Day 1 (Thursday, Jan. 15)
Gentlemen, start your lesbians! The 2009 Sundance Film Festival has commenced in the quaint mountain town of Park City, Utah, with 120 independent features and goodness knows how many short films scheduled to play here over the next 10 days. Insiders are predicting quite a bit less whining this year, as the weather forecast calls for sunny skies all week long. Apparently Robert Redford got my angry letter after last year’s constant snow.
This is a milestone year for the festival: It was in 1985 that Redford’s Sundance Institute took over the Salt Lake City-based United States Film Festival — it was a bloody coup, hundreds of filmmakers were slain — making 2009 the 25th year that the fest has appeared under the Sundance banner. It is also a milestone for me, as I first covered Sundance full-time in 2000, making this my 10th. With my punchcard, I get the next one free!
The first day of the fest, as longtime readers know, consists only of an opening-night gala screening, with the film playing simultaneously for the press in another location. We do not object to being segregated from the public; having been to the gala before, we know that it’s not worth the hassle. We’re fine with being kept among our own kind in the screening room.
This year’s opening-night film was “Mary and Max,” a claymation production from Australia about a young Aussie girl and a middle-aged New York Jewish man who become pen pals. I believe most of us liked the film’s unusually dark humor (there is a lot of death) and subtle sweetness. The clay animation is pretty impressive, too, and it’s nice to see it employed for something other than a children’s film.
More important than the movie, however, were the facilities. The screening was held at the Yarrow Hotel, which for years has had its conference rooms turned into makeshift theaters by cramming in a couple hundred exceedingly uncomfortable chairs on a series of risers. Imagine our delight when we entered the venue for “Mary and Max” and found that they had installed actual theater seats! Not top-of-the-line theater seats, mind you, and still temporary, but theater seats nonetheless. The sound of two hundred journalists’ lower backs crying out in joy echoed through the canyon.
As Sundance giveth, however, Sundance also taketh away. We have few food options available to us, especially when our breaks between films are narrow, and I was sad to find out tonight that the place near the Yarrow that had pizza and sandwiches and stuff — Used to Be a Burrito Place, we called it, owing to its former life — is gone. The storefront is vacant. That place was always very busy during the festival, but apparently that wasn’t enough to sustain it. Or maybe it just moved to another location in Park City. Either way, it’s not around anymore so we have to eat at Burger King all the time now.
But I rejoiced at seeing my film festival buddies from Cinematical, Film.com, and other places from around the Internets, and we look forward to 10 days of snow-covered merriment!
Day 2 (Friday, Jan. 16)
Film.com honcho Laremy and I are staying at a rustic two-bedroom condo just up the street from the Yarrow. The accommodations are lovely, marred only by the fact that we were locked out of it for several hours yesterday.
The woman who rented it to us had given detailed instructions on the condo’s location, ending with, “The lockbox with the keys in it is to the right of the front door,” which is a rather obvious and unnecessary thing to say, especially considering she failed to give us the CODE to get INTO the lockbox to GET the keys. We tried guessing the code, but to no avail. What we really needed was for Chloe at CTU to hack into the system and open the door for us. Instead, we left the property owner a lot of voice mails, and devised elaborate plans for her murder, before she finally called us back, apologized profusely, and gave us the code.
The place itself is fine, and I slumbered peacefully before arising this morning at 8:00 and heading to the press office for some writing and miscellany. Many writers had predicted that this year’s fest might be a little subdued because of the down economy, with a lot of outlets not sending reporters and a lot of freelancers not being able to afford to go. No one likes to talk about this, but the fact is, gigs that will both pay you AND cover your expenses are rare. You might get paid, or you might have your airfare and/or hotel and/or meals reimbursed — but all of the above? Very, very uncommon. Most of us on the freelancer level (and even a lot of full-time staff employees) cover Sundance primarily because we enjoy it, not because it’s profitable.
Things do seem slightly less crowded in the press office this year, but it’s not like the place is a ghost town. And if the somber economic climate is what it takes to get the big sponsors to quit wasting millions on swanky gift bags and other non-film-related frivolity — the kind of stuff Sundance purists have been complaining about for years — then that’s fine with me.
In the press lounge, the cooler of complimentary soft drinks contains mostly Shasta products. No Coke or Pepsi — Shasta. Shasta is the official beverage of the recession. Get used to it, Shantytowners!
(By the way, if part of that last paragraph sounds familiar, it’s because Defamer stole it from me. Consequently, I’ve decided to start an Internet feud with them.)
I had considered catching an 11:30 a.m. screening of something or other, but I got a better offer from longtime friend and colleague Scott Weinberg, who said we should go to Burger King. Normally an excursion to BK isn’t better than anything, but in this case I realized if I didn’t eat lunch now, I wouldn’t have a chance for many hours, and I was already hungry. So he and I and our Cinematical boss Erik Davis hit up the ol’ BK, the only fast food place within easy walking distance of the Yarrow. Quiznos is just up the block, but I don’t like to consider a place “fast food” unless it’s also cheap, which Quiznos is not. Who does Quiznos think it is?!
So our first actual screening of the day was “Moon,” a science-fiction drama starring Sam Rockwell as a technician coming up on the end of his three-year stint working on the moon when straaaaange things start happening. I’m not sure how much I should tell you about those strange things. Suffice it to say: STRANGE!
Afterward, I trekked back to the press office to pick up press kits for “Mary and Max,” “Moon,” and the two films I was planning to see next, “Humpday” and “Grace.” Of the four, only the publicists for “Mary and Max” had provided press kits. Apparently the people promoting the other three films don’t actually want us to write about them — or, at least, they don’t want us to know how to spell the cast members’ and filmmakers’ names. Good to know!
I was also at the press office to investigate a puzzling anomaly we’d noticed, which is that several high-profile films don’t have press screenings scheduled. With three screening venues and a total of about 145 time slots over the course of the week, they could easily screen every feature at the festival, and while we’ve come to accept that they don’t (they repeat some films based on demand and wind up canceling some slots altogether), we’re accustomed to all of the major, big-name films being screened.
Yet missing from the schedule are the Jim Carrey/Ewan McGregor comedy “I Love You Phillip Morris”; “Adventureland,” from the director of “Superbad”; Antoine Fuqua’s cop movie “Brooklyn’s Finest,” with Richard Gere, Don Cheadle, and Ethan Hawke; and the Ashton Kutcher gigolo film “Spread.” What gives?
