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Screeners '02 #2

Artisan:  Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony, Roger Dodger, Standing in the Shadows of Motown.

Cowboy:  All About Lily Chou-Chou, Daughter from Danang, Devils on the Doorstep, Warm Water Under a Red Bridge.

Disney:  Lilo & Stitch, Moonlight Mile, The Rookie, Signs, Spirited Away, Treasure Planet.

DreamWorks:  Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron.

Film Movement:  El Bola.

Focus Features:  8 Women, Far from Heaven, The Pianist.

Fox:  Antwone Fisher, The Banger Sisters, The Good Girl, Ice Age, Minority Report, One Hour Photo, Unfaithful.

IFC:  My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

Lion's Gate:  The Cat's Meow, Frailty, Max, Secretary.

MGM:  All or Nothing, Barbershop, Bowling for Columbine, Die Another Day, Evelyn, Igby Goes Down, Nicholas Nickleby, Personal Velocity, 24 Hour Party People.

Magnolia:  Interview with the Assassin.

Manhattan Pictures:  Enigma.

Newmarket:  Real Women Have Curves.

New Yorker Films:  ABC Africa, The Farewell, How I Killed My Father, Songs from the Second Floor, Yellow Asphalt.

Peninsula:  Dahmer.

Universal:  About a Boy, The Emperor's Club.

Lee Hirsch

Abdullah Ibrahim
Duma Ka Khumalo
Vusi Mahlasela
Miriam Makeba
Hugh Masekela
Thandi Modise
Sifiso Ntuli
Sibusiso Nxumalo
Dolly Rathebe
Lindiwe Zulu





Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony


If the American dependence on slavery and the ensuing Civil War had taken place at the end of the 20th century instead of the 19th, it might have looked something like what happened in South Africa. The apartheid, which effectively made Africans second-class citizens in thier native lands, was seen as a travesty for most people around the world -- part of the reason that Nelson Mandela was finally released and allowed to peacefully become the elected president of South Africa was the push of Western nations for the Boers to catch up.

Another reason that there might be some correlation between two of the darkest periods in interracial relations between those of European heritage and those of African heritage is the use of music for the downtrodden. As the whites were allowed to enjoy the wealth of free labor and free land, the blacks found their own mode of protest through songs that exalted their hope for a better future.

Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony looks at the peaceful protests that came about during the apartheid. This is not to say that the South Africans were singing of happier days -- there is the semi-anthem "Beware Verwoerd" which warns the signer of the apartheid laws that "the black man is coming" -- but the key to the peacefulness was that they came from people who had no guns. Their voices turned out to be their only real weapon, and, when the rest of the world finally came to their defense, those voices were allowed to ring beyond the slums they had been relegated to.

Comparisons to the war protest songs made popular by Bob Dylan and Dion DiMucci are fitting, though the soul of the music comes more from the exclamatory worker's occasional moments of joy like "Dao" and "Long Gone (From Bowlin' Green)." It's hard to find as much happiness in one group of people in film this year as is the case with a group of two dozen singing "Beware Verwoerd" at a family reunion (it just so happens that this is the family of the song's writer).

Hugh Masekela, among other notable African singers and songwriters, spends part of the film remembering the way he was exiled from South Africa because of his connections to Nelson Mandela. In most countries, they take pride in their cultural and artistic celebrities, but not in South Africa if the personality was black.

Director Lee Hirsch never really brings the film beyond the constraints of television documentary filmmaking, but his product is still something of note. Much of what is shown in the film is important, not just for the views that it brings to the fore, but also the way it parallels all these moments to the history of the African rebellion. By the end of the film, it is as easy to understand why the segregated people of South Africa looked up to Nelson Mandela as it is to understand why the people attempted to hold-off violence against their white opressors.

The film makes good use of the four-part harmony structure of many of the songs and even serves as a terrific venue for the songs to reach audiences who rarely hear works imported from South Africa. One especially forceful moment comes when Sibongile Khumalo sings to the gods asking why her people are being treated this way. Khumalo has the voice worthy of the Italian stage -- and, just think, her voice would still be suppressed had just come one generation earlier.

Denzel Washington

Derek Luke
Joy Bryant
Denzel Washington
Salli Richardson
Novella Nelson
Earl Billings
Kevin Connolly
Viola Davis
Rainoldo Gooding





Antwone Fisher


The life of Antwone Fisher has been tough: born in a prison, placed in an adoption agency, raised by a mentally/physically/sexually abusive family, culpable in his best friend's death, prone to getting in navy yard fights, and left to work as a security guard at Sony Pictures. And, in reaction to all this, he was kind enough to write a book and screenplay about how his problems made life better for everyone else. It's just as narcissistic as one would expect for a screenplay written by its subject.

