Noel Murray @ Sundance 2012: Day 5 

Noel Murray @ Sundance 2012: Day 5 

Under African Skies
Director/Time: Joe Berlinger, 108 min.
Documentary
Headline: Paul Simon goes back to Graceland
Indie type: Behind the music
Report: One of the best and most unexpected gifts my dad ever bought me was a cassette copy of Paul Simon’s Graceland for my 16th birthday, in 1986. I hadn’t asked for it, but my father heard something on the radio about the album and thought I’d like it, and as it turned out, he was right. It fact, that ended up being the story of Graceland for many people. Paul Simon was in a career lull before Graceland came out (though I’m a big fan of Hearts And Bones, the album that preceded it), and then from out of the blue arrived this buoyant, inspired collaboration between Simon and a collection of South African musicians that much of the rest of the world had never heard before. The album sold millions, won awards, helped kick off the “world music” craze, and introduced songs like “You Can Call Me Al” and “Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes” that became pop radio standards.

Graceland also touched off more than a little controversy: about whether Simon’s arrogant violation of the UN cultural boycott of South Africa hurt the anti-apartheid cause, and about whether Simon had swooped in and stolen the sound—and even the songs—of some poor, unknown musicians. I was a little disappointed that Joe Berlinger’s documentary Under African Skies didn’t delve deeper into the second half of that criticism; in particular, there’s a conspicuous absence of Los Lobos, who have accused Simon of taking full credit for their work on the song “The Myth Of Fingerprints.” But to Berlinger’s (and Simon’s) credit, Under African Skies doesn’t completely avoid the topic of appropriation. And the film is remarkably even-handed when it comes to the subject of apartheid and the cultural boycott, letting the people who protested Simon have their say, and getting the perspective of the musicians he worked with, too. The music of Graceland is as stirring as always, whether heard via video footage from the original sessions or via rehearsals for a recent reunion concert in Johannesburg. But what’s most exciting about Under African Skies is how it engages with whether artists have social and political responsibilities, and if so, what those might entail. Though Berlinger takes the criticism of Simon seriously, the film ultimately comes down strongly on the side of the artist to move and work freely, and thus retain the capacity to surprise.
Grade: A-

Black Rock
Director/Time: Katie Aselton, 83 min.
Cast: Kate Bosworth, Lake Bell, Katie Aselton
Headline: I’ve invited you all out here so we can repair our relationsh… Oh shit, run!
Indie type: Elemental actioner
Report: Indie impresario Katie Aselton co-produces, co-writes, directs and stars in Black Rock, playing an aloof young woman who gets roped into a camping trip on a remote island with best friend Kate Bosworth and estranged pal Lake Bell. But before they can all open up to each other and heal old wounds, they’re met by a trio of hunters. One thing leads to another, and the next thing you know the movie goes all Most Dangerous Game. There’s nothing wrong with such a simple premise, provided there’s a twist or two it, or a little stylistic panache. But Mark Duplass’ script (from Aselton’s story) couldn’t be more basic or clichéd, and Aselton’s not exactly Billy Friedkin. Black Rock is well-acted, and contains a couple of memorable scenes, but for the most part this is a blah buddy dramedy that transforms into a blah chase thriller.
Grade: C-

Bones Brigade: An Autobiography
Director/Time: Stacy Peralta, 90 min.
Documentary
Headline: A groundbreaking skateboarding team tells their story
Indie type: Oral history
Report: Stacy Peralta has made multiple documentaries and feature films about the history of skateboarding and surfing, subjects he knows from firsthand experience as a pioneering pro. It’s surprising then that it’s taken him this long to get to Bones Brigade: An Autobiography, a doc about the formidable team of teen ‘boarders that Peralta assembled in the ‘80s. Assembled from old video footage and new interviews, Bones Brigade tells the story of how the team thrived throughout the end of pro skateboarding’s first big wave, and helped keep the sport alive in its dark ages, before skate-videos, street-skating and middle-of-nowhere events helped revive the sport first as underground culture and then as big business. The repetitive shots of skaters in bowls and half-pipe keeps Bones Brigade from being as consistently thrilling as it should be, but for anyone who’s ever wanted to know how tricks like the “Olly” and the “McTwist” came to be, or how exactly Tony Hawk became a superstar, this movie is highly informative and even inspirational. (Suggested alternate title: This Film Is About A Superhero Named Tony.) It’s surprisingly emotional too, as grown men look back on the days when they were competitive, easily bruised kids, calmed by Peralta’s avuncular presence. Nowhere is that clearer than in the story of Rodney Mullen, a driven youngster who like Hawk spent hours designing and perfecting tricks that no one had ever imagined before, all while dealing with at-times-crippling anxieties. Bones Brigade captures the camaraderie and creativity of these times, scored to ‘80s punk and New Wave; but even more, it gets how seriously these men took their craft, and how their devotion spawned an industry. 
Grade: B+

