Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Film Review #54: Idlewild ********** (2006) *** Director: Bryan Barber *** Cast: André Benjamin, Antwan A. Patton, Terrence Howard ***** As soon as the young dancer Aisha Mitchell got out of the New York City premiere screening of Idlewild, she called her mother. Mitchell, who is apprenticing with the Alvin Ailey II Dance Company/Fordham and had snagged one of four free tickets at her studio, comes from a family of performers and artists. Her mother runs a dance school in upstate New York, her brother is a stage lighting designer and, thanks to her photographer grandmother, most everyone in the family learned to handle a camera before they could read. Mitchell was calling her mother, shouting over the celebrity party hubbub, one dancer to another, “Mom, you gotta see this movie!” *** Not so easy in upstate New York. A single mall multiplex in the five counties surrounding Aisha Mitchell’s hometown has Idlewild on-screen during its wide release opening week. Further, there’s been a chorus of sour harrumphs abroad in the land about this movie – some of them fueled by disappointment in the soundtrack CD, which unfortunately got out just ahead of the film. *** Following their stunning music videos, Idlewild is the cross-over to film for the friends-since-forever hip-hop duo OutKast. Originally an HBO project slated for TV, Idlewild picked up additional producers, funding and film status during its several years’ gestation. André Benjamin, aka André 3000, plays shy piano man Percival, and Antwan A. Patton, aka Big Boi, plays Percival’s friend-since-forever, the small town showman Rooster. There are plot-twists and complications galore, making necessary the film’s lightening swoops and cuts back and forth between scenes as the story proceeds upon several parallel tracks. These involve the retiring gangster Spats (Ving Rhames), his vengeful henchman Trumpy (Terrence Howard in easily the film’s best dramatic turn), Rooster’s two-timing ways, Percival’s quandary about leaving his still-grieving undertaker father and his own lyrical but ill-fated romance with the mysterious singer Angel Davenport, who turns out to be Sally B. Shelly. *** Although the movie title references a planned, all-black vacation enclave about 70 miles north of Grand Rapids, Michigan, that flourished from the 1920’s into the 60’s, writer-director Bryan Barber has moved his story to seedier, vaguely more menacing Georgia. Here, there are boot-leggers, small-time vicious hoods, and a saloon called Church with production numbers whose loopy grandiosity is all out of proportion to the town’s sleepy, unassuming exterior. *** That Barber uses the name of the Michigan resort at all and then moves the setting to the Deep South allows him to pull associations from both regions and adds a certain bite. Idlewild is not really about historical accuracy in a literal way – not a story of 1930’s Georgia as much as a story about a hip-hop duo making a movie about the 1930’s. They themselves invite us to share in their own exploration. Someone has said the cast looks like they’re playing dress-up in their parents’ out-sized clothes. Well, yes. And the movie has the confidence and capacity for self-mockery to mostly pull that off. When Rooster arrives on stage the first time he strikes a pose and surveys the crowd with a look that asks, “So how do I look in this rig?” *** In fact, doubling, dissembling and transformation pervade Idlewild’s whole fabric. Story elements aside, in this film’s elastic universe, time passages are marked by a change between Technicolor and black and white. Doodles suddenly live and jump off Percival’s sheets of music. Portions of photos enlarge and start to move. Rooster has a silver whiskey flask with the figure of a rooster on it that animates and raps boisterously with him. Several times cinematographer Pascal Rabaud slows the camera to tease out the breath-taking grace of choreographer Hinton Battle’s large dance numbers. Dismissed by some as “mishmash,” this really amounts to a visual equivalent of rapping that loosens up the mind’s eye. Something startling occurs from these shenanigans, I think, that prepares us to let in the extraordinary. Set down in the middle there’s a sequence of Percival and Angel coming together during a drenching night thunderstorm that’s unashamedly, full-tilt lovely. And, in a deft illustration of violence that’s anything but gratuitous, Idlewild contains a trio of bloody showdowns in which Rooster first hides from Trumpy, then daringly runs away (in the best car chase in years), and finally vanquishes him back at Church. *** Idlewild stumbles sometimes along its inspired path. A couple smaller performances verge gratingly on slapstick. Rooster’s own rapping on-stage is strangely limp, despite the dancing in others that his character inspires. I held my breath a bit during Percival’s final moments with Angel as veering too close to maudlin – even as I found myself engaged in what he’d choose. And I remain crossly unforgiving about the decision to cover up Percival’s final spectacular song and dance number with the scrolling text of the end credits. Some of our best filmmakers gave us uneven early work – incandescent scenes alternately jostling with duds inside the same movie. I remember wondering during The Last Temptation of Christ if Scorcese maybe had an evil twin. Idlewild is flawed in the way that brazenly brilliant, impudent, full-of-themselves projects usually are – projects that get some people a little tight around the mouth – which means, yeah, you gotta see it. ****** This review was written for Stylusmagazine.com, where it appeared on 8/29/2006.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Film Review #53: When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Parts
Director: Spike Lee

