In which The Chronicles of Sundance comes to an end.
* After having mixed success with a more free-flowing Day 2 schedule, I had my final day in Park City rigorously planned out. First up, a 9 AM screening of Liberal Arts, the sophomore directorial effort from How I Met Your Mother star Josh Radnor. Two years ago, Radnor's first film happythankyoumoreplease debuted at Sundance and picked up the Audience Award on its way to a commercial release that was largely ignored by the general public. Judging from the crowd's reaction at the screening, Radnor may have a bigger hit on his hands with Liberal Arts, in which he plays a 35-year-old bookish type who returns to his old university stomping grounds (filmed at Radnor's actual alma mater, Kenyon College) to visit his favorite professor (Richard Jenkins) and ends up falling in love with a co-ed sixteen years his junior (Elizabeth Olsen), who is named Elizabeth, but -- in true manic pixie dream girl fashion -- actually requests that people call her Zibby. (That Radnor's character willingly agrees to this reveals him to be a putz of the highest order.) Like Arbitage, Liberal Arts is a thoroughly commercial vehicle that's tailor-made for a mid-size distributor, who should be able to turn a decent profit off of it. But I personally liked the movie better when it was called Manhattan. Radnor liberally borrows several elements from Woody Allen's superb 1979 film, from the May/December romance between a navel-gazing intellectual and a much younger girl to a montage of New York City street scenes scored to the tune of classical music -- Beethoven standing in for Gershwin (but hey, you gotta give Radnor some credit for originality... at least he didn't shoot his movie in black and white). Kudos to Jenkins and Olsen (who is so lovely here, you totally understand why Radnor can't get her out of his mind) who do the best they can with the material they've been given, but overall, Liberal Arts is as safe and predictable as the current season of HIMYM.
* In the interest of fairness, I should note that the audience in the packed theater gave Radnor a standing ovation when he took the stage for his post-screening Q&A. And he was absolutely funny and charming in person, regaling the crowd with the story of how he first dreamed up the idea for the film. "I went back to Kenyon College to show my first film there two years ago. I had this very strange feeling while I was there that I was significantly older than the students. I had been back over the years, but I never felt that gap because my memories of being in college were so vivid. I couldn't track how that happened, how I was 35 and how they were all 18 to 22 and I was suddenly like an elder. It kind of freaked me out and I just had this though, 'What if I fell in love with a student? That would really complicate my life.' I told my producer that and he said, that's a great movie. And then I wrote it."
* Movies like Liberal Arts are able to use Sundance as a springboard to a wider theatrical release. But then there are films like Room 237, which the general public may never get a chance to see. That's a real shame, because this inventive documentary/cinematic essay is one of the very best movies I saw at the festival. Essentially a feature-length version of one of those online video essays you can view at sites like Press Play, Room 237 is an exhaustive investigation into Stanley Kubrick's horror classic, The Shining. Director Rodney Ascher interviews five subjects (none of whom are seen on camera) who all have strikingly different interpretations of the movie. One man, for example, is convinced that The Shining functions as an elaborate metaphor for the persecution of Native Americans. Another insists that Kubrick made the movie as a way to subtly reveal to the public that he was involved in staging Neil Armstrong's moon landing (note that the guy takes great pains to say that he believes NASA really did put a man on the moon... it was just the footage the public saw that was faked). Ascher uses relevant clips from The Shining to flesh out his subject's various theses, and also incorporates footage from other Kubrick films, as well as additional archival material. It's worth noting that Room 237 doesn't overtly critique or endorse any of the claims the interviewees make about Kubrick's intentions. Ascher just allows each person to make his or her case and trusts the audience to make up their own minds. For the record, I disagreed with a number of the arguments advanced in the movie -- particularly the nonsense about the moon landing -- but the pleasure of Room 237 lies in watching other people analyze a movie they're passionate about. (In this way, Ascher's film also functions as a commentary on the way individuals can twist and shape a piece of media to fit their own vision of reality.) This isn't a dry film school lesson -- Ascher turns The Shining into a kind of visual textbook that makes you eager to go back and watch Kubrick's classic again yourself so that you can form your own interpretation of its various mysteries.
* I truly hope that film buffs (and Kubrick devotees) everywhere will eventually have a chance to see Room 237 for themselves and the movie's producer said after the screening that they are working with a "crack team of lawyers" to investigate ways to secure a wider release. (Ascher claimed fair use in incorporating The Shining footage into his film, but putting the movie out in theaters would likely result in a lawsuit from Warner Bros. and/or Kubrick's estate.) While they explore their legal options, you can read more about the film at the official website.
