A film critic at the Sundance Film Festival finds himself the target of a payoff plot. 2,231 words. Part One. Illustrations by John Donald Carlucci.
“De-lish-a,” the sound came tripping off his tongue, à la Lo-li-ta.
Hollywood film critic Ryan Cromwell wound his way around the fireplace at the Eating Establishment for Saturday breakfast. He was meeting his friend Delisha at one of his favorite restaurants on Park City’s Main Street. Delisha wrapped her two-iPhone-holding arms around Ryan. She looked him up-and-down. “Is that your Viking film-critic look?” she asked about his Norwegian ski sweater.
“I left my helmet with the horns back at the hotel,” he said. Then Ryan noticed he had buttoned his sweater wrong. When he undid the top connections, his hands shook. He gulped water and noticed his right fingers trembled on the glass. He put it down and placed his hands in his lap. He shifted in his seat.
“You seem edgy,” Delisha said. “Is everything okay?”
“This festival is going haywire for me already,” he said, looking around and lowering his voice. “My second suitcase with mainly my underwear, socks and shaving stuff is all gone.”
“Someone stole your underwear?”
“No, but they’re missing. When I opened the suitcase this morning, it was filled with stacks of $20 bills,” he said. “I was going to call the police, but I thought I’d better do it in person.”
“You’re got to do something. Right away!”
“I’m going to report it as soon as we leave here. The police station is just up the hill. But I wanted to tell you about it first.”
Delisha was a Victoria’s Secret fashion model whom he’d met at the Cannes Film Festival the previous May when she had been a big part in saving his life there. Now Delisha was at Sundance repping a ski apparel company and making numerous festival appearances in skin-tight ski pants, form-fitting sweaters and special ski boots with stilettos. ("seriously," Ryan asked her.) That she had never skied was not an impediment to her sales appeal. Not only did she sizzle but she also was scary smart, and, best of all, had a kick-ass attitude that Ryan admired because she had grown up on the mean streets of West Philadelphia. Ryan had dubbed her exotic mix of African-American, Dutch, Japanese and Seminole, “Philly Masala.”
“But why would someone fill your suitcase with money?”
“The only thing I can think of is that it’s a bribe,” Ryan replied.
“You mean for a positive review?” she asked.
“That’s my guess.”
“How much money was there? Did you count it?”.
“No, I didn’t want to touch it or get fingerprints on it or anything that might tie me to it,” he said.
Their table nuzzled the fireplace but they faced the picture window that looked across the street to the Egyptian Theater. In the 1980s and 1990s, virtually every Sundance movie screened at the Egyptian. Although refurbished, the Egyptian was now relegated to emeritus status, used for Midnight Screenings and documentaries but not for feature film premieres.
The waiter arrived with two cinnamon oatmeals, fruit and grapefruit juice and placed a warm loaf of whole grain bread on the table as well as a bottle of olive oil. “I took the trouble of ordering ahead,” Delisha said. “I’ve got to be at a function this morning.”
Ryan reached for his spoon and dipped it into the oatmeal. He took a bite but couldn’t swallow. He squished it in his mouth and eased it down his throat. That bag filled with cash had given him a bad case of nerves.
“I’ve already put your name on the list for my fashion show tomorrow night," Delisha continued. "It’s at some place called the Stein Way.”
“The Stein Eriksen,” Ryan corrected. “Stein Eriksen was a famous Norwegian skier and he built it in Deer Valley. During Park City’s early days, it was a mining town, mainly silver, and a.lot of immigrant Norwegians worked in the mines 12-hours a day, six days a week. The men had just one day off, and they had needs. So working girls operated out of a place down Main Street run by a woman called Mother Urban who had a business relationship with the civic leaders and the police. In fact, the tax she paid on her business kept the city afloat.”
“So, what’s the point of your story?”
“Her girls were called Bambi’s. They lived on the other side of the Park City basin, so it became known as Deer Valley. Now it’s all luxury houses and ski condos, but Park City’s prestige section was once the part of town that housed the hookers.”