The rumor had been that Sundance, for whatever reason, was intentionally not providing press screenings of them, and instead encouraging journalists to request tickets to the 9:00 a.m. public screenings at the Eccles Theatre. Sure enough, when I asked at the office, that’s what I was told. The weird thing is that there had never been an announcement. We were just expected to notice these key films weren’t scheduled, ask what was up, and request a public-screening ticket — which has to be done 24 hours in advance, and then you have to get there way early because it’s public, and it’s first thing in the morning. We can’t figure out what the reasoning behind all of this is, but we assume it’s one of those crazy experiments they try every now and then. It will fail like New Coke, and next year will be back to normal. My words, you may mark them.
But enough about the travails of the Sundance press corps, which you surely don’t care about! Next for me was a screening of “Humpday,” a mumblecore-ish comedy about two guys, both totally straight but longtime best friends, who decide to have sex with each other on camera as part of an art project. It may not surprise you to learn that alcohol is a factor in their decision.
What probably will surprise you, though, is that the movie (which obviously bears resemblance to “Zack and Miri Make a Porno,” except it doesn’t have any porn in it) is actually very insightful about the way men relate to each other, and about the nature of masculinity. The performances and dialogue are natural and realistic, not to mention hilarious. I think it’s interesting that it was written and directed by a woman, simply because I would have expected that only men would understand the male mind so clearly and deeply. When I mentioned that to my lady friend Kim, she was offended, though that’s probably because she’s offended by any statement that involves the word “women.”
We had a bit of time to kill after “Humpday” before Weinberg and I headed up to Main Street for a midnight public screening of “Grace.” Weinberg had procured tickets from the publicist (that is one of Weinberg’s specialties), and we always enjoy the midnight-movie experience at the Egyptian Theatre. If you have a hard ticket combined with a press badge, getting in and getting a good seat is relatively painless, and the movies, while not always what you’d call “good,” are at least always memorable.
As it happens, “Grace” is good and memorable: It’s about a woman who gives birth to a zombie baby. It is one seriously effed-up movie. Across the aisle from us was a teenage girl, sitting with a group of friends, who evidently had never seen a gory horror movie before. She frequently screamed at full voice and had no compunction about saying things like “Oh no!!” while literally curling herself into a ball in her seat. It was funny and annoying. Funnoying, if you will.
Merely annoying were the two women directly behind us, who felt the need to discuss the film. For example, when a character in the movie smashed a housefly and it spattered blood, one woman said, “I’ve never seen a fly bleed!,” and the other one said, “I have, but not that much,” and I said, “SHUT UP.” Your living room, this isn’t it.
While Weinberg stayed behind for the Q-and-A, I took the next-to-last shuttle bus back down to the Yarrow, where I had parked my car with a semi-legitimately obtained parking pass. The shuttle bus, as one would expect this late on a Friday night during Sundance, was full of loud, drunken douchebaggy guys and quiet, drunken, skankily dressed girls. One of the drunken guys did his best to hit on every single attractive female on the bus, including one who was probably only about seventeen, though she dressed like she was twenty-whore. This caused the drunken women behind me to complain loudly that the guy was a “pedophile,” misunderstanding the term somewhat since the whole point was that the girl LOOKED like an adult, not like a little girl. But whatever! It was late, and everybody was drunk. I assume several of them went back to their hotels to make platonic sex tapes as art projects.
Day 3 (Saturday, Jan. 17)
It was a little past 3 a.m. when I crawled into my very comfortable bed last night, and only 9:00 when I had to expel myself from it this morning. I had to get up because I really wanted to see the movie about the obese illiterate teenager who’s impregnated for the second time by her father.
The movie is called “Push: Based on a Novel by Sapphire,” and yes, that’s actually the onscreen title, perhaps to distinguish it from “Push It: Based on a Song by Salt ‘n’ Pepa.” It screened at 10 a.m., which is far too early to see a film about an obese illiterate teenager who’s impregnated for the second time by her father, and whose mother fostered the abuse and sees the girl as a rival for her man’s affections. And the abusive mother being played by Mo’Nique? What time of day WOULD be right for that??!
Lo and behold, it’s a fantastic movie, harrowing in its details but consistently tactful and un-gratuitous in its depiction of them, and ultimately hopeful and redeeming. The 16-year-old Harlem girl in question is played by a new actress named Gabourey Sidibe, and man alive, what a performance. There’s no question about it: She really is very fat. No, also, she’s fantastic — heartbreaking, funny, and unforgettable.
This screening was at the Holiday Village Cinemas, an actual four-plex movie theater that Sundance commandeers each year. In the past, only one of the screens has been a press venue, with two more venues across the parking lot at the Yarrow, but this year they’ve improved things by making it two at Holiday Village and only one at the Yarrow. The Yarrow’s new seats notwithstanding, them makeshift screening rooms is uncomfortable, so we’re glad to be in actual stadium-seating cinemas whenever we can.
Holiday Village is part of the Cinemark chain, and Cinemark’s CEO was under fire recently for donating $10,000 to the Yes on Proposition 8 campaign in California, which upset the gays. Some groups wanted to boycott Cinemark altogether, but that’s impossible if you’re covering Sundance, because two-thirds of the press screenings are there. The best you can do is just not buy anything at the concessions stand, and I’m onboard with that. I figure a guy who has $10,000 to spend on a political cause — ANY political cause — is obviously burdened with too much money. I wouldn’t want to add to his woes by giving him more.
Immediately after “Push: Based on a Novel by Sapphire,” also at Holiday Village, was “The Killing Room.” That’s a pretty good name for a movie because it could be about a room that kills people, or a room that is merely where killing takes place. The possibilities are endless! (OK, not endless. There are two.) It was fun checking in at the press screening, with one of the ushers pointing us to the right theater and saying, “‘The Killing Room’ is in here.” No thanks! I just want the movie-watching room! Which could either be the room where movies are watched, or a room that actually watches movies. Wouldn’t that be something?
Anyway, the point is, “The Killing Room” is stupid. It’s one of those thrillers about strangers locked in a room together, where alliances are formed and paranoia is manifested and all hell breaks loose. In this case, though, none of the characters are interesting, and nothing interesting happens to them. It has one nifty idea at the very end — so it should have been a taut 15-minute short film, not a bloated 90-minute meh-fest.
