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It may have been Sundance Film Festival’s 25th Anniversary, but 2006 was my first visit. Although I’d never been there myself, I felt like I had, since I’ve seen so many articles, news clips and photos of the star-studded, snow-covered event for years. But no matter how prepared I thought I was, I wasn’t. I was actually stunned by the cold air, the blue sky, and the organized chaos that is the Sundance experience.

Robert Redford might not have really understood what was about to happen when he founded the tiny Sundance Film Festival in 1979. Called the “USA Film Festival” at the time, it was devoted to small, serious movies, most never to be seen again. Journalists were greeted at the airport by Festival officials, and Main Street was a quaint and quiet old west thoroughfare. How things have changed!

Now, Main Street is full of stars and their handlers, the spinners, and the manipulators, most talking earnestly into their cell phones (dinner plans or a deal?) or text messaging on their blackberries. During my first visit to Main Street, a man standing next to me called out to a tall, dark-haired girl passing by, and as she turned he said, “I want to introduce you to Bill. He just bought your movie.” “Oh hi,” she responded, holding out her hand, enthusiastically blase?. A few minutes later, there was sudden chaos as I was engulfed by a gaggle of papparazzi, “Paris,” they were yelling, “Paris,” over here, as they chased Ms. Hilton and two friends who looked exactly like her down the street. As I tried to disengage from the scene, I noticed Rob Lowe creep by, keeping his head down, going gratefully unnoticed.

It’s not like Mr. Redford hasn’t noticed the change. After all, Sundance has spread from a tiny gathering of film purist and critics, to an extravaganza taking place not only in Park City, but also Salt Lake City, Ogden, and the Sundance Resort, that accommodates massive amounts of people. As he recently told Newsweek magazine, “To the outside world, it’s a big fat market where you have people like Paris Hilton going to parties. Now, she doesn’t have anything to do with anything. I think the festival is close to being out of control,” he lamented.

It’s clear that things have changed in 25 years, but out of control, I don’t think so. In spite of the sold-out screenings, the 2-hour waits for a dinner table, the crowds on Main Street, and journalists, filmmakers and distributors camped out like sardines in overpriced condos and hotels, everyone seemed, for the most part, happy. Except for a small snag in getting my credentials when I fist arrived, I was pretty happy too.

It finally dawned on me while sitting one afternoon on a free public bus that takes you from place to place, squeezed in next to a tall, blonde skier on one side, and a group of rowdy teenage snowboarders on the other. I watched as the sun was setting on the snow-capped mountain above me, gold and blue melding over the snow-white mountain.. Meanwhile, animated talk of “Kinky Boots” and “Cargo” drifted within earshot from the front of the bus, a true Sundance moment. I was really here!”

Of course, the real reason I was there was to see films, and plenty of them. As the Entertainment Editor of Dishmag, and a veteran sponsor of the Nashville Film Festival, I was anxious to finally get a head start on seeing some of the influential films that premiere at Sundance and will, as always, spread across the country in the course of the months following.

I got up early my first day there, and crept out of my crowded condo in the pre-dawn light, in an effort not to awaken my many sleeping condo-mates. My destination was a 9 am press screening of “Lucky Number Slevin,” a delectable murder mystery starring Bruce Willis as the mysterious but deadly assassin Mr. Goodkat, Josh Hartnett as Slevin, Lucy Liu as Lindsey, Slevin’s forensic pathologist neighbor, and Morgan Freeman and Ben Kingsley as feuding mob bosses. Revolving around a horse, a murder, and the “Kansas City Shuffle,” I dare you to figure it all out before the surprise ending. With it’s off-beat story, the clever directing of Paul McGuigen, and the star studded cast, “Lucky Number Slevin” was a great start for my Sundance experience.

Lucky me! The next screening in the same theatre just happened to be the delightful “Kinky Boots,” the opening film at the Salt Lake City Gala. This comedy is based on the surprising true story of Steve Bateman, a young Englishman who inherited the family business, a 100 year-old men’s shoe factory, sliding determinedly into hard financial times. In a last ditch effort to save the company, Bateman hires a cross-dressing female impersonator to design flashy, funky, thigh-high PVC boots for fetishists, transvestites and other lovers of outrageous male footwear. And suddenly, out-of-the-blue, the little Northern England factory is transformed into a high-fashion success. When producers Nick Barone and Suzanne Machie of Harbour Pictures read this underdog story of unlikely triumph in the British papers, they thought it would make a great movie, and set out to acquire the rights.

Playing Charlie Price, the Steve Bateman character in the film is Australian actor Joel Edgerton (“Star Wars, Episode 3”), and in a rousing comedic turn, Chiwetel Ejiofor (“Dirty Pretty Things”), is the tender/tough female impersonator Lola, who inspires Charlie’s new line of boots describing them as “2 1/2 feet of irresistible tubular sex.” “It was a part that really spoke to me, in the sense that she is this conflicted person who is at once sweet and determined, sassy and sexy. From the minute I put on the wig, I realized I was really going to enjoy playing her.”

“Dude, I just saw Jennifer Aniston” was the clarion call of star-spotters on Main Street, but it was most likely untrue since Aniston, who did attend both the festival and the premiere of her starrer “Friends With Money” made herself extremely scarce, eschewing the red carpet for a quick dash from limo to screening room. Still, “Friends With Money” caused its own stir at the opening night Park City Gala.

“Friends With Money” examines the shifting relationships between four women who have been friends since childhood. Now, as they settle into early middle age, their friendship becomes challenged by the ever-increasing disparity in their individual degrees of financial comfort. The result is a funny but deeply disturbing look at today’s obsession with material things, and its effect on that most ephemeral of god’s gifts-friendship.

The three friends with money, Franny, happy and rich (Joan Cusak), Jane, an angry but successful fashion designer with a chilld (Frances McDormand), and Christine, an unhappily married screenwriter (Catherine Keener), share a concern for the very single Olivia (Jennifer Aniston) who has lost her job as a teacher, and is working as the unimaginable-a maid, cleaning people’s houses. To get by, Olivia also accepts hand-outs from her friends, and does a little stealing on the side. Directed by the amazing Nicole Holofcener (“Lovely and Amazing”), “Friends With Money” confronts issues that all of us face, but would rather ignore. It’s tough growing older and realizing that what “might be” has become, when you weren’t looking, “what if.”

Later that day, I decided to stop by to see “Awesome: I Fuckin’ Shot That” (I’ve noticed that since Sundance, the F word has been removed from the title), a fascinating experiment in documentary filmmaking. Before a Beastie Boys concert in 2004, 50 movie cameras were handed out to audience members sitting in different sections of New York’s Madison Square Garden. They were directed to film whatever interested them, and to turn in the cameras at the end of the show. “Director” Horatio Hornblower (better know to Beastie Boys fans as Mike Yauch, then spent a year editing the different takes into one cohesive film, pushing the boundaries of traditional music “performance” films. With the added zest of colorful special-effects, and a unexpected sequence of white-tuxedo clad Beastie Boys performing an R&B segment of the show, the whole thing was most entertaining, giving a viewer the impression of what it was like to actually be there.

After the screening, I had a chance to talk to the “Boys” along with other journalists, at a press conference set up in a small red tent set on a snowy mountainside. Monster heat blowers helped keep everyone at least somewhat warm.(CLICK HERE to read our interview with the Beastie Boys.)

Click On The Arrow Below For More Sundance / Issue 52 - September 5800
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