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Sundance Film Festival: London 2017

The 2017 Sundance Film Festival: London returned to the West End this year to the beautiful Picturehouse Central. Taking place from the 1st-4th June, Sundance: London aims to showcase some of the best that American Independent Cinema had to offer from the Festival in Utah earlier this year.

Featuring 14 feature films, 15 shorts and a number of Special Events with renowned guests, providing incredible insights into the filmmaking process. There was a “Independent Film Trumps Reality” panel which examined independent filmmaking in the current political climate, whilst the “On Collaboration: Documentary Practices and Process” panel explored the themes of diversity, accessibility and progress in documentary, and a short filmmaker panel “Art vs. Stepping Stone” which posed the question, “Are shorts simply a stepping stone or do they sustain a filmmaker throughout a career?” Acclaimed director David Lowery, whose highly anticipated film A Ghost Story closed the festival, also participated in an “In Conversation” event which was followed by a special screening of his earlier feature, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.

For the first time, the program will include a “Surprise Film” screening which promises an exclusive chance to catch an audience hit from this year’s festival in Park City. Additionally, the Sundance Film Festival: London introduced an Audience Favorite Award for 2017, giving festivalgoers the chance to vote for their favorite features, with the winner announced at the close of the festival.

As ever, the one unchanged constant with Sundance is that it is always about the storytelling. The festival is renowned for giving a voice and a platform to independent filmmakers in order for them to tell their unique, ambitious and diverse stories.

Opening this years festival was Miguel Arteta’s Beatriz at Dinner. Billed as the dinner party from hell, which although it very much is, it plays out more like an incredibly relevant social political drama. Beatriz (Salma Hayek) is an immigrant holistic healer who appreciates the true beauty of the world. After she finishes a session with a wealthy client, her car breaks down and she is invited to stay for dinner. Also in attendance at the dinner is a controversial xenophobic billionaire businessman (John Lithgow) who gets his pleasure from engaging in activities that hurt anyone that may be in his way (sound like someone familiar?). Effectively pitting these two opposing views on the world that beautifully build and come to the boil as this chamber drama escalates in tension, often with great dark comedic effect that will leaving you squirming in your seat with awkwardness. Providing a social commentary on class and politics, Beatriz at Dinner may be almost too on the nose at times but delivers a really entertaining pot boiler of conflicting moral beliefs and confrontations with superb performances.

A very different film that took on the very familiar rom-com narrative was The Incredible Jessica James. Jessica James (Jessica Williams) is a struggling playwright and is struggling to overcome a recent breakup. That is until she meets Boone (Chris O’Dowd), who is also recovering from a break up, and together they manage to find a way to work out how to get through this difficult time. Although the plot often drifts towards tired cliches that go hand in hand with the rom-com genre, it’s the performances, particularly from Jessica Williams, that give it a real energy and the authentic grounding it needs. Bursting with witty charm and an infectious chemistry from its leads, Jim Strouse’s The Incredible Jessica James is a refreshing and entertaining take that elevates it above familiar territory.

Shifting genre again to Marjorie Prime, a subtle, thought provoking film which asks ‘If you were able to rebuild the past, what would you decide to forget?’ The latest film from Michael Almereyda is a stage play adaptation that presents an examination into mortality, memory and companionship. Eighty-six year old Marjorie (Lois Smith) is spending her final days with a computerised Artifical Intelligence version of her deceased husband (Jon Hamm) with the intention to recount their life together. However, the A.I., Marjorie’s ‘Prime’, relies on information which has been given to it by both Marjorie and her children (Geena Davis and Tim Robbins) presenting an opportunity to re-write a painful past. Boasting such a strong cast, it does not disappoint in terms of its performances or how it gracefully portryas its weighty themes. Once the credits start to roll, it also won’t be a surprise to many to see involvement from Mica Levi assisting with original music.

A very welcome edition to this year’s festival was the inclusion of a Surprise Film. Audiences were only told it was going to be a fan favourite from Utah, ensuring it was the hottest ticket to have and it did not disappoint. The film was Patti Cake$, an underdog story full of heart, humour and raw, crowd-pleasing, entertainment. Patricia Dombrowski a.k.a Killa P, a.k.a Patti Cake$ (Danielle MacDonald) is a big girl with a big mouth and dreams of making it as a rap star. Stuck in a rut in her home town of New Jersey, living with her mum and ill grandma, she must take on the haters, doubters and her own demons if she is to fulfil her quest. Very much in the mould of 8 Mile, Patti Cake$ makes the most of the formula by ramping up the energy and stakes to deliver poignancy in its lyrics and a heart warming message. Of course, none of this would work had it not been for the leading lady and future star Danielle MacDonald.

