MCN Columnists
Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar Voynar@moviecitynews.com

Sundance: Untitled Amazing Johnathan Documentary, The Magic Life of V and Walden

A still from Untitled Amazing Johnathan Documentary by Ben Berman, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition an at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute  All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

My first film of Day Two of Sundance was “Untitled Amazing Johnathan Documentary,” which I selected because director Ben Berman was in line behind me at the coffeeshop at Marriott HQ: I saw the title of the film on his badge and it intrigued me, so when it had tickets available I decided to give it a shot. I was glad I did, as I really enjoyed this doc, which is super well-edited and polished in addition to having a fascinating storyline and a lot more depth than most documentaries that tackle an aging, drug-addicted star as a subject.

The Amazing Johnathan was a hilarious, hyper magician who became world-famous and rich before having to suddenly retire due to diagnosis of a fatal heart disease; he was given a year to live (clearly, he’s outlived his prognosis). The subject has the familiar trappings of this kind of documentary: Charismatic, charming star, long history of drug use, health issues, relationship stuff – if you’ve spent any amount of time along the film festival circuit you’ve seen your fill of these kinds of docs.

What sets “Untitled Amazing Johnathan Documentary” apart is that about midway through the film there’s a plot twist, followed by another plot twist, followed by a period of tense relationship between documentarian and subject that left Berman sad, morose, feeling badly used, and uncertain as to whether he’d ever finish his film. It’s here that “Untitled Amazing Johnathan Documentary,” not unlike “Winnebago Man,” becomes a film as much about the filmmaker unearthing deep and sometimes unpleasant truths about himself and ultimately becoming part of his own film, as it is about the subject the film thought it was going to be when it grew up. Delightfully entertaining, funny, relatable and nostalgic, while also hitting on key human truths, “Untitled Amazing Johnathan Documentary” is the kind of film that’s ripe for a moderate Sundance sale from a distributor that will get behind it and give it solid support and maybe even an Oscar push.

I hustled over to one of my favorite Sundance venues, The Egyptian, to catch “The Magic Life of V” by Tonislav Hristov.  You may have seen his terrific film “The Good Postman” here a couple years ago. Like Hristov’s previous work, “The Magic Life of V” is told in a fascinating hybrid documentary style that’s almost fools your brain into thinking it’s a narrative. The luminously gorgeous cinematography in the film is stunning, revealing frame after frame of painterly beauty, often focused on the exquisite expressiveness of its subject, a young Finnish girl named Veera, who can only communicated with others when she’s literally slaying her demons through LARPing (live action role playing, a type of deeply immersive gameplay in which participants assume a character and take it on completely) as “V,” who is something like a character she’s created of her best self as she wishes she could be.

The film’s opening frames introduce us to Veera vis-a-vis a conversation Veera has on a bus heading toward a LARP convention about her character, V, who she describes as a girl who is outgoing and friendly and curious. V loves to talk to others and she makes friends easily. V is unafraid to start a conversation. Most of all, V is happy. From all the things V is, we can surmise what Veera is not.

The film moves at a languid pace, dipping into the worlds of both Verra and V, so that we can understand both who she is, and what demon she seeks to slay in order to merge Veera and V together into one person who can be happy. In her real life, we meet Veera’s mentally disabled brother and mother through seamlessly and artfully integrated archival footage and the organic conversations Veera has with them.

I stuck around for the Q&A in hopes of learning more about the Hristov’s artistic practice, as his body of work is quite extraordinary. The efficacy of his technique, it seems, is in large part due to how he approaches his subjects: he spends a tremendous amount of time getting to know them and understand them personally and intimately, and a minimal amount of time on “scripting” a story; this willingness to stay fluid and follow the subject and story as it unfolds while staying broadly within the structure incepted, allows him to create a sense of safety for his subject that in turn allows his subject the space to take the risk of being so intimate about her personal burdens to a camera.

Hristov as a director is what I would characterize as an “auteur” in the purest sense – not in the sense purely of “ego” but in the sense that his films have a very specific trademark style to them that’s original and inspired, and very well suited to this particular subject. The Magic Life of V is a beautiful film in every respect, one of those rare gifts of Sundance that I come here hoping to discover.
My third film of the day was “Walden,” directed by Daniel Zimmerman, who previously had a short film in Sundance back in 2011. Meticulously planned and shot, “Walden” takes us along on the journey of trees felled in the woods of a the Catholic Monastery of Admont in Austria, and transported after many steps to the Brazilian rainforest, in a reversal of the usual raw materials trade route upon which wood usually finds itself.

Each “piece” of the film represents a sequence of the wood’s journey and is shot with a super-slow 360-degree pan; the film is comprised of 13 such sections roughly 5-6 minutes long, carefully and painstakingly constructed to reveal the absurdity of an economic system in which a disproportionate amount of resources and energy are used to transport raw resources from one part of the planet to another. Presumably the film’s title is an homage to Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden,” in which the writer compresses his two-years-two-months-two-days at the cabin he built on Walden Pond into a single year, using the cycle of four seasons to human personal growth and development. Here, Zimmerman flips Walden’s theme of simplicity through elaborately revealing a series of sequences that are anything but. Zimmerman’s practice as an artist focuses on the meaning and sustainability of human actions, and here he brings that practice to the screen, revealing absurdity of process even as he revels in the beauty of the places in which he’s filming.

