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Sundance London 2019 review - psychotic maniacs and old-fashioned weepies | reviews, news & interviews

Sundance London 2019 review - psychotic maniacs and old-fashioned weepies

Sundance London 2019 review - psychotic maniacs and old-fashioned weepies

Latest genre-leaping raid by the flourishing Utah-based film festival

Michelle Williams and Julianne Moore in 'After the Wedding'

This fifth edition of Sundance’s London offshoot covered the first moon landing in Apollo 11, probed philosophical pranksters The Satanic Temple in Hail Satan? and took a trip through the alt-right world of Steve Bannon in The Brink. In between there was drama, melodrama, black comedy and social commentary. Theartsdesk took a tour. 

The Farewell

Based on the experiences of writer/director Lulu Wang, The Farewell is a perceptive examination of family bonds, generational differences and cultural contrasts. Awkwafina (former YouTube rapper turned rising film actress) plays Billi, a Chinese girl living in New York. News that her beloved grandmother Nai Nai is seriously ill back in China stuns the whole family, who collectively rush back to be with her.

However, Billi is discomfited to learn that her family have decided that her grandmother can’t be told she has cancer, and have used the wedding of Billi’s cousin as a pretext for the family reunion. This evokes the contrasting world-views of east and west, with Billi’s uncle explaining that while Americans may consider a person as an isolated individual, in China a family is a network of relationships where burdens are mutually shared. Billi’s mother Jian (Diana Lin) deplores the way her daughter has fallen to prey to Western-style displays of emotionalism.

Wang’s film also throws light on the way China has changed, its landscape transformed by forests of characterless apartment blocks, its old streets and houses bulldozered into extinction. However, timeless personal values endure, and the exuberant scenes of Billi’s extended family gathered for the mountainous wedding feast are a reminder that home is where the heart ought to be. The scenes between Billi and her grandmother (Shuzhen Zhao) are handled with great delicacy. ★★★★★

The Farewell won the Audience Favourite Award at Sundance London 2019

Corporate Animals 

In which Demi Moore, now equipped with a set of hi-vis Hollywood teeth, plays Lucy, the bullying CEO of Incredible Edibles (they make edible cutlery). The TV commercial she does at the start of the film is the funniest thing in it, but it goes downhill from here. Underground in fact, as Lucy, aided by Brandon the guide (Ed Helms), takes her browbeaten employees on a team-building adventure weekend. After macho Lucy insists they take the extra-difficult route, they get trapped in a cave by a rock-fall.

It turns into a macabre morass of tasteless behaviour and limping one-liners, as Lucy’s monstrousness triggers a karmic backlash. She has cynically manipulated her two associates Jess (Jessica Williams) and Freddie (Karan Soni), and has been cooking the company books. Her sexual exploitation of Freddie parodies her historic sexual abuse of Michael Douglas in Disclosure, though the idea of her as a man-eater is taken too literally when she cannibalises the rock-flattened Brandon. It’s crass and it’s gross. Perhaps director Patrick Brice and screenwriter Sam Bain have a souped-up director’s cut where they stashed all the missing jokes.  

The Nightingale

Fans of Sam Claflin should be warned that this isn’t his finest hour. Australian director Jennifer Kent scored a cult hit with The Babadook, but this barbaric revenge drama could turn the strongest stomach while also being about 30 minutes too long. Claflin plays British Army lieutenant Hawkins, stuck in the primitive wilds of Tasmania in 1825 as the Brits are in the midst of colonising Australia. Disappointingly, he’s just a one-note psychopath, willing to go to any extreme to earn promotion and prestige. He’s taken a lascivious shine to the young Irish ex-convict Clare (Aisling Franciosi, pictured above), but when her husband intervenes Hawkins responds with an orgy of rape, murder and infanticide which tests the limits of bearable.

Vengeful Clare pursues Hawkins into the wilderness, aided by Aboriginal guide Billy (Baykali Ganambarr, the film’s saving grace with his dry wit and “fuck the Brits” put-downs). The trip becomes an odyssey of slaughter and racist brutality, as if Kent is compiling a Greatest Hits of colonial crimes while flying the flag for Australia’s indigenous peoples. The British don’t even qualify as subhuman, though it isn’t clear how people as moronic as this ever found their way off the boat. ★★


After the Wedding 

This is a remake of the 2006 Danish film directed by Susanne Bier, written and directed by Bart Freundlich (who has flipped the gender of the original twin protagonists from male to female). Bart’s wife, Julianne Moore, plays Theresa, powerhouse boss of media company Horizon, and surprises Isabelle (Michelle Williams) by making a generous offer to fund the orphanage she runs in India. To get the money, Isabelle has to fly to New York to meet Theresa.

Williams’s performance is a sustained display of petulance and bad temper, as she can’t disguise her disgust at Theresa’s wealthy lifestyle, and evidently finds New York the epitome of collective greed. She has dedicated her life to doing charitable works, and has become gratingly self-righteous in the process. However, it gets more interesting when her back story with Theresa’s husband Oscar (Billy Crudup) emerges into the daylight. The upshot is that Isabelle is the mother of Oscar’s daughter Grace, a revelation which shakes the family kaleidoscope irrevocably.

It’s basically an old-fashioned weepy, complete with a tear-jerking splash of personal tragedy, and Moore sets a cracking pace as bossy, controlling Theresa (whose motivations are not as fully explored as they might have been). This remake doesn’t feel necessary, though. ★★

 The Last Tree 

This second feature by Shola Amoo is the powerful story of young Nigerian boy Femi, who we first encounter as he’s being brought up by foster mother Mary (Denise Black) in rural Lincolnshire. Radiant widescreen cinematography suggests a prelapsarian idyll which probably can’t last. It doesn’t. Femi’s single mother Yinka (Gbemisola Ikumelo) arrives to reclaim him, and he’s transported to the claustrophobic gloom of a south London council block. Femi grows into a brooding, monosyllabic teenager (Sam Adewunmi, pictured above), estranged from his uncomprehending mother and being sucked into the malign orbit of local gangster Mace (Denny Ladipo), who lurks outside the school gates with his BMW and oversized minder.

It’s a bit like Top Boy Goes to the Movies (not least because Top Boy’s Nicholas Pinnock appears as schoolmaster Mr Williams), but Amoo adds layers of resonance to his story with an unsettling soundtrack and imaginative camerawork (often using claustrophobic close-ups with minimal depth of field) which intensify the sense of Femi’s conflicted identity. His cultural confusion is deftly evoked by the way he claims to be listening to Tupac on his headphones, when in fact it’s The Cure. This is smart, thought-provoking filmmaking. ★★★★

 

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