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Review: Dave Chappelle’s Block Party

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On the surface, Michel Gondry’s documentary of a big street party comedian Dave Chappelle threw in Brooklyn in 2004 — with artists such as Kanye West, Mos Def, Erykah Badu, and an audience of average folks — wouldn’t seem like the place to look for great art. It is, after all, a fairly standard-issue concert doc, with interludes to Chappelle prepping for the show and walking the streets of Dayton giving out free tickets, and carefully chosen backstage footage (Jill Scott watching Erykah Badu perform and talking about how great she is, yadda yadda yadda). But there’s something unnervingly compelling about Gondry’s film.
    Part of it might be unintentional. The sight of the easygoing Chappelle at the height of his popularity — at a time when his Comedy Central show was riding high, and before his sudden, much-publicized sabbatical to Africa — has a curiously nostalgic, almost elegiac, feel to it. Gondry’s years in the music video biz have taught him well. He knows how to frame a musician, understands the connection between audience and performer, and he can shoot a marching band playing “Jesus Walks” like nobody’s business. Rarely does a movie become one with its music as gracefully and powerfully as Gondry’s does here. There’s nothing particularly original about Block Party, but don’t be surprised if your audience jumps out of its seat and starts dancing to the music. It’s an electrifying piece of pure moviemaking. — Bilge Ebiri

Review: Our Brand Is Crisis
Our Brand Is Crisis“Don’t answer the question you were asked,” advises consummate politican Robert S. McNamara in Errol Morris’ The Fog of War. “Answer the question you wish you’d been asked.” Some might call this strategy tactical evasion; a political consulting firm like Greenberg Carville Shrum (GCS), however, merely thinks of it as “staying on message.” Our Brand Is Crisis, a new documentary by Rachel Boynton, observes with quiet, semi-objective dismay as GCS, with the very best of intentions, exports American-style campaign manipulation to economically depressed Bolivia, assisting former President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada (universally known as Goni) in his bid for a second non-consecutive term in 2002. Trouble is, Boynton herself remains resolutely on message. I therefore feel compelled to review not the movie she made, but the movie I wish she had made.
    One of the hallmarks of a great documentary filmmaker — of a journalist of any stripe, for that matter — is the willingness to challenge one’s own assumptions, to follow the story rather than strive to create it. Boynton, by contrast, began with a thesis, or at least an idea. She set out to make a film about American political consultants working overseas. To her credit, she resists the temptation to pin easy labels on her subjects; to the extent that the movie betrays an editorial conscience, it seems torn between admiration for the progressive idealism of the GCS team and concern about the pernicious nature of U.S. influence. But it’s hard to believe that somebody could closely follow Bolivia’s 2002 election — a nearly Manichean struggle between the forces of world capitalism and an oppressed ethnic majority — and still emerge thinking that the Americans behind the scenes were the story worth telling. Evo Morales, who made history in January when he became Bolivia’s first indigenous President, was among the candidates that year, but GCS barely even notices him, and therefore neither does Boynton. Instead, we get to tsk-tsk negative campaign ads.
    Even on its own misguided terms, the film’s case for GCS as an inadvertently destructive force in global politics is remarkably feeble. How did Bolivian political candidates appeal to voters before the Yanks showed up and started organizing focus groups? How did Goni’s campaign differ from that of his equally wealthy opponent, Manfred Reyes Villa? Are we to believe that Americans have introduced some heretofore unknown degree of duplicity into the country’s political system? Boynton seems to think we somehow sold Bolivia a leader it didn’t want (Goni was forced to resign in 2003 in the wake of bloody riots), but he’d been elected in 1993 without our help. I can’t decide whether the uncanny powers with which she credits a handful of glib spinmeisters represents arrogance or just naiveté. — Mike D’Angelo
Review: Joyeux Noel
Joyeux NoelFrench writer/director Christian Carion’s second film is an Oscar nominee for best foreign film. Of course it is. Joyeux Noel delivers exactly what Academy voters want from overseas entries: handsome, well-acted movies that go heavy on the hokum. Carion’s film, set on a World War I battlefield in Flanders, is a depiction of the so-called “Christmas Truce,” in which troops on opposite sides of the fighting called an informal holiday ceasefire. Germans put down their weapons, and traded stories and handshakes with their British and French enemies.
   There have been books written about this; Carion isn’t out there on his own. The trouble is that he gives it all a made-for-primetime sheen. The soldiers’ impromptu soccer games are joyous and sportsmanlike, and their shared aperitifs go down with a smile. With his lover in tow, a German soldier called Sprink (Benno Furmann) actually asks to be taken hostage! The biggest danger these men face is of hugging one another to death.
    It’s a shame that the film gives itself over to corniness, because there are several nice set pieces. In one the troops silently gather their fallen brethren, dragging the bodies silently across the Belgian ice. This is an old-fashioned, life-affirming crowd pleaser. By definition, that means it comes with a healthy side order of sentiment. — Kevin Canfield
Review: Woman is the Future of Man
Woman Is the Future of ManSay what you will about Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo, but the man knows how to pick an evocative title: Some of his previous films have been called The Day a Pig Fell into a Well and Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors. His latest, Woman Is the Future of Man, comes from a line in a Louis Aragon poem, and it’s hard not to see the title as subtly ironic, since the film focuses largely on the past: Two good friends, one an art lecturer and the other a failed filmmaker, reunite after years apart and reminisce (sometimes silently) about their strange, elliptical relationship with the same woman, whom each slept with behind the other’s back.
    There are ways to do this kind of story, and ways to not do it. What makes Hong’s work so bewitching is that he crafts a delicate narrative using all the wrong ways: Former Miss South Korea Sung Hyunah plays the female object of desire so schizophrenically that you’d swear these guys were in love with two totally different women. Likewise, Hong’s cutting utilizes none of the accepted (and, let’s face it, pretty useful) methods of flashing back: It’s often hard to keep the film’s timeline in order. And yet, there’s something subtly assuring about Hong’s style as well. Maybe it’s his keen observational skills, his eye for texture and depth, or his uncommon feel for the unspoken flurries of buried desire. Though its ambiguity sometimes flirts with confusion, Woman Is the Future of Man, like its title, will stick with you longer than you’d expect. — Bilge Ebiri
Date DVD: Dog Day Afternoon
Dog Day AfternoonRight up there with Romeo & Juliet, Titanic and City Lights, Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon is one of the greatest love stories ever told, destined for the Date DVD Hall of Fame. Al Pacino’s role is based on the true story of John Wojtowicz, who robbed a Brooklyn bank to pay for his boyfriend’s sex-change operation on a very hot day in August 1972. (His boyfriend, Ernest Aron, became Elizabeth Debbie Eden; they were surreptitiously married by a priest who was later expelled from the church). Naturally, it’s more often remembered as one of Al Pacino’s titanic showcases. We remember the antic scenes in the bank, as Pacino botches the robbery, sweet-talks his hostages and ends up in a day-long standoff with the police as a restless crowd of angry New Yorkers gathers outside. We remember him shouting “Attica! Attica!”, but the film is packed with romantic little gestures, from that first silly moment when Pacino awkardly wrestles a rifle from a long-stemmed rose box, to the playful way he shows one of his hostages how to march with a rifle, and, of course, the heartbreaking meeting with his lover. Despite the guns, hostages, and stark-mad raving, it’s a tragic love story. — Logan Hill

   

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