The Katrina documentary Trouble the Water is really a portrait of poverty in America. Elsewhere, Momma's Man just wants to go home, Matthew Sweet's slump continues, and Shotgun Stories is an indelible snapshot of small-town violence.
With the summer movie season crawling to an end, it's indie-film time. Here are several notable entries in that bunch.
Trouble the Water (Zeitgeist Films) Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke distilled any thinking person’s righteous anger over the mishandling of Hurricane Katrina into four mostly terrific hours. Directors Tia Lessin and Carl Deal’s documentary doesn’t worry so much about righteous anger as it does evoking a deep sense of sorrow. Not since Hoop Dreams have I witnessed a documentary that so completely plunges you into the everyday reality of poverty – an awful world where real people live and somehow survive, while the rest of us make derogatory assumptions about them and their character. Trouble the Water follows a young married black couple, Scott and Kimberly Roberts, from the Ninth Ward of New Orleans as they try to pick themselves up after Katrina strands them in their attic, and the movie’s unspoken truth is that these people are the kinds we would look past if they weren’t put on the news because of a national tragedy. Lessin and Deal see the Roberts family objectively – they’re not saints, and while they say their drug-dealing ways are behind them, the filmmakers don’t pretend to assume the worst is over just because they escaped a hurricane. Most everything that happens in Trouble the Water feels unforced – there’s one populist cheap-shot digression that reminds you these directors have worked as producers on Michael Moore’s movies – and the film’s casual cinema-verite style allows a series of small emotional moments to build to some major ones later. And then there’s the footage Kimberly Roberts shot on her camcorder right before Katrina’s arrival and during the storm’s first few days. This is amazing stuff – handheld and rough but utterly gripping. It will remind certain viewers of Cloverfield’s found-footage technique, but this is, you know, real.
Momma's Man (THINKFilm) The logline for Momma's Man would make for a goofy high-concept comedy [insert Step Brothersjoke here], but in the case of this indie drama-comedy, it’s the groundwork for a thoughtful, slightly insular look at the fears of growing up. A guy in his 30s (Matt Boren) with a wife and young child in California visits his arty parents in New York and decides, you know what, maybe I’ll just stay here for a little while longer … and a little while longer … and a little while longer. Personally, I liked Momma's Man as it got darker. The sense of the depression so potent you can't leave the house, the feeling of days drifting by one after another – the movie is best at these moments, and it's touchingly sympathetic to both its main character (even though you're right to get annoyed at his occasionally whiny behavior) and the old high school friends he stumbles upon. But overall Momma's Man is more distinctive mood-piece than fully emotional experience. Writer-director Azazel Jacobs casts his own parents as the protagonist's parents, which is effecting if you know the connection, but it's noticeable that we never really get to know them. It could be intentional – this overgrown child is so immature his parents hardly register as people – or it could be a case of the filmmaker knowing and loving his folks to such a degree that he forgets to let us in on the feeling. Yet another highly-regarded indie film from this year that didn't bowl me over as totally as I was hoping. But certainly worth seeing.
Elegy (The Samuel Goldwyn Company) I've read 2 1/2 Philip Roth books, so I know I'm no expert. And I haven't read The Dying Animal, which Elegy is based on, but from the reviews I've seen thus far, the book offers a more interesting dynamic than what the film offers. The Dying Animal brought back the 60-ish professor and critic David Kepesh (the star of two earlier Roth novels) for one more go-round, and part of the sadness of his romance to the much younger Consuela is the reader's realization that this once virile young man has become a sadder (but still virile) older man. Elegy just gives us the older man, and Ben Kingsley plays him with an aura of unbreakable sadness – he can desire, but not fully love. But as classy and graceful as this adaptation is, this is at heart one more intellectual discussion about why older men crave hot younger chicks. (Read the next entry in this column for another of these intellectual discussions put on film.) Part of my difficulty with Elegy is Penelope Cruz – I don't think she's ever given a great performance in an English-only role. She never seems totally comfortable, which is a big problem for a movie where a lot of the emotional elements require us to understand why the older man doesn't just crave the young woman but changes because of her.
