Posts Tagged ‘Sundance London’

Fantastic Machine (2023)

Dir.: Axel Donielson, Maximilien von Aertryck; Documentary Sweden/Denmark 2023, 88 min.

‘An image tells a thousand words’ 

A potted history of the camera – from the early nineteenth century to the present day – provides compulsive viewing in this new documentary from Axel Donielson and Maximilien von Aertryck.

Apparently King Edward VII, when watching his own coronation re-staged by film pioneer Georges Melies in a Paris studio, exclaimed “What a fantastic machine” in his wonderment of a gadget which would transform public and private life forever.

The first time feature directors have plundered the archives and uncovered a wealth of material from the clips and sources – as a bonus, they are also preparing a book version which will serve as a companion piece to the documentary – promising additional, previously unseen material into the bargain.

The opening shows people in a shopping centre looking in astonishment at the ‘Camera Obscura’ images, forgetting they have far more sophisticated equipment in their own pockets. The stream of images, from Muybridge to Logan Paul; Melies sensational early shorts to “Breaking Bad” Fantastic Machine is a film about film and our obsession with recording what we see. It also tells the story of how technology changed the planet.

Back in the day, Melies’ footage of trains shocked audiences so much they fled the cinema in horror. There are oddities on show too, and breathtaking examples throughout that beggar belief: A very cheerful Leni Riefenstahl, looking back with nostalgia at a flatbed editing machine, ignores her past and her work and pretends there is no representation in any of her films.

Fantastic Machine shows us the first intercontinental broadcast and the response it got from  an audience in Wisconsin. There are examples of how photography eventually came alive with the moving image, and the first examples of the ‘peep show’ that would lead, in time, to ‘blue movies’. Yes, now that’s all on the internet for free.

The advent of TV was a major step forward, and with it the commercials that now seem to rule the world. But early TV was also a means of gaining insight and education in the “Open University” at least for the middle-classes, who were upwardly mobile during the 1960s. TV Commercials or ‘adverts’ soon found their way from the big box in the living room to the mobiles in our pockets, leading us persuasively by the nose to the goods we think we need with algorithms to find a target audience.

You Tube has now created a new audience, and a set of new age entrepreneurs: The phenomenon has spawned a legion of teen millionaires all under the age of eighteen. On a darker note, we have to thank the cameramen who risk their lives in war zones, and those who took images of liberated concentration camp victims, “so that nobody can say that it did not happen”. The directors strike a note of caution when it comes to fake news, urging us to think before we act. Seeing is not always believing, and can be deceptive.

Fantastic Machine is certainly worth a second viewing. Apart from being a treasure trove of information, it never takes itself too seriously with a welcome dash of humour, and a non-judgemental approach at all times. AS



Fire of Love (2022)

Dir.: Sara Dosa; Cast: Documentary with Maurice Krafft, Katia Krafft; narrator Miranda July; Canada/USA 2022, 93 min.

French volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft are the focus of this new documentary cum love story that records a life-changing visit to the island of Stromboli that would see them developing early warning systems for volcano eruptions from the early 1970s and lead to a worldwide research project that ended abruptly in June 1991, when they were killed, with 41 others, by a pyroclastic flow at Mount Unzen in Japan.

Sara Dosa (The Seer and the Unseen) bases her film on on a script by Shane Boris, Erin Caspar and Jocelyne Chaput that tells how the couple had met in Strasbourg and decided to devote their life to the beauty – and danger – of volcanos. Maurice maintained that rather than having “a long, monotonous life he would rather have a short, exciting one, dicing with danger in getting his legs burnt in boiling mud and risking life and limb to cross a lake in a rubber dingy containing sulphuric acid, making Katia, a chemist, incensed. Meanwhile she was famous for wearing metal helmets and walking along the edge of active volcano craters, captured in stunning camerawork by Pablo Alvarez-Mesa along with stunning images of the volcano Krakatoa, situated between the islands of Java and Sumatra.

