An intriguing thriller about the penetration of an eco-terrorist group provides a reminder that interesting ideas realised on a lower budget can be highly effective.
It also marks another auspicious development in the partnership between writer-director Zal Batmanglij and co-writer/star Brit Marling, whose previous collaboration – The Sound of My Voice (2011) – explored similar themes.
Whilst that film revolved around a cult, this one is set amongst a secretive organisation of eco-activists called ‘The East’, who stage disruptive events (or ‘jams’ as they call them) as payback for companies who dump toxic waste or other damaging environmental activity.
In a prologue we see a mysterious masked gang break in to the house of an oil executive and stage their own oil spill, as punishment for his company’s activity.
The focus then shifts to Sarah (Brit Marling), an eager operative working for a private intelligence firm as she has to convince her skeptical boss (Patricia Clarkson) to allow her to go deep undercover and penetrate The East.
After slowly gaining their trust, she finds a new home amongst the group who include a skeptical Izzy (Ellen Page), a medical student (Toby Kebbell) and the de facto leader Benji (Alexander Skarsgard). Slowly she begins to find out more about their philosophy and activities.
These early sequences are the most effective as they are genuinely unpredictable and intriguing: we see a highly unusual communal meal, the gripping infiltration of a drinks party and the ever-growing tension that Sarah might go native with the group she is investigating.
Although it shows its hand a little too early, the narrative is filled with satisfying twists and turns demonstrating again the screenwriting chemistry between Marling and Batmanglij, more than fulfilling the promise of their auspicious debut.
Marling’s performance demonstrates her undeniable screen presence that she established in both Sound of My Voice (2010) and Another Earth (2010) which may have been partly down to her own writing contributions, which mark her out amongst her contemporaries.
In some ways this is a reverse of Batmanglij’s first film in which Marling played the cult leader, whereas here she plays the outsider trying to get in to a cult-like organisation.
The political issues are blended in cleverly with the plot: in one sequence we see how tensions and ethical dilemmas run deep within the protagonist and also the wider group.
It is also executed with considerable technical panache: Roman Vasyanov’s widescreen visuals and the editing by Andrew Weisblum and Bill Pankow give the film an extra polish often absent in films on this kind of budget (reportedly around the $6m mark).
The icing on the cake is Halli Cauthery’s score (working from themes by Harry Gregson-Williams), which lends the film more layers of mood and tension.
Over the last few years studios have shied away from mid-budget films like this by making a few blockbusters and lame comedies. (Credit to Fox Searchlight for making this with Ridley Scott’s production company, Scott Free).
The film’s tagline “Spy on us. We’ll spy on you” is eerily prescient in light of the recent NSA revelations and it may well be that in years to come this is a film people will see as emblematic of the Occupy Wall Street era.
I always feel like I’m playing catchup given the end-of-year rush to get the contenders out to voters.
On the more commercial side, it is also a salutary reminder that life is too short to waste on bad films (unless there is an interesting angle) and how quickly the hoopla surrounding Best Picture fades into the ether.
At the end of every year I try to watch as many as possible in order to compile an end-of-the-year list, but for various reasons that didn’t happen in 2012 – a shame since this is probably the most interesting set of Oscar nominations in years.
However, I’ve now seen most of the awards season heavy hitters and nearly completed my annual list of the best DVD and Blu-ray discs, both of which will be posted soon.
Although there’s grumbling every year that films are getting worse, 2012 did seem to be a lean year for cinema releases and the wider industry is still struggling to readjust from the financial and technological shocks of the last four years.