Weinberg and I made our daily visit to Burger King next, after which I went to the Yarrow lobby to write while Weinberg went somewhere else to do something else. (I’m not in charge of him! Read his blog if you want to know what he’s doing.) I hunkered down at a table and did a lot of writing, assisted by the fact that none of the press screenings for the next few hours were of interest to me. I like working at the big table in the Yarrow lobby because it’s right in the middle of things, so lots of friends and colleagues from other sites came by to chat and work, and I don’t feel totally isolated the way I do when I write in the grim loneliness of my apartment.
Since I was near the entrance to the Yarrow screening room, I was able to observe something new this year, which is that the festival has really committed itself to the word “queue” rather than “line.” “We haven’t opened the doors yet, but everyone is queueing up over there,” etc. Even the sign posted at the queue uses the word “queue.” This is v. British, and I like it. Lends a bit of class to the proceedings, you know? “I need to get in the queue for the movie about the obese illiterate teenager who’s impregnated for the second time by her father.” See?
Weinberg materialized in time for dinner, and while our pal Childress is usually our boon companion, this year he seems to have acquired a lot of tickets to public screenings and abandoned us. Weinberg and I went to the Chinese buffet place next to Holiday Village, except it’s only a buffet during lunch. For dinner, it’s entrees. Also for dinner: You might sit there for 10 minutes EVEN AFTER ASKING SOMEONE IF YOU CAN PLACE YOUR ORDER before someone actually takes your order. I started to walk out as a matter of principle, but Weinberg observed that the next nearest option was Burger King. So we had to guzzle our food in order to be on time for my next film, “Art & Copy,” a documentary about the advertising business.
This is a pretty entertaining doc that talks to the ad wizards behind such legendary campaigns as “Got Milk,” “Just Do It,” and “Where’s the Beef?” Some segments are focused on profiling the wizards themselves, as if they were rock stars; this is probably a lot more interesting to people who are in the industry and already know these names. But the rest is fascinating. I noted that almost every successful ad campaign was at one point almost scrapped by the client for being too risky. But as the TV series “Mad Men” has taught us, you need to trust your account executive, especially if he’s sleeping with your wife on the side.
Immediately after this was “The Greatest,” a melodrama starring Pierce Brosnan and Susan Sarandon as parents mourning the death of their teenage son. There’s one of these every year: a first-time writer/director who gets big stars to appear in a movie that turns out to be a total trainwreck. All the conversations that should be delicate and nuanced are instead awkwardly blunt, and Brosnan and Sarandon, bless their hearts, are cringe-worthy. I sat there for most of the movie with that grimace you get when you want something to be good but you find it embarrassing instead. At other times I was laughing and wondering if it was actually supposed to be a dark comedy. (It wasn’t.)
My Film.com honcho Laremy sat next to me in “The Greatest,” so we were able to pick it apart ruthlessly in the car on the way back to our condo. He pointed out several plot holes and flaws that I hadn’t even noticed but that I will now claim as my own insights when I write my review. That’s what you get for trusting me, Laremy. That’s what you get.
Final note: In my bedroom in the condo, there is one of those Indian “dreamcatcher” things hanging on the wall. I don’t know who actually owns the condo, but I’m not sure I like the idea of strangers picking through my dreams after I’m gone. I need to be sure to shake it out before I leave. I assume it’s like cleaning the lint trap on the dryer.
Day 4 (Sunday, Jan. 18)
No doubt about it, the festival is less crowded this year, at least in terms of journalists. The press screenings have been full-ish but not at capacity, nothing has really blown anyone away, and there’s a general lack of euphoria. Not a bad fest, not a great fest, just … so-so. A little bit off.
Then again, the week is still young, and things could pick up. The festival might be building to something. Anything could happen! It’s a season of miracles! Someone said they saw Ben Lyons actually attend a movie, but that’s probably apocryphal.
My day began with a visit to press headquarters to pick up press kits, mostly for movies whose publicists didn’t provide any. (Keep up the good work!) I wrote for a few minutes, then headed to Holiday Village for “Amreeka,” which is playing in competition. It’s a charming and pleasant comedy about a Palestinian woman and her teenage son who move to Illinois to live with relatives, where they experience your standard racism and other hardships. Which doesn’t sound charming and pleasant at all, now that I look at it, but trust me, it is. It’s one of those nice films about the importance of family and the inherent decency of most people. You know, crap like that.
I wanted to get some lunch after “Amreeka,” so I went in search of the Weinberg/Davis/Childress crowd. I’d forgotten that today was the day that football becomes more important than movies about dead babies, if you can imagine. The Philadelphia Eagles were playing. This was a matter of supreme importance to Weinberg, possibly even more so than to the Eagles themselves. The only one I could pry away was my old Salt Lake City Weekly friend and editor Scott Renshaw, who joined me in my daily genuflection to the Burger King.
There was writing and time-killing and pretending-to-care-about-football after that, followed by a screening of “Paper Heart.” This is a most unusual film, part documentary and part fake-documentary, about comedian Charlyne Yi’s quest to find out whether true love exists. She’s not sure it does, and even if it does, she’s not sure she’s capable of feeling it. While she’s traveling the country interviewing long-married couples and other fans of love, she meets actor Michael Cera and, yes, starts falling in love with him — a fact that’s complicated by the documentary crew’s constant surveillance of her activities.
The film never comes out and says it, but savvy viewers are meant to understand that the interview scenes are real, while the Charlyne-and-Michael scenes aren’t, even though they look like they are. (Both actors are comfortable with improvisation and acting natural.) It’s fitting that after several films in which he basically plays himself, Michael Cera is now ACTUALLY playing himself. The old couples’ love stories are cute, and a lot of the other stuff is funny. I find it strange, however, that even though Yi is a comedian, she doesn’t seem to be a funny person in daily life. That strikes me as a liability.
In the hallway after the screening, Erik Davis and I took the liked-but-didn’t-love side of a discussion on the film while Slashfilm’s Peter Sciretta and Film School Rejects’ Neil Miller took the loved-it side. A lot of it seemed to come down to how much we liked Charlyne Yi specifically. I joked that I had a hard time getting past the fact that I don’t like women or Asians, and Peter asked if he could quote me, but I beat him to it by Twittering those sentiments, which led to an Asian woman getting very offended and threatening to stop reading me. I would say that’s probably a good idea. (Clarification for dumb people: I don’t actually dislike women or Asians.) (But don’t get me started on Arabs!) (Which I pronounce Ay-rabs!)