A Girl Cut in Two (IFC Films) Romantic triangles work much better with three engaging participants, and whatever else you want to say about director Claude Chabrol’s drama, its greatest weakness is that I didn’t buy the underlining dynamic. Ludivine Sagnier’s weathergirl character is beautiful, young and smart, understandably attracting the eye of a revered older author (François Berléand) who’s all charm and selfish intentions. But their unsentimental May-December relationship runs aground when she’s simultaneously courted by the most ridiculous cliché of an effete, entitled rich snob (Benoît Magimel). Sagnier’s smart girl should see through this boob, but she doesn’t, and so the complications build. The author represents her true love, and Chabrol is surest when showing how a young person’s sense of “true” love usually doesn’t translate into “correct” love. But on the whole, he can’t quite elevate these mild observations on morality, adultery, and a pretty girl’s coming of age into something compelling. And, honestly, girl – Magimel’s not in your league at all.
Flow: For Love of Water (Oscilloscope Pictures) By now, we all know how these kinds of alarmist documentaries work. You take a topic – corporations, oil, global warming – and you slowly terrify the hell out of the audience with unsettling music and spooked onscreen experts, using the talking points as a way to show how the whole planet’s heading into the dumpster. But for every Darwin’s Nightmare or The Corporation, you get a film like Flow, well-meaning but utterly unpersuasive. Less an argument than a random twitching of barely connected thoughts, the film argues against bottled water and screwing over the Third World but not necessarily in any vigorous way. I didn’t find myself particularly moved or even engaged by it – and that was before the obligatory end-on-a-note-of-hope finale.
Matthew Sweet, Sunshine Lies (Shout! Factory) Mikael Wood’s recent L.A. Weekly profile of Matthew Sweet, an artist I’ve loved for 16 years now, painted the picture I imagined. More comfortable in his home studio than out there communicating with regular people – and don’t forget the guy’s fear of flying – Sweet has to deal with Brian Wilson comparisons that are both flattering and worrisome. Most people stopped caring about Sweet years ago, but I’d suggest that 1999’s In Reverse comes close to matching Girlfriend’s bruised-heart romantic elegance with an added layer of studio machinations that only increase the songs’ anxious emotions. Since then it’s been a bit of a crapshoot for Sweet, and the new Sunshine Lies continues his uncertain 21st century. Where once he felt part of the world – unhappy with it, certainly, but still part of it – recent albums have found him escaping into that weird nether region where the songs start to become analytical replicas of feelings, memories of echoes of songs. Sunshine Lies is smartly constructed, but its emotional payload is limited by its fussiness. He used to write about lost love with a sloppy directness – lost in his own world now, directness seems much harder to come by for him.
Shotgun Stories (Genius DVD) As someone who supports Obama, lives in California, but hails from the Midwest, I'm a little divided. I know that a lot of people back home are going to vote for McCain for cultural reasons – he's one of them, not like that damn Obama. This only angers Obama supporters, who want to paint the heartland with one big pejorative brush and see the entire region as being like-minded. I think that's why I get annoyed at lazy simplifications that Hollywood does about small towns – and why I absolutely treasure a movie like Junebug, which is fair and clear-eyed about its rural North Carolina environment. I'm not asking for rosy and I don't want a cast of ignoramuses – I just want fair. Shotgun Stories gets pretty damn close, and part of what makes this drama exceptional is that the filmmakers and cast dare you to laugh at the simpleton Arkansas characters, two sets of half-brothers whose feud escalates into violence in such a believable way that from here on out no one needs to read about a small-town shooting and wonder why such things occur. These people are, to put it kindly, not very bright, and director Jeff Nichols lets them be – only near the end when the plotting gets a little shaky and faintly ludicrous does he seem to be imposing any sort of mandate on these forces of nature. Shotgun Stories is quiet and unsettling, and it's refreshing to have a movie about senseless gun violence that isn't about black gangsters living in the inner city. It happens everywhere – and just because it's perpetuated by dumb people doesn't mean we can't empathize with them.
Consumables is a regular overview of popular culture.