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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.

by Bill Gibron

27 Sep 2008

By their very definition, dreamers don’t see the world through a wholly realistic perspective. They exist in the “what if”, not the “what now”. To them, life is a series of endless possibilities, prospects draped in the ‘can do’ spirit that forged the greatest triumphs of art, policy, and invention. Of course, no one can convince them of the truth - that most wishes go unfulfilled, and the old axiom of being able to do whatever you put your mind to only works for those who’ve achieved their quixotic aims. For independent filmmaker Ryan Dacko, movies offer that kind of mythic magic. To make them, to market them to a public eager to experience his work, is all he’s ever wanted. Unfortunately, a nagging little something called cash kept getting in his way.

After several unsuccessful attempts to fund his latest feature (the revisionist vampire epic Dead Heaven) Dacko came up with a radical strategy - the inspired desperation of running across the United States. By doing so, the writer/director hoped to attract the attention of a “mystery producer”, as well as draw support from the Internet through a web journal and online benefactors. The plan was simple - start off from Syracuse, run approximately 35 miles a day for 90 days, arrive in Los Angeles to much fanfare and media interest and, hopefully, achieve a longed for 30 minute meeting with his business model target. With a scant few weeks to prepare, Dacko envisioned few obstacles in his way.

But as the amazing documentary Plan 9 from Syracuse (new to DVD from Sub Rosa Studios) suggests, even the best laid, most complicated and fussed over schemes often go wildly astray. In the case of Dacko’s cross country trek, for every mile achieved, it was time to learn some difficult lessons. No one can question his dedication. You don’t attempt a physical feat of this nature and not have faith in yourself and your passions. Getting other people to buy into it however, including the object of said desire (it turns out to be Dallas Maverick’s owner - and film producer - Mark Cuban) seems insane. Call it ballyhoo blackmail, the kind of PR pressure that only a stunt like this can produce.

Dacko is a distraction at first, self-absorbed and just a tad cocky. Relying on the reception he received for his first film, the little seen And I Lived as a sign he should pursue filmmaking full time, he grabs the four other screenplays in his creative arsenal and goes about the shoe leather lengths toward getting noticed. That it doesn’t happen after several years is no surprise - there are outside auteurs all over the world relying on camcorder calling cards to gain some mainstream attention and acceptance. But Dacko is different. He’s got it all figured out, down to the prospectus, the possible DVD cover art, and the return on his financier’s investment. That all this preplanning fails to get him a deal should suggest something, but he clearly doesn’t want or just can’t take the hint.

The run is truly a last gasp, the final folly for someone who, perhaps, has yet to realize his artistic limits. But once he takes to the highways of America, all of this pretense falls away. Accompanied by absolutely stunning music by sonic shoe-gazers The Lost Patrol, Dacko’s journey becomes that always recognizable slide into self-discovery. Mile after mile, day after day, our filmmaker battles with inner demons - doubt, muscle and joint pain, unexpected delays, and the nagging belief that he may never get that meeting. About a third of the way through the trip, Dacko learns that the producer thinks he’s a joke, a shill going about his sales pitch the absolutely wrong way. For a moment, our hero is devastated. But with bigger aims now taking over, Dacko pushes on.

From this moment forward, Plan 9 from Syracuse becomes something totally different. It’s a stunning travelogue, complete with still photos and videoed landscapes that shock you with their scope and beauty. It’s a telling personal portrait, Dacko trying to defend his idealism within an increasingly pointless (at least professionally) trick. It’s a love letter to a nation often reduced to a series of politically backed buzzwords and tabloid talking points. Some would argue that Dacko’s time and energy would have been better served simply going out and making more of his own movies. A single cinematic signature does not define a person’s capacity, and the notion that he’s already been rejected several times in the past seems insignificant, as if this endless marathon will end up interesting the “right” person. 

There is an unusual dichotomy here, one that Plan 9 really can’t address. Talent typically wins out, even in the most marginalized of circumstances. There are dozens of fringe filmmakers who get regular distribution for their titles, even if they occasionally come across as basic, backyard productions. To say that Dacko dreams big is an understatement. To say he is capable of delivering what his dreams are promising is a question any legitimate businessman would have. Cuban does come across as crass and flippant, even without appearing on camera. So did Dacko pick the wrong objective, or career path? Without spoiling the ending, the results don’t generate anywhere near the attention he expected. One senses the next David Fincher or Lynch wouldn’t be so easily dismissed.

