1998 Sundance Film Festival Update #1 (January 19, 1998)

By James Berardinelli

One thing I can say about Park City - the weather has presented all sorts of surprises. At this time of the year in a mountainous ski resort, you expect snow, and it has made several appearances. What you don't expect, however, are torrential downpours of rain and sun-kissed afternoons where the temperature soars into the upper 40s. Both of those were equally in evidence. So far, one thing that Park City has not been is bitter cold. In fact, the temperature has been so mild that I have many times eschewed the shuttle in favor of half-mile walks from theater to theater.

As with any film festival, Sundance has its good points and its bad points. To start things out on a positive note, I'll deal with the former in this column and the latter next time around. Besides, my biggest complaint about the entire trip has nothing to do with the film festival, and everything to do with United Airlines.

Before going to Sundance, I had heard all sorts of horror stories. Thankfully, most of them turned out to be apocryphal. The most frequently-voiced complaint is that the festival had outgrown its origins and was now far too big for what is, essentially, a small resort town. According to first-hand accounts from last year, every showing was sold out far in advance and it was almost impossible to get into a screening without standing in a wait line for at least two to three hours - and even then, there were no guarantees. This year isn't like that. In fact, I've gotten into every film I wanted to see with a minimal struggle. Granted, it sometimes takes a little bartering, a willingness to get up early to snag a ticket released at the last minute, or some time spent in a wait list line. Nevertheless, here as a "normal" patron (not a member of the press), I have still found it relatively easy to get into almost any screening. One reason that Sundance is more audience-friendly this year than last is the addition of the 1300-seat Eccles Theater to the roster. Although many of the Eccles showings have been "Sold Out", everyone on each wait list, no matter how long, gets in. This lessens the strain on the other theaters and makes it a lot easier to see what's wanted.

Myth #2 is that parking is a nightmare. Who doesn't remember stories from last year of Roger Ebert's car being towed? (Ebert, by the way, is not at this year's festival, although that has more to do with other commitments than with bad memories.) Not having been in Park City last year, I don't know whether anything has changed between then and now, but I haven't had any trouble finding a parking spot, regardless of the time of day. Of course, I haven't tried to change parking lots for each screening. I have used foot power and the shuttles (more on that in update #2).

Finally, there's the myth that the festival volunteers and staff members are universally surly. Sure, from time-to-time, I have encountered someone who wasn't always smiling, but almost everyone (even those who are completely clueless about their jobs) has been polite. The overall organization is about as good as anyone can reasonably expect from a film festival that accommodates this many people. In general, I'd have to say that Sundance, while not a pleasure, was less of a headache than I expected it to be.

So what about the films, the core of the festival? I'm going to divide them into three loose categories: World Cinema (which includes the American Spectrum), Premieres, and Dramatic Competition entries (I didn't see any of the Documentary Competition films, betraying my general dislike for that particular genre). In this commentary, I'll cover World Cinema; in update #2, it will be the Dramatic Competition; in update #3, it will be Premieres. Now, without further ado, here's what I saw from around the globe...

The best of the best was a Spanish film called Open Your Eyes ( out of ) from director Alejandro Amenabar. It's a strange, wonderful film that starts out as a Beauty and the Beast romance, then develops into something far more complex and completely unexpected. The film introduces us to Cesar (Eduardo Noriega), a rich and handsome young man who is used to having the best in everything, including women. One day, Cesar falls for the lovely Sofia (Penelope Cruz, Belle Epoque), the first one to ever capture his heart, but the revenge of a former lover turns his idyllic life into a nightmare. It's unfair to reveal much more about the plot for Open Your Eyes, which has more twists and turns than anything I've seen in a long time. In some ways, it's reminiscent of 1997's The Game with more than a dash of Total Recall, but the serpentine workings of the plot seem much more clever and less of a cheat than in either of those movies. With its complex presentation of dreams, memories, illusion, and reality, Open Your Eyes represents a startling, innovative, and compelling tale that doesn't reveal its final surprise until the closing moments. If there's a negative regarding the movie, it's that it doesn't currently have a North American distributor and may be doomed to playing the U.S. film festival circuit rather than receiving the wider release it deserves. Of all the films playing at Sundance, this is one of the few about which I haven't heard a bad word spoken. Sadly, by playing in the World Cinema program, it is receiving far too little exposure.

Another strong entry was Thom Fitzgerald's The Hanging Garden (), the centerpiece of the 1997 Toronto Film Festival's "Perspective Canada" series. With an intriguing, involving script, a unique perspective on the dysfunctional family, and several fine performances, it deserves the acclaim it has received in the last four months. Most of The Hanging Garden takes place during a twenty-four hour period beginning with the wedding of Rosemary (Kerry Fox). It's on that day that her long-absent, gay brother, William (Chris Leavins) finally comes home to make peace with the present and bury the past. His interaction with his parents, his grandmother, and his siblings forms the core of this intriguing film. Director Fitzgerald handles the material like a pro (even though this is his first feature), displaying a distinctive visual style, and injecting a fair amount of humor into what is, in essence, a tragic tale about abuse, misunderstanding, and love gone awry. By intercutting flashbacks with scenes from the present and bringing the past to life through ghostly images, Fitzgerald fleshes out the history of the characters effectively. And, if there's one overriding theme to this motion picture, it's that, no matter how far anyone runs, there's no escaping the consequences of one's actions.

