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‘Innocent Voices’

Based on the experiences of co-writer Oscar Torres, Innocent Voices is personal in the most limiting sense: a memoir of war-torn El Salvador presented—with a heaping side of nostalgia—from the perspective of someone too young to understand it. For more than an hour, schmaltzmeister Luis Mandoki (Message in a Bottle) directs as if on assignment for Miramax. After his father splits for the U.S., 11-year-old Chava (Carlos Padilla) assumes duties as man of the house, makes eyes with a cute girl, and rages against the civil war in his own ineffectual, adorable way (e.g., dancing through the streets to “I Will Survive,” emanating from a contraband radio). The sporadic violence is so bloodless that explosions function as a kind of design element. Eventually, harder times arrive, bringing with them a new set of contrivances, as Chava is almost gunned down alongside two of his peers—Mandoki drags out the moment for maximum suspense—and struggles with pulling the trigger when faced with a kill-or-be-killed proposition. It may have all happened, but it certainly seems touched up. The scene where Chava distracts his siblings from gunfire by playing with cosmetics is perfect shorthand for the film as a whole.

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Slump Fiction

Everyone loves a crash-and-burn story, and the “box office slump” of 2005 has been the entertainment media’s favorite train wreck, along with the Brad and Jennifer breakup. This past summer, ticket sales were reportedly off by about 12 percent from last year. Blame has fallen on an assortment of bugaboos: bad movies, high ticket prices, the rise of DVDs. One ultra-conservative even offered the explanation in the L.A. Times that “Hollywood’s ruling liberal elites keep going out of their way to offend half their audience.” But a few industry watchers say the doomsday scenario is overblown and irresponsible (anomalous hits The Passion of the Christ and Fahrenheit 9/11 threw 2004 out of whack), or a ploy by crabby studios to push stiffer constraints on piracy and ensure their global domination.

There are a million ways to crunch the numbers (this year’s top-grossing movies outperformed last year’s, etc.), but the year isn’t over yet. The best argument so far against the box office “slump” may be that 2005’s most potentially lucrative films have yet to arrive: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Peter Jackson’s King Kong, and Disney’s The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe—the latter of which, with its Christian subtext, could satisfy red staters fed up with George Lucas’s anti-imperialism.

If audiences are tired of action-adventure blockbusters (Kingdom of Heaven, Stealth, and The Island all tanked), the prestige pictures of autumn could get filmgoers back in theaters. Miramax has spent the last several months dumping back-catalog pictures on the cheap (Twin Sisters, Deep Blue, The Warrior, The Great Raid), but when Miramax chiefs the Weinstein brothers officially jump ship from the mini-studio on September 30, they’ll begin releasing films in earnest for their new company, including Chen Kaige’s martial arts fantasy epic The Promise and Stephen Frears’s 1940s-set British musical comedy Mrs. Henderson Presents. And what with summer crossover hits Crash, March of the Penguins, Ladies in Lavender, Broken Flowers, and The Aristocrats, film executives in the specialized business aren’t worried.

“God forbid we should add to the pile of ink about the box office slump,” says Focus Features’ James Schamus. “The sample size is way too low. We have no idea what this means in terms of the long term. If this extends into spring of next year, we’ll be having a very different conversation, but right now, it’s just a bunch of movies that haven’t worked.”

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Rack Focus

The Glass Shield

(Miramax)

Charles Burnett may have the lowest profile of any major
contemporary American auteur, with many key works still virtually
impossible to see. In The Glass Shield, a pair of young cops,
respectively the only black and only female deputies at their L.A.
sheriff’s station, discover a network of deep-seated departmental
corruption while probing into a racially charged murder case.
Mismarketed as a by-the-numbers police thriller upon its 1995
theatrical release (a tactic that may well have contributed to its
lukewarm critical and popular reception), Burnett’s film subtly
subverts the genre with its offbeat performances and unusual
complexity, both visual and moral. Extras include an interview with the
director and a feature on film scoring with composer Stephen James
Taylor.


