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What's Hot At The Sundance Film Festival?


The economic downturn is providing lots of fodder for filmmakers. That's become abundantly clear at this year's Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.

Steven Zeitchik covers entertainment for the Los Angeles Times and he joins me from Park City.

And, Stephen, you're seeing this theme both in feature films and documentaries. Why don't we start with the documentaries. What have you seen?

STEVEN ZEITCHIK: Well, there are a number of films, Melissa, that really is to sort of get at the kind of economic malaise - and sort of general cultural malaise - that I think a lot of people would say we've been in for a little while now as a country. And one film that I think has been getting a lot of attention, and I think will get a lot of attention upon release, is called "Queen of Versailles."

It's a documentary about a couple that tries to build the biggest house in America and kind of all the things that sort of go wrong when the bust hits. And it's an interesting film because you're kind of sympathizing with them and then you're laughing at them at the same time. And you sort of - there's a little bit of schadenfreude that comes with watching something like that.

Other films that are a little bit maybe more intense, a little more policy-oriented, I guess you could say, is a film about the war on drugs and how it's disproportionately affected the black community from a well-known documentarian named Eugene Jarecki and that film is called "The House I Live In."

The third film here that's playing, also a documentary, kind of gets at a very particular place and that's Detroit. The movie is called "Detropia" and it basically looks at kind of the city that's been down on its heels for quite some time now. You know, everything from the unraveling of the auto industry to kind of other urban issues they've had. Not exactly a feel good film, but I think people are taking notice of it here just because it does sort of, in some ways, distill a lot of the issues this country has been facing.

BLOCK: So those are some of the documentaries there at Sundance with this hard times theme. You're also seeing it, though, in feature films there.

ZEITCHIK: You know, it's a really interesting point. You wouldn't think that feature films, even those at Sundance, would necessarily be that topical. It takes a long time for films to get made, but there have been a number of very kind of light, entertaining films that still manage to slip the theme in.

I saw a film the other day called "For a Good Time, Call" and it's a sort of a kind of a raunchy phone sex comedy about these two women who lose their jobs in New York and they can't really piece together a living and so they do what, you know, we would all do, which is start a phone sex line. And probably not the best remedy for kind of any economic downturn, but - hey, it worked for them and it's kind of a light comedy, but it does get at that same issue.

Another movie, which is a little bit more serious and certainly deals with kind of economic and class disparities is Spike Lee's new film, "Red Hook Summer," kind of a throwback film for him, going back to his "Do the Right Thing" days. It even picks up on some of the same characters. Kind of a book end, if you will, but very much about, you know, life in this Brooklyn project and kind of the haves and the have-nots.

I mean, it's amazing when you're sitting in some of these features to kind of realize that there's sort of - the one percent, 99 percent question is actually being played out, you know, on the screen almost, it seems, in real time.

BLOCK: One percent, 99 percent, but the atmosphere at Sundance is just full of high living and parties galore, the contrast between the themes on the screen and the hoopla around the screenings must be incredible.

ZEITCHIK: It really is and it's a good point. There's a certain inconsistency, to say the least, about, you know, sort of - you're sitting in a theatre watching kind of people who, you know, can't make a living and are struggling to keep their home and then you walk out and go to a party for that same film, in some cases, and, you know, people are just kind of sipping on champagne and eating these rich desserts and entrees. And so it can sometimes feel a little bit jarring. There's sort of the argument, I guess, that to reach the people who can make changes, you need to reach the one percent.

I think, if you walked out from some of these screenings and into the events that kind of populate this festival, you'd be surprised that they're actually taking place in the same place at the same time.

BLOCK: Reporter Steven Zeitchik with the Los Angeles Times, talking with us from the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. Steven, thanks so much.

ZEITCHIK: Thanks, Melissa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.