Sundance London Film & Music Festival

April 26-29, 2012
The O2, London

by Joanna Orland

Utah’s Sundance Film Festival has made its way to London for the first time. Robert Redford brought his festival across the pond to London’s O2 Centre in North Greenwich and it turned out to be the most surprising festival experiences yet. There were mixed feelings and assumptions about how it would go being based in such a removed and isolated venue as The O2. The venue itself can hardly act as a representation of London, but somehow it was a great venue for this festival. It acted like a convention centre more than a cinema, taking London out of the equation altogether. This festival could have been held anywhere as the city itself had nothing to do with the experience, but being based in London, it allowed exposure of the festival to a very wide audience. And an appreciative one at that.

Sundance Film Festival is different to the BFI London Film Festival in many ways other than its remote location. The most obvious difference is that it is a Film & Music Festival. The next big difference is that it is about independent cinema and films-in-the-making. There is no Hollywood glamour with this festival, in spite of it drawing big names such as Redford himself. This festival is about diversity – Placebo, Josh Radnor, Robert Redford, Tricky, Nick Hornby, The Guillemots, HRH Prince Charles, Mr. Eko from Lost, Rufus & Martha Wainwright, Crispin Glover, and NKOTBSB playing an unrelated concert next door to the festival show how eclectic the entire experience is. Films, concerts, music documentaries, script readings, panel discussions, this is a well-rounded film fanatic’s dream. So what did I actually do and see at Sundance? Check it out:

Liberal Arts
Starring Josh Radnor, Elizabeth Olsen, Allison Janney, Richard Jenkins, Elizabeth Reaser & Zac Efron
Written & Directed by Josh Radnor

And that kids, is how your aunt Joanna met the guy from How I Met Your Mother.

Josh Radnor is the second coming of Zach Braff with a hint of David Schwimmer thrown into the mix. The oddest bit of Josh’s career is that he has played lead character Ted Mosby on the hugely popular How I Met Your Mother for seven years and nobody knows him by name. In stark contrast, his co-stars are international superstars with Alyson Hannigan still living off of her Buffy/American Pie fame, Jason Segel’s success with The Muppets and Apatow-related comedy films, and Neil Patrick Harris… well does he even need to do anything post-Doogie Howser MD? (no he does not). And even that chick who plays Robyn is in the new Avengers Assemble movie!

I’m not quite sure why the same fame and recognition hasn’t come into the favour of Josh, because, well, he’s actually quite a talented chap as he proved tonight with his film Liberal Arts which he not only stars in, but also wrote and directed. As he walked the media line pre-screening and answered the audience’s questions post, Josh displayed wit, intelligence, charm and passion for his work in a most eloquent manner. He’s got a lot to say and expresses it very well in his second feature film.

Liberal Arts follows the story of Jesse (Josh) as he finds romance with the much-too-young Zibby (the wonderful indie-darling Elizabeth Olsen, who is possibly the second coming of Natalie Portman) and revisits his college days and campus in Ohio. The support cast is amazing and what a feat it must’ve been for relatively fresh director Radnor to direct screen veterans Richard Jenkins and Allison Janney. They were both amazing by the way.

Actually, with such a strong cast, it would have been very hard for Josh to fail with this film. Even Zac Efron is hilarious. A departure from what you’re used to seeing him play, and well played at that. The strong cast could have saved most a-struggling film, but Liberal Arts did not need any saving. Believable characters, relatable situations, what Zach Braff’s Garden State did for the twenty-something crisis, Josh Radnor’s Liberal Arts does for the Thirty-Something’s.

And how appropriate that Liberal Arts plays on the opening night of Sundance London. It was the darling of this year’s original American Sundance Film Festival in Utah, even receiving a standing ovation from a usually reserved indie audience. According to Josh himself, Liberal Arts should be on wider release in a cinema near you this autumn.

Safety Not Guaranteed
Starring Aubrey Plaza, Jake M. Johnson and Karan Soni
Directed by Colin Trevorrow

This review is written by Susanna Jones

When a mysterious and albeit comical classified ad appears in the local newspaper, three young Seattle Magazine employees embark on a mission to find its author.

“Wanted: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before.”

