Sundance London 2013

Sundance London
Film and Music Festival 2013
The O2, 25-28 April

by Joanna Orland

The Sundance Institute was founded in 1981 by Hollywood legend Robert Redford, with Sundance Festival later emerging in Utah in 1984.  Both are great supporters and perpetuators of the independent arts including cinema, theatre and music.  Often showcasing the works of first time filmmakers, low budget films, and various meaningful projects and panels, Sundance not only holds its own alongside other major film festivals such as Cannes, Venice and Toronto, but it has carved its own niche as the frontrunner for promoting the independent and becoming a true hub and networking event for established, indie and aspiring filmmakers.  For the second year in a row, Sundance Festival has made its way to London from its hometown of Utah.

The vibe of the independent is prevalent at the festival.  It doesn’t have the glitz and glamour of the more Hollywood driven ones, in spite of it drawing big film and music talent, notably its founder Robert Redford.  It has a relaxed atmosphere and the passionate vibe of people who are genuine fanatics about the art of cinema, for the sake of the art form itself.

The festival showcases a selection of up-and-coming as well as established talent in independent films of all genres.  It also hosts unique industry panels and Q&A sessions, and has integrated a music stream, which makes the link between music and film alongside live concerts by featured artists.  In addition to these films, panels, Q&As and concerts, this year’s Sundance London featured the Sundance Hub, a space where filmmakers and the public could network casually, enjoy talks and further live music.  The hub was a lovely space and a true hidden gem of this year’s festival.

With so much going on at Sundance, it’s hard to truly encompass all of the highlights in one simple review.  As I am merely one humble reporter, I will do my best to articulate my personal experience.  Based on my encounters with other festival attendees, it seems that in spite of my strong attendance effort, I still missed some truly exciting projects such as films including the blatant hit comedy The Kings of Summer, the award-winning documentary Blood Brother, as well as a very interesting panel on the differences between British and American Comedy.  Other things I’m not as gutted to have missed include Peaches in her debut film and coinciding concert, The Eagles documentary part 1, and a few other hit and miss items.  Even with missing these festival highlights, I still had a fantastic time.  And here is why….

In A World…
Directed by Lake Bell
Starring Lake Bell, Ken Marino, Demetri Martin, Nick Offerman, Eva Longoria

With such an epic title as In A World… (said in that clichéd manly trailer voiceover way), and with such an epic comedy cast to boot, I was highly underwhelmed by this film.  It’s a perfectly delightful film and more than watchable, but I felt it had so much more potential than it reached.  It’s as if director/writer/star Lake Bell was playing it safe just to get her first full length feature out the door.

How can a film starring some of my favourite comedians including Demetri Martin, Nick Offerman and Ken Marino disappoint?  Nick Offerman, better known as Ron Swanson from TV show Parks and Recreation, was completely pointless in this film.  His character didn’t really even need to exist.  Demetri Martin as the love interest was also pointless and was too subtly underplayed.  Ken Marino was luckily the savior of this film and on good form as always, in the same vain as some of his other fantastic work including TV series Party Down and web series Burning Love.  Thank goodness for Ken Marino!

Lake Bell held her own in the lead role, but there were too many characters and subplots to forge any emotional attachment to any character or their narratives.  This film should have been streamlined to focus on the voiceover world alone, leaving sisters and marriages out of the equation.  Especially running at ninety three minutes, time did not need to be used for filler.

While potential was not fulfilled, this film is still a nice light-hearted watch, but do lower your expectations, even when reading all of the key selling points such as VOICEOVER COMEDY, DEMETRI MARTIN, NICK OFFERMAN, KEN MARINO.  Just think MILD DISAPPOINTMENT.

Touchy Feely
Directed by Lynn Shelton
Starring Rosemarie DeWitt, Josh Pais, Ellen Page, Scoot McNairy

Lynn Shelton’s return to Sundance after her hit film Your Sister’s Sister proved so popular that ticketholders were getting turned away at the door due to overcapacity. Once again starring Rosemarie DeWitt, Touchy Feely is a lovely dramedy exploring anxiety, identity and family.

