Piers Marchant at Sundance Day Three

January 26, 2020

Sundance 2020: Day 3

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Number of Films: 3
Best Film of the Day: The Dissident

Shirley: Josephine Decker’s much lauded Madeline’s Madeline was one of the films at 2018 Sundance where I most disagreed with many of the other esteemed critics with whom I was staying. Where they saw unfiltered, avant garde magic, I found it confusing, laborious, and fairly incomprehensible. Her new film is thankfully grounded in more of an accessible story, albeit one that takes several leaps of imagination. Elizabeth Moss plays Shirley Jackson, she of the “most reviled story” every published in The New Yorker (that would be “The Lottery,” now standard high school English curriculum). Disheveled, unbridled, and mostly sleeping all day as a shut-in at the house she shares with her husband, the high-revving Folklore professor, Stanley Hymen (Michael Stuhlbarg), she’s stuck in a soul-killing bout of writer’s block. When the couple brings in the newlywed Fred (Logan Lerman) and Rose (Odessa Young), it’s ostensibly so ABD professor-in-training Fred can assist Stanley with his course load, but, naturally, it turns out Rose comes to be a significant foil and muse for Shirley, whose been struggling for years trying to write a novel about a young woman who went missing from Bennington’s campus years before. Decker takes this sort of mixed-couples convention and turns it inside and out, upon itself. Like her previous film, Decker is transfixed with the idea of the creative process, and how one strips away those boulders we put in our paths in the freeing of our unconscious minds.

The Dissident: The assassination of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 set off a series of investigations  —  first, by the Turkish authorities, as the murder occurred in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul; then, the UN, whose initial reports were confirmed by the CIA  —  all of which lead to one primary source, Mohammed bin Salman, the Crown Prince, whose “progressive” platform in his native country has lead to even an even harsher crack-down on speaking out against the Royal Family. Naturally, no real effort was ever made to investigate MBS himself (though the initial UN officials strongly encouraged it), and now, more than a year later, Khashoggi’s outrageous assassination reamins unsatisfactorily resolved. Director Bryan Fogel’s doc covers the facts of the case, gruesome as they are, but also takes pains to show the far-reaching ramifications of his murder, covering everything from the Saudi counter-opp on the Twitter platform, and their purchasing of top-of-the-line spyware (obtained from, of all places, an Israel private concern), to the manner in which our sitting president immediately obsolved the Saudis for having any involvement, and ignoring a call from Congress to withhold weapons’ sales to their government going forward. The overriding effect is, of course, thoroughly depressing, in the way most docs concerning world politics have come to be, but there is still an overriding respect and mournfulness for Khashoggi himself, having been forced out of his beloved country and separated from his family before his murder. Poised to finally re-wed  —  heartbreakingly, he was murdered in the consulate as he had gone there to get wedding documents  —  the film works to document yet another lost human being, in addition to his becoming a symbol of just how completely twisted our governments have become. 

Kajillionaire: Miranda July’s work always consists of an odd combination of spices. Her films have a slightly deranged arch quality even as they elicit an emotional response, rather like being trapped in a particularly odd New Yorker cartoon. This film, about a married couple of inveterate grifters in L.A. (Richard Jenkins and Deborah Winger), whose peculiarly disaffected daughter, Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood), becomes further alienated when they  —  somewhat randomly – take on a new protegé, Melanie (Gina Rodriquez), in the midst of a big scam. Wood plays her character as if she’d been shut in a laboratory her entire life, her chest-long hair blocking her face, her voice a weirdly deep growl. When bubbly Melanie happily joins the crew, Old Dolio feels as if she’s lost the only position she’s ever held in the family. As usual, the film is filled with July’s peculiar forms of whimsy  —  they live in an old office space next to a soap factory, whose bubbles overflow and bleed down their walls at precise times of the day; they are singularly terrified of any kind of jostling, be it earthquake tremors, or flight turbulence  —  but there’s a more contrived quality to the proceedings, as if everyone knowingly takes on their oddities rather than endure them organically, and the character of Melanie, who factors mightily in what happens, is never more than a plot device (there is absolutely no indication, for example, of why this otherwise happy and grounded woman would want to have anything to do with this incredibly messed up family). There are some creative sparks, especially in a scene midway through, set in a darkened bathroom, but it doesn’t coalesce beyond its strained affectations. 

Tomorrow: We start the day early, with the #metoo thriller Promising Young Woman; will try to make it in time to watch the Ross brother’s much hyped doc, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets; check out Carrie Brownstein and St. Vincent in The Nowhere Inn; watch the new film from Sean Durkin, The Nest; and close out the day with the Force Majeure American remake, Downhill.  

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 2020 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. 9:19AM  |   URL:  https://tmblr.co/Z52bPy2nPH3f-
(view comments)  (Notes: 1)  FILED UNDER: sweet smell of successssospiers marchantfilmsmoviessundance 2020park citythe kajillionairemiranda julythe dissidentjamal khashoggisaudi arabiashirleyshirley jacksonjosephine deckerelizabeth mossmichael stuhlbarg


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