Indiewood/Hollywoodn’t film critic Jake Kring-Schreifels is keeping a regular diary over the course of a week at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Jake’s giving our IndieNYC website a Sundance first-look, writing about the movies he’s seeing, his observations around Park City and the excitement surrounding another year of new independent cinema. Check back to IndieNYC throughout the festival for his latest entries from Park City. Today’s report includes the new Taylor Swift documentary Miss Americana, Luxor from director Zeina Durr, La Llorona by Jayro Bustamente and Ironbark by Dominic Cooke. (Look for some movie trailers at the end of this article.)
You couldn’t exactly tell that Sundance was a film festival on Thursday prior to the opening night premiere of Lana Wilson’s new documentary Miss Americana, which chronicles Taylor Swift’s journey into finding her political voice. Outside, lining the perimeter of the Eccles Theater a couple hours before the movie screened, stood hundreds of young girls waiting—and then screaming—for their pop idol to arrive, smile and wave.
It was a fitting prologue to the documentary, which hits Netflix on Jan. 31, primarily because it’s what Swift has experienced for most of her life ever since she burst into the music industry. Using intimate footage of Swift, mostly throughout 2018 as she puts her latest album, Lover, together, Wilson weaves together an abbreviated history of Swift’s past decade, contextualizing the growth of an artist approaching 30 years old. While observing archival videos of her as a young girl strumming guitars and writing lyrics, Swift shares that her “entire moral code is a need to be thought of as ‘good,’” a thesis that impacted that way she navigated the majority of her stardom. Initially, she found fulfillment through the approval of strangers, but that also meant one negative reaction could spin her world upside down.
The biggest inflection point came during the 2009 VMA’s, when Kanye West interrupted Swift on stage during her acceptance speech. That began a headline spree that would eventually envelop Swift into persistent public discourse, becoming the “catalyst for a lot of psychological paths that I went down,” she says. Swift opens up about the paparazzi, her aggressive fanbase, her eating habits and weight loss that would spiral every time she saw a photo of herself. Wilson doesn’t peel away too much in these confessions, juxtaposing her past with Swift’s time with her mother touring the country. Wilson also makes time to share Swift’s work in the studio, as she formulates a few of her singles with various producers. They are the most illuminating parts of Miss Americana, windows into Swift’s casual conversations and creative genius. We see her sounding out lyrics, perfecting piano melodies and listening back to voice notes, the origins of the behemoth to come.
The crux of the movie comes into focus in the final third, when Swift decides, after taking a year off from the public, to re-emerge with a political voice and urge voters to support the democratic house representative running against Marsha Blackburn, a Republican with a strict anti-feminist platform, in her home state of Tennessee. During a serious conversation with her management team, which includes her father, she is warned the President will go after her. “Fuck that, I don’t care,” she retorts, which earned a healthy round of applause from the audience, before posting her plea to Instagram and watching the reaction form. Like other music documentaries, including most recently Katy Perry’s Part of Me, Miss Americana offers a semi-PR machine for its star, a cursory, positive look at the very early stages of her maturation. But its rarely seen pleasures outweigh that kind of biased dismissal and highlight the multi-faceted woman she’s wanted to always be—the kind she hopes all women can be. The young girl sitting next to me, tearing up and sniffling over every scene, would certainly agree.
Luxor and La Llorona
In Luxor, from director Zeina Durra, Andrew Risborough plays Hana, a British surgeon who returns to the ancient Egyptian city where she spent her early 20s. On leave from providing military medical assistance along the Syria-Jordan border, she checks into a hotel and begins daily journeys throughout the region, revisiting old memories and reconnecting with an old flame, Sultan (Karim Saleh), an archeologist who complicates her visit and rekindles feelings.
The movie is split into chapters that chronicle each jaunt around the city, taking its time to dose out backstory and hinting at the presence of the supernatural inside the tunnels and tombs of architecturally astounding monuments and pyramids. The camera lingers over various paths and hieroglyphic walls, without the pacing and connective force needed to illuminate Hana’s experience. Luxor wants to establish a story about a woman colliding with someone whose job is to excavate the past, to link memory and the symbolic nature of his work together.
