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by Bill Gibron

18 Sep 2008

Even with years of consideration and compromise, race remains a far too risky hot button topic. No matter how you present it - comically, dramatically, satirically, metaphorically - the corrupt cloud of prejudice tends to trump most artistic aspirations. There’s just too much baggage with bigotry, decades of discrimination and social acquiescence to same that it appears impossible to overcome…at least initially. And no, changing the ‘color’ of intolerance doesn’t redefine or reconfigure the argument. That’s the problem facing Neil LaBute and his latest effort, the slow burn thriller Lakeview Terrace. While it looks like dozens of films that have come before, the independent icon - responsible for In the Company of Men and Nurse Betty - tries to instill some novelty via a unique approach and a controversial villain. For the most part, he stumbles as often as he succeeds.

When interracial couple Chris and Lisa Mattson move into a new LA subdivision, they soon learn they are living next to a real piece of work. Abel Turner has been a policeman for 28 years, and though his record with Internal Affairs is spotty at best, he receives nothing but respect and loyalty from his fellow officers. A strict single father with an unflappable moral code, Abel takes an instant dislike to Chris and Lisa - and it’s not because they represent liberal leaning politics. No, it’s because he is a white man married to a black woman, and thanks to recent events in Turner’s life (and the psychological scars they’ve left), he cannot forgive such a setup. So he starts to sabotage the duo, keeping his overly bright security lights on all night, dismantling their air conditioner and landscaping when the mood hits him. At first, the pair suspects nothing. But as Turner turns more violent, Chris and Lisa realize they have to protect themselves - or pay the price for not doing so.

In some ways, it’s impossible to boil Lakeview Terrace down to a single salable element. This is the kind of movie where every bad guy has his decent side, every hero is merely half-hearted, and the genre beats we except from the story come buried in sidebars of dense characterization and unnecessary sideways subplotting. At almost two hours, it’s 20 minutes too long. And for something that’s supposed to inspire an edge of your seat reaction, we spend way too much time sitting back with lots of inferred individual conflict. All three main actors are excellent in their roles, with Patrick Wilson standing shoulder to shoulder with Samuel L. Jackson. Indeed, the Pulp Fiction prophet is so good here that you often forget he’s supposed to be playing the villain. Instead, Abel Turner is more like a determined devil, unable to show his true wickedness until its far too late for the film or its audience.

Of course, it’s all LaBute’s fault. The playwright turned filmmaker is not necessarily out to deliver the stereotypical shivers. Instead, he wants to explore motive and meaning, to look beyond the aspects of race to focus on more universal themes like family, duty, law, and order. Turner is not really the neighbor from Hell. Instead, he’s more a partner in purgatory, wildfires raging just behind his fancy property lines. We are supposed to see that a similar blaze is rampant within his character, and a revelatory bar scene suggests a more than capable rationale. But in the end, when our baddie actually threatens life (he calls on a local hood to do his disgusting, deadly dirty work) Jackson can’t save Turner. And then he turns into a baldheaded Jason with a badge. It’s as if LaBute drops all the pretense of the previous 105 minutes and simply let’s the narrative devolve into pedestrian payback mode.

Another issue here is the script. Instead of exploring the many conflicts that constantly rise up out of the dialogue, the film simply skirts the problems and moves on. Turner is seen harassing locals for his own unscrupulous means. It goes nowhere. Lisa’s snooty father (a welcome return for Barney Miller‘s Ron Glass) constantly demeans her white husband, and yet we never get to the crux of why. Even our supposedly happily marrieds find themselves struggling for a connection when an unplanned pregnancy comes along. Chris’s objections and his spouse’s equally sour response seem like moments from another movie. Indeed, with Wilson in the lead, Lakeview Terrace sometimes plays like Todd Field’s Halloween revamp of Little Children, without the former’s superior sense of subject and storytelling.

This is the kind of film destined to disappoint all who come to see it. Anyone wanting Jackson in full bore bad ass mofo mode will, instead, get a troubled man who uses his street smart lawbreaking ability to torment a couple of crass, somewhat deserving yuppies. While there is some dimension to the character, anyone hoping for a more serious dissection of discrimination also needs to look elsewhere. LaBute and company seem too afraid to scream narrow-mindedness. Instead, they allow conversations to beat around the bush, even dropping the N-word now and again as a show of subject matter solidarity. Granted, watching Sam the Man chew his lines with manic glee is a joy to behold. But outside the nervous laughter, Lakeview Terrace doesn’t offer up much suspense.

