Day 1 (Thursday, January 17):
Have 12 months really elapsed since the last time we cavorted in Park City, Utah, for the Sundance Film Festival? A look at the calendar confirms it. And here we are again, movie critics, journalists, filmmakers, showbiz honchos, and regular ol’ movie lovers, all crammed into an affluent mountain town that is currently colder than the frozen tundras of hell.
Why do we do it? Because we love movies. Also, at least in my case, because someone is paying us. This year I’ve endeavored to spread myself as thin as possible by offering coverage to both of the major outlets I write for, Film.com and Cinematical. Officially I’m here on Film.com’s dime — that’s what it says on my press badge — so I guess it’s like I’m married to Film.com but openly cheating with Cinematical. Luckily, my spouse and mistress are both very understanding, and neither is particularly concerned about the quality of my performance. I’m sorry, I believe this metaphor has gotten away from me.
The first day of the festival consists only of a premiere screening in the evening, and so usually I ignore “Day 1” altogether. But this year they offered a press screening of the opening-night film to be held at the same time that the flick was unspooling at the public gala event across town. (Actually, I’m told they’ve been doing this opening-night press screening for several years and I just haven’t ever gone to it. WHATEVER.)
And so I arrived in Park City at around 5 p.m., with time enough to collect my press pass from festival headquarters, drop my stuff off at the Film.com condo, and complain bitterly that it is colder than usual. I think I make this observation every year, but I really do think the temperature is lower than it has been in years past. Are you a weather historian with access to hard data that can prove me wrong? Then shut up.
The Yarrow Hotel’s conference rooms constitute two of the three press-screening venues (and the third is just across the parking lot), so members of the press spend a lot of time there. To achieve maximum efficiency (read: laziness), several people I know are actually lodging in Yarrow hotel rooms. These include the Cinematical gang (of which my old pal Scott “The Angry Jew” Weinberg is one) and WGN Radio’s Erik Childress, with whom I also go way back. Staying at the Yarrow means almost never having the leave the hotel for any reason other than to acquire food.
The opening film was “In Bruges,” a dark, violent comedy from Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, whose work I love. This was probably the reason I took note of the previously ignored opening-night press screening; usually the opening-night film is something I’m at best marginally interested in. “In Bruges” stars Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson as hitmen who’ve been sent to the titular Belgian city to hide out after a whacking goes awry (and I think we’ve all been there); audacious, vulgar, un-P.C. hijinks ensue.
Afterward Erik, Scott, and I walked across the parking lot to the Albertsons supermarket, where the aisles were filled with festival-goers buying supplies for their hotel rooms like Floridians stocking up before a hurricane. They were dazed, disoriented (no one’s ever shopped in this particular store before), and confused by the local customs. “They don’t sell liquor here?” I heard one woman ask her companion, as if the idea of a grocery store not selling vodka was the very height of provincialism, and the idea of enduring a liquor-free film festival the height of absurdity.
I eventually made it back to the Film.com condo, just up the street from the Yarrow. It’s a pleasant three-bedroom rental being shared by me, fellow Film.com writer Amanda, and Film.com overlord Laremy and his wife. Having arrived last, I naturally was assigned the room containing not one sizable bed, but three very narrow beds. The others tried to make it sound like this was a positive thing, like maybe I could have slumber parties or something. I’ve slept in twin beds before, but these were smaller than twins. Were they triplets? Is there such a thing? Maybe they were European. Everything is smaller in Europe.
At any rate, after much jovial and good-natured conversation with my housemates, I retired for the night. I chose a bed at random but found it very uncomfortable. I wound up trying them all, Goldilocks-style: One was too lumpy, one was too lopsided, and one was juuuuust tolerable.
Day 2 (Friday, January 18):
I arose at 8 a.m., an early hour that readers of previous years’ diaries will recall is typical of the first day of the festival and much less typical of subsequent days. But this year we are being very diligent and professional and will arise by 8 a.m. every day! We are even referring to ourself in the plural, that is how professional we are.
First on the docket was a documentary I was very eager to see. It’s called “Stranded,” and it is the story of the Uruguayan rugby team whose plane crashed in the Andes Mountains in 1972. You probably remember this story because it involves cannibalism. I know that’s why I remember it. My whole life I thought it was a Chilean soccer team, not a Uruguayan rugby team, but you can bet I got the cannibalism part right.
The story has been told numerous times, including several fictionalized versions, but this is the first time the survivors have been interviewed themselves for a documentary. They tell the story in remarkable detail, and the filmmakers even take a few of them on a trip back to the site where it all happened. No doubt this was hilariously fun for everyone involved.
We got out of “Stranded” at around 11:10 a.m., by which time a long line was already forming for the 11:30 screening, which I had been planning to attend. But I was really hungry — so hungry I could eat a Uruguayan rugby player, as the old saying goes — and knew I could not obtain food and still get into the soon-to-be-packed 11:30 screening. So I skipped the movie and got lunch at Burger King, which is practically adjacent to the Yarrow and is the only fast food place within easy walking distance. It might as well be an official Sundance venue.
After lunch I used the Yarrow’s newly accessible wifi to do some work while sitting in the lobby. I recently retired the ancient laptop I’d been using at Sundance since 2001, a dilapidated steam-powered iBook that was so old it had been manufactured before the advent of the letter “J.” Now I have a newish iBook whose battery lasts longer than 10 minutes, so I no longer spend all my Sundance down time in search of an electrical outlet. This is a great luxury, and it will reduce the number of tedious outlet-searching anecdotes that used to fill these reports.
The next flick was at 2 p.m., a documentary called “Traces of the Trade,” in which descendants of what was once America’s most prolific slave-trading family retrace their forefathers’ misdeeds and find ways to assuage their guilt without actually, you know, doing anything. (I am oversimplifying the film’s content.) At one point very late in the film one of the family members worries that what they’re doing is self-indulgent, and many of us in the audience chuckled ruefully. White people are so lame.
Next I grabbed a snack at the concessions stand, which in previous years has had a sign that said “CONCESSION’S,” requiring me to stealthily remove the offending apostrophe. This year there is no sign at all, leading me to believe that they have given up on ever getting it right. I applaud their admission of failure.
There was a short recess before the next film, “Slingshot Hip Hop,” a documentary about Palestinian rap groups. Apparently there are a lot of them, all inspired by American hip hop artists like Tupac and Public Enemy. The struggle of Palestinian youths living in Israeli-occupied zones parallels the lives of black kids in American ghettoes in some ways, so you can see how the Arab rap trend would emerge. On the plus side, Palestinian rappers seldom talk about bling, nor do they advocate the sipping of Bacardi as if it were one’s birthday.
I had some time for dinner next; strangely, none of my usual Sundance pals were around, as they had chosen different screenings from me, maybe even intentionally so as to avoid spending time in darkened rooms with me. There is a Quizno’s up near the Burger King, and I think it’s brand-new this year, although you may recall that I also thought the long-standing opening-night press screening was brand-new, too. I am what they call an unreliable narrator. Anyway, I ate at Quizno’s, did some writing, then headed to the Holiday Village for another screening.
Holiday Village is an actual movie theater that Sundance invades and occupies each year. (I imagine the theater owners being tied up and locked in a closet for 10 days.) Three of the auditoriums are for public screenings, and the fourth is a press venue. It’s the only press venue with actual theater seats instead of uncomfortable hotel-conference-room chairs, so that’s nice.
