In the wake of Bingham Ray's death (see above), I feel callow talking about mere movies, but the man did devote his life to them -- to finding them, getting them made, getting them seen -- and he died working at the festival that did the most to promote his ideas and ideals. If there don't seem to be many truly worthy movies at Sundance 2012, there are ambitious ones, and that may be what counts. I didn't need to hear Spike Lee's post-screening rant (warning: link includes spoilers) -- and I didn't, having raced to a dinner engagement as soon as the end credits for "Red Hook Summer" came up -- to appreciate how hard the movie struggles to get the flavors, rhythms, music, and emotions of a neighborhood and a society the movie industry has no interest in depicting with any realism. Yes, Spike, the "mother-----ing studios" "know nothing about black people" -- anybody who watches "The Help" with their eyes and history books open knows that. And I also appreciated the parts of "Red Hook" that work, specifically the evocation of a still-vibrant community in an economic and social squeeze. This is a movie that's best when it's at its most overtly poetic.
When it's not, it's a holy mess. The story concerns a 13-year-old boy (Lee discovery Jules Brown) who travels from Atlanta to Brooklyn to spend the summer in the Red Hook housing projects with his grandfather (Clarke Peters, of "The Wire"), who's the preacher at the neighborhood church. The film is packed with characters but not enough incidents, and soon Lee and James McBride's script gets seriously churchy, with Peters uncorking at least three fire-breathing sermons that play out in their entirety. The problem is that the movie never makes it clear how we're meant to respond to its depiction of religion -- is Lee serving this up straight? as a parody? with fondness or with acerbity? -- until late in the movie, when a plot twist comes along that beggars belief.
By then, the film's general shapelessness and thematic fuzziness have taken their toll, and the twist plays not as a climactic reveal but a desperation move. There's a great 90-minute movie inside this two-hours-plus "epic," and I dearly wish Lee had been able to find it. One way to look at "Red Hook Summer" is as a berserk Tyler Perry movie. Another is just the latest letdown from a filmmaker who seems to have lost his way.
On a more pleasant note, I've had double James Murphy sightings in the past 24 hours -- triple if you count the LCD Soundsystem frontman's appearance in the teddy-bear flesh after last night's midnight screening of "Shut Up and Play the Hits," a documentary about the group's final concert at Madison Square Garden last summer. The movie's a sloppy, congenial party, with the terminally droll Murphy serving as the calm at the eye of the storm. How did a guy this rueful become a rock star? The concert sequences explain all, especially when Murphy uncorks a blistering version of Harry Nilsson's "Jump Into the Fire" late in the movie. That clicked something for me: either "Fire" is an LCD Soundsystem song 40 years ahead of schedule and/or James Murphy is a Nilsson for our times. Yeah, you probably have to be a fan to appreciate "Shut Up." I am, and so was the rest of the packed audience at the Egyptian.
Murphy also pops up as a supporting character in Rick Alverson's "The Comedy," a character study that is ultimately as dark as its title is bright. I'm been waiting for a film to take the piss out of Williamsburg hipsterism, and if "The Comedy" isn't entirely that, it comes close. Tim Heidecker (of all those Adult Swim shows) plays a big, fat 35-year-old baby who illustrates the limitations of never, ever drawing an unironic breath. He and his group of guy friends (Murphy among them in a credible sort-of-acting performance) steadfastly refuse to be serious about anything, indulging in deadpan monologues of the most unimaginable filth in an endless game of can-you-be-grosser-than-me. We get enough glimpses of the hero's life -- he's a trust-fund kid with a father in a coma, and he has a habit of pretending to be other people, as if temporarily trying on another man's jacket. He's also a full-time jerk who holds human connection at arm's length.
"The Comedy" is too honest to try to change him (although toward the end there's an implicit maturity over the horizon), and after a while the steadfastly observed bleakness starts to grind you down. There are extremely funny moments -- a visit by Heidecker, Murphy, and Eric Wareheim to a Catholic church results in some marvelous moments of physical slapstick -- but Alverson is a Serious Guy, as evidenced by his name-dropping Robert Bresson in the post-screening Q&A, and the movie is serious business. I'm glad I saw "The Comedy" and I know it's going to stick with me, but I'm uncool enough to wish the filmmakers had taken their idea somewhere. That said, anyone with a goatee should be forced to watch this.
About Movie Nation
ContributorsTy Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.
Mark Feeney is an arts writer for The Boston Globe.
Janice Page is movies editor for The Boston Globe.
Tom Russo is a regular correspondent for the Movies section and writes a weekly column on DVD releases.
Katie McLeod is Boston.com's features editor.
Rachel Raczka is a producer for Lifestyle and Arts & Entertainment at Boston.com.
Emily Wright is an Arts & Entertainment producer for Boston.com.
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