Sundance Begins: Redford, Malkovich and HBO

Strong Beginning for HBO  | John Malkovich  | Lisa Kudrow

A Strong Beginning for HBO

Here we go: Sundance 2002, under beautiful blue skies and surrounded by snow-topped mountains. And yet, the talk is of bin Laden and recession as the Friday crowds wonder if there will be fewer people this year. Some taxi drivers are referring to this year’s festival as Economy Sundance, with vacancy signs showing in the windows of some hostellers. This would be a first. And of course it's ridiculous, since this year's festival seems to be jam-packed with must-see films and the usual amount of parties and celebrities, perhaps even more than the usual number.

Maybe to allay those fears Robert Redford, who is Sundance and causes more excitement than any other single celebrity when he arrives at a theater, has already shown up at two screenings. He appeared in Salt Lake City on Thursday night for the opening of HBO's The Laramie Project, and again last night for the Park City premiere of John Malkovich's The Dancer Upstairs. Redford must sense the buzz around town, so he's doing what he can to show that Sundance is in full operation and never better.

The first thing that seems a little different this year movie-wise is the presence of HBO. Always the producer of fine films (Wit being the most recent one), the cable studio has six movies playing here over the next week. They are all intended for cable release, but HBO considers them good enough to run with feature film premieres.

And so far, they're right. Moises Kaufman's The Laramie Project, which I saw yesterday, is extraordinary. This is a film about the making of a play concerning the murder of Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming. The movie is a kind of feature documentary with actors playing the parts of real people from Laramie. The dialogue comes from interviews with over 200 people from Laramie who either knew Shepard, his killers, or had something to do with the case.

With many small speaking parts, the casting of each role becomes like a little game. You start to wonder who you're going to see next. There are riveting performances by Terry Kinney, Frances Sternhagen, Amy Madigan, Steve Buscemi and 50 others. I cite these four right now, but by the time we see Laramie debut on HBO I'm sure others will come to mind. Watching Sternhagen, whom probably most people know as Cliff's mother on Cheers, you realize what national treasure she is. Kinney, who has to live down playing Woodman on thirtysomething but is a founding member of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company and can be seen on HBO's Oz, steals the movie with an emotional courtroom speech.

Malkovich, Friends Star in Two Debuts

Two other films are worth mentioning from Friday's lineup: John Malkovich's The Dancer Upstairs, and Kasia Adamik's Bark. Albeit for different reasons.

Malkovich's movie, shot in Spain, Portugal and Ecuador, stars Javier Bardem, the Spanish actor who was nominated for an Oscar last year in Before Night Falls. I came into Dancer wondering, Can Malkovich direct and is Bardem the real thing? The answer to both questions, luckily, is yes.

I say this not only because after the screening Malkovich told me what a big fan he is of the Fox News Channel and proceeded to do hysterical imitations of some of our best-known anchors.

Whenever actors direct their first film they advice they get is to get a great director of photography or cinematography. In this case, Malkovich used José Luis Alcaine, who makes sure that The Dancer Upstairs looks not just beautiful, but richly mysterious as the thriller's main story unfolds. Malkovich then shows his eye – which presumably comes from his first-rate theatre training – for setting up some wonderful shots and sequences. He does a remarkable job for a first-timer, and must be commended.

Bardem plays a police detective in Latin America tracking a hidden terrorist. There are resonances of bin Laden and Sept. 11, although the movie was made long before any of those events and is based on a novel by Nicholas Shakespeare. Still, as Bardem tracks the mysterious and evil Ezequiel, the recent events are never from the audience's mind. Ezequiel has passionate, suicidal supporters who kill without conscience, and kill in big numbers. Their violence is swift, but in the end pointless. They cause a lot of trouble, but are ultimately vanquished. Sound familiar?

I can't help it, but I like Javier Bardem. Before Night Falls showed one aspect of his talent, and this role in Dancer is quite different. As he told me afterward, "Reinaldo Arenas was so much fun to play and fool around, throwing your arms around and flouncing. It's much harder to play a normal person."

Indeed, as wild as Arenas was in Night Falls, this police detective is restrained, subtle, and tired. Bardem is world-weary and sexy, and you really can't take your eyes off of him as he pursues this sometimes convoluted but interesting case.

Since his Oscar and Golden Globe nominations, Bardem tells me he finished shooting another Spanish movie as well as Dancer. He now has time off to think about his next role. "I'm a tomato," he said. A tomato? "Yes, I'm in the marketplace," he laughed.

Last year, Bardem turned down a role in Steven Spielberg's Minority Report because he thought it "just wasn’t right." But he wants to do Hollywood movies, he says, and frankly, they'd be better off with him than without him.

Barking Up the Wrong Tree

Finally, and less successfully, Bark showed that buzz is just buzz. Lisa Kudrow plays a quirky veterinarian. One of her patients is a dog owned by Heather Morgan and Lee Tergesen (from Oz). The latter two are really the main characters of this thing, as Morgan for some reason has started barking day and night. It's obvious she's had some kind of complete breakdown, and it's frightening.

This is supposed to be a comedy. It isn't. Maybe it might have been as a foreign language film – Adamik is Polish and the daughter of famed filmmaker Agnieszka Holland. But in English, set in Los Angeles, Bark becomes annoying fast. When Morgan is clearly sick and needing help, Tergesen just whines on about it and actually asks Kudrow for help instead of taking her to a doctor right away.

There are funny moments, but by the time they come you don't know if you're laughing with the characters or because it's all so ridiculous. What a shame too.

Morgan is very talented, and this could have been breakout vehicle for both her and Tergesen. Kudrow, even when she's struggling to maintain a Southern accent, is funny and touching as always. After Friends she is destined for her own big series à la Ally McBeal.

Otherwise, Bark is so much less than its bite (ouch!).