Dosa and her writers flesh out the personal side of the couples’ obsession – just like Werner Herzog in A Fire within: A Requiem for Katia and Maurice Krafft – yet their immense scientific oeuvre of over twenty publications is not even mentioned once which is a shame since the Kraffts warned the filipino president Cory Aquino about the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo, allowing for the area to be evacuated. One of the Kraffts’ final publications before their death was “Understanding Volcanic Hazards and reducing volcanic risks”. In their own words, they “may have lived kamikaze existence”, but they contributed enormously to an arcane science. And like veritable pioneers they also paid the price. AS


Hatching (2022) Sundance London

Dir.: Hanna Bergholm; Cast: Suri Solalinka, Sophia Heikillä, Oiva Ollila, Reino Nordin Jani Volanen; Finland 2022, 87 min.

The debut feature of Finnish writer/director Hanna Bergholm is an intelligent blend of family dysfunction, female powerplay and horror.

The setting is a dream house in the countryside for a family divided: mother (Heikillä) is the driving force. Unsuccessful as an ice-skater, she is now a social media influencer and wants her daughter Tinja (Solalinka), a budding gymnast, to become a success story to make up for her own failure. Tinja goes along with her, but her husband (Volanen) turns avoids conflict, supporting his wife, even though she is cheating with handyman Tero (Nordin). Young Mathias (Ollila), is, like his father, very much in the shadow of the female of the species. But Tinja finds the long hours of training arduous, and lacks her domineering mother’s grit. But when a new female rival enters the fray, in the shape of her new neighbour and gym buddy. Tinja’s competitive edge kicks in with the family pets take the brunt along with a huge bird. The animal is something like Tinja’s Alter Ego: doing all the bloody stuff for her, and punishing mother and lover for their illicit affair. Solalinka is brilliant as the meek little girl betraying a brutal Dr. Hyde personality. Bergholm breathes new life into this ingenious genre thriller perfectly pitched at 90 minutes running time AS


Resurrection (2022) Sundance London

Dir/Wri: Andrew Semans | Cast: Rebecca Hall, Tim Roth, Grace Kaufman, Michael Esper, Angela Wong Carbone | US Thriller 104′

Once again Rebecca Hall finds herself, or maybe she chooses to be, in a film where her talents surpass the material. Indeed, such was the case with her recent outings in The Night House and Permission, only has she really shined as Christine in Antonio Campos’ captivating biopic drama of the same name.

On last year showed her strength as a director in her debut Passing. That said Resurrection – Seman’s sophomore feature – is watchable largely down to Hall and her reliable co-star Tim Roth but it feels like a film you have probably seen before.

She is Margaret, a woman from upstate New York, who has survived a life-changing event, revealed in a magnetic eight minute monologue, and is now battled scarred and emotionally buttoned down as she faces the future with trepidation right up to the bloody almost feral finale. MT


Good Luck to You, Leo Grande (2022) Sundance London

Dir.: Sophie Hide; Cast: Emma Thompson, Daryl McCormack, Isabella Laughland; UK 2022, 97 min.

Emma Thompson is the star turn in this comedy of manners between a male sex worker and a middle-aged, widowed woman – unfortunately the outcome is not as funny as planned.

Nancy Stokes (Thompson) feels rather short-changed on the sex front after a long marriage leaves her unsatisfied and determined to remedy the situation. And she hopes hunky sex worker Leo Grande (McCormack) will make her life complete, between the sheets. The two meet in a hotel room in Norwich with the aim of giving Nancy her first orgasm – although McCormack is no Richard Gere from American Gigolo, he is certainly pleasant and playful in dealing with Nancy’s technical list driven approach to intercourse which sees him coming up against barriers, and we don’t mean just on the condom front.  Soon the two are in a psychological clinch: Leo has obvious Mummy issues – being rejected for enjoying girls and drugs. The outcome is never in doubt, after all, this is a British feel-good fuck flick.

Good Luck suffers from the rather claustrophobic setting set – the hotel bedroom (and its Norwich location, bringing to mind Alan Partridge) gives DoP Bryan Mason very little to play with in a film spoilt by its rather clumsy script.

