Robert Redford and his indie centric group have once again taken up residency of London's O2 for the welcome return of Sundance London.
Returning for a second year, the festival is a showcase for the best of the films from the annual and longstanding stateside version, whilst also shining some focus on domestic talent in a strand classed as 'UK Spotlight'. Over the course of 4 days, a total of 20 feature-length films and documentaries, along with numerous short films, music acts and panel discussions will take place.
There is a strange mix of matters that need addressing with Sundance London Mk II. Firstly, and rather bizarrely, the announcement and the lead-up details were less user-friendly and transparent than last year. The website was more cumbersome and the addition of films and acts late on in the day, at a point where a significant number had already purchased packages and selected films, led to frustration and irritation in some quarters.
On the plus side, the programme has stretched out and the event feels broader and bigger than last year. There does seem to be a greater leaning towards documentaries this year, which might say more about the flailing state of original fictional storytelling than any convenient turn of phrase that may be injected by me.
So, what about day 1?
Well, for this particular scribe and eager cinema goer, it was a day filled with fish and eagles. In fact, to be precise, a powerful documentary film entitled, Blackfish, and a documentary chronicling the first 10 years in the history of the globe conquering country rock Gods, the Eagles.
Blackfish throws up some interesting points of view in its taut 80 minutes. Exposing the ill-treatment of Killer Whales in the marine entertainment industry, it focuses the full force of its ire at the renowned SeaWorld, whilst not allowing those of its ilk to completely escape unscathed either. Using the case book of accidents, incidents and killings that have occurred on the trainers over the years, the film dives into the history of the practice. Choosing to canvass opinion and eye-witness accounts, the lid is well and truly lifted on the captive treatment of the species of orca commonly known as Blackfish.
This is whistle-blowing cinema that peeks behind the veiled curtain to deliver a suspected but up to now unseen 'truth'. It spews with a barely contained rage and the fact that there is no counter view provided by SeaWorld (they apparently declined to comment), makes this an inherently lop-sided film. It is effectively a pro-animal rights soliloquy. However, quite how SeaWorld could have constructed an argument to deflect the evidence against them would have perhaps left a task more gargantuan than the exceptionally large whale, Tilikum, who lies at the centre of this film. Tilikum is the beating heart and glue of this sprawling piece, who is famous for his size and infamous for his capacity to 'lunge' at his trainers.
We hear tale after tale of inconsistent and volatile behaviour from him. We also hear heart-rending stories of how he is bullied by the smaller and more agile females, along with hours of isolation and a complete and utter lack of stimulation that makes up the bulk of his confined life. We are told that despite his alarming track record, the reason that he remains a mainstay of the circuit is because of one cold and simple fact; his sperm is worth a lot of money.
Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite could be accused of occasionally cutting her cloth with too much ghoulish emphasis on the archive footage of mishaps and attacks, but this is a necessary reveal to stir indignation, horror and outrage.
What you are left with is a compassionate poem that gasps in awe at the evident grief and frustration of these creatures. Although the lure to cynically meter the term anthropomorphising and a Disney-fication of the facts is tempting, the sheer evidence shows a mammal that is unusually social, emotional and self-aware. As one of the neuroscientists starkly put it after tests were done on a Killer Whale brain, not only is their brain extremely developed and advanced, but they simply have an extra part of the brain that we humans don't even have.
They say there is no such thing as bad publicity. Well, this documentary expunges any such notion, with a dismissive wave and a stern look. This is an anti-advert, if you will. That's my view, but you should really see it for yourself. A stunning opening to Sundance for this writer. It is also another example of the distributor, Dogwoof, promoting noble documentaries of unremitting power.
If you are not convinced by this review but were moved by the Cove, Project Nim or Grizzly Man, then this really is for you.
The History of The Eagles: Part One ****
One might think that should there ever be a Mount Rushmore of country rock, they may well etch the faces of the Eagles into the cliff side. However, they might need some time, for there have been quite a few comings and goings and line-up changes in camp Eagles over the years. This documentary ventures into the first chapter of the band's existence and provides evidence of the rifts, drifts, differences and fallouts that have occurred. It is probably fair to say that the Eagles are one of the most notoriously disharmonious of bands, who inexplicably and ironically orchestrate some of the most harmonious musical harmonies of any group since CSN. It is still a struggle today to meet a band that matches up vocally.
Although they may not straddle the earth with an omnipresence that marked their original inception and 1970s heyday, the reformed country rockers are still synonymous with classic radio and the rock album format.
Running at 2 hours, there is a lot of ground to cover. For a casual viewer, there is a mercifully breezy skip through respective childhoods and the pace is pushed with momentum towards the inspiring and prolific late-60s underground music scene of LA that homed residencies of Poco, Buffalo Springfield, Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt et al. There is acknowledgment as to the creatively incestuous backdrop of the times, of the area and of the era. The sort that enabled artists to shift, move and collaborate seemingly at will. As the late 60s moved into the early 70s and success increased for the bulk of the aforementioned artists, it is clear that all look back with giddy rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia. The creativity was clearly as intoxicating as the drugs that they were recreationally self-medicating.
The Eagles were always a band that stood apart from their peers. They did so for a few reasons. One, is that they were massively successful in a way that the others could only dream of, another is that they had a steely core that made them efficiently consummate and business-like. Both of these aspects are highlighted by the documentary. The band reflect openly upon their motivations and inclinations, with a mix of new interviews and footage that dates back to the period. To see how much and how little they've changed is part of the joy of the feature. Around the mid-point, Joe Walsh arrives into the frame and is spotlighted in both the past and the present as an impassioned guitarist who is part-talent, part-court jester. His phrasing exudes a humorous hybrid of Keith Richards and Stephen Stills along with a healthy dose of his own breezy personality. For a music film, the tone is more or less consistently serious throughout, so his appearance offers some light hearted respite.
On the downside, there is not as much insight into the studio processes as a fan may want, but the band members are all given a fair hearing from both time periods and talk candidly about being in the epicentre of the Eagles whirlwind.
Understandably, Part One ends on a decisively sour note; their downfall and break-up. Although the pressures of topping the totemic Hotel California engulfed them all to a certain extent, it is clear that decisive fractures of the intragroup relationships had crippled the band. It is also evident that the distractions around the process was a demon that gobbled them up. Power may corrupt and absolute power may corrupt absolutely, but I am sure there is a pithy equivalent for success. Life in the fast lane had brought this group crashing into a ditch.
This is a tale that has enough acrimony to give Pink Floyd a run for their money. They may have been back together since 1994, as they will happily testify, but in case you're wondering, they only speak to Don Felder through lawyers. Some things don't change and won't be taken easy.