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The Cream of the Crop at Sundance Film Festival

The Sundance Film Festival, where careers are launched, buzz begins and Hollywood types look for the next indie-flick sensation, is on. This year's festival, which as always has brought the glitterati to Park City, Utah, includes 125 feature films selected from nearly 7,000 submissions. The festival also is presenting 83 short films, some of which can been watched for free online or purchased.

Here are snapshots of some films I have enjoyed so far.

Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired (documentary, 99 minutes)

By far the most-discussed film at Sundance, this production explodes myths surrounding the legendary film director's 1977 conviction on a charge of unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor.

Polanski, the director of Chinatown and Rosemary's Baby, fled to France before a sentencing hearing, and he remains a fugitive. The documentary's director, Marina Zenovich, began her exploration of the notorious case after Polanski received his 2003 Best Picture Academy Award for The Pianist.

Polanski's 13-year-old victim, Samantha Geimer, has publicly forgiven Polanski, and asked the court to grant him an official pardon, while her lawyer describes the proceedings as "shameful."

Why care about a child molester? The intrigue of the film is sustained throughout by the interviews with Roger Gunson, the prosecutor, and Roger Dalton, Polanski's reticent defense attorney. The men break 30 years of silence about behind-the-scenes chicanery inside the chambers of Judge Laurence J. Rittenband, the film's villain.

Bigger, Stronger, Faster* (documentary, 106 minutes)

Christopher Bell takes an amusing, yet far-reaching, look at the effects of steroids in pop culture and sports. It follows the Bell brothers, Christopher, Mark (a.k.a "Smelly") and Mike ("Mad Dog"), who grew up in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., wanting cartoonish muscles like their heroes, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Hulk Hogan. Both stars admitted using steroids to attain their physiques.

The broader theme of the film is that Americans simultaneously set impossible standards for jocks, cheer their inexplicable victories and deny the possibility of cheating to achieve success.

It's a ruthless paradox. Consider Arnold Schwarzenegger, who owes his fame to steroids, yet is appointed to the nation's drug-free fitness program; or venerated stars, such as Carl Lewis, an Olympic medalist; Barry Bonds, an all star baseball slugger; and Floyd Landis, a Tour de France cyclist.

There are plenty of appearances by celebrity athletes. But Bigger, Stronger Faster* succeeds as family drama. The Bells are God-fearing, salt-of-the-earth folks. Christopher, without steroids, becomes New York State's high school weightlifting champion, and he later moves to Venice Beach to work out at the legendary Gold's Gym where Schwarzenegger trained.

But Christopher's brothers, Smelly and Mad Dog, succumb to "the juice" in trying to meet unattainable performance standards. Smelly bench-presses 705 pounds. Mad Dog, a one-time pro wrestler who is now in his 40s, still clings to an elusive dream of wrestling stardom.

August (drama, 88 minutes)

This film portrays the conflicting efforts that two brothers make to keep their start-up dot-com business from falling into the hands of Wall Street investors. It's August 2001, and the freefall of dot-com stocks has the company, Landshark, on the ropes. The descent from fame and fortune heightens the distrust and sibling rivalry between its cocky and immature executive, Tom (Josh Hartnett), and his brainy, responsible brother, Joshua (Adam Scott). David Bowie makes a brief, but powerful appearance. The movie captures that unprecedented time in business history when punk twentysomethings made millions on vague promises of a cyber revolution.

Good Dick (drama, 85 minutes)

Here's an original and quirky film about an eccentric video-store clerk (Jason Ritter) who falls for a socially dysfunctional, solitary woman (Marianna Palka) and challenges her not to love him in return. It's a sweet story, where the woman's unrelenting pessimism and fear of others are met with the clerk's irrepressible optimism. The story tackles sex, not as a titillating topic, but for its healing power. Palka also wrote the script and directed the film.

Frozen River (drama, 97 minutes)

This is a character-driven story about Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo), a store clerk struggling to feed her two sons when her gambling-addicted husband skips out of town before Christmas with the money to pay for their trailer home.

Lila (Misty Upham), a resentful Native American who doesn't "work with whites," introduces Ray to the lucrative human smuggling trade on the Mohawk Indian Reservation, which straddles both sides of the St. Lawrence River border between the U.S. and Canada. There's little trust between the women, but Lila (who has been ostracized by the native community) and Ray can relate to one another in powerful ways as mothers. Melissa Leo, seen in supporting roles in 21 Grams and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, shines.

Phoebe in Wonderland (drama, 96 minutes)

Nine-year-old Phoebe (Elle Fanning) is an oddball girl who rebels against the authority figures in her life and seeks solace with the unconventional drama teacher (Patricia Clarkson) directing a production of Alice in Wonderland. But Phoebe's behavior becomes increasingly erratic and disruptive at school, which forces her mother (Felicity Huffman) to confront her own insecurities and failings as a parent and as a Lewis Carroll scholar. Bill Pullman co-stars as Phoebe's father.

The script is masterfully interwoven with Lewis' witty existential riddles, which linger and tease the brain. The film is likely to launch the career of Elle Fanning, Dakota's younger sister.





Enjoy the Good Life? Email us with what you'd like to see in future articles.

Martin Stolz is a freelance writer living in Salt Lake City. He previously worked as a newspaper reporter in New York and California.

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