Sundance holds to its independence

Drew Barrymore, Christine Lahti among supplicants hoping to win acclaim for films at the Utah festival.

Film

January 21, 2001|By Ron Dicker | Ron Dicker,Special to the Sun

ARK CITY, Utah -- The shadow of a labor war. The skewering of "Survivor." And the growth of Drew.

If any one theme has emerged in the early going of the Sundance Film Festival, it's that there's no central theme at all. Every year, pundits stretch for a common thread, a punchy sound bite: The Year of the Tarantino Knockoffs. The Parker Posey Festival.

Not this time. Independent film is meant to avoid compartmentalization anyway, right? Those who still yearn for a single story line will have to content themselves with several:

n Despite the grousing about the big studios' imposing presence, Sundance remains a haven for grass-roots filmmakers. On a frigid Friday morning at a press screening room in Park City, Gwendolyn Dixon, the associate producer of the documentary "Marcus Garvey," passed out fliers to anyone with an open hand. Dixon had schmoozed her way through the previous night's gala and had slept about five hours in the past two days to spend more time pamphleteering.

"His story is an American story," Dixon said of Garvey, a controversial black leader early in the 20th century.

Dixon is one of the lucky ones, though. "Marcus Garvey" will air on PBS Feb. 12, making it among the few of the 16 documentaries here to reach a wide audience.

The possible Screen Actors Guild walkout on June 30 has put the giddyap in everyone, from acquisition crocodiles to the festival's spiritual leader, Robert Redford. Redford missed opening night because he was shooting a movie in Morocco. Fewer executives from such mid-level studios as Fine Line and Artisan are here, but the fireside negotiations are expected to heat up -- ensuring that the studios have films to fill the theaters in case of a strike.

Drug movies are in. Barbet Schroeder's "Our Lady of the Assassins" jump-started the Park City screenings on Friday morning with its matter-of-fact chronicling of daily life in Colombia after the murder of drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. One startling image was the fireworks that shower the city when a coke shipment makes it into the United States. In the film, people shoot each other in the street for little reason, and a middle-aged writer is oddly accepting of the bloodthirsty thug who is her lover.

As in "Traffic," the bad guys are not simply bad, but products of our violent times.

Drew Barrymore is extending her power far beyond her checkered lineage. Fresh off producing and acting in the mega-hit "Charlie's Angels," Barrymore comes to Sundance with the much talked-about "Donnie Darko," a special-effects-happy movie about a delusional teen and his monstrous rabbit.

Barrymore acted and produced, giving some credence to the female-empowerment message she soft-pedaled in "Angels." Who would have thought Drew Barrymore would be queen of the indies?

There isn't likely to be a "Blair Witch Project" in the bunch. How will word spread in a climate where 95 percent of the anticipated dot.com Sundance sponsors have dropped out?

Sundance will fire the first decent salvo at the reality television craze . Daniel Minahan's "Series 7" is generating as much talk for its rapier-like satire as for its timeliness. Contestants (ranging from an 8-months-pregnant defending champion to a timid nurse chosen by lottery) are given guns to hunt each other down. If "Series 7" had just been a 90-minute "Survivor" send-up, it wouldn't have held audience interest. But the film sustains itself with a good, funny story.

Sundance might not be as "pure" as it once was in the minds of critics, but it's still the premiere showcase for independent movies. Christine Lahti was among 46 first-time filmmakers hoping to make a big impression at the festival. Her debut effort, "My First Mister," is about the relationship between a troubled teen-ager (Leelee Sobieski) and a middle-aged convenience store clerk (Albert Brooks). Following the screening on Thursday, the Festival's opening day, Lahti said: "I'm blown away to be here."

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