In Utah, A Marvelous Time For A Sundance

By Omar P.L. Moore/The Popcorn Reel

January 14, 2008


A festival that has become one of the world's premiere occasions and tone-setters for a film year, Sundance gets off and running this Thursday evening (January 17) at its headquarters in Park City, Utah.  Robert Redford's brainchild has grown in leaps and bounds over the years, with deals being made in the corridors of hotels and the hallways of screening rooms.  "Grace Is Gone", "Great World Of Sound" and numerous other acquisitions were brokered here last year, and chances are that some of the distributor-less entries this year will leave here with a partner by the time January 27 rolls around.  Films big and small will jockey for audiences' viewing pleasure, with some filmmakers going the guerilla route to represent their own interests in the hope of gaining exposure.  One director sent the following e-mail, which said in part: "I hope this e-mail finds you well and I also hope that you find what I'm doing intriguing . . . I know this is a bit vulgar, as I don't have a publicist."

Publicist or no publicist, it is certain that of the over 365 films that will be shown at this year's Sundance Film Festival, whose slogan this year is "where film takes place", many films by their titles alone will represent themselves very well.  For example, "A Good Day To Be Black & Sexy", about the sexual politics and power of black women in their relationships with black men, directed by Dennis Dortch; "Good Dick", about a lonely woman obsessively resistant to a hard-charging video-store clerk's relentless affections (the film's star Marianna Palka writes and directs), and "Towelhead", the directing debut of "American Beauty" scribe Alan Ball about the sexual awakening of an Arab-American woman in a provincial American town, are just a few of this year's entries that will get a lot of attention. 

Several other feature films and documentaries will capture attention including Pietra Bretkelly's documentary "The Art Star and The Sudanese Twins", about performance artist Vanessa Beecroft's quest to adopt Sudanese twins, an obsession which will challenge her marriage (and likely ensure angry reactions from some Sundance goers.)  "Art Star" is nestled in the World Documentary Competition and similarly controversial entries like "Roman Polanski: Wanted And Desired" and "Dinner With The President", about current Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf, a documentary made more interesting in light of last month's assassination of former Pakistan prime minister Benazir Bhutto (not to mention Mr. Musharraf's "60 Minutes" interview earlier this month.)  The World Documentary Competition also features such films as "Be Like Others", about transsexual operations in Iran; "A Complete History of My Sexual Failures", about filmmaker Chris Waitt's self-investigation into chronic dismissals by a catalogue of his girlfriends, and "Stranded: I've Come From A Plane That Crashed In the Mountains", the true story of the plane that crashed into the Andes mountains in 1973 killing all but eight members of a Rugby team, and the cannibalism that followed (the film "Alive", which starred Ethan Hawke some years ago, was based on the real life events.) 

The World Dramatic Feature Competition heralds the arrival of several films including "Absurdistan" , "Blue Eyelids" (Mexico), "Just Another Love Story" (Sweden), "Riprendimi" (Italy) and "I Always Wanted To Be A Gangster" (France), a refrain that sounds like Henry Hill's childhood confession from "GoodFellas".

On the domestic side, U.S. Documentary Competition films include such anticipated works as Alex Gibney's "Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson", about the life of the journalist and political artist/commentator.  Mr. Gibney, who directed the documentary "Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room", and executive produced "No End In Sight", also has the stunning, eye-opening documentary "Taxi To The Dark Side" coming to U.S. and Canadian theaters next month.  In light of the revelations unearthed by the George Mitchell investigation into steroids in baseball, the documentary "Bigger, Stronger, Faster*" will add spice to the Sundance lineup, especially as Congressional testimony will take place during the Festival's fortnight.  Two documentaries dovetail with Hurricane Katrina's after-effects: "Trouble The Water", the entry from Michael Moore collaborators and archivists Carl Deal and Tia Lessin about the water supply and distribution in New Orleans following the August 2005 hurricane, and "The Order Of Myths", about the racial segregation of New Orleans long-running Mardi Gras celebration.  "Greatest Silence: The Rape in The Congo", depicts the ongoing violent ordeals suffered by women in the Congo, with relentless rapes (a recent Anderson Cooper "60 Minutes" report chronicled the horrors faced by that country's women), "Patti Smith: Dream of Life" goes in-depth on the life of the artist, thinker and performer, and cinematographer Ellen Kuras' 23-year labor of love "Nerakhoon (The Betrayal)", about a family's return to Vietnam after being forced to emigrate from Laos after U.S. bombing there, are significant films among the many at Sundance.

