By Stephanie Zacharek
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Amy Nicholson
By Chris Packham
By David Kipen
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Caira LaVelle
Youssou N'Dour: I Bring What I Love
Senegalese superstar Youssou N'Dour can't have expected his 2004 album Egypt — proudly devout, musically uncharacteristic, and released during Ramadan—to pass without some comment among Muslim compatriots, yet the hagiographic Youssou N'Dour: I Bring What I Love reads like a kind of defense. Playing up the religious opposition to the record, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi's first documentary feature follows N'Dour on tour (powerfully compelling, muezzin-like) and on message (platitudinous and repetitive). The performance excerpts, starting with the head-clearing invocational introduction, are by far the most interesting part of the show, besides sumptuous photographed prayer calls at the holy Touba mosque and affecting moments with N'Dour's grandmother and shadow-casting father. For all the singer's sincere intentions to build secular-religious bridges, a straight-up concert film might have been a better approach, especially given viewer fatigue with those musicians and their causes. Indeed, the star's avowal of noble intentions and surprise at the controversy tends, through repetition, to convey an air of entitlement to a positive reaction from fans. Still, N'Dour, who annually headlines the festive Great African Ball in New York, may be the only singer who can mesmerize Senegalese and Western audiences alike with a paean to a nineteenth-century Sufi hero. Friday, November 20, 7 p.m. at Webster University.
Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam: These are the places Americans tend to think of when they hear about child-sex tourism. But Atlanta, Georgia, ranks No. 13 in the world. Playground challenges conventional thinking about child prostitution and pornography — that it's not a big problem in the U.S., that it's nonexistent in the middle class, that effective systems are in place to help its victims. Even the director of the FBI admits that — thanks in no small part to the Internet and its 6 million child-porn images — the Unites States is losing the war on child pornography. And though sex-offender registries are widely available online, experts estimate some 100,000 perpetrators remain unaccounted for; at the other extreme, as written, laws could imprison grade-schoolers for decades who smack a classmate on the butt. Playground also searches for Michelle, a foster child lured into child prostitution by the time she was fourteen. She personifies just how far this country is from enacting laws that are both sensible in punishment and sensitive to victims. Saturday, November 21, 1:30 p.m. at the Tivoli.
See What I'm Saying
Bands, actors and comedians have enough trouble finding success, but for the performers in See What I'm Saying — all of whom have varying degrees of a hearing disability — being in the creative arts poses multiple challenges. This raw, sometimes devastating, documentary features four people as they try to pursue their artistic goals in the mainstream creative community. The setbacks many of them face — especially CJ, a rubbery-limbed comedian and actor with a social-activism streak — is disheartening. Saying's most affecting character, however, is theatrical Robert. Trying to make ends meet and avoid eviction, he teaches stage interpreting at Juilliard and tries to find work as an actor. The scenes where he tells how his mom refused to learn how to sign — so he's unable to communicate with her — leave him feeling frustrated and very alone. And even TL — a doe-eyed, flamboyant rock star with a giant voice who signs as she performs and earns a production deal to make a record — has to rail against being pigeonholed. Her scenes acting in the play Children of a Lesser God, where she feels rejected by the hearing and deaf worlds after playing a character who's deaf, illuminate the casual discrimination still evident in our world. With director Hilari Scarl. Saturday, November 21, 2 p.m. at the Tivoli.
— Annie Zaleski
Belleville native A.J. Schnack follows up his music documentary, Kurt Cobain: About a Son, by directing an eye-opening look at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver. Unlike other political movies, however, this documentary is focused less on the issues and more on how these issues were reported and conveyed. Convention switches between the newsroom of the Denver Post (and in particular tenacious reporter Allison Sherry, a newbie on the political journalism front) and the challenges it faces — i.e., filing stories on deadline, working around motorcades, gaining access — and scenes of negotiations and clashes between protesters and police. Convention superbly captures the chaos, confusion and pressure of the event, while not sugarcoating anything: Most harrowing are the scenes juxtaposing speakers such as Michelle Obama with grim SWAT team members watching demonstrators spew harsh protests. For an event that attracted so much attention and press coverage last year, it's amazing that Convention is still so compelling. With director Schnack. Saturday, November 21, 7:15 p.m. at the Tivoli.
West of Pluto
West of Pluto follows a group of suburban Quebec teenagers through one very long day and night. Nothing extraordinary happens. They fight with their parents, fall hopelessly into painfully unrequited love, get busted trying to buy beer, get high, ponder the meaning of life, trash other people's houses, argue about politics, endure the counsel of well-meaning adults, eat greasy fast food at 2 a.m., have sex and get ditched immediately after, watch too much TV, and mourn their lost childhoods and Pluto's loss of its planetary status. Unlike their counterparts in American films such as American Pie or Fast Times at Ridgemont High, these kids have zits and, at the end of the night (and the movie), not a hell of a lot changes. But the film is oddly touching, particularly at the beginning when the kids each give a school presentation about what matters most to them (astronomy, skateboarding, peanut butter, Ben Affleck — but only because someone else took Matt Damon) and in the different and unexpected ways the characters manage to connect. Saturday, November 21, 5 p.m. at Washington University's Brown Hall.
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