Indeed, the lack of dread and accompanying release will be the biggest sticking points for what is an otherwise halfway decent drama. LaBute is so comfortable handling the confrontations and awkward silences that we really wish the whole rogue cop conceit had been tossed aside for more personal byplay. Jackson and Wilson have some wonderful moments together, and while she holds her own admirably, Terry Washington’s presence seems linked to her ability to look sexy and confused at the same time. With the unwelcome inferno billowing in the background, the weird one-upmanship that seems stolen out of a lesser film (say Unlawful Entry), and the entire concept of interracial romance relegated to the very rear of the back burners, Lakeview Terrace becomes an incomplete experience. It should be better than it eventually is. But considering how cheesy and unchallenging it could have been, we should probably embrace its deficiencies.

by Barry Lenser

18 Sep 2008

John Lennon was famously battling a cold during the recording session for Please Please Me. While the illness wasn’t major, even a pedestrian cough might have derailed his vocal efforts. Not so in this case. Instead, John’s at times hoarse and untamed delivery proved a fitting complement to the energy of the Beatles’ musical backdrops.

“Twist and Shout”, of course, is the most memorable instance of this. But even on the emotive mid-paced ballad “Anna (Go to Him)”, which was recorded before the effects of his cold were so strikingly evident, the dash of roughness in John’s voice seems to add enlivening texture. Written by Arthur Alexander, a country-soul artist of the ‘60s and ‘70s, “Anna” centers on a relationship that is failing because the girl (Anna) has found someone whose love for her surpasses that of her current man’s. The spurned boyfriend ultimately declares his willingness to part from Anna (not the typical reaction of a lover in a pop song) but not before he lays bare his imperishable love for her (much better). The lyric is thick with desperation: “But every girl I’ve ever had / Breaks my heart and leave me sad / What am I / What am I supposed to do”. In the original version, Alexander sings in a clipped fashion, which lends his rendering an almost matter-of-fact quality. John, conversely, stretches out and emphasizes more notes to arouse greater conviction from them. Especially on the segment between the standard verses (sampled above), his less-than-silky delivery injects the song with an aching passion that might not have come through so stirringly if not for the illness. Pain seems to dwell in the husky edges of John’s voice.

Overall, the Beatles’ version is an improvement on its source. The original features a jangling piano line at the lead which gives off too much playfulness for a song about inner conflict. George’s guitar-work is a better match: less spry and excitable but still tuneful. It combines with Ringo’s offbeat percussion and Paul’s stingy bass to construct a groove that, light and limber, doesn’t get in the way of John’s bruised vocal.

by David Pullar

18 Sep 2008

The launch of the inaugural Prime Minister’s Literary Awards in Australia has attracted a little attention—partly for the two substantial $100,000 awards and partly for the fact that the PM himself has final say.

Most people are unconcerned by this role, but Gail Jones in The Guardian finds it troubling:

But should the Australian prime minister have a say in “his” award? Emphatically not. Judging panels are contentious enough without prime-ministerial opinion inflecting adjudication. The winning text risks being seen as content-endorsed, or in some way charged by political approval.

In part this is a hangover from the previous administration, where PM John Howard was something of “culture warrior” and had a tendency to weigh in heavily on art and literature he considered biased to the left.  New PM Kevin Rudd has shown a more hands-off approach.

The bigger question is surely “What do politicians know about books?”  Politicians will occasionally write works of political science and policy—and at the end of their public life will often write scurrilous memoirs—but few engage in serious literature.

There is some hope here in my state of New South Wales, where the new Premier, Nathan Rees, has a degree in literature.  His predecessor was widely seen as a philistine, although the one before that (Bob Carr) was a self-confessed book nut—so much so that he recently wrote a book entirely about reading.  To tell the truth, I’m not sure that the writers of Sydney have really noticed the difference.

But what of the contenders in the current US Presidential campaign?  Barack Obama has written his own memoir and a manifesto of sorts.  John McCain has written a few books about his life.  McCain’s daughter Meghan has written a hagiography of the Republican candidate.  As for Sarah Palin… well, she’s expressed interest in banning a few books in her time.

I’m not sure any of them has much time for contemporary literature.  Maybe Obama does, but you can bet he won’t be discussing the merits of Junot Diaz as he campaigns for the votes of working-class Ohioans.

by Bill Gibron

17 Sep 2008

Survival is instinctual. It goes to our very nature as life loving beings. It can be mistaken for desperation or arrogance, but the need to stay alive usually trumps all other basic necessities. When Hurricane Katrina flared up in the Gulf of Mexico, moving from minor storm to an Armageddon like presence preparing to devastate New Orleans, the rest of America looked on with disdain. From the settled suburbanite to the doofus President they reelected, no one really cared if the levees would hold, if city services would respond, or if anyone was left behind. But for Kimberly Rivers Roberts and her husband Scott, there was no option. There was no leaving or getting to safer shelter. All they had was themselves, their extended family, and their will to survive. They also had a camcorder.

