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Eric D. Snider's 2006 Sundance Diary: Days 6-10
by Eric D. Snider

[NOTE: Eric will post his daily diaries from the 2006 Sundance Film Festival here every night. Rather than making each one a separate feature, he'll simpy add them to the end of this one. So check back every day through Jan. 29!]

Day 6 (Tuesday, Jan. 24):

I’ve been averaging something like 5 1/2 hours of sleep each night, generally nodding off at 2 a.m. and getting up at 7:30. They don’t call it “beauty sleep” for nothing: I am now exceedingly ugly. While I slept last night I developed some kind of weird pimple/sore hybrid just above my left eyebrow, red and inflamed and unsightly. At this rate, by the end of the festival I’ll look like Quasimodo, or Tommy Lee Jones.

Today’s weather was beautiful. Temperatures were only in the upper 20s, but the sun shone brightly and made it feel much warmer than that. I bounced into the Yarrow just in time for a press screening of “Wristcutters: A Love Story,” which is one of those movies that you see just because of the title.

It’s an imaginative, whimsical film about an afterlife populated solely by people who committed suicide. (If you die some other way, you go somewhere else.) The suicide world looks like regular Earth life, with cities and cars and jobs and everything, and everyone bears the scars of how they died. One young man who offed himself when his girlfriend dumped him is stunned to learn that she arrived about a month after he did — surely out of sadness over his death, he reasons. So he and two of his friends embark on a “Wizard of Oz”-style journey to find her, and to find answers about this strange afterlife. I liked the film a lot.

Up next: “This Film Is Not Yet Rated,” a documentary about the rating system, and the movie I was most interested in seeing at this festival. It did not disappoint me.

Documentarian Kirby Dick basically takes the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) apart, showing the contradictions, inconsistencies and blatant lies that exist as part of its secretive, totalitarian way of rating movies.

Here’s how it works: A board of nine people watch every movie submitted to them and give it a rating of G, PG, PG-13, R or NC-17. The board is anonymous; the MPAA flatly refuses to give their names. All they’ll say is that they’re all parents of children between the ages of 5 and 17.

But you can choose any three films at random and find wild inconsistencies in the way ratings are given. One fantastic sequence in “This Film Is Not Yet Rated” does a side-by-side comparison of films, showing scenes that are nearly identical to each other in content — often even with identical camera angles and lighting — but that got different ratings.

Dick also shows how violence is much, much more acceptable in movies than sex is. “Sin City,” for example, is rife with outrageous bloody violence and gets an R. “The Cooler,” meanwhile, gets an NC-17 solely because Maria Bello’s pubic hair is briefly visible in a sex scene — and yes, that’s the reason the MPAA gave the filmmaker.

There’s a clip of former MPAA head Jack Valenti (the founder of the ratings system) saying that far more movies are given the NC-17 rating because of violence than because of sex. Then Dick gives the REAL statistics: It’s the other way around, by a margin of 4 to 1. Valenti is either lying or has no idea how his own system works.

But the BEST part of the movie is when Kirby Dick hires a team of private investigators to find out who the anonymous members of the ratings board are! And guess what? Contrary to what the MPAA tells people, one of the board members has NO children, while several others have children who are much older than 17. I guess you can make up whatever lies you want about your hiring practices when you don’t think anyone will ever find out who you’ve hired.

If you don’t like the rating the board gives your movie, you can appeal. The appeal goes to an entirely separate board, which is also anonymous — EVEN THOUGH YOU’RE MEETING WITH THEM FACE-TO-FACE. That’s right: You sit in a room with them and discuss your movie with them, but you are not allowed to know their names. Everyone, the filmmaker included, wears a number instead. (Dick unmasks the appeals board, too, by the way, and puts all their names on the screen. He tells us their day jobs, too, mostly as heads of theater chains and other film-related corporations.)

