Sundance: Day 5

January 26, 2016

By Piers Marchant
for blood, dirt & angels

Number of Films: 4

General Vibe: What’s Up, Doc?

Weiner: An interesting but frustrating doc from Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg, that tackles its subject, ousted former congressman and failed NYC mayor candidate Anthony Weiner, mostly by letting him speak for himself. A national punch-line when some of his semi-naked sexts to other women appeared online, ultimately causing him to resign from congress; as the film opens, Weiner, now two years removed from his inglorious ouster, begins the comeback trail by running for mayor. At first, things go increasingly well, he tops the polls and seems to have put his mistakes far enough behind him to once again be electable, but about midway through the campaign, further leaked sexts appear, and at least one of his paramours comes forward and claims they had phone sex up to 5x a day. His campaign now in tatters, Weiner is once again forced to apologize to everyone, including his long-suffering wife, Huma Abedin (a top advisor and confidant to Hillary Clinton). Through it all, he remains defiant, even after admitting to his shortcomings. It’s not that he doesn’t take the blame for it, it’s that it doesn’t seem terribly much to faze him to do so. As the doc doesn’t give us much context other than Weiner’s own, it’s hard to draw too many conclusions about the man, other than to solidify once and for all that the problem in politics is that the people most drawn to its moth-like flame are generally the least well-equipped to handle its rigors.

Tickled: A truly bizarre doc from New Zealand television journalist David Farrier, and his partner Dylan Reeve, it begins with Farrier reading a snippet about something called a “competitive tickling contest,” and finding a video of the action, which involves one “team” member being strapped to a mattress and four others straddling them and tickling various sensitive areas of their body. He sends an inquiry to the company behind the video and receives an extremely rude, homophobic, and churlish reply. More intrigued, he continues his correspondence with this mysterious woman, and eventually gets embroiled enough to earn multiple threats of a lawsuit, when he and Reeve decide to make a doc of this phenomenon. What follows is an investigative cat-and-mouse affair, with Farrier and Reeve traveling to America and interviewing scores of other people, including former tickle “competitors,” a couple of journalists who helped crack an earlier case with many of the same principles, and eventually, the person behind the entire operation. What starts as a kind of comic lark eventually turns decidedly dark and menacing, but the film shimmers with further discoveries of ethical depravity. By the film’s conclusion, you feel a bit like Jake Gittes at the end of Chinatown. The rich and powerful are not like us, it would seem.

Newtown: It’s very difficult to separate the materials of this doc’s thematics, and the emotional devastation it wrecks on your soul, but Kim A. Snyder’s careful doc isn’t about the mechanics of what happened that horrible day at Sandy Hook Elementary – the assailant, Adam Lanza, is never named other than “shooter” – nor is it much about the politics of gun control in this tragedy’s aftermath. What it focuses on instead is the effect of such a horror on the community in the months and years after it takes place, the ways in which the devastated families find to live through it, as well as many of the other unwitting participants on that day. We get interviews with still-grieving parents, a volunteer paramedic who helped the wounded, one of the officers who was an early responder, some of the teachers who survived the attack, even the school janitor (who says, echoing the other teachers and administrators, the only thing that enabled him to go back to work was the kids themselves). The overall effect is pretty daunting — of the film’s 85 minute running time, tears were streaming down my face for approximately 65 of them – but there is at least a semblance of a sense that things have to move on, one way or the other. That congress failed to add even the most basic of gun-control tenets in the aftermath of the shooting remains an inexcusable shame, but this film is far less interested in Capital Hill than it is the houses of families who still remain in town, still trying to make sense of it all.

2016_Day_5Complete Unknown: Michael Shannon is inevitably the most interesting looking person in any given scene, aided in part by his elongated height. Given the right sort of role (Revolutionary Road, for one example) this can be entirely to the strengths of the character. Watching him play a straight man to Rachel Weisz, who plays Alice, a gypsy-like character who flits about the world, taking on new identities and purposes as if she were changing shirts, feels like something of a waste. He plays Tom, a wonky public policy type, married to a stunning woman, Ramina (Azita Ghanizada), an aspiring jewelry maker who wants to leave New York to pursue her craft in San Diego. During a dinner party, one of Tom’s colleagues brings Alice, whom Tom knew many years before as Jenny, a pianist in training who vanished out of his life, to take on an entirely new life in Mexico. Reunited for an evening, the two traverse around New York, as Alice explains the philosophy behind her sudden departures and new beginnings. Joshua Marston’s film is filled with interesting ideas of identity construction, and the dinner party scenes have a sort of loose energy, but once the two of them begin, almost Before style, meandering around the city, explaining themselves, the film grinds down to a screeching halt. There is a sort of good movie in here, but alas, this particular version doesn’t coax it out.

Tomorrow: Coming round the corner, I start a heavy day by watching Ira Sachs’ Little Men; Matt Ross’ Captain Fantastic, with Viggo Mortensen; Robert Greene’s Kate Plays Christine; Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk’s Audrie & Daisy; and Kerem Sanga’s First Girl I Loved. 

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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