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Reflections on Sundance Film Festival, 2010

PARK CITY, Utah–Reflections on Sundance, 2010
Hottest stars in attendance:

Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning.
A media frenzy ensued during their red carpet arrival for “The Runaways” at Eccles Theater. Media members stood six deep, cameras flashing and TV interviewers gushing as publicists escorted their young clients from ET to Access Hollywood to MTV and on and on and on.

Ben Affleck
The star of “The Company Men” was actually chased by paparazzi and teenaged girls up Main Street after leaving an interview at the Bing Bar. Who knew?

Best singer
Orlando Bloom

To hear Mark Ruffalo and Juliette Lewis tell it, Bloom should be cutting his own album. He plays a rock singer named The Stain in Ruffalo’s new film “Sympathy for Delicious” which Ruffalo also directed. But Bloom is adamant–he won’t be crossing over into the music world now or ever.

Star who looked like he wanted to be somewhere else?
Philip Seymour Hoffman
The co-star and director of “Jack Goes Boating” was bundled up for the cold and wearing a “Jets” ski cap at his Eccles premiere, but it quickly became apparent that he has about as much personality as a guy working in a toll booth. His buddy, Tom Arnold, gave off better vibes. You get the feeling with Hoffman that he can’t stand the media–and it’s vice versa.

Best couple:
America Ferrera and Ryan Piers Williams

He’s the writer/director of “The Dry Land,” an emotional look at a U.S. soldier returning from combat suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder. Ferrera co-stars and executive produced the film. The real-life couple couldn’t have been nicer with reporters or more enthusiastic about their project, and the concern they have for military families dealing with PTSD seems genuine. Ferrera’s appearance at Sundance came at the same time ABC was canceling her series “Ugly Betty.”

Worst connection
Was it just me, or did it feel like AT&T’s Internet connections out of snowy Park City were failing over and over every day. Writing stories in the wee hours of the morning became commonplace.

Best short film:
Spike Jonze’s “I’m Here.”

The film revolves around a likable robot who works in a library and, like other robots into this look into the not so distant future, interacts with humans in his mundane everyday life. Occasionally, he will look out a window and wistfully watch a jet plane flying in the sky. Then one day he meets a sassy young female robot and falls in love. They go out to a nightclub, where she inexplicably has her arm ripped off, leaving a tangle of wires. He offers to remove his arm and attach it to hers. Later, he finds her on the ground with one of her legs ripped off. He removes his leg and attaches it to hers. Walking around on a crutch, he discovers that she is in the hospital and in danger of dying. The doctor says there isn’t much he can do because her middle has been ripped apart. The love he shows at that point makes this film poignant and worth the effort.

Best documentary
Tossup between “Restrepo,” a gritty film by Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington about a U.S. combat unit operating in the most dangerous valley in Afghanistan and Rory Kennedy’s “The Fence.”

While “Restrepo” has been criticized by some for not having a cohesive storyline and not putting the war in a political context, it nonetheless puts the audience in the shoes of these likable warriors and reveals the difficult task they have if they are ever going to win and hearts and minds of the Afghan people.

“The Fence” is the story of how and why our leaders in Congress spent billions of dollars putting up a fence along the U.S.-Mexico border to prevent illegal aliens, drug dealers and terrorists from infiltrating from the south. The movie is hilarious. For instance, only about 700 miles of fence has been built along the 2,000-mile-long border and Kennedy has fun interviewing locals standing next to the fence as the camera pans a few yards down to reveal that’s where the fence ends.
It is not to be missed.

Best 3-D film
“Cane Toads: The Conquest.”

Mark Lewis has given us a gem. The documentary about the relentless advance of cane toads across northern Australia is informative, witty and–in its 3-D format–provides a film from the toad’s point of view. Jokingly dubbed “Avatoad” by Lewis, the audience shrieked when one of the toads lunged into the camera as the movie got under way. The scene where the owner of Zev’s Traveling Toad Show displays his dioramas of stuffed cane toads dressed in mini-costumes and posed in scenes like a traffic pileup or a nightclub are side-splitting.

Best entertainer:
Biker Fox. He is something of a sensation in his hometown of Tulsa, Okla., where he has been arrested numerous times for getting into traffic mishaps by tumbling head-first over his handlebars. He was in Park City to hype a documentary on his life called “Biker Fox” that was accepted by Slamdance. One morning, he climbed on his bike at the top of Main Street and, wearing his helmet and Technicolor cycling outfit, he rode down the street and staged fall after fall for the cameras. He then bounced up and regaled the media members present with his philosophy of life and how he lives with 70 to 80 raccoons back in Tulsa. He’s one of the many reasons we like Slamdance.

The Case of the Missing Blackberry:
Ok, here’s a strange little tale that actually happened to me.

I was at Prospector Square one day and came out of a screening to catch a shuttle heading to Main Street. I waited and waited for the bus to arrive. Finally, the young couple seated near me suggested that since we were all headed for Main Street, we hail a cab and divide the expense. In the cab, I discovered that the young woman is an actress named Zoe Lister Jones and is featured in a black comedy called “Armless” premiering at Sundance. I laughed and groaned when I discovered what the film is about: an insurance executive secretly wants to have his arms chopped off. I was assured the film was not as gory as it sounds. Anyway, I bid the couple adieu and the cab took me to my destination (a band called The Flay was performing on Main Street but so many people showed up that the fire marshal banned any more media from entering the club)

I went back to the bus transit center, the weather so frigid that people stood under heat lamps. I climbed onto the shuttle with about fifty other people. When I got back to my room, I discovered that my Blackberry was missing. I looked everywhere, but couldn’t find it. So, I retraced my steps….going from my hotel to the Marriott, where the Sundance Film Festival headquarters is located. Inside the lobby, I walked up to the front desk, the information booth and a mini-Starbucks, but all said no one had turned in my Blackberry. I walked to the bus stop outside the Marriott but saw nothing on the snow-covered ground.