The film was my fourth documentary of the day, “The Recruiter” (formerly known as “An American Soldier”). It follows the efforts of one of the U.S. Army’s top recruiters in a small Louisiana town; in the second half, it follows four of his proteges through basic training. The film raises some interesting questions about how our military finds soldiers, and the reasons people have for signing up, and the qualifications necessary. (Hint: It’s OK if you talk like a hillbilly. It’s also OK — perhaps even mandatory — to fight in Iraq while mispronouncing it “eye-rack,” a mistake even President Bush doesn’t make.)
Six National Guardsmen from this little town died in one attack in Iraq. At the memorial service, the recruiter expresses his condolences to the family of one of the soldiers — then tries to recruit the dead soldier’s little brother. I couldn’t decide whether this was patriotic and inspiring or tacky and appalling.
There’s also a lesbian white trash girl named Lauren who wants to join the Army as a means of going to college. She is disappointed when basic training isn’t what she expected. “I wanna learn about art,” she says. “I wanna learn histories, I wanna learn Englishes — I wanna get smart!” Yeah, good luck with that.
The first Friday of the festival is always a big night for parties, and Scott had made sure we were all invited to one in particular. It was sponsored by Magnolia Pictures in conjunction with a movie called “Timecrimes” that’s playing in the fest’s midnight series, and somehow Austin’s legendary Alamo Drafthouse theater was involved, too. The party was being held at a condo up in the hills. A taxi would be needed to get there. Even if you had a car in town, you wouldn’t know where the place was.
What I had temporarily forgotten was that Park City cab drivers don’t know where anything is either. A lot of them swarm in from other cities just for the festival, and they don’t know any more about Park City streets than the festival-goers do. Scott and Erik and I, plus a couple other Cinematical folks, piled into a taxi-van armed with Mapquest directions, then had to convince the driver that he had missed the turn onto the street where the condo was. The drive was 2.1 miles from the Yarrow; for this we paid $13, with no discount for having to provide our own navigation.
The party was a rager, packed with dozens and dozens of attractive young people, a lot of fantastic food courtesy of the Alamo’s chef, and free-flowing booze and karaoke (which enjoy a symbiotic relationship). Comedian David Wain and “Super Size Me” director Morgan Spurlock were there, but the presence of celebrities didn’t matter. Someone accidentally fell into the hot tub on the patio. The smell of marijuana hung heavily in the air. When the karaoke started, someone turned on a fog machine to add to the ambience. The fog quickly filled the huge, three-story condo and then, in a completely unforeseeable turn of events, set off the smoke alarm. The fire department responded by sending a truck and three firemen, who went from room to room making sure there was no actual fire, followed closely by a handful of trashy and flirtatious drunk girls who evidently believed they were living out a scene from a porno.
I am not built for heavy-duty partying, and I really wanted to catch tomorrow’s 9 a.m. press screening — of “Timecrimes,” actually, the very film we were celebrating. So at about 1:30 a.m. Erik and Cinematical’s Kim and I shared a taxi-van with two other party-goers (well, party-leavers, I guess) back down to our lodgings. This time I was so tired it didn’t matter which of my three beds I slept on.
Day 3 (Saturday, January 19):
Remember how I was up at 8 yesterday, and how you snidely predicted that would be the end of my early rising? Well, guess who didn’t get to bed until after 2 and still got up at 8 this morning! That’s right. Suck it, haters!
The reason for my ambitiousness was partly out of how professional and diligent I am, and partly because I wanted to see the movie about time travel and killing. It’s “Timecrimes,” a Spanish film written and directed by Nacho Vigalondo, who was at the party last night in his film’s honor, singing karaoke like a madman. I was particularly fond of his rendition of the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil,” in which he changed the lyric “nature of my game” to “nacho of my game.” The food at the party was nacho-based, too. This kind of thing probably happens a lot when your name is Nacho.
Speaking of the party, conversations about it were overheard on the shuttle bus today. It was the talk of the town! Apparently after we left, a squadron of tow trucks showed up to haul away the cars that people had parked in the neighboring condos’ driveways. Any party involving both the fire department and tow trucks is a success in my book.
Oh, and something else: While we were making our way to the party, there was a blackout on Main Street, plunging several parties and other events into darkness for a half hour or so. One of our pals today said that when the lights went out in the middle of their party, one of his colleagues said, “You guys, this is how ‘Cloverfield’ starts. I’m going back to the hotel.” And he fled, seemingly legitimately creeped out by the similarities. No monsters were reported on Main Street, however, unless you count Paris Hilton’s herpes sores, which are the size of buffalo.
But anyway. “Timecrimes.” Solid genre flick about a man who sees odd things in the woods near his house, goes to investigate, is terrorized by a spooky man in a bandaged face, and eventually travels through time. There are far too many hurt-your-brain paradoxes to be dealing with them at 9 in the morning, I’ll tell you that, but of course that’s not the movie’s fault.
Our next screening, over at the Holiday Village venue, was “Savage Grace,” a faux-arty, faux-sophisticated, faux-edgy piece of trash about a guy whose relationship with his mother is inappropriate. The movie is Oedipal, but it’s far from complex. I sat with Erik Childress and Cinematical Kim, and we all loathed it. Kim and I could scarcely speak of anything else immediately afterward, when we ate at the Chinese buffet that Kim likes but nobody else does. The food is OK, but drinks aren’t included, and by the time you’ve paid for the buffet and a drink and sales tax, you’re spending almost $11, which is way too much for a mediocre Chinese lunch. If this is how they do things in China, then it’s no wonder they’re in so much trouble. Killing all the non-male babies probably isn’t helping either.
Screening next was a film called “The Wackness,” starring Ben Kingsley and featuring one of the Olsen twins, either Mary Kate or Ashley, whichever one is anorexic and looks like a fish, but I needed some time to write. I repaired to Childress and Weinberg’s room at the Yarrow to work in peace and quiet while they were at the screening. They came back when it was over, ranting and raving about how much they hated it. Imagine their shock and horror later, standing in line for something else, when they heard other people speaking favorably of it! This became the source of much consternation for several minutes, and then we forgot about it.
Those two had already seen the next film on my schedule: “Diary of the Dead,” the latest zombie flick from acclaimed zombie master George Romero. As always, Romero has a great sense of humor, some cool ideas, and plenty of hammy, obvious dialogue. The concept in this one is that it’s the usual zombie outbreak, but from the perspective of college kids who document everything with video cameras. It’s almost the exact some format as “Cloverfield,” except that “Cloverfield” makes more realistic use of the gimmick. “Diary of the Dead” cheats a lot. Content-wise, though, it’s a fun zombie movie.
What was particularly fun for me was that I sat next to Jeff Vice, the film critic at Salt Lake City’s Deseret Morning News. I first started doing movie reviews in 1999 at a small paper in Utah, and Jeff was the one who helped me get the publicists’ contact info and generally showed me the ropes. I would guess I’ve watched at least 500 movies sitting right next to Jeff, and since he’s such a horror geek, “Diary of the Dead” made him as giddy as a zombie in a brain store.
A few minutes of downtime and then it was back into the screening room for “The Great Buck Howard,” starring Colin Hanks (Tom’s son) as a guy who becomes the road manager for a has-been magician/mentalist played by John Malkovich. Emily Blunt plays a publicist. Everyone seemed to enjoy the film, as the screening room was filled with sounds of laughter and merriment and Childress and Weinberg whispering about how hot Emily Blunt is pretty much every time she was on the screen. Is she lovely? Certainly. Is this a fact that needs to be restated constantly? I dare say not.
In a jovial mood after the lighthearted film, several of us headed over to Burger King next for some nourishment (if that is the right word) and conversation. The main topic: This particular Burger King’s inability to get people’s orders right. You ask for crispy chicken, you get grilled chicken. You say hold the tomatoes, tomatoes show up anyway, like slimy, unwelcome dinner guests. You expect some level of incompetence from fast food joints, but it’s disappointing when it’s the place that prides itself on letting you have it your way. And the church says amen.
