Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Film Review #138: Life Support
Director: Nelson George
Cast: Queen Latifah, Wendell Pierce, Anna Deavere Smith

“I saw that,” said one of my friend’s daughters almost at once, pausing to smile broadly and nod her head. “It was good!”

A couple Saturday nights before Thanksgiving in a bustling kitchen with the TV on, three grown daughters home at once and reminiscing, a new baby girl, plus a 17-month-old grandson already well in touch with his charisma, and in the midst of this – as I’m telling my friend about Queen Latifah starring in Nelson George’s Life Support, about a women’s HIV support group in Brooklyn – that daughter looks up quickly, remembering this film from its HBO broadcast way back in early March. Then Life Support came out quietly on DVD in early August – never hitting the Syracuse racks – but now it’s getting a second look as year-end awards season and World AIDS Day programs overlap. And my God-daughter’s right: it’s good.

For the first time in a decade, despite the World Health Organization’s recent correction downward of its global estimates of HIV/AIDS numbers, new infections in the US are rising –some 40,000 annually. Among those most at risk are women of color. Of all New York City boroughs, vast Brooklyn, inscrutable to many upstaters – where Life Support occurs – has the highest incidence of HIV infections. But the very complex, human emotions and dilemmas in this film do such an end-run around our denial that chances are you’ll be too engaged to object that it can’t happen here.

Life Support is based on the actual agency Life Force, a Brooklyn project that provides HIV testing, education and peer support groups. Some paid staff are HIV+ themselves and also support group participants, such as director George’s sister, Andrea Williams, upon whom Ana Wallace (Queen Latifah) is based.

A former addict, Ana has been clean for a decade. Besides her passionate involvement in HIV advocacy, she’s blossomed as a model mom to pre-teen daughter Kim (Rayelle Parker). Elder daughter Kelly (Rachel Nicks), a high school basketball star raised by her grandmother Lucille (Anna Deavere Smith), still recalls harsher days and struggles – as really everyone in this film does – with what Nelson George calls “the difficulty of forgiveness.” She also still resents Ana’s husband Slick (Wendell Pierce, Det. Bunk Moreland in HBO’s The Wire), whose own addiction led to Ana’s infection. That this marriage is solid again owes much to Slick’s steadiness and compassion.

The side-plot driving the crisis is Kelly’s dilemma over how to best assist her childhood friend Amare (Evan Ross) – himself addicted, quite ill with AIDS, and missing on the streets after a blow-up with his older, closeted boyfriend. Amare’s sister Tanya (Tracy Ellis Ross, his real sister – both have inherited mother Diana’s looks and magnetism), tangles with Ana as Ana searches for Amare.

Nelson George, besides directing excellent performances from this cast, also wrote the film. He uses periodic support group sessions to structure advances in the plot. Ana reports upon developments, sharing the evolution of her feelings, perspective and ability to cope. Much as such groups do in real life, this device both allows for and contains emotional meltdowns in a safe place. After each such scene, Ana goes forth again to her life, embodying the axiom of incremental “progress, not perfection.”

The support group on-screen and the real one at Life Force are the same, with Andrea Williams appearing on-screen as an unnamed group member. We learn this as the film concludes and final credits roll, including an affecting montage of individual Life Force women who turn their open, level gazes directly into the camera with a subtle but startling effect of leaping through the screen into the room with us, momentarily dissolving that membrane between fiction and the lives it mirrors. But this merely culminates what the film’s been doing all along.

Most movie versions of therapy and support groups veer from naïve to preachy to satiric, but George clearly paid attention when he followed his sister around pre-production. Besides embracing Ana, these non-“actorly” women function as witnesses and chorus for the film’s entire project, and evoke a kind of ratifying call and response between Latifah’s performance and their congregation-like circle. That Nelson George wisely dramatizes his sister’s story instead of presenting it straight as documentary biography adds resonance and power; we actively imagine along with the filmmaker rather than simply spectate. The DVD extras deepen this in various ways. Besides some unusually accessible interviews, in one sequence George points at a large street map of Brooklyn’s neighborhoods on his office wall and then visits a string of named filming locations, telescoping and animating that map's world – with great economy, suddenly Brooklyn seems neither so vast nor so inscrutable.

