Nathan Rabin @ Sundance 2012: Day Four

Nathan Rabin @ Sundance 2012: Day Four

Me @ The Zoo: Nothing takes the fun out of laughing at other people’s misfortune quite like acknowledging their fundamental humanity. That’s the lesson of Me @ The Zoo,a low-budget, Michael Stipe-executive-produced documentary about Chris Crocker, a flamboyantly gay cross-dressing teenager from Tennessee who rocketed to national infamy after releasing a viral video where he begged a parasitic press to, in his immortal words, “Leave Britney alone!”

The video made Crocker an instant star for the YouTube age, even as it engendered a tidal wave of mockery and scorn, much of it viciously homophobic in nature. YouTube comment boards bring out the worst in everyone, and Crocker found himself a ripe target for online abuse.

Crocker idolized and identified with Spears; he saw himself in her vulnerability and her exhibitionism, in the way she whipsawed between brassy flamboyance and child-like frailty. Me @ The Zoo is a quasi-self-portrait for the age of online narcissism; time and again the film segues from Crocker’s screamingly theatrical online displays to an army of online YouTube imitators compulsively imitating Crocker’s every shriek, shimmy, hair-flip, and freak-out. The film functions as a funhouse mirror reflecting Crocker’s obsessions back to him in increasingly extreme, distorted forms.

Me @ The Zoo follows Crocker as he tries to monetize his unlikely fame by traveling to Hollywood to shop a reality show about his life and bumps up hard against the limits of his already-fading celebrity. Zoo posits Crocker as a link between Warhol’s gender-bending, questionably talented “superstars” and YouTube celebrities whose fame often feels disconnected from their actual achievements.

Crocker proves surprisingly savvy and self-aware as his ephemeral fame begins to dissipate, Britney distances herself from him (truly the unkindest cut of all), his homeless mother spirals into meth addiction, and Crocker finds himself in desperate need of reinvention. Me @ The Zoo functions as a cautionary warning about the danger of fame untethered to substantive achievement but it’s also a surprisingly empathetic character study intent on understanding its oft-maligned and mocked protagonist. (B)  

Something From Nothing: The Art Of Rap: The not-so-hidden secret of gangsta rap pioneer’s Ice-T life and career is that the controversial provocateur behind such incendiary songs as “KKK Bitch” and “Cop Killer” is an affable, ingratiating figure who was well-liked by the brass at Warner Brothers even as the controversy over “Cop Killer” threatened the corporation’s financial interests (as recounted in Dan Charnas’ wonderful history of hip hop business, The Big Payback). Who else would feel equally at home on NPR’s Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me and Pimps Up, Hos Down (other than Tom Bodett of course)?

Ice-T makes his directorial debut with Something From Nothing: The Art Of Rap,a wonderfully casual, conversational exploration of the craft of hip hop, graced by its host/producer/director’s innate affability. Ice-T’s prestige helped line up a murderer’s row of lyricists eager to discuss their craft with one of hip hop’s pioneers and masters.

T has wracked up such an impressive line-up that it’s almost easier to name the star rappers who don’t appear (50 Cent, for example, is nowhere to be seen) than the ones that do. He begins by chit chatting amiably with his colleagues from the Old School before comfortably inhabiting the role of hip hop elder statesman in front of such luminaries as Eminem, Kanye West, Mos Def, and Redman.

Ice-T’s affection and appreciation for peers like Run and DMC, KRS-ONE, Big Daddy Kane, and Rakim is both infectious and gleefully reciprocated. Much of Something From Nothing is given over to performances, ranging from popular rappers like Kanye West and Eminem to the obscure but revered likes of Ras Kass (who notes that his dense, cerebral rhymes are best appreciated by two demographics with a lot of time on their hands: college kids and men in prison). Needless to say, no one wants to deliver a sub-par performance in front of a legend like Ice-T or be upstaged by the who’s-who of rappers also delivering impassioned, stripped-down performances. Something From Nothing: The Art Of Rap argues persuasively that hip hop can be disarmingly friendly, as well as an invaluable tool for social criticism and self-expression. (B+)

Excision: If Something For Nothing coasts breezily by on its director/host’s affability, the darkly comic shocker Excision is powered by unrepentant ugliness and a profoundly bleak take on human nature. It’s a black comedy about an oily, deeply unpleasant high school misfit (AnnaLynne McCord) whose life is like that of the protagonist of Carrie minus the supportive family, upbeat personality, and social skills.