Oh, and in that appeal, you are NOT ALLOWED to cite precedent. You can’t say, “Such-and-such film included a scene that was exactly like mine, but you only gave it an R, while you gave mine an NC-17.” If you bring up other films, the MPAA lawyer will cut you off and make you stop talking. Dick learns all this when he submits an early version of his own film — “This Film Is Not Yet Rated” — to the MPAA board and gets, predictably, an NC-17. (Which means that “This Film Is Not Yet Rated” is, in fact, rated.)

I would love to have been in the room when the ratings board watched a movie about themselves — a movie that discloses their identities and shows the hypocrisy of their organization. I’m surprised they didn’t make up a new, even stricter rating just for the occasion.

The MPAA’s defense of its outrageously unfair system is that you don’t HAVE to get your movie rated at all. You can release it with no rating if you want to. Of course, they know good and well that many theater chains refuse to show unrated films, and that being “unrated” is almost as poisonous as being NC-17. But they don’t care, obviously. They have their insular little system, they’re the only game in town, and filmmakers have absolutely no recourse, no way of fighting to change the system. As one interviewee observes, it might be better if it were the government doing it, because at least then all of its practices would be subject to judicial review. The MPAA doesn’t have to answer to anyone.

One more stupid Jack Valenti statement. He says: “If you make a movie that a lot of people want to see, no rating will hurt you. And if you make a movie that nobody wants to see, no rating will help you.” He goes on to say that a movie’s rating has no effect on its box office — which is complete and utter crap, of course. Everyone in the industry knows PG-13 is the most lucrative rating. It lets teenagers watch it without a parent or guardian, but it doesn’t have the “only for kids” stigma of PG and G. When studios want a film to be a huge hit, they ensure that it gets a PG-13 rating. Is Jack Valenti a liar or merely an idiot?

As one who has often being amazed by the MPAA’s outrageously arbitrary system, I was stunned to see just how screwed up the organization is. I mean, I knew ratings were given inconsistently; you need only compare the raunchiness of a PG-13 Austin Powers film with the tameness of, say, the R-rated “Hide and Seek” (that Robert DeNiro/Dakota Fanning thriller) to see how draconian and pharisaical the MPAA is.

What I didn’t realize was how secretive they are, how they break their own rules constantly, how they treat different types of films differently. A lesbian teenager masturbating while fully clothed in “But I’m a Cheerleader” warrants an NC-17 rating, while Jason Biggs violating a pastry with his naked butt visible in “American Pie” gets an R. Why? Because at least the Jason Biggs character was fantasizing about the OPPOSITE sex. What kind of sense does that make?

Anyway, maybe you don’t care about all of this. But the movie was fascinating to me, an almost perfect exposé of one of America’s most influential yet mysterious groups.

Scott from HBS.com and I went to Burger King afterward, where there was more ranting and raving. When it comes to ranting and raving, Scott is much better at it than I am, not to mention louder. They don’t call him The Angry Jew for nothing.

I went to festival headquarters after that to write for a while, and thence to the Eccles for a public screening of “Cargo.” There I ran into my pal Shawn Levy, film critic for The Oregonian, and we chatted until the movie began. It was a shame we couldn’t continue chatting during the movie, or instead of the movie, or in a way that would set the movie on fire, because the movie sucked.

It’s set aboard a cargo ship whereon a young man has stowed away and, upon being discovered, is witness to all manner of odd occurrences. But the movie is obtuse and obscure, leaving some things unexplained and others not explained well. It was dreadfully unsatisfying, like pulling apart an Oreo to discover not creme but mayonnaise. (Actually, that sounds kind of good. Never mind.)

When I left “Cargo,” it was about 7:40 p.m. and I was hedging my bets. It was a few hours before I had any specific obligation, but I wasn’t sure I felt like seeing a movie in the meantime. The alternative was to find a place to sit and write for a while; the problem is, my laptop is five years old (or 8,000,000 in computer years), and its battery runs out after 15 minutes of use. Hence, I needed a place with an electrical outlet to plug the charger into, and you’d be surprised how many coffeeshops, restaurants and other places of leisure don’t have outlets readily available, and festival headquarters and the Sundance House were closed by now.