The script is mediocre, but the performances and directing strengths are what give this small film a full life.  Rosemarie DeWitt isn’t the true star here, but rather it’s the rest of the cast that give heart to this film, notably Josh Pais who plays dentist Paul, an uptight, emotionally stunted brother to Rosemarie’s Abby, and father to Ellen Page’s Jenny.

This film isn’t ground-breaking or a revelation of any sort.  It is just a lovely watch and character study with performances being the key selling point.  Especially in the scene where uptight Paul finally meets Reiki healer played by the always wonderful Allison Janney.  This scene alone is worth the trip to the cinema.

Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes
Directed by Francesca Gregorini
Starring Kaya Scodelario, Jessice Biel, Alfred Molina

This film surprised me.  There were some overused clichés and cheesy elements to it, that were somehow done in a gripping and serious way, that captivated the audience and took us all on an emotional journey.

With many silly metaphors throughout, the one that could’ve derailed the film ended up being a surprise twist that if done at all differently, could’ve broken the illusion of the drama and lost the audience completely.  Somehow one of the cheesiest and silliest twists imaginable became a poignant and emotionally charged key plot point of the film.  This is in part due to the excellent directing by Gregorini, but also because of the excellent performances by Kaya Scodelario and Jessica Biel in her most compelling role to date.

Again, this film could have gone completely wrong, and perhaps in some screenings it did.  But in this one, the audience was in tears by the end, and not at all disbelieving for one minute of this filmic journey.  The film’s core subject matter of dealing with loss and the relationships formed on the path to healing is portrayed so delicately and paced so well, that the audience was suffering alongside the two female protagonists throughout the film.

I can’t reveal too much plot wise without ruining it for the viewer, but I can reiterate that in spite of some cliché metaphoric moments and overused ambient music and camera work, this film hits home and did not fail in the least to emotionally engage the audience.

Directed by Jeff Nichols
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Sam Shepard

I may be one of merely a few viewers who wasn’t overly fond of director Jeff Nichols’ previous film Take Shelter.  While I felt it was beautifully shot and performed, it angered and frustrated me to the point of discontent.  I would have forgiven it in spite of this, if it wasn’t for its ambiguous ending which pushed me over the edge of frustration.  As a film about anxiety, the director’s goal was to make the audience anxious, but failed to do so for me as I just became angry.

With Mud, Nichols again sets his film in his familiar setting of Arkansas, his third film set in this region of America.  While Take Shelter was about anxiety, Mud had a lighter tone of sorts and is more of a coming-of-age film, with strong themes of love running throughout.  Again, performances in this film were excellent, with director Nichols even admitting in the Q&A that he writes his characters specifically with his actors in mind.  Matthew McConaughey is perfectly cast as Mud for this very reason.  Sadly, Michael Shannon is underused as Uncle Gale, but as the part was written with him in mind, his musical and lesser known comedy talents did shine through when he had his few minutes of screen time.  The two boys at the center of the film were in the minority of not having had their characters written bespoke for them, but they were perfectly cast in the roles of Ellis and Neckbone.

The lead character Ellis was a beautiful role and perfectly performed by young actor Tye Sheridan, who you will know as the youngest boy in Terence Malick’s Tree of Life.  He had that perfect balance of naivety, romanticism, teen angst and genuine likability that had the audience captivated.  His best friend Neckbone was the polar opposite and the logical grounding of this film.  He was perfectly crass, untrusting and realistic to keep the plot believable and true to life.  Nichols stated that each of these boys represent an aspect of his own personality.  He has the romantic ideals of Ellis, but the logical hesitance of Neckbone to counterbalance and help his better judgment prevail.

You can tell with Nichols’ films that they come from a very personal place.  Not only from the way he writes and presents his detailed characters, but from the way he depicts Arkansas on screen.  In both Take Shelter and Mud (I haven’t seen his first film Shotgun Stories), Arkansas is a sweaty, sticky, hot and murky setting in a Nichols film.  It’s as much of a character as the human beings that grace his screen.  The slow pace of a Nichols film helps to articulate this and truly transport the audience to this place and story.

Nichols conceived the idea for this film originally centered around the Mud character as a getaway movie of sorts, with the idea of a man on the run living on an island in the middle of the Mississippi river.  The idea evolved and came to be from the perspective of these two boys, Ellis and Neckbone.  The story then shifted focus entirely and became about these two boys and their coming of age story, with the getaway concept of Mud being portrayed through their eyes only.  It adds a much more interesting layer and depth to a familiar story.

