Where will Sharon Stone, NFL running back Reggie Bush and Arab-Israeli art-film goddess Hiam Abbass all be this weekend? Same place as me, baby.
Yes, as you read this I am most likely partway through a hopscotching voyage across the country toward a magical land in the sky, a place of snow-clad suburban sprawl and utterly random clots of canoodling celebrities. A place we call Sundance, which might suggest to the uninformed that it will be warm. It is to laugh.
OK, ritual complaints out of the way, along with the annual shock of feeling a new year of movies suddenly come squealing out of the starting grid and bang into fourth gear, just as we've put the old one to bed. Fact is, it looks like Sundance has a terrific lineup this year, heavy on back-to-basics indies likely to please film buffs more than investment bankers. Hell, the expected high temperature in Park City, Utah, on Friday is 28 degrees, which is like Palm Beach compared to last year's weather.
Yeah, it's true that Bob Redford and his programmers could move this festival to Palm Beach and still call it Sundance or anything else they want. Everybody who has to go to it would be much happier, except for the handful of people who actually bother to ski or snowboard during Sundance (oh, and the hotel and condo proprietors of Park City, of course). But naturally that won't happen, and the festival will muddle through for years to come in its overcrowded resort town, sending people back to the coasts every year with war stories of how much of other people's money they spent and how cold their tootsies got.
There's really no way to exaggerate or parody the ridiculousness of this event. Today I got an e-mail inviting me to witness (but certainly not to sample) the workings of a "daytime gifting lounge" in which "high-profile talent" is invited to "indulge in complimentary shopping from some of the hottest fashion, accessory, lifestyle and electronics brands." Of course this kind of thing is absolutely standard at virtually all major entertainment industry events, but can we take a moment to observe how simultaneously corrupt and banal it is? Are the lives of rich and famous people really so empty that they need to travel to a film festival in the Wasatch Range just to get more shoes and sunglasses?
It's better not to try to answer questions like that. Hey, if they want me to try out a little "complimentary shopping" -- just for, you know, research purposes -- I stand ready. Journalism requires sacrifices! Anyway, I don't snowboard, so what the hell am I going to do for a whole week in Utah when I'm not watching Eliza Dushku pick out a handbag?
Oh wait, that's right! They show movies there too. If Sundance remains a mighty cultural touchstone in many ways, its status as a film showcase is muddled right now. I've summoned up evidence over the last couple of years that the Sundance jury prizes pretty much mean nothing in the outside world, either in terms of marketplace impact or artistic merit. But something similar could be said about the festival as a whole, and its intense, distorted hothouse atmosphere.
At Park City last year, Harvey Weinstein reportedly boasted to friends that he'd bought a best actor statuette when he acquired "Grace Is Gone," starring John Cusack as a befuddled Iraq war widower. Ha ha ha, right? Well, if you'd seen the movie in a packed, sniffling Sundance crowd, that wouldn't have seemed so silly. Craig Brewer's "Black Snake Moan" had a boffo premiere that made it feel like a pop-culture phenomenon in embryo, or maybe like a Southern-fried second coming of "Pulp Fiction," with its blend of trailer-trash sexuality and its Faulknerian take on race relations. Out there in the world, people argued a little bit about the deliberately inappropriate poster, and neglected the movie en masse.
What else came out of Sundance last year? "Son of Rambow," the British family comedy that was the festival's most expensive acquisition, still hasn't been released. (It will be, in March, but I'm not sure anyone now expects a big hit.) The "Omen"-ish horror film "Joshua," a $4 million pickup, got decent reviews but did tepid box office. "Clubland," another British family film much buzzed over at Park City, came and went briskly under its new title, "Introducing the Dwights."
Tamara Jenkins' "The Savages" and Andrew Wagner's "Starting Out in the Evening" looked like sure-fire indie hits last January, but in an overcrowded fall season of splashy Indiewood productions, neither has made much impression, either commercially or cinematically. The best film I saw at Sundance last year, Julien Temple's documentary "Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten," was never likely to reach a large audience and has grossed just $250,000 in the United States.
