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Before It’s Too Late

Sorry to have been so slow to get to Shut Up and Sing, which earns pride of place this week on merit alone. Entering on Friday into an added third week at the Ken Cinema, the backstage musical documentary recounts in vivifying detail the vaguely familiar story of how the three Dixie Chicks, "the best-selling female group in history," fresh from their rendition of the National Anthem at the 2003 Super Bowl, and right at the kickoff of their Lipton Tea-sponsored "Top of the World" tour, fell precipitously out of favor with their core country-western audience. How -- to get down to a detail or two -- the lead singer Natalie Maines, at the dawn of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, shot off her mouth among friends, as it were, the enthusiastic throng at Shepherds Bush in London, to wit, "We're ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas" (as if Texans have little else to be ashamed of), and how the unscripted remark resulted in a nationwide ban from the C&W airwaves, a strain on relations with Lipton, an open feud with the flag-waving country singer Toby Keith ("We'll put a boot in your ass,/ It's the American way"), and almost inevitably a death threat, which Maines took seriously enough to phone up her personal fortune-teller, prior to a concert in -- where else? -- Dallas.

The film jumps back and forth, not willy-nilly, but for substantial stretches at a time, between 2003 and 2005, when the trio were busy preparing and recording their next album, and then kicking off a new tour, back again in Shepherds Bush -- "the scene of the crime" -- early in 2006, with a defiant reiteration of the same wave-making sentiment. The world and the war, needless to say, look rather different now than then, but vindication has come slowly and incompletely. (Ticket sales for the new tour are disappointingly "sluggish.") The group's initial impulse in response to the backlash had been to backpedal: to damage-control, to appease, to apologize, to explain away ("It was a joke made to get cheers and applause"). But the country at the time, and not just the country-western part of the country, was in an unforgiving mood: no takesy-backsy. To Fox's Bill O'Reilly, rabble-rouser supreme, the Chicks were "callous, foolish women who deserve to be slapped around." (The two accompanying Chicks, Martie Maguire and Emily Robison, biological sisters, seem to have staunchly stood by their loose-lipped leader through it all.) Positions on both sides became entrenched; heels got dug in. This, we can recognize, is how wars begin. It is not a simple story, straightforwardly inspirational. It is a complex one, about, among other things, the difficulty of courage (especially when big money is at stake) and the possible attainment of it along a path of regret, hurt, anger, bitterness, resignation, and finally the absence of any other choice. Tortuously inspirational.

Documentarist Barbara Kopple relates the story, as she did in her exemplary Harlan County, U.S.A. and American Dream, without the aid of narration (clips from newscasts and chat shows unobtrusively serve the purpose) and pretty nearly without formal interviews (clips from chat shows, once again, excepted), simply by being on the spot during strategy sessions and in the recording studio, hanging around the living quarters, following life as it unfolded. Even the few orthodox interviews sound informal, no more than casual conversation addressed to the unseen and unheard filmmaker in lieu of an on-screen friend or colleague. There is so much laziness in the crowded documentary field today that you might almost forget that these crutches -- the talking head and the disembodied voice-over -- can be thrown away. The drama, in the result, seems to move ahead on its own steam, to evolve organically. (Kopple, the pre-eminent American documentarist of her generation, shares the directing credit with Cecilia Peck, daughter of the august Gregory, of whom Kopple once filmed a commissioned portrait for TCM.) Of course, in the grand scheme, the career arc of the Dixie Chicks -- whose music in the film is abundant though not dominant -- may seem quite a small thing. Yet as a symptomatic thing -- a test case of the depth or shallowness of Americans' belief in freedom of expression -- it is quite a big thing after all. You needn't be a fan of their music to lament the coerced politicization of it.