We were all meeting up again at 10:30 for the last screening of the day, but in the meantime we had work to do. I knew I would be distracted if I tried to write in someone’s hotel room, so I chose the Yarrow lobby instead, with its fireplace and ample wifi. Unfortunately, seated next to me on the couch was a very friendly and chatty woman who said, “Oh, you’re a journalist writing your story?,” which means she knew what I was trying to do, yet she insisted on talking to me anyway. Under different circumstances, I’m sure I would have found her delightful and refreshing. Under these circumstances, I wanted to push her in the fireplace.
Kim said she saw Kirsten Dunst checking in to the Yarrow as we entered the lobby, but I was skeptical. Why would Kirsten Dunst stay at a dump like this? But as I was leaving again at 10:15, I saw Ms. Dunst with two of her people as they were getting into a cab. What surprised me is that while I don’t think she is good-looking at all in movies anymore (it didn’t help that she was so whiny in the last “Spider-Man”), she was very cute in person. Just adorable! And tiny, of course. All celebs are tiny.
The 10:30 screening was at Holiday Village (hooray for real theater seats!), and it was “The Merry Gentleman,” a title that bears no relation to the content of the film whatsoever. There are men in it, but no one that I’d call a “gentleman,” and no one is merry. Michael Keaton directed it and also stars as a taciturn, suicidal hitman who befriends a shy but optimistic Scottish girl played by Kelly Macdonald. There are some lovely things about the movie, but the story is slow-paced and doesn’t quite come together in the end.
As I exited the theater afterward, I found I had a text message from Laremy, my Film.com overlord. Remember how my bedroom at the condo had three beds in it even though there was only one of me? Well, Laremy had arranged a slumber party for me by allowing two guys to sleep in those other beds, and he was wondering which one (of the beds) I preferred for myself. By the time I called him back to find out who these strangers were and why he thought I wanted to share a bedroom with strangers, the strangers had already gone to bed — and sure enough, they had guessed wrong about my bed preference and had put one of the strangers in the comfortable one. Laremy said, “But I can wake him up and have him move if you want.” Did I take him up on this offer? Yes. Yes I did.
I got home to find a pair of refugees on the living room’s fold-out couch, and then the two aforementioned strangers occupying the two least comfortable beds in my room. Apparently Laremy had been busy making friends all day. He said he had warned the two I was rooming with about my legendary snoring and that they were fine with it. That’s what everyone always says. But do I still get woken up at 4 a.m. by someone walking over and punching my leg so I’ll roll over? Yes. Yes I do. Why they gotta be hatin’?
Day 4 (Sunday, January 20):
Three days in a row, people. This is unprecedented. I arose at 8 a.m. AGAIN today. I was the last one in bed last night and the first one up this morning. I am the most industrious person in the condo. I have never been in a group of people before in which I was the most industrious. What is going on here?
As I was getting ready to leave this morning, I chatted with the strangers who had slept in my bedroom. (The refugees on the fold-out couch were gone by the time I got out of the shower.) They’re documentary filmmakers who made a film called “10 mph” about a guy who rode a Segway across America. They were very nice. They gave me a DVD copy of the movie, proving once again that if you speak to an independent filmmaker in Park City for longer than five minutes, you will walk away owning a copy of his or her movie.
Perhaps as karma’s way of balancing out my awesomeness, today I started having chest pains whenever I exerted myself, e.g., by walking kind of fast or going up a slight incline. I thought it might be the high altitude, except that it’s never been a problem before. Is this nature’s way of telling me not to walk anywhere, ever, for anything? Or is it nature’s way of telling me not to eat at Burger King every day? Either way, I plan to continue ignoring nature, which has rarely been useful to me anyway.
My 9 a.m. film was “American Son,” starring Nick Cannon as a Marine with a 96-hour leave before being deployed to Iraq. You might not take Nick Cannon very seriously, and you’d be justified in feeling that way, but he has oodles of charisma. He’s actually very good in this role, with more depth than you’d expect. Also, “Nick Cannon” is a pretty cool name. It sounds like a private detective.
Speaking of cool names, the coolest name of any journalist covering the festival is this: Valentine Ding. I saw it on his press badge a couple years ago, and I saw him again today. I don’t know Mr. Ding, but if he ever Googles himself to see if people are commenting on how great his name is (I know I would), here’s another testimonial for him.
I took a shuttle bus over to Sundance headquarters at the Park City Marriott, the first time I’d had to make use of the system this year, what with the press-screening venues all in one place. I kind of miss taking the shuttles, actually. It’s time-consuming and inconvenient, and the bus drivers seem to choose their routes and schedules by some complicated calculus known only to them, but it’s fun to be out among the festival-goers, overhearing conversations and picking up tips on which movies to see or avoid. Also, people very frequently say things that are bizarre or hilarious, and that’s always a treat.
The reason for my visit to headquarters was to pick up some press kits for the movies I’d seen, and thereafter to walk to the nearby Grub Steak Restaurant, site of the Outfest Queer Brunch. This is an event held every year, sponsored by one of the gay cable channels — Logo, or Here, or Bravo, I don’t know — for the purpose of … um … having brunch, I guess. I don’t know. The gays invented brunch, so that part makes sense. I’d never had any interest in going before, and continued not to have interest this year, except that Kim had said it would be super-fun if I went with her, and I thought it might be an amusing experience. Then Kim bailed out and sent someone in her place, and also told us we had to “cover it,” i.e., do work instead of just eat brunch. It was a total bait-and-switch.
In her place was Erik Davis, Cinematical overlord and native of Queens, New York, a fact which produced fodder for several puns that never made it out of my mouth. We met up at the restaurant and were admitted into the queer brunch. The brunch itself wasn’t particularly gay — your basic scrambled eggs, bacon, fried potatoes, and so forth — but they did make sure to have an open bar and dance music playing at an unreasonable volume. There was an actual DJ spinning the tunes. Only the gays would hire a DJ to play breakfast.
The place was packed, with everyone sitting at long banquet tables with very little room between them. The music was so loud, and the space so crowded, that conversation or mingling wasn’t really feasible. It was like going to a dance club, with the added awkwardness of trying to navigate with a plate of food in your hands.
The funny part was that we’d gotten an e-mail reminder the day before, and the e-mail included a list of celebrities who were “confirmed” to be attending. These included Paris Hilton, Winona Ryder, Quentin Tarantino, Kirsten Dunst, Sharon Stone, Sean Combs, Dennis Quaid, Ellen Page, Hugh Dancy, Wes Bentley, Nick Cannon, Ray Romano, Nick Stahl, John Foster, Saffron Burrows, and Reichen Lehmkuhl. In actual fact, the only one who showed up was Reichen, who I guess was on “The Amazing Race” and was subsequently famous for being Lance Bass’ first post-coming-out boyfriend. I don’t consider reality show contestants to be celebrities any more than I consider people who get arrested on “Cops” to be celebrities, so it turns out there were zero celebrities there.
If you cover Sundance, you get a lot of e-mails like that, where various famous people are “confirmed” to be attending, which of course is a ploy to get YOU to attend. But think about it: Celebrities do whatever they want, whenever they want. You think Paris Hilton was like, “Yes! I definitely want to attend the crowded queer brunch and be wedged into a restaurant with hundreds of strangers!”? Please. The only thing “confirmed” about Paris Hilton is that they’re naming a new venereal disease after her (“Hepatitis P”). All “confirmed” means is that the stars’ publicists RSVP’d to every invitation they got, and the stars could show up to all or none of them.
I will say this for the queer brunch, though: The food was good, free, and did not come from Burger King.
