Saturday, 26 April 2014

Sundance London 2: Seeing double

It's only Day 2 of a three-day film festival and I already have that feeling like I need more sleep, more time to do my work and more time away from screens of any kind. Any journalist who has covered a film festival knows these symptoms, but we persevere. The Sundance London Festival is actually refreshingly small - there are only 21 features, and I don't have to see them all. But then the festival started for the press on Tuesday morning, so we're actually almost a week in. Some more highlights...

The One I Love
dir Charlie McDowell; with Elisabeth Moss, Mark Duplass 14/US ****
With a bone-dry sense of humour and a fiendishly clever central gimmick, this relationship movie gets surprisingly deep while also creating unexpected currents of tension. There's definitely a sense that the script is too smart for its own good, but as played by the cast it feels remarkably off-handed, revealing real emotions in every scene. Moss and Duplass (pictured above) play a couple struggling to hold their relationship together when they head off on a remote retreat, where they are confronted in an outrageous way with the ways they idealise each other. It's a fiendishly clever idea, very simple and utterly mind-bending. Both actors play it perfectly, playfully adding telling details and subtle emotions to scenes that unfold as if they're improvised. And Moss adds something even more impressive in yet another astonishing performance.

Fruitvale Station
dir-scr Ryan Coogler; with Michael B Jordan, Melonie Diaz 13/US *****
Expertly written, fluidly directed and performed with earthy authenticity, this drama recreates a terrible real-life event without resorting to melodramatics or manipulation. And what's most remarkable is that filmmaker Coogler presents the story without trying to wedge in a contrived message. In other words, these kinds of things happen to complex people who are neither heroes or bad guys ... FULL REVIEW >

The Case Against 8
dir Ben Cotner, Ryan White; with Ted Olson, David Boies 14/US ****.
While there's nothing particularly notable about the way this documentary is put together, it tells a hugely important story with real skill, building to key emotional points while making sure the political implications are clear. And the people on-screen become such vivid, engaging characters that the moving final sequence is almost overwhelming. After a bit of scene-setting, the narrative begins on election day in 2008, when Obama was elected president and California ratified Proposition 8. Lawyers immediately saw the holes in this legislation, and over the next five years the case escalated through the courts, culminating in the Supreme Court decision last June, which effectively repealed Prop 8. The film follows all of this through the eyes of the plaintiffs, two same-sex couples who bravely volunteered to be the public face of equality, working with the unlikely legal team of Olson and Boies (who argued opposite sides before the Supreme Court over the Bush v Gore election in 2000). And along with a hugely engaging narrative, this is one of the clearest depictions yet about why this isn't actually a religious or political issue.

dir-scr Tim Sutton; with Willis Earl Beal, Lopaka Thomas 13/US ***
While this swirling odyssey of a movie is beautifully shot and scored (by its star), it's also relentlessly indulgent, wallowing in the artistic process without properly bringing viewers in. Which leaves it as a fascinating exploration of creativity without anything meaningful to grab hold of. The film follows Beal as he roams around Memphis, mixing with locals, old friends and a lot of people who are never defined (family? friends? kind strangers?). He has just made it big, and lives in a mansion he hasn't yet made a home, driving around town in a huge white Cadillac. Most of these relationships feel unsatisfying, but Beal's biggest problem is coming up with material for that dreaded second album. There are clever elements of Beal's self-examination in this film - from working out his most optimal conditions to be creative to wondering whether he had any talent to begin with. But the film is resolutely experimental, refusing to add any coherence to help the audience follow along. We can absorb moods and ideas and emotions, but without any idea who these people are, it's impossible to engage with Beal or his quest.

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