Like that, another Sundance Film Festival is in the history books. Perhaps the most unique movie fest in North America, indie cinema’s opening salvo of the festival circuit brings new surprises each year. Unlike other prestigious film festivals on this continent, Sundance is only tangentially connected to the Oscar campaign race that defines TIFF, Telluride, New York, and all the other heavy hitters. Occurring even before the previous year’s Oscar winners have been newly christened, Sundance is the first deep breath of movie lovers’ spring during the winds of winter. And in Robert Redford’s preferred little snowy, mountainside escape, many of the year’s defining independent innovations are previewed atop Park City’s icy and idyllic retreat.
Major players at last year’s Sundance Film Festival included Eighth Grade, Hereditary, and Sorry to Bother You, and in our first onsite trip to Park City ourselves, we got an equally captivating taste of some of the year’s best indies. While we of course did not see everything we hoped to while attending only the second week, below is a round-up of nearly everything we witnessed, along with our thoughts and, where available, already published reviews. So shake off those winter doldrums and enjoy this feast of cinema.
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile
The idea of going to sleep next to Ted Bundy is a chilling thought. But despite being infamous now for the brutal murder of at least 30 women in the 1970s, there was a time—including during much of his trial—where many folks mistook him for a smiling, handsome law student. Liz Kendall (Lily Collins) is one such person in Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile. At the beginning of Joe Berlinger’s new movie, Bundy, played ever so disarmingly by Zac Efron, seduces Liz to take him home to her infant daughter in a crib, and then watches over both as she closes her eyes for a late night cuddle. But what might be more disturbing to the audience than this sensitive serial killer is that when Liz wakes up her child is gone: Ted Bundy had taken the girl to her high-chair in the kitchen so he could make breakfast for mother and daughter, complete with apron around the waste and a pot of coffee in hand. It is in the radical cognitive dissonance between perception and reality, and the perception of the audience versus the perception of the people in Ted’s life, where Berlinger has made an entire movie.
When you say the word “Satanists,” certain things spring to mind. For me, it is a cross between old Sidney Blackmer and Ralph Bellamy shouting “hail Satan!” in Rosemary’s Baby and poor Charles Gray saddled with acting against a guy in a goat mask in the unintentionally hilarious The Devil Rides Out. Yet Penny Lane’s bemusing new documentary argues pop culture has gotten Satanists, at least in their modern context, all wrong.
Trailing media savvy Lucien Greaves, the spokesman for the Satanic Temple, and his other likeminded participants (they prefer not to be called followers), Hail Satan? takes a jaunty view of people who pray to the Dark One, mostly because the movie highlights few if any actually believe Satan exists. While members chafe at being called hedonistic atheists and activists who are out to troll evangelicals… that is kind of the outsider reading of a group that prays to the concept of Milton’s Lucifer (they argue Satan had Jesus’ best interests at heart when telling him to eat something in the wilderness). In that way, the film documents all their genuinely good charitable works, as well as their fight against evangelist Christians, particularly in the South and Midwest, who perpetually attempt to blur the line between church and state in the U.S. Let’s just say every good ol’ boy government has to do some real soul-searching when Satanists come to town demanding that if a statue of the Ten Commandments goes up, so too must one of demonic deity Baphomet.
Yeah, I’m still not convinced they aren’t trolling all of us, but the doc at least makes it look like a friendship-building alliance of trolls that are doing some actual good. Hells bells.
Shia LaBeouf is aware that his off-screen reputation and media narrative is bigger than many of the films he plays in. This is perhaps one of the smaller reasons he sought creative reclamation in Honey Boy, an intimately personal film he writes and stars in, and which acts as a poignant self-portrait. It is also a wildly inventive film for both LaBeouf, the actor, and Alma Har’el, the director. Making her first narrative feature after several documentaries, she pulls from LaBeouf’s own truth to create a bittersweet fiction bathed in authenticity, which is all the more impressive since LaBeouf refuses to actually portray himself. A semi-autobiographical piece, Honey Boy is an open invitation to study LaBeouf’s childhood in which the actor embodies a version of his father. Technically the troubled child star at the heart of the film is named Otis Lort, played as a boy of 12-years-old by Noah Jupe and 22-years-old by Lucas Hedges at different points in the film. But Har’el and LaBeouf are not shy about us making the connection. The opening shot is Hedges’ budding movie star on the edge of a breakdown as he stands in a shot with a wire on his back, waiting to be ripped away into a hazy golden-hued sunset of carnage like a million Michael Bay paper heroes.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco
Do you love your city? This is a question Jimmie Fails asks two white city transplants on a bus during the third act of The Last Black Man in San Francisco. A dogged hero who is romantic to a fault, Jimmie is the eponymous African American who has seen one setback after another in achieving his dream of reclaiming his grandfather’s historic Frisco home on a hill. Disillusioned but not depressed, Jimmie cannot fathom why these two relatively affluent young women are complaining about how much they hate this overpriced town. You cannot hate a place unless you love it. It is for that reason there is nothing but love, even in its bitterest and most melancholic shadings, that comes through in The Last Black Man in San Francisco. A lyrical note of endearment to the Golden City, and one filled with words of anguish and betrayal too, the film is a revelation for director Joe Talbot and Jimmie Fails—both the real man and the character of the same name Fails portrays onscreen.
