SUNDANCE 2010 Round-up
There seemed to be more people at Sundance this year, most likely because last year the crowd was thinned due the magnetic pull of Obama’s inauguration in DC. Nonetheless, folks were able to move around Park City rather efficiently in 2010. A constantly refined transportation system touted their millionth rider of the year. The odd rainy weather at the tail end of last year’s festival was replaced this year with the more traditional dry, cold, crisp weather. Of the dozens of films screened, these two are noteworthy. Don’t miss them when they come to a theatre near you.
When I pulled my colleagues into this screening, I had some trepidation that they would not empathize with my Anglophilic interest in all things Beatles. No worries, thereafter my wife confirmed this film would be compelling even if it wasn’t about John Lennon. The fact that it compellingly captures Lennon’s formative years makes it a home run (to use an admittedly American term). But the American connection is apt; one of the key scenes shows Lennon down by the Mersey River, negotiating with American sailors for the latest singles. In fact, so many of the iconic scenes music fans have pictured when reading Lennon biographies come to life in better than expected motifs. The film tells the story of Lennon’s bifurcated upbringing: being raised by his Aunt Mimi and discovery that his perky mother Julia lived nearby. Julia’s proximity comes to him first as a shock, then anger and then acceptance.
Julia is far more open to John’s rock and roll attitude; she is not averse to his skipping school, practicing guitar in lieu of homework and thumbing his nose at the buttoned-down status quo of mid-1950s Liverpool. In fact, their affinity drifts toward the Oedipal. Kristin Scott Thomas as Aunt Mimi strikes the difficult balance of defining and enforcing the wild child’s boundaries, while acknowledging John’s artistic talent. The most clever aspect of director Sam Taylor Wood’s production is the fact that she eschewed the easy path of a Lennon lookalike.
In comments after the screening, Wood described seeing nearly a hundred actors for the lead role, but Aaron Johnson was her eighth audition. He so astutely captures the swagger, attitude and vulnerability of the teenage Lennon that Johnson’s next film will be an even greater test. Another incredibly clever artistic choice was telling Lennon’s story with no overt mention of the Beatles. Although the film opens with a sonic blast of a single familiar jangly electric guitar chord while John is running late for school, late in the film he and his mates have attained sufficient traction to be invited to Hamburg. Mimi offhandedly asks the name of his band, but we never hear the answer. By then, everyone in the audience tearfully knows the answer. In between the opening and closing credits, several of rock and roll’s golden moments are portrayed. When John’s band is shown assembling their ragtag equipment on the back of an open truck at a church fete, I was on the edge of my seat to see how the meeting of Lennon and McCartney would be handled.
Arguably the most important meeting in rock and roll, Wood handles it with aplomb. Thomas Sangster looks not much like McCartney, but his confidence and talent (not only can he tune a guitar, he is comfortable with intricate fretwork) make Lennon realize he needs this kid in his band before he lands elsewhere. In those few moments the course of rock and roll would change forever. After this film opens, that scene will become cemented as how it went down. The look of the film magnificently captures the green parks of Strawberry Fields and the Liverpool suburbs, as well as the post-Edwardian architecture and fashion. Wood confirmed in her post-screening comments that authenticity was a constant standard by which her film would be measured. On that score alone, she succeeds. The song approved by Yoko Ono for the closing credits confirms that the strictest gatekeeper of the Legend legacy gave her blessing. Nowhere Boy is a tremendous film for even the most casual fan of rock music, and it can safely be the centerpiece of a fine date night with someone interested in a compelling story of parenthood.
For his return visit to Sundance, Andrei Nekrasov has assembled an explosive but sadly confusing documentary about the doublespeak surrounding the former Soviet state of Georgia. The unrelenting horror of the Russian troops in these troubled territories in the early 1990s is encapsulated by one woman who pleads ‘aren’t there any laws in the world.’ The film is likely targeted at Nekrasov’s fellow Russians, who have yet to undergo the self-critical analysis the Germans have undertaken with regard to Hitler’s Nazi Germany. Russia today plays a crucial geopolitical role, supplying not only oil and gas for much of Europe, but acts as a perceived counterbalance to the hegemony and power of the USA.
As such, Russia is given far too much deference on the global stage when it commits atrocities like invading its neighbors or permanently silencing journalists. Nekrasov has miraculously assembled footage from territories rarely visited by filmmakers. He has also found examples where this footage has been taken, in true Orwellian fashion, to tell exactly the opposite story to the public. Although the bewildering conflict is sadly too familiar for his intended audience in Russia, Nekrasov needs to add more historical perspective for western audiences. He should vastly increase the use of maps to show the geographic relationship of the troubled regions of Abkhazia.
Olga Konskaya's hosting a party although interesting, does not get the viewer quickly enough into the thesis of the film. Russian Lessons has the potential to turn the world’s view 180 degrees, and with some judicial editing for the eyes of the less-informed Westerner, Nekrasov will hit his mark.