Capone's Art-House Round-Up with POPULAIRE, SAMPLE THIS, THE MUSLIMS ARE COMING!, and EVOCATEUR!!!
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…
When I describe it to you, it's going to sound a little weird and ridiculous, and, in fact, it is a little of both. But this sly French tribute to 1950s romantic comedies, POPULAIRE, is actually a work that both borrows heavily from the borderline feminism of the times and adds some darker corners, as the French do. When I refer to "feminism," I'm of course talking about films where women politely ask for equal treatment in the workplace, but still get lost in a handsome man's eyes. Hollywood at the time didn't want ladies abandoning their romantic ideals, even as they left the kitchen and homestead to go to be part of a secretarial pool.
Welcome to the world of Rose Pahmphyle (Déborah François), a socially awkward young woman who works in her father's store in Normandy circa 1958. She's always been a strong typist (even though she uses the hunt-and-peck, two-fingered typing style), and she finds out about insurance agent Louis Échard (Romain Duris of HEARTBREAKER, THE BEAT THAT MY HEART SKIPPED, RUSSIAN DOLLS) in the neighboring town looking for a new secretary. Despite her unconventional skills as a typist and the fact that she's never worked in an office before, Louis hires her because of her particular charm with customers. But after a while, it becomes clear that being a secretary isn't for Rose.
But being the fiercely competitive type, Louis does want to enroll Rose is a speed-typing contest, and he insists on training her to use all of her fingers and beat both the French champion, and eventually the world champion (an American, no less). Louis is a confirmed bachelor, but Rose's beauty and charm force him to let down his guard and begin to fall in love with her. It doesn't help that Louis still has feelings for an old flame (THE ARTIST's Bérénice Béjo), who ended up marrying his best friend. And with Louis drifting away from Rose because of his conflicted emotions, she ends up with a scheming, opportunistic man that she doesn't care about, setting her up for heartbreak and defeat.
First-time feature director Regis Roinsard has taken elements of what would have made a sweet little Rock Hudson-Doris Day vehicle decades ago and given it a few modern touches. But the production design and period-sounding score do a great job of lifting the energy and hyper-reality of POPULAIRE. François is an absolute gift, able to express both shyness and someone with a growing sense of confidence. It's great seeing Duris, who usually reserves himself for dramas. He's still playing it straight, but watching him reluctantly fall in love is a nice change for him. He adapts nicely to the fast-talking, sharply dressed businessman of the '50s.
If you can get past the featherlight nature of the story, POPULAIRE offers an opportunity to watch two great actors try on something a lot less severe and a bit more relaxed. It's not a challenging, layered film, but what it lacks in substance, it makes up for in fun and laughs.
At the core of this documentary about a song that continues to serve as a backbone of many a hip-hop tracks (via the practice of sampling) is the truly weird and wonderful path of a man named Michael Viner, a music producer whose true gift was pulling together some of the finest studio musicians of the 1970s and creating something special. The percussion-heavy song in question is "Apache" by the Incredible Bongo Band, and several years after the album it was on went nowhere on the charts, the Bronx-based DJ Herc took the drum breakdowns from it, strung them together and created a backbeat the likes of which hip-hop hadn't seen up to that point. As one rapper says in the film, no matter what you were doing at any party, the minute that breakdown hit the speakers, everyone starting dancing.
SAMPLE THIS tracks the career of Viner, who seemed to know every musician on the West Coast and was a master promoter (his soundless album Marcel Marceau's Greatest Hits actually sold a lot of records). The film spends perhaps too much time digging into Viner's role between the Kennedy administration and organized crime, which President Kennedy attempted to use to kill Fidel Castro. The sum total of this information serves only to prove just how strange it was that Viner ended up in the music industry at all.
The testimonials and song clips of music (from The Sugerhill Gang to Amy Winehouse to Missy Elliot, Jay-Z & Kanye West, Nas, MC Hammer... the list is hundreds long) are all the proof I needed that "Apache" was long a tuneful gift from the music gods. Not surprisingly, the band leader with an encyclopedic knowledge of music history, Ahmir-Khalib (Questlove) Thompson, does the best job of any of those interviewed to explain not only the path the song took to become one of the most sampled tracks in history, but also to explain what is was about this particular track that drew people to it.
I'm not sure there needed to be a feature-length film made about this subject, and there is no getting around that quite a bit of material in it feels like filler, but "Apache" might be one of the most important footnotes in hip-hop. Directed by Dan Forrer and narrated by (of all people) Gene Simmons of Kiss (a friend of the late Viner), SAMPLE THIS is certain one of the more bizarre accounts in music history, and while the Incredible Bongo Band never even had a steady lineup, it managed to create at least a couple of songs whose impact is still being felt today.
THE MUSLIMS ARE COMING!
While there have been films about the place of humor in the Muslim world (such as Albert Brooks' LOOKING FOR COMEDY IN THE MUSLIM WORLD and Ahmed Ahmed's great tour doc JUST LIKE US), I'm fairly certain a documentary has never been made about the role of comedy in the United States as performed by comedians of Muslim descent. And would it make you any more interested in the resulting film, THE MUSLIMS ARE COMING!, if I told you these performers only played dates in dark-red states like Georgia, Tennessee and Arizona, where tolerance and open-mindedness don't always have the best track record?
