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by Bill Gibron

28 Sep 2008

Beware of Big Brother…blah, blah, blah. You can’t pick up a publication nowadays, or listen to any number of broadcast pundits, and not hear about how the Bush Administration is violating rights and the privilege of privacy for the sake of some metaphoric act of patriotism. Granted, the Constitution may indeed be jeopardized in the name of non-provable levels of safety (call it the “tiger rock” syndrome), but Americans are more than willing to buy into the scheme to avoid another 9/11. This fuels Hollywood’s already perverse sense of paranoia, as it has since Nixon went Watergate-boarding. Disturbia director D. J. Caruso has tapped into such technological fear mongering with his latest big screen suspense thriller, Eagle Eye. While not perfect, if you ignore a major plot twist and/or hole along the way, you’re sure to have an edge of your seat good time.

On the day that he buries his twin brother, Jerry Shaw suddenly finds himself engulfed in a world of trouble. His grubby Chicago apartment is suddenly overrun with terrorism paraphernalia - weapons, instruction manuals, and bomb making materials - and from his cellphone, a mysterious female voice tells him to flee. Before long, Jerry is in FBI custody, with Agent Thomas Morgan on his case. Joined by Air Force investigator Zoe Perez, the officials hope to stop this potential disaster before it occurs.

In the meantime, single mother Rachel Holloman is informed that her son, traveling to Washington DC on a school band trip, is in danger. Unless she agrees to help the mysterious female voice on the other end of the line, she’ll lose everything. Turns out, Jerry is her proposed partner in potential crime. The pair become pawns in what appears to be a deadly assault on the United States. These reluctant radicals have to follow the instructions of their unseen tormentor, or die trying. Of course, the source of the threats might just be someone - or something - inside the government itself.

Bristling along on one amazing narrative convolution after another, and fueled by fascinating gung ho performances from everyone involved, Eagle Eye is a jovial serving of cinematic junk food. It’s frightfully filling without being intellectually challenging, and appears put together by professionals who know a thing or two about maintaining an audience’s interest. For those looking for mandatory movie references, this is nothing more than Wargames, Enemy of the State, North by Northwest and another famous ‘odyssey’ all rolled into one. To reveal the name of the last cinematic masterpiece riffed on would spoil the secret to the film’s villainy. Suffice it to say that any motion picture from the last four decades, especially ones dealing with spying, science gone sinister, and massive governmental conspiracies, finds a hokey, hackneyed home here. Some just overstay their welcome, becoming the storyline’s sole raison d’etra.

As with his homage to Rear Window, director Caruso casts messageboard separator Shia LeBeouf as his everyman, and for someone so hated by a good percentage of geek nation, the actor is very good here. He’s not required to do much - a great deal of this movie is mechanics and manipulations to a deadly denouement - but in the quieter scenes, he shows subtly and nuance. This is not quite the grown-up role the pseudo-star needs - Jerry is still carved out of post-millennial slacker shortcuts - but as the innocent mark turned reluctant hero, he holds things together quite well. Michelle Monaghan is another issue all together. Her overwrought mother is horribly underwritten, complaining about her bastard ex-husband and her lousy paralegal’s paycheck…and that’s about it.

Thankfully, costars Billy Bob Thorton and Rosario Dawson pick up the slack. He’s a manic FBI agent not sure which side of Jerry’s story he believes. She’s the Air Force attaché who uncovers a key piece of evidence explaining the forces behind the threat. One has to say that, if you buy the premise and the antagonist involved, Eagle Eye takes on a sly, almost mischievous sense of social commentary. Positioned directly in the War on Terror times we live in, the film’s obvious jabs at the current White House and the incomplete intelligence that led us to invasion offer waves of wiseass recognition. If anything, Caruso appears to be anarchic in his advocacy. His position gives “We the People” a whole new meaning.