So on a whim, I got off the shuttle bus at the Yarrow and wandered into an 8 p.m. press screening of something called “Son of Man.” The description looked interesting: the biblical story of Jesus, set in modern-day Africa. It sounded crazy — just crazy enough to work.

It’s not a great movie, as it turns out — there is almost no characterization or emotional connection — but it’s worth seeing just to see how the story of the Gospels is adapted for modern Africa. A lot of things translate perfectly: Africa has plenty of poor people, plenty of sick people, and plenty of political and social upheaval, just as Judea did in Christ’s time. And in a land of warlords and dictators, it’s easy to see why Jesus’ message of pacifism and non-violence would strike a chord with so many listeners. So it’s an interesting concept for a film, if nothing else.

It was 9:30 now, and I was hungry. I got my car from near headquarters and drove to Pier 49 Pizza, which it turns out closes at 9. I wound up at Taco Maker, just managing to sneak in before it closed at 10. I forget sometimes that Park City is actually a small, quiet place, where everything closes early, even during Sundance, except for Main Street establishments.

I was supposed to meet some Portland-area friends at a particular Main Street restaurant at 11, so I headed up there after finishing my Taco Maker crispy bean burritos. Alas, the restaurant in question was closed — not permanently, like Burgie’s, but just tonight. (Why do you close your restaurant in the middle of the city’s busiest week?) I had some more time to kill anyway, so I walked up and down Main Street, watching the lines of well-dressed young people trying to gain access to parties and concerts, seeing how everyone constantly scans the crowds for famous faces, noticing how as soon as I recognize that a person is fat or has bad hair, I automatically eliminate them from the “possibly famous” category, feeling bad about that because it means Rosie O’Donnell could walk past me and I wouldn’t even know it.

I was looking for an alternate meeting place for my Portland friends, and I was surprised to see how many restaurants, even on Main Street, were closed after 10. All the closed businesses were especially distressing to me now, as the Taco Maker crispy bean burritos, while delicious, had performed an act of terrorism upon me, giving me an immediate and non-negotiable desire to use a bathroom.

As luck would have it, I passed a clothing store that was still open. (Why do restaurants close at 10 while clothing stores stay open until midnight? What kind of backward place is this?) From the window I could see they had a public restroom (which is also unusual for a clothing store, but I wasn’t going to question it). I didn’t want to be uncool or crass by barging in JUST to use the restroom, but I figured if I feigned interest in their merchandise for a few minutes, I could then casually say, “Oh, I think I’ll use your restroom as long as I’m here.”

This was a very trendy, very hip kind of store. The shirts, which look no different in style or quality from the $25 ones at Old Navy, cost $90. The blue jeans were upwards of $100. There was a handmade leather jacket for $1,150, which is more than I paid for my car. Even if I could afford a $1,150 jacket, I wouldn’t be cool enough to wear it. They probably wouldn’t even sell it to me, the way stores won’t sell belly-exposing shirts to girls who will look awful in them (unless it’s only in my perfect fantasy world where stores do that).

My plan went off without a hitch. I pretended to be legitimately interested in blowing hundreds of dollars on clothes — or at least open to the possibility — before nonchalantly moseying to the restroom, where an episode of alarming fury was unleashed on the facilities. I made a hasty retreat thereafter, wanting to flee the scene before my crime was discovered.

It was too late to meet my Portland friends now, as I was seeing a midnight movie with Scott the Angry Jew at the Egyptian Theatre on Main Street, and also because no new meeting place had been established. As I walked toward the theater, whom should I run into but my friend Adam Johnson, an occasional actor, a frequent Sundance visitor, and an excellent Christopher Walken impersonator. He was working for the festival, driving people around in Volkswagens (the official car of Sundance). At present, he was waiting for someone named Quentin to emerge from a restaurant, one of the few eateries open past 10, apparently. We don’t think it was Tarantino, but we couldn’t think of any other Quentins who would be getting limousine services from Sundance.

While I was chatting with Adam, a friend of his who is also driving VWs all week showed up to collect Maggie Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard, who arrived momentarily and walked right past me, accompanied by an unidentified woman. Maggie looked skeletal, as is the custom in Hollywood. Peter looked like Peter. And who was the third person? Chaperone? Third wheel? Anyway, they all got into Adam’s friend’s VW and sped away, and I left Adam to wait for the unfamous Quentin, whoever he was.

