Saturday, 27 April 2013

Sundance London: Day 3

Friday was my longest day at the Sundance London Film and Music Festival: I left home at 8am and got back after midnight. And there's not much to do at the O2 beyond seeing movies or eating in bland chain restaurants! I saw four features and eight shorts...

Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes
dir Francesca Gregorini; with Kaya Scodelario, Jessica Biel 13/US ***
Made with considerable skill and style, this offbeat drama struggles to find authenticity due to an combination of over-developed script and superficial characters. It has its moments, and is intriguing enough to hold our interest, but ultimately leaves us empty. It centres on Emanuel (Scodelario, pictured), who as she nears her 18th birthday begins her annual descent into grief and guilt about her mother, who died in childbirth. Her father (Molina) tries to be understanding, but his new wife (O'Connor) is like salt in the wound. Then Linda (Biel) moves next door with her infant daughter, and Emanuel discovers that parenthood is never what it seems. Yes, there's a lot of lesson-learning in this movie, although writer-director Gregorini isn't too heavy handed about that. On the other hand, the film is very indulgent in its more fantastic elements, which refer to the title and never quite make sense.

Sleepwalk With Me
dir Mike Birbiglia; with Mike Birbiglia, Lauren Ambrose 12/US ***
Based on his one-man show, Birbiglia's film is an almost startlingly honest exploration of events from his own life. Because he makes himself deeply unlikable. It's not easy to sympathise with someone who is this relentless in his self-obsession, to the point where he alienates everyone he loves. But Birbiglia seems to be suggesting that this was a good thing for his career. He plays a thinly fictionalised version of himself: a wannabe stand-up comic who has a potentially dangerous sleepwalking condition, brought on by self-inflicted stress about his career, a fear of commitment to his long-term girlfriend (Ambrose) and a refusal to properly deal with pressures from his parents (Carol Kane and James Rebhorn). Yes, the supporting cast is amazing, peppered with ace comics who bring out the humour and drama perfectly. And the portrayal of a young comic getting his start in a harsh business is fascinating. But Birbiglia is far too hard on himself, wallowing in his failings and giving us very few reasons to root for him.

In a World...
dir Lake Bell; with Lake Bell, Fred Melamed 13/US *****
This almost painfully hilarious script playfully explores an aspect of the movie business while touching on some serious issues about competition between genders and generations. It also places the actress Bell on a list of writer-directors to watch. She plays Carol, a vocal coach who discovers she has a gift as a voiceover artist like her dad Sam (Melamed). But when she goes up for a job voicing a trailer for an epic quadrilogy, she opens a can of worms not only with her fiercely jealous dad, but also with his womanising prodigy (Ken Marino). And can a woman voice an iconic "in a world" trailer? That's a man's job! The script is a riot of side stories, from marital problems to unspoken crushes, plus family resentments and professional rivalries. It's so cleverly constructed that it grips us from the moment it starts, then keeps us laughing helplessly with a steady stream of verbal and visual gags - so much so that we'll want to watch it again to catch anything we might have missed. These are great characters with feisty inter-relationships we can identify with. And it's also a wonderful exploration of a side of the movie industry we rarely see on screen. As Bell said in the post-screening Q&A, making a trailer for this movie is the real challenge.

Metro Manila
dir Sean Ellis; with Jake Macapagal, Althea Vega 13/Ph ***.
With a striking usual sensibility, British director Sean Ellis takes us into the bustling streets of Manila for a family drama that shifts into a seriously intense thriller. The story is perhaps a bit too tidy, broadly signposting both themes and plot twists, but a natural cast and the urgent camerawork make it a riveting ride. It centres on Oscar (Macapagal), a struggling farmer who uproots his wife Mai (Vega) and two daughters to move to the capital to try to make a living. But things are of course even more difficult there. Oscar manages to get a job as an armoured van driver, the most dangerous job in town, while Mai finds work in a lap-dancing club. But both are pushed into horrible moral corners. And when Oscar's partner (Arcilla) makes a shady proposal, he sees a possible way out. Thankfully, the story doesn't go as expected; Ellis has a few surprises up his sleeve. And this is the kind of tale that could be set in hundreds of cities where desperate people try to solve impossible economic difficulties. So the film has a strong resonance as things get very nasty indeed. In the end, it's slightly over-constructed to lay its messages out clearly for us, but it's also a thrilling drama that beautifully captures the Filipino settings with a documentary sense of urgency.

New American Noise
This shorts programme featured six films highlighting underground music scenes in six American cities: Detroit, Atlanta, Portland, Brooklyn, Los Angeles and New Orleans. Lords of Detroit and Electric Noise (Portland) are overview films, exploring musical heritage mixing with present-day musicians. They look like slick adverts produced by the city to attract funky artists to the city. Atlanta Dream$ is colourfully set in the strip clubs, which launch much of the local rap music. Spit Gold Under an Empire (Brooklyn) takes a much more personal approach, following a few gifted rappers around the streets exploring their inspiration. SFV Acid (Los Angeles) is even more focussed, as it artfully centres on the eponymous San Fernando Valley musician (aka Zane Reynolds) and how he creates his moody tracks. And saving the best for last, That B.E.A.T. (New Orleans) is a thrilling explosion of raw energy, skilfully exploring the infectious rhythms of bounce. In addition, we were also shown the two finalists in the Talenthouse competition, seeking similar films internationally. There's Nothing Like a Soundsystem explores the lively underground party scene in Glasgow, where it's all about amplifying that pounding baseline. And Red Earth Hip Hop is a stunning film about Australian DJ Morganics travelling to an isolated Outback community where local music is combining with rap to produce something rather astonishing.

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