SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL LONDON: 8 REVIEWS


SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL, LONDON 2021

PICTUREHOUSE CENTRAL 29 JULY - 1 AUGUST


THE SPARKS BROTHERS

DIRECTOR: EDGAR WRIGHT

CERT 15; 135 MINS

RELEASE DATE 29 JULY

Ron & Russell Mael of Sparks

REVIEW by SUSAN GRAY

With a hat tip to Crock of Gold - Another Round With Shane McGowan, Edgar Wright’s documentary on Ron and Russell Mael, is an exemplar of what the music documentary can do. So confident is Wright with his material and his contributors’ full co-operation, he employs graphics to underline the cliches of the genre, such as fake curtains for ‘pulling back the curtain’. As the film progresses, we see many of these visual witticisms were borrowed from Ron and Russ themselves. When a record company refused to fund a promotional video for a single, the brothers stuck their heads through a cardboard TV screen while on a chat show, and said they would use that clip as a promo video.


Rows with record companies dog the Mael brothers five decades musical history. Wright has included incredible footage of a 1970s tour of the UK, when their record company withdrew a budget for security half way through the tour, allowing fans to rush the stage, kissing and pawing Ron and Russell as they try to perform.


The documentary moves in a graceful arc, starting with the brothers’ childhood in a California shaking off Eisenhower and embracing rock and roll, the loss of their engineer father when they were young, and concludes with their current LA lifestyle of breakfast, work outs and seven day a week music making. As a prelude there are music industry talking heads outlining the esteem they are held in, including ‘They don’t look like they’re in a band, they look like they’ve been let out for the day.’ A testament to the good feelings circulating around Russ and Ron is even the backing musicians they left behind in the UK when they returned to America, describe them as ‘gentlemen’. And with 23 albums under their belt, there’s no shortage of Sparks music from the chart topping ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both Us’ and ‘When Do I Get To Sing ‘My Way’’, to ‘I Wish You Were Fun’. No need to wish, the Mael brothers really are.

THE MOST BEAUTIFUL BOY IN THE WORLD

DIRECTORS: KRISTINA LINDSTROM & KRISTIAN PETRI

CERT 15; 93 MINS

RELEASE DATE 30 JULY

Björn Andresen
Björn Andresen

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RhwlYz3qtwA


REVIEW by SUSAN GRAY

Knowing this documentary on child actor Bjorn Andresen was shot over five years, is hugely helpful in navigating its choppy timeline. Andresen was chosen by Luchino Visconti to play Tadzio in the director’s adaptation of Death In Venice in1970. After holding auditions for the role across Europe, Visconti lighted on the 15 year old in Stockholm as the embodiment of Mann’s love object with blond hair and sea- coloured eyes.

By contrast , the ‘current’ Andresen we first meet has long greying locks and a beard. He is in danger of being thrown out of his apartment for not keeping it clean, and leaving the gas on. As the film progresses Andresen cleans up his act with the help of on/off girlfriend Jessica, and starts to revisit the scenes of his silver screen days. After being paraded around London and Cannes by Visconti as ‘the world’s most beautiful boy', Andresen went to Japan to make an album and star in TV ads, and then to Paris as a long term guest of unnamed producers.

Running parallel to the child star’s film exploits, an apt word if ever there was one, Kristina Lindström and Kristian Petri’s documentary explores Andresen’s tragic personal life. His mother died in unexplained circumstances, leaving him to be brought up by his star struck grandmother, and the identity of his father remains a mystery. He and his sister were born in the same year with different fathers, known as Danish twins. Drinking overshadowed Andresen’s own parenting, with his adult daughter Robine commenting ‘He was a great dad in theory, but in practice it did not work’.


This is a visually beautiful film, but there are absences. We hear nothing from Andresen’s former wife Suzana Roman. And the gaping absence of his mother, glimpsed in cinefilm home movies, and through her poetry, haunts both the film’s subject and its audience.

ZOLA

DIRECTOR: JANICZA BRAVO

CAST: COLMAN DOMINGO; TAYLOUR PAIGE; RILEY KEOUGH; NICHOLAS BRAUN

RELEASE DATE 01 AUGUST; 120 MINS

Zola directed by Janicza Bravo
Zola directed by Janicza Bravo

REVIEW by SUSAN GRAY

Imagine an Elmore Leonard novel reimagined by a 20 year old black woman. Then it’s given a vibrating, bass heavy soundtrack, and rearranged into social media friendly narrative, where sometimes you are immersed in action in real time, and sometimes you are commenting from afar, with the wisdom of experience. That’s Zola.

Based on a 2015 twitter spat between Aziah ‘Zola’ Wells and white bitch she fell out with, Zola is an exploration of the overlap between exotic dancing and prostitution, wrapped in a road trip from Detroit to Tampa. Director Janicza Bravo’s take on Zola’s story fizzes with energy, but also reserves sympathy for Stefani the hoe who duped her. Both Taylor Paige as Zola and Riley Keough as Stefani give stand out performances, taking an already clever script to a new level.


