By Stephanie Zacharek
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Amy Nicholson
By Chris Packham
By David Kipen
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Caira LaVelle
Joy isn't a word that often comes to mind when thinking about the films of director Wim Wenders. But infectious, intoxicating joy is the emotion conveyed by every frame of this ravishing, exuberant documentary. Buena Vista Social Club is not only the German filmmaker's most engaging, soulful film since Wings of Desire (1987), it is also the most satisfying movie about music since Stop Making Sense, Jonathan Demme's 1984 concert movie featuring the Talking Heads.
The project came about as a result of the American musician Ry Cooder's lifelong passion for Cuban music, which in 1996 bore fruit as an extraordinary worldwide hit recording that rescued the members of this exclusive "club" -- many of whom were in their 70s, 80s and 90s -- from total obscurity. Cooder has been an adviser on film projects with Wenders for more than 20 years, on such films as Paris, Texas. But nothing in their previous collaborations could have prepared us for this.
During their work together on Wenders' most recent film, The End of Violence, Wenders spent countless hours listening to the stories Cooder told him about these extraordinary musicians and to the ecstatic music Cooder had recorded, and he begged his friend to let him return to Cuba with him on his next trip.
The first opportunity came two years later, in 1998, when Cooder returned to Havana to record a solo album with the great singer Ibrahim Ferrer. At the time, Ferrer -- whom Cooder describes as a natural singer on the order of Nat King Cole -- was a street singer who made his living primarily by shining shoes. The music featured here is folk music in the truest sense in that it emerges directly from the lives of the people who perform it. The songs speak with awe-inspiring simplicity and honesty of hearts that blossom with love and the sorrow of love gone wrong.
These are songs, too, that are deepened by the lines in the singers' faces, which Wenders' camera captures with such remarkable sensitivity. To tell the full story of this music, Wenders and his crew not only watch as these masters lay down the tracks during their recording sessions, and as they perform together onstage before their transfixed fans, they also follow the musicians -- most notably Omara Portuondo, who is known as the Edith Piaf of Cuba -- back to the neighborhoods where they grew up, back to the street corners and crowded apartments where they first learned the music as children at their fathers' knees. Nothing in Wenders' earlier movies -- however accomplished they may be -- equals the emotional richness on display here. There are musical epiphanies in abundance, too many to enumerate. The depth of feeling -- for example, the moment at the end of the duet between Ferrer and Portuondo in "Dos Gardenias," when the 70-year-old Ferrer wipes a tear from Portuondo's eye -- is profound. During one scene, Ferrer proudly takes us on a tour of his modest apartment, pausing to give special attention to the Madonna he maintains in a shrine on a shelf in a corner of his sitting room. As part of the offering, he leaves a small glass of rum, which he knows she must appreciate because of how much he likes it.
Many of the musicians are unsurpassed in their field, nearly to the point of being living legends. Compay Segundo, for example, grew up in Santiago, and by the 1920s he was accomplished both on the traditional guitar and the Cuban variation, the tres; he worked in tobacco fields and as a barber to sustain himself. By the age of 20, Segundo had joined the Municipal Band of Santiago as a clarinetist. He also invented a seven-string instrument, the "armonico," which combined the characteristics of the guitar and the tres.
Nearly every musician has a story of this sort to tell. Many have been forced to abandon their professional careers. Ruben Gonzalez is considered a legendary figure at the piano -- a true innovator whom Cooder has called "the greatest piano soloist I have ever heard in my life." However, for nearly a decade before making Buena Vista Social Club, Gonzalez did not even have a piano. And if the personal stories and the music weren't enough to carry the film, the skill with which Wenders and his cinematographers convey the richness and vibrancy of Cuban street life almost cause us to forget that we're watching a documentary.
Just to see these musicians take the stage at Carnegie Hall is a sublime moment. Both personally and professionally, it represents a natural culmination, even a sort of vindication, for every member of the group. On an entirely different level, though, the shots of the musicians wandering the streets of Manhattan, window-shopping and looking out over the city from the top of the Empire State Building, is just as powerful. Wenders has already made two films about angels, and, at times, Buena Vista Social Club almost qualifies as a third.
