1998 Sundance Film Festival Update #2 (January 21, 1998)

By James Berardinelli

Late Breaking News: word is out that my favorite film of the festival, Open Your Eyes (which I wrote about in the first update) has been acquired by Live Entertainment. Hopefully, this will enable the brilliant film to reach a wider audience than I had originally thought possible.

In my previous update, I went to some length to debunk a few of the most common myths about why the Sundance Film Festival is disliked by many of the 13,000 souls who venture through the snowy canyon to visit it. Lest anyone think that my sojourn in Park City has been a smooth, unblemished experience, I thought I'd take a little time to point out certain aspects of the festival that have detracted from my overall enjoyment of what it offers.

A source of constant annoyance has been the unreliability of the shuttles. Since the theaters in Park City are not clustered together (the gap between the Egyptian and the Eccles, for example, is several miles) and the streets and sidewalks are clogged by snow and ice, traveling by foot isn't always the best solution. That leaves two possibilities: constantly driving from place-to-place or waiting for the Sundance buses. The latter would appear to be the better choice, since the shuttles are advertised to run every 10 minutes. The reality, however, is that there have been several times when I was forced to wait for 20-25 minutes before a bus finally showed up. This becomes problematic when you have to be across town for a screening in a quarter of an hour.

Another source of irritation has been the inability of Sundance to start movies on time. Typically, regardless of the festival, screenings start five-to-ten minutes late so that the waiting list crowd can be accommodated. So, when I make out a film schedule, I always leave in a little bit of slack to account for this. For some reason, however, Sundance has trouble adhering to the five-to-ten minute delay. Only in Salt Lake City (where a select number of "off-site" screenings are held) do the movies start when they're supposed to. In Park City, it's a common phenomenon for them to begin 15 or 20 minutes after the scheduled time . Even 30 or 40 minutes isn't unheard of. Couple that with the unreliable shuttles, and you need an hour in between screenings to make sure you don't miss anything. (That said, I haven't missed one minute of one show, although I came close twice.)

Then there are the cellular phones. Nearly everyone seems to have one. Despite signs all over that say, "Please turn cellular phones off during screenings," it's inevitable that one or two will start ringing as soon as the lights dim. The omnipresence of these little electronic devices says something rather profound about the egos of many of the people attending the festival. Sure, if you work for a distributor, I can understand the need to have a cell phone ("Quick. Get a hold of director X. His new film is a winner. Put in a bid!"), but what about everyone else? Do most of these people sincerely believe that the world will come to a grinding halt of they're out if touch for a few hours? Of course, given the number of self- important publicists, who define their status by whom they represent, that's probably pretty close to the truth.

Now, having spent three paragraphs venting, which is useful and therapeutic for me, and hopefully not too boring for anyone reading this (believe it or not, a fair number of people like this sort of stuff, claiming that it gives them a "feel" for the setting), it's time to address today's group of movies: those entered into Sundance's prestigious Dramatic Category. Last year, very little of note came out of this program, and, sadly, 1998 doesn't look much better. I certainly haven't seen everything, but I've talked to people who have, and things don't look much better at the screenings I've missed.

The biggest news I heard out of the festival yesterday was that Miramax had shelled out $6 million to buy director Brad Anderson's sophomore feature, Next Stop, Wonderland (out of ). I have no idea why. While Anderson's first movie, The Darian Gap, was a pleasant diversion, Wonderland is painful to sit through. It's a trite, largely unfunny romantic comedy that has the two leads just missing each other until the final scene, when fate finally has its way with them. A friend of mine accurately called this a two-hour tease. The similarities between Next Stop, Wonderland and last year's dead-in-the-water Til There Was You are so striking that I could almost copy the review for the older film, change a few names and locations, and have an accurate encapsulation of my feelings for this one. Most distressing of all was that, going into the theater, I was looking forward to the film. What a disappointment. Yet the people at Miramax obviously like the sketchy characters, turgid, cliché-riddled plot, and uneven performance by leading lady Hope Davis (The Daytrippers). There's little doubt that, for better or for worse, this movie will eventually be coming to a theater near you.