Scott and I watched “Salvage,” a very low-budget, low-impact, low-quality horror film about a girl who keeps imagining she’s being stalked and killed by a maniac. It becomes apparent early on that little or none of what’s happening to her is real, and so the question is: Why should we be scared for her?

Approximately half the shots in the movie are of the girl backing away slowly from something. The other half are of her walking slowly down stairs or around corners, saying, “Hello? Is someone there?” Scott and I hightailed it as soon as the movie was over, cursing ourselves at having stayed out so late for something so useless. I hurried back to the condo and fell asleep, though not necessarily in that order.


Day 7 (Wednesday, Jan. 25):

Since I didn’t get to bed until nearly 3 a.m., I slept in a bit — all the way until 9! — and then went to the Yarrow to do some writing before the 11 a.m. screening. After writing for about 15 minutes, I fell asleep for a half-hour. Apparently, my prose is so dull, I fall asleep just WRITING it.

I kid, of course; my prose is lively and effervescent. But despite getting slightly more sleep last night than I had been, I was still one tired son of a gun. I was dragging all day, sometimes literally.

It was all I could do to stay awake during “Subject Two,” the 11 a.m. press screening. The film is a modern take on “Frankenstein,” with a hermitic doctor repeatedly killing and reviving his assistant in an attempt to discover immortality. That sounds bad, being murdered and resurrected by your boss, but really, I’ve had worse jobs.

Scott the Angry Jew and Erik Childress and I went to Burger King for lunch, where Scott pointed out our physical flaws and did an unflattering impersonation of Erik. You would sense the irony in this if you ever saw Scott or heard him speak.

I spent some time at Sundance headquarters after that, writing and gathering press kits and socializing and whatnot. Then it was back to the Yarrow for “Little Miss Sunshine,” the hit of the festival.

This film was purchased earlier in the week for $10 million. The only other Sundance film to be bought for that much was “Happy, Texas,” the 1999 comedy that went on to gross … less than $2 million. It was such a big Sundance hit, and the Weinsteins figured they could make a fortune off it, and then it tanked. A typical price for a Sundance hit is more like 2 or 3 million. I’m just sayin’.

Anyway, “Little Miss Sunshine” was a big hit with Sundance audiences in its public screenings, and now the press had a chance to see it, too. The screening was packed — it was this year’s “Hustle and Flow” or “Napoleon Dynamite” — and the room was too warm, but I believe most of us enjoyed the film.

It’s a comedy about angst and dysfunction in an Albuquerque family, one of those groups that puts the “querque” in “Albuquerque.” The son has taken a vow of silence, the little girl wants to be in beauty pageants, the uncle is gay and suicidal, the dad is a failed motivational speaker, and so forth. Steve Carell is the uncle, Greg Kinnear is the dad, Toni Collette is the mom. It’s funny stuff, overall, the kind of thing that could certainly have mass appeal if it’s marketed correctly (which I don’t think “Happy, Texas” was).

Next up: a press screening of “Right at Your Door,” a quasi-thriller set in Los Angeles on the day that terrorists have detonated a series of chemical bombs. Citizens are urged to stay inside and seal off their houses, which our hero finally does — and then his wife stumbles home, contaminated by the poison and highly contagious. If hubby lets her in, he’ll die, too. What’s a guy to do?

I liked the film if only for its successful portrayal of the panic and intensity that would surely follow such a disaster in real life. The first 20 minutes or so reminded me quite a bit of “24,” actually, which is a good thing. It doesn’t quite hold up, though, and it wound up reminding me of “Open Water” in that it involves a husband and wife in a stressful situation where the wife annoys me and I hope she gets eaten by a shark.

