Sundance London: the reviews

The second Sundance London Festival took place in the 02 from 25-28 April.  Mostly Film regulars Phil Concannon and Gareth Negus were there; here’s a taste of what they saw.

TOUCHY FEELY
By Phil Concannon

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Given the distinctly mixed results of her first two films, Lynn Shelton hardly seems like a director who could benefit from expanding her scope and attempting to pull off something more ambitious, but that’s exactly what she has done with Touchy Feely. Frustratingly, there’s the germ of an interesting idea here, as Rosemarie DeWitt’s character Abby finds her anxieties manifesting themselves as a phobia of bodily contact, which proves to be something of a problem for a woman who earns her living as a massage therapist. Shelton enjoys filling the screen with extreme close-ups of skin pores (this is by far her most visually polished picture) while an unsettling droning soundtrack underscores Abby’s discomfort, but the film doesn’t do anything interesting with her malaise. Instead of going deeper into Abby’s troubles, Shelton divides her attention between the main protagonist’s two siblings, Jenny (Ellen Page) and Paul (Josh Pais). Jenny harbours an unrequited crush on Abby’s boyfriend (Scoot McNairy), while Paul is an uptight dentist whose practice undergoes a surprising revival in fortunes – a baffling subplot that doesn’t work at all, despite the often amusing awkwardness Pais brings to his role. Unfortunately, the decision to let these three characters follow their own paths leaves Shelton struggling to juggle too many underdeveloped characters and narrative threads, and by the time they all started to reach their own moment of epiphany the film’s sputtering engine had stalled completely. Touchy Feely‘s themes of connection and personal growth are obvious but Shelton can’t find anything to say about them before she wraps the film up in an all-too-neat manner. A more accomplished director could have done something interesting with this premise and these actors, but Shelton’s attempt to take a step forward has ultimately seen her take two steps back.

THE MOO MAN
By Phil Concannon

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A title such as The Moo Man might remind some viewers of Werner Herzog’s documentary Grizzly Man, but fear not, this one doesn’t end with the title character being mauled to death by one of his own cows. Instead, Andy Heathcote’s film is a gentle and quietly absorbing portrait of life at Hook & Son, a family-run dairy farm in East Sussex, which is enlivened considerably the by infectious enthusiasm of Stephen Hook. The camera follows Stephen as he does the rounds on his farm, cheerily calling individual cows by name, delivering calves and preparing the farm’s raw milk products for sale at market. He’s a hugely endearing figure, serious and passionate about his work but a man who takes real pleasure in it too, and the affection he feels for the animals he spends every day with is tangible. He takes a justifiable sense of pride in the organic way Hook & Son is run, and the care that is taken over all of the cattle under their watch (they allow bull calves to live on the farm for a few years, while other farms may shoot them at birth), and at a time when British consumers are being forced to question what exactly is in their beef, the sight of farming practices driven by such ethical concerns is a heartening one. But how can an enterprise like this survive in today’s capitalist environment? Hook ruefully notes that the Hooks are forced to collect working families’ benefits to supplement their income, as the meagre prices paid for milk by the major supermarket chains are less than the cost of producing it, and the latter stages of The Moo Man are infused with a sense of melancholy. The film informs us that a family-run farm in Britain is forced to close down every week, and there is no evidence that such a decline is about to be checked. As we watch the circle of life unfold on Hook & Son’s farm – the sadness of a beloved cow passing away, followed by the wonder of birth – we are constantly reminded that we are observing a way of life that is coming to an end.

The Moo Man is released in the UK on 12 July.