Next I headed back to the Yarrow for a screening of “Just Another Love Story,” which the catalog suggested was a Danish film noir. Danish film noir! That is something you don’t see every day. Unless you get the obscure Danish Film Noir satellite TV channel, I mean. It’s a visually interesting movie about a married man who stumbles into a situation where he’s pretending to be the boyfriend of a blind amnesiac car-accident victim. I enjoyed it up until the last 20 minutes or so, where it went over-the-top with strange twists and revelations. But hey, Danish film noir.
An irksome element was that the catalog declared the film to be 90 minutes long when in fact it’s around 105. I’m starting to realize that if the book says “90 minutes,” that means they don’t know and they’re guessing. Or maybe “90 minutes” is the default value in the template they use when they prepare the film listings, and if the filmmaker doesn’t provide them with the actual time they just leave it. You can trust odd times like 88 minutes or 97 minutes, but if it says 90 minutes, forget it. It could be anything.
Also irksome: the jackholes sitting behind me who kept talking during the movie. They were speaking either Spanish or Italian, I couldn’t make out which. These guys were not press; they were “industry,” meaning they work in the movie business in some capacity that does not require them to exercise common courtesy or professionalism. (In other words: They work in the movie business.)
We had a big problem last year with people using their BlackBerrys during screenings, but that epidemic has died down considerably this year. Oh sure, there’s still the occasional industry type (it’s rarely a critic or journalist) who has to check his BlackBerry every two minutes, lighting up the theater as he does so. But for the most part, the novelty of the BlackBerry has worn off and people are behaving themselves.
Next up was “Sleep Dealer,” a futuristic sci-fi film from Mexico. Of course, coming from Mexico, “futuristic” could just mean they have running water. (ZING!) But I kid Mexico. I sure wanted to like the film, which has some very clever sci-fi ideas, but it’s slow and not very well executed.
In the 7:30 p.m. slot, Weinberg, Kim, and I joined up for “The Broken,” a horror movie where a lady sees her Doppelganger and then scary stuff happens. Scary stuff beyond seeing her Doppelganger, I mean. I think I liked it, but I was kind of dozy and I’m not sure I caught the full effect of it. It sure made Kim jump and squeal like a schoolgirl, though.
The best part was that while the book said it was 110 minutes, the actual running time was 88. They announced this beforehand, and the screening room burst into applause. See? I’m not the only one.
Speaking of Kim and Weinberg, there were more developments today concerning movies they saw on previous days. First of all, Kim said the more she thinks about “Savage Grace,” the more it grows on her. (I had the opposite reaction: The more I think about it, the more I want to push it in the fireplace.) And Weinberg’s negative review of “The Wackness” continued to draw incredulous responses from people who loved it. I decided I need to get in to a public screening of it sometime this week so I can see where I stand on this hot-button issue.
“The Broken” was it for me. Though it was barely 9 p.m., I had plenty of writing to do, and none of the late screenings particularly interested me anyway. I picked up my daily supply of Burger King and walked back up to the condo, munching on fries and wondering what it would sound like if my heart literally exploded. I think my ribcage would muffle the sound, and that’s a shame.
Day 5 (Monday, January 21):
My Ripken-like streak of arising at 8 a.m. continued today, and get this: I didn’t have to be at a movie until 11:30. I used the time to write and to visit headquarters to request a ticket to a public screening tomorrow night.
We got our first really bad weather today. It snowed all night and continued to snow off and on throughout the day, making everything slushy and wet. This almost led to an unpleasant incident on my walk to the Yarrow when a couple was on the sidewalk in front of me was walking really slowly and arm-in-arm, preventing me from getting around them. It is unwise to raise my ire first thing in the morning.
While waiting for the shuttle bus to take me to headquarters, whom should I run into but Patrick Hubley, the world’s friendliest Canadian. Patrick used to be the head press officer for Sundance, so I used to see him frequently before and during the festival, always unfailing nice, helpful, and energetic, no matter how stupid my questions were. This year he’s here just as an audience member, which means he’s able to actually watch and enjoy the films instead of dealing with minor crises 24 hours a day. It was very good to see him.
On our shuttle bus was Rachel Dratch, formerly of “Saturday Night Live.” She was sitting across from me with a friend. I didn’t want to make a big public scene, so I waited until I was getting off and then tapped her on the shoulder and said, “You, I love. You’re so funny.” She said, “Oh, thank you!” and that was the end of our correspondence. She seemed nice. I don’t know why I said “You, I love” instead of “I love you.” Maybe it seemed less intimate.
I took care of my business at headquarters and hustled back to the Holiday Village for an 11:30 screening of “Sunshine Cleaning.” The thing about the Holiday Village venue is that they always choose the least efficient way of doing things. Maybe it’s a game between them and the other venues. At the Yarrow screening rooms, they’ll have a volunteer at the door writing down your name and who you work for. (The films’ publicists want this information, and the festival also likes to keep track of which press and industry people go to which screenings.) Sometimes they have two volunteers working simultaneously, to make the line move twice as fast.
But at the Holiday Village, they have you sign in yourself. The volunteer just sits there at a table and says, “Write your name and your outlet here on the paper.” The line moves slowly — and if the line is longer than about four people, it no longer fits in the little lobby area and you have to stand outside. There’s a word for this kind of scenario, and it starts with “cluster.”
That’s how it was today. The line was about 30 people deep, and we were out in the snow, hardly moving at all. Finally, at 11:20, I was about 10th in line when a Sundance worker came out of the theater and announced there were no seats left, sorry. They didn’t even go outside to tell the rest of the line. I guess they assumed those of us who had been within earshot would pass the word along.
Over at the Yarrow, there was something else starting at 11:30, and I decided this could fill my “I don’t know what this movie is, but I have nothing else to do right now so I might as well watch it” slot. I get at least one of those every year. I got to the screening room (the smaller of the two Yarrow venues) just as they stopped letting people in so they could count the number of empty seats. I was first in what quickly became a line of about 15 people.
While we were standing there waiting, someone from a major entertainment news publication came hurrying up, also seeking admittance. He saw there was a line and that space was tight. He found the film’s publicist, gave his name and the publication he worked for, and said — right there in front of those of us waiting our turn — “Can you facilitate?” Meaning: “Can you help me get in regardless of whether anyone else does?” The publicist, much to his credit, said it was up to the fest volunteers who run the screenings. They certainly weren’t going to play favorites.
The guy went to the back of the line. I don’t know if he got in to the screening, but I hope he didn’t. I mean, if he had taken the publicist aside and privately asked him to work his mojo, that would be one thing. But to do it right in front of everyone, like his needs were more important than everyone else’s, that’s just crass. Some Hollywood reporter he is.
The movie was “M?°ncora,” a Peruvian drama about a young man trying to figure out what to do with his life. In the end he discovers that you can’t run away from your problems, which is a pretty original and innovative thing for a movie to be about.
Next up, in the other Yarrow theater, was a film called “Phoebe in Wonderland.” I was near the end of the line when a woman hurried to join it and said, “Is this the line for ‘Phoebe’?” Only she pronounced it “Foe-bee.” “Is this the line for ‘Foe-bee’?” I said to whoever was next to me, “Ten season of ‘Friends’ and someone is still unfamiliar with the name Phoebe?”
“Foe-bee in Wonderland” is an excellent dramatic comedy about a peculiar little girl who’s rather obsessive-compulsive except when she’s rehearsing for her school play, “Alice in Wonderland,” where she behaves pretty normally. It’s a very lovely and warmhearted story about the power of words and labels, about parenting, and about over-zealous school systems that try to stifle all the childishness out of children. Phoebe is played by Elle Fanning, sister of Dakota Fanning, who was at Sundance last year getting raped in “Hounddog,” a movie that has not been heard from since. I suspect “Phoebe” is going to go a lot further.