Ryan: The Special Edition DVD

(Rhino)

Short films are notoriously difficult to market, but this
exceptionally well-conceived disc circumvents the problem by packaging
Ryan, this year’s Oscar winner for best animated short, with
several related works. Chris Landreth’s terrific “animated documentary”
profiles Ryan Larkin, a Canadian animator who mysteriously dropped off
the map some 30 years ago following a handful of groundbreaking shorts.
This DVD also includes three Larkin films, two earlier shorts by
Landreth, and a 52-minute documentary entitled Alter Egos
(directed by Laurence Green) that delves further into the relationship
between the two men, climaxing with Landreth showing the finished
Ryan to Larkin for the first time.

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Film

DARKNESS

Directed by Jaume Balagueró

Dimension, in release

Forgetting he was nearly killed there by a cult 40 years earlier, expat Mark (Iain Glen) moves his unhappy brood (including Lena Olin and Anna Paquin) to a Spanish cottage where the lights have minds of their own and someone is always lurking in the dark. A Catalan version of The Shining, Jaume Balagueró’s overwrought thesis on nyctophobia hauls in all the major elements of the Kubrick classic: a remote house harboring a violent past, dead children roaming the halls, a son prone to catatonia, a father veering close to the edge, an old woman decomposing in the nude, even intertitles announcing the day of the week with an aural thud. Though Balagueró fills the film with foreboding imagery, using extreme close-ups of every object in the house and emphasizing background penumbra, it’s impossible to ever get a sense of true terror when the orally fixated shadows under the bed eat pencils and characters utter lines like “The darkness is very wise.” Moments hint at a metaphoric statement on child abuse, but the film proves mainly to be a commentary on poor electrical wiring. Having spent nearly three years gathering dust in the Miramax vault, Darkness appeared destined for an ignominious straight-to-video death before the recent splash of J-horror hits made it seem halfway marketable. Rarely has a film’s tagline been more fitting: “Some secrets should never come to light.” DAVID BLAYLOCK

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The Mousetrap

“I’m out of a job,” Miramax co-chief Harvey Weinstein famously called out after last month’s Cannes premiere of Fahrenheit 9/11. Michael Moore’s rousing attack on the Bush administration may burn the final bridge between Miramax and its parent company, Disney, which forbade the New York-based subsidiary from releasing the film. Now being distributed by a consortium of industry players, including the brothers Weinstein, Lions Gate, and IFC Films, Fahrenheit 9/11 is not the first movie to stick a wedge between Michael Eisner’s “Mouse House” and the Weinsteins’ East Coast studio, but it might be the last.

Many in the film business believe the Fahrenheit 9/11 hubbub may be a carefully orchestrated Weinstein scheme to leverage Miramax’s position with Disney, as its contract is up for renegotiation in 2005. “The Weinsteins are using this to widen the rift,” explains one industry observer. “It serves their purposes, whether it’s because they need to renegotiate their contract, or it’s because they want to get rid of Eisner, or they want to buy their company back. If they’re hot, if they’re getting Palmes d’Or, and if they’re making money, and Michael Eisner is beleaguered and reviled, why smooth things over? Why go quietly and hand your film over to strangers when you can make the biggest possible stink about it and, at the same time, sell tickets to your movie and turn a corporate political situation to your advantage?”

Disney purchased Miramax in 1993, after the Weinsteins hit their stride with The Crying Game, Strictly Ballroom, and 12 Academy Award nominations. But the marriage was one of power-hungry convenience, and as Peter Biskind notes in his book Down and Dirty Pictures, many in the film business “predicted it would end in a messy divorce.” “On the face of it,” he writes, “it would be hard to imagine two companies more ill-suited than the white-bread, wholesome, Burbank home of Mickey and Donald, and the two slobs from Queens with their ragtag, anything-goes company in Tribeca.”

In 1995, the companies clashed over Antonia Bird’s Priest and Larry Clark’s Kids. The story of a gay Catholic clergyman, Priest drew vociferous ire from the conservative watchdog Catholic League. The movie was originally scheduled to open on Good Friday to maximize the controversy, but Miramax, caving in to the parent company’s wishes to curtail the controversy, shifted its release date three weeks earlier.

Kids presented another affront to Disney: an NC-17 rating, which Miramax was contractually forbidden to touch. It had already relinquished another adult-rated film, Martin Lawrence’s crass concert stand-up You So Crazy, but had successfully overturned an NC-17 on Kevin Smith’s Clerks. After a similar campaign failed to get an R for Kids, the Weinsteins purchased the rights from Disney and formed a new company, Shining Excalibur Films, to release it themselves. “I never perceived any annoyance [from Disney],” says Eamonn Bowles, who shepherded the Kids release and was in brief talks to work on Fahrenheit 9/11. “[The Weinsteins] took it out of the company; they took the heat off Disney, which is just what Disney wanted.” Adds Bowles, “I think they had a better relationship with Disney at that point.”

