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Nathan Rabin @ Sundance '10 Day Six

Exit Through The Gift Shop: It’s hard to write about Exit Through The Gift Shop, or do it justice without revealing many of its twists and turns. That’s a damned shame, because so much of what makes legendarily secretive street artist Banksy’s directorial debut such a hoot is its unpredictability. The trippy art world satire begins with a loopy post-modern premise. In Gift Shop, an eccentric, street art loving Frenchman named Thierry Guetta set out to make a documentary about a new breed of artists who scrawl their masterpieces on walls and overpasses and nabbed the Holy Grail of street art fans when he hooked up with Banksy, a legendary graffiti artist whose identity remains a mystery to the general public. Twist 1: Banksy decided that Thierry is much more interesting than himself and decides to make a documentary about his ostensible chronicler. Twist 2: Thierry isn’t a documentarian or filmmaker so much as he’s a male groupie for the artists he loves with a pathological need to film everything he sees.

Exit Through The Gift Shop takes us deep inside the world of street artists like Banksy, who is seen only in shadows and speaks through a voice distorter yet still gets all of the film’s funniest lines and sharpest observations, and Shepard Fairey, who went from underground hero to mainstream superstar when his riff on a Associated Press photograph of Barak Obama became perhaps the President’s defining piece of iconography. Again, I’m hesitant to give away too much because I want you to enjoy the film (Mild SPOILER alert) as much as I did so I’ll just enigmatically say that Thierry makes the leap from idiosyncratic chronicler of street art to creator of street art and, after a slow start, Gift Shop becomes a simultaneously hilarious and trenchant exploration of the intersection of art, commerce and hype. So, is Thierry ultimately a modern-day Andy Warhol or a charlatan? Banksy’s film suggests the two aren’t mutually exclusive.

Grade: B+

Holy Rollers: When I was eleven years old I spent a Summer or two at camp called Gan Israel run by Hassidic ultra-Orthodox Jews. I couldn’t be more secular but I found the Lubavitchers’ warm, inclusive sense of community awfully seductive. I envied the sense of purpose that comes with waking up every morning knowing I was living my life in full accordance with God’s laws. It’s that comforting sense of community that’s missing from Holy Rollers, an underwhelming, flatly shot drama about an ultra-Orthodox Jewish Ecstasy smuggling ring inspired by actual events.

Kevin Asch’s depressingly wan feature-length directorial debut captures the negative aspects of Orthodox Judaism—the rules and restrictions, the dogmas and prohibitions—but not the sense of rapture that comes with fierce religious devotion. In a performance that tweaks his doe-eyed, adorable man-child persona ever so slightly, Jesse Eisenberg plays a young Orthodox Jew whose buttoned-down life gets turned upside down when he’s lured into smuggling Ecstasy.

The drug trade appeals to Eisenberg’s hesitance to pursue the life his family has mapped out for him and his innate business savvy and it isn’t long until Eisenberg trades in a life of study and prayer for clubbing and recruiting mules of his own. Caught between worlds, Eisenberg abandons his faith and, in the ultimate act of religious heresy, cuts off his payot. If Holy Rollers paints a dour, unappealing portrait of Orthodox Judaism it’s equally harsh in its portrayal of a curiously joyless and depressing club scene. Since Eisenberg never seems that connected to his family or community his betrayal never has much resonance. Asch steers clear of the culture-clash comedy seemingly endemic in the film’s premise but doesn’t have much to say about the conflict between the secular and the profane either. Holy Rollers is ultimately a big shrug of a movie, a maddening underachiever that wastes a promising premise and a perfectly cast but hamstrung lead.

Grade: C

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work: A Piece of Work gets uncomfortably close to pioneering stand-up comic/plastic surgery victim Joan Rivers as it chronicles a year in the life of the then 75-year-old comic. Over the course of her five decades in comedy Rivers has achieved enough success and amassed enough money for several lifetimes yet she still pushes herself relentlessly, pursuing a work schedule that would leave comics half her age hospitalized for exhaustion. She’s a big bundle of neuroses and self-doubt as she sweats shows in podunk towns, endures a Comedy Central Roast that pours salt into her many open wounds and whores herself out to anyone who will have her, whether it’s the maker of penis-extension pills or Celebrity Apprentice (it’s a crapshoot as to which gig is more embarrassing, though at least Rivers won Donald Trump’s business competition).

A Piece of Work is often raucously funny but tragedy is never far from the surface. The suicide of Rivers’ husband and partner Edgar casts a long shadow over her life and career and the incongruously thin-skinned comic never seems to have gotten over longtime champion Johnny Carson shunning and blacklisting her after she hosted an ill-fated FOX talk show that competed with, and was demolished by, Carson’s The Tonight Show. Rivers’ workaholic compulsions are at once admirable and unnerving; like a shark, she seems to think she’ll die the second she stops moving. Work will obviously appeal primarily to Rivers fans but as an exploration of the neediness and desperation that so often define the comic mind it’s quietly profound and heartbreaking.

Grade: B+

Lovers of Hate: Every year Sundance bills its latest slate as a return to the festival’s gritty, low-budget underground roots. This year’s theme— “Renewed Rebellion”—was illustrated through numerous pre-film shorts that dutifully list the festival’s seven hundred or so corporate sponsors (It’s Cinematic Anarchy! Brought to you by Blockbuster and Pepsi!) while crowing about its revolutionary disdain for The Man. Writer-director Bryan Poyser’s Lovers of Hate is an independent in the truest sense. It has a cast of several unknowns playing largely unsympathetic characters and boasts production values that make the average public access show look like Cleopatra. More to the point, it takes place largely in a big house in Park City. How could Sundance refuse?

The film casts Chris Doubek as a sentient ball of bitterness reduced to living in his car and sneaking hobo showers on the fly after his long-suffering wife (Heather Kafka) finally kicks him out. Doubek’s rage at a world that has rejected him kicks into overdrive when he receives a visit from smug younger brother Alex Karpovsky, a wildly successful author of a Harry Potter-like book series. With nothing left to lose, the unemployed, friendless and miserable Doubek decides to sneak into the giant Park City house where Karpovsky plans to finish his latest book and is horrified if not particularly surprised to discover his estranged wife having a steamy affair with his much more successful younger brother.

In a fit of psychosexual masochism Doubek lurks about furtively, spies on his brother and his wife fucking enthusiastically, takes a monster dump in the toilet without flushing, deletes his brother’s newest manuscript and generally does everything in his power to sabotage the red-hot romance between Karpovsky and Kafka. Pitched uneasily between revenge thriller, dark comedy and moody drama, Lovers Of Hate gleans neither suspense nor laughs from its claustrophobic premise. If Lovers of Hate represents Sundance’s idea of a real indie, then bring on the faux likes of Little Miss Sunshine. It’s never an encouraging sign when the only impression a film leaves is that the lead actress has lovely breasts and looks much better naked than clothed.

Grade: C-