film review: BODY OF WAR

Produced and directed by Phil Donahue & Ellen Spiro
Director of Photography: Ellen Sprio
Edited by Bernadine Colish
Music by Jeff Layton
Original songs by Eddie Vedder
Released by the Film Sales Company
USA. 87 min. Not Rated

Article originally appeared:

I would never have guessed that the image of Senator Robert Byrd reading from the Constitution would end up being one of the most profound moments I’ve seen on film, but in “Body of War”, a powerfully moving documentary, it’s only one of many such moments. The venerable senator pleads with an overly fervent congress to slow its course and practice caution on the eve of its vote to give President George W. Bush power to declare war. From his decades of experience (at 90, he has served longer than any other senator in history and is its oldest member), Byrd has learned the advantages of prudence, something which his colleague in the executive branch has shown little appreciation.

Having sat through copious documentaries on the subject of the war in Iraq (“Fahrenheit 9/11”, “No End in Sight”) and Afghanistan (“Taxi to the Dark Side”), one wonders if there really is much more to mine from the subject. The answer is a resounding yes. Tomas Young, now 28 years old, was shot and paralyzed within days of being deployed to Iraq. His gripping and often painful story is at the film’s center, as is how he comes to terms – both medically and emotionally – with his injuries. We share in his sense of betrayal when he recounts how he proudly volunteered on September 13th, 2001, after hearing his president declare from the rubble that had been the World Trade Center that the evildoers would pay for their crimes. A year later, he found out that he would never set foot in Afghanistan, the home of those evildoers, but would be sent instead to Iraq – the first in a litany of mistruths and disappointments Tomas would face. A self-declared liberal and now a member of Veterans Against the Iraq War, Tomas struggles with depression and ambition. One moment, he inspires crowds and confronts politicians and then lays immobile in bed the next. Read more

INTERVIEW with Nick Broomfield

Right around the time when Nick Broomfield’s non-fiction film”Battle for Haditha” was coming out, I was able to set up an interview with the famed filmmaker.  Nick was primarily known for his off-beat documentaries where he cast himself as a mostly bewildered fish-out-of-water witness than a hard-hitting documentarian like Alex Gibney or the agenda-happy Michael Moore.  Nick’s string of documentaries includes Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madame, “Biggie and Tupac” and “Kurt & Courtney”.  “Haditha” is something of a departure for the British Mr. Broomfield though some of the scenes in his Iraq War drama are shot quite documentary-style.  I met with the director and one of his film’s subjects, Elliot Ruiz, a non-professional actor who, himself, was an Iraq War vet.  We sat at a small table in the Film Forum offices.  I was also joined by friend, photographer David Godlis.  These photos are all his.

film review: STREET KINGS

Directed by David Ayer
Written by James Ellroy, Kurt Wimmer & Jamie Moss
Director of Photography: Gabriel Beristain
Edited by Jeffrey Ford
Released by Fox Searchlight
USA. 107 min. 2007. Rated R
Cast:  Keanu Reeves, Forest Whitaker, Hugh Laurie, Chris Evans, Martha Higareda, Naomie Harris, Jay Mohr, John Corbett, Cedric the Entertainer, Common & the Game

[Article originally appeared:]

Keanu Reeves has a fairly narrow range as an actor, but when he stays within his limits, he generally delivers a pretty decent performance. So in those instances when he plays a steely stoic role, it’s fine because the demands on him are minimal; just stand there and look good in a tight clothes… no problem. He was able to carry that off superbly as Neo in the three “Matrix” movies, think of them what you will.

The other resource that works well when he taps into it is self-deprecating humor. Reeves is an apt comic as he proved quite ably in both “Something’s Gotta Give” and “Thumbsucker”. In the former, playing against such heavyweights as Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson, he expertly held his own as the younger doctor who seduces Keaton’s anti-Mrs. Robinson character. Likewise in Mike Mills’ “Thumbsucker”, he plays an orthodontist who is just a bit off-the-wall. Maybe he should stick to parts with medical degrees. Read more

film review: XXY

Directed by Lucía Puenzo
Executive Producer: Fernando Sirianni
Produced by José Maria Morales & Luis Puenzo
Associate Producer: Fabienne Vonier
Cinematography by Natasha Braier
Edited by Hugo Primero & Alex Zito
Music by Andrés Goldstein & Daniel Tarrab
Argentina, 2007, 86 minutes

“XXY” is the often moving story of an Argentine family’s struggle in raising their intersexual teenager; the term hermaphrodite is no longer the appropriate argot. Alex (Inés Efron) has been raised as a girl for most her fifteen years but at the point where the story begins, she is moving away from that identity. Her refusal to take her myriad medications and her recent acting out is cause for much concern by her parents. The three live in a small town on the Uruguayan coast having fled from Buenos Aires years earlier. The father, Kraken, played by the wonderful Argentine star, Ricardo Darín, works saving tortoises from the nets of local fishermen and the film is filled with fine symbolic nuances like the fact that the only way to determine a tortoise’s sex is by removing its shell.

