Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Film Review #48: WHO KILLED THE ELECTRIC CAR? *** Director: Chris Paine *** Cast: Martin Sheen, Chelsea Sexton, Stan Ovshinsky *** There’s a scene in the 1991 satire Naked Gun 2 ½ in which a sinister Robert Goulet tells a roomful of shadowy big oil and coal executives that they are right to be frightened. He reels off a list of innovations – from light bulbs to electric cars – that could save vast amounts of money and energy, destroying their profits and making their products obsolete. Except, he assures them, no one will ever know. Naked Gun 2 ½ depicts a scheme to kidnap a scientist who advocates solar energy. First-time feature director Chris Paine uses this scene in his new documentary about a real-life plot unfolding at about the same time that climaxes with the kidnap and destruction of almost an entire fleet of such electric cars, the General Motors Saturn EV-1. *** Who Killed the Electric Car? is chocked full of details that provoke an “I never knew that!” response – where has the media been during all this? The movie also has three things going for it: a savvy understanding of America’s mixed relationship with the car, a crew of filmmakers who are both activists themselves and techno-literate enough to grasp some fairly intricate science and numbers, and the good fortune to premiere in the light cast by Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. The recent Los Angeles Film Festival even ran a Saturday double bill of both movies in downtown LA’s California Plaza as part of a Green Day with related parties and events. *** Between 1996 and 2003, the Saturn EV-1 was available to lease in California and Arizona. There were actually nine electric vehicles on the road during this period, from Honda, Toyota, Nissan, Ford and Chrysler. Among them only the Toyota RAV4 EV was for sale – one of the film’s producers bought the very last one sold. Paine concentrates on the Saturn EV-1 as the prototype and most important because of GM’s leadership in this whole affair. Actor Martin Sheen, adding The West Wing’s gravitas, narrates. *** In 1987, after GM won a solar-powered car race in Australia, CEO Roger Smith directed their Saturn division to come up with a commercial electric car. Developed completely in California – Alan Cocconi built its first battery in his garage – the project remained a secret, outside Detroit’s loop. The two-seater EV-1 was unveiled at the 1990 Los Angeles Auto Show. Shortly after, aware of EV-1 and eager to combat the worst levels of air pollution in the US, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) passed the Zero Emissions Mandate. This required 2% of all new vehicles sold in that state to be emission free by 1998 and 10% – estimated between 1,000,000 and 2,000,000 – by 2003. *** But by 1996 – nine months before the Saturn EV-1 was actually offered to the public – GM had lobbied CARB to soften their mandate and base the quota on consumer demand instead of percentage sold. Paine’s movie portrays how GM, in concert with the oil industry and other car-makers, went about actively undermining and then denying that consumer demand. This took effort, since the EV-1 was immediately popular, generating long waiting lists. Paine features a host of engineering experts, colorful inventors, fresh-faced advocates and celebrities touting the EV-1 – on late-night TV, actor Tom Hanks tells David Letterman, “That sucker goes!”, then adds, “And I’m saving America!” *** The EV-1 was quite fast, silent, clean, fun to drive, cost only about $5 to re-charge and required little maintenance and parts replacement. Its brake system alone would cost the lucrative brake repair industry millions. When Stan Ovshinsky invented a battery that increased its range, GM bought the rights and told him to keep quiet about it – “I expected applause,” the white-haired, twinkly-eyed holder of 200 US patents ruefully tells Paine. Eventually Chevron/Texaco bought the battery and put it on the shelf. After all, GM had also bought up competing trolley car companies and shut them down, thereby creating urban demand for cars. *** There’s plenty of drama in Who Killed the Electric Car? Both drivers and sales teams were so fond of the EV-1 that they organized when GM re-called its 800-car lease fleet. They protested. They held a mock funeral. They offered GM $1.9 million to buy back one 78-car lot. Chris Paine hired a helicopter and filmed EV-1’s crushed at GM’s remote desert proving grounds. When GM sued CARB in 2002 to completely dismantle its emissions mandate, the Bush White House joined up, offering legal support, tax credits for SUV’s and the lure of hydrogen fuel cells. In one of the