Diversity in play as Sundance Film Festival kicks off in Park City

23 Jan 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Nina Simone documentary a powerful portrait of the artist.

Through archival footage and interviews with her family, closest confidants and collaborators, Nina Simone comes to life again — still enigmatic but more easily understood — in the new documentary “What Happened, Miss Simone?” which premiered Thursday night at the Sundance Film Festival. Before a single film had officially been shown at Sundance, the market was already heating up with five high-profile titles already off the table or in a position to sell.

A classically trained pianist, accidental singer, passionate activist and often-lost soul, Simone’s many facets are illuminated in the film by director Liz Garbus, whose first film played at Sundance 16 years ago. A lot has changed since those humble beginnings — the event now takes over Park City and has stretched into Salt Lake City — but Redford says change is what keeps the festival relevant. Variety has confirmed that A24 is in pursuit of “End of the Tour,” starring Jason Segel as David Foster Wallace and Jesse Eisenberg as a Rolling Stone journalist interviewing him. PARK CITY, UTAH—The Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris this month was “a wake-up” for people who believe in freedom of expression, Sundance founder Robert Redford says.

Though it has long outgrown its original venue, Sundance remains true to its mission of showcasing the work of emerging artists and experimental approaches that exist outside the Hollywood mainstream. ‘‘The festival was meant to use change to underline the word diversity, and diversity is something I think moves the ball, and that’s something I think we represent,’’ Redford said at the festival’s opening-day news conference. ‘‘That comes out of change. Two weeks ago, Fox Searchlight picked up Noah Baumbach’s “Mistress America.” Magnolia landed “Results,” a comedy starring Guy Pearce as a personal trainer.

As things change, the filmmakers here roll with it, and their films show how change is affecting the life we live and the society that we’re in.’’ Though he always blasts the ‘‘ambush marketers’’ who take over the town’s Main Street with gift suites, sponsored showrooms, and celebrity hangouts, Redford said he’s gratified by the festival’s continued growth. Lionsgate bought “Don Verdean,” a comedy that mixes archaeology and religion from the creators of “Napoleon Dynamite,” and Relativity Sports scooped the documentary “In Football We Trust,” which focuses on football in Salt Lake City’s Polynesian community.

It’s not exclusive to Paris,” said Redford, 78, answering a questioner who sought his reaction to the recent slayings of Charlie Hebdo cartoonists by Muslim extremists angered by the magazine’s artistic provocations. “That was a sad event. Still known then by her given name, Eunice Waymon, she is shown walking across the train tracks that separated whites from blacks in her North Carolina hometown to reach the teacher’s home. More than 12,000 submissions from around the globe were culled to the 118 feature-length documentary and narrative films featured during the 10-day event this year. ‘‘We’re really seeing a lift in the quality [of independent film],’’ said festival director John Cooper. ‘‘I think the wild ride of the festival is going to be felt by the audiences.’’ ‘‘That was not my idea,’’ he said, adding that he has not been involved in film selection for the festival since its inception, for fear of appearing self-promotional. ‘‘And I also said at that time, just to make sure, I don’t ever think that anything I do should be in the festival. Eunice Waymon dreamed of becoming the first black classical pianist in the United States, and she saw herself at Carnegie Hall — until she was denied admittance to the Curtis Institute of Music because of her race.

But an already robust market could grow even stronger on opening night if “The Bronze,” a raunchy comedy about washed-up gymnasts, lives up to its pre-festival hype. John went out of bounds.’’ Other highlights at the festival include Redford’s appearance alongside George Lucas at a Power of Story panel set to stream live on the Sundance website, and James Franco, in his first appearances since ‘‘The Interview”/Sony hack scandal, has three films in Park City — two at Sundance and one at the concurrent, even-more-indie festival, Slamdance. Several prominent distributors have already expressed interest in the picture, and their acquisitions teams will be amply represented in the packed crowd at the Eccles Theatre on Thursday night.

Funny folks Jack Black and Sarah Silverman take dramatic turns in feature films, Bobcat Goldthwait premieres a documentary about comic Barry Crimmins, and comedian Tig Notaro stars in her own documentary, ‘‘Tig.’’ Other starry offerings include: ‘‘Z for Zachariah,’’ in which Margot Robbie believes she’s the last woman on Earth, until she discovers Chris Pine and Chiwetel Ejiofor; ‘‘Sleeping With Other People,’’ starring Jason Sudeikis and Alison Brie; the gambling drama ‘‘Mississippi Grind,’’ starring Ryan Reynolds, Brie, and Alfre Woodard; ‘‘Lila & Eve’’ with Jennifer Lopez and Viola Davis; ‘‘Slow West’’ with Michael Fassbender; and the closing-night film, ‘‘Grandma,’’ starring Lily Tomlin. And that’s how it is with the films. “You’ll see a lot of films here that are going to upset other people,” Redford continued, dressed as usual in denim attire reminiscent of his Sundance Kid gunslinger character from the movies, but also sporting professorial spectacles. “But that’s OK. All this activity is in marked contrast to last year’s festival, when the biggest sale — Roadside Attraction’s acquisition of “The Skeleton Twins” — netted only $3.5 million.

It also comes on the heels of a fairly tepid Toronto Film Festival market (where one of the biggest selling titles, “She’s Funny That Way,” wasn’t even an official selection). It seems that modest results for recent top-selling festival titles like “Top Five” and “Begin Again” have done nothing to dissuade would-be buyers. This weekend will also bring the premiere of Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, an insider’s account of the controversial Scientology religion. Other hot docs here will cover the shooting of a black youth by a white man who objected to his rap music (Marc Silver’s 3½ Minutes); the accelerating extinction of various species around the world (Louie Psihoyos’s Racing Extinction); and the potential of unchecked social media to deceive and hurt people in unforeseen ways (Sophie Deraspe’s The Amina Profile). Redford said that one reason he brought Sundance to Park City more than 30 years ago, originally showing films in just one movie house, the funky Egyptian Theatre that hosted Thursday’s press conference, was because he wanted to give filmmakers a respite from the madness of the world. “We brought it here in the mountains because … they would be free, they would feel like there’s a safe place outside of where the action is, so to speak.” I asked him if he ever gets impatient waiting for meaningful change.

So many of the films of Sundance 2015 dig deep into issues that have long bedevilled humanity. “Since change, I think, is inevitable and it’s happening, sometimes I find myself a little bit ahead of it, wishing it were happening faster.

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