Concentrating on the deep-rooted dissent of local citizens to persistent, unrelenting racism, the documentary Whose Streets? chronicles the aftermath of the killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown Jr. in Ferguson, August 9, 2014. Directors Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis set the scene citing a U.S. Supreme Court 1857 opinion for the Dred Scott v. Sandford court case.
In a suit that began in 1846 at St. Louis' Old Courthouse, the final Supreme Court decision denied that Scott was legally free, defining him as property. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney further asserted that men "imported as slaves . . . had no rights which the white man was bound to respect." Footage over the next one and half hours will implicitly and explicitly argue that not much progress has occurred.
Picking up with the immediate aftermath of Brown being shot, Lezley McSpadden (Michael's mother) and other eyewitnesses react to the indignity of Michael's body left on the pavement for four and a half hours. The documentary then samples from national and local coverage -- CNN, NBC, KSDK, KMOV, Fox News, etc. -- but its focus is the outrage of the community for this as well as past and on-going oppressive treatment. The comments of several observers and activists punctuate the film: David, Kayla, Brittany, Mama Cat, Ashley, and Tory, among others. We're invited into homes, barbershops, cafes, and confrontational meetings to listen. Brief excerpts include pronouncements by President Obama, Attorney General Holder, Missouri Governor Nixon, Ferguson Police Chief Jackson, Ferguson Mayor Knowles, and St. Louis Prosecutor McColloch.
Chronicling action up to one year after the non-indictment of Officer Wilson, Whose Streets? uses well-chosen, succinct formal and informal statements to reveal the racial divide that defines perspectives distressingly different. Divided into five chapters, Whose Streets? features quotes from past leaders: from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., "A riot is the language of the unheard," and from Frantz Fanon, Sojourner Truth, Langston Hughes. A poignant encouragement comes last from Dr. Maya Angelou, "You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated." This is the clarion call that echoes throughout Whose Streets? and inspires all who love and support each other in the continuing fight against racism. At Landmark's Tivoli Cinema, the Marcus St. Charles Stadium 18 Cinema, AMC's Creve Coeur 12, and the Regal St. Louis Mills Stadium 18.
The documentary City of Ghosts details the resistance activities of RBSS, which stands for Raqaa is Being Slaughtered Silently. After March 2014 ISIS controlled this previously beautiful, joyful Syrian city with a proud heritage, very briefly described in opening footage. As atrocities increased, ordinary citizens responded with resistance, including RBSS dedicated to exposing nothing short of barbaric treatment.
City of Ghosts focuses on three co-founders of RBSS: Aziz, 25, previously a college biology student and now dubbed the spokesman; Mohamad, 34, a high school math teacher and now RBSS's reporter; and Hamoud, 23, a filmmaker. Secondarily, we learn also about Hussam, 27 and an RBSS co-founder who writes and publishes articles. Through a variety of strategies, these men and fellow resisters sent photos, reports, and video to the outside world, stories, as they show, "unlike anything the world had seen before."
When one of their friends is brutally murdered, they flee to Turkey and later Germany, knowing nowhere is safe with terrifying death threats following them. And yet they continue to reveal events: the banning of satellite dishes to prevent video footage from getting out even as RBSS reporters know to immediately erase footage after transmission as checkpoint searches endanger them and their families. Failing to capture these RBSS representatives, ISIS assassinates Hamoud's father and one of his brothers, posting the horrific, graphic video. As an emotional Hamoud watches it, he says it only strengthens his resolve.
Speaking about the decision to include this and other gut-wrenching footage, producer/director Matthew Heineman argues that we outsiders can only begin to comprehend Raqaa's tragedy by confronting reality. He notes that every second was debated before inclusion. Abstract description would fail to convey the truth, but be aware that some content is extremely difficult to watch.
As in his Cartel Land, Heineman immerses his viewers in the lives of these truly courageous individuals, even as they flee to safe houses. Ironically and sadly, in Germany they face off against an anti-immigration group. And yet RBSS continues to advocate for freedom. "City of Ghosts" adds a powerful immediacy to the Syrian catastrophe. In English and in Persian with English subtitles.
When the house lights went down a video played with text that read, "See them before they're dead!" followed by clips of their most beloved characters on Saturday Night Live: King Tut, Ed Grimley, The Festrunk Brothers, and Attorney Nathan Thurm. Also included were scenes from Trains Planes & Automobiles, The Jerk, Little Shop of Horrors, and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Martin then appeared on stage and humored the audience with a crowd-pleasing regional nod, "It's great to be in St. Louis! Webster Groves was a bit too fast paced for me," then added, "It's more than a thrill to be here, it's an obligation." He apologized for the exorbitant price of tickets but explained that he must pay a celebrity look-a-like to be there just in case he'd prefer to not preform that evening, and also, "Steve says, 'Hi.'"
When Martin introduced Short he described him as "funnier than a barrel of monkeys and that's it." The pair delivered rapid-fire quips, the kind where you can easily miss out on the next because you're still laughing at the previous. Short joked that Martin had "the sun-kissed glow of an agoraphobic shut-in." Their banter reminded me of an old school Friars Club roast where each string of witty burns is punctuated by an asinine final jab like, "You look like a toupee on a urinal." Their timing was flawless and the crowd was in tears.
