Nathan Rabin @ Sundance '10: Day Five

Nathan Rabin @ Sundance '10: Day Five

The Runaways: It sometimes feels like every film about a famous drug addict is the same. It doesn’t necessarily matter where the addict came from or what drove them to engage in drug abusage. Onscreen at least every addict seems to lurch towards oblivion in a roughly identical fashion. Case in point: li’l Dakota Fanning (Christ, she's still only fifteen) as Cherie Currie in The Runaways, a rock and roll movie like every other. Oh sure, the decadent rockers here snorting blow, shagging indiscriminately and swigging hard liquor from open bottles (cause when you’re that fucked up, who has time to pour alcohol into glasses?) are bisexual underage female punks but they might as well be Jim Morrison in the Doors or Hector Lavoe in El Cantante.

A bleary, booze-sodden melodrama and one of the hottest tickets at Sundance (I waited in line for 90 minutes to avoid getting turned away), The Runaways chronicles the meteoric rise and fall ™ of an all-girl group assembled by Michael Shannon’s rapacious Kim Fowley, a gutter-mouthed Svengali equal parts P.T Barnum and Andy Warhol. The dead-eyed talent vacuum that is Kristen Stewart co-stars as Joan Jett, a snarling badass whose attitude and songwriting perfectly complemented Currie’s purring sex kitten onstage, on record and in bed. Yes, The Runaways is as filled with softcore underage lesbian sex as it is hoary rock movie clichés, from the montage of rapid-fire ecstatic magazine and newspapers covers that take the group from obscurity to superstardom (in Japan at least, where they have a distinct weakness for young girls in tight pants) to the use of blurry, distorted visuals to convey the ever-deteriorating state of Currie’s mental state as she enters the proverbial nightmare descent into booze and pills. I’ve seen it all before; you probably have as well and the novelty of seeing Fanning snorting blow in an airplane bathroom, wearing outfits that would make Jenna Jameson blush and making out with Stewart can only take the film so far. Not surprisingly, Shannon steals the show with his oddball energy—he’s staking his claim as the Christopher Walken of his generation—and warped humor but his character all but disappears a half hour in: a biopic about Fowley starring Shannon—now that would be an event worth standing in line for ninety minutes.

Grade: C

Howl: My colleague Scott Tobias has a theory that biopics should focus on a specific period in their subjects lives instead of scrambling to capture an entire lifetime in 100 minutes. Biopics burdened with telling the story of a life from birth to death tend to rely heavily on shortcuts, clumsy exposition and montage upon montage upon montage. So in theory at least Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s Howl is exactly the kind of biopic Scott would get behind. It’s an almost perversely constricted biopic that focuses on Allen Ginsberg’s obscenity trial for putting out Howl. Howl began life as a documentary nurtured at the Sundance lab and oh sweet blessed Lord does it ever show it.

Much of the screenplay is seemingly taken verbatim from the minutes of the court case; the rest of it seems derived from interviews with Ginsberg. It’s also doggedly schizophrenic. It puts on a suit and tie for the courtroom sequences, then lets its freak flag fly during loopy animated sequences that illustrate Ginsberg’s poems in a manner at once literal and abstract.

Howl pits the forces of art, sexuality and free expression against the malevolent narrow-mindedness of censors and scolds represented by “experts” who embody a character type I like to call Stuffy Q. Blueblood. Jeff Daniels plays the most egregious Stuffy Q. Blueblood here, a pompous boob of a professor who oozes hiss-worthy self-satisfaction.

As Ginsberg, James Franco undercuts his innate hunkiness with nerdy glasses and a mild approximation of the legendary beat poet’s trademark nasal whine but his attractiveness proves distracting. Much of Ginsberg’s aching vulnerability came from being an ugly duckling in a beat movement filled with preening, ridiculously attractive swans. Franco puts up a valiant effort but he never disappears into character and Howl is never quite as affecting or poignant as it should be.

