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Noel Murray @ Sundance 2012: Day 1

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The Queen Of Versailles
Director/Time: Lauren Greenfield, 100 min.
Headline: Super-rich couple loses billions
Indie type: Car-wreck gawk-doc
Report: I know we all try to maintain some sense of perspective about our lives, but let’s face it: even though we know that stubbing a toe or being stuck in traffic isn’t as bad as starving in a ditch in some third-world country, it still sucks when bad things happen to us. Consider David and Jackie Siegel, who were in the middle of building the biggest house in Orlando—and the U.S.—when the recession took a huge bite out David’s billion-dollar timeshare business. Lauren Greenfield’s zippy and curiously affecting documentary The Queen Of Versailles follows the Siegels’ efforts to keep a stiff upper lip and soldier on, even if that means selling their dream home to free up some cash. And though some folks may resist feeling any sympathy for people so obscenely well-to-do, if you can put yourself in their designer shoes for a moment, you can imagine what a bummer it would be to downshift from being billionaires to being millionaires.

To an extent, Greenfield tries to have it both ways with her film: she allows us to enjoy the fantasy of being rich, while also letting us see the bastards suffer a little. The Siegels can look awfully silly, with their plastered-on smiles and trips to McDonalds in stretch limos. But they also seem to be good-hearted, hard-working people, who earnestly believe that when their employees talk middle-income people into spending money on vacations that they can’t afford, they’re doing them a favor. That’s what makes it so shocking and even touching when suddenly the Siegels have to lay off staff, and can’t keep up with the upkeep of their home, which becomes strewn with trash and dogshit. The chronology of this documentary seems a little fishy at times, but overall it’s a wondrous spectacle, and it feels fundamentally true. As the Siegels find themselves at mercy of a financial system they helped enable, and as they try to figure out what it means to live with less while they still have so much, the ironies pile up. But there is some pathos here too. Mostly, The Queen Of Versailles is very wise about the ways the rich are different and the same as us. Even marble bathtubs get rings.
Grade: A-


The Law In These Parts
Director/Time: Ra’anan Alexandrowicz, 101 min.
Headline: Is making Israeli occupation legal the same as making it justifiable?
Indie type: Thoughtful advocacy doc
Report: “Order and justice don’t always go hand in hand.” Those are the words of an Israeli judge in the documentary The Law In These Parts, a cleverly staged and structured film which attempts to explain and understand how Israel seizing Palestinian-occupied territory became accepted practice. Mixing archival footage and new interviews with lawyers and judges who’ve been involved with Israeli law since the ‘60s, director Ra’anan Alexandrowicz documents the slippery slope of “security measures,” as laws originally drafted to protect the Israeli population from Palestinian violence gradually turn boldly oppressive, denying people of their human rights as recognized under international law. Alexandrowicz grills his subjects, asking them to justify their actions without resorting to slippery legalisms. In essence, he’s putting them on trial, in what he recognizes is a weak kind of justice given what the Palestinians have been through. There’s a meta element to The Law In These Parts that seems unnecessary, as Alexandrowicz acknowledges the artificiality of cinema, and that facts are as selectively chosen in movies as they are in court. But while the facts cherry-picked by Alexandrowicz won’t surprise anyone who’s paid even the slightest attention to what’s been going on in the Middle East for the last four decades, the direct inquiries into who should be classified as a “soldier” and who a “terrorist” is still bracing (and relevant to more than just the Israelis). As a documentarian, Alexandrowicz is sympathetic to how people take positions first and then justify them later, but he still gets the judges to admit that politicians punted the issue of how to handle the Palestinians to the courts, who deferred to the military. As one judge rather sadly and chillingly puts it: “It’s very hard to shake off the feeling that you’re serving a system.”
Grade: B+

Wish You Were Here
Director/Time: Kieran Darcy-Smith, 93 min.
Cast: Joel Edgerton, Teresa Palmer, Felicity Price, Anthony Starr
Headline: Tragedy reveals pre-existing cracks in relationships
Indie type: Jigsaw puzzle
Report: It’s always tricky when a film openly withholds important information from the audience. With all the time the filmmakers are asking us to invest in their story, the answers to the big questions had better be worth it; and there better be a compelling reason why we had to wait so long. Kieran Darcy-Smith’s debut film Wish You Were Here has one gripping sequence that almost justifies its overall coyness. The plot is driven by an absence: Anthony Starr plays an Australian businessman who invites his new girlfriend Felicity Price, her sister Teresa Palmer, and her brother-in-law Joel Edgerton on a trip to Cambodia, where he goes missing. What do Starr’s new best friends know about what happened? And what else happened in Cambodia that’s now driving a wedge between Price, Palmer and Edgerton? Wish You Were Here reveals its secrets piecemeal, in flashback, culminating in one big white-knuckle climax, in which Starr’s fate in the past is intercut with a medical crisis in the present. But the two halves of the movie don’t illuminate each other in any significant way, and while the cast is crackerjack, and while Darcy-Smith finds a lot of emotional texture in the characters’ relationships (mainly by showing how hard it is to work through a crisis when there are young kids toddling about, demanding attention), this is one of those puzzle movies that’s frustrating in pieces, and underwhelming once it’s all fit together.
Grade: C+

Notes, thoughts, things overheard…

Festivals almost never open with their strongest films, but even if they did, it might be hard to spot them. There’s often a sense of reserve that takes hold in the first day or two of a festival; we don’t want to overrate a film on Day One when there may be masterpieces waiting in the wings. This is why I frequently revise my grades after a festival’s over. (And with rare exceptions, when I revise, I revise upward.) That said, The Queen Of Versailles really does feel like something special, and it matters that I say that on Day One, and not on Day Seven when I might be grasping for something to hail.


Tomorrow: A blockbuster day, with new films from the directors of Afterschool and Buried, plus an Indonesian action epic and a comedy co-written by and starring Rashida Jones.