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Sundance Film Festival 2020 (Day 3)

by Erik Childress

My 18th year at the Sundance Film Festival will be chronicled here with ongoing coverage of all the films I saw.


Listen to the Movie Madness Podcast for more coverage
Sundance Film Festival 2020



IRONBARK

At some point we're going to discover that all of the Benedict Cumberbatch films about history we're all part of some collective that broke away from the hive and became sentient for a brief moment in time before being forgotten. The Imitation Game, The Current War (pre-or-post-Weinstein edition) and throw in brief appearances in 1917 and War Horse for good measure amongst others. Ironbark is like a dry deja vu of better spy thrillers that starts like a prequel to Thirteen Days but then ends up closer on the scale to The Catcher was a Spy than Bridge of Spies.

Cumberbatch plays Greville Wynne whose business dealings in Europe make him a target for British Intelligence. Not that he's done anything wrong, but that he makes for a perfect mark to stroll in and out of the Soviet Union to intercept information from Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), a Soviet intelligence officer close to his nation's nuclear program. The two men form a friendship that wants to be the heart of this espionage tale but the surrounding material is just not gripping under the rather passive direction by Dominic Cooke.

For starters - as usual in such films - the focus is on the wrong man. The real hero of this whole affair is Penkovsky whose codename inspired the film's title. His story and the risks he undertakes being right in the center of a regime none too kind to traitors has far more urgency than Wynne going on business trips to play spy before coming home to a wife (Jessie Buckley, getting wasted left and right since Beast and Wild Rose) with reasons to mistrust him. Rachel Brosnahan seems like she is still stuck in Mrs. Maisel-Land as the peppy government agent who helps put the scheme in motion. Her scenes with Cumberbatch almost seem like a comedy was being crafted in one half of the script while the real Ironbark was desperately avoiding trying to get shot. That is unfortunate because the film never finds the right rhythm or a modicum of genuine suspense making this like someone's attempt to do a generic version of the lightest of John Le Carre novels.


SHIRLEY

Elisabeth Moss has specialized in taking projects that are almost designed to plunge the audience into a pool of misery; projecting onto us what her characters are processing internally and in some cases externally to others in her immediate orbit. Her collaborations with Alex Ross Perry has produced the very good Queen of Earth and the exceptional Her Smell which benefited from a late arc of redemption that makes the previous hell trip all worth it. In Josephine Decker's Shirley the misery is constant and the houseguests she takes along for the ride are not strong enough to absorb it and we end up the brunt of a dispiriting experience.

Moss plays Shirley Jackson, the author responsible for two of the great works of the 20th century, the short story The Lottery (which we were assigned to read in grade school) and The Haunting of Hill House which has been adapted twice for cinema and as a miniseries for Netflix. In this largely fictional treatment, Jackson's husband Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg) invites a young professor's assistant (Logan Lerman) and his pregnant wife (Odessa Young) to be guests in their home while they settle into life on campus. The agoraphobic Jackson rarely likes to come out of her room despite the bullying pleas of Stanley, her harshest critic, and the dynamic begins to wear directly on the younger couple as their personal demons begin to manifest and their mental acuity goes into decline.

Not that there was much there to begin with as neither Young nor Lerman (rarely a dynamic presence) are never a match for the more forceful performances of their hosts. Stuhlbarg is aggressively playing to the back of the theater as if unsuppressing everything he held back in Call Me By Your Name, but is at least always interesting to watch. The same goes for Moss whose subdued performance nevertheless projects a passive-aggressive unease in her own skin and physically makes Jackson feel like twice her own age. Decker's pacing wants to invoke the slow burn and mood of Jackson's stories but her marks are not exactly worthy of our attention in a power play that never commands our sympathies or earns our unease.


WORTH

As injustice permeates throughout this country, my glare towards the political landscape has become as prevalent as my attention to the art of film. It is one of the reasons I responded as strongly as I did at last year's Sundance to Scott Z. Burns' The Report, a searing procedural of a post 9/11-world where torture became part of the perceived solution and the efforts members of our government took to bury its consequences. It is also why a film like Worth fits right into a very personal wheelhouse even without having a direct connection to the tragedy at the forefront of what began to divide this country more than it's ever been.

Michael Keaton plays Ken Feinberg, the lawyer who volunteered and was chosen to oversee the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund and put into place the harsh system as to what each of them is worth in monetary value. The entire exercise is even more cynical than it sounds as it was put together precisely to keep the families of those who perished from suing the airlines and the government for their failings. With a two-year window to sign up 80% of the families, skepticism would mount and even an alternative would be challenged by Charles Wolf (Stanley Tucci), a victim's husband.

