Sundance Review: 'Rudderless' Is A Remarkable Directorial Debut From William H. Macy


Note: This review was originally written and posted for Indiewire’s The Playlist. Please click on this link and support their site. 

So let it be known throughout the land: William H. Macy has balls of steel. In addition to juggling a busy, successful film and television career, he’s taken on a new role—filmmaker. His first feature film, “Rudderless,” is a poignant story that explores finding happiness in the midst of loss and pain. And you know what? It’s really damn good.

“Rudderless” follows the wonderful, horrible life of Sam (Billy Crudup), a successful advertising executive whose life is shaken up when his teenage son shoots six students at his college, and takes his own life. Sam isn’t coping with this well—his life now revolves around microwave pizza and hitting the bottle hard; fast forward a few years later and Sam is living on a boat and making money by painting houses for a contractor. He’s sobered up and just trying to live his life as best as he can. While going through the remainder of his son’s possessions, Sam stumbles across music his son made in the time leading up to the shootings. As a former musician himself, Sam works out his angst by learning his son’s songs and playing them. Soon after, he finds it therapeutic to play these songs at a local bar. But when a young musician (Anton Yelchin) finds this music intoxicating, the two team up and start a band (with Ben Kweller!), changing their lives forever.

You’re probably thinking the movie sounds odd or inconsiderate—school shootings are a very sensitive subject and shouldn’t be taken lightly. But at the heart of “Rudderless” is a story about moving on; at a certain point, dwelling on the past becomes poisonous. On the other end of the spectrum from films like “We Need To Talk About Kevin,” “Elephant”, and other films with school violence at the center—”Rudderless” is about really, truly moving forward with your life and doing your best not to focus on the past. Sam doesn’t want to become a famous musician, he doesn’t want to forget about his son and pretend nothing ever happened, he just wants to find a way to carry on. No parent ever wants to be the father or mother of a child who takes the lives of others, but that possibility lingers ever more prominently as violence increases in the world around us.

Sam is the type of person who makes friends one year only to lose them the next. A guy who manages to keep his ragged and uncouth confidence, no matter what emotional state he’s in, which makes Crudup the perfect fit, carrying arrogance and confidence together with sincerity. Crudup’s Sam is a coward for not dealing with his son’s brutal and tragic ending, but he’s filled with more hurt than he can process and his healing begins when his regret ends. And yes, you Selenators, Selena Gomez does have a pivotal role in the film and is great, showing plenty of potential for becoming a leading lady one day.

“Rudderless” is a very impressive directorial debut from the acclaimed Macy. Not a coming-of-age or let-the-tears-fly movie with a Sigur Ros-filled soundtrack—it’s a fairly easy-to-digest look at how to cope, before worse becomes intolerable. Any movie dealing with such heartbreaking violence is going to rattle your soul, but it’s about how the filmmaker tenderly dismantles the story, and shows us so much more. It’s an ambitious and strong first start for Macy’s filmmaking career as he’s clearly taken a note or two from some of the great filmmakers he’s worked for. Don’t let the title of this film fool you—“Rudderless” is solid. [B]

Sundance 2014 Review: Roger Ebert Doc 'Life Itself' A Profoundly Moving Story About One Of Cinema’s Greatest Superheroes


Note: This review was originally written and posted for Indiewire’s The Playlist. Please click on this link and support their site. 

Without question, Roger Ebert is the most recognizable figure in American film criticism, possibly even international criticism, and deservingly so. Ebert helped curious minds alive today better understand movies and what they were trying to say, moving past the obvious and always finding something deeper. “Life Itself” is based on Ebert’s memoir of the same name, but the film goes far beyond the book’s last page. This documentary actually started shooting months before Ebert knew he was going to die, and the bulk of the focus is on his many relentless and rigorous battles to stay alive, as well as highs and lows in his life — there’s no soft-pedalling here. One very admirable trait about Ebert — when he learned he was going to die, and very soon, he wanted the show to go on.

Like the showboat he deservingly was, Ebert had acclaimed director Steve James (“Hoop Dreams,” “The Interrupters”) take charge and tell the story of his life, but with a bit of guidance from Ebert. James tells this unapologetic story with little sympathy, as per Ebert’s wishes, and a lot of passion — he wants the audience to really know who Roger Ebert was, and understand the importance of his work. The film’s highlights include a look at the enormous troubles Ebert had to overcome, mostly his fondness for booze and women, as well as the battle he faced every day until his last breath — the cancer that reduced him to a shadow of his former self, and eventually killed him.

