Review: ATL

March 31, 2006

Judging from its ad campaign, Atl looks like another hard-headed urban drugs-and-violence melodrama showcasing hip-hop musicians who want to be movie stars. That it turns out to be a smart, realistic, and cautiously optimistic coming-of-age story is as big a surprise as its quietly affecting cast. Modest in scope but effective nonetheless, it should be seen by more than just its target audience.

Set in the Mechanicville section of Atlanta, the story follows four friends who are about to leave their childhoods behind. High school senior "Esquire" (Jackie Long) is applying to college, but his friends' plans are up in the air. Brooklyn (Albert Daniels) keeps getting fired from fast-food jobs, while Teddy (Jason Weaver) is content installing custom gold teeth in a storefront shop.

Rashad Swan (Tip Harris), an orphan, dreams of becoming a cartoonist. Although nominally under the care of his uncle George (Mykelti Williamson), Rashad is the one who has been looking after his younger brother Ant (Evan Ross). But for the summer, Rashad's biggest goal is winning a roller skate competition at Cascade, the local rink. That's where he meets New-New (Lauren London), a sassy girl whose background remains a mystery.

As the summer progresses, the friends skate, bicker, go to the municipal swimming pool, work at demeaning jobs, and try to figure out what to do with their lives. Esquire uses an encounter with black entrepreneur John Garnett (Keith David) to better his chances of getting accepted into an Ivy League school. Rashad and Ant clean offices for their uncle's janitor service.And Ant starts working for Marcus (Antwan Andre Patton, better known as Big Boi in OutKast), a drug dealer whose smiling, friendly charm masks a lethal drive. Rashad is furious when he finds out, but the practical George points out that they could use the extra money.

Debut director Chris Robinson uses a straightforward style to sketch in Atl's characters, giving them dignity but having fun with their faults as well. Much of the film plays out along predictable lines, but the cast seems determined to treat the plot honestly. Mykelti Williamson's understated authority and Keith David's skepticism and anger contrast extremely well with the younger actors. Among them, Jackie Long and Albert Daniels make strong impressions, as do Khadijah and Malika as airhead twins who keep getting into trouble.

Most surprising is Tip Harris, better known as rap star T.I. It's easy to get noticed as a thug, but harder to make a mark by playing someone decent. Harris doesn't push, but he gets his character's intensity and will across just the same. He gives Atl a moral authority that lifts the film over the script's weak points.

Atl can't be described as groundbreaking, but it is a relief from the cynical, slickly packaged teen movies that have been flooding the market. Yes, the skating competition, with its echoes of Drumline, leads nowhere. And Rashad's biggest problem turns out to be that his girlfriend is rich. But at its core, Atl shows its viewers an honest way of dealing with a difficult world.

Cast and crew

Cast: Tip Harris, Lauren London, Evan Ross, Lonette McKee, Antwan Andre Patton, Mykelti Williamson, Keith David, Jackie L ong, Albert Daniels, Jason Weaver, Khadijah, Malika.

Credits: Directed by Chris Robinson. Screenplay by Tina Gordon Chism. Story by Antwone Fisher. Produced by James Lassiter, Will Smith, Jody Gerson, Dallas Austin. Executive producers: Timothy M. Bourne, Tionne Watkins. Director of photography: Crash. Production designer: Robb Buono. Edited by David Blackburn. Music by Aaron Zigman. Choreography by Devyne Stephens. Costume designer: Shawn Barton. A Warner Bros. Pictures presentation of an Overbrook Entertainment production.


Review: Inside Man

March 25, 2006

Spike Lee aims for the mainstream with Inside Man, a bank heist caper anchored by another strong performance by Denzel Washington. While satisfying on many levels, the film is not an especially exciting or challenging one. As a result, it may have trouble drawing viewers who can find similar material almost every night on television.

Washington plays Keith Frazier, a New York City police detective under a cloud of suspicion about missing drug money. With his partner (Chiwetel Ejiofor), he is assigned to handle hostage negotiations in a bank robbery in the city’s financial district. The robbers are led by Dalton Russell (Clive Owen), a briskly efficient criminal mastermind who anticipates the cops’ every move. Complicating matters is Madeline White (Jodie Foster), a “fixer” hired by bank founder Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer) to protect sensitive material in his safe deposit box.

Apart from predictable twists and reversals–some old hat, some genuinely clever–the script has little to distinguish it from other bank heist stories. As expected, Frazier locks horns with White, tries to checkmate Russell, and copes with problems with his personal life, while the crooks carry out their operation. The aftermath of the robbery reveals a surprise or two as political wrangling comes into play, but nothing that upsets the film’s generally placid tone. It’s all staged in a crisp, straightforward manner, although director Lee doesn’t seem all that interested with the nuts and bolts of genre conventions. Too much footage is wasted on cops setting up barricades, for example. Or on crooks herding hostages into and out of offices.