Lee’s Katrina Doc on HBO Is Majestic, Moving

Spike Lee is a patient man. Four Little Girls, his documentary about the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, opened during the same week that the US Justice Dept. announced the case re-opened, leading to the arrest of three long-identified suspects – in 1997. Today, Four Little Girls usefully corrects the mistaken notion that there were no terrorist attacks on US soil in those years between Pearl Harbor and 9/11. Yet Spike Lee waited over a decade for the Birmingham families’ permission to make Four Little Girls.

In the run-up publicity for his new documentary about Hurricane Katrina, Lee said he’d like some people to go to jail for their actions before and after the storm. When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts aired earlier this week on HBO in two parts. HBO runs the entire doc – almost four and a half hours with its lengthy end credits sequence – next Tuesday, August 29th, the anniversary of Katrina’s landfall in Louisiana. The first half was screened in New Orleans Arena last week for over 10,000 people, who snapped up the free tickets in 48 hours.

Despite hustling to get this movie done in time for next Tuesday’s anniversary of Katrina’s landfall in Louisiana, Lee has remained a patiently angry filmmaker. Completely without voice-over narrative, this film lets its subjects – over 100 interviewed – tell their own stories. That pays off handsomely. It also allows Lee to present material about their experience that could otherwise be brushed off as inflammatory, such as the rumor that some levees were blown up on purpose to flood the poor, largely Black Ninth Ward and divert waters from other sectors. In the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, that had happened in New Orleans.

Lee has brought with him many of the same crew from Four Little Girls. HBO’s Sheila Nevins green-lighted the project, getting Lee on location by Thanksgiving for the first of nine trips. Noting that HBO never before doubled both the size and budget of a documentary, Nevins correctly calls this “the film of record for Katrina.” Sam Pollard produced and supervised editing of some 30 versions. Trumpeter and Ninth Ward native Terrence Blanchard, who’s scored Lee’s films since 1990’s Mo’ Better Blues, also performs, talks and in Act III escorts his mother back to her ruined home.

Acts I and II recap and reframe material that most of us with a pulse have already seen about the storm’s approach, those who fled and those who couldn’t, and what passed for rescue. Set to African drums and then Louis Armstrong singing “Do You Know What It Mans to Miss New Orleans?”, the opening montage intersperses historical footage of New Orleans revelry with Katrina devastation, setting up anew the contradiction and irrationality of what occurred. People recall over and over that tsunami relief reached around the globe in half the time it took FEMA to reach New Orleans. There are desperate moments of fear, anger, grief and rescue. One bizarre moment has red-coated Canadian Mounties arriving to help the relief effort. Closing the first half with a long montage of abandoned bodies is a risky move, if you think about it, because many viewers might easily not come back.

But Act III is worth the wait. Here, focusing on displacement of what WWWL radio host Garland Robinette says has been almost a million people, Levees really is majestic and moving. And here, Lee’s art as a feature filmmaker immeasurably deepens and supports the documentary. Here is where Terence Blanchard takes his frail but regal mother home, and where First Mother Barbara Bush visits the Houston Astrodome “refugees,” shrugging that “some of these people were underprivileged anyway.” In one sense, the whole film comes down to those two white-haired old ladies.

