Sundance Film Festival gets mixed reviews

by John Anderson

Newsday (MCT)

1 February 2008


PARK CITY, Utah - The 2008 Sundance Film Festival has been put to bed (was that “Taps” we heard down around the Starbucks?), but its echoes are heard all year long - longer, sometimes, depending on the time it takes a given movie to come out. (“Chicago 10,” for instance, the opening film of last year’s Sundance `07, is being released Feb. 28.)

So let’s assess: Given all the socially conscious, politically inspiring and otherwise good-for-you movies that earned accolades, awards and the envy of their peers at Sundance, what film emerged during the festival’s 10-day run that can serve as the bellwether of American cinema? The harbinger of change? The film that summed it all up?

Easy question: “Meet the Spartans.”

Just as the nation’s premier independent film festival was winding down, the sword-and-sandals satire was No. 1 at the box office. And no one should have been surprised. What’s significant for independent filmmakers, fans and observers was that it was released into theaters by Lionsgate, a company that used to be a player in Park City and has apparently learned its lesson: Last year at Sundance, the company came into possession of the Sundance films “Fido,” “Teeth” and “Trade,” and “Away From Her.” This year it bought ... nothing. Like several of the distribution houses - whose presence at Sundance is the blazing porch light for the moths of indie filmmaking - Lionsgate has seen the future and it’s not about Hurricane Katrina documentaries. It’s about “Meet the Spartans.”

The often tepid public reception of Sundance films in the outside world was in marked contrast to the audience enthusiasm on display in Park City, where the Robert Redford-inspired film festival takes place each January. One of the attractions of the festival has always been discovery - the film that comes out of nowhere, surprises, delights and irritates, provoking walkouts by some, devotion by others. Films, in other words, that suggest a movie life to be lived outside the mall multiplex. Among the docs, that life was reflected in movies offering cautionary tales about the environment, national debt, disaster response (or lack thereof) and dire reports on water, fuel and government secrecy. For fiction fans - and doc audiences, too, actually - the festival brought another crop of up-and-comers, aspiring to that “personal vision” Sundance has always tried to champion.

Toward that end, it was a success. “Anvil! The Story of Anvil,” Sacha Gervasi’s affection tribute to a couple of pioneering metal heads, seemed to win over every eye that saw it. “Trouble the Water,” the Tia Lessin-Carl Deal documentary about Katrina and its aftermath - featuring Kimberly Rivers’ home video, recorded pre- and midstorm - had not only one of the most emotional screenings in festival history, it won the grand jury prize for best U.S. documentary. Among the features, “Ballast,” about a fractured makeshift family in the Mississippi delta - and precisely the kind of low-budget, innovatively constructed film that Sundance is supposed to be about - enjoyed some of the best word of mouth there.

As favorable as reaction might be to the films, reaction to the festival was mixed, at best. Sundance has its problems. It has seldom been as apparent as it was this year how much the 16-year-old event has outgrown tiny Park City, a place whose townwide operating ethos is unbridled greed. Restaurants print special, extortionary menus just for the festival; anyone with a few square feet of space rents it for parking (there is virtually no free parking in Park City). Drafty hotel rooms go for exorbitant amounts, and the general tenor is of loathing for the attendees.

Redford will never endorse a move; he owns the nearby Sundance resort, which needs all the spillover business it can get. But between the town and the festival’s lack of influence on it, the entire event has been skewed toward people for whom price is no object, and away from the needy artists whom the festival is supposed to support. (This has become almost a cliche: “Write a story about the disappearance of the blue-collar filmmaker and the rise of the trust-fund lefty,” one guest suggested. There would be no shortage of material.)

Comparing the festival’s rustic mission to its Barney’s-outfitted reality provides a study in dramatic contrasts. On one hand, the programmers seemed intent on including challenging films that pushed various envelopes of propriety and aesthetics; “Downloading Nancy,” a masochism movie, was one; so was “Anywhere, USA,” a pronouncedly anti-commercial comedy that got a special prize for creativity from the dramatic jury. Elsewhere, especially among the “Premieres” section - where distributors are allowed to launch films they otherwise don’t know what to do with - audiences were treated to the likes of “Diminished Capacity,” in which Matthew Broderick and Alan Alda play a nephew and uncle with cognitive disabilities. Does this sound bad? It was worse.

Like festivals everywhere, Sundance attracts an audience whose motivations seem confused: Among a raft of films they may never get a chance to see again, audiences made a hot ticket out of the opening night feature “In Bruges,” starring Colin Farrell, which opens nationally Friday.

The conventional wisdom at Sundance is that the documentaries are better than the fictional films, and this year saw some extraordinary work: Edet Belzberg’s “The Recruiter” (formerly “An American Soldier”) offers an inside look at the Army’s seduction process; “Be Like Others,” director Tanaz Eshaghian’s look at Iranian transsexuals, got raves. “Man on Wire,” winner of the audience and jury prizes for world documentary, is an exhilarating portrait of aerialist Philippe Petit and his 1974 wire-walk between the towers of the World Trade Center (whose presence in the film made it irresistibly poignant).

And “CSNY Deja Vu,” an ostensible concert film by Neil Young - and co-starring his buddies Crosby, Stills and Nash, all of whom were here - was both an anti-war film and finger in the eye to conservative Utah. Whose inhabitants, this year, more than deserved it.

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