Pix with twists hot items

PARK CITY, Utah — Among the surprise films at this year’s Sundance Film Festival are pictures that challenge the conventions of melodrama, as distributors begin to circle around such pix as director-producer Tony Chan’s “Combination Platter,” director-screenwriter Victor Nunez’s “Ruby in Paradise,” director-producer David Williams’ “Lillian” and the Sally Kirkland starrer “Paper Hearts.”

Following a path cut by the 1992 theatrical releases of John Sayles’ “Passion Fish” and Robert Redford’s “A River Runs Through It,” the four pix are soft and personal in subject matter, yet take unconventional twists on their way to finale.

The pix generally contrast to other festival offerings, which include one of Sundance’s strongest documentary categories to date and the pyrotechnics of the Hong Kong Cinema.

Festival director Geoffrey Gilmore acknowledged that “Platter, “”Ruby””Lillian” and “Paper Hearts” are similar in that their emotional “payoffs are not exactly the way one expects.” He said the four pix fall under the rubric of melodrama because they deal with family and personal relationships,” but challenge what industry stalwarts in New York and Los Angeles typically key on in the genre.

For example, Hollywood’s typical take on melodrama is boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-finds-girl. But at this year’s Sundance, the independents have brought films that explore the melodramatic possibilities of such subjects as boy never meeting girl, girl never meeting boy and the dignity of the matriarch.

Offbeat fare

Already, the offbeat fare is being entertained by Sundance’s commercial contingent. Both “Lillian” and “Ruby” have reportedly generated bites from distributors, while a late Wednesday screening of “Combination Platter” had October Films partners Bingham Ray and Jeff Lipsky traveling off the beaten path to the screening.

It is rare for an actual distribution deal to close at Sundance, but the underpinnings of a transaction can often be put in place. Beyond the four melodramatic surprises, such pix as director Brian J. Singer’s “Public Access,” director Rob Weiss’ “Amongst Friends,” Columbia TriStar Home Video’s “20 Bucks” and “Boxing Helena” are also said to be solidly in play.

Gilmore said that Sundance’s effort “to build visibility for works outside of the competition” has also paid dividends, as such pix as Sony Pictures Classics’ “Orlando,” Miramax Films’ “Just Another Girl on the I.R.T.” and the well-traveled “Man Bites Dog” have helped “expand the sense of the possible” for independent filmmakers. He maintained that competition films will continue to be Sundance’s centerpiece, but only as a vehicle to enhance “a spiritual brethren” among the independent crowd.

Late yesterday, the focus of Sundance turned toward director-screenwriter Sam Shepard’s “Silent Tongue,””Three of Hearts” and “House of Cards,” which are among the last pictures to unspool in Park City.

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