Utne Reader Film Reviews: March-April 2009

Katrina Close Up
Trouble the Water
(Elsewhere/Zeitgeist; in theaters)

If, by some miracle, the low-fi Hurricane Katrina doc Trouble the Water has won the Oscar for best documentary as you read this, it won’t have been the most amazing feat of the film’s subject, Kimberly Rivers Roberts–not by a long shot. A screen heroine to make Juno look slight and Wanted‘s Angelina Jolie wimpy, Roberts is a New Orleans resident who trained her flea-market camcorder on her city’s rising water, traded the footage for top billing in Trouble, rapped her way through the year’s most stirring movie scene, and gave birth to her daughter, Skyy Kaylen, only a day after the film’s world premiere at Sundance–where, naturally, it took the Grand Jury Prize.

Trouble the Water reveals Rivers as a survivor, but also as an artist of rare courage. Professional shooters from every major network (not to mention filmmakers Carl Deal and Tia Lessin themselves) couldn’t compete with Rivers for bone-chilling videography from within the eye of the storm. And when Rivers, as her recording alter ego Blackkoldmadina, unleashes her “Amazing” tune to a boom-box beat, one can feel the legends of old Hollywood musicals tapping their feet six feet under. As Rivers has written, “The song explains that with the right tools, we can have a positive effect on the world. But we need the tools.” Through the force of her inspiration, the tools are ours. –Rob Nelson

Starving for Attention
Hunger
(IFC Films; in theaters and via video on demand)

On March 1, 1981, Irish Republican Army member Bobby Sands led a hunger strike in Northern Ireland’s Maze Prison. Sixty-six days later, he died at the age of 27, a shriveled-up version of his former self. British director Steve McQueen’s chilling, superbly crafted vision of the events leading up to Sands’ death doesn’t conform to predicable patterns of political filmmaking. The movie unfolds in distinct, commanding vignettes ranging from the elegiac (a prisoner’s hand caresses a bee) to the heart-thumpingly brutal (when riot police crack down on the inmates). Hunger does not simply chronicle a historic act of protest; it renders it timeless and transcendent. –Anthony Kaufman

Dance Sans Drama
Ballerina
(First Run Features; in theaters)

A fond, glancing portrait of Russia’s Kirov Ballet, now known as the Mariinsky Theatre, Ballerina roams freely among a handful of dancers at various ages and stages of their careers to assemble a composite image of, as narrator Diane Baker puts it, “constant metamorphosis.” On the heels of Ballets Russes but en pointe in its own right, director Bertrand Normand’s film half-consciously propagates the myth of the ballerina as a delicate, ethereal creature, customarily observed from a distance in an isolating spotlight. So, what, no eating disorders, no nervous breakdowns, no sexual tensions? Maybe it’s enough that these impressive performers endure dissatisfied choreographers, effusive fans, and their own physical limitations with rigorous grace. –Jonathan Kiefer

Stuck on Videotape
Be Kind Rewind
(New Line; on DVD and Blu-Ray)

Director Michel Gondry looks on the bright side of the digital revolution in this joyous Jack Black comedy, dreaming that good ol’ American ingenuity–with a timely dash of hope–could rescue mom-and-pop culture from the wrecking ball. Black and Mos Def play video store denizens whose fidelity to low-tech VHS has them replacing worn-out tapes with absurdly self-made versions of old faves like Ghostbusters. These redux flicks not only attract an audience, but also reconstitute a dwindling community. Like Gondry’s Dave Chappelle documentary Block Party, this is pop fantasia as grassroots activism. Never mind Netflix: Be kind and get Rewind at your local indie video store, if you still have one. –R.N.

Utne Reader Approved

Lance Hammer’s startling humanist drama Ballast (Alluvial; on DVD) focuses on three people struggling to heal old wounds in the frigid Mississippi delta. Patiently directed and passionately acted, it stands as one of the best films of 2008.

Recovering revisionist Oliver Stone takes the “fair and balanced” approach to our 43rd president in W. (Lionsgate; on DVD), and still his biopic-as-exorcism scathes. The film is way more interesting than most people thought or said–it’s radical, even.

In the French drama The Class (Sony Pictures Classics; in theaters), an earnest young teacher strains to keep his kids in line–and we learn to view his blackboard jungle as the global village.

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