clearest sections, Paine demolishes the promise of hydrogen fuel cells – which are derived from fossil fuels and won’t be commercially viable for at least twenty years, enough time for the oil industry to get at the rest of those trillion barrels of oil still in the earth’s crust. *** Chris Paine and company understand America’s romance with cars but also our more everyday, enduring affection. Like all romances, this one has sometimes blinded us. There’s a wonderful montage of advertising and film clips that convey the illusion of mystery, wealth, glamour and open road that cars promised mid-century. Then the dramatic fog drifting around a vintage Caddy’s giant chromed tail fins morphs into the brown smog hanging over a grid-locked freeway – that “inconvenient truth.” But don’t forget this film appears during the summer of the wildly popular animated movie Cars, surely a descendant of The Little Engine That Could and all that conjures up. The EV-1 and its class-mates are zippy, compact, friendly. Easy to give personalities. Activist Chelsea Sexton, part of Saturn’s original and most successful 13-person sales team for EV-1 in California until laid off in 2001 and now executive director of Plug-in America, calls them “my babies.” *** Luckily (mostly) for audiences, Chris Paine and his crew came to this project already knowing the field. Most have driven electric vehicles. Paine and some of his producers are among the “digerati” who worked in computers and then turned to introduce digital innovation into filmmaking. They understand the science, have a coherent analysis of events and can articulate both. The text boxes and subtitles on-screen are hard to read and go by too quickly, but only occasionally does Paine let his own geek enthusiasm override good judgment about how much is too much. *** Really this is a cross-over film. In format a well-done but fairly conventional documentary, it might have enjoyed a modest theatrical run or screened on PBS. Instead, Who Killed the Electric Car? rides in the slipstream of Al Gore’s movie – and that, if you think about it, is really more a rock concert film than a documentary. That’s okay, because Gore’s film overcomes many people’s reluctance to listen to difficult, overwhelming and confusing material. Films like Paine’s will benefit from curious, fired-up audiences who now more readily connect some dots. *** Perhaps coincidentally, the activist organization held some 300 rallies at gas stations around the US to demand that Congress stop accepting Big Oil’s money on the same day Who Killed the Electric Car? opened. In Washington, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History quietly removed its rare surviving EV-1 from display earlier this month. And violent rain squalls and flooding continue in much of the northeast. . . *** Who Killed the Electric Car? opened in New York and Los Angeles on June 28th & goes into wide release on July 21st. *** [1,234] This review was written for

Monday, June 26, 2006

THE ROAD TO GUANTÁNAMO *** Directors: Michael Winterbottom & Mat Whitecross *** Cast: Riz Ahmed as Shafiq Rasul, Arfan Usman as Asif Iqbal, Farhad Harun as Rhuhel Ahmed, Waqar Siddiqui as Monir. *** You can’t say we weren’t warned. *** This British film’s theatrical release in a dozen US cities on June 23rd has been a little like the arrival of a fleet of tall ships whose masts we have watched bear down on our shores from over the horizon. Just as film alone, Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross’ docudrama about post 9/11 detention of terror suspects at Guantánamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba arrives here already acclaimed (Silver Bear Award for Best Director at this year’s Berlin Film Festival), and to an unusual degree – at least in the New York City area – already seen. The Road to Guantánamo screened twice in early May at Tribeca Film Festival, and again last week at Human Rights Watch Film Festival at Lincoln Center, not to mention the five Manhattan press screenings in between. As political performance art, this movie - centering on four young, real-life British Muslims of Pakistani background swept up in the US invasion of Afghanistan - also resembles another recent British import. The film alternates enactments of what happened with interview snips from the surviving three and archival news footage. Victoria Brittain and Gillian Slovo’s 2004 play, Guantánamo – Honor Bound to Defend Freedom, presents enactments of four other young men imprisoned in Guantánamo, cobbled from their own statements and letters, and political figures like Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Photos of real-life counterparts are projected