Los Angeles Times

Snowball effect in Park City

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

It's big and it's getting bigger. It's powerful and it's looking to expand its reach. The Sundance Film Festival has been accused of many things, but resting comfortably on its accomplishments is not one of them.

With the latest edition of this burgeoning enterprise set to open Thursday night with Don Roos' tart "Happy Endings," Sundance shows no sign of getting less popular, of being any less of what the Hollywood Reporter calls "a must for media, celebrities, corporate entities and voyeurs," with the occasional filmmaker thrown into the mix.

The fest's 120 features, more than two-thirds world premieres, were chosen from 2,613 submissions, almost double the 1,325 that applied but six years ago. And a whopping 761 features fought to be one of the 16 selected for Sundance's signature section, the dramatic competition.

With the competitive model clearly working so well, the festival has decided to expand on it. This year will mark the debut of world cinema dramatic and world cinema documentary contests to parallel the categories on the domestic front.

Needing to cope with the hoards of out-of-towners eager for tickets, Sundance has also added a new venue. The Park City Racquet Club, the traditional site of the festival's closing-night ceremony, will become a 700-seat theater every day of the week.

Sundance will also add two new kinds of events to a schedule that already includes everything from panel discussions to live music. Artist Luke Savisky will use nontraditional film projection to transform a room into "a completely immersive cinematic experience." And visiting speakers such as writer Rebecca Solnit, critic Elvis Mitchell and distribution guru John Pierson (the subject of the amiable "Reel Paradise" about his year in Fiji) will be giving lectures in something called Film Church.

Also part of the on-site entertainment are the Paris Hilton-esque quasi-celebrities who have apparently added Park City in January to their winter itineraries. An enclave dedicated to the care and feeding of this delicate breed has been set up at an area called the Village at the Lift.

Here "invited guests" and those on "a select list" can shop at Fred Segal, go online at the Yahoo Cafe, drink either Heineken, "the official beer of the Village at the Lift," or Crown Royal, its "official spirit sponsor." Who could've predicted the independent world would end up like this?

For those who still insist Sundance has something to do with film, the festival has divided its riches into the usual categories, including Frontiers for experimental films, such as William Greaves' "Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take 2 1/2," and Park City at Midnight for provocative items, such as Michael Winterbottom's hard-core "9 Songs."

Speaking of hard-core, Sundance's Premieres section, where films with recognizable names attached mostly find themselves, includes "Inside Deep Throat," an engrossing documentary by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato about that 1972 show-all sensation.

A top attraction in this section is Rebecca Miller's "The Ballad of Jack and Rose." An artfully disturbing film about the relationship between a cranky utopian, the last man standing in a former commune, and his young daughter, "Jack and Rose" takes full advantage of Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role, Camilla Belle as his daughter and Catherine Keener as the other woman in his life.

Sundance takes pride in keeping its dramatic competition focused on films from youthful directors, so these films are often the hardest to handicap.

Looking potentially promising are "Forty Shades of Blue," with the veteran Rip Torn as a Sam Phillips-type music producer, and "The Squid and the Whale," the latest film by Noah Baumbach, whose debut, "Kicking and Screaming," is still fondly remembered.

In the documentary competition, special mention has to go to Dan Klores and Ron Berger's compelling "Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story," which uses potent interviews and a strong sense of drama to tell the back story of one of the most indelible moments in modern sports history, the 1962 boxing death at Griffith's hands of Benny "Kid" Paret.

Many of this year's competition documentaries have a political and/or social context to them, including "After Innocence," about the afterlife of men freed from prison by DNA evidence, and "Twist of Faith," about the afterlife of going public about clerical child abuse.

Other noteworthy docs include: "The Fall of Fujimori," the story of the quixotic career of Peru's ex-president, who went from a celebrated fighter against terrorism to an international fugitive, told with the subject's cooperation; "Why We Fight," a new work by Eugene Jarecki of "The Trials of Henry Kissinger" that explores the war in Iraq in the context of the needs of the military-industrial complex first described by President Eisenhower; "The Education of Shelby Knox," which shows what happens when a conservative Lubbock, Texas, teenager's search for knowledge turns her into "the Sex Ed Girl."

Though its tenor is completely different, "Romantico," Mark Becker's empathetic examination of the lives of a pair of Mexican mariachi singers in San Francisco, has an unmistakably soulful quality.

One of the best documentaries in Park City will not be at the Sundance festival but rather will serve as the opening-night film for longtime rival Slamdance. The irresistible "Mad Hot Ballroom," a kind of "Spellbound" crossed with "Strictly Ballroom," follows several groups of New York 11-year-olds as they learn the ins and outs of fancy stepping.

Also at Slamdance, which is heavy on documentaries this year, is "Commune," a clear-eyed look back at the heyday of the Black Bear Ranch commune in Siskiyou County, Calif., by articulate former members, including actor Peter Coyote.

Sundance has a pair of excellent dance documentaries of its own, but sadly neither one of them made it into the competition. "Ballets Russes" charmingly tracks down the still-agile senior citizens who were the mainstays of the legendary Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo and uses vintage footage to show them in their prime. And David LaChapelle's "Rize" examines the South-Central L.A. phenomenon of krumping, which combines dazzling high-energy dancing with clown makeup and paraphernalia.

Aside from Slamdance, at least two other Park City festivals, both of which started last year, will provide Sundance alternatives. The Freedom Cinema Festival, headquartered across from the Egyptian Theater, will showcase political documentaries. And the Park City Film Music Festival claims to be "the first film festival in the world singularly recognizing the contributions of composers and their music to film." A little hyperbole never hurt anyone. Especially not in Park City.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times