On the small screen, the frenetic action scenes and hand-held hysterics would clearly get lost. The editing typically takes a mashed up moment and amplifies it unnecessarily. But blown up 70mm on an IMAX screen, Eagle Eye becomes a crackerjack nailbiter. The car chases have a real logic and flow, and the foot races reveal both clever choreography and a true sense of space. Chicago looks luminous during the various aerial shots, and when CG takes over to establish the “omnipresence” of the Federal bureaus, the graphics look great. Like Beowulf inside the 3D domain, Eagle Eye needs to be experienced in the larger theatrical format. The detail in the image helps make up for some of the tried and true tricks the director uses to create breakneck cinematic chaos.

Even with its occasional lapses into illogical miscalculation (like the ability to control elements like electrical lines???), Eagle Eye is a great, goofball thrill. It’s the kind of film you can get lost in, forgetting the fallacies streaming across your subconscious as you sit back and savor another sequence of veiled threat and vehicular mayhem. Certainly, the story is not meant to mean more than the basics of the genre, and any references to masters past remain securely on the side of the alluded to auteurs. But D. J. Caruso and Shia LeBeouf prove a potent combination, especially in the realm of easy to swallow suspense films. If you go in expecting The Conversation meshed with a sideways Manchurian Candidate, you’ll be easily underwhelmed. But not every entertainment needs to engage the brain to guarantee success. Check your head at the ticket counter and you’ll enjoy this wickedly wild ride - especially in IMAX.

by Kirstie Shanley

28 Sep 2008

Between bursts of spontaneous dancing and iconic poses, James’ frontman Tim Booth has the charisma and charm to make any set enjoyable. (He’s also the only lead singer I know that can pull off an outfit consisting of a suit jacket and pajama bottoms.) Along with his soaring vocals and spirited camaraderie, Booth is also able to inspire a fully adoring audience.

Playing a sold out show in support of their new album, Hey Ma, James could have very easily crafted a setlist from recent material. Instead, the band chose a well-rounded set of songs with a handful of favorites that only served to increase the audience fervor. Coming to the foot of the stage during “Out to Get You”, Booth let the many hands hold his legs and feet while he sang as if only to a few of us.

The band, which first formed in Manchester, England, in the early ‘80s, received standing ovations for many of their hits including, “Say Something”, “Sit Down”, “Top of the World”, and “Sometimes”. The only missing songs were the stellar tracks found on the brilliant Brian Eno produced Millioniares, which may have been left out due to the album’s unavailability in the States when it was released in 1999.

While James, as a band, deserves all the acclaim it gets, it’s clear that Tim Booth, who has an innate ability to balance pop songs with soft intimate lullabies, is the star of the show. Adept at creating choruses that people appear to instantly remember, he’s also a master at touching the very heart of the matters he speaks of. The audience members made this show a shared experience, singing along to many of the songs without any prompting. It was as if it was impossible not to sing along, even when the lyrics might sound sappy to an outsider as with fan favorite “Sometimes”. As Tim Booth sings, “Sometimes, when I look deep in your eyes, I swear I can see your soul,” you can’t help but feel the sense of how heartfelt his words are. It seems that when Tim Booth sings something, it just ends up feeling right.

 

by Barry Lenser

28 Sep 2008

“Chains” marks the first time on Please Please Me where the Beatles sound indifferent to the material they’re playing. Their version of the Gerry Goffin and Carole King-penned R&B ditty is flat, repetitious (seemingly more so than the original, somehow), and musically underdressed. The harmonies are rather staid and none of the Beatles seem to find anything inventive to try instrumentally (though the harmonica-led intro is notable as it would reappear, often memorably, in a considerable amount of their songs).

To hear the earlier, Cookies-performed rendition is to realize that “Chains” is an R&B number through and through and perhaps not ideally suited to the Fab Four’s abilities. In translating it to rock ‘n roll, the Beatles opted to shed the original’s sax drop-ins and handclaps (but why), thereby losing much of its color and looseness. It just doesn’t take flight on the strength alone of their guitar-bass-percussion interplay. And John and Paul’s vocals come off almost stodgy when compared to the bright, lively chirp of the Cookies. The Beatles, it seems, simply didn’t know where to take the song.

