Nathan Rabin @ Sundance '11 Day One

Nathan Rabin @ Sundance '11 Day One

  Today began with Li’l Jon angrily demanding that I, and everyone else in the club where he was DJing, do shots, or as he eloquently puts it, “Shots! Shots! Shots! Shots!” and ended with a half-empty screening of a relentlessly dour but moving French-Canadian character study about mortality and grieving.

Both events were quintessentially Sundance, a strange realm where the most beautiful, glamorous and successful people in the world rub shoulders with scruffy mumblecore auteurs and the curious, fashion-impaired, and nearly extinct creature known as the film critic. Sundance is a safe haven for drunken rock star debauchery and painfully earnest character-driven dramas alike.

Ah, but first let’s discuss the big Li’l Jon/Snoop Dogg show. Like so much of Sundance, the show was a logistical mess: I ended up waiting in some strange concert purgatory between the hellish mob below and the heavenly club above for two hours and was just about to give up and go home before I was unexpectedly waved in by some unknown good Samaritan.

I know many of you labor under the delusion that there’s anything remotely hip about A.V Club but if you really want to see some fucking hipsters look at the V.I.P line at any Sundance events; it’s nothing but fauxhawks and skinny jeans and flamboyant garb that straddles the line between audacious and butt-ugly.

At the club four ridiculously hot go-go dancers (think Tila Tequila, but attractive) gyrated on the bar to give concertgoers the impression that they weren’t just at a Snoop Dogg show but rather that some Purple Rose of Cairo voodoo had occurred and they were now somehow actually inside an actual Snoop video.

Li’l Jon performed alongside his mascot/doppelganger, an energetic fellow with a giant Muppet-style felt head complete with Jon’s signature glasses and braids. Jon killed it with the DJ set, performing an inspired potpourri of current hip hop and R&B favorites heavy on Young Money anthems and Kanye West while slipping “Wonderwall” into the mix unexpectedly. It should have felt jarring and out of place but it didn’t; like everything else Jon played, it was nearly impossible not to sing along.

Li’l Jon’s set climaxed with him spinning, “Shots”, a song that must warm the hearts of bartenders and club owners everywhere: it stops just short of holding a gun to listener’s heads until they purchase at least a few rounds of Jell-O or Jager shots. Then came Snoop Dogg alongside longtime friends and collaborators Warren G (who now looks unnervingly like a black me with his shaved head and glasses) and Kurupt. As someone who came of age musically during the G-funk/Death Row era and regularly mounted up and regulated, it was a thrill to see at least some of the old crew back together though part of me found it sad that Kurupt and Warren G. apparently don’t have anything better to do than perform a verse apiece while serving as Snoop’s hype men. But dude, Warren G fucking played “Regulators”. How awesome was that? Very.

Snoop Dogg is a little hit or miss for me these days but holy fuck does the man have a deep catalog. He played a solid hour of nothing but hits to an audience that sang along to every word of every song. “Dude, are you looking at the stage or are you looking at the bitches?” a drunk guy beside me hollered as he pointed to the go-go dancers. Snoop was able to get a bunch of drunken horny men to look away from ridiculously hot women in tiny silver bikinis. That, friends, is the mark of a true superstar. But enough tomfoolery and hipping and hopping. Onto the films!

The Submarine—Like so many of the protagonists in the French New Wave masterpieces that inspired it, Craig Roberts, the precocious lead in The Submarine sees the high-wire drama of his adolescence in purely cinematic terms. Roberts can’t control his sad-eyed dad Noah Taylor’s deep depression or his tumultuous romance with a mean girl who just might not have a heart of gold but through the power of his over-active imagination he’s able to transform the grey raw material of his real life into the shimmering stuff of cinematic fantasies.

