Friday, 9 June 2017

SUNDANCE LONDON 2017

Bringing together a collection of films that impressed at Utah's finest film festival earlier this year, Sundance London is like a greatest hits version of the main festival, with the cream of the crop skimmed off and flown over the Atlantic. Sure, you miss out on a lot of the aspects that Sundance is known for, like oversized scarves and frostbite, but I'm okay with that. Plus, the whole event takes place at Picturehouse Central, which is definitely up there with the most beautiful cinemas in the country. I had arranged for myself a fairly meaty schedule of 11 films over 3 days, including a mammoth 5 films on the Saturday that would necessitate me skipping direct sunlight for the day. Sunavoidance, if you like.

The first film on my schedule was Marianna Palka's Bitch, about a married woman who de-evolves into a feral state when her life becomes too much of a dull routine. Directed by and starring Marianna Palka who also gave us Good Dick (it's hard to avoid innuendos when talking about her films), this film sees her re-unite with Good Dick co-star Jason Ritter, here starring as a boorish, unappreciative husband who finds his traditional gender role challenged when left to do all the things he took for granted. Like a 21st century Mr Mom, it's a much more absurdist, out there concept that misses the frission that the central relationship in Good Dick had, but was fun in a slightly Twilight Zone kind of way. Adding to that feeling was disorientation was the knowledge that Palka was seated directly behind me throughout the screening waiting for her Q&A, which doesn't half put you on edge when you're trying to critically appraise someone's film.

Continuing the Twilight Zone theme, next up was Marjorie Prime, a very thought provoking drama that wouldn't be out of place if it were an episode of Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror. Using holographic projections of lost loved ones to help people engage their minds and hopefully gain closure on events that have shaped their lives, it's an often sad drama about ageing and the fragility of memory that is set in one of those magnificent glass fronted beach house properties that you only see in films. Films about technology can come across as cold and sterile and Marjorie Prime is no exception, with the film's clear origins as a stage play adding to that disconnect. Still, it succeeds in its storytelling techniques, painting vivid pictures as it tries to evoke memories, with deliberately reserved performances from Geena Davis, Jon Hamm helped in no small part from a score co-produced by Under The Skin's Mica Levi.

Ending the first day of Sundance London was the surprise film, that through some clever reasoning I had narrowed down to two possibilities, Band Aid and Patti Cakes. Seated in the cinema waiting for the film to start, it turned out that my reasoning was sound as one of the off duty volunteers casually turned to me and told me what film it was going to be minutes before the credits began. Bearing in mind that I had never spoken to this guy before in my life, I chose to take his eagerness to share this information as a sign that the film was going to be a good one. And that it was.

Following the fortunes of wannabe rapper, Patricia "Killa P" Dombrovski, Patti Cakes is easily one of my favourites of the festival, and like The Greasy Strangler from last year's festival, it's one of those films that you want to help spread the word of as far and wide as possible. Desperate to free herself from the dead end job in a dive bar she has to help support her train wreck of a mother, Patti (Danielle Macdonald) yearns to follow her real passion in life, spitting rhymes with her best friend Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay). Forced to endure cruel taunts about her weight all her life (Dumbo and White Precious spring to mind), Patti engages in street corner rap battles that leave her victorious but with her nose bloodied. Desperate to make something with her life, she teams up with the musical wunderkind Basterd the Anarchist Anti-Christ, Jheri and her Nana to create a new sound that will rock the New Jersey suburbs. The bratty little sister of School of Rock and 8 Mile, it's impossible not to get swept up in a film as joyously eccentric as this. The film is getting a release from Fox Searchlight, and has enough charm that it has the real potential to become a crossover hit.

Onto Saturday, where I knew I would be seeing two films featuring the up and coming Lakeith Stanfield, who impressed in Short Term 12 and had a memorably hazy supporting role in Donald Glover's Atlanta. The first of his appearances today was in Crown Heights, winner of the Dramatic Award at Sundance. Now set to be released by Amazon Studios, Stanfield stars as Colin Warner, a man wrongfully convicted of murder in 1980 and forced to spend many years behind bars despite protesting his innocence.