The structure of “Chains”, which remains constant between the two versions, does contain a feature worthy of mention. It’s how the chorus introduces the song and then essentially continues through the space where you’d expect there to be a proper, set-apart verse (several bridge-like, modified verses do arrive later). The chorus and standard verse seem, more or less, merged into one, which facilitates a smooth flow but can also be repetitious.

It’s only a detail of minor interest and doesn’t have any bearing on how effective “Chains” is in the hands of either band. The Cookies’ version really is a blithe confection while the Beatles’ uninspired interpretation serves as a reminder (among others to come) that the future greatest-ever pop band didn’t immediately achieve artistic eminence. They first had to test their evolving skills against the vast and newfangled possibilities of rock ’n’ roll.

by Bill Gibron

28 Sep 2008

Unless our own troops are involved (or in rare cases, our vital national interest), Americans don’t really care about wars abroad. Whether its ancestral hatred, religious difference, or the standard struggle for power, if the effects don’t reach our shores, we offer only a passing interest. Of course, the minute crimes are committed in the name of such insurgence, we perk up. Add children to the mix and the basic biological uproar occurs. Yet in many African countries, old tribal disputes and ethnic unrest have a permanent place in history. That anything remotely normal occurs in this life during wartime is a miracle. That we in the West pay attention to it is even more improbable.

For years now, Uganda has been at war with rebel forces bent on seizing control, one tribe at a time. In the case of the Acholis in the Northern part of the country, the attacks have been particularly brutal. Children have witnessed the death of their parents, themselves barely escaping with their lives. Many wind up in the bush - tired, hungry, and afraid. Eventually, they become refugees and join the millions sequestered in government sponsored camps. At Patonga, we meet three impressive young people. Nancy watches over her siblings while her mother moves from location to location, looking for work. Dominic fancies himself a superstar musician. His skill at the xylophone covers up a deep, dark secret. And Beth is an indentured servant to her cruel and callous aunt. Like Cinderella without an invitation to the ball, her days AND nights are filled with mindless and menial chores.

But when it comes to singing, dancing, and playing traditional and Western songs, these children are very special indeed. The Patonga School has just won an invitation to the prestigious National Music Competition in Kampala, and in Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine’s fascinating War/Dance, a camera crew follows their meticulous preparations. Along with several dozen students of various ages, these teenagers spend countless hours training for the contest. During their brief downtime, they play, worry, dream, and try to forget the raging horrors all around them. Following their progress for three months, the filmmakers provide insight into the Acholi’s desperate situation. They also reveal how genocide and gang mentalities have caused widespread slaughter and the ever-present stench of human atrocity.

While it may sound scripted, each subject has an unsettling story to tell. Nancy outlines how her mother had to bury the vivisected body parts of her cruelly killed father. She also cuts a concerning figure as she stands in line with older, angrier exiles waiting for the UN to pass out their pathetic rations. Beth is so berated, so oppressed and ostracized that no one will help her pack when she prepares to compete. Of the three, Dominic remains the most optimistic and memorable. Briefly held as a prisoner/subscription soldier by the rebels, he tells of a brother’s bravery (which may have cost his life) and the day he was told to beat a farmer to death. In calm, considered tones, he confesses his crime. The Fines are not out to defend or condemn these kids. Instead, we are witness to a literal loss of innocence, youth snatched away by equally young men who play the “only following orders” card when confronted.

Indeed, one of War/Dance‘s best sequences is when Dominic heads to the local military base to question a captured insurgent. Defiant at first, but slowly opening up, the former “freedom fighter” takes the ‘done by directive’ stance. When challenged, he admits that what he did was wrong - with an explanation. Apparently, killing whole villages and kidnapping their children is a means of winning respect and gaining authority. The more hostages you have, in conjunction with the number of notches on your belt, brings a certain level of admiration within the rebel set. Luckily, the Fines don’t dawdle on this material. The prisoner could pontificate for days and we would still have a hard time fathoming his death and destruction explanations.

