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Films I Neglected To Review: Pull Up The People
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "Bisbee '17," "Matangi/Maya/M.I.A" and "Ride."

From Civil War re-enactors to films like ''The Act of Killing'' and ''United 93,'' the notion of recreating especially nightmarish and traumatizing events in astonishing detail as a way of trying to find some meaning in the seemingly meaningless is one that many have explored over the years. ''Bisbee '17,'' the latest work by filmmaker Robert Greene (''Actress,'' ''Kate Plays Christine''), is a film that employs a similar approach to an exceptionally shameful, if scandalously little-known, chapter in our nation's past. In 1917, the town of Bisbee, Arizona was the location of a strike by unionized workers from the copper mine that dominated the local economy who were demanding safer conditions and better pay for their efforts. On July 12, with the conflict threatening to tear the town apart, locals and goons hired by corporate interests rounded up over a thousand of the strikers, many of them immigrants, and paraded them through town before sticking them on train cars that would deport them into Mexico and leave them stranded in the desert, where many presumably perished as a result. Having buried the story in their history for many years, the current residents of the town--a combination of artist types and descendants of the deporters sticking around in the hopes that the long-shuttered mine will one day reopen--decide to confront the past head-on by staging a town-wide reenactment of the entire incident, complete with musical numbers, as a way of finally bringing it into focus for themselves.

The story of Bisbee is certainly one that cries out to be told cinematically--it could be done either as a straightforward drama of the sort that John Sayles used to crank out back in the day or as a documentary that could both uncover the details of a shocking story that somehow slipped through the cracks and explore both the reasons why people would want to live in such an unpromising locale today and the unmistakable parallels between those events and what is going on now in terms of issues with immigration and labor. Greene, utilizing an approach similar to his other films, has instead chosen a hybrid approach that mixes elements from both and the result is a work that is certainly unique but often too oblique for its own good. By constantly switching back and forth between the two, the film begins to feel like an exceptionally dour version of ''Waiting for Guffman'' and the sense of rage and sadness that should be at the forefront is overwhelmed by Greene's increasingly self-conscious stylistic gambits--at one point when the faux enforcers are faux beating on the faux strikers, we get several shots of his very real cameramen making their way through the scrum. Greene also never quite gets any real sense of what the townspeople hoped to accomplish by recreating these events or how they were affected by it--although one guy remarks that they have all just gone through ''the largest group therapy session ever,'' we see many others goofing off afterwards with their buddies without seeming to have been affected by it at all. Both fascinating and frustrating in equal measure, ''Bisbee '17'' never quite worked for me, either as a film or as a historical overview, but at least it is a failure borne of ambition and the fact that it did managed to provoke me in a number of ways while watching it instead simply lulling me into boredom suggests that others may respond to it better than I did.

Since the release of her first album, the knockout hip-hop/world music hybrid ''Arular,'' in 2005, Mathangi ''Maya'' Arulpragasam--perhaps slightly better known to most of you as M.I.A.--has been one of the more controversial and contentious voices in contemporary music, one who has been celebrated enough to score hit records, Grammys and even an Oscar nomination while at the same time being condemned as a possible terrorist sympathizer, a poseur who espouses radical political beliefs while living a cushy lifestyle that finds her swimming in truffle fries and, most devastating of all, a sworn enemy of the NFL, who attempted to sue her for over $16 million in lost ad revenue for the crime of giving the world the middle finger while performing alongside Madonna as part of the Super Bowl halftime show. As the long-delayed, decidedly unruly and ultimately fascinating documentary ''Matangi/Maya/M.I.A.'' reveals without a doubt, she was just as provocative and challenging of a figure long before she ever stepped up to a microphone for the first time. Using videos and home movies dating back to the 80s, the film, directed by Steve Loveridge (whom she became friends with in the 90s in art school in London, though they seem to have had some kind of falling out over this film), goes back to first show M.I.A. and her family moving to London from Sri Lanka, where her father had become a leader of the opposition coming out against the government, and first experiencing the kind of racism and classism that she would continue to face for years to come. As she grows older and goes to art school, she initially dabbles in film and painting before developing an interest in music that grows when she befriends Elastica lead singer Justine Frischmann and is invited to direct a music video for the group. Frustrated over the group's unwillingness to use their position of influence to say something meaningful, she begins to work on her own music and when she starts to release, she captivates critics with her combination of catchy beats and politically aware lyrics and even scores a fluke worldwide hit when her 2007 song ''Paper Planes'' blows up (less because of its witty lyrics satirizing fears of the horrors that mass immigration might inspire and more because the chorus formed the soundtrack to the trailer for ''Pineapple Express''), a development that increases her influence while at the same time increasing the target on her back for being a brash, politically upfront and unapologetically feminist woman of color not willing to play by the rules of the pop music handbook.