And probably the most disappointing moment comes at the close of the film Antwone Fisher when a title announces that some characters and events were invented. Did Fisher believe that his story showed him as too normal, not noble enough? This is not the requisite title that follows all biographies -- the title comes before the cast list and is presented in large letters like a product's legal warning. At least Fisher is modest enough to accept the fact that he was disinclined to show his story as is.

The pains of completely subjective authoring comes out clearly in the film's first two-thirds which are both tedious and pointless. In nearly 80 minutes of screen time, the film establishes information repeatedly, information that could have been sufficiently covered in less than 30 minutes. In the process, one supporting character, Jerome Davenport (Washington), becomes so ungainly in size that his absence from a large chunk of the film's final third comes as a reminder of how trivial he really is.

In many ways, the last section of the film holds the only moments of real achievement. Part of this is due to the fact that the young actors, Derek Luke (as Fisher) and Joy Bryant (as his girlfriend Cheryl), bring a winsome quality to their search for some closure. When their story ends and brings a sense of achievement to the film, though, Fisher chooses to continue the movie as if to remind the audience in a final scene that he really is the most inspiring movie studio security guard who ever wrote a spec script.

For all the sanctimoniousness on display in Antwone Fisher, it is no surprise that the most recognizable name involved is costar/director Denzel Washington, a talented actor who has become increasingly tiresome in his embrace of playing self-important roles in the past few years. With some exceptions -- Jake Shuttlesworth in He Got Game, Easy Rawlins in Devil in a Blue Dress -- Washington has given reason for his acclaim as the most popular African American actor. But why is he so resolute to take roles in films like The Hurricane, Remember the Titans, and, at his worst, John Q, that are little more than chances for him to shout out his magnificence? It was certainly fitting that he exclaimed his likeness to King Kong in his Oscar winning Training Day performance.

Antwone Fisher has that sanctimoniousness because its two authors are padding their own personas. Fisher, himself, doesn't want the film to show him to be in the least unlikable and Washington wants to create a film that is just as whitewashed as most of the performances that have made him a household name lately. If Julia Roberts thought it was a gift to her when Washington won an Oscar, I can only wonder about her excitement over him directing a movie for her Middle American WASP audience.

In the process, Fisher and Washington create a character and story that is wholly unbelievable. There are moments when Luke shines in his ability to show a growing anger within Fisher for the life dealt to him, but most of the screenplay is meant to show him as some messiah for the masses. His lifetime may have been tough for him, but Fisher seems to be offering the audience the gift of his catharsis: learning of his problems means they can reflect on themselves.

Now, it is not damnable when a film is made for something other than entertainment. But it is disappointing to see a film that isn't the least bit interested in dealing with issues without middling them into an oblivion of self-righteousness. Antwone Fisher is not made for entertainment value, but for soulful reflection and purification. To consider that this film may succeed in doing this for some -- a fearful statement of the mundane films that are seen as high art in today's film market -- comes without any real work by anyone involved. Cinematographer Phillippe Rousselot and composer Mychael Danna may do their best work in this film, but it is all for naught when the movie isn't built around any technical appreciation, but merely rudimentary story pumping.

Admittedly, my aggravation at the film came directly afterwards as I went into a fit, remembering the way such overtly audience-manipulating movies like A Beautiful Mind have somehow become popular with the audience they look down on. In some ways, though, Antwone Fisher at least earns its ensured acclaim. By no means a good film, it does come with some good intentions and some good moments. I especially liked the way Washington finds a beautiful visual parallel between its opening and closing segments (unfortunately, he's not willing to let the film stand with some success by ending at that moment, but instead dragging on into its horrible epilogue).

I have no doubt that audiences will embrace Antwone Fisher as some great uplifting work -- a movie like Forrest Gump that envelopes the soul and, while disposing of some tissues in the process, makes them feel better about the world. Fisher and Washington may not be the most reputable recipients of this acclaim they will receive, but people starving for the next Steel Magnolias will be happy to drop it in their laps.

Gail Dolgin
Vicente Franco

Heidi Bub
Mai Thi Kim
Tran Tuong Nhu
John Bub





Daughter from Danang


In 1975,the Ford administration implemented a final battle in the Vietnam War. Called Operation Babylift, the military was sent to South Vietnam to collect as many children as they could get and bring them to America for adoption. To convince fearful mothers to hand over their children, the American social workers would come into the villages and tell them that the Vietcong was going to burn any children of mixed decent. They promised that the children would be returned after a few years had passed.