on the set’s back wall. The play opened off-Broadway to coincide with the August 2004 GOP presidential convention, and then had healthy runs in Washington, San Francisco and, as recently as March, Chicago. The play’s title – Honor Bound to Defend Freedom – references a sign outside Guantánamo’s Camp X-Ray compound, which in light of growing charges can’t help but echo the “Arbeit Macht Frei” signs outside earlier camps. *** Spilling into its own larger context, the film’s opening now seems part of a powerful convergence of events. Growing calls to close Guantánamo from bodies both here and abroad include the U.N. Committee on Torture in Geneva, in May and again on June 23rd following the June 10th suicides of three Guantánamo detainees. The principals in Winterbottom’s film were quickly quoted by US media covering those suicides as sources about harsh psychological conditions there. *** Michael Winterbottom has said that his attraction to their story was of ordinary guys swept up in overwhelming events. Shafiq, Asif and Rhuhel – dubbed the Tipton Three for their hometown in the industrial Midlands region of England – are well-connected ordinary guys. Winterbottom first contacted them about a film project through their lawyer, Gareth Peirce. As a young British journalist, she was transformed by a stint in the 1960’s covering Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., earned a law degree and has built a career on high-profile human rights and political defense work. She’s had other cases on-screen – for example, see Jim Sheridan’s 1993’s In the Name of the Father. In 2002, Shafiq and Asif were among plaintiffs in cases that resulted in the Supreme Court’s 2004 ruling that Guantánamo detainees have access to US courts to challenge their detentions. And last month, a US District Court cleared the way for their $10 million suit against the Bush Administration for violating their right under US law to practice their faith while in custody. *** Even so, I’m afraid such background doesn’t adequately prepare you for watching this movie. The Road to Guantánamo is important, remarkable and more disturbing than we usually want our movies. Here is what the film recounts. *** On September 10, 2001, Asif Iqbal’s mother returns to Tipton from a visit to Pakistan and tells him that she has chosen a young woman there for his wife. Nine days later, he leaves for Pakistan; soon after, friends Shafiq, Rhuhel and Monir follow. They rendezvous in Karachi, joined by Shafiq’s Pakistani cousin Zahid. During sight-seeing in the capital, Zahid takes them to a mosque. An imam urges them to join humanitarian groups heading for neighboring Afghanistan, which faces impending US invasion. They go. There, they encounter war-time chaos, illness, carpet bombing, bad directions and Northern Alliance troops who arrest them in November during the Taliban’s fall near Konduz, after first having traveled to Kandahar and Kabul – quite a lot of ground. Monir disappears in one evacuation. Zahid winds up in prison in Pakistan. *** So far, the young Brits – one wears a GAP hoodie over his indigenous clothes – have suffered primitive dangerous barbarism. Now they will survive high-tech dangerous barbarism. Shafiq, Asif and Rhuhel eventually wind up at Guantánamo. The film’s remainder depicts their transport, processing and graphically brutal imprisonment in wire cages and solitary, sessions with US and British interrogators, and eventual release back to England in March 2004. None was ever formally charged. *** An epilog follows the three as Asif returns to Pakistan for his long-delayed wedding. This section is unexpectedly satisfying because we see the actual young men in real time, in their own lives. Only then is the stress and confusion of seeing two of each character on-screen apparent. There is such figure-ground vibration in combination with witnessing human extremity that reviewing the film is hard. Some reviewers note in detail how upsetting, even physically grueling, watching it is – then turn around to criticize its cinematic competence. One reports experiencing “helplessness and dread” – the combination producing trauma – then crossly says the movie’s “far from great.” Another dismisses US detention practices as not much different from your standard-issue fraternity hazing, then oddly garbles his basic plot recap as if he wasn’t able to watch the screen. *** One feels unmoored in this film, but I lay that to its power and not to sloppy filmmaking. Adept throughout his career at crossing generic boundaries, Michael Winterbottom has made choices. He is explicit that he wasn’t making a documentary about the Tipton Three, but rather “their version of what happened