Sundance 2020

Revenge tale Promising Young Woman places a recognizably human victim/superhero in the complex and recently fashionable moral backdrop of #MeToo. And in her relentless pursuit of a sexual predator from her past, and his enablers, Carey Mulligan’s cold-blooded avenger dispenses crowd pleasing, cinematic vigilante justice. Fans of the excellent Killing Eve TV series, whose second-season head writer also wrote and directed this film, may recognize the style of taut, comically executed, female-inflicted mayhem. Suspension of disbelief is a bit of a hurdle in some films; in this case you just have to pretend all men are complete pigs. Even with that, it taxes the viewer in the twisty final act, but is ultimately satisfying. C+.


Austere science fiction / fantasy Nine Days employs an outrageous premise to provide a beautiful celebration of simply being alive. That premise has several potential humans (who look and act like actual humans) go through a nine-day audition and interview process, where a judge evaluates their worthiness. If they pass, they get to be born and experience life as a human being; if not, there’s only a consolation prize, but a fascinating one. One candidate in particular triggers a magical sequence where the exhilarating poetry of Walt Whitman gives the film a special beauty.

This is quite an unusual film, where the sci-fi tech is mainly CRT TVs and VHS tapes; its scope is sweeping and ambitious but it was shot in only a few days on basic sets. Like the best science fiction, its power comes from its ideas, not costumes or gadgets. And, to its credit, the film remains secular, making its profound point about the privilege of life without stooping to religion and without getting mired in self-help nonsense.

The Sundance screening received a lengthy standing ovation, and in the subsequent Q/A, the writer/director indicated this film was inspired by a death in his own family and an effort to turn that into something positive. The Sundance jury later recognized his accomplishment with its screenwriting award. A-.


Someone murdered around a dozen women in the 20 year period ending around 2011, and disposed of their bodies on Long Island, New York. Lost Girls is a narrative based on the true story of the “Long Island Serial Killer” from the perspective of one of the victim’s families.

Amy Ryan is tenacious and gritty as a mother desperately pursuing the truth about the fate of her daughter, butting heads with authorities who downplay the importance of just another missing prostitute and who try to protect the residents of the posh gated community where she was last seen. Ryan’s performance is compelling as a troubled woman with limited resources and limited parenting skills, who eventually figures out how to use news media to get action from police and FBI.

In the QA following the screening, the director and producer described some difficulty filming on location, including the lack of cooperation from one of the local police jurisdictions. They expressed hope for progress on the still unsolved case. B.


Elisabeth Moss does not hold back in her warts-and-all portrayal of horror and mystery author Shirley Jackson in Shirley. It’s a sort of horror film, where the bloodshed is mainly emotional, about a horror/mystery author. It’s also a family drama, but one where a crazy, depressed loose cannon of a wife can be as scary as a monster under the bed or a clown with balloons.

The reclusive author and her husband, a professor, allow a young student couple to move in to their house and serve as domestic helpers, and also as psychological punching bags. The style of the film embraces and magnifies the chaos of human relationships, with disturbing dream sequences, jiggly hand-held shots, and closeups that look like dermatology exams. Some comfort can be found in observing the surprising friendship that develops between the author and her young female assistant. C+.


The Cuban missile crisis took place during the cold war, when the enemies of capitalism and free speech were found more often in the Soviet Union than on domestic college campuses. That crisis ended without escalating into World War III, in large part due to behind-the-scenes efforts of America’s CIA and England’s MI5. Those two intelligence agencies worked together to recruit a civilian to play an important role in obtaining information about the Soviet missile buildup. The spy thriller Ironbark takes its name from the code name of that mission.

That heroic civilian was British businessman Greville Wynne, who is portrayed by a committed Benedict Cumberbatch. Wynne was understandably reluctant at first, but eventually went far above and beyond the original mission. His repeated visits to Russia eventually led to an unlikely human-to-human bond between a Russian spy and an English courier that transcended the east/west animosity of the era. The film doesn’t focus on conventional spy lore, instead guiding the viewer to consider the notable contrast between the amorality of global political forces vs. the altruism of humans who rise to the occasion. B-.