The biggest disappointment from this year’s festival was Wilson. Wilson (Woody Harrelson) is a lonely, overly honest, neurotic middle aged man who after reuniting with his estranged ex-wife (Laura Dern) for another shot at happiness when he learns he has a teenage daughter he’s never met. In a strange turn of events he sets out to reconnect with her and get his life back. Despite Woody Harrelson’s solid performance, it’s all far too disjointed and tonally all over the place with only an occasional chuckle. Relying heavily on attempts a pitch black humour it doesn’t take long to wear thin and even with a run time of just over 90 minutes, it manages to outstay its welcome.

As ever, the Sundance Festival also has a number of documentary features that screen which usually aim to spark debate, inform and inspire and this year’s line up did not disappoint.

First up was Chasing Coral, which focused on the impact of carbon emissions warming up the seas. This causes something known as ‘Coral Bleeching’ which leads to mass Coral death and has been accelerating around the world with catastrophic implications raging underwater. Directed by Jeff Orlowski (Chasing Ice) who teams up with Richard Vevers, an ex advertising representative, self proclaimed ‘Coral nerd’ and some of the best marine biologists and camera designs to help film the bleaching events as they happen. The results are breathtaking and are born out of determination and skill to bring this issue to a wider audience. Insightful, informative and as relevant as it’s ever been particularly with the recent developments over the Paris climate agreement. Its beautiful yet harrowing images of coral reefs dying in front of our eyes will speak volumes.

It’s one of those documentaries that immediately makes you want to try and find out what it is you could do to help once the credits finish rolling. The film itself is a fantastic technical achievement and manages to demonstrate how much this project means to all involved with their personalities really coming through. For more information and how you can help, please visit – ChasingCoral.com

A very different direction documentary that uses more of a naturalistic method of presenting its story is Dina. 49 year old Dina lives in Philadelphia and invites her fiancé scott to move in with her. Having both grown up neurologically diverse, the two are head over heals for each other. However, moving in together presents a new problem. When it comes to physical intimacy Scott freezes where Dina, learning from books, the Kardashians and her previous marriage, craves a more sensual relationship. Exposing anxieties, insecurities they strive to reconcile their conflicting approaches to intimacy. This is a tender & sensitive portrait of a relationship which is presented free from the constraints of stigma attached to people with autism. The style that directors Dan Sickles and Antonio Santini adopt is so natural it is almost as though its cast are performing from a script. Capturing candid conversations and genuine on screen love and affection, Dina is both tender and moving.

Closing this year’s festival was David Lowery’s fantastic A Ghost Story. With an incredibly sparse narrative, Lowery’s film very much tells a visual story that follows a recently deceased man (Casey Affleck), who was prematurely taken from this Earth only to return as a white sheeted ghost. After sitting up in the morgue, he slowly returns back to his former home in an attempt to reconnect with his grieving wife (Rooney Mara). However, he finds that he has become stuck in time in a spectral state where he is only able to passively observe. As he stands sentry for days that soon turn into weeks and years, he watches the life he knew and wife he loved slip away in front of him. It is from here that the ghost must embark on a cosmic journey through space and time in order to fulfill the essential human longing for meaning and a reconnection

Every now and again a film will come along that blows you away. Written and directed by David Lowery, A Ghost Story is a unique and unconventional haunted tale of legacy, love, loss and existence. It is a film that provides an almost profound meditation on time and manages to provoke a line of thought that is almost overwhelming if you start to consider how insignificant each of our existences are in the vast enormity of time. Yet regardless of how insignificant we are in the grand scheme of things, each of us carries on existing, living and loving. The full review can be found here

“As we head into our fifth festival in London, we remain committed to introducing new American independent films to audiences around the world. Our success in the UK is a reflection of the enormous creativity of independent artists and the stories they tell, as well as the curious and adventurous audiences who have made us feel right at home in the heart of London.” – Robert Redford, President and Founder of Sundance Institute.

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