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Nathan Rabin @ Sundance '11: Day Five

Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times: With his sandpaper rasp, pummeling intensity, sharp wit, and brutally frank manner, New York Times media columnist and Night Of The Gun author David Carr serves as the pugnacious hero of Page One: A Year Inside The New York Times. He’s a blunt truth-teller in a world of spin and lies, the newspaper equivalent of Michael Shannon in Revolutionary Road.

Though he only scores a minute or two of screen time, the utterly loathsome corporate pirate and destroyer of great newspapers Sam Zell functions as Carr’s antithesis, nemesis, subject (Carr wrote the definitive piece on the frat house culture that flourished once Zell took over The Chicago Tribune and installed his randy radio buddies in leadership roles), and funhouse mirror double: Both men are aggressive, profane, and blunt but Zell worships unapologetically at the temple of the almighty dollar while underneath his brusque exterior, Carr is an idealist and true believer. Carr is fighting for the soul of the newspaper business while Zell and his overgrown frat boys view some of the most powerful newspapers in the land as toys to be used, then discarded.

At a time when newspapers are viewed as stuffy anachronisms and dismissed as irrelevant, Page One depicts the high-pressure, high-stakes, high-intensity world of everyday life in a heroic if not quite hagiographic light. It’s in love with the sepia-toned romance of the newspaper world, with the dynamic young men and women who devote their lives to uncovering and sharing the truth. Alas, the filmmakers have almost too much to work with. Page One might have worked better as a non-fiction mini-series or reality show where it could take its time and really flesh out its subjects and the uncertain times they inhabit. Page One is an important document of the paper of record at a crucial, make-or-break juncture in its long, glorious history, and a love letter to the dying art form that is the great American newspaper at a time when the institution teeters on the precipice of extinction. (B+)

Miss Representation: I know I’ve written this before but I really wish the documentarians of the world would leave themselves out of their films unless it is absolutely necessary. That’s certainly true of Miss Representation, an overdue exploration of the fierce backlash against strong women in our society that’s hobbled by the distracting presence of director Jennifer Siebel Newsom, an actress, athlete, and all-around renaissance woman married to famously handsome politician Gavin Newsom. (He’s so dreamy!)

Newsom at least has a thematic reason to be in the film. As she drones in her dishwater-dull narration, she’s having a daughter of her own and is worried about the avalanche of destructive and dehumanizing depictions of women she’ll be inundated with her entire life. For better but mostly worse, Newsom only occasionally floats into the film to deliver vague platitudes in a spacey monotone, when the film is much better served by indignant, righteous, and fascinating anecdotes from Jane Fonda, Rachel Maddow, Gloria Steinem, Katie Couric, Geena Davis, and many more.

Miss Representation paints a broad, sometimes fuzzy picture of a toxic cultural climate where powerful women like Hillary Clinton and Condoleezza Rice are demonized and ridiculed, where women with cellulite are pilloried in snarky tabloids and gossip rags as disgusting, repulsive tubs of goo, and an endless brigade of makeover shows posit plastic surgery as a magical cure-all.

Newsom’s manifesto is often guilty of preaching to the converted and littering the screen with an endless parade of overtly sexual images in pop culture that don’t add much to her argument, but there’s a strong, clear strain of righteous indignation that carries the film beyond its periodic missteps and rookie errors. And heaven knows we need a film like this now at a time where anyone who objects to, say, women being called trashbags, sluts, and whores on Jersey Shore is accused of being a shrill, humorless man-hater. Miss Representation is vital, relevant, and often compelling; it’s just an edit or two away from being satisfying. Incidentally, at a later screening, I overheard a festivalgoer who’d seen the film bray at a friend, “Dude, if they don’t want to be objectified they shouldn’t have boobs.” Sigh. (B-)

The Woman: See enough films here at Sundance and unlikely patterns begin to emerge. On the surface, Miss Representation and The Woman wouldn’t seem to have much in common. One is an almost painfully earnest feminist manifesto, the other is an agreeably deranged horror-comedy, but both films explore the warped psyches of men who dehumanize and objectify women. One just has a whole lot more gore and carnage than the other. I won’t say which one.

The Woman casts Sean Bridgers as a country lawyer whose easygoing, affable demeanor hides a monstrous interior. While out hunting one night, Bridgers stumbles upon a half-naked, filthy, sub-verbal, feral animal-woman (Pollyanna McIntosh). He embraces the white man’s burden and domesticates her. He’s going to teach her his idea of civilization, much to the horror of Bridgers’ abused wife and traumatized daughter and to the delight of Bridgers’ son, a leering, grope-happy chip off the old rotted block.

Bridgers treats McIntosh like a combination pet, child, and sex toy; McIntosh may be feral and bloodthirsty, but Bridgers emerges as this brutally funny, imaginatively gory midnight movie’s true villain, a man who wants to violate and destroy everything he touches. McIntosh most assuredly does not have a heart of gold, but she acts purely out of instinct and survival, whereas Bridgers has been corrupted by what passes for civilization. The Woman plays at time like a feminist answer to Craig Brewer’s fundamentally conservative Black Snake Moan, only this time, the ostensible savior’s cure for a wicked woman’s wildness might just be worse than the disease. (B)