Nathan Rabin @ Sundance '11 Day 3

Nathan Rabin @ Sundance '11 Day 3

As some of y’all might know, I am unhealthily obsessed with the rapper, actor, director, businessman, Vitamin Water pitchman, professional Val Kilmer BFF and fashion designer 50 Cent. I find him fascinating in a wooden way and charismatic in an uncharismatic fashion.

My fascination with 50 Cent has led me down some curious roads. I’ll never forget the magical night when I showed up at a one-night-only showing of 50’s directorial debut Before I Self Destruct featuring a live introduction by the writer-director-star-financier. For hours we waited for the great man to appear. Finally the projectionist gave up and started the film. When I asked an usher later why 50 didn’t show he replied confidently, “Oh, he showed up. He just showed up when the lights were down, announced his presence, then left before the lights went up out of concern for his security.”

That is so 50. Today the hardest working schlock merchant in the direct-to-DVD business disappointed me again. How did this man go from being the hottest rapper in the world to the black Mark Dacascos? I showed up at the aptly named House of Hype for his joint press conference with Floyd Mayweather Jr. to announce the next 20 films to emerge from their Cheetah Vision production company. Incidentally, I’m pretty sure they stole the name of the name Cheetah Vision from a strip club in Fort Lauderdale.

But first I got to experience the magic of the gifting lounge. I have never mastered the art of asking for free shit (perhaps because as a Jewish Midwesterner, deep down I feel I don’t really deserve it) and consequently go home empty handed most years. This year was no exception, though I did stand behind Li’l Jon for a while and all the merchants fell all over themselves giving him free things: beanies, headphones, their first-born child, majority stock in their companies. I thought briefly about trying to pass myself off as a member of Jon’s entourage, perhaps by shouting something along the lines of, “We gonna get some free Norwegian coats up in this bitch, Yeahh!” not unlike Pee-Wee Herman trying to pass himself off as a member of Milton Berle’s posse to get into the Warner Brother Studio in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure but ultimately decided against it.

Alas, I went upstairs to get a drink and when I returned I was informed that 50’s press conference, which must have lasted all of ten minutes, was already over. Since I was already there I figured I might as well stick around and gawk at 50 as he flashed a million dollar smile and answered questions from the adorably starstruck foreign press. My two favorite exchanges involved 50 professing his love for Croatian women to a Croatian journalist and a French space cadet handing 50 and his partners a homemade CD he mumbled was a collaboration between Deepak Chopra and Sharon Stone. I shit you not. 50 accepted it politely, though I imagine it made a hasty trip to the circular file as soon as the Chopra-loving scribe was out of sight.

There are two sides to 50’s persona: the maniac and the enforcer. No, that’s Wings Hauser in Tough Guys Don’t Dance. 50’s two sides are the wild card who’ll say and do anything for attention and the cold-blooded businessman who doesn’t particularly care about anything other than money. Then again, I suspect the wild card side of 50’s persona is primarily a matter of calculation: the 50 who spouted canned lines about “thinking outside the box” in a bored monotone would be snooze-inducingly dull if he didn’t unleash his inner Ol’ Dirty Bastard at regular intervals, especially on his enjoyable nutso Twitter feed.

Ah, but enough foolishness. Onto the movies!

Corman’s World: The Adventures of a Hollywood Rebel: Why has it taken this long for someone to make a major documentary about Roger Corman? He’s the perfect documentary subject, a living legend with the genial, WASP exterior of a bank President and the rakish soul of a carny. He’s also one of the most beloved figures in the history of American film, as evidenced by the cavalcade of mega-stars who show up to pay homage and wax affectionate about his cheapness and shamelessness, giants like Jack Nicholson, Ron Howard, Martin Scorsese (who relates how Corman asked him to consider making Mean Streets with an African-American cast to capitalize on the blaxploitation boom), Jonathan Demme, Quentin Tarantino and Robert De Niro.

Corman is a fascinating contradiction: a madman with the calm, soothing, rational manner of the sanest, calmest man in the world. As his vast army of protégés attest, Corman’s buttoned-down exterior hides a raging id that found its purest expression in drive-in quickies with rubbery sea beasties, half-naked girls in peril and nurses whose bedside manner was questionable at best. Everyone seems to have a classic Corman anecdote; my favorite comes from the great Dick Miller, who recalls how Corman roped him into service early in his career to play a cowboy in a B-movie, then told him he’d also be playing an Indian not just in the same movie but in the same scene (as a result, Miller the cowboy extra ended up killing Miller the Indian extra, or possibly vice versa). Chutzpah, thy name is Roger Corman.

