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Hey, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab.

Okay... let me try and explain where I am as I write this final piece on my experiences at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival. It’s a month after the fact now, and I’ve filed reports on every film I saw at the fest except one. I’ve been busy almost continuously since I got back to Los Angeles from Park City, including a trip back to the east coast to see my parents. Sundance already seems like a distant dream in some ways. It’ll be interesting this week when I sit down with John Robie and the producer of our TV show to watch all the DV footage we shot at the festival. If I learned anything on the trip, it’s that Robie is deranged, a seriously dangerous individual who not even the miracle of modern psychiatric medicine can help. I’d like to point out for the record that Robie could have finished his coverage before me, but for some reason, he punked out just before he reached the finish line. One review to go... and he quit. I’m guessing his punking out has something to do with him being a punk. That’s just a theory.

Of course, I punked out, too, and it’s not the first time. I think I still owe several nights worth of coverage of QT Quattro, and I’m not even going to bring up other long-term projects *coughthe’90slistscough* that I’m still muddling my way through. In this particular case, though, I’ve finally done it. I’ve finally determined to finish. All I have to do is review the last film I saw. It was the final Saturday of the festival, and we went to a noon press screening of THE CAVEMAN’S VALENTINE. The Yarrow was closed already, so our last viewing took place at the Eccles, the less comfortable of the two. I’ll be honest... by this point in the festival, one side of my ass seemed to have collapsed completely. I had fallen, and all the sitting, all those hours on those lousy, lousy chairs, it was taking its toll on me. I found myself shifting almost constantly during the screening, and I wasn’t alone. I noticed that everyone seemed impatient, ready to go, finished. That’s a shame, because it’s no way to watch a movie, especially one as particular as this second collaboration between Kasi Lemmons and Samuel L. Jackson.

And make no mistake... the screenplay is credited to George Dawes Green, but this is primarily a duet. Lemmons and Jackson worked together to great effect on the film EVE’S BAYOU, a picture that casts a sort of spell, rich with atmosphere. This new film is not only about a homeless schizophrenic man, it’s suffering from a split personality in its own right. Half of the film is a fairly straightforward mystery that I can’t say I was terribly interested in. Half of the film, though, is as successful a look inside a troubled mind as we’ve seen since THE FISHER KING, benefitting from a fairly risky visual conceit and a masterfully nuanced performance by one of America’s best working character actors. The half of the film that is good is so good that the half of the film that’s not doesn’t bother me. In fact, it’s been growing on me as I’ve been thinking about it.

I remember the first time I noticed Samuel Jackson. I mean, really noticed him. It was in Spike Lee’s DO THE RIGHT THING. That film had an amazing ensemble, and there were so many characters that went by that it was hard to absorb on first viewing. I saw the film over and over in the theater, and I bought the screenplay. The dialogue in that particular picture is like a symphony, this delicious cascade of language that just washes over you. There were certain characters I found compulsively quotable in the picture. Robin Harris as Sweet Dick Willie was one favorite, and Sam Jackson as Senor Love Daddy, the DJ whose voice serves as the wrapping paper on this wonderful gift, was the other. When Jackson returned in JUNGLE FEVER with the part that really launched his career, I was already sold. There are actors who strike a chord with an audience from their earliest appearances, and it’s always hard to pinpoint what it is. Jackson has always managed to be a chameleon, something that wouldn’t seem possible at first. He’s so striking, with such a unique face, that it’s deceptive, the ease with which he transforms from the righteous reformed hit man of PULP FICTION to the unrepentant arms dealer and scam artist of JACKIE BROWN to the imperfect father of EVE’S BAYOU or the coiled steel reserve of THE PHANTOM MENACE.