At this stage, the name selling Life Support on the DVD cover is Latifah’s. Life-long Brooklyn resident Nelson George has not yet made many films. But he’s had years of TV and music producing, plus writing some of the most astute, compulsively readable commentary on arts and culture around – besides his columns and novels, fifteen books ranging from Motown to Hip-Hop to basketball to film. I put his Blackface: Reflections on African Americans and the Movies (1994, revised 2002) in the Genuine Find category. There, he maintains that Black women’s stories and novels are the “mother lode” future of Black cinema. With Life Support, he walks the talk. And he’s good.

This review appears in the 11/29/07 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle
weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent movies that didn’t open theatrically in CNY & older films of enduring worth.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Film Review #137: Killer of Sheep
Director: Charles Burnett
Cast: Henry Gale Sanders, Kaycee Moore, Charles Bracy

As a graduate student in the film program at UCLA in the early 70s, Charles Burnett admired those casts of thousands in mainstream Hollywood movies because the crowds of extras – costumed, reflecting the protagonists, and going about the daily life created in a movie’s on-screen world – provided such a deep sense of the place in which a story occurred. Killer of Sheep, Burnett’s thesis project and first feature-length film, had no such budget, so he set about creating that backdrop of “deep place” not with crowds but one by one. Burnett’s story of Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders) and his family – recent arrivals from the South in the Watts section of 1970s Los Angeles, whose hopes for a fresh American start by the classic means of going West have so quickly turned bittersweet – is peopled with a constant stream of kids from start to finish.

From the first scene, in which a father admonishes a scowling boy that his little brother will always be his concern – Burnett says this is a rite of passage “we all went through” – to the gangs of boys playing mock battles behind make-shift shields in a vacant lot, wobbling three at once on a bike till barking dogs topple them, running, fence-sitting, leaping gracefully as deer between rooftops, hammering caps with a wrench on a rock, to the girls jumping rope, singing along with the radio to their dolls, dressing in an oblong of light beside a massive dark chest of drawers, shooting their own rocks from rooftops along with the boys, avidly whispering little-girl secrets through an open car window at a curb – Burnett’s inserted clips of kids busily growing up accumulate to a resonance and weight that scaffold the film and provide some of the most memorable brief studies of youth anywhere. Indeed one of the film’s final scenes has a young woman visiting Stan’s household to announce her joyful news of a coming child.

Austere, deceptively leisurely in pace – Burnett tightly story-boarded and scripted the film despite the action’s casual surface – and filmed with the eye of a master black and white still photographer, Killer of Sheep has what The New Yorker’s David Denby in April, upon the film’s first-ever theatrical opening in the US, called the “bedraggled eloquence of an old blues record.” More pointedly, the critic Michael Tolkin has said, “If this were an Italian film from 1953, we would have every scene memorized.”

Instead, Burnett was part of a group of young Black L.A.-based filmmakers that included Julie Dash, Larry Clark, Ben Caldwell and Haile Gerima, whose work rebelled against the commercial “blaxploitation” films of the day, concentrating instead on what Burnett called “our own stories.” He intended Killer of Sheep to be the first of a film trilogy that would follow Stan, his family and friends.

Shot mostly on weekends and originally finished in 1973, Killer of Sheep didn’t have a regular theatrical release because Burnett couldn’t get permissions for some of the music clips. This eclectic mix included Paul Robeson vocals (sometimes used satirically), swooning Gershwin strings, crashing Rachmaninoff piano chords, Scott Joplin rags, Louis Armstrong’s “West End Blues,” Dinah Washington’s slow-hand heartbreaker, “This Bitter Earth,” and Cecil Gant’s “I Wonder,” whose “haunting melody” Burnett says inspired the film to begin with.

In 1977 ad again in 1979, Killer of Sheep enjoyed short non-theatrical US tours – the Community Folk Art Center’s Gina Stankovitz says she’s sure founder Herb Williams brought this film to Syracuse in that era – mostly in galleries and museums on the East Coast and in the Midwest. In 1981 Burnett took the film to warmly receptive festival audiences and judges in Toronto and several European cities, earning a prize at Berlin.

