Piers Marchant at Sundance Day six

January 24, 2018

Sundance 2018: Day 6

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Number of Films: 3
Best Movie of the Day: You Were Never Really Here

You Were Never Really Here: It’s not often that the first element of a film you want to talk about is the sound design, but Lynn Ramsay’s art-house violent thriller makes such a delicious point of amplifying its sound effects, attention must be paid. The film fittingly opens with the aftermath of a violent spectacle involving a bearded hit man named Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), his bloodied weapon of choice (a claw hammer), and the various objects left by his victim that require proper disposal. The splash of water in the sink, the ripping of a piece of tape, the sound of a ziplock being sealed echoes in the space of Ramsay’s gorgeous, inventive imagery. The plot involves a Travis Bickle-like rescue of a young girl (Ekaterina Samsonov) from a brothel, and the subsequent death and carnage that comes as a result, but for the most part, it’s best to pass over the somewhat thin plot, and enjoy the extraordinary filmmaking itself. As always, it seems, the character work of Phoenix is exemplary. Joe slumps heavily around, a kind of non-descript slob – dude wears carpenter jeans, for goodness’ sake – but all of this belies his intense focus and viciousness (when asked if he’s brutal in his methodology, Joe shrugs “I can be”). In attitude, the film not so different from a John Wick episode, except Ramsay isn’t so interested in the stylized violence unto itself – often enough, what we witness, as in the opening, is the immediate aftermath of the bloody carnage Joe and his hammer have wrought  rather than the acts themselves – but in powerfully evocative visual and auditory detail that takes what is a pretty standard sub-genre, and infuses it with unsettling substance. She consistently counters your assumptions, turning just enough of the delicate tumblers of the mechanism to keep the key from fitting perfectly in the lock.

The Devil We Know: The first question to ask of Stephanie Soechtig‘s environmental doc is to whom the “we” in the title is referring to. It’s not, it turns out, us, or the small Virginia and West Virginia towns that filed class-action lawsuits against chemical giant Du Pont for pouring a deadly and ever-lasting chemical compound unfiltered into the Ohio River, contaminating the water supplies of these towns and wrecking havoc in both the human and animal populations. No, the title actually comes from a memo the corporate titan was forced to provide during the discovery phase of the lawsuit, in which the company’s legal team, while fully admitting the proven, inherent danger with this Teflon compound, claimed it was still more cost effective to keep manufacturing the substance than trying to replace it with something safer. This being a doc, and not a Grisham novel, even when the towns prevail and win a summary judgment in court for big money, the company just splits off a new, separate division and go ahead about manufacturing a replacement compound that seems to be every bit as dangerous as the original. Soechtig’s doc plays more or less as an episode of Frontline, laying out the case against the company via interviews, depositions, and local news footage. There’s nothing particularly new here, but assembling the damning evidence together in an attempt to hold this bloodless company responsible is a worthy endeavor none-the-less. As it happens, due to the ubiquity of Teflon, Du Pont’s dangerous chemical compound is already in the blood stream of 99% of the world’s population, so there’s some serious brand reach for them.

Madeline’s Madeline: Apparently, this abstract film about a young woman (Helena Howard) with mental illness working with a theater workshop lead by a charismatic but slightly unhinged director, Evangeline (Molly Parker), is more or less par for the course for its creator, Josephine Decker. There isn’t terribly much of a through-line, but as best as can be determined, we have the young Madeline, whose mother (Miranda July) also seems radically unstable, working with Evangeline to create a new avant-garde theater production that the director keeps changing on the fly with her students. Along the way, Madeline flirts with some neighborhood boys, embodies the physical essence of a cat, and comes on strong to Evangeline’s warm-hearted husband (Curtiss Cook), who’s not sure what to do with her. What we have in place of linear coherence is an indulgence of abstract sound, imagery, movement, and color that Decker weaves in and out of the loose framework of the scenes. There is a lot of creative energy flying in all directions – which makes the versatile July a perfect fit for her vision – and many, many ideas that get thrown on the screen much as Madeline throws paint on a large paper canvas one day in the park. Not a film to watch during the sleepy part of the afternoon, I would suggest, although filtering Decker’s wild vision through your own subconscious might yield some interesting material.

Tomorrow: Two things I know for certain: I will be seeing Hereditary, what has been dubbed the horror movie find of Sundance 2018; and after that the comic western Damsel. After that, it’s a free-for-all.

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.


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