Nathan Rabin @ Sundance '10: day four

Nathan Rabin @ Sundance '10: day four

Before I left, I told my girlfriend that Sundance is nowhere near as glamorous as it might seem. That’s both true and false, for Sundance is everything. It’s seeing six movies in a day and foregoing even the most basic personal hygiene. It’s trudging through black sludge while carrying five bags and feeling like a refugee. But it’s also the thrill of discovery that comes with stumbling across a movie you love and watching Bill Gates do some sort of spastic geek dance on a bench while drunk off your ass and watching John Legend and The Roots perform together for the very first time.

Last night, I spent a solid hour waiting in line outside the AT&T House of Hype to get into what was billed as an intimate jam session with John Legend and The Roots sponsored by the good folks over at Bing. But oh sweet blessed Lord was it ever worth the wait, even if it was less an epic jam session than an extraordinarily brief set of covers between Legend and three guys from the Roots—the almighty ?uestlove, guitarist Kirk Douglas and some white guy who replaced Hub. I know this gentleman has a name (Owen Biddle) and a pedigree but if you’re Caucasian and in The Roots it is your destiny to be known forever as the White Guy. Scott Storch had to leave The Roots and become one of the most successful producers in Hip Hop in order to become something other than the White Guy from The Roots.

Looking dapper and suave as always, the eternally smooth Legend (seriously, he’s like a walking Scotch advertisement) led The Roots through a series of tight, soulful covers of Bill Withers, Teddy Pendegrass and Donny Hathaway and promised a collaborative album with The Roots sometime this Summer. After a mere five songs, Legend and the hardest working men in hip hop left. “One more song! One more song!” we chanted greedily in unison, hoping for at least the obligatory encore, but the men were done for the evening, having rocked our world and left us wanting more in a set that prized quality over quantity.

But the real show was elsewhere. On a bench about twenty feet from the stage Bill Gates was doing the white boy shuffle alongside a bevy of beauties. It was a sight to behold: the richest man in the world attempting to clap in time and failing miserably while lurching awkwardly in seizure-like contortions that only vaguely resembled dancing. He was there to support Waiting For Superman (apparently Gates is for the children, not unlike The Wu-Tang Clan), which boasts a theme song by Legend. In the past two days I’ve seen the world’s richest man and the world’s most advanced robot dance. The robot has way slicker moves and more rhythm.

Gates couldn’t have been more conspicuous. Everyone noticed him. He was the subject of more photos than The Roots and John Legend combined. After seeing him dance, I can now vouch that Gates is both the world’s richest and whitest man. I kind of wanted to go home after the headliners clocked out early but I could not let a fifty-four year-old geek party harder than me so I stuck around as a DJ played snippets of popular favorites, Girl Talk-style. I also couldn’t help but notice that the DJ was using a Mac to fuck up the mix despite being in the presence of Microsoft’s main man. Apple 4 life! This also afforded me an opportunity to drink excessively, dance like a jackass and spot a few more random-ass celebrities: Kelis, Sam Elliott and Christopher McDonald. Sadly, they were not partying together, nor were they part of Gates’ entourage (homeboy rolls deep). So yeah, Sundance: it’s not all trudging through the black sludge and seeing shitty movies about wheelchair-bound DJs with magical powers. Sometimes, it just fucking rocks.

But enough foolishness: onto the films!

Sympathy For Delicious: While perusing the Sundance schedule I fixated on Sympathy For Delicious not because it looked promising but rather because it looked like an over-the-top parody of self-indulgent Sundance quirkfests. Oh, and also because it was called fucking Sympathy For Delicious. The directorial debut of Mark Ruffalo, the film stars Christopher Thornton—who also wrote the almost inconceivably awful script—as a wheelchair-bound DJ who discovers that he possesses magical healing powers yet cannot heal himself.

Thornton’s mad DJ skills and preternatural powers soon win him a spot with a ridiculous caricature of a rock band fronted by Orlando Bloom’s The Stain. Astonishingly, the fact that Orlando Bloom plays a character named The Stain is only the fifth or sixth most moronic and misbegotten aspect of the film. Thornton’s incredible healing powers and Bloom’s penchant for shirtlessness soon make the terrible, terrible band a giant sensation as they embark on an epic tour tastefully dubbed Healapalooza.

At this point I should probably note that Sympathy For Precious actually exists. To paraphrase Dave Barry, I am so not making this shit up. I should also point out that this is not a comedy but rather an unrelentingly dour, portentous drama that expects us to take this foolishness seriously.

Thornton seems to have derived his entire knowledge of the rock and roll world from a Roger Corman 1968 biker movie. The rockers consequently all slather on eyeliner, wear tight leather pants and swig hard liquor straight from the bottle and talk in a borderline nonsensical hipster patois. When the group’s manager (Laura Linney, in a rare terrible performance) derides them for not writing melodies or hooks, Thornton angrily screams, “Open your suit ears, bitch!” Dude, Linney is such a sellout that even her body parts are corporate: I understand her esophagus is actually a member of the John Birch Society.