I had a break next, so Weinberg, Kim, and I walked across the parking lot to Used To Be A Burrito Place. I don’t remember the real name of it. I only know it used to be a burrito place and that, as of last year, it’s now a really good pizza, pasta, and sandwich place.
They had a sign posted above the counter indicating that they make their food “with love,” that it’s not “fast food,” and that if you’re in a big hurry you’re in the wrong place. We loved the sentiment. The funny part is that they didn’t put the sign up especially for Sundance — the woman at the counter said it went up weeks ago, for the locals. I was hoping the pushy guy who tried to butt in line at the “M?°ncora” screening would show up and demand some pizza really, really fast, but alas.
Our next film was one I’d been looking forward to, “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh,” based on Michael Chabon’s first novel. Chabon is one of my very favorite writers, and while “Mysteries” isn’t his best book, it’s certainly worthwhile. This screening was packed, too, and Weinberg and I wound up in the very front row. Luckily, they set these screening rooms up so that the front row isn’t ridiculously close to the screen, and viewing the film wasn’t uncomfortable.
Well, except for the fact that it wasn’t any good. Weinberg started a new game during it, where we write notes to each other rather than whisper snide remarks¬©. At a point where the main character was about to be injured, only to be saved when his friend Cleveland — who had been absent for weeks — suddenly appeared, I wrote to Weinberg: “DEUS EX CLEVELAND.” When you hang out with me, you get to experience awesome jokes like that all the time.
We had only moments to get from “Mysteries” to our final film of the day, “Downloading Nancy.” I was anticipating it because someone had said it was awful, while someone else said it was difficult to watch but nonetheless praiseworthy. Finally, something that would spark strong feelings one way or the other!
The movie is about an effed-up woman who was sexually abused by her uncle when she was young and now wants to be abused by her sexual partners as an adult. She goes to meet a guy she met on the Internet expressly for that purpose, while her cold-fish husband waits at home and worries (sort of).
I am pleased to report that “Downloading Nancy” is the Worst Film of the Festival (so far). It is singularly ugly, loathsome, vile, and unpleasant. There are no characters in the film for us to like, relate to, sympathize with, or root for — or even anyone who seems like he or she is SUPPOSED to inspire such a reaction. While enduring the film, I imagined what a public screening must be like, particularly the Q-and-A afterward. I imagined asking the director this question: Considering how much time, energy, and money it takes to make a film, why would you go to all that trouble just to make something so ugly?
We stood around and ranted about it for a while, then got hungry and wandered over to Albertsons to look for food before finally ordering pizza from Dominos. With our Cinematical pals Erik Davis and James Rocchi offering their Yarrow hotel room as headquarters, Weinberg, Kim, and I joined them in eating and reveling until it was late at night and I had to get back to the condo before I fell asleep. The other Film.com folks had left, and the strangers were gone, so I had the place to myself, to sleep in whichever bed I chose! I was very excited to take advantage of this.
Day 6 (Tuesday, January 22):
I know a lot of readers are dying to know whether I got up early again today, bringing my streak of professionalism and efficiency to six days. The answer is that I got up at 9 a.m. I grant you that some people don’t consider 9 a.m. to be “early,” but in my defense, those people can eat me.
First on my agenda, naturally, was to hop on the ol’ Interwebs to see the Oscar nominations. The Academy changed its schedule a few years ago, moving the nominations up so that now they’re always announced during Sundance. It’s a way of making entertainment journalists’ heads explode from trying to cover two major stories at once. Before the day was over, many of those heads would explode a second time.
My first screening of the day was “Towelhead,” the directorial debut of Alan Ball, who wrote “American Beauty” and created HBO’s “Six Feet Under.” I was surprised to learn that “Towelhead” was based on someone else’s novel, as the subject matter seems very Alan Ball-ish, dealing once again with suburban hypocrisy and treachery.
It’s about a 13-year-old Lebanese-American girl who starts to experience her sexual awakening in the midst of the Gulf War (hence the title, a slur she has thrown at her several times). Most of the adults in her life are immature and petty, and her strict father won’t talk to her about private matters. He won’t even let her wear tampons, which he says “are for married women.” That seems crazy to me, but hey, I’m not Lebanese.
I really liked the film. It has some troubling and potentially controversial elements, yet at no point did I feel like Ball was doing it solely for the sake of being shocking. It’s not exploitative in the least, putting it in direct contrast to “Downloading Nancy,” which IS shocking just for the sake of being shocking.
We exited that screening at the Yarrow and immediately found ourselves in line for the next one, a documentary called “Where in the World Is Osama Bin Laden?” This was a hot-ticket item, not just because of the subject, but because it’s from Morgan Spurlock, whose “Super Size Me” was a sensation when it premiered at Sundance in 2004. Everyone was dying to know if Spurlock had managed to do what the U.S. government clearly stopped trying to do long ago: find the world’s most wanted criminal.
As it turns out, that’s not really the point. The title and the first several minutes of the movie are kind of a bait-and-switch. Instead, the movie — which is mightily entertaining as well as informative — is a crash course in Middle East politics and religious conflicts. Spurlock goes from place to place, talking to regular people and trying to determine the roots of extremism. He hears frequently that Middle Easterners love Americans but hate America’s foreign policies. They also hate Bin Laden and everything he stands for. They hate that he gives real Muslims a bad name.
I was sitting next to Childress. About five minutes before it ended, he nudged me and showed me a text message he’d gotten on his phone. He was naughty for looking at his text messages during a screening, of course, but he told me later he’d gotten a series of calls and texts in quick succession, and he was worried that there was a family emergency or something.
The text message he showed me said this: “Heath Ledger is dead.”
When the film ended a few minutes later and everyone spilled out into the halls of the Yarrow, the news was already spreading like wildfire. Other people had gotten similar text messages. Journalists were whipping out their laptops to go online and see what details were available. It was all anyone talked about for the rest of the day.
I was heading to press headquarters to do some business and get some writing done. People on the shuttle bus were starting to hear the news, and false details were spreading at the usual astonishing pace. Kim from Cinematical called me to see if I wanted to contribute a few lines to the “in memoriam” post they were assembling. The TV in the press lounge, usually tuned to the Sundance Channel, was on CNN instead, where the mainstream news media once again demonstrated that being accurate isn’t nearly as important as being first.
Of course, things at Sundance continued as scheduled. In this case, that meant hustling back to the Yarrow for another in-demand screening, “Choke,” about a sex addict who works at a cheesy “colonial village” tourist trap and in his spare time pretends to choke on food at restaurants so that someone can save his life and feel like a hero. One minute you’re mourning the death of Heath Ledger, the next minute you’re watching a movie in which Sam Rockwell believes he might literally be the offspring of Jesus. Film festivals can be very surreal like that.
“Choke” is based on a book by Chuck Palahniuk, one of my favorite authors. I was glad that the previous night’s disappointment over a poor adaptation (of Michael Chabon’s “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh”) was not repeated. “Choke” captures much of the lunacy of Palahniuk’s book, and Palahniuk has been in town to support the film. I would love to meet him. Of course, we both live in Portland, so it would be weird if I had to go to Utah to run into him. But I don’t know where he lives in Portland. Maybe I should find out and just show up at his house one day. Surely the man who wrote “Fight Club” would appreciate the inappropriateness of such an action.