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“John Wick 3, Aladdin, and um, Endgame. How with a straight face do you make an argument that the world is tired of sequels when the biggest film of the year, #2 all-time grosser, is the twenty-second film of its series and the fourth film of its particular label/action group? It’s said a lot you have to “Give people a reason to go see a sequel.” Well, yes. In general, when you’re releasing a film, that tends to help. More than just saying, ‘Hey, uh, we’ve got this thing that some guy made and ummm, there’s a show at 6:30.’ ‘Give people a reason to go see’ is analyst-ese for ‘Make a good movie’ when people don’t want to get all subjective and call certain movies bad. Or at least, make a movie that looks like something different and exciting, that breaks through the clutter and gets them motivated to leave their homes.”

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“Jean-Pierre Melville built his own studio so that he wouldn’t have to take orders from anyone, and lived there with his wife and three cats. (The staircase from the studio to the flat upstairs features in nearly every Melville film.) He hated shooting because he had to wake up early and change out of his pyjamas. He could be charming but on set was often a tyrant; he considered it a betrayal when his actors became romantically involved. He was a great talker, with a deep, velvety voice, but he hated cliques and industry schmoozing. One of the fathers of the Nouvelle Vague, he soon fell out with his ‘children’. ‘I desire only one thing in life: to be left alone,’ he said.”

Joker

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This is probably going to sound petty, but Martin Scorsese insisting that critics see his film in theaters even though it’s going straight to Netflix and then not screening it in most American cities was a watershed moment for me in this theatrical versus streaming debate.

I completely respect when a filmmaker insists that their movie is meant to be seen in the theater, but the thing is, you got to actually make it possible to see it in the theater. Some movies may be too small for that, and that’s totally OK.

When your movie is largely financed by a streaming service and is going to appear on that streaming service instantly, I don’t really see the point of pretending that it’s a theatrical film. It just seems like we are needlessly indulging some kind of personal fantasy.

I don’t think that making a feature film length production that is going to go straight to a video platform is some sort of “step down.“ I really don’t. Theatrical exhibition as we know it is dying off anyway, for a variety of reasons.

I should clarify myself because this thread is already being misconstrued — I’m talking about how the movie is screened in advance. If it’s going straight to Netflix, why the ritual of demanding people see it in the theater?

There used to be a category that everyone recognized called “TV movie” or “made for television movie” and even though a lot of filmmakers considered that déclassé, it seems to me that probably 90% of feature films fit that description now.

Atlantis has mostly sunk into the ocean, only a few tower spires remain above the waterline, and I’m increasingly at peace with that, because it seems to be what the industry and much of the audience wants. We live in an age of convenience and information control.

Only a very elite group of filmmakers is still allowed to make movies “for theaters“ and actually have them seen and judged that way on a wide scale. Even platform releasing seems to be somewhat endangered. It can’t be fought. It has to be accepted.

9. Addendum: I’ve been informed that it wasn’t Scorsese who requested that the Bob Dylan documentary only be screened for critics in theaters, but a Netflix representative indicated the opposite to me, so I just don’t know what to believe.

It’s actually OK if your film is not eligible for an Oscar — we have a thing called the Emmys. A lot of this anxiety is just a holdover from the days when television was considered culturally inferior to theatrical feature films. Everybody needs to just get over it.

In another 10 to 20 years they’re probably going to merge the Emmys in the Oscars into one program anyway, maybe they’ll call it the Contentys.

“One of the fun things about seeing the new Quentin Tarantino film three months early in Cannes (did I mention this?) is that I know exactly why it’s going to make some people furious, and thus I have time to steel myself for the takes.

Back in July 2017, when it was revealed that Tarantino’s next project was connected to the Manson Family murders, it was condemned in some quarters as an insulting and exploitative stunt. We usually require at least a fig-leaf of compassion for the victims in true-crime adaptations, and even Tarantino partisans like myself – I don’t think he’s made a bad film yet – found ourselves wondering how he might square his more outré stylistic impulses with the depiction of a real mass murder in which five people and one unborn child lost their lives.

After all, it’s one thing to slice off with gusto a fictional policeman’s ear; it’s quite another to linger over the gory details of a massacre that took place within living memory, and which still carries a dread historical significance.

In her essay The White Album, Joan Didion wrote: “Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, ended at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community, and in a sense this is true.”

Early in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, as Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt’s characters drive up the hill towards Leo’s bachelor pad, the camera cranes up gently to reveal a street sign: Cielo Drive. Tarantino understands how charged that name is; he can hear the Molotov cocktails clinking as he shoulders the crate.

As you may have read in the reviews from Cannes, much of the film is taken up with following DiCaprio and Pitt’s characters – a fading TV actor and his long-serving stunt double – as they amusingly go about their lives in Los Angeles, while Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate is a relatively minor presence. But the spectre of the murders is just over the horizon, and when the night of the 9th finally arrives, you feel the mood in the cinema shift.

No spoilers whatsoever about what transpires on screen. But in the audience, as it became clear how Tarantino was going to handle this extraordinarily loaded moment, the room soured and split, like a pan of cream left too long on the hob. I craned in, amazed, but felt the person beside me recoil in either dismay or disgust.

Two weeks on, I’m convinced that the scene is the boldest and most graphically violent of Tarantino’s career – I had to shield my eyes at one point, found myself involuntarily groaning “oh no” at another – and a dead cert for the most controversial. People will be outraged by it, and with good reason. But in a strange and brilliant way, it takes Didion’s death-of-the-Sixties observation and pushes it through a hellfire-hot catharsis.

Hollywood summoned up this horror, the film seems to be saying, and now it’s Hollywood’s turn to exorcise it. I can’t wait until the release in August, when we can finally talk about why.

~ Robbie Collin