On the other hand -- with journalists making lists, there's always another hand -- Sundance last year also hosted the premieres of a movie by a New York actress who had just been murdered and an unknown Irish musical. "Waitress" seemed to have an insurmountable P.R. problem; as one friend put it, what's a gruesome New York Post headline doing attached to a sweet little movie with Keri Russell? And "Once" was a plotless tale of an unconsummated love affair, starring two musicians that nobody outside Dublin had ever heard of. Needless to say, those two unheralded films grossed $30 million between them, and became the pre-"Juno" indie successes of the entire year.
With that, I'll resort to my fallback position, which is that this year's lineup is light on star-studded concoctions and big-name directors, and rich with promising, small-scale endeavors. The downcast political demeanor of last year's festival is gone, and not a moment too soon. You can't say that the mood has lightened tremendously, but a striking amount of this year's fare comes in genre films: Paranoid sci-fi adventures, gangster flicks, zombie movies and various kinds of thrillers abound.
Here's my list -- 100 percent guesswork and rumor -- about the films I'm most excited to catch over the next week. (They're listed in approximate chronological order, based on day of premiere.) Oh, and one more thing: Last week I said that we'd launch our spiffy new blog-style daily version of Beyond the Multiplex on the first day of Sundance. Well, I lied. We decided -- you know what? This whole blog thing on the Internet? It's not going to work, and we should all move on.
Sorry, no. The new Beyond the Multiplex blog launches as soon as I'm on the ground in Park City. It's going to be a blast. Back atcha in a day or two.
"In Bruges" Sundance opens its Park City programming this year with this unlikely-sounding gangland thriller from Irish-British playwright Martin McDonagh, making his film-directing debut. Not to disparage my fellow Americans, but how many of us even know what or where Bruges is? Well, it's a medieval Belgian city, where two hit men played by Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson hole up after completing a tough job. They have an interesting and enriching vacation, until their boss (Ralph Fiennes) comes after them. Snappy dialogue and loads of style are assured
"The Great Buck Howard" Do I have to say anything more than this: John Malkovich in a hairpiece, playing an embittered magician trying to make a comeback? OK, a little more. Colin Hanks plays his dewy-eyed assistant, a career choice that makes said assistant's dad (played by Colin's real-life dad, Tom Hanks) distinctly unhappy. Directed by Sean McGinly, this opens Sundance's Salt Lake City programming.
"Be Kind Rewind" Another high-concept dream-film from French director Michel Gondry, aiming more for the mass audience of "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" than the art-house clientele of "The Science of Sleep." As you probably know, this involves Jack Black and Mos Def as hapless video-store clerks seeking to remake their entire stock of '70s and '80s films after accidentally erasing them: "Back to the Future," "Driving Miss Daisy," "Ghostbusters," etc. I know, I know, you want to see this more than any film that has ever been made. Please calm down. Probably the highest-profile Sundance premiere this year.
"Transsiberian" Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer play an American couple who decide to sample the old-school glamour of the Transsiberian Express on their way home from Beijing. On the way they meet another Western couple who aren't what they seem to be, and things rapidly go from bad to worse. The reportedly claustrophobic thriller also stars Ben Kingsley (as a Russian cop) and Thomas Kretschmann; directed by Brad Anderson ("Next Stop, Wonderland" and "The Machinist").
"Blind Date" A married couple so completely estranged from each other, in the wake of a shared tragedy, that they go on dates by responding to each other's personal ads, pretending to be other people. The concept sounds unbearable until you hear that the couple is played by Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson. See? Suddenly interesting. Tucci co-wrote and directs.
"Ballast" A minimalist dramatic feature shot in rural Mississippi in winter, this film about an impoverished single mom and her 12-year-old son as they struggle for stability looks like the latest effort in a low-budget wave of new Southern cinema that has yet to achieve a breakthrough. Debut for writer-director Lance Hammer.
"Diary of the Dead" With his fifth zombie movie, genre guru George A. Romero goes meta: A group of film students in rural Pennsylvania sets out to shoot a zombie movie, much as one young George A. Romero did in the mid-'60s -- only these zombies are real, and the authorities of course seek to cover the whole thing up. Voice-over cameos from Quentin Tarantino, Stephen King, Guillermo del Toro and Wes Craven.