The bonus features on the DVD appear to support much of this confusion. During the numerous commentary tracks, Dacko is praised for his dedication and ideals. It seems forced and rather fanciful. Elsewhere, the majestic music of The Lost Patrol is featured, and rightfully so. It’s the sonic spirit that binds the entire movie together. Yet what we want are more examples of the vision that fuels his sense of superiority. A songwriter needs a cache of tunes to sell his skill. A painter or photographer typically produces a portfolio. Dacko relies on And I Lived, along with a teaser trailer for Dead Heaven, as the explanations for his entitlement. Again, this doesn’t dissuade us from the terrific documentary before us (also a product of his passion). But without some clearly defined links to his legitimacy, we have a hard time being empathetic.

It’s the kind of identification that keeps Plan 9 from Syracuse from being a monumental success. Unlike American Movie, where Mark Borchardt’s abilities are right up there on the screen for people to champion or challenge, Ryan Dacko remains an enigma. His run across America is an achievement no one can deny. The reasons behind it, however noble, still need the support of something concrete to get us cheering. One thing dreamers have a hard time doing is getting others to buy into their revelation. Sometimes, it’s not a question of dedication, but delusion. No one is saying Dacko doesn’t have the right stuff. Perhaps in this instance it would have been better to shown onscreen.

by Kirstie Shanley

26 Sep 2008

Beginning appropriately with “The Night Starts Here”, Stars commenced to play their hearts out for ninety minutes. Torquil Campbell and Amy Millan filled the air with their usual lush male/female vocals, which alternate and culminate in swoons, creating a lullaby effect that’s filled with a soothing kind of chemistry.

Amy Millan of Stars

Amy Millan of Stars

This time around, Stars dropped their usual angst for a much more hopeful vibe. Missing from the setlist were politically-fueled songs such as, “Set Yourself on Fire”, “He Lied About Death”, and “In Our Bedroom After the War”. “Take me to the Riot” was the closest the band came to touching on this element. Even “Going, Going, Gone”, a song previously filled with personal vs. political anger, was reworked and slowed down and replaced with a much more melancholic feeling.

Torquil Campbell of Stars

Torquil Campbell of Stars

Though the five-piece hails from Montreal, they had much to say about how “happening” Chicago is as a city. Appearing humble, Campbell thanked the audience for coming out during hard times, saying how much the band appreciated it. He appeared just as moved by the experience as the starlit set of young eyes gazing from the front row, staring in awe at their favorite band playing on a stage adorned with roses.

Amy Millan of Stars

Amy Millan of Stars

Lyrically, the songs often come across as very intense and personal stories. Yet, they manage to transcend the inner personal domain and venture into the world of shared anthemic experience. Mainly, they accomplish this task by addressing issues that many can relate to. Such is the case for “What I’m Trying to Say”, which was a clear highlight of the set along with “One More Night”. Though at times the songs can take on an edgy tone, they are often sentimental and romantic, especially when the vocals shine strongly via dynamic duets.

Torquil Campbell of Stars

Torquil Campbell of Stars

Amy Millan of Stars

Amy Millan of Stars

It should also be mentioned how well rounded the band’s setlists are. Stars have been releasing music since 2001 with three full lengths and two EPs, and yet they always revisit that first release even while seeming eager to debut new songs. There’s an energy to them that is searching for progress but at the same time understands that it’s futile to ignore the past.

Amy Millan of Stars

Amy Millan of Stars

by Bill Gibron

26 Sep 2008

It’s not the soundest cinematic lineage - excellent foreign fright film to hackneyed American remake followed by one (or more) direct to DVD sequels. And when the main movie in question is the brilliant Japanese shocker Kairo, the pedigree becomes even more problematic. Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s amazing movie, about the end of the world as propagated by out of control technology and basic human indifference, resonated with the kind of power only questions of life and death can create. Its wonky Western conversion, the WB-friendly Pulse was a passable imitation at best. Thanks to the resulting influx of PG-13 demographic cash, Dimension Extreme has commissioned a continuing franchise. Pulse 2 shows some promise, but the stink of a calculated cash grab just can’t be avoided.

