Pier Marchant at Sundance, Day FiveJanuary 23, 2018
Number of Films: 4
Best Movie of the Day: The Oslo Diaries
Search: Over the last couple of decades, we have adapted to computer tech in ways both overt and internal. It is more often than not the way we connect with other human beings, and the means by which we interact in society. This makes for an interesting branch of storytelling, conducted entirely via the screens, apps, and cameras so ubiquitous in our lives. Aneesh Chaganty‘s mystery thriller begins promisingly enough with an emotionally powerful 10 minute recap of one family’s progression told entirely through saved photos, videos, calendar entries, and emails. We meet the Kims, watching as their daughter goes from kindergartner to high school freshman, even as her mother gets sick, goes into remission, and then gets sick again. It plays like a high-tech Up, and brings us on board emotionally with the father, David (John Cho), such that when his daughter Margot (Michelle La) suddenly goes missing, we feel his increased panic at the thought of losing her. It’s a promising premise, that carries itself reasonably well up until its final act, when this carefully crafted thriller loses its sense of restraint entirely, and plays instead like a cheap airport paperback. There are moments when Chaganty captures the confusing mishmash of crowdsourced input (naturally, there are quickly concocted reddit threads declaring the father the culprit in her disappearance; and various trolls on different platforms who revel in the pain another family is experiencing), and a satisfying combination of on-screen activity and visual scenework (mostly via FaceTime calls), but unfortunately all the precision work of the first act gets lost in the shuffle of its completely far-fetched ending.
The Oslo Diaries: There was a heady time back in 1995, where it really seemed as if the ages-old Israeli/Palestinian conflict would finally be resolved. Mor Loushy and Daniel Silvan‘s Doc explores the top secret peace talks that began in 1992, between a pair of Israeli professors, and a trio of Palestinians sent by PLO head Yasser Arafat to gauge the interest in real, substantive compromise. Through the inevitable pitch-and-yaw of the two governments, Arafat and Israeli prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, met on the White House lawn to sign the basic accords – wherein each country formally recognized the other’s right to exist – and the long process of actually implementing the new plan began in earnest, a process that had seemed positively insurmountable just a few years before. The Doc captures the flood of optimism in both countries at the prospect of real peace, a belief cemented at a massive peace rally in Tel Aviv, but sadly the accords died the second a radical Israeli student fired three bullets into Rabin as he was leaving the rally. As the agony has continued unabated in the 23 years since, with some 16,000 deaths in the unresolved conflict, it’s particularly painful to see just how close the world came to the resolution of one of its most entrenched conflicts. It’s a fascinating if not deeply disheartening time capsule of a brief era of optimism.
Assassination Nation (pictured): Hopped up and too much of everything, including an incoherent political bent that wants to strike a blow for feminist empowerment. Instead it just muddies the water with buckets of stage blood, Sam Levinson‘s film, about a town driven to Purge levels of violent madness after a series of hacks first exposes public figures, then goes on to reveal half the town’s dirty business. At first, the mobs are content to laugh and mock the victims, but then things get a good deal more vicious. Through it all, we watch the plight of Lily (Odessa Young), and her three besties (Hari Nef, Suki Waterhouse, Abra), as she gets accused of being the hack’s perpetrator, sending the masked mob into a frenzy to go after her. Far from a satire – apart from everything else, it doesn’t have much of a sense of humor – it positions itself as a modern feminist diatribe, only its message is garbled by Levinson’s chaotic narrative. It pays lip service to deeper meanings, but doesn’t really offer much other than feminists are handy with heavy caliber guns, the internet is messed up, and many horrible things happen in the name of lolz.
Beirut: Something you don’t very often see at Sundance is a decently budgeted international thriller, but Brad Anderson’s film, written by Tony Gilroy, features a Hollywood cast (John Hamm, Rosamund Pike), and some of the kind of dense political intrigue with which Gilroy is best known. Hamm plays Mason Skiles, a former U.S. diplomat in the Middle East who experienced a severe trauma in Beirut, leaving him a hard-drinking husk back in the States. When a complicated hostage situation arises there a decade later, he is quickly recruited by the CIA to return to the city in which he lost so much in order to broker a deal on behalf of an old friend. The film moves along smartly enough, depicting the political quagmire and competing interests of various factions, but at a too svelte 110 minutes, it actually doesn’t quite have the heft to do its story justice. It’s the rarest of films that actually needs to be a bit longer to properly flesh it out. Reportedly, Anderson made the film from a script that had been languishing on the shelf for more than 20 years, and it feels like an earnest effort by a writer who hadn’t yet quite worked out all the beats of his stories.
Tomorrow: Hard to believe, but we’re moving into the wind-down part of the fest already. First off, I will watch the highly anticipated new film from Lynn Ramsay (Ratcatcher), You Were Never Really Here; then jump to the environmentalist minded doc The Devil We Know; before taking in the buzz-worthy Madeline’s Madeline; and close out the evening with the female buddy pic, Never Goin’ Back.
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.