Nathan Rabin @ Sundance '09: Day Five

Nathan Rabin @ Sundance '09: Day Five

An Education: Noel has said that he’d rather see an overreaching C+ film crazy with ambition and audacity than a dozen B movies content to be merely solid. An Education, Lone Scherfig’s Nick Hornby-scripted adaptation of Lynn Barber’s memoir is the quintessential B movie that frustrates Noel so. It’s blessed with wonderful performances from Emma Thompson, Olivia Williams, Alfred Molina, Sally Hawkins and Peter Saarsgard; a sure sense of time and place, a clever script and a handful of powerful scenes but I feel like I’ve seen this movie and its coming of age beats at least a dozen times before.

The radiant Carey Mulligan plays a smart, pretty, ambitious sixteen-year-old in sixties England who longs to escape the dreary confines of her home and her status-obsessed father (Alfred Molina) and embark on a glamorous, bohemian life rife with intrigue and adventure. The precocious Mulligan is in a mad rush to grow up so when a handsome, mysterious middle-aged Jewish businessman of questionable/nonexistent ethics (Peter Saarsgard, rocking a British accent) begins courting her Mulligan’s black and white world turns Technicolor with excitement.

But it’s evident early on that Saarsgard is not what he seems. As the film progresses his lies and evasions grow increasingly troubling. Along the way life lessons are learned and Mulligan ends the movie sadder but wiser. Mulligan is magnetic as a girl stumbling into womanhood and Saarsgard allows the cracks in his character’s glossy façade to shine through even while charming Mulligan and her parents.

An Education is fundamentally concerned with appearances, whether its’ Saarsgard pretending to be Prince Charming, Mulligan masquerading as a cosmopolitan intellectual trapped in the body of a British schoolgirl and Molina’s unwavering belief that the only thing in life that matters is getting his daughter into Oxford. I found An Education engaging and entertaining but I don’t suspect it will linger in my memory for long, though that might say more about Sundance than the film itself. If witnessed in isolation I probably would have found it more impressive but at Sundance movies tend to blur together so it takes a particularly potent film to stand out.
Grade: B


Good Hair:
It’s fitting that KRS-ONE pops up late in Good Hair, a breezy Chris Rock documentary about black hair, since the film embodies his conceit of edutainment: I was amused but I also learned a whole heck of a lot. Black hair is an entire universe unto itself and Good Hair devotes a good deal of screentime to one of its more bizarre sideshows, an epic “hair battle” where stylists mount incredibly elaborate productions involving water tanks, marching bands, gorgeous models in lingerie and a deeply confused homage to Brokeback Mountain. Hair is also cut, though styling and primping not surprisingly sometimes come off as a mere afterthought.

Rock makes for a genial and amusing host into this light-hearted look at the world of black hair. Out affable guide travels to India, the spiritual homeland of the weave industry, tries to sell black hair in a prankish stunt, chats with a funny and incisive Al Sharpton and a veritable galaxy of actresses, most of whom are only too happy to talk about the insane costs of having “good hair”. I knew weaves were expensive, burdensome and time-intensive but I had no idea just how expensive they are. It’s not at all unusual for women to pay one thousand dollars for a weave that keeps them from swimming or having their hair touched.

The topic of black hair has enormous political and social ramifications. I was hoping the film would delve a little deeper into the racial politics of black hair and the way weaves and relaxers and the like reflect Eurocentric conceptions of beauty. Good Hair is a lark, not a manifesto but the film would have been a whole lot more resonant if they’d talked to a few academics instead of relying so heavily on actresses and musicians. Good Hair plays like the longest man-on-the-street segment in The Chris Rock Show history but I was seldom bored. I just wished Rock and company had dug a little deeper.
Grade: B


Adam:
I knew I was in for a long haul when Adam began with Rose Byrne comparing herself to the protagonist of The Little Prince, the favorite book of precious perma-children everywhere. Byrne plays a New York schoolteacher who strikes up an unlikely friendship and then an unlikely romance with her next door neighbor (Hugh Dancy), a computer genius and astronomy buff with Asperger's syndrome.

There is enormous potential in the idea of a romance rooted in a character uncomfortable with emotion and at home with facts and statistics but lost in the outside world but Adam quickly devolves into a standard-issue romance with an oppressive score that goes overboard with the tremblingly earnest piano tinkling.

Adam romanticizes its Asperger’s, depicting Dancy as a Saintly, emotionally transparent truth-teller too pure for a corrupt world. Peter Gallagher co-stars as Byrne’s accountant father, a shady accountant on trial for cooking the books in a subplot that begs for the cutting room floor. I found Adam cloying and mediocre but it’s already been scooped up by Fox Searchlight and it is foolish to argue with the wisdom of the marketplace. The money people have spoken and decreed Adam all different kinds of awesome.
Grade: C+


Passing Strange:
I’ve been intrigued by Passing Strange ever since reading an ecstatic review of it in the New Yorker. Sweet blessed Lord does Spike Lee’s film of the show’s last performance not disappoint. Like Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense it captures with visceral power the sweaty intensity and raw intimacy of a live performance before a packed, euphoric crowd while taking full advantage of the tools and tricks of film.

A film that threatens to give the phrase “rock musical” a good name, Strange follows the evolution of narrator/writer/singer Stew as he pursues a tragi-comic search for an elusive ideal he calls “The Real”. The son of a doting, solidly middle-class mother, Stew’s search for The Real takes him first to a church choir where he bonds over illegal smoke with an ebullient choir director who is a free, unfettered bohemian in his unfettered imagination but a closeted, frustrated queen in real life and then to a punk-rock baptism before Stew’s young doppelganger decides to follow his wandering muse to Amsterdam, where he experiences hippified bliss with free-loving, pot-smoking countercultural types and then to Germany, where he falls in with a gang of Sprockets wannabes committed to deeply terrible art. Like Dorothy in Wizard Of Oz, Stew learns that there is no place like home. His journey ends where it begins, with a mother he could only learn to love and understand in retrospect. In Passing Strange Stew—who comments upon, interacts with and sometimes just observes the actor playing his younger self while leading a dynamite band—accomplishes in art what he could never achieve in real life.

Stew’s search for authenticity is inextricably intertwined with his thorny, complicated relationship with his racial identity. For Stew, blackness is a tool to exploit or ignore whenever it suits him. Early in the play the choir director kids wisely observes that while Stew’s grandmother passed for white to get by in the world they’re both black men passing for black. Stew is forever trapped between worlds, caught between his love of black culture and his passionate embrace of everything European, arty and pretentious.

In Passing Strange irony, post-modern meta-commentary, pop-culture geekery and parody comfortably co-exist with raw emotion and aching sadness. It’s a film and a play with a huge emotional palette and a mastery of tone. At 135 minutes it isn’t exactly tight but only the Berlin sequence outstays its welcome. Stew’s spoof of humorless Teutonic art-freaks feels a little warmed over and the film’s parody of bad, pretentious avant-garde art feels a little too close to the real thing but at its best Passing Strange isn’t just good; it’s goddamned transcendent, a near-religious experience.

Strange is rooted in Stew’s unique spiritual and creative journey but it hits upon stirringly universal themes of authenticity, family and the eternal search for identity and meaning in a crazy and confusing world. That’s what great art does: it makes the personal universal and the universal personal.
Grade: A-

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