I had one more movie before I could call it a day and get some sleep, and it was a public screening at the Park City Racquet Club. Now, I don’t like this venue. It was added just last year, and I resent it because it’s not really “on the way” to anyplace, and so it screwed up all the shuttle-bus routes. (They’re still working out the kinks in the shuttle system, apparently: Each time I have gotten on the “Theater Loop” bus this week, it has taken a different route. It’s like the drivers are randomly deciding which order to take the stops.)

This was my first visit to the Racquet Club this year, and I was delighted to find they had introduced stadium seating! Bear in mind, the “theater” part of the venue is usually a basketball court. Everything Sundance-y is temporary. So making it stadium seating must have required an enormous amount of extra effort, and I applaud the festival organizers for doing it. Now if they can just get the bus drivers to quit improvising, they festival will be nearly perfect.

The movie was “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints,” a slice-of-life coming-of-age drama set in Queens in 1986. It’s a good film, very artfully made, and it reminded me of “Raising Victor Vargas,” a Sundance entry from a few years ago that just as vividly and authentically recreated the streets of New York. It’s just like being there, only less smelly.


Day 8 (Thursday, Jan. 26):

At some point today, I lost my little pocket notebook where I jot down miscellaneous data and observations. It’s not the book I take notes in during movies, thank goodness, or I’d never be able to review all the movies I saw this week. But it was still kind of important, because it’s where I wrote down things that I wanted to talk about in this report. So I’m relying on my memory, which is erratic.

City Weekly’s coverage of Sundance ended yesterday, and so did our residence at the swanky condo. Last night, then, I slept on the couch at my friend Smacky’s place in Salt Lake City. But the real news is that I got eight hours of sleep — down at 1 a.m., up at 9. I faced the day with new vigor, aided by the brightly shining sun and the warmer temperatures and an extra dose of heroin with my morning Slim-Fast.

Contrary to custom, the festival showed few signs of slowing down today. Press screenings were still full, the public screening I attended was jam-packed, and traffic on Main Street was still horrific. (Why anyone actually attempts to drive on Main Street during Sundance, instead of parking and using a shuttle bus, is beyond me.)

Another reason it didn’t seem as late in the festival as it actually is: I haven’t walked out of anything yet. Thursday is usually the day I lose patience with movies that aren’t going anywhere, that clearly aren’t going to get any better, and stop wasting my time with them. Yet here we are, at the end of Thursday, and I’ve finished everything I’ve started. Am I growing more tolerant of mediocrity? That seems unlikely. (See my review of “Big Momma’s House 2?.)

My HBS.com pals were gone, though — Erik back to Chicago and Scott to Philly — and that’s how I can tell the festival is almost over, when Erik and Scott are no longer around to joke and laugh and rant and rave with me. I kid them in this diary sometimes, but I tease because I love. (Except with Rosie O’Donnell. I tease her because she’s annoying.)

First up today was “The Night Listener,” in which Robin Williams plays a public radio personality who initiates an ongoing telephone friendship with a 14-year-old boy who is dying of AIDS. There’s something fishy about the boy, though, and especially with his foster mother (played by Toni Collette), and the radio guy sets out to determine the truth, even though it means going to Wisconsin, which I’m sure would deter many of us.

It’s not a bad film, and its prestigious cast virtually ensures it will be picked up for theatrical release at some point. I noticed something odd, though: It was the first non-documentary I’d seen at the festival this year that had homosexuals as its central characters and homosexuality as a central theme. (Williams plays one, and part of the film deals with his recently failed long-term relationship.) Meanwhile, I’ve seen three movies — “Somebodies,” “Come Early Morning” and “Eve & the Fire Horse” — that depict church-going and religious faith as positive, commendable things, a theme that is unusual in ANY movie today, let alone one playing at Sundance. Whether all of this is representative of the 120 features showing at the festival, or whether it’s a coincidence, I don’t know. It’s an interesting trend, though: less gay, more church. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

It was lunchtime next, and though Burger King has been a regular festival destination, I considered giving the Chinese buffet next to the Holiday Village Theatre a try. I ate there a few years ago and was not pleased, but those places are always changing cooks, managers, selections and so forth, so I thought it might be worth checking out again. But when I walked in the door, whom should I see greeting me and offering me a table but the inattentive waiter/manager at the Yarrow Hotel’s Corner Cafe! Apparently he has two jobs. His presence here struck me as a bad omen, so I skedaddled and headed for Burger King, where I belong.

