1998 Sundance Film Festival Update #3 (January 23, 1998)

By James Berardinelli

Sundance organizers have estimated the number of visitors at this year's film festival to be around 13,000 (up 7% from 1997). While this is small in comparison with a big-city festival like Toronto (or even a low-profile, local festival like Philadelphia), that's a lot of people to cram into a tiny, snow-covered resort locale like Park City. At any rate, the men and women who attend Sundance aren't like those who visit other festivals. Almost everyone here is cinema-savvy -- few casual film-lovers would endure the various inconveniences associated Sundance unless they really wanted to be here. Most tellingly, I heard the words "deconstructing" and "subtext" used here more often than during any other festival I've ever attended.

For those who want just a "taste of Sundance", a majority of the festival films show on screens in two Salt Lake City theaters during the 11-day period. Directors, producers, actors, and other assorted guests often appear in Salt Lake City, like in Park City, to introduce their films and participate in post-screen Q&A sessions. The upside to the Salt Lake City presentations is that they offer residents an opportunity to be part of the festival without making the 40-minute drive to the east. The downside is that the environment is much different. (Most of those I observed attending the Salt Lake City screenings were teenagers or those in their early 20s, as opposed to older audiences in Park City.) The Salt Lake City screenings satisfy the cinematic appetite of the local, casual movie-watcher. Someone living in Salt Lake City has no need or motivation to travel to Park City if all they want to do is catch a few select films.

That leaves Park City to the die-hards (and those residents of the resort town who don't despise the film festival). Many visitors fly in to enjoy a week of movies and skiing; others are just here for the festival, and regard the ski slopes as a pretty-but-inconsequential backdrop. Depending on how tightly a viewer is willing to pack his or her cinematic schedule (and how willing they are to get up early, stay up late, and skip meals), it's possible to see as many as five (or, in some rare cases, six) films per day. Three or four, however, is probably more the norm.

Critics and other members of the press make up a significant portion of the crowd, although Sundance is notoriously stingy in giving out press credentials. I suspect there are a fair number of reviewers who, like Scott Renshaw and myself, attend as regular "customers." It costs a little more, but, ultimately, it's probably a lot less complicated. I'm writing these updates because I want to. If I was in Sundance as an accredited critic, I would write them because I have to. There's a big difference. Self-imposed deadlines are significantly less pressure-packed.

Publicists and other members of the industry make up another chunk of the audience. These are generally the people with the cell phones. They're not hard to spot. Most of them walk around with a very apparent air of self-importance and expect everyone to sweep the sidewalk in front of them and step out of their way. They're the parasites of the film festival; paradoxically, however, Sundance wouldn't be nearly as big a deal without them. All of the behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing happens because they're here. To the average film-goer, however, they're just annoying.

The final contingent is comprised of the film makers. Although nearly everyone will be on hand to present their own movie, many directors, actors, and producers take time out from their busy schedule (especially after they've sold their film) to see other Sundance offerings. For the most part, the audience is sophisticated enough not to bother men and women with famous faces, which often isn't true at other festivals. Here, a Gwyneth Paltrow or Vincent Gallo can sit through a movie in relative peace; elsewhere, they'd be mobbed by autograph hounds and well-wishers.

For the most part, the biggest stars came out for the Premieres, movies making their world or U.S. debut at Sundance. Most of these higher-budget indie features already have distributors, and many feature recognizable names as stars or directors. I saw five of these titles, and was able to gather second-hand information about a few others.

The best premiere was the opening night film, Sliding Doors ( out of ), a delightful, quirky romantic comedy starring Gwyneth Paltrow in a dual role. The premise, while not unique (Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski frequently returned to themes invoked here, notably in his films The Double Life of Veronique and Blind Chance), is fresh for this genre. Paltrow plays Helen, a woman whose life proceeds in a completely different direction depending on whether or not she catches a train one morning. Sliding Doors depicts the results of both possibilities, effectively telling two stories -- one where she just squeezes through the doors before they close, and the other where she misses the ride. Director Peter Howitt then follows the destinies in parallel as they diverge, and, eventually, re- converge. The writing is smart, the characters are likable, and the plot offers a few surprises. It's an intelligent crowd-pleaser that should do well when Miramax films releases it in February.

Paltrow starred in another Sundance premiere, Great Expectations (). Like the Coen Brothers' The Big Liebowski, this was a late entry to the program, and was only advertised beforehand as a "Special Screening." A modern-day adaptation of the Dickens classic, Great Expectations tells the story of Finn (Ethan Hawke) as he tries to win the love of Estella (Paltrow), a girl he has been head-over-heels for since childhood, but who has never returned his affection. The setting has been changed from 19th Century London to contemporary Florida and New York, and the Manhattan art scene has replaced British society. More like Clueless (the 1995 updating of Jane Austen's Emma) than last year's Romeo + Juliet, Great Expectations uses many of the ideas and themes of the original without relying religiously on the text. The movie has its share of problems, but, on the whole, it's a worthwhile, if somewhat offbeat, endeavor.