He’s vanished into the role of Romulus Ledbetter, and the film is worth seeing for his performance, plain and simple. Even if the rest of the film was a wreck (and it’s certainly not), it would be worth seeing to watch how Jackson seems to shrink into himself, how he seems to truly be tuned in to some private radio, some secret voice. He is convinced that he is being persecuted by some invisible billionaire who lives in the top of the Empire State Building, constantly scanning the city with powerful green rays that only Romulus sees. Rom is called "Caveman" by those who know him because he’s moved into a cave in Central Park. He has moments where he seems vaguely lucid, but for the most part, he wanders the streets in a sort of psychotic haze. He’s terribly sad to watch, and it’s worse when we realize that he’s got a family, a wife and a daughter, who have had to resign themselves to the fact that they’ve lost the man that Romulus could be, the gifted musician, the father, the husband. In some ways, it would be easier if Romulus was dead. At least then, they could get on with the business of remembering him, of editing those memories into something they can deal with. The living, breathing Romulus is complicated and disappointing and infuriating, and when we see him interact with his daughter Lulu (Aunjanue Ellis), it’s wrenching. The best scene in the film takes place between the two of them in a car, and it all hinges on one moment of happiness, when Romulus is clean and making sense and for just that moment, Lulu lets herself believe that he’s okay again. When Romulus brings up his theory about the invisible billionaire, we see Lulu’s heart break. It’s doesn’t just break. It shatters. What’s worse, Romulus sees her heart break, and he knows full well that he did it. He can’t change who he is, no matter how much it tears her apart, and when she explodes, yelling at him, her words do more damage than any of the physical threats against Rom in the movie ever could.

The crime thriller involving Ann Magnuson and Colm Feore is well-acted but uninvolving, and in the end, this film struck me a lot like PRIMAL FEAR did. That film was a pretty predictable thriller in many ways, but the performance by Ed Norton was so amazing, so technically perfect, that it made the film a must-see. There’s any number of sights and sounds along the way that are rewarding enough, including the genuinely risky way that Lemmons brings the visions of Romulus to life. Mixing sets, CG, dance, and costumes to surreal effect, these sequences work in fits and starts. I’m impressed by Lemmons’ nerve, even if I don’t think she always did what she was trying to do. There’s a great little subplot with Anthony Michael Hall, who seems to be playing a grown-up version of the character he was playing in SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION, and it’s about time someone find a big-time comeback role for this guy. He deserves it. He’s got genuine ability, and when he turns in a solid little performance like this, it’s as frustrating as it is delightful. His scenes with Jackson are among the movie’s highlights. I think this is going to find a somewhat muted reception when it comes out, but adventurous viewers who are open to it will be rewarded for their time.

We got on the road just after 4:00, stopping at a place called The Dairy Keen before we left. We hadn’t had enough of cosmopolitan Heber City, and we decided to pack on some burgers before we split. Robie asked the girl at the front counter why the restaurant ("Home of THE TRAIN") was called Dairy Keen, and she told us we were the first people to ever ask her that. She explained that they used to be a Dairy Queen, but they lost the franchise rights, so they just changed the word "Queen" to something that sounded like it. The model train set around the entire restaurant had me laughing, and Robie ended up buying a commemorative Dairy Keen t-shirt (another first, according to the girl at the register) to remember the trip. Neither of us bought one piece of merchandise with this year’s distinctly ugly Sundance logo, but Robie’s got a Dairy Keen shirt. Makes perfect sense.

My experience with the Sundance Awards show didn’t happen until Monday night, as I was wrapping up all my coverage. Back in the comfort of the Moriarty Labs, I popped in a tape, curled up in my chair, and watched the events of Saturday night unfolded. Donal Logue, the host of the evening, opened with a summary of what Sundance is all about, and to some extent, I agree with him. He compared the community of Sundance to the community on display in the film DOGTOWN & Z-BOYS, and in an ideal world, the independent world should be that same kind of strange, dysfunctional, supportive-but-competitive culture. At the end of ten days in the snow, innundated with all the voice and the faces and the images and the sights and sounds and snow and music and dark rooms and good food, maybe it even is, if only for that moment.

