Best of Sundance London – part 1

The top five cinematic journeys departing London this week, from Alabama to Uganda

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Sean Carruth´s Upstream Color, in follow-up to his award-winning Primer, is possibly the most sensuous, dizzyingly-shot film of this year´s festival. Its also his most mind-skewing and narratively challenging oeuvre to date, frustrating us with more plot questions than answers, making sure we pay rapt attention to the recurring Memento-like dialogue of a man and a woman oddly connected by a pig science experiment, who attempt to piece together their shattered lives. Like Kris (Amy Seimetz Jeff), who battles onslaughts of psychological instability, we are left wondering what is real, if memory can be trusted at all; and if not, what treacherous fictions identity can be based on.  Upstream also portrays some of the most refreshingly honest romantic scenes this side of experimental cinema. Ultimately, this is a story of survival, both spiritual and physical, amidst failure and happy accidents. 

On a less subtle note, Peaches Does Herself runs the entire onstage performance of a relentlessly upbeat rock opera comprised of her greatest hits, starring herself. I must admit that the beginning was worrisomely reminiscent of Madonna’s gender-bending, grrrly show from the 90s, except that an erect penis complemented the breast plates as part of Peaches’ fantastic bodysuit, while cross-dressing dancers posed and gyrated in the background. But clit-dominated imagery and theatrics aside, Peaches indisputably proves herself a singer, displaying an astonishing range of vocals and moods, including a child-like vulnerability in “Lose You.” To her credit, only she could make losing a showdown to a tired cowgirl-stripper for the heart of a tattooed, transgender ballerina towering in black stilettos seem plausibly romantic, if not tragic. But the best comes at the end when the stage lights inexplicably extinguish, revealing an empty audience. Peaches doesn’t falter, or lose a beat, but maintains her ferocious, self-empowering, I-don’t-give-a-fuck attitude. Dropping the artifice of the rhythmic background support, she powerhouses off the stage and out the theatre doors into broad daylight, belting her infamous, “Fuck the pain away,” as she hops on a bicycle, terrorizing humdrum pedestrians on the streets of Berlin, just to prove she can. The message is clear: no matter how old Peaches gets, she's still a badass. 

Muscle Shoals delivers a different soundscape, a forgotten pocket of American South that created a ridiculous amount of internationally acclaimed, ground-breaking hits from “Brown Sugar” to “When a Man loves a Woman.” Behind the unique “Muscle Shoals” sound of FAME Studios is the fascinating figure of Rick Hall, who, despite staggering personal tragedies, managed to unite black and white musicians in an era of racial tensions, and produce soulful, gold-standard recordings with legends like Arethra Franklin, Etta James, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Wilson Pickett, Steve Winwood, and Greg Allman. Muscles also provides “The Swampers”-- local good ol’ boys who funked with the best of them, as the in-house band-- their long over-due recognition in the music hall of fame. 

Although more familiarly indie, the story of Touchy Feely, directed by Lynn Shelton (Your Sister´s Sister) mercifully turns out to be much less cute than its title suggests. When independent-minded massage therapist Abby’s boyfriend asks her to move in with him, she immediately loses her "healing touch" while her dorky dentist of an older brother gains one. Not only does Abby’s boyfriend disrupt her psychic levels but the delicate balance of power within her close-knit family, marked by possessive relationships and implicitly incestuous overtones. Emotions turn out to be more fluid, transferable, and harder to control than originally reckoned. Predictably, discomfort leads to self-experimentation and personal growth---we learn that yes, sometimes popping an ecstasy pill can actually be the answer to all your problems. In the final scene, order is comfortably restored, with all family members coupled off around the proverbial dinner table. 

All these feel-good vibes are counterbalanced by the shocking, terrifyingly bleak documentary, God Loves Uganda, in which a self-declared “army” of all-white, Midwestern fundamentalist missionaries execute their “god-given mandate” in the Aids-ravaged, postcolonialist African country. It is hard to say which is scariest: the sight of International House of Prayer (IHOP) leaders like Lou Engle (recently accused by the UN of crimes against humanity) thundering against pre-marital sex and homosexuality,  his congregation sobbing and convulsing on the floor, or the perfectly brainwashed Ugandan recruits repeating their Bush-sanctioned hate rant in the streets with megaphones. Especially, the holy war on homosexuals has culminated in unimaginable consequences in a land where people take the law into their own hands: the bludgeoning to death of gay activist David Kato, the excommunication and ostracizing of Bishop Senyonjo, who advocated a campaign of tolerance and peace, and the widely supported 2009 anti-homosexuality bill, punishable by death.  With the enviable efficiency, unchecked funding, and hierarchal structure of a megacorporation, IHOP continue their mission to “harvest one billion souls,” and viral-like, “multiply themselves like DNA,” while powerful Ugandan ministers divide their time between servant-attended mansions in their home country and second houses in America. At turns horrifying, touching, enlightening, Gold Loves Uganda is a film that is not afraid to probe the human heart of darkness, and does not look away.

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