Nathan Rabin @ Sundance: Days One and Two 

Nathan Rabin @ Sundance: Days One and Two 

Sundance is a world onto itself, a cinematic Brigadoon that transforms Park City, Utah into the epicenter of the film universe for roughly a week or so.

It is a festival rooted in ritual and tradition, a celebration of independent filmmaking and DIY guerrilla antics generously sponsored by an array of corporate sponsors.

It is a safe place for high art and enthusiastic trash, for future Oscar-winners and films destined for long lives as campy midnight movies. It is an irresistible invitation to shut out the distractions of the outside world and lose yourself in film. It is a goddamned honor and a privilege to attend Sundance as a critic or filmmaker, even if the festival and especially the circus that surrounds it often seems designed specifically designed to lovingly caress the already inflated egos of the celebrities (some of whom have only the fuzziest of connections to films playing at the festival) who flock here in droves.

Sundance occupies the tricky intersection of art and commerce, commercialism and purity. But as my colleague Noel pointed out in his introductory post, it’s pointless to bemoan the commodification of Sundance or whine about lines because it’s ultimately all about the films. The films matter. The bullshit that surrounds them does not. With that in mind, let’s cut the chit-chat and get straight to the films:

Searching For Sugar Man: Mystery is a powerful tool in a cult musician’s arsenal. But what happens when a great artist’s legacy is so mysterious and so enigmatic that no one seems to know whether he’s dead or alive? What happens when the case grows so cold that even an artist’s most devoted fans are left salivating for the tiniest morsel of information about their idol?

Those are some of the questions behind Searching For Sugar Man, a documentary about a spookily talented Detroit singer-songwriter named Sixto Diaz Rodriguez (professionally known simply as Rodriguez) who released two albums of gorgeous, Dylanesque social commentary and profound lyricism to deafening silence in the United States in the early 1970s before essentially disappearing from the public eye amidst dark rumors that he’d killed himself onstage.

While Rodriguez lingered in obscurity in the States, he rocketed to super-stardom in the unlikeliest of places: South Africa, where his anti-establishment rhetoric and soulful defiance resonated with a youth movement in open revolt against the legalized bigotry of Apartheid.

Searching For Sugar Man cultivates an air of mystery around Rodriguez by strategically and deliberately withholding information about its subject and his destiny. For the film’s first half, he’s less a man than a spirit, less a recording artist than an unfairly forgotten poet-philosopher.

Like its subject’s music, the first half of Searching For Sugar Man can be agonizingly sad, but in its second half it morphs unexpectedly but wondrously from tragedy to triumph, from mourning to celebration. Searching For Sugar Man would be worth seeing just to hear Rodriguez’s unjustly forgotten music: I was tempted to race out of the screening and download all his music—when an artist only has two proper studio albums, it’s not hard to be a completist—after hearing his first song. Though manipulative in its storytelling and structure, Searching For Sugar Man ultimately earns its happy ending by alchemizing pain into transcendent beauty. (A-)

Wish You Were Here: Day One here at Sundance was all about selectively withholding information. The music documentary Searching For Sugar Man withholds key information about its subject for heartwarming effect. The bluntly effective Australian dramatic thriller Wish You Were Here is similarly cagy about doling out essential information, albeit for much different reasons.

The film opens with Joel Edgerton and wife Felicity Price (who also co-wrote the screenplay) lying on an idyllic Cambodian beach, reveling in sun-baked decadence. Back in Australia they’re parents and responsible adults, but in Cambodia they leave their responsibilities behind for a night of Ecstasy-stoked decadence that goes terribly awry and leaves one member of their party—a businessman Price’s frisky sister Teresa Palmer was seeing—missing and Edgerton haunted by the fuzzy events of that night.

Edgerton and Palmer try to move on with their lives but jagged shards of an inconvenient past keep intruding on an uncertain present. Edgerton finds himself increasingly torn apart by secrets he can’t bare to keep and the ties holding his marriage become frayed by an explosive revelation that casts Edgerton’s actions (and his moral character) in a new light.

The filmmakers keep the film at a low simmer throughout, subtly ratcheting up the tension as it circles back and forth from the fateful night of the disappearance to the messy and painful aftermath. In an impressive lead turn, rising star Edgerton delivers a performance of tightly coiled intensity. At best, Wish You Were Here—the title is ironic, needless to say—boasts the blunt, visceral force of a punch to the gut or a really satisfying pulp novel. It’s well-written, directed, and acted, but the final revelation registers as both anti-climactic and frustratingly predictable. After an hour and a half of escalation, the ending proves deflating but that doesn’t entirely invalidate the tight, focused, and intense filmmaking that preceded it. (B-)

Big Boys Gone Bananas!*: Some films are worth seeing for their titles alone. That was Hobo With a Shotgun’s sordid allure at last year’s festival. Big Boys Gone Bananas!* doesn’t boast quite the carnival-barker appeal of a Hobo With A Shotgun (what does?),but its title is nevertheless pretty goddamned irresistible, even if the film is not, as I had hoped, a prequel to Herbie Goes Bananas (which some of you might remember as the film in which sentient Volkswagen Herbie went bananas).

Big Boys Gone Bananas!* is a strange beast: it’s a political documentary about a political documentary, or rather a documentary about the censorship and suppression of a previous documentary by a sinister multi-national corporation. The film follows director Fredrik Gertten as he attempts to have his muckraking 2009 documentary Bananas!*—an apparently scathing expose of Dole’s abuse of pesticides that caused serious health problems for their employees—screened at the Los Angeles Film Festival.

