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Sundance Indie Episodic Review: Xavier Dolan, “Poacher” Top Section
January 26, 2023
Sundance’s indie TV selections deal with guilt in many forms, with “The Night Logan Woke Up” and “Poacher” leading the bill.
I blame my Catholic upbringing, but guilt is my almost constant companion. There is guilt at work for not putting on more television, which leads to guilt at home for spending too much time watching TV. Even when I can separate myself from the millions of screens, the guilt of having too much fun – or not enough – often sets in. I’m left with guilt over childhood transgressions (too inconsequential and therefore embarrassing to admit I remember here) and a growing guilt that I led the review by talking about myself.
The bottom line: guilt can come from anywhere. Right or wrong, helpful or hindering, immutable or transitory, the feeling of doing something wrong (and the subsequent agony of wondering how wrong it was) can make people do a number of things, and this year is otherwise different. Among the Indie Episodic works at the Sundance Film Festival, guilt is a driving narrative force – even in its absence.
Take Richie Mehta’s true crime drama, “Poacher.” Based on a 2015 investigation into the biggest ivory poachers in India’s history, the eight-part series (three of which were screened at the festival) follows a handful of Indian foreign service, NGO and police officers tasked with retrieving it. these wild terrorists to justice.
Mehta, who last screened the similar “Delhi Crime” at Sundance in 2019, sticks to genre basics. Mala (Nimisha Sajayan) is a senior IFS agent called from exile to work on the case. He can be stubborn, forceful and doesn’t always play by the book – but he gets the job done. Alan (Roshan Mathew) is his number-crunching partner. Although he is not officially an officer, his knowledge of snake venom has made him a popular connection with doctors and forest workers, and soon his data skills will help him in a much bigger case. (Yes, he’s a computer nerd and a snake expert.) Both report to a boss (Dibyendu Bhattacharya) who must ask for a lifetime favor to solve one last case before he retires.
While no one is saying “I’m too old for this shit” or giving up their badge in outrage (at least not yet), “The Poacher” wears its clichés proudly, serving up satisfying thrills while toning down the prevailing violence. Mehta’s last series. (Part 3 opens with a brief, eerie shot of a tuskless CGI elephant.) But what keeps his latest film from becoming a modern spoof of ’80s cop flicks is the characters’ motivations. Mala, Alan, their colleagues and most of the civilians express sharp outrage that anyone would hurt the elephants, but revenge is not what drives our two heroes; it’s guilt. Mala and his team were given the protection of the creatures native to India, and they all believed that elephant poaching had been eradicated almost two decades earlier. When they realize that this is happening right under their noses – and on an unprecedented scale – they are of course angry at the poachers, but equally angry at themselves.
In one monologue, Mala expresses a sense of national guilt: The Indian people are so ashamed of the country’s history of poaching that they feel an additional responsibility for the world’s largest land animal. This multi-layered incentive helps ground “Poacher” but confuses another Indie Episodic entry. “Chanshi” Starring Aleeza Chanowitz, it stars the eponymous twentysomething who flees Brooklyn to start over in Israel. Chanshi is shown on the flight to Tel Aviv, dreaming of Israeli soldiers who want to have sex with her. It turns out that her subconscious is quite literal, and from the second she steps into the Holy Land, all Chanshi wants is to sleep with every “tall, dark, Mizrahi” man she can find, preferably in uniform.
That would be nice, except she’s apparently at her best friend’s wedding – oh, and Chanshi herself is already engaged. Although she has told her Orthodox fiancé Mendy (Dor Gvirtsman) and his family in New York that Noki (Marnina Schon) needs her help with the wedding preparations, Chanshi is actually in Israel to give up her American life altogether. What she doesn’t count on, however, is the pressure to return from Noki, her extended family, and even the men she wants to sleep with. As she plans to make Aliyah, Chanshi is reminded of her obligations—obligations she’s desperate to forget through a parade of hot Israeli lovers—and her ambitions twist into a stuck knot of indecision. It’s clear that she hoped her actions—flying to Israel and sleeping with other men—would sever all ties, but it turns out Orthodox Jews aren’t so quick to sever their own.
Aleeza Chanowitz in “Chanshi”.
