Sundance Film Festival's edge just slightly dulled

Last year's Sundance turnout topped 20,000. This year's event � which gets under way tonight in Salt Lake City with the world premiere of "The Laramie Project" with Steve Buscemi and Christina Ricci, and runs through Jan. 20 in Park City, Utah � is already a victim of Hollywood paranoia and belt-tightening. Organizers say there will be more security, and fewer studio reps trudging among the at-times makeshift venues, which include two hotel conference rooms and a library auditorium.

But what of the 113 features? Sundance prides itself on being "out there," cutting-edge and all that. Remember, this is the festival that, over the years, introduced us to "sex, lies & videotape," "Reservoir Dogs," "The Blair Witch Project" and, last year, the hotly debated "L.I.E.," with Brian Cox as your friendly neighborhood pederast.

"That's an interesting question," muses longtime Sundance programmer John Cooper. "There isn't as much violence this year. After 'Reservoir Dogs,' there was an overabundance of violence. But that wore itself out. This year's crop certainly crosses taboo borders, but in more clever ways."

Cooper gives this some more thought, then remembers "The Kid Stays in the Picture," an entry based on the narcissistic memoir of producer Robert ("Chinatown") Evans. "It's just out there. But 'out there' is refreshing. I mean, even if it's bad or in bad taste ... at least it's something. It's raw!"

This could very well be the rallying cry for Sundance, founded by Robert Redford in 1985 as an alternative to formulaic studio pap. The irony, which is hardly lost on organizers: Industry insiders and Hollywood distributors make the annual pilgrimage to Sundance to get a jump on next year's trends.

Among those representing offbeat projects at this year's gathering: Javier Bardem, John Malkovich, Jennifer Aniston (accompanied by husband Brad Pitt), Mariah Carey, Juliette Lewis, Jodie Foster, Robin Williams and Oscar winner Benicio Del Toro, recipient of this year's Piper-Heidsieck Tribute (awarded Sunday).

Among titles generating early buzz:

� "Storytelling." The new Todd Solondz comedy won't disappoint fans of "Welcome to the Dollhouse" and "Happiness." This is Solondz taking on critics who have called his work depraved, sexist and racist. He responds in-kind with a grimly funny two-part narrative that, to the uninitiated, will seem depraved, sexist and racist.

� "Human Nature." The new comedy by "Being John Malkovich" writer Charlie Kaufman is about the birds, the bees and doing what comes unnaturally. Tim Robbins stars as the world's most anal scientist, with nature-buffs Patricia Arquette and Rhys Ifans as his less-than-willing guinea pigs.

� "Sister Helen." The unforgettable subject of this documentary is a Benedictine nun who runs a South Bronx halfway house for recovering addicts and alcoholics. The twist: Sister Helen Travis is herself a recovering alcoholic who swears like a Marine and dispenses tough love like a crack-alley Mother Teresa. It's an early favorite for the best-doc award.

� "Coastlines." Victor Nunez ("Ruby in Paradise," "Ulee's Gold") returns with his most commercial film yet, a muted thriller about a guy (Josh Brolin) who comes home to even old scores � and loses his heart (to Sarah Wynter) in the bargain.

� "The Good Girl." A very different-looking Jennifer Aniston, sans makeup, plays a blue-collar wife who hooks up with a young stranger (Jake Gyllenhaal) who appears to be the answer to her prayers � and an escape from an abusive husband.

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