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Nathan Rabin @ Sundance 2012: Day Three 

In my last post, I promised a report on a big Aziz Ansari/Drake double-header going down at the fabulous Bing Bar on Park City’s Main Street. I would love to tell you that the show was tremendous and hilarious, but in true Sundance tradition, I showed up half an hour early at what I was told was the head of the line, then waited two and a half hours in the sleet before being told the venue was filled to capacity and nobody else would be let in.

It was a frustratingly predictable Sundance experience. Some of my most memorable concert-going experiences have happened here at Sundance, from a kick-ass Snoop Dogg show last year to a mini-John Legend and The Roots concert where Bill Gates showed off some of the whitest dance moves in existence. But unless you’re a V.I.P., Sundance has a way of making you pay for intimate concert experiences with time and frustration if not money. Perhaps that’s the film world’s way of saying, “concentrate on the fucking films, stupid.”

With that in mind, let’s get to it. I apologize if this is a little on the short side, as I spent much of yesterday waiting in line for things I didn’t get into and waiting to interview Alison Brie and Lizzy Caplan (at the Bing Bar, ironically enough) about their new film Save The Date, which I quite liked. Brie and Caplan were funny and unrelentingly delightful (also pretty, and surprisingly knowledgeable about the music and culture of Insane Clown Posse), but you already knew that. Look for a review of Save The Date tomorrow, along with a fuck-ton of other reviews, as today it’s all about seeing movies and avoiding motherfucking lines.  

Tim & Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie: Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim's television work is not defined by restraint or timidity, but rather delirious excess and unrepentant weirdness. But the duo’s television shows can’t help but look austere compared to Tim & Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie, a cult classic in the making that features sights and sounds and images never before seen in a commercial American film. Tim & Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie begins by going too far, then just keeps on going.

The film’s ramshackle plot finds a Hollywoodified Tim & Eric enraging the heads of a sinister multi-national corporation (run by a perpetually apoplectic, eternally expectorating Robert Loggia) by spending one billion dollars on a “film” that wouldn’t stand a chance of recouping its budget even if it was longer than three minutes long.

Tim & Eric find themselves in desperate need of the billion dollars that will allow them to pay back their debt to Loggia. Thankfully an opportunity to make exactly one billion dollars arrives unexpectedly when eccentric businessman Will Ferrell (who shares a producer credit with partner Adam McKay) offers anyone an opportunity to make a billion dollars to run a mall so rundown and hellish it looks like the last commercial enterprise of a bleak post-apocalyptic future or something you might find in one of Detroit’s nicer neighborhoods.

The mall’s inhabitants include a diseased man played by a gloriously inhibited John C. Reilly, an angry sword-shop proprietor played by the always game Will Forte, an incongruously dignified man who runs a used-toilet-paper outlet, and most importantly, a somewhat attractive middle-aged woman who inspires a sexual competition between Tim & Eric as intense as it is stomach-churning. Billion Dollar Movie features one of the most graphic and unsettling sex scenes in recent memory; it’s a testament to the film’s considerable chutzpah that something infinitely more disgusting (involving children!) is happening at the exact same time. Freed from the restrictions and censorship of cable television, the duo is able to really let loose and let their warped imaginations run wild.  

Tim & Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie boasts the courage of its lunatic convictions. Rather than attempt to broaden the duo’s fanbase the film seems gleefully and perversely intent on scaring away mainstream audiences. In a timid comedy world, Tim & Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie feels genuinely dangerous and transgressive: it’s funny and shocking in equal measures and unlike anything that’s liable to appear onscreen this year or any other. (B+)  

Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present: It's difficult to describe the unexpectedly poignant HBO documentary Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present in a way that doesn't make it sound excruciatingly boring, if not unwatchable. Reduced to its broad outlines, the film sounds an awful lot like a parody of pretentious performance art.  Heaven knows most people experience performance art indirectly through spoofs, anyway.

Much of the film involves its protagonist sitting perfectly still and silent in The Museum of Modern Art while facing, in every conceivable sense, a public that includes, hilariously but predictably enough, James Franco, who can't help but look like a smirking, preening, ridiculous dilettante sitting opposite a force of nature like Marina Abramovic. Abramovic has devoted her life to testing the limits of what her body (and her audience) can endure, whether that means carving a pentagram into her stomach or inviting audiences to use a series of tools against her however they see fit.

The Artist Is Present follows its indomitable 63-year-old subject as she prepares for her magnum opus: an elaborate exhibit where a slew of younger performance artists perform a selection of greatest hits from Abramovic's fabled past while Abramovic spends three solid months sitting in a chair doing something close to nothing while an endless succession of visitors are cycled through the chair opposite her.

The first person to inhabit the chair is Abramovic's former soulmate and collaborator Frank Uwe Laysiepen. These warriors for art haven't seen each other in decades and gaze into each other's eyes with a potent combination of love and pain and hurt and sadness and joy, establishing a tone of visceral, overwhelming emotion the film sustains throughout.

Abramovic has such a magnetic, and it should be noted, sexy, presence—if I looked half as good as her at sixty-three, I would make nudity a recurring motif in my work as well—that she can, and often does, reduce her visitors to tears without saying a word. The Artist Is Present is a film of powerful quiet about a remarkable woman who offered her public a form of connection as simple and direct as it is profound. (A-)

Filly Brown: Hip hop slang changes constantly yet hip hop movies often inhabit a curious time warp where the dope, fresh, wildly outdated slang of yesteryear lives on in the mouths and minds of young hippety-hoppers. It’s not just the street vernacular that’s stuck in the past in most hip hop movies: the characters, themes, and clichés often seem to belong to the era of Beat Street and Krush Groove as well. Hip-hop melodramas tend to be Old School in the worst possible way.

So at least give the Kevin Smith and Edward James Olmos-executive produced rap melodrama Filly Brown credit for putting a distaff, Hispanic spin on the usual hip hop clichés. The film casts the appealing Gina Rodriguez as an intense aspiring rapper trying to reconcile her ideals with the need to get a few thousand dollars in cash quickly to get her imprisoned mom out of a jam.

Rodriguez’s desperate quest for cash leads her into a slew of Faustian bargains with outsized caricatures of hip hop heavies who never stop twirling their metaphorical mustaches, Snidely Whiplash-style, from a rival rapper who’s equal parts sell-out and sexual predator to a mogul-in-the-making who sneers and glowers and threatens—and that’s when he’s in a good mood. It’s never an encouraging sign when a character with sinister intentions is introduced playing Chess (symbolism!), computer or otherwise.

Filly Brown artlessly and shamelessly recycles familiar dichotomies found throughout the often lackluster realm of hip hop cinema: underground versus the mainstream, selling out versus keeping it real, and the sordid allure of the streets versus the creative satisfaction of the studio.

Lou Diamond Phillips, as Rodriguez’s conscience-stricken father, has a nice monologue late in the film where he unburdens himself and shoulders responsibility for his part in his wife’s descent into drugs even if it reeks of Acting Class 101 but by that point the film ‘s noble intentions have gotten lost in a sea of overwrought melodrama. If Filly Brown is a little better than the average hip hop drama that’s probably because the bar had been set so dreadfully low. (C+)

Tomorrow: The Chris “Leave Britney alone! Guy” Crocker story hits the big screen, Ice-T directs a movie about hip hop of all things, and Lizzy Caplan and Alison Brie invite you to Save The Date.