Good Film Hunting

Our intrepid reporter seeks news, booze, and schmooze at Sundance.

The Sundance Film Festival is like a Shiite pilgrimage to Mecca—to avoid getting trampled, watch your step as you tumble through the scrum of ambition-crazed filmmakers, swanning actors, and gossiping journos. Sometimes they trade places. Oregonian film critic Shawn Levy took time from reviewing to slurp cheap red wine with John Malkovich, who optioned Levy's Porfirio Rubirosa bio for a $30 million film. Andy Spletzer, blogging for The Stranger, celebrated the inclusion of his short in Seattle's upcoming Sci-Fi Short Film Festival. Telegenic Newsweek critic David Ansen appears on-screen deconstructing the movie-ratings board in This Film Is Not Yet Rated, a Michael Moore–esque exposé of the eight anonymous parents who control which films America sees. At Zoom restaurant, I elbow past Stewart Copeland, pose for a pic with Al Gore, star of Davis Guggenheim's global-warming documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, and tell censorship-happy Tipper about the ratings-film exposé and how movie insiders were telling me it unfairly makes villains of the film raters. "How int'resting!" she says, and nimbly beats a retreat. Pert-nosed and cherub-cheeked, she's cute as a movie star; I restrain the impulse to ask her to re-enact her famous smooch with Al. Here are a few snapshots of Sundance 2006: Best Seattle film: The only Seattle film, James Longley's Iraq in Fragments. Though it lacks a narrative spine, it's a gorgeous tone poem drawn from about 300 hours of incredibly privileged footage—the cameraman literally rolled out of cars during firefights to avoid bullets, and captured more unfamiliar emotional violence in the life of a young Baghdad boy whose ostensibly kindly surrogate-father employer keeps threatening to "roast him alive." Most promising new director: Gus Van Sant, whose 1985 debut, Mala Noche, barely existed on ugly, inaudible video, just got triumphantly restored. Once as uncommunicative as an autistic Warhol, Gus has become open and jolly. Sundance's 1985 rejection of the flick forced him to take it to gay film fests, where he met the agent who launched his career. He stressed the importance of chance in film history: If he hadn't had an idle chat about Boston's 1970s school-integration riots with unknowns Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, conversation wouldn't have turned to their screenplay set then, and Gus would've been down one Oscar nomination (for Good Will Hunting). Best insights into Brokeback Mountain: Film scholar Stephen Rebello tells me that Matt and Ben didn't do Gus' attempted version of Brokeback Mountain because the James Cagney movies he sent them for inspiration were in black and white, which they don't like, and they couldn't understand Cagney's accent. Of the existing film, John Waters, also at Sundance, says, "The right wing is correct: It's a great recruitment tool. I've never seen any gay cowboys that were that cute." Most curious film snafu: Director Jason Reitman apologized because Katie Holmes' big sex scene in Thank You for Smoking got damaged at a screening in L.A. and so was missing from the Sundance screening. Many national movie insiders tell me this is dubious. Could it be that Katie got so much more important since getting cast that she (or some close friend) has the power to demand a last-minute re-edit of her sex scene? Biggest record-breaker: On, Anne Thompson reports that Little Miss Sunshine, the screwed-up-family comedy with skyrocketing stonefaced clown Steve Carell, shattered Sundance records with a north-of-$10-million sale to Fox Searchlight. Best update of a Sundance cliche: Maggie Gyllenhaal's heart-shredding turn as a single mom just sprung from prison, struggling to resist heroin, and battling the sister-in-law who's raising her 5-year-old daughter (talented newcomer Ryan Simpkins). No plot surprises possible in Sherrybaby, but the acting is stunning, partly because Gyllenhaal protectively fought director Laurie Collyer over how to play her scenes with Simpkins, and the tension fed the film's fierce psychological realism. Walkout pictures: According to Hollywood Reporter critic Kirk Honeycutt, audiences fled in droves from The Hawk Is Dying, breaking the hearts of fans of its star, Seattle indie theater's own gift to indie cinema, Paul Giamatti. Honeycutt also razzes the viewer-repelling A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints. Words of comfort for A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints: Walking into the screening, Harvey Weinstein, the King Kong of indies, tells somebody presumably affiliated with the film, "It's self-fulfilling and self-serving. You've been getting buzz for this. You ARE the man!"

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