January 25, 2020

SHOWBUZZDAILY Sundance Film Festival Reviews: “Miss Americana,” “Ironbark” & “Scare Me”


MISS AMERICANA (Netflix – January 31):  There are certainly areas of Taylor Swift’s life that are carefully elided in MISS AMERICANA (her actor boyfriend’s face and name are absent, for example, and there’s no mention of Cats), and Lana Wilson’s documentary culminates in an inspirational push that is very much on-message with Swift’s latest persona of empowerment.  But for all the behind-the-scenes string-pulling that may have have been involved, Miss Americana feels remarkably honest for an authorized bio of one of the world’s biggest celebrities.  The limitation of Wilson’s approach is also what makes the film work:  Miss Americana rarely pretends to be telling an objective version of Swift’s complicated, media-driven life.  Instead, the documentary presents the view inside Swift’s head (or as much of it as its star will make visible), lavishly furnished with interviews and footage of the songwriter working at her craft.  There’s a compelling portrait here of a mega-celebrity attempting, at least in some ways, to break out of her bubble, and as the film’s story builds toward Swift’s decision to go public with her relatively liberal politics–despite watching the Dixie Chicks, in many ways her forebears, crash and burn for doing exactly that [depicted with fly-on-the-wall immediacy in their own 2006 documentary Shut Up and Sing]–one’s mind may note that this climaxes in the new song that plays under the movie’s credits, but not without also understanding that a real, multi-million dollar risk was taken here and deserves some respect.  Swift may have safeguarded her messages here, but she appears on screen with little vanity, and with a fair amount of sharp intelligence and wit.  Miss Americana is a high-class version of the celebrity doc.

IRONBARK (no distrib):  A well-crafted, rather staid historical drama by Sundance standards.  Dominic Cooke (who directed On Chesil Beach) and screenwriter Tom O’Connor tell the true-life story of Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch), an ordinary middle-class salesman of international goods, who was recruited in the early 1960s by the CIA (represented by Rachel Brosnahan) and MI-5 to act as the courier for top-secret information from the spy Oleg Penkovsky (Marab Ninidze).  Eventually, that information would prove critical in the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Cooke photographs much of the film in a semi-darkness that’s probably meant to suggest the complex spycraft of John LeCarre’s novels, but O’Connor’s script is quite straightforward, and even a bit comical at first, as Wynne has to adjust to the life of a spy.  The casting is slightly off:  although Cumberbatch does his best to appear unassuming and innocuous (and undoubtedly his name is what got the film financed), having this regular-Joe played by one of the Avengers sort of sabotages the point.  (Cumberbatch is far better later on, when the story gets darker.)  Attempting a 21st-century level of wokefulness by inventing Brosnahan’s fictional high-ranking female Agency officer at a time when there weren’t any is awkward, although Jessie Buckley, as Wynne’s wife, gets considerably more to do than “the wife” usually does, and as has been her practice over the past few years, she kills it.  Ninidze is also excellent as Penkovsky.  Ultimately, though, while this is a footnote to history that’s unfamiliar to most, its basic genre and tropes are more routine, and Ironbark would probably be more at home on a small screen.

SCARE ME (no distrib):  Josh Ruben’s extremely meta comedy-thriller doesn’t quite sustain itself all the way through, but for much of its length it’s a delight.  Ruben, who wrote and directed as well as starred, plays Fred, an aspiring horror writer who’s rented a house on the outskirts of a remote, snowy town not coincidentally at all named Overlook.  What is coincidental is Fred’s discovery that the next house over is being rented by a hugely successful horror author named Fanny (You’re the Worst‘s Aya Cash).  Most of Scare Me is a two-hander, as Fred accepts Fanny’s challenge to spend a long night in the midst of a blackout by inventing stories to terrify the other.  The long central section of the film is a showcase for the two stars, especially Cash, dazzling as her Fanny is by turns hilarious, flirtatious, vicious and inspired.  (It’s also a showcase for the low-budget movie’s audio designers, who do a terrific job at supplying sound effects to accompany the horror stories.)  When Chris Redd shows up as a pizza delivery guy who joins in the evening’s entertainment, you may have the feeling that this material would have been better served by a one-hour anthology format than as a feature film, and ultimately the script goes exactly where one imagined it might, without the extra gust of insight or imagination that might have made that feel organic or at least shockingly weird.  Still, when Scare Me is clicking, it’s an enormously enjoyable follow-up for fans of Knives Out, those who get a kick out of having their genre moves delivered with a knowing wink.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."