I have the stereotypical near-catastrophe getting out of New York to Sundance as my flight gets cancelled, but since my eyes are glued to the laptop with headphones on watching a screener, I don’t notice until it’s zero hour prior to when the plane was supposed to take off. Fortunately, there is a flight heading to the same destination (Chicago) at the next gate over and they’ve already placed me on it. Apparently the American Airlines Osmosis communication system was off and I didn’t get the intuitive message.

But the cool thing is that Matt Kaszanek, Film Society’s booker for the Film Center is also on that flight so now I’ve got someone to hang out with. He facebooks (yes, I used it as a verb) the fact that we’re now traveling together and friends of his that don’t know me are “liking” that news.

We arrive in Chicago and make our way to the gate for our connection and as we walk up to it, the people behind the counter shout out, “Are you John Widman and Matt Kaszanek?!” Why, yes we are! Another good sign and literally good, since they held the damn plane for us.

Once in Park City, it’s time for the traditional “Let’s go get a s**t-load of groceries to feed us now because we will never ever have time to do this again once he movie watchin’ starts.” As I walk up to the check out line, Sundance 2014 immediately establishes itself as kinda weird fun when I realize that Mitt Romney is checking out in the line next to me. Not totally out of nowhere since he is the subject of a documentary, shockingly titled, MITT. But still weird all the same. I say “Hi, Mitt.” Because, why not, right? I get a nod. Then, some old guy walks up to him just as he’s about to hightale it out of there. (He had that whole deluded I’m completely stealth and invisible air about him.)  Anyway, the old guy does the classic, “You look a lot like..” but Mitt cuts him off all resigned jovial-like with “No, it’s me.” Yes, Mitt. It was you all right.

The next morning, my day starts off with a radio interview on The Daily Buzz with Film Society’s Eugene Hernandez and Brian Brooks talking to me and Indiewire’s Eric Kohn about the movies we’re excited about, what trends we thought we’d be seeing in this year’s programming and the Oscar nominations and blah, we know lots about movies and stuff, blah, blah. While I’m waiting to do the show I meet Richard Ray Perez, the director of CESAR’S LAST FAST. Richard says that beyond the fact that Cesar Chavez was a fascinating subject, he also was convinced he found a great way he into his story. Unfortunately, I won’t find out because I couldn’t fit it in my schedule. But that didn’t stop Richard from being the first filmmaker to give me a pin here at Sundance. Yay?

After catching up on the Film Society PR business AND scoring us a photographer to shoot the Film Society Cocktail Party we’re having on Sunday night, I’m off to Sundance HQ to get my press badge and hug from Sundance’s patron saint Rosie Wong to make this year’s film fest official. While there, I say hello to AFI’s Lane Kneedler, who introduces me to LAFF’s Doug Jones and (not realizing how he has stumbled into the middle of some s**t always on the cusp of going down) my film festival nemesis, Michael Lerman. I also see Film Society’s Lesli Klainberg and the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Backstory Magazine, Jeff Goldsmith. Backstory is this cool-a*s iPad magazine that Jeff came up with and he takes a moment to show the sucker off to me and it really is great stuff – if you happen to have an iPad. Which I don’t. But if you do, you should seriously check it out. Anyway, let’s actually talk about a couple of this year’s movies I had a chance to see before I got here, shall we?

We just announced Richard Ayoade’s THE DOUBLE as one of the first selections for this year’s edition of New Directors/New Films. In the film, Jesse Eisenberg plays a sad sack office drone in an oppressive data collection job with a depressingly mundane life after work as well. His one glimmer of hope is a girl that works in his office and lives in the apartment building across from his, played by Mia Wasikowska. He longs after her, watches her every night through a telescope and tries to muster the courage to say something meaningful to her. And just as he is building up to that, he witnesses a man in her building jump to his death. The next day, a new employee arrives at his office. The new guy looks like him and has the same name only in reversed order. His double is also charismatic, aggressive and instantly successful – everything he isn’t. Soon, the double is taking credit for his work as well as taking his girl while he quickly begins to lose his own identity to the point of all but disappearing.

