The Look of Love (Dir. Michael Winterbottom): After 24 Hour Party People (2002) Michael Winterbottom reunites with Steve Coogan for this biopic of the late Paul Raymond. The self-styled ‘King of Soho’ made his fortune with gentleman’s clubs, erotic magazines and property but his great wealth was underscored by personal tragedy.
Coogan brings a huge amount of charisma to his role, but he is backed up by a fine supporting cast including Anna Friel, Tamsin Egerton, Chris Addison and especially Imogen Poots, who excels as his troubled daughter. Winterbottom deftly manages to balance humour and the film makes good use of real life locations in Soho.
Blood Brother (Dir. Steve Hoover): An enlightening and at times harrowing documentary about a filmmaker following his best friend (Rocky Braat) as he returns to a hostel in India for young children with HIV. Whilst it doesn’t break any new ground stylistically, the engaging central figure and rawness of the story makes for compelling viewing.
It is rare to see filmmakers adopt a such an extreme verite approach, but what initially starts off as a traditional narrative soon becomes something more unexpected. One scene in particular during the final third may raise questions about the moral line between documentarians and their subjects.
The Kings of Summer (Dir. Jordan Vogt-Roberts): One staple of US indie films, is the coming of age tale. This one follows three disaffected boys (Nick Robinson, Gabriel Basso and Moises Arias) in a rural Ohio town as they run away from home and try to settle in the woods.
Despite the over familiar setting – and a considerable debt to Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me (1986) – it manages to effectively capture the humour and frustration of those teenage years. This is mostly down to Vogt-Roberts nice eye for location and a solid ensemble cast, which includes a stand out turn from Nick Offerman from TV’s Parks and Recreation.
Mud (Dir. Jeff Nichols): Interesting US directors outside the LA/New York axis have been rare in recent years. A notable exception has been Arkansas native Jeff Nichols. With his first two films, Shotgun Stories (2007) and Take Shelter (2011), he has firmly established himself as a distinct voice.
His latest comes soaked in the storytelling tradition of the Deep South, mainly Huckleberry Finn, as two young boys (Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland) come across a stranger named Mud (Matthew McConaughey) who is hiding on an island in the Mississippi river. Strong performances abound from McConaughey, Sheridan, Reese Witherspoon and Sam Shepherd, but it is the confident writing and directing that really mark this out as another chapter in the career of Nichols.
Upstream Color (Dir. Shane Carruth): Ever since his remarkable debut Primer (2004) scooped the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, people have been wondering what had happened to its writer/director Shane Carruth. The answer appears to have been a period of long development hell, but his second feature is well worth the wait. If you were baffled by Primer then be prepared for this film.
Just describing it is hard as it eschews conventional notions of plot but the basic premise revolves around a woman (Amy Seimetz) who comes across a man (Shane Carruth) who may or may not have the answers to a recent trauma she’s undergone. Imagine if David Lynch and Terrence Malick remade Memento (2000) and you might get some idea of the haunting puzzle box Carruth has crafted. The performances, visuals and score all combine to dazzling effect, and it is hard to recall a more mysterious and original film.
N.B. This is part of a series of posts looking back on the past year that I couldn’t write up at the time.
The news that the Sundance Film Festival was coming to London back in April was intriguing as the log cabins and snow of Utah in January seemed a world away from the cavernous spaces of the 02.
Since its relaunch in 2007 as a music venue with a multiplex cinema, it has shed its image as the white elephant formerly know as the ‘Millenium Dome’.
For the Sundance Institute it was a chance to experiment by taking a shorter festival abroad, (just four days) with a bigger emphasis on music and its relationship to film.
I couldn’t attend every film or event, but settled on two films and two sessions, which caught my eye.
DAY ONE (Thursday 26th April)
Liberal Arts (Dir. Josh Radnor): Radnor is most famous for being on the TV show ‘How I Met Your Mother’ and his debut as director ‘happythankyoumoreplease’ in 2010.
It went down well at the festival, winning the audience award, but its poor box office and mixed reviews meant that it faded away, not even getting a UK theatrical release.
To a degree, his second film has followed the same pattern – although it did secure distribution here it didn’t exactly set the box office alight.
It explores what happens when a careers adviser in his mid-30s (Radnor) accepts an invitation from an old professor (Richard Jenkins) to go back to his old Ohio college.
There he forms a connection with a student (Elisabeth Olsen) and generally takes stock of his life in much the same way that Zach Braff did in Garden State (2004).
But despite bearing some archetypal tropes of the typical US indie movie, Liberal Arts does contain some pleasures.
Radnor, Olsen and Jenkins are likeable in their roles and there is an interesting attempt to portray an early mid-life crisis that seems to be prevalent in Radnor’s generation.
But like Radnor’s character in the story, this is a US indie film that looks back with nostalgia to another era: quirky supporting characters acoustic guitars on the soundtrack – and is ultimately overwhelmed by that.
DAY TWO (Friday 27th April)
SHUT UP AND PLAY THE HITS (Dir. Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace)
Maybe it was just serendipity, but when the documentary of LCD Soundsystem’s premiered at Sundance in January, it seemed a natural fit for the inaugural London festival.
Not only did it tie in snugly with the overall ‘film and music’ theme – it is one of the best concert films in quite some time.
When the New York band announced in February 2011 that they were splitting up – effectively at the height of their career – a farewell concert at Madison Square Garden was planned for April 2, 2011.
A four hour show with appearances by Arcade Fire, Reggie Watts and others, this was essentially The Last Waltz (1978) for the Pitchfork generation.