Very shortly after this was a screening for “500 Days of Summer,” which I loved loved loved. It’s smart, hilarious, and romantically insightful, about a young man named Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who meets, falls for, dates, and gets dumped by a woman named Summer (Zooey Deschanel). The film begins with the dumping, then jumps forward and backward in time, each scene helpfully preceded by a counter telling us where in the 500-day timeline it’s set.
The film is quirky but not in an obvious, look-how-clever-we-are kind of way; the characters are funny but not clownish; and the scenes dealing with the harsh truths of romantic relationships are brutally honest. Fox Searchlight already has the film pegged for a July release date, so you can look forward to that. You’ll love it. Surely it will be one of the five best comedies of 2009. All those words of mine you’ve been marking? Add these to the list.
Weinberg and I got into a discussion after the film about whether Domino’s could deliver pizza to us in time for us to eat it and still get to our next screening, which was to begin in 50 minutes. Domino’s is actually located across the street from the Yarrow, so I guess we could have walked over and picked it up sooner than they could deliver it, but then what would we have argued about? Turns out they delivered it pretty quickly anyway; I guess 9 p.m. on a Sunday isn’t a busy time for them.
The film was “When You’re Strange,” a documentary about The Doors, which was a rock ‘n’ roll band of some renown in the 1960s. Maybe you’ve heard of them. Since the film was about The Doors, I assumed it would run for an hour, and then just repeat that hour without vocals. I wasn’t far off, either: It’s a basic history of the band from start to finish — no new revelations, no modern-day interviews with anyone, just contemporary footage and a narrator — and it’s punctuated with many lengthy musical interludes by the band. It does a good job of recreating the stony, ponderous feel of The Doors, which you either like or you don’t. You know who you are. Apparently Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek is in town to promote the film, and to see what it’s like to drop acid at a high altitude. No sign of Jim Morrison, though. Pretty tacky, if you ask me.
Day 5 (Monday, Jan. 19)
I didn’t mention this before because I was hoping it would prove to be a non-issue, but now it’s gone too far. There is someone else in the Sundance press corps who has the same laugh as my pal Erik Childress. I heard it during “Humpday” and again last night during “Paper Heart,” and Childress wasn’t at either one. When I hear it, I try to look around and see who it’s coming from, but I’ve been unable to identify the source.
I heard it — Erik’s Chuckleganger — again today at my first screening, “Big Fan.” This is a somewhat dark comedy about an obsessive New York Giants fan, played by Patton Oswalt, who gets into an altercation with his quarterback idol that results in the QB being benched — which means the fan has unwittingly sabotaged his favorite team. It’s a solid film that mocks sports obsession specifically but is just as applicable to other obsessive types (coughmoviegeekscough).
In addition to the impostor Childress, this screening also contained several beautiful French women. I don’t know if they were journalists or what, but they traveled in pairs, going so far as to ask someone to move so they could sit together. Since they were beautiful and French, no one had a problem with that. I was slightly annoyed by the pair who sat right next to me and whispered Frenchly to each other during the film, but perhaps one had to explain some of the nuances of Patton Oswalt’s performance to the other one. I would have shushed them, but I don’t know how to say “Shh!” in French. The glare-accompanied-by-throat-clearing apparently is not a universal language.
By the way, this was the first press screening I’ve been to this year that has been completely full, with people being turned away. The reason, I suspect, is that it was written and directed by Robert Siegel, screenwriter of the current hot property “The Wrestler.” Before that, he was an editor at The Onion; “Big Fan” is clearly more on the Onion side of things than “The Wrestler” was. Either way, I’m not sure why it was so appealing to French babes.
My buddy Renshaw wanted to get lunch after this, and he wanted to eat someplace where there’d be a chance of a vegetable making a cameo, and that meant only one feasible option: the Chinese buffet. The food at this place has proven tolerable at dinner, when they put some effort into it. During the lunch buffet, they just shovel out a trough of leftovers and charge you $9 for it.
Adding insult to injury was my fortune cookie, which offered this wisdom: “A good way to keep healthy is to eat more Chinese food.” I’m not kidding. That’s what it said. Not only is it self-serving, it’s not even true. It’s probably the second-worst fortune I’ve ever gotten, after the one that said, “Your grandmother will die of leukemia when you’re 15, and the funeral will be the only time you’ll ever see your grandfather cry.” That one was ROUGH.
I wrote in the Yarrow lobby for a while, then attended “Good Hair,” a documentary in which Chris Rock investigates the phenomenon of black women and their hair. Specifically, he asks the question: What is the deal with black women and their hair? It’s mostly frivolous entertainment, hosted by the always amusing Mr. Rock, with a few insightful moments sprinkled in.
After this came today’s installment of Trying to Work, a fun game where I sit at my table in the Yarrow lobby and try to work, while Weinberg tries to get me to come out and play with him instead. Today his distraction of choice was DVD screeners of films playing at the Slamdance Film Festival, Sundance’s pot-smoking, illegitimate cousin. There are some gems that come out of that fest, but there aren’t enough hours in the day to cover it and Sundance simultaneously. I made Weinberg go do some work of his own while I wrote my reviews.
While I was working, guess who sat in the Yarrow lobby for a few minutes? Ray Manzarek and Robby Krieger, both of The Doors and apparently both still alive. Good for them, still being alive! Robby basically looks like Ebenezer Scrooge.
Childress got back from wherever he’d been, and he and I and Weinberg went to Burger King for dinner, on the grounds that none of us had been there yet today. Then it was back to the Yarrow for the final screening of the day, “Arlen Faber,” a terrible comedy about a reclusive self-help guru (Jeff Daniels) who is drawn out of his shell by the mom from “Gilmore Girls.” Actually, it’s about more than that, but it doesn’t matter, it’s all poo. And with that poo, the day ended.
Day 6 (Tuesday, Jan. 20)
Laremy and I had to check out of our Film.com-funded condo this morning, but first we had to watch a few minutes of the inauguration proceedings on the telly. Dick Cheney was in a wheelchair, presumably because his powers are diminishing as his empire slips out of his grasp; by the end of the day, he was nothing but a withered bag of skin. Laremy said it would be funny if, as Obama took the oath, he announced that he was a secret MORMON. Nobody would have seen that one coming!
