The excess of Sundance can be a bit much. For a journalist, the number of emails received about brands and parties is equal to the emails about films. You can wander down Main Street in Park City and get a make-over and a massage with a solid lotion sphere called Frank & Shea (“the name is like a monster, but for health”) while listening to a panel on women in film. Or you can hear a pitch about a brand of water favored by Bill Gates and Chuck Norris that allegedly has more antioxidants than blueberries and saves on vet bills. And the conversations! “We had to spend it all. I was desperately searching for a $400 bottle of wine,” said one woman to her colleagues.
With luxury and expense accounts backgrounding the social justice gems, the comedy of Dan Gilroy’s art world parody Velvet Buzzsaw, which opens in Miami at (where else?) Art Basel, actually fell somewhat flat. We at Sundance were living what the film was mocking: “Pop and cinema and economics,” says the omnisexual art critic played by Jake Gyllenhaal, while looking at a giant sphere and an animatronic sculpture called Hoboman. In my audience, the film played more like real-estate porn (ahhs were heard during a scene at a mountain retreat owned by Rene Russo’s art dealer) than as satire.
Velvet Buzzsaw is a buffet of delightful things (sex, humor, beauty, pecs, Toni Collette, and Gyllenhaal doing one of his funny-voiced character performances) about the art world profiting off the paintings of a recently deceased murderer, who had requested that his art be destroyed at his death. The film, whether viewed at a mountain ski resort or on Netflix (coming this Friday), feels like a glamorous corporate event that should be fun but isn’t. All the party favors are there, but these never gel into a sense of vivacity. It doesn't have a mood of its own—it's just got an auctioneer's flashy upsell.
Another parallel Gilroy's film has to Sundance, and Hollywood in general lately, is the movie’s theme of profiting off the lives of bad men, from con men (see: the Fyre docs) to serial killers like Ted Bundy. Joe Berlinger, who recently brought The Ted Bundy Tapes to Netflix, premiered his new fiction film about Bundy at Sundance this week. In Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, Zac Efron plays Bundy as a sporty sociopath. The film itself is clunky, particularly in the 1970s costumes and music cues, which may be due to Berlinger having a background in documentary, not narrative. But the core idea of the film is unusual and illuminating. Unlike in a typical slasher/serial killer flick, the horrific images are not seen here until the end. Instead, we see Bundy through the eyes of his longtime girlfriend, Liz, and the seductive charm of sociopaths is emphasized. Efron is good, yet this isn’t quite the breakout performance he is due. He switches on and off, from humor to menace. Some of his goofiest antics seem unlikely and specifically designed to humanize, until the real Bundy footage in the credits sequence shows they were lifted directly from reality. But the comparison does Efron no favors. One can see that in the real Bundy, menace and goofiness were always present as one, in the same movements and glances, rather than in the Jekyll and Hyde way Efron dishes out these personality traits.
Another film about romantic hell is the strongest in Sundance so far: Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir. It stars Honor Swinton-Byrne as Julie, a privileged film student who falls in love with a fascinating heroin addict (Tom Burke) in 1980s London. Swinton-Byrne’s real-life mother, Tilda Swinton, plays her mom, and produced this film. But mother and daughter could not be more different in face shape or performance style, as least in this film. Swinton seems otherworldly, somewhat arch and fey, while Swinton-Byrne is totally naturalistic and hesitant. She’s perfect as a naive young woman slowly ruined by falling into a sparkly love trap with the wrong man. What’s most shocking about the film, though, is its disinclination to hide signs of privilege. Julie is a Knightsbridge girl who does her grocery shopping at Harrods. Everything that Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile gets wrong about period details, The Souvenir gets exactly right. Julie’s apartment is perfectly appointed good taste, so much simplicity with doses of genuine luxury. Rather than making fun of money, as in Velvet Buzzsaw, here it’s a reality that feels raw and almost obscene; we shouldn't be able to see this much luxury. Restraint and taste are also used in the simplicity of shots and scenes, which slowly add up to an emotional gut punch. The Souvenir II, with Swinton-Byrne and Robert Pattinson, is already planned. After this introduction to the well-regarded Hogg’s style, I can’t wait for it.