to them.” Co-director Mat Whitecross spent a month interviewing the three, gathering 650 pages of transcript, and Winterbottom says, “We weren’t trying to independently check or cross-reference what they were saying.” *** So there are unanswered questions and dramatic gaps. Why weren’t at least their parents worried about such a trip on the eve of war? Maybe that Pakistani cousin was trying to recruit them to Al-Qaeda? Where were their families during all this? How come that bride waited for Asif? On the other hand, with one exception, the filmmakers also restrained themselves from easily-made, sarcastic side-swipes at George Bush and company – what might pass for telling the rest of the story in some documentaries. The story holds its own as emotional truth. *** Part of that emotional truth arises from the use of largely non-professional actors and on-location filming in Pakistan, Afghanistan and, because of its own well-developed film industry, Iran. Winterbottom’s long-time casting director, Wendy Brazington, sought students from the English Midlands. Only Rizwan Ahmed, who plays Shafiq, had acted before. They haven’t the dramatic focus or physical economy of trained actors. They supply an ungainliness and lack of pretense that conveys how ordinary late teens might grapple with such circumstances – even as many adults in the audience find composure elusive. So the characters are open. Open to a young soldier’s kindness in not startling a sleeping detainee while killing a poisonous spider in Cuba. Open as well to taking in the full colossal arrogance of an American female interrogator who suggests one of the three “work for us now.” *** Winterbottom doesn’t think films have a huge impact. I think this one might. I’m just probably not going to see it again for a while. *** (1,253) An abridged version of this review was published at on 6/26/06.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Film Review #46: Adam and Steve – Broadcast 6/15/2006 on Women's Voices Radio WAER Syracuse 88.3 FM *** Originally the religious right linked the names “Adam and Steve” as part of their campaign against gay marriage. You might have heard them chanting the slogan, “It’s Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve!” In the time-honored tradition of oppressed groups taking back the language, Craig Chester has now made a movie with two gay protagonists named – well, Adam and Steve. Besides writing and directing the film, Craig Chester plays Adam. Malcolm Gets, formerly of TV’s Caroline in the City, plays Steve. Comedienne Parker Posey plays Adam’s ditzy best buddy Rhonda & Saturday Night Live’s Chris Kattan plays Steve’s ditzy straight roommate Michael. *** We should start with Craig Chester himself, a well-respected & hard-working actor on the indie scene since the 80’s. He’s been involved with Sundance projects, he played one of the leads in 1992’s Swoon, about the Loeb-Leopold child murder in the 1920’s – worth catching if you have netflicks, by the way. He’s also appeared in films like Mary Harron’s Who Shot Andy Warhol? You’ll find Chester quoted extensively in the new spring issue of Movie Maker Magazine in film critic David Sterritt's thoughtful article on the influence of Brokeback Mountain and other gay cinema. Craig Chester has now branched out from acting to writing & directing; he’s also got another film called Save Me! in production for 2007 release. *** So Adam and Steve is Craig Chester’s first feature film. It’s slated for DVD release in both the US & England on August 21st, although this week this relatively new film is playing at only three regular movie theaters in the country. I suspect that Adam and Steve will mostly do well on exactly the kind of platform it’s getting here in Syracuse – festivals & fund-raisers. I wish this were a cross-over film but alas, that is not likely. *** Adam and Steve begins in 1987 New York City, 17 years before the main story’s present-day romantic comedy plays out. In their younger incarnations, Adam & Rhonda were black-clad Goths, & Steve was a glitter dancer in a glam chorus line. This establishing pick-up between our two heroes ends disastrously, a point we’ll come back to. Fast forward to the present: Adam, now in recovery from coke, is an ornithologist with a dog named Burt. Steve’s a fastidious psychiatrist. Through a Rube Goldberg contraption of a plot twist, they hook up again & a really rather endearing romance ensues, complete with meeting both sets of quirky parents, struggles over commitment & a marriage proposal, Rhonda’s efforts at stand-up comedy in empty clubs, & AA meetings. *** Always lurking, however, are the neighborhood gay basher & the long-ago encounter, which neither