Heidi Bub was one of those children. Born Mai Thi Hiep in Danang, Vietnam, to Mai Thi Kim and an American soldier, she was taken out of Kim's hands and placed in an adoption service that gave her over to a slightly abusive single mother in Belfast, Tennessee. Heidi was completely Americanized, getting a perm to hide her heritage and telling school friends that she had come from South Carolina.

In college, she came in late from a date and was immediately thrown out of the American home she was raised in. For Heidi, this came as a mentally debilitating event: for the second time, she had been abandoned by her mother.

By scouring the internet, Heidi was able to locate the service that brought her to America and the name of her mother. Joined by a translator (Tran Tuong Nhu) and some public television cameramen, Heidi went on the long trip to Danang, where she had not been in 22 years. For her, this is a chance to learn about her past and find a mother that really loves her; for her extended family, it is a reunion that could mean a new bread bearer.

"They may not have much here, but they do have that family love and unity. I'm kind of jealous about that," says Heidi early in the trip. By the end, though, she's wishing it had never happened. Daughter from Danang seems at first glance to be yet another well-tuned, bathos-driven reunion films. But moving below the happiness is a culture difference that cannot subsist without destroying each other. A Southern belle, especially one carrying the baggage Heidi's carrying, is not equipped for the type of expectations that the underprivileged Vietnamese will have for her.

Some will see Heidi as being selfish -- I don't. She is just so distraught over the importance her Vietnamese family gives to certain things that she feels used. Yes, it might not be hard on her to send a couple dollars over to the Mai Thi family every once and a while, but the fact of the matter is that it seems like all the hugs and attention came from a need for money, not a want for a daughter/sister. Heidi has come to Vietnam searching for a family; she thinks they welcomed her for money.

All this is painful to watch because directors Gail Dolgin and Vicente Franco choose to not allow anyone's pain to be greater than the others. They understand that there is a cultural divide at work here and attempt to show how the divide makes the relationship Heidi and her mother wanted impossible. Both of these women have painful reactions to the way the other sees their plight, and the directors choose to show how the pain is equal for both.

Daughter from Danang won the Best Documentary prize at the Sundance Film Festival this year. Part of its achievement seems negligible because it is doubtful that the filmmakers thought they were making anything more than a tearful gathering in the form of a travelogue. The fact that the film suddenly became a commanding work of human drama had nothing to do with their intervention. This is not quite the achievement of Frederick Wiseman or Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky of the Paradise Lost films, but it is an instantly commanding, emotionally draining work. The two filmmakers may have thought they were filming little more than a 20/20-level reunion, but its impossible to not feel thankful that they chose this story -- of all the Operation Babylift stories -- for their subject.

Neil Burger

Raymond J. Barry
Dylan Haggerty
Jared McVay
Darrell Sandeen
Kate Williamson
Renee Faia
Dennis Lau





Interview with the Assassin


It has become apparent that the art of mockumentaries or faux fiction reached a high point with The Blair Witch Project. It's not simply that the film is a monumental achievement, but also that it developed a relationship between modest budgeted documentary fiction and commerce. It was the sex, lies and videotape of the David Holzman's Diary genre.

What most discouraging about any relationship between commerce and art is the mediocrity that commercial success often needs. Even the best filmmakers, genres, and stories can be diluted to ensure the most market value. For that reason, there has been a deluge of mockumentaries to go straight to video because filmmakers, seeing an opening to studio contracts through the work of Daniel Myrick and Ed Sanchez, jump at their chance and quickly weaken the market.

After watching a series of strong non-fiction films while preparing for the end of the year, a film like Interview with the Assassin seems so slight, so exploitive. It is a film that has little more attraction than its ability to make something so idiotic seem real.

The film follows an out-of-work news cameraman as he documents the confession of his next-door neighbor. Ron Kobeleski (Haggerty) has been out of the work for some time, which is making his wife Karen (Faia) feel more and more disgruntled at the time he wastes sitting in their San Bernardino home. One day, the old man across the street, Walter Ohlinger (Barry), asks him to come over with his camera so he can let out something that he's felt guilty about for some time. Ohlinger has been diagnosed with inoperable cancer and has been given a few months to live. The guilt is something he wants to be rid of before he shuffles off this mortal coil.

The surprise comes in the form of the admission: Ohlinger says that he was the second gunman on the grassy knoll in November 1963 Dallas. He begins to bring out the evidence to go with his statement including the bullet shell he says once held the bullet that struck Kennedy in the head. At first, Kobeleski doesn't believe any of this, but after having the bullet tested and following Ohlinger to the scene of the crime, he starts become convinced.