Montana () generated some of the most mixed buzz of the festival. The film is actually a rather unabashed attempt to copy Tarantino that is unique for only two things: both the director, Jennifer Leitzes, and the lead actor, Kyra Sedgwick, are women. Everything else, from the shocking, visceral violence and the twisted humor to the quirky, profanity-strewn dialogue, was heavily inspired by Pulp Fiction. However, while there are some brilliantly acted scenes and more than a few very funny moments, the film as a whole left me rather unimpressed. (One of my friends was less generous -- he hated it.) The problem lies in the plot, which is too lean to support a feature film. In a nutshell, Montana is about a power struggle within a crime organization, and how loyalties are betrayed and trusts broken to achieve a new order. Sedgwick's Claire becomes the "fall guy" when the Boss' son is killed, and she and her partner, Nicholas (Stanley Tucci), soon find themselves fighting against both friends and enemies. However, while Lietzes' film lacks a clear narrative direction, there are times when the effective performances and high level of energy allow us to forget the bigger picture and enjoy the instance.

The most disappointing of all the premieres I saw was Boaz Yakin's A Price Above Rubies (). Yakin's debut feature, Fresh, was such a taut, well-made film, that it was reasonable to expect something equally impressive from his follow-up. The premise for A Price Above Rubies sounds promising enough: a young Hasidic woman (Renee Zellweger, from Jerry Maguire) struggles to express her individuality in a conservative society known for repression and defined by conformity. Ultimately, there are two problems with the result: the script rarely takes chances, relying on time-honored clichés to impel it forward, and Zellweger, despite being an appealing actress, is miscast. Despite her earnest attempts to capture the essence of her character, it's never possible to really accept Zellweger as a member of the Hasidic community. And, although some effort is made to develop Zellweger's Sonia, the world around her remains poorly-realized. One would think that a movie set within the Hasidic community would make for fascinating viewing; here, it's presented as another faceless, closed society that does its best to stifle creativity and stamp out freedom.

Before seeing Tom DiCillo's The Real Blonde (), I had heard a lot of negative things. A critic friend of mine lambasted it as one of the worst films of the young year, and several other people I spoke to remarked that they had heard it was the biggest dud of the festival. Imagine my surprise, then, when mid-way through the movie, I realized that I was actually enjoying myself. And things didn't get appreciably worse from that point until the end credits. Granted, there's nothing deep or substantial about The Real Blonde, which is a light comedy that pokes fun at certain elements of pop culture (notably the acting industry). The main story involves the quest of an actor (Matthew Modine) to keep his craft "pure" despite the temptations to give into commercialism and do a TV ad or a music video. His integrity is severely challenged when a friend lands a steady job on a soap opera. Modine is merely okay in this role, but the supporting cast, including DiCillo regular Catherine Keener, is strong, and there are several notable cameos (including Steve Buscemi effectively reprising his role from Living in Oblivion). The humor, which is occasionally caustic and often clever, offers a full ninety minutes of laughs, making The Real Blonde a slight-but-enjoyable experience.

That's it for the premieres I attended. Now for the word on some of those that I missed, but which received strong word-of-mouth, one way or the other. As is typical of a Coen Brothers' film, The Big Liebowski received mixed notices -- I heard it called everything from "a dud" to one of their most brilliant movies. The strongest raves for any premiere went to David Mamet's The Spanish Prisoner. Although I didn't see it, a close friend of mine did, and he assured me that it's a "don't miss" when it reaches U.S. screens this April. Michael Moore's The Big One is generating some positive press, at least among Moore aficionados. I don't count myself as one of their number. Ever since Roger and Me, Moore has seemed more interested in self-promotion and ego stroking than anything else. I'll catch the film when it makes its theatrical bow in another month or so. Depending on who you talk to, Paul Schrader's Affliction is either a gripping emotional experience or a "brave failure." Based on a novel by Russell Banks (who wrote the source material for The Sweet Hereafter), the film is reasonably high on my "want to see" list for 1998. Central Station, a Portuguese film from director Walter Salles, generated enough good word to inspire a mini-bidding war. Sony Pictures Classics won out, and will distribute the film in the U.S. (the loser, Miramax, still managed to obtain a parcel of foreign distribution rights). Finally, for those who enjoy "feel good" films, both Theresa Connelly's Polish Wedding and Brian Skeet's The Misadventures of Margaret fit nicely into that category.

Next: wrapping up the festival, including any opinions I may have on who won what.

© 1998 James Berardinelli

Back Up