Directed by two of the comics, Negin Farsad and Dean Obeidallah, THE MUSLIMS ARE COMING! features an impressive of interview subjects, such as Jon Steward, Rachel Maddow, Lewis Black, Janeane Garofalo, Soledad O'Brien, Colin Quinn and Ali Velshi. But the more interesting and vital part of this experiment in open-mindedness is that this tour was born out of what the organizers saw as necessity. We've all heard the stories of hate crimes against people of Middle Eastern descent increasing immediately after 9/11, but after a decade of the number of such crimes decreasing steadily, they have skyrocketed again in the last couple of years.
Farsad, Obeidallah, Omar Elba, Maysoon Zayid, and others devised this Bible-belt tour not just to show Southerners that Muslims can be funny, but to open up the these insulated pockets of America to what exactly the modern Muslim is and answer any questions about beliefs and practices. I particularly loved the "Hug A Muslim" campaign in Salt Lake City that began hesitantly (on the part of the Mormon population), but once it got going, the line was down the block. More to the point was a contest that involved reading a particularly violent passage and asking the players if it was from the Bible or the Koran.
In one early stop, the comics simply open up an "Ask A Muslim" table in a central location in a town and field questions. When one person asks why haven't Muslims in America come out in force to decry the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it sparks a clearly volatile discussion among everyone. The question that rises out of such a debate is, why should a person have to declare their abhorrence of such actions publicly? Why can't just living a peaceful life be the best form of protest? Do Christians turn out in force when someone commits a horrible act of violence in the name of Jesus? It's a fair question and a fascinating conversation to listen in on.
All of the comics get a chance to shine, but the funniest and most controversial material belongs to Negin Farsad (also the co-director of the 2008 film NERDCORE RISING), who talks openly about her sexual past and uses language that literally has Muslim women at the shows racing for the exits (blushing and giggling all the way, it appears). She's a paradox in a succession of cute outfits, and I mean that in the best possible way. She leads the charge in being the most fearless of the group, even in the face of death threats and other hateful statements on the tour website.
In many ways, THE MUSLIMS ARE COMING! made me both proud of my fellow Americans for taking the first step toward trying to understand that which they fear and embarrassed for the eternal cycle of prejudice and reactionary behavior that sets us back every time we surge forward in the right direction. This is a film that underscores the importance of caring enough to learning about the differences that separate us in the hopes of bringing us closer. But very little about this movie feels like a vehicle for delivering a message, which might be its greatest asset. It's a movie loaded with silly jokes and odd behavior, and what better method to get people to listen and learn?
EVOCATEUR: THE MORTON DOWNEY JR. MOVIE
The two-year, rise-and-fall career of Morton Downey Jr. as a talk show host occurred while I was in college, when I wasn't watching much television, and I certain couldn't be bothered to check out a show that seemed to me to be the rantings of a right-wing screaming bully and his equally brain-dead followers. But from 1987-89, Downey was a legitimate force of nature whose followers ranked in the millions. And if he'd been able to keep his life together and not get lost in the womanizing, drinking and delusions of being a middle-aged rock star, he might have honed his opinions and rants into a formidable political voice, like those after him (Bill O'Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck). But it was not meant to be, for reasons that are nicely laid out in the new documentary about Downey's unexpectedly remarkable life, EVOCATEUR: THE MORTON DOWNEY JR. MOVIE.
The most shocking parts of Downey's life have nothing to do with his show; they have to do with where he came from. If we believe the analysis of his life from friends and relatives who have known him since he was a younger man, Downey was always seeking ways to be more successful than his father, the famous crooner, who was critical of every part of his son's life. For a time, the son also attempted to become a singer, and wasn't half bad at it. More curious is that Downey was good friends with the Kennedy family, especially Sen. Edward Kennedy, which made sense at the time when Downey was a fiercely liberal thinker.
Evocateur is a little fuzzy on exactly when and why Downey's thoughts went to the right, but more than one interview subject suggest that his spoken opinions on immigration, racial injustice, crime, etc., were all an act, that Downey was playing a character the same way today's conservative pundits do. They know they'll get more viewers by being shocking and playing into the fears of working-class Americans. But it was his handling (or mishandling) of the Tawana Brawley case, in which a 15-year-old woman accused a group of New York City police officers of gang raping her, that made him a lightning rod. We have Downey to thank for stirring up racial tension in that city and the rest of America by bringing the Rev. Al Sharpton into the spotlight. Downey didn't invent the media circus by profiling that case over and over again, but he certainly perfected and fine-tuned it.
As directed by Seth Kramer, Daniel A. Miller and Jeremy Newberger, EVOCATEUR is a great peak behind the curtain into Downey's life off the show, including a look at the relationships he had with his wives, his co-workers who barely tolerated him, and his fans. Some of the more interesting interviews in the film are with former teenage fans of the show who would stand in line day after day to get into the audience and spew hateful statements that they admittedly did not even believe, just to get a rise out of the illustrious host. Downey's sad, slow demise due to lung cancer is almost anticlimactic, but after watching him in nearly every scene in this film smoking a cigarette, you can't be surprised that's how he went out.
As someone who never fell under the spell of Downey (even ironically, as comedian Chris Elliott reveals to the audience that he did when he was a recurring performer on David Letterman's talk show), but watching EVOCATEUR, I can see much clearer why some people did. For many, it was like watching crude performance art, and I don't think Downey would have had a problem with that. And what he left in his wake may be a little better dressed and polished, but it's still the same old fear mongering, veiled prejudice and name calling. Even after his death, Downey's influence is still all around us. His is an extraordinary story, and this film does an admirable job walking us through it.
-- Steve Prokopy
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