The Sundance Film Festival: Day four

Monday, February 4, 2019 - 2:36pm

NOSELL

Netflix

On day four of Sundance, I noticed a pattern in my note-taking. If I enjoyed a movie, I would only write a few details in my journal. If I didn’t enjoy a movie, I would scribble down criticisms like a madman and sometimes doodle during the more cringe-worthy scenes. This dichotomy became no more apparent than when I saw Lulu Wang’s excellent dramedy “The Farewell,” Joe Berlinger’s awful Ted Bundy biopic “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Vile and Evil” and Joe Talbot’s immensely cool “The Last Black Man in San Francisco.”

For “The Farewell” and “The Last Black Man,” my notes were minimal. I simply relished in watching both movies with the rest of the crowd, who were as receptive as I was to each film’s moments of humor and melancholy. As for “Extremely Wicked,” my notes took up two pages. I tried looking around to see if there were other audience members who were just as baffled as I was, but to my surprise, everyone seemed engaged with what was essentially a watered-down romanticization of one of America’s most notable serial killers.

The movie theater etiquette was much better today than the two days before, with the exception of the guy sitting next to me during “The Farewell,” who took out his phone at least five times to text someone, look up who was in the movie (wait until the credits, bro!) and open and close Hinge. After boiling with fury in my seat and waiting for the right moment, I politely whispered to him to turn off his phone. His response? “It’s a press screening. You can take out your phone.” Sigh. The audacity!

As the day went on, Sundance-goers seemed more and more exhausted. The general vibe of weariness while waiting in line for each screening was apparent: people glued to their phones, fatigue plastered on their faces, clearly worn out by the constant standing, sitting and visual stimuli. It was only after each screening that the energy shifted into something more excited. Crowds of critics would stand outside in the hallways of the theater, chatting and exchanging interpretations with intense vigor on what they just saw. Even when the hours and hours of watching movies felt like a chore, the post-screening conversations would beg to differ. 

 

‘The Farewell’:

Happiness is too simple a word to describe how I felt watching Lulu Wang’s delightful sophomore effort “The Farewell.” Adapted by Wang from a real-life story she narrated on NPR’s “This American Life,” this film is truly a phenomenal feat, the best kind of dramedy where joy and grief are intertwined to complement one another rather than exist adjacently. By avoiding the cliché trappings of intergenerational stories — rigid immigrant parents vs. assimilated children — “The Farewell” seeks to understand how secrets and lies are sometimes the only way we can protect those we love most.

As dramatic as that illustration seems, “The Farewell” produces plenty of laughs, most of which stem from the main character Billi (an outstanding Awkwafina, “Ocean’s 8”), a wisecracking Brooklyn-based writer who discovers that her grandma Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhou) has fallen ill with terminal cancer. The twist: Nai Nai has no clue, and Billi’s parents (Tzi Ma, “Arrival” and Diana Lin, “Australia Day”) intend to keep it that way. Feeling guilty and helpless, Billi follows her parents to China to spend time with Nai Nai and the rest of her extended family, all of whom are aware of Nai Nai’s condition, but decide to use Billi’s hapless cousin’s wedding as the reason for why they are all gathered together for the first time in years.        

Rather than take a more farcical path, “The Farewell” focuses on exploring the tension between the illusory safeguard of happiness with the reality of sadness. Billi’s multifaceted ensemble of a family is prone to this emotional strain, diverging from a sad subject whenever it appears in conversation over dinner. The suppression of deep-seated sorrow, especially in a family setting, is something that almost everyone can relate to on a certain level, but through the lens of the Chinese-American experience, it takes on a much greater weight. Growing up in America, Billi knows exactly why it’s so wrong to lie to her grandmother about her illness. But as she learns during her time in China, she recognizes that it’s customary to keep this kind of information away from loved ones until the final moments of their life so the ill don’t have to carry that burden. It’s a revelation that’s as devastating for Billi as it is for the audience.

Despite the bleakness in this tradition, “The Farewell” is skillful enough to find the humor in the quiet suffering Billi and her family are forced to endure. We see it during Billi’s cupping therapy session at a Chinese spa, where her aunt tells her that “a little pain is normal, otherwise it doesn’t work.” We witness it during a visit to her grandfather’s grave, where Billi and her family present offerings that include a variety of snacks, flower petals and a cigarette, even though her grandfather had allegedly quit smoking while alive. We observe it at her cousin’s extravagant wedding banquet, where her uncle delivers a heartbreaking monologue about Nai Nai, bookending his tearful speech with an equally comical and poignant irony: “Sorry, I’m just so happy.”