Thompson once again makes this warchable, McCormack tries his best to make his part believable. But Good Luck doesn’t flow – possibly intentionally: this is theatre, the verbal exchanges are awkward, the whole exercise hampered by the need for witty repartee. Not a big screen outing then but ideal for a rainy Sunday afternoon in front of the TV. AS


Pleasure (2021) Sundance Film Festival 2021

Dir.: Ninja There; Cast: Sofia Kappel, Revika Anne Reustle, Evelyn Claire, Chris Cock, Eva Melander; Sweden/Netherlands/France 2021, 109 min.

Girls in the world of porn is the subversive subject of this first feature from Swedish director Ninja There. Expanding her 2013 Cannes award-winning short offers a timely opportunity to explore the lucrative male-dominated sector of the economy where women are literally asked to betray their own gender. Whilst the cool, analytical form may not be everyone’s taste, Pleasure is a stunning portrait of an industry just invented to titillate men.

A young Swedish woman lands in LAX and is asked a common question: Business or Pleasure? She opts for the latter, but it turns out to be an illusion. With a new name, Bella Cherry (Kappel) she will join the many hopefuls who try to make a name and fortune in the porn industry. Apart from Kappel, all protagonists are in the business – so to speak – including top talent agent Mark Spiegler. Set in the grim industrial San Fernando valley and some garish mansions, Bella joins collegues in a house where she makes friends with Joy (Reustle) who teaches the uninitiated the tricks of the trade.

When Bear (Cock), a senior crew member, asks her about her life story, Bella claims she has been raped by her father, laughing it off in the same breath and Bear warns her about the competition. Bella’s first shoot is fairly lowkey – one of the crew members is a woman. But then she enters the harsh end of the profession: rough sex, or, as it turns out, rape. Three men coerce her into hours of submission, threatening not to pay her all if she refuses to comply to their wishes.

Bella is a bit of a loner back in Sweden, as we learn this from a phone conversation with her Mum (Melander), but is determined to do her best She wants to succeed, at all costs. But friendships  soon fall by the wayside. Joy, nicknamed “trailer trash” by one of the so-called stars, pushes him into the pool. Shortly afterwards Bella sides with the producers, when Joy is clearly hurt by a male actor – but Bella keeps schtum. She is in awe of the glittering Ava (Claire), the latest ‘Spiegler Girl’ who acts in girl-on-girl features. Their love/hate relationship is the pivotal point of the feature and its abrupt ending.

There are some parallels here with a recent Swedish feature, Holiday (2018) by Isabella Eklöf. But Thyberg goes into details, including full erections. DoP Sophie Winquist keeps a firm grasp on her film with a woman’s gaze, always subverting expectations – in total contrast to a straight up porn film. But the key element is Thyberg’s unflinching attack on the patriarchal power at play. Bold and with an brilliant eye for details, Pleasure never lets the audience forget who is in charge and why. AS



Coda (2021) BAFTAs 2022

Wri/Dir.: Sian Heder; Cast: Emilia Jones, Marlee Matlin, Troy Kotsur, Daniel Dureant, Amy Forsyth, Eugenio Derbuz, Ferdia Walsh-Peelo; USA 2021, 111 min.

Teenage Ruby Rossi (Jones) is the only person in her family not afflicted by deafness in this fluidly amusing coming of age drama from American writer/director Sian Heder (Tallulah) winning Best Adapted Screenplay at this year’s Baftas 2022.

Ruby Rossi is not much of an academic in her last year at High School, so she’s decided to stick with the family business joining her father Frank (Kotsur) and brother Leo (Durant) who are independent fishermen, and mother Jackie (Matlin) who does the books. But the new music teacher Bernardo Villalobos (Derbez) discovers Ruby’s fine voice and coaches her for the entrance examines at a respected conservatoire in Boston. Love interest Miles (Walsh-Peelo) supports her, but Ruby is torn between a musical career and staying put – particularly since the Rossi’s and other fishermen are planning to break away form the corrupt wholesale agency.