Geoff Gilmore then came on to deliver what may well be his final address as the festival director. I find it amazing to think of Gilmore leaving. He’s been so closely identified with the nature of the festival for so long that no matter what, Sundance will change forever with his departure. Nicole Gillumet, the fest’s co-director, gave a thickly accented, essentially indecipherable speech that seemed very heartfelt. I know she said something about the fest’s 20th anniversary and the future. Then Gilmore came back to present the Jury Award in Latin American Cinema, introducing the jury for that award first. It was awarded to COFFIN JOE: THE STRANGE WORLD OF JOSE MOJICA MARINS (dir. Andre Barcinski & Ivan Finotti), a documentary about South America’s horror icon and the odd man behind the image. I kept running into Coffin Joe everywhere I went over the last few days, and am still depressed I didn’t get to see the documentary or any of the midnight screenings of his actual films. The filmmakers were rattled by their award, and Father Geek should be ecstatic about the exposure that he got in that moment, the mammoth round of applause for Coffin Joe at the first dramatic competition he was ever allowed to attend. He spoke elegantly in Portuguese and was given a standing ovation for his effort.

POSSIBLE LOVES and director Sandra Wernick received the next special jury award from the Latin jurors, evidently melting Ms. Wernick’s brain at the podium, where she seemed overwhelmed. Best film was then given to WITHOUT A TRACE and director Maria Navaro. She was a little more collected than the woman before her as she spoke quickly and concisely, interspersing Spanish and English.

Geoff Gilmore returned to introduce the shorts jurors by way of introducing the short film competition, then brought out Guinevere Turner to present the award. Just to reemphasize: she’s a major hottie and a good filmmaker to boot. Holy cow. All the shorts winners were brought up onstage at once, including Elyse Couvillon, director of SWEET, a filmmaker who I’ve been a fan of since her first short a year ago. I’m thrilled for her, and happy her collaboration with Allen Daviau paid off so spectacularly. Can’t wait to see the film soon.

The short film GINA, AN ACTRESS, AGE 29 won the best film award, and the director came up and spoke about his life in Knoxville, TN. Over the nine days we spent in Park City, we spoke several times with a reporter from Knoxville who had been sent to cover the young filmmaker who directed the movie. Bet she had a great final piece, following the local boy all the way to the awards podium.

Donal Logue finally reappeared to explain what the Audience Award is and how votes are calculated. First, he announced the World Cinema Audience Award, which was won by THE ROAD HOME and Zhang Yimou. One of the guys from Sony Pictures Classics darted up to accept the award quickly. The Documentary Audience Award was announced as a tie, with Donal bringing each film up separately. First up was DOGTOWN & Z-BOYS and Stacy Peralta. Second up was SCOUT’S HONOR and Tom Shepard. When Donal announced the Dramatic Audience Award winner as HEDWIG & THE ANGRY INCH, it was met by the biggest applause of the evening so far, and deservedly so. This was the exact award I hoped it would get, and was so pleased to see it happen. This is the very definition of a crowd-pleasing film. John Cameron Mitchell looks like David Spade when you see him out of makeup, and his sense of humor was firmly in place. To see Mitchell and his composer and lyricist Stephen Trask together in that moment, to see the sense of accomplishment on their faces, was really powerful.

Finally, Donal introduced the nominees for the two major categories, running down the sixteen entries in the Documentary Competition first:

CHAIN CAMERA (dir. Kirby Dick), CHILDREN UNDERGROUND (dir. Edet Belzberg), DOGTOWN & Z-BOYS (dir. Stacy Peralta), THE ENDURANCE: SHACKLETON’S LEGENDARY ANARCTIC EXPEDITION (dir. George Butler), GO TIGERS! (dir. Kenneth A. Carlson), HOME MOVIE (dir. Chris Smith), LALEE’S KIN: THE LEGACY OF COTTON (dir. Susan Froemke & Deborah Dickson with Albert Maysles), MARCUS GARVEY: LOOK FOR ME IN THE WHIRLWIND (dir. Stanley Nelson), THE NATURAL HISTORY OF THE CHICKEN (dir. Mark Lewis), RALPH BUNCHE: AN AMERICAN ODYSSEY (dir. William Greaves), SCOUT’S HONOR (dir. Tom Shepard), SCRATCH (dir. Doug Pray), SOUTHERN COMFORT (dir. Kate Davis), STARTUP.COM (dir. Chris Hegedus and Jehan Noujaim), TREMBLING BEFORE G-D (dir. Sandi Simcha Dubowski), and AN UNFINISHED SYMPHONY (dir. Bestor Cram & Mike Majoros).