Film festivals are generally a safe, supportive haven for political documentaries (they’re probably the safest, most supportive haven for political documentaries), no matter how incendiary or controversial, but the Los Angeles Film Festival found itself so hounded by threats of lawsuits from Dole that it only agreed to show the film if a disclaimer was read before the screening essentially denouncing the film as a pack of lies propagated by a filmmaker enthralled with an ambulance-chasing lawyer who convinced a group of banana farm employees to fake health problems in order to line his own pockets and defraud a beloved American institution.

Dole—which sued Gertten for slander in an attempt to halt distribution of his film—is fiendishly effective in getting the U.S press to uncritically accept its version of the case. Gertten uses his battle with Dole as a springboard to discuss complicity between corporations and a press terrified of both losing ad dollars and lawsuits, but everything inevitably comes back to the self-aggrandizing Gerhart. Big Boys Gone Bananas!* implicitly asks us to accept its version of the story just as uncritically as Dole asked the press to swallow its self-serving spin. Big Boys Gone Bananas!* makes a damning case against Dole as a corporate bully eager to silence criticism, but it raises troubling questions about the veracity of its own case it frustratingly has no interest in answering.  (C+)

Hello, I Must Be Going: Why bother to create a sympathetic, multi-dimensional protagonist if you’re only going to run her through an obstacle course of contrived plot points? I found myself wondering that throughout the shaky second act of Hello, I Must Be Going, a long-overdue starring vehicle for the delightful Melanie Lynskey (Heavenly Creatures, The Informant) that goes a bit astray before righting itself in the home stretch.

Lynskey stars as a 35-year-old divorcee who has sunk into a deep, paralyzing depression following her split from slick entertainment lawyer Dan Futterman. (She’s clad in the official depression uniform of shapeless shorts, dirty sneakers, and a tee-shirt, though he hasn’t quite reached the bottom of wearing sweatpants yet). Mother Blythe Danner just barely tolerates Lynskey’s presence as an unwanted, open-ended houseguest; to Danner, she’s equal parts burden and disappointment.

Lynskey’s dispiritingly predictable life gets shaken up when she hooks up with an attractive 19-year-old actor (Christopher Abbott) who is pretending to be gay to please a therapist mother who saw him portray the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe in a play and made up her mind that her son must share Mapplethorpe’s sexual orientation.

That would be enough contrivance for most films, but Hello I Must Be Going shamelessly ups the stakes by making the financial and emotional future of Lynskey’s family dependent on her doting father (John Rubinstein) closing the proverbial “Big Deal” with Abbott’s stepfather that will allow Rubinstein to retire and go on a trip around the world with Danner.

Lynskey gives a wonderfully lived-in performance as a woman in the painful and rewarding process of finding herself in her mid-30s, but there is a frustrating disconnect between the low-key naturalism of the film’s look, performances, and tone and a plot that intermittent reeks of sitcom wackiness. For all its faults, Hello I Must Be Going marks a huge step up from actor-director Todd Louiso’s previous efforts The Marc Pease Experience (which was all strained wackiness) and the maudlin Phillip Seymour Hoffman huffs-gas drama Love Liza and it’s a real breakthrough for Lynskey, who confidently carries the film in a challenging role. Thanks largely to her, Hello I Must Be Going’s emotional thrust rings true even if many, if not most, of its individual details ring false. (B)

I Am Not A Hipster: A film entitled I Am Not A Hipster all but challenges audiences to hate it, just as the mythical creature known as the hipster (everyone talks about them derisively, yet no one seemingly cops to actually being a hipster) invites vitriolic contempt disproportionate to their ostensible crimes (an affinity for wallet chains and Pabst Blue Ribbon in a can, a weakness for ironic mustaches).

I Am Not A Hipster further alienates potential audiences with a protagonist who runs the gamut from glowering and unpleasant to insufferably obnoxious, with brief interludes of non-douchiness thrown in for contrast. Dominic Bogart plays the singer-songwriter protagonist as a veritable Surly McDouchebag who apathetically reigns as the underground king of the San Diego underground scene.

Everywhere Bogart goes, women throw themselves at him and men tremble in appreciation, but Bogart sulks broodingly through life, hurling contempt and invective at anyone who tries to love him or help him professionally. His icy veneer begins to thaw a little when his three pretty, relentlessly upbeat sisters come to visit them along with Bogart’s estranged father. Needless to say, Bogart’s sisters seem to have sucked up all the happiness genes in the family.

Before he lightens up in the presence of his irrepressible sisters and the children he substitute teaches—nothing brings out the mensch in a douchebag like an adorable tot—Bogart makes for an unbearably grim protagonist, a self-serious artiste who isn’t just averse to having a good time or loosening up: he’s an active, enthusiastic enemy of fun.

I Am Not A Hipster is at its best when it shakes off the depressive funk of its protagonist and allows itself the levity and lightness Bogart denies himself as a matter of misplaced principle: he seems intent on punishing the audience as well as himself. Hipster works as a collection of nicely observed little moments: It succeeds at times in spite of itself, though it ultimately adds up to less than the sum of its sometimes impressive, sometimes insufferable parts. (B-)  

Tomorrow: A midnight screening of the Tim & Eric movie, Rashida Jones’ screenwriting debut, and intimate performances by Aziz Ansari and Drake at The Bing Bar.