Act III is full of such masterful Lee moments of simply placing what’s worlds apart side by side. Terrence Blanchard walks through the Ninth Ward playing the hymn “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” on his trumpet, the music framing cuts between his walk and other faces and voices. Wynton Marsalis explains how the African drumming patterns from New Orleans’ old Congo Square, blended with French opera – “Where else in America? Not Boston!” – show up in today’s jazz. And Miss Phyllis Montana-LeBlanc, one of the memorable recurring personalities Lee brings on repeatedly for her blazing, shot-in-the-heart one-liners. Certain key still photos reappear throughout too, imposing an emotional order of the chaos by their accumulating familiarity. If you notice how such things work in movies, repetition and variation of people, images and musical themes is first-rate, a fitting achievement for Lee’s twenty year career.

By Act IV, I was tired, not in the mood for engineering data, insurance scams, and off-shore oil leases whose royalties are mostly siphoned away from Louisiana where they might pay for wetland restoration and community relief. But then, once again re-paying the wait, Levees winds up with a jazz funeral for Katrina – there’s one resilient elderly dancer in a fedora and sash emblazoned with “Jolly Bunch” who leads it – telling us a secret, I think, about what we lost and what endures. Spike Lee is a patient man, after all, as in “Don’t fire till you see the whites of their eyes.”