Next up were the Dramatic Competition nominees:

DRAMATIC COMPETITION: MEMENTO (dir. Chris Nolan), IN THE BEDROOM (dir. Todd Field), DONNIE DARKO (dir. Richard Kelly), MACARTHUR PARK (dir. Billy Wirth), 30 YEARS TO LIFE (dir. Vanessa Middleton), THE AMERICAN ASTRONAUT (dir. Cory McAbee), THE BELIEVER (dir. Henry Bean), THE BUSINESS OF STRANGERS (dir. Patrick Stettner), THE DEEP END (dir. Scott McGehee & David Siegel), GREEN DRAGON (Timothy Linh Bui), HEDWIG & THE ANGRY INCH (dir. John Cameron Mitchell), L.I.E. (dir. Michael Cuesta), LIFT (dir. Demane Davis & Khari Streeter), SCOTLAND, PA (dir. Billy Morrissette), THE SLEEPY TIME GAL (dir. Christopher Munch), and SOME BODY (dir. Henry Barrial).

There’s a few special jury awards that were given first, and Donal explained how that happens. He was the recipient of one of those special jury awards last year for THE TAO OF STEVE. RJ Cutler and Joan Chen were brought up to actually hand those awards out. Cutler, from the Documentary Jury, spoke of how strong the field was this year, and I’d agree. The docs I saw were great, and I just barely got to sample the lineup. The first special award was given to Edet Belzberg for her CHILDREN UNDERGROUND, a five-year journey to show the lives of street children in Bucharest. She was hysterical, shaking, and completely endearing as she struggled to keep control of her emotions and accept the award. It’s moments like this that make these shows worth watching. Joan Chen, representing the Dramatic Jury, presented IN THE BEDROOM with a special jury prize for Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson, the stars of the film. Director Todd Field came up to accept on their behalf, speakiing briefly and sincerely.

Gavin Smith from the Dramatic Jury and Anne Makepeace from the Documentary Jury came up to give he cinematography awards to Giles Nuttgens for THE DEEP END and Albert Maysles for LALEE’S KIN: THE LEGACY OF COTTON, respectively. Here’s a pair of awards I can’t comment on at all. I didn’t see the two winning films, another indicator of just how crazy a fest this is. I saw 29 films and didn’t see half of the ones represented here.

The Freedom of Expression award is given to the film that "best investigates and educates the public about an issue of social concern" each year. Documentary filmmaker and jury member Merata Mita came up to present the award to SCOUT’S HONOR, another one I missed. I’m going to be trying to find screenings of all of these in the weeks ahead. It drives me crazy that I missed so many of these pictures. It’s such a game of cinema roulette.

The Waldo Salt screenwriting award was presented by Kasi Lemmons, one of the Dramatic jurors. It went to MEMENTO, an award I can wholeheartedly agree with. The sheer inventive nature of Nolan’s script deserved recognition. Like Charlie Kaufman’s upcoming ADAPTATION, this is a script that breaks every rule of conventional construction but which never feels like a mere gimmick. Instead, these inventive form-breakers draw you in and engage you in new ways, something that’s always exhilarating to encounter.

Randy Barbada, another Documentary juror, and Darren Aronofsky from the Dramatic Jury, came up to present the directing awards for each category. Stacy Peralta was called back to the stage for DOGTOWN & Z-BOYS. It’s interesting... much of the footage that Peralta cut his film from was shot when he was still a teen with no thoughts of the future. It’s a testament to his natural talent as a filmmaker that the archival footage is as good as it is. Peralta was really shaken up the second time. I was delighted when Aronofsky announced John Cameron Mitchell as the winner for HEDWIG. I’ve heard people say his directing was the weak link in the film, but they’re crazy. It’s a movie that confidently reinvents the musical form for the new century, and it’s a major announcement for Mitchell as a triple threat. He spoke about his experience in the Sundance Labs and how he came to the decision to direct the film himself, and again, I found myself awed by this guy’s energy.