And then the film devolves into a chase thriller as Ohlinger and the Kobeleskis begin to believe that there are conspirators after them. As more information begins to come from Ohlinger's past and mysterious men begin to circle the neighborhood, the conspiracy theorist in the audience begins to question all the voices that are coming to them. How true is Ohlinger? What do the men tailing Kobeleski want?

Admittedly, there are some starkly unsettling moments in the film. But not unlike The Blair Witch Project's ugly sibling The Last Broadcast, all this seems to be for naught as the film leads to a rubble of inconsistencies and idiocy. The most laughable thing throughout the film is that this unemployed newsman has money to spare on surveillance equipment around the house, forensic testing on the bullet, trips across the country, and even a secret camera in a pair of glasses.

The disappointment of the film is made more depressing by the terrific performance that Raymond J. Barry gives in the middle of it. Barry, a much acclaimed character actor for his work in Dead Man Walking and Born on the Fourth of July, moves between menacing and feeble. He is the only reason this film should ever be given the light of day. Barry deserves a better vehicle than this ungainly concoction -- it is testament to his abilities, though, that he still excels in its waste.

Dylan Kidd

Campbell Scott
Jesse Eisenberg
Isabella Rossellini
Elizabeth Berkley
Jennifer Beals
Mina Badie
Ben Shenkman





Roger Dodger


When 16-year-old Nick (Eisenberg) arrived in New York, he thought that he was on his way to a sexual awakening at the hands of his ladies' man uncle Roger (Scott). In many ways, it is true that Nick learns about women through his uncle, but not in the way that Roger hopes.

Roger Dodger introduces Roger in the opening scene as fast-talking, somewhat charming, and witty to the core. He tells some of his coworkers of the dynamics between the two sexes as he has learned it through his three decades on this earth. Women, in a Darwinian touch, will become the dominant gender because men will be relegated to the handiwork they can give -- their sexual purpose will be instantly obsolete the day science takes the sperm out of reproduction.

Much of what he says is worthy of the laughing denial he gets from coworker Donna (Badie) and boss Joyce (Rossellini), but his delivery of this information is so snidely compelling that you cannot help but believe he may be onto something. Meanwhile, the other guys at the table can only look at Roger wishing they could be him.

But writer-director Dylan Kidd isn't interested in showing this near-misogynist capture the hearts and minds of the male species. Coming from the same typewriter that created the men of Neil LaBute's In the Company of Men and Your Friends & Neighbors (an underrated masterpiece), Roger seems to have it all, but that's only because the version of him we know is merely the one he shows. When the camera follows him into the night, striking out with Joyce and then two bar patrons because his aggravation has pushed him into simply pointing out their misgivings, the sadness lying within him becomes clear.

When Nick comes into the story, asking Roger to advise him on the way to mating game, the audience has an innate feeling that this is going to be more a schooling for Roger than for his nephew. And, in fact, it is the doe-eyed innocence of Nick that grounds the film. Trying to serve as a minor David Mamet (who wrote and directed Campbell Scott in his best film, 1998's The Spanish Prisoner), Kidd finds some moral confirmation of our belief in human nature within the struggling psyche of his almighty subject.

Roger first takes Nick on a tour of the Manhattan streets, teaching him how to use his visual abilities to get the utmost from women's physical appearances. It's so puerile that it becomes funny -- if this wannabe lothario thinks that using mirrors to glance at women is proof of some sexual prowess, then there's much to be desired in having Roger as a sex ed instructor.

The second setting, which takes nearly a third of the film, looks at a female pairing and their reaction to the naïveté of Nick and the aggression of Roger. Sophie (Beals) and Andrea (Berkley) are ethereal -- their presence seems to confirm that Roger is a cad and that Nick is on his way to being a real charmer. That is, as long as he forgets all the stuff Uncle Roger is telling him.

Thus it is disappointing when Kidd loses his grasp on the character study to include an upbeat ending that fails to really continue any understanding of the characters. Reportedly, the conclusion was added after Kidd rethought the meaning of his film; but this new ending smacks in the face of everything Nick, Roger, and the audience have come to understand. It's almost as if Kidd had forgotten the rest of the film when he wrote and directed this epilogue.

However, even into these misbegotten closing scenes, the secret to any success forged comes from Campbell Scott's performance. The actor, best known for malleable characters from films like The Daytrippers and The Spanish Prisoner (as well as being George C. Scott's son), turns in the type of performance that deserves awards. Most actors could have done well with Kidd's acidic script, but few can give the character enough baggage to convince the viewer that he really has something inside him, below the façade he wants to show to the rest of the world. (This is the type of character that made Kevin Spacey's career in the mid-90s, but has since been abandoned by the actor for more feel-good portrayals.)

