Monday, January 28, 2008

How She Move

By Elise Nakhnikian

Unlike most of the heroes and heroines of dance-contest movies, Raya Green does not dream of becoming a dancer. In fact Raya (Rutina Wesley) doesn’t want to dance at all. Headed straight for med school, she wants to leave behind her impoverished, drug-plagued neighborhood and everything in it – including the tightly choreographed “stepping” that looks like a cross between ground-stomping, Savion Glover-style tap and hip-hop, with a little breakdance-style gymnastics thrown in.

But to get to med school, Raya first has to get back into the private high school she had to leave when her parents ran out of money. And the best way to do that, it seems, is to join one of the crews heading off to Detroit to compete for a $50,000 prize.

If that sounds like too much plot to know going into the movie, don’t worry: It’s all revealed in the first five minutes or so. As for the rest – well, I’m sure you’ve seen enough of these kinds of movies (Flashdance, Rize, Save the Last Dance…) to know Raya will win the big competition and get her guy. But movies in general, and formulaic movies in particular, are more about the journey than the destination, and How She Move takes us through some interesting and authentic-looking terrain on the way to the finish line.

A soulful beauty who was fresh out of Juilliard when the movie was made, Wesley portrays Raya’s emotional journey with power and depth. All coiled silence when she first arrives back home, she’s positively aglow in the final frame, bathing us in the benediction of a glorious grin. Wesley holds the screen effortlessly, even when she shares it with the dynamic dancers in her crew. Her compact, muscular body and sharp-planed face are both delicate enough to convey vulnerability and strong enough to look tough, and she explodes into action with compelling intensity when she dances.

Choreographed by Hihat, a New Yorker who has plotted the moves for other dance movies and many music videos, the dance sequences may be more “Hollywood” than the real thing (I wouldn’t know), but their drama is engrossing. The soundtrack, which includes tracks by Missy Elliott and Busta Rhymes, is also strong.

TrĂ© Armstrong is impressive as Michelle, Raya’s former friend turned nemesis, but there are plenty of other talented dancer/actors in the cast-- nearly all from Toronto, where the movie was shot. Dwain Murphy, who holds his own as Raya’s would-be boyfriend and the head of the formerly all-male crew she joins, is apparently a star of Toronto’s step scene, and several local artists play teachers and other authority figures.

Toronto has doubled for various U.S. cities in plenty of movies before, but I never would have guessed it could reproduce the culture of our black underclass, for better and for worse. Though none of the locations in How She Move are named except Detroit, it is clearly set somewhere in the U.S., and it could easily pass for parts of northern New Jersey.

Judging by this film, our northern neighbor may be nearly as culturally diverse as the U.S. Just look at the people behind it: Director Ian Iqbal Rashid, a gay Muslim of Indian descent who grew up in Toronto, has made two shorts and one other feature film, all of them gay-themed, while screenwriter Annmarie Morais has previously written for Canadian television about immigrants and other Canadians of color.

Raya and her friends and crewmates are all children of struggling, striving Jamaican immigrants. Their parents sacrifice daily to make a better life for them, and they expect their children to work as hard as they do. The emphasis on academic achievement in Raya’s household is a refreshing departure from the usual contest-movie formula: Dancing is never Raya’s whole purpose or identity. Instead, it’s a path to self-discovery, a way to integrate her emotional and academic lives.

Rashid’s direction and Morais’ script are far from perfect. You can see most of the plot twists coming a mile off, some key conflicts are resolved far too neatly, and several bits, like one about a locket Raya’s sister gave her that turns up missing, are telegraphed way too far in advance. But Wesley’s charisma and the emotional authenticity of many of the scenes spice up the formula, making this more than just another Similac movie.