But once the parameters of the script are set, Lee can settle down to what he does best: document the often prickly interactions of as many different New Yorkers as can fit into the story. Owen, wearing a mask for most of the film, isn’t used very well, and the ingratiating Foster can’t do much with her idealized role. But the supporting characters–from a Sikh angered by bigoted cops to a chain-smoking Albanian divorcée–are superbly drawn. Washington is in command of his role, and he elevates the film whenever he is on screen. His scenes with Ejiofor and Willem Dafoe, underplaying excellently as a police tactician, crackle with the charge of professionals at work. Even in their jokes and playful asides, they have the focus of veterans who are committed to what they do.

In fact, the working class ethos may have been what interested Lee most about the project. The actual robbery, with its formulaic twists and hoary tricks, won’t surprise anyone familiar with Law & Order or CSI. The film’s payoff is too muted to have much impact, and tension as a whole isn’t exploited very effectively. What comes across the strongest in Inside Man is the hard-working Washington matching wits with anonymous foes. He’s something to see, but even his fans may wait to view Inside Man at home rather than in theaters.

Cast and crew

Cast: Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, Jodie Foster, Christopher Plummer, Willem Dafoe, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kim Director, James Ransone, Carlos Andrés Gómez, Bernard Rachelle, Peter Gerety, Victor Colicchio, Cassandra Freeman, Peter Frechette, Gerry Vichi, Waris Ahluwalia, Ken Leung.

Credits: Directed by Spike Lee. Written by Russell Gewirtz. Produced by Brian Grazer. Executive producers: Daniel M. Rosenberg, Jon Kilik, Karen Kehela Sherwood, Kim Roth. Director of photography: Matthew Libatique. Editor: Barry Alexander Brown. Production designer: Wynn Thomas. Music by Terence Blanchard. Costume designer: Donna Berwick. A Universal Pictures and Imagine Entertainment presentation of a Brian Grazer production.

Review: The Devil and Daniel Johnston

March 22, 2006

A lot of people have made money off of Daniel Johnston, usually by ignoring his mental illness. Directed by Jeff Feuerzeig, The Devil and Daniel Johnston is another attempt to cash in on a severely troubled individual by exploiting his art. To his credit, Feuerzeig displays a concerned attitude about someone more famous for his sickness than his actual accomplishments. But the film can’t quite shake the stench of a carnival freak show.

Johnston grew up in West Virginia and Texas in a strict but apparently loving household. By adolescence he had lost interest in school, devoting his time instead to obsessive drawing and recording on portable cassettes. Running away from home, he joined a carnival for a time before winding up in Austin in 1985. While cleaning tables at a McDonalds, he insinuated himself into the local music scene. His fans admired his unmediated songwriting, choppy guitar playing, and unpolished but emotional singing. As Kathy McCarty, at the time a member of the Glass Eye rock band, remembers, “He was so raw that people didn’t know what to feel.”

He was also seriously psychotic, ending up in a mental institution after beating his manager in the head with a pipe. As the rest of the film makes painfully clear, Johnston has never been able to find a balance between his need to create and his mental problems. To many of his followers, that is part of his appeal. Louis Black, an editor at the Austin Chronicle, states that, “All great artists are crazy people.” In the film’s faulty logic, since Johnston is crazy, he is a great artist.

Johnston returned to his parents in 1987 under heavy medication. Believing that his inspiration, and his performances, suffered, he would go off his meds prior to concerts. One admiring account has him released from New York’s Bellevue Hospital by mistake, and performing at CBGB’s that night. Musicians like Pete Shelley of Sonic Youth and Jad Fair of Half Japanese were perfectly happy to work with Johnston until he got too “crazy,” then abandon him.

Using interviews, slides, home movies, and artwork, Feuerzeig documents the most miserable details of Johnston’s life in voyeuristic detail. How he forced an elderly woman to jump out a second floor window, breaking her ankles, for example. Or how he wrestled the controls of an airplane from his father, who subsequently crash landed in a forest. In a particularly graceless touch, Feuerzeig uses lurching, hand-held cameras to re-enact psychotic episodes like these. Crumb is an obvious influence, but Terry Zwigoff never tried to pretend that mental illness was anything but a terrible burden.

Johnston’s bewildered, tearful parents are the strongest presence in the film, and the strongest proof that Johnston needs help, not vultures and hangers-on who see a fortune in the ravings of a madman. If nothing else, The Devil and Daniel Johnston shows just how easily hype and gossip can dupe a public hungry for anything new.

Cast and crew

Featuring: Daniel Johnston, Mabel Johnston, Bill Johnston, David Thornberry, Kathy McCarty, Louis Black, Jeff Tartakov, Jad Fair, David Fair, Jason Damron, Bridget Damron, John Pochna, Don Goede, Matt Groening.

