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EW critic: Sundance gets kinky and kooky

Why ”Downloading Nancy” aims for edge but feels dull. Plus: Morgan Spurlock’s sophomore slump and a sweet little sports movie called ”Sugar”

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EW critic: Sundance gets kinky and kooky

And lo, the spirit of Sundance spoke, and lo, the spirit said, Let there be kink!

It wouldn’t be America’s premiere independent film festival without at least one highbrow-pervo conversation piece, and this year that slot belongs to Downloading Nancy, starring the gifted Maria Bello as a self-mutilating incest survivor who hooks up on the Internet with a man she asks to hurt her…and worse. Jason Patric is the creep in question, and Rufus Sewell is cast against type as her boring, clueless husband, too enamored of his golf game to tend to his wife’s special needs. Downloading Nancy has been shot in a sterile, desaturated palette that declares, in every stark frame, that we’re watching a world without love, faith, joy, or connection. It’s also one of those movies in which the script is so ”minimal” that its hard to separate the characters’ reticence from one’s nagging suspicion that the screenwriters, Pamela Cuming and Lee Ross, simply don’t know how to write dialogue. (Dialogue? How unhip. It’s all subtext, man!) There are some brutal — though not unduly graphic — scenes involving razor blades, shards of glass, and other impromptu devices of sexual torment, but what makes Downloading Nancy so hard to sit through isn’t the extremity of its heroine’s pain-freak tastes. It’s the extreme blankness of the characterization — a woman so hollowed out by her abusive past that there’s no pretense she’s looking for pleasure, or much of anything else. A movie this ”edgy,” but with this gray an emotional spectrum, is really selling its own form of puritanism.

***

As I’ve discovered, I was far from alone at the festival in secretly hoping that the new Morgan Spurlock film, Where in the World Is Osama Bin Laden?, might actually shed some light on the location of the globe’s most wanted man. I envisioned a muckraking adventure through U.S. technology and espionage, climaxing, perhaps, with some grainy long-lens video of a tall, bearded, enigmatically blurry figure retreating into his cave…

Yes, that would have been exciting, but Where in the World Is Osama Bin Laden? turns out to be a hucksterish fraud of a title. The movie, you see, isn’t really about the hunt for Bin Laden. It kicks off on a note of high irreverence, with a simulated Osama dancing to ”You Can’t Touch This,” plus lots of clever cartoon and videogame graphics to sum up the history that led us to 9/11 and the war on terror. That’s all just a come-on, though, for a feeble, once-over-lightly, Michael Moore manqué tour of the Middle East, with Spurlock — now an expectant daddy fretting over the world his child will inherit — visiting places like Egypt, Morocco, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan, where he interviews folks on the street, trying to suss out their feelings about Bin Laden, and about the U.S. Did you know that a great many of the citizens of Arab Muslim nations have no problem with the American people but deplore our government? That the war in Iraq has actually been a boon to Al-Qaeda? That Saudi Arabia is a repressive monarchy that limits freedoms on speech, women’s dress, and religion?

These and other startling revelations are presented by Spurlock as if they were news, but the filmmaker’s gaga investigative zeal — the thing that made the fast-food riffs of Supersize Me so much fun — just comes off as naïve in the context of a cataclysmic global crisis that’s already omnipresent in the news media. The roving-boob-with-a-camera, Michael Moore everyman approach has backfired this time, making Spurlock look…well, like a boob who spends too much time at the health-food store and not enough time reading the papers. He pretends to be fearless, but when he’s forced to scurry for cover as a bunch of Hasidim on a Jerusalem sidewalk start yelling for him to go home, his attitude is at once smug and starry-eyed, sealed with a Can’t we all get along? shrug. Where in the World Is Osama Bin Laden? is a primer no one needed. It should have been called The Post-9/11 World for Dummies.

***

Sugar is the second feature film from Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, the writer-director team who made a splash at Sundance a couple of years ago with Half Nelson, and their craftsmanly humanity is on full display in this tale of a young baseball player from the Dominican Republic — a pitcher named Miguel ”Sugar” Santos (Algenis Perez Soto), with a baby face and a killer corkscrew curve — who gets drafted into the American minor leagues, with the dream that he’ll become a star. There hasn’t been a sports movie this original in a while, as Sugar journeys to the strange land of Iowa, where he joins a single-A team and moves in with a genial farm family. Boden and Fleck trace what happens to him with an almost anthropological eye for this go-for-it version of the immigrant experience. Sugar barely speaks English, but he gets plunged into a world of malls and groupies, and Soto, a charismatic newcomer, plays him with an ambiguous and captivating thousand-yard stare.

Yet is it possible for a film to be too decent, too liberal, too humane? Boden and Fleck, working in the tradition of John Sayles and Victor Nunez, at once stoke and frustrate our desire to see Sugar, with all his talent, triumph over steep odds. Sugar ends up throwing the audience a curveball, and though that gives the movie a touching integrity, it left me wishing for at least a glimmer of good old rah-rah Hollywood vulgarity.