Thanksgiving week is an apt time to finally receive this film on DVD because we might meditate on how lucky we are to have it at all. Burnett, who is still making movies – he’s currently filming a feature called Red Soil due out next year – says he didn’t know what bad shape the original 16 mm print was in until the UCLA Film Archives phoned him up to tell him. Restored and printed for the first time in 35 mm, Killer of Sheep’s limited US release this spring kept it on a few art-house screens till mid-October.

Milestone’s new two-disc DVD set also contains four shorts, the original cut of Burnett’s My Brother’s Wedding (1983) along with a brand new director’s cut, a brief clip of several Killer cast members reunited last April in a Santa Monica diner, and a commentary track with Burnett and the Lincoln Center Film Society’s Richard Peña.

Killer of Sheep is so titled because Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders) could only find work in a slaughterhouse where he kills and butchers sheep – curiously alert, trusting animals seen in a sunny haze that emphasizes their nightmarishly abrupt deaths. One scene of Stan moving a rack of skinned carcasses on hooks hanging heads-down cuts quickly to two boys on Stan’s front steps in a contest over who can hold a head-stand braced against the wall longest. In one remarkable shot, the kitchen’s drop-leaf table nearly fills the screen as Stan and his friend Bracy (Charles Bracy) sit opposite one another, their bodies squeezed inside the frame’s edge as their thighs and shoulders hunch over, curl around the table, transforming this meeting spot for family and friends into a kind of life-raft they cling to. Meanwhile, as Stan’s wife (Kaycee Moore) tries to revive this decent, sorrowful man’s interest in intimacy, their kids Stan Jr. (Jack Drummond) and little Angela (Angela Burnett) bicker and grow, Stan has visits from his buddies, tries to fix his car, sets out for a short holiday at the Los Alamedas race-track that fizzles out with a flat tire. You could say not much happens. But watching this film just makes you grateful, pure and simple.

This review appeared in the 11/21/7 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent movies that did not open theatrically in CNY & older films of enduring worth.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Film Review #136: Border Café
2006/DVD 2007
Director: Kombozia Partovi
Cast: Feresteh Sarde Orfaei, Nicholas Papadopoulos, Estobeta Mikhailishnia

Once there were three Iranian brothers whose village lay along a main trucking highway in the northwest corner of their country, about 30 miles from the Turkish border. The middle brother, Ismael, left this village as a young man and when he returned from his travels he brought back a bride, Reyhan (Fereshteh Sarde Orfaei), from another part of Iran. The customs were different there; Reyhan’s own mother had worked as a cook to support four children after losing their father in wartime. Ismael’s love match produced two young daughters, Leila and Sara, when he suddenly died, leaving Reyhan with a café outside town beside the truck route.

The eldest brother, Nasser (Parviz Parastoei), owner of a more lucrative, upscale restaurant in town, expected to take Reyhan as his second wife and raise her children as his own. Patient, generous, courtly in his own understated way, full of assumptions about how this would go, he locked up the roadside café and ordered a new wing built on his house.

The youngest brother, Karim (Jafar Vahabpour), glowering, hot-tempered and mustachioed as a cartoon bandit, had no wife or business of his own but stern ideas on handling women, so Nasser is constantly restraining him. A potentially comic figure whose red pick-up truck often roars off in a spray of gravel, Karim turns abruptly frightening when he beats a Greek truck-driver trying to court Reyhan so badly that he breaks the man’s leg.

Border Café isn’t really about these three brothers – a standard plot line the world over – though the missing middle brother’s independence remains a tantalizing mystery and the others suggest the varieties of coercion that women face in some parts of Iran. Instead, Border Café is about Reyhan herself, who simply, respectfully, decisively, says no to Nasser’s offer, and about how she makes that stick.