I had a ticket for a public screening of “Be Kind Rewind” next, but everyone who has seen it has said it’s “good, not great,” often in those exact words. I’d have gone anyway if it hadn’t been for the fact that it conflicted with a press screening of “Sugar,” the new film from the people who made “Half Nelson” a couple years ago. I’d heard very good things about this, and “Half Nelson” was an excellent film, so I skipped “Be Kind Rewind” and did “Sugar” instead.
I’m glad I made the switch. It’s not a brilliant movie, but it is a very nice one, about a kid from the Dominican Republic who comes to America to play professional baseball. The story definitely does not follow the trajectory you’d expect. Also, even though it is about baseball, it is not slow or boring, nor are there commercials every three minutes.
It was about 11:30 p.m. when the screening ended, but more merriment was yet in store. Weinberg had procured DVD screeners of several films playing at Slamdance, Sundance’s goofier, weed-smoking cousin, so a few of us gathered in someone’s hotel room to watch “Paranormal Activity.” It’s about a couple who set up cameras to try to capture the weird stuff that’s been happening at night in their house; bad things happen; terror occurs.
The movie’s pretty scary, actually, or at least the parts I was awake for seemed to be. When it was over I was semi-conscious and was permitted to sleep on the extra bed in whoever’s room it was. It was not the first time I’d fallen into a coma in a strange hotel room, nor will it probably be the last.
Day 7 (Wednesday, January 23):
You’ll be glad to know that the chest pains I was having a couple days ago have subsided. Now if I exert myself slightly I just get a little light-headed, like maybe I’m going to pass out, except I don’t pass out. This is definitely an improvement, as chest pains are painful (duh) while light-headedness is kind of fun. It’s how Paris Hilton feels all the time, only without the lesions.
I got up at 8:45 this morning (DAY SEVEN OF EARLY ARISING!) and headed straight for the Yarrow lobby, where I made with the clickety-clack on the laptop for a while. This was necessary because apparently my various employers actually want me to write things for them.
My first screening was at 11:30 a.m., the premiere of the new version of “Funny Games.” The 1997 original is a love-it-or-hate-it German terror flick about a home invasion. The new one is almost a shot-for-shot remake, made by the same writer/director, Michael Haneke. The only conceivable reason for it is simply to have it in English, which is more marketable than German.
Not that it’s very marketable anyway. This is an intense, uncomfortable film with some disturbing violence (though most of it happens off-camera). Personally, I love it. Haneke’s a very, very talented filmmaker. The discomfort, for me, is the fun kind. Maybe it’s because the movie has a slightly playful tone to it — creepily playful, but playful nonetheless.
It was about 1:20 when we got out, and I needed to get to the Racquet Club for a 2:30 public screening of “The Wackness.” You’ll recall that this film has been the source of much discussion this week due to the fact that many people love it and a few vocal others dislike it immensely. Thus far the world had been deprived of MY opinion, and it was time I remedied that. Untold millions were wandering in darkness!!
This was to be my first public screening of the festival. They prefer to keep members of the press quarantined in press screenings, but it is possible to get public tickets on a case-by-case basis. I like to do a few public screenings here and there, just to be out among regular people and eavesdrop on their phone conversations. I was not disappointed. While in line waiting to get in, the woman next to me was on the phone describing a movie playing at the fest called “Donkey Punch,” and she found it necessary to explain what a “donkey punch” is. It’s a mythical sex act, and if you aren’t already acquainted with the term, I urge you not to Google it.
For some reason they’re persnickety about food and beverage in the Racquet Club screening venue. They’ll sell it at a booth in the waiting area, at prices that have literally made me laugh out loud in the past, but when you actually get into the building there are volunteers telling you that you can’t bring it in. Savvy Sundance veterans such as myself have thus learned to smuggle food and beverage in our backpacks and eat it surreptitiously when the volunteers aren’t looking. And that is how I was able to eat a Whopper while waiting for “The Wackness” to start.
(Side anecdote: At public screenings they give you little ballots so you can score the movie afterward, and that’s how the audience awards are determined. So right before the movie starts, there’s a card on the screen that says, “Don’t forget to vote!” When it appeared, someone yelled, “Obama!,” and there was much laughter and applause. If he had yelled “Huckabee!,” I suspect there would also have been laughter, but a different kind.)
So. “The Wackness.” It’s about a young man who has just graduated and doesn’t know what to do with his life. I know! The innovation is astounding. The element that makes the film ever-so-slightly different from the 13,827,356 other indie films with that premise is that it’s set in New York in 1994, and the main character is a white, rap-loving marijuana dealer who trades weed for therapy sessions with a psychiatrist played by Ben Kingsley. The kid himself is played by Josh Peck, of Nickelodeon’s “Drake & Josh” show, doing his part to break into more “adult” roles, i.e., roles that involve doing drugs and showing his butt.
It’s a C or C+ movie. I don’t understand loving it and I don’t understand hating it. A few laughs, a memorable character or two, and a lot of padding. The book says 110 minutes; it’s really more like 100; even that is too long. My feeling is that if your movie doesn’t really have a point, you should get to it as quickly as possible.
I managed to catch a shuttle just seconds after exiting the venue and headed back to Holiday Village for a press screening of a comedy called “Adventures of Power.” Much of the usual gang was there: Childress, Weinberg, friends from Film Threat and Slash Film, and others. We chatted and laughed and had a good time, up until the movie started. Then the laughter died.
I endured about 20 minutes before I decided there was no point in continuing and I left. It’s a transparent “Napoleon Dynamite” wannabe, complete with nerdy main character who doesn’t realize he’s a joke, who wears a headband and a fanny pack to convey to us how hilariously out-of-touch he is. The guy’s claim to fame is that he’s great at playing air drums along with cheesy ’80s rock songs. That is the movie’s joke. Its one joke. Childress and Weinberg walked out on it later than I did, reporting that it never got any better. A pox on it.
‘Twas dinnertime next. Weinberg, Kim, and I headed across the parking lot to Used To Be A Burrito Place, where chicken parmesan and chicken marsala (which smelled a lot like dog butt, no joke, but Kim said it was delicious) were consumed. And then Weinberg and I had to go watch a movie about biker gangs.
“Hell Ride” was executive produced by Quentin Tarantino. He didn’t write or direct it, but it’s clear that Larry Bishop, who did, has memorized everything Tarantino has ever done. It fits with the grindhouse cinema du crap experience that Tarantino and his pals are so fond of, being about two rival biker gangs who, like, track each other down and shoot each other a lot. Its dialogue is hyper-aware and over-written. It’s either a commentary on bad biker movies or possibly just a bad biker movie. Weinberg wrote me this note during it: “Bad on purpose is still bad.” He hated hated HATED the movie; I found elements of it kind of fun, particularly its visual style. But yeah, not a very enjoyable movie.
It was preceded by a short. Shorts are Sundance’s way of saying, “Here’s your last chance to go to the bathroom before the movie starts.” This one, “The Rambler,” looked like a ’70s low-budget hitchhiker flick. I missed a few minutes of it while I was in the bathroom, but I got back in time to see the hitchhiker in the basement of someone’s house, having sex with a woman who then proceeded to vomit all over him. It was colorful vomit, not realistic at all, and it just kept coming. Buckets of it, over and over again. It was supposed to be funny, and it was, and on a whole the short was one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen in my life. And as a nine-year Sundance veteran, that’s saying a lot.
The night ended with me and the Cinematical crew and Childress all hanging out in Kim’s hotel room, eating and talking and yelling about movies. It was fun, a simple pleasure that people like me look forward to at film festivals. Festivals are like a support group for movie addicts, except that we enable each other instead of trying to quit. This group meeting last until 3 a.m., and ended then only because someone looked at the clock and emitted an expression of great shock and horror, which is probably how a lot of support groups end.