No, our story settles for the standard last act contest, with our outright underdogs (Patonga has never made it to the Nationals before, and the prejudice among people outside the North has practically guaranteed them a last place humiliation) taking on the city slicking favorites from years past. If it wasn’t caught on tape as it happened, you’d swear it was the contrivance of some Hollywood scriptwriter. With their coaches watching on, and the specious looks from the spectators foreshadowing a sense of doom, our team truly rises to the occasion. Though we don’t see the other schools in action, Patonga delivers in both its Western and Original Composition rounds. We even think that they might be able to pull off an upset. But when they totally destroy the defending champions during the Tribal Dance sequence (their choice - the Bwola), we’re convinced they will win.

The wrap up is as unpredictable as it is emotional. Before the trophies are handed out, the kids get a trip around Kampala, and to see their reactions to things like TVs, airplanes, and food stalls is astounding. For a brief, shining moment, they are children again, existing within the kind of idyllic, carefree childhood that everyone in the West takes for granted. By the time they return to the camp, conquering heroes or not, our perspective of the situation has shifted radically. War/Dance suggests that talent can overcome even the greatest of tragedies. All one has to do is receive vindication for their attempts, and a whole new outlook blossoms. As the credits roll, the Fines update us on all three kids. There are no last minute twists, no ‘should have seen its coming’ dates with destiny. Instead, we discover how important the competition really was. Beside the challenge, it changed these kids in profound ways.

There will be those who see the slick cinematography, the subjects staged like models making a very special Benetton ad, and cry foul. And when we see the Africa skyline shimmer with cobalt blue rainclouds, thunder and lightning acting as a Greek Chorus for what is to follow, the Fines could be accused of mild mannered manipulation. But when your story is as sound as this one, when the subjects have been through the kind of Hell described, a little coaching can be tolerated. After all, War/Dance couldn’t save these kids if they had to. This is the real world, one ruled by ridiculous tribal jealousies, the same petty power struggles, and the mass murder that tends to occur when the other two elements are present. It’s almost impossible not to appreciate what the film accomplishes. Maybe this will be the wake up call the West needs. Or maybe not.

War/Dance is distributed by Shine Global. Their official website is: www.shineglobal.org . The DVD can be purchased from this website.

by Bill Gibron

27 Sep 2008

Back then, it just wasn’t done. Society shunned the family that “forced” their handicapped child on the rest of the world, and doctors relied on the institutionalized warehousing of the developmentally challenged, assuring their loved ones that the patient would be better off in such a setting. There was no true home care option. Private hospitals were for the rich and privileged, insurance unwilling to foot such a lifetime claim. If you were a parent in the late ‘50s, and found yourself caring for a child with Down’s Syndrome, severe mental deficiencies, or any other unacceptable ailment (frequently misdiagnosed), your offspring were shuttled away to someplace like Staten Island’s Willowbrook State School. It promised professional treatment and training. What really happened once they got there would become the sordid stuff of scandal.

Even after Bobby Kennedy lambasted its treatment of its patients, Willowbrook continued its cost cutting, cruel care-giving ways. When local investigative reporter Geraldo Rivera was given a key to the facility (and a heads up from a doctor quitting over the conditions), what he found would change the face of mental health care forever. Like a concentration camp, there was squalor, misery, and death. Children were naked and covered in feces, filth filled the air with an appalling, putrid odor, and when attendants and nurses were finally located, their overwhelming workload resulted in neglect, detachment, and other subhuman standards. This was 1971. Oddly enough, Willowbrook would stay open for almost another decade. While reforms were rampant, seems society’s acceptance of individuals with disabilities took a little while longer.