Visually Zola is stunning with inventive use of camera angles, cut aways and ‘found footage’ from mobiles. A dick montage, including a rewind for the most voluminous member, interrupts what could be a dispiriting sequence of Stefani's paid sex sessions in a hotel room. Though exactly what proportion of her fee Stefani will see for her labours, and how much goes to her Nigerian friend/ pimp Mr X, is unclear. What is clear is the precisely transactional nature of the encounters, from the moment Zola opens the door to the first trap (punter), and is greeted with: 'I ordered a white chick'. Bravo's table turning move is to visually make the traps into a commodity, while giving Zola and Stefani wit and sparkle, and some degree of agency. When Zola acts as Stefani's madam, to avoid being in a threesome with the traps, her first move is to put up the prices on BackPage, where Stefani is marketed. 'Pussy is worth $500'.


The real life story of Zola hinges on how much agency Stefani had over her actions. Did she deliberately recruit Zola from the sports bar where she waitressed knowing their trip to Tampa was for sex work rather than pole dancing? Or was it a genuine friendship/ overlap of interests that got highjacked by Mr X on the road to Tampa? Given other young women came forward saying encounters with the real life Stefani, when they were stranded or economically vulnerable, ended in entanglement and threats from Mr X, Stefani's flattery to Zola while she served them was probably no accident. Yet they share a love and adeptness at social media, and a moral universe rooted in pragmatism. 'Bitch who won't dance for money, is bitch who'll go with guys for money.'


Stefani's boyfriend Derrek, played by Nicholas Braun is the most tricky character in the film. He is permanently several steps behind the other characters, is lied to, left stranded in a grim motel, and seems to have an Easy Mark sign flashing permanently above his head. Derrek's desperation for inclusion, and the price he is willing to pay, opens another moral chasm for Bravo's film to shine its incisive light into. There's so much more to Zola then 'titties make dollars'.




PLEASURE

DIRECTOR: NINJA THYBERG

FEATURING: SOFIA KAPPEL; REVIKA ANNE REUSTLE; EVELYN CLAIRE

CERT: 18; 109 MINS

RELEASE DATE: 30 JUL 2021

Sofia Kappel in Pleasure
Sofia Kappel in Pleasure

REVIEW by SUSAN GRAY

Shot in a rich, colour heightened documentary style, writer - director Ninja Thyberg’s exploration of the West Coast porn industry, makes a perfect partner to Zola. We see filmed adult entertainment through the eyes of 19 year old Bella Cherry, played by real life porn actor Sofia Kappel. Bella is newly arrived in LA, and we first meet her in the shower undertaking some very acrobatic shaving in preparation for her first shoot.

Bella’s ascendancy of the porn pyramid reminded me of a piece in Harvard Business Review, which advised aspiring senior managers to volunteer for ‘stretch assignments’ to show their leadership potential. Bella follows this advice to the letter, in a truly eye watering fashion, as she works to separate herself from the adult entertainment foot soldiers she shares an apartment with. Bella’s ambition is to be a Speigel girl, the ever in demand, VIP enclosure entitled, queens of the scene. And her business - like positioning of her offer, through social media, and working contacts, as well as taking on more and more extreme roles, sees Bella achieve her aim.


Kappel gives a clear eyed, grounded performance as young woman who sees the business side of this multi million entertainment business. Bella is smart, hard working, good at making allies, and keeps her eye on the bulls eye. And Thyberg is at pains to show the porn film world from every angle, ranging from female directed shoots with advice on massage and safe words, to violent, barely controlled ‘rough’ shoots in converted cargo containers.


With its forensic detail and close ups, and dialogue full of lube, douches, cream situation and yeast infection, Pleasure feels as if it gets beyond the facts of the porn industry to its very heart. Fans of hard core heterosexual porn are unlikely to change their mind about their chosen entertainment after seeing Pleasure, but everybody who sees the film will come away better informed.

CODA

DIRECTOR: SIÂN HEDER

CAST: EMILIA JONES; TROY KOTSUR; FERDIA WALSH-PEELO; DANIEL DURANT, MARLEE MATLIN; EUGENIO DERBEZ

CERT:15; 111 MINS

RELEASE DATE: 30 JUL 2021

Emilia Jones in CODA
Emilia Jones in CODA

REVIEW by SUSAN GRAY

Ruby Rossi is in her final year of high school, she is also the only hearing member of her deaf family, the Child Of Deaf Adults of the title. Emilia Jones physically inhabits her role with great skill, capturing the female adolescent physicality of veering between proud physical prowess - when cycling, swimming, and especially when helping on the family fishing boat - and also the round shouldered slouching of the school student who feels socially excluded.


CODA’s story arc is not a surprising one: high school oddball finds her voice in a choir, her talent is spotted by eccentric, but heart of gold music teacher Mr V, who hailing from Mexico City and understands what it is to be an outsider. At first her family do not understand, and want to keep Ruby close to them - she is their ears and voice. You probably don’t need me to tell you there will be an end of term concert, a mutually educative first love, and a race against time dash for Ruby to fulfil her talent.