He could see from Delisha’s blank expression that he was going to lose her attention with any more Park City lore.
That night, the full moon loomed high over the Wasatch. The sky was not the deep dark that had capped the mountains in year’s past but rather a werewolf gray. Ryan had spent the day doing interviews and now that adrenaline surge had worn off and he was ready for a nap. But he was running late for the world premiere of Shoot Mom. Three moose appeared on the deserted snow-packed road as he drive to the theater. Ryan pulled to a quick stop. The biggest and closest animal dipped his head and pointed his antlers straight at Ryan’s rental car. He didn’t dare honk. That bull moose could kill him or at the very least destroy the car. After six long minutes, the moose lumbered away.
The temperature hovered in the low 30s — perfect black ice conditions. Still, Ryan floored it past Heber City, speeding along the dark stretch of I-80. Ryan called ahead to the festival’s chief publicist. “Pam, there were some moose on the loose.”
“Quit joking and get down here,” she barked. “I’ve got a seat reserved in the balcony.” Pam was the uber-publicist for the festival, and she always took special care of Ryan. “Pull up to the front. I’ll have one of the Volunteers park your car somewhere.”
Anti-child abuse activists chanted in front of the Eccles, drumming up attention for their cause in the world-premiere window of Shoot Mom about the Menendez brothers who’d murdered their parents. “Free Lyle & Erik,” a banner proclaimed.
“There you are,’ Pam yelled, as she waved two Sundance Festival power vans away and directed Ryan’s orange Dodge to the front of the queue.
People gaped at him. “It must be a movie star or maybe even Redford himself?” someone commented from the crowd. Who could tell with the winter coats and red Sundance caps?
Pam hurried Ryan up the walk toward the lobby of the Eccles Theater, the 1,200-seat auditorium foro Park City’s well-heeled high school. Camera crews clogged the entrance while a long line of wait-listers huddled behind the iron-bar gates. Inside, Pam whisked Ryan past the Sundance souvenir stand.
“So, did the Menendez brothers make it?” Ryan asked straight-faced.
“Who needs the Menendez brothers when we’ve got Charlie Sheen here,” she shot back.
Pam hurried Ryan up the left stairwell. At the top, a volunteer snagged him and, on cue, the people in the last row stood up to allow Ryan to proceed to his favored seat, 112 — a middle seat with a perfect down-on-screen balcony vantage. Ryan sidestepped apologetically down the aisle, jammed his gloves in his pockets and patted his inner pockets for his notebook. Pam spoke into her iPhone. “Relay to John Cooper my thanks for stalling. And he can get off the stage now.”
The audience cheered, clapped and whistled at the closing credits for Shoot Mom. Ryan called it “the festival effect”: because the viewers had seen it before anyone else in the world, they gave it a heightened reception. This was the beginning of its 15 minutes of Sundance fame. Later on that evening, Shoot Mom would be discussed and dissected at the Riverhorse, Zoom and other eateries along Main Street and up at the luxury condos in Deer Valley, where more frank opinions would be offered. By bar closing time, Shoot Mom would be thoroughly trashed.
Sunday morning had come too early: “Hangover Sunday,” as Ryan dubbed it. Newbies had no idea how the 7,000-foot altitude hammered drinkers. It was the morning-after consequence of the after-party carousing on the festival’s first Saturday night: a bacchanalia of condo parties, premieres, hot tubs and hook-ups – like Ryan and Delisha’s overnight.
Ryan had written the review of Shoot Mom immediately following the screening. It was already up on his media outlet’s website. Ryan grinned because he was being read all over the world. Delisha, who woke up with Ryan in his hotel room, saw it on her iPhone. “Hey, I’ve got your review of Shoot Mom,” she exclaimed. “People were talking about this movie last night at the parties.” She pulled the screen closer and read aloud: “Much less than Less Than Zero but also about pampered L.A. rich-kids, Shoot Mom glorifies the Menendez brothers’ gruesome murder of their parents. Fortunately, filmmaker Scott Jones-Theotis lacks the skills to sanctify them as James Dean- or Marlon Brando-type anti-heroes. Pathologically, Hannibal Lecter would consider them garden variety criminal specimens not worthy of a thought, much less a movie.”