Refreshingly Heder avoids a didactic approach in CODA aka Child of Deaf Adults in a narrative that flows easily with its conflicting emotions, Ruby is not a victim, having to ‘translate’ for her family in sign language – she has a certain agency which she sometimes ruthlessly exploits. She disapproves of her parents’ loud lovemaking and brother Leo’s girlfriend Gertie (Forsyth) who is also over-sexed. When Gertie asks Ruby to tell her the sign language for “I love you”, Ruby shows her a completely different meaning: “I have herpes”. Leo is blown away by the “discovery”.

Set in a blue-collar community, CODA has a ring of true realism without being an agit-prop. DoP Paula Huidobro does a great job in the ‘action’ scenes on the fishing boat, as well as the close-ups. Inspite of the indulgent running time there’s never a spare moment, Heder lets her cast roam around in a feature of setbacks wild emotions; with the overly long drawn out happy-ending perhaps the only point of critique. CODA scooped three Oscars for its worthy topic more than anything else.AS




In the Same Breath (2021) Sundance London

Dir.: Nafu Wang; Documentary; USA 2021, 95 min.

A scathing documentary about the handling of the COVID-19 crisis in the one-party state of the People’s Republic of China – and the not so different approach of the Trump administration in the USA – is quite an eye-opener. Chinese born writer/director Nafu Wang (One Child Nation) bases her her findings of her own experiences having lived and worked in the USA for the last nine years,

Wang, born and raised in China, was visiting her mother in a city 200 miles away from Wuhan when she came across news reports stating how eight doctors had been arrested for spreading rumours about a respiratory sickness. When Wang left for the USA on January 23rd, Wuhan was in lockdown. Wang’s husband managed to get their son, who was with his grandmother, home to the USA. Wang was by now alerted and aware of the discrepancy between the censured media reports, and the real situation in China. Back home, she commissioned camera operators, often using covert mobiles ‘phones to report on what was going on in China. She also offered the story to an American newspaper, which declined.

The results were astonishing – the censored reporting of state media was completely skewed away from people dying in the streets, or posting their x-rays on You Tube in the vain hope that they would receive treatment. The lavish New Year’s Eve celebration in Wuhan became a super spreader – ignoring the doctors alarm cost countless lives. But the Chinese government celebrated the success of their medical campaign, even when people were still dying outside hospital doors.

Wang was equally angry with the reaction of the Trump government: the president and his supporters in the White House and the CDC playing down the impact of pandemic, even Dr. Anthony Fauci can be heard aping the president stating “nobody in the USA is at risk from the pandemic”. “Just like the flu” was a common statement. And so the US went unprepared into the fight with the pandemic, even the most basic equipment was lacking.

In China the government agencies hailed the “victory over the virus” only weeks after the doctors’ arrests, the authoritarian Trump administration let loose millions of pandemic deniers and conspiracy theorists. For Wang, the idealist, who never had any illusions about the nature of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, the failure of the US government, is a failure of Democracy itself. AS


Human Factors (2021)

Dir.: Ronny Trocker; Cast: Max Waschke, Sabine Timoteo, Jude Hermann, Wanja Valentin Kube, Daniel Séjourné; Italy/Germany/Denmark 2021, 102 min.

Italian-born Ronny Trocker’s intelligent but underpowered invasion thriller has the same fault line that runs through many German features of the past few decades: a premise that looks promising on paper but fails to come alive cinematically because everything has to serve the central construct. This may work for Michael Haneke but Trocker’s film lacks the narrative heft that makes Haneke’s features so absorbing. DoP Klemens Hufnagl tries for a ‘Huis clos’ atmosphere but he’s further hemmed in by the narrative confines, and the actors can’t inject much verve either with their underwritten characters.

Human Factors centres on a repressed and deeply conflicted upper-middle class family. For some light relief they take a break in a holiday home in Belgium near the German border but this is a sticking plaster rather than a solution to their woes. Husband Jan (Waschke) and wife Nina (Timoteo) run a PR agency in Germany, but politically they are poles apart and this tension bleeds into their ongoing campaign in the run up the country’s elections. Their kids are suffering too: Teenage daughter Emma (Hermann) is having problems at school and hanging out with the wrong crowd, her young brother Max (Kube) has lost the plot completely and is only interested in his pet rat Zorrow.