Ripley’s last stand in Alien (1979) was not just a key scene for Sigourney Weaver but showed that female characters could survive without the help of men (interestingly the ship’s computer is called Mother):
…especially if they grow up to be TV producers like Holly Hunter’s character in Broadcast News (1987):
Then there’s the moving scene of female friendship in Babette’s Feast (1987) and cooking for a real reason – not just because men want their food on the table:
Anyone who has put up with sexist ‘banter’ in the workplace will appreciate this scene from Working Girl (1988) as Tess McGill (Melanie Griffith) gets revenge on her boss (Oliver Platt) who has tricked her into a date with his boorish colleague (Kevin Spacey):
The line-up for the inaugural Sundance London festival was announced today with 14 films having their UK premiere, after showing at the US festival back in January.
Sundance founder Robert Redford has said:
“I welcome the opportunity to see how people in the UK experience these films. While they are American productions they speak to universal experiences and global challenges. Sundance London also is the perfect opportunity to continue our long-time commitment to growing a broader international community around new voices and new perspectives.”
Director of the festival John Cooper has also said:
“Sundance London grew out of our desire to help American independent filmmakers expand their reach, and we are happy that these 14 filmmakers are joining us on this adventure. Their participation has helped us to not only create a programme for Sundance London that reflects the diversity of our film festival in Park City, but also that helps build an enduring legacy of American stories that speak to international audiences.”
In addition to the films, Sundance London will host live music performances and events each evening, including an Opening Night event An Evening With Robert Redford And T Bone Burnett, Placebo in concert and Tricky and Martina Topley-Bird performing Maxinquaye.
There will also be panels, a short film programme, special events and additional music performers.
Programme information and ticket packages are available from the official wbsite at www.sundance-london.com and individual tickets will go on sale in early April.
THE FILM PROGRAMME IN FULL
2 Days in New York (Director: Julie Delpy, Screenwriters: Julie Delpy, Alexia Landeau): Marion has broken up with Jack and now lives in New York with their child. A visit from her family, the different cultural background of her new boyfriend, an ex-boyfriend who her sister is now dating, and her upcoming photo exhibition make for an explosive mix. Cast: Julie Delpy, Chris Rock, Albert Delpy, Alexia Landeau, Alex Nahon.
Chasing Ice (Director: Jeff Orlowski): Science, spectacle and human passion mix in this stunningly cinematic portrait as National Geographic photographer James Balog captures time-lapse photography of glaciers over several years providing tangible visual evidence of climate change. Winner of the Excellence in Cinematography Award: U.S. Documentary at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival
Filly Brown (Directors: Youssef Delara, Michael D. Olmos, Screenwriter: Youssef Delara): A Hip Hop-driven drama about a Mexican girl who rises to fame and consciousness as she copes with the incarceration of her mother through music. Cast: Lou Diamond Phillips, Gina Rodriguez, Jenni Rivera, Edward James Olmos.
Finding North (Directors: Kristi Jacobson, Lori Silverbush): A crisis of hunger looms in America and is not limited to the poverty stricken and uneducated. Can a return to policies of the 1970s save our future? Features interviews with activists including Witness to Hunger’s Mariana Chilton, Top Chef’s Tom Colicchio and Academy Award®-winning actor Jeff Bridges, as well as original music by T Bone Burnett & The Civil Wars.
For Ellen (Director and screenwriter: So Yong Kim): A struggling musician takes an overnight long-distance drive in order to fight his estranged wife for custody of their young daughter. Cast: Paul Dano, Jon Heder, Jena Malone, Margarita Levieva and Shay Mandigo.
The House I Live In (Director: Eugene Jarecki): For over 40 years, the War on Drugs has accounted for 45 million arrests, made America the world’s largest jailer and damaged poor communities at home and abroad. Yet, drugs are cheaper, purer and more available today than ever. Where did we go wrong and what is the path toward healing? Winner of the Grand Jury Prize: U.S. Documentary at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival
Liberal Arts (Director and screenwriter: Josh Radnor): Bookish and newly single Jesse Fisher returns to his alma mater for his favorite professor’s retirement dinner. A chance meeting with Zibby – a precocious classical music-loving sophomore – awakens in him long-dormant feelings of possibility and connection. Cast: Josh Radnor, Elizabeth Olsen, Richard Jenkins, Allison Janney, John Magaro, Elizabeth Reaser.
