Hello, everyone. As is tradition in my life, I’m attending the Sundance Film Festival once again, and I’m on deck to see close to 30 movies in the week that I’m here in Park City, Utah. What is not typical (around these parts at least) is that I’ll be sending in periodic dispatches from the festival, giving you short takes on most of the movies I check out. I’ll shoot for daily updates; we’ll see how long that sticks. But here are the two films I caught on Day One at Sundance. Enjoy…
Following hot on the heals of Barry Jenkins’ remarkable film adaptation of a great and once-believed unfilmable novel, If Beale Street Could Talk, visual artist-turned-first-time-filmmaker Rashid Johnson has taken on Richard Wright’s problematic (from an adaptation standpoint) novel, Native Son. The script is by playwright Suzan-Lori Parks (the Pulitzer Prize–winning Topdog/Underdog) and Johnson even casts a pair of Jenkins’ recent actors in key roles—Ashton Sanders (Moonlight) as Bigger Thomas, and KiKi Layne (Beale Street) as his girlfriend Bessie. The film is decidedly a mixed bag.
Set in contemporary Chicago (the 1940 novel was set in 1930s Chicago), the film centers on Bigger, an African-American kid who digs punk rock and drifts casually from job to job, while still living with his mother and siblings. He’s certainly a bit of a loner, and director Johnson may have given Sanders a little bit too much freedom in creating this character, from his mumbled delivery to his drifting movements that are meant to look free and easy but come across as the actor having no control of his neck muscles. Layne’s portrayal of his love interest comes across as much more defined and interesting, and the actress continues to give us every indication that she is going to be a major actor force in the years to come.
Bigger unexpectedly gets a job as a personal assistant for the family of Henry Dalton (Bill Camp), a rich white man who seems like a decent guy and expects Bigger to act professional, especially around Dalton’s blind wife (Elizabeth Marvel) and spirited teenage daughter (Margaret Qualley), who has a tendency to do things that get herself and others into trouble. Even with such potential problems, Bigger is making great money, he’s allowed to live in the family’s home, and he’s able to resist the temptations of some of his neighborhood friends who want him to commit various crimes with them. But when Bigger is involved in an accidental death, his life quickly spirals out of control, and all of the self-fulfilling prophecies of his upbringing that looked like they were a thing of the past come flooding back to destroy his life and crush his soul.
Native Son is a film with pregnant pauses that don’t give birth to any meaningful messages or revelations. The screenplay broaches subjects like racial expectations, violence, and one of the more complex examinations of morality you’ll likely see this year, but I’d still be hard pressed to tell you exactly what the filmmaker’s take on any of these subjects might be. The world seems stacked against Bigger, so does he rise above that or stoop to meet it? The novel is complicated as well, but at least its point of view is clear, giving the reader points to consider; the film is more of an ethereal blend of messages, situations and philosophies that collide rather than blend into a cohesive film. That said, I’m genuinely curious what Johnson tackles next in the world of film. His eye is strong, as you’d expect from a captivating artist, but he still needs to master the art of storytelling.
The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley
Somehow it doesn’t seem like a proper year for documentaries unless we get two or three films from Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side, Going Clear, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, The Armstrong Lie), who tends to move back and forth between profiles of pop culture figures and more serious sociopolitical issues. His latest work is a scathing condemnation of the culture of lying by those who make millions (even billions) in Silicon Valley, told through the example of Elizabeth Holmes, the CEO of Theranos, a medical supply company that built a soaring reputation by creating the Edison, a small box of a machine that was said to be able to conduct more than 200 medical tests using a single drop of blood from a patient, taken by a single finger stick, thus eliminating costly lab work and hopefully catching possible diseases early. Unfortunately for Holmes and millions of patients, the entire enterprise was built on a hoax that she believed would eventually right itself by the time the product was brought to mass market.
In The Inventor, Gibney opens a fascinating window into Holmes’ personality and early life. She founded Theranos when she was 19, and was able to get funding based largely on a great, passionate personal story about a beloved uncle who died too young. Idolizing such moguls as Steven Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, she also understood the importance of having a slightly quirky but charming persona, so she always dressed in black (a closet full of dozens of the exact same outfit is not surprising), usually in turtlenecks, and had a mildly unnerving habit of never blinking when in conversation—a trait many believed was an attempt to appear intense yet engaged, but others thought might be slightly sociopathic. And while her idea of a portable, cost-efficient lab-in-a-box was sound, the execution never came together, leaving her massive company with a messy, ineffective dub on its hands. She somehow managed to push forth major initiatives using the Edison (including a massive rollout at select Walgreen’s wellness centers) without ever having opened up this black box to show what was inside.
If you’ve seen his documentary on Lance Armstrong, you know that Gibney (who narrates as well) doesn’t suffer liars well, so his takedown of Holmes feels especially pointed and maybe even a bit personal, and rightfully so—there are few things more reprehensible than toying with people’s health and wellness expectations. At one point in its history, the company was valued at $9 billion, and not long after it was worth “less than nothing.” If there’s one major criticism of The Inventor, it’s that it doesn’t give enough examples of how Holmes’ case study points to a bigger problem in the tech industry of Silicon Valley. I have no problem believing that the field is populated by liars, but we’re really only given Holmes as the example, and I’m sure you wouldn’t have to dig deep to find more. He makes a better case that the myth of America’s legendary entrepreneurial spirit is to blame for Holmes believing her own bullshit; she wasn’t power hungry, but she did want to be a success and show those who doubted her how wrong they were, and vengeance is a dangerous inspiration to do anything.
I happen to find Gibney’s docs highly watchable and usually quite informative, and The Inventor is no exception. The bigger problem comes when he tries to derive lessons from Holmes’ example, of which I’m sure there are many. But he seems to get lost in the persona and misses the bigger-picture issues of buying into the hubris of a corporate leader rather than the quality of what they’re selling. Holmes was the rule, not the exception to it, and that point isn’t driven home to the degree it ought to be.
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