For the second year in a row Robert Redford’s top tier international film festival sent off a small expeditionary force and camped out at London’s O2 Arena in Greenwich. Here are my takes on the movies I caught, in chronological order of viewing:
PEACHES DOES HERSELF
A concert flick written and directed by the singer/musician herself. A mixture of sexual hijinks and electronic music might have been a guilty divertissement, but ended up being inane and puerile. The stage ideas were incongruously half-baked and over-wrought. The opening is amusing in an AMERICAN DAD kinda way – think Claus the fish: A moustachioed middle-aged buttoned-down man is reading a speech introducing Peaches, and is speaking in a stereotypical mechanically clipped German tongue, but every so often he quotes a foulmouthed Peaches song title. Then there’s a girl rock band with the lead singer wearing trousers with a handprint coloured on to her crotch, and then the set turns into a bedroom containing a giant bed with Peaches playing her music in her underwear. Eventually a pensioner dressed as a cowgirl stripper crops up conversing through a fluorescent labia. And so and so on. You get the picture. Occasionally entertaining, mostly repetitive. How many times can the human mind hear "Shake your tits, shake your dick" before going insane?
THE MOO MAN
“I am passionate about milk,” so says farmer and focus Stephen Hook. His dying breed of British diary farm is an idyll – a free roaming herd of 72 treated with compassion and affection; an advert for such a venture in general, and his business in particular. (We’re not in BULLHEAD, FLANDERS territory.) It would be churlish to bemoan the promotion of the niche Steve has carved, especially in light of the recent food scandals involving horsemeat. Made in a Nicolas Philibert documentary style, but thankfully not as stagnant, this is quietly politically scathing (until the unnecessarily explicit end titles.)
THE KINGS OF SUMMER
“My American name is Gary,” Delivery Guy. Imagine MOONRISE KINGDOM with three dudes. The stress here is on comedy and formative male friendship, with romance a catalyst rather than the drive. An American indie that starts so funny, but trails off in unsatisfying directions. Joe and Patrick are frustrated by life, in particular worn out by their parents’ poor communication skills. The former’s father is still closed down after the death of his wife many years before, and the latters suffer from a cutesy verbal-diarrhoea. So they decide to run away for the summer holidays and construct a makeshift home in the nearby woods. An odd-bod local kid, Biaggio, tags along for the mini-adventure. Stylishly shot, beautifully lit and well acted, the filmmakers don’t unfortunately know where to take the proceedings. A shame, but a calling card for all the newbies involved.
GOD LOVES UGANDA
“I just want to thank God for Starbucks’” Jesse. Disturbing and excellent look at American church zeal and hypocrisy in Africa, specifically Uganda, harming the people already in vulnerable positions. This is the antithesis to the japes and jocularity of the benign (in comparison) THE BOOK OF MORMON, currently wowing theatre audiences in New York and London. Constructed as an essay in the master Alex Gibney mould, the exploitation and reckless treatment of people still moving out of the shadow of dictator Idi Amin will shock and upset. The West is seen by a talking head to be in spiritual decline, so the Third World is the new target, for an intolerant agenda, and an enforcement of unmerciful narrow values. An eviscerating missionary imperialism documentary.
Who doesn’t love mumblecore? Where Swanberg, Bujalski and the Duplasses shine, director Lynn Shelton attracts quality casts to limp stories, lacking believability. The poorly made commentary on humanity is now strike three with TOUCHY FEELY, after HUMPDAY and YOUR SISTER’S SISTER. This latest is a double-whammy of disappointment, as the cast assembled is reeking of indie cred. Rosemary DeWitt, Ellen Page and Josh Pais play extended family that have all reached dull mini-crisis points individually. That of course knocks onto others around them, equally tediously. A really ugly-looking movie, having neither realism nor style, like the story unfolding on a stage while camera-people attempt to capture the mild banality.
A music doc on a little known area of Alabama, USA, where some of the most influential pop music of the 60s was created. A strong first hour is not sustained as the film descends into a phone directory style catalogue of names. However, the level of detail cannot be faulted as Fame Recording Studios and then rival Muscle Shoals Sounds Studio came into being. From breaking Percy Sledge, to finding a vehicle for Arethra Franklin, to The Rolling Stones cutting ‘Wild Horses’ and ‘Brown Sugar’; all while segregation and the Civil Rights movement were raging. The suggestion that music helped breakdown colour barriers is an interesting one. There is also an attempt to analyse the unusual alchemy that allowed such records to be made. Contributors, such as Mick Jagger and Keith Richards make for their usual mischievous talking heads, also include Jimmy Cliff, Bono and Steve Winwood. A nice little curio for muso aficionados.
RUNNING FROM CRAZY
Truly terrible flick focusing on former actress Mariel Hemingway, and exec produced by Oprah Winfrey. If a celeb mag decided to make a documentary on mental illness, this is how I'd imagine the result. Ostensibly about the reasons for the suicides of many of the Hemingway clan, the most famous tragedy, her grandfather Ernest, it instead becomes an attention-seeking advert for Mariel’s lifestyle and a way to promote her children’s modelling/art careers. Drenched in saccharine moments, the worst excesses include the camera continually zooming in on Mariel welling up to ensure we caught the emotion. There would be even less meat if the movie hadn’t intercut older sister Margaux’s own documentary attempt many years before. The most interesting aspect, the eldest sister in a psychiatric facility, is only touched upon in one scene, and then it’s back to Mariel. Woeful.
