Well friends, it looks like my time here at Sundance is coming to an end. I return home tomorrow morning so this will probably be my very last dispatch from the front. Parting is such sweet sorrow though it’ll be nice to return to a world where there’s no shame in not seeing at least four movies a day.
Sundance couldn’t help but feel a little frivolous on Inauguration Day. Sure enough, I overheard at least as many conversations about Obama’s speech as I did gossip about which films would get bought and which films would go home sad little unloved orphans. Though the world is in a grim state right now it’s a bracing, refreshing change of pace to see people genuinely excited about the prospect of seeing the President speak. There is a great big world outside of Sundance though it can seem awfully far away sometimes.
Ah, but enough of my—fuck it. Onto the films!
Black Dynamite / Mystery Team: The delightful parodies Mystery Team and Black Dynamite follow proudly in the distinguished footsteps of Mel Brooks, a filmmaker who cared enough about the genres he was spoofing to get the details exactly right. Black Dynamite in a veritable encyclopedia of blaxploitation tropes and clichés. It nails the stilted dialogue, clumsy exposition, bargain-basement production values, gratuitous nudity, even more gratuitous kung-fu fighting, greasy funk guitar, incongruous performances from Juliard-trained black thespians who deliver seventies street slang like Shakespearean sonnets and the gleefully homemade storytelling that made blaxploitation the home of some of the most wonderful bad movies ever made. Black Dynamite has been generating a huge buzz and was one of the first films to get bought but I was initially skeptical as to what set it apart from previous blaxploitation spoofs like I’m Gonna Git You Sucka and Undercover Brother. I got my answer in the first few minutes: Black Dynamite looks, feels and sounds exactly like a lost blaxploitation movie from 1973, only this time the laughs are intentional.
In a star-making turn, co-writer Michael Jai White plays the title character, a former CIA agent and all-around badass who is a sex machine to all the chicks and displays an admirable willingness to risk his neck for his brotherman. So when his brother is killed White takes to the streets to wipe out the smack dealers poisoning Los Angeles orphanages with their deadly products. White’s investigation leads him to Kung Fu Island and the very pinnacle of American power. Black Dynamite is filled with loving in-jokes and winking references to classic fare like Superfly, Avenging Disco Godfather and Shaft as well as an animated pornographic zodiac sequence and an animated end credits sequence worth sticking around for. It outstays its welcome by about ten minutes but it’s enormous fun destined for midnight screenings and a dedicated cult following. Somewhere Rudy Ray Moore is smiling down from heaven.
Speaking of encyclopedias, Mystery Team, the debut feature from sketch troupe Derrick Comedy, is a loving homage/parody of the Encyclopedia Brown books and the boy detective genre in general. Donald Glover, D.C Pierson and Dominick Dierkes star as the titular Mystery Team, a trio of boy detectives whose guileless, gee-whiz enthusiasm and dedication to solving kiddie-sized crimes involving fingers in pies can’t help but seem a little pathetic and regressive once they’ve reached their senior year of high school. Donald Glover plays the leader of the group, a “master of disguise” with a weakness for fake mustaches and an unconvincing accent for every occasion. D.C Pierson is the group’s self-styled boy genius, though his “wisdom” comes entirely from an ancient book of trivia he references on an hourly basis while Dominic Dierkes is the muscle of the group, a dullard hilariously slow on the uptake who has difficulty tying his shoes, let alone solving the mysteries of the universe.
The sunny, perpetually chipper trio’s happy little world is plunged into darkness when they’re hired to investigate the murder of a little girl’s parents. Suddenly the overgrown children find themselves immersed in a seamy world of strip clubs, drug dealers and murder. Mystery Team lovingly captures the soothing Norman Rockwell innocence of Encyclopedia Brown and his ilk, from the outsized magnifying glasses the boys brandish proudly to their gleefully anachronistic slang to outfits and hairstyles straight out of a Boy’s Life magazine cover circa 1956. There’s a daft innocence to the trio and the film itself that’s utterly ingratiating though there really is no reason the film has to run 105 minutes instead of 90 or even 85. Nevertheless I was thoroughly charmed and enjoyed larfs aplenty, especially in the early going. Operating on a shoestring budget, Derrick Comedy makes a little go a long way. I can’t wait to see what they’ll do with a bigger budget and more resources.
Black Dynamite: B+ / Mystery Team: B
White Lightnin’: I foolishly expected White Lightning to be the redneck equivalent of Black Dynamite, a campy, goofy comedy with tongue planted firmly in cheek.Instead I got a gorgeously photographed slice of Southern Gothic miserablism awash in religious iconography and heavy-handed themes of sin, redemption and salvation, grotesque violence and a good deal of pretension. The film chronicles the dark life and times of real-life dancing outlaw Jesco White (played as an adult by Edward Fogg with a magnetic combination of soft-spoken, beatific calm and explosive rage), the son of legendary Appalachian mountain dancer D. Ray White, as he tries and fails to control his demons, his propensity for ultra-violence and his addiction to huffing gas. White Lightnin’ is impressive and off-putting at the same time. It finds strange beauty in the sordid ugliness of rural poverty but it’s also meandering and repetitive, a bleak wallow in the depths of human misery. By the time Fogg engages in a bloody, quasi-Christian ritual of purification and self-laceration a good seventy percent of the audience had bolted and the film had morphed slowly but surely into a harrowing endurance test.
Brief Interviews With Hideous Men: For his writing and directorial debut, The Office heartthrob John Krasinski has tackled an insanely ambitious undertaking in bringing David Foster Wallace’s short story collection Brief Interviews With Hideous Men to the big screen. You certainly have to give him credit for audacity and ambition though like Noel, I initially found the film inconsequential, mannered and theatrical. As long as Krasinski’s roving camera flits from hideous man to hideous man and from wordy conversation to wordy conversation like an impatient party guest it clings zealously to the page. Like Rodrigo Garcia’s Nine Lives and Ten Tiny Love Stories, Men feels more like a collection of cinematic short stories or short films than a proper feature-length movie; think of it as 13 Short Films About How Men Are Dicks.
Hideous Man only began to feel like a proper film during a powerful monologue by Frankie Faison about his father’s job as a washing-room attendant and the indelible impression it left on him as a young man but it gains a cumulative power as it grows increasingly dark. In its final sequences Men takes great pleasure in Wallace’s mastery of the English language, in his impeccably formed sentences and despairing ideas about human relationships. Men may not be a success but it’s an often-fascinating failure. Besides, it won’t take up too much of your time: at a brisk seventy-two minutes Krasinski takes the Brief part of the film’s title very seriously.
Dare: Adam Salky’s Dare begins as a well observed but more or less conventional high school comedy-drama about a brainy young theater geek (the lovely starlet Emmy Rossum, who it turns out, strangely enough, can actually act) intent on changing her goodie two shoes image after an ego-deflating, revelatory encounter with a successful older actor played with swaggering, aggressive sexuality by Alan Cumming. Dare takes a radical left turn about a half hour in when Rossum’s sensitive, rich hunk of a semi-boyfriend (Zach Gilford) accepts a poolside blowjob from Rossum’s virginal, deeply insecure male best friend (Ashley Springer). At this point the film forgets the cliquey world of high school altogether to concentrate on the kinky permutations of best friends of opposite genders sharing a boy who doesn’t think of himself as gay but luxuriates in the attention and validation of being sexually desired by both genders. The results are both slyly sexy and deeply awkward and uncomfortable in ways true to the tricky terrain of burgeoning teen sexuality. I didn’t expect much from Dare going inbut was pleasantly surprised by its willingness to take chances and push its characters and its audience out of their comfort zones.