Delisha turned to Ryan, impressed. “Wow, you are nailing this,” she said. “That’s the bad boy in you I love.”
She kept reading from the review: “Oozing in neo-Peckinpah bloodletting, Shoot Mom misfires on all levels: sociologically insipid and colossally dunderheaded, the only use for this piece of digital mush would be as punishment for the viewer. As for the actors, only Charlie Sheen nails his cameo as the Menendez father. It’s as if he’d been practicing this fall for many years.”
“Oh, I love that last part,” Delisha giggled. “I also saw your interview with Robert Redford. So who is he again?”
Ryan often forgot she was only born in 1994. “Robert Redford was a big movie star when he began Sundance, sort of the Brad Pitt of his day. He became a poster boy when he did Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid. Redford played the Sundance Kid and Paul Newman played Butch.”
“Paul Newman, I’ve heard that name, ” Delisha said.
“You eat salads all the time. You’ve probably heard about him from Newman’s Own, the salad dressing,” Ryan noted.
“Is he the same guy who makes the spaghetti sauce?”
“Yup, and he gives all the profits to charity,” Ryan added.
“I just texted my grandma that you had interviewed Robert Redford, and I got this message back,” Delisha said. “One word. ‘Hubble.’ Do you know what that means?”
Ryan grinned. “Your grandma loved his movie The Way We Were.”
“He must be dope,” Delisha smiled.
Ryan and Delisha left the room and headed for the Egyptian Theater. The festival volunteers with their latest tech headsets and Sundance jackets herded the moviegoers into a line that stretched around the corner and down a brick alleyway.
“Are all these people really going to a movie on a Sunday morning?” Delisha asked.
“They certainly are. This one’s about fracking,” Ryan said.
Ryan laughed. “Not fucking, fracking. Like in natural gas. If it was about fucking, the line would stretch to the Mormon Temple.
“Gotta go get ready for the fashion show. Shake my ski stilettos.”
She blew him a kiss. Ryan gazed after her. As she hurried along, all the men’s heads turned to check her out. Probably gay fashionistas admiring her turquoise pants, Ryan surmised. He still had his sense of humor.
A woman tapped Ryan on the shoulder. He flinched. “Oh, I’m sorry to scare you, Mr. Cromwell. I recognized you from when you were on TV in Cannes. I hope you can come to see my film here.” She handed Ryan a one-sheet of an eight-minute movie. “It’s in the shorts, and we’re screening it out at Kimball Junction by the Olympic ski jump.”
“Thank you, I’ll consider it,” Ryan said.
Someone else thrust a flyer into his hand and trudged off. Ryan started to crumple it up, but stopped. On it was a message pieced together from magazine letter cut-outs. “Do not tell anyone about our business arrangement, or we will kill your pretty girlfriend.”
Ryan looked for the person who had handed him the flyer but the streets were too congested. He peered at the note again. His hands trembled, “Business arrangement"? More like bribe. Now murder.
He edged his way down the sidewalk and brushed past the hordes of festivalgoers and tourists and approached the Big Clock that stood in a rest stop between businesses. He made his way toward Swede Alley, skipped past a slush puddle and started to cross. A festival shuttle bus almost ran him over and blared its horn. He leaped back and breathed in deeply.
He made it to the other side. A woman’s sudden shriek jerked him to attention. Was that Delisha? Suddenly, TV reporters and cameramen rushed towards him. Ryan threw out his arms to keep them away, but they pushed past to swarm around a black Range Rover. Ryan craned his neck and saw Matt Damon emerging from the vehicle. The actor had been an executive producer on the fracking documentary about to be screened.
Ryan realized he would have to make like Jason Bourne if he was going to survive this Sundance Film Festival.
This story first posted here on January 18, 2017.