Happy Feet, two weeks atop the box-office chart, is a computer-animated message movie about the pressure of conformity and (separate message) the plunder of nature, more specifically about a species of pop-song-singing penguins, into whose midst is born a "different," an aberrant, tap-dancing penguin (try, if you can, to put the pudgy trudging birds of March of the Penguins out of your mind), and about a runtier breed of Latino penguins, some menacing seabirds, a scary seal, a couple of humongous orcas, and a race of "aliens" who are not computer-animated at all. The interface with these aliens near the end is moderately mind-blowing, if only from a mixed-media standpoint, but the alleged alienness of the human race would carry more rhetorical clout if the penguins hadn't all along been borrowing so freely from its popular culture. (The natural state holds no accommodation for vintage rock-and-roll.) And you cannot feel entirely happy about a happy ending in which it's suggested that humans might show more respect for their fellow creatures on the planet if only the fellows would learn some nifty dance steps. Although the direction by live-action man George Miller has some nice touches and clever angles, the action, approximately 60mph faster than the action in his Mad Max movies, is approximately 65mph too fast.

Déjà Vu requires that you park your reason, along with your car, outside the theater. A ferry boat blows up in post-Katrina New Orleans, killing 543, mainly returning Navy men and their welcoming families; and the uncounted body of a young woman bearing residue from the explosion has been fished out of the water a few minutes before the blast. What's the connection? The chief investigative tool proves to be a fanciful science-fictional device that allows the feds, through satellite imagery and computer projections, to view events from four days and six hours earlier, even inside the apartment (and the bathroom shower) of the deceased young woman: an audiovisual time machine. In addition, a portable-headset version of the device facilitates a truly unique car chase, in the lengthy annals of car chases on screen, whereby one vehicle is four days ahead of the other, which has to steer through a totally different pattern of traffic to keep pace. The bag-of-tricks filmmaking technique of Tony Scott, really more of a weathercock than a director, throws a few smaller obstacles in your path. Still, if you consent to ride out the bumps, the film works up plenty of forward momentum and climactic tension (en route to a have-it-both-ways ending); and the preposterousness in no way limits the level of engagement, or engagingness, of Denzel Washington.

For Your Consideration takes filmmaker Christopher Guest back to the target area of his very first film, The Big Picture -- namely the movie biz, more narrowly the Oscar buzz -- and back before he chained himself to the mockumentary format, Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, A Mighty Wind. Any sense of liberation therefrom has not spilled over into comic invention. The behind-the-scenes satire is sufficiently old-hat that there must be a lot of truth in it, even if not a lot of laughs in it. And the parodies of on-screen Hollywood, both big budget and small, are so far outside the realm of possibility as to spare everyone's feelings, moviegoer's included. Guest is more on the mark with the assorted inanities of the P.R. game -- the studio publicist, the "infotainment" industry, the talk-show circuit. And Catherine O'Hara, among his stable of repertory players (Harry Shearer, Eugene Levy, Michael McKean, Parker Posey, Fred Willard, et al.), stands out as an over-the-hill actress who, try though she mightily might, cannot hide her vanity and her ego. Her surgical overhaul for awards season is truly gruesome, and indeed the outward aspect of the cast in general shows a loving, or rather a loathing, attention to detail. For your consideration: Best Makeup.

The Cave of the Yellow Dog is a Mongolian movie from one of the two directors of The Story of the Weeping Camel, Byambasuren Davaa. This one tells the story of a little girl and a stray dog, not a yellow dog, but white with a black face and a black spot on his back, hence his christening as Zochar (translation, Spot), and cute as the dickens, though the girl's father worries that the dog, likely mingling with wolves, cannot be trusted around the family sheep. In spite of an uneventful narrative and a glacial pace, the feeling for unspectacular landscape (low mountains, wide valleys), the sense of open space, and the placement of people within it are authentically cinematic. I might prefer my landscape to come with cowboys, but no one these days is giving me that option. I must settle for a studious ethnographic record of the making of cheese, the gathering of dung, and the disassembling of a nomadic domicile. Tolerably interesting.

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The recently renovated North Park theater (full name: the Stephen and Mary Birch North Park Theatre) is making room for a series of classic, i.e. old, movies, under the heading of "The Fabulous Faces of the Fifties," organized by Andy Friedenberg of the San Diego Cinema Society and Scott Marks, late of the Museum of Photographic Arts. It shapes up like so: Imitation of Life, December 14 and 17; White Christmas, December 21 and 23; All about Eve, December 28 and 31; Roman Holiday, January 11 and 14; Giant, January 18 and 21; Some Like It Hot, January 25 and 28. Old movies in an old theater, a comfortable fit. Call 619-239-8836 for ticket information.

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