I did have a couple of issues with the film, such as the repeated image of dejected phone calls between Colin and his friends on the outside bearing that most annoying of movie traits, no one saying goodbye before hanging up the phone. It sounds trivial (and it is), but there's so many interactions that end this way it becomes almost comical.

There are clear political connotations to his incarceration and the film shows us soundbites from Presidents Reagan, Bush and Clinton about their methods of combatting crime. What is missing from the film, particularly in a year when we have films like Ava DuVernay's 13th that highlight the issue, is an emphasis on how this is a reflection on Colin Warner being a black man, rather than an innocent man. The director made clear in his Q&A after the film that Warner's innocence was his focus, but it's hard to shake the feeling that a more pertinent story was there to be told. Stanfield's performance should be commended for its understated nature, as he believably embodies a man frustrated by a justice system that cannot provide justice for him.

The next film on the agenda was Walking Out, a modern day telling of a classic Montana short story, seemingly designed to teach the locals about respecting their unique habitat. Directed by twins Andrew and Alex Smith, the film stars Matt Bomer as a father trying to reconnect with his son by taking him on a hunting trip similar to the one his father took him on at the age of 14. I'll be honest that this was not a film I was expecting much from, but was pleasantly surprised by how moving it turned out to be. Once you have looked past Matt Bomer's impossible good looks to believe him as a man that lives near a mountain (he's like a supermodel cowboy), the film ventures out into the snowy wilderness to tell a story of father/son bonding that often rivals The Revenant for a bleak outlook on nature's will. I think it's best to go into this film knowing as little as possible, but let's just say that snow hits the fan and the pair are forced into a situation that they will have to fight to overcome. It's a solid performance from Bomer, but the bulk of the praise should go to his on-screen son Josh Wiggins, who often has to literally carry the story along.

The highlight of Saturday's line-up was a talk with director David Lowery ahead of the screening of his film Ain't Them Bodies Saints and the Sunday night screening of his new film, A Ghost Story, both starring Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck. Chaired by Empire Magazine's editor Terri White (who, it turns out, has excellent fashion sense), Lowery revealed how his career as a writer, director and editor has taken shape, starting with camcorder ghost stories he would film with his brothers to his time working on an excellently titled reality TV programme, Divorce Party. Deciding not to go to film school, his first script went through the Sundance Labs and although not making it all the way to completion, he decided he liked it enough to make it into his first feature film, Lullaby.

It was an honest and revealing chat, and Lowery was upfront about his cinematic influences (PTA and David Gordon Green rather than the often compared to Terrence Malick) and his move into the studio system when directing last year's Pete's Dragon, whilst also dropping into conversation at least twice that he was a vegan. This talk was followed by a screening of Ain't Them Bodies Saints which, although I have seen previously, got me really excited for what Sunday night's A Ghost Story might bring.

One thing that was apparent at this festival was the rise of the streaming giants, Netflix and Amazon, as major purchasers and distributors of content from Sundance. There were at least two films I saw with the Amazon Studios tag at the start, and one for Netflix; Saturday night's film, The Incredible Jessica James. The second of the day's films to feature LaKeith Stanfield (although in a much smaller role that Crown Heights), The Incredible Jessica James stars The Daily Show's Jessica Williams in the title role of a lively and spirited children's theatre teacher.

Now, there's certain things you expect from a Sundance film. Often they are weighty dramas that will become major players in awards season; often they are edgy comedies that may never be seen outside the walls of the festival. It's fair to say that The Incredible Jessica James defied expectations as this was one of the most straight forward but "subversive" romantic comedies I've seen in years, best described as Kimmy Schmidt meets Fleabag.

