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Movieman's Sundance Diary (Day 1)
by Erik Childress

The plan was simple. Get up first thing in the morning on about six hours sleep and head over to Sundance HQ to pick up my press pass. When I awoke from my slumber, I discovered that it was not a wise idea to plug my alarm into the socket controlled by the light switch on the wall. There was no time. What a perfect beginning to my trip and also a pretentious allegory to a number of the films I’m likely to see here.

Luckily my Cosmo Kramer mental alarm was working just fine as I was indeed up by 7:35 am. Fellow bitchslapper Chris “Oz” Parry was not awake yet and neither was Scott “TheAngryJew” Weinberg, whose rejection from the Sundance Press Pass Game awarded him the opportunity to cover the fest’s bastard cousin, Slamdance, just up Main Street in Park City.

Securing press passes was very much like the first day of school (any level) as you walk into a room with various tables all designed to help those who would help give coverage for them. A quick throw out of the name and a press badge was pulled out of storage resembling the slab of Brontosaurus ribs that tipped over The Flintstones car. The thing is literally a foot long so nobody mistakes you for some poor old moviefan that’s traveled a great distance to check out some premieres. Poor bastards. It’s a little narcissistic to walk around town with your name in giant letters and a picture of yourself hung around your neck, but it’s Merlin’s key for all the press screenings. Sometimes you want to go where everyone knows your name…even if they don’t know who the hell you are.

At Sundance HQ, the press is invited to take out up to 3 screeners of selected films for 24 hours. Oz and I loaded up the shopping cart, so Scott would have something to watch in the interim before getting his Slamdance credentials. Oz took off for his first screening of the day and I prepared for a long day as well. Scott reveled in eyeballing reviews of National Security and Kangaroo Jack, films opening all over the country on Friday and the only new choices for American moviegoers while we had the pick of the litter at the fest. We felt really bad about it. But that pity lasted about 7 ½ seconds before we put on the film “Bookies” (** ½) starring Nick Stahl, Johnny Galecki, Lukas Haas and Rachael Leigh Cook. From the writer of the overlooked Panic (and, OK, Urban Legends: Final Cut), Scott called it a comedy while I saw it as yet another cautionary college drama with a chuckle here and there. It’s in no way a bad film, in many ways very entertaining for most of its 90-minute running time. It’s knowledge of the gambling world is obvious, but fails to go any deeper past the general stuff. When it succumbs to its obvious bad cokehead seed amongst the ranks and taking too many risks, it gets bogged down in the clichés. But it makes up for it with a clever ending and some really nice sequences, including a footchase intercut with a game of foozball.

From there I headed out for my first press screening of the day – People I Know with Al Pacino and Kim Basinger. Little did I know that the shuttle I was told would take me to the theater would do so on its last possible stop, arriving 15 minutes late. I wasn’t about to make my first impression by walking in post-Sundance intro (explained later) so I high-tailed it back to the condo and watched “Detective Fiction” (* ½) with Scott. This is the kind of indie film you should expect out of Sundance. A theatrical version of a play with themes of alcoholism, infidelity and “I hate you, you hate me and I hate you for hating me.” Guess what I hated? It’s only real standout is Mo Collins of MAD-TV doing dramatic work (and, at times, in her underwear.) I prayed there weren’t too many movies more like this.

NOW I’m off to my first screening at the Yarrow Hotel. The lobby is filled with Sundance info and many of its employees. Proudly wearing my press badge I walked over to the screening room, which is essentially a converted conference room. There’s about 90-100 seats, not wedged apart row-to-row like in theaters, but directly behind and in front of one another. So if a 7’5” man with an afro and a Packers cheesehat is sitting in front of you – tough shit! You can’t even move the seats. They are nailed down with planks of wood.

With Merlin’s Key all you have to do is walk up to whomever is sitting at the table outside the door, show them your pass and they reserve a seat for you. It’s recommended to get there about 15 minutes before the screening. Good advice, yet I was never lower than #17 on the list for any of the screenings on Friday.

The 2:00 screening was David Gordon Green’s “All the Real Girls” (***), a coming-of-age story about a girl who falls for her brother’s best friend. The great Zooey Deschanel plays the girl and Paul Schneider (who freakish resembles a young Dennis Quaid) is the boy whose reputation as the town’s love-‘em-and-leave-‘em Lothario is a concern for her brother. This film should have been an honest-to-God classic and will likely be praised up-and-down to some degree by all the critics. The opening scene of the film is so beautiful, so fresh and so well-acted that if it would have been the finale, I probably would have cried my eyes out. Some of the most romantic scenes in years play out in this film, starting with the opening and continuing through an applaud-worthy moment in a bowling alley when one character fails to let embarrassment keep him from showing how much he cares for this girl. The absolute joy I had for this movie begin to diminish when the “storm before the calm” cliché of romantic stories got the better of it. It’s insistence on having its protagonists asks questions of themselves through other mediums gets a little too thick too. (“You can either go this way or that way” is said to a cute little dog.) This still is a movie to embrace. The greatness far outweigh the flaws.

Heard between two obviously rich middle-age women: “Between the orange carpet, the art and the bedspread I couldn’t sleep last night.” Oh really? Shut the hell up you spoiled whores. I’m sorry that the carpet doesn’t match your dye-job or frosted bush, but nobody needs to hear about it. Here’s an idea - why don’t you have a couple drinks and then go skiing.

