Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Indie Sunday: How to Cook Your Life and Redacted

Sort-of kind-of a break in the middle of a few days spent mostly on the Brattle's Made In Boston series, though it was more opportunistic than anything: How to Cook Your Life was the final show in the Fall '07 Eye Opener series, and Redacted fit in easily with my need to go grocery shopping. Besides, I figured I wasn't going to get much of a chance to see Redacted - as much as I admire the way Magnolia & HDNet Films run this program to get it in front of as many people who want to see it how they want to, the end result is that these films come and go fast, and Redacted probably got as much attention as it did because it's obviously controversial.

Which is kind of sad - it's a new film by Brian De Palma, which used to be a big deal in and of itself. Now, he makes something that is arguably "important", and it runs for a week on the local boutique house's smallest screen after playing a preview on a cable channel Comcast doesn't even pick up.

How to Cook Your Life

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 18 November 2007 at the Brattle Theatre (Sunday Eye-Opener)

I don't really have a lot to say about this one. It's a documentary with a likeable subject in Edward Espe Brown, good intentions and a nice mix of interviews and how-to footage. It's a lot of fun for fans of the "food movie", I'll bet (I did love watching the guy make bread). It's also kind of limp - the kind of documentary that makes a person feel bad or inferior but doesn't inspire a matching zeal to improve oneself. I found myself watching and sort of ruing the packaged food I eat, but not to the point where I can really consider baking my own bread (I just don't have the time!) or buying into the mumbo-jumbo about connecting with my hands.

Ah, well. If you like food movies or are interested in Zen Buddhism, you'll probably enjoy the film. It didn't hook me in much at all, though.


* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 18 November 2007 at Landmark Kendall Square #9 (first-run)

Remember MTV Unplugged? It was a series of specials where rock stars would do an acoustic set, relying on craft and material rather than raw power. Brian De Palma is doing something similar with Redacted; he was a rock star as a director for a long time, but now that he could use a late-career boost, it's time to pare his lush, flashy pulp style down to something digital and serious.

So he takes on a story inspired by a recent scandal where U.S. soldiers raped and killed a 15-year-old Iraqi girl. Our principal narrator is Angel "Sally" Salazar (Izzy Diaz), a private who joined the military to pay for film school; he's constantly shooting video. He's part of a group manning a checkpoint in Samarra, including bookworm Gabe Blix (Kel O'Neill), college boy Lawyer McCoy (Rob Devaney), senior NCOs Vazquez (Mike Figueroa) and Sweet (Ty Jones), and the pair of Reno Flake (Patrick Carroll) and B.B. Rush (Daniel Stewart Sherman), who are serving as an alternative to jail. At first, the group seems all right - not terribly bright, but capable of the grunt work the Army expects of them, and they're not seeing much action. Two fatal incidents in short succession - with both American and Iraqi victims - take their toll, and soon a couple of the group are looking to take some spoils from a pretty teenager they'd seen on a raid the other day.

De Palma presents Redacted as if it were a collection of existing footage from multiple sources - Sally's video camera, a French documentary about the soldiers at the checkpoint, American and middle-eastern news programs, security cameras, and internet video. It actually winds up fitting De Palma's customary style better than expected: He's a guy who has always loved playing with the camera, and the long POV or tracking shots that often seemed showy in his other films wind up being the natural way home video is shot. He'll also force himself to leave the camera in place when his natural instinct might be to move it or get coverage from different angles, and then compound the effect by making the action an embedded video clip on a static web page.

Of course, he also has a little fun with the medium. A kidnapping scene, for instance, is quick, shocking, and clever. In Sally's opening segment, he talks about how this is the real, unfiltered truth without a bunch of Hollywood editing - and then De Palma cuts to the French documentary with its almost parodic soundtrack and urgent voice-over. That's also where the first of a few head-scratching bits appears - there's a shot of a car approaching the checkpoint from inside the car, and considering the point the narrator is making, I have to wonder how the camera got there. There's several sequences like that - most notably a scene late in the film where Flake tells Rush a story about his brother Vegas - where I wasn't sure whether De Palma was hitting the limits of what he could do with the faux-doc style or whether he was trying to make a point about how even "real" footage is often staged or recreated.

If it's the latter, it may be too subtle a point, as it's almost certain to get drowned out by the potentially incendiary nature of the film's main storyline. It has in the past been relatively unusual for a fictional film this openly critical of a military action to be released so close to the actual event, and Redacted has predictably attracted controversy. I think De Palma does exaggerate for effect and allow the less savory characters to dominate the picture, which is somewhat at odds with the realistic, supposedly "unbiased" style of the film.

I couldn't fault the film for being overflowing with outrage despite that - it's not as though any of the acts it dramatizes and issues it raises should be minimized. Ultimately, I think its main point is that weapons in the hands of people people without the proper respect for the consequences of using them will be abused and make a bad situation worse - and Iraq currently has a lot of people running around without the proper respect for the guns they're toting.

As befits that message, most of the actors playing the soldiers are young and unknown. I like how Izzy Diaz plays Sally - it's a part that could very easily played as naturally having the moral high ground, despite the fact that De Palma writes Sally as naïve, impatient, and maybe not so bright. Diaz also has to demonstrate that despite spending a lot of his "screen time" behind the camera, so we're just getting his voice and whatever body language comes from shaking the camera. Ty Jones is also very good; his Sweet could have stepped right out of Gunner Palace or any of the Iraq War documentaries that have been made. I might have liked a little more from Patrick Carroll; his character takes control of the movie's second half, but his performance doesn't quite expand the same way.

It's a sign of how much I enjoyed the movie, I suppose, that I'm willing to rationalize things like that - say that De Palma and company intended to show just how ordinary such people can seem rather than portray them as unusual. It's a bit rough, but it's the most passionate work by a great director in a long time. A lot of people will probably have their minds made up about it before entering the theater (or seeing it elsewhere, since the subject matter and release schedule almost guarantees a short run), but it's worth a look at the very least.

Also at HBS.

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