together six directors -- Adam Wingard, David Bruckner, Ti West, Glen McQuaid, Joe Swanberg and a collective known as Radio Silence -- to create six short horror films based on the notion of “found footage.”

The frame story follows a trio of hoodlums who come across a cache of videotapes after they break into a house; each of the shorts portrays what the burglars supposedly see on the tapes. The shorts each have a unique style and offer the requisite twists and gore.

Wingard shot the hoodlum story, while Bruckner tells the tale of three young men who get more than they bargain for when they film a night of carousing. West created a home movie of a couple whose road trip goes off course. Though all the filmmakers worked independently of one another, there are recurring themes and images involving such subjects as voyeurism.

During the Q&A after the screening, with all the directors present, Bruckner summed up many of the shorts in the anthology when he said his inspiration was to make a viewer "feel guilty, maybe, about the things that you thought about doing with a camera, maybe things you've done with a camera, things you plan on doing with a camera and punish you severely for it.”

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Photo: Kate Lyn Sheil in "V/H/S" by Ti West . Credit: Sundance Film Festival

 


Sundance 2012: 'Smashed' is a booze film with a dry wit

January 25, 2012 | 10:34 am

Smashed

Movies about addiction tend to be heavy dramatic affairs, with stakes raised high and lives brought low.

But “Smashed,” a new film about a hard-drinking young woman who decides to get sober after one too many late nights, tries a different approach: It mixes in lightness with the seriousness.

"A lot of movies about addiction just sort of dwell in miserabilism, and we didn’t want to do that,” said James Ponsoldt, the film’s director and co-writer. “We wanted it to be something you could relate to, that young people can relate to.”

PHOTOS: The scene at Sundance

The movie premiered Sunday at the Sundance Film Festival, where the relatability was on full display.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays Kate, an elementary school teacher with a full life — she’s enthusiastic in front of a classroom and even more energetic in her nightlife, which consists mainly of drinking at neighborhood bars with husband Charlie (Aaron Paul) and his buddies. Kate also isn’t averse to nips at other times — swigging a beer in the shower, sipping from a flask as she drives to work.

But after a series of marathon drinking sessions leads to her waking up in strange places, such as near the dried-up banks of the L.A. River (the Southland-set film makes ample use of Eastside Los Angeles locations) Kate decides to get sober. She takes the advice of a colleague (Nick Offerman) who brings her to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting where she meets a sponsor, the wise but darkly comic Jenny (Octavia Spencer). Her new-found sobriety, however, drives a wedge between Kate and Charlie, who hasn’t given up booze.

Meanwhile, a misunderstanding at school while Kate is still drinking — she's having hangover-induced vomiting, but the students think their teacher is pregnant, and she goes with it — brings the potential for comedic misunderstanding. The movie is dry in more ways than one.

“What struck me when I first read the script was that it’s not a feel-bad film even though it deals with alcoholism,” Winstead said. “There’s no big intervention scene, and I even had a good time shooting some of the drunk scenes — they’re serious moments but it’s also a chance to show the good times this couple had together.”

Winstead said that before making “Smashed,” which is seeking U.S. distribution, she specifically avoided watching other films about addiction, such as “The Days of Wine and Roses” and “Requiem for a Dream,” hoping not to be influenced by their tone.

Paul, who is associated with a rather different kind of addiction as meth dealer Jesse Pinkman in the cable series “Breaking Bad,” believes that by not overdoing the melodrama “Smashed” gives audiences a stake in the outcome.

"It’s a tragic love story and a marriage that’s so unhealthy for both of them, but you're rooting for their relationship,” he said. Paul said that he took inspiration from a relationship he had in real life with a woman who was always the “life of the party,” leading to good times but also, he said, an inability to relate emotionally.

A 33-year-old Georgia native who previously directed the 2006 Sundance drama "Off the Black," Ponsoldt got the idea for “Smashed” when a longtime friend, comedian Susan Burke, began recounting stories of her alcoholic nights and subsequent sobriety. The two wound up co-writing a script that they further researched by attending AA meetings. Sometimes they brought Winstead with them.

“When I first started going to the meetings, I was surprised by how much honesty and how much knowing comedy was there,” Ponsoldt said. “I wanted to make a movie that captured that and even felt that way as we were shooting it.”

On the Los Angeles set of the film in October, some of that lightheartedness was in evidence as Spencer ad-libbed a scene about how she replaced her alcohol addiction with food compulsions, in each take coming up with new items such as peanut butter, nacho cheese and chocolate cake on the spot, prompting laughs from some in the crew.

