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Capone's Art House Round-Up with docs about the late New York mayor, KOCH, and Snoop Lion in the SXSW 2013 doc REINCARNATED!!!

Hey, folks. Capone in Chicago here, with a few films that are making their way into art houses or coming out in limited release around America this week (maybe even taking up one whole screen at a multiplex near you). Do your part to support these films, or at least the good ones…

Growing up, as a kid I always through Ed Koch seemed like a good guy, someone who was in on the joke that he wasn't the best looking man, that he used a lot of funny expressions, and that he had a reputation as being immobile on certain issues largely due to pride. Most of the major events I recall making the news about New York in the late 1970s through all of the 1980s (Koch was mayor from 1978 to 1989) always had Koch's face attached to them. He was not a mayor who sat in the corner and let his underlings do his dirty work—or at least he didn't want it to look that way.

The transit strike, the Central Park jogger rape case (Koch's missteps there are chronicled perfectly in THE CENTRAL PARK FIVE), game-changing work to provide public housing, the near bankruptcy of New York, cleaning up Times Square, and his dreadful mishandling of the early days of the AIDS crisis are all on display in the documentary KOCH, and they are discussed with great clarity and enthusiasm by Koch in a series of interviews that serve as the film's narration. (The film was released in New York just days after he recently died.)

Much like during his career, Koch never met an attacker he didn't want to debate, and there are a host of people who have plenty to say about Koch's era as mayor or New York. But the film goes beyond the issues (a little bit) and gives us some insight into his childhood and his life after mayorship. Not surprisingly, first-time director Neil Barsky (a one-time Wall Street Journal reporter) also digs into the rumors that Koch was gay, especially since it became a central point during his first successful run for mayor versus Mario Cuomo (the unofficial Cuomo campaign slogan was "Vote for Cuomo, not the homo"). Koch countered by very publicly dating a woman and won. Until his dying day, he answered questions about his sexuality with a hearty, "It's none of your fucking business" and a smile.

Most documentaries about politicians tend to get a little dry or at least whitewashed, but there's no danger of that in KOCH. In fact, I can't remember a time when a filmmaker allowed the detractors of his/her subject to get such a verbal lashing as we see here (unless it's one of those ridiculous propaganda films about whoever the current president might be). Through it all—the criticism, the tough questions, the moments where he clearly knows he did wrong—Koch is wonderfully direct and interesting, and more than likely honest too, in particular about the municipal corruption scandal from which his administration never recovered. Barsky does a great job compiling as complete a picture of Koch will allow him, and the city-altering events in New York during his mayorship tell the rest of the story.

This documentary that traces the spiritual rebirth of hip-hop artist Snoop Dogg as he travels to Jamaica and is renamed Snoop Lion is a bit bizarre. While I certainly applaud any musical artist that dares to branch out, grow and take chances, it's hard not to watch the film REINCARNATED and not wonder if Snoop's journey is sincere or something he has arranged for the camera and director Andy Capper. What I found most interesting about the film is watching Snoop and music producer Diplo create a new musical based for Snoop that incorporates his hip-hop roots with massive doses of Jamaican influence.

But those moments are only a portion of the film, which also delves into Snoop's childhood, gangster lifestyle as a teenager, joining forces with Dr. Dre and Death Row Records, his arrests and his career path thus far, which has had him playing up his image as a drug dealer, gang member and pimp, None of which sits well with some of the elder statesmen in Jamaica, especially Bunny Wailer, one of the original member of Bob Marley and the Wailers, and an elder-statesman who Snoop would very much like to put on his album. And as far as we can see, the album is about peace, love, rebirth, and more weed than you've ever seen in your life.

During the course of REINCARNATED (the same name as the resulting album), we get a very cool tour of important musical spots in Jamaican culture, including Trench Town, Tuff Gong Studios, and other spots that Marley and others made important to the region. And with songs like "No Guns Allowed," it seems like Snoop is putting the violent part of his life behind him. So why does a great deal of this film feel staged?

It might just be that Snoop isn't experienced at talking about his feelings, and that's fine. But there's a sequence when he visits the elders of the Niyabinghi people and he's drawn into a call-and-response in which he looks really awkward and uncomfortable. At most of the places of significance that he goes, he simply shows up, repeats "Rastafari" about 50 times and smokes weed with whoever is around at the time. Looks like fun, but it's not interesting filmmaking.

I'll admit, I know a little bit about Snoop's career—its peaks and valley—and it's interesting watching this film and putting certain major events (the death of his friend Tupac Shakur, the murder for which he was put on trial, getting married and having kids) into perspective. But I get that most rap artists are playing a character—a version of themselves that's a little meaner, tougher, more worldly than they actually are. I have a feeling that Snoop Lion is a character that Snoop is trying on for a while. He wears it well, don't get me wrong. But this is a type of theater, and we are all players in the reincarnation.

-- Steve Prokopy
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