Friday, June 29, 2012


At end of Kumaré, an internal-journey-lite documentary that plays with the question of what constitutes true enlightenment the way a Boy Scout pokes at a campfire with a stick, New Jersey native Vikram Gandhi reveals his true identity to a small but devoted band of followers. For several months now, these people have been looking to Gandhi’s alter ego, Kumaré, for spiritual guidance and emotional sustenance, taking him at face value as the Indian-born, Apu-accented guru he’s been pretending to be. But it’s all been an elaborate ruse, set up to prove Ghandi’s thesis that “Spiritual leaders are a hoax.”

Initially announcing that he’s a skeptic when it comes to religious leaders of any kind, Gandhi seems to be setting us up for a tiresome, Religulous-style screed. His first encounters with middle American spiritual seekers, in his guise as the apparently guileless Kumaré, are generally played for laughs at the expense of the people he encounters, who look absurd as they chant his nonsense mantras or distort their bodies to mimic his made-up yoga poses.

Friday, June 15, 2012


An Alien prequel with almost none of the original’s relentless suspense or scrappy irreverence, Prometheus plays a lot like one of those bloated costume dramas from the ‘50s in which people like Laurence Olivier swanned about in togas, making lots of declamatory speeches.

Granted, it’s considerably better looking than those films ever were. But even the visuals, which usually knock you out in director and art-school grad Ridley Scott’s films even if nothing else is working too well, are often disappointing here. Prometheus is consistently handsome and occasionally gorgeous—especially in the first few minutes, during which a montage of soaring aerial shots makes Earth look both beautiful and forbidding, familiar and yet alien. But it also looks ploddingly predictable, even prefab, at times.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Requiem for Detroit?

Requiem for Detroit? will screen Thursday, June 14 and Sunday, June 17 at Anthology Film Archives's "Sometimes Cities: Urban America Beyond NYC"

As this post on Changing Gears notes, “we seem to hear every week about a new documentary film being made about Detroit”—-and they all tell pretty much the same sad-with-a-dash-of-hope story. Julien Temple’s 2010 addition to the roll call, Requiem for Detroit?, earns a D for originality, but I’d give it a B for presentation.

Salaam Dunk

Salaam Dunk is screening June 16-18 as part of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival

Shot in Northern Iraq in 2010, Salaam Dunk follows the women’s basketball team of the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani, through their second season. A title card (these pop up with annoying frequency in the beginning, but soon thin out) informs us that the team lost every game its first year, but “this season will be different.” But this is no triumphal sport doc about an underdog team coming from behind to sweep a title.

In fact, though we hear a lot about how much several of the players love the sport and how much they’re all improving—none had ever played organized sports of any kind before they joined the team, and some turned up for the first practice in high heels—none of them look very good. As even their sweetly supportive American coach, Ryan, puts it: “This is not U Conn.”

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Safety Not Guaranteed

“So what’s your story about?” a government agent asks a reporter as this strenuously wistful rom-com winds to a close. “Oh, the story. I don’t know any more, actually,” the reporter replies. Meta moments like that, which may well have helped Derek Connelly’s screenplay win the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at Sundance this year, keep popping up like self-conscious party guests, blurting out things that may sound terribly significant but rarely turn out not to mean much after all.

Friday, June 1, 2012

The Dictator

At his best, Sacha Baron Cohen knocks us off balance with blitzkriegs containing nearly every possible kind of joke, from gross-out physical humor to searing political satire. His joyful, often slapstick absurdism and random potshots at pop culture are to comedy what chum is to fishing, luring us close enough to feel the force of his anarchic rejection of both individual and institutionalized cruelty, violence, and prejudice of all kinds. He interacts with real people in his Borat, Brüno, and Ali G incarnations with a tenacity so relentless some read it as cruel, exploiting the kindness of strangers as he gets people to drop their guard, shed the social niceties, and reveal some of the ugly truths we try to bury under pious platitudes.

Admiral General Aladeen (Baron Cohen), the leader of the fictional “rogue North African nation” of Wadiya and the title character of The Dictator, at first seems to be a classic Baron Cohen character. His cluelessness exceeded only by his self-confidence, he sports a ridiculous beard, a stiff, pelvis-first strut, and a generic Middle Eastern accent that makes him sound oddly like Adam Sandler doing schtick. But this time around, everything is scripted (by Baron Cohen and Alec Berg, David Mandel, and Jeff Schaffer, who worked with Dictator director and frequent Baron Cohen collaborator Larry Charles on Curb Your Enthusiasm). The screenplay is clever enough, but it’s also airless and a little unfocused.