* Room 237 was my first and, sadly, only screening inside Main Street's Egyptian Theater, a lovely single-screen movie house that was easily my favorite Sundance venue. My least favorite? The MARC, Park City's athletic and recreation center, which is partially converted into a 500-seat theater during the festival. That's where I had seen Under African Skies the evening before and the room's folding chair-on-risers layout felt more appropriate to a high school assembly than a world premiere.
* It was on the way to my next and last Sundance screening that I heard word about the untimely, unexpected passing of Bingham Ray, an indie movie titan who had been a leading force in the industry since the '80s. In 1991, Ray co-founded October Films, which would distribute such high-profile independent and foreign titles as Breaking the Waves, The Last Seduction and The Apostle. Most recently, Ray had joined the San Francisco Film Society as its executive director and was attending Sundance no doubt searching for movies to include in this year's San Francisco International Film Festival when he suffered a stroke and passed away at a hospital in Provo. The passion and energy he devoted to the cause of independent film will be much missed.
* Spike Lee's latest joint, Red Hook Summer, had premiered at Sundance the previous night while I was watching Under African Skies and the reaction was wildly divisive. Even those people that liked the movie were compelled to add that it had some significant flaws. (Folks were also buzzing about Lee's post-screening Q&A, in which a question from Chris Rock -- yes, the Chris Rock -- inspired an angry rant about the studio system. Drop the needle around the 15-minute mark to see it for yourself.) Red Hook Summer was a must-see for me the minute I landed in Park City, but the mixed word of mouth meant that I accordingly adjusted my expectations from anticipating another Do the Right Thing to fearing another She Hate Me. Fortunately, I'm happy to report that Red Hook Summer is nowhere near the disaster that She Hate Me was. Of course, it ain't another Do the Right Thing, either, despite a cameo by Lee's iconic pizza deliveryman, Mookie. Instead, this small-scale slice of Brooklyn life is perhaps most equivalent to the director's 1994 semi-autobiographical memoir Crooklyn. Set in present-day Red Hook -- a Brooklyn nabe that's smack in the middle of the slow, difficult process known as gentrification -- the film follows a young boy from Atlanta named Flik (first time actor Jules Brown) , whose mother has left him at his preacher grandfather's (The Wire's Clarke Peters in a terrific performance) apartment for the summer. (It's the reverse of Lee's own childhood experience; growing up, the New York native often spent summers down south with his religious grandparents, an experience chronicled in Crooklyn.) During the course of his stay, Flik makes a few friends (most notably the tween daughter of a woman that works for his grandfather's church), a few enemies (particularly a local drug dealer played by Nate Parker) and learns a dramatic secret about his guardian. Clocking in at a plus-size 130 minutes, Red Hook Summer is jagged and ragged, but there's a real conviction to the film that's invigorating. Lee and his co-writer James McBride -- who previously collaborated on Lee's underrated World War II picture, Miracle at St. Anna -- have some bold, provocative things to say about contemporary African-American life and while the movie isn't particularly subtle in its social commentary, it does feel as if it's coming from an honest place. (There's also a terrific article to be written about Lee's treatment of religion versus the way Tyler Perry -- a filmmaker Lee has frequently attacked in the press and also in this movie -- approaches the subject.) After all these years, Spike Lee is still a filmmaking force to be reckoned with.
* And with that, it was time to bid farewell to Park City and head back down the mountain to real life. Despite making a number of rookie mistakes and not getting to every movie I wanted to see, my first Sundance experience was a memorable one. Here's hoping it won't take another two decades for me to get back there. For an itemized summary of my 72 hour trip, see below.
Movies Watched: 12
Best of the Fest: Room 237, Under African Skies, Wuthering Heights
Worst of the Fest: The Comedy, Red Lights
Better Than Average: Filly Brown, The Perception of Moving Targets, The Raid, Red Hook Summer, Simon Killer
Exactly Average: Arbitrage, Liberal Arts
Movies I Most Regret Missing: Beasts of the Southern Wild, China Heavyweight, Compliance, Nobody Walks, Save the Date, The Surrogate, V/H/S
Granola Bars Consumed: Too many to count
Cans of Soda/Cups of Coffee Consumed: Ditto
Actual Meals Consumed: Too embarrassed to say
Total Hours of Sleep: 16 (out of 72)
Total Hours Spent Standing in Lines: 12 (out of 72)
Random Celebrity Sightings: Josh Radnor, Katie Aselton, Eric Wareheim, Danny Glover
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