Sundance Docs 2019

Dominic Corry reports from Sundance on the origins of Alien, a different kind of Hollywood monster, and more documentary premieres from the fest.

I was very intrigued with this idea of the chest-burster scene.” —⁠Alexandre O. Philippe

Park City, Utah: Sundance has long had a reputation as the pre-eminent launching pad for cinematic documentaries, and that was especially true last year when a bunch of Sundance 2018 premieres went on to do extremely well at the box office. Titles such as RBG, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? and Three Identical Strangers have made a significant theatrical and critical impact in 2018 (not to mention an impact on our Year in Review).

Sundance 2019 had no shortage of buzzed-about docs on offer, with the highest profile one being Dan Reed’s Leaving Neverland, about the long-term sexual abuse two men claim they suffered as children at the hands of pop star Michael Jackson.

Although it only screened once, it was unquestionably the most talked-about film of the festival, and by all accounts an extremely harrowing watch. HBO will air the film in early March. (Letterboxd member David Ehrlich’s in-depth review is worth a read.)

Other documentary titles that garnered buzz at this year’s Sundance Film Festival include The Great Hack, covering the Cambridge Analytica Facebook scandal, Alex Gibney’s The Inventor: Out for Blood In Silicon Valley, about controversial blood-testing start-up Theranos and its founder Elizabeth Holmes, and Where’s My Roy Cohn?, a look at the life of the infamous New York lawyer best known these days for mentoring a youthful Donald Trump.

There were three other documentaries making waves at Sundance that Letterboxd had the chance to see. Read on for details.

A young Harvey Weinstein in Ursula Macfarlane’s Untouchable.
A young Harvey Weinstein in Ursula Macfarlane’s Untouchable.

Untouchable

After Leaving Neverland, this was the title that generated the most discussion around Park City. Ursula Macfarlane’s film examines the sexual misconduct charges surrounding disgraced Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein via gut-wrenching, first-hand testimony from some of his accusers.

It also chronicles Weinstein’s rise to power in the movie business, and his long tradition of wielding power and access to control the way media reported about him. Following the screening, Macfarlane acknowledged that the story being told in her film isn’t finished yet, with Weinstein yet to stand trial.

“We had to make a decision,” she explained. “Because you could carry on filming this story for God knows how long it’s gonna take until there’s some kind of conclusion. But we wanted to make our film evergreen in a way. So we did make a decision quite early on that we would begin with the arrest and we would end with the arrest. It almost became a kind of mythological, epic story.”

“It remains to be seen, of course, as to whether the legal system itself is capable of prosecuting someone like Harvey Weinstein,” added producer Simon Chinn. “Our hope is, through watching [Untouchable] you’ll get a clearer understanding of the nature of abuse in this industry and why the legal system is insufficient in dealing with it, perhaps. But equally, hopefully, you will understand how plausible the women who are accusing him are. For me, the film shows irrefutably that these women are to be believed. Let’s be clear about that.”

Untouchable on the red carpet, from left: producer Simon Chinn, director Ursula Macfarlane, actor Rosanna Arquette, and producers Poppy Dixon and Jonathan Chinn.
Untouchable on the red carpet, from left: producer Simon Chinn, director Ursula Macfarlane, actor Rosanna Arquette, and producers Poppy Dixon and Jonathan Chinn.

One of Weinstein’s accusers, actor Rosanna Arquette, appears in the movie and was present at the screening.

“A lot of women are not in this [film] because they were too afraid to speak,” said Arquette after the screening. “And I’ve heard from all of ’em, pretty much, during this process. Today. Everybody’s triggered. I’m here for all of them. I stand in solidarity for them, representing them. Just by telling your story, you help another person tell their story, so it’s a chain reaction across the world. So for that, we all very blessed to be a part of that because it’s helping people heal, slowly but surely.”

The Amazing Johnathan is the subject of Ben Berman’s untitled documentary.
The Amazing Johnathan is the subject of Ben Berman’s untitled documentary.