There’s often real artistry, too, in the way the filmmakers convey information. You learn a lot about Michelle’s contemptuous anger at society’s low expectations from the fact that she and her crew suit up in nursing assistant uniforms for one of their furious dances. The near-wordless scene where Raya’s father leaves her mother is played out with the same eloquent economy. Raya goes to each one in turn, hugging first her tenderly sad father, then her deeply wounded mother, who has retreated so far into herself that she can’t even hug back. It’s a poignant moment, much sadder than it would have if the three spouted the expository speeches that would have littered a lesser movie.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Mad Money

By Elise Nakhnikian

Have you heard about that great Queen Latifah movie about a group of girlfriends working as janitors who decide to rob banks? It’s called Set It Off, and it’s well worth checking out on DVD.

But Mad Money, the one in theaters now? Forget about it.

Set It Off set Latifah off nicely in the kind of big, bold, ballsy role she never seems to get any more, even pairing the reportedly gay actress with a hot female love interest. The equally fierce Viveca Fox and Jada Pinkett Smith played close friends of hers, both of whom were radicalized by recent traumas and looking for a way out of the dangerous dead end of ghetto life. (The fourth friend, played by Kimberly Elise, was a diffident single mother.) You root for them all, but the movie doesn’t let them off the hook. In the end, the robbery is just an even deader end for all but one of them – and hardly worth the price even for her.

Mad Money phonies up just about everything Set It Off gets right, starting with the female friendships that make up the core of both movies.

This time around, the thieves are led by a middle-aged, white, upper-middle-class housewife temporarily down on her luck. When her laid-off husband starts to despair of ever landing another job, Bridget (Diane Keaton) goes to work as a janitor at the Federal Reserve. But her salary isn’t nearly enough to support the life she feels entitled to, so she cooks up a plan to rob the Reserve, filching some of the old money that’s been taken out of circulation to be shredded.

To help carry out her plan, Bridget enlists two younger women who have so little in common with her that it’s hard to believe they’d ever team up on anything, let alone become best friends. Nina (Latifah) is a no-nonsense, straight-arrow single mother who just wants to do right by her boys. Jackie (Katie Holmes) is a perky ditz. Perpetually flinging herself about to the music on her iPod and mugging madly whenever she delivers a line, she comes off as some kind of muppet.

Actually, nearly everyone overacts broadly, even the wonderful Steven Root, who plays their humorless boss, and whose comedy is usually rooted in inhabiting a completely believable character. Keaton skulks around so conspicuously, while planning and executing her heists, that you stop believing in the airtight security that’s central to the plot: Anyone watching her shoot sideways glances at the security cameras or jabbering away on her cell phone in the ladies’ room would surely have gotten suspicious enough to investigate. And when they give each other the agreed-on hand signal, the three make themselves more rather than less conspicuous, dragging their fingers across their brows with exaggerated theatricality.

Their motivations for stealing the money also distance you rather than pulling you in. True, Nina wants to put her sons in a good school, but Bridget just wants to maintain the swanky lifestyle she’s been in danger of losing since her husband lost his job, and Jackie wants to travel. For this we’re supposed to cheer when they get their loot to a safe place and start (yes, really) tossing bills around in the air?

The format doesn’t help, either. This is one of those movies that jump back and forth in time for no good reason. Perhaps to make up for the confusion that could create, there’s a lot of exposition in the form of confessions by the three women and their husbands and boyfriends. But the writing’s pedestrian, and we generally see what they’re telling us acted out later anyhow, so those deposition scenes just slow down the pace, making the movie seem longer than its 100 minutes.

In the end, this thoroughly predictable, emotionally hollow movie is just another superficially feminist chick flick from director Callie Khouri, who made her bones with the screenplay for Thelma and Louise. Khouri also wrote and directed Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, and this has the feel of that one. It asks us to revel in the self-satisfied, mutually enabling behavior of a group of not particularly appealing women, assuming that we will love them as much as they, inexplicably, love each other.