In a decade of turmoil for the music industry, it seemed a curiously appropriate gesture.
Like Scorcese’s classic concert film about The Band’s farewell show, it intercuts concert footage with interviews, although much of this is dominated by frontman James Murphy.
The main advantage of seeing a concert film (or any film for that matter) in a cinema is the superior sound system (no pun intended) and the dynamic shifts were not only aural but visual.
Directors Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace, who previously made the Blur film No Distance Left To Run (2010), pace the action so that it becomes as much an intimate portrait of Murphy as a standard concert movie.
We see him the day after the concert inspecting the band’s instruments, fielding unanswered voicemails and (in a very meta moment) being interviewed by a journalist about the end of the band.
Ultimately the theatrical potential for any concert film is limited in the modern era and most people will watch this on Blu-ray and DVD (it has since been released along with the full 4-hour concert).
But there was something joyful and exhilarating about experiencing the swansong of this band on the big screen.
It might not be in the same league as The Last Waltz or Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense (1983).
N.B. A longer review of the Blu-ray will be forthcoming.
DAY 3 (Saturday 28th April)
The idea of a ‘Documentary Flash Lab’ wasn’t one I was familiar with, but ultimately very impressed by.
A two-hour event hosted by Cara Mertes, director of the Sundance Institute Documentary Program and Fund, it was possibly the best event of its kind I’ve ever been to.
Sometimes Q&A-style events at film festivals can be poorly hosted and plodding affairs with rambling non-questions from the audience.
Here was a textbook example of how it should be done: Mertes went through the history of Sundance and the importance of documentary to the festival and she was joined by directors Lauren Greenfield (The Queen of Versailles), Eugene Jarecki (The House I Live In) and Jeff Orlowski (Chasing Ice).
All gave informative insights into their respective films but about twenty minutes in, as Mertes introduced Orlowski, a familiar figure entered the room.
It turned out to be a surprise appearence by the founder of Sundance himself, Robert Redford.
He apologised for being delayed in London traffic, but went on give a quick speech about his love of documentary and how he first got hooked on factual content whilst watching a televised military hearing in the 1950s.
It was just a taste of Redford’s commitment, but it has been a mainstay of the festival since the beginning, and his sincerity and contribution was obvious.
Over the years the festival he began has arguably become the global mecca for both filmmakers looking to sell their documentaries and distributors looking to buy them.
In retrospect 2012 has turned out to be a particularly strong year but it has also reflected both the frustrations and possibilities for documentarians.
Although each spoke eloquently about their films and the issues they explored, the question of how you actually get audiences to see them is another matter.
Eugene Jarecki expressed his desire to explore new was of getting his film out there, almost like a travelling musician going from city to city and forgoing more traditional distribution models.
On the one hand, it has always been difficult for documentaries to get attention in the theatrical marketplace, but reduced production costs (enabled by cheaper digital cameras, editing systems and prints) have dramatically levelled the playing field.
Representing the UK perspective was Jess Search, CEO of Channel Four BritDoc Foundation, and her enthusiasm matched that of her US counterparts as she went through the newer funding and distribution possibilities afforded by the web (e.g. Kickstarter, YouTube etc).
The downside is there will be plenty of bad films and documentaries made in the coming years, but overall I’m optimistic about the cream rising to the top.
DAY FOUR (Sunday 29th April)
Sunday afternoon was my personal highlight as Harry Gregson-Williams gave a two-hour talk on film music entitled ‘Film Music from the Composer’s Point of View’.
A composer probably best known for his collaborations with the late director Tony Scott (Unstoppable, Man on Fire), Ben Affleck (Gone Baby Gone, The Town) and various animated films such as Shrek.
Accompanied by the setup he uses on films and a group of musicians, the auditorium resembled a makeshift mixing stage.
After being introduced by Peter Golub, director of the Sundance Film Music Program, Gregson-Williams not only provided valuable insights into scoring for films but also dropped in some amusing anecdotes.
One of these was Ben Affleck’s disarming honesty in admitting that he actually wanted Thomas Newman to score Gone Baby Gone (2007) – there is a distinct Newman-esque vibe to the opening titles.
Not only that, but two years later for The Town (2010), he again admitted Affleck wanted Newman (!) before eventually hiring him.
It is hard to compress the session into neat sound bites but his music setup was connected to the screen and he was clear as he could be about the different stages in scoring a film, with practical examples on the screen behind him.
Throughout he displayed a refreshing self-deprecating wit and if the composing work ever dries up he could start a side-career as a public speaker.
He also spoke of the importance of Hans Zimmer to his career and discussed how scores are done on software programmes like Cubase, Logic and Pro Tools, but also how that ties in with live musicians.
When he first started out, his Zimmer told him to lock himself in a room for several days and learn Cubase – the audio software programme he still uses to this day.
One thing that struck me after the session was how long the digital revolution has been with filmmaking process.
In the 1980s computers became more prominent in scores and chart music generally; the 1990s saw the arrival of the Avid and non-linear editing; and in the last decade we have seen cameras and projection switch to digital.
Ultimately the step-by-step way he broke down the elements of a film score was fascinating.
Using a sequence from Unstoppable (2010), he began by showing time-coded footage and gradually added in the elements that made up the final mix.
At the time he was scoring a film at Abbey Road Studios and another nice touch was that he passed around the vintage microphones and instruments from that iconic studio.
They still actually use them and it was a salient reminder that although the digital revolution has enveloped the music and film world, there is still a place for analogue pleasures.
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.