Nathan Rabin @ Sundance '09: Day Two 

Nathan Rabin @ Sundance '09: Day Two 

Well friends, in one of the more Sisyphusian endeavors of my misbegotten existence, I just spent a solid hour and a half waiting in line to get into a Mariah Carey hosted premiere party for her new film Push. The line was like a goddamned optical illusion. It was the only line I’d ever been in where people actually seemed to be moving slowly and steadily from the party back into the line instead of the other way around. The line moved maybe five feet in 90 minutes and the prospect of spending another hour and a half in the cold just to be told I wasn’t on the list and consequently wasn’t worthy of kicking it with Mariah Carey, special guests Nick Cannon, The Dream, Young Jeezy and Lenny Kravitz, not to mention Byron Allen, was not terribly appealing. I’m here at Sundance as The A.V Club’s Wild Card so when faced with this kind of a conundrum I ask myself “What would Hunter S. Thompson do?” I decided that in this instance Thompson would give up, take a cab home, call his cat sitter to make sure that his beloved feline babies were alright, then write and post his second Sundance round-up in a reasonably timely fashion. Needless to say, I’m not committing to this whole “What would Hunter do?” conceit too strongly.

This has been an unseasonably warm Sundance but it was getting pretty damned nippy there towards the end. The young ladies in front of me were nevertheless clad in tiny miniskirts and slinky, skimpy high heel shoes. I greatly admired their commitment to looking slutty. As the night got colder they huddled together in a group hug for warmth, which was both practical, and I have to admit, kind of hot.

Since I never got to party with Mariah Carey or Lenny Kravitz I can only imagine that Kravitz used the occasion to deliver a lengthy speech apologizing to the three million or so geriatric rockers he’s ripped off and Carey vowed to can it with the horrific screeching and modified hooker garb.

So my biggest celebrity sighting today was James Toback holding court in the bar of The Yarrow Hotel. I have referred to Mr. Toback in the past as a frog-faced mountain of a man. Seeing him in the corpulent, voluminous flesh did nothing to contradict that impression.

 Earlier that evening me and Noel tapped away at our keyboards outside a room where preparations for a Shabbat dinner were beginning in earnest. Who knew there were Jews in the entertainment industry? The next thing you know we’ll finally make our presence felt in finance and the legal and medical professions. Noel and I were terribly amused to overhear a head waiter asking his staff, “Now who here knows what Matzo Ball soup is?” When his query engendered only blank stares he answered his own question, “It’s traditional Jew food.”

You know what’s not traditional Jew food? Shasta brand soda, which was the beverage of choice at the Google Press Center. The Mariah Careys of the world get Cristal. We get Shasta. I took one swig of their lemon-lime carbonated beverage and was all, “Shasta? More like Shasta McNasty! Am I right people? High five!”

I am dedicated to using my non-existent clout and power to deliver the outside scoop Jackie Harvey style but today I was coming up short in every department. Oh well. I hope to do a whole lot better in the next two days. Tomorrow I’m going to hit the Island Def Jam House of Hype’s Hospitality suite in desperate hopes of scoring some primo free shit and/or a complimentary massage. With my luck the only free things left will be a broken Domino cassingle and a Sundance water bottle. I’ll also be doing a segment there for the Travel Channel that will probably be shit-canned once they witness my atrocious posture, pasty skin, bald head and creepy high-pitched squeak.

Ah, but enough about my foolishness and misadventures. Today at the movies I saw a boxing documentary, a twisty, turny outer space drama about a Starman, a documentary about Iranian girl delinquents and a mumblecore-style comedy-drama about two straight dudes intent on making a gay porno together. In other words, a typical day here at the Dance.


Thriller In Manilla:
Watching the utterly essential boxing doc When We Were Kings I found myself wondering what the film would have been like if it were told from the perspective not of Muhammad Ali, the people’s champ and eternal icon, but rather from the POV of his opponent. The conventional though riveting documentary Thriller In Manila answers that question by chronicling the legendary third Ali-Frazier match from the perspective of Joe Frazier, a fascinating, ultimately tragic figure who was destroyed physically and emotionally from the beatings Ali gave him inside and outside the ring.