A bizarre blend of naughty language and inspirational life lessons for children, the film utilises fantasy scenarios for Jessica to make sense of her love life and her desire to reunite with her ex Damon (Stanfield) whilst also embarking on a new romance with recent divorcee Boone (a charming Chris O'Dowd). Now, I know I was just giving the film a kicking for being somewhat conventional, but it's perhaps a shame that the film wasn't just a straight romance between Williams and O'Dowd as they share undeniable chemistry together. It's just a shame there wasn't more of that and less of the children's theatre segments that portray Jessica James as an emotionally selfish brat, as it became incredibly difficult to reconcile the character's many foibles with the strong, forthright woman she was meant to be.

It was certainly well appreciated by most of the audience who got a lot of laughs from the film and Williams is someone who when given the right vehicle will be a major star, but personally it felt like less of a film and more of an extended pilot for a potential sitcom about life for a kooky MPDG in the big city, which given that Netflix already has Kimmy Schmidt is unlikely to happen.

Onto the last film of Saturday night going into Sunday morning, the second film of the day after The Incredible Jessica James to be set in the New York neighbourhood of Bushwick was the appropriately titled Bushwick. Knowing that the basic premise was "huge former wrestler battles terrorists" I was prepared for some midnight movie madness, introduced by the director as "a fucked up movie about New York on fire". Starring Brittany Snow (not a former wrestler) and Dave Bautista (a former wrestler), Bushwick sees Snow's Lucy team up with janitor and ex-special forces Stupe (Bautista) to make their way across town safely when an army of domestic terrorists descend on the borough and try to take it over.

Essentially Under Siege versus Cloverfield, like the latter film Bushwick is made up of series of long tracking shots blended together to appear like one long take. Well, mostly, as occasionally the film decides to ditch the gimmick for no apparent reason, only to return to it later. It's important to note that the handheld footage is not captured by a character's camera, but instead is a floating voyeur zooming in to collect gory detail when it's on offer. Before his rise to cinematic fame in the Guardians of the Galaxy films, Bautista had followed a number of ex-wrestlers into the slightly ropey, direct-to-video action genre. It's fair to say that Bushwick is of a higher calibre than those films, but only just. With its often ridiculous levels of violence and social commentary that will have you questioning whether the film is anti-military or pro-gun violence, its high concept will appeal to gamers and midnight movie fans alike.

After the screening of the film the Q&A was understandably cancelled due to the horrific attack that occurred on London Bridge and Borough Market. I most certainly don't want to make light of the tragic events that occurred in London on that night, but exiting a cinema into Piccadilly Circus and seeing the confusion on people's faces was a surreal experience I hope I never have to repeat.

Returning to Picturehouse Central on Sunday morning, it goes without saying that the mood was slightly different than it was the day before, but it was encouraging to see that an effort was being made by the city to carry on as usual. The first film of the day was  Beatriz at Dinner, a replay of the film that had opened the festival on Thursday night with a gala screening with star Salma Hayek in attendance. The story of masseuse Beatriz, who when her car breaks down is invited to have dinner with the upper middle class couple she knows, is a masterwork of social trauma that sees Hayek's spiritual character face off against a man who embodies everything she hates.

Miguel Arteta and Mike White excel at awkward social situations, although since their introductory film Chuck and Buck they have mostly played this for laughs; Youth in Revolt and Cedar Rapids spring to mind. Here, the tone has once again shifted darker; wholly appropriate considering the themes that are targeted here. Apart from Beatriz, the most central figure to this story is John Lithgow's hotel magnate Doug Strutt, a power hungry megalomaniac who, after asking Beatriz where she is from, sees no social boundaries in following up with, "where are you really from?".

Although White and Arteta have claimed that Donald Trump was not the target of the film (they were satirising the social set that holidaying dentists turned hunters were borne from), following his election this film has taken on a new meaning and a deeper resonance. Lithgow has always excelled at playing arch villains, but his Strutt is much more insidious man. Self aware whilst also being completely deluded, he boasts "I have opinions and because I have money people listen". It's a barnstorming performance from Lithgow that will enrage anyone who veers slightly to the left in the current political climate. This is a film about activism; about not sitting politely at the party while others openly mock your beliefs. It's a powerful and thought provoking film, and one that with any justice will earn Hayek some attention when awards season comes around.