McCord aspires to be a surgeon; unfortunately her medical role models seem to be Jeremy Irons in Dead Ringers and Doctor Giggles from the Peabody-winning film of the same name. She’s obsessed with dead bodies and vivisections and menstrual blood and that’s one of her more charming qualities.

Writer-director Richard Bates Jr. stocks the supporting cast with camp icons like Traci Lords, Malcolm McDowell, and John Waters, whose presence here as a priest/psychologist feels unmistakably like a benediction from one generation of ballsy, boundary-pushing cult filmmaker to another. But the film belongs to McCord, who delivers a performance boldly devoid of vanity (and likability). Unlike most high school geeks, McCord doesn’t desperately seek the approval of her peers or shrink away from attention: instead she’s intent on inflicting her perverse whims on everyone around her, whether that means kissing a baffled boy with her herpes-infected lips at a Cotillion or all but demanding that a classmate take her virginity in the least sentimental manner possible. Like The Woman last year, Excision is a supremely nasty piece of work in the best way possible. (B+)

Lay The Favorite: Bruce Willis has spent so long smirking and sleepwalking through high-concept blockbusters that it can be bracing to see him actually act rather than coast on the public’s fond memories of John McClane, Butch Coolidge, David Addison, and of course Hudson Hawk, the character he portrayed in the motion picture Hudson Hawk. Willis gives a nicely shaded character actor turn in Lay The Favorite as a legendary gambler in Las Vegas who becomes the employer of—and unattainable object of desire to—Rebecca Hall, an exuberant ditz whose sexpot exterior masks an unexpected gift for numbers and words.

Hall flees Tallahassee early in the film to pursue her life’s dream of becoming a cocktail waitress in Las Vegas. That goal proves out of reach despite Hall’s unexpected gifts and ebullient personality, but she soon stumbles into a job working for Willis. Hall falls instantly and hopelessly in love with Willis, much to the chagrin of his trophy wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones), but Willis is too much of a mensch to take advantage of the younger woman’s affections. He’s more interested in being a mentor and father figure to her than a lover, so a frustrated Hall hightails it to New York with hopelessly bland journalist boyfriend Joshua Jackson and goes to work for Vince Vaughn, woefully but at times entertainingly miscast as a broad caricature of a sleazy, ostentatiously Jewish New York bookie.

Lay The Favorite,an adaptation of protagonist Beth Raymer’s memoir of her time in the gambling trenches, often plays like Carl Hiassen-light (which, in turn, is essentially Elmore Leonard-light). It’s a decidedly soft-boiled tale populated by some of the nicest degenerate gamblers you’d ever want to meet. It meanders amiably en route to nowhere in particular, powered by Willis’ nicely paternal turn and the irrepressible energy of Hall, whose character combines the voice of Kristin Schaal with the short-shorts-intensive wardrobe of Daisy Duke. (B-)


My Best Day: Sundance wouldn’t be Sundance if it didn’t occasionally feature a movie so utterly lacking that it inspires fevered conjecture as to who the filmmakers must have paid off to merit inclusion in a festival devoted to the best in independent film. My Best Day is such a film, an utterly forgettable day-in-the-life-of-a-small-town comedy-drama with next to nothing going for it beyond an air of vague likability.

The film follows a series of small-town residents as they prepare for a big Fourth of July picnic. An anxious young woman discovers that her long-lost father and sister might live in a neighboring town, so she heads out on a journey of self-discovery. The long lost sister, meanwhile, struggles to control a gambling addiction while the long-lost dad can’t quite bring himself to admit that the man who has been crashing on his couch for the last two years isn’t a buddy going through hard times but rather his gay lover. 

My Best Day’s heart is in the right place. It has a winningly casual approach to small-town homosexuality (one of the other main characters is a lesbian repairwoman with romantic travails of her own), but otherwise makes no impression whatsoever. It’s the sort of bland snoozer you begin forgetting about before it’s even over. At least it has the decency to end after 75 minutes. My Best Day isn’t good but at least it’s short. (C-)

Tomorrow: I finally review Save The Date, Spike Lee goes small scale, and some other stuff way too exciting to even go into now.