In 1999, the Catholic League saw another target in the Miramax property Dogma, Kevin Smith’s Chris- tian-themed scatological satire. Again, the Wein- steins salvaged their relationship with Disney as well as the film’s status through a careful strategy (in a manner that mimics the unveiling of Fahrenheit 9/11): “Take the film to Cannes, create a great deal of anticipation by riding the media attention, present it as an underdog that needs to be protected, and then hand it over, having given it a global platform from which to shine,” says ThinkFilm’s Mark Urman, who was then co-president of Lions Gate, the eventual beneficiary of Dogma. “But there was no sense they were giving away their baby for adoption,” continues Urman. “They had unprecedented visitation rights.”

As Miramax has grown into a Hollywood-on-the-Hudson juggernaut, the company’s disagreements with Disney have shifted from sex and blasphemy to even more contentious disputes over cash. At a conference at the Waldorf Astoria in early June, Michael Eisner reportedly said, in the wake of Miramax’s near $100 million productions like Gangs of New York and Cold Mountain, “We are attempting to take capital out of Miramax. They were a little boutique making independent films. They are now more of a major spending a lot more money.” In the midst of budget overruns, Miramax’s production efforts have slowed and rumors of massive cost-cutting layoffs hit the presses late last week.

No one in the film business expects the Weinsteins to return to their indie past. “Under any scenario, I expect them to thrive,” says Bowles. “I don’t think they’d be wanting for suitors if they left Disney. There would be a line out the door to fund them.” Or as one film exec puts it, “You had to see it coming; people like Harvey Weinstein can’t have bosses.”

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Daze of Being Wild

In this year’s edition of the city’s favorite volcanic pulp-film festival, the bar for pure Asian movieness seems to be both higher and lower than it used to be—the top-shelf megahits intended for international consumption are conspicuous, while the low-boil ratio of past breakout wonders like Pistol Opera, One Fine Spring Day, or Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is somewhat disappointing. But that’s the satellite-photo view—film by film, virtually every jones is answered. And when better than during the multiplexing dog days of digital sequel anomie?

Chief among the programming coups are a suite of three entries in the vintage Zatoichi series, starring Shintaro Katsu—all from 1963—to herald the coming of Takeshi Kitano’s remake via Miramax, and of course, Zhang Yimou’s Hero (2002). Already feted, Oscar-nominated, and reaping pots of money, Zhang’s lavish, Lean-sized epic owes its opportunities to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and the films share a computerized aura of paint-box landscape lyricism (lemon-yellow forests, blood-red meadows, etc.). In thrust, however, Wong’s Ashes of Time might be a clearer—and more damning—reference point. Hardly abstruse, this Warring States period fantasy pivots on assassination tales told and retold and parsed by way of wuxia pian honor codes and levels of martial mastery, and it’s all strung together with such schematic, crowd-pleasing skill no one can be surprised that it’s a Miramax pickup. There are arresting visual strokes (a glimpse of walking-on-water combat seen from underneath, for instance), but the glare from the sheen can make you both suspicious and a little numb. For one thing, is the lovely, digitally overconditioned imagery (Christopher Doyle, doing it again) cinematography or something else?

The ubiquitous invasion of flawless CGIs into the martial arts universe may seem discouraging to those who fondly remember the fast cutting and in-camera skylarking of the 1970s–’80s HK heyday, but the demon is loose, and popular. From Japan (source of more than half of the fest’s films), Ryuhei Kitamura’s Azumi (2003) is a prime example, a kind of Buffy the Warlord Slayer in which a petite, miniskirted assassin and her friends venture out into the world to prevent war by taking down the warmongers. Blood flies like water-park spray (or hangs in the air as animated bloblets), and the characters weep sugar tears. Likewise, the Hong Kong bubblegum-noir Running on Karma (2003) is filled with wacky combat buttressed by digitals, but they’re used tastefully, and we are blessed with the welcome sight of star Andy Lau (as a male stripper–cum–ex-monk) hustling through the hootenanny in a hilariously semi-convincing muscle suit.