The holiday gets off to a bad start with a bungled burglary, the repercussions having a knock on affect for all concerned in this Rashomon like set-up. Nina’s gay brother Flo (Séjourné) and his partner then fetch up on the scene, and this doesn’t go down well with the rather homophobic Jan, opening up further avenues of discontent. Back in Germany on the Monday, things just go from bad to worse. AS



Misha and the Wolves (2021)

Dir.: Sam Hobkinson; Documentary with Misha Defonseca, Jane Daniel, Evelyn Haendel, Sharon Seargant; Belgium/UK 2021, 89 min.

Sam Hobkinson (Fear City) tells one of the most bizarre stories of modern times. Misha and the Wolves could be a fairy tale, but it turns into a nightmare – and then into something completely beyond the wildest imagination.

In the remote town of Millis, Massachusetts. Belgian immigrant Misha Defonseca regaled friends and neighbours with her experiences during the Holocaust. She told the members of Temple Bel Torah how, as a little girl in during wartime 1941, she left her loveless foster home and began to search for her biological  parents who had been deported to a death camp. Taking up with a pack of wolves she walked on foot from Belgium to Germany, it what would be an eventful and violent journey.

One of her neighbours of Defonseca Jane Daniel, ran a small publishing company, the Mt. Ivy Press and offered to publish the memoir as ‘Misha: A memoire of the Holocaust Years’. It came out in 1997 and was a great success, as was the French version. In 2007, the French filmmaker Vera Belmont shot the story as Survivre avec les Loups. But the cracks started to show: Defonseca took Daniel to court, over her refusal to be interviewed by Oprah Winfrey. Next came a major discovery: Defonseca had used two different versions of her birth name: one for the America edition, one for the French one. Than everything unravelled quickly, thanks to forensic genealogist Sharon Sergeant, and Evelyne Haendel, a Belgian researcher and Holocaust survivor. What emerged was a completely different version of events.  Misha was born in 1937 as Monique de Wael to catholic parents in Etterbeek, Belgium. She never left home as a child.

Hobkinson then uses the Errol Morris technique, turning the narrative into a Patricia Highsmith style story where the focus is no longer Defonseca – but a gullible public on both sides of the Atlantic intrigued to have discered just another plucky Jewish survivor. The guilt surrounding lack of social responsibility during the Shoah still haunts communities who react with denial (as in Poland) or half-truths as they do in France. Misha’s real story is also chained to this process of uncovering the kindness of strangers who courageously risked their own safety to help Jews. Opportunism is still rife in the publishing world, Jane Daniel being only one example. DoP Will Pugh documents this torrid tale of a deception that provides a welcome version of the truth, an antidote to bestseller spin. Misha Forenseca still lives in Millis. AS


Writing With Fire (2021) Movies that Matter Festival 2022

Dir.: Sushmit Ghosh, Rintu Thomas; Documentary with Meere Devi, Shyonkali Devi, Suneeta Prajapate; India 2021, 92 min.

This Oscar nominated documentary by first time feature directors Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh (also co-DoP) once again exposes an endemic culture of police corruption, bribery and misogyny in Indian culture seen through the ‘Khabar Lahariya’ (‘News Wave’) newspaper. The publication was founded just after the turn of the century by women of India’s lowest cast – the Dalit, and operates out of Uttar Pradesh, a region which usually votes for the winning Party in the General election – and this will play a big part later.

We begin with chief reporter Meere interviewing the victim of a brutal rape, and her shocked husband. Meere then walks straight into the police station to demand why nobody has been charged with the assault. Alarmingly the police are not interested in helping the victim. Clearly they are not there to serve the people or enforce law and order, but to trouser lavish bribes from their venal local overlords who continue to operate with impunity.

Although the “Khabar Lahariya’ is now digital, at the end, with 125 million followers on You Tube, the journalists are not really taken not seriously – even by their own husbands – one proclaiming the whole operation will fail.