Finally, Freida Lee Mock came up to give the main documentary prize to SOUTHERN COMFORT, a film that Robie saw and reviewed. It sounded fascinating, and I hope I get a chance to see it soon. Mock spoke about the film’s compassionate nature as the main reason it was chosen as the winner. Kate Davis, who’s made four films before this, kept her collaborators close as she spoke about the film and the process she went through. Most notably, she spoke about how it’s not real courage just to make a film. Instead, it’s the people she made the film about that she calls real heroes.

Bingham Ray, co-founder of October Films, was brought up as the presenter for the Dramatic Grand Jury Prize. He spoke of William Goldman’s definition of the difference between mainstream and independent films, and how that definition has become more and more blurred in recent years, and he talked about how long the deliberation was, and what an amazing conversation it was in deciding the winner. When he announced THE BELIEVER, there was a bit of a startled gasp in the room, followed by warm applause. I know that I had been hearing IN THE BEDROOM as the probable winner for days, but I’m delighted by the choice the jury made. THE BELIEVER is a film that will provoke intense debate when it’s released by whoever is smart and bold enough to pick it up, and it’s a genuinely brave choice. Not everyone is going to like the movie, but that’s the point. It dares you to react to it. It’s definitely the kind of film that seems to embody the best of what Sundance can be.

And that was it, the end of the festival. There were amazing films that weren’t mentioned at all during the awards show, but that doesn’t take away from their power. To anyone who says this was a weak year, all I can say is you didn’t look closely enough. There were real discoveries to be made, voices that emerged that must be heard, and I personally feel privileged to have finally made my first trip to Park City on the year that these films were playing. As the year progresses and more of the movies find their way out to where the general public can see them, I think you’ll see what I mean about the strength of this lineup. These are films worth seeing, and what more could anyone ask from a fest?

The luck that had been omnipresent on our entire trip seemed to be sputtering out as Robie and I left Park City, and it felt like we rode home directly in front of an oncoming shitstorm. Robie struggled with exhaustion, I struggled with my steadily-worsening injury, and Robie’s car struggled to keep moving. We almost found ourselves stranded just this side of Vegas, but the car caught a second wind and we finally pulled back into Los Angeles sometimes around 3:00 in the morning. Even though we were both worn out, much of our conversation on the way home was about how we could do a better job next year. Robie and I (and the rest of the spies who sent in such exhaustive coverage of the films that were shown) were given an "A" in a recent ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY and called the best coverage of the festival on the web, better even than the official Sundance website. When I look back at what we posted, it seems rushed, like we were just doing our best to keep up with the overload of input, and I can think of a thousand ways it could be better. Sundance was an enormous challenge and a great experience, and I can sincerely say I’m hooked. I promise that no matter if I go back once or twice or a dozen times, I’m never going to grow blasé about it. It was an amazing trip, and I want to thank Harry and the staff of Sundance and all the filmmakers and all the great people in Park City for conspiring to show us such a good time our first time out.

So now all I have to do is get to those set reports on EVOLUTION and THE MAJESTIC. And that CHOKE review. And that stack of DVDs that are ready to be reviewed and those scripts I read and want to talk about and an account of how I used the Time Machine to see BATTLE ROYALE, and then there’s... oh, hell. I’ve gotta go.










"Moriarty" out.

Readers Talkback
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  • Feb. 20, 2001, 7:01 a.m. CST

    Who'd'a thunkit

    by Goldberry

    Well, I was first. Sad, really. Having gone back to read the article, now I'm all excited about the prospect of seeing Samuel L Jackson in action. In a weird way, he reminds me of Philip Seymore Hoffman. No really, stay with me here. Acting is great and everything, but both these guys seem to have a disturbing ability to transmogrify (it's a Calvin thing) into whoever the script demands, not a character, a person. Mesmerising to watch, and a wee bit... creepy. Yup, a cinephile creeped out by good acting, what hope is there for the future.

