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Critic’s Diary, Part 1: Zach Braff’s Impressive Trip to the “Garden State”; Mixed Reactions to “Chr

Critic's Diary, Part 1: Zach Braff's Impressive Trip to the "Garden State"; Mixed Reactions to "Chr

Critic’s Diary, Part 1: Zach Braff’s Impressive Trip to the “Garden State”; Mixed Reactions to “Chrystal,” “Primer,” and More

by Stephen Garrett

Natalie Portman and Zach Braff in Braff’s “Garden State.” Photo credit: K.C. Bailey / Camelot Pictures

As the 2004 Sundance Film Festival gets into full swing, one dramatic competition movie has quickly seized the hearts of Park City audiences: “Garden State.” Writer-director-actor Zach Braff, best known as one of the hapless hospital residents on TV’s “Scrubs,” has fashioned a quirky-with-a-capital-Q romantic comedy in which he stars as a struggling, lithium-numbed L.A. actor who returns to New Jersey for his mother’s funeral. There he re-connects with high school friends he hasn’t seen in a decade and meets Sam (Natalie Portman), a brash beauty who gives him the confidence to turn his life around.

Spicing up the story are a vintage motorcycle with a side car, a knight in shining armor, a gravedigger best friend, a man made rich by inventing silent Velcro, an adopted African sponsored by Sally Struthers, an epileptic girl who wears a crash helmet at her desk job to maintain her health insurance — and it’s all topped off by a deep, dark family secret.

Braff directs his undeniably charming script with a refreshingly confident and imaginative style that at its best invokes Mike Nichols’ work in “The Graduate.” But the end result still feels like a greatest-hits of other people’s singular cinematic visions: the deadpan visual humor and bittersweet ennui of Wes Anderson mixed with Cameron Crowe’s lovable earnestness and topped off with a small dollop of Hal Ashby romantic nihilism.

Still, any combination that winning makes for the kind of sweet date movie that makes Sundance audiences swoon and distributors salivate. Its theatrical release is a given.

The other dramatic competition films that also unspooled in the first day have sparked more muted reactions. Ray McKinnon shows promise but falls short with “Chrystal,” a ponderous Ozarks-set drama about an ex-convict (Billy Bob Thornton) seeking redemption from the wife he crippled and son he Killed in a car crash 20 years earlier. McKinnon shows an absorbing eye for hypnotic composition, but the overloaded script tries to fit too many characters, subplots and dementia into an already strained drama. Another ambitious film, Shane Carruth’s “Primer,” about scientists who have invented a machine that can give them anything they want, is rich with technological jargon that invokes comparisons to “Pi” and seems to have split audiences into those who are either dazzled by its intellectual premise or dismiss its ruminations as arch and overbearingly pretentious.

No films in the festival’s other sidebars have yet captured people s imagination and cranked up the buzz machine quite as much as “Garden State,” although a documentary competition selection comes close. Matt Mahurin’s “I Like Killing Flies” is a tribute to the diner Shopsin’s, a Greenwich Villlage institution run by a cantankerous man with an infinite menu and limited patience for the uninitiated among his clientele. The sold-out public screening did turn-away business and left the lucky attendees well-fed with cinematic musings and genuinely hungry for a delicious meal.

While American Spectrum offers many accomplished independent films that Have debuted at other festivals, it also features movies that, though far from the caliber of dramatic-competition picks, still hold ideas that linger. A case in point is “Second Best,” Eric Weber’s wildly uneven portrait of a failed writer and self-professed loser (Joe Pantoliano) who struggles to come to terms with the success of a longtime best friend. Even while laboring under uninspired direction that’s coupled with a script which feels half-polished at best, the dark comedy still packs an occasional misanthropic wallop delivered with the clear-eyed loathing of a man so angry at the world that his rants fascinate.

A guilty pleasure among the special screenings is “In the Company of Women,” a 90-minute retrospective look at the ladies of the independent film movement that plays more like a tribute clip reel than an in-depth analysis of women s impact on the business. Going back only as far as 1985’s “Desperately Seeking Susan” and concentrating mostly on the 1990s, “Company” concentrates on the same dozen directors and actors for their reflections, excluding any male commentary in favor of a girl-power positivity that ultimately limits the dialogue about women’s chronic minority status in the dream machine. And there are conspicuous absences: Where, for instance, is any mention of Gena Rowlands, let alone her on-camera perspective and insights? Still, the film serves as a vital reminder of searing, original visions, from “Gas Food Lodging” and “Go Fish” to “High Art” and “Boys Don’t Cry.” A definitive look at women in indie film will have to wait, but even this truncated glimpse is long overdue.

[This is the first in a three-part series of Stephen Garrett’s critical diary of the festival.]

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