"Towelhead" Much of the advance word on this directing debut from "Six Feet Under" creator (and "American Beauty" screenwriter) Alan Ball has been frankly atrocious. But that makes me want to see it more, not less. Based on the Desert Storm-era novel by Alicia Erian, this stars newcomer Summer Bishil as the Arab-American teen lusted after by the redneck next door (Aaron Eckhart) and befriended by a pregnant neighbor (Toni Collette). Maria Bello plays the girl's American mom, and Peter Macdissi her Lebanese dad.
"Otto, or Up With Dead People" Not even I believe that Canadian underground filmmaker and photographer Bruce LaBruce's film about a gay, neo-Goth zombie in Berlin -- who isn't quite sure whether he really is a zombie -- will be seen by anybody outside LaBruce's estimable circle of admirers. But some things will never die. Among them are zombies, and also anti-consumerist postmodern allegories about zombies.
"Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson" Ace documentarian Alex Gibney excoriated the sins of capital in "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room" and the secret torturers' empire of the Bush administration in the enraging "Taxi to the Dark Side" (only now reaching general release). So while you can expect his documentary portrait of legendary journalist cum substance-experimenter Hunter S. Thompson to have high entertainment value, I'm confident it will also pose a strong challenge to the cowardice and conformity that has characterized our troubled profession in recent years.
"Made in America" Another hot documentary this year marks the return of Stacy Peralta, whose now-legendary skate docu "Dogtown and Z-Boys" opened the fest in 2001. A West Sider by birth, Peralta strays to the other side of L.A. this time to survey the history of South Central (historically the city's African-American ghetto) and the long-running gang warfare between the Bloods and Crips that has spawned so much pop-culture mythology -- and so much death.
"Downloading Nancy" Maria Bello plays a woman who flees a 15-year marriage for a kinky liaison with a man she met on the Internet (Jason Patric). But this isn't your garden-variety housewife-does-S/M flick, apparently. Director Johan Renck and ace cinematographer Christopher Doyle track the couple's relentless path of mutual destruction; will they or won't they go "all the way" to what they've discussed? Sure to be a talker.
"Hell Ride" Quentin Tarantino has been talking up his buddy Larry Bishop's motorcycle-gang revenge drama as the more-authentic-than-him revival of grindhouse cinema for what seems like years now. Least I can do is extend the hype a little. Bishop himself stars alongside Michael Madsen, Vinnie Jones, David Carradine and Dennis Hopper. Tarantino will introduce the midnight screenings, which ought to be among the festival's toughest-to-crash events.
"The Year of Getting to Know Us" Exactly the sort of Sundance-friendly dysfunctional-family comedy that's impossible to evaluate ahead of time. Could be delightful or tedious, but it sure has a hell of a cast. Jimmy Fallon plays the commitment-averse protagonist, a New York writer, and Lucy Liu his inexplicably loyal and beautiful girlfriend. Wait, though: His golf-playing dad is Tom Arnold, and eccentric mom is Sharon Stone. OK, "Tenenbaums" meets "Savages," it may be, but I'm there.
"Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden?" In the fest's most eagerly awaited doc, Morgan Spurlock (of "Super Size Me") constructs a compelling and startlingly sympathetic portrait of the world's most misunderstood man, who describes the events of 9/11 as "kind of a mistake, actually." No, that's not true. Spurlock had approximately the same success finding bin Laden as the entire military and intelligence apparatus of the United States. But he's funnier.
"Funny Games" Michael Haneke's openly sadistic 1997 German-language meta-thriller about a couple of mysterious, white-clad sociopaths who torment a vacationing family mercilessly -- while constantly breaking the fourth wall, soliciting audience opinions, etc. -- is a source of considerable controversy among cinephiles. Haneke himself has said that he regrets that Anglophone fans who made the film a cult item didn't seem to get the point (that audiences themselves are responsible for violence in films). Does he think that by remaking the picture in English (with Tim Roth and Naomi Watts as the couple, and Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet as the interlopers) it's likely to become clearer? Let's just promise this: The new "Funny Games" will be a cruel but brilliant exercise, likely to piss off absolutely everybody who sees it. (If you're among the constituency likely to be displeased that there is almost no on-screen violence in a movie about torture and murder, well, now you know.)