Surviving Sundance

The sun and the stars shone brightly this year at Park City, a far cry from last year's blizzard and blistering cold. As to the real stars—the ones who poked their faces into the Sundance premieres—they twinkled prettily enough, even when eclipsed, as was Masked and Anonymous' A-list cast (Penelope Cruz, John Goodman, Jeff Bridges et al.), by Bob Dylan before he hastened out a fire exit to avoid contact with the black hole of Seinfeld producer Larry Charles' lame attempt to revive late-'60s gonzo satire. Or, like Comandante director Oliver Stone, overshadowed by the supernova of Fidel Castro's charm offensive. Or, like The Singing Detective's Robert Downey Jr. (as the madly hallucinating, psoriasis-ridden author of the titular whodunit), battered by the fragmented remains of Dennis Potter's 1986 television miniseries. Or, like Joaquin Phoenix and four versions of Claire Danes, brought low by the stupefying artificiality of Dogme defector Thomas Vinterberg's It's All About Love.

Among the other premieres, the standouts—for one who regrets having missed new work by Campbell Scott (Off the Map) and the Polish brothers (Northfork)—were Jim Sheridan's poignant In America, with Samantha Morton and Paddy Considine as a modern-day Irish immigrant couple struggling to raise two little girls (vividly drawn characters in their own right) in Hell's Kitchen; Thom Fitzgerald's The Event, featuring Olympia Dukakis in an AIDS drama reminiscent, in its dry, unsentimental humor, of Bill Sherwood's 1986 Parting Glances; and Neil LaBute's stinging adaptation of his recent play The Shape of Things, for which the Brigham Young University alumnus sharpened the misanthropic edge so recently blunted (in Possession) in deference to A.S. Byatt's high-literary intentions and about which—if you're out to get stung—you really ought to read as little as possible in advance of its opening.

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As usual, though, the lifeblood of the festival flowed through the House of Docs and along the Frontiers, surging—or pooling, or puddling, or clotting—amid Showcase and Spectrum, Forum and Competition. Here is where filmmakers really come of age and where connections between creators and audiences get forged at a personal level. Toward the middle of John Dullaghan's revealing under-the-skin documentary Bukowski: Born Into This, for example, a photo of my ex-girlfriend, naked in a bathtub and reading a copy of Women, suddenly filled the screen during the section about Buk's groupies. Earlier, George Washingtonwriter/director David Gordon Green's dramatic-competition entry, All the Real Girls, had taken me so far back into the excitement and uncertainty and downright misery of first love that I half-expected the skin on my face and neck to break out all over again. At a 10:30 p.m. press screening of Shari Springer Brown and Robert Pulcini's genre-twisting American Splendor, Harvey Pekar's disgruntled narcissism, as enacted by Paul Giamatti, skirted a little too close to my bones. Finally, as if in cruel intimation of my own mortality, Blue Hadaegh and Grover Babcock's documentary A Certain Kind of Death traced the odyssey of a couple of moldering, unclaimed corpses out of their cheap hotel rooms, through the LA coroner's office morgue and into the crematorium. (And can we just forget about the ham-and-cheese sandwich I wolfed down during the nine-minute rape sequence in Gasper Noe's Irreversible—which, though denied placement among the premieres, is certain to generate as much controversy in U.S. theaters as it already did at Cannes and Edinburgh?)

On a less personal note: yes, Andrew Jarecki's Capturing the Friedmans, about the swell dad and self-acknowledged pedophile brought up on (probably) false charges of child molestation, is everything the press, festivalgoers—and the documentary-competition jury—have cracked it up to be. (Which is more than I can say for Peter Hedges' Pieces of April, which looks to be this year's overhyped, overwritten, underwhelming answer to last year's InDigEnt crowd-pleaser and box-office disaster Tadpole.) And yes, the whole of Duncan Roy's triple-projection dramatic film AKA, based on his short career as a middle-class kid with aristocratic pretensions and no qualms at all about kiting checks, holds together better than any 10 minutes of Mike Figgis' Time Code.

Still, the best part of Sundance was landing at LAX late Saturday afternoon and taking a cab home in time to program the VCR for the festival-awards broadcast, hop into my rattletrap and head out to a studio blockbuster: Dorothy Arzner's The Wild Party (1929). Dizzy college coed Clara Bow gets her comeuppance—and a proposal of marriage—from stern anthropology professor Fredric March. Now there's a coming-of-age story.

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