A.C.O.D.
By Phil Concannon

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An A.C.O.D. is an Adult Child of Divorce, and with one in two marriages being said to end in divorce today, a film about the lasting effects of a marital breakup should resonate with a large proportion of the audience. In order to do that, however, it would need a treatment more intelligent and less glib than debut director Stu Zicherman is apparently capable of. His film begins with home video footage of a 9th birthday party, which is interrupted by the parents of the birthday boy screaming at each other in the background. Twenty years later, Carter (Adam Scott) is living a comfortable and successful life, although his sense of peace is predicated on the fact that his parents (Richard Jenkins and Catherine O’Hara) haven’t seen or spoken to each other for over two decades. That peace is shattered when Carter’s younger brother Trey (Clarke Duke) announces his engagement and Carter is tasked with bringing his estranged parents together for the wedding, without them killing each other or completely destroying the day. Things go south rapidly, but not quite in the way Carter expects, and never in ways that are as funny or clever as a film with such an array of comic talent should be. It’s as if Zicherman hired a group of reputable comic actors to play roles that fit their talents (Jessica Alba shows up to…er…do nothing) and the lack of spark evident in the ensemble is hugely disappointing. Zicherman’s screenplay, which he co-wrote with Ben Karlin, is too focused on developing tedious contrivances to give the characters anything funny or insightful to say, and this tendency to try and artificially generate comic set-pieces reaches its nadir in a lamentable climactic scene. Adam Scott’s smugness hardly elicits empathy, while Jane Lynch’s wacky author is overindulged. A.C.O.D. is a dreary, grating, complacent comedy that outstays its welcome long before the final shot attempts to inject a note of unearned ambiguity into the proceedings.

Emanuel and the Truth about Fishes
By Gareth Negus

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Kaya Scodelario stars as Emanuel, a teenager haunted by the death of her mother during childbirth, who forms a bond with the new neighbour, Linda (Jessica Biel) who hires her as a babysitter.  Drawn to the woman for her close resemblance to her late mother, Emanuel discovers that Linda has major problems of her own to overcome, and is soon in over her head.

Here’s a film with one major flaw: I didn’t buy into it for a moment.  The idea that someone as disturbed as Linda could suddenly rent a large house, yet have no evident need for income or proof of identity, was stretching credulity a bit (particularly given the plot revelations late in the film).  The final sequences in particular, and a fantasy sequence that gives the film its rather prissy title, feel like an artificial way to wrap up the story.

There is some tension as Emanuel attempts to support Linda’s delusion (the nature of which I won’t spoil, though anyone who watched Psychoville will struggle to watch this film without giggling) and the cast all do a commendable job – Scodelario should get better roles in Hollywood thanks to this.   I would have liked to have liked this more than I did, but it’s not a film I can honestly recommend.

Mud
By Gareth Negus

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Jeff Nichol’s third feature, following Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter, is his strongest to date, and features another excellent performance from Matthew McConaughey in his post-romcom hell period.  Tye Sheridan (previously seen in The Tree of Life) and Jacob Lofland are also very good as Ellis and Neckbone, the two boys who discover a stranger hiding on a Mississippi island.  Mud claims that he has come back to the town where he once lived to meet up with his girlfriend (Reese Witherspoon) and escape the bounty hunters who are on his tail for killing a man.

Nichol’s previous films had many strengths (not least Michael Shannon, who takes a supporting role here), but I struggled to engage with the characters in Shotgun Stories and found the end of Take Shelter frustrating. Mud is far more satisfying. Many reviewers have been quick to compare this coming of age story to Huckleberry Finn; Stand By Me is also named by several.  It is very effective at presenting the story through the eyes of Ellis who, still little more than a child, filters Mud’s claims through his own romantic aspirations and frustration with his father.

Mud shares with Nichol’s previous films a very strong sense of place.  This is a film that flows as languidly as the river on which it is set, among a community whose way of life is largely being displaced along with their riverboat homes. I have some quibbles with the ending – would bounty hunters really behave as recklessly as shown here? – and Mud’s fate, as shown, feels like wishful thinking on someone’s part… possibly Ellis’s. But I’ll forgive a degree of dramatic contrivance in a film as well-told and confident as this one.

Mud is released in the UK on 10 May. 

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