In a bracing change of pace, Muhammad Ali is unambiguously the villain in Thriller, a glib sadist who callously exploited racism in depicting his opponent as a dim-witted ape-man and a brainless pawn of white powerbrokers. Ali’s vicious personal attacks on Frazier were even more unforgivable considering the support, emotional and financial, Frazier gave Ali during the dark days of his exile from professional boxing.

Today Frazier lives in a room in his gym in one of Philadelphia’s bleakest, most impoverished neighborhoods and subsists on canned foods while Ali is a beloved international icon and multi-millionaire. Thriller climaxes with the titular title fight, a brutal clash of the titans in which two of the greatest fighters of all time beat each other nearly to death. Though Frazier emerges as Thriller’s wronged hero he’s far from blameless. The film makes it clear that he’s poisoned by bitterness and resentment towards a man he can never forgive and injustices he can never forget.
Grade: A-


Moon
: It’s hard to discuss the Kubrickian space drama Moon at any length without giving too much away. It’s a film that regularly shifts genres and tones in ways that are both strangely satisfying and frustrating. The film is above all else a spectacular vehicle for the great character actor Sam Rockwell, who delivers a performance of extraordinary power and range. Rockwell plays an astronaut at the tail end of a lonely three-year mission that has enacted a tremendous toll on his psyche and body. Rockwell’s only companion in his Fortress of Lunar Solitude is a HAL-like robot voiced with purring, androgynous malice by Kevin Spacey. It says a lot about the downward curve of Spacey’s career that one of his best roles of the past decade is done entirely through voiceover.

The accomplished directorial debut of one Duncan Jones, AKA Duncan Zowie Heywood Jones, AKA David Bowie’s son, Moon’s wistful, elegiac tone and melancholy mood favorably recall Steven Soderbergh’s underrated remake of Solaris though its greatest debt is to the films of Stanley Kubrick, especially 2001. Detached but strangely affecting, Moon angrily demands a cult following. Special bonus: awesome use of Katrina And The Waves’ deathless, constantly recycled “Walking On The Sunshine”
Grade: B


Humpday:
Watching Lynn Shelton’s Humpday I felt the thrill of discovery, that glorious sense of uncovering something honest, truthful and genuine. One of the downsides to Noel and I both covering Sundance is that there is bound to be a fair amount of overlap both in terms of what we cover and how we write about it. It’s consequently hard to discuss Humpday without referencing mumblecore, Old Joy, Zack And Miri Make A Porno and Sleeping Dogs Lie. Humpday has the scruffy intimacy of  the best mumblecore efforts, a low-key observational sharpness that grounds the film's nervous laughter in the familiar rhythms of everyday life turned upside down. 

The Blair Witch Project’s Joshua Leonard makes a remarkable comeback as an artsy drifter who re-enters the life of college buddy Mark Duplass when he shows up at his door unannounced and crashes at the home Duplass shares with wife Lynn Shelton, who also wrote and directed. During a drunken, stoned night with Leonard’s bisexual instant-sorta girlfriend and her gender-bending friends the two heterosexual pals decide to shatter taboos by videotaping themselves having gay sex with each other. For Duplass it’s a way to prove to Leonard and himself that he’s far more bohemian than he appears to be. For Leonard, it’s a chance to prove to himself that he really is as bohemian as he appears to be.

Humpday seldom hits a wrong note and the climactic sequence where the two old friends finally confront the reality of having sex to prove an exceedingly fuzzy point neither quite understands is handled with humor, maturity and grace. Humpday was greeted with nervous laughter of the most excruciating, cathartic variety and ultimately applause. Both were richly deserved.
Grade: A- 


The Glass House:
With more focus and structure, The Glass House could have been this year’s Born Into Brothels, a powerful exploration of art’s power to transform seemingly hopeless lives. Instead Hamid Rahmanian’s documentary about a center for disadvantaged for abused and disadvantaged young Iranian women that serves as a safe haven in a culture rife with institutionalized, legalized sexism rambles unsteadily from character to character and story to story. It’s intriguing but ultimately unsatisfying and the film’s most charismatic, dynamic figure—a glamorous, dynamic therapist who runs the center and serves as a beloved mother figure to its troubled clients—frustratingly disappears from the film in its last forty minutes. There is a great film to be made from this subject matter and these vibrant, ebullient characters but I suspect it got lost somewhere in the editing room.
Grade: C+

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