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Pedro Pascal and Kristen Stewart lead stars to Sundance fest

Movie stars and indie darlings from Pedro Pascal and Kristen Stewart to Richard Linklater and Steven Soderbergh were headed to the mountains of Utah on Thursday for the 40th edition of the Sundance film festival.

Co-founded by Robert Redford, and held in sub-zero temperatures at an altitude of 7,000 feet (2,150 meters), Sundance will host premieres for many of the coming year’s most anticipated independent films, AFP reports.

The festival also showcases dozens of new documentaries, with topics ranging from artificial intelligence and the future of US democracy, to LGBTQ issues and Japan’s belated #MeToo movement.

While some films, like Lionel Richie’s music doc “The Greatest Night in Pop” and Laura Linney dramedy “Suncoast,” have already secured releases with top studios like Netflix and Disney, most hope to find distributors at the festival — a key dealmaking forum for Hollywood and beyond.

“I hope we get distribution with somebody who will allow it to play in the theater first, and then streaming,” said June Squibb, the 94-year-old star of “Thelma,” a buzzy opening-night action-comedy billed as a geriatric version of the “Mission: Impossible” films.

Also set for Thursday night is Pascal’s “Freaky Tales,” which tells a series of interconnected stories unfolding on the same day in 1987 Oakland, encompassing teen punks, Nazi skinheads, a rap battle and an NBA All-Star.

Former “Twilight” star Stewart has a pair of movies among Sundance’s 85 world premieres that director of programming Kim Yutani predicted will be “two of the most talked-about films at the festival.”

“Love Lies Bleeding” portrays a violent and criminal affair between a gym manager and a bisexual bodybuilder.

“Love Me,” also starring Steven Yeun, is mysteriously billed as the online romance between “a buoy and a satellite” in a post-human world.

Elsewhere, Jesse Eisenberg will direct himself and Kieran Culkin as two mismatched cousins visiting their grandmother’s Polish homeland in “A Real Pain.”

Saoirse Ronan gives a hotly tipped performance in “The Outrun” as an alcoholic who returns from London to the wild beauty of Scotland’s Orkney Islands to heal.

And Sundance favorites Soderbergh and Linklater return to Park City with their latest projects. The former has a creepy suburban drama starring Lucy Liu (“Presence”), while the latter offers a portrait of his hometown in documentary series “God Save Texas.”

– ‘Excited but scared’ –

Several documentaries in this year’s lineup tackle artificial intelligence — a polarizing topic in the film world.

Fears that AI could replace writers, actors and other professions were a key driver of last year’s Hollywood strikes.

But “Love Machina” examines the positive impacts of a technology that could “make death optional” — at least, in the view of a couple who plan to keep their love alive forever by uploading their memories, thoughts and dreams into an AI-powered humanoid robot.

Director Peter Sillen said he felt “fortunate” that the Sundance premiere of his film, in development since 2017, has coincided with “public awareness of AI and large language models just exploding onto the scene in the last year.”

A darker perspective is offered by “Eternal You,” which delves into the murky, booming world of startups that offer bereaved customers a chance to chat to AI avatars constructed from memories of their deceased loved ones — but not without consequences.

Elsewhere, Will Ferrell take a cross-country road trip with a close friend of 30 years who is coming out as a trans woman in “Will & Harper,” a new documentary about “friendship, transition, and America.”

Shiori Ito, the Japanese journalist who became a leader of the country’s movement to reform sexual violence laws after she accused a prominent TV reporter of rape, directs a documentary about her battle for justice in the face of shadowy misogynistic forces.

“I’m excited, but at the same time I’m very scared,” she said, of the film’s Saturday premiere.

“I don’t know what to expect, but this is America, so I hope I can connect with people who will also share their experiences.”

And a special world premiere of documentary “War Game” will allow audiences to watch as real-life US spy chiefs, defense officials and politicians conduct an unscripted role-play exercise in which they must handle a political coup after a contested presidential election.

In an election year, “it’s certainly unsettling, in the pit of my stomach the entire time, knowing that the games can be very close to reality,” said Eugene Hernandez, Sundance’s new festival director.

Sundance runs from Thursday through to January 28.