Where’s the authentic, unpasteurized Asian-ness? Yojiro Takita’s When the Last Sword Is Drawn (2003) is an old-fashioned Japanese genre bulldozer that traces two doomed 19th-century samurais’ blood feud through the years as the Shogunate vanishes in the Meiji Restoration. Opulent and dead-serious, it at least outgraces Tom Cruise’s aspirations toward swordsmanhood, but it’s also quite Western in its spectacle. Infernal Affairs (2002) is the HK high-speed knockoff factory in fifth gear: In this conglomeration of a dozen different Hollywood films, two undercover “sleepers”—one a cop in the mob, the other a gangster in the police force—are ordered by their clueless higher-ups to root out themselves and each other. Two sequels have already been released, but Miramax owns only this one—let’s hope it actually sees theaters, unedited, before being remade by Brad Pitt’s production company.

The remake-nuts studios have also swooped down on Juon: The Grudge (2003), a virtually context-free shock-fest about a viral haunting that is actually the third in a rambling series that began as straight-to-video cheapies. Constructed in overlapping, achronological chapters, it still boils down to a by now familiar but still resonant sense of creeping quotidian dread. The series’ other contributions from the Asian horror craze are radical departures: Hideyuki Kobayashi’s Marronnier (2003) is a ghastly home-video undergrounder about dolls and human body parts, while qualm-meister Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Doppelgänger (2003) is actually a nervous comedy—shades of Grosse Fatigue—that observes robotics engineer Koji Yakusho’s life crumble when his evil double shows up demanding equal time. Ricocheting from one uncomfortable idea to another like the KK version of a discarded Buñuel scenario, the movie jumps rails in the third act, but never loses its joie de cinema (particularly given the head-smackingly inventive use of split screens).

The Thai film Macabre Case of Prom Pi Ram (2003) isn’t a genre skin-crawler, but a clumsy true-crime look at a 1977 murder that unfolds, chillingly, into a portrait of backwater inhumanity. Predictably, the fest’s standout films defy categorization, like Kazuyoshi Kumarkiri’s Antenna (2003), which coolly documents the family fallout from a child’s disappearance—a process that includes primal-scream masturbation visits with a soothing dominatrix—and Sabu’s Drive (2002). A howlingly funny voyage of deadpan predetermination, Drive pits a neurotic migraine victim against a group of moody bank robbers against ghosts against bad luck itself, and it screams to be distributed stateside. Not so broadly commercial but supremely mature and empathically merciless instead, Ryuichi Hiroki’s Vibrator (2003) traces the ersatz romance between a lonesome bulimic girl and a sweet-natured truck driver. That’s all it does, from the inside out (Hiroki’s use of interior-voice intertitles is stunningly simple and effective), and because it refocuses your attention on your fellow humans, it’s one of the best films to play the city this year.

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Michael Moore Wins Palme d’Or

CANNES, FRANCE—Wearing its politics on its sleeve, the jury at the 57th Cannes Film Festival bestowed its Palme d’Or on Michael Moore’s anti-Bush polemic Fahrenheit 9/11. Moore, who spoke at length in phonetic French when Bowling for Columbine won an award here in 2002, restricted himself to a single “merci” in crediting the festival with insuring the American people would see his movie. Rare but not unprecedented for a documentary, the Palme was also a triumph for Harvey Weinstein, whose Miramax Films was forbidden to distribute the film by parent company Disney, and whose star director Quentin Tarantino served as jury president.

The second-place Grand Prix went to Korean director Park Chan-wook’s Old Boy, a violent thriller (and known Tarantino favorite). As expected, best screenplay was French writer-director Agnès Jaoui’s character comedy Look at Me (co-written with Jean-Pierre Bacri); more surprisingly, French filmmaker Tony Gatlif received best director for his drama of Romani repatriation, Exiles. Acting awards were given to 14-year-old Yagira Yuuya for his role in Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s sentimental drama Nobody Knows and Maggie Cheung for her uncharacteristically one-note performance as a rock ’n’ roll widow in French director Olivier Assayas’s tepid Clean. (For the second consecutive year, Cannes’s leading actress played a heroin addict.) Irma P. Hall received a jury prize for her feisty turn in the Coens’ The Ladykillers. “Quentin Tarantino has been talking in her voice for the last 10 days,” juror Tilda Swinton noted at the press conference.

