This is Part IV in a series of capsule reviews from the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. For Parts I, II and III click here, here and here.
losing his son in a campus shooting, Sam (Billy Crudup) retreats into
himself, taking up residence on a boat and ditching his career as a
marketing exec to paint houses. But after coming across a box filled
with his son’s amateur songwriting, Sam begins performing the music with
a garage band that sees local success.
As the directorial debut
of William H. Macy, "Rudderless" is a thoughtful tale of grief and the
power of music. Crudup is excellent and his chemistry with Anton
Yelchin, a bandmate who goads him into performing, is engaging even
though Yelchin doesn’t seem like a perfect casting match for his
For a first-time feature, Macy displays a healthy
restraint in doling out exposition (with the exception of a few clichéd
and predictable events in act III) and a significant reveal is handled
deftly, casting the entire film in a new light.
They Came Together
David Wain’s latest ensemble satire is to romantic comedies what Scary
Movie was to the horror genre. The story follows the romance of Paul
Rudd and Amy Poehler, she the small business owner and he the corporate
robot poised to drive her out of business until their cross paths and
they fall in love, with a supporting cast that includes Ed Helms, Bill
Hader, Ellie Kemper, Christopher Meloni, Jason Mantzoukas and cameos
from just about every actor who has appeared in a critically acclaimed
TV comedy over the last five years.
Wain’s comedic tone is
ever-present, and the increasingly absurdist shenanigans are undeniably
hilarious, but in gleefully dwelling in the tropes of a genre deemed
“cheesy” and “lame” They Came Together can’t help but get a little bit
of cheese on its own fingers. The framing structure, which sees Rudd and
Poehler telling their “how did you meet” story on a double date sets
the rules of the game early on but ultimately turns into the kind of
repetitive joke that delivers diminishing returns.
In the end, They Came Together is a very funny film, but not a very good film.
*Watch a video of the Q&A with Wain, Rudd, Poehler and Max Greenfield here.
(Domhnall Gleeson) is an aspiring musician plinking away at his
keyboard in a frustrated attempt to write a hit song. He feigns
sincerity, but in his incessant appeals to social media and his
inability to create even mainstream drudge it is clear that he is
motivated by a pursuit of fame and not by any deeply-held artistic
vision. In a bit of dumb luck, he crosses paths with a band fronted by
Frank, a man whose face is perpetually obscured by a large paper-mâché
head and for whom music is an end in itself.
Frank invites Jon
into the band as keyboardist, whisking him away to a secluded cabin in
Ireland to record the new album, despite a cold reception from the other
members of the band, including Maggie Gylenhaal as a cold and volatile
The film eventually strays from a story about a
quirky Euro-band to one about mental illness and expression. But the
central question of the movie, "Who is Frank and why does he wear the
head?" is left largely unanswered even as the band collapses and Frank’s
mental state deteriorates. One would assume that if you cast Michael
Fassbender in your movie and spend the whole movie hiding his face that
you’ve done it for a reason. Right?
Frank was a buzzy film at this
year’s festival. But in this critic’s opinion, the movie is one that
perhaps had grand things to say if you could just hear them from
underneath a muffled mass of paper mâché.
Aussie horror, part of the traditionally edgy and offbeat Sundance At
Midnight category, sees Essie Davis as Emelia, a single mother
struggling with the behavioral quirks of her son Samuel while also
grieving the loss of her husband. Samuel's dad died in a car crash the
day Sam was born and it is implied that every year on the anniversary of
both her son’s birth and her husband’s death Amelia slips into a period
of morose depression, which is further exacerbated by her son’s
childhood fears of monsters under the bed.
But then a monster
appears, or does it? After a troubling children’s book called “Mr.
Babadook” mysteriously manifests on her child’s shelf, the typical menu
of strange occurrences begin tormenting the family (passing shadows,
strange sounds, whispered voices). Samuel insists that The Babadook has
arrived but Emelia is skeptical, even while she grows increasingly
While The Babadook treads ground laid before it by other
genre films, director Jennifer Kent relies on old-school practical
effects and a full plot beyond the creaks in the night to form a
delightful scare. The Babadook itself, barely glimpsed in shadow and
mostly depicted by the hauntingly simple sketches of a child’s book, is a
strong display of restraint, with the movie relying more on a sense of
escalating psychological unease than crashing cymbals to get under the
audience's skin. The final confrontation is overlong and chips away at
some of the goodwill earned earlier in the film, but Kent ends the film
on an perfectly eerie note of ambiguity that stops short of definitively
answering whether the monster is actual entity or metaphor for
something more sinister.
Nick Offerman: American Ham
a live-show of a comedy performance in New York, "American Ham"
delivers 90 minutes of Nick Offerman's signature dry humor on subjects
ranging from romance and relationships to religion and politics to a
disdain for vegetarianism and an appeal to the old-fashioned pleasures
of the outdoors and hard work.
The routine, organized as
Offerman's 10 tips for living a happy life, is sweet yet irreverent,
crude yet cultured, insightful yet familiar and quite funny. It also
features Offerman performing a number of musical numbers and frequently
mining his sex life with wife Megan Mullaly for comedic impact. Fans of
stand-up should be pleased and newcomers will find an easy, albeit
adult, entry to the medium.
*The Sundance Award winners were announced Saturday. Read my article on the ceremony here.