Late Night comedy has always been a boys’ club, no matter the generation. As the form has proliferated on cable and almost every broadcast network, the nightly hosts still tend to look the same with writers who once ran Harvard’s Lampoon or the like. It’s a deflating fact Mindy Kaling knows all too well having written on shows like The Officeand Saturday Night Live before finally running her own writer’s room on The Mindy Project. And it’s a fact she used to infuse her own script about the form to amusingly pointed effect in Late Night’s best moments… But while it is Kaling’s penchant for inside comedy baseball that sets up the punchline, the reason the film delivers on it—and its eight-figure price tag—is Emma Thompson.
Good teachers more than inspire; they make the foreboding seem fun. Be it science math, or hordes of undead zombies, as is the case in Little Monsters, problems are but calls to adventure. They also can formulate one of the genuinely happiest surprises at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Apparently inspired by the kindergarten teacher who writer-director Abe Forsythe says taught him to let go of his own anxieties for his five-year-old son, Little Monsters is an unexpected feel-good zombie comedy that is as equal parts The Magic School Bus as it is a grisly, R-rated undead slaughterfest stuffed with disemboweled guts and endangered goats. Obviously utilizing discordant elements, Forsythe ably creates a peculiar harmony of sunshine and carnage, particularly whenever Lupita Nyong’o picks up a ukulele and gets her Taytay on.
It is easy to draw a parallel between The Lodge and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, in no small part because both films rely on an enormous performance to ensnare its audience in a feeling of snowbound confusion. It is an open question throughout the film’s running time just exactly what is real and what might Grace be imagining, as well as if her hallucinations are actually supernatural—an engagement gift from a mother who still wants to spend Christmas with the family. However, the true ingenuity of the film is not its anecdotal similarities to Kubrick’s maddening chiller; it is how sleekly it reinvents the tropes of Gothic horror for modern indie sensibilities. With a slow boil from ice to fire that is increasingly familiar for fans of recent elevated horror, Fiala and Franz have found a covert way to rework the queasy disorientation of Gaslight for a new generation. It’s obvious someone is tormenting the characters in the film and making one or more parties think they’re mad, but just who is gaslighting whom?
The idea of following around Jeff Goldblum as Dr. Wallace Fiennes, delusional lobotomist and aged lothario, through a 1950s road trip sounds delightful. Instead it turns out to be dangerously turgid in Rick Alverson’s disappointing The Mountain. A fine example of a good idea and cast being squandered in a sea of indie pretensions, the picture tracks Wallace as he takes Andy (Tye Sheridan) under his wing after the boy’s father passes on. It’s implied that Wallace might have some sympathy for the lad since he previously may or may not have lobotomized Andy’s mentally ill mother, but either way, she is the lucky one.
An indulgent film that meanders around its predictable character beats of Goldblum sitting pantless in their motel rooms or Andy staring dispassionately (ever dispassionately) at the carnage wrought by Wallace’s hammer, the film never gets to where it’s going, even though the ultimate destination is obvious from the beginning. In the end though, the film is not a complete failure. If the goal is to give the cinematic sensation of a lobotomy, then the operation was a complete success.
The Nightingale is an expertly crafted film that loses its own way through the muck of fatiguing brutality and violence. The excess inflicted serves a thematic point that is potent enough to avoid the critique of being gratuitous, but Kent’s aesthetic is nonetheless needlessly cruel, repeating the same narrative hell over five rape scenes and multiple murders, including that of an infant. Kent’s impulse to create a queasy disgust with a symphony of torment is bold and initially breathtaking at instilling in audiences an inescapable helplessness, but the overall effect is withering after the film’s overlong running time. Never once resisting the urge to cut away from the repeated malevolence of its antagonists, the film indulges in every pained cry and terrorized countenance until the punishment of Aisling Franciosi’s Clare extends to the audience after an ultimately numbing 136 minutes. At a certain point, it is a wonder that Sam Claflin’s antagonist did not have a moustache to twirl in several scenes.
Gavin Hood’s Official Secrets has received a surprisingly mixed reception since its Sundance premiere. While admittedly an aesthetically dry production that might be more comfortable on HBO that playing alongside auteur visions in Park City, Official Secrets is nevertheless a gripping tale of post-9/11 hysteria, and the heroism of one woman: Katharine Gun.