Once touted to win, Wong Kar-wai’s apparently unfinished 2046 was shut out, although a second jury prize went to Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul for his offbeat and unpopular Tropical Malady. The Camera d’Or for best first film was awarded to Keren Yedaya’s Or, the story of an Israeli prostitute and her daughter.

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Friedman’s Complaint

If you’re an online gossip columnist, it’s easy to make trouble for a mainstream reporter, and that’s what the flamboyant Roger Friedman has done lately for New York Times reporter Sharon Waxman. Since December 31, Friedman has repeatedly accused Waxman of making mistakes and stealing his material without attribution. He even calls her the next Jayson Blair. Last week, the two finally faced off. Says Waxman of Friedman, “If he spent half as much time checking his facts as he did complaining about people stealing from him, there wouldn’t be so many errors in his reporting!”

Says Friedman of Waxman: “There are no errors in my reporting. . . . She’s reported everything wrong so far!”

Both are entertainment reporters, but of different stature: Friedman is a New York fixture who writes a daily column for foxnews.com; Waxman is a former Washington Post reporter who now covers the film industry out of the Times bureau in L.A. Their feud has taken place against the backdrop of Michael Jackson’s child molestation charges and the revelation, reported first by Friedman and then by Waxman, that Jackson is getting business advice from a Nation of Islam official. In recent weeks, Friedman once again decided that Waxman was trespassing on what he deems his exclusive territory.

The Fox scribe’s latest point of contention involves a $70 million loan payment that Jackson reportedly owes, a payment that has either been made or not, depending on whose sources you trust. On January 13, Friedman reported that the payment had been made by two “Jackson stalwarts”; a month later, on February 12, Waxman reported that the payment had not been made—and that Jackson may face bankruptcy as a result.

Friedman says he was too “tired and incensed” to ask Waxman about her reporting on his story about the loan payment. (Perhaps it didn’t occur to him that she didn’t credit him because her sources contradicted his.) Instead, he wrote to New York Times public editor Daniel Okrent, expressing his shock at the alleged theft. According to one source, the letter begins, “I can’t believe she’s doing this to me again!” Waxman wrote a letter defending her work, and shortly thereafter Okrent informed Friedman that no correction would be forthcoming.

Friedman had been casting the bait for weeks, speculating on the identity of Waxman’s anonymous sources and accusing her of all manner of impropriety. Meanwhile, Waxman had remained silent to the point of ducking a potential confrontation with Friedman at Sundance and refusing to be featured with him in an upcoming People story on top Hollywood reporters.

Meanwhile, Waxman maintained the support of Times culture editor Steven Erlanger. “Sharon Waxman has done her own reporting,” Erlanger said last week. “It has been accurate reporting, more accurate than Mr. Friedman’s.” Erlanger says the Times is “very happy” with Waxman’s work and that the decision to hire her reflects the newspaper’s desire to emphasize “good aggressive reporting” in its arts coverage.

Erlanger denies that the Times has been stealing Friedman’s work. “This Times administration, like others before it, is very serious about giving credit where credit is due,” he says. “We follow certain rules and have no lack of generosity of spirit. But we have not been taking Roger Friedman’s reporting.”

So which of them is the more accurate reporter? Their points of contention are many. It all started with the question of who broke the story about Jackson and the Nation of Islam. On December 18, the second item of Friedman’s column bore the headline, “Jacko Chaos: Has Nation of Islam Taken Over?” In that item, he reported that Jackson was so panicked about his legal situation that “he is now taking advice from [Nation of Islam leader Leonard Muhammad] rather than listening to his managers.”

In a story that made page A1 of the Times on December 30, Waxman reported that Nation of Islam officials had “moved in with Michael Jackson and are asserting control over the singer’s business affairs.” Her story was based on interviewers with friends, employees, and business associates, and contained denials from Jackson’s lawyer and the Nation of Islam’s newspaper. In other words, she relied on primary sources and advanced the story considerably, which minimizes her obligation to cite previous reporting on the subject.

