Sundance: Golden Exits, The Last Word, Manifesto, Wilson

Golden Exits (dir. Alex Ross Perry, 2017)

Golden Exits (dir. Alex Ross Perry, 2017)

Editor’s Note: The following capsule reviews are part of our coverage of the Sundance Film Festival. For more information visit their website here and follow Sundance on Twitter at @sundancefest.

Golden Exits
Director: Alex Ross Perry

In less than a decade and four films, writer-director Alex Ross Perry (Queen of Earth, Listen Up, Philip, The Color Wheel) has shown incredible growth as a filmmaker. Each new film, a miniaturist character study in its own right, digs deeper into character and personality. Perry’s seemingly intuitive understanding of human nature, of human behavior, is all the more remarkable for its rarity among contemporary filmmakers regardless of age or experience. In his latest comedy-drama, Golden Exits, Perry explores the messy, intersecting lives of two couples, one near middle-age and all the compromises that implies, and another closer to Perry’s actual age, young but anxious about the future. Alyssa (Chloë Sevigny), a therapist, and her husband, Nick (Adam Horowitz, The Beastie Boys), an archivist, find their fragile marriage tested with the arrival of Naomi (Emily Browning), a fetching Australian student interning for Nick for several months. Nick’s history with younger women and, more importantly, infidelity lead to almost immediate strain in his relationship with Alyssa. The other couple in Golden Exits, Buddy (Jason Schwartzman), a music studio owner and producer, and his wife and business partner, Jess (Analeigh Tipton), face a not dissimilar issue: Buddy and Naomi share a marginal, tangential relationship (they met once years earlier through their parents), but Naomi, alone and eager for a romantic encounter, actively pursues a hesitant, if no less flattered, Buddy. Not surprisingly, it’s a temptation Buddy resists with wavering adherence and dedication to monogamous norms. Gwendolyn (Mary-Louise Parker), a single woman in her 40s and Alyssa’s sister, and a sixth, Sam (Lily Rabe), Jess’ older sister, round out the characters, each with their own singular, sometimes contradictory view of relationships, romantic and otherwise. Less about actual infidelity and its consequences than temptations and their equally valid, legitimate consequences, Golden Exits often takes a wry, sardonic look at the foibles of its characters, but it’s never less than compassionate or empathetic either, avoiding the condescension or even contempt typical of a more cynical filmmaker.


The Last Word
Director: Mark Pellington

Some – maybe most – films are built around “life lessons” of one kind or another, some banal, some profound. Life lessons tie into whatever themes, subtext, or ideas writers, directors, and/or producers want to impart to their target audience (i.e., anything from tolerance to compassion). Director Mark Pellington’s (The Mothman Prophecies, Arlington Road, Going All the Way) The Last Word, starring the indefatigable Shirley MacLaine (82 and closing out her seventh decade behind the camera), unfortunately falls into the banal “life lesson” category, ending with a life-affirmation of family, friendship, and leaving a meaningful legacy behind – or, at minimum, a memorable obituary. When we meet Harriet Lawler (MacLaine), she’s living a lonely, isolated life, surrounded only by one or two servants to keep her company. She’s had a successful life, a career as a glass-ceiling breaking advertising executive, her own company, but not much else. Divorced and estranged from her daughter, Elizabeth (Anne Heche), Helen has become obsessed with her obituary. Willful, stubborn, and impulsive, Helen decides her obituary should be written, reviewed, and approved by Helen herself. An unconventional request, no doubt, but Helen’s close financial ties to a local newspaper convinces the editor-in-chief to loan out his obituary writer, Anne Sherman (Amanda Seyfried), to Helen. Not surprisingly, Anne reacts negatively to Helen’s unorthodox request, but dutifully falls in line to help her newspaper stay afloat. The first draft of Helen’s obituary goes poorly, however (no one has a good thing to say about Helen), forcing Helen to take drastic action. She thinks every positive obituary contains certain key elements (e.g., career accomplishments, family, community, and a wild card). That’s enough for Helen to change her curmudgeonly ways and revamp her life from top to bottom, at least just enough to secure a far more positive obituary than Anne’s first draft. She becomes a mentor of sorts to a too-precious-for-words at-risk girl, head butts her way into DJ’ing at a local station, and tries to reconnect with her estranged daughter. Not everything goes according to plan, but by the painfully predictable third act, Helen’s undergone a remarkable transformation on her own, seemingly rigid terms, and even changed a few lives for the better, including budding essayist Anne’s.

