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Arts and Entertainment

LAist at Sundance: Day 2

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Yes, that is Gob in the background. | Photo courtesy of Salty Features

I was planning to hit the Festival Press Office right when they opened at eight to jump into one of their four viewing booths and catch a quick movie on DVD, but fate (or more likely, last night's unusually intense hangover--I blame the altitude) intervened and I didn't get there until just after ten. Luckily, a booth was still open and I was able to snatch a copy of John Krasinki's Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. I settled into my chair, plugged in my cell phone to charge and slipped on my headphones.

The film is adapted from the short story collection by David Foster Wallace of the same name. That collection is comprised of twenty-three stories, each of them detailing a different repulsive characteristic of its respective male subject. The challenge such an adaptation presents to Krasinski is obvious: how does one get such disparate pieces to cohere into a unified film? His solution is to create a locus for all of the stories in the personage of Sara Quinn (Julianne Nicholson), the grad student who is conducting the titular interviews.

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Yeah, I get the one in the middle! | Photo courtesy of Warner Brothers

But does his solution really work? I would say it usually does but, as is the case with many films based on multiple sources, some pieces work better than others. Such a situation ordinarily results in a disjointed film and the same is true with Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. When told in a linear fashion and focusing on Sara's personal relationships with men, the film works. However, when Krasinski incorporates the more tangential stories--particularly a long one focusing on a bathroom attendant--my attention waned.

Since Krasinski is such a popular television star, many will associate his film with Garden State by fellow TV actor, Zach Braff. Krasinski's film, however, is a far more challenging attempt for the nascent writer/director. While everything in the picture doesn't work, many things do especially the performance of the always wonderful Nicholson. If the film has a weakness, it's the constant cameos by recognizable faces (clearly friends of Krasinki's) that pull you out of the story. Still, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men is worth a look.

When one thinks of the prototypical Sundance film, one imagines one cobbled together with limited resources that tells a fractured story about the margins of American society. That is obviously not the case with the almost obscenely commercial Spring Breakdown. One imagines that the film made it into the festival because of that commercial appeal, a tactic which many other top-line festivals often employ. As I'm not a purist, I have no issue with the inclusion of such a film in the festival but do feel that it is worth noting.

The film begins at a college talent show (do they still have these?) where our three nerdy protaganists (Parker Posey, Amy Poehler and Rachel Dratch) are screeching through a performance of Cyndi Lauper's (wonderfully written) True Colors. They are, of course, summarily booed off the stage by the nonplussed college kids in the audience. Afterwards, they resolve that things will get better once they all graduate and enter the real world. In their own words, "it's the nerds who always succeed once college is over."

Needless to say, they are still the same losers fifteen years later: friendless but for each other, stuck in dead-end jobs and relationships and consigned to dull weekends full of board games and over-eating. A ray of light flashes into their lives, though, when Posey is sent to South Padre Island during Spring Break to keep tabs on the presumed wild-child daughter (Amber Tamblyn) of her boss (Jane Lynch). The film follows its expected conventional route from there: the women all get a chance to re-live their failed college existences.

Poehler and Dratch are in every way the highlights of the film. Poehler quickly ingratiates herself with the popular clique of girls, headed by the weirdly attractive Sophie Monk. Dratch dumps her clearly gay fiancee and spends the weekend trying (and failing) to be the best and biggest slut she can be. As with most mainstream comedies, Spring Breakdown is basically just a collection of individually funny set pieces that don't really add up to anything. But you do laugh, which is really the point anyway.

The film ends as all traditional comedies do: everyone succeeds in finding their own, more honest version of happiness. Does Spring Breakdown break down any barriers or set any new comedic standards? Of course not. But if you are looking for a laugh--and the film really seemed to work with the female members of the press audience--you should check it out. Fans of Poehler especially will enjoy her almost schizophrenic performance as the group's alpha female. Also, Seth Meyers and Will Arnett both have hilarious cameos.

Going in an entirely different direction is the deeply sober documentary Reporter. It follows New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof as he reports on humanitarian crises throughout the world. The film opens in Afghanistan and the Darfur region of Sudan (where Kristof sounded the first mainstream clarion call about the genocide there). Mostly, though, the film is concerned with Kristof's traveling and reportage in the eastern portion of Congo where a long war has claimed the lives of an estimated four million.

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An intriguing aspect of the film is that Kristof brings along two novices on the trip: a teacher and a student who won a contest to accompany him on his journey. While Kristof is still deeply empathetic to the suffering of those he visits, his exterior has hardened after so much exposure to misery. His companions, however, are regularly moved by the scope of the tragedy they witness. A simple example is that of an entire village that is rousted from their homes by soldiers only to return to find everything either stolen or destroyed.

In America, it's impossible to conceive of such a thing in the absence of a natural disaster (and even then the government always intercedes to aid the afflicted). In Congo, though, no such help is ever available. A village of several hundred is literally left in the jungle with nothing. Many of them will likely starve to death. This then is Kristof's mission: to find these people that are suffering so grievously and bring their stories to the world so that some change might possibly happen. The film is brutally efficient in documenting that journey.

The darkest and strangest chapter in the film is when Kristof and his crew are granted an interview with the region's warlord. The wild contrasts of the event are almost disorienting. On one hand, the murderous soldiers constantly give thanks to Jesus and ask for His grace. On the other hand, they parade child prisoners in front of Kristof who beg for forgiveness and ask to simply be allowed to go home. Reporter is an awfully difficult film to watch, but everyone should and hopefully find some call to action.

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