2004 SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL Park City, Utah, January 15-25. Rating: NNNNN
Park City, Utah - what is this place? Out front of the Marriott, a clutch of teenage Mexicans chill with their snowboards. In the supermarket, two women in floor-length mink coats shop for salad dressing. On Main Street Saturday night, a liquor sponsor gives away free bottles of tequila. At night, Park City is a postcard of white Christmas lights, no doubt up all winter. In the day, it's SUVs fighting for parking.
But I can't figure out what it is. We're in Utah, but with 40,000 people who flew in just for this week. This old silver mining town dates back over a century, but the condos that shingle up the mountain make it look like it was built all at once, in the 80s, by Eddie Bauer elves.
Jonathan Caouette , who landed here with his much-praised diary film Tarnation , described Park City and nailed it: "It looks like a big steakhouse."
Steakhouse it is. The Sundance Film Festival , now in its 20th year, has the ambition and the frills of a high-end turf joint, but what it serves at the end of the day is meat and potatoes. Stories. Last year's Sundance premiered American Splendor, Capturing The Friedmans, The Station Agent and Thirteen. Fiction, non-fiction and something in between. The only common element is strong narrative.
This year, Sundance opened with a documentary for the first time, Stacy Peralta 's breathless, entertaining Riding Giants , a surfing follow-up to his skateboarding doc Dogtown And Z-Boys. It's a crowd-pleaser. Not only has Sony Classics already bought it for distribution, but it's also a favourite of William "Eagle" Polleys , the somewhat legendary veteran usher at the Eccles theatre.
His other favourite is Ian Rashid 's Touch Of Pink , in which a South Asian gay man navigates family pressure in Toronto with the aid of his imaginary friend, Cary Grant. The smart writing and air of romantic fantasy pitch it somewhere between Woody Allen's Play It Again, Sam and any romantic comedy with a wedding. I didn't always float along with it, but I defer to the Eagle. "It was really well done and it was warm and fuzzy," I overheard him say.
Moment to moment at Sundance, the overheard opinions of Eagle Polleys matter just as much as what Harvey Weinstein thinks. It's all buzz until the contracts are signed.
In a joint deal with Fox Searchlight, Weinstein's Miramax just bought Garden State . It's one of the prime buzz films so far, and looks like the official quirky romance of the festival. Natalie Portman stars with writer-director Zach Braff in a love story about a lithium-numbed actor and a cheerful liar.
Braff's writing is as strong as his sense for visual comedy. The film falls into sentiment at the end, but not enough to ruin the thrills of its first hour.
Garden State was the most fun I've had in a Sundance theatre. Overall, it's a pretty sombre year. Joshua Marston 's debut feature, Maria Full Of Grace , is a lovely, humanist drama about a Colombian woman who swallows heroin pellets to make it to the U.S. It takes its place among the new globalization movies, like Dirty Pretty Things and Michael Winterbottom's In This World.
The Motorcycle Diaries recreates Che Guevara's nine-month South American odyssey when he was still a medical student named Ernesto. Walter Salles (Central Station) has turned in a handsome epic starring Gael García Bernal from Y Tu Mamá También, but this film speaks as much to today's inequities as it does to history.
Then there are the really serious movies. If three events make a trend, there's a raging one shaping up about the guilt of perpetrators.
In The Woodsman , Kevin Bacon plays a pedophile just released from prison.
In The Machinist , Christian Bale plays a metal shop worker whose every slip leads to carnage. In November , Courteney Cox plays a woman suffering mental fragmentation after watching her boyfriend get shot. In Trauma , Colin Firth plays a man suffering mental fragmentation after causing the death of his wife. And in the abysmal Chrystal , Billy Bob Thornton plays an Ozark pot merchant who causes the death of his own baby.
The easy explanation here is 9/11, and maybe a general guilt and confusion in the face of violence is filtering through to indie films. But there's a punishing sado-masochism in some Sundance films this year that may go beyond guilt.
Bale dropped nearly all the flesh from his body for his role in The Machinist. There was a gasp in the theatre when we first saw his skeletal frame. The effect is far more extreme than Charlize Theron in Monster.
Director Christopher Münch (The Hours And Times) has also gone off the charts. His Harry And Max is about a boy-band pop star sexually obsessed with his younger brother. There's probably a good movie to be made about queer incest, but this isn't it.
Bruce La Bruce 's The Raspberry Reich is less extreme (though it features lots of hardcore sex) but more successful. This is the story of a radical German woman who urges her boyfriend to smash his bourgeois illusions by embracing bisexuality. Hardcore sex ensues, of course, but it's shot through with mid-60s Godard effects, updated digitally. At the premiere, two Mormon students on class assignment covered their eyes during the cocksucking, but they stayed.