PARK CITY, Utah — Every year there’s a big spender at Sundance; this year it’s Amazon. The online superstore and streaming-video giant paid $13 million for “Late Night” — a fairly safe bet, given that it’s a pleasant comedy starring Emma Thompson and Mindy Kaling — and $14 million for “The Report,” which is a better movie and a tougher sell.
It was hard to find anyone in Park City with a bad word to say about “Report,” the second feature directed by Scott Z. Burns, a regular writer for Steven Soderbergh, but the subject — the five-year struggle to release the investigative report into the CIA’s use of torture — may prompt glazed eyes in the general moviegoing public. It shouldn’t. Situated firmly in the cinderblocks-and-process genre of “All the President’s Men” and “Spotlight,” “The Report” is a gripping procedural about the tenacity and moral certainty needed to navigate a complex Washington minefield.
I don’t know that any other actor could have put across the screenplay’s info-heavy blocks of dialogue with as much mensch-y hangdog naturalism as star Adam Driver. He plays Senate sub-committee investigator Dan Jones, who uncovered the horrifying details of the “enhanced interrogation techniques” used by the agency in the years following 9/11. Annette Bening plays his boss, Senator Dianne Feinstein, with a cautious, sometimes frustrating dose of realpolitik that doesn’t obscure a smart, sly performance.
“The Report” isn’t nonpartisan so much as dramatically aware of the gamesmanship and agendas of everyone on a crowded chessboard; it requires audience attention and greatly rewards it. If Amazon knows how to position “The Report” in theaters and at the right time, it could be a moneymaker and an awards contender. But that’s asking a lot of a company unversed in the business of theatrical distribution.
There have been other deals at Sundance, but speculation isn’t running terribly high, perhaps because the buzz isn’t either. There have been well-received movies and genuine crowd pleasers: “The Farewell,” with its welcome star turn for Chinese-American actress Awkwafina (“Crazy Rich Asians”), which sold to A24, and “Blinded by the Light,” a lively if conventional movie about a Springsteen-obsessed Pakistani teen in small-town England, from “Bend It Like Beckham” director Gurinder Chadha.
New Line already has US rights to “Blinded”; in the festival’s early days, Neon bought the horror creepfest “The Lodge,” while Sony Pictures Classics picked up the documentary “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” and “The Sounds of Silence,” starring Peter Sarsgaard as a mysterious “house tuner.” Newcomer Apple spent an undisclosed sum for “Hala,” Minhal Baig’s affecting coming-of-age story about a Pakistani-American teenager (Geraldine Viswanathan).
The continued dominance of Amazon, Netflix, and now Apple means further new wrinkles in how new movies reach the public. The acquisitions at Sundance will almost certainly play theaters but perhaps in token loss-leader releases designed to raise awareness for their simultaneous or eventual appearance on-demand. More people may see them, but fewer may experience them on the big screen.
The more typical high-profile projects at the festival, meaning the star-heavy films playing in the Premiere category at the 2,500-seat Eccles Theatre, have been a loopy bunch this year. “Velvet Buzzsaw” is a broad satire of the LA art scene, wildly uneven in tone, that shades into supernatural horror. It features another amusingly mannered performance from Jake Gyllenhaal as an affected art critic, Rene Russo and Toni Collette as rival gallery owners, John Malkovich and Daveed Diggs as artists, and Zawe Ashton as an ambitious upstart who discovers a cache of outsider art that may have the power to kill people.
The writer-director is Dan Gilroy, who guided Gyllenhaal to gonzo greatness in “Nightcrawler” and Denzel Washington to an Oscar nomination in “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” Here Gilroy’s letting his hair down and having fun, which is not to be dismissed. The puncturing of art-world pretensions is mostly fish-in-a-barrel stuff, though — aside from one outrageous sight gag involving Collette and a visiting school group — and the tussling genres of “Velvet Buzzsaw” eventually cancel each other out. It’s still something to see, in both senses of the word.
“Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile” is something not to see, a movie about serial killer Ted Bundy that tries to come in through the back door of his long-term relationship with a woman named Liz Kendall, who knew nothing of his crimes until he was arrested. Lily Collins plays Kendall with a mixture of naivete and guts that is appealing, and if director Joe Berlinger and writer Michael Werwie stuck to her point of view, the movie might feel as though it had something fresh to say about toxic relationships and the psychology of delusion.
They have one-time teen idol Zac Efron as Bundy, though, and while the actor gives a credible performance as a seemingly genial dude who reveals his insanity only in layers, “Extremely Wicked” — the title comes from a comment from a judge, played in the film by a hammy John Malkovich — can’t resist being drawn to the devil. Collins’s character takes a back seat in the trial scenes, and Berlinger, who’s better known as a gifted and respected documentarian, offers vague notions about monsters, fame, and female fandom. In the end, the movie doesn’t have a point, and a movie about Ted Bundy really needs a point. Otherwise, it’s just a freak show.
The same might have been said about “Honey Boy,” a film written by Shia LaBeouf that also casts him as his own father, a burn-out bad news stage parent. But the movie, which is clearly a work of therapy for the mercurial star/tabloid fixture, is beautifully acted by Noah Jupe (“A Quiet Place”) as the young Shia, Lucas Hedges as an older Shia struggling through rehab, and LaBeouf himself. The performances and Alma Har’el’s tender, canny framing of them, make “Honey Boy” worth attention, and while the final half hour doubtless means more to LaBeouf than it may to an audience, the movie digs deeply into the psychodynamics of fathers and sons and the abuses, obvious and otherwise, that can come with ambition and fame. “Honey Boy” doesn’t have a distributor as of this writing. LaBeouf may not even care if it gets one.