Seeing as Sundance is about to fade into a fond memory, it makes sense to distil the second half of the festival into one single entry.
I am sure I speak for a lot of the attendees when I state that this year's festival was a pretty much an unqualified success. Sure, there were a few technical glitches - a delay in the commencement of the David Arnold film score discussion springs to mind, as does the slide issues in the screenwriter's flash lab. However, there was no recurrence of the subtitle issue from last year's 2 Days In New York, which resulted in an abandoned screening.
There seemed to be a greater number in attendance and the whole operation was joyfully efficient, informal and inclusive. The London Film Festival is an essential fixture on the British film-going calendar, let's not dispute that, but it is also a sprawling thing of disjointed wonder. If LFF is the Glastonbury of film festivals, then Sundance London is becoming the Latitude or Bestival. It is more intimate, cosy and it feels uniquely special. It provides an important distillation of the best of the independent scene and deserves to remain an annual event in the coming years. Let's hope that this is the case.
Muscle Shoals ***
Muscle Shoals, located amidst the swampy and muddy tracks of Alabama, is a remarkable place.
With an all-white house band and a formidable producer in Rick Hall, this remote location and the unassuming FAME studios built a reputation for conjuring the most magical of recordings. Aretha Franklin's 'Respect', Etta James', 'I'd Rather Go Blind', Wilson Pickett's, 'Mustang Sally', Percy Sledge's, 'When A Man Loves A Woman' and many more titans of the 60s songbook were recorded within its hallowed walls. This documentary film features testimony from the key players and fans of the era, including the aforementioned Percy Sledge and Wilson Pickett, along with Bono, Keith Richards, Candi Staton, Alicia Keys and Mick Jagger etc.
Despite the abundance of contributors and a familiar musical backdrop, the second half flounders in its own checklist recall of the artists who have recorded there. This pushes the film into the realms of a BBC4 documentary and away from anything particularly cinematic. However, this is not really a failing of the director, Greg 'Freddy' Camalier, as he fulfils the requisite demands of the story with a firm-handed but affectionate efficiency. It is just that this is not a widescreen visually panoramic tale. The soul is in the music and the spirit is in the grooves. Surely, that is the whole point anyway?
Muscle Shoals is carried through by the toe tapping and finger clicking music that it documents. A touching portrait of (mainly) American song.
Blood Brother *****
An astounding, awe-inspiring and inspirational feature charting the voluntary redeployment of a young American man into a school housing HIV-infected children in India.
Filmed by his best friend, Steve Hoover, this is a refreshingly honest account of a man upping sticks and relocating to an alien environment away from the creature comforts of home. This is not mere Comic Relief bulletin here, but a soaring and frank dissection of an individual who has the intention of permanently remaining in a seemingly hopeless situation. A person wrestling with the awareness that to make this choice will inevitably fill his life with loss and pain but is nevertheless determined to integrate and commit for a single simple exchange; love for love.
It may smack of cliché to suggest that this is a picture painted of care, empathy, compassion and understanding, but it is absolutely the case. It could be seen as a counter point to the festival's God Loves Uganda. Whereas that film showed Christianity hijacked for unchristian aims, this is the Good Samaritan writ large and with sincerity. It may echo elegy but it is a spiritual payer for noble motivations.
There are laughs and tears, smiles and heartache, hope and fear - much like life itself. If you were so inclined, you could see it as the documentary companion piece to Haneke's Oscar-winning, Amour. It was the outstanding entry at Sundance this year. Essential.
The Summit ****
In 2008, 18 mountaineers traversed the K2 summit, the second highest peak in the world, and the most dangerous. Only 7 would come down alive. Of those who did survive, there is still a mystery as to what occurred out there on the slopes.
Film maker, Nick Ryan, plays with time in The Summit. Intercutting the 2008 event with an account of the first successful climb on the mountain in 1954, he also appears to frontload all of the facts at the start of the film, leaving the viewer unsure as to where they are headed or what could possibly be left to be told for the substantial segment of the running time. However, it is with a measured precision that additional facts eke out and help to paint an engrossing story of what ifs and might have beens. The clever use of reconstruction cannot help but draw parallels with the excellent Touching the Void, which similarly covered an incident on K2. Much like that film, this is an exercise in detailing tragic events with a graceful respect for the power of nature and of the suffering endured by its subjects.
The cinematography is wondrously exhilarating, dizzying and beautifully framed. Rightly winning the editing award at Sundance 2013, The Summit oozes competency and emotional engagement.
In Fear **
In Fear is a predominately two-handed horror that tells a familiar-sounding tale of a boy and girl getting lost in the back country roads of Ireland. They struggle to locate the hotel for their first night stopover on a detour to a festival that they are supposed to be attending. As it dawns of them that they are lost, and with the dark of night descending, panic and delirium kicks in. Is this fear justified? Things go hideously wrong.
Sadly, this feature reeks of the tired tried-and-tested horror formula; woods + people lost + evil = horror film. This is not necessarily a problem, as it is how the matters are handled that truly mark out success or failure. Unfortunately, despite knowledge that director, Jeremy Lovering, withheld the script from the cast in order to spruce proceedings with a sprinkle of authenticity and improvisation, the only real horror is in the finished product being an almost complete turkey. This is a pity, as matters start out promisingly enough. Tension is metered with a tautly paced opening. This is assisted by the suitably washed-out and grubby tinge to the film. It is just a shame that things go so blandly downhill.
The pitfalls for most horror films is in handling the crescendo and ensuring that the crescendo itself is worth the build-up. There are strong hints of Wolf Creek in this feature, along with any other number of horrors that you could shake a Blair Witch woods stick at.
In Fear compromises any vision by embracing the familiar, when it would have done well to have forged the new. A failure and a sad disappointment.
The Inevitable Defeat Of Mister And Pete ****
The mere mention of the synopsis of this film would be enough to engender criticisms from some quarters of a film maker wallowing in poverty clichés. However, the sheer joie de vivre that pulsates through this picture would surely render any such allegation as a futile call against a life-affirming work.
Mister is the son of a troubled young single mother who is mired in her recreational drug habits. She is unfit for caring for them and is soon whisked away by the authorities. Failing in their attempt to capture and rehouse the young children, Mister and his fostered brother Pete are left to fend for themselves in the tough project neighbourhood. The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete follows their scraps and scrapes to survive in this tough climate.
Somehow straddling a bizarre line between Grave of the Fireflies, Twins and Precious this is a study of a misfit relationship wound into a story of adventure and survival. Their comradeship is bound by loyalty, desperation and dependency and the two young leads sizzle with a kinetic chemistry that is pure cinema gold for the director, George Tillman Jr. The script also rings helpfully with an irreverent, truthful and joyful rhythm.
The title may be elongated and lengthy, but the summary of its effect is not. This is a tub thumping success.