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Sundance 2019: Stieg Larsson - The Man Who Played with Fire, Maiden, Anthropocene: The Human Epoch

Stieg Larsson is best known for penning the “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” books (aka the “Millennium” trilogy), but his saga of master hacker and punk Lisbeth Salander digging through history in order to fight fascist scum was not 100% fiction. Rather, it was inspired by the lesser-known side of Larsson, his history of exposing fascism within Sweden’s political movements, tracking its growth and normalization. “Stieg Larsson: The Man Who Played With Fire” may not be the bio-doc that you expect, especially if you are purely looking for more about his trilogy of books, but it makes a strong case to appreciate Larsson, and the history he was obsessed with before he became a fiction author. 

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Just as much as the film is about Larsson, it is also about the rise of fascism in Sweden, profiling white nationalist groups and government movements that brought rise to them. The Sweden Democrats, for example, who used a nonsense political platform that didn’t have any real policy, just wanted to peddle fascism, as Larsson and his colleagues eventually wrote about in a book. Through interviews with friends and colleagues, the doc details the resistance to such movements, like the publication Expo, which aimed to expose these Nazis and their meetings, leading to death threats. As the story focuses on them, it becomes like a “Spotlight” for Nazis, with dedicated professionals using their integrity and skill to get the word out. 

With regards to the books, the film makes clear that the iconic Lisbeth Salander—a tech-savvy, obsessed, and vengeful hacker—came from the journalist and detective within Larsson, himself reenacted here as he types, smokes, and thinks. It’s about 80 minutes into this 100-minute doc that the film starts to talk about the “Millennium” trilogy and their parallels, how his research into real fascists influenced the characters in his films, like with the Vanger family. 

Like a reboot that takes a known property in a surprising direction, “Stieg Larsson: The Man who Played with Fire” is exciting in the way it covers various different points of interest, while incorporating just enough of Larsson’s personal life. It’s not a straight-up biopic, but more a non-fiction true crime story, with Larsson as the hero, even if he remains enigmatic, having died at the age of 50 due to a heart attack. Celebrated with such a fresh perspective and a dedication to what fired him up the most, his heroism shines. 

Already set for a release some time in 2019 is the documentary “Maiden,” which tells of a women’s yachting team who defied sexist expectations when competing in the male-dominated 1990 Whitbread Round the World Race. Directed by Alex Holmes, it’s a strong narrative that goes beyond the often stuffy storytelling of sailing (case in point, the abominable “Wind”), and focuses on the dedication of these women to their skills, which in turn led to big progress. Their leader, Tracy Edwards, initiated the big change, starting out in the thankless role of chef on a man’s boat, until she was given a chance to skipper her own crew on the Maiden. It’s an incredible story, and Holmes keeps a sharp eye on its cultural commentary to make it a part of a contemporary conversation.  

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The story of Maiden and its historical voyage is told by the women on the team, who share their emotional experiences, sometimes funny and other times heartbreaking, directly with the viewer. The story gets off to a slow start focusing on Tracy’s personal life, but then “Maiden” truly takes off, paced like a sports movie with bonafide underdogs and unbelievable emotional developments. While the movie does not endeavor to talk about the specifics of sailing, it does nonetheless provide a full image of the dedication these women had to this boat and each other, while making visceral, through found footage and a concise retelling of the course of events, the many challenges they faced from nature and their male competition.

“Maiden” is a sturdy saga of ups and downs in a world of physical skill and intellect, but also of looking back to different representations. The men who reported on the group talk about the attitudes they had about the women, reflected on their reporting and the headlines.  They may see it differently now, or maybe they’re too stubborn to change. Keep an ear out for how many of them talk about the women at that time as “girls.” For anyone looking for a movie about women working together and not against each other, “Maiden” offers a sterling example of that but also a feel-good one as well. See this one before the inevitable Hollywood remake is announced, although the story that’s baked into “Maiden” indicates that project could be quite thrilling. 

“Anthropocene - The Human Epoch” is the plate of vegetables that it sounds like, but its cinematography and passion for our planet make a strong case for your attention. Making its international premiere in the festival’s Spotlight section, “Anthropocene” is the latest film to proclaim the dire status of the world as brought upon by our hands, and how. Concerning more than just the usual factor of climate change, the doc, directed by Jennifer Baichwal, Nicholas de Pencier and Edward Burtynsky, uses stunning imagery of machinery and industry used for destruction, from carved-out Italian hills of marble to ominous drone shots of lithium farms in Chile. The film may not win you over emotionally, but it is filled with stark examples of how we as visitors have carved, dug out, ripped up, and totally altered the planet, as expressed through shocking imagery showing what industry has achieved—such grandiosity at the cost of natural life.  

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As this is a movie that speaks with scope, humans are often specks in massive wide shots, or at the least are not identified by name when workers are observed doing something that often involves some type of damage to the planet. But with the documentary’s focus across continents and with its concern about all of the world’s classical elements, an image of the worldwide worker emerges, men and women engineering vehicles and machinery far bigger than they are. Sometimes workers tell us about the machinery they operate (like the largest mining vehicle in the world, which looks straight out of the rolling cities in “Mortal Engines”), but others are treated as part of the industry itself. 

This would all make a more lasting impact if it felt less redundant; if it felt less like its own brute machine, albeit one that collects different examples of the humans’ toll on Earth so that we can process it however we choose. And the film has a dead-seriousness that almost reaches parody (same with a shot in which a bird darts from a tree branch at the sound of a chainsaw; cut to: tree falling down), as Oscar-winner Alicia Vikander pokes in her voice every now and then with a voiceover that sounds like the vet giving you The Bad News. Sometimes she helps define the chapter titles that break up the film—terms like “Anthroturbation”—but it becomes clear that the sobering spectacles within “Anthropocene - The Human Epoch” will haunt us all on their own. 

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