Scott is matched well with a terrific cast, including the oft-maligned Berkley and Beals and young Eisenberg, who should have a fine career ahead of him if he steers clear of wrecks like The Emperor's Club. The entire cast comes off as real people that are just trying to figure out how they should react to someone as facile and artificial as Roger.

The film comes as the third in a trilogy of teenage boys seeking sexual education in Manhattan this year. Roger Dodger is the best of the pack, which also includes Tadpole and Igby Goes Down, mainly because it chooses to not attempt creating the insolence of youth, but finding the way awkward youth can bring out the worst in adults. I wrote about the other two films with a deep hatred (especially Tadpole) because they couldn't balance their own shallowness with the impressionable youthfulness that Kidd finds. Roger Dodger may have its problems, but they are forgivable in a chance encounter with someone like Roger without having filmmakers treat him like he's really onto the truth he thinks he's found.

Paul Justman

Richard Allen
Jack Ashford
Bob Babbitt
Johnny Griffith
Joe Hunter
Uriel Jones
Joe Messina
Earl Van Dyke
Eddie Willis
Andre Braugher





Standing in the Shadows of Motown


Who played the musical accompaniment on "Heat Wave," "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," and "You Really Got a Hold on Me?" Was Gladys Knight singing to a band called the Pips? That's what one man-on-the-street interviewee guesses when posed this line of questions. What he doesn't know -- as is the case with nearly everyone of us who like Motown music but have never delved into its history -- is that the studio band that performed on all the Motown songs made famous by The Temptations, Stevie Wonder, and Marvin Gaye during the days of Motown in Detroit was The Funk Brothers.

Working for a measly $10 per song, often with little support from the owners and operators of Motown Records, these men gave a common and unforgettable sound to all the Motown songs of the time. Can anyone imagine "My Girl" without that opening guitar riff? Can anyone name the person playing the guitar?

His name was Robert White, and he joined drummer Benny Benjamin, pianist Joe Hunter, bassist James Jamerson, and fellow guitarists Eddie Willis and Joe Messina, as well as dozens of other musicians (including Richard Allen, Black Jack Ashford, Bob Babbitt, Eddie Brown, Johnny Griffith, Uriel Jones, and Earl Van Dyke) who occasionally worked with the original Funk Brothers. The 1989 book Standing in the Shadows of Motown looked at the forgotten life of James Jamerson, commonly regarded the most talented of the group. The new film of the same name tries to give equal time to all of the Funk Brothers, though most of their stories still seem to rotate around the commanding Jamerson.

The greatest credit that can be given to Paul Justman in making this documentary is that he introduces people to the forgotten heart and soul of the Motown sound. Even as the gag-inducing narration attempts to remind us of the "days of American innocence" (what writers of such narrations should understand is that all nostalgia comes from "days of American innocence" because of the naïveté that we had as youths, not from the actual innocence of the time), it becomes clear that none of the Motown songs that have become standards on Oldies stations across the country would have been the same had the Funk Brothers not been around.

At one point, Steve Jordan, who helped arrange the reunion performance that fills much of the movie, comments that anyone could have sung the songs and they would have still succeeded based solely on the Funk Brothers music. "Deputy Dawg could've sung on them and they would've been hits." This is good sentiment: yes, the songs wouldn't have had the same sound had the Funk Brothers not been part of them. But let's not get carried away, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, and Smokey Robinson did have something to do with the resonance of these songs.

Justman makes this clear by staging cover performance throughout the film. With the remaining Funk Brothers accompanying (Jamerson and many of the others have died in recent years), Chaka Khan, Bootsy Collins, Joan Osborne, Gerald Levert, Tom Scott, Montell Jordan, Ben Harper, and Me'shell Ndegéocello perform many of the instantly recognizable Motown songs. With a couple exceptions (Ndegéocello and Levert), though, these performers do little more than remind the audience of the great additions that the original Motown singers brought to the Funk Brothers music. Ben Harper, who has the heart but not the soul, seems to be little more than a chance to show the younger generation's embrace of Motown even if it pushes them to cover the songs poorly.

It becomes almost painful to consider these poorer moments of Standing in the Shadows of Motown because it is a film that deserves to be seen regardless of the misgivings. The Funk Brothers' story has been left to the side of music history for too long and it is about time for them to get their moment in the sun -- even if they must spend it relegated to the background while Ben Harper ruins their work.

Reviews by:
David Perry