My second screening and fourth film of the day was Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (***). Boyle was responsible for Trainspotting but we must also hold him accountable for Shallow Grave, A Life Less Ordinary and The Beach. Good horror films are few and far between and I usually shun the fanboy position of praising something that’s even just the slightest bit above average. But this one has two words – FAST ZOMBIES! As a whole the film hardly breaks new ground and there are a few missed opportunities but its very energetic, at times manic and an overall bloody good time. It still doesn’t hold a machete to the recent Factory Theatre production of Among the Dead that I had the pleasure of seeing over and over again. It didn’t help that aspects of the story and even direct scenes were identical to the satiric nature of the Chicago production by Ryan Oliver and starring my friend and colleague Nick Digilio. (An independent militia taking in a man, woman and child, a chained-up zombie on display for them and even a character named Hannah will raise eyebrows for those who saw or starred in ATD.) On its own though, fanboys will gush like they did the overpraised army vs. werewolf pic, Dog Soldiers.

The first was during our initial night out on the town Thursday evening. Scott, Oz, Carina (aka "Maegs") and myself holed up in one of the downtown sports bar for a drink and some snacks when in walked Dustin Hoffman with a couple of others. (I have it on video, I can prove it to you.) He sat down at one of the tables and held court there for a while with the guys he came in with and a pretty hot female stargazer (at least we took her for a stargazer he didn’t know.) Scott wanted to walk up to him and (no lie) tell him that Ishtar is an underrated film. We bet him $10 to do it, but it just wasn’t to be. And, truthfully, why would you want to be THAT guy?

The second sighting wasn’t nearly as eventful, but it was still a stargazer situation to behold. Waiting in-between screenings I saw Holly Hunter walk through the hallway with some of her handlers. That’s one tiny, tiny lady – but she looked great and we did make eye contact which bodes well for Nick, whom I’ve promised to now hook up with Holly. Her Sundance tribute is in four days. I clearly had work to do.

Earlier in the day, Scott showed me what Roger Ebert had in the Sun-Times on Friday in place of his usual crop of movie reviews. It was his Sundance introduction where he proudly criticized those Sundancers who couldn’t make it through 4, 5 (or his Mariel Hemingway-like personal best) 6 films in a day. The Gauntlet had been thrown down and I was about to enter my 5th film of the day. Surprising as it may seem, Ebert nor Richard Roeper made an appearance at any of these press screenings so far and these are some of the biggest films on the docket. (Both Kenneth Turan of the LA Times and Elvis Mitchell of the NY Times were at the All the Real Girls screening.)

Number Five Is Alive! You heard me. The fifth film on my schedule was the final production by director Ted Demme (Beautiful Girls, The Ref). Co-created by screenwriter Richard LaGravenese (The Fisher King, Living Out Loud), it’s the documentary “A Decade Under the Influence” (****) Through interviews with the filmmakers who defined 70s cinema, this cinephile’s wet dream covers the broad spectrum of the independent movement defined by Roger Corman, the political climate of racism and Watergate, macho outcasts and put-upon women. Just about every living filmmaker from that time is interviewed (and by people like Scott Frank and Alexander Payne) and its staggeringly informative and funny. This is a must-see and, while still early, I can’t imagine seeing a more exhilarating piece of cinema the entire fest. (Note: Over at Slamdance, the opening night film is “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” based on the book by Peter Biskind and it promises to also explore the same era and make a great companion piece to this one.)

After eight hours at the Yarrow, I still had one more nut to crack and it was one of the top three films I had on my schedule to see. It was Keith Gordon’s revision of the BBC miniseries, “The Singing Detective” starring Robert Downey Jr., Robin Wright Penn, Jeremy Northam, Katie Holmes, Carla Gugino, Adrien Brody, Jon Polito and Mel Gibson. I couldn’t wait, jumping on the first shuttle over to the Eccles Center to catch what should be a very entertaining ride. The screening was packed, the film began and it was great. Hard-boiled detective stuff crosscut with what is an intriguing story about a severely burned novelist with flights of musical and all other sorts of fancy. For 20 minutes, there’s a solid eccentricity to it all, before it slowly begins to collapse like an elephant sitting on an unfinished flan. And I mean, VERY slowly. I’ve never been a big fan of Gordon’s slow “hey, I’m arty and smarter than you” style and here he overtakes the potentially interesting material and bleeds the life out of it. I counted nine walkouts. WALKOUTS! I couldn’t believe nine people, supposedly professionals, just got up and left (some after only a half-hour). That was until I discovered from Oz that even more people behind me bailed by jumping over the metal railings that must have been there to give the sleepy something to rest their heads on. A true disappointment if there ever was one and I’m now anxious to see the six-hour miniseries which is premiering on DVD in April. (* ½)

So, there it is. Six movies. A full day. Nothing written except some notes in-between the flicks. Saturday is a lighter day. Slamdance opens. I have three films on the schedule at 11:30, 7:45 & 10:30. A lot of press screenings are still listed as TBA and are going to play switcheroo with my plans. There’s football on Sunday and my presence at the bar for the Eagles game by my Philadelphia cohort, Scott Weinberg, is eagerly requested. I have to see the Katie Holmes/Oliver Platt movie sometime then before my interviews on Monday. The Golden Globes are Sunday night and we want to give a LIVE blow-by-blow on the website. There are a ton of gatherings and parties lined up that we’re trying to get access to. Suddenly, a week in Sundance doesn’t seem like enough time. Stay tuned.

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originally posted: 01/19/03 12:38:03
last updated: 12/31/03 08:58:17
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