January 29, 2003

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Monster party
The bizness of Sundancing is chill.

By Johnny Ray Huston

WHEN I SPIED the most awesome sight at this year's Sundance Film Festival, I wasn't in one of Park City's crooked ring of theaters. In fact, I hadn't even seen a movie yet. As the airport shuttle approached the resort town, our driver pointed to an especially steep snow-covered mountain and identified it as a ski-jump site at last year's Winter Olympics. The road we were traveling was directly below, and ABC's "agony of defeat" commercial seemed tame in comparison to the bone-breaking crashes my imagination supplied.

Sundance itself is an Olympics of sorts – marked by the nighttime postfilm spectacle of corporate teams running toward a white van with the word "Entertainment" painted on its side – albeit one that rewards and retards the soul (or ego) more than the body. The most popular, if not main, event: coordinating party plans via cell phone while riding a bus with 20 or 30 competitors who are all doing the exact same thing. J.Lo, Ben, and Britney descended on Main Street for one such fete – since they didn't have specific movies to promote, one can only assume the Sundance stop on their endless quest for equator-hot media overexposure was motivated by a desire to outshine indie fabulousness.

Each Sundance crowns a lowercase queen, and 2003 was no exception. In previous eras, the festival has been Ricci rich and sported a pocket full of Parker Posey (ouch), but this year's chief gold-medal winner would have to be Patricia Clarkson, an actor whose veteran status suits Sundance's own fading youth even if the fest itself remains focused on the neoteric. Perhaps best known for her second-tier parts in High Art and Far from Heaven, Clarkson inhabited four movies, of which I saw two. In All the Real Girls, she has the somewhat thankless supporting role of mother-clown; charting the romantic downfall – or is it reawakening? – of a small-town Don Juan, David Gordon Green's follow-up to George Washington is too proud of its cutesy cleverness, but Tim Orr's cinematography is a thing of beauty.

Billed under Katie Holmes, Clarkson steals Pieces of April, a feature written and directed by Peter Hedges that satiates the annual need for bleak comedy shot on digital video. The movie's Thanksgiving Day backdrop and family-mortality theme possess greater commercial viability than, say, Chuck and Buck's NAMBLA-coated Blow Pop of a story. Dying of cancer and more than ready to say how she really feels, Clarkson's character is stuck in a car with a husband she's not attracted to, a kiss-ass daughter she refuses to validate, a senile mother who no longer recognizes her, and a son who at least knows how to photo document her impending doom. Their destination is an unhappy holiday meal hosted by black sheep Holmes, whose idea of cooking involves pouring sauce out of a can.

Sean Hayes's cameo impersonates Stephin Merritt's glum and pompous dandy persona – appropriate, since the movie's parade of misanthropes (capped with a sentimental multiculti ending) is scored by Merritt. If this year's festival is any indication, indie rockers have found side jobs providing soundtracks for indie dramas. The credit sequence of All the Real Girls is set to a Will Oldham song. The Pixies, Imperial Teen, and Jeremy Enigk provide stronger ambience than Kevin Spacey's ponderous star-and-producer vehicle The United States of Leland deserves. Crowned by another murderous and messed-up Ryan Gosling manifestation, the plot offers American beauty in the bedroom during an ice storm.

In the realm of fictive features, the other chief identifiable trend – more like instant cliché – is tweakervision. Both Chris Fisher's Nightstalker (a horrible addition to the current based-on-a-true-story serial killer microgenre) and Jonas Akerlund's Spun rely on twitchy camera spasms followed by fast-forward rampages each time a speed-addled character takes a hit. Racking up twice as many trendiness points no thanks to a Billy Corgan score, Spun at least has a sense of its own ridiculousness, giving Mickey Rourke the meth-cooker role he so richly deserves and providing Brittany Murphy with numerous opportunities to perform pole dances.

Druggy states of mind also define Quattro noza and Party Monster. Directed by Stan Brakhage protégé Joey Curtis, the former uses Dr. Dre's "Xxplosive" and "Bitch Niggas" to spark up the blunt, revved-up freeway dreams of its characters, represented by nighttime lights that seem to flare out from their foreheads. Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato's scripted version of their 1998 doc sports Macaulay Culkin as criminal club kid Michael Alig. Displaying his perky assets in a jockstrap, Culkin is up to the task, as is Seth Green, portraying James St. James, but Bailey and Barbato's script and direction trap them in yet another lame addition to Christine Vachon's library of queer history.

At the premiere screening, Culkin dismissed a pretentious question about his "career arc," while Green referred to the two Coreys (Haim and Feldman) when describing the movie's costar chemistry. The real St. James was there, dressed in a hideous orange leopard-print winter coat, a fur-collared Chloe Sevigny sitting next to him. Sevigny is too grown-up for her tiny part – when she sits on Culkin's lap in one scene, she dwarfs him. Late in the movie, as Alig's character makes a bitchy remark about the soon-to-be slaughtered Angel Melendez (Wilson Cruz), the sole laugh in the auditorium came from St. James – Party Monster has more sympathy for its villain than its victim.

The only things colder and whiter than Park City are the problems faced by the kinfolk in the fest's self-consciously serious screenplays. In comparison, Alig and his overly adoring mother (another bit of master casting: Diana Scarwid, who played the grown-up Christina in Mommie Dearest) are refreshingly freaky. But they're no match for Eddie Griffin and his mom in DysFunKtional Family, a film version of Griffin's stand-up show. Matching Griffin's hilarious improvisations and impersonations with interview footage of the relatives he lovingly lampoons, DysFunKtional Family recalls if not revives the glory days of Richard Pryor. In the process, it provided a welcome blast of unburdened talent between Sundance's mountains of pretension.