A big nod goes to his devoted wife, Chaz, who has been his biggest cheerleader since the day they fell in love. Without her, Ebert freely admits he never could have faced his demons. As taxing as it is spending days with a loved one who is dying, Chaz never gave up on Roger and the film makes it clear she’s an important part of Ebert’s work. A large portion of the film takes place in the hospital during Ebert’s last act in life. James gets up close and personal, showing the audience how much Ebert smiled through his tough, final days and managed to still enjoy his life. It’s devastating and beautiful, sad and poetic, all at the same time, exactly what Ebert wanted.

Fans of Gene Siskel will be very pleased to see a healthy tribute to him in the film. Nothing is held back as the audience watches Siskel and Ebert fight, insult and laugh at each other as they talk about movies — passive aggressiveness was never a part of their language and they just went straight for the jugular. But it’s clear that they loved each other, but didn’t always know how to say it — too proud, perhaps.

If you’ve read Ebert’s book of the same title, you’ll appreciate how remarkably well James constructed the film. It’s impossible to discuss every detail of Ebert’s memoir, so James deliberately bounces around the book, letting the audience know what chapter is being dissected and where Roger was at in his life — even though some of the years are a bit out of order, it’s still a smooth transition. To help better understand Roger’s feelings, James provides voiceover quotes from the book, and then shows archived and new footage, or talking heads of the ones closest to him finish out the chapter.

There was a thunder in Ebert’s heart, and that was his love for movies, and he wanted to tell the world about films, both big ones and small. James should be high-fived every day of his life for telling the real story of Roger Ebert — a writer, a former alcoholic, a showboat, a hero, a lover, a man who changed from an uncouth kind of a dick to one who was unfailingly witty and kind. Last but certainly not least, Roger Ebert was a movie lover, and this is the kind of movie he would have loved.

Sundance 2014 Review: Blue Ruin


Revenge is a dish best served with a knife, a crossbow and semi-automatic rifles in Jeremy Saulnier’s bloody and brilliant sophomore feature, Blue Ruin.

When Blue Ruin opens, a drifter named Dwight (Mason Blair) is coasting through life on a beach. He’s dirty, living on a steady diet of trashcan food, and his face looks as if it’s never felt a clean shave. He breaks into houses just to take a bath, however his presence shows he’s not a bad or harmful man — he’s just trying to survive. Things aren’t so bad, this bum has built a home and life for himself at a place where things are simple and uncomplicated.

While sleeping in his rusty, old and beaten-up blue Bonneville, Dwight gets a surprise visit from the local sheriff (who seems to know him really well). She tells him that a man from his past has just been released from prison, and from the deer in headlights look on his face, we know this isn’t a man Dwight wants to exchange presents with on Christmas. And as his eyes turn from scared to sad to pain to anger, he sticks a sharp knife five inches deep into his enemies’ skull (not a spoiler). It quickly becomes clear that these two won’t be playing Go Fish together anytime soon, either. During the scuffle, Dwight abandons his car, which is registered to his sister’s house, at the crime scene. Things, as they say, don’t go exactly as planned, and Dwight’s fiery rampage of revenge has only just begun.

What makes Dwight the perfect, unconventional anti-hero is the ambitious size of his bite — he’s short, skinny, has never held a gun in his life, and would probably apologize to a butterfly if he hurt its feelings. Blair completely embodies Dwight and brings him to life with subtle, but fierce, intensity. During a scene in which he’s stuck in a house, outnumbered and outgunned, you can feel Dwight’s anxiety and anger vibrate through him — boom, acting! As his violent tale of revenge takes a dramatic — and at times, comedic — turn, Blair’s portrayal of Dwight displays a level of commitment that’s admirable; in fact, this commitment demands that we root for him all the way to the bitter, brutal end.

Revenge breathes a new life in Jeremy Saulnier’s script. The film is very violent, but Saulnier manages to avoid glorifying revenge or bloodshed. Actually, he shows how terrifying, unnerving, sad and awful it is to kill a man. Dwight’s boyish innocence is gone, yet he still doesn’t know what he’s doing, still doesn’t want to do what he’s doing, and still knows he’s not doing a good thing — but feels compelled to protect the only family left in his life, at whatever cost. This relentless drive is what makes Blue Ruin one of the best shoot-‘em-up-until-they-are-all-dead-dead-dead revenge quests, ever.