Like most movie lovers of a certain age (i.e. the '90s generation), the name "Sundance" first popped up on my radar in 1992 when a little movie called Reservoir Dogs blew the doors off Robert Redford's quiet little independent film festival nestled in the mountain town of Park City, Utah. (Yes, sex, lies and videotape was technically the film that put Sundance on the map in 1989, but Dogs was my personal gateway into indie film.) Reading all the hype about Quentin Tarantino's debut feature made me want to do two things: 1.) Watch Reservoir Dogs as soon as possible, and 2.) Go to Sundance myself. Accomplishing the first task was relatively easy once the movie hit VHS (remember that?); the second took another two decades. But 20 years after Reservoir Dogs first screened, I finally made the trek to Park City, Utah for a whirlwind three day Sundance experience. In those 72 hours, I managed to see 12 movies, spoke with a number of great people and experienced both extremes of Park City's weather, from blinding snowstorms to beautiful big blue skies. Here's how things went down:
* Most of the photos I've seen of Park City tend to be shots of the town's picturesque Main Street, a lovely uphill ramble of art galleries, boutiques, restaurants and one of the main Sundance theaters, the Egyptian. Based on those images, I pictured Park City as more of a village, where everything was in easy walking distance. Nope. Driving into town a little after midnight, I saw neither hide nor hair of Main Street -- just a sprawling collection of condos, strip malls and hotels. It wasn't until the following morning that I caught a glimpse of the Park City I recognized from the pictures, but then discovered that most of the movies I'd be seeing weren't screening along Main Street, but rather at a collection of actual movie theaters and converted spaces (a gym, a high school auditorium, etc.) further away from the main drag. And while you could theoretically walk from place to place, doing so required a great sense of direction and jet boots to get you from one screening to the other as quickly as possible. So how exactly do you get around in Sundance?
* Shuttles; to be specific, a fleet of buses that shuttle festivalgoers back and forth along a variety of routes. Sounds simple enough, until you actually look at the shuttle map. For a Sundance novice, it might as well be in hieroglyphs. Fortunately, everyone from the drivers to the army of Sundance volunteers standing at every stop is remarkably friendly and ready to help you get to your next destination come hell or high water. Nevertheless, rookie mistakes are going to happen and I did indeed wind up on the wrong bus on the way to my first screening and had to tag along with a more experienced Sundancer in order to retrace my steps.
* After that initial misstep, I found the theater and took my seat for my first-ever Sundance screening. The movie was Simon Killer, the new film from the collective that previously gave us last year's Sundance hit Martha Marcy May Marlene. This one hasn't been met with the same rapturous reception and I understand why: it lacks a great breakout performance like the one given by Elizabeth Olsen and doesn't have the killer hook of a girl escaping from a cult. The structure is also less interesting -- where Martha skipped back and forth in time, this story unfolds in a linear fashion, following the exploits of Simon (Brady Corbett), an American college grad who has traveled to Paris ostensibly for some R&R. But it's clear early on that there's something not quite right about this guy and those suspicions are confirmed as he starts to demonstrate some pretty foul behavior, up to and including partnering up with a prostitute to blackmail her clients for spending money. Though it's not in the same league as Martha, Simon Killer does have several things to recommend it, including director Antonio Campos's eye for unexpected compositions, Corbett's tightly-wound lead performance and a dark vision of Paris after dark that serves as an interesting counterpoint to Woody Allen's more romantic, Midnight in Paris. All in all, a pretty good way to start the festival.
* It was during Simon Killer that I got a crash course in the Sundance walkout policy, at least at the press screenings: viewers will and do bail on a movie without any guilt. The walkouts started about 20 minutes into the film and continued at regular intervals throughout. By the time the credits rolled, we had lost half the audience. I still come from the school where you stick through the movie no matter how bad it gets, so I never bolted from a screening during my time there. But there were a few instances where I seriously considered relaxing my personal policy against walkouts to fit in with the crowed.