Corman’s World finds the now 84-year-old Corman still sharp and ferociously active. I don’t know whether to find it inspirational or sad that Corman today acts as a hands-on micromanaging producer on TV movies with names like Dinoshark. Corman is clearly not one to go gently into that good night when there is money to be made and budgets to be slashed. Some of the talking heads lament that Corman never realized his true potential, that he was so obsessed with cutting corners that he never followed protégés like Francis Ford Coppola or Jack Nicholson into A-pictures. But Corman’s World is ultimately a celebration of the P.T Barnum of American film, an unlikely rebel who continues to cast a long shadow of a cinematic world he played a central role in creating. (A-)

 

We Were Here: Now from the ridiculous to the sublime. In We Were Here, director David Weissman (The Cockettes) tells the story of how AIDS devastated San Francisco’s gay population, particularly on Castro Street, during the late seventies and eighties through the firsthand accounts of men who saw the city morph from a paradise of sexual freedom and experimentation into the epicenter of a nightmarish epidemic.

It’s history as told not through the stories of legends like Harvey Milk but rather through the heartbreaking anecdotes of everyday men faced with an apocalyptic force almost beyond their comprehension. We Were Here is powerful in its elegant, stripped-down simplicity. It’s a film of quaking sincerity and naked vulnerability full of battle-tested survivors of the AIDS era visibly choking up as they discuss the countless friends, lovers and family members they lost to the disease. We Were Here is a tale of quiet heroism, of a community and a subculture that came of age and found its voice and purest expression while fighting a multi-front war against public ignorance, government apathy and the disease itself as well as a lyrical elegy to a lost world. (B+)

 

The Greatest Movie Ever Sold: In The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, gimmick enthusiast and shrinking violet Morgan Spurlock tries a stunt even shameless old Roger Corman might deride as overly mercenary and crass: he set out to make a documentary about the shadowy world of product placement/brand integration funded entirely through product placement and brand integration. This allows Spurlock to play it both ways, to lampoon the shamelessness and intrusiveness of product placement while at the same time benefiting from its largesse. The dizzyingly post-modern, deconstructionist The Greatest Movie Ever Sold is a film about the making of The Greatest Movie Ever Sold; I imagine the DVD will contain a behind-the-scenes making-of doc on The Greatest Movie Ever Sold that will double as the film itself.

The Greatest Movie Ever Sold gets by on Spurlock’s rambunctious energy and amusingly over-the-top dedication to whatever product he’s shilling for at any given moment. He litters the frame with product placements both subtle and comically overt, even roping Ralph Nader into his schemes. The problem is that The Greatest Movie Ever Sold doesn’t offer any new insight into product placement, as evidenced by closing narration where Spurlock limply says he just wants to make people aware of product placement. The Greatest Movie Ever Sold is a film divided against itself, half cautionary tale of the dangers of selling out, half tongue-in-cheek parody of branding gone mad. It’s amusing but glib, a trifle that’d rather entertain than edify. (B-)

 

Uncle Kent: Will Joe Swanberg ever tire of exploring the vague existential angst of artsy twenty-somethings? Probably not, but with Uncle Kent the mumblecore maestro attempts something radically different: a slice-of-life comedy-drama about the vague existential angst of an artsy forty-year-old. Swanberg’s latest chronicles the uncertain bond between Kent Roberts, a rudderless middle-aged man drifting aimlessly through a life largely devoid of responsibilities and entanglements, and a young woman he met on Chatroulette as they engage in Swanberg’s trademark stumblingly inarticulate banter and ultimately seek out a third for a ménage a trois via Craigslist. Cinematic threesomes appropriately seem to come in three varieties: hot, awkward, and awkwardly hot. Uncle Kent’s graphic sex scene falls into all three categories and leads to the predictable weirdness and uncertainty.

Like Swanberg’s other films, Uncle Kent sometimes captures the stumbling, awkward rhythms of life though an argument could certainly be made that we go to movies precisely because we want to escape the small-scale drudgery of real life, not re-embrace it in cinematic form. In that respect, the film’s meandering shapelessness is both an asset and a flaw. Inconsequential even by the low stakes of mumblecore, Uncle Kent meanders to an anti-climax, uncertain of what it wants to say or how best to say it. (C+)