There was also levity between takes. Offerman, known for his offbeat comedic role as Ron Swanson on NBC’s “Parks and Recreation,” bantered with Spencer. “I get to play somewhat different than who I usually am," Spencer said as she dined with her costars during a late-afternoon lunch break. "She plays docile and white,” Offerman wryly volleyed back to a reporter.

Though Ponsoldt said he didn’t know if audiences had an appetite for a film about addiction, even a somewhat buoyant one, he said he felt it was the best way to handle these themes.

“It’s a simple, honest story,” he said.  “These two kids are in love with each other but they’re also in love with drinking.”

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Photo: A scene from "Smashed" with Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Aaron Paul. Credit: Oana Marian


Oscars 2012: How will 'Tree of Life' be represented?

January 24, 2012 |  5:16 pm

 

Click for photos of the top nominees

When Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” was announced as a surprise Oscar best picture choice Tuesday,  it resolved one question about this year’s telecast: One of the most audacious and polarizing movies will indeed have a spot at the Kodak Theatre.

But it raises another one — namely, who exactly will be on hand to represent the film. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences said it had yet to determine which producers would be eligible for the best picture prize.

According to the organization’s rules,  only three can be nominated for best picture, a rule designed to stop a cavalcade of producers all trying to grab a little credit. The academy could make an exception — according to one clause, “The committee has the right, in what it determines to be a rare and extraordinary circumstance, to name any additional qualified producer as a nominee.”

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If it keeps at the usual three, it’s likely that Bill Pohlad and Sarah Green will be two of the producers. Pohlad, who financed the film, had been developing it with Malick for about a decade, while Green is Malick’s longtime producer and close confidant.

The third slot could go to one of three people — Grant Hill, a producer who was involved with it early on; Brad Pitt, who came on to produce and then star; or Dede Gardner, Pitt’s producing partner.

Asked how it would resolved itself, Pitt said, “I’m going to defer to Dede on this one.”

Of course, it’s the academy’s opinion that matters in the end. The group has been asking producers about the relative levels of involvement, said Pohlad, and should rule shortly on whether Pitt, who also produced “Moneyball,” will get a best picture nomination. If he did,  he’d actually be put in the rare position of competing against himself in the category. (“Pancakes for everybody,” Pitt quipped when asked what that scenario would mean.)

Finally, there’s the question of Malick himself.  The filmmaker, who was nominated for director Tuesday, sat out the 1999 ceremony when his “The Thin Red Line” was nominated for best picture and even asked producers to do the same. This time, Pohlad said, there could be a change — maybe.

"I'm hesitant to push Terry to do something he doesn't like doing, but I also want him to enjoy it," Pohlad said, adding that Malick did sound genuinely happy about the nomination when the two spoke this morning. The produced added,  "Sometimes, its frustrating how removed from it he tries to keep it, but it comes from a real place. He's tried to do something original and adventurous and he wants the focus to be on that."

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-- Steven Zeitchik, with reporting by John Horn

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Photo: Brad Pitt in "The Tree of Life."  Credit: Sundance Film Festival


Sundance 2012: Fox Searchlight buys 'Beasts'

January 24, 2012 | 10:28 am

Beasts
Fox Searchlight has locked down its second deal of the Sundance Film Festival, picking up Ben Zeitlin’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”

The fantastical picture, which blends striking images of animals with a gritty Southern poverty, had garnered both critical acclaim and sales interest, with several other major players throwing their hats in the ring. Talks heated up between the studio and seller WME in the last 24 hours, with the deal being finalized early Tuesday morning.

The deals began to flow in earnest Tuesday, with Sony Pictures Classics buying the Rashida Jones dramatic comedy "Celeste & Jesse Forever" and Focus Features acquiring rights to “For a Good Time, Call,” a raunchy phone sex comedy starring Ari Graynor.

PHOTOS: The scene at Sundance 2012

As for "Beasts," the movie features a range of non-actors in what critics have said is a moody and powerful look at a regional poverty; the film centers on a 6-year-old character named Hushpuppy who walks among feral animals in a poor part of the Louisiana bayou, fiercely devoted to her dying father.

The news comes after Searchlight on Monday picked up “The Surrogate,” Ben Lewin’s uplifting story about a middle-aged disabled man who hires a sex surrogate.

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--Steven Zeitchik

twtter.com/ZeitchikLAT

Photo: "Beasts of the Southern Wild." Credit: Sundance Film Festival


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