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Sundance Day 2: "Push" and shove

Posted by Ty Burr  January 16, 2009 06:45 PM

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Despite the title line, it's still weirdly quiet here: My cabbie this morning said that there's a little less press and industry present but what's notably absent is the corporate presence -- no free giveaway bags this year -- and the gawkers on Main Street. And it's true -- you can drive up Main without running over a paparazzi or two, as is usually the case. So while the business is still here (and the movies, of course), the hype appears to be taking the year off. I could get used to this.

Well, true, Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz were in town last night for the premiere of "Push: Based on the Novel by Sapphire." I caught up with it this morning at a press screening and was unexpectedly moved: Lee Daniels' has taken an Oprah-ready story and turned it into a real film. Most affecting is Gabourey Sidibe (in photo above) as Precious, the kind of character most movies would run screaming from or turn into a cartoon: a hulking, inarticulate mountain of a Harlem 16 year old with an emotionally abusive mom (Mo'Nique), sexually abusive dad (Rodney Bear Jackson), one child, and another on the way. The movie skirts being a chamber-of-horrors melodrama and an agenda-driven inspirational movie (once Precious lands in an alternative writing class headed by Paula Patton), but the script, the performances and especially Daniels' smart, alert direction, grounding the film in real reactions, real speech patterns, keeps it honest. Mostly. Kravitz plays a male nurse in a few scenes and I was two-thirds of the way into a sequence where Precious visits a drab Noo Yawk social worker before I realized it was Carey. She's surprisingly good (no, "Glitter" still isn't forgiven) and Sidibe is better -- an unforgettable presence as the kind of kid most of us look past on the street but who increasingly glows with inner life.

The best film I've seen yet at the festival, though -- so far -- is "Rudo and Corsi," the feature directing debut of Carlos Cuaron (Alfonso's brother and writer of "Y Tu Mama Tambien"). The new movie reunites Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna from "Y Tu Mama," casting them as country bumpkin half-brothers who both become huge soccer stars and then, each in his own special way, fall spectacularly to earth. Carlos isn't a visual stylist like his brother but he's a good writer with a great idea -- the brothers are a bonehead comic/sad metaphor for Mexico itself -- and the two stars have a wonderful time skewering macho dreams of glory. A very funny but very spiky film and one that should do well when Sony Pictures Classics releaases it later this year.

Both Cuarons were at last night's screening -- Alfonso produced the film -- as was producer Guillermo del Toro (director of "Pan's Labyrinth"). But the screams were for Bernal, who came out and charmed the pants off everyone without even saying anything particularly funny:

Diego Luna was in Mexico City working on a play and couldn't attend. Other movies? "The Missing Person" gives a welcome starring role to actor Michael Shannon (the saving grace of "Revolutionary Road") as a Humphrey Bogart-style private investigator in the modern day. Yes, that old trick, but writer/director Noah Buschel has the sardonic dialogue right and gets sharp performances from Amy Ryan, Margaret Colin, and John Ventimiglia (Artie Bucco from "The Sopranos," very funny here as a New York cabbie transplanted to Los Angeles). Unfortunately, Buschel has no visual sense to back it up: "Person" lacks a pictorial and pacing snap that would really bring it to life. The plot's 9/11 angle feels tacked on, too. But Shannon gives his line readings a deceptively lazy spin that gives you paper cuts; more starring roles for him, please.

And more for Stella Schnabel, the twenty-something daughter of painter-director Julian, who makes the downtown angst of "You Won't Miss Me" worth watching. Ry Russo-Young's movie is, on the face of it, a standard New York coming-of-age movie about a standard messed-up New York kid. But her direction -- ultra-low-budget, ragged, pinwheeling through any number of film and video formats -- manages to stay on this side of forced. (Occasionally, as in a scene at dusk by the South Street Seaport, it's breathtakingly lovely.) Schnabel resembles her dad, which is to say she's a big-boned juggernaut, and she plays her character, Shelley, with all the helpless obnoxiousness that certain privileged and out-of-control young women can have. But she also shows you why Shelly's manic ego renders her beautiful, in a wild way, as well as hellbent for breakdown. The movie leaves you pondering whether a "normal" Shelly would be a loss. Here's Schnabel talking about where the character came from after the late screening last night:

Big buzz is beginning to settle on such documentaries as "Big River Man" (which I'm missing right now) and "Burma VJ"; virulent buzz-kill has settled on the cop drama "Brooklyn's Finest," directed by Antoine Fuqua ("Training Day") and starring Richard Gere. Last night's public screening sent audiences out in an angry funk, including one journalist I know who hoped he could find a way to purge the entire film from his memory. Scratch that one off my list, I guess.