Credits: Directed by Jeff Feuerzeig. Produced by Henry Rosenthal. Executive producer: Ted Hope. Director of photography: Fortunato Procopio. Edited by Tyler Hubby. A This and That and Complex Corporation presentation of a Henry Rosenthal production.

Review: 16 Blocks

March 8, 2006

The first shot of Bruce Willis as a pot-bellied, pasty-faced career cop limping his way up a flight of stairs brands 16 Blocks as one of his "serious" vehicles. For long stretches of the film, Willis does a creditable job portraying the washed-up, self-loathing, and seriously alcoholic Jack Mosley, a New York City police detective reduced to mop-up duties while waiting for his pension to kick in. Jack's drab clothes and shuffling gait mark him as a civil service drone, but his haggard eyes are a sign of a deep-rooted malaise.

Assigned to transport petty crook Eddie Bunker (Mos Def) from his cell to a grand jury investigation, Jack learns that he's being set up by a ring of crooked cops intent on killing Eddie before he testifies. It's a concept that's been used in film many times before, notably by Clint Eastwood in The Gauntlet, and it's gratifying to see director Richard Donner approach it seriously. 16 Blocks builds a persuasive world of corrupt cops, hidden vice, and desperate scrambling, and sustains that vision for longer than you'd expect.

Still, no one seems sure what to do with the plot, simple as it is. The crooked cops are led by Frank Nugent (David Morse), once Jack's partner. When Jack and Eddie go on the run, Nugent and his men blanket the neighborhood, cutting off access to the courtroom where Eddie must testify. The chase leads into the subway, through Chinatown sweatshops, and finally onto a city bus that is quickly surrounded by snipers.

Donner plays down the violence at first, and with Willis underplaying as well, that leaves a lot of screen time for the sturdy, effective Morse and for Mos Def, who has been quietly building some impressive credits. Here his version of a petty crook essentially updates Stepin Fetchit, a move that is either courageous or appalling, depending on your outlook. Def drops an occasional gem (like "I'm going to make you eat your words and lick your fingers"), but can't really solve a role that's built on clichés.

Willis and Donner have made movies like this so many times before that they tend to fall back on whatever they feel worked earlier. Willis is bracing until he goes all soft and sentimental, as he inevitably does these days. Donner's typically strong visuals work well setting up the story, but not when it comes time to explain the characters. Still, 16 Blocks could have been a lot worse, and is almost always better than it has to be. It gains points by examining crooked cops at all, but loses just as many by suggesting that police corruption can be cured with a couple of shoot-outs and car chases.

Cast and crew

Cast: Bruce Willis, Mos Def, David Morse, Cylk Cozart, David Zayas, Casey Sander, Jenna Stern, Cylk Cozart, Robert Racki, Richard Fitzpatrick, Peter McRobbie, Patrick Garrow, Sasha Roiz, Conrad Pla, Hechter Ubarry, Mike Keenan.

: Directed by Richard Donner. Written by Richard Wenk. Produced by Avi Lerner, Randall Emmett, John Thompson, Arnold Rifkin, Jim Van Wyck. Executive producers: Danny Dimbort, Trevor Short, Boaz Davidson, George Furla, Hadeel Reda, Andreas Thiesmeyer, Josef Lautenschlager. Director of photography: Glen MacPherson. Production designer: Arv Greywal. Edited by Steven Mirkovich. Costume designer: Vicki Graef. Music by Klaus Badelt. Music supervisor: Ashley Miller. An Alcon Entertainment and Millennium Films presentation of an Emmett/Furla Films and Cheyenne Enterprises production, for Equity Pictures Medienfonds GmbH & Co. KG III & Nu Image Entertainment GmbH.

Oscar Autopsy

March 7, 2006

Crash, this year’s Monster’s Ball, continues Hollywood’s fascination with congratulating itself on its insight, tolerance, and diversity. I am reminded of Michael Wood’s take on The Oxbow Incident, in which Hollywood was ready to condemn lynching as long as the victims were innocent. Wood’s point was that the courageous story would have been to come out against the lynching of someone who deserved it.

Face it, one fatal flaw with Crash is that no cop, not even a Neanderthal one, would ever have molested Thandie Newton. She’s just too beautiful, too privileged, too upper class. Cops may resent the wealthy, but they know better than to provoke them. (While I’m at it, Hallie Berry would never have lasted as a waitress in Monster’s Ball. She might have applied for the job, but within ten minutes she would have had a better offer.) And when the cop is Matt Dillon, whose thug-with-a-heart-of-gold shtick has drained his face of any sincerity, Hollywood has stacked the deck in favor of his and, by extension, their ultimate redemption.