Day 8 (Thursday, January 24):
I’m not even going to brag anymore. I was up at 8:45 a.m. I’ve successfully gotten up at a reasonable hour every day of the festival. I have not overslept and missed anything I was supposed to see. It is a major victory for me in the ongoing battle between me and myself. I will win this war yet! I will not allow myself to triumph!
The weather continued to be lousy today. In years past we’ve generally lucked out and had maybe one day of snow during Sundance, while the remaining days were clear (though still cold). But this year it’s snowed at least a little bit almost every day. IT IS ANNOYING. I intend to register a complaint with Robert Redford, if I can find the hollow tree he lives in.
It was a light day, movie-wise. Several of the press screenings were for films I simply had no interest in seeing — documentaries about lint, or angsty German dramas about bored housewives, that sort of thing. I also needed a good, long chunk of time to write. It’s hard to get anything done when you’re doing it in half-hour spurts. By the time you find a place to sit down, get out your laptop, connect to the wifi, check your e-mail, get up to go to the bathroom, grab a snack from the concessions stand, chat with whichever pal you run into, and complain about the weather, it’s almost time to pack it up and go to the next screening. So I needed some real time to do some real work.
But first was a screening of “Donkey Punch,” mentioned in a previous entry. The title is an attention-getter; the movie itself is only so-so. It’s a thriller about three English chicks who hook up with four guys while on vacation, and the seven of them go out on a yacht to party, and someone accidentally gets killed, and then panic and paranoia set in. I’d say the major selling point is that the mythical “donkey punch” actually figures in to the plot. The lesson of the film is that you should not do Ecstasy and meth while at sea with guys you just met, which is one of those lessons that really shouldn’t have to be spelled out.
For me, the most enjoyable thing about “Donkey Punch” was telling people I was seeing it. “Sorry, I can’t join you — I have an 11 o’clock donkey punch.” “Is this the line for the donkey punch?” “Hi, I’m here for my donkey punch.” Also playing the fest is a film called “Good Dick,” which inspires similarly hilarious double-entrendre. Don’t pretend you’re not amused.
After our “Donkey Punch,” Renshaw and I headed over to Burger King for lunch. One of the things we discussed was how we hadn’t looooved anything at the festival yet. Liked a lot? Sure. But we hadn’t been blown away. Is it too much to ask, after “Donkey Punch,” to also be blown away?!
Now it was time for me to set up shop in the Yarrow lobby and get some work done. I sat at the table, which is much more conducive to writing than sitting on the couch with my laptop balanced on my lap. (I don’t care what it’s called, my laptop belongs on a table.) I got down to business, hammering out reviews and stuff, pausing only occasionally to chat with other members of the press as they passed by, and also to eat half a box of Cheez-Its that I had fetched from my car. (Cheez-Its are very helpful in the writing process, and somewhat healthier than what a colleague of mine uses: a thermos of coffee and bourbon, which he calls “genius juice.”)
Tom Arnold walked by a couple times while I was writing, but I couldn’t muster much enthusiasm for that. I might not even mention it in this diary.
Somewhat more interesting was that one of the kids from “The Recruiter” — the doc about an Army recruiter in a small Louisiana town — was hanging around the lobby, evidently waiting for a ride. He was the one in the movie who had displayed the most proficiency in basic training. The film’s “where are they now?” cards at the end said he was doing well with the Army and working in an “undisclosed location.” Apparently that location is the Yarrow Hotel. Don’t tell anyone!
It had been snowing lightly most of the day, but at around 4 p.m. it started to come down like the proverbial mofo, the wind blowing so hard that the snow was falling sideways. The Yarrow lobby is generally cold anyway because the doors are always opening and closing, but it was extra-cold today because the fireplace wasn’t lit. Someone asked why and was told that it was “broken.” How can a fireplace be “broken”? It’s a hole in the wall. You put wood in it, and then you light the wood on fire. Calling a fireplace “broken” is like saying your carpet doesn’t work.
Then we found out it’s a gas fireplace. There was something wrong with the gas line. That made more sense, and I deleted all that stuff I just said.
Cinematical Kim wanted some of us to go to dinner at Squatters, a brew-pub down the street. She and I and Cinematical boss Erik Davis met up with James Rocchi there, along with a friend of Kim’s who was in town for a visit. It was nice to sit down in an actual restaurant and have someone bring food to us, rather than telling the lady at Burger King what I wanted and waiting for some teenagers in the back to make it for me.
Just before leaving the Yarrow we saw something astonishing: The new issue of Entertainment Weekly was sitting on a table, and it had Heath Ledger’s face on the cover. He died Tuesday afternoon. This was Thursday evening. How in the world did they throw a tribute together so fast? From a purely logistical standpoint it was amazing. They must have called staffers back into the office Tuesday evening and worked feverishly into the night. Surely the magazine must go to press Wednesday afternoon at the latest, to be in people’s mailboxes and on the newsstands Friday. (EW is a sponsor of Sundance, so we get the new issues hot off the presses Thursday night.) I was very impressed.
I also felt bad for Brad Renfro, who died a few days earlier and was relegated to a little paragraph inside the magazine. You were no Heath Ledger, Brad Renfro.
The snow had stopped falling by the time we were done with dinner, and we trudged back to the Yarrow. I had a 7:30 screening of “Baghead,” from the guys who made “Puffy Chair” a couple years ago. They call this genre of movie “mumblecore”: hipsters in their 20s, semi-improvised dialogue, hand-held cameras and cheap lighting, wry humor, slacker characters, and so forth. “Baghead” sort of spoofs the mumblecore thing, as well as independent film in general. It’s fun and sweet.
My last film of the day was to be a 10 p.m. screening of “American Teen.” It’s a documentary that follows the lives of a few high school students in their senior year. I’d heard it was great, and I knew Paramount Vantage had already bought it, but the description sounded too much like those shallow TV “reality” shows that follow teens around. I hate those snotty kids and those awful shows, and so “American Teen” didn’t really appeal to me. Still, everyone kept saying it was great. I might as well give it a try.
And guess what? I found a film to love. “American Teen” is nothing like “Laguna Beach” or “The Hills” or any of those other stupid TV series. Its characters are normal Indiana high school kids — a jock, a queen bee, a band geek, a misfit, and so on — and the film captures all the drama and passion of adolescence. This is often said of really good documentaries, but it’s true: “American Teen” is more compelling and enjoyable than most fictional films. I laughed and cried and was completely swept away by these kids’ everyday stories.
Still on the high of finding a new gem of a movie, I met Kim in the Yarrow lobby. Weinberg, Childress, and Davis had all departed for home at various points during the day. Kim and I found Rocchi in the Yarrow bar and hung out there for a while. It was crowded and noisy. Over in the corner I recognized former New York Times film critic Elvis Mitchell sitting at a table having a lively discussion with someone. That someone? Quentin Tarantino.
Now, I’m not a fanboy. I haven’t loved everything Tarantino has made, and I do blame him for reviving John Travolta’s career, a deed that now seems like an act of terrorism. But come on: It’s Quentin Tarantino. He inspired a whole generation of filmmakers, and while many of their efforts have been derivative and uninspired, at least they were inspired to make movies. Plenty of good movies have come from the post-Tarantino mindset, too.
Unfortunately, there was no way for me to talk to him. He and Elvis Mitchell were having an animated conversation (the only kind QT knows how to have, I think), and I would be interrupting — interrupting just to say, “Hi! Me fan, me like movies, you make good things!” I opted to spare him the indignity and instead tried to overhear what they were talking about. I was unsuccessful. The bar was too loud. And when you’re loud enough to drown out Quentin Tarantino, well, pat yourself on the back.