SUMMER OF SAM
Co-written and directed by Spike Lee
To hear Spike Lee tell it, Summer of Sam means to be a panoramic view of the summer of 1977 in New York City -- when temperatures shot into the high 90s and power blackouts set nerves on edge, when the party agenda included snorting coke at Studio 54 and copulating with piles of strangers at Plato's Retreat, when the Reggie Jackson-led Yankees rose toward another World Series title and a psychopath calling himself the Son of Sam terrorized five boroughs (and inflamed the tabloid media) with a series of brutal handgun murders. To hear Lee tell it, he's a wide-ranging urban observer on the lookout for major signals, bent on re-creating a scary moment in the life of a great metropolis.
Don't count on it. At root, most Spike Lee movies are about racial grievance, and despite the startling absence here of black major characters, Summer of Sam is largely about racial grievance, too. Despite a couple of negligible field trips to Yankee Stadium, the lurid Manhattan club scene and, yes, serial killer David Berkowitz's chaotic apartment, Lee's 13th feature film is set almost exclusively in an insular Italian-American neighborhood in the Bronx, and it is in this confined space that Lee again vents his rage against bigotry.
Blue-collar New York Italians have served as Lee's whipping boys since 1989, when a pack of white vigilantes in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, surrounded Yusuf Hawkins, an innocent black teenager who wandered into their neighborhood: One of them shot him dead. Lee's best film, the incendiary Do the Right Thing, resonated perfectly with the Hawkins case, and it launched his first crop of unlikable "guidos." But the sheer volume of lame-brained, spaghetti-bending caricatures the director stuffs into Summer of Sam is unlike anything he has conjured up before. For decades, Hollywood remained stubbornly ignorant of the varieties of black experience, and Lee seems more determined than ever to return the favor to anybody named Mario, Tony or Luigi.
Out of the primordial ooze crawls our protagonist, Vinny (John Leguizamo), a cocky little Bronx hairdresser who's cheating on his wife and who remains captive to both machismo and Catholic guilt. He's a sneery hustler in a high-boy collar, all bad attitude and neighborhood flash. There's no way that Lee, despite his halfhearted effort, can convince us he has the slightest regard for this guy. Vinny's street-corner pals are even more primitive: They include a sweaty junkie (Saverio Guerra) who hawks stolen lobsters to finance his next fix, a fat drug dealer (Michael Rispoli) who brings his little girl to work with him, and "Bobby the Fairy" (Brian Tarantino), a mincing caricature in which Lee seems to take special pleasure. When they're all standing around smoking cigarettes, Lee sticks a "Dead End" road sign into the frame with them -- just as a student moviemaker might.
The women? Ruby (Jennifer Esposito) is the neighborhood slut who's really looking for love. Gloria (Bebe Neuwirth) is the married hair-salon owner who can't wait to take her dress off for Vinny, and Helen (Patti LuPone) is a slovenly mother who runs an illegal card game. But even when he's striving to be pluralist and open-minded, Lee's contempt shows. The people the movie would have us like are also fools, sellouts or corruptibles. Vinny's pretty wife, Dionna (Mira Sorvino), is so stupidly blind to his sins that you want to shake her, and Vinny's best friend, Ritchie (Adrien Brody), who has broken with the old Bronx ways by moving downtown, spiking his hair and affecting a British working-class accent, is anything but a model of social rebellion: He makes ends meet working as a gay whore and acting in porn flicks.
Meanwhile, the local Mafia goons, with Ben Gazarra's mumbling godfather in the lead chair, come straight out of Goombah Central -- right down to the continued on next pagecontinued from previous pagered-sauced noodles on their dinner plates.
The cast has plenty of room to emote, but their task feels a bit empty and thankless. For the most part, they're carrying the director's water.
The original Summer of Sam screenplay is credited to a pair of Lee's friends, Victor Colicchio and Michael Imperioli. But the ethnic stereotypes that abound here have clearly been tweaked by Lee himself, who acknowledges "opening up the story" from the writers' final draft.
Superficially, that story tells how Berkowitz (Michael Badalucco), alias "the .44-caliber killer" and "Son of Sam," ignited paranoia across the entire face of the city in the heat of '77. Lee splashes screaming headlines from the New York tabloids across the screen, tells us how brunettes (Sam's victims) began dyeing their hair blond and provides disconcerting glimpses of the killer's private torment. He also re-enacts -- with a little too much zest, I thought -- four or five of the actual murders. In another questionable aesthetic choice, Lee has the black dog that Berkowitz claimed was commanding him to kill ... actually command him to kill -- in a human voice. This ploy is likely meant to chill. Instead, the audience I saw the movie with couldn't help bursting into laughter.