That’s the main message of Unforgotten: 25 Years After Willowbrook (finally arriving on DVD courtesy of City Lights Media). Made in the mid ‘90s, when words like “retardation” were still in fashion, this flash forward focus on four families (and one unfortunate man) that were forever touched by their time with the infamous facility is meant as a kind of reflection and critical closure. A talking head assessment of what life was like back when Ike was the President and prosperity ruled the emerging suburbs, we hear the heartsick stories of struggle and a sense of helplessness. For many outside the system, Willowbrook looked like an answer. It had all the Establishment trappings. Three decades later, it’s clear that no amount of shame could shelter these unfortunates from a bureaucracy incapable of being compassionate for them.

The main stories center around Patty and her incisive sisters, Luis and his harried older brother, and most importantly, the unbelievable case of cerebral palsy victim Bernard. Taken to Willowbrook after being wrongfully judged, the young man spent 18 years under some of the worst conditions imaginable. When Rivera shows up at the facility, Bernard is one of the individuals he interviews. The truth is apparent from the moment he opens his mouth - there is nothing wrong with this boy mentally. He is clearly incapacitated by some terminal physical ailment. Now in his 40s Bernard has a message for everyone watching Unforgotten. While he is a successful consultant, he dreamed of being a lawyer. A place like Willowbrook was supposed to tap into and nurture his potential - whatever it was. Instead, he spent nearly two decades in “Hell”, and his hopes were stolen from him.

It’s a clarion call that resounds throughout this extremely powerful documentary. When we learn about Luis, his severe limitations, and the sacrifices made by his family just to keep him safe and cared for, we feel nauseous inside. Not for the boy’s obvious issues, but ill from a world in which people like this are often cast out and left without viable options. Luis’s family, including his stoic sibling who stands in for most of the interview, look like the benefactors of clearly compartmentalized choices. While they trust the new facility he is in, they still spend most days by his side. The scars from Willowbrook are just that deep. It’s a similar situation to Patty’s. One sister even states how embarrassed she was of her “unusual” relative. The resulting tears simply rip you apart inside.

Like the forgotten legacy of segregation, there is a clear sense of ‘out of sight, out of mind’ when it comes to the way in which circumstances such as these were dealt with in the past. For individuals of a certain age, the notion of a family simply “forgetting” that they had a handicapped relative was not unheard of. Some households even hid pictures of the “problem child”, sequestering him or her away like some Gothic mystery secret. They became the subject of whispered conjecture. No one spoke of such things in polite and proper circles, and as is the case with Patty’s late father, many men felt the birth of such as baby as a stain against their masculinity and potency. By the time of Unforgotten, a great many of these attitudes had changed. By 2008 - the year of the DVDs release - we’ve become even more aware and active.

Part of the problem with remembering is perspective. It is easy to dismiss what came before, especially when today’s policies promote respect, and grassroots groups win legislative battles and mandate services. City Lights wants individuals to participate in the process, and as part of the digital package offered, they present information on how to get involved. But the biggest service they do to the continuing cause is the presentation of Geraldo Rivera’s complete half hour report circa 1971. Even in light of what we know now, it’s devastating stuff. The images are straight out of a horror film, the so-called “snake pit” warned of by RFK is more like a torture chamber when Rivera arrives. Naked children are covered in filth. Patients are seen shoveling soggy food into their faces, their mealtimes cut down to mere minutes. When it was first opened, Willowbrook was rated for 2000 ‘students’. By the time Rivera uncovered the corruption, there was upwards of 5000.

As narrator Danny Aiello explains, there were lots of reasons Willowbrook wound up a national calamity. Rising costs produced budget cuts. Staff demands resulted in hiring difficulties, and then freezes. Soon, the patient to attendant ratio (originally set somewhere at four to one) had risen to 70 to 1. As Rivera points out in his updated Q&A, there was no way such a strategy would or could have worked. Outside the arrogance of thinking that human behavior could be promoted and protected in a clinical, insular environment, what the wounded of Willowbrook really needed was love - especially the comfort that comes from family. Some 25 years after the fact, the relatives of those affected are still learning said acceptance. Thankfully, we’ve come along way in making sure it will never happen again…we hope.

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