Our Man Reports From The Sundance Film Festival

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Former Houston Press reporter Steve McVicker is reporting from the Sundance Film Festival:

Despite the economy being in the crapper, and competition for A-list stars from the Obama inauguration, the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, with its film lovers, business types, and members of the press, has still managed to bring gridlock to this usually sleepy sky resort of Park City, Utah.

As one shuttle driver put it, "usually, it's like driving through a snow globe," here in Park City. But during the festival, the village becomes a mini-Los Angeles, where everybody looks like somebody you ought to know, and whom you should pay attention to.

For example, on one shuttle,

I heard a Robert Rodriguez look-alike advising an aspiring film-making who wants to shoot a film in Africa.

"If it has desert in it, the studios have money for it," said the mystery man. "Of course, it's all about the star."

Of course, in my mind, while I'm here, it's all about me. For the past couple of days -- following a brief stop at a Salt Lake hospital, which will be explained later in these pages -- I've been in media mode, looking for something interesting to see and/or report on.

But tonight, I shift from being an observer to participant when I attend the first public screening of the movie I Love You Phillip Morris, based my true-crime book of the same name, and which I wrote after several years of covering the anti-hero of the story -- Steven Russell -- for the Houston Press in the mid- to late-1990s.

Houston Press readers, or readers of my 2003 book, may recall that in his early life, Steve Russell was a responsible, God-fearing young man. Raised in the Norfolk, Virginia area, Russell was involved in his family's formidable produce business. He played organ for his church's choir, was a volunteer and, later, full-time law enforcement officer. He married the police chief's secretary. With her, he had a daughter. It was damn near a Rockwell painting of the perfect family.

But as the years passed, Russell began give in to his yearning for other men. He also developed a taste for the high life -- fueled by a life of crime. That life of crime led him to the Harris County Jail where he met the love of his life -- Phillip Morris, who was serving time himself for the problems associated with failing to return a rental car.

Once they had both been paroled, Russell decided that he needed a job that would allow him to support Morris in high style, so he faked up a resume that landed him a job as chief financial official of North American Medical Management. Over the next five months on the job, Russell embezzled $800,000 from the company. He spent that money flowering himself and Morris with gifts such as Rolex watches, Mercedes Benzs, and lavish vacations.

Of course, the law eventually came calling, and when it did, Russell went on the run. Indeed, over a five-year period, Russell escaped from Texas jails and prison four times, always on Friday the 13th.  Each time he escaped in some audacious way such as dying his prison uniform green and walking out from gate posing as a doctor, or by convincing parole and nursing-home officials that he had died of AIDS.

However, Russell's downfall is that he always gets caught, because he always comes back for Phillip Morris. He is currently serving a 45-year sentence for the embezzlement. If he should make parole on that charge, he then faces a life prison sentence after also having been convicted as a habitual criminal -- the three-time-loser statute.

These days, Morris lives in Arkansas, and Russell spends 23-and-a-half hours a day, seven days a week, in a solitary confinement cell in an East Texas prison.

However, Russell and Morris soon will be both free and together. That is, for about 90 minutes on the big screen tonight when Jim Carrey stars as Russell and Ewan McGregor as Morris in the Sundance premier of the film-adaptation of my book. The movie is produced by Mad Chance Production and Europa Corp.

Rumors from the trade publications have it that Miramax and Fox Searchlight are sniffing around for the distribution rights. I say, step on up. 

I will report back tomorrow on how tonight's premiere, along with the pre-film dinner and after-party, went.

Meanwhile, I have stumbled across a couple of items worth mentioning. First, yesterday I attended a press screening of Shouting Fire, an HBO documentary about the decline of free speech rights -- on both the left and the right -- during the past eight years. It was produced by filmmaker Liz Garbus. Much of the film features interviews with Garbus's father, First Amendment attorney Martin Garbus. The only criticism I have is that it's about eight years too late -- but watch for it.

Additionally, today I also hope to attend of screening of The Yes Men Fix the World, which is billed as "a film for our times," that is "part screwball comedy about the Apocalypse, part call to arms "about "two hapless hucksters as they learn how funny the unregulated market really can be ... and then find the fix."

 Unfortunately, I will not have time to see I Knew It Was You, a documentary about the late actor John Cazale who only appeared in five movies, but all five were great films: The Godfather, The Godfather: Part II, Dog Day Afternoon, The Deer Hunter, and The Conversation.

-- Steve McVicker

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