Sundance 2014 – batch 3

If Groucho Marx crashed “Airplane” into “When Harry Met Sally”, the self-aware, rapid-fire romantic comedy debris would take the form of They Came Together. The pleasantly predictable cliches of the dozen or so rom-coms that women openly love and men secretly love are upended, lampooned, skewered, and filtered through a juvenile YouTube sensibility. The result is a trope-trampling treat of a movie; perhaps one that tries a bit too hard, but we forgive it because it brought us flowers and gave us that look.

The Q/A after the screening was as hilarious and chaotic as the film, with director/co-writer David Wain and cast Amy Poehler and Paul Rudd describing the fun they had shooting. Rudd characterized the movie as “relentlessly silly” and at one point ran into the audience to propose to a questioner. A-

 

Partly funded to the tune of about $2M by Kickstarter, director/cowriter Zach Braff’s, Wish I Was Here has all the resonance and quirkiness of his Sundance 2004 classic “Garden State”, but not quite as much magic. This more mature effort has Braff and spouse Kate Hudson struggling with imperfect solutions to the grown-up problems of parents on the decline and children on rise, with some keenly observed insights along the way.

In the Q/A following the screening, Braff thanked the Kickstarter supporters and apologized for the typos on the closing credits that were still being finalized. He also said that he did not cast himself in “Garden State” so he could make out with Natalie Portman, and that he did not cast himself in this movie so he could squeeze the buns of Kate Hudson. B

 

Crowd pleasing melodrama Whiplash (winner of Sundance’s audience and jury prizes) follows the aspirations of a young jazz drummer at an elite music academy. Miles Teller, who others have compared to a young John Cusack and who was so good in last year’s Sundance hit “The Spectacular Now”, is spot-on as the drummer with the heart of a lion, and J. K. Simmons (Juno’s dad) is a force of nature as his wrath-of-god music teacher. The film is energized by powerful big-band-jazz performance sequences, including a remarkable finishing number.

Below the surface, there are similarities to Sundance 2013’s “Jobs”, with both films examining the very definition of greatness, the struggle to achieve it, the personal costs involved, and most importantly, the flawed leaders who who somehow inspire it.  B+

 

Sundance 2014 – batch 2

Former SNL standouts Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader show their known comedy chops as well as impressive dramatic range portraying a brother and sister with major life issues as The Skeleton Twins. Hader’s pragmatic and nuanced gay character here is at the other end of the spectrum from the hilariously one-dimensional Stefon. The story explores the simultaneously supportive and combative relationships that only siblings can have, and does so with enough laughs to avoid being a debbie downer. B

 

A happy couple with possibly the cutest 2-year old in cinematic history have their lives disrupted by an open-ended visit from a well-meaning but irresponsible party girl (a convincing Anna Kendrick), whose antics threaten their Happy Christmas. But the new chemistry injects some creative energy into everyone’s lives, and we get to witness some pleasant moments and some good lines from Lena Dunham as one of the friends.

In the Q/A after the screening, after the tell-us-about-the-baby question, director Joe Swanberg said the film was shot from his 12-page outline with dialog improvised by the actors. (That process of course results in realistic but not always well-crafted dialog.) He also pointed out that supportive, happily married couples are underrepresented in film, and he wanted to offset that. B-

 

All who attend Sundance know that the films can sometimes be wild and over the top. But for the 40 or so viewers who walked out early during the screening of slasher-comedy The Voices, the psychopathic and bloody antics of Ryan Reynolds’ deeply disturbed factory worker were too much to handle. And that meant walking out without even waiting to see if Reynolds would eventually remove his shirt. Perhaps a few hundred more coped with the comedic carnage by covering their eyes. In any case, this is an unforgettable, genre-mutilating, occasionally hilarious film with a killer performance by a gore-geous Reynolds, who finds enough twisted charm to make this unconventional villain non-hateable. And what is the absolute last element one would expect in this cheerfully chilling chop-spree? Yes, talking pets, and they have some of the best lines.

In the Q/A after the screening, director Marjane Satrapi presented herself as articulate, smart and funny, and revealed that considerable thought was put into the portrayal of this unique character. B.