First she refurbishes her own house, doing the heavy stucco work herself. She struggles with disciplining her children, who are not sure she is still in charge. Then she hires her husband’s old manager, Oujan (Esmaeil Soltanian). They clean and paint the cafe
a vibrant blue - some time seems to have have passed before she regains possession of the key, and clearly the old cafe had been run-down when Ismael died - then split the labor so that he works the dining room and she the kitchen. Soon heavy rigs crowd the lot outside, from Hungary, Russia, Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey – after all, this is a very ancient trade route. Soon the Greek driver Zackaria (Nicholas Papadopoulos) warms to Reyhan when she makes him moussaka from scratch. Soon a young Russian highway girl trying to get to Italy, Zvieta (Estobeta Mikhailishnia), stops awhile under Reyhan’s wing. Then the Turkish border closes for two weeks due to “the PKK” – these are the Kurdish independence fighters based in nearby northern Iraq so much lately in our news – stranding the foreign truckers, and the brothers’ simmering impatience and consternation at Reyhan’s café boils over.

Besides focusing his story on Reyhan, Iranian writer-director Kombozia Partovi creates an alternative story of “home” and true hospitality that outweighs Nasser’s version of honor and family values. Set against Nasser’s first confident and then increasingly indignant speeches and declarations, both Zackaria and Zvieta speak only a few halting words of Reyhan’s native Farsi. These lonely travelers still pour out their losses and longing to her in their own languages, sitting in her sunny garden, and begin to learn her's. Each later muses how Reyhan’s café “felt like home.”

Iranian cinema is robust and widely respected, with directors who persistently address the lot of women under Iran’s Islamic regime despite great discouragement from that regime. Border Café is Partovi’s eighth feature film. A prolific screenwriter, Partovi has worked with director Jafar Panahi (who edited Border Café), for example writing Panahi’s award-winning 2000 ensemble film about women, The Circle – still banned in Iran – in which Fereshteh Sarde Orfaei (who is Partovi’s wife and collaborator) starred too. Panahi’s newest film, Offside, a biting comedy about young women sneaking in to watch the World Cup qualifying soccer match – women are banned from sporting events in Iran and this is based on his daughter's foray in disguise – has also just gone to DVD.

Border Café comes to us via the Global Lens Initiative, a project started five years ago that picks ten foreign films a year that have earned significant notice in the international film community – Border Café won festival prizes for Orfaei’s acting and Partovi’s direction – but have failed to find a US theatrical distributor. These films tour major US cities, after which First Run Features assures DVD release that includes bonus features about the film’s country and national cinema, as well as information about that year's other Global Lens selections.

Border Café is a wisely chosen gem.

This review appears in the 11/15/07 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of movies that did not open theatrically in CNY & older films of enduring worth.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Film Review #135: Under the Volcano
1984/Criterion Collection DVD 2007
Director: John Huston
Cast: Albert Finney, Jacqueline Bisset, Anthony Andrews

Although it hasn’t made it to Central New York yet, one of the most anticipated and well-received films in theaters right now is 83-year-old director Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke as ill-fated brothers and, as their father, the five-time Oscar nominee Albert Finney.

Like Lumet, Finney qualifies as an “old lion.” But 23 years ago, Finney embodied another character’s declaration – “I’m still strong as a bull!” – when he starred in John Huston’s Under the Volcano. Just before Lumet’s new film opened, Criterion Collection re-released Under the Volcano as a sumptuous two-disc set, one of the finest such combinations of film and supporting materials I have seen, worth watching for the younger Finney, the later Huston, the illumination of how novels reach the screen and the many parallels with today’s cinematic concerns that emerge.

Director John Huston was 77 when he brought Malcolm Lowery’s “unfilmable” novel to the screen in 1984 – Huston had two more films in him before he died in 1987 – and when, interviewed at the Cannes Film Festival, he called Finney’s performance as the doomed alcoholic British consul Geoffrey Firmin “the finest I have ever witnessed, let alone directed.”

Firmin’s last 24 hours coincide with the Mexican Day of the Dead in 1938 Cuernavaca, the capital of Morelos state and about an hour south of Mexico City. Finney portrays a man whose own dead have risen to haunt him, who tries once more to reconcile with his wife Yvonne (Jacqueline Bisset), and who sees not only what’s coming on the eve of World War II but how the mistakes of the past have gone uncorrected.