Kid-Thing
Director/Time: David Zellner, 82 min.
Cast: Sidney Aguirre, Susan Tyrrell, David Zellner, Nathan Zellner
Headline: Surly pre-teen rages at the world
Indie type: Pre-adolescent pastoral
Report: The Zellner brothers’ latest elliptical, deadpan art-comedy stars Sidney Aguirre as a freckle-faced, golden-haired, tomboyish pre-teen, left alone by her packrat single dad to explore his house of wonders (where she might find a gas mask or an ‘80s paperback full of AIDS facts) and to pedal her bike around the rural outskirts of Austin (where she hits rocks with an aluminum bat and shoplifts biscuit dough to hurl at passing cars). One day in the woods, Aguirre finds Susan Tyrrell stuck at the bottom of a deep pit, and she debates whether she should try and help the old lady out or just let her rot. It’s not in this little girl’s nature to show compassion; she’s more the type who comes upon a girl in a wheelchair having a birthday party and promptly smashes her cake with a baseball bat and steals her presents. Kid-Thing is more a character sketch than a proper narrative film; and often it seems like little more than an excuse for David and Nathan Zellner to string together long takes of demolition derbies and blind, one-legged, guitar-playing dwarves. Known primarily for their eccentric shorts—fusing the sensibilities of John Waters, David Lynch, Wes Anderson and David Gordon Green—the Zellners are into creating memorable images, though not so much into using them to tell a story. The images in Kid-Thing are frequently stunning, as the brothers linger over the rainbow colors of soda pop and slush machines, but also sometimes indulgent, as they shoot themselves scratching off lottery tickets for upwards of a full minute. The exaggerated, cartoony aspects of Kid-Thing are frustrating—such as the way the wheelchair girl says nothing as Aguirre destroys her party—because the movie comes so close so often to capturing something real and profound about childhood, whether it be in the sad flicker of an off-brand console videogame or in the way other children are baffled that Aguirre doesn’t have parents keeping an eye on her 24/7. Beneath the affectations, there’s a real poetry to Kid-Thing, and a deeper truth in its depiction of what The Simpsons once dubbed “horrible, horrible freedom.”
Grade:

Nobody Walks
Director/Time: Ry Russo-Young, 85 min.
Cast: John Krasinski, Olivia Thirlby, Rosemarie DeWitt, Justin Kirk, Dylan McDermott
Headline: Arty 23-year-old New Yorker wreaks havoc during stay with Silverlake family 
Indie type: L.A. story
Report: I spent large portions of Ry Russo-Young’s low-key drama Nobody Walks thinking about Steve Martin’s big rant to John Candy in Planes, Trains And Automobiles—y’know, the one about how not everything is an anecdote, and how stories should have a point. It’s not that I didn’t admire some of the more personal aspects of this movie about a young art-filmmaker (played by Olivia Thirlby) who comes to Los Angeles to work on an installation loop with big-league Hollywood sound man John Krasinski, the husband of family friend Rosemarie DeWitt. As the two of them run through different possibilities for sound effects and score for her little black-and-white film about insects, the pleasure they take in pure creativity becomes mildly infectious. While Nobody Walks is making the audience super-aware of its own artificiality, it’s also introducing a variety of flirtatious relationships: Krasinski hits on Thirlby; Thirlby makes googly eyes at Krasinski’s assistant, whom his stepdaughter is crushing on; the stepdaughter fends off her middle-aged Italian tutor; and DeWitt, a therapist, listens to her client Justin Kirk describe her role in his sexual fantasies. Though only 85 minutes long, Nobody Walks rambles, jumping from vignette to vignette with nothing in the way of narrative drive or sparkling dialogue to justify its existence. (Case-in-point: Dylan McDermott shiws up for one largely superfluous scene as DeWitt’s rocker ex, then is never seen again.) What this movie does have is some insight into the point at which flirtation shades into something more dangerous and potentially destructive. But even there—and taking into account the movie’s title, which refers to Thirlby’s habit of hoofing it in car-obsessed L.A.—the film feels like one long excuse, explaining why a self-absorbed young woman might put an entire family at risk by having an affair with a married man. It’s her fault, but it’s also not her fault, if you get what she means.
Grade: C+

Notes, thoughts, things overheard…

I promised yesterday that I’d cover the most controversial film of the fest today, but I failed to realize the screening is late, running past midnight. So while I will have seen Compliance by the time this posts (check my @NoelMu Twitter feed for an insta-reaction), I won’t be writing about it until tomorrow, along with…

Tomorrow: At long last, Beasts Of The Southern Wild!

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