I then returned to my room wondering what I would do without a cell phone? So, I decided I would call my daughter and see what she would suggest? But the phone in my room would not connect. I tried over and over and only got a BEEP BEEP BEEP. Frantic, I went to the front desk and told the nice, young woman that the phone in my room was not working. I could not even get the operator. She seemed to regard this as strange and came to my room, but when she called, nothing happened. So, she called 411 and it went through! EUREKA! I grabbed the phone out of her hand and asked the man on the other end of the line if I could get the operator. Then my hopes crashed. No, he replied, he only works for directory assistance. He could give me phone numbers, but didn’t even work for the phone company and could not connect me to the operator. I said to him, ‘Do you mean I can call information but can’t call the operator?’ Yes, he said, apparently so.

The woman from the front desk said she would return to her station and call her manager. A few minutes later, my phone rang. The woman from the front desk said that she had just talked to her manager and said the reason the phone in my room didn’t work is because they don’t allow calls outside the area code!

Well, what should I do? I asked her.

Well, she replied, you need to purchase a phone card.

Where’s the nearest place to buy a phone card?

Oh, a block or so down the street there’s a Maverick’s convenience store. It isn’t much of a walk.

I bundled up in my parka and headed outside, the weather so cold I could feel my snot freeze. Somehow, her directions did not compute. I quickly got lost. It also seemed that no one in their right mind was out walking this night. Then I spotted a man emptying trash outside the back door of a tiny restaurant. I called out to him, but he didn’t understand English. A taller, larger man appeared at the back door of the restaurant. He was holding some sort of device with a red light. I thought it might be a laser beam. He aimed it at me and wondered what I was doing? I called out, “Do you know where Maverick’s is?!” Still aiming the red light, he told me to go back the way I came. Oh, great, I thought.

I don’t know how, but I finally found Maverick’s. I was out of breath and cold. But I bought my phone card. I returned to my room, triumphant. I called my daughter and my son-in-law got on the phone and said he knew exactly why I was calling. I said, ‘You do?’ ‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘a woman just called me and said she has your Blackberry.’ ‘She called you?’ I said. ‘Yes, we were the last persons you called today so she just rang the number and lucked out.’

He gave me her name and number. I had my phone card. I called. It went through! She answered! “Yes, I have your Blackberry in my purse,” she said. Her name was Carmee. She and her husband were about to go into a screening at the Yarrow Theater. If I could get there in the next half-hour, she assured me, I could get my Blackberry back pronto.

I jumped into a cab and headed for Yarrow, but as I rushed into the hotel lobby, I found it filled with 200 people waiting to get into the film. Then I realized I forgot to ask her what she looked like! What to do? I had no cell phone and so I began going from woman to woman asking, “Carmee?” “Are you Carmee?” “Carmee?”

The women had one of two reactions: they either shook their heads or thought I was some trying to kidnap them.

Then a voice called out. It was the couple from the cab! “You came to the premiere!” I looked at them dumbfounded.

I was at the premiere of …. “Armless!”

I told them that no, I didn’t come for the premiere, but because some woman in the room had my Blackberry and I didn’t know who she was!

They looked at me as if I was bonkers. Then someone suggested I go to the front desk and see if I could call her on their phone. The young man at the desk said, “Sure,” and I quickly punched in the area code and number.

“I see you over at the front desk!” Carmee said. “I’m coming over.”

We met. She held my Blackberry in her hand. I was so thankful I could barely convey my gratitude. Carmee’s husband walked up and said they had been at the bus transit center and when they looked down in the snow, they saw the Blackberry. It buried about six inches and was difficult to notice.

I then asked Carmee what area code she was from, since it wasn’t familiar to me. “Oh, we”re from Pittsburgh,” she said. In fact, much of the room was filled with people from Pittsburgh. I instantly thought that people from Pittsburgh are the nicest, friendliest, most honest people in the world. Then I asked, why are all you people from Pittsburgh here to see “Armless?”

She explained that the film was financed by former classmates of director Habib Azar at Carnegie Mellon University and they had financed his film.

A story!

The next day, I interviewed Habib on the phone and wrote up a feature.

What a strange world.

Two people in a cab…a missing Blackberry….then finding it at the premiere of that very same film!

Goodbye, Sundance. And, thank you for your eerie introductions.

About Robert W. Welkos

Executive Editor: Robert W. Welkos is an award-winning journalist who covered the entertainment industry for 15 years as a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times. During this span, he wrote extensively about the movie industry from turmoil in the executive suites, the Academy Awards and Golden Globes, and box office hits and bombs to visits to movie sets as well as profiles of top stars and A-list directors, cutting edge features on the newest indie films and visits to famous film festivals like Sundance and Cannes. Prior to entertainment, Welkos worked as a reporter and assistant city editor in The Times’ Metro section where he undertook major investigations for the paper as well as covering breaking news and writing in-depth features. Before joining The Times, he worked for the Associated Press in Reno, Nevada, and City News Service in Los Angeles.

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One Comment

  • January 30, 2010 | Permalink |

    The Fence is junk. Kennedy isn’t a filmmaker, but a rich kid who got lucky.

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