Granted, M.I.A. is not entirely innocent of some of the controversies that she has stirred up over the years--some of her comments and actions have come across as either contrived or impossibly naive and even when she has been unequivocally on the right side of things, as was the case when she was the victim of a deliberate hit piece by journalist Lynn Hirschberg (who condescendingly wrote about how she was discussing radical politics while munching on truffle fries during the interview, not mentioning that Hirschberg herself actually ordered the fries), she has sometimes undermined her own case with bewildering actions (such as responding to the article by publishing Hirschberg’s phone number). However, watching her grow and develop as a person over the years chronicled here is a fascinating look at the evolution of an ambitious, both artistically and otherwise, and groundbreaking artist who, because of who she is and who she will not be, constantly finds herself up against those who seek to simply dismiss her and her views instead of engaging with them. (In one of the most infuriating moments, she appears on Bill Maher to talk about the plight of the people of Sri Lanka but finds that he only seems interested in making stupid jokes about the British accent she picked up over the years.) If there is any real flaw to this film, it is the fact that the musical aspect of her life is downplayed considerably (especially her electrifying live performances), a decision that was presumably deliberate but nevertheless frustrating to those who would like to have more than a brief glimpse into her creative process. Other than that, ''Matangi/Maya/M.I.A'' is an uncommonly unique look at an uncommonly unique artist that is a must-see for her fans as well as being well-worth a look for those who only know her from that ''Pineapple Express'' trailer.

The good news for Michael Mann is that if he wanted to make some quick and painless cash, he could sue Jeremy Ungar, the writer-director of the new thriller ''Ride,'' for the blatant poaching of any number of key elements from his 2004 hit ''Collateral.'' The bad news is that this would most likely require him actually sitting through ''Ride'' and even the promise of a decent-sized payoff might not be enough to make that seem like a worthwhile endeavor. James (Jessie T. Usher) is a struggling actor who has just come from another audition--still clad in the natty suit that he wore to it--to take on his other job for a ride-sharing service named, in the film’s greatest burst of originality, Ride. His night perks up considerably when his first customer is Jessica (Bella Thorne), with whom he engages in flirtatious banter that culminates with her inviting him to join her for a drink when he is done driving. The next customer is Bruno (Will Brill), a loud and gregarious sort who instantly buddies up to James and essentially bribes him to circumvent the usual driving protocols and take him to several random place, including one where James thinks that he hears some gunfire while Bruno is away. Eventually, Bruno convinces James to collect Jessica so that the three of them can party up in Malibu and after they get her, it only then becomes clear that Bruno is actually a gun-toting loon who is going to force James and Jessica to do everything he says over the course of the long night.

There is the seed of an amusing premise here--the notion of a ride-share driver putting up with the increasingly bizarre demands of a fare in order to get that all-important good review--and I can imagine it being spun out into a darkly amusing short subject. Unfortunately, by going the feature route (although just barely at a mere 76 minutes) and by trying to sell it as a straight-up thriller, Ungar runs out of inspiration early on and things become increasingly contrived once Jessica is brought back into the feature, seemingly for no other reason than to add visual interest to a key moment set in a hot tub. The other problem is that this is a narrative that has only three characters of note to drive the story along (no pun intended) and all of them are duds--Brill is so spectacularly obnoxious right from the get-go as Bruno that any semi-sensible person would have kicked his ass to the curb almost immediately while Usher and Thorne are so thoroughly bland and uninteresting that it is difficult to work up any real interest in either of their plights. Worst of all, Ungar ends the film on such an arbitrary and unsatisfying note that it almost feels as if a reel or two has gone missing. If so, my guess is that Ungar decided that it didn’t really matter on the basis that it was extremely unlikely that anyone would actually want this ''Ride'' to be extended by that point.

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originally posted: 10/09/18 13:32:50
last updated: 10/13/18 02:03:39
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