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Nathan Rabin @ Sundance '10: Day Three

Enough extracurricular foolishness. Today was all about the movies, and I've still got two more to go. Whee!

Teenage Paparazzo: Teenage Paparazzo gets off to a singularly unpromising start, as celebrity documentarian/maker of documentaries about celebrities Adrien Grenier waxes philosophical about how weird it is that he plays a celebrity on television and now, it’s like, he’s a celebrity too. Grenier finds himself endlessly fascinating. So his new documentary, Teenage Paparazzo is as much about Grenier’s life in the spotlight as its ostensible subject, teenaged paparazzo Austin Visschedyk . That’s a shame, because Visschedyk is utterly fascinating. Street smart, tough, savvy, freakishly precocious and unselfconsciously profane, Visschedyk began shooting celebrities at 13. By 14 he was the youngest of old pros, a dedicated, determined paparazzo whose cherubic good looks—he boasts a level of adorability seldom seen outside Disney cartoons—disarm celebrities who would otherwise deride paparazzo as the worst kind of human garbage, worse even than short filmmakers.

Grenier uses Visschedyk as a springboard to explore the shadowy world of paparazzi and later to delve into the nature of celebrity, voyeurism and what psychologists call parasocial relationships, where one party knows infinitely more than the other. As long as it keeps the focus on Visschedyk, the film is on solid ground, but when Grenier turns the camera on himself the film grows solipsistic and frustrating. Given Visschedyk’s star quality and novelty, it’s not surprising that he becomes a celebrity in his own right as a wacky walking human interest story about a precocious lad beating the big boys at their own game. Teenage Paparazzo eventually coalesces into a fame-addled coming of age story about a bright but self-absorbed young man discovering there’s more to life than money, fame and the thrill of the hunt.

Grade: B-


 I approached Boy, the second feature film from writer, director, comedian and actor Taika Waititi with equal parts anticipation and dread. I avoided Waikiki’s feature debut, Shark Vs. Eagle because it sounded like the work of a second-rate Jared Hess and one Jared Hess is perhaps more than enough. Yet I very much enjoy Waikiki’s work on Flight Of The Conchords, and it looked like Boy shared the show’s distinctly Kiwi brand of deadpan absurdity.

Set in rural New Zealand circa 1984, Boy casts James Rolleston as a young boy in rural New Zealand who worships at the altar of Michael Jackson and his own absent father, who has grown to mythic dimensions in his overactive imagination. Then one day his father (Waititi, in an appropriately larger-than-life turn) pops up unexpectedly in his front yard in a sweet car alongside the other two members of his motorcycle gang the Crazy Horses. To an eleven-year-old boy, Waititi is the coolest man in the world: he’s got a nifty car, badass tattoos, a luxurious pompadour and is only too happy to play war or discuss his favorite movie, E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial, especially when he’s stoned, which is most of the time. As Waititi sticks around to look for money he buried before going to prison it becomes apparent that he’s a drunk, a pothead and an irresponsible father who exists in his own private fantasy world. Once reality sets in, hero worship gives way to profound disillusionment. In its third act, Waikiki’s funny, sweet and accomplished coming-of-age story grows unexpectedly poignant as comes to realize that he doesn’t need a super-cool buddy or a co-conspirator in misadventures: he needs a father and Waititi’s stunted man-child is fatally unsuited for that role.

Grade: B+

Waiting For Superman

A certain level of idealism is expected of documentarians. It’s not the kind of profession anyone gets into for the money. But few are as idealistic or ambitious as Davis Guggenheim (how’s that for a rich person’s name, incidentally? It’s Stuffy Q. Blueblood IV). With An Inconvenient Truth Guggenheim and his bro Al Gore tried to save our planet from extinction via global warming. Now the Oscar-winner is tackling a really challenging subject: the nightmarish clusterfuck that is our public school system. As a graduate of Chicago public schools, I can vouch that schools are the worst institution in existence, worse even than the short film industrial complex.

How did our public schools go from being world-class to a national disgrace? Guggenheim puts much of the blame on powerful teacher unions that reward mediocrity and sub-mediocrity and make it nearly impossible to replace even the worst teachers. But teacher unions are just part of a hopelessly dysfunctional system that does nothing to reward excellence and breeds apathy and inertia (or as I like to think of them, the two immutable cornerstones of the Chicago Public School system). Rather daringly, Guggenheim also points an accusatory figure at bad teachers protected by the lifetime get out of trouble pass that is tenure. As in The Inconvenient Truth, Guggenheim hurls a lot of facts and figures at us but humanizes a vast and, to be fair, almost inconceivably depressing crisis through the stories of a handful of sweet kids hoping to literally win the lottery and get into a charter school not bound by the rules and regulations that make our public schools so fucking terrible. Like An Inconvenient Truth, Superman ends on a hopeful note. Yes, the situation is dire and intimidating but by supporting charter schools and fighting the inertia plaguing the system we can give our children and our children’s children (but not, tellingly, our children’s children’s children) a public school system worthy of a nation commensurate with our noble ideals and values.  

Grade: B+


Still to come this evening: the new Nicole Holofcener, a film to be determined and John Legend + The Motherfucking Roots.