Grooving right along at the Sundance Film Festival, we’ve really been pushing ourselves to see as many movies as possible, as well as doing a bunch of interviews we hope to share with you soon. Here are some thoughts on the movies we saw on Sunday and Monday, including new movies from Josh Radnor, Nicholas Jarecki, Katie Aselton, Quentin Dupieux, Spike Lee and more!
Earlier in the week, we started to wonder if there was any chance of seeing anything on par with Garden State, Zach Braff’s directorial debut which took Sundance by storm in 2004 and went on to become a huge hit for Fox Searchlight as well as a long-time cult favorite. We found our answer in Josh Radnor’s Liberal Arts, a romantic comedy that pairs the “How I Met Your Mother” star with Elizabeth Olsen, last year’s Sundance darling. Radnor plays Jesse, a 35-year-old New Yorker who returns to his college campus in Ohio to send off one of his professors, played by Richard Jenkins, where he meets Olsen’s character, the 19-year-old daughter of a family friend, and a relationship forms. Radnor’s insights about college and the part it plays in our lives is brilliantly clever, and the film never resorts to any of the romantic comedy clichés in exploring this relationship between a guy and a significantly younger woman. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen a movie that’s as funny and poignant and well-rounded with a number of terrific supporting roles played by Allison Janney and Zac Efron.
The pseudo-concert film Shut Up and Play the Hits by Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace (Blur’s No Distance Left to Run) was the one midnight movie we actually saw at midnight and the crowd was lively as they experienced the last 48 hours in the existence of the alt-rock-electronic group LCD Soundsystem and its frontman James Murphy’s decision to end things. As someone lucky enough to have been at the band’s final show at Madison Square Garden, the film perfectly captures the energy and excitement of that final four-hour show, which was a terrific celebration of the band’s all too short career. (Look for our interview with LCD frontman James Murphy and the filmmakers soon.)
The other strong film we’re shocked hasn’t been picked up for distribution yet is Nicholas Jarecki’s Arbitrage, a brilliantly-constructed drama set in the world of big business, starring Richard Gere as Robert Miller, the wealthy head of a financial firm trying to close a deal to sell his company while working through a number of serious legal issues that could hinder that sale. Comparisons to last year’s Margin Call may have come too soon as it doesn’t deal with the business and financials as much as it does Miller’s personal relationships and how greed and corruption impacts his personal life. Jarecki’s script is brilliant and Gere has never been better suited for a role, plus it also includes terrific turns from Susan Sarandon, Britt Marling (in the first movie she didn’t write), Tim Roth and Nate Parker.
Quentin Dupieux’s Wrong isn’t quite on par with his previous movie Rubber, but it shows the same quirky ingenuity that made that movie so much fun with Jack Plotnick playing Dolph Springer, a guy whose beloved dog Paul has gone missing, leading to encounters with all sorts of strange characters in his search to find him. The oddest of the characters he meets is Master Chang, a scarred dog guru who has some crazy ideas on how to create stronger bonds between owners and their pets, a really funny performance by William Fichtner. (We’ll have an interview with Dupieux very soon as well.)
We were looking forward to Katie Aselton’s Black Rock, the first foray into horror by the director of 2010’s The Freebie. Written and co-produced by hubby Mark Duplass, the simple premise has three high school friends (Aselton, Kate Bosworth and Lake Bell) traveling to a remote island in Maine to reconnect, then something happening with a group of young men they encounter that puts them in grave danger. We’ve seen so many of these movies–they were a staple of the ’70s exploitation flicks–that at a certain point, we knew the entire arc of where things were going. Not having too many surprises really kept us from enjoying it more. Aselton is great as are her two co-stars and there’s enough character stuff to make it better than the average “women in peril” movie but it certainly doesn’t have the type of depth or cleverness we were hoping to see from Aselton and Duplass.
Sheldon Candis’Luv was one of the movies that hadn’t been on our radar pre-Sundance, but an open slot in our schedule allowed us to check out its premiere. It stars rapper Common as a recently-released convict who decides to take his young nephew around Baltimore to try to toughen him up, bringing him into all sorts of dangerous situations. The setting reminds us of “The Wire”–Michael Kenneth Williams even has a small role as a detective–and the general tone is a bit like Training Day (if Ethan Hawke was a young boy). There’s certainly some credibility issues and the film’s attempt to crossbreed a coming-of-age drama with a crime movie, but it was also the kind of movie we might see from Spike Lee in his heyday and much better than the movie Lee himself brought to Sundance (see below).
Leslye Headland’s directorial debut Bachelorette, based on her own play, has such a great cast, including Kirsten Dunst, Isla Fischer, Lizzy Caplan, Rebel Wilson,James Marsen, and Adam Scott. The fairly simple premise involves Wilson (Kristin Wiig’s dim-witted roommate from Bridesmaids) getting married and the trouble her three high school friends, bitter she’s getting married before them, get into during a drug and alcohol-fueled bachelorette party in which the wedding dress is accidentally destroyed. There are some funny characterizations by Fischer and Dunst, but we thought Lizzy Caplan was just terrific as the damaged and foul-mouthed member of the group who instigates many of the problems by introducing drugs to the proceedings. Something about the whole thing just seems off, though, as if they were trying too hard, and once it gets to some of the normal wedding comedy clichés, any potential has vanished.
Even so,the absolutely worst movie we’ve seen at this year’s Sundance is Spike Lee’s Red Hook Summer, an almost unwatchable return to Brooklyn from the director of Do the Right Thing, which he has gone on record saying it was never meant to be a sequel. Thank God for that, because 25 years on from his first major hit, Lee has completely lost it featuring Clarke Peters from “The Wire” as a Red Hood community preacher who takes in his grandson, a spoiled kid from Atlanta. It starts out as one thing, transitions into another and delivers one of the most out of left field twists almost an hour and 45 minutes in that kills any good will it has left. Essentially, we spend most of the time up until then watching Peters preaching or long rambling conversations about religion, cut together with scenes of the two most annoying kids we’ve seen on screen, neither particularly good. Even Lee’s return as Mookie, the beloved character from his early films, is embarrassing as he doesn’t even seem to be trying anymore. The movie is absolute abomination, even compared to She Hate Me, and there isn’t a single second of the movie that works.
That’s it for now… we’re off to see more movies but look for another report soon.