Another disappointment was Benson Lee's Miss Monday (), the story of a British script writer who hides in a woman's closet to gain insight into the private life of a female corporate shark. The beginning, which starts out like a TV sit-com with an artificial setup and a wide assortment of lame jokes, is difficult to sit through and the ending overstays its welcome. In between, however, there is some fine drama as we get an unflinching, voyeuristic look into the intimate, sometimes surprising details of the life of a successful-yet-unhappy woman. Miss Monday contains a few moments of emotional potency that are enhanced by its candor (masturbation and bulimia are featured subjects). Actress Andrea Hart offers a memorable, courageous performance as the complex Gloria. Unfortunately, the acting of her male counterpart, James Hicks, is awkward and uneven. So, although Miss Monday has its share of high points, there are enough problems to overwhelm them. No distributor as yet (at least none that I'm aware of.)

Yet another disappointment was Lisa Cholodenko's High Art (), a lesbian romance that examines assorted secondary issues like ambition, star power, and art. The film stars Radha Mitchell and Ally Sheedy as a Syd, a young magazine editor, and her neighbor, a once-famous photographer named Lucy. Syd becomes infatuated with Lucy's work, and decides to bring her back into the art world's spotlight. In the process, she falls in love with the older woman and dumps her boyfriend. Despite its somewhat pretentious tone, High Art is little more than a well-made romantic melodrama. It's somewhat better than the usual, run-of-the-mill lesbian love story -- the characters are a little more rounded and the plot takes a few interesting turns -- but it wasn't original enough to capture my attention. And, while I'm willing to give Ally Sheedy credit for trying such a radically unusual role, she doesn't entirely pull it off. The captivating Radha Mitchell (Love and Other Catastrophes) is much better, and I left the film wishing it had concentrated more on Syd and less on her relationship with Lucy. October Films has acquired the film for under $1 million for a 1998 commercial release.

Buffalo 66 () was the only Dramatic Competition film that I unreservedly enjoyed. Writer/director Vincent Gallo (one of the stars of Palookaville) takes an inherently ordinary plot and infuses it with quirky energy. The film tells the story of Billy (Gallo), an ex-con who goes home to Buffalo, New York, after being released from jail. To keep his past a secret from his family, he comes up with a cover story, then kidnaps a sexy, troubled young girl, Layla (Christina Ricci), to play the part of his "wife." Surprisingly, despite the manner in which she first encounters him, Layla agrees to help Billy. Gallo directs this film out on the edge, successfully blending absurd, laugh-aloud comedy with a fascinating look at a deeply dysfunctional love affair. Buffalo 66 features another tremendous performance by Christina Ricci in her first truly "adult" role. Gallo and co-stars Anjelica Houston and Ben Gazarra are also good, although not up to Ricci's level. The movie is a little too uneven to be perfect, but it's lively, energetic, and a lot of fun. It already has a distributor (CFP Film Properties), so it will get some North American exposure outside of the film festival circuit.

Here's the buzz on some of the films I haven't been able to see (so many movies, so little time). Thanks to critics Scott Renshaw and Harlan Jacobson for some of these opinions. I'm sorry to have missed Hav Plenty, an African American romance that is one of the front-runners to capture the audience award. It's supposed to be funny, bright, and clever. I Married a Strange Person, Bill Plympton's animated dissection of sex and marriage, is reputed to be brilliant until it runs out of gas at the end. Jerry and Tom, starring Joe Mantegna and Sam Rockwell as used car salesmen, is said to be funny and appealing. Pi (which I missed to see A Price Above Rubies), the sci-fi thriller just acquired by Live Entertainment, has been touted as one of the festival's most innovative offerings. By all accounts, Slam, a prison drama, is a wildly uneven affair. I was advised to miss Smoke Signals (a "coming to terms with one's father" drama set on an Indian reservation), 2by4 (the story of an Irish immigrant in New York), and Under Heaven (a melodramatic, sensual love story).

The strongest contenders for the audience award seem to be Hav Plenty, Buffalo 66, and Jerry and Tom. On Saturday night, we'll see if a dark horse emerges or if one of these emerges on top.

In the next update, I'll look at the Premieres (all of which will eventually have their own full-length reviews), including a Gwyneth Paltrow double feature, Renee Zellweger's latest (which is anything but fresh), and the first effort by a female Tarantino.

© 1998 James Berardinelli

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