But when ulterior motives become apparent, libidinous adventures arise, and budding love sprouts in delusional circumstances, a twisted but sweet tale is revealed. In many ways Safety Not Guaranteed, directed by Colin Trevorrow, is your typical Indie romantic comedy but in much more fascinating ways it is tremendously unique. Each character is superbly idiosyncratic, the story subtly weaves together the peculiar and the real, and the illusion of time is explored subjectively.

Our protagonist Darius Britt is a cynical and disillusioned loner working as an intern at Seattle Magazine. She is a young woman living a somewhat ordinary and banal existence. She has no friends and her passivity leaves her consistently misunderstood. She is also surprisingly not extraordinary (unlike many Indie romcoms) but nevertheless is endearingly played by Aubrey Plaza (Parks and Recreation) whose deadpan delivery is ruthlessly charming.

Accompanying her is fellow intern Arnau (Karan Soni), a young over achieving student and journalist Jeff Schwensen (Jake M. Johnson), an over-confident but single and ageing jackass. Together they head out to the rural countryside of Washington state to find their time traveller: Kenneth.

Kenneth Calloway is our delightful time travelling lunatic. He is evidently sweet and generous, but also paranoid and a complete outcast: the result of years of rejection. He believes he’s being followed; he believes he’s a martial arts expert; he believes he is a master of reconnaissance and most importantly, he believes in time travel. But it is Darius who is beguiled by his lack of charm. She connects with him instantly and slowly he accepts her as his counterpart for a mission back to 2001.

Played by Mark Duplass (The League), Kenneth is portrayed as a most endearing fantasist. From the beginning his mannerisms, his delusions, his energy, and physicality are a pleasure to watch. You immediately like and sympathise with him but are always slightly unsure whether to humour his notions of self or of time and space.

So what happens when truths are unearthed? Or when fantasies becomes reality? Well, only time will tell. Safety Not Guaranteed is a sweet story, plumped with comedic characterisations and puzzling twists. It has its depths, but all in all is simply a well-written piece of cinematic fun. In fact, I’d go back and see it again for the first time.

Placebo: Coming Up For Air
A Documentary about Placebo
Directed by Charlie Targett-Adams

This documentary is clearly better than I give it credit for. It has reignited my love for Placebo, a band that I was listening to in about 1998, and for a few years following. With flashing images and a playback volume which made me think I was at a Placebo gig rather than a film screening, I was genuinely worried I was going to have an epileptic fit. After some time, I got used to the spectacle and was completely absorbed into the world of Placebo’s world tour 2008-2010 and realized there was more to this band than meets the ear.

I had an inkling of this notion when lead singer Brian Molko himself walked into the cinema to take a seat in front of me, and was speaking fluent French. For a moment I doubted my sanity and thought, maybe they aren’t a British band like I’ve always thought? No…. they are just culturally diverse and speak tons of languages each, as demonstrated further in the film itself. Brian Molko and guitarist Stefan Olsdal both attended the American International School of Luxembourg, which they claim led to their multi-cultural education, but Brian identifies best with being Scottish, and Stefan Swedish. The band members met in London in 1994 and formed what eventually became Placebo – I cannot believe that was 18 years ago.

You don’t get too much more insight into the band or its members’ personal lives or history, but you are still wooed by their charm and the film’s ambient soundtrack and visuals. What I found more satisfying than watching the film itself, was watching the band watch the film. Brian, Stefan and their drummer Steve were sat literally in front of me during the screening. I couldn’t help but gawk at their reactions to key moments in the film. Stefan and Brian’s giggly whispers and Steve’s rocking out to some of the performances. I have to say, with the intriguing Brian Molko sat directly in front of me, it took everything I had in me to not lean forward and stroke his hair – I am truly creepy at heart!

After the film, the band took to the stage with director Charlie Targett-Adams for a Q&A with the audience, which was completely constructed of their friends, family and dedicated fanbase. Some audience members had even flown in from LA for the screening and post-screening live performance from the band. While the film was decent, the Q&A was where the band really reignited my former admiration. How can anyone possibly be as intriguing and charming as Brian Molko? He has this strong and confident yet fragile contradictory aura, sexual ambiguity, and is so well spoken and quick-witted. After witnessing him on stage, I have redeveloped a fascination with the man, I can’t even fully explain why. He is just so endearing. An enigma.