In any event, Summer of Sam has very little to do with the psychological effects of a killer loose in the city. Its real subject is the violence of lynch mobs. In a far-fetched twist, Vinny's none-too-bright pals conclude that their old friend Ritchie is the Son of Sam -- largely because he now sports a blond Mohawk, plays punk rock at a club on the Bowery and hardly ever stops by anymore for a slice of pizza and a beer. In the end, the assembled morons go after Ritchie. But in Spike Lee's view this has nothing to do with the Berkowitz case itself: If these mindless barbarians can savage one of their own, it says here, imagine what they'd do to somebody they already hate -- a black or a Puerto Rican. Thus does Lee once more evoke the ghost of Yusuf Hawkins.
Where some viewers see belligerence and shaky melodrama, others are bound to find social truth. After all, Lee is a moviemaker who, in his best work, tackles tough social issues head-on -- interracial romance in Jungle Fever, the burdens of greatness in Malcolm X, racism itself in Do the Right Thing. But even staunch Lee fans may find Summer of Sam disappointing. Here is America's most heralded and possibly most talented minority filmmaker diddling around with caricature and race-baiting when he could be aiming higher.
Opens July 2.
-- Bill Gallo
WILD WILD WEST
Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld
It won't take long for anyone familiar with the original Wild, Wild West from television to notice that something is not right with the listless new Barry Sonnenfeld-directed film version. Yes, the film features Will Smith in the role of James West, and Kevin Kline as his cerebral sidekick, Artemus Gordon. But that's about it. For starters, the filmmakers were unable -- or unwilling -- to use any but a trace of Richard Markowitz's catchy opening theme from the TV show, substituting instead a far stodgier number from veteran composer Elmer Bernstein. With costs reportedly running as high as $187 million, you'd think the price for the original theme would have been in there somewhere.
The film version appears immediately inferior to the television series in other ways, too. One of the most memorable aspects of the original show was its episodic structure. The creators were obviously inspired by the Saturday serials of the 1930s and '40s that ended each week with a cliffhanger. On television, each hourlong show seemed to incorporate several serials, with each segment building to a suspenseful high point. Obviously, Sonnenfeld and his screenwriters didn't have to cut away to a commercial at prescribed intervals, but the film might have been greatly improved if they had remembered the inspiration of the serials and built more highs into their storyline. As it is, this version seems remarkably flat, without much suspense along the way to its ultimate climax.
The story, as the film tells it, has West and Gordon come together as partners for the first time by the order of President Grant (also played by Kline), and it is a meeting of opposites: West has never encountered a fight he didn't want to join, whereas Gordon feels that he has failed if the situation deteriorates into violence. West's weapons are a powerful right hand and fast guns; Gordon prefers to outfox his opponents with his wits or a mind-boggling array of gadgets and disguises.
Like the series that inspired it, Wild Wild West is a modernist Western; it is not about the settling of the West but about the clash between good and evil. In this case, evil is represented by Dr. Arliss Loveless (played by the deliciously wicked Kenneth Branagh), a mad scientist of the power-hungry variety whose ultimate goal is to see the United States of America destroyed and its wealth divided up among himself and his allies.
As the picture opens, it seems that Loveless, a Rebel soldier who lost his lower half during the war and must putt-putt around in a motorized wheelchair, has kidnapped the great scientists of the world and put them to work helping him conquer the nation. To accomplish this, the half-man/half-machine has constructed a giant galumphing militaristic spider called the Tarantula, which looks like some reject from the Star Wars films, and points it in the direction of Promontory Point, Utah, where he hopes to capture President Grant and force him to sign over control of the country to him and his allies.
As usual, there are plenty of diversions along the way. Unfortunately, the filmmakers see Wild Wild West less as an update of a futuristic Western than as some early Western precursor to the James Bond films. As a result, there is far too much emphasis on the gadgetry -- the Tarantula, for example, and West's specially outfitted train, called the Wanderer -- and on the bevy of beauties who follow both West and the evil Dr. Loveless around. Among these is Salma Hayek, who spends most of her time onscreen looking like a refugee from a lingerie layout.
As West, Smith performs with his usual unassailable self-confidence, but there is far less for him to be confident about here than has been the case lately. He looks even more dapper than usual in Deborah L. Scott's Western duds, and he moves beautifully, especially in the action sequences. However, for most of the film, he is asked to deliver punchlines that no actor alive could make funny. He must also suffer a number of race-baiting lines from Dr. Loveless, who is meant to be a Southerner and who, at one point, welcomes West to a party he's throwing by observing that he hasn't seen him "in a coon's age."