During the 2019 election, the sitting candidate of the region left his own party, and joined Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP. When interviewed by the women he gives the usual lip service to fighting corruption, if re-elected, since the BJP will allow him to be active on this front, unlike his old Party. Modi and the BJP won in a landslide, not only in Uttar Pradesh. But already a week later, the journalists are repressed by members of the BJP, wearing orange outfits, and pretending to represent religious groups. The danger of absolute Hindu nationalism is obvious.

The fate of the individual members of the newspaper is also told, centring around Suneeta, Meere’s best ‘student’. Disappointingly she then decides to give up her profession and marry. Lost in that immediacy is a deeper historical look at the paper itself; while we understand its creation was unique, Writing with Fire is so invested in the present that the filmmakers fail to offer key information about its founding.

Still, now is as good a time as any to follow the paper and its evolving reporters as we watch Khabar Lahariya grow in size and influence. It’s a double-sided coin: Increased visibility means increased impact, for the journalists and their subjects, but it also places the women in the crossfire of anyone opposed to them (and that’s plenty of people, especially as the country enters a key election period).

The personal toll is never far from the frame, and while some of the documentary drags as its filmmakers cycle through repetitive scenes (a husband rolling his eyes at his wife’s work, a family railing against the impossibility of marrying off their daughter, a puffed-up subject refusing to talk to female journalists), they also put the audience very much inside the world of Meera, Suneeta, and Shyamkali.

A startling finale makes Writing with Fire one of the finest features ever made about journalism, a real eye opener. AS



The Sparks Brothers (2021) Sundance London 2021

Dir.: Edgar Wright; Documentary with Ron Mael, Russell Mael, Mike Myers, Giorgio Moroder, Tony Visconti, Christl Haydon, Steve Jones, Alex Kapranos; UK 2021, 135 min.

At first glance, The Sparks Brothers is an odd choice as a first documentary for director/writer Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Baby Driver). They were the operatic star turn with their score for Annette at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and their music has endured half a century. Hits like ‘This town is not not big enough for Both of Us’, was a great success in the UK, but ignored in the US, leaving many fans with the impression they were British – but they were born and bred LA. The Sparks have produced twenty-five albums, and Wright (a self-confessed fan) has given everyone enough space here – which accounts for a self-indulgent running time of two hour fifteen minutes.

Ron and Russell Mael had a proper cinema upbringing with their parents, who, idiosyncratically, took their kids to the cinema whenever they saw fit. No surprise then that Ron and Russell wanted to compose for the big screen. But early efforts with Jacques Tati and Tim Burton came to nothing. Luckily, they ‘escaped’ the dud Rollercoaster from 1977, which fell instead to poor Lalo Schifrin while we get an uncredited glimpse of the brothers. Finally Ron and Russell got their just reward: this year’s opening feature at Cannes directed by Leos Carax, scored by the Maels. Not bad for a duo who inspired New Order, Duran Duran and The Human League.

The brothers Mael are great entertainers, even performing with a dummy. And Wright mocks the genre roles of the documentary, with animation and CGI inlets. Wright hits the spirit of the Maels: the 1979 album produced by Giorgio Moroder, featured classics like ‘Try outs for the Human Race’, just the sort of anarchy Wright reproduced in his feature films. The Sparks Brothers is a proper head banger, celebrating the feeling of anarchic creativity. AS

SUNDANCE LONDON | July 29 – August 1st 2021

The Blazing World (2021) Sundance London 2021

Dir.: Carlson Young; Cast: Carlson Young, Udo Kier, Vanessa Shaw, Dermot Mulroney, Liz Mikel; USA 2021, 101 min.

Carlson Young writes directs and also stars in her first film, an extended version of her 2018 Sundance short and essentially a fantasy sci-fi. Young takes full credit for the outcome, a glittering, elaborate eye-catcher build on an anaemic narrative, held together by DoP Shane F. Kelly and PD Rodney F. Becker. But it is the evocative orchestral score of composer Isom Innis that sets the tone.