Nichols claims he is going to break away from his moody Arkansas based filmic style, with his next planned project being about a 1960’s biker gang in Chicago.  Well, I can’t exactly imagine that after seeing Take Shelter and then Mud reaffirming his distinct directorial style, but I certainly believe he is a new and unique voice in modern American cinema and love or hate his work, I am excited to see what the future holds for director Jeff Nichols.

In Fear
Directed by Jeremy Lovering
Starring Alice Englert, Iain De Caestecker, Allen Leech

This film was terrifying!  I don’t even like horror films – why did I go see it?  As far as horror films go, the first half is very well done.  It fits in a lot of horror clichés and puts its sound design  / music score to very good use.  The first half builds up the characters’ relationship and sets up the plot and suspense to the letter.  It’s as if director Lovering watched J.J. Abrams talk about the Mystery Box and used it as a bible to create the foreboding mystery and terror of this film.

Sadly, the second half strays as the threat does not seem as ominous.  I was personally relieved as I thought I was going to have a heart attack in the first half!  But as a fan of film, I was disappointed that the tension that was so intricately crafted had been broken.  The plot and twists are still very interesting and well done, but that tension was what was keeping the audience interested.

During the Q&A for In Fear, director Lovering and star Alice Englert discussed how a lot of the film was improvised, with the two lead actors never having seen a copy of the script, not even knowing the fates of their own characters.  The director was so true to this realistic horror vision that he workshopped the actors for two weeks before shooting to have them know each other as well as and for as long as their character counterparts had.  Truer yet, the film was shot chronologically as to not reveal any plot twists to the actors themselves, the director always using the first take of any horror reaction performances, even when later acted takes may have been better.  The horror had to be real for him.  And it certainly was for the viewing audience!

Directed by Stuart Zicherman
Starring Adam Scott, Catherine O’Hara, Richard Jenkins, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Amy Poehler, Jessica Alba

The film started in one of the oddest ways possible, with the director Stuart Zicherman physically brining in chairs for the audience.  This was yet another case, and the second that I’d personally witnessed, of a Sundance screening being filled over capacity.  Surely they know how many seats they can sell tickets for without continually overselling?  I have no idea how this can happen more than the odd time.  But anyway, to see the director himself seat the audience was charming and already put us all in a good frame of mind to prepare for watching his film that he not only directed, but also co-wrote. I’m fairly certain I have a huge crush on him now – What a winner!

A.C.O.D. stands for Adult Children Of Divorce (not Adult Children Of Delay as the director and staff could be overheard muttering as the film took ages to start after finally seating its filled-to-the-brim audience).  Adam Scott plays Carter whose parents dramatically divorced when he was nine years old, and it continues to affect him through to adult life.

In spite of a lot of negativity towards romance and marriage, Zicherman stated that the moral of his film is that we are actually free to live our lives as we choose and are not destined to follow in our parents’ footsteps.  With the ending of the credits depicting some of the film’s crew and their thoughts on the subject matter, Zicherman sheepishly admitted that he’s going to re-edit the current end credit sequence to end on a funnier high note as the final thought is currently quite a sad outlook on marriage and not at all in the same funny tone as the rest of the film.

Adam Scott holds his own as leading man, appearing in every single scene of this film.  The key to the film’s success is its cast.  In addition to lead Scott, the supporting cast is solid with comedy veterans Catherine O’Hara, Richard Jenkins, the always scene-stealing Jane Lynch and Amy Poehler.  In addition, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Jessica Alba rather nicely fill out the cast with more serious roles.

Zicherman himself is an A.C.O.D. and while the narrative and parental characters were inspired by his real life, he claims that they are not directly based on them.  This film obviously comes from a personal place for Zicherman.  Unlike many other modern comedies of the moment, this film actually has heart and characters that you genuinely care about.  It’s more of a dramedy than an outright comedy, but the laughs are certainly rife including everything that comes out of Jane Lynch’s mouth, and also Scott’s character Carter secretly referring to his stepmother (played by Poehler) as Cuntessa.  Scott obviously remarked at the comedy value of the fact that in TV show Parks and Recreation, he and Amy play a couple making googly eyes at each other all of the time, and here in this film, he resorts to calling her Cuntessa.  Quite a bit of a change in dynamic!