The same plague affects Kline, who seems far less comfortable in the sidekick role here than he was in, say, A Fish Called Wanda and its sequel. He, too, is asked to make hilarious that which is wholly and completely unfunny. After Hayek's arrival, he compliments her by saying that she is "a breath of fresh ass." No, he says, when West points out his mistake, what he meant to say was that she is "a breast of fresh air." You see the level.
Branagh, too, has to deliver his share of achingly bad jokes and off-color puns but has the added impediment of having to shout them out in the most egregiously contrived Southern accent while sporting what must be one of the worst (not to mention baroque) beards in movie history.
Given all the attendant hype and gossip about its cost, whether or not the movie will find an audience is anybody's guess. But of those who do find their way to the film, only those who come expecting a grand display of special effects -- all created to conform to the larger-than-life scale one expects to see in this particular species of summer blockbuster -- will walk away satisfied. Those expecting the quick wit and inventiveness of the television series will certainly be disappointed, as will those who expect the hip suavity that one usually gets from any continued on next pagecontinued from previous pageperformance by Smith. It's not wild, wild; it's mild, mild.
Opens June 30.
-- Hal Hinson
Co-written and directed by Dariush Mehrjui
The characters in Leila take for granted the contradictions of a society in which characters use cell phones, grumble about traffic jams and watch Hollywood movies on TV while still living under the ancient restrictions and customs of Islam. Though they lack the power -- and, perhaps, even the desire -- to break with tradition, they are at least aware of the tension. Like Eric Rohmer, writer/director Dariush Mehrjui shows how timeless moral issues reverberate in the modern world, influencing even those who think they have left the ideas of the past behind.
The heroine of Leila (played with stunning aplomb by Leila Hatami) is a newly married young woman whose seemingly idyllic life gradually withers away when she learns that she can't have children. Fertility becomes an obsession, and when months of medical testing provide no relief, the insecure Leila is incapable of warding off the schemes of her mother-in-law, who convinces her that the lack of an heir is making her husband miserable.
Though the weak but well-meaning Reza (Ali Mosaffa) insists that he is perfectly happy without children, he too falls prey to the demands of family and tradition, and the pair find themselves -- not entirely with reluctance -- looking into an Islamic custom that allows the husband of a barren woman to take a second wife. Tradition and desire clash to produce tragedy, despite each party's insistence on their good intentions.
Mehrjui is a leading figure of the Iranian new wave, often linked with Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, whose films have just begun to be noticed in the U.S. With more than three decades of experience, he has outlasted both the shah and Khomeini (whose admiration for Mehrjui's 1970 film The Cow helped earn support for the film industry in the 1980s), faced government censorship of nearly all of his features and taken inspiration from such unlikely non-Iranian sources as A Doll's House, Franny and Zooey and Viridiana. Educated at UCLA and influenced by Western writers and filmmakers, he can see an Islamic world whose changing face remains unacknowledged by the official culture but slips out nonetheless. Leila escapes from the narrow image presented to the West during the shouting matches of theReagan-Khomeini years -- and occasionally reinforced by its films -- to show a world that hesitantly navigates a path between the old world and the new, between modernity and orthodoxy. In Leila's dilemma and her gradual submersion into despair, it also reveals the heavy price paid for that uneasy alliance.
SOUTH PARK: BIGGER, LONGER & UNCUT
Co-written and directed by Trey Parker
The animated TV show South Park was the big sensation of the 1997-98 season -- or at least as big a hit as a cable channel like Comedy Central can manage. It was almost inevitable that creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone would take their batch of foul-mouthed 8-year-olds to the big screen. (If such things were completely inevitable, we would have seen a Simpsons feature by now.)
The pair's earlier feature collaborations -- Cannibal! The Musical and Orgazmo -- were spotty but often hilarious. South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut is also spotty, but it has a higher hit-to-miss ratio. It is almost exactly what the film version of a TV show is supposed to be: true to the original but somehow bigger and more spectacular.
It may sound absurd to use the word "spectacular" in relation to South Park, which has always flaunted the childish crudeness of its animation. But spectacle is precisely what Parker and Stone have added here: more songs, real special effects and, of course, great dollops of the language that gets bleeped on TV. (Presumably, almost all the TV bleeps are the work of the creators, not of the network; Parker and Stone have gotten terrific mileage out of the bleep itself as a source of humor.)