While in the film there were moments of honesty and admission from Brian about his struggles, it was during the Q&A where he opened up even further. When asked what the most awkward moment of the film for him to watch was, he brought up the scene where Stefan had to announce to a disappointed audience that Brian had taken ill and was unable to return to the stage. Brian admitted in front of us captivated crowd that it was because he was having a total breakdown and psychotic episode. While he felt bad disappointing his fans at that gig, he was having a panic attack and was disjointed from reality. Watch the clip below to hear it best from Brian:

Sorry about my zooming skills.

While I am not overly sure if I enjoyed the documentary itself, I truly enjoyed the experience of watching it at Sundance London. And actually found it to be the surprise highlight in many ways. I then went home and re-listened to Without You I’m Nothing.

A Documentary about HRH Prince Of Wales and his Environmental Sustainability Effort
Based on the book he is writing of the same name
Directed by Stuart Sender

Robert Redford took the stage to introduce a man, who according to Redford, needs no introduction. HRH Prince Charles – yes THE Prince of Wales – then took the stage from Redford after shaking his hand. He then proceeded to discuss the importance of Harmony, whose World Premiere it was, and how it has been his mission for over twenty years to look towards sustainability of the environment. You may think, why does Prince Charles need to make a documentary about the subject when Al Gore has already beaten him to it? HRH touches on this concern and mentions his previous filmic encounter with Al Gore from 1990’s Earth In Balance.

Whereas Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth tackled the issue of Global Warming from an informative approach, Prince Charles’ Harmony tackles possible solutions. He demonstrates his own effort, and focuses on experts and practitioners in the field. People as diverse as women in India, farmers in Louisiana and bricklayers in New Orleans.

Leading by example with his own organic farm and outlook on sustainability, Prince Charles certainly practices what he preaches. In his introduction to the film, he made it clear that people may interpret his environmental activism as anti-capitalist just by its liberal associations, but far from it. Sustainability is economical as well as replenishing.

While this film has a very important message and Robert Redford’s and the Prince’s support is assisting in validating the message, this film is more for television than cinema. As this is an indie and versatile film festival, it was a great venue to screen it. As far as a wider target audience goes, if this film airs on the BBC, it will be met with great respect and food for thought. In an actual cinema, it will fall on deaf ears and fail to draw an audience. Let’s hope this film is destined for the small screen and makes the change it deserves to make.

Sing Me The Songs That Say I Love You – A Concert for Kate McGarrigle
Directed by Lian Lunson

Kate McGarrigle along with her sister Anna are folk icons, having inspired many great musicians before her death from sarcoma in January 2010. You may know of Kate’s music, or you may know of her children’s music as her offspring are the legendary Wainwright sibling Rufus and Martha. After Kate’s premature death at age 63, Kate’s friends and family gathered in New York City’s Town Hall Theater for a tribute concert. This film uses concert footage, home movies, and interviews to pay tribute to the woman and her music.

Now I would be lying to you if I said I wasn’t completely obsessed with the musical legend that is Rufus Wainwright. I have seen him perform alongside his entire family at one point or another. It was obvious how much they cared for and were inspired by each other. I found the idea of this concert tribute very touching and got a little ferklempt out on the media line when Rufus and Martha came my way.

It also was quite a challenge to play it cool when meeting my musical hero. I think I did pretty well for myself not having fainted, although I was trembling like a leaf and had to do yogic breathing to speak at a relaxed pace and volume. But I powered on through to hide my obsession and to act professional for once in my journalistic career. Having said that, I’m now undoing all the good I’ve done by GUSHING about meeting my hero – but it’s one of my favourite moments of the festival dammit! And how many times in your life do you get to meet your hero… and be introduced to them as “Joanna Loose Lips”?

I could spend hours, days, weeks chatting with Rufus about his music, alas this was a moment for his mother and his family. As Martha and him approached me for a quick chat, I knew I had to reel it in and focus on the film, which music is obviously a part of, but it’s his mother’s music that is at hand. You can hear the audio below to hear how blasé I am about the whole thing and how I even managed to include Martha in on my questioning. Totally professional.

After that glorious moment had passed, it was time to speak to the director of the film Lian Lunson. Now she seems really sweet. Spacey, but sweet. She also took a liking to my glasses, which I was quite flattered by. But the oddest part of this interview was mid-question Lian got distracted and started shouting “Nick!”. I looked behind me and there was Nick Cave trying to sneak past me out of sight and into the cinema. Lian and Rufus kept shouting for his attention, he said a few polite words and then whisked himself away. This festival once again proving itself to be delightfully random:

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