Piers Marchant at Sundance, Day FourJanuary 22, 2018
Number of Films: 2
Best Movie of the Day: The Tale (pictured)
The Death of Stalin: Armando Iannucci’s singular gift is to strip politicians of their pomp and grandeur, reducing them to exactly the sniveling, neurotic cretins that we find instantly recognizable, and in that process make them vastly more sympathetic than they would have been otherwise. They act despicably, but recognizably human, which makes them funny, if not likable. His re-telling of the aftershocks after Comrade Stalin met his demise to a cerebral hemorrhage in 1953, with the Soviet inner circle in-fighting, sniping at one another and trying to maneuver into the leadership void left by his demise, is played as bloody, often hilarious farce. Bodies are dispatched summarily, from completing Stalin’s endless purges, to the Soviet army and Stalin’s personal troops taking turns committing one atrocity after another. The first rate cast features Michael Palin, Jeffery Tambor, Andrea Riseborough and the particularly inspired Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khrushchev, the man who would (eventually) be the new Soviet king. As an uproarious comedy, things roll merrily along, but Iannucci sticks fairly close to the historic record, rendering the climactic showdown between the perfectly evil Beria (Simon Russell Beale), and the other members of Stalin’s cabinet every bit as brutal as recorded. Politicians are just like us, it turns out, only much worse.
The Tale: Jennifer Fox’s autobiographical film about her own experience of child sexual abuse has become one of the more talked about entries in the festival to this point, and with very good reason. Fox, a documentarian by trade, has made an ostensibly narrative film about very real events, but subject to her own fallible memory. The result is a powerful document about repression, denial, and self-ownership that you won’t soon forget. Laura Dern plays her as an adult, a successful filmmaker living in a fabulous apartment in New York with her loving, protective boyfriend (Common). When her mother, played by Ellen Burstyn, finds an old short story she wrote when she was 13 and sends it to her, it sets off a series of events in her head, and an eventual realization that what she experienced as a young teen wasn’t about her own empowerment, as she had remembered, but a horrific example of abuse perpetrated by her track coach (Jason Ritter), and riding instructor (Elizabeth Debicki) over the course of several months. The film deploys a disconcerting emotional distance for the vast majority of its running time, but which culminates in a fiery climax in which suppression finally gives way to outrage. It’s as much about the way we craft our own personal narratives as it is about abuse. Fox, via her on-camera stand-in Dern, at one point gets furious over being labeled a victim, as she very much doesn’t want to see herself that way, but coming to terms with her experience is at least half the battle.
Tomorrow: Into the middle of fest we go. Early on, I plan on taking in the Reed Moreno helmed I Think We’re Alone Now, about the last two surviving humans on earth; then The Oslo Diaries, a doc about the failed middle east accords in the early ‘90s; break out a bit with the bugnuts-sounding Assassination Nation; and close out the day with one of the more commercially viable films, Beirut, which stars John Hamm as a U.S. diplomat forced to return to war-torn Lebanon for a special mission by the CIA.
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 2018 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.