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Published: Sunday, 2/20/2005

In-between films

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

PARK CITY, Utah - A few weeks ago, on the last day I was here, I wandered into a Roots clothing store on Main Street and spotted a table of ski hats and T-shirts and fleece pull-overs. On each was the title of an upcoming movie, Hustle & Flow. It tells the story of a Memphis pimp who dreams of becoming a professional rapper, and if you have heard of it at all, you most likely heard that Paramount (and its division, MTV Films) bought it for $9 million.

Now, a table full of free swag is not unique at the Sundance Film Festival. You get so used to having free promotional items thrust at you here that you find yourself crossing the street just to avoid that friendly person who wants to give you a free granola bar.

But the closer I looked at that table of Hustle & Flow freebees, which had been clearly picked over, the more I noticed the price tags.

These were not, in fact, free.

For $25 or so, you could purchase what earlier in the week - before the Paramount deal became a headline in Variety.

There's a very good reason for this, and it goes beyond a simple case of a filmmaker, director Craig Brewer - an unknown before Sundance - taking advantage of good fortune.

It's that Hustle & Flow fits the definition of a new, popular kind of movie:

The in-between film.

An awkward name, for sure.

But potentially lucrative.

Often Oscar-nominated.

Sundance, and this year's Academy Awards, are awash with in-between films.

But what, you ask, is an in-between film?

Here's an example: Hustle & Flow was made with money raised by Brewer and his producers, with no help from any movie studio. On the other hand, it plays exactly like a studio movie. And once the studios started biting, and once it sold, Brewer was more than willing to give Hustle & Flow the aura of a studio production - and it's not.

So it's an in-between.

In-between films don't fit the easy categories we place on movies: They're not always made with independent money or even an independent spirit. Hustle & Flow may be assessable and distinctly mainstream but what makes it an in-betweener is that it lacks a recognizable cast or production credit.

Rocky, in a way - which is what Hustle & Flow is reminiscent of - was once an in-betweener. So the in-between film can become a franchise like Spider-Man or Shrek, but it's unlikely. In fact, it's not likely to be a studio movie at all.

More often, it's made not by Fox but Fox Searchlight, not Disney but its specialty division, Miramax, not Universal but its specialty house, Focus Features - which has been turning out some of the more interesting in-betweeners of recent years, such as Lost in Translation, The Motorcycle Diaries, and Far From Heaven.

These are not independent films in the classic sense, but you still smell the ambition on them.

The in-betweener is also not expected to be accompanied by a saturation-bombing ad campaign. Or to make hundreds of millions of dollars around the world. Tens of millions, however, is possible.

But it's also not exactly the type of movie that is expected to play to small audiences of appreciative art house regulars. These are not your drawing room melodramas - not usually. They have no genre, in fact.

They are your Sideways and your Hotel Rwanda and your House of Flying Daggers and your Finding Neverland, and even, to the extent that it heads off on a surprising tangent in the third act, your Million Dollar Baby. They are for audiences who hate studio films but want the production value that cheaper films lack.

They're a certain kind of movie - the same way older actresses are said to be "of a certain age."

They tend, however, to have two characteristics in common:

Oscar and Sundance.

And next Sunday when the Oscars are handed out in Los Angeles, there will be a tension, a palpable stress felt in living rooms across the country, and it has very little to do with whether Martin Scorsese can finally snag an Oscar for best director.

It has to do with the strain between art and commerce that produces the in-betweener to beghin with. Or as Chris Rock, this year's host of the Academy Awards, put it in Entertainment Weekly recently, a lot of Americans would say The Bourne Supremacy and Spider-Man 2 were the best films they saw last year.

Blockbusters, firmly mainstream.

But even so, Sundance - or at least the independent spirit that it celebrates - is an influence here:

Sam Raimi, the former Detroiter who directed both Spider-Man films, made his name on the indie horror classic The Evil Dead. And the Bourne movies were directed by Doug Liman and then Paul Greengrass, who both came out of the indie world and gave the Bourne films their distinct personalities - which is not supposed to happen with big, stereotypically impersonal studio blockbusters.

Both Liman and Greengrass were discovered at Sundance. Go figure.