Both Kraken and his wife Suli (Valeria Bertuccelli) have worked very hard at keeping their daughter’s circumstances discrete, something easier to do in their remote home. However, with Alex’s budding sexuality becoming harder to suppress, so too is her secret. It is at this point where the story of “XXY” begins, when Kraken and Suli receive visitors into their home. Read more

film review: SLINGSHOT HIP HOP

Directed, produced & edited by Jackie Reem Salloum
Produced by Rumzi Araj
Producer, Editor, Visual Effects Supervisor: Waleed Zaiter
Original Music by DAM, PR, Abeer, Arapeyat & Mahmoud Shalabi
U.S., 2008, 80 minutes

Article originally appeared:

Jimmy Carter kept coming to mind as I watched “Slingshot Hip Hop”, a first feature-length documentary by Palestinian-American Jackie Reem Salloum. His reputation has come under intense fire since his book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid was published the Fall of 2006. His critics would do well to see Jonathan Demme’s documentary “Jimmy Carter Man From Plains”. It makes a sober case for the plight of those refugee Palestinians living in Gaza and the West Bank. In no small way, “Slingshot Hip Hop”, makes as effective a case but perhaps in a quieter more down to earth way. As has been shown in so many documentaries and narrative films over the past few years, music can be an extremely effective tool of protest and “Slingshot Hip Hop” follows the first Palestinian-Arab rap band, DAM, and the movement they spawned.

Heavily influenced by American black hip hop culture, DAM started up as a group of young men just having their kicks. It didn’t take long for them to realize how powerful their existence was and that their message could be equally so. The nature of their lyrics necessarily changed and they started rapping about the struggle of the Palestinian, about selling drugs and the unfair treatment of women. They visited schools, talking to and inspiring legions of young kids. Their uplifting message attracted Palestinians of all ages to their shows, something rappers in the U.S. have lost site of. The arc of Slingshot Hip Hop regards a newer rap group, PR (Palestinian Rappers) whose members are virtual prisoners of Gaza, and their efforts to get their own music out. Watching these young people emerge as artistic personalities is an awesome experience to have caught on film. I was wondering what Jimmy Carter might have made of the documentary. I imagine he would have liked it very much indeed.


film review: TROUBLE THE WATER

Directed by Tia Lessin & Carl Deal
Executive Producers: Danny Glover, Joslyn Barnes, Todd Olson & David Alcaro
Produced by Tia Lessin & Carl Deal
Cinematography by PJ Raval, Nadia Hallgren & Kimberly Roberts
Edited by T. Woody Richman (additional editing by Mary Lampson)
Music by Davidge/Del Naja, Black Kold Madina
U.S., 2007, 94 minutes

“Trouble the Water” is simply the best Katrina documentary I’ve seen to date. No disrespect to Spike Lee’s “When The Levees Broke” or the other noble works that have come out since the disaster (Axe in the Attic and Katrina Diary to name just two) but this movie hits every note just right. Lessin and Deal went down to New Orleans just five days after Katrina hit with no clear idea of what they were going to find. To their good fortune —and ours— they happened to meet Kimberly Roberts and her husband, Scott, a recently homeless couple at the Superdome. Prior to Katrina, the two had been living a very difficult existence in the impoverished Ninth Ward by selling drugs, something they touch upon in a one of the film’s more moving moments. The disaster, as tragic as it was, ended up affording them the opportunity to learn more about themselves than they would have otherwise; one lesson being that they were living miserable lives and were grateful to make a change.

Kim Rivers Roberts and Scott Roberts outside their flood-damaged home in New Orleans in TROUBLE THE WATER, a film by Tia Lessin & Carl Deal. A Zeitgeist Films release.

Adding to that life-changing revelation is the fact that Kimberly, who had gotten hold of a video camera not long before the hurricane hit, ended up filming portions of her experience. Those clips, are both horrific and funny and much of it ended up incorporated into “Trouble the Water”. Hearing Kimberly’s remarks over her often manic camera work is another of the film’s amazing aspects. Her anxiety is palpable as the water rises inch by inch, engulfing their home. Though her regional dialect is at times hard to understand, the spiritual change she goes through over the ensuing days and weeks is very clear. As she and Scott confront the enormity of their situation, rather than lie down and give up, they rise above their circumstances. Read more