As portrayed by Keira Knightley in her most raw and compelling performance since A Dangerous Method, Katharine is the British GCHQ whistleblower who revealed that the British government was cooperating with America’s NSA in 2002 to spy on and potentially blackmail other members of the UN Security Council in an effort to acquire a UN resolution for the impending Iraq War. Katharine perhaps naively believed that the U.S. and Britain would not invade Iraq without UN cover for what could (and arguably did) become war crimes. So she puts the interest of her country’s ability to know the truth over her government’s desire to keep secrets. The film’s unspooling of the fallout of Katharine’s decision has a number of riveting twists and turns—with none more white-knuckled than the price paid for a typo in The Guardian as part of a crackerjack subplot starring Matt Smith—but it always keeps the heavy price paid by Katharine in front and center.
By the time that Ralph Fiennes appears in the third act as the most morally righteous lawyer this side of Nuremberg, Official Secrets has succeeded at telling a still timely and principled true story. It might be straightforward, but sometimes that is the best way to win your case.
Allegory and farce can be a very thin line, and it’s one that is blurred for the worse in Alice Waddington’s visually sumptuous Paradise Hills. A kind of modernization of The Stepford Wives by way of storybook finishing school, Paradise Hills follows several girls condemned to an academy meant to “fix” these daughters of wealth into perfect wives and trust fund heirs.
With an enviable ensemble that includes Emma Roberts as Uma, the audience’s avatar who doesn’t want to marry her parents’ pick of wealthy bachelor, as well as Eiza González, Awkwafina, and Danielle Macdonald as the other “students” in elaborate white dresses, Paradise Hills is beset with talent (although Milla Jovovich is too blank to pull off the gravitas of the academy’s grand dame). Nevertheless, the film is flat instead of frightening and too stilted to be salvageable by its otherwise superior finale. Waddington includes gorgeous sets and costume design, and utilizes stunning cinematography by Josu Inchaustegui, but the effect is ultimately suffocating. Like too much frosting on a bland cake, Paradise Hills overloads the senses but leaves one feeling beleaguered afterward.
Shooting the Mafia
A life well-lived is a happy thing, even when it is surrounded by the bitterest of sadness. Such appears to be the case for Letizia Battaglia in Kim Longinotto’s Shooting the Mafia. An Italian photojournalist who at almost 84-years-old shows no signs of slowing down, Battaglia has spent a lifetime following her passions, which for about 20 years meant being on the frontline of combatting Cosa Nostra (the Mafia) in Sicily. An iconoclast in her time who left her husband to become a reporter and then a photographer at a local newspaper in Palermo, Battaglia documented the murders of dozens of people, from men deep in the Mafia to children who just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, witnessing one murder before becoming another themselves.
A major figure in southern Italy’s struggle to root out and minimize Cosa Nostra in the mid and late 20th century—after the Mafia had more or less controlled entire towns, like the very present Corleone, for hundreds of years—Letizia makes a fascinating documentary subject, even as the most harrowing moments in the fight (like the assassination of Judge Giovanni Falcone) sees her become merely a grieving witness. What might make the doc even more worthwhile though is how it traces the bending expectations of women in Italian culture from the post-World War II era, where Letizia attempted (and failed) to be a dutiful wife, to the present where she is currently dating a man 38 years her junior. Who says Sicily can’t change?
Stieg Larsson: The Man Who Played With Fire
Traditionally when one thinks of neighborhood violence inflicted by Nazis, it is in chilling black and white footage of a brick going through a window or assassinations in 1930s Germany. But as Stieg Larsson spent his life warning against, our past increasingly looks like our future. It’s a grim reality underscored to nightmarish effect in Stieg Larsson: The Man Who Played with Fire, a new Swedish documentary which premiered Friday at the Sundance Film Festival. Ostensibly a film about the enigmatic life of an ill-fated author—one who died before the success of “the Millennium Trilogy,” which most Americans know as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo books—the movie is much more fixated on Larsson’s own lifelong obsessions: such as the rise of far-right extremism and its shifting persistence. The testament to Larsson’s fear is the world we’re living in today, one that began forming in the margins long before Larsson’s untimely death in 2004. For instance, the film’s most disturbing events involve fellow writers for Larsson’s Swedish magazine, Expo, having a car bomb planted beneath the driver’s seat of their vehicle in the 1990s.
Them That Follow
Appalachia has a certain timeless affectation. As a North Carolinian, I can attest that events which occur in the shadow of the Smoky Mountains can take on a mythical aura as timely in 2019 as it might’ve been in 1819. Directors Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage use this mostly to their advantage in the primal melodrama, Them That Follow.