Trouble the Water, the new documentary from Fahrenheit 9/11 producers Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, takes the amazing footage shot by Kim during the Hell on Earth that was Katrina, and after catching up with the couple a few weeks later, follows their attempts to rebuild their lives. They briefly return to New Orleans, only to find homes containing corpses that the National Guard has failed to ID and tag. They talk about their attempts to seek refuge in a nearly empty Naval base, only to be turned away by the officers on duty (Bush later gives them a commendation for this). But mostly, they seek out the solace of friends and family, trying to make sense of a situation that saw them struggling one day, completely divested of the standards of human existence the next.

Thanks to the sensational material shot by the Roberts (Kim is quite the self-promoter, seeing herself as a future Ms. Rap Supreme) and the juxtaposition of the now familiar flailing that was the Federal response to the disaster, Trouble becomes an unlikely cinematic ally to Spike Lee’s near definitive When the Levees Broke. Unlike said four hour epic, however, this movie wants to shrink the story down to its most elemental aspects. It was people, not generic populations that were uprooted when a poorly designed infrastructure failed New Orleans. We get to meet the heroes and unintentional villains, the destitute and the resolute, each group groping for a way to endure the wrath of a blind Mother Nature and a disinterested nation.

This theme runs throughout Trouble. The Roberts, after being rejected by the Navy, end up at a local high school. Coming back to it later, the soldiers stationed there jokingly complain about the hygiene and cleanliness of their “guest” refugees. As our lead couple and their traveling companion Brian thank the military for their presence and assistance, you can see that lack of caring in the officer’s eyes. When they finally travel up North, they find limited opportunities (and even less cooperation from FEMA). Even in Memphis, the place where they intend to “start fresh”, they appear lost. It’s not because they don’t want to make it. But after a previous stint as admitted drug dealers - Kim delivers a devastating rap on the subject towards the end of the film - their fringe lifestyle hasn’t prepared them for such a seismic shift.

That’s why we aren’t surprised by what happens next. All throughout Trouble, we hear the survivors vehemently stating their hatred for New Orleans, the various officials involved in the Katrina debacle, and their desire never to return. So of course, Kim and Scott are back, looking over their lost neighborhood while celebrating the fact that many of their friends have also had a change of heart. It doesn’t make the devastation any easier, and when Scott suddenly finds himself employed and happy, we wonder what will happen next. Oddly enough, Trouble the Water decides not to pursue such a path. Instead, it wants to be the reality version of those “found footage” films where events are seen through the lens of an actual participant ala The Blair Witch Project/Cloverfield.

More importantly, the decision by Lessin and Deal to dump their previous Katrina concept to attach themselves to the Roberts resonates with the authenticity of the subject they were facing. Trouble is at its least effective when newscasts show Bush pandering to the base or former FEMA failure Michael Brown choking on administration addled soundbites. By picking up on this personal story and serving it up in a way that plays commentator, not critic, the filmmakers allows Kim and Scott to speak for themselves. The results are astoundingly brutal and beautifully honest. As a culture, the African American community in the United States (horribly marginalized up until a mere four decades ago, in case you’ve forgotten) has carved out a means of making connections that their Caucasian counterparts can’t even begin to claim. Homeless and haggard, the Roberts consistently find as much Christian charity as they gave to those who needed it.

Perhaps this is the greatest lesson of this superbly realized and heartbreaking film - that people will pull together to help each other even if there are issues between them. Scott suggests that Brian (who we learn is an ex-addict living in a halfway house before Katrina) is now his brother. Another man who made it his cause to carry complete strangers to higher ground on a floating exercise bag gets labeled a ‘hero’. Both descriptions are dead on. Through the eyes of these people who had nothing to start with, who struggled to make a place in a country who still consider them second class citizens, the truth is instantly revealed. Enemies become allies. The generous become the stuff of myth.

Had this story been told through some manner of reenactment (or, God forbid, a hackneyed Hollywood depiction), had we not been able to see the rising waters washing away everything the Roberts owned with our own eyes (the sight of their second story bedroom filled with flooding remains unsettling), we’d never have believed the events depicted in Trouble the Water. In fact, most of America would like to think that Katrina is a cause long battled and conquered. Naturally, nothing could be further from the truth. One imagines as Bush and his lame duck cronies make sure everything in Texas is post-Ike A-OK that the people of New Orleans are still smarting. Where there are people like the Roberts, however, there remains hope. That’s the essence of survival. It’s the instinct of all human beings.

by Bill Gibron

16 Sep 2008

A daredevil, by definition, defies death. He cheats the Grim Reaper at his own particular brand of bluffing. This also means, by reciprocal inference, he or she embraces life. Granted, it does appear to be a contradictory condition. By pushing the very limits of existence to the points where you could end it, one looks to be laughing in the face of mortality. It’s seem the very definition of a fool’s paradise. By his very giddiness alone, wire walker Phillipe Petit would be the perfect illustration of this ideal. He sees nothing wrong with finding a location, stringing up a line, and doing his risky, refined dance with destiny. And he worships the moment as he does it.