Based on Dostoyevsky’s novel, the film’s strongest points all center on the world that Ayoade has created. Production design, sound design etc. all combine to place us in an unforgiving nightmare of a world. So much so, that you naturally don’t simply wonder (or in the best case) hope that Eisenberg’s character will manage to defeat or overcome his double, but in fact – his entire world as well. It reminded me of Adam Rifkin’s THE DARK BACKWARD (1991) in that respect. A fascinating piece of filmmaking, but not one that aims to put on a smile on your face as the emphasis is squarely on the “dark” and not the “comic”.

Expected Sundance Reaction: I think it should play well. The performances are precise and as I mentioned, it is a complete vision of the world. That’s a surefire recipe for keeping Sundance people satisfied.

Expected Real World Reaction: I don’t know about the multiplex crowd on this one. Maybe they get a taste of it, but l would see VOD being a great home as this is a film the curious and the discerning will seek out.

Alain Guiraudie’s STRANGER BY THE LAKE was one of my favorite films at the New York Film Festival last year. Set in a gay pick-up scene at a lake, the film follows Frank, who comes to the lake daily to meet men, have sex and lay out in the sun. However, Frank’s world is shaken, both by meeting Michel, who he becomes attracted to and then falls desperately in love with, as well as the fact that another man has been drowned and Michel knows who did it. As a persistent police officer investigates and repeatedly interrogates Frank, the danger and pressure increases on the man.

The film is an effective thriller that is definitely bold early on with its explicit depictions of gay sex (at least for a general audience), but the success of the film for me is that the community and their sexual behavior is established so thoroughly and emphatically that it pretty quickly (at least for me) falls to the wayside and the murder investigation and the toll it takes on Frank takes dramatic center stage. That isn’t to say that everyone would be as forgiving finding themselves with a front row seat to the world of gay sex, but it is to say that Guiraudie is clearly staging his film within that world as opposed to simply exploiting the sex acts for shock value.

Expected Sundance Reaction: The appearance at Sundance is kind of like a victory lap after a very successful film fest tour. So, the people seeking it out are already looking forward to seeing this one.

Expected Real World Reaction: I think it will play very well in the big cities and then be a big hit on VOD.

Next, I make a stop at Slamdance HQ to throw myself on the mercy of the stellar Cinematic Red PR team of Annie Jeeves and Melanie Marquez (I was a very bad journalist – the kind I disdain actually – by not getting my accreditation stuff in on time and doing it last minute. Anyway, I suck.) and ask if I can still get a badge and maybe some screeners and tickets, etc. They, of course, are on it, have my info, take care of me and even enlist Slamdance programmer Josh Mandel to hand select some must-see films for me. I was already a fan of their PR work but now I have the guilt working on me so I will be doing more coverage for Slamdance than I had previously planned.

The evening concluded with a new experience for me on opening night as Ruth Mutch invites me to tag along at something known as “An Artist at the Table”. It’s an event where Sundance patrons go to a cocktail party, see the Opening Night film and then attend a lavish dinner with one of the Sundance actors, directors or filmmakers seated with them at their table. Everyone gets to know each other, chat, meet and greet, etc. and the Sundance Institute gets a bunch of money to help fund their artist development throughout the year – win, win, win.

At the cocktail portion of the evening, I find director Lucy Walker and catch up with her, congratulating her on the year that her film THE CRASH REEL had. Then, just like that we’re loaded onto giant buses that were so big I was half-expecting that there would be bus attendants serving us drinks and an in-drive movie, and head off to see the Opening Night presentation of WHIPLASH. It is directed by Damien Chazelle, a young filmmaker that I had at AFI FEST a few years back with his film GUY AND MADELINE ON A PARK BENCH. I liked that film and I really like Damien so I’m happy to see him doing so well.

Once in the theater, I see and say hello to Aaron Paul, thanking him for his part in the big “Breaking Bad” week of screenings and panels (including his sneak appearance at a marathon screening of one of the show’s seasons) we did at Film Society of Lincoln Center this year. Then Robert Redford kicks off the introductions for the film and we are off to the races for Sundance 2014.

