Friday, 25 April 2014

Sundance London 1: Fine dining

The 3rd Sundance London Film and Music Festival kicked off tonight at the O2 in North Greenwich. Of course, the press has been here all week watching movies and attending special events (like a breakfast yesterday with the filmmakers), but there was a marked gear-shift today with the extremely noticeable arrival of an army of Americans brandishing lanyards. It'll be fun getting to know them over the next three days, and I've already recognised some from last year's festival. Although this year's event is a day shorter and I won't spend quite as much time over there. Here are some highlights...

The Trip to Italy
dir Michael Winterbottom; with Rob Brydon, Steve Coogan 14/UK ****
As with 2010's The Trip, this spoof doc sends Brydon and Coogan (pictured above) on a journey to visit and review a series of high-end rural restaurants, this time tracing the steps of Byron and Shelly in outrageously picturesque Italy. As before, it's being shown on British television in five 30-minute episodes, so I'm choosing to watch it that way instead of as a 108-minute movie at the festival. So I'm not quite at the end yet. But so far it's great to see these guys recapture that chemistry on-screen as heightened versions of themselves trying to out-do each other with their impersonations of iconic stars. Including each other. At the start, Coogan vows not to do any impressions and not to drink any wine. The first vow sticks for about 15 minutes, until a situation that simply demands Michael Caine. The second vow lasts into the second episode. Genius.

Blue Ruin 
dir-scr Jeremy Saulnier; with Macon Blair, Devin Ratray 13/US **** 
There's a moral complexity to this brutal, low-key revenge thriller that gets under our skin, even if the characters feel somewhat simplistic. But then, these are people whose reactions are based on emotions rather than deep consideration. And filmmaker Saulnier takes us into their world in some extremely harrowing ways... FULL REVIEW >

Drunktown's Finest
dir-scr Sydney Freeland; with Jeremiah Bitsui, Carmen Moore 14/US ****
Filmmaker Freeland clearly knows the importance of the subject matter of this three-pronged drama, which skilfully explores a range of issues in a Native American community through stories that are easy to identify with. And the deep human connections bring this scruffy movie come to life, thanks to some understated performances and real-life interaction. Set on the edge of a Navajo reservation in New Mexico, the characters give insight into hapless crime, issues of identity and birthright, community connections, and even gender issues. But all of this emerges organically through characters that get under our skin simply because they seem just like people we know. So it's a bit surprising as the storylines continue and intersect to discover that the film has some bracingly strong things to say about America.

Finding Fela
dir Alex Gibney; with Fela Kuti, Bill T Jones 14/US ***
This documentary tells such an important story that it's impossible to dismiss it just because the structure is so out of balance. As with The Armstrong Lie, filmmaker Gibney seems to lose the grip on his subject matter, trying to tell too many stories at the same time while failing to punch the most important notes. Above all, this is the story of Fela Kuti, one of the most important men in Africa over the last century: a musician and revolutionary who boldly stood up to Nigeria's oppressive government. As a result, the film is also a sharp outline of the past 50 years of the nation's history since independence. But it's told through the prism of a Broadway theatre group mounting a musical stage production on Fela's life. All of this is fascinating, and the stage sequences are terrific for adding musical moments and vivid depictions of some staggering events, which are also shown in extensive archival footage and stills. Then after taking nearly two hours to trace Fela's rise to fame, the film rushes through his final decade in a montage and never quite explains his legacy on the continent or around the globe. It seems oddly fudged for a skilled filmmaker like Gibney, and makes us wonder if there's a complete three-hour version out there somewhere.

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