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Sundance 2012: Sixth Report

Posted on Thursday February 2, 2012, 10:48 by Damon Wise in Under The Radar
Sundance 2012: Sixth Report

By chance, one particular day brought together two very different movies on the theme of inebriation. The first, Smashed, is the sort of movie that often screens at Sundance, starring an actress better known for more glamorous roles in a part that requires a lot of crying and looking ugly. In the past we've had the likes of Sherrybaby (Maggie Gyllenhaal, good) and Come Early Morning (Ashley Judd, not so good), so I was perhaps a little cynical when I read that Mary Elizabeth Winstead was now giving the whole serious thing a go, with a starring role in a film about a woman wrestling with sobriety. It is, for certain, not the most lavish film to screen at the festival, and wait-line gossip suggested that it had been readied in superfast time since shooting as late as October last year. But for all that, it's a well-written and nicely observed comedy-drama, with a really good central performance that will hopefully win Winstead some better roles in the new year.

She plays Kate, a first-grade teacher whose drinking is getting out of control, specifically when, after a late-night bender, she throws up in front of her startled class. She tells the headmistress she's pregnant, a lie that will come back to haunt her, and it seems no lessons have been learned when almost immediately she's out on the razz again, smoking crack with some random stranger she meets in the local bar. The crack incident, a scary loss of time and memory, serves as a wake-up call, and, aided by an AA-attending fellow teacher, she embarks on a quest for sobriety, which doesn't prove to be quite as easy as she expects it to be.

Aside from Winstead's performance – which is pretty amazing considering how hard it is for anyone to play a convincing drunk, let alone an actor with a CV that includes the dance movie Make It Happen – James Ponsoldt's second feature is remarkable also for the route it takes in charting Kate's journey. Although the lows are pretty low (pissing in the corner shop is a boozy non-no by anyone's standards), Smashed wryly suggests that getting sober is not just the end of one set of problems but the beginning of yet another, which Kate starts to realise when she sees her partner with new eyes. It isn't always convincing – Kate's frumpy skirts alone seem to be trying too hard to persuade us that this is a real woman, not a glamourpuss acting – but there's a lot of range (and especially humour) in the nuanced script (by Ponsoldt and Susan Burke) that make this well worth catching.

Jon Wright's Grabbers has a slightly more irreverent take on the drink issue, being a romantic but surprisingly scary monster movie that feels like a lost Amblin flick, shaken and stirred with a dash of The Guard. Richard Coyle stars as the dishevelled Ciaran O'Shea, chief of police on the remote Erin Island, which lies some way off the coast of Ireland. Ciaran is something of a shambles and a lazy one at that, so when his partner takes a vacation he is more than dismayed to find that his replacement, Garda Lisa Nolan (Ruth Bradley), is a teetotal workaholic, ready to fight crime in a town where there really isn't any. O'Shea and Nolan bump heads from the off, but when a series of creepy incidents occur, culminating in the violent death of a local man, the pair begin to investigate, discovering a slippery new type of space alien that feasts on the blood of humans.

What has this to do with drinking? Well, the novelty here is that the creatures – named “grabbers”, much to the annoyance of scientist Adam Smith (Russell Tovey), who rather fancies something long and Latin – are allergic to massive levels of alcohol, thus creating something of a problem for our shambolic hero. To save the locals, he must, albeit reluctantly, remain sober, while to protect the actually-rather-lovely Lisa, he must persuade this most uptight of women to drink ridiculous levels of beer and whiskey and God knows what. With this plan in mind, O'Shea summons the villagers to the local pub, where they drink themselves into a stupor, unaware of the danger lurking outside.

From that brief description, you could be forgiven for thinking of Grabbers as a one-note sketch comedy, but the surprise is just how beautifully Wright's film works. Scripted by first-timer Kevin Lehane, it aims for genre seriousness first and foremost, so just as important to the burgeoning romance between O'Shea and Nolan is the extraterrestrial threat. There are several stages to the menace, starting with a series of Alien-like eggs that become pint-sized, not-exactly-threatening “jumpers”, and Wright has a lot of fun with them, squeezing in an affectionate nod to Gremlins while making sure that the fully grown creatures – a seething mass of tentacles that swarm around a vicious, fanged maw – are far from cute. Paddy Eason's VFX are excellent in this respect, and what could so easily have been a Comic Strip knock-off punches way above its weight, thanks also to a big, atmospheric score by Christian Henson.

I'm not sure yet when Grabbers will be making its UK debut, but the film deserves to find an audience both here and overseas. Like Gareth Evans' The Raid, it's not only a finely crafted tribute to a long-lost style of filmmaking but it stands up in its own right too. Like Super 8 laced with Special Brew – but with nothing to sleep off in the morning.

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