The U.S. Dramatic Feature Competition finds such films as "Anywhere, U.S.A.", a reverent look a bunch of guys who have their issues in small-town America, "Downloading Nancy", one of three films starring Maria Bello -- this one about a woman who embarks on an online affair which has consequences for her marriage and her philandering ways; "Choke", the film directed by actor and screenwriter Clark Gregg, "The Wackness", set in New York in 1994 amidst the era of rappers Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur, and "Sunshine Cleaning", which gets its world premiere at Sundance.  Christine Jeffs' film about a mother and her sister who begin a business in biohazard removal and crime-scene clean-up stars actress of the moment Amy Adams and Emily Blunt (both of whom were in "Charlie Wilson's War".)

Among the entries in the Spectrum Documentary competition, three films should accompany much interest: "The Black List", about culture, history, perception and interpretation in the black community in America amidst a larger white society (Elvis Mitchell, former film critic of The New York Times is the film's screenwriter); Morgan Spurlock's venture through more political and satirical waters in his follow-up to "Super Size Me", cheekily-titled "Where In The World Is Osama Bin Laden?", and Stacy Peralta's "Made In America", about gang violence and the attempts to stem its tide in South Central Los Angeles.  In the Spectrum Narrative Competition, aside from Mr. Dortch's aforementioned "Good Day To Be Black & Sexy" is the film directed by actor Stanley Tucci, "Blind Date", about a married couple whose marital bliss has long since disappeared and pretend to meet for the first time on a series of re-enacted dates had prior to tying the knot in order to reinvigorate their troubled marriage.  Patricia Clarkson and Mr. Tucci star as the troubled couple.  A man seeks vengeance after his dog has been killed in "Red", which stars Brian Cox (who also has "The Escapist" at this year's Festival.)

In the Premieres come such films as Michel Gondry's "Be Kind Rewind" (in theaters late next month), "Assassination of a High School President", starring a multifaceted cast that includes Bruce Willis; "Henry Poole Is Here", with a performance from Luke Wilson that is already getting attention; "Incendiary", about a terrorist attack in at an English football stadium (Sharon Maguire writes and directs, with Michelle Williams stars); Michael Keaton's "The Merry Gentleman", starring the actor-director, and Kenny Leon's film version of the Lorraine Hansberry classic "A Raisin In The Sun", a film reuniting the recent Broadway cast of Sean "Diddy" Combs, Phylicia Rashad and Audra McDonald among others.  "The Deal", about a movie producer who makes a pitch for a film based on a false premise (William H. Macy and L.L. Cool J are among the stars); the concert film "U23D" (a sensation at Cannes last year); "The Year of Getting To Know Us", with Jimmy Fallon, and the semi-autobiographical film about film producer Art Linson called "What Just Happened?", starring Robert De Niro as Linson, Sean Penn (a real-life good friend of both the actor and the producer), and John Turturro, with Barry Levinson directing.  The film "In Bruges", a gangster caper on holiday starring Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson and Ralph Fiennes, opens the Sundance Film Festival this Thursday evening.

In the Midnight entries -- films typically geared toward horror appetites, sees among others, Michael Haneke's remake of his own 1997 film "Funny Games", this time starring Naomi Watts, Michael Pitt, Brady Corbet and "Youth Without Youth" star Tim Roth in a tale of sadism at a summer house; "Hell Ride", with Dennis Hopper, Larry Bishop and Michael Madsen as a gang of bikers on the road to sex and violence (Quentin Tarantino executive produces); "George A. Romero's Diary of the Dead", "Donkey Punch", and "Cashback" director Sean Ellis examines a woman ("300" star Lena Headey) tortured by her own real-or-imagined visage in "The BrOken".

Despite the above, Sundance is not just about movies.  Panels on film and music will also be in abundance, and there are many parties to attend at local places like Harry O's, for example, where celebrities mingle with partygoers and industry insiders.  There are numerous gifts and prizes to be won as well.  Concerts and The online portion of the Festival, run via iTunes connection, was a huge success last year in its initial try out, and a host of short films can be seen now online (details below) and beginning on Thursday with "10 Shorts in 10 Days", which can be watched for free.  Films by Native American filmmakers are also part of the Sundance equation, with numerous Sundance fellows and others making their presence known at the Festival on an annual basis.  There is also the Screenwriters' Lab., Women in Film, and other categories which will dot the landscape of Sundance over the next couple of weeks, culminating in the Saturday, January 26 award ceremony.

For tickets, film guides, schedules and further information on the 2008 Sundance Film Festival visit www.sundance.org/festival

Go To The Popcorn Reel Sundance Film Festival 2008 Headquarters

Controversy, custody and art combine in the Sundance Film Festival World Documentary entry "The Art Star and The Sudanese Twins", Pietra Bretkelly's documentary about performance artist Vanessa Beecroft's obsessive attempt at gaining custody of the twins seen here and in the same category comes a documentary with new interviews and footage of survivors of the 1973 plane crash in the Andes mountains, depicted above in a shot of a newspaper in "Stranded: I've Come From A Plane That Crashed In The Mountains".

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