As the subject of James Marsh’s brilliant documentary Man on Wire, Petit proves that there can be joy in doing what others would consider to be insane. Less of a career overview and more a concentration on a single segment of the performer’s otherwise complicated madman modus, the main event here is the 1974 high wire walk between the then incomplete Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. Reflecting a simpler time when almost anyone could infiltrate a major structure and display their Depression era hyperbole, Petit comes across as part shaman, part sham, all ego and even more enthusiasm.

Beginning in the streets of Paris as a clown, our hero first feels the flush of unusual fame when, using his circus skills, he walks across the façade of Notre Dame Cathedral. Soon, he is down in Australia, doing something similar to a bridge in Sydney. By accident, he reads an article on the soon to be built World Trade Center, and immediately, the structure is all Petit can think about. He obsesses on it, drawing in a ragtag group of friends, conspirators, and well wishers in an attempt to realize his goal. During these sections March introduces our aging rogue’s gallery in a rather unique way. Each one gets their say, while a starkly lit portrait fills the frame. Soon, we see that there is a dual purpose to this posing. Some of his confidants are quite capable of helping. Others freeze in the face of potential dangers - like death, the law, etc. It’s like looking at a cast of players plucked from an asylum. 

In fact, Man on Wire is less about the climatic walk (which we know will happen, since there is a movie being made about the event and the individual who accomplished it) and more about the intricate preparations and personal dilemmas everyone faced. Sure, there is some cloak and dagger as the crew runs into security just hours before the event. Equally thrilling is a sequence where a simple wire pull maneuver goes wrong, and ends up taking hours, the weight of the material making inch by inch progress almost impossible. Marsh does manufacture the necessary suspense, all leading to the stunning images of Petit suspended above Manhattan, his lithe body literally dividing the skyline in half. Oddly enough, there is very little moving footage of the event. We get to see actual scenes of Petit crossing Notre Dame and the Sydney Harbor Bridge. For the Twin Towers, however, it’s mostly still photography.

This doesn’t lessen the act’s impact though. Man on Wire makes the wise decision to not follow Petit’s other stunts (including walks involving the Louisiana Superdome and The Eiffel Tower). Indeed, the use of the now destroyed World Trade Center resonates in a way that makes anything else he’s done seem minor in scale or import. You can tell that Petit feels the same way. His face practically glows as he recalls the moment he left the safety of the building’s rooftop. There is so much happiness in his cherubic look that you can’t help but get caught up in the emotion. Petit may now be viewed as kind of an incomplete saint, but when laying on his back high above the street, balanced perfectly on the line, an anxious audience of New Yorker’s marveling at his chutzpah, all flaws easily fall away.

If there is a single missing element here, a minor moment that cries out from its MIA status, it’s a mention of the fact that Petit’s dream no longer exists. One can’t imagine that Marsh didn’t broach the subject of the 9/11 attacks with the artist, hoping to gain some manner of insight as to how he reacted to the sight of his biggest triumph tragically crumbling before his eyes. Maybe such a reaction is implicit in everything he says up to this point, but hearing (or just seeing) Petit’s take would be wonderful. Of course, the entire movie is practically a love letter to what the World Trade Center represented. Turns out, Marsh felt the beauty of what Petit did was so substantial that discussing the fall of the Towers would, in his mind, undermine its mythos. He’s probably right. 

Frankly, such closure isn’t necessary. What we see in Petit, unlike the current crop of Mindfreaks, and Blaine-worthy conmen is someone who can actually capture magic in a moment. Without optical illusion, camera trickery, or media-aided bait and switch, this was a man who figured out how to string a cable between the two largest buildings in the world (at the time) and then step into said void. There was no publicity, no pay per view showboating. No netting or safety harnesses. Sure, Petit expected some response, but this act was not done to derive some manner of commercial or financial benefit. Instead, the wire walk remains the ultimate answer to the question “why”, the quandary anyone who teases death must deal with and defend. 

And we are lucky enough to experience the explanation in all its vertigo inducing glory. Make no mistake about it - Petit’s accomplishment was so stunning at the time that even the police officers sent in to arrest him respond in awe-struck wonder over what they’re witnessing. It’s a reaction shared by the audience. No matter his impish charms, his naïve belief in the pureness of his motives, Petit maintains his bi-furcated façade. You’ll either love him or dislike him, but you can’t deny his moxie.

At one point, New York had a pair of concrete and steel monoliths that few outside the city thought much of. In fact, even the local citizenry thought they were an ugly eyesore. With a single act of death defiance, Petit put the World Trade Center on the map. He also endeared its image to a country who, as usual, wouldn’t recognize what they had until it was gone. While the Towers have fallen, Petit’s achievement lingers. Thankfully.

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