  • Feb. 20, 2001, 8:35 a.m. CST

    So "The Road Home" Got an Award...

    by Elaine

    It SO deserves it. And I was SO glad when I read in another talkback that there is someone on this site who is even crazier about the film than I am - someone who actually saw it 25 times! I've only seen it five times, but I'll probably see it another forty times when it's finally released on video. That's what the film does to some people. Be prepared for when it comes your way in May, Americans...

  • Feb. 20, 2001, 8:44 a.m. CST

    Give Sam Jackson an oscar RIGHT NOW !!!!

    by Mister M

    He's one of the best actors alive, for chrissake!!! When the academy will stop ignoring all the gifted black actors? Nothing for Morgan Freeman, nothing for Jackson, not even a nomination this year for Rob Brown. Last year's best actor award stolen from Denzel Washington by Kevin Spacey (don't get me wrong, Spacey WAS great in American Beauty)... SHAME ON THE ACADEMY!

  • Feb. 20, 2001, 11:06 a.m. CST

    Sorry, but this movie was awful

    by Jetpackboy

    I saw this film in Culver City. It was the opening film for the Hollywood Black Film Festival. I sat right next to the cinematographer, who I thought did an excellent job with the film. However, I thought the movie was awful. The story was ridiculous. Samuel L. Jackson plays a screaming loony who accuses people left and right of committing a murder they didn't commit. Kasi Lemmons was in the audience and she was cool, but I was really let down by the film. It's a film that will be marketed to art houses but it lacks any real substance. Lemmons failed to make anyone care about the characters. I wasn't involved and didn't care where the story was going.

  • Feb. 20, 2001, 12:43 p.m. CST

    Isn't it supposed to be the Chrystler Building, instead of the E

    by JonQuixote

    Oh well, minor quibble, and maybe I'm wrong. I for one will wait to actually see the performance, before I decide that Oscar should be awarded to Sam Jackson based on the color of his skin. As far as Denzel being robbed last year, he was hammy as was his movie. Not horrible, but Russell Crowe, Kevin Spacey, Jim Carrey, Tom Hanks, John Cusack and Matt Damon, among others, turned in far better performances that year. Denzel got his nomination, and his Golden Globe, strictly by virtue of his reputation. But everytime Denzel does a movie where he doesn't play a cop, it seems that the Image community expects he should get an Oscar for it; there was an NAACP outcry when he didn't get nominated for Crimson Tide, for chrissake!! But he got the Image award for it that year...which should show you that the reason Black actors are woefully underrepresented by the Academy is because there is a dearth of Academy worthy roles for them, not because they're being ignored.

  • Feb. 20, 2001, 1:32 p.m. CST

    TV show?

    by FarfrumWorkin

    What's this about the producer of your TV show? Or am I just out of the loop?

  • Feb. 20, 2001, 2:02 p.m. CST

    Sam Jackson is overrated

    by vorpalbuni

    He is wooden and horrible in almost everything he does. Anyone see The Red Violin? He was terrible. The Phantom Menace? Was that him or a cardboard cutout? The only roles he does well in are in Quentin Tarantino films. And he was just OK as Shaft. C'mon, people, open your eyes. He is half the actor Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman are.

  • Feb. 20, 2001, 5:41 p.m. CST

    sam the man

    by huggy bear


  • Feb. 21, 2001, 12:37 a.m. CST

    About black actors

    by Mister M

    Well, I didn't mean AT ALL that Denzel deserved the oscar last year because of the color of his skin. I actually think that he was great in Hurricane. He's great in most of his films and is certainly one of the greatest american actors... I just wanted to say that black actors are often overlooked by the Academy, and in the film industry in general. And it's not just an american matter. It's a worldwide problem...