Sundance 2008: What Just Happened?
by Scott Mantz

Every year, it’s the same thing.  I go back to work after a relaxing week off between Christmas and New Year’s, and I get completely bogged down by the big bad bear known as the Sundance Film Festival — the preeminent festival for independent movies founded by screen legend Robert Redford.

As a segment producer for an entertainment news show like “Access Hollywood,” scheduling for Sundance can be an overwhelming experience.  Not only do you have to contend with the rules stipulated by the Sundance Press Office when it comes to covering the film premieres, but you also have to get in touch with the right publicists if you want to interview the Hollywood celebrities who might grace the tiny ski town of Park City, UT, with their presence.

Then there are the endless pitches from sponsors desperate for coverage of their boutiques, where the stars get pampered with free iPods, manicures, massages, clothing, sunglasses and lots of other things that they really don’t need.  And on top of everything, there are the parties, which are held all over Main Street until the wee hours of the morning — and many of them wind up getting crashed by drunk slobs who have no business being at a film festival in the first place.

Scheduling for Sundance from the “Access” office in Los Angeles is the hardest part.  But once I actually get to Park City, it’s a different story, since I get wrapped up in the excitement of what Sundance is all about.  Of course, it’s freezing, but that’s to be expected.  And since Park City sits at 7,000 feet above sea level, it does take a few days to get acclimated to the thin air.

But if the Sundance experience is a lot of fun, it’s also very challenging.  That’s because the schedule usually changes the minute I get to Park City.  Interview locations get moved around, interview times flip-flop and new shoots come out of nowhere (and at the last minute).

But the key to surviving Sundance is rolling with the punches.  Some days are gonna be busier than others, some days are gonna be longer than others and some days are gonna be colder than others.  So if you wanna eat healthy and get a good night’s sleep, then Sundance isn’t for you.  But if you’re looking for an experience that you’ll never forget, then sit back and enjoy the ride.  Yes, it can be frustrating, but it can also be very rewarding — especially when it’s over, and you can look back on it and appreciate everything you just accomplished.

And if you’re really lucky, you might even get to see some movies.  That’s always the biggest challenge, since my schedule is usually jam-packed with shoots.  But as the week rolls on and the activities die down a bit (or get canceled completely), the schedule opens up, and I try to take advantage of the free time by seeing as many movies as possible.

In my five years covering Sundance, I witnessed the “discovery” of films like “Garden State,” “Napoleon Dynamite,” “Hustle & Flow,” “The Savages,” “Waitress” and the biggie from 2006, “Little Miss Sunshine.”  This year, I got to see six movies — here they are, in order of what I liked the most to, well, what I liked the least…

1) “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired” (directed by Marina Zenovich) – this fascinating, compelling and riveting documentary re-traces the steps that led to the controversial filmmaker’s decision to flee the United States rather than face conviction of unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor.  By mixing archival news footage with new interviews with many of the key players — including Polanski’s lawyer Douglas Dalton, Assistant District Attorney Roger Gunson and the victim, Samantha (Gailey) Geimer — “Wanted and Desired” reopens a timely, relevant and complex case in which the news media, the celebrity culture and the U.S. judicial system collided with damning results. 
2)  “The Great Buck Howard” (directed by Sean McGinly) – the great John Malkovich is outrageous as Buck Howard, a once-famous magician and “mentalist” who refuses to believe that he’s all washed up.  While staging an ill-fated attempt at a comeback, Colin Hanks has to endure his endless tirades, mood swings and delusions of grandeur as his whipping boy of an assistant (think “The Devil Wears Prada” for men).  Though the last third is a bit uneven, it’s still very funny, good-natured and entertaining.
3)  “Goliath” (directed by David Zellner and Nathan Zellner) – despite its bare-bones production values, “Goliath” is a remarkably effective, offbeat, strange, very funny and unexpectedly moving examination of the comedic moments that can be found in the most dire of situations.  Despite going through a messy divorce, working a dead-end job, living in the same neighborhood as a convicted pedophile and having his beloved cat go missing, the lonely protagonist in “Goliath” soon discovers that happiness is right around the corner.
4)  “Smart People” (directed by Noam Murro) – there’s not a lot at stake in this cross between “Wonder Boys” and “The Upside of Anger,” but this dysfunctional family dramedy is still worth seeing for its top-notch cast.  Dennis Quaid gives a solid performance as a self-absorbed literature professor, while a pre-“Juno” Ellen Page is sharp and acerbic as his overachieving daughter and Thomas Haden Church steals the show as his deadbeat brother.  Sarah Jessica Parker brightens up the proceedings as one of Quaid’s former students, but their romantic relationship seems a tad bit contrived and underdeveloped. 
5)  “What Just Happened?” (directed by Barry Levinson) – the biggest problem with the much-buzzed about “What Just Happened?” is that not much happens at all.  Robert De Niro plays a frazzled movie producer who spends a week in the Hollywood trenches with an egotistical filmmaker, a hard-nosed studio executive, some downright crazy A-list stars, his two ex-wives and his estranged daughter.  “What Just Happened?” is entertaining enough, but it’s a little too “inside Hollywood,” and it’s missing the sharp satirical edge that director Barry Levinson so masterfully crafted in 1997’s “Wag the Dog.”
6)  “The Deal” (directed by Steven Schachter) – another movie about a troubled producer who tries to stay afloat in shark-infested waters.  With nothing left to lose, William H. Macy hustles a major Hollywood studio into a $100 million deal on a script he hasn’t even read.  The screwball comedy bears a slight resemblance to 1999’s “Bowfinger,” but where that film was charming and funny, “The Deal” is uneven and silly.  It doesn’t help that Macy and Meg Ryan (who plays a studio head) have absolutely no onscreen chemistry whatsoever.