The world as we know it is dead. Spirits, desperate to reconnect with the life they long for, have used WiFi and cellphone signals to infiltrate reality. As a result, people have been dying, either by having their souls drained or via suicide. Married couple Stephen and Michelle have been separated for quite a while. She’s devastated after losing custody of their daughter Justine, and to make matters worse, her husband is now shacking up with the slutty Marta. When her child turns up missing, Michelle goes ballistic, searching for her baby. Stephen, equally concerned for Justine’s safety, enters the desolate, dangerous world of the abandoned big city. There, technology has destroyed everything, and his only hope is to find his little girl and take her to a safe zone. But as we soon learn, there really is no security from restless, relentless ghosts - or the vengeance of a mother scorned. 

If tone and atmosphere were all a horror film needed to succeed, Pulse 2 would be a certified classic. In the hands of producer turned writer/director Joel Soisson, this moody attempt at recapturing the first film’s modern world mayhem is a decent, often enjoyable attempt. But it’s not a complete success, mostly for reasons that have to do with characterization, narrative logistics, and the faintest whiffs of familiarity. No matter how hard it tries, Pulse 2 cannot escape the mandatory J-Horror clichés. All the ghosts come from the monochrome school of creeps, and their dead eyed ennui grows grating after a while. They don’t even attack, really. They merely walk up to their victims and suck the spectral F/X out of them. Like the metaphysical mumbo jumbo used to explain why this is happening (at least it’s clearer here than in the first film), Pulse 2 just feels overly familiar.

But Soisson deserves credit for employing some interesting stylistic choices to switch things up. There is lots of green screen work, clearly used to broaden the scope of the backdrops and give the locations an eerie, otherworldly vibe. We also get nice shots of society post-apocalypse, the random burning car and deserted streets reminding us of how fragile our existence and world order really is. As for the acting, the no name cast does a decent job, especially in light of the ludicrous character beats they must endure. Jamie Barber as Stephen is stuck in stoic hysterics mode, constantly calling out for his little girl - that is, when he isn’t trying to console her constant whining. As Justine, little Karley Scott Collins switches between sensible and responsive to whimpering and wanting her mommy. Even after she sees that her parent is a poltergeist, she still runs after her like a whelp to a warm teat.

As our female leads, both Georgina Rylance and Boti Bliss are stuck in what could best be described as a misogynist’s misguided fantasy. Michelle is portrayed as a Susan Smith psychopath, the pending divorce sending her straight down the murder/suicide path. Once we learn her secret (pssst…she’s DEAD! ), she’s nothing more than a plot point prop. Ms. Bliss has it worse. As the horndog home wrecker who seduced our hero, she’s hot to trot even during the end of the world. Later on, when she becomes another victim of the wireless plague, it’s nothing but nudity. That’s right; our professional actress is reduced to little more than a bit of fright flick titillation. It seems almost unfair, since Marta is so poorly defined to begin with.

As part of the DVD package, Soisson is joined by several members of the crew, and all spend a great deal of time explaining and praising their efforts. It’s not as self-congratulatory as it sounds, but there are moments when our narrators clearly forget they are talking about a direct-to-video sequel. The same applies for the two deleted scenes offered. One features a character catalyst nicknamed “The Man in Red” - clearly important to Part 3…which is already in the works - explaining the entire story to the audience (by way of an unimportant extra). The other has our harried father trying to comfort his child. Neither does more than the film itself, and suggests a story that always knew what it wanted to be from the very beginning.

In truth, there is nothing technically wrong with Pulse 2. It breezes by without bogging down in unnecessary macabre minutia, and the effective opening moments make up for a middle act overloaded with interpersonal inconsistencies. The ending may seem obvious, especially to anyone who’s been following the narrative nuances from the very beginning, and by reducing the story to a tale of four characters, Soisson avoids biting off more than he can creatively chew. Still, no one will mistake this movie for its far superior Eastern cousin. Heck, it can’t even compare to the lesser efforts from the Japanese genre. Still, Soisson and company should be commended for trying to instill something new and novel into what is usually a staid and stereotypical conceit. Pulse 2 can’t avoid its origins, but at least it doesn’t destroy its celluloid ancestry. 

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