In a magnificently awful, scenery-chewing performance Orlando Bloom does a terrible impersonation of both John Lennon and Jim Morrison while Juliette Lewis devolves into sad self-parody as the group’s pill-addled bassist. Sympathy For Delicious somehow manages to be even worse than a muddled religious allegory about a wheelchair-bound faith-healing rock and roll DJ has any right to be, which is almost an accomplishment in itself.

Grade: F-

Obseledia: Speaking of insufferable Sundance quirkfests, Obseledia casts Michael Picirillii as a loner librarian writing an encyclopedia about obsolete things. Picirillii sports giant Bill Gates glasses, eschews modern niceties in favor of the terminally quaint technology, makes very little money and is prickly, distant and unpleasant. So, of course, beautiful women throw themselves at him, most notably a projectionist at a silent movie house whose Neanderthal boyfriend fancies himself a filmmaker yet refuses to see Au Hasard Baltasar or Zabriskie Point. The film’s skeletal plot finds Picirillii and his Manic Pixie Dream Girl gallivanting about the Museum of Jurassic Technology and embarking on a road trip to visit an eccentric scientist who predicts that the world will end in less than a century. Will these two kooks out of step with our crazy modern world find love? Who the fuck cares? Obseledia finds its hopelessly twee conceits and precious leads utterly adorable. I found the main characters a grating aggregation of eccentricities and the film unbearable.

Grade: F

Please Give: I like to think of Nicole Holofcener’s films as what Quentin Tarantino calls “hang out movies”, in that they feature characters you enjoy spending time with and want to revisit time and time again. I don’t care if she’s essentially been making the same movie since her 1996 debut Walking And Talking. I don’t fucking care. I happen to like that movie a great deal. So it didn’t bother me at all that her latest joint felt an awful lot like Friends With Money, which felt like Lovely And Amazing, which felt like a sequel of sorts to Walking And Talking.

Holofcener’s latest, Please Give, finds the writer-director once again exploring the tricky intersection of money, class, vanity, sex and family with her leading lady of choice, Catherine Keener. Keener anchors Holofcener latest ensemble comedy-drama as a successful businesswoman who assuages her guilt over running a sketchy business with husband Oliver Platt by giving generously and indiscriminately to everyone she thinks might be in need. Platt and Keener essential function as genial, well-intentioned professional vultures.

They make their living buying the furniture and knickknacks of the dead from their children and then selling them at their upscale antique furniture store for a healthy profit. In a similar vein, Keener and Platt are waiting patiently for their hideous, ancient shrew of a next-door-neighbor to die so that they can knock down the wall separating their homes and build an addition. This brings them into the lives of the woman’s granddaughters, acid-tongued Amanda Peet and her bleeding-heart sister, Rebecca Hall.

Platt impulsively begins an affair with Peet, Hall dates diminutive hunk Thomas Ian Nicholas and Keener struggles to keep it all together and stave off a nervous breakdown despite a conscience that gets guiltier with each passing day. Please Give has a plot but it’s really all about characters and keenly observed little moments: Peet uncharacteristically resting her head against Hall during a rare moment of tenderness and vulnerability, Hall slumping down ever so slightly to kiss Nicholas and the look of satisfaction on Platt and Keener’s awkward, painfully self-conscious daughter’s face when she finally finds a flattering pair of jeans. An abundance of wonderful small moments and terrific performances make this a low-key charmer and a triumph almost on par with a chubby teenager finding the perfect pair of jeans.

Grade: B+

Four Lions: Chris Morris’ audacious religious and political satire Four Lions has the brass-iron balls to finally explore the lighter, wackier side of jihad. The raucously funny, slapdash comedy focuses on the comical misadventures of a group of British Islamic fundamentalists intent on sacrificing themselves for Allah. With the exception of their perpetually apoplectic leader Riz Ahmed, they’re emotionally stunted overgrown children playing at being righteous religious warriors. It’s a comedy with casualties: think of the central bunglers as the mujahideen that couldn’t shoot straight. Morris gets a lot of comic mileage out of the unlikely juxtaposition of sacred ideals and the ridiculousness of pop culture, from a half-wit who espouses his beliefs through hilariously awful rap songs to the wannabe Bin Ladens communicating via a virtual site in which they all assume the avatars of cartoon puffins. Four Lions sometimes feels more like a series of inspired sketches than a cohesive narrative but audiences are liable to be too busy laughing at boneheaded schemes like the stupidest would-be Jihadist’s proposal that they blow up the internet. Four Lions deftly mixes gallows humor with inspired brilliant gags, like the would-be suicide bombers’ plan to create mass destruction while wearing ridiculous animal costumes. I’m laughing just thinking about some of the gags, which is always a good sign. A wacky, lowbrow comedy about Islamic terrorists with an unknown cast isn’t exactly an easy sell but Four Lions has the makings of a cult classic.

Grade: A-

Tomorrow: James Franco plays Allen Ginsberg, a documentary on folks addicted to Second Life, Joan Jett and company get the biographical treatment and a whole bunch of other awesome shit. 

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