But if Chris Rock is talking about you, if you've always wondered why the movies honored every year at the Oscars, and the movies you see on an average weekend, have so little in common, you can blame Sundance.

It's as good a reason as any.

Although it lasts for only 10 days in January, its influence on what gets released - and its legacy when awards get handed out and "best-of" lists shaped - lingers the entire year.

And by that, I don't mean the best movies of the year debut at Sundance. A few do, but generally it's quite the contrary: from a movie-going perspective, Sundance 2005 was a celebration of mediocrity, with occasional gems lapped up as if they were raindrops in a desert.

The studios have increasingly put the onus of quality (and their chances of an Oscar) on their specialty divisions - which troll Sundance looking for fresh talent to take on, and either nurture idiosyncrasies or strip-mine them. Mediocre talent, you could say, meets them halfway and is far easier to assimilate.

The result is, you come away from Sundance with the realization that when we talk about independent movies nowadays, we're not talking about independent movies. Not really. There's the indie scene that's both part of the mainstream and catering to it (the specialty divisions), and the one removed from it and not anxious for the attention - two scenes, in effect, the way alternative rock has become both ingrained in the music industry and, if you look to tiny labels, very much removed from it.

My guess is that Brewer is thrilled to be assimilated into Hollywood. Which is not a bad thing.

Hustle & Flow is both preposterous and wildly entertaining - the perfect studio wannabe.

But what makes it moving, what was worth all that Paramount money, has nothing to do with the screenplay or the direction, which are by-the-numbers and often obnoxious. It's Terrence Howard's performance as the pimp.

As a hustler trying to win the good graces of the music business, he doesn't say a lot of the things he wants to say, because he can't tip his hand and give people the sense he is vulnerable. But when he does speak up, when he gambles his future, you get the idea of a man who is pained to hear himself pleading.

Which, to some ironic extent, is the story of Sundance.

I would not be surprised if we're here talking about Howard's Oscar-nominated performance this time next winter. The same goes for Jeff Daniels, who co-stars in The Squid and the Whale - one of the few films at Sundance that didn't leave audiences with mixed reactions.

But it's less of a compromise, less cut from the cloth of a box-office hit. Daniels plays a Brooklyn creative writing professor whose writing career has been cold for decades and whose marriage to Laura Linney is on life support.

It's more the kind of film I'm thinking of when I admire what the studio specialty divisions have done in recent years. Yes, they've often marginalized indie film, but they've also given it an enclave. Squid, which was jointly purchased by Samuel Goldwyn Pictures and Sony, was written and performed from a young, personal perspective, the two sons of Daniels and Linney, and they are not adorable ragamuffins but hard and barbed.

And they're funny, too, because director-writer Noah Baumbach (who co-wrote the more precious Life Aquatic with Wes Anderson) doesn't strain for gags, but goes with the quirks of confused kids.

It feels observed rather than written. And Daniels, who has been trapped in mid-range studio junk for a decade now, blooms as a valuable ensemble player, and is so convincing as a pretentious man holding on to distant memories of a successful career, you never think of him as pathetic or boorish. He's seen from too many sides to make it that easy. (He's also quite good in the kid flick, Because of Winn-Dixie, which opened on Friday.)

There were other Sundance in-betweeners that you're likely to hear from: Thumbsucker, also purchased by Sony, has a horrible title but it's smartly adapted by Mike Mills from the novel by Walter Kirn about a teenager anxious to break away from home; it features another generous ensemble, including Keanu Reeves and Vince Vaughn, and plays a little like a wry prequel to Garden State (a big Sundance in-betweener itself, class of 2004).

Which brings me to The Aristocrats. I could go on for days about it; I haven't laughed that hard or been as charmed in a long while. But there is very little chance this film will ever see the inside of a Toledo multiplex. It's a 90-minute documentary from stand-up comic Paul Provenza. He asks about 100 funny people - from Chris Rock to Robin Williams, to an uproarious animated South Park segment - to tell the same ridiculously filthy joke, and what sounds dull becomes a rather moving consideration of a show business truism: It's not the song, it's the singer. And what a song. I counted 14 walk-outs.

That's not an in-betweener.

That's called a tough sell.

Contact Christopher Borrelli at: cborrelli@theblade.com or 419-724-6117.



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