A measured film that takes its time to reveal its contours, Them That Follow is ultimately a love triangle occurring in a community seeped in deeply religious tradition. Tradition that is often not that romantic. Mara (Alice Englert) is the daughter of a fire and brimstone pastor named Lemuel (Walton Goggins). This community patriarch has specific ideas about how his flock should live and practice their faith—strictly without outside interference but with a plethora of snakes for serpent-handling prayers. He also has plans for his daughter to marry the respected Garret (Lewis Pullman) while also being oblivious that Mara is secretly in love with local boy Augie (Thomas Mann). What follows is a sweltering tale of unchaste rendezvouses, unwanted pregnancies, and the downside of handling poisonous snakes in a House of God or otherwise.
Them That Follows is a taut 98-minute exercise in melodrama brought to life by a spirited cast, including Englert, Goggins, and a quietly ferocious Olivia Colman, who plays Augie’s mother. She is a woman that sees more than she lets on, and she’d be a force to be reckoned with if not for fear of the Holy Ghost’s invisible serpent constricting around her throat, even during a cataclysmic third act which delves in just enough body horror (and snake slithering) to make the inherent soapiness of the plot still dramatically satisfying.
In 2019, being different and sensitive is celebrated, but for anyone over the age of maybe 20, it’s easy to remember that wasn’t always the case. This is a fact Troop Zero has nostalgic fun with in its family-friendly celebration of being different. By jumping back in time to 1977 Georgia, the directing team of Bert and Bertie chronicle the unlikely Birdie girl scout troop led by a precocious Christmas Flint (Mckenna Grace). Desperate to form a last-minute troop who can compete in a Georgian jamboree—where the winner will get to transmit a message out into space and allegedly to alien life—she convinces a group of fellow multicultural rejects to get their scouting on.
The film features the familiar childhood adventure beats of disparate personalities learning to coalesce around a rocking campfire singalong (in this case David Bowie’s “Rebel, Rebel”) as well as sticking it to the posh mean girl archetypes in a food fight. There’s even the sequence where they let their freak flag fly in a positively demented (and joyful) third act. But there is something welcome to this formula given how rare it is now to see movies meant for children where the protagonists are everyday kids living in something resembling reality. Rather than superheroes or kids transported to a CG-fantasia, these girls live in something approximating the world of its target audience, albeit one without modern cellphones or internet apps. Then again that might just make the film more enticing. Bert and Bertie imbue the movie with the forgotten lethargy of golden hued summer days from an era where children didn’t have constant overstimulation.
Of course what really makes Troop Zero a cut above its clichés is Viola Davis as the reluctant troop mother who is recruited by Christmas but who personally remains as far from a jolly disposition as the film’s July setting. Her rivalry with the community’s adult queen bee played by Allison Janney is a well-worn echo, but one we could’ve spent hours watching reverberate one barb at a time.
As a sign of the changing times, one of the most demented and amusing Sundance offerings premiered merely a week in Park City before going global on Netflix. Which is personally a disappointment since it gave me very little time to shout from the rooftops that Dan Gilroy’s Velvet Buzzsaw is a kitschy blast before an algorithm took over that duty. Still, Buzzsaw is a whole lot of wacky fun.
Cross-pollinating highbrow with lowbrow, Velvet Buzzsaw is Gilroy’s reunion with the dream team that made Nightcrawler such an appealing nightmare. Jake Gyllenhaal is the leading man again, this time in a wicked sendup of the art world in general and pompous critics in particular. A bespectacled snob named Morf, he has delusions of “furthering the realm” of art one bitchy review at a time. Yet Gyllenhaal’s Nightcrawler co-star, Rene Russo, enters in a new role as Rhodora Haze, a glorified middle man for art buyers. Her new protégé Josephina (Zawe Ashton), who also happens to be one of Morf’s multiple bisexual partners, “discovered” a hidden genius living in her apartment. And by “discovered,” I mean after learning that the recently dead man upstairs willed all of his paintings be immediately destroyed, she stole them to sell as the masterworks of an ignored visionary. He might’ve been other things too… like a murderer who dabbled his own blood into the oils of every single piece.
Sure enough, his art takes on a life of its own and every profiteer in this world, including the vocally enthusiastic Morf, is becoming a target for supernatural assassination. It’s a gonzo premise that honestly squanders its early potential as a delicious skewering of art world affectations in favor of a graceless slasher movie that is neither very scary or artful in its buckets of gore. But damned if it isn’t addictive, if for no other reason than how efficiently sarcastic Gilroy’s screenplay is, how pitch perfect its sidesteps into dark comedy sight gags tend to be, and how committed every cast member is at building this lunatic world in need of a ghostly wrecking ball. Plus it has created the aspiration for millions of critics to “further the realm.” So in that sense, Morf’s already succeeded. What a legacy.