Do you need multi-millionaire movie stars telling you that racism is bad? Are there still filmgoers who think that racism is good? It’s like coming out against cancer–who could argue with you? Who would bother?

Now that Hollywood has pointed out to everyone how committed it is to making noble, worthy films, it can go back to making money with stuff like Saw III or Another Tyler Perry Fat Lady Movie. And the rest of America can go back to ignoring Crash, just like it did when the movie was originally released.

Anna May Wong at MMI

March 1, 2006

From March 4th until April 16th, the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens is showcasing eighteen films starring Anna May Wong. Of special interest is Piccadilly, a 1929 film restored three years ago by the British Film Institute. Directed by E.A. Dupont, and starring Gilda Gray and Jameson Thomas along with Wong, it is a remarkably adult melodrama about a romantic triangle in London’s show business district. Free of the Victorian sentimentality that ruled films of its time, Piccadilly has a starkly modern sensibility that borders at times on the perverse. Few silents, or talkies for that matter, focus so single-mindedly on sex, an obsessive and cruel sex at that.

Wong steals the film from its ostensible stars. Born in Los Angeles in 1905, she was the first Asian-American actress to forge a career in Hollywood. At the age of seventeen she starred in the first Technicolor feature, Toll of the Sea, a lugubrious Madame Butterfly knock-off that is opening the series. Douglas Fairbanks cast her in his epic Thief of Baghdad (March 18), and she played a delightfully mischievous Tiger Lily in a popular silent version of Peter Pan. But Wong couldn’t escape racial stereotyping. At times she found herself cast below Caucasian actresses who were made up to look Asian. Wong moved to Europe, hoping like Louise Brooks to establish herself as a serious actress. She made two films in Germany before accepting a role in Piccadilly, which was being shot in London.

Apart from Alfred Hitchcock, British cinema in 1929 had a terrible reputation. Made up primarily of “quota quickies,” often wretched B-movies subsidized by the government, the industry lacked the technical resources to compete with the United States or Germany. Foreign stars would have been especially desperate to resort to working there. But faced at home with demeaning roles in films like A Trip to Chinatown or The Chinese Parrot, Wong had little to lose.

Director E.A. Dupont needed a hit as well. The former film critic had directed Variety, an international sensation, while living in Germany, but had been much less successful working in the United States. When Dupont shot Moulin Rouge in England, his drinking and autocratic methods sent the project over budget. Piccadilly could have been his last chance to regain his footing.

Unfortunately, the script to Piccadilly is deeply, disappointingly conventional, thanks to Arnold Bennett, a largely forgotten British author who once claimed to have written 335,340 words in a year. Here he concocted a backstage melodrama about divas, cads, and scullery maids that even then seemed pretty shopworn. Bennett was supposed to be an expert on both middle-class and female characters, but it was Dupont who distilled the script’s plot into its essential ingredient: sex. Working with Alfred Junge, a set designer for Hitchcock and later for the team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, Dupont created a dream vision of show business as a languorous hothouse of sexual desire.

Dupont wasn’t interested in the logic or mechanics of the triangle at the center of Piccadilly. He concentrated on its erotic qualities, even though he was limited in what he could do. He couldn’t show Wong kissing her Caucasian lover, for example. What he could film was vivid images of sexual desire that smolder in a surprisingly contemporary manner. Wong, a ravishing beauty, soaks up the camera’s gaze. Playing a dishwasher who elevates herself to dancing star, she doesn’t act so much as pose, framed by cameraman Werner Brandes in tableaux that resemble fashion shoots. Wong has a stillness that, at the risk of political correctness, is inscrutable. She shows the other characters what she wants them to see, keeping her true feelings hidden. Audiences, on the other hand, can see how casually and contemptuously she toys with men and women besotted with her looks.

Piccadilly arrived in the United States during the early days of sound movies, when audiences flocked to atrocious films just to hear actors talk. A sultry, downbeat story of sexual obsession among heartless, murdering show biz types was always going to be a tough sell, even without competition from talkies. In fact, Dupont tacked on a couple of stiff, unrealistic sound sequences for the American release. The film, and Wong in particular, got good reviews, but it was not a box-office hit.

The opportunity to see Wong’s two other European films–Song and The Pavement Butterfly (both showing March 11 and 12)–in archival prints from the British Film Institute more than justifies a subway ride to Astoria. Wong returned to Hollywood in the early 1930s. She co-starred with Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express (March 24, 25, 26), but within a few years she was trapped in a B-movie hell in which Asian women could only be servants, singers, or fortune tellers. Many films in the series, like Daughter of Shanghai (April 8, 9), King of Chinatown (April 8th), and Dangerous to Know (April 9th), are drab, dispiriting affairs, full of cheap sets, bad acting, and unwitting racism. But for one film, at least, Anna May Wong showed the world how powerful she could be.