In some ways it wants to capture Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight, pairing former lovers into a walk and talk, surrounded by their history (and Egypt’s). Risborough gives a reliably honest performance, but the movie can’t match her energy, specifically when she recites a drunken interpretive dance in the hotel lobby. It needs more of her exuberance.
History and the supernatural merge in darker, deeper ways in La Llorona, a drama that funnels in horror as it chronicles the former general of the Guatemalan military responsible for the country’s three decade-long genocide of its indigenous people. The movie, from writer-director Jayro Bustamente, follows the general and his family after he is acquitted for overseeing the Silent Holocaust, which prompts widespread outrage and protest outside the family’s mansion. The camera stays inside, as the general’s wife, daughter and granddaughter insulate themselves from the chants and cries for justice.
Inside, the debilitating general remains haunted by a suspicious crying noise, spurring abnormal and paranoid behavior, only enhanced when a new indigienous housekeeper, Alma (Maria Mercedes Coroy), begins working for the family. Bustamente suggests a spectral presence with subtle touches and camerawork, using Alma’s long black hair as a window into her mysterious origins. Through time, she divulges information about her background, her lost children and her solemn and saddened features. The guilt and shame of the patriarch’s actions, witnessed through feverish dreams that torment his wife, eventually come to a boil. Bustamente has made an effective haunted house movie with the melancholy implication that compassion and forgiveness might only be achieved by the traumatizing ghosts of the past—when brick and mortar isolation simply isn’t enough.
The director of Sundance, John Cooper, introduced Ironbark, Dominic Cooke’s new Cold War spy drama, as an interesting choice for the festival. The movie, indeed, is a procedural period piece, something Sundance doesn’t necessarily opt to include in its programming, and it comes packaged with a giant star, Benedict Cumberbatch, who seems to already be making an early push for an Oscar.
In this story based on true events, Cumberbatch plays Greville Wynne, a British salesman who lives an ordinary life with his wife (Jessie Buckley) and son until MI6 and the CIA ask him, in the two years leading up to the Cuban Missile Crisis, to engage in spy work to help prevent nuclear war. His ordinary business pursuits make him a good candidate to go undetected in Moscow and begin a relationship with Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), a reliable mole operating under Krushchev’s command.
In this way, the movie toggles rather well between the grim realities of treason and the comical nature of the scenario. Convinced by agents (one an American played by Rachel Brosnahan) that his life won’t be endangered, Wynne engages in numerous “sales” trips to Russia, keeping their purpose secret from his wife, who suspects an affair. Wynne also develops a close friendship with Penkovsky even as the stakes grow higher that encourages his mission. “We’re only two people, but this is how things change,” the Russian politician tells him, a tagline for a movie that makes a rather overstated allusion to the United States’ current leadership and its proximity to beginning global chaos.
Cooke doesn’t stray from the playbook of classic spy movies; he clouds rooms with cigarette smoke, back alleys with encroaching fog and revolving doors with obscured faces. Though there isn’t much work for Brosnaham and Buckley, they make the most of their limited roles, buttressing a dynamic performance from Cumberbatch, who undergoes a physical transformation and magnificently pivots from light to heavy as the gravity of the photographs and classified documents he smuggles back to the UK become increasingly vital to preventing catastrophe. Maybe equally revelatory is Ninidze, who must gesture extremes of emotion with quiet sighs and glances. A movie like this relies on performances like this to cut past the occasional lulls of its storytelling, much like Tom Hanks carrying the emotional center of Bridge of Spies. Here, the culmination of that premise hits late in the movie, when both men take in Swan Lake at the Moscow Ballet. Tchaikovsky swells and the camera lingers on two faces that know that their necessary sacrifice will, ultimately, be just as beautiful, even if only they know about it.
Check back soon at IndieNYC for Jake’s next Sundance 2020 Update.
Watch trailers for the movies in this article:
Miss Americana trailer
La Llorona trailer
Clip from Luxor (not official trailer)
None others are available yet. Check back for updates.