Here are my short, pithy, mostly useless reviews of ten films I saw at Sundance. Ratings are out of 10 stars. (I reserve the right to change these stars at any time.) Check out Variety for more thorough reviews, most of which I disagree with, and all of which contains gigantic spoilers. Based-on-a-true story was the clear theme of the festival.
A Futile and Stupid Gesture (biopic)
Will Forte is what Martin Mull would have looked like at 27 (#insidejoke). They both play Doug Kenney, the creator of National Lampoon--in different dimensions. It's a loving tribute that makes the medium the message by sending up the biopic in a National Lampoon sort of way (despite what Variety thinks, the filmmakers got that right). A lot of actors playing a lot of famous people (Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, Gilda Radner, Harold Ramis, Lorne Michaels, etc.) without ever trying to look like their real-life counterpart. Domhnall Gleeson is brilliant as Kenney's writing partner Henry Beard (apparently, he wrote all the LOTR puns, which you will get to see if you watch it on Netflix). 7 stars.
The Catcher Was a Spy (biopic)
Paul Rudd plays Moe Berg, a catcher for the Boston Red Sox, who had graduate degrees, knew seven languages, and volunteered to become a spy to keep the Germans from developing an atomic bomb in the early 1940s. Ok. Sure. It's pretty fun, actually, and Rudd is one of my favorites. 6 stars.
White Rabbit (based on the work of a real person)
LA-based, Korean-American performance artist Vivian Bang tries to get a dialogue going between the Korean and Black communities and mistakes one woman's friendliness and transparent t-shirts for love. Millennials. 5 stars.
Actual outlaw country singer and Merle Haggard wannabe Blaze Foley falls in love with Maebe Funke. A good story, well-done by Ethan Hawke. Amazing music performed by actual singer and first-time actor Ben Dickey as Blaze (he won the Sundance best actor award.. which I totally called) and actual singer and experienced actor Charlie Sexton as Townes Van Zant. I've been listening to Blaze's album Live at the Austin Outhouse and Merle Haggard for the past few days. 8 stars. (I'm going to go ahead and call Dickey's nomination for the Oscar right now. Probably the only Oscar-worthy performance I saw.)
Clara's Ghost (loosely based on the Elliott family)
The guy under the seats had kids and moved to a haunted mansion in Connecticut. His real life daughter Bridey wrote and directed this movie, in which she cast her entire family, in which former-child-star daughters bring over the kid from The Sixth Sense for a crazy night of drinking and attention whoring. You just know someone's going to get lost, wandering naked in the woods, but who will it be? 7 stars (though I'll grant that's probably too high for most people)
Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot (biopic)
Alcoholic John Callahan (Joaquin Phoenix) gets in a car driven by a drunk Jack Black and ends up paralyzed. He finally discovers AA sponsor and life coach Jonah Hill, becomes a cartoonist, and learns how to forgive himself while falling in love with his physical therapist Mara Rooney. 6 stars (because Gus Van Sant). Would have been higher, but it's slow in the middle and there's too many close ups of Joaquin's face.
An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn
Finally. The opposite of a true story. This one is completely bonkers. It's set in either the 70s when everything-Scotland was in, or in Scotland where most people have American or New Zealand accents. It takes so many turns that you wonder how you got to the end from the beginning. Here are just a few completely disjointed things that I loved: Jemaine Clement is a terrible hit man, Craig Robinson is.. Frankenstein?.. and his apparent creator is Matt Berry (Douglas Reynholm in the IT Crowd!), Aubrey Plaza has a secret, and there's a ton of plaid and inexplicable Aberdeen references. Finally, the greatest question of all: Is Beverly a man's or a woman's name? I'll leave that up to you. 7 stars.
The only Midnight series film I saw. A suburban Arizona man has a nervous breakdown and goes on a gory killing spree when he realizes he's going to lose his house during the housing crisis of 2008-09. Here's the twist, though: That man is Danny McBride. In all his Danny McBride-ness. I've never felt some bad for laughing at something so awful. 6 stars. (This sort of has the same genre-blending problems as Colossal, though it's ultimately a lot tighter than the latter.)
US Documentary winner. Documents the efforts of Kailash Satyarthi, an anti-child-slavery activist who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014. He's doing God's work, for sure, and we get to follow him and his team as they raid child-slave-labor factories and sting child traffickers in India. We also get to see some of his school that helps rescued children transition back to freedom, which is tougher than I would have guessed. I can't rate this because the subject matter dwarfs any criticism of the film. Please pay attention to the origins of the things you buy, people.
The Miseducation of Cameron Post (based on a book)
US Dramatic winner. Jack Donaghy's nemesis (Chloë Grace Moretz) gets caught fooling around with the prom queen and is subsequently sent to a gay conversion camp by her Evangelical stepmom. I actually like Variety's take here, which is basically that it's important subject matter, but it's treated without much nuance in this film. I loved the characters she encounters at God's Promise (that's the name of the camp). But otherwise, this film says exactly what you would expect, and hopefully, exactly what you would say about conversion therapy. Also, there's pot being hidden in a prosthetic leg... so there's that. Surprised that it won; it's not as good as Blaze. I'll give it 6 stars.
Bonus. Best story I heard at the festival (at the last screening, the woman sitting next to me told me this story):
Woman "Do you ever watch Game of Thrones?"
Woman: "Well, there's this actor, Peter Dinkel or something." [holds her hand about knee height]
Me: "Peter Dinklage."
Woman: "Yes. Well he sat in front of me at a movie a few days ago. And at first I was really excited because I knew I'd be able to see over his head. But then, it turns out that he has a tall sitting height."
Me: "I'm sorry.. a what?"
Woman: "A tall sitting height. So, I was surprised that he still sort of blocked my view. I was going to tell him that he has a tall sitting height after the movie--I thought he would get a kick out of that--but then I thought that might be weird to just say."
Me: "Yeah. Probably."