Sundancing with the stars

Observe them in their heavy parkas trooping into the high elevations of Park City, the journalists and publicists, the buyers and marketeers, and indie honchos and indie celebrities. It's difficult to tell who anyone is inside all the wrapping. Is that Aaron Eckhart all bundled up or is it Teri Hatcher? Or is it that blogger I keep running into?

The 10-day Sundance Film Festival, which opened Jan. 18 and runs through Sunday, provides ample incentive to huddle for warmth in overcrowded screening rooms. And many are required: Out of 7,732 films submitted to the festival, there are approximately 581 screenings of 196 feature films, plus 71 shorts, for an estimated audience of 50,000 festivalgoers.

Color-coded bus routes to the theaters have been set up to accommodate the swarm, although the big-ticket festival players often opt for cabs. A garishly painted stretch Hummer, like some piece of conceptual art, seems to be permanently situated in front of the Yarrow Theater, one of the festival's main press venues.

Robert Redford, who founded Sundance in 1985, is quoted in a banner headline in the local "Park Record" newspaper: "It's a festival, not a market." It sounds more like a plea than a statement. But he's right, even though the shopping sprees get the most media attention.

Sometimes, however, the attention is all about the controversial subject matter of a movie, and this year there was a lulu. In Hounddog, which as of this writing has not been bought by a distributor, 12-year-old Dakota Fanning plays a motherless, Elvis-obsessed girl named Lewellen who is raped by an older boy.

The film premièred for the public Monday night, setting off a firestorm, and soon Sundance became All "Hounddog," All the Time. News outlets begged journalists for their reactions, an actress represented by Fanning's talent agency quit it in a huff, and the president of the Catholic League, who has not seen the film, issued a press release prior to its first showing calling for a federal investigation of its potential as child pornography. By the time many critics got to see it, on Tuesday, the wanna see factor was sky high.

For all that, "Hounddog" is a truly bad movie – a Southern Gothic that looks as if it was left out in the sun too long. (The imagery appears to have been sprayed with Lemon Pledge.) And what of the rape scene? It's mercifully brief and ungraphic. The real obscenity, it seems to me, is director Deborah Kempmeier's almost utter inattention to the girl's postrape trauma – i.e. there is none.

By contrast, Longford is a prime example of what truly gifted filmmakers can accomplish with controversial material. Directed by Tom Hooper, written by the ubiquitous Peter Morgan ("The Queen," "The Last King of Scotland," "The Deal") and scheduled to air later this year on HBO, it's based on the true-life relationship between British government minister Lord Longford (Jim Broadbent), a deeply religious man who believes no one is incapable of redemption, and Myra Henley (Samantha Morton), an accomplice to Britain's infamous 1965 abuse and murder case of three Manchester children.

"Longford" is one of the best of the 18 films I've seen so far at Sundance. (Like everyone else, I've missed more than a few reputedly good ones.) It is also one of the least Sundance-y, and by that I mean it isn't about self-absorbed mopers bemoaning their dysfunctionality. Although the official festival spin this year is that the dramatic movies are broader in scope, there's still a whole lot of navel-gazing going on.

Some of the navels are shapelier than others. The Savages, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney as sparring siblings caught up in the care of their elderly father (Philip Bosco), is a pretty good example of the Sundance prototype. The Good Life is a bad example – a small-town creepfest featuring a pasty-faced waif (Mark Webber), a woman of mystery (Zooey Deschanel), and a memory-impaired movie-theater operator (Harry Dean Stanton). An American Crime, with Catherine Keener as a zombified child abuser, was another dreary ride. (Memo to the filmmaker: Why is such a crime specifically American?)

A lovely low-budget Irish film, Once, about a guitar-playing vacuum-cleaner salesman (Glen Hansard) and a Czech girl who sells roses (Markéta Irglová), had a beehive of buzz. The enjoyably negligible Broken English, directed by Zoe Cassavetes, has indie queen Parker Posey as a comically suffering single woman. Sarah Polley's directorial debut, Away From Her, stars Julie Christie as a dementia patient whose bright eyes belie her condition. (Memo to Christie: Please appear in more movies. We miss you.)

Grace Is Gone, one of the earliest movies to be snapped up, stars John Cusack as the father of two daughters from whom he has kept the news that their mother has been killed in Iraq by taking them on a road trip to a favorite amusement park. It's a desultory, contrived, and occasionally touching attempt to deal with the effects on the war on the home front.

As is always the case with Sundance, the documentaries were the standouts. The opening-night film, Brett Morgan's Chicago 10, which also utilized animation, has a regrettable lack of political context but much fascinating archival footage of the Chicago Seven and the rioting in the streets during the 1968 Democratic convention. Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, directed by Rory Kennedy, is a startling brief against the Bush administration's decision to ignore the ground rules of the Geneva Convention. (I would have enjoyed the film even more if the producer sitting next to me, a major Democratic fundraiser, had not mated with his BlackBerry.)

Irene Taylor Brodsky's terrific Hear and Now is about the decision of her 65-year-old parents, after a lifetime of deafness, to undergo cochlear implant surgery. It captures the mysteriousness of both a soundless and, ultimately, a sound-filled world. Amir Bar-Lev's My Kid Could Paint That starts out as a celebration of 4-year-old art prodigy Marla Olmstead, who, as it turns out, may not have painted all her canvasses unaided. It's a wheedling, complicated look at parental ambition and the public's mania for discovering the next genius. In the Shadow of the Moon, with much never-before-seen NASA footage, is an eye-opener about the Apollo Space Program.

In order to play down the party/swag lounge aspect of Sundance, festivalgoers were handed buttons the first day that read "Focus on Film." Many of these buttons could be spotted pinned to the jackets of partygoers. I did my share of partying, purely in the interests of research, of course. Where else can you get a chance to glad hand Buzz Aldrin?

Staunch and straight-shouldered, the stentorian Mr. Aldrin looks as if he's in a perpetual state of photo op. Someone asks him if he believes in UFOs. "If they're so smart, I don't think they would come all this way just to take an Okie up for a ride," he answers.

I leave the party and look up at the bright moon. Aldrin's footprints are on it. What movie star can say the same?

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