This Week's New Releases: 'Who Killed the Electric Car?,' 'The Hidden Blade,' 'Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man,' 'Favela Rising'
Who Killed the Electric Car?
dir. Chris Paine
If this lively agitdoc is any indication, early adopters of environmentally friendly technology are a bunch of stubborn children. When General Motors rolled out its ice-blue, all-electric car in California in 1996, celebrities and subcelebrities and dot-com arrivistes (including director Chris Paine) snatched them up like candy. But the EV1, as the model was called, was only available for lease, not for sale, and when GM decided (with the help of the state of California) that electric vehicles were not in fact the wave of the future, it took them all back. Mel Gibson, Tom Hanks, washed-up Baywatch actress Alexandra Paul, and other telegenic types—all talking heads in this movie—were crushed.
Some of these former electric drivers fought back: They held theatrical protests outside of a parking lot full of the sequestered (but fully operational) vehicles, they staged mournful funerals for their beloved chunks of metal, and one of them made this movie about the abrupt end of an era. Who Killed the Electric Car? is full of scenes that beg the audience's sympathy for these deprived souls, every last one of whom were wealthy or connected enough to get on the EV1 waiting list in the first place. Their sense of entitlement is robust, but they have a point.
There's a certain capitalist irony in the fact that a manufacturer (GM) recognized a demand for its products and then perversely refused to supply it. Of course, the full story is much more complicated, and Who Killed the Electric Car? gleefully rakes the muck. Systematically working through such potential "suspects" as SUV-minded consumers, battery capacity, oil companies, car companies, federal and state governments, and rival technologies (particularly the hydrogen fuel cell), the documentary crafts a compelling case that the decline of the electric car was misguided, collusive, and premature. ANNIE WAGNER
The Hidden Blade
dir. Yôji Yamada
The number of films Yôji Yamada has made (79) is almost the same as the number of years he has spent in life (he was born in 1931). His 78th film, The Hidden Blade, is a follow-up to his 77th film, The Twilight Samurai. The theme of both movies is the same as the theme of a whole class of films that deal with Japanese history: the period of great change inaugurated by the Meiji Restoration in 1866. When it comes to historical cinema, Chinese directors tend to return to periods that are so remote, they are more magical than real; Japanese directors, on the other hand, tend to explore the middle of the 19th century—the period of decline for the samurai class, the end of the old ways, the transformation of society, and arrival of the new man and woman. This is the substance of The Hidden Blade, a majestically paced samurai movie that only has one fight scene. CHARLES MUDEDE
Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man
dir. Lian Lunson
It's one thing to hear longtime fans prattle on about how great Leonard Cohen's music is, and another thing entirely to hear him speak for himself. In this uneven music documentary, two movies fight for dominance—one full of cover songs and effusive testimonials, the other dominated by the man in the Armani suit.
Loosely based around the "Came So Far for Beauty" concert at the Sydney Opera House in 2005, the music segments feature the likes of Rufus Wainwright, Nick Cave, Beth Orton, Antony, and the Handsome Family. It can be hard to find the right balance between capturing the spirit of someone else's song and injecting your own personality into it. Not everybody hits it, and more than a few stumble.
But director Lian Lunson also includes interviews with Cohen, and this is where the documentary really takes off. With his growling voice and bright eyes, Cohen brings the movie into focus. Self-deprecating where others are fawning, he talks about how long it takes to get a song (or a poem for that matter) just right, how his song "Chelsea Hotel #2" really was about a fling he had with Janis Joplin, and how his reputation as a ladies' man caused him "to laugh bitterly on the 10,000 nights I spent alone."
Hearing him talk makes you want to listen to the original songs rather than the cover versions. Lunson tries to bridge the gap by having him sing one song at the end of the movie with the members of U2 playing as his backup band. It comes across as fairly ridiculous, though Cohen rises above it. ANDY SPLETZER
dir. Matt Mochary and Jeff Zimbalist
Matt Mochary and Jeff Zimbalist's documentary about Anderson Sa—a rapper, dancer, and community activist from a favela (slum) on the hills of Rio de Janeiro called Vigário Geral—is slick and empty. Though it wants to show us the good that has come out of an incredibly bad situation (a slum completely run by violent drug dealers and corrupt cops), it ultimately fetishizes this misery, which, because of its size and scale, achieves, through the lens of the filmmakers, Kant's (or romanticism's) idea of the sublime. For example, the frequent aerial shots of Vigário Geral—a colorful mountain of poverty and crime—tell you nothing about Third World poverty and everything about a kind of cinema that has its highest expression and aesthetization in City of God. The IMF, World Bank, neoliberalism, structural adjustment programs (institutions and policies behind slums like Vigário Geral) play no role in this picture. CHARLES MUDEDE