Spring Film Roundup
Throw Down Your Heart
Anticipation can be a joyously agonizing pastime. In the case of Sascha Paladino’s documentary about banjo maestro Bela Fleck’s journey to Africa to explore the origins of that instrument, the wait will be worth it. Paladino’s first film won the Audience Award at the 2008 South by Southwest Festival and it opens no sooner than April 24 in New York and June 5 in Los Angeles. But Fleck, who has won 11 Grammys in more categories than anyone in music history, let his music, as well as that of musicians in Uganda, Tanzania, The Gambia and Mali, speak volumes, rather than having an intrusive voice over.
It is the perfect decision, for the easy-going, almost shy Fleck has an innate ability to merge his prowess with others in a magical cohesiveness, whether it is with a twelve-foot ground-based xylophone, with the akonting, thought to be the original banjo, or with the heartbreakingly beautiful voice of Mali singer Oumous Sangare. There are some gorgeously edited sequences, courtesy of Paladino, Fleck and Scott Burgess and no one will ever be able to question the expertise sound mixers Wellington Bowler and Dave Sinko, who get crystalline sound whether outdoors or in a rudimentary and crowded hut. www.throwdownyourheart.com
Atom Egoyan has a history of adapting work to film that has novelistic twists and character complexities, as in his astonishing version of Russell Banks The Sweet Hereafter. Here, Egoyan writers, produces and directs, again with an eye toward the malleability of truth and personal responsibility. A young man, Simon (Devon Bostick) is encouraged by his teacher (Egoyan regular Arsinee Khanjian) to use his imagination in the telling of a horrifying tale: that of an unknowing woman whose husband plants a bomb in her baggage as she boards a plane, in an act of sub rosa terrorism. Simon, in trying to understand his own fractured family history,then pretends this story, told in a classroom, really took place and disseminates it in an Internet chatroom, prompting an outpouring of strong responses from the community.
Egoyan is a master at gradually connecting character histories and Adoration is no exception. Khanjian as always impresses and Bostick, despite his youth, has a dark-eyed, intense charisma that the camera loves. As with The Sweet Hereafter and Ararat, Egoyan’s complex rumination on the Armenian genocide of 1915, Adoration plumbs the depths of his characters’ psyches without ever seeming to be subject to the often tedious laws of exposition. (Sony Classics, May 8)
On a limited budget, writer-director-editor Alex Rivera has crafted a disturbingly imaginative science fiction nightmare, that takes on virtual reality, immigration, global water rights, the exploitation of Third World labor and more. Rivera and co-writer David Riker create a world in which Mexican laborers get “nod jobs,” ports inserted into their bodies so that they can remotely do industrial labor in the US while actually working in virtual reality factories south of our border. Memo Cruz (Luis Fernando Pena) leaves his tiny village, where one must pay to get access to water at a high-tech, militarized dam, and heads to Tijuana. His father was killed by US missiles, after Memo tapped into a military network with electronic equipment.
Instead of “coyotes” leading Mexicans illegally across the border, “coyoteks” lead poor Mexicans to the new Tijuana, in search of better-paying but dangerous work in virtual factories. It is here Memo meets Luz Martinez (Leonor Varela), a failing writer who secretly publishes tales of Memo’s life, inadvertently connecting Memo to the Mexican-American pilot (Jacob Vargas) who killed his father. Admittedly, Rivera cuts some corners regarding, ironically, plot connectivity. But Sleep Dealer is the kind of film that is so startling in its vision, especially a perfect ending image, that its weaknesses are easily forgiven and its concepts not easily forgotten. (Maya Entertainment, April 18)
Previously reviewed at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, Hunger is in current release. The directorial debut of Irish visual artist Steve McQueen is nothing less than mesmerizing, telling the story of the Irish Republican prisoners in Belfast’s Maze prison in 1981, and the decision of Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) to starve to death in protest against British policy. The film is elegantly shot, with stunning bursts of raw anger and just when you think you have a handle on the directorial style, a brilliant mid-film discussion between Sands and a priest perfectly explores both sides of Sands’ commitment.