“Sometimes all that’s left to do is hold onto the blade of a knife,” Mai. Unrelentingly grim portrait of exploitation and corruption, tied to a leaden thriller framework. Set in Manila, The Philippines, this is not a tourist promotion. The focus is family man Oscar, soldier turned factory worker turned farmer turned security guard. In the hands of a Ken Loach or Paul Laverty or Gael Garcia Bernal, the contrived story might have been elevated to a valuable commentary on the modern world, showcasing the brutality of capitalism. Contrast METRO MANILA with Rahim Bahrani’s MAN PUSH CART, upsetting but nuanced.
HISTORY OF THE EAGLES: PART ONE
“Groups last longer than they used to,” Don Henley. Meticulous dissection of mega-selling soft rock group up to their initial break-up in 1981, produced by Alex Gibney. We get talking head accounts from the revolving door of members and producers. Well paced and fascinating. The core of the band gets a background history, and then a blow-by-blow account of the rise and split. The pic doesn’t say anything new about the music industry, but what it does articulate, is done with panache. It is also a promulgation for hard work. Of course songs like ‘Take it Easy’ and ‘Hotel California’ are looked at. Oh yeah, and Don Henley now sounds/looks like BREAKING BAD’s Bryan Cranston.
IN A WORLD…
“I’m going to support you by not supporting you,” Sam. Winsome, loquacious comedy set in world of voice over movie trailer artists. The standout from the festival. High-five to writer-director-star Lake Bell. Quietly feminist in its focus on a woman making it in a male dominated industry. And rather than Oedipal rivalry between eldest son and overbearing father, it is youngest daughter and self-obsessed pater. The relationship dynamics are fun, even with the douchebag characters, and refreshingly non-cookie cutter. "Break a lung,” Gustav.
EMANUEL AND THE TRUTH ABOUT FISHES
“I’m just a murderer without a motive,” Emanuel. Execrable. The worst traits of indie storytelling epitomised here. What are Alfred Molina and Jessica Biel doing in this junk? From the awful opening monologue, by the titular Emanuel, who is constantly given glib attempts at wit which continually fall flat, the audience is shovelled the poorly thought out. Tragic passings are looked at sans sophistication. Emanuel’s mother died while giving birth, and has blamed herself her whole life. And on the cusp of her turning 18, Biel’s Linda moves next door one evening, a newborn in tow. Only the baby is not real, having died, and in its place Linda has a doll that she thinks is alive. Emanuel doesn’t seek out help for her, and just plays along. The family and other dynamics are superficially constructed. There are also dialogue clangers like, “Reality is overrated.” Dross.
SLEEPWALK WITH ME
Mike Birbiglia's excellent live stand-up hasn't translated to film nearly as smoothly as I hoped. The pathos has been enhanced though. In the shoes of director-star and co-writer, Birbiglia breaks the fourth wall and tells us about his relationship with Abby (Lauren Ambrose). As his sister and friends settle down to marriage and children, and eight years in, Abby is starting to get antsy about them settling down. Birgbiglia’s Matt Pandamiglio is a struggling, unfunny stand-up comedian working at a bar. Career frustrations and girlfriend anxieties trigger sleepwalking where he acts out his dreams. This sleep disorder is of the most dangerous kind, not only does he end up harming himself (such as jumping through a closed window, from above the ground floor), there is the possibility of attacking unconsciously a bedmate. While the humour almost completely falls flat, it’s the drama of dissatisfaction that makes this watchable; similar then to FUNNY PEOPLE.
“That was the worst public display of personal crisis I’ve ever seen,” Linda. A.K.A. Adult Children Of Divorce. One in two marriages end in divorce so say the initial titles. Sharing FRIENDS WITH KIDS initial promise, and both starring Adam Scott, they quickly fall into cliché, and here crass farce. Both comedies bottle an exploration of marriage and having children. I hasten to add that these misfires are not Scott’s fault. After his parents traumatic divorce, Carter has drawn a thinly veiled line across it and carved a successful life for himself. His younger brother’s sudden engagement, and desire for their mother and father to be at the wedding ceremony, forces older bro to open still scabbing wounds to massively unsatisfying results. A light entertainment where everyone acts annoyingly quirky (bar the lead couple). Obvious humour and contrived situs.
“He’s killed more people than you’ve probably ever met,” Mud. Men and their women/friends/fathers. Another director Jeff Nichols doozy. Reminds me of Clint Eastwood's underrated A PERFECT WORLD. Two resourceful 14 year old Arkansas friends, Ellis and Neckbone, the former particularly honourable and brave is watching his parents marriage crumble. At the same time they come across a fugitive, Mud (Matthew McConaughey), hiding out on an island awaiting his girl (Reese Witherspoon). They decide to help him rebuild a boat, to facilitate his escape, washed high into a tree after a particularly powerful storm (perhaps caused by the tempest in the filmmaker’s previous, TAKE SHELTER?). Looking at Nichols’ three films (including debut SHOTGUN STORIES), his focus is the dignified attuned to the world around them. And there is something Biblical in his work – brother against brother, the apocalypse, and helping your neighbour. That’s three for three from him; and a strikingly shot finale to the festival.