Sunday, January 13, 2008


By Elise Nakhnikian

Speaking truth to power is never easy, but when you live under a totalitarian regime, simply saying what you think in public can be a heroic act. The faithful film adaptation of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis graphic novels contains several scenes of people speaking out in Iran despite the risk of beatings, torture, imprisonment or even death. Their courage is thrilling, but it’s only part of what makes this movie so exhilarating.

Persepolis is the story of a rebellious young woman who fights for her right to party. Okay, that’s not all she wants, but it’s an integral part of it. Because the first step to resisting political repression, Persepolis tells us, is being true to yourself.

In the spirit of Art Spiegelman’s mouse rather than Disney’s, Satrapi’s series is about growing up in Iran and looking for freedom – not always with success – in the West. Satrapi was a girl when her country jumped from the frying pan of the shah’s oppressive reign through the euphoria of a revolution and into the fire of rule by religious extremists. Her fictional alter ego, Marji, is a well-loved child with a rich inner life and no shortage of strong opinions. She’s proud of her Communist grandpa, who was imprisoned by the shah for his politics, but the real head of the household – and her main role model – is her straight-talking, irreverent grandma.

The film takes its graphic style from the novels, whose stylized black-and-white drawings focus on expressive faces and body language against minimalistic backgrounds. Simple but not simplistic, the drawings convey emotions – especially exaggerated ones like elation and terror – at least as effectively as live action. A soundtrack packed with ambient sounds also helps make the story feel real -- for the most part, that is.

Every so often, the filmmakers take advantage of the medium to take a side trip into pure fancy. There’s a very funny recurring bit with a slavering, disgusting dog at a house where Marji boards for a while, and an animated “clip” of Godzilla trashing Tokyo from a movie Marji watches with her grandmother is even more hokily scary than the original. And all we need to know that Marji has finally found a hospitable new homeland is theWizard of Oz-like color that suffuses the end of the movie, bathing the formerly black-and-white film in warm colors as her cab heads into Paris from the Orly airport.

Satrapi’s first trip to the West is not so successful. When the war with Iraq gives the ayatollahs an excuse to become more repressive, as Marji (Chiara Mastroianni) tells us in her voiceover, the bombs raining down are matched by a flood of talk about blood and martyrs, propagandizing teachers at school, and glowering cops patrolling the streets for signs of “Western decadence.”

At home, Marji gets her ya-yas out by rocking out in her room to the Bee Gees and Iron Maiden, but when her rebellion spills over into wearing punk rock slogans in public and talking back to her teachers, her terrified parents send her abroad for her own safety. There’s plenty to like in Vienna, but Satrapi finds that the city can also be a cold and unwelcoming place, where a young woman on her own can go into free fall without ever hitting a safety net.

Meanwhile, she’s going through the usual physical revolutions of the teen years, “a time of constantly renewed ugliness,” as she puts it. A very funny sequence shows her body mutating rapidly, first one part and then another growing out of proportion to the rest. Satrapi also has fun with her romances, showing Marji blissfully falling for men who seem dreamily perfect – and then reimagining their history in a much blacker tone after they’ve disappointed her.

Marji also tries to rewrite her relationship with Iran, heading back home and trying to stay out of trouble. We see enough of her free-thinking family and their rich social life to see why she’d feel Teheran’s pull so strongly, even though the city, she finds, has come to feel “like a cemetery” after years of war with Iraq and executions by the government. (That image presumably explains the title as well: A once-great cultural center of ancient Persia, Persepolis was sacked by Alexander the Great.)

No wonder she’s so depressed after she comes home. And thank goodness she recovers, reigniting her rebellious spark. The greatness of Persepolis lies in how much it means to see this teenager rock out in her room to The Eye of the Tiger. Marji’s in the house, and we’re all the better for it.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Manufactured Landscapes

By Elise Nakhnikian

The first scene of Manufactured Landscapes is nearly wordless, but it tells us everything we need to know about this brilliant and unsettling documentary. A minutes-long tracking shot through a seemingly endless factory in China, it shows us one of the places that cranks out the disposable stuff we consume. It’s so enormous it makes the Ford plant I visited in Detroit as a kid look like a dollhouse.