at first recalls. The latter is not an insurmountable crisis: it all does work out & toward the end sort of morphs into a musical too. There’s a nod to Brokeback in a snazzy, impressive Western-themed dance number. There's also a moment when Steve, to prove his love, breaks into a song about how somewhere he must have done something good in his miserable childhood. You know the one – I think it’s from The Sound of Music. Actually a character in one of my favorite TV shows, Boston Legal, burst into this very same song during his wedding this spring, only Shirley Schmidt – that is, Candace Bergen – was on hand to whip her head around & squint in disbelief. *** There is a lot of that sort of thing in Adam and Steve – abrupt, vertigo-inducing swerves of tone, Saturday Night Live-style skits beamed down into the middle of serious scenes as though from the Enterprise itself. I don’t mind the changes in tone all that much, though some are ill-advised & clumsy. Some extremely serious filmmakers are working hard these days to inject a more life-like range of mood & tone in their films. That's legitimate, though Adam and Steve lacks a Candace Bergen to stand in for us all in marking the whiplash at its most extreme moments, a function not really served by Steve's own horror at his past. *** The love story is well-played & affecting, emerging periodically from a careening wackiness. But I wonder about that. How much is uproarious farce on-screen & how much is our own on-going blend of relief & hope that the worst might be over? No, the failure at cross-over appeal, I’m afraid, occurs right at the film’s beginning with its 1987 prologue. Most reviewers have handled this scene with the word “scatological,” making it an inside joke. So if you know anything about doing cocaine & cutting it with baby laxative, you’ll get it. Let’s be honest: this scene is offensive – down to the splash of Steve’s feces on Adam’s already heavily mascara-smudged face. *** A key here is that it’s offensive to Craig Chester too – the excesses, the foolishness & the posturing, the damage that people did themselves. Who among us does not look 17 years back without some mortification? Chester’s sense of camp & his eye for excess are both unerring, & although he says this film is supposed to be “dessert” after the “heavier meal” of Brokeback, I think his aims are more substantial. It’s worth watching to see how his grasp matches his reach in future efforts. But this is probably not the best next film for your brother-in-law who just loved La Cage aux Folies. *** Adam and Steve screens Sat., June 17th at the Eastwood Palace, 2384 James St., at 7:00 p.m. Sponsored by the Stonewall Committee as a fund-raiser for their LGBT booth at the New York State Fair.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Film Review #45: DOWN IN THE VALLEY (2006) *** Writer & director: David Jacobson *** Cast: Edward Norton, Evan Rachel Wood, David Morse, Rory Culkin *** Talking to NPR about his role as out-of-place modern cowboy Harlan Carruthers in Down in the Valley, the actor Edward Norton commented that “modern life entombs us and drives us to seek ways to start over.” *** Starting over is central to the myth of the Western, of course, and never far below the surface of any American story of reinvention – so powerful that it makes films like Malick’s The New World almost pre-quels. Norton, also a producer for this film, reportedly spent many hours with writer-director David Jacobson watching classic Westerns. So his Harlan undergoes a kind of deranged hyper-reinvention that is about taking the Western in the wrong way. *** Claiming he’s just arrived in L.A. from South Dakota, the 30-ish Harlan takes up with 15-year-old Tobe (Evan Rachel Wood). When she invites him to the beach, he quits his job to go. Soon he’ll lose his lodging and the remnants of his shaky, patched-together self over her too. Tobe has Harlan’s pants off as soon as she gets inside his seedy kitchenette. If Harlan is a time-bomb, Tobe is a handful. In one scene she throws a tantrum that requires her sheriff’s officer father, Wade (David Morse), to restrain her, reminiscent of the harrowing climactic scene in Wood’s 2003 breakout film Thirteen. But Harlan’s stories crumble, as Wade is sure they will, and Tobe pulls back from him on her own. Not soon enough: Harlan shoots her in an impulse terrifying for its very brevity and takes off with her little brother Lonnie into the hills. Wade pursues them on horseback to a bloody showdown. *** Well, unsurprisingly Harlan isn’t from South Dakota. He’s from just down the coast – Dan something, an identity so insubstantial that we barely catch his name or the town he’s really