Film Reviews 

For the week of April 28 - May 4

Wednesday, Apr 26 2006

 GO AKEELAH AND THE BEE This review, it must be said, is being written with the assistance of spell check, a computer tool South-Central middle school student Akeelah Anderson (Keke Palmer, wonderful) will never need to activate. Taught by her late father to love words, 11-year-old Akeelah doesn’t want to stand out from the crowd, but her principal (Curtis Armstrong) forces her to enter the school spelling bee. She wins, of course, and soon, against the wishes of her tense, distracted mother (Angela Bassett), she’s being groomed for the Scripps National Spelling Bee by a college professor (co-producer Lawrence Fishburne) who is brilliant and uncompromising and secretly sad. Writer-director Doug Atchison (whose last feature was an overwrought but weirdly compelling 1999 film called The Pornographer) has a terrible tendency to have his three main characters stare pensively at photographs of dead relatives, but since he’s made a film that makes studying Latin-root flash cards seem like a cool afterschool activity, we’ll cut him some slack. While it can’t have been easy to find action points for a drama about vocabulary drills, Atchison comes up with a steady stream of plot-propelling business, including Akeelah’s flair for jump rope, a skill that serves her beautifully in a clinch moment. Bet she’s great at hopscotch too. (Citywide) (Chuck Wilson)

 GO THE BEAUTY ACADEMY OF KABUL Early on in Liz Mermin’s bracing documentary about the opening of a U.S.-British co-sponsored beauty school in Kabul, Afghanistan, we learn that under the fiercely oppressive rule of the Taliban, Afghani women operated clandestine beauty salons in their homes, some of which were attended by Taliban wives. Cultural resistance may be a big phrase to describe such undoubtedly courageous activity — financial necessity played a part then, as it does now, when restrictions have been somewhat eased on a female community 60 percent of whom are war widows, and all of whom are still afraid of leaving their homes at night for fear of being attacked by religious fanatics. As Mermin shows in her vérité study of the school’s freshman class, these salons also express a fundamental need for a level of normality and aesthetic pleasure beyond the survival mode in which these women have been trapped for years. There’s great charm, and also discomfort, in watching these highly motivated, excited women learn the tricks of a trade practiced very differently from their own, and casually swap horror stories of life under the Taliban. The movie’s political edge, though, comes from the mixed motives of some of the Western hairdresser-teachers, a couple of whom bring to the project (which is backed by the American beauty industry) the evangelizing bossiness of globalization missionaries. Without discernible irony, a beaming teacher hands out the Anna Wintour Award in Excellence to a glowing star student. (Nuart) (Ella Taylor)

 GO THE DEVIL’S MINER The Cerro Rico Mountain in Bolivia has been plundered for over 450 years, first by Spaniards who enslaved natives to mine its silver, and now by poor Bolivians who work 24-hour shifts to retrieve what little is left of the ore. Directors Kief Davidson and Richard Ladkani follow 14-year-old Basilio Vargas and his 12-year-old brother, Bernardino, as they eke out a living in the mountain (Basilio’s meager earnings supplement the $25 a month his mother earns), fashioning handmade explosives while dreaming of school. Miner — its underage hero underscores the homonymic minor — is a visually beautiful, unforced essay on legacies of colonialism. Davidson and Ladkani have extraordinary access to the subjects and render their findings in powerful terms: the brothers racing through a tunnel to escape the mine before detonated explosives trap them inside; Basilio in his hard-earned new school clothes, proudly walking to school against a bleached mountain backdrop. But it’s the captured conversations about everyday lives and struggles that pin you to your seat. As Basilio explains to his younger brother exactly how Bolivian miners came to pay homage to Satan in the mines while worshipping God on the outside, we receive a living lesson in the man-made entanglement of religion, superstition and abject poverty. (Fairfax) (Ernest Hardy)

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