At the other end of the quality spectrum is Davide Ferrario's We All Fall Down (), a rather unoriginal, uninspired look at ennui in the twenty-something generation. Frankly, I'm tired of this sort of film, and the only new twist offered by this picture is that it come from Italy, not the United States. The plot is simple enough, showing us snippets from the life of Walter (Valerio Mastandrea), a down-and-out young resident of Turin who doesn't have a job, a girlfriend, or a purpose in life. He spends most of his days in pursuit of either of his two primary goals: doing as little as possible or losing his virginity. Director Ferrario has a kinetic style, which often causes We All Fall Down to resemble an interminably- long MTV video. The occasional burst of humor fail entirely to eclipse the film's general repetitiveness, and, worst of all, Walter turns out to be the kind of "sympathetic protagonist" who we grow to absolutely loathe. He's okay at the beginning, but, with every passing minute, his capacity to irritate the audience grows. By the time the film ends, it's a relief to be done with him.

One of the most absorbing character studies in the festival was a little American-made film called A, B, C... Manhattan (). Directed by Iran-born Amir Naderi (who examines life in the U.S. with a clear gaze), this movie follows a day in the lives of three New York City women who share an apartment (actually, two of them live together; the third hasn't yet moved in). There's 25-year old Colleen (Lucy Knight), a single mother who spends her hours sitting at a bar, contemplating how to offer a better life to her daughter. 22-year old Kate (Sara Paul) is a musician who's trying to escape from a crushing, unhealthy relationship. And 18-year old Kacey (Erin Norris) is a bisexual who has been dumped by her girlfriend and has lost her dog. During the course of the film, all three learn what it means to lose hope and to let go as a result. Plot-wise, nothing much transpires, but the characters are so vividly-drawn and well-acted (by three promising newcomers) that it's impossible not to become absorbed in their lives, however mundane and ordinary they may be. It's a pity that there's less interaction between the three, but what's on the screen is a more-than-worthwhile way to spend a couple of hours. A, B, C... Manhattan represents one of Sundance's more original offerings. However, since it isn't part of the Dramatic Competition program, it's unclear whether it will receive enough attention to attract a distributor. This is another one to look out for on the U.S. Film Festival circuit.

As a lover of film noir, I appreciated The Well (), Australian film maker Samantha Lang's debut feature. The movie, which concentrates on the relationship between a middle-aged woman (Pamela Rabe, Paradise Road) and her wild, uninhibited, young companion (Miranda Otto, Love Serenade), takes place in a small, isolated, contemporary town Down Under that echoes the frontier settlements in the Old West. Although The Well starts out like a female version of the buddy movie with a few obvious lesbian undercurrents (young girl and older woman form a bond while teaching each other about life), it eventually turns grim and mysterious following an unexpected accident. From that moment onward, this movie, which oozes atmosphere, becomes progressively more compelling. The Well is strong enough to overcome a slow beginning and the one explanatory shot at the end that should have been left out (even the director agrees that including this might have been a mistake). This film stands a reasonable chance of picking up a North American distributor.

The final film I'm going to mention here is Junk Mail (), which generated an incredibly strong buzz at last year's Toronto Film Festival (where I had originally planned to see it). It tells the story of the laziest, most inept mailman in the world, a weasel named Roy (Robert Skjaerstad). Roy doesn't take his job very seriously - he opens letters, throws away mail, and does everything possible to invade the privacy of his the men and women he is supposed to serve. One day, however, his curiosity gets him in a precarious situation. While snooping around the apartment of a girl he has fallen for (and who unwisely left a set of keys where Roy could get his hands on them), the mailman becomes involved in a complicated crime that involves robbery and murder. This edgy, entirely original movie succeeds for a couple of reasons: it isn't afraid of breaking the rules (the lead character, for example, is a pathetic loser who never finds redemption) and it never overexplains itself to the audience. It's a fresh, quirky picture that will appeal to anyone looking for something that, as Monty Python put it, is completely different. It's unclear whether this will get any kind of widespread U.S. distribution, but it has already become, and will likely continue to be, a film festival favorite.

Sundance also offers a few additional World Cinema offerings that I haven't seen, but which are generating some fairly strong buzz. These include The Castle, a supposedly hilarious, low-budget Australian comedy from director Rob Sitch; Girls' Night, an English drama starring Secrets and Lies' Brenda Blethyn; and Lawn Dogs, the new feature from John Duigan.

Coming in Update #2: The Dramatic Competition, including Vincent Gallo's directorial debut, Ally Sheedy's attempt at a career change, and an independent version of the wretched romantic comedy, 'Til There Was You...

© 1998 James Berardinelli

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