from. In this light, that he’s never been to the beach until Tobe takes him suggests the dreary confines of a life he’s tried to leave. *** Despite the easy reference to Scorcese’s Taxi Driver (1976) – both Harlan and Travis Bickle practice their fast-draw with Colt .45’s in front of a mirror – the setting here is distinctly West coast, and the tone cinematically older that 1970’s disaffection. Harlan reminds me more of Lee Marvin’s portrayals of young punks in Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and Budd Boetticher’s recently resurrected Seven Men From Now (1956). Despite his capacity for belligerence, Harlan’s painstaking practice is about finding someplace to fit in. Harlan would like to be part of Tobe’s family, with a father who plays guitar and a little brother he could teach stuff to. When Tobe refuses to run off with him, Harlan quickly takes Lonnie instead, and it’s almost a more fitting match. *** Down in the Valley also presents another version of modern life’s “entombment” than the closed walls, dark hallways and dead-end alleys of New York City – a softer, deceptively open version. The first sound we hear is the whiz of traffic on the San Fernando Valley freeways. Jacobson puts Harlan, Tobe and Lonnie near these freeways right away, where they can see those round, brown California hills and that large California sky through the mesh fences and the netting of overhead wires. This is urban sprawl so rapid and haphazard that it’s left scraps of land like the ridges above the freeway and the tiny pocket beyond where old Charley (Bruce Dern) keeps a few horses. The freeways provide the illusion that you’re going somewhere, that you could get away – a constant provocation to the restless. Of course our cowpoke’s job is pumping gas, and of course Harlan and Tobe first glimpse one another through a car window – which for many Americans doubles as a sort of portable, street-level movie screen. *** Down in the Valley boasts always competent, sometimes excellent acting. As Tobe (“short for October”), Evan Rachel Wood is convincing both losing her head and coming back to her senses. She has three films opening in the next year, including the screen version of Augustin Burrough’s Running With Scissors, and this movie is reason to anticipate any future work she does. After years mired in TV type-casting and mostly forgettable films, David Morse deserves good character roles like this more often. Rory Culkin gives a finely directed, restrained performance as the watchful, susceptible little brother, Lonnie. Jacobson has fashioned particularly queasy possibilities for this youngest character. After target practice with Harlan, Lonnie could shoot somebody now. And in Harlan’s coaching in overcoming fear of the dark, we glimpse how the bond between John Muhammad and a younger John Lee Malvo might produce the DC snipers. *** Edward Norton’s Harlan is remarkable. He’s famously made his bread and butter since Primal Fear out of playing roles as much about performance itself as other aspects of character motivation. From their collaboration Jacobson has tailored his plot so that the film’s action follows and enlarges this by-now resonant side to Norton’s own work and so makes it the film’s heart. Just as Harlan is not what he claims, Down in the Valley’s plot works as a series of junctures at which we don’t know if what we see is what we get. We often share this uncertainty with those on-screen. When old Charley accuses Harlan of stealing the white horse, we wonder along with Tobe whether Charley’s playing a joke or off his medication. When Harlan shoots Tobe and later himself, the camera abruptly cuts away each time. When Harlan and Lonnie stumble onto a Western film set at dawn, Harlan’s eyes wide with wonder – for a disorienting moment, maybe this is, who knows, a dream sequence? *** Mostly Jacobson succeeds with – and survives, perhaps – these swerves into uncertainty; this film is far more engaging emotionally than its obvious recent mate, Wim Wenders’ disappointing Don’t Come Knocking. There is a trace of unwieldiness here, as when a singer’s voice isn’t quite under control. And Down in the Valley presents conventions from the Western movie in pretty distilled form. Both Harlan and Wade resort to guns. Harlan’s a man on a white horse. When he hides it in the garage of a tract house, the horse tries to kick its way out, and so on. Yes, clunky. But part of what I like about that hokey movie set that the characters pass through is the dimension it adds to the housing tract construction site – Americans are still building sets upon which to enact modern life, still practicing so we look right. *** [1,078] June 11, 2006: Written for