Franco resembles the famously homely Ginsberg about as much as I’m a dead ringer for Jon Hamm, who not so coincidentally plays Ginsberg’s razor-sharp lawyer. Hamm is almost too effective as a suave, learned man of the law so skilled and brilliant he's able to reduce the opposing attorney (David Strathairn, who seemingly appears in every docudrama) to fits of incoherent rage: with both Don Draper and right on his side, there’s no way Ginsberg can lose. (B-)

Life 2.0: Jason Spingarn-Koff’s Life 2.0 resembles a more ambitious version of those BBC documentaries that take an alternately empathetic and exploitative look at folks living on the fringes of society, whether they’re the world’s fattest virgin, the world’s fattest dwarf, the world’s fattest chubby chaser or just a guy who likes to fuck cars. And is also morbidly obese.

The eccentric figures chronicled here are a handful of souls utterly obsessed with Second Life, an online community that allows shut-ins, middle-aged virgins and even a handful of normal, well-adjusted souls to lose themselves in a virtual world where they can be anyone they want to be. Participants can be everything from giant-breasted, tiny-waisted Amazons to giant-breasted, tiny-waisted Asians. Subjects include an extremely likeable heavyset African-American woman who still lives in her parent’s basement yet makes six figures a year selling virtual clothes, shoes and beauty products on Second Life, an engaged computer geek who freaks out his fiancé by choosing an eleven-year-old girl as his avatar and a pair of star-crossed cyber-lovers who fell for one another on Second Life despite being married to other people and living in different countries: The man lives in Canada while the shockingly attractive woman lives in New York. 

The online lovers decide to throw caution to the wind and pursue a relationship in real life but they soon discover that virtual love affairs are a whole lot easier to maintain and sustain than actually sharing a life with someone, especially once exes and children enter the picture. The virtual entrepreneur wrestles with the slightly surreal issue of cyber-piracy while the grown man who chooses to be a little girl online spirals into madness and is eventually forced to confront suppressed traumatic memories.

Life 2.0 comments insightfully on the way the Internet has altered our perception of reality and the way we see ourselves and the tricky business of separating the real from the virtual. Though few take their online obsession to the extremes of the film’s subjects, many of us have bifurcated identities. Just after seeing the film, for example, I went online at a Mexican restaurant and overheard some strangers behind me talking about my last Tweet. I was tempted to go over to their table and identify myself but it somehow felt safer to let them interact with the virtual me instead of the flesh-and-blood entity eating shredded beef tacos three tables away. The documentary is ultimately a very human look at the way our virtual and real lives intersect and overlap and the hazards of letting our cyber-selves corrupt and distort our sense of self.

Grade: B

Lucky: Spellbound director Jeffrey Blitz makes nice movies about nice people for nice people. So perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising Lucky, his new film about lottery winners, focuses less on the many lottery winners who develop debilitating drug addictions than amiable, well-intentioned folks whose lives changed instantly and dramatically the moment their lucky numbers came up. Even the film’s most wasteful and self-indulgent subject—a colorful old coot who used his money to buy thousands of pairs of pants and less practical items—once rushed into a burning building to save a child’s life.

As Notorious B.I.G once noted, more money often brings more problems and the lottery winners are forced to deal with jealousy and resentment from friends, the disorientation that comes with rocketing up the socioeconomic ladder in a heartbeat and, in a very extreme case, multiple attempts on their life from greedy siblings.

Blitz surveys a colorful lot, including an eccentric gent who uses his fortune mainly to buy cat food for his army of felines and handjobs from prostitutes, a Vietnamese family who embrace the gauche excesses of the nouveau riche to a comical degree and the aforementioned old coot who ends up penniless and alone after mindlessly squandering his fortune.

Lucky sacrifices depth for breadth; Blitz might have been better off focusing on few subject instead of casting his net far and wide and chronicling such tangentially related figures as a woman who spends a small fortune playing the lottery everyday and a young man whose asshole friends tricked him into thinking he’d won the lottery using a prank they stole from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Blitz’s amiable time-waster is breezy to a fault. I found it engaging, but I don’t expect it to linger in my psyche for very long.

Grade: B-

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