Damien Chazelle’s WHIPLASH is the feature version of a short film with the same title that played here last year as well as at the New York Film Festival. The film focuses on a student at a prestigious music academy (played by Miles Teller) who aspires to be a great drummer. And that needs to be emphasized, as it’s central to the film’s theme: He wants to be one of THE GREATS. So while listening to Buddy Rich and practicing feverishly, he enters the world of an exacting, demanding and above all verbally and violently abusive instructor (played by J.K. Simmons) who conducts the school’s elite studio band. Thus begins a thrilling dance (nearly to the death) and battle of wills between the two as Simmons tortures Teller’s student literally to the point of leaving blood on the drum kit in pursuit of a rarified and hallowed place as a musician – Charlie Parker territory.

The film is as tension-filled as they come with the talented Teller going toe-to-toe with the fearsome Simmons who was clearly pushed to recapture the J.K. Simmons we remember from his days on the legendary HBO series “Oz”. That combination is one of the things we go to movies for, and combined with a wonderful immersion into the music itself, the film really builds from a steady, compelling drumbeat to a vey satisfying crescendo. Beyond that, credit also goes to Chazelle for not soft-pedaling neither the damage that the instructor inflicts, nor the murkiness of the “win” that either teacher or student may achieve at the conclusion of their battles.

Expected Sundance Reaction: Having seen this one with an audience, it clearly played like gangbusters. Big hit.

Expected Real World Reaction: Same thing. I think audiences will really respond to this one.

After the film, everyone climbs back onto the giant buses and ship us back to the Stein-Erickson Lodge for the dinner portion of the evening. Seated at our table are producers from the films INFINITELY POLAR BEAR and LITTLE ACCIDENTS, films that Ruth is an Executive Producer on as well as Dallas Film Society’s James Faust, Sarah Harris, former DFS Exec Dir Tanya Foster and one of the stars of LITTLE ACCIDENTS, Boyd Holbrook.

The entire meal is created (“designed”?) by Giada De Laurentiis, who is also there and so hands-on that I see her actually serve some pasta to Katie Couric. Sarah Harris remarks at one point, regarding Giada’s figure, “Clearly, she hasn’t been eating her own pasta.” Anyway, there are speeches and thanks yous from Sundance’s John Cooper and Keri Putnam and finally Mark Ruffalo, who reveals that he had actually planned on quitting acting with the idea that THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT would be his swan song. But it was the reception that the film received at Sundance that turned him around on that whole idea. So, thanks Sundance, you helped give us an awesome Hulk.

After dinner there was plenty of hobnobbery, during which I met GOD LOVES UGANDA’s director Roger Ross Williams and talked about how the Oscar noms played out this year (Unfortunately, not in his favor.) and then before we bailed for I introduced myself to Giada and gave her props for the dinner – which I’m sure was a HUGE moment for her, devout non-foody that I am.

So, that was DAY #1. Let’s finish this off with a couple more early reviews.

Rose McGowan’s directorial debut is a 50s period piece about a young shelter teenage girl who longs for a way out of her life. A hunky gas station attendant begins charming her and gives her hope that he just may be it. However, she may discover that getting what she wants may have a finality she wasn’t counting on.

The film is very polished – on a production level, and more than assured directorially. Of course, there is more than a little impression you get watching the film that this was an expensive production and McGowan had A LOT of production support. The good news is that she didn’t squander that help in servicing her slyly dark vision.

David Wnendt’s WETLANDS is an enthralling and confoundingly enjoyable film about Helen, a German teenage girl obsessed with her bodily fluids and sexual adventure. Helen cuts herself badly while trying to relieve the pressure of a hemorrhoid, which puts her in the hospital and begins a playful flirtation with a male nurse. She tempts and teases him and reminisces about her other exploits including seducing boys with her unwashed vagina scent, masturbating experiments and swapping used tampons with her friend. At the same time, we gradually gain insight into her behavior and emotional state of mind via flashbacks of her cruelly jealous mother and distant, distracted father.

The film is unnerving and uncompromising in its display of blood and other things that come out of one’s body. In fact, it may be one of the grossest films you could hope(?) to see. However, Carla Juri, who plays Helen is utterly captivating in her sweetness and sincerity and Wnendt is successful in making her story and her journey absolutely compelling and entertaining – even as you are being repulsed by the results of her actions.

Expected Sundance Reaction: I think the film is made-to-order to have a steady stream of walk-outs, but I also believe that the film’s fan’s will be devoted and enthusiastic ones. I know that I am.

Expected Real World Reaction: While the film is decidedly not for everyone, I can actually see it doing well in the big cities and very well on VOD.

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