The information here is almost purely visual. We never even learn what the factory is making. In fact, we don’t hear a word about anything until Edward Burtynsky, the photographer whose work the movie documents, starts talking about the philosophy behind his photography, explaining that his aim is to “look at the industrial landscape as a way of defining who we are and our relationship to the planet.”

When Burtynsky says “look,” he really means it. His photography, and director Jennifer Baichwal’s documentary, are about truly looking at – and thinking about – things you’ve probably never seen before, although they’re intimately connected to your daily life.

Burtynsky homes in on some creepily fascinating places. For the first decade or so of his 20-some years of documenting our “industrial landscape,” he shot the mines and quarries from which raw materials are extracted, often leaving denuded land and fiery red or lime green rivers and lakes in their wakes.

In Manufactured Landscapes, Baichwal and director of photography Peter Mettler follow Burtynsky as he researches a book on China, the ultimate developing nation. We see raw materials shipped overseas and turned into commodities that are shipped back out again, used, and then returned to China (where, we learn, 50 percent of our discarded computers wind up) to join mountains of homogenous trash, sifted through by workers who salvage the reusable parts.

To learn about the power required to make and transport all those things, we watch the construction of the world’s largest dam – an undertaking so huge that 13 whole cities were razed and about a million people displaced to create it. We also take a side trip to Bangladeshi shipbreaking yards where, as the photographer puts it, “18, 19, 20-year-old boys in oil up to their necks” tear apart retired oil tankers.

Burtynsky doesn’t want to preach; he just wants to help us think about the consequences of our actions. “I think many people today sit in that uncomfortable spot where we don’t necessarily want to give up what we have, but we realize what we’re doing is creating problems that run deep,” he says in an interview included on the DVD. “It’s not a simple right or wrong. It needs a whole new way of thinking.”

He doesn’t claim to know what that way of thinking might be. On the contrary, as he points out, he can’t even document the problem without contributing to it. When he photographs something, “I arrive in my car made of iron, filled with gas. I pull out a metal tripod and grab film that’s loaded with silver and start taking pictures. So everything that I’m doing is connected to the thing I’m photographing.”

Baichwal and Mettler document Burtynsky’s process as well as his images, showing him as he researches and composes photos. It’s interesting to watch him direct the people in his shots, urging them into the frame or moving them to create a more compelling composition. Maybe that’s why the people in his pictures are used so effectively, making you think about the effects of our blighted landscapes on the people who live in them -- children for whom this is all they know, workers who make a meager living creating or recycling our stuff, and elders who have to adjust to this strange new world.

The filmmakers also sometimes include interviews with people onsite about what’s going on, or zoom in for close-ups of the people he shoots. “A lot of what we were doing with the film was to try to bring you into the situation, to experience the place that he’s taken this monumental image of,” says Mettler in an interview on the DVD.

Like Sebastiao Salgado, whose gorgeous images of things like South African coal mines tell a brutal story, Burtynsky makes pictures so beautiful that you linger enough to think about the ugliness behind them. When cautious bureaucrats try to keep him from shooting a scene that they fear may “cause some negative influence,” Burtynsky’s translator reassures them: “Through his camera lens, though his eyes, it will appear beautiful.” And, amazingly, it always does.

His intentionally oblique narration generally provides context rather than telling you what you are looking at. “The idea here was not to create a direct narrative that follows the film, but to create embankments as you go down that river that keep you going downstream or not going in the wrong direction,” he says in the DVD interview.

That may bother you – I sometimes found myself wanting to know a little more about what I was looking at -- but in the end, it worked for me. And if you don’t have the patience for slow-moving movies, this one is not for you. But if you’re willing to slow down and really watch, the eerie images of Manufactured Landscapes contain a world of information.