Folks may not exactly be energized by a film that is partially about math as well as the bitter complications involved in reconciling an unpopular, if not entirely unreasonable formula, based on each individual's loss. But what Sara Colangelo (director of the excellent remake of The Kindergarten Teacher) and screenwriter Max Borenstein do right by are those individuals. By leaving a lot of room for the personal pain and anger of those looking for closure rather than justice, we begin to feel all of it again as well. The film takes its time in bringing that feeling to Feinberg who is not shown as a bad man or even an unfeeling one, but rather one trapped with the impersonal business of trying to do the best possible version of the right thing and Keaton's performance of quiet neutrality makes his eventual turn all the more powerful. Worth hit me right in my wheelhouse of anger starting with the film's opening question and knowing that it is one we are still struggling with every day in this broken country.


THE GO-GOS

Growing up my music tastes had been tuned from a constant stream of classic rock 'n' roll and the artists of the '70s like Elton John and, especially, Queen. The persuasion of the radio dial and 45 singles would explode in the 1980s when anything with a catchy beat would preclude whatever meaning was to be found in the crafting of its lyrics. Which is not to denigrate pop music in any fashion. Nor is it to downplay the importance of a group that, as a kid, was just another that I liked playing very snappy music. Alison Ellwood's documentary about that group is a reminder of why they were.

Labeling The Go-Gos as just "that girl group" might seem un-woke by today's standards but they were truly breaking the mold. Before such acts were stitched together by marketing executives, this was a band that found each other piece by piece first erupting onto the punk scene and then, some might say (especially members of the band), indelicately selling out to a more poppy flavor. But even in those memorable hits from their heyday the roots were still audible and this film does right by breaking down the music beat-by-lyric while going through the routine of how the band struggled to keep their own fame and sobriety from tearing themselves apart.

I have a vague recollection of watching VH-1's Behind the Music episode on the band so some of the material here will feel familiar, particularly the down times. This movie is much closer to the definition of candid than Taylor Swift's Miss Americana should ever be confused for. But it doesn't just feel like any ol' rags-to-riches-to-breakup stories. All of the band members, past and present, are on camera offering still raw feelings about how things went sour and Ellwood justly doesn't frame anyone as a direct villain. And even as we are sad to see what transpired and think what could have been the doc still has the kind of beat you can get up and dance to as a reminder of how terrific their music really was. By the end there is the unfortunate realization that the film was crafted now as a calling card for getting them into the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame; already a travesty if there ever was one. But it took 116 episodes for VH-1 to catch-up with The Go-Gos and maybe it's a reminder that we have not come as far as we think we have when it comes to recognizing these true trendsetters.


POSSESSOR

The premise of Brandon Cronenberg's second feature is a grabber. An organization can be hired to carry out assassinations. They achieve their objective by placing an agent inside the consciousness of someone close to the subject, commit the deed and then get the host to off themselves. Crime and problem solved. A film like this should also tap more into the moral consequences rather than just the physical ones.

Andrea Riseborough plays Tasya Vos, the chief assassin for the corporation. After getting a taste for how her job plays out we eventually get to her next hit which will put her inside the body of Christopher Abbott's Colin who is marrying the daughter of the target; a mob-like CEO (Sean Bean) of a tech company. Tasya was already having some trouble coming back to reality after her parasitic mind-trips, but things take an even worse turn when Colin's consciousness tries to regain control. Thus sets up a lot of visual stimuli on what it must be like fighting it out with another personality, but it also represents where the film often comes up short.

There is no questioning Cronenberg's visual style which is in high gear when it comes to practical effects work; a definite chip off the ol' block. The extreme violence is also over-the-top and disturbing in a manner due to the distance we have from the characters. Ambiguity may be an entre of Brandon's platter but we don't get a genuine sense from Tasya as a character other than hoping to repair the estranged relationship with her husband and young son. Riseborough plays her as so distant though that it is hard to connect with her as someone at odds with her moral psychology. That goes double for Abbott who is just a body to her and as empty a shell to us when the struggle begins to take hold. Casting Jennifer Jason Leigh as the one in charge of the hit squad only reverberates how elements of Possessor were handled with more aplomb in his father's eXistenZ and how Christopher Nolan continued to up the stakes through the themes of Inception. Brandon's first film, Antiviral, was chock full of ideas about the obsession of celebrity culture and carried through on its outlandish and discomforting ideas. Possessor will certainly grab attention for viewers looking for one, at times, helluva visual violent sci-fi trip, but there is a lot of dead space in-between that could use a little consciousness.
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originally posted: 02/19/20 11:23:28
last updated: 02/19/20 11:28:33
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