But then we had to go watch movies. My first screening, a sparsely populated press event at Holiday Village, was “Mystery Team,” starring the comedy troupe DerrickComedy as a trio of child sleuths (think Encyclopedia Brown) who are now high school seniors but still act like child sleuths. (All their usual suspects are 7-year-olds.) And now they’re trying to solve a double murder. It’s funny, sometimes hilarious, but it’s way too long. It’s an 80-minute movie trapped in the body of a 105-minute movie.
Immediately after this, with hardly a moment to spare, was “Sin Nombre,” a violent drama about gangs in the southern reaches of Mexico who cross paths with immigrants on their way to the U.S. It was interesting to be reminded that Mexico has ANOTHER border, i.e., the one with Guatemala, and that apparently that border is significantly easier to cross than the northern one.
After this, my old buddy Kim insisted we go to the Chinese buffet. Kim refuses to eat Burger King, which I guess means she must eat at the Chinese buffet every day. My observation that the buffet costs $12 (including soft drink and sales tax), and that it is worth about half that much, consistently falls on Kim’s deaf, horrid ears. Our compromise was that I would eat there with her but complain bitterly the entire time. Cinematical’s Erik Davis joined us and did some complaining himself, mostly about other things. Kim probably complained about some stuff, too, but I usually just tune her out.
Next up: a screening of “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men,” based on the David Foster Wallace novel. This was a pet project of John Krasinski (Jim on “The Office”), who adapted the book, directed the movie, and plays a role in it. Word on the street had been that it was grade-A Awful, but I was curious to see a Wallace adaptation. Plus, it was only 72 minutes long. As you know, at this point in the festival I start choosing films based solely on how short they are.
It turned out to be just about as bad as I’d heard. The idea is that a woman sets out to discover why men are so awful by interviewing a series of them about their sexual and romantic habits. Evidently the book is basically a series of monologues, and so is the movie. Which … is kinda boring. We know nothing about the woman, there’s no plot to speak of, and the monologues aren’t generally funny or interesting enough to make it worthwhile. As Weinberg put it, the two best adjectives to describe “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men” are in the title. ZOING!
There was writing and chatting and the daily trip to Burger King next. This Burger King, like many franchises in Utah, has fry sauce available as a condiment. Fry sauce is basically just ketchup and mayonnaise mixed together, but it’s delicious, and it’s Utah’s sole contribution to the culinary arts. Some who have had it will request ketchup and mayonnaise packets so they can make it themselves in establishments that don’t provide it. I do take some pleasure in introducing my friends to it when we come to Burger King in Park City, and seeing them request it themselves on subsequent visits. I enjoy spreading the good word of fry sauce.
The next film, which Childress, Weinberg, and I attended together, was “Dare,” a trashy “Gossip Girl”-style teen soap about two guys and a girl who become friends. And by “friends” I mean they start doin’ it. (What else would I mean?) The film stars Emmy Rossum and the guy who plays Matt Saracen on “Friday Night Lights.” It’s not “good,” exactly, but it’s certainly not boring.
At the beginning of the screening, the guy in front of me got out his cell phone to send a very important text message, and also to light up the theater as if with a flashlight. I leaned over to see what was so urgent and watched as he texted this: “My bad it’s Emmy Rossum.” Apparently he had told someone that some other actress played the lead in this film, and now, having seen the opening credits, he had realized his grave error. Thank goodness THAT got cleared up.
Oh, and before “Dare,” in the bathroom at Holiday Village, I saw the three stars of “Mystery Team.” I assume they had just finished attending a public screening in one of the adjacent theaters. There was a line for the urinals, and I wound up standing next to one of the stars, and I said, “Hey, I saw your movie today! It made me laugh.” He said, “Oh, thanks, I’m glad you liked it!” And I said, “I didn’t say I liked it, I said it made me laugh.” And then HE laughed, which means that over the course of the day, we made each other laugh. It’s precious bathroom memories like those that make Sundance so special.
My last film of the day was “Black Dynamite,” a hilarious and spot-on parody of blaxploitation films of the 1970s, starring Michael Jai White as a Shaft-type bad-a-word mothereffer. It works as a spoof, it works as a straight-up comedy, and I dare say we all enjoyed it immensely.
There’s a scene set at a community meeting where a fiery black politician is motivating the crowd to get out of the ghetto and make things happen. His speech ends with, “We gotta take this thing from the poor house to the White House!” That sort of rhetoric is typical of blaxploitation films, from a time when electing a black president seemed as imminent as electing a unicorn president. But it has a whole different meaning now, on Inauguration Day, and I noted that as the fictional audience in the movie applauded the politician, so did several members of the screening audience, having just observed 12 hours earlier the realization of this dream.
Day 7 (Wednesday, Jan. 21)
My Cinematical overlord Erik Davis was kind enough to let me sleep on the second bed in his hotel room last night. This may not sound like much of a sacrifice until you know that I’m something of a snorer. I’m registered in the national database and am required to notify my new neighbors whenever I move. Apparently I have sleep apnea. I once shared a hotel room with someone who officially has it, who sleeps with a machine and everything, and he confirmed the self-diagnosis I’d already made. If I ever have health insurance and/or several thousand dollars of extra money again, it’s the first thing I’ll look into. Anyway, I equipped Erik with earplugs and tried to minimize my output by sleeping on my side. I survived the night without being murdered, so it must have been OK.
Today was a slow day, screening-wise. Almost everything on the schedule was something I’d already seen or that I had absolutely no interest in seeing based on its description or reputation. So I requested a ticket for a public screening of “Cold Souls,” which I’d heard good things about, and made my first trip of 2009 to the Eccles Theatre. The movie, best described as Charlie Kaufman lite, is about a man who stumbles across a company that can extract your soul and put it in storage for you. The reason you would want to do this is that souls can be burdensome. Without one, you don’t have to deal with any dark thoughts or major emotions. Oh, and you can borrow someone else’s if you want. The main character is Paul Giamatti, played by Paul Giamatti. Very meta-referential. It’s nothing compared to the very similar “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” but it’s good enough. Love that Paul Giamatti.
