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Waiting for greatness at a solid fest

PARK CITY, Utah--Good films but no great films. As the Sundance Film Festival heads into its final weekend, last year's exhilaration fades into a kind of contentment: We've enjoyed ourselves, we've seen films of originality and quality, but where is this year's equivalent of "Memento"? "The Deep End"? "In the Bedroom"? "Waking Life"?

Since my last roundup, the best film I've seen was wonderful because of its--I hesitate to say "old-fashioned values," but there you are. Maybe "traditional craftsmanship" is a better term. George Hickenlooper's "The Man From Elysian Fields" has sharply defined characters, dialogue of intelligence and wit, a fascinating premise, and keeps building through all three acts. It feels like work by Preston Sturges or Ernst Lubitsch; there is an elegance and confidence that trusts the audience.

The movie stars Andy Garcia as a struggling novelist who lives in Pasadena, Calif., on the other side of town from a legendary three-time Pulitzer Prize winner (James Coburn). He loves his wife (Julianna Margulies) and child, but can't confess to her that he is broke. He meets a man named Luther Fox (Mick Jagger) who runs an escort service, and soon finds himself escorting the famous writer's much younger wife (Olivia Williams). The writer knows about this arrangement and enlists Garcia to help him with his latest novel.

The situation could fuel a one-level comedy, but "The Man From Elysian Fields" has many levels, involving love, trust, sexuality, art and disenchantment. And the superb screenplay by Philip Jayson Lasker gives the Jagger character lines that perfectly suit his persona.

Garcia: "What does your agency provide?"

Jagger: "We make women happy."

Garcia: "Only women?"

Jagger: "Call me old-fashioned."

I also admired Chris Eyre's "Skins," a drama about murder, vigilantism, alcoholism and despair on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Eric Schweig stars as a police officer whose beloved brother is dying from alcoholism. Investigating a murder, he gets more involved than he should, in a film that combines high drama with droll comedy and has an unforced feel for daily life on the reservation.

"These people are simply not visible to mainstream American society," Eyre told me after the screening.

Indeed, few of the tourists who photograph themselves in front of Mt. Rushmore every year will know, as everyone on Pine Ridge knows from birth, that the presidential effigies were carved out of a sacred mountain, and they overlook the site of the Massacre at Wounded Knee.

Eyre's first film was the much-loved "Smoke Signals," the first feature made entirely by American Indians. "Skins" is as humorous, and more engaging, with an undercurrent of violence. It has good prospects for breaking through to a wide audience.

Finn Taylor's "Cherish" stars Robin Tunney, who is onscreen almost every moment, as a woman arrested after being found drunk in a runaway car that killed a policeman. No one believes her story of a masked man who kidnapped her and put his foot on the accelerator.

Awaiting trial, she is placed under house arrest and made to wear an ankle bracelet that limits her range to a run-down loft apartment.

The centerpiece of the film is her lonely existence there, her friendship with neighbors, and her odd relationship with the deputy (Tim Blake Nelson) who monitors the bracelet program. Then the film explodes into a thriller with elements of "Run Lola Run." Tunney covers an enormous range, from despair to resourcefulness, from romance to fast-paced action.

"Blue Vinyl" by Judith Helfand and Daniel B. Gold is one of the fest's best documentaries, with a story that begins when her parents have their house resided with vinyl covering. Tracing the vinyl to its source, she discovers that the carcinogenic chemicals used in its manufacture have been responsible for decades of illness and death, and are particularly linked to a rare liver cancer, not so rare around vinyl plants. In Venice, Italy, she covers the trial of 51 industry executives being tried for manslaughter for continuing to operate their plants after it was clear they were hazardous.

Helfand narrated the film herself. A film like this could adopt a morose voice-of-doom approach, with cellos sawing away, but she is funny and irreverent, and the movie, despite its serious message, is surprisingly entertaining.

Philip Seymour Hoffman is the reigning sad sack of independent films, whose characters in movies such as "Magnolia" live lives of grungy desperation. In Todd Louiso's "Love Liza," he plays a man whose wife kills herself. Depressed, in a daze, he starts inhaling gasoline fumes and stumbles through many scenes in a stupor. Seeking an alibi for all the gas cans he fills at the corner station, he claims to be a model airplane enthusiast, and talks himself into a bizarre, befuddled adventure at a model plane and boat roundup--at one point swimming in the lake where model boats are whizzing past him. The movie brings Hoffman's loser character to its ultimate extreme.

These are all strong movies of the sort Sundance exists to celebrate. But we still wait for a director to knock one out of the park. As I write, there are four days left. Plenty of time.

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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