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Sundance reflects unique world view

PARK CITY, Utah--Europeans tend to view Americans as perpetual teenagers, and maybe they have a point. If you were to judge the world on the basis of the movies at this year's Sundance Film Festival, the typical American is a troubled teenager and the typical European or Japanese is an adult confronting basic questions of life.

Of course, Peter, the hero of the new American film "Eight Days a Week," would argue that when you are 17 and hopelessly in love, that is the basic question of life. And when the 40ish Japanese salaryman in "Shall We Dance?'' (1997), is faced with a mid-life crisis, he reacts by getting a crush on a ballroom dancing instructor. (Both films even center on the same image: men standing in the street and gazing up at their beloveds, framed in distant windows.)

A more important point, I suppose, is that both of these films are enormously entertaining and likely to rank among the box-office winners discovered this year at Park City. At the midpoint of this year's festival, I am filled with a great optimism. I have seen so many good and interesting films that I no longer fear that the future of the cinema resides in special-effects epics where things get blowed up real good.

"Eight Days a Week," written and directed by Michael Davis, is not even at Sundance, but instead is in Slamdance, an alternative festival started three years ago to provide a home for Sundance refuseniks. Slamdance is headquartered in the Treasure Mountain Inn, across Main Street from the Egyptian Theater where the Sundance premieres are held. A projection space with about 125 seats has been set up in a conference room, with folding chairs, sofas and cushions on the floor. There's a '60s feeling as audiences sprawl anywhere to see the movies.

The room gets so warm that bottled water is supplied, but the energy is high, too, and there was a tumultuous reaction to "Eight Days a Week," a raunchy comedy about a teenager who decides to spend the entire summer standing beneath the window of the girl he loves (Keri Russell). One of the movie's charms is its encyclopedic accuracy about the way teenage boys really talk about sex, lust, masturbation and bodily functions. The movie doesn't depend on four-letter words so much as colorful descriptive phrases.

"Shall We Dance?" written and directed by Masayuki Suo, is another crowd-pleaser. It's been picked up by Miramax, which had a hit with "Strictly Ballroom" and may have a bigger hit with this one, which is just as funny and more mainstream.

It's about a middle-aged office worker, stuck in a boring job and facing years of labor to pay for a home he rarely sees in daylight hours. One day, from his commuter train, he sees a haunting woman standing alone in the window of a dance studio, and soon he finds himself taking ballroom dance lessons. The movie is not a love story involving the woman, however, but a richly comic story about dancing and loneliness, told within a Japanese context (a narrator explains that Japanese men rarely dance with their wives and never with anyone else, so the hero's behavior is scandalous).

Among American films, one of the strongest and most popular entries is "Gridlock'd" (opening Wednesday in Chicago), written and directed by Vondie Curtis Hall and starring Tim Roth and the late Tupac Shakur as buddies who decide to kick their drug habits. They spend a long day trapped in the social services system, while being pursued by dealers who have murdered their pal. Their desire to get clean has been inspired by Shakur's girlfriend (Thandie Newton), who overdosed on New Year's Eve and spends most of the movie in intensive care.

The movie has its share of unsettling images, especially the scene in which Shakur is so desperate to kick that he persuades Roth to stab him so he can get into an emergency room. The scene sounds horrific, but as the two friends discuss where and how to inflict the wound, it takes on a bizarre Tarantinoesque quality. What the movie establishes, sadly, is that Shakur was a born actor with a strong screen presence. His murder destroyed a genuine acting talent.

Sundance regular Errol Morris, who remembers premiering his great film "Gates of Heaven" here years ago before an audience of four, was back this year with his mysteriously beautiful new documentary, "Fast, Cheap and Out of Control." The film was photographed by Robert Richardson, famed for his mixtures of media and styles in "JFK" and "Natural Born Killers." He and Morris interweave the stories of four people: a circus lion tamer, an expert on naked mole rats, a designer of robots with artificial intelligence, and a designer of topiary animals.

The photography and the subtly arousing music by Caleb Sampson weave these subjects into a haunting tapestry. The movie isn't a conventional film about four jobs, but a meditation on man's attempts to control the world. The lion tamer and the mole rat expert are trying to understand the rules by which other species exist, and the AI expert and the gardener are both trying to create the illusion of life where it is not present. What is striking is how passionately all four men love their work.

Another treasure at Sundance is "Prisoner of the Mountain" (opening Feb. 7 in Chicago), a Russian film co-written and directed by Sergei Bodrov, who follows the fortunes of two soldiers who are taken captive by mountain villagers. An old man in the village hopes to trade the soldiers for his son, a captive of the Russians, and as the negotiations proceed uneasily, we learn much about the soldiers, the values of the villagers, and the sweetness of a young girl who befriends the two men - but only up to a point.

Sundance is a logistical mess of disorganized lines, late screenings, technical snafus and traffic nightmares. But when the lights go down and films like these appear on the screen, it's all worth it. Movies can be so good. I wish the mediocre ones weren't doing all the business.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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