I was planning to attend a 10 p.m. press screening of “The Darwin Awards,” but after lunch a crazy idea struck me: There was a public screening at the Library at 2:30. Could I catch that and still make it back to Holiday Village in time for the 4:30 press screening of “Art School Confidential”? It might be tight, but I thought I could do it. The Holiday Village isn’t far from the Library; I could walk it in 10 minutes if I had to, though of course I hoped it didn’t come to that.

“The Darwin Awards” premiered at the Eccles last night and has been highly anticipated, if only because of its subject matter. You know the Darwin Awards, of course — people who are “praised” for dying as the result of their own stupid actions, because it means they have removed their inferior genes from the gene pool. The movie is about an insurance adjuster who seeks to find common risk factors among people who died in a Darwinian fashion. It stars Joseph Fiennes and Winona Ryder and features comedic re-enactments of some famous Darwin deaths (like the guy who strapped a rocket to his car and smashed into the side of a mountain).

The Library screening was packed, with many would-be wait-listers being turned away. The director, Finn Taylor (who also made “Cherish,” a highlight of the 2002 festival), and his group sat behind me. I told him before the screening that I had enjoyed his last film and was looking forward to this one. He seemed very gracious and humble. I overheard him amazedly telling his companions that he’d heard about a pair of tickets to last night’s premiere being scalped for $1,000. I doubt that actually happened, but it was charming to hear a filmmaker be so genuinely surprised and awestruck by his own popularity.

Unfortunately, “The Darwin Awards” is not a very good movie at all. For one thing, it focuses not on the actual news stories that become Darwin Awards, but on the urban legends that never really happened (like the guy who strapped a rocket to his car and smashed into the side of a mountain). For another thing, if you’ve heard the stories before, the surprise — and therefore the humor — is ruined.

More importantly, though, it’s just kind of a mess of a film. For no reason, the main character is being followed around by a film student doing a documentary. (The kid is often clearly not in the car with them, yet he always seems to wind up where they’re going.) Also for no reason, the two main characters fall in love with each other, in a development that is the very definition of “obligatory.” There’s an absurd subplot involving a serial killer who eluded the insurance investigator back when he was a cop — eluded the entire police force, in fact, even though his face and voice were caught on camera and he therefore ought to be pretty easy to find.

Disappointed in the film, I scurried out of the venue, onto a shuttle bus, and down to Holiday Village for “Art School Confidential.” Were we just speaking of disappointments? Yes, yes we were. Directed by Terry Zwigoff, of “Ghost World” and “Bad Santa,” I had been warned that “Art School Confidential” is funny for 45 minutes and then falls apart, but I didn’t even think the first 45 minutes were very funny. It’s set at a liberal arts college, and it makes fun of the types of students — vulgar filmmakers, gay fashion designers, vegan hippie artists, etc. — to surprisingly little comedic effect, considering how easy those targets are. And then the movie is like, “Whoops, we have this subplot, where there’s a killer bumping off students, and I guess we’d better deal with that. Shoot.”

That was it for me today. Only three movies, which is a rather light load for Sundance. The other press screenings either didn’t interest me or were for movies I’d already seen. The public screenings were similarly unappealing. So maybe the festival is winding down after all. Soon it will stop altogether, and all the movie people will have to go back to their real lives, which luckily aren’t very realistic anyway.


Day 9 (Friday, Jan. 27):

The weather was cold and ugly today, with several periods of precipitation that was somewhere between snow and rain — snain, as it’s known in meteorological circles. It was hideous and freezing, like Angelica Huston.

Yet the festival still showed no signs of slowing down. Press screenings are often desolate by this time, but three of the four I attended today were packed full. It may be because, unlike previous years, there are no press screenings at all on Saturday, so the journalists have to make hay while the sun is shining, as the old Koranic saying goes.