The double-entendre title has an extra level of irony because though the film is bigger and longer, it is not precisely uncut. The MPAA ratings-board members sent it back with an NC-17 more than once before it was finally trimmed to their satisfaction.
If any movie ever went out of its way to snare the ratings board into a litigation trap, it's this one. The story itself is about movie ratings; the MPAA is mentioned by name -- far from favorably -- and the board must have acted with extreme care not to appear personally vindictive in their actions here. The movie also deals with the utterly unproved and probably unprovable conventional wisdom about what children should and shouldn't see. There has been a record amount of moralizing whizzing through the ether since the Columbine shootings, and, given South Park's Colorado setting and its history of pushing the boundaries of tastelessness, it must have taken painful restraint for the filmmakers to avoid making reference to that other Colorado town.
South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut opens with "Mountain Town," an Oklahoma-like production number in which little Stan Marsh sings an entirely inaccurate paean to his hometown. Soon Stan and his buddies -- Kyle, the lonely Jew; selfish, "big-boned" Eric Cartman; and the eternally incomprehensible and doomed Kenny -- con their way into the local movie theater to watch Asses of Fire, the new epic from Canadian TV stars Terrence and Philip, whose entire shtick is composed of farting and obscene insults. ("Philip, you pigfucker!" "Why did you call me a pigfucker, Terrence?" "Well, first of all because you fuck pigs.")
Not surprisingly, the kids emerge spouting even more foul words than previously, shocking and infuriating teachers and parents. In no time, Kyle's irritating, do-gooder mother has launched a national campaign against Terrence and Philip in particular and all of Canada in general. This culture war quickly escalates into an actual war, with the parents embracing mass carnage and violence in their crusade to protect their innocent children from the hideous threat of potty-mouth.
At the same time, Satan and his new lover, the recently deceased Saddam Hussein, are having relationship difficulties, even as they plan to surface during the war and take over the earth for a millennium's worth of evil. Luckily, Kenny, killed during a misbegotten baked-potato/heart transplant, is around to overhear their schemes.
There's stuff here for both longtime fans and newbies. The newbies may get a slightly bigger buzz from the initial shock of hearing such language come from the mouths of a bunch of elementary-school kids. But only the devout will quite understand the context of songs like "Kyle's Mom Is a Bitch" (reprised from the infamous 1997 episode with Mr. Hankey, the Christmas Poo) and "What Would Brian Boitano Do?" (a reference to the first real South Park cartoon, the five-minute "Spirit of Xmas").
If anything is likely to come as a surprise to the faithful, it's the degree to which Bigger, Longer & Uncut is a full-on musical. There are more than a dozen major musical numbers in a movie that, minus the closing credits, clocks in at about 75 minutes. As Parker has proved with his songs for both the TV show and Cannibal! The Musical, he actually has a great facility for coming up with Broadway-style melodies. Though most are parodies -- of Les Miz, Busby Berkeley shows and Oklahoma!, among others -- it's hard not to suspect that some part of Parker really does love show tunes and aspires to be Richard Rodgers. This time around, many of the numbers were co-written with composer Marc Shaiman, whose interstitial score is also frequently witty.
Except for some very nice special effects involving heaven, hell and war, the animation is true to the deliberately clunky "paper-cutout method" of the TV show (long since done with computers rather than with real paper cutouts). The characters' legs appear to be sewn tightly together when they walk, and there is no attempt at "visual beauty." In the style's defense, the animators manage to produce an extraordinary range of facial expression with minimal movement -- no small accomplishment in itself. And, most important, if the technical work were more sophisticated, the movie wouldn't be nearly as funny -- which is, after all, the whole point.
The one negative aspect of the film may have been a fluke of the press screening: The sound was grating and murky. The painful volume in the theater was no doubt part of the problem. But, even compensating for that, it sounded as though the sound mix was excessively shrill and muddy. In one number where bits of several songs are reprised all at once -- in the manner of the prerumble sequence in West Side Story -- the parts fused into an unintelligible whole, an ugly bouillabaisse of noise. I'm sure it would have been much funnier otherwise.
Still, for South Park fans and for those without priggish sensitivity to the way their children really talk behind their backs, Bigger, Longer & Uncut delivers: It's never less than funny, and at its best it's truly hysterical.
Opens June 30.
-- Andy Klein
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