Subsequent disputes involved Waxman’s December 2 story on Roy Disney’s parting of ways with the Walt Disney Company, in which she quoted Miramax co-chair Harvey Weinstein criticizing the company. On January 2, Friedman took up Miramax’s complaint that Weinstein had given Waxman that quote for a book, not a Times story—then proceeded to mischaracterize the nature of her book. Next, Friedman jumped on Waxman’s December 30 revelation that CBS allegedly paid Michael Jackson $1 million for a 60 Minutes interview. Actually Waxman had reported that the payment was for an entertainment special as well. (CBS denies paying for the interview.) In his January 14 column, he wrote that the Times had refused to print a letter from 60 Minutes executive producer Don Hewitt complaining about an uncorroborated quote Waxman had attributed to 60 Minutes correspondent Ed Bradley. (The Times declined to give Friedman a comment on Hewitt’s complaint.)

Sometimes Friedman gets it right. But anyone who starts crowing about inaccurate and unethical reporting will eventually have the spotlight turned on himself. Other scribes express varying degrees of affection and pity for Friedman. One calls him “marginal, with delusions of grandeur”; another says he wants “to be respected.”

Friedman wrote the Intelligencer column for New York in 1994, contributed to The New York Observer, and has been a Fox staffer since 1999. He calls himself a reporter, “a digger and a debunker” who takes his cues from his self-appointed mentor, Liz Smith. She “breaks a lot of stories,” he says, but “credits everybody.” Taking that rule to the absurd extreme, Friedman recently criticized Vanity Fair‘s Maureen Orth for not attributing a story that appeared first in the National Enquirer.

The worst rap on Friedman is that he shills for Miramax, a charge he denies. He edited an Oscar supplement for Talk magazine in 2000, and Miramax backed the 2003 r&b documentary Only the Strong Survive, which Friedman co-produced. Colleagues say his column often repeats Miramax spin. But no one is as disgusted as Waxman, who asks of Fox, “Do they hold him to journalistic standards or does he just get to slander people with impunity?” Friedman responds, “I have the same standards as the Times, I think.” Three people read his column before it is published: a copy editor, his editor Refet Kaplan, and webmaster Steve Bromberg. “I will tell them in advance I’m looking at something that’s tricky. . . . If something is problematic, it’s vetted.”

Friedman says he has nothing against the Times reporter personally. “I’m not her media critic; I’m not looking into her stories,” he says. “My main complaint is that there’s no citing of previous reporting in her stories. . . . I invite Sharon Waxman to lunch anywhere she likes, on any coast at any time. Just please stop this doing this thing. Just give me credit.”

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Pause for Commercial

Park City, Utah—Sundance 2004’s movies received the hyped-up adoration typical of the annual indie film bonanza, but it was the timely premiere of a book, Peter Biskind’s Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film, that created the biggest stir. The muckraking tell-all sold out at the local Park City bookstore within a matter of days and was the most coveted piece of goodie-bag swag.

On opening night, even the Sundance Kid himself, Robert Redford, acknowledged the growing “commerciality” of his brainchild and quipped about a “book signing” with Miramax’s Harvey Weinstein. Both comments were responses to Biskind’s portrait of Sundance as a once idealistic “Luke Skywalker” that eventually “would go over to the dark side” of Miramax-style greed and power. “The market cannibalized the festival,” Biskind writes.

Indeed, the 2004 event confirmed Sundance’s status as the world’s premier marketplace for new American films: The first few days saw one of the swiftest and most active buying sprees (and the lowest temperatures) in recent memory. In the largest such pact, rivals Miramax and Fox Searchlight jointly paid out a reported $5 million for Garden State, a quirky, dark rom-com directed by Scrubs TV star Zach Braff, starring himself and Natalie Portman. The unprecedented combined acquisition may have prevented a bidding war and abated risk down the line, but indie producer Ted Hope, a Dramatic Competition jury member, says, “I don’t think anyone benefits from compromise. Either you believe in the movie fully and take credit for it or you don’t.”

Hope’s jury—which also included Maggie Gyllenhaal, Danny Glover, Lisa Cholodenko, and cinematographer Frederick Elmes—showed such commitment by eschewing commercial concerns and giving its grand jury prize to Primer, Shane Carruth’s no-budget sci-fi head-scratcher; best directing honors to Debra Granik and a special jury prize to actress Vera Farmiga for their work on Down to the Bone, a bracing depiction of a mother of two struggling with drug addiction; and a special jury prize to Brother to Brother, Rodney Evans’s queer black drama that alternates between the Harlem Renaissance and the present. Joshua Marston’s Maria Full of Grace, about a 17-year-old Colombian who traffics drugs to the States, won this year’s Dramatic Audience Award.