In fact, the Q&A was just as funny as the film.  Adam Scott’s admission that he originally fancied himself a serious dramatic actor in itself got a good laugh (even though he’s got a bit of a proven track record!), especially when he proclaimed that he was going to change his name to something along the lines of Adam Codeliero because he wanted an Italian surname like De Niro, but his mom’s Italian maiden name of something that sounded a bit like Codelierisio was too lengthy.

Here I am talking to both A.C.O.D. star Adam Scott and director Stuart Zicherman on the red carpet:

Senses of Humor/Humour: The Art of Comedy (Panel)
Red Carpet
Featuring Alice Lowe, Lake Bell, Mike BIrbiglia, Jordan Vogt-Roberts

A key feature at this year’s Sundance London was its comedy.  Notably, its American comedy.  In this very relevant panel, American and British comedians discussed the differences between the two cultures comedic styles.  I got a bit of a preview on the red carpet as I discussed the issue with Lake Bell and Alice Lowe.

Alice Lowe:

Lake Bell:

Kickstarter and Creative Independence
Panel featuring Kickstarter’s Kendel Ratley, Sundance Institute’s Keri Putnam, and Blood Brother filmmaker’s Steve Hoover &
Danny Yourd

Surprisingly, one of the most interesting things that I attended at Sundance London was something not even on my initial schedule.  I found a gap in my schedule and decided to head down to the Sundance Hub, an area open to all Sundance London ticket holders, where talks, performances and mingling all took place.

The Kickstarter talk on creative independence was enlightening, inspiring and educational.  It discussed Kickstarter’s potential from Sundance Institute’s point of view of wanting to promote independent cinema, from the filmmaker’s point of view as Blood Brother was completely funded using a Kickstarter campaign, and from Kickstarter’s point of view for the audience to get a full understanding of the web site’s potential.

To put it into perspective, 17 Kickstarter funded films were at this year’s Sundance in Utah, with 6 of them going on to win awards, notably Blood Brother taking top honours for both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award for U.S. Documentary.

One topic that kept coming up was Zach Braff’s recent Kickstarter campaign, which is propelling Kickstarter into the mainstream.  Braff himself wants to leave the studio platform behind, but Sundance Institute, other filmmakers and Kickstarter themselves are currently seeing the platform used more as a top up of budget rather than an entirely new way to produce funding.  Even so, this platform is new and heavily shaping the way the Arts and Technology are funded and designed.  It is one of the most revolutionary inventions of the decade from this perspective, and one to watch to see if it reaches its full potential.  For more information:

Sleepwalk With Me
Directed by Mike Birbiglia
Starring Mike Birbiglia

Review by Raphael Perahia

It was during the question and answer session with writer, director, and lead actor Mike Birbiglia, that the comedian told the audience about a scene which was added after the first screening of the film.

‘I brought some almonds and water to my girlfriend after work, it made my character much more sympathetic.’

His on stage persona is affable and loose. This movie was a labour of love for him, and his candor and honesty are the best things about it. The semi-autobiographical movie started well, blending drama, narration and comedy. Matt Pandamiglio is a failing comic still using the same jokes since his first open-mic. He’s impersonal and impish. His life has stalled and his girlfriend, Abby, played sincerely and sympathetically by Lauren Ambrose of Six Feet Under fame, is the best thing in it. Yet he can’t commit to her. He can’t really commit to anything.

Things get worse as he has a severe case of sleepwalking and begins acting out his dreams and nightmares in his apartment and hotel rooms. When a lucky break gives him the opportunity to travel, perform stand up, and get paid, it starts to weigh on the relationship.

I was truly enjoying his story, and then the movie abruptly ended. I felt robbed of a scene when the narrator told me what happened instead of having the very able Ambrose and Birbiglia act it out. By not seeing it, it felt unresolved. The movie I was enjoying just floated away at its climax.

In spite of fitting all of this into a tight schedule of merely a few days, I feel that there is so much more that I’ve missed at this festival.  It is so rich, creative and interesting with so much on offer for filmmakers and fans alike.  Let’s hope it returns to our shores for a third time in 2014.

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