 

Three computer savvy MIT students are engaged in an on-line feud with a mysterious internet presence, and their attempt to find the source takes them into the desert, and into some horror-movie atmosphere in what looks like an abandoned house. Then the bits hit the fan in ambitious WiFi/sci-fi iThriller The Signal. There are twists, and the tone shifts later when the students try to figure out what happened to them, and what sort of extraordinary discovery they have made. Overall, the interesting buildup does not quite hold together toward the end. C+

 

Stuart Murdoch, the lead singer and songwriter for alternative-pop band Belle and Sebastian, has made his film debut with musical God Help the Girl. Set in a beautifully shot Glasgow, the film is an obvious homage to the filmmaker’s home city and its vibrant music scene. The central character is a troubled high-school student who befriends a nerdy musician, and finds a path to a better life in the joy of creating music. We suspend our disbelief for movies, and we just need to suspend it a notch further for the somewhat sketchy plots of musicals that have fun and accessible songs, like this one. B+

 

The conflict between fact-based science and wishful-thinking-based faith or magic is not often explored responsibly in film, but Mike Cahill, the director of Sundance 2012’s prize-winning “Another Earth”, is taking on that topic with attempted mind-bender I OriginsThe plot develops with two researchers, including Sundance fave Brit Marling, doing interesting and authentic science in the field of iris recognition biometrics. But the discipline gets quite a bit looser at the end, as it would have to in order to allow the dramatic payoff. Like Cahill’s previous film, this is another interesting exercise in light science-fiction. B

Sundance 2014 – batch 1

In the darkly comedic, richly detailed world of The Double, the industrial revolution has apparently gone a bit off the rails and left office workers with a clunky, comically malfunctioning work-scape, with a deranged bureaucracy to match. Also slightly broken are the grim people who inhabit this bleak place, in particular a pair of damaged characters who share more than just the same face, played skillfully by Jesse Eisenberg. All these vividly drawn elements come together with heavy handed but dazzling style, which will remind viewers of Terry Gilliam’s duct-infested “Brazil”. The masterful lighting, art direction, and cinematography combine to create a gleefully depressing world that makes the unlikely narrative seem plausible. B

 

Romantic comedy Laggies manages to entertain sweetly while delivering a lesson about growing up, and does so even without a lot of romance or an abundance of comedy. Lead Keira Knightley excels with cheerful frustration as a woman-child, well into her twenties, struggling with the looming responsibilities of adulthood. She escapes her real life for a bit by joining the simpler social circle of some actual high-school kids, and of course it’s in that place where she gains the insights that allow her to start making the hard decisions her real life demands. On this journey she is surrounded by a talented cast, including a charmingly brusque Sam Rockwell. A

 

A Most Wanted Man is a slow-paced but well-crafted and very well-acted spy story, not quite a thriller. In examining the tactics of several agencies involved in tracking Islamic terrorists in Germany, the film makes the case that there are good guys and bad guys getting hunted and also good guys and bad guys doing the hunting. It’s refreshing to see a realistic portrayal of flawed people doing their jobs, without super powers or kung fu or any fu. The film succeeds in building tension, to a point, but it’s ultimately dissipated in what felt like an unsatisfactory manner. B-

 

Set in a barren future where water has become so scarce that people fight and die over it like gold in the old west, Young Ones focuses on one family’s struggle to survive the bad luck they experience and bad guys they attract. The film benefits from some well-executed futuristic robot technology, a realistically stark setting, and strong acting, but falls short, with a narrative that seemed to lay the foundation for a for a dramatic payoff that never came. C+

 

Reminiscent of “Once” from Sundance 2006, Song One is a simple film that revolves around young people who produce and enjoy music. With only minimal dramatic tension, the story has Anne Hathaway’s character befriend a famous singer-songwriter, and serves as a framework for some nicely crafted original songs written by Jonathan Rice and Jenny Lewis, soulfully interpreted by actor-musician Johnny Flynn. B

 

The skillfully twisted director of last year’s Sundance blood-fest “We Are What We Are” is back with a stylish and more accessible thriller, Cold in July.. With considerable skill, Michael C. Hall plays an ordinary family man thrust into extraordinary circumstances when a guy breaks into his house. That’s just the start of a wild story with a few nicely jarring twists and some horrific fun. And just like he did with “Tin Cup”, a grinny Don Johnson shows up well into the film and bumps the energy up a notch.

In the Q/A after the screening, Hall said he enjoyed playing a character who, in contrast to Dexter, killed somebody but didn’t enjoy it. B