Saturday, April 25, 2009

Tribeca Report No. 3

Documentarian Kirby Dick is a rabble-rouser, and an unapologetic one. His last film, the ridiculously entertaining 2006 nose-thumber This Film Is Not Yet Rated, was an expose of the hypocrisy and lack of transparency in the MPAA rating system, and included the disclosure of the secret members of that organization’s ratings board. He goes a step further in his new film, Outrage (or, as it is cleverly designed in the title sequence, Out Rage), which freely and openly discusses the rumors of homosexuality that have long swirled around several prominent lawmakers.

Those disclosures are certainly what will get the most attention in the coverage of Outrage, but the movie is about much, much more than that. Dick sets the stakes high at the beginning of the film, when he (or the text on his screen, anyway) alleges a “brilliantly orchestrated conspiracy” that has kept gay lawmakers in the closet and has kept the media from investigating why it is that the very same men who are reportedly in the closet work so very hard to advance the anti-gay agenda. “There is a right to privacy,” notes openly gay Representative Barney Frank early in the film, “but not a right to hypocrisy.”

“Everyone loves a good outing,” notes a commentator in the film, and while this is probably true (these allegations and the examination of them is fascinating), Dick doesn’t make light of what he’s doing. He spends a good deal of the film with Mike Rogers, the blogger who has investigated and outed several of these politicians, and gives voice to those who object to this practice. And Dick isn’t just making a gossipy whisper-fest. He doesn’t short the themes of sexual identity and the importance of coming to terms with one’s own self—particularly when denying that can hurt so many others. It is here that the participation of former New Jersey governor Jim McGreevy is so valuable; he talks about living a double-life and draws parallels to the “spinning” of politics and of one’s own personal life. Dick ingeniously intercuts this with particularly potent interviews and news images of Florida Governor Charlie Crist and his campaign girlfriend (she doesn’t go on camera, but her off-camera statement about Dick’s line of inquiry is quite the bombshell).

Outrage is beautifully constructed; the director-as-investigator motif used (more literally) in This Film serves Dick well again, particularly when he tracks down the (seemingly credible) sources for many of the rumors. Archival footage, stills, and interviews are convincingly assembled to make Dick’s case, which becomes more persuasive and bitter as the film draws to a close. It’s not as much ballsy fun as This Film, primarily because the more serious subject matter doesn’t allow as many opportunities for snarky bomb-tossing (though I could all but hear Dick rubbing his hands gleefully as he uses the on-screen text “Now, here’s where it gets interesting” in a key moment). But this is a more important film—it’s funny, yes, but it’s also angrier and timelier, and with a vital, imperative story to tell.

* * *

So here’s an oddity. Don McKay is a peculiar hybrid of thriller, black comedy, small-town drama, and who knows what else, pitched at an odd angle that resembles no reality I recognized, either in life or in other movies. It’s so strange, in fact, that I half-wonder if writer/director Jake Goldberger was trying to remove himself from the conventions of storytelling entirely, and stake out a claim in the surreal. I’ve never seen a film quite like it, though I can’t tell you if that’s a good or bad thing.

From the opening passages, something isn’t quite right—the dialogue is too deliberately stylized, and the timing is just a little off, a little sprung. Suddenly, unexpectedly, the picture takes an unexpectedly grisly turn (which I won’t reveal here). Then, for the bulk of the second act, Goldberger basically tries to see how long the movie can subsist purely on dread, atmosphere, and strangeness. We keep asking questions that the movie doesn’t answer, even when the main character asks them. Things get particularly daft between leads Thomas Haden Church and Elisabeth Shue—they’re saying all of these odd things to each other (some of the dialogue scenes are little more than exchanges of non-sequitors), and sometimes they say them seriously, and sometimes not, and are they buying into this? Are we supposed to? Just what the hell is going on in this movie?

When we finally find out, when we get the first of the film’s big reveals, it’s frankly kind of lame—all that weirdness was for this? It’s certainly a relief for the actors, though, who are finally freed from being willfully oblique, so they all start vamping it up and acting like they’re in a smoky B-movie. I had just about given up on the movie, but then it got to its climax, which plays like a deliriously freewheeling improvisation, both for the characters and the actors. The movie’s way off the rails by this point, but that sequence is crazily entertaining in its own strange, half-brutal and half-funny, universe-onto-itself kind of way (I was strangely reminded of some of DePalma’s funnier climaxes). For about five minutes, it feels like, everyone—the actors, the writer, the director (yes, I know they’re the same person, but the movie doesn’t always play that way), and the audience—are on the same page.

Goldberger goes and blows it it with another turn that’s pure nonsense, the kind of head-scratching hokum that may not be a cheat, technically, but sure feels like one. So what are we left with? I’m honestly not sure. I can’t fully endorse or recommend Don McKay—it’s too messy and all-over-the-place for that—but it certainly isn’t boring. I’ll give it that much.

* * *

“It was the music that created a sense of solidarity.” Those words come early in Soundtrack for a Revolution, and they form the somewhat tenuous connection between the two halves of Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman’s film. Like Standing in the Shadows of Motown, it is a hybrid of historical documentary and modern performance film, with icons like Julian Bond, Ambassador Andrew Young, and Congressman John Lewis telling the story of the civil rights movement while performers like John Legend, The Roots, and Blind Boys of Alabama perform the songs that defined the time. They don’t quite manage to pull it all together—the documentary segments barely skim the surface of this story, while the music is hit and miss—but it is a passionate film nonetheless.

Its streamlined approach to the history of the civil rights movement sometimes amounts to a “greatest hits” approach, with only the most familiar signposts of the era visited, and then sometimes only briefly. The only trouble is that so much of this material has been covered, with greater depth and insight, in countless other, better documentaries, from Eyes on the Prize to 4 Little Girls to Tom Brokaw’s excellent King TV doc last year. Much of the archival footage is powerful (I’ll never get numb to that shocking film of Bloody Sunday), but it’s almost entirely clips we’ve seen countless times before.

The film’s other flaw is that it can’t quite tie its theme into the narrative in a compelling way; the idea of telling the story through the music seems like an afterthought, an obligation to attend to whether it is organic or not, and the new musical performances sometimes stop the movie cold. Joss Stone, for instance, is a fine singer and an able performer, but her take on “Eyes on the Prize” is all wrong; she performs it like some kind of a slinky sex kitten, and her over-singing approaches Mariah Carey territory. Other songs play stronger—The Roots’ rendition of “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around” is evocative and brilliant (seriously, what can’t these guys do?), while John Legend’s rich, pure voice is exactly the right one to accompany the footage of Dr. King’s funeral procession.

There’s not much in Soundtrack for a Revolution that’s new to those who have studied the period or have seen other, superior docs on the movement. But its accessibility and brevity, and the hook of the performances, could make it an easier sell to younger and less informed audiences. I wouldn’t be surprised if it ends up playing in a lot of high school history classes—and let’s be honest, that’s not a bad fate for a documentary these days.

* * *

On the menu for tomorrow: the Cheryl Hines-directed dramedy Serious Moonlight, the documentary Con Artist, and the horror parody Hysterical Psycho.

1 comment:

  1. I actually was a PA on Soundtrack and worked closely with Dan and Bill and I agree with you that it certainly does have that hook for the younger generations. I think, currently, one of the markets they are eventually going to be going for is getting the film into classrooms