But for all Sian Hede’s feature treading a well worn path, it does so with great heart and visually stunning sequences set on the waves and quayside of the Eastern Seaboard. West Wing actor and deaf activist Marlee Marlin, is incredibly expressive as Ruby’s mother Jackie, navigating her daughter’s independence and her own. The film also portrays Ruby’s family with great dignity and humour, making their disability part of the texture of their lives, but not its definition.



THE NEST DIRECTOR: SEAN DURKIN

CAST: JUDE LAW; CARRIE COON; CHARLIE SHOTWELL; OONA ROCHE

CERT: 15; 102 MINS

RELEASE DATE: 31 JUL 2021

Carrie Coon and Jude Law in The Nest
Carrie Coon and Jude Law in The Nest

REVIEW by SUSAN GRAY

An upscale interior scene is followed by a pan of a council estate, all grey skies and concrete walkways. What is the next thing we see? All together now: a door opening, an older lady’s surprised face, and the compulsory line: ‘’Ello Mum!’ The Nest, directed by Sean Durkin has aspirations to be an Ibsen like psychological exploration of a marriage under increasing pressure, but descends into East Enders style clichés and set pieces. Leading man Jude Law as Rory O’Hara, is a trader trying to recapture his old deal making magic, by relocating his American family back to his native London.


They rent a Jacobean manor house in a curiously empty Surrey, with a main room dominated by a huge table, possibly the only thing more wooden than the acting. A ghost is hinted at, but wisely steer clear. There is zero chemistry between Law and his onscreen wife Alison, played by Carrie Coon. Faced with lines like ‘It feels good to be working again’, after a day feeding cattle at a neighbour’s farm, and having to dig up her dead horse with her bare hands, Coon gives the part her best shot.


Rory and Alison’s children also go off the rails in predictable ways: bed wetting for the younger Benjamin, and drink and drugs parties for teenage Samantha. Naturally their parents’ preoccupation with their own woes make them oblivious to their children’s suffering, or even their basic welfare.


The topical background to The Nest is the City on the brink of Big Bang, but apart from some dinosaur sexism ‘I can’t wait to show you off’ purrs Rory to Alison before a posh restaurant dinner, the film feels rudderless rather than rooted in a historic moment. And Rory’s rides empty commuter trains, and emergence from Bank station to outside Mansion House, without a soul in sight, emphasises the drama’s artificiality. Even the marvellous Adeel Aktar as late blooming trader Steve seems relieved to exit his last scene.


The City of London on the cusp of changing forever, and with it the way Britain regards itself, is a marvellous subject for a movie, but The Nest isn’t that movie.

CENSOR

DIRECTOR: PRANO BAILEY-BOND

CAST: NIAMH ALGAR; MICHAEL SMILEY

RELEASE DATE 30 JULY; CERT TBC; 84 MINUTES

Censor starring Niamh Algar, 2021
Censor starring Niamh Algar, 2021

REVIEW by SUSAN GRAY

Sundance’s horror slot is a coveted one, having launched The Blair Witch Project, 1999 and Saw, 2004 to a fright loving audience. This year’s offerings are the restrained Brit flick Censor, directed by Prano Bailey - Bond, and with horror guru Kim Newman on the team, and the more lavishly budgeted The Blazing World, where Carlson Young directs and stars.


Censor, starring Niamh Algar, who gives a pitch perfect performance as Enid a goodie two shoes going rogue, Censor recreates the moral panic around video nasties in 1980s Britain. The film’s evocation of the 1980s, Enid wears some truly terrible polyester blouses, and the low budget horror movie industry, is convincing. ‘It’s Rat Brothel all over again’, says one of Enid’s more lax colleagues at the Board of Film Classification, when she insists by playing by the rules over what scenes must be cut from a video nasty. However Enid’s poise unravels quicker than a coiled wire in a disaster movie, when she views an exploitation film that echoes her own mental images of the disappearance of her sister when they were young. Her pursuit of the video’s director and familiar looking female lead Alice Lee, confirms director John Carpenter’s adage, that the monsters in horror movies ‘are all within us’.

THE BLAZING WORLD

DIRECTOR: CARLSON YOUNG

CAST: CARLSON YOUNG; UDO KIER; DERMOT MULRONEY; VINESSA SHAW; JOHN KARNA

CERT 15; 101 MINS

RELEASE DATE: 31 JULY

The Blazing World, 2021, directed by and featuring Carlson Young
The Blazing World, 2021, directed by and featuring Carlson Young

REVIEW by SUSAN GRAY

Carlson Young’s film starts off as a sensitive exploration of mental illness and delusion, set in the milieu of a privileged twenty something. It’s send up of alternative wellness culture online, and the gurus who peddle dreams of self realisation are artfully done. But somewhere after the first quarter the film loses its way, giving us epic scenes of diabolic enchantment and fantasy deserts, that go on way too long. In choosing a film about grief after losing a childhood sibling, my vote would go to Censor.

For film descriptions and full festival programme: picturehouses.com/sundance

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