It cannot be emphasized enough how incredible Awkwafina’s performance is in “The Farewell.” The up-and-coming actress/rapper from Queens made huge strides in two of the biggest summer movies from last year, “Ocean’s 8” and “Crazy Rich Asians.” Here, Awkwafina continues to flex her comedic sensibilities, while showing off her dramatic range with superb naturalism. Zhou also provides a beautiful, measured performance as Nai Nai. For a first-time actress, she excels in her role, balancing a sensitive earnestness with infectiously adorable charm. Her on-screen relationship with Awkwafina is also quite sweet and authentic, their intimate banter making it seem as if they were actually related.

Though it may check off all the boxes of a Sundance dramedy, “The Farewell” does everything in its glorious power to transcend that expectation. It’s a film for everyone, but also manages to infuse a compelling amount of specificity into its universal story. Not to overhype the film, but I’ll be damned if “The Farewell” isn’t nominated for Best Picture at the 2020 Oscars.

 

‘Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile’:

True crime documentarian Joe Berlinger’s narrative debut derives its laborious title from a quote used against nefarious serial killer Ted Bundy for committing a series of brutal killings between 1974 and 1978. But after seeing the film in full, perhaps it should be retitled to “Extremely Dumb, Shockingly Inept and Vile” not only for romanticizing Ted Bundy — who, mind you, kidnapped, murdered and raped a multitude of women — to an absurd degree, but also failing to capture what makes the much-talked-about subject so complex and fascinating in the first place.

Aside from the gross glamorization of Bundy’s image, “Extremely Wicked” is just another oversimplified, by-the-numbers biopic, fulfilling every single possible facet of the formula you can think of. There’s a predictable claim to fame and inevitable downfall, a way too on-the-nose soundtrack, an excess of exposition explained through archival footage and dramatized interviews and, worst of all, strangely generic dialogue for events that actually took place.

In its rushed first act, “Extremely Wicked” introduces us to Bundy (Zac Efron, “Neighbors”) on the day preceding his execution in 1989 before transitioning to a Seattle bar 20 years earlier where he meets and falls in love with single mother Liz (Lily Collins, “To the Bone”). While Collins and Efron have decent chemistry, their relationship is established a little too quickly, condensing the time between when they first meet to when they start living together to less than a few minutes. Bundy’s transformation from regular nice-guy law student to murder suspect also occurs within a minimal timespan, and while the efficiency of this shift in his character certainly helps with the pacing, the lack of actual dimension given to Bundy and his romance with Liz makes it more difficult to stay interested.

The film ostensibly is supposed to take place from the perspective of Liz, who, like Bundy, was in complete denial that he carried out any of the heinous acts he was accused of. Strangely, however, “Extremely Wicked” dedicates more of its screen time to Bundy himself, leaving only a string of scenes with Liz, whose sullen reaction to Bundy’s growing reputation as a ruthless felon is limited to crying in the shower, drinking and smoking all day, staring somberly at the TV news and getting mad at her disposable character of a best friend Joanna (Angela Sarafyan, “The Promise”) for forcing Liz to face the truth.

Though it may be accurate that Bundy lured his victims using his charisma and supposedly good looks, attaching Efron and his handsomeness to the real-life serial killer feels somewhat distracting, like something out of a melodrama (Penn Badgley in “You,” anyone?). Transforming Bundy into an ultra-appealing hunk is an intriguing attempt at making the audience sympathize with his character, suggesting that any hottie with a naughty body could have malicious intentions. Still, despite Efron’s best efforts in embodying Bundy, from his cunning personality to his luscious head of hair, the dreadful emptiness of “Extremely Wicked” outweighs his serviceable performance by a long shot.

Buried within the murky mess of the film’s skeletal plot are a few fleeting — emphasis on “fleeting” — moments of genuinely captivating entertainment. A goateed, very good John Malkovich (“Bird Box”) plays Edward Cowart, the snarky judge who presided over Bundy’s final trial in Florida, and delivers some of the very rare great lines of dialogue during the climactic third act. Bundy’s brief escapes from his jail sentences are fun to watch too, so much so that they almost make you forget just how abhorrent the film is as a whole. The final confrontation between Liz and Bundy on the day of his death sentence is really the only true moment in the entire 108 minutes of “Extremely Wicked” where a great deal of tension is palpable, in that we actually get to see, through flashback, Bundy carry out one of his many documented killings.

