Sundance: More retreads than recharging

2:59 PM PST 01/28/2010 by Kirk Honeycutt, AP

Analysis: Fest largely fails to live up to marketing message

PARK CITY -- The trouble with SundanceTwentyTen is its marketing slogans.

This year's festival reminds me of what happened when Rick Neuheisel became UCLA's football coach. The university's overexcited marketing department created ads that issued challenges to crosstown rival and perennial powerhouse USC. Did anyone check with the new coach to see if he had the personnel to back up that challenge? The team went out and lost a bunch of games, including one to USC.

Sundance this year splashed bumper-sticker slogans over every screen, program and signpost: "This Is the Renewed Rebellion." "This Is the Recharged Fight Against the Establishment of the Expected." "This Is Rebirth of the Battle for Brave New Ideas."

Did anyone check with the filmmakers? At nearly every turn, they went for the expected. Brave new ideas were nowhere to be seen.

What one did get were tired warhorses such as the coming-of-age movie. You could get it Texas style ("Skateland") or New Zealand-flavored ("Boy"). At least the latter came with a Maori cast of nonprofessional kids in a remote setting.

And so it went: wedding comedies ("The Romantics"), Manhattan comic melodrama ("HappyThankYouMorePlease," "Please Give"), immigrants in America ("The Imperialists Are Still Alive!") and teens gone wild ("Welcome to the Rileys," "The Runaways").

Qualitywise, these films ran the gamut from good to so-so, but nobody was smashing any molds.

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As my critical colleague, John DeFore, puts it, "Though the quality has been pretty high, I don't feel as if I'm witnessing anything groundbreaking, and I dislike being told that I am. Rebirth is great if you're really going to scrap things and do something radical, but that's not happening. If there were a few more like 'Taqwacores' (about the hard-core Muslim punk-rock scene), I'd buy it."

It's a good point: The quality has been pretty high in Sundance, just mislabeled. Those grungy, credit card-financed, 16mm films from the festival's early days are long gone. Indie filmmakers today are mostly making lower-budget versions of Hollywood movies.

To find something really fresh, you usually have to leave American shores, as did another colleague, James Greenberg.

" 'Nuummioq,' the first feature from Greenland, turned out to be a gem," he reported. "Dark and somber, but also full of life and even humor, a pretty great feat given that it was about a young man who learns he has terminal cancer.

"The largely inexperienced team used what was at hand -- the great beauty and sense of nature that was around them -- and crafted a deeply felt and expertly made film."

THR's Justin Lowe had a similar reaction to graffiti artist Banksy's directorial debut, "Exit Through the Gift Shop," calling it "a hybrid documentary so implausible it needs to be seen to be appreciated."

I'm jealous. Mostly, I saw new versions of films I've been watching in Sundance for many years. None was bad. Many were pretty enjoyable, in fact. Yet peel away a layer and you find conventional stories and traditional genres.

In one story about finding one's identity, "The Extra Man," starring Kevin Kline and Paul Dano, the familiar was made fresh -- or at least odd -- by smothering the story in outrageous caricatures and bizarre behavior.

So despite the sloganeering, it was pretty much business as usual at Sundance. Which is not necessarily a bad thing. The festival's longtime heads, Geoffrey Gilmore and John Cooper, spent a long time building its traditions and favorite filmmakers. Now that Cooper has replaced Gilmore as the festival's director, why should he tear things apart?

There has been some repackaging. Sections have acquired new labels, and a new one called Next is devoted to DIY films. I think a few bus routes changed too.

If there is a noticeable shift, it might be a lesser concentration on buzz and hype. Since dealmaking has shifted toward service deals and different distribution platforms, the fest feels a little less like a market and more like the celebration of independent cinema originally intended.

One improvement has come in the Premieres section. The celebrity quotient and red-carpet glamour has thankfully fallen away as the premiering films seem to actually belong to a festival celebrating indie filmmaking. In other words, no more "Brooklyn's Finest."

For THR's Duane Byrge, SundanceTwentyTen marks his 27th trek to Utah. He started coming to a festival here before it was called Sundance. I don't think any other critic or journalist has covered this festival that long. So I was particularly keen to get his observations. Here they are:

"The festival has been refreshingly subdued. Perhaps the bad economy has deterred those who do not have actual business here from coming -- namely, the party people, celebutantes, geek fringers or, as Robert Redford calls them, 'the circus people.'

"The films have been largely forgettable, skillfully made but not particularly compelling. 'What did I see this morning?' You remember the venue but not the movie."

If that's so, it's not the fault of Sundance programmers. Sloganeering aside, indie filmmakers today are largely not in the rebellious mood. They either mimic Hollywood or the indie films that have scored big here in the past.

Families, divorces, weddings, teen angst, middle-age malaise, middle-class guilt and female friendships -- these remain the focus of filmmakers who lack the resources to take us to Pandora or wow us with visual magic. Again, this is not a bad thing.

For many, myself included, Sundance remains a much-needed respite from Hollywood factory films. Like the snow that has fallen since everyone got to Park City last week, Sundance has had a cool, soothing effect, refreshing one's palate for film viewing and reawakening the senses to character-driven storytelling.

Just don't tell us we are witnessing any cinematic game-changers.
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