If you’re trying to see as many movies as you can at Sundance AND writing regular online reports on what you’re seeing AND filing copy for the print paper AND spending time on the phone rearranging flight plans more than once AND hitting a party or two AND tending to a chest cold AND fitting in sleep whenever possible — well, something’s got to give. So forgive me for not posting in the past few days. Anyway, my regular readers in the Boston area have their hands full shoveling themselves out. Somehow I don’t think anyone’s feeling sorry for me back home.
I’m heading off next to see “Bob and the Trees,” a low-budget movie set in western Massachusetts about a logger and his cow. No, really. Before that, some quick takes – loglines, really — on what I’ve seen in the past few days.
Slow West — The latest in a spate of tough, lean revisionist westerns (see “The Homesman” if you haven’t already). Kodi Smit-McPhee (the kid from “The Road” and “Let Me In”) plays a young Scottish fop crossing the prairies of 1870 America seeking his lost love (Caren Pistorius); Michael Fassbender plays the Man with No Name who reluctantly takes the boy under his wing. As written and directed by first-timer John Maclean, it’s spare, elegiac, bloody, and often quite funny; like “Homesman,” it sees the American West as an underpopulated landscape of predators and victims, with a lingering sadness concerning the high body count needed for civilization.
Mississippi Grind — “Slow West” has a small, villainous role for the great Australian character actor Ben Mendelsohn. “Grind” gives him a very rare shared lead, with Ryan Reynolds, as the weaker of two chronic gamblers rolling through the American South. The movie’s a return to form for Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, the Boston-raised filmmakers who gave us “Half Nelson” and “Sugar” before stumbling with the YA adaptation “It’s Kind of a Funny Story.” The new movie owes a lot — like, a lot — to Altman’s “California Split” and other 1970s character dramas (”The King of Marvin Gardens” seems another obvious reference point), and while it tends to lean too heavily on the (wonderful) soundtrack of roots music, it’s mostly affecting. Reynolds gives an actual performance as a poker-playing free spirit who’s not as free as he looks, but the film belongs to Mendelsohn, one of those actors who seems to have been born into middle-aged disappointment. See it for him.
Me & Earl & the Dying Girl — One of the buzz titles of this year’s festival (along with “Dope,” “The Witch,” and “The Diary of a Teenage Girl”), it’s an adaptation of a Young Adult novel about a high school kid (Thomas Mann) and his friendship with a girl dying of leukemia (Olivia Cooke). Yes, again. But the tone is mordantly sprightly and emotionally honest as these things go, and Mann has a hangdog charm, as if Cameron from “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” finally got his own movie. This is one of those YA projects where the kids all have the achingly hip taste of 50-year-old men: early Brian Eno albums, Criterion DVDS of classic foreign-language movies from the 1960s, Nosferatu T-shirts. Yes, yes, teenagers like this actually exist (I have a couple under my own roof), but as much as I enjoyed the movie — as did everyone else, including Sony Pictures Classics, which snapped it up for theatrical release — part of my brain was thinking Get your own damn culture, kid.
Hot Girls Wanted — A documentary about porn, the multi-million-dollar industry that no one wants to talk about (and which, for that reason and many others, really needs to be talked about). Actress Rashida Jones co-produced and the team of Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus directed this empathetic, terribly sad look into the amateur porn industry, in which 18-year-old girls from across America arrive in Miami to find fame and money shooting “real” (i.e., highly produced) sex videos. The filmmakers follow a handful of women across a half-year in the business -- the usual life-span of an amateur porn career — as naïve (if not stupid) optimism inevitably gives way to shame and disillusionment. Judgments are there but kept in the background (although glimpses of abuse videos are horrifying); the film’s heart is with its subjects and all the girls like them. Man, if everyone who watches porn saw this movie, it would be the highest-grossing release of the decade. But reality doesn’t sell. “Reality” does. “Hot Girls Wanted” wants to change that.
Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon — Exactly what it sounds like: a behind-the-magazine rise-and-fall story, beginning with Doug Kenney and Henry Beard of the Harvard Lampoon and broadening into publishing, stage revues, radio shows, and movies. Doug Tirola’s movie is straightforwardly done and can’t help losing energy in the latter half -- during what one Lampooner calls “the moldy-rye-bread years.” But it’s great to see the very young John Belushi, Checvy Chase, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, etc.; and the tortured humor of the late Kenney and Michael O’Donoghue are properly celebrated. Tirola makes a pretty good case that “SNL” would never have existed without the magazine it ultimately helped destroy; images of NatLamp cartoons and headlines remain scaldingly, hilariously incorrect. The biggest shock of this movie is that the National Lampoon would probably be America’s Charlie Hebdo if it were around today.
The Stanford Prison Experiment — A dramatic recreation of the 1971 psychological experiment in which young men were divided into prisoners and guards to see how institutional rules and authority affected behavior. It gets a little heavy-handed whenever Billy Crudup as Professor Philip Zimbardo rolls a coin in his hand like Captain Queeg or clutches his brow with what-have-I-done dismay. But the young cast saves it: Thomas Mann (from “Me & Earl & the Dying Girl”), Ezra Miller, Johnny Simmons, Jack Kilmer, Tye Sheridan, and others, all doing quality work. First among equals is Michael Angarano, mesmerizing as a kid who has watched “Cool Hand Luke” a few too many times and really digs into his role as a prison guard.
The Overnight — A small but pretty wonderful comedy of LA embarrassment, put over by a game cast. Taylor Schilling (”Orange Is the New Black”) and the ubiquitous Adam Scott play young parents new in town, befriended over a long, long night by increasingly strange neighbor couple Jason Schwartzman and Judith Godreche. The movies have finally figured out what to do with Schwartzman in recent years — please see last year’s “Listen Up Philip” — and this lets him swing his odd-metered line readings with confidence and aplomb. I don’t want to oversell “The Overnight,” but I laughed a lot — writer-director Patrick Brice gets in and — boom — gets it done in 80 fleet minutes
By contrast, “Digging For Fire” is a Los Angeles white-person dramedy with a good cast that just kind of sits there, refusing to get off the couch. I’ve liked plenty of Joe Swanberg’s movies — “Drinking Buddies,” “Alexander the Last.” “Hannah Takes the Stairs” — and, God knows, he makes plenty of them. And I appreciate that he’s using fatherhood to A) explore the growing pains of young parents wondering where their lives went; and B) cast his little son Jude (absolutely adorable, but someone I know said the kid looks like Harry Earles, the midget in “Freaks,” and now I can’t get the image out of my head). “Digging for Fire” casts Jake Johnson (”The New Girl”) and Rosemarie DeWitt as the parents and brings on Sam Rockwell, Anna Kendrick, Brie Larson, Jenny Slate, Melanie Lynskey, Mike Birbiglia, and Orlando freakin’ Bloom as the people in their lives. For all that, it struck me as a fairly dull indie workout of issues all of us go through with more urgency in our own lives. Sorry, Joe. Yours was the last movie I saw after a very long day, so maybe I wasn’t up to the task. And maybe “Digging for Fire” didn’t have what it takes to wake me up.