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Independent Heaven

As for the dramatic features shown, standouts included Bandwagon, John Schultz's sharply acted and confidently directed comedy-drama about four North Carolina twentysomethings who form a band for lack of anything else to do; Sydney, Paul Thomas Anderson's engrossingly claustrophobic drama about an aging high-roller (Philip Baker Hall in the performance of a lifetime) and his younger, more impulsive protege; and The Whole Wide World, Dan Ireland's grandly old-fashioned period drama, filmed in and around Austin, about pulp-fiction writer Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan the Barbarian, and his real-life relationship with schoolteacher Novalyne Price.

Also noteworthy were three films that showcase exceptionally fine lead performances. Randal Kleiser's It's My Party, a smart and sassy tearjerker, features Eric Roberts in a career-reviving performance as an AIDS-stricken architect who decides to throw one last bash for his friends and family before committing suicide. Ashley Judd takes even bigger chances in her extraordinary portrayal of a beautiful but self-destructive manic depressive who drives her husband (Luke Perry) from rookie cop to career criminal in John McNaughton's Normal Life. And Dennis Hopper, of all people, gives a beautifully restrained and delicately nuanced performance as a middle-aged rural school teacher who rebels against the tedium of his life by having an affair with a 17-year-old student in Bruno Barreto's Carried Away.

A few nose-burning stinkers did manage to slip into the mix. Arguably the worst of the worst at Sundance '96 was Matthew Bright's Freeway, a sophomoric and morally repellent mix of fractured fairy tale, juvenile social satire, bloody mayhem and cartoonish B movie melodrama. This is the kind of aggressively offensive junk in which the nude, bound corpse of an elderly woman is used as a sight gag. Conceivably, Freeway might have a future with faux-hip audiences at midnight screenings. But really, some movies can never be shown late enough.

Looking for Richard, a far more commendable offering, stood in a class by itself. A fascinating mixture of cinema verite, filmed theater and talking-heads commentary, this freeform examination of Shakespeare's Richard III is propelled by the vigorous intelligence and passionate curiosity of its writer, director and star, Al Pacino. Periodically, scenes from the classic play are enacted by Pacino (in the title role, of course) and a dream cast that includes Alec Baldwin, Aidan Quinn, Estelle Parsons and -- no kidding! -- Winona Ryder. More often, however, Looking for Richard is not so much a performance of Shakespeare as a meditation on Shakespeare's art, craft and relevance. Pacino seeks advice from experts (Vanessa Redgrave, Kenneth Branagh, John Gielgud and others) and academics. He quizzes strangers on the street. He even questions himself and his collaborations. Why? Because Pacino doesn't merely want to perform Shakespeare -- he wants to probe Shakespeare, to discover all his subtleties and secrets, and to promote Shakespeare, to make the classic plays accessible to a contemporary audience.

At a film festival dedicated to visionaries, mavericks and others who wade outside of the mainstream, Looking for Richard was very much in its element. Like many other Sundance features, it is the very model of a movie that cannot be easily described, and should not be lightly overlooked.

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