By lovely coincidence I watched Under the Volcano, along with Criterion’s bonus features, over this year’s Day of the Dead – All Saint’s Day is November 1st and All Soul’s Day is the 2nd. In Mexico and elsewhere entire families celebrate by visiting cemeteries with flowers, food, drink, music and vast numbers of candles to entertain their departed. Day of the Dead observances have more recently found their way on screen too – in Pedro Almodóvar’s Volver (2006), set in Spain, and in Milcho Manchevski’s new film, Shadows, set in Macedonia – so in Huston’s film the ritual seems both oddly contemporary and particularly apt as an image paired with alarms of looming war.

Lowery’s 1947 novel was replete with symbols and fractured chronology – screenwriter Guy Gallo says his first script was “very French, with lots of hallucinations and flashbacks” – which Huston, despite his admiration for much in the novel and his fascination with Firmin, found “suffocating.” The director pared away much of that overgrowth for a narrative of straightforward momentum. Firmin tells his own riveting story – repeatedly, it seems, and drunkenly – of the “missing” German officers aboard a U-boat in World War I whom he threw into the furnace of his ship, the S.S. Samaritan. As well, Firmin makes a drunken scene at a formal ball, predicting to the German consul that trains filled with dead will crisscross Europe. Firmin’s disillusion with what has occurred in the years between the wars, which has not resulted in the world reforming, richly adds to our own current re-appraisal of the World War II era.

Firmin’s inability to forgive himself matches his inability to forgive Yvonne and his younger half-brother Hugh (Anthony Andrews) for their affair. Firmin’s extremes – his drinking and nastiness set against his real fragility, the deep loss he feels about Yvonne, the horror of what he sees the fascists will create – all generate the film’s full-tilt suspense. Finally thugs gun Firmin down and roll him into a muddy ditch outside a brothel in a downpour.

Huston lived in Mexico for many years, but this was a return to working there – 20 years after Night of the Iguana (1964) and 35 years after The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948) – and he made such use of local colleagues for cast and crew that this is practically a joint US-Mexican production. This sheds light on the degree of film production present in those years in Mexico and the subsequent brilliance we have seen from Mexican film in recent years. For example, Huston’s production designer for this film was the Mexican painter, Gunther Gerzso, who designed three of Bunuel’s Mexican films and John Ford’s The Fugitive. His DP was Gabriel Figueroa; his art designer, Jose Rodriguez Granada; his editor, Roberto Silvi. Mexican matinee idol Ignacio López Tarzso plays Firmin’s friend, the physician, Dr. Vigil, who gently urges him to pray for his wife’s return (she indeed turns up the next morning).

One of the delights of this set is Gary Conklin’s hour-long1984 “making-of” documentary for such background material, but also for its substantial attention to how filming actually proceeds. Additionally, there’s an audio interview with Huston himself at Cannes in 1984, new interviews recorded last summer for this set with screenwriter Guy Gallo and actor Jacqueline Bisset, and a film commentary with the producers. These set a high bar for what DVD extras can offer a film’s new audience. As an extra bonus to tickle our “what if” bone, there’s a doc about Malcolm Lowery narrated by Richard Burton, the actor whom Huston long assumed should play Firmin.

Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is scheduled to screen in Rochester at The Little. A little lobbying of the Manlius Cinema to bring it nearer wouldn’t be out of order.

This review appeared in the 11/8/07 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle
weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent movies that did not open theatrically in CNY & older films of enduring worth. Rent such films at the locally-owned Emerald City Video, 3208 Erie Blvd. East in Syracuse.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Film Review #134: Ten Canoes
Director: Rolf de Heer
Cast: Jamie Gulpilil, David Gulpilil, Crusoe Kurddal

“It’s a good story,” confides the Storyteller to us in one of his asides. “It will help Dayindi live the proper way.” Voiced by the great Australian aboriginal actor David Gulpilil, whose son Jamie plays Dayindi in his debut screen role, this Storyteller’s gentle, humorous, sometimes chiding narration in English is specifically addressed to outsiders – “you other mob” – and it’s what allows us to eavesdrop on a distant, ancient world whose characters speak entirely in indigenous languages.