It may also be because so far the festival has been lackluster, and everyone’s still holding out hope of seeing something spectacular. My feelings mirror what a lot of others have said: I’ve seen a couple that were great, a lot that were OK, and several that were mediocre. Usually there’s something that just blows you away, but this year, not so much.

Several press screenings that I was interested were lined up in a row today, so I didn’t take in any public screenings. First up: “The Science of Sleep,” the latest from Michel Gondry, whose “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” was one of the best films of 2004. It’s a good companion piece to “Eternal Sunshine,” focusing on a Mexican-born France-dwelling young man (Gael Garcia Bernal) whose dream life is constantly intruding on his waking life. We are given intimate access to the strange workings of his mind, and I can’t think of a better director to stage such trips than Gondry. It’s a playful, wistfully funny movie, and one of my favorites of the festival (though it still didn’t blow me away).

Sitting next to me was a fellow member of the press whose name I didn’t get who was a chatty, friendly seatmate before the film began. We talked about what we’d seen, what we liked, what we didn’t like, and so forth. He seemed the very picture of amiable professionalism. Then, 20 minutes into the film, he got his phone out and checked his voice mail, which I could hear, too. Twenty minutes after that, he left.

I have to say, I’m rather appalled at the way some of my colleagues conduct themselves in these screenings. I mentioned the BlackBerry situation earlier in the week. These devices (and other text-messaging gadgets) have become so prominent in the last 12 months that while they were never mentioned last year, this year they are included in the pre-screening “turn off your cell phones” announcement. At both press and public shows, people are admonished to turn off anything that makes noise, and to please keep those texting devices put away, because the light from them is distracting. Those in attendance nod their heads and issue grunts of agreement at that last part, yet people continue to use their BlackBerrys during movies, too.

I wonder if it’s ever the same people. I wonder if there’s someone who thinks, “Oh, my, yes, those things are annoying. I’m glad they made an announcement before the movie started,” and then lights up his own BlackBerry midway through the picture. I bet it happens that way. I know for a fact that there are some people who think certain rules apply to other people but not to them. I’d love to have a sense of self-importance that was that inflated. It must feel great.

After “The Science of Sleep,” I needed lunch but I didn’t have time to stray very far. My options were limited. I refuse to eat at The Corner Cafe in the Yarrow, and I was really, really tired of Burger King. The only other place within easy walking distance was China Panda Buffet, which I once ate at, didn’t enjoy, and didn’t like the looks of when I peeked in yesterday. But I knew they had wi-fi, and I had Internet things to do. So I took a chance.

When the hostess seated me, I asked if there was a table near an electric outlet that I could plug my laptop charger into. She very gracious said of course there was, and pointed me to an appropriate table. I was impressed by her willingness to help me out. Things were looking up.

Then I sampled the buffet. It was 3:20, a good 40 minutes before it officially ended, yet already the buffet had lost its will to live. Several items were gone altogether; others had just a little bit left, sticky and heat-lamp-damaged. There was no indication that anything was going to be replenished. Obviously the kitchen staff had decided that since they were ahead in the score, they might as well just run out the clock. But hey, at least they had wi-fi. For this I paid $8.

I trouped back to the Holiday Village Theatre then, where I found another packed press screening. My friend David Walker, film critic for Portland’s Willamette Week (to which I am an occasional contributor), was there. It was the first time I’d seen him since he arrived on Tuesday, so I was glad to have confirmation that he was actually here and not just pretending to be.

The movie was “Thank You for Smoking,” another one I’d been looking forward to, having just read the Christopher Buckley novel on which it is based and finding it quite enjoyable. The movie, adapted and directed by Ivan Reitman’s son Jason Reitman, is a dark satire about a lobbyist for the tobacco industry, a man whose best friends are his counterparts for the alcohol and firearms industries — the Merchants of Death, they self-deprecatingly call themselves. The film is a razor-sharp satire of modern American politics and spin-doctoring, and another great entry in the festival.