The second film of my Sunday schedule was Michael Showalter's highly anticipated The Big Sick, starring Silicon Valley's Kumail Nanjiani and Ruby Sparks' Zoe Kazan. I'll prefix this review with the fact that I am a huge fan of Kazan's work, and despite being a self-confessed Manic Pixie Dream Girl apologist I thought her dissection of the character trope in Ruby Sparks was damn near spot on. Ditto the work of Michael Showalter who was one of the masterminds behind Wet Hot American Summer and its Netflix revival series, and who had recently found his dramatic layers in the Sally Field starring Hello, My Name is Doris and the excellent Alia Shawkat series Search Party.

I had avoided reading too much about this film as possible, including what the title was actually referring to, but knew this was based on Nanjiani's real life experience of meeting his wife Emily V. Gordon and the pressures of entering a relationship that was against what was expected from his family.

Nanjiani (playing a lightly fictionalised version of himself) is Kumail, an Uber driver who is pursuing a career in stand-up comedy and hoping to secure a place at the Montreal Comedy Festival. After being heckled by Emily (Kazan) at a gig they embark on a relationship that has everything either of them ever wanted, with the added wrinkle that his family assume he will accept an arranged marriage with one of the endless beautiful young Pakistani women his mother awkwardly invites around for dinner. It's refreshing to see a culture clash relationship so complex and conflicted, but it's important to make sure an appropriate amount of the kudos goes to Holly Hunter and Ray Romano as Emily's parents. It's hard to think of a film where the relationship with the potential future in laws is the most important aspect, but this is a film that values family connections more than even the Fast and Furious franchise.

It's been proven time and time again that the romantic comedy genre is able to inject some new and refreshing ideas, and The Big Sick is a perfect example of that. Yes, there's a formula that it follows to a certain degree, but as an immigrants story and a love story it works. It may be helped by the knowledge that it's based on his real life, but Nanjiani is an appealing presence on screen whose worldview is one that will hopefully find a wide audience.

The final film of the day and of the festival was also the most highly anticipated, especially after the Q&A from the day before; David Lowery's A Ghost Story. Again, this is a film that I knew little about going in except for the information I got from the poster and the basic synopsis of Casey Affleck dying and returning to the house he shared with Rooney Mara as a ghost under a white sheet. Shot in Academy ratio (a square format that resembles an old slide), the basic set up is one that immediately piqued my interest, and seeing Lowery re-team with Mara and the controversial figure of Affleck made this a must see.

The most immediately striking thing about the film is how subdued and elegantly haunting it is. I assumed that the depiction of the sheet ghost would be played with a modicum of humour, but in the context of the film it is not at all, instead conjuring an image that is instantaneously recognisable to anyone and providing a story (a life story) that will have audiences questioning everything they know about time, space, death and everlasting love. Lowery must have been well aware of what an audacious idea this was, but he has managed to avoid any of the possible pitfalls of embarking on such a risky project and delivered a meditative piece that is both formally creative and incredibly touching. If you want a film that has an extended scene where Mara devours an entire pie with Affleck's sheet ghost looking on, and for it to be entirely captivating, look no further.

And so my extremely hectic weekend at Sundance London drew to a close, with a whole barrage of thought provoking cinema and some stand out future classics mixed in too. There were a whole host of other films I wasn't able to see that I'll be checking out when possible, such as the Woody Harrelson comedy Wilson, the documentary Dina, about an autistic married couple and Icarus, the doping scandal documentary that took home the audience award people were voting for across the weekend. Of the films I saw, I'll be posting more in depth reviews of my favourites over the next few weeks, so please keep an eye out for those.

Sundance London, I'll see you again next year.

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