Then again, why does the movie try to make us sympathize with Bundy? In addition to narrativizing Bundy’s experience in the public through the guise of a glitzy thriller, “Extremely Wicked” provides no solid justification for why we should spend our time following Bundy, no plausible end goal in questioning what motivated him to be so cruel and relentless. Some might find better answers in the recently released Netflix docuseries “Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes,” which was also produced by Berlinger, or even FX’s “American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson,” a much more well-developed and layered drama that focused on a different famous alleged murderer who consistently denied the terrible things he was accused of. If “Extremely Wicked” proves to be a box office success once it’s released in theaters, it won’t be because of the promise of understanding Bundy on a more psychological level, but rather, it will be solely due to the undeniable appeal of Efron’s star power, a reality as unsettling as Bundy’s impact on the cultural consciousness.

 

‘The Last Black Man in San Francisco’:

We tell stories to survive, to inspire and perhaps most importantly, to give ourselves a sense of purpose. The tale Jimmie H. Fails IV keeps telling himself in Joe Talbot’s stunning and surreal “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is that his grandfather — the self-proclaimed “first Black man in San Francisco” — built a grand Victorian estate in the heart of the city’s Mission district with his own two hands in 1946. As a skateboarding, unemployed drifter who grew up in a group home, Fails takes care of the house even though he’s not supposed to, re-painting the windowsills whenever the actual owners of the place are out of sight. Much like a historian, Fails seeks to ensure that the memory of the place is not forgotten. But once he inhabits the house after the tenants leave unexpectedly one afternoon, Fails realizes that there are limits to what he can afford. As one character in the film puts it, “You never really own shit.”

Like a Tyler, the Creator music video directed with the smooth, humanistic eye of Barry Jenkins, “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is an awe-inspiring visual treat that doubles as both a takedown of Bay Area gentrification and a remarkable story about searching for a sense of belonging in a rapidly changing society. Based on Fails’s own lived-in experience, “The Last Black Man” places the first-time actor at the center of his own story, allowing him to recreate the fantasy of living in a place that holds such a deeply personal connection.

While occupying the house to avoid buying it from the local realtor Clayton Newsom (Finn Wittrock, “La La Land”), Jimmie takes his aspiring playwright best friend Montgomery (an excellent Jonathan Majors, “White Boy Rick”) along for the ride. The two transform the home’s empty spaces — beautifully lit and photographed by cinematographer Adam Newport-Berra — into a place for reading, sleeping, eating, cleaning and tinkering with the furniture they brought with them.

As he starts to make a home for himself, the emotional root of Jimmie’s incessant need to find a place to call his own becomes clearer and clearer. He waits for the bus every day, only for it not to show up, forcing him to skateboard to his destination. He has an estranged relationship with his deadbeat dad (Rob Morgan, “Godless”), who makes bank from packaging and selling pirated DVDs. And during one of the many mesmerizing scenes in the film, he has a fateful, short-lived reunion with his recovering addict mother. Through these encounters, “The Last Black Man” reveals just how wide the schism is between the ideal world Fails envisions for himself and the messy, unkempt world he lives in.

Talbot and Fails’s strong collaborative spirit is a testament to the film’s emotionally rich template. Underneath its cleverly constructed narrative is an oddball sense of humor brought to life by the eclectic cast of characters, each of whom suffers from their own set of circumstances they’ve been given. Majors is particularly exceptional as Montgomery, whose eccentric observations on everyday life stir up both laughs and deep contemplation. He extracts the teasing insults thrown around by the young men who loiter around his neighborhood and turns them into fodder for his play, which he performs during the film’s earth-shattering climax. 

Beyond its investigation of the emotional and physical architecture of Jimmie’s universe, “The Last Black Man” is most effective in its display of sumptuous, arresting visuals. Brilliant colors saturate every scene, the camera enhancing every detail of clothing, every inch of skin, every element of San Francisco’s weirdness. The camera glides across The Foggy City’s landscape with sweeping long takes, but settles itself nicely when capturing its subjects through intimate close-ups and medium shots.

By the time it reaches its elegiac ending, “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” has already established itself as one of the most ambitious and original indies of the year. It wrestles with challenging questions about how we are supposed to move past the mythological fables that define our own lives, but also manages to convey a beautiful memoir about friendship, identity and reclamation.