I happened to overhear an audience member say that she’d seen a film called “Manure” last night, and that it is, aptly enough, a big pile of poo. Curiously, there’d been a press screening scheduled for tonight, but it was replaced with something else on the latest revised schedule that came this morning. (Whoever is in charge of setting up press screenings has been doing a poor job this year. The to-be-announced slots are being announced at the very last minute, and then there are goofy changes like this one.) (On the other hand, whoever is in charge of the weather has been doing a terrific job. It’s been sunny and beautiful the whole week.) I didn’t think much of this at the time, but it became relevant later.
In the meantime, Weinberg had asked if I would give him a ride to Best Buy so he could purchase some DVDs that for some reason he couldn’t wait until he got home to buy. As it turns out, this Best Buy does not actually exist, or at least it’s not open yet. So instead we drove to Wal-Mart, some six miles from the part of Park City where Sundance happens (no Wal-Mart is permitted within five miles of the nearest Fox Searchlight buyer), and they didn’t have the DVDs he wanted anyway. The trip wasn’t a bust, though, because we were able to get lunch at Taco Bell next to Wal-Mart, which was a welcome change from Burger King. And when Taco Bell is a welcome change from anything, that is how you know it’s time to go home.
The festival usually starts to clear out around this time anyway, but with the press corps being diminished in numbers from the get-go, the depopulation today was especially noticeable. The lounge at headquarters was a ghost town. And the critics still here are getting testier, myself included, although at least I didn’t punch a guy in the face like John Anderson of Variety did. It seems that after a screening of a documentary called “Dirt” (not to be confused with “Manure”), a producer’s rep named Jeff Dowd — the real-life inspiration for The Dude in “The Big Lebowski,” by the way — cornered him to get his opinion. Anderson hated it, and said as much. The Dude evidently followed Anderson around, trying to harass him into liking it, and Anderson wound up punching The Dude. I have nothing to add to this story that could possibly make it any more entertaining than it already is, but Anne Thompson has the rundown here.
I did think about punching someone, though. I was installed at my usual location at the large wooden table in the Yarrow lobby, my notebook and other materials sitting next to my laptop, when a woman came up, stood next to me, and set her papers down on top of mine. I know, what the eff, right? I was baffled. It’s not like she didn’t see me or my documents, and I don’t think she could have mistaken them for trash, since I was actively referring to them as I typed. And anyway, she was standing well within the boundaries of my personal space, poring over whatever her papers were, as if my things and I were invisible. If that doesn’t deserve a punching, I don’t know what does.
While in the Yarrow lobby, I heard a critic I don’t know tell different friends of his a story about his shoulder, which hurts a lot. He said he saw a local doctor today and was told that “it’s a muscle/bone thing,” whatever that means. The man was not impressed with the caliber of Park City’s doctors and said he’ll see a better one when he returns to “the real world,” which ironically probably means Los Angeles. I heard this story twice. “A muscle/bone thing” would be a good name for an album.
It was also while I was in the Yarrow that I heard some more dirt on “Manure” — to wit, that in addition to it being taken off the press-screening schedule, all of its remaining public screenings had been canceled too. A call to the Sundance box office revealed this to be untrue, but it’s a nice rumor anyway. (And maybe the box office staff just hadn’t gotten the word yet.) According to Jevon Phillips at the L.A. Times, last night’s post-screening Q-and-A with the cast and filmmakers was abysmal, and Billy Bob Thornton had to resort to asking himself a question because no one in the audience had any. Phillips said he’d never seen so many walkouts during a Sundance screening, either. Gregory Ellwood at Hitfix had a slightly different take, saying that the cast wouldn’t even talk about the film. The grapevine added the detail that the cast had not actually seen the movie until last night and were now distancing themselves from it, but that may have been an interpretation of the awkward Q-and-A. The point is, the movie is apparently really bad.
This is the danger, I must say, of programming films that no one has actually seen. “Manure” got in because it was written and directed by twins Michael and Mark Polish, and they’ve had films here before. Sundance is notorious for this — basically, once you get into the festival, all of your subsequent films can play here, too, even if they’re terrible, and even if the Sundance programmers haven’t seen them. (I guess I don’t know for a fact that no one saw “Manure” before inviting it to the fest, but there have been films in the past that are SO bad, SO misguided, SO irredeemable, that no one can imagine any other explanation.)
So it was a weird sort of day, with punchings and Wal-Mart and “Manure,” but it ended on a high note. We — and I mean pretty much every person I know at the festival, including a huge contingency of movie bloggers — saw “World’s Best Dad,” written and directed by Bobcat Goldthwait and starring Robin Williams as a man whose awful teenage son dies accidentally of autoerotic asphyxiation, so to save embarrassment the dad makes it look like a suicide — complete with a brilliantly tender suicide note that becomes an inspirational phenomenon. It’s an insanely DARK comedy, featuring Robin Williams in rare form and a delightfully vulgar screenplay. I thought of “Heathers” a couple times, and that’s a good thing, especially right before bedtime.
Day 8 (Thursday, Jan. 22)
What I’ve learned about film festivals is that when the chips are down, you can always count on the movie geeks to lend you a hand. Weinberg helped me put out feelers to see who had someplace I could crash last night, and Drew and Dan of HitFix came through with a couch. I felt bad for Dan, who had to share the room with me and had not been informed of my snoring tendencies, but as it turned out there wasn’t much sleep in his future anyway, as he had to be up early to cover the Oscar nominations. Drew, a snorer himself, had already been quarantined in the other room. They should just put us all on an island together and let us snore each other to death.
Ever since Sundance and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences got on the same cycle a few years ago, like sorority sisters, the Oscar nominations have been announced during Sundance week. Today’s nods, including one for Heath Ledger, came on the one-year anniversary of Ledger’s death. As usual, the nominations were 95% what everyone expected and 5% UNFORGIVABLY OFFENSIVE SNUBS AND NO ONE WILL EVER TAKE THE OSCARS SERIOUSLY AGAIN!!!!!! Or at least that’s the word on the blogs. I know that by failing to nominate “The Dark Knight” for Best Picture, the Academy angered a lot of nerds. And we all know that movie geeks aren’t easily outraged.
At press headquarters, I happened to chat with someone who’s actually a voting member of the Academy. He got that way by twice being part of the team nominated for Best Visual Effects, and then by applying and being rejected and getting sponsors and eventually doing whatever it is one must do to become a member of the Academy. He said the five Best Picture nominees are the ones he chose, too. So there’s anecdotal evidence that someone really does think “The Reader” is one of the year’s five best films.