This review appeared in the Syracuse City Eagle weekly on 8/24/2006.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Film Review #52: My Country, My Country ********** (2006 ) *** Director: Laura Poitras *** Cast: Dr. Riyadh al-Adhadh, Carlos Valenzuela, Peter Towndrow *** How often have physicians – both characters and real figures – explained or personified modern violence from the very heart of its upheavals? Pasternak’s Yuri Zhivago made Russia’s convulsions intelligible. From Algeria’s independence war, psychiatrist Franz Fanon produced The Wretched of the Earth. Cillian Murphy is a doctor-in-training in the Irish Free State-era civil war in Ken Loach’s Cannes sensation, The Wind That Shakes the Barley. Though Dr. Ayman al-Zawahari may be no Che Guevara, Osama’s right-hand man too was once a surgeon. *** Now the exceedingly complex question of transplanting Western-style elections to Iraq during an escalating insurgency comes to our movie theaters in the person of Dr. Riyadh, whose seemingly doomed run for political office approaches tragedy. *** Speaking by phone from New York last Friday, the day her documentary My Country, My Country opened there at Cinema Village, Laura Poitras related how she found her film’s protagonist. In “this kind of filmmaking,” she explains, it doesn’t make sense to plan things too much. In July 2004, she had been in Iraq about three weeks. Working entirely alone, she intended to film the six months’ run-up to Iraq’s first elections. Then, she encountered the Sunni physician as he conducted an inspection at Abu Ghraib Prison. We see this on-screen, as he patiently, intently wades through and sorts out the tangle of flayed emotions and crossed agendas. *** Poitras says, “My instincts just told me, like, this guy is really amazing, in terms of his ability to talk across both sides of the fence – to reach out to the detainees, and then also to negotiate on their behalf with the US military.” *** To a remarkable degree, Poitras’ even-handed film manages to do the same thing. Her lucky discovery of Dr. Riyadh – coincidentally a candidate for the Baghdad Provincial Council from the largest Sunni group, the Iraqi Islamic Party – provides a resonant focal point for Western audiences. That he is both a physician and a Western-style candidate, with a family of constantly challenging women, engenders a familiarity about Dr. Riyadh that puts him on a par with many seemingly more familiar, non-Iraqi figures who teem across the screen – UN-connected Europeans, Australian mercenaries, US military and State Department types. *** For Arab audiences – and for our illumination if we wish – there is the film’s haunting soundtrack, written and performed by Kadhum al-Sahir. Consider that this pop-singer and classic composer, from Iraq’s northern city of Mosul – who has lived in exile from Saddam's regime in Egypt since 1993 – is the world’s top-selling Arab musician (over 30 million records). Connecting those dots suggests the complexity of the Arab world’s response to US presence in Iraq. And, of the array of successfully made contacts manifested throughout her film, Poitras is most proud of Kadhum al-Sahir’s participation. When he performed in Detroit, she flew there and went backstage to ask him to do the score. *** “For any Arab speaker, if they watch the first five minutes of this film?” Poitras answers her own question, “The second his voice comes on, they know this man. He’s singing, ‘Oh my country, when will you have a happy morning?’ They know that voice and they know he’s in exile. It sends shivers, because it has such resonance.” *** My Country, My County opens on Baghdad’s Election Day morning. A single bird sweeps across vast pink dawn sky. A man makes coffee in a dark, cramped kitchen. A young woman’s voice asks, “Dad, will you vote?” Her question becomes a refrain, repeated three times through the film, underscoring the irony of Dr. Riyadh’s position as both father and candidate. By the time he sends his wife and off-spring out to vote, his party has withdrawn its slate in boycott and ordered him to stay home too. The film then back-tracks six months, and brings us along at intervals, with tightly edited vignettes of Dr. Riyadh’s progress alternating with the larger project of mounting an election, up to this Election Day morning, replaying the kitchen scene and proceeding to the day’s immediate aftermath. *** Along the way, we see Dr. Riyadh treating patients, feeding his chickens, pleading with the Americans to let medical aid into the embattled city of Fallujah, facing his increasingly fractious family, and arguing – against a tide of resentment and sorrow from every quarter – that, “If we don’t participate, we will be left on the sidelines.” With elections two months off, Dr. Riyadh has grown thinner and grayer. In one somber scene, speakers at his party headquarters debate pulling out of the election. Repeatedly the camera pans back to his watchful face as he grasps that most of his party colleagues are simply unable to see past their fury at the US. *** On Election Day, he listens when his wife and daughters return home from the polls embarrassed, vociferous. “I elected you myself,” one daughter practically spits, adding that they were the only family from their block at the polls. His wife Samera – who earlier had exclaimed, “Politics is not good for you!” – says she hid her purple-inked finger. Another daughter sarcastically says no, she cannot make the luncheon salad – because she’s voted, “The Resistance is after me!” *** Much of the three days surrounding the election is occupied by the kidnapping for ransom of Dr. Riyadh’s nephew Yasir, whose father, also a doctor, breaks down during cell-phone negotiations when he fears his son is lost. Despite raising Yasir’s ransom price – a sum that Poitras reports she contributed to because, she says, “How could you not?” – Dr. Riyadh coolly shares his analysis with the camera as well as with the family packed into his tiny living room. He observes, “Saudi Arabia and Syria are giving money to the Resistance. The whole world is giving money to the Resistance.” Of the kidnappers, part of wide-spread intimidation kidnappings near the election, he adds, “They don’t need our money.” *** Dr. Riyadh may be, as Laura Poitras says, a deeply religious man, but he is also deeply astute, uncommonly able to pay attention to what goes on around him and maintain his own footing. In this, he and the filmmaker are alike. *** When not trailing her doctor-candidate protagonist, Poitras is following the voter registration and election process – with the UN support team headed by Carlos Valenzuela, at Iraq’s Election Commission, inside US State Dept. “pep talks” and media strategy briefings, along on transport of heavily guarded registration materials and ballot boxes, at gun deals with Australian mercenaries in the mountains of Kurdistan, inside helicopter sweeps over the city and protests at the Abu Hanifa mosque. Over and over, with a jolt at some unexpected scene, you wonder how on earth Poitras got where she is shooting from. Its very immediacy is unnerving. Despite the chaos Poitras documents, the film itself is organized, coherent, rapidly paced and devoid of cheap shots. But it would not be half so good a movie without the doctor and his family. *** This review was written for Stylusmagazine.com, where it ran on 8/11/2006. Hear an interview with Laura Poitras on Women’s Voices Radio, WAER Syracuse 88.3 FM, on Thursday, 8/31/06 at 8:00 p.m. DST, via web-streaming at www.waer.org.