Highlights and Lowlights of the Sundance Festival

The Sundance Film Festival is wrapping up in Park City, Utah. Denver Post film critic Lisa Kennedy tells Michele Norris about the big-money bidding war for Little Miss Sunshine; the buzzworthy Half Nelson and her personal favorite, Son of Man, a South African film that retells the story of Jesus.

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

Hollywood's annual pilgrimage to the Wasatch Mountains is well underway. The ski resort of Park City, Utah is packed with filmmakers, movie stars, critics and publicists. They're all there for The Sundance Festival. It's quite the schmooze-fest, but it's also a serious showcase for independent films. And it provides an early glimpse of films that will show in your local Cineplex many months from now. To hear about the buzz at this year's Sundance, we turn to Lisa Kennedy, she's film critic for The Denver Post, and she joins us now from Park City. Lisa, thanks for being with us.

LISA KENNEDY: Well thank you for having me.

NORRIS: Before we begin, what's the scene out there in, in Park City? I guess many people aren't talking about skiing, they're all talking movies.

KENNEDY: A lot of people are talking about the movies. In the opening weekend people are talking about music, movies, fashion, all that stuff. But, you know, it sort of slows down. It's a, I think it's the seventh day, now, and I think it sort of settles down into a conversation about movies.

NORRIS: Every year there's a film that gets a lot of attention, particularly from the industry reps who are, who are looking to get a shot at that breakout film that'll make a lot of money. Any big deals signed this year?

KENNEDY: Oh, absolutely. I mean, I think it happened on last Saturday, and it was Little Miss Sunshine, a sort of dark comedy about a family that goes to a beauty pageant for little girls. And it premiered on Friday night, and sold, in a little bit of a bidding war, Saturday, for, reportedly $10 million.

NORRIS: $10 million?

KENNEDY: And, which I know that doesn't sound like a lot, necessarily, when we hear all these budgets for studio pictures, but that's a good amount of money for an independent film. And that said a lot.

NORRIS: You saw Little Miss Sunshine?

KENNEDY: I did.

NORRIS: Is the film worth the bidding war? Is it worth all that hype?

KENNEDY: Oh, I, you know, that money thing, I think that it probably is because $10 million isn't a load of money to make your money up with, for a comedy, especially. But you know who it has? It has Steve Carell from 40 Year Old Virgin. It has Greg Kinnear, it has Toni Collette, whom a lot of people really love. And it's a pretty sweet story for such a foul-mouthed story.

NORRIS: Other films that are creating buzz?

KENNEDY: You know, I have to say, I thought this was a little bit of a, not a buzz-less festival, but certainly it was a little quieter than other times. A movie that I heard across the board people liked is called Half Nelson by Ryan Fleck. And it's wonderful. It was my last film of the festival, I saw it this morning, and this is a really smart, well done, touching film about a Brooklyn middle school teacher, and one of the students. And it's a little bit like To Sir With Love, kind of flipped on its head and shaken up and all that stuff. And I think that's the one that really deserves, I think, the buzz that it's gotten.

NORRIS: Now, not to be mean, but was there a film that got a collective thumbs down?

KENNEDY: Yes. Not to be mean.

NORRIS: Not to be mean, but actually to be honest.

KENNEDY: But, let's be mean. Well, you know, I heard from a lot of people, I didn't see it, so it's one of those things where it's like, well, as a critic maybe I would be that one other person that liked it. But The Hawk is Dying is a film with Paul Giamatti, and you know, Paul Giamatti from Sideways and American Splendor, wonderful actor, people really like him. Critics really like him. It just didn't seem to work. I mean, I've heard from critics that I think are incredibly generous, and different kinds of critics, that some of them actually walked out.

And the nicest thing I heard about the film was from a volunteer, because the volunteers here are really quite sweet, and smart. And she was more, like, you know, I just didn't quite get it. It seemed very metaphorical, and I'm, like, she got it completely, that's why the critics were walking out of it. But at least she gave it the, uh, benefit of a doubt. So I'm sad to say that often people are saying the hawk is dead, not dying. But, you know, to not be mean.

NORRIS: Now, Lisa, you've seen films that the rest of us won't get a chance to see in weeks, perhaps months from now. So, is there a film to which you'd like to give a shout out? If there's one film that we must see this year, what would that film be?

KENNEDY: Well, it's Son of Man, it's from South Africa. It is the Jesus story told as a modern African fable. And it is wonderful. It's wonderful because that's a story that has power. You know, it has a kind of contemporary power, always. And I think that the director understood this, and you didn't have to be Christians, non-Christians. Anyone, I think, could be compelled by the way the story was told.

NORRIS: And you say this is a South African Jesus movie? So Jesus is a black man in this film.

NORRIS: Yeah, it's called Son of Man. Jesus, not only is Jesus a black man, everybody's black. You know, which I love, because that means that when there's this whole sort of conversation about Herod or Rome, you still have the sort of texture of African politics. So, yes, not only is Jesus a black man, we don't have to have any of the arguments about the usual things that we have arguments about. I mean, I saw it, I'm, like, I wish my parents could see this. I would take my friends in Sun City West to see this. My little retirement friends. I think it has that kind of power, the question is whether someone will buy it.

NORRIS: Well, Lisa Kennedy, thanks so much for talking to us.

KENNEDY: Thanks a lot for having me.

NORRIS: Lisa Kennedy is a film critic for The Denver Post.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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