Short sang a song from a fictitious musical he had starred in called Stepbrother to Jesus. As he sang he undressed himself and put on a curly black wig. By the time he sang the line, "What's the big deal about raising the dead?" he was wearing nothing but the wig and a nude-colored bodysuit with the male anatomy hastily drawn in marker. After holding out the last note he looked creepily at the front row, "Hello, ladies..." then yelled off stage to Martin, "Top that m@#*!%$>#@!r!"
During the course of the show they delivered a well-rounded collection of bits. Three volunteers were brought to the stage for the Three Amigos Salute while dos amigos sang the movie's theme. Short did some impersonations including a flawless Frank Sinatra, Jimmy Stuart and Katharine Hepburn. The night would have been complete without an appearance from Jiminy Glick, and no celebrity or politician was safe from his mockery. He said Vice President Pence is "so white he makes Steve Martin look like a member of the Wu-Tang Clan" and Elizabeth Warren looks like "David Spade transitioning."
As a momentary departure from the relentless banter, Steep Canyon Rangers preformed a song they call "Auden's Train." It was composed by Martin and violinist Nicky Sanders, and the lyrics were taken from W. H. Auden's poem "Calypso." Throughout the song Sanders, featured on fiddle, makes a train whistle noise into the mic while playing and jumping around the stage in an animated frenzy. He wildly picks the strings with the bow and sometimes with just his fingers. His intensity and expertise is breathtaking and comes as such a surprise when expecting a night of comedy. When Short returns to the stage he puts the show right back on course saying, "Tonight is just like Deliverance. It's all fun and games until the banjos come out."
The big takeaway from this night of side-splitting laughter was Steve Martin's advice for making it big as a musician. He said you only need two things, to be very creative person and to already be famous. Although the humble comedian was sure to give credit where it was due, "I wouldn't be here if not for Martin Short," looking at Short, "Marty, thank you for driving."
Director Kathryn Bigelow knows how to overwhelm viewers with visceral action and heart-stopping suspense as she proves in Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker, for which she became the first woman to win an Oscar for directing. In her latest film, Detroit, she concentrates on what has come to be known as the 12th Street Riot there in 1967.
She and writer Mark Boal single out the July 25 police murder of three black men at the Algiers Motel and the brutal treatment of seven additional black men and two white women. Her characteristic technique is on full display: a moving camera staying in close on subjects, framing and reframing with quick edits adding up to jumpy images with few pauses.
Unfortunately, in Detroit she delivers not characters but caricatures, sensationalizing the deplorable racism on full display but so two-dimensional and grotesque that it attacks the senses, crossing the divide from justifiable condemnation to counterproductive emphasis. Moreover, the excessive indulgence drags on in this two hour twenty-minute portrayal of truly racist ugliness, so much so that the trial in the final act is abbreviated and rushed. Points that should be explored and action that should be fully deplored, both by judicial and police representatives, end up glossed over in surrender to what any sane person immediately recognizes as racist-motivated torture.
Detroit begins with a very brief history of black migration and ghettoization and a quick montage of fabulous Jacob Lawrence paintings. Riot footage, sadly much too familiar today, sets the stage before the action moves to the Algiers Motel. Once there, the racist police take over, led by sneering, snarling, nauseating Detroit officer Krauss (Will Poulter). In a skilled portrayal by John Boyega, the wise and wary security guard Dismukes is the closest to our surrogate, and we need one to try to keep any reflective distance on the victimization.
Jacob Latimore as Fred, Malcolm David Kelley as Michael, Peyton Alex Smith as Lee, Nathan Davis, Jr. as Aubrey, Joseph David-Jones as Morris, and Algee Smith as Larry are names and performances to remember, next time, I hope, in a more positive story.
Yes, as the tag line for Detroit proclaims, "It's time we knew." Less heat and more thoughtful consideration would recommend it to me. See area listings.
Amazingly, A Ghost Story works. It manages to be a little funny, a whole lot meaningful, and strikingly unpredictable. It's not like any ghost movie before -- it does not dwell on the scary although crockery is thrown to smithereens and lightbulbs do flicker -- as it explores mourning thoughtfully.
David Lowery directed the film with an artsy component. Rather than going high-tech, his ectoplasm is shrouded in a sheet, a long, white, voluminous sheet with childish eye-holes. The sheet has no name although it covers the male in the movie, a musician. The man caressed his wife, argued with her about moving, and had a car accident.
His widow, also unnamed, lives with his ghost for awhile, aware that someone else is in their rental house in the middle of nothing much. While sprucing up the house, Wife inserts a message into a door jamb before painting the opening closed. Sheet sees this and spends time trying to get at the message.
Ditto for movie goers trying to get at the message of A Ghost Story. If that is not immediately getable, there is plenty else to occupy the post-mortem period. Note, for example, how often Andrew Droz' cameras are locked down while characters move in and out of range or curtains breeze in. See, too, how the camera serves as our ghost. Listen to Daniel Hart's telegraphic music. Hear, too, how rarely dialogue comes along and, when it does, how mumbly it is.
The one time when words are spoken with force comes at a dinner party when a character, called the Prognosticator in the cast list and played by Will Oldham, waxes eloquently. The main characters are played by Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck, who worked for director David Lowery before in Ain't Them Bodies Saints. A Ghost Story offers a new take on old themes of death and life and comes full circle.