February 2, 2020

SHOWBUZZDAILY Sundance Film Reviews: “Shirley,” “Surge” & “The Climb”


SHIRLEY (no distrib):  Josephine Decker’s film isn’t really a biography of the horror writer Shirley Jackson (The Haunting of Hill House, The Lottery), played here by Elizabeth Moss.  The script by Sarah Gubbins is based on a novel by Susan Scarf Merrell loosely inspired by Jackson’s life, and that fictional story has been changed again for the film.  It does seem to be accurate, though, that in the early 1960s when this story is set, Jackson was a borderline agoraphobe who had a complicated relationship with her protective, narcissistic Bennington professor husband Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg).  Into this hothouse, Decker and Gubbins introduce the recently married Nemsers, Fred (Logan Lerman) and Rose (Odessa Young).  Fred is Stanley’s ambitious teaching assistant, and Rose is a fan of Shirley’s work.  They’re invited to stay with Shirley and Stanley while they look for a place of their own, but Rose soon finds herself pressured into being the older couple’s semi-official maid and cook.  Rose becomes fascinated with Shirley, and particularly by the true crime book the writer is attempting to compose about the mystery of a young woman who vanished from the Bennington campus.  Decker, who directed the strange, memorable Madeline’s Madeline, isn’t quite so surreal here, but she digs into the undercurrents between the two women until things become increasingly intense.  Moss is a powerful presence as the tortured, manipulative Shirley, and Young goes impressively toe to toe with her throughout.  (Decker and Gubbins are less interested in the men, although Stuhlbarg proves himself absolutely ready to play George in the next major Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf? revival, while Lerman isn’t able to give much shading to the thinly-written Fred.)  Although the design here is less flamboyant than that of Madeline’s Madeline, the cinematography by Sturia Brandth Grovien and production design by Sue Chen make the professorial house mysterious and moody. Shirley is a worthwhile addition to the niche of literary drama cinema.

SURGE (no distrib):  SURGE is something like what Joker would have been without all that underlying comic-book and Scorsese IP.  Like that blockbuster’s protagonist, Joseph (Ben Whishaw) has a dehumanizing job (with the British version of the TSA) and a hideous family life, which ultimately lead to him lashing out in antisocial and criminal ways.  Director Aneil Karia, however, working from a script by Rupert Jones and Rita Kalnegais that expands the story from a previous short film, has chosen to create an endurance test for audiences, with hand-held photography (by Stuart Bentley) so aggressive that the camera seems to be having even more of a psychotic break than Joseph is.  Whishaw captures every twitch and furtive glare of Joseph’s journey into madness to an extent that even Joaquin Phoenix might appreciate, and there are oddly gripping sequences, like one in which Joseph methodically rips apart a hotel room with what feels less like vandalism than a hunt for something he desperately needs and can’t find.  Without the familiar underpinnings of a Joker, though, let alone the actual insight and nuance of the Scorsese classics that were its inspiration, and with no characters of note beyond Joseph, there’s very little substance to Surge, which makes the rising nonsense of its plot a problem that its extreme stylization can’t hide.  Surge creates a fair amount of heat, but hardly any light.

THE CLIMB (Sony Classics – March 20):  White guy friendship, from co-stars and co-writers Michael Angelo Covino and Kyle Marvin (Covino also directed), who play characters named Mike and Kyle.  The two characters, friends since childhood, have a bond that can be shaken but not broken, even when Mike tells Kyle as they bike at length up a steep hill (the original short that led to this feature version) that he’s been having a long-term affair with Kyle’s fiance.  The ensuing story is surprisingly ambitious despite its tiny scale, extending over several years as eventually another woman, Marissa (Gayle Rankin), complicates the friendship again.  The Climb is too tightly scripted to qualify as mumblecore, but it has something of the shambling feel of that subgenre, sometimes finding piercing moments of emotional truth and well-earned laughs, and at other times feeling like a drifting curiosity.  (There are also musical numbers.)  The three leads, all of them alternately likable and toxic, find enough grounding for their characters to make sense, and the constant changes in tone and chronology keep viewers on their toes.  The Climb isn’t entirely successful as a cohesive piece of narrative, but its warmth and wit keep it on its uphill path.

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."