For lunch, I went to the Chinese buffet with Weinberg, Davis, Drew McWeeny, and a friend of someone’s whom I won’t name. This guy seemed nice enough at first. He’s a screenwriter in his 20s, and he recently sold a script that’s going to be made by a big-name Hollywood producer, which is pretty cool. So good for him.
But I soon found that he’s one of those movie guys who feel compelled to recite full-length film reviews at the drop of a hat — literally, as it turns out. As we were leaving, I observed a woolen hat on the floor and said, “Weinberg, is that yours?” He picked it up and said, “No, it’s Will Smith’s from ‘Hancock,'” which matched what we’d been telling him about that hat all week along. At the mention of “Hancock,” this screenwriter guy said, “You know, while that film had some problems in the second act, I really thought a lot of what Berg was doing was fantastic, and–” and he continued for a few more sentences to give us his thorough opinion of the film “Hancock,” and I thought, WHO ASKED YOU?? We weren’t even talking about the movie! All someone did was mention its title, and this guy thinks that’s his cue to start giving his podcast.
Outside the restaurant, the subject of “World’s Greatest Dad” came up, and someone mentioned a funny line that Robin Williams delivers in it. I repeated what I’d thought of that line when I’d heard it, which is that while it’s funny, there’s no way that character would have really said it. To this the screenwriter guy said, “Oh, are you a professional hater?” And I said, “No, no, I really liked the movie, I just didn’t think that line fit.” Someone told me later that “professional hater” is just what this guy calls movie critics — and somehow, the fact that I’d disagreed with a line of dialogue made me instantly recognizable as one. (What does walking around reciting unsolicited reviews of Will Smith movies make a person?) (Besides a pedantic blowhard, I mean.)
Movie critics are “professional haters”? Get over yourself, jackass. I noticed that his disdain for film critics wasn’t strong enough to prevent him from pretending to be one in order to get a Sundance press pass. He’d admitted as much to us: he couldn’t afford to buy the industry pass, so he got a buddy with a credentialed website to claim him as a writer so that he could see a bunch of free movies.
But you know what? I am a professional hater. I hate douchebags, and sometimes I get paid for that.
[UPDATE: After I posted this, the pedantic blowhard in question sent me a very gracious and gentlemanly e-mail to clear the air and sort out some misunderstandings. He was only joking around with the “professional hater” thing, and whoever told me after the fact that he uses this term because he dislikes film critics was mistaken. (I should have known better than to trust second-hand sources.) He said he broke the cardinal rule of humor, that you shouldn’t give someone a hard time until they know you mean well, which obviously I didn’t. As for the verbal diarrhea about “Hancock,” well, that’s probably the kind of obnoxiousness I would enjoy if I knew him better. I appreciate his contacting me to clear things up, and I apologize for the premature new-one-ripping.]
BUT ANYWAY. Sorry to go off on a rant there, but that guy annoyed me. And you know who else annoyed me? I’ll tell you. There was a guy sitting near me at the big table in the Yarrow the other night, a pleasant fellow that I had a nice chat with, and he asked if he could use my laptop for “two minutes.” I asked why, and he said he needed to e-mail his stories to the people he writes for, and his laptop doesn’t have a wireless card. This is by design, he said — if he has Internet access wherever he goes, he gets easily distracted and doesn’t work. I know the feeling, and it was no big deal to take a break from what I was doing for a couple minutes, so he used a flash drive to transfer his stuff to my computer.
And then about 20 minutes passed, and he was still using my computer. I sauntered over to see what was up, and he said, “Sorry it’s taking so long, I had an urgent e-mail I had to respond to.” And I thought: If you’re the type of person who occasionally gets urgent e-mails, MAYBE YOUR COMPUTER SHOULD HAVE INTERNET ACCESS. Don’t make it MY problem.
When he finally finished, he asked another nearby pal if he could use that person’s phone, and I said, “You don’t have a cell phone, either?” He said no, he doesn’t. And again I thought: You want to live without Internet access and a cell phone, fine. But that means you actually need to live without them, not just mooch off people who do have them. That’s like thinking you’re really economical for not having a car, but then constantly hassling your neighbor to give you a ride places. It doesn’t work that way.
But again, I digress. I eventually got around to seeing a couple movies today. The first was “The Missing Person,” whose title led me and fellow Cinematical writer James Rocchi to try to remember what song the 1980s pop band Missing Persons was famous for. I made several wrong guesses, and in the process learned that Simple Minds and Tears for Fears were not, in fact, the same band. Missing Persons’ songs were “Walking in L.A.” and “Words.”
The movie “The Missing Person” stars Michael Shannon — who just this morning was nominated for an Oscar — as a private detective who’s hired to follow a guy. It’s a very Bogart-y modern film noir, and we dug it. As Rocchi put it, “That film was so up my alley, it has a parking space there.” I claim no additional knowledge of what happens in Rocchi’s alley.
After this was “Dead Snow,” a Norwegian or Swedish or something horror film about Nazi zombies. Or zombie Nazis, if you prefer. They attack a group of young people in a remote cabin, which you may recognize as the plot of 1,000 other horror movies you have seen. Exposed intestines are a major motif within the film.
The best part about “Dead Snow” was the short film that preceded it, entitled “Treevenge.” It’s about Christmas tree harvesters, told from the point of view of the trees, who then get their revenge and do the same terrible things to the humans that the humans did to them. It’s awfully funny, not to mention sick and bizarre and clearly the work of diseased minds.
For the late movie, Weinberg and I tried to watch something called “White Lightnin’,” a biopic about Jesco White, an acclaimed tap-dancing hillbilly who apparently has been addicted to every drug known to man, starting when he was a kid and would huff gasoline fumes. The film is weirdly told and stylish in its way, and for some reason Carrie Fisher is in it, but we just weren’t in the mood and left halfway through. This happens sometimes. It’s not the movie’s fault, necessarily. It certainly wasn’t Princess Leia’s fault!
Day 9 (Friday, Jan. 23)
I did some more sleeping around last night. With Childress having gone home a few days ago, Weinberg was now sharing Davis’ room, and I was kindly permitted to sleep on the floor. Weinberg and Davis were furnished with earplugs, and everyone passed the night peacefully, except for me, as I was sleeping on the floor.
But sleeping at the Yarrow, even on the floor, has its benefits. It makes it easy to stumble to an 8:30 a.m. screening that’s being held in the same hotel. Theoretically, you wouldn’t even have to put shoes on, since it’s just down the hall and the hall is carpeted. I’ll have to try that next time.
