Monday, January 27, 2014

Sundance 2014 Quick Reviews: Part IV

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.



Rudderless

After 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 character.

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.

Grade: B+



They Came Together

Director 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.

Grade: B



Frank

Jon (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 theremin player.

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.

Grade: B-



The Babadook

This 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 unhinged.

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.

Grade: B+

index

Nick Offerman: American Ham

Essentially 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.

Grade: B

*The Sundance Award winners were announced Saturday. Read my article on the ceremony here.

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