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3 comments so far...
  1. Dear Mr. Burr,
    Your Sundance reviews are so upside down and woefully out of wack that I had to write.

    Push is Sundance at it's worst. It's all glitzy fake heart, with no subtlety or clarity. It's pure adrenaline, the movie equivalent of Red Bull, but if you look closely-- it's just another re-done Rocky, except poorly. Lee Daniels is talented, but he also has no idea what he's talking about and is sugary and sentimental. It's a movie that people like to give awards to, because of the subject matter. But it's everything that's wrong with independent films. It's politically correct, flashy, heart-tugging, sappy filmmaking.

    Meanwhile you dump on The Missing Person, which is all subtlety and clarity and probably the best film at Sundance this year. To say the director Noah Buschel has no visual sense might be your dumbest comment of the year. And to say 'give Mike Shannon more starring roles' is so obvious at this point, it's annoying. Films like The Missing Person are the reason Sundance still matter a little bit. It's a movie I had never seen before, dressed as an old movie(as opposed to Push, which was a million movies I've already seen, dressed as a new movie.)

    Where have you gone Pauline Kael?

    Ty responds: Unfortunately, Kael's dead, and no one under the age of 35 has heard of her, and the only book of hers still in print is a collection of her capsule reviews rather than the longer pieces they were edited from. That's a problem.

    And sorry, I still like "Push," with all its problems -- it's not a subtle movie and it has no interest in being one, for better and for worse -- and I still think "Missing Person" is missing a pictorial sensibility that would push it over the top for me. Glad you liked the film. I agree that there are movies that make Sundance matter, but I'd say they were "Unmade Beds" and "Burma VJ" and "You Won't Miss Me" and "We Live in Public," films that capture the flux of life (real and fictional) in ways that have nothing to do with genre games.

    Posted by Lilly Craig January 30, 09 08:39 AM
  1. Yes, Kael is dead, and I suppose I dated myself. I'm 52 years old and have watched film criticism slowly deteriorate over the last dozen years or so. If Bonnie and Clyde came out today, I do wonder if there would be any critic with the eyes and inteligence to save it.

    You said in your review that Lee Daniels took an Oprah-ready story and turned it into a real film. The proof is in the pudding though: Oprah has signed on to get behind the film. So really-- how far away did Daniels get from an Oprah special? After all the flash and adrenaline and in-your-face filmmaking, it's still an Oprah movie(sugary, melodramatic, well-intentioned drab.) Daniels is an incredibly narcissistic filmmaker-- pointing at his own talent, even as he supposedly tries to shed light on the plight of a girl in the ghetto. He's very much like Oprah in that way. Good intentions, bad vibes.

    As for The Missing Person, you can call it a genre game, but I felt it to be much more sincere film than You Won't Miss Me(which was deep-fried in that glamorous and always fradulent heroin-chic.)

    At any rate, I wish you the best. Thank you for your response, Mr. Burr. Take care. And please try to remember that film criticism, at it's best, has nothing to do with what one 'likes.'

    Ty responds: "film criticism, at it's best, has nothing to do with what one 'likes.'"?? Of course it does. To pretend otherwise is disingenuous at best and delusional at worst. To acknowledge it, and to be aware of it, is the only honest approach to responsible criticism. You responded much more strongly to "Missing Person" than I did -- you LIKED it. And that's fine. To move 100 precent of your response behind a pose of objectivity is, to my mind, counterproductive. best, T.

    Posted by Lilly Craig February 3, 09 08:50 PM
  1. dear mr. burr,
    miss craig is right. film criticism needs to be about more than just what you like and don't like. you like 'push,' mr. burr. okay. back it up with intelligent film analysis. mrs. craig makes some fine points about how it is in fact an oprah movie and an overly-flashy film without genuine compassion for it's characters.

    your reviews of both the missing person and push leave a lot to be desired in that you make statements without really backing the statements up. it's a trend in film criticism.

    Ty responds: Dan, for what it's worth, I don't consider my blog comments on either "Push" or "The Missing Person" to even be reviews akin to what goes in the paper on the day a movie is released. They're more like snapshots in an insanely busy week of moviegoing and blogging.

    Film reviewing is about contextualizing one's responses (you don't have to call it "liking a movie" if that makes you uncomfortable) within a larger framework of cultural, esthetic, and historical knowledge, I try to do that in my reviews; when I blog from a festival it tends to be more from the gut. That said, I can go on and on about how "Push," for all its shortcomings, displays compassion for its central character through the way it visually frames her in her environment and makes us privy to her thoughts, or how the editing in "The Missing Person" robs the film of drmatic momentum in the final third, and we'd still disagree. And that's fine.

    Posted by dan February 10, 09 01:13 PM

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Ty Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.

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