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Culture / Entertainment

Annette Bening’s Oscar Power, Zac Efron’s Hot Ted Bundy and Keira Knightley’s Spy Turn

Lasting Impressions From Sundance — and the Big Movie Winners Are...

BY // 02.05.19

PARK CITY, Utah — The Sundance Film Festival ended its 10 day run Sunday on a high note with studios and distributors paying record-breaking acquisition prices. Several films are sure to have wide audience appeal and others are potential Oscar nominees.

The 2019 Grand Jury Dramatic Prize was awarded to Clemency, the riveting story of a prison warden (Alfre Woodard) who oversees death row executions and forms a connection with a man she is charged with executing. While Woodard’s performance has been touted as Oscar worthy, the film has yet to find a distributor, possibly due to its length and subject matter. One Child Nation, a disturbing documentary about China’s one-child policy (which lasted from 1979 to 2015), nabbed the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary.

The Audience Award for Best US Documentary went to Knock Down the House , which chronicles four female political neophytes as they run for Congress against incumbents. The director, Rachel Lears, had the extraordinary fortune to select current political star Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as one of her subjects before she was a household name. The film with be shown on Netflix later this year.

Brittany Runs a Marathon, a comedy about a millennial who uses running and training for a marathon as a way to turn her life around captured the Audience Award for Best US Drama. Amazon acquired the film and plans a theatrical release this summer.

Sundance Standouts

I saw 23-plus of the Festival’s 121 feature films. I liked all but three, which is a significant improvement from prior years when many of the films were too amateurish, had narrow audience appeal, or bad acting or a bad script. The following are films to watch for:

Untouchable is the well-crafted and engrossing story of the rise and fall of film mogul, Harvey Weinstein. Although the film could be summarized in four words, “Harvey Weinstein is evil,” there is a deeper age old story — how women and those in subservient roles are easy prey for those in power, and how the system is complicit in letting it happen.

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Weinstein preyed on young women seeking a chance at stardom. Those who resisted or confronted him were threatened, harassed and smeared. Although much of the information is not new, seeing the victims tell their story (several for the first time) gives context, and frankly horror to this sordid tale.

The film is in negotiations for a distributor.

The Report , a true life political thriller, stars Adam Driver as a Congressional staff member who in 2009, while working for Senator Dianne Feinstein (played superbly by Annette Bening) heads up a Senate investigation into the CIA’s use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” during the aftermath of 9/11. The film’s vibe is similar to the 2015 movie Spotlight, as Driver gets thwarted by the CIA and staffs of Presidents Bush and Obama, but ends up being a hero

The film does not shy away from what “enhanced interrogation” looked like, and the realistic scenes of waterboarding, sleep deprivation and torture are horrific, especially seeing the reports that it was not effective.

The film is suspenseful — will Feinstein do the right thing and disclose the harrowing information her staff member has discovered? At the Q&A of the film, Bening said that she shared the film with Senator John McCain before he died (McClain was a good friend of her husband Warren Beatty) and he was very pleased.

With an all-star cast of Jon Hamm as Obama’s chief of staff, Matthew Rhys as a New York Times reporter and Maura Tierney, Jennifer Morrison and Michael C. Hall as staunch C.I.A. loyalists, this is sure to be a hit, with many tabbing Bening as a 2020 Oscar contender. Amazon acquired the movie for $14 million, and it will be released in theaters for award consideration

In Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, Zac Efron stars as serial killer Ted Bundy, as seen through the eyes of his girlfriend Liz Kendall (played by Lily Collins). Efron’s Bundy comes across as an All-American guy who cooks breakfast for his girlfriend and loves her daughter, despite killing more than 30 women.

The film is gripping and suspenseful, in part because the audience does not know if he will turn on his girlfriend, or if she will witness him in action. Neither happens, yet it is horrifying how close he came to either successfully escaping or getting away with his crimes.

Zac Efron Ted Bundy
Zac Efron’s Ted Bundy turn is dramatic and somewhat controversial.

There was lots of criticism of the film at Sundance, claiming Efron made Bundy too hot, handsome and likeable. Truth be told, many serial killers are your guy next door, which is why they are able to elude detection for so long.

Zac Efron is superb in the role. I was somewhat mixed on the film because some of the dialogue was too contrived and the girlfriend’s part was wimpy and repetitive (she spends much of the film drinking, smoking and hanging up on him). As the credits rolled, the actual courtroom scenes played with the dialogue I found so contrived.

Because of the topic and cast (Jim Parsons plays the district attorney) expect a lot a buzz and big audiences. Netflix bought the film and will show it later this year.

Movies, More Movies

Other outstanding documentaries that will most likely be streaming later this year include Mike Wallace is Here (in negotiations), about the famed 60 Minutes correspondent; Ask Dr. Ruth (which will be shown on Hulu), about the now 90-year-old sex therapist Ruth Westheimer; Miles Davis: King of Cool (acquired by PBS to be shown in July), chronicling the life of legendary jazz trumpeter Miles Davis; and David Crosby: Remember My Name (acquired by Sony Pictures) about legendary singer songwriter David Crosby.

Two worthwhile dramas include After the Wedding, starring Julianne Moore and Michelle Williams in a familial drama about a rich businesswoman (Moore) who makes a mysterious bequest to the head of an orphanage in India (Williams) and the man (Billy Crudup) who surprisingly connects them. The script is a little sappy but it is a joy to watch Moore and Williams work.

Negotiations are still underway for a distributor.

Official Secrets follows the true story of a British intelligence officer (Keira Knightley) who tried to stop the invasion of Iraq by leaking a document that exposes an illegal US-UK spying operation. This is a similar but quieter film than the Sundance film The Report which also chronicles government wrongdoing.. Official Secrets was acquired by IFC Films and will be distributed later this year.

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