Day 9 (Friday, January 25):
The guys from Film Threat were kind enough to let me stay at their condo last night, as most of their crew had gone home. I felt safe despite their publication’s ominous title. Film Threat? What about Film Promise? That would be so much more pleasant.
After getting up at 8:30, showering, stumbling around half-asleep, going outside, going back inside, putting clothes on, and going outside again, I gave the Film Threat guys a lift down to the Yarrow. One of my favorite secrets about Sundance used to be that the Yarrow Hotel didn’t care if you parked there. This was in stark contrast to every other business in Park City, which will tow your sorry butt within seconds if you’re not actually a customer. Everyone assumed the Yarrow had the same policy, so no one parked there, so there was always plenty of space for me.
Anyway, last year the Yarrow jumped on the bandwagon and started blocking off their parking lot — unless you paid $20 to park there. I thought it was the end of an era. But this year it’s open again, and I’ve been parking there the last few days, even overnight. Please do not tell anyone, though, as I want this to remain my little secret.
I actually didn’t have a screening until 1:30, so I spent a few hours in the Yarrow lobby (the fireplace was fixed now) writing and such. At about 11 a.m., a young man of about 22, apparently a guest of the hotel, emerged from his room and began shouting to everyone within earshot — which included a lot of people, since he was shouting — that he was drunk. He was drunk and happy and very, very friendly. His friends tried to keep him under control, but they soon gave up and let him wander the lobby, being drunk. I asked him, “Are you drunk already today, or still drunk from last night?” Either way, it is quite impressive to be drunk at 11 a.m. He said it was left over from last night. He also said he had vomited in the fireplace, but I don’t think that was true. On the other hand, why would you make up something like that?
My first film of the day was “Hamlet 2,” in which Steve Coogan plays a washed-up-actor-turned-high-school-drama-teacher who stages a sequel to the famous tragedy as a means of addressing his own issues with his father. It’s a very funny movie, albeit a little uneven, with a tone that reminds me of “Waiting for Guffman,” “South Park,” and even “The Office” (the Coogan character is frequently as awkward as Michael Scott).
The movie is a Sundance curiosity. It was added to the schedule so late that it doesn’t even appear in the printed film guide, something I don’t remember ever happening before. And then it was the first film bought — by Focus Features, for $10 million, an almost unheard of amount. (The last Sundance movie to fetch a price that high was “Napoleon Dynamite.”) Because of all that, the screening room was packed, despite it being the last day of press screenings and much of the press corps having gone home already. For some reason Tom Arnold and Illeana Douglas (you’d recognize her if you saw her) were at the press screening, too. We don’t usually get celebrities sitting among us, so that was weird.
Next up was a film I’d heard good things about, “Good Dick,” about a reclusive young woman who fends off attempts by a nice guy to bring her out of her shell. What’s interesting about this movie is that its title is not double-entendre. You figure there will be a guy named Dick, or someone will be a private detective, or whatever. But no: It really is about a woman who hates and fears men and their man-parts until she meets a good one. The title is single-entendre. Good luck marketing that one.
Since I’d had lunch at Burger King, that meant I needed to have dinner elsewhere. So Used To Be A Burrito Place it was! (Turns out it’s called Atlantic Pizza & Deli. Who knew?) Had me a hearty chicken parmesan sandwich, then walked next door to the Holiday Village venue for a screening of “Red.” I hadn’t heard much about this film either way; accordingly, the press screening was nearly empty. Still, this did not prevent a man from sitting directly behind me and wheezing and sniffing a lot. I moved farther back to get away from him. He knows that’s why I moved, too, and I don’t care.
“Red” is a lot like “Death Wish,” only instead of a man’s wife being killed as the inciting incident, it’s a man’s dog being killed. DON’T MESS WITH A GUY’S DOG! The man is played by Brian Cox, who is a terrific actor, and his performance makes the film a B- when otherwise it probably would have been a C.
Turns out I had a Brian Cox double feature in store, as the next film — my last of the festival — also starred him. It was “The Escapist,” a good old-fashioned manly prison-break movie from England. I sat with Cinematical’s James Rocchi, and we both got a kick out of it. We also got a kick out of spending the rest of the night making naughty Brian Cox puns on the order of “If you want to make your movie better, just put Cox in it” and “I love seeing Cox on the big screen.” See, “Good Dick”? That’s how you do childish double-entendre.
Day 10 (Saturday, January 26):
As usual, this 10th day of the fest was a cheat, as I didn’t do anything Sundance-related. There are no press screenings on the final Saturday, and there weren’t any public screenings that I felt compelled to wedge myself into. They did announce the awards, though, so here they are:
U.S. Documentary: “Trouble the Water,” about an aspiring rapper and her husband trying to survive during Hurricane Katrina.
U.S. Documentary Director: Nanette Burstein for “American Teen,” which was my favorite film of the fest.
U.S. Documentary Editing: Joe Bini for “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired,” about the noted rapist and occasional filmmaker.
U.S. Documentary Cinematography: Phillip Hunt and Steven Sebring for “Patti Smith: Dream of Life,” about the rocker. If I cared one iota about Patti Smith, I would have seen the movie.
U.S. Documentary Special Jury Prize: Lisa F. Jackson, director of “Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo,” for her “piercing, intimate look into the struggle of the lives of rape survivors.”
U.S. Dramatic: “Frozen River,” which I never heard anyone mention the entire festival. The press screening was the first day. It got bought by someone, so it will turn up in theaters eventually.
U.S. Dramatic Director: Lance Hammer for “Ballast.”
U.S. Dramatic Screenwriting (the Waldo Salt Award): Alex Rivera and David Riker for “Sleep Dealer.” I smell a rat. Could the fact that the not-very-good screenplay was workshopped in the Sundance Institute’s writing program have anything to do with it?
U.S. Dramatic Cinematography: Lol Crawley for “Ballast.”
U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Prize: “Anywhere, USA,” for having “the spirit of independence.” I heard nothing but bad things about this movie, but apparently it has the spirit of independence, whatever that means.
U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Prize: “Choke,” for the work of its ensemble cast.
World Documentary: “Man on Wire,” about a guy who did a tightrope walk between the Twin Towers back in the ’70s. Heard from several people that it was pretty good.
World Documentary Director: Nino Kirtadze for “Durakovo: Village of Fools,” about a castle near Moscow where initiates for a right-wing movement are trained.
World Documentary Editing: Irena Dol for “The Art Star and the Sudanese Twins,” about an artist’s attempt to adopt some twins.
World Documentary Cinematography: Al Massad for “Recycle.”
World Dramatic: “King of Ping Pong.” No buzz on this one.
World Dramatic Director: Anna Melikyan for “Mermaid.” From Russia. That’s all I know.
World Dramatic Screenwriting: Samuel Benchetrit for “I Always Wanted to Be a Gangster,” an existential comedy from France.
World Dramatic Cinematography: “King of Ping Pong.”
World Dramatic Special Jury Prize: Ernesto Contereras, director of “Blue Eyelids.”
U.S. Documentary: “Fields of Fuel,” about America’s addiction to oil.
U.S. Dramatic: “The Wackness.” I predicted this.
World Documentary: “Man on Wire,” a fairly rare instance of the jury and audience awards going to the same film.
World Dramatic: “Captain Abu Raed,” the first feature film to come out of Jordan in about 50 years.
* * * * *
And so another year at the Sundance Film Festival draws to a close. The movies were so-so, with just a few standouts, but the atmosphere was livelier than last year. That’s pretty subjective, of course; it could just be that I happened to have more fun with my Sundance friends than I did last year. The point is, I had a great time, I saw some very good movies, and I’ll be back next year. Let’s just try to do something about all the snowfall, OK?