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A&E Blog

Sundance 2012 Day 1: Character Study

by Scott Renshaw
- Posted // 2012-01-20 -

The first day of Sundance film festival screenings inspired thoughts about the way filmmakers control their movies to affect the way viewers think about their subjects.

In The Law in These Parts’ storytelling master-stroke, Israeli filmmaker Ra’anan Alexandrowicz doesn’t just explore the system of justice that Israel has employed in occupied Palestine for more than 40 years, he turns the act of making a documentary into a commentary on the subjective nature of justice. Facing down his subjects Errol Morris-style, Alexandrowicz interviews several military judges and prosecutors whose actions and interpretations defined the life of Palestinians under Israeli rule, interspersed with archival footage of the difficult decades. He asks hard questions, and at times gets shockingly forthright answers, as when one judge admits he was aware that prisoners were tortured. But his commentary also provides reminders that he, as the director, is able to shape the narrative by virtue of what he shows, or the individuals he chooses not to interview. And the wonderful result of that admitted lack of objectivity is something remarkably fair, clear-eyed and fascinating.

You’d think it might be tough to generate sympathy for characters whose biggest problem appears to dismissing only some of their servants, but in The Queen of Versailles, Lauren Greenfield does terrific work at accomplishing just that. Greenfield (Thin) spends more than two years following time-share real-estate entrepreneur David Siegel and his wife, Jacqueline, whose high-flying billionaire lifestyle runs face-first into the realities of the Great Recession. The film becomes a sort of paraphrase of Fitzgerald, looking at the ways the very rich are different from you and me—except when they’re not. These characters become a microcosm for a culture of financed acquisition gone mad—both in the business of selling people a taste of luxury that made David his fortune, and in Jacqueline’s shopaholic mania. Most compelling of all is David, whose desperate attempts to get his business back on track displays both personal pride and a sense of responsibility. While the arc of the riches-to-slightly-less-riches story might be laid on a touch thick at times, Greenfield manages to find the ways that the 1-percenters wound up victims of their own ambitions.

Meanwhile, if you’re planning to build a suspense yarn around questionable moral choices, it’s not a bad idea if you actually provide some sense of who the people are before they make those choices. In Kieran Darcy-Smith’s Australian drama Wish You Were Here, two couples from Sydney go on a holiday to Cambodia: married-with-kids Dave (Joel Edgerton) and Alice (Teresa Palmer), and Alice’s sister, Steph (co-screenwriter Felicity Price), and her new boyfriend, Jeremy (Antony Starr). But Jeremy disappears during one night of partying, leaving the other three to deal with the fallout of what happened. The “what happened” unfolds through a series of interspersed flashbacks, building anticipation for the fateful decisions that led to Jeremy’s disappearance. Chekhov, however, would not approve of the number of unfired over-the-fireplace-guns teased throughout the story, to say nothing of the guns that appear out of nowhere to shoot someone in the head. More troubling, Darcy-Smith and Price provide almost no context for whether Dave’s actions in particular are atypical, or part of grand cosmic comeuppance. Palmer does the strongest work as a wife trying to decide how much she can forgive, but the film around her fails to build the psychology the story demands.

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