Margaret (perhaps a nod to Margaret Cavendish, who authored a 1666 sci-fi-themed tome ‘The Description of a New World Called the Blazing World’) never recovered from the profound shock of losing her twin sister Elizabeth who drowned in the swimming pool of the family mansion while her parents (Vanessa Shaw and Dermot Mulroney) were otherwise engaged in one of their spectacular showdowns. But the traumatic day didn’t end there: a haunting figure (played by Udo Kier) tries to lure her into going with him into a dark hole. She grows up to become a gloomy college student (Young) desperately trying to be re-united with her sister, who she believes is caught in another dimension, waiting to be rescued. But even respected TV astrologer (Mikel) is unimpressed by her efforts: “You should watch Dr. Who, it’s on the BBC” she advises Margaret. In Pan’s Labyrinth-style sequences she follows Kier in a bid to be re-united with her sister, swallowed up in Cagliari-like corridors. But somehow we are never quite sure which rabbit hole Margaret is aiming for. Meanwhile Kier waxes lyrical: “What the darkness eats, the darkness keeps.” Young was clearly aiming for a baroque aesthetic for her earnest protagonist on a mission – what we get is a digital makeover. AS

SUNDANCE LONDON 2021 | July 29-1 August

Sundance London 2019 | 30 May – 2 June 2019

Robert Redford’s Sundance Film Festival brings a selection of films to London, screening at at PICTUREHOUSE CENTRAL from 30 MAY – 2 JUNE 2019. Here is a selection of the features and documentaries scheduled:

THE LAST TREE/ United Kingdom (Director/Screenwriter: Shola Amoo) – Femi is a British boy of Nigerian heritage who, after a happy childhood in rural Lincolnshire, moves to inner London to live with his mum. Struggling with the unfamiliar culture and values of his new environment, teenage Femi has to figure out which path to adulthood he wants to take CAST: Sam Adewunmi, Gbemisola Ikumelo, Denise Black, Tai Golding, Nicholas Pinnock 

LATE NIGHT U.S.A. (Director: Nisha Ganatra, Screenwriter: Mindy Kaling) – Legendary late-night talk show host’s world is turned upside down when she hires her only female staff writer. Originally intended to smooth over diversity concerns, her decision has unexpectedly hilarious consequences as the two women separated by culture and generation are united by their love of a biting punchline. Cast: Emma Thompson, Mindy Kaling, John Lithgow, Paul Walter Hauser, Reid Scott, Amy Ryan

THE NIGHTINGALE Australia (Director/Screenwriter: Jennifer Kent) – 1825. Clare, a young Irish convictwoman, chases a British officer through the Tasmanian wilderness, bent on revenge for a terrible act of violence he committed against her family. On the way she enlists the services of Aboriginal tracker Billy, who is marked by trauma from his own violence-filled past. Cast: Aisling Franciosi, Sam Claflin, Baykali Ganambarr, Damon Herriman, Harry Greenwood, Ewen Leslie

HAIL SATAN? U.S.A. (Director: Penny Lane) – A look at the intersection of religion and activism, tracing the rise of The Satanic Temple: only six years old and already one of the most controversial religious movements in American history. The Temple is calling for a Satanic revolution to save the nation’s soul. But are they for real? 

THE FAREWELL U.S.A., China (Director/Screenwriter: Lulu Wang) – A headstrong Chinese-American woman returns to China when her beloved grandmother is given a terminal diagnosis. Billi struggles with her family’s decision to keep grandma in the dark about her own illness as they all stage an impromptu wedding to see grandma one last time.  CAST: Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Zhao Shuzhen, Lu Hong, Jiang Yongbo

THE DEATH OF DICK LONG U.S.A. (Director: Daniel Scheinert, Screenwriter: Billy Chew) – Dick died last night, and Zeke and Earl don’t want anybody finding out how. That’s too bad though, cause news travels fast in small-town Alabama. CAST: Michael Abbott Jr., Virginia Newcomb, Andre Hyland, Sarah Baker, Jess Weixler 

CORPORATE ANIMALS U.S.A. (Director: Patrick Brice, Screenwriter: Sam Bain) – Disaster strikes when the egotistical CEO of an edible cutlery company leads her long-suffering staff on a corporate team- building trip in New Mexico. Trapped underground, this mismatched and disgruntled group must pull together to survive. CAST: Demi Moore, Ed Helms, Jessica Williams, Karan Soni

ASK DR RUTH  U.S.A. (Director: Ryan White) – A documentary portrait chronicling the incredible life of Dr. Ruth Westheimer, a Holocaust survivor who became America’s most famous sex therapist. As her 90th birthday approaches, Dr. Ruth revisits her painful past and her career at the forefront of the sexual revolution. 

