Sundance: Day 3

January 24, 2016

By Piers Marchant
for blood, dirt & angels

Number of Films: 3

General Vibe: Shaky on the feet

Operation Avalanche: Matt Johnson’s film suffered from two elements that were entirely not his fault. First, I mistakenly read the Sundance synopsis as if it were an actual documentary (and not a notably fake documentary, which is actually its purpose); second, and more immediately crucial, its non-stop use of shaky hand-held cameras sweeping around and resultant herky-jerky images made me start to feel badly nauseated about halfway through. What I can tell you about the film is therefore tainted by undue physical duress (and the fact that I had to close my eyes and only watch flashes of the last 20 minutes or so). With that out of the way, the film concerns the CIA, fearing a Soviet spy feeding intel to the Russians, infiltrating into NASA during the tumultuous years right before the 1969 moon launch. Two young, enthusiastic agents (Johnson and Owen Williams) pretend to be filmmakers working on a documentary of the Apollo program, where they discover to their horror that NASA, despite promises to the contrary, is nowhere near ready to land on the moon. Emboldened by his own sense of inflated power, Johnson’s character then broadens the scope of his operation to include a way in which NASA can save face, which results in particularly grave consequences for all concerned. From what I saw, it seemed reasonably clever, with a particularly engaging performance from the bouncy Johnson, but by the end, I pretty much needed to lie down and think about the desert for a while, so there’s that.

The Lovers and the Despot: Forgive the clunky title, this (actual) doc from Ross Adam and Robert Cannan has a pretty interesting story to tell. In 1978, the famous South Korean actress Choi Eun-hee was kidnapped during a visit to Hong Kong and smuggled to North Korea by film buff and eternal dictator Kim Jong-Il. This was followed soon after by the abduction of her former husband, the celebrated South Korean director Shin Sang-Ok, who had traveled to Hong Kong in the hopes of finding his ex-wife. Kim hoped to use the estranged couple to jumpstart his own country’s woebegone film industry, and in the process, produce films of international renown, which they could then lord over their hated neighbors to the south. Held for close to a decade, the reunited couple did indeed make films for the North (did they ever: Choi says at one point that they made 17 films in slightly over two years), but never gave up the idea of escaping, finally seizing their chance in Vienna in 1986. Interestingly, while both Shin and Choi wanted to escape, Shin enjoyed a much easier filmmaking process than he had endured in the democratic South – granted by Kim to receive more or less any budget he wanted. This didn’t stop him from eventually escaping with his reunited wife, but it seemed to give him a certain amount of pause.

Photo: From Love & Friendship, courtesy Amazon Studios.

Photo: From Love & Friendship, courtesy Amazon Studios.

Love & Friendship: You can certainly see how the combination of Whit Stillman and Jane Austen could potentially be a dreamlike marriage of wordsmith-ery, and lo, through much of the more entertaining scenes, the language, subtle, multi-claused, and excruciatingly obfuscating, is the real star. There is also some amusing character work from Kate Beckinsale and Tom Bennett, but as the story winds around – believe it or not, it involves men and women of high society seeking marriage for themselves and their progeny – it becomes more and more clear that the text Stillman is using as his base (an unfinished Austen novella called Lady Susan) is of a more minor order than any of her finished novels. There are fine, funny moments throughout, but these moments don’t particularly add up to much, and never more apparently than at the end, which features very little of Austen’s satisfying eventualities. One can appreciate the finer points of the production, but don’t expect a novel’s worth of Austen pleasures on this one.

Tomorrow: I will work very hard to avoid motion sickness while taking in the early high-buzz favorite of Sundance so far, Kenneth Lonergan’s much anticipated follow-up to Margaret, Manchester By The Sea; the highly praised Iranian horror film Under the Shadow; Stephanie Soechtig’s timely, and explosive-sounding doc Under the Gun; and Kelly Reichardt’s new drama, Certain Women.

Into the frigid climes and rarefied thin air of the spectacular Utah Mountains, I’ve arrived in order to document some of the sense and senselessness of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. Over the next week, armed with little more than a heavy parka and a bevy of blank reporter’s notebooks, I’ll endeavor to watch as many movies as I can and report my findings. 

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