Courtesy of the Sundance Institute
Still, especially as a main character, Chanshi underperforms through four episodes. At first, his mission feels monotonous and a bit more cruel, as Chanowitz offers no backstory for his character’s “escape” and revels in Chanshi’s parade of selfish choices. Nokia is a much more accessible and engaging way to make it seem like a story about suppression and loss, but its arc is also too slow to develop, leaving the series almost adrift halfway through its first season.
“The Night Logan Woke Up” on the other hand, it is sharply focused. “Mom” and “I Killed My Mother” director Xavier Dolan is returning to maternal territory in his first TV series, a mystery soap that uncovers the secrets of a Quebec family after the death of, you guessed it, their mother. Like Pedro Almodóvar’s grim twin, the Larouche family is captured with black edges and a faded color palette, foreshadowing the horrific events to come, as well as many unrevealed past transgressions. Affairs, nightmares, secret siblings and a literal mystery box are just a few of the juicy aspects revealed in the first two hours, while Dolan – in his adaptation of Michel Marc Bouchard’s play – introduces each of the key players and hints at their tortured history (both shared). and personal) and has blown apart a group of loved ones who can barely stand the way they are.
Even before Madeleine (Anne Dorval) passes away (an inevitability promised in the moments we meet her), her “Logan Awoke” character looks at her troubled sense of self. Denis (Éric Bruneau) may be the de facto family patriarch, but he has nightmares about his mother’s suicide and surrounds himself with old clutter. Julien (Patrick Hivon) is full of intensity, whether he’s fearing an ominous figure gnawing behind him in class or racing to his mother’s bedside before it’s too late. Elliot, played by Dolan himself, is the black sheep and mama’s favorite boy; a contradiction that landed him in withdrawal 120 days early, from which he is released only to say goodbye to a dying parent. Chantal (Magalie Lépine-Blondeau) may be the “backbone” of the family, but she can no longer reach her husband, Julien, and the weight of accountability takes her eyes elsewhere.
Composed of just five episodes, “The Night Logan Woke Up” hums through its first two hours, seemingly destined for big payoff and operatic tragedy. His tight-knit but deeply troubled family makes for an emotional spectacle that’s as gripping as it is harrowing, and couldn’t be further from the last Indie Episodic entry. “Willie Nelson and his family.” The only documentary in the bunch, Thom Zimny and Oren Moverman’s five-part series leisurely jumps through the life and career of the singer-songwriter star. Nelson talks about his love of old westerns, his intolerance for assholes (Nelson describes his philosophy in three rules: “Don’t be an ass. Don’t be an ass. Don’t be a goddamn ass.”), and, most of all, his deep love for God and family.
“Willie Nelson and Family”
Timothy D. Easley / Courtesy of Sundance Institute
His daughter, Lana, and son, Lukas, are among the reverent talking heads who help chronicle their dear old dad’s artistic and personal pursuits, though Zimny and Moverman balance the music icon’s broader influence with country star Kenny Chesney and Texas Monthly writer John Sponge. (Dolly Parton, Roseanne Cash, Brenda Lee, Bill Anderson and many others also make appearances.) “Willie Nelson & Family” rarely tries to be anything other than a beloved ode to a beloved figure, and it’s also scattered in its structure, jumping from topic to topic and decade to decade. decade without following many transitions. (It has a real “five-hour movie” feel.) But at its best, the series embodies Willie’s trademark rhythm: he doesn’t try to follow the beat, but adapts the music to his meaning.
It is also the opposite of guilt. Willie surrounds himself with family and friends. Other famous musicians tell several stories of the famous singer dropping by their recordings or one of their shows simply because he likes to play their music. It feels as informal as it is inviting, walking the walk of someone who has gotten too high in life (and too much weed) to waste the little things. Even Nelson’s infamous IRS scandal—when he owed $32 million in unpaid taxes in 1990—was little more than frustration at his manager’s bad advice, a bit of extra work for the singer (he made a double album called “The IRS Tapes,” on which the all proceeds go to your account) and an illustration of how family takes care of family. (When the IRS seized his assets and put his cherished guitar up for auction, Trigger was smuggled back to him by close friends, and many of his favorite properties were gifted or leased back for a nominal fee.)
Whatever you think of Nelson’s country music stardom and loving family life, his morally solid demeanor (as seen in the documentaries) serves as an antidote to the turmoil of “Poacher,” “Chanshi” and “The Night Logan Woke Up.” It doesn’t necessarily make for better TV, but it sure feels like a better life.
The 2023 Sundance Indie Episodic Lineup is available to stream through January 29.