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Sundance Kicks Off With F-Bombs and Sympathy for the Rich

Film Festival brings snow and stars to Park City; opening-night slate showcases Melanie Lynskey and some really rich people

The Sundance Film Festival, said founder Robert Redford from the stage of the Eccles Theatre on Thursday night, is "like a bullet train ripping through Park City for 10 days."

If so, the bullet train isn't quite up to speed yet.

Robert RedfordTraffic is snarled, hotels are full and snow is falling, but Thursday's opening-night offering of four features and one shorts program was a low-key way to start things off, with likeable movies but caution in the air for now.

"I think it's pretty obvious we're in a period of tremendous change," said Redford when he took the stage to introduce the evening's first film, Lauren Greenfield's documentary "The Queen of Versailles."

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"Some people fight it, and some people embrace it. We can see the people who fight it, and we see what they're doing. But we embrace it."

He talked about the dramatic changes in Sundance over the last 28 years, and about how the fuss surrounding the event can be distracting.

"Sometimes the point of who we are and why we're here gets blurry," he said. "We are about the independent filmmaker… We should keep focused on the fact that this is about the filmmakers and about the work."

On Thursday, that work began with "The Queen of Versailles," which Greenfield described as "a movie about dreams, both collective and individual, and what happens when things go wrong."

Jackie SiegelIn her film, those dreams are astonishingly grandiose: The director spent years following timeshare mogul David Siegel and his wife Jackie, who lived a life of unimaginable opulence even before they decided to build the biggest single-family house in the United States, a 90,000-square-foot Florida palace inspired by Versailles.

The Siegels are fascinating and often astounding characters, with David bragging that he was personally responsible for the election of George W. Bush, though he won't say how "because it might not have been legal." And with her clearly sizeable plastic surgery budget and unfathomable spending sprees, former beauty queen Jackie – who was in the audience at Sundance – takes "Real Housewives" excess to an unbelievable level.

When the crash of 2008 happened, the Siegels took a huge hit, and construction halted on the palace while the family tried to live within its means. (At one point, Jackie rents a car from Hertz and asks the dumfounded clerk, "What's the name of my driver?")

David Siegel sued Greenfield and Sundance over a press-release description that said his house was foreclosed; the suit is ongoing, and Greenfield quickly deflected a question about it in the post-screening Q&A. (In the film, David says the bank "started foreclosure" on the property, and Jackie later says, "I didn't know the house was in foreclosure.")

In today's climate, it's tricky to try to make the 99 percent feel sorry for the one percent, which is what "The Queen of Versailles" tries to do at times. But it's a tragic story about an all-too-common occurrence, albeit on a spectacular level, and the filmmaker has a great eye for telling (and often damning) details.

The day's other early-evening film was the Australian drama "Wish You Were Here," which picked up some good buzz, particularly for the lead performance by Joel Edgerton.

It was followed at the Library Center Theatre by the documentary "Searching for Sugar Man" – while back at the Eccles, actor-turned-director Todd Louiso debuted "Hello, I Must Be Going," a charming, funny showcase for actress Melanie Lynskey as a young divorcee forced to move back in with her parents.

The film is "a coming-of-age story for an adult," said screenwriter Sarah Koskoff afterwards, while Louiso said that one of the best things about making the film was that "everybody involved with it said yes right away, from Blythe [Danner, who plays Lynskey's mother] to our best boy, Kevin Bacon – and his name is  Kevin Bacon."

Melanie LynskeyIn the film, Lynskey manages to be sweet and wounded even though many of her best lines contain virtuosic and varied uses of the F-word; she's been good before, but "Hello, I Must Be Going" is the best showcase she's had since Peter Jackson's "Heavenly Creatures," her first movie, which she made as a teenager.

While Redford had kicked off the festivities at the Eccles, it fell to Park City mayor Dana Williams to do the honors before "Hello, I Must Be Going." He started with a joke about being Redford's "sloppy seconds," to which festival director John Cooper responded, 'Hello, my life."

He then mentioned a bill passed last year by the Utah legislature that officially disavowed the idea of climate change. Since then, he said, it had not snowed in Park City – until this week, as out-of-state visitors came to town.

"Now we have the largest collection of heathens, and you've broken the spell!" he said. "So thank you."

Perhaps that was what Redford was thinking about a few hours earlier, when he concluded his own remarks.

"I would only say one more thing," said Redford at the end of his opening-night speech. "While you're here, be careful crossing the street."

After all, you never know when that bullet train will pick up speed.