The Submarine travels a fairly standard coming-of-age arc from naivete and longing to world-weary wisdom but it does so with grace, charm, humor, gorgeous cinematography and fantastic performances from a universally brilliant cast that includes Sally Hawkins as Roberts’ mom and Paddy Considine as a New Age narcissist with a crazy rooster mullet who moves in next door and has a secret history with Hawkins. The Submarine is the film Youth in Revolt should have been, a deeply melancholy yet ribald account of a hyper-verbal oddball’s ascent/descent into manhood. In a perfect world, IT Crowd actor turned filmmaker Richard Aoyke’s astonishingly assured directorial debut, which owes a debt to both Wes Anderson and J.D Salinger, will be this year’s An Education, an under-the-radar sleeper with boundless potential. Plus, it’s produced by Ben Stiller’s production company and has already been picked up by the Weinsteins so hopefully this will be headed to a local art-house theater sometime soon. (A-)  

Bobby Fischer Against the World: How do you plumb the psychological depths of artists legendary for never letting the world peer into their own private little universes? Like the wildly unedifying recent J.D Salinger biography, Bobby Fischer Versus The World suggests it’s damn near impossible to penetrate the walls surrounding its famously prickly and publicity-averse subject.

Bobby Fischer Against The World never issues a particularly convincing or deep explanation for why the greatest chess player that ever lived went crazier than 2Pac in that flick called Juice (I’m seeing the Tribe Called Quest doc and talking to Michael Rappaport soon so I’ve got to prepare) or why a Jewish man would devote much of his adult life to spreading incoherent anti-Semitic propaganda but it’s compelling all the same because its subject was such a singularly fascinating nutcase. With his crazed eyes, coiled body language and Rasputin-like intensity, Fischer cut a fascinating figure even before he shocked the world with his erratic behavior during his legendary face off with Russian Boris Spassky. The son of a brilliant communist mother who put everything above properly socializing her child, Fischer was the American chess champion while still in his teens; during exhibitions he’d sometime compete against forty to eighty adults simultaneously. He was an otherworldly genius with a radically over-developed intellect and wildly under-developed social skills. For a brief idyll, Fischer was one of the most famous people in the world so he can perhaps be forgiven for some of his paranoia, if not for his anti-Semitism and racism.

Fischer helped transform chess into an international phenomenon; if nothing else Fischer is worth seeing for its glimpses into how mainstream and popular chess had become in the mid-1970s, thanks in no small part to Fischer. There’s a particularly great scene of Neiman Marcus of all people on a news show displaying paintings he made of Fischer. Alas, super-fame proved a curse and an even bigger curse to Fischer, who literally ran away from press attention and seemed to live in a strange hermetic little bubble. Alas, the trail goes cold after Fischer stops competing professionally after becoming the champion of the world and the filmmakers are reduced to offering flimsy Psychology 101 explanations for Fischer’s descent into madness ranging from the mind-warping effects of being pathologically obsessed with chess to his profoundly fucked-up childhood. Bobby Fischer Against The World is in many ways a typical HBO documentary: slick, entertaining but a little shallow and superficial. After spending ninety-three minutes with him, Fischer still emerges a relative enigma. (B-)

 

The Salesman: By ten o’clock, the press is generally movied out. That’s why a great late-night screening is something like Black Dynamite or Louis C.K’s Hilarious, nifty jolts of energy and excitement that send festival goers home on an up note. The Salesman, in sharp contrast, seems designed to either lull audiences to sleep with its unrelenting quiet or send them home despondent.

That isn’t to say that The Salesman isn’t a fine movie. It is. It was merely a victim of bad timing, on my part more than the festival’s. A film of hushed intensity, The Salesman casts the great Gilbert Sicotte as a 68-year-old car salesman in a French-speaking Canadian town crippled by the imminent closing of the paper plant that drives its economy.

To Sicotte, being a salesman isn’t a job; it’s an existential destiny, his true calling. Sicotte’s avuncular ways, photographic memory and decades of experience make him his lot’s most successful salesmen year after year but as the local economy plunges into a black hole even Sicotte’s charm can lure customers onto the lot. In true Sundance form The Salesman begins as a melancholy, downbeat mood piece/character study, then becomes sad and ultimately heartbreaking during a shattering climax where Sicotte, a good man trying to make the most of an impossible situation, loses all he loves. Haunting, beautifully realized and full of novelistic detail and great character moments, The Salesman deserves to be seen, but ideally not as the final event of a very long, very hungover day. (B+)

 

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