Manifesto (dir. Julian Rosefeldt, 2017)

Manifesto (dir. Julian Rosefeldt, 2017)

Director: Julian Rosefeldt

An art installation turned feature-length film that ultimately should have remained an art installation, Manifesto, artist-filmmaker Julian Rosefeldt’s treatise on art, critical, and cultural theory spanning more than 150 years in European thought, promises to deliver actress Cate Blanchett in 13 separate, distinct roles, a promise Manifesto honors on a purely separate level. While Blanchett does indeed change clothes, hair, make-up, and accent for each role, she doesn’t use a voice distinct to each character. In fact, they’re not characters at all, but stand-ins for the art, critical, and cultural theory Rosefeldt personally handpicked for their historical importance and presumably their contemporary resonance. Rosefeldt starts with Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ “The Communist Manifesto” (1848) and Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s “The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism” (1909), moving through Dada, Fluxus, the Situationists, ultimately ending with Jim Jarmusch’s Dogme ’95-influenced “Golden Rules of Filmmaking” (2004). Jean-Luc Godard, arguably the greatest film essayist of the last century, gets the obligatory shout-out too. Blanchett steps in to play an elementary school teacher, an exhausted factory worker, an Isadora Duncan-inspired choreographer, a punk rocker, a newscaster/reporter, a scientist/researcher, a puppeteer, a widow giving a deliriously inappropriate eulogy at her husband’s funeral, and a homeless man. Manifesto exists less as a standalone feature-length film, and more as a condensed, compressed, abbreviated version of an art installation the vast majority of moviegoers will never experience firsthand. Even the above-average, college-educated moviegoer will be lost almost from the start and either bail out mentally or physically, the direct response to Manifesto’s black-hole dense dialogue. Even a moviegoer with a PhD, albeit in an unrelated area or vacation, will find Manifesto a difficult, if not impossible, slog. That the art installation version included a booklet listing the source documents essential to fully understand the art installation’s purpose should have been a red flag when Rosefeldt or one of his collaborators floated the idea of translating the time-intensive, immersive experience of an art installation into the concentrated form of a 90-minute film. Unfortunately, no one raised the alarm, leaving moviegoers who stumble across Manifesto either perplexed, bored, or, for more adventurous moviegoers (i.e., grad students), eager to pick up some or even all of the 13 manifestos read by Cate Blanchett during her various performances. Only Rosefeldt’s keen eye for visual composition – he studied architecture in Munich and Barcelona – lifts Manifesto above the conceit behind Rosefeldt’s art-installation-turned-film.


Director: Craig Johnson

Woody Harrelson puts the “mis” and “thrope” in “misanthrope” in Craig Johnson’s (The Skeleton Twins, True Adolescents) near-perfect adaptation of Daniel Clowe’s 2010 graphic novel, Wilson. Unlike the title character in Jim Jarmusch’s minimalist masterpiece, Paterson, Wilson isn’t a town, city, or even an idea. He’s a misanthrope through and through. He hates the world, spewing scabrous commentary to anyone or everyone who passes into his orbit, but like any misanthrope, his hatred for humanity reflects self-loathing, of everything he’s failed to accomplish personally and professionally (though we never do learn how Wilson keeps a roof over his head or feeds and clothes himself). His acerbic, caustic wit often betrays a keen observer of the human condition, specifically the human condition in the early part of the 21st century (he’s an unreconstructed neo-Luddite), admirable to a degree for his willingness to speak the truth (to power and otherwise) regardless of the personal cost. With his best/only friend (Brett Gelman) leaving for greener pastures (St. Louis, where he and his wife can afford a home), Wilson makes the ill-considered decision to track down his ex-wife, Pippi (Laura Dern). After some not-so-stealthy detective work, Wilson tracks her down working as a waitress in a chain restaurant. They fall back into old habits, including a romantic relationship, but when Pippi reveals that she gave up the daughter, Claire (Isabella Amara), for adoption Wilson never knew he had, the idea of a nuclear family, apparently a long-vanished dream for Wilson, becomes too much for Wilson to resist. Constantly trying – and failing – to reshape the world to his whims, desires, and thoughts, Wilson ultimately sheds the misanthrope label to surprisingly emerge as a sympathetic romantic, an open-hearted idealist repeatedly thwarted by a cruel, capricious, pitiless world. Johnson’s decision to pack Wilson with incident often leads to narrative and thematic cul-de-sacs, but luckily Johnson has Harrelson, Dern, and a strong supporting cast to carry Wilson during frequent lulls and dead spots.


About Author

Mel Valentin hails from the great state of New Jersey. After attending New York University as an undergrad (politics and economics double major, religious studies minor) and grad school (law), he relocated from the East Coast to San Francisco, California, where he's been ever since. Since Mel began writing about film nine years ago, he's written more than 1,600 reviews and articles. He's a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle and the Online Film Critics Society.