LUV (Director: Sheldon Candis, Screenwriters: Sheldon Candis, Justin Wilson): An orphaned 11-year-old boy is forced to face the unpleasant truth about his beloved uncle during one harrowing day in the streets of Baltimore. Cast: Common, Michael Rainey Jr., Dennis Haysbert, Danny Glover, Charles S. Dutton.
Nobody Walks (Director: Ry Russo-Young, Screenwriters: Lena Dunham, Ry Russo-Young): Martine, a young artist from New York, is invited into the home of a hip, liberal LA family for a week. Her presence unravels the family’s carefully maintained status quo, and a mess of sexual and emotional entanglements ensues. Cast: John Krasinski, Olivia Thirlby, Rosemarie DeWitt, India Ennenga, Justin Kirk. Winner of the U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Prize for Excellence in Independent Film Producing at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.
An Oversimplification of Her Beauty (Director and screenwriter: Terence Nance): A quixotic young man humorously courses live action and various animated landscapes as he tries to understand himself after a mystery girl stands him up. Cast: Terence Nance, Namik Minter, Chanelle Pearson.
The Queen of Versailles (Director: Lauren Greenfield) — Jackie and David were triumphantly constructing the biggest house in America – a sprawling, 90,000-square-foot palace inspired by Versailles – when their timeshare empire falters due to the economic crisis. Their story reveals the innate virtues and flaws of the American Dream. Winner of the Directing Award: U.S. Documentary at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.
Safety Not Guaranteed (Director: Colin Trevorrow, Screenwriter: Derek Connolly) — A trio of magazine employees investigate a classified ad seeking a partner for time travel. One employee develops feelings for the paranoid but compelling loner and seeks to discover what he’s really up to. Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Mark Duplass, Jake Johnson, Karan Soni. Winner of the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.
Shut Up and Play the Hits (Directors: Dylan Southern, Will Lovelace): A film that follows LCD Soundsystem front man James Murphy over a crucial 48-hour period, from the day of their final gig at Madison Square Garden to the morning after, the official end of one of the best live bands in the world.
Under African Skies (Director: Joe Berlinger): Paul Simon returns to South Africa to explore the incredible journey of his historic Graceland album, including the political backlash he sparked for allegedly breaking the UN cultural boycott of South Africa, designed to end Apartheid.
“I’m not some avant-gardist, I know the difference between something that’s truly experimental and something that’s wholly mainstream, but I’d like to think that somewhere in the middle is a comfort zone where there’s an audience. It might not be the largest, or the most lucrative, but for me the rewards are the greatest.”
The first film they released was Mike Leigh’s Life is Sweet (1990), which appropriately opened in the US during October 1991, and grossed over $2 million – then a considerable sum for an indie release.
After that they released such films as D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary The War Room (1993), Guillermo Del Toro’s debut Cronos (1993) and John Dahl’s The Last Seduction (1994).
Another creative and commercial plateau was to come at the Berlin film festival in 1995.
Ray demonstrated his nose for talent after sitting through five hours of Lars Von Trier’s The Kingdom (1994) – a TV series which screened at festivals – by acquiring it.
He not only added a key European auteur to his already impressive stable of directors, but this relationship led to October acquiring US rights to Von Trier’s next film, Breaking the Waves (1996).
Originally set to star Gerard Depardieu and Helena Bonham Carter, they were ultimately replaced by Stellan Skaarsgard and (a then unknown) Emily Watson.
Going into Cannes that year he also had a new Mike Leigh film, Secrets & Lies (1996).
It would turn out to be a triumphant festival for October Films as Leigh’s film scooped the Palme d’Or and Best Actress (for Brenda Blethyn) but Von Trier’s film also claimed the Grand Prix.