But the year’s most exuberant crowd-pleaser appeared to be Napoleon Dynamite, an Idaho-set revenge-of-the-nerds deadpan comedy that Fox Searchlight reportedly acquired for $3 million to $5 million. Many industryites questioned the outlay, and the film may be what Variety‘s Todd McCarthy calls an example of a film popular at Sundance that “can’t find its way in the real world.”

“Films were bought for a lot more money than they were worth,” echoes United Artists executive Jack Turner. “The competition was so high, in order to close a deal you needed to overspend.”

The increased competition helped account for a number of speedy deals: Walter Salles’s portrait of Che Guevara as a young man, The Motorcycle Diaries, sold within hours of its premiere for a reported $4 million to the auteur-friendly Focus Features; Lions Gate Films snapped up genre products Saw and Open Water; and Warner Bros.’ new indie label, Warner Independent Pictures, fought tooth-and-nail in the back room of a party for its first acquisition, John Curran’s tale of fractured marriages, We Don’t Live Here Anymore, winner of the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award. According to one rival bidder, the sale involved “a lot of screaming and running around and almost coming to blows.”

In a year in which many distributors were scouring for documentaries, Sony Pictures Classics bought Stacy Peralta’s big-wave surfing history, Riding Giants, and IFC Films purchased Kevin Willmott’s what-if-the-South-had-won-the-Civil-War mock-doc, CSA: Confederate States of America. While no Bowling for Columbine-like breakthrough occurred during the festival proper, the fast-food self-portrait Super Size Me came the closest, with several companies vying for documentary directing-winner Morgan Spurlock’s 30-day McDonald’s binge.

Other nonfiction work that drew heat included music docs DIG! (winner of the grand jury prize and acquired by Palm Pictures) and Metallica: Some Kind of Monster; Scrabble competition chronicle Word Wars; and the Shopsin’s restaurant portrait, I Like Killing Flies. Newmarket’s Bob Berney, who bought Nicole Kassell’s The Woodsman, a portrait of a pedophile played by Kevin Bacon, noted that acquisition fever was especially high, coming on the heels of Sundance ’03 successes such as American Splendor, The Station Agent, and Thirteen. But he doesn’t buy Biskind’s view. “Counter to the reports in [Biskind’s] book,” Berney adds, “I don’t think Sundance is a ‘sellout.’ There were a lot of edgy, dark, and very difficult independent films showcased here, and that’s what the festival is supposed to do.”

Jim McKay, who had two credits at this year’s festival—director of the Brooklyn-set ensemble Everyday People and producer of Brother to Brother—agrees that Sundance continues to program “adventurous films.” “But from the small filmmaker’s point of view,” he says, “our struggle is, how do we get seen? It’s flashier and flashier, and the inevitability is that there’s less attention to the stuff that isn’t flashy. I’m waiting for the Girls Gone Wild Sundance edition. I’m surprised they’re not already here.”

Look for Sundance film reviews next week.

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Film

Trailers for The Human Stain show Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman in a clinch. “There’s something I need to tell you,” he whispers. “Later,” she sighs. In the novel, Faunia is smart enough to figure out Coleman’s secret on her own, but this is a movie . . .

Miramax made a mint on The Crying Game in part because reviewers were successfully enjoined to protect the secret of Jaye Davidson’s gender. But perhaps realizing the confusion—if not outright incredulity—that would arise from the revelation that Anthony Hopkins was playing an African American, the famously micromanaging studio flashed critics the signal to out Coleman in their reviews. A mailing was dispatched with photocopies of Brent Staples’s New York Times editorial-page piece on the paper’s late book critic Anatole Broyard, a light-skinned black man who reinvented himself to the degree that his wife and children remained unaware of his (and their) heritage. A cover letter provided another nudge: “The history of ‘passing’ is something that we hope that you will include in your coverage of The Human Stain.” As opposed to something, say, on the history of white actors playing black roles.



Related Article:

J. Hoberman’s review of The Human Stain