There was a brief break, and then I was back in the same theater again for “Moonshine.” The film guide description raised several red flags: The film was made by a 20-year-old kid for $9,200 and featuring all local actors from his hometown in Connecticut. (Did you catch all the warning signs? Twenty years old; ultra-low budget; local actors; Connecticut.) My buddy Scott Renshaw of Salt Lake City Weekly said that since it was his last Park City screening of the festival, he wouldn’t be shy about leaving the film early if necessary.

Turns out it was necessary. I think he lasted 30 minutes. “Moonshine” is a very bad film, but it’s a very particular kind of bad. It’s dull, too serious and peculiar. It’s set in what must be the most depressing town on Earth, where everyone speaks without inflection or enthusiasm. A kid gets a job at a convenience store run by a drunken, nicotine-addicted floozy who wears leopard-print tops. The kid has a crush on the other employee, a girl his own age, but she’s getting married soon. After almost an hour of talking and wasting time and not doing anything, there are vampires. The end. Rarely have I longed so much for two robot companions to watch a bad movie with me.

It was after 9 p.m., and I had to eat dinner. Sigh. I had to go to Burger King. It was fine. I probably won’t eat at Burger King again for another 355 days.

The last movie of the day was “The Illusionist,” starring Edward Norton as a Viennese magician circa 1900. He’s in love with a duchess, but she’s engaged to a prince, and you know how that always goes (i.e., not well). Paul Giamatti is excellent as the police inspector assigned by the prince to uncover the illusionist’s secrets, but Norton is disappointingly bad as the magician. His accent is somewhere between British and Austrian — Braustrian, as it’s known in dialectical circles.


Day 10 (Saturday, Jan. 28):

This entry is kind of a sham, since I didn’t do anything Sundance-related today. The festival officially ends tomorrow, but it was really done yesterday. There were no press screenings today, and no public screenings I was particularly interested in attending. (I had other obligations tonight anyway. I do have a life outside this festival, you know.)

The awards were announced tonight. I note that I saw very few of the films that won them. I hardly saw any of the documentaries in competition, so it doesn’t surprise me that I didn’t see the winners. Among the dramatic films, I saw several, but not “Quinceañera,” which won the Grand Jury Prize AND the Audience Award (which is a rare double-dip, at least according to my memory). It’s sort of my own fault: I heard buzz that it would win, yet I still failed to see it.

Most of the very best films I saw — “Neil Young: Heart of Gold,” “This Film Is Not Yet Rated,” “The Science of Sleep,” etc. — were not in competition but were in the “Premieres” category, where they are showcased but not judged. Among the films eligible for jury awards that I saw, I would have been hard-pressed to choose a winner. None of them seemed great enough. But again, I didn’t see everything.

I saw 37 movies during the festival. I feared that figure would be much lower than usual because of the pre-festival screenings I used to attend that I missed this year due to not living in Utah anymore. (That’s the one drawback to not living in Utah anymore, by the way.) But by the end of last year’s festival, I had seen 43 films, only six more than this year — and I only saw 32 of those DURING the festival. So in fact 37 during the festival itself is pretty good. I feel good about 37. It’s a respectable total. So shut up.

Another different thing about this year’s festival is that I didn’t walk out of anything. I saw a few bad films, to be sure, but nothing SO bad or SO useless that I lost all patience with it. No F-grade movies this year.

Unfortunately, A-grade movies were in short supply, too. Yet even a so-so Sundance Film Festival offers more entertainment, illumination and imagination than any 10-day period at the local multiplex. Talking about a “mediocre festival” is like talking about a mediocre episode of “Arrested Development”: It’s still better than most of the alternatives.

My thanks to Scott Renshaw of Salt Lake City Weekly for including me in his paper’s Sundance coverage, and for the posh accommodations the first few days. My hat is also off to the energetic, hard-working people in the press office who keep things running. The volunteers are to be commended as well, flying in from all over the country for 10 days in exchange for nothing more than the chance to see a few free movies. The festival absolutely wouldn’t happen if it weren’t for them. This was my seventh year at the festival, and I’m already looking forward to No. 8. See you in 2007!


Days 1-5 can be found here.


link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=1696
originally posted: 01/26/06 18:33:49
last updated: 03/02/06 22:17:39
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