THE BRINK U.S.A. (Director: Alison Klayman) – Now unconstrained by an official White House post, Steve Bannon is free to peddle influence as a perceived kingmaker with a direct line to the President. As self-appointed leader of the “populist movement,” he travels around the U.S. and the world spreading his hard-line anti-immigration message

Tickets on sale Tuesday 23 April; priority booking from Friday 19 April

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Hereditary (2018) ***

Dir: Ari Aster | Cast: Toni Collette, Gabriel Bryne, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, 125′ US | Horror

Hereditary is in the upper echelons of atmospheric character-driven horror fare, but the film doesn’t end well for its characters – or the audience, for that matter. Superb in execution, characterisation and tropes, Ari Aster’s feature debut comes unstuck in a meandering narrative that simply doesn’t know where to go in the final act. And that’s the tragedy. Like an over-excited child at its first birthday party, Hereditary knows its been good and shared its new toys, and desperately wants the show to go on, but it’s also strung out and eventually driven to tears by exhaustion.

Favouring buttoned-up tension and tone-setting over blood and gore, this claustrophobic arthouse piece feels clammy rather than chilling, along the lines of The Babadook and It Comes At Night. Aster is clearly a consummate storyteller with tricks up his sleeve, but his desire to underpin a spiritual ghost story with traditional folklore goes awry in the final denouement.

And what a grim lot his Graham family are. Living in their morbid house in the dank Pacific Northwest, they make a morose and dysfunctional foursome, headed by Gabriel Bryne’s simpering Dad, Steve, who seems lost behind a pair of opaque ‘specsavers’. Meanwhile Toni Collette is miserable and malign-looking as Annie, the Mom who didn’t get on with her own Mom, and is regretting it as she reads her fumbling funeral elegy which follows a newspaper death announcement  in the opening scene. The couple have two teenage kids, petulant Peter (Alex Wolff) and zombie-like Charlie (Milly Shapiro) who is prone to tongue-clucking – a aural motif that will haunt you for the foreseeable future, bringing back memories of that well worn phrase from Cold Comfort Farm: “something nasty in the woodshed”.

When another woeful tragedy befalls this hapless household, the family dynamic turns stultifying, both to watch and experience. And this tonal claustrophobia takes a hold of the solar plexus for the rest of the story as Aster masterfully guides us through an increasingly grim and gruesome series of events that bring the sword of Damocles firmly down over all and sundry. To compensate for her feelings of loss and confusion, Annie decides to seek refuge in bereavement counselling and this course of action leads to her dabbling in the occult. But from this moment forward the film veers from suspense to disappointment and boredom, as increasingly matters just don’t stack up and Aster resorts to an outlandish scenario to compensate.

Collette, Byrne (who is used to coping with this kind of melodramatic meltdown) and Wolff are impressive in their subtle portrayal of family members steadily losing the plot, in more ways than one. Ann Dowd joins the fun as bereaved mother Joan who is purportedly there to help Annie in her Spiritual awakening, but actually makes matters worse in unleashing a sinister side to the matriarch’s hitherto grounded personality. And here Collette is extraordinary in a sustained performance as Aster’s multi-faceted anti-heroine whose grief and desperation know no bounds as she gradually – and literally – dissembles. But our sympathies ultimately lie with Bryne’s Steve, who plays the most decent character of the lot, and we feel for him as he holds out to the bitter end, trying to see the light but knowing full well, in his bemused bewilderment, that he taken on another film that will eventually end in a shambles. MT


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