When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts
(HBO Video; on DVD)
Spike Lee knows what it means to miss New Orleans. As the director of this epic documentary about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, Lee understands that the best way to capture the loss afflicting the storm-struck region is via the weary faces and shaken voices of its residents, including musicians and politicians. A monumental and moving opus, the four-hour work chronicles everything from the hurricane’s impact to the levees’ bursting to the harrowing accounts of survivors left waiting for rescue on empty lots where their homes once stood.
Combining emotional interviews with stunning photography, When the Levees Broke finds a people betrayed, broken, frustrated, and forgotten. Again and again, Lee shows images of citizens stranded on rooftops, desperately holding signs that cry “help.” Mothers lose their daughters; sons lose their mothers; and chilling images of floating corpses, one after another, increasingly condemn those in charge.
Lee looks for those who were responsible for the botched response, laying blame higher up the chain of command. While Mayor Ray Nagin and Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco emerge largely unscathed and Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Michael Brown appears inept, the film reserves its real fury for the Army Corps of Engineers, Homeland Security head Michael Chertoff, and President Bush.
Layered with the mournful jazz compositions of New Orleans native Terence Blanchard, the film, true to its title, is a powerful requiem-not only for Katrina’s victims and the city of New Orleans, but also for any rose-colored views we may have about racism and poverty in these United States.
THE SONS OF GREAT BEAR APACHES CHINGACHGOOK: The Great Snake
(First Run Features; on DVD)
Fans of both John Wayne’s white-hat, black-hat Hollywood and the highly stylized, cynical spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone will find something familiar (and delightfully disorienting) in these three “Red westerns” produced in East Germany between 1966 and 1973. In a not-so-subtle, now snicker-inducing bit of Cold War commentary, all the good guys are Indians (Serb stuntman extraordinaire Gojko Mitic is the series’ Ÿberhero) and the villains are uniformed infantrymen sporting bloody red, white, and blue. What the sledgehammer plot lines lack in gray area is excused by high plains photography worthy of John Ford and sound tracks that combine kitschy phrasing with unorthodox orchestration (electric guitars and French horns!) for maximum psychedelic impact.
(Five Points Media; in theaters)
Intentional communities come in all varieties, from sedate to seditious, from staid retirement cohousing to, well, places like Black Bear Ranch, the quintessential “hippie commune” profiled in this documentary by producer-director Jonathan Berman. The first naked utopians arrived at the California commune in 1968, and Berman chronicles their story with archival images and remarkably candid interviews with founding families, most of whom have moved away, but whose lives have been indelibly marked by the experience. The film documents the commune’s evolution from youthful polygamy to child rearing and sobering encounters with the limits of freedom. For better or worse, the philosophies of free love and utopianism have become attached to the countercultural currents of the 1960s. This clear-eyed film shows that the families who survived the experience went on to actually change the world.
MONGOLIAN PING PONG
(First Run Features; on DVD)
When three young boys embark on a wayward journey to unlock the secrets of a ping-pong ball they found, not only do they discover the identity of the mysterious “glowing pearl,” but they also catch a glimpse of the world outside their free and wild life in the grasslands. We see that in the vast sweep of the Mongolian steppe, innocence and imagination, like the land, know few boundaries. One leaves this sweet, funny film with many emotions and one certainty: Nothing the modern world can produce could ever surpass the inimitable magic of youth.
(Dreaming Dog; in theaters)
“Nobody move!” barks a high-strung detective as he bounds into a room where three Buddhist monks sit in meditation and a fourth lies murdered. This kind of deadpan humor laces this 71-minute debut film directed and written by Marc Rosenbush. In an attempt to unravel the whodunit, the abrasive private eye gets himself into some kitschy “Who’s on first” dialogue, a romance, and a job that’s deeper than he bargained for. Viewers who aren’t familiar with Buddhism might feel Zen Noir smacks of a pretentious off-Broadway play, but for the Zen crowd, the movie-with moments of sharp dialogue, a monastic setting, and an austere sound track-has the makings of a fine dark comedy.