The 8:30 a.m. movie in question was “An Education,” written by Nick Hornby and starring new up-and-comer Carey Mulligan (she was also in “The Greatest” at Sundance) as a British teenager in the 1960s whose stuffy, unimaginative parents don’t understand her love for art and literature and French things. It had been widely acclaimed throughout the week, which is why Sundance posted another screening (at the last minute, as was the festival’s wont this year). I’m not sure I loved the film, but I definitely liked it.
Very shortly after “An Education” ended, I saw “Adam,” another buzzed-about title starring Hugh Dancy as a man with Asperger syndrome who is befriended by a woman (Rose Byrne) who lives in his apartment building. It’s sweet and funny, and not an oh-geez-here-we-go-with-another-drama-about-a-saintly-retarded-person movie. Cousin Larry from “Perfect Strangers” has a small role.
It was bam bam bam, three movies in a row, with the third being “Endgame,” a political thriller about the negotiations that led to the end of apartheid in South Africa. It was over at about 3:15. How many movies had YOU seen by 3:15 today? THAT’S WHAT I THOUGHT.
Day 10 (Saturday, Jan. 24)
I left Park City on Friday to cavort and revel with my Utah-based britches and hose, while Sundance culminated in its awards ceremony Saturday night. Here’s what won:
U.S. Documentary: “We Live in Public,” about the Internet’s impact on human interaction.
U.S. Documentary Director: Natalia Almada, “El General,” about Mexican revolutionary figure Plutarco Elias Calles.
U.S. Documentary Editing: “Sergio,” about the U.N.’s High Commission for Human Rights.
U.S. Documentary Cinematography: “The September Issue,” which takes us behind the scenes at Vogue magazine.
U.S. Documentary Special Jury Prize: “Good Hair,” presumably just because it made the jury laugh.
U.S. Dramatic: “Push: Based on a Novel by Sapphire,” which is what everyone expected to win. Of the candidates I saw, it’s certainly the one I’d have voted for.
U.S. Dramatic Director: Cary Joji Fukunaga, “Sin Nombre.”
U.S. Dramatic Screenwriting (the Waldo Salt Award): Nicholas Jasenovech and Charlyne Yi, “Paper Heart” … which is half-documentary and half-improvised. So I’m not sure how much Waldo Salt would approve of this “screenplay.”
U.S. Dramatic Cinematography: “Sin Nombre.”
U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Prize for Spirit of Independence: “Humpday.”
U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Prize for Acting: Mo’Nique, for her portrayal of the awful mother in “Push.”
World Documentary: “Rough Aunties,” about women who care for the forgotten children of South Africa.
World Documentary Director: Havana Marking, “Afghan Star.”
World Documentary Editing: “Burma JV,” about Burmese journalists.
World Documentary Cinematography: “Big River Man,” in which a crazy guy decides to swim down the Amazon.
World Documentary Special Jury Prize: “Tibet in Song,” whose director, Ngawang Choephel, served six years in prison for filming in Tibet. And yet Michael Bay remains a free man.
World Dramatic: “The Maid,” from Chile, about a family’s longtime maid clinging to her place within the household.
World Dramatic Director: Oliver Hirschbiegel, “Five Minutes of Heaven,” about Irish politics.
World Dramatic Screenwriting: Guy Hibbert, “Five Minutes of Heaven.”
World Dramatic Cinematography: “An Education.”
World Dramatic Special Jury Prize for Originality: “Louise-Michel,” about disgruntled factory workers hiring a hit man to kill the corrupt executive behind the factory’s closure.
World Dramatic Special Jury Prize for Acting: Catalina Saavedra for her lead performance in “The Maid.”
U.S. Documentary: “The Cove,” about dolphin-saving activists in Japan.
U.S. Dramatic: “Push: Based on a Novel by Sapphire.” It’s not unheard of for a film to win the Jury and Audience awards, but it is rare.
World Documentary: “Afghan Star,” about that country’s version of “American Idol.”
World Dramatic: “An Education.”
I saw 27 movies this year, which is a low number for me. My attitude this year was quality over quantity. I realized that cramming in as many movies as possible is not profitable — not financially, psychologically, emotionally, or spiritually. Do I need to see an obscure foreign documentary on a topic that doesn’t interest me, that will never play theatrically in the U.S., just because it’s showing and I happen to be free? I used to say yes. Now I say no. I only have so much room in my brain, after all.
The last few years, Sundance has felt increasingly less fun and more of a pain. Maybe it’s because I’ve begun to attend other film festivals and can compare the experiences. Sundance is no longer the only festival in my life, and it doesn’t always stack up favorably to the others. Sundance’s last-minute screening changes and other hiccups — the sort of things that are inevitable when a festival’s growth outpaces its competence — don’t help.
Neither did the introduction of a new phenomenon, something I’m going to call Sundance’s Shameful Secrets. You see, while there are enough press-screening slots over the course of the week to show critics every single film in the festival, five movies this year got no press screenings at all. They were:
“I Love You Phillip Morris”
“Manure” (whose scheduled press screening got canceled after the first public screening went poorly)
All five are from the Premieres category, which are films that play out of competition that usually have big-studio backing and sometimes even have release dates already scheduled. Sundance needs the Premieres more than the Premieres need Sundance — which is presumably why Sundance is willing to agree to stipulations such as not setting up press screenings.
Now, why a film’s backers wouldn’t WANT press screenings during the festival, I can’t imagine. Seems like if you’re proud enough of a film to play it for festival audiences, you ought to be proud enough of it to let critics see it. Besides, journalists can request tickets to public screenings, and some even have passes that allow them in without tickets — so not holding press screenings doesn’t keep the press away from the movie; it merely reduces the number of critics who see it, and makes it inconvenient for them to do so. Again, why that would be your desire is beyond me.
And that wraps up my first decade of Sundance attendance. As far as I can tell, I’ll be back next year for No. 11. The festival is exhausting, and so is the Burger King diet, but I would feel left out if for some reason I didn’t go one year. There’s a certain thrill in being among the first people anywhere to enjoy a film like “Push” or “Big Fan” or “500 Days of Summer,” and especially in being able to tell others about them. So like the addict that I am, I’ll probably be back in 2010 for another pipe full of indie-film crack. Sweet, delicious crack.