So, the Fourth Reich begins today: I’ll spare you the details, except the fact that the inauguration speech sent shivers up my spine. Whites are taking back AmeriKKKa, and the grand experiment of cultural pluralism is officially dead. To what extent that the ongoing act of political murder would take shape would make itself known over the course of the next several days. I guess we’ll see.
Like most everyone here in Park City, the thing to do on such a day of ill portent is to watch movies, and watch I did. On this day, I resolve to see what’s happening throughout other parts of the world and view movies from around the globe. Going that far outside my comfort zone is important, but whether the films themselves were rewarding is another thing altogether. For instance, take Nacho Vigalondo’s COLOSSAL, which follows the travails of Gloria (Oscar winner Anne Hathaway), a big-city party girl whose life is already spiraling out of control as the movie opens. One too many benders, one too many all-night hang-out with the girls, and an inability to stay off the sauce equals the predictable blow-out argument with the long-suffering boyfriend who throws her out of the apartment. Moving back to her hometown to try and straighten out her life, she runs into a childhood friend Oscar (SNL alum Jason Sudeikis), who runs a small bar in a nondescript part of town. You know how this story goes from here: accepting a job at Oscar’s bar, Gloria quickly regresses, becoming even worse than ever. However, things take a turn for the bizarre: one day, Gloria awakes from yet another drunken stupor to discover that the city of Seoul, South Korea has been terrorized by a giant, Godzilla-like creature. As the drunken party benders increase and the nightly attacks on Seoul continue, Gloria slowly begins to suspect that there may be a connection between her own drunken behavior and the monster rampage occurring half a world away. And as Oscar becomes increasingly callous and possessive, Gloria begins to wonder if the appearance on the scene of a mysterious yet equally terrifying robo-monster to battle the Seoul creature isn’t somehow connected to the circumstances that are quickly escalating in her own life. COLOSSAL provided the first of many “what the muthah FUCK?!?” moments at this year’s Sundance, and while I’m thinking about it still on the way home, I wonder if this horror/romance dramedy (yes, I said it…I just don’t know how else to categorize it) amounts to a busman’s holiday for A-list actress Hathaway, or if this kind of low-brow workout indicates that roles such as her Oscar-winning role in LES MISERABLES represents an artistic stretch for this most confounding of actresses. Sudeikis, on the other hand, seems to still be looking for his acting “sweet spot,” as his recent roles have veered wildly from ironic anti-hero to straight-up historical drama. I’ll be watching…and waiting.
Far more grounded, though taking a cue from those Jason Bourne and Jack Reacher dramas of recent vintage, is THE NILE HILTON INCIDENT, Tarik Saleh’s potboiler of a crime thriller set against the chaotic events of the Arab Spring. In a story that could very well have been lifted from an episode of LAW AND ORDER, NILE HILTON follows Noredin Mustafa, a corrupt Cairo police detective who’s been handed the case of a nightclub singer found murdered in one of the hotel rooms, only to find that the victim’s secret relationship with the hotel owner — a wealthy developer and member of parliament — goes high, very high, up the political food chain. Ordered to shut down the case, Noredin nonetheless pursues the case, uncovering a witness to the murder whose testimony promises to expose the dealings of Egypt’s political elites. Of course, in such a setting, the body-count begins, and soon Noredin and his witness find themselves on the run from not only the murderer, but from the police department who will stop at nothing to cover their tracks. But given the setting, the investigation, the cover-up, and the quest for justice are soon overrun by history. The revolution ends up obscuring justice at the end of THE NILE HILTON INCIDENT. But the moody, hard-boiled drama manages to come through, world-weary cynicism and cigarette smoke and all.
From here, I veer back into the realm of documentaries, starting off with the compelling, if standard-issue DOLORES, Peter Bratt’s take on the life and activism of famed UFW labor organizer Dolores Huerta. The story of Huerta, a jazz-loving Stockton, California denizen who packs up her bags (and growing menagerie of children; she would marry three times in her life) and heads south to Delano, California to organize farmworkers alongside the likes of the legendary Cesar Chavez foregrounds a life of passion, and one of, erm, excesses — eventually raising a family of 11 children, “raising” seems to be something of an oxymoron here, as Huerta’s work ethic and unrelenting activism clashed with the consequences of her personal life. Indeed, in a segment situated in the middle of the film, select members of her family recount her frequent absenteeism in the name of labor organizing and muse out-loud as to whether that startling degree of child neglect could really be reconciled with the gravity of her work. For me, what comes through loud and clear — in spite of the filmmakers continuing, yet again, to marginalize the catalytic efforts of Filipino American farmworkers who organized the Great grapepickers’ Strike of 1965 that formed the UFW when Cesar Chavez got involved; in spite of the well-documented pummeling at the hand of SF police that landed her in the hospital and FINALLY compelled her to have some badly-needed family time with her children; and in spite of the accolades canonizing her work from a broad range of arts and labor luminaries including playwright Luis Valdez and Barbara Carrasco to politicians Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Rodham Clinton — is the pervasive sexism that Huerta has faced throughout her decades of organizing work, and which at times casts a pall over director Bratt’s film. I am left wondering if, were the film principally created by wimmyn instead of the parade of alpha-males who wound up essaying it (in addition to Bratt’s brother, actor/filmmaker Benjamin Bratt, musician Carlos Santana served as executive producer; the narrative “terms” of the film’s trajectory are dictated in part through long interview passages with Luis Valdez and, in archival interviews, Cesar Chavez himself), DOLORES would resonate in a different way, instead of the vague sense of distance, of “otherness” I felt as the credits rolled. I think that there will be another opportunity to screen the film, and then, another chance to assess the “gaze” cast upon this 20th Century labor icon of color. Given the circumstances of this screening — a 10,000-strong march of angry white women protesting Donald trump and all the regressive things he purportedly stand for was set to drop bright and early the following morning, with Dolores herself slated to speak — the film will certainly need a second viewing to see if I wasn’t being overly-sensitive to how Huerta’s story was presented onscreen.
And of course, there are those wild-cards, those films that I catch in spite of my better judgement. Here at Sundance, one such candidate for the dubious honor of time-waster might have to be GIVE ME FUTURE, Austin Peters’ MTV documentary chronicling EDM superband Major Lazer’s sojourn to Havana, Cuba to mount a free concert to spread the gospel of electronic dancehall. Because I hold a casual curiosity at best of deejays Diplo, Jillionaire, and Walshy Fire, I probably should have known where this latest effort of the trio to “make the world smaller by making the party bigger” was headed. Oh, the party was big, alright. The party also felt like one big Super Bowl halftime show, which I think was the intent of the whole affair. In sum, the whole experience of sitting through GIVE ME FUTURE was akin to sitting in my room, with the world’s biggest home entertainment system, watching ESPN. You read that right…that WASN’T MTV I spelled out, though I’m pretty sure someone might have wanted me to do so. Ahh, whatever. Oh by the way, what was that last movie about again…?