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Last Updated: Thursday, 17 January 2008, 08:20 GMT
Sundance's Hollywood and indie mix

By Tom Brook
Park City, Utah

Colin Farrell in In Bruges
Hitman film In Bruges, starring Colin Farrell, launches the festival
While the Hollywood writers' strike has overshadowed many showbiz events, it may bring a lift to the Sundance Film Festival which kicks off on Thursday.

Some top distributors, anxious to maintain a roster of films should the strike drag on, are arriving in Park City, Utah in an acquisitive mood.

Hollywood's stockpile remains considerable, but buyers will be on the prowl looking for independent pictures with commercial potential.

It has become a sellers' market, which is good news for film-makers en route to the festival angling for distribution deals.

There are no precise figures, but it is estimated that some 50,000 festival-goers will be heading for this Utah ski resort.

Selling out

Among them are major stars, film-makers, journalists, publicists and assorted others who will play out their assigned roles.

Sundance is routinely accused of selling out to mainstream Hollywood interests.

But the 11-day extravaganza, founded by Robert Redford, is still viewed as the world's premiere showcase for independent cinema.

In Bruges - a picture with both a British and Irish pedigree - is the high-profile opening night Park City film.

Robert Redford
Robert Redford is the founder of the 'alternative' festival

It stars Ralph Fiennes, Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson and is the first full-length feature from Irish playwright Martin McDonagh.

Farrell and Gleeson play eccentric hitmen ordered to visit the Belgian city while awaiting instructions from their malevolent boss, played by Fiennes.

It is being sold as Farrell's film, and the Irish actor does deliver quite nicely with his portrayal of a violent and vulnerable hit man in this absurd twisted dark comedy.

But it is Fiennes who gives a truly memorable performance as a rage-filled British gangster with no mercy when it comes to terminating human life.

Other big names with films at the festival include Sean Penn, Bruce Willis, Robert De Niro, Steve Coogan, Bill Murray, Kirsten Dunst, Anjelica Huston and Jack Black.

British talent at Sundance includes Sir Ben Kingsley, who plays a psychiatrist with a liking for marijuana in The Wackness, and director James Marsh, who is promoting his film Man on Wire.

Controversial subjects

Many of the works being shown at Sundance remain a mystery. Of the 125 features being presented, 51 come from relatively unknown film-makers who have never been to Sundance.

It is not easy to identify a trend among this year's crop of films. But many of the pictures look at social issues through personal experiences.

By contrast, some of last year's films were more objective attempts to address controversial subjects, including the war in Iraq.

Whatever the frustrations, Sundance can be truly inspiring

The big question remains how many of this year's Sundance offerings will see the light of day beyond Park City.

In the past some big hits have emerged, most spectacularly the Oscar-winning hit Little Miss Sunshine, which premiered at the festival in 2006.

Last year's festival yielded few films that maintained a profile beyond Sundance or made a stack of money.

John Cusack's war-themed Grace is Gone won Sundance prizes and a distribution deal at the festival, but netted a miserable sum at the US box office.

Sundance veterans complain relentlessly that the festival is not what it used to be, saying it is hard to negotiate a sprawling event which often suffers from the cold and heavy traffic.

The cast of Little Miss Sunshine
Oscar winner Little Miss Sunshine was first aired at Sundance

Many purists also resent the presence of businesses who have absolutely nothing to do with independent cinema and come to town to cash in on the proceedings.

But whatever the frustrations, Sundance can be truly inspiring.

Among the offerings, there are without fail some wondrous films - even though they may have no commercial viability.

There is also a palpable camaraderie among Sundance attendees. It represents a coming-together for indie film-makers who are geographically dispersed and often work in isolation.

The festival will provide a protective bubble for the film industry as the uncertainty of the writers' strike continues.

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