Untitled Amazing Johnathan Documentary

The Amazing Johnathan is a successful Las Vegas-based magician/comedian with a slightly sadistic edge to his act—his most famous gag involves appearing to slice a knife into his own arm.

Before watching, we weren’t sure that this would be the most inspired topic for a documentary, but the film was not at all what we were expecting. This is one of those documentaries that eventually becomes more about its own making than the ostensible subject matter.

Not that The Amazing Johnathan isn’t worthy of a doc—he’s a plenty interesting guy in a unique situation and the film gets a lot of value out of examining him. But the film has more to say about the nature of documentary filmmaking itself, as director Ben Berman becomes more and more central to proceedings.

There are secrets revealed throughout the film that might make you question its veracity. We won’t spill them here, but following the screening, Berman stood up to attest to its truthfulness.

“It’s absolutely real shit that happened,” he swore. “The biggest theme of the movie is trying to determine what’s truth versus what’s illusion, right? So to have that experience continue into you guys watching it is very exciting.”

The film’s comedic sensibility betrays Berman’s previous involvement in oddball comedy shows like Eagleheart, Lady Dynamite and various Tim and Eric projects.

The Amazing Johnathan himself was also present, and an audience member asked him about his current relationship with Berman, considering that it gets pretty strained in the film. “I don’t know what our relationship’s like,” he replied. “It was only towards the very end that I hated him. He definitely made up for it, what a genius ending.”

A sketch of the notorious chest-burster scene from Alien.
A sketch of the notorious chest-burster scene from Alien.

Memory: The Origins of Alien

Screening as part of the festival’s genre-leaning Midnight section, this documentary about Ridley Scott’s 1979 classic Alien is the latest work from film nerd extraordinaire Alexandre O. Philippe, the Swiss director behind such documentaries as 78/52 (2017), which was entirely about the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, and The People vs. George Lucas (2010), which examined Star Wars fan discontent.

Philippe’s latest film is a deep scholarly dive into the cultural forces that lead to Alien’s creation. He factors in Greek and Egyptian mythology, underground comic books, sci-fi B-movies and the art of Francis Bacon.

“For Alien to become an A-movie in 1979, it doesn’t make sense,” Philippe said following the screening. “This is not a time when people were ready for it. And what becomes really interesting is this idea of, when a movie becomes that successful, at a time when the environment is not quite ready for it, what does it mean? It means, in a way, that there were certain images and certain ideas, and that we as a collective unconscious, and I truly believe this, that we summoned this film, we collectively put it on the screen.”

Philippe’s film champions the contributions of screenwriter Dan O’Bannon, who is often overlooked in favor of Scott and HR Giger, the Swiss artist behind the film’s iconic creature design. O’Bannon’s first attempt at the screenplay that would eventually become Alien was named ‘Memory’, hence the documentary’s title.

From left: Alexandre O. Philippe, Ridley Scott, HR Giger, Dan O’Bannon.
From left: Alexandre O. Philippe, Ridley Scott, HR Giger, Dan O’Bannon.

“To me, this film really is about the triptych of O’Bannon, Giger and Scott, and the symbiosis between those three people. It’s essentially an essay about those three extraordinary people meeting.”

The film was originally just going to be about the film’s most notorious scene before Philippe expanded his scope: “I was very intrigued with this idea of the chest-burster scene and, especially after 78/52, of making another film about another scene that had an impact on us as a culture. It seemed like a natural fit. But we did an early sizzle [reel], and it didn’t feel right.”

The resulting documentary is strong argument for the value of a film that does nothing but critically examine another film.

“What I really hope is that this film will make people look at Alien and consider it in a different light and maybe wanna go and dig deeper into it. Great movies, you can go over and over and over again and you will never ever get to the bottom, you will always see something new.”


Hulu has acquired ‘The Untitled Amazing Johnathan Documentary’. ‘Untouchable’ and ‘Memory: The Origins of Alien’ have yet to announce distribution deals. 

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