Set near Australia’s northern coast in Arnhem Land before the first contact with Westerners, Ten Canoes recounts how one man, Minygululu (Peter Minygululu), knowing his younger brother Dayindi is jealous of his three wives and seriously eyeing the youngest, tells Dayindi an ancient story with a similar plot. The two are part of a group of men who set out to collect goose eggs in the Arafura Swamp some ways from their tiny village, an annual undertaking that requires them to build new bark canoes. Thus the older brother’s story – in which the “dream time” characters themselves also tell a story, an origin myth from which their law flows – is wrapped inside the Storyteller’s tale too, like three nested boxes, so we left to consider the ancient purposes of storytelling in communities and families that could include our own.

All this may sound like an anthro classroom. But Ten Canoes is entertaining, funny, dramatic and, thanks to DP Ian Jones’ camera work, swooningly lovely to look at throughout. As well, it won the Special Jury Prize at Cannes, given for films that make contributions of special significance to film as an art form. So much does Ten Canoes enlarge and refresh the storytelling function of film that it also was Australia’s official 2007 Oscar entry. Ten Canoes opened theatrically in the US in June, running in limited release until just two weeks ago. Without much fanfare – not even cited in weekly media notices of new DVD releases – it quietly arrived on DVD a few weeks back.

Held together by the Storyteller’s voice, Ten Canoes alternates between the merely long-ago brothers on their goose-egg hunt and the ancient times. By the simple device of filming the present and the ancient times in full color and the middle period’s core story of Dayindi in black and white, we can shuttle between these two plots smoothly, revisiting the swamp trip at key points. Most of the actors have dual roles. So when Dayindi hears about the ancient impatient and jealous younger brother, Yeeralparil, he imagines himself as that young man, just as he imagines Minygululu’s wives as their ancient counterparts, and so forth.

Intriguingly, the exception to this double-casting is the older brother in the ancient tale, Ridjimiraril (Crusoe Kurddal), a younger, more warrior-like figure as Dayindi imagines him. The ancient plot parallels Dayindi’s dilemma, except that in the ancient time the older brother mistakenly kills a stranger he believes stole one of his wives, and has to accept the “payback” ceremony, in which his younger brother stands with him as the neighboring tribe hurl spears at them. Ridjimiraril’s injury and death ensue – not something Dayindi really wishes for Minygululu after all.

Ten Canoes results from David Gulpilil’s persistent invitation to director Rolf de Heer to visit the actor in his home community of Ramingining and make a film with the Yolngu people still living there. Gulpilil’s first screen role at age 15 was in Nicholas Roeg’s classic Walkabout (1970). Since then, if you’ve seen Aussie films like Crocodile Dundee, The Last Wave, and last year’s bracing Outback Western, The Proposition, you’ve seen Gulpilil. In 2002 he appeared in Rabbit Proof Fence and Rolf de Heer’s The Tracker, films that, like The Proposition, took sharply critical views of colonial treatment of indigenous communities. This was just a year after Canada’s Inuit made the first feature-length film wholly in their own language, Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, also a re-telling of an ancient story of jealousy, desire and revenge before European contact.

Gulpilil himself suggested the subject of Ten Canoes to de Heer based on 1930s photographs by anthropologist Donald Thomson – in particular one of ten men in canoes in the marshes at Arafura – of which there are some 4,000 archived in the Victoria Museum. The DVD contains excellent bonus features, including a short interview with de Heer, material on Donald Thomson’s work, and a making-of doc for television with extensive material about how Gulpilil’s community participated in filming decisions, chief among these the issue of how to cast the roles – de Heer says he merely was the instrument of their film – and to the great satisfaction of their community re-learned canoe-building and other skills to produce the film. Ten Canoes is exciting further evidence of the global emergence of indigenous cinema and its repairing effects of home communities and outsiders alike.

This review appeared in the 11/1/07 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent movies that did not open theatrically in CNY & older films of enduring worth.