Piers Marchant at Sundance: Day Three

January 27, 2019

Sundance 2019: Day 3


Number of Films: 3
Best Movie of the Day: Ms. Purple

Ms. Purple: Justin Chon’s film is elegantly constructed, with a beautiful visual palette, but all this production beauty is intentionally constructed against the ungainly emotional messiness of the protagonists. Kasie (Tiffany Chu) is a beautiful young woman, deeply devoted to her dying father, and working at a high-end karaoke bar, where she has to pretend to be interested in horrible, rich men, including one who keeps her on retainer as a paid companion. Despite the emotional toll it costs her, the money is good enough for her to care for her father at home and not shuttle him off to hospice. Carey, (Teddy Lee), her younger brother, meanwhile was thrown out of his father’s house at 15, and has never really recovered. Amiable but feckless, he lives hand to mouth until Kasie calls him in need of further assistance with their father. Chon‘s film plays a bit like Kenneth Lonergan’s You Can Count on Me, though substituting elegant visual poetics in place of Lonergan’s rich dialogue. Not everything quite works, There are more than a couple of more hamfisted contrasts of the characters’ lives, but both Chu and Lee are so strong and likable, it helps smooth over some of the visible cracks. They are believable as siblings, warped and frayed by their childhood past, and Chon’s eye seems acutely trained on the city of L.A. itself, depicting a sprawling city with no central middle, and, like Kasie and Carey little to hold it together. 

The Lodge: the film, about a brother and sister forced to spend a long, snowed-in weekend with the girlfriend of their father, whom they despise, has gotten compared to last year’s break-out horror flick, Hereditary, which, stylistically makes a certain amount of obvious sense: both films rely on a persuasive atmospheric sort of unsettling; both factor doll house imagery and metaphor; and both owe a fair amount to Kubrick. But whereas Hereditary spun a complex story that unraveled in off-kilter bursts — all quiet and still before a sudden shocking thud, Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala‘s film rarely rises above its tempered nature. The story is also a good deal more half-cocked, though it might well have held together decently enough but for its Scooby-Doo-like reveal near the end, which really just makes one sorry to have given it such a benefit of the doubt beforehand. The set-up depends on so many bad and unlikely decisions by the kid’s’ father, the film loses narrative steam, and its methodic pace starts to work against it — like an intricate puzzle that turns out to have an overly simple solution. 

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile: The title comes from a direct quote by a judge, at the sentencing portion of the trial of infamous serial killer Ted Bundy, the event of which had become a complete media circus. The adjectives are used to describe the horrific nature of Bundy’s crimes – over a nightmarish span of several years, Bundy kidnapped, raped, and killed women at a haunting rate – but Joe Berlinger’s film isn’t really about the horror Bundy perpetuated, or the lurid nature of his crimes. It’s about the other bodies left in his wake. In his domestic life, he got to be the handsome, charismatic fiancé to a single mother, Liz (Lily Collins), working his way through law school and promising her a life to come of joy and domestic bliss. Bundy, played here by Zac Efron, (graduating cum laude from High School Musical at last), was one of the original “star” serial killers, acquiring (mainly female) fans as if he were Rod Stewart. As Efron plays him, Ted was preternaturally calm, stable, and caring for Liz and her young daughter (whom he calls, playfully, “Monkey” as he swings her around the living room). In fact, we never really see the edge of his primordial rage until the last confrontation scene between he and Liz, with him behind glass. You can understand why Berlinger would be intrigued in going this route – the world has seen enough gory aftermath scenes of serial killer carnage for a while – and it would seem logical to focus more on Liz, who had no idea what her partner was capable of and spent years in tight denial of it. Only, Berlinger doesn’t go terribly deep on Liz, like as to the rest of the world, Bundy himself is the main attraction. We spend far more time with Ted, dealing with his various trials, and escapes, then we ever do with Liz, or, literally, any of his surviving victims. The result is a film that feels better in theory than in practice. Berlinger, an award-winning documentary filmmaker, has also made a doc of the killer (“The Ted Bundy Tapes” on Netflix), and it must be said, as solid as Efron is, it would be a better bet to skip through this preliminaries and just go to the source in the first place. 

Tomorrow: We start early with The Report; try like hell to jump into The Farewell; check out The Last Black Man in San Francisco; and close it out with Velvet Buzzsaw. 

Into the frigid climes and rarefied thin air of the spectacular Utah Mountains, I’ve arrived in order to document some of the sense and senselessness of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Over the next week, armed with little more than a heavy parka and a bevy of blank reporter’s notebooks, I’ll endeavor to watch as many movies as I can and report my findings. 

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