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Dave Chappelle’s Block Party/Madea’s Family Reunion 

Mark Palermo isn’t running scared from Block Party.

Michel Gondry’s Dave Chappelle’s Block Party forgoes the star worship and suspenseful developments of music documentaries. It brings the concert film down to earth — a feat so unassuming it’s at first difficult to identify the root of its charm. Expanding on Gondry’s innovative concepts for framing the subjects of his music videos, here, the assumed distance between celebrities and “regular people” is done away with. Block Party captures a communal gathering with an honesty that makes what could be dramatically dull into something spectacular.

Throwing a block party in Brooklyn, Dave Chappelle hands out Golden Tickets to some lucky people in his hometown of Dayton, Ohio. In its first half, concert footage is interspersed with footage of its planning and buildup — a technique used in The Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter. The recipients, who include a university’s entire marching band, are bused to the show. Chappelle tours several impoverished Brooklyn neighborhoods, distributing more invites and generating enthusiasm for the event.

Gondry and Chappelle create a festive vibe by giving specific neighbourhood residents and excited fans as much prominence as the concert’s star performers — including Erykah Badu, The Roots, Kanye West, Talib Kweli, Mos Def and Lauryn Hill. The interplay of music and comedy gives Block Party a variety show structure. But even performances of hits like Mos Def’s “Umi Says” and Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks” don’t overshadow the surrounding film. The movie’s refusal to misrepresent what makes a community through saleable spectacle is as uncommon as its inviting of filmgoers for their company rather than their capacity to be patronized. With Block Party’s penchant for truth, music and people are essential and inseparable.

Unity is a less organic concept in the sincere but corny Madea’s Family Reunion. Writer-director-star Tyler Perry improves with the follow-up to Diary of a Mad Black Woman, but reduces the film to righteous speeches as soon as the meditation on family and faith needs cinematic transcendence. The spousal abuse storyline might have some gravity if the movie didn’t simultaneously make a joke of child abuse. Still, there’s something funny about a film extolling strict Christian values where the lead is played by a man in drag.

Running Scared

The security kids feel in their parents gets taken away in Running Scared. Unleashed into a dark forest of bogeymen, it’s a current ultraviolent take on fairytale malaise — a kid’s story told by a psychopath. The Cooler director Wayne Kramer plunges head first into depraved shocks in the story of streetwise Joey (Paul Walker), who drags his young son (Alex Neuberger) and his son’s best friend (Cameron Bright) through a night of hell when a drug deal goes bad.

Running Scared has armed children, child abuse, prostitution, abduction, gangsters, castration and other maimings. Whether those elements are exploitation or necessary extremes is a fine line dependent on each viewer’s instinct over what they’re watching.

At its core, though, is a resolutely angry work. In its focus on mistreated kids, a symbol of innocence becomes susceptible to the numbness of an Extreme Culture. Walker approaches Joey as the world’s grouchiest speedfreak. The deliberately jerky camerawork contributes to the most uptight movie in ages but the stylish quirks are trying too hard: Kramer emulates recent Tony Scott and David Fincher (especially Panic Room) without a conviction of his own. The mobster elements also threaten the film with a poseur toughness that doesn’t do its real darkness any favours. In those moments Running Scared drops viewers into a world of hardcore, just to check if we still have a pulse.

How’s your pulse? write: palermo@thecoast.ca

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