You can still see him basking in the glow of that Cannes experience on this Charlie Rose appearance alongside Janet Maslin of the New York Times and David Ansen of Newsweek:
[The piece begins at 24:17]
On the surface, the subsequent awards season was dominated by Miramax.
Fuelled with Disney cash from their acquisition in 1993, they redefined the indie world through a combination of marketing genius and clever targeting of Academy voters.
The English Patient represented the high watermark of Miramax movie of that era: a period piece with literary pedigree it went on to win Best Picture and do excellent box office worldwide.
But the wider story that year was how the major studios had been trumped by the independents, as Jerry Maguire was the only Best Picture nominee to come from a big Hollywood studio (Sony).
There was no more remarkable independent that year than October Films.
Secrets & Lies went on to open the New York Film Festival that year, garner great reviews and eventually receive five Academy Award nominations (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Original Screenplay).
Even Breaking the Waves found an audience and a Best Actress nomination for Emily Watson was a sign that they were punching well above their weight.
This MSNBC piece profiling Ray and the company shows the excitement that year as the nominations were announced.
Although they didn’t win any awards on the night, the nominations were a stunning achievement and put October on another level.
I remember watching that ceremony overnight in my first year of college and marvelling at how Mike Leigh and the Coen Brothers were being granted the worldwide TV exposure of the Oscar ceremony.
Their backing of David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997) and Todd Solondz’s Happiness (1998) was testament to their faith in projects by visionary directors.
Later on when Universal acquired a majority stake in October, that became a point of conflict as Ray clashed with the new corporate owners.
One of the paradoxes of the indie film boom of the 90s was that it was – to varying degrees – supported by corporate dollars.
In the case of Miramax, though they had autonomy, Pulp Fiction was ultimately released by the same corporation that owned Mickey Mouse.
As for October, the trail they blazed to the Oscars in early 1997 was always a tricky – one of the paradoxes of financial success was that it ultimately pushed them towards the safety of a large owner.
But still they pushed the world cinema envelope.
It is remarkable to think that around this time they were releasing Jafar Panahi’s The White Balloon (1995) and Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen (1998) at US cinemas.
The costly flop they were dreading happened to be David Lynch’s brilliant but defiantly uncommercial Lost Highway (1997) – the first half of which still happens to be amongst his greatest work.
October sold a majority stake to Universal and Ray left after a complicated corporate merry go round which saw Universal sell its stake to Barry Diller in 1999.
Although in theory voters should go to see films at a cinema, for many smaller companies it is much more cost effective to send voters a DVD to their homes.
For a specialty film an Oscar nomination – let alone a win – was vital to publicity and box office.
In late 2003 Ray organised a meeting of the then major indie players: UA, Sony Classics, Focus Features, Paramount Classics, Fine Line and Miramax.
The subsequent open letter to MPAA head Jack Valenti (who was representing the big studio view) was drafted on behalf of the indie companies by James Schamus:
“The consumer has a completely cynical attitude towards the companies that make the product, viewing them as gigantic greedy corporations who want to control everything. And stamp out anything of interest that’s unique or individual. You just did that, for the movie business, man. Under the rubric of fighting piracy, in one week, you have created precisely the market conditions that have destroyed the record industry”.
A lot has changed since 2004 when Biskind’s book came out, but I couldn’t help noticing the final paragraph.
It is actually a quote from Ray and it describes his indie film philosophy perfectly:
“No matter where I go – the only thing consistent is me. I bring out the best and the worst in some of these people. This was all about money, and I still believe that there are decisions that you make that aren’t motivated by financial gain. The independent world isn’t like the Hollywood world. The motives are different, the goals are different, people aren’t necessarily trying to get rich and powerful, they’re trying to push art first whilst thinking everything else will take of itself. That’s the naive part of it, it doesn’t happen that way. You can’t even talk about that with a straight face or people will laugh you off the planet. But there’s a big big part of me that really does believe that. And will always believe that”