* The walkouts were just as plentiful during my second movie of the day, The Perception of Moving Targets. The theater was already only half-full to begin with, but there were only three people (including myself) left by the time the lights came up. I wound up in the movie on a whim: while I had planned out the rest of my schedule, I deliberately left one slot open to pick a film at random, without any idea of what it was about. Targets wound up being that movie and I'm glad it was, because there's little chance I'd ever have the chance to see a film like it outside of a setting like Sundance. Split into four segments, the movie is an impressionistic collage of images and sound that took me back to my days in film school watching beautifully made, but often impenetrable experimental movies. And, like many experimental films, Targets alternates moments of striking beauty with annoying tedium (you can certainly see the influence of several experimental film pioneers -- particularly Maya Deren -- on director Weston Currie). The first chapter, in which a teenage girl is haunted by visions of a ghostly death-like figure, is the strongest sequence overall, but the remaining chapters have some fascinating elements as well. I'm not surprised that so many people fled the theater, but for me, the opportunity to see a film like The Perception of Moving Targets is one of the things that makes Sundance special.
* Nobody walked out of the next movie I saw, The Raid, a bloody, but hugely entertaining action movie from Indonesia. The plot is beyond simple: a squad of heavily armed police officers descends on a dilapidated tenement house to capture a crime boss, who dispatches his own foot soldiers to combat the cops. And that's about it. The rest of the film is given over to a series of brutal, bone-crunching action sequences that show off some terrific gunplay and a bruising martial arts style known as silat. If you've ever wanted to see a movie where one guy fights two others with a piece of glass pipe sticking out of his neck, The Raid is the film for you. And the good news is that you'll actually get a chance to see it: Sony Pictures Classics picked up The Raid after its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival last year and plans to release it in March.
* A quick word about food: The way the Sundance screening schedule is set up, you can basically see back-to-back-to-back films from 8 or 9 in the morning to well after midnight. That's great for us movie lovers, but it doesn't leave a lot of time to do basic things like, you know, eat. (Or sleep for that matter, but that's a whole other issue.) I'm ashamed to admit that I didn't have an actual meal the whole day, getting by almost entirely on snack foods and concession stand refreshments. Memo to future self: Next time, pack yourself a sandwich or two, at least.
* Movie number four was Filly Brown, which could be described as 8 Mile meets Hustle and Flow with a Latina twist. At least, that's the marketing hook I'd recommend to any distributor that picks this uneven, but likable hip-hop flavored family drama up (looking at you, MTV Films). Star Gina Rodriguez is terrific as Majo Tonorio, an L.A. teen that raps under the stage name of Filly Brown. When she's not spitting rhymes in the studio, she's wrestling with her drama-filled home life, which includes a mother in prison, a father (Lou Diamond Phillips) who's trying to get a landscaping business off the ground and a younger sister (Chrissie Fit) who's only 17, but is acting beyond her years with boys. When an opportunity comes along to hit the big time, Filly seizes it, but soon discovers that a quick rise to the top is often followed by an even faster fall. While the story is predictable, the performances and the infectious rap numbers carry Filly Brown. If Rodriguez put out an album, I'd buy it.
* By this time, it was 9pm and the steadily following snow had turned into a full-on winter storm, complete with gusting winds. It was in these conditions that I caught a shuttle bus out to my last movie of the day, which was way the hell outside of Park City at a mall multiplex further up in the mountains. The wise move would have been to just go home, but because the movie was Andrea Arnold's Wuthering Heights -- which I've been eager to see since its premiere at Toronto last year -- I sucked up my courage and gripped my seat as the bus drove through the blinding snow, slipping and sliding on the icy roads. We arrived at the theater moments before the movie started and Arnold was on hand to thank us for braving the storm. And may I just say that Wuthering Heights was absolutely worth the trek. A full review can wait for its release later this year courtesy of the good folks at Oscilloscope, but this is the kind of bold adaptation of a classic 19th century novel that I wish the recent Jane Eyre film had been. It's raw and emotional and vibrant in a way that too few period productions are. I can't wait to experience it again, preferably when I'm not exhausted after a day full of movies and junk food.
* I wanted to linger around after the movie ended to hear Arnold's Q&A, but that would have meant missing the last shuttle back to Park City. And because I had no desire to spend the rest of the night sleeping in the only open store in the entire mall (a Papa John's... though, on second thought, that would have afforded me my first real meal of the day), I joined the crowd heading back to the shuttle stop to wait for the bus that we hoped hadn't gotten stuck in a snow bank somewhere. Ten minutes went by and the mood was growing tense. Then we saw a pair of bright headlights shining through the snow and ran for the bus like it was the last helicopter out of Saigon. Ninty minutes later, I was finally able to ditch my winter gear and fall into bed, hoping that the next day I'd be able to see more of Park City and less snow.
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