January 31, 2023

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‘To Live and Die and Live’ Review: Self-Destructive Trolls Through Detroit

4 min read

Like Kasim Basir’s last feature, “A Boy. A girl. A Dream,” his new “To Live and Die and Live” is an exploratory mood piece whose characters wander the city’s high life in a fruitless search for inner peace. The setting here is Detroit, but the protagonist is a successful filmmaker from the pressures of that earlier film’s Los Angeles. Although forced to take a much-needed rest, this return to home turf has hardly alleviated the problems he has been dogged by.

As before, the writer-director’s elliptical narrative approach leaves many unanswered questions. But the desperation they create is again outweighed by the insight into the upwardly mobile (and in this case Muslim) African American community, as well as the melancholic poetic drift of his cinematic style.

The boisterous, bearded Muhammad Abdullah (Amin Joseph) is a boisterous boy whose return to the Motor City should be a triumphant lap. After all, in the eyes of all those left behind, he crossed the “golden door” of Hollywood, his career followed enviously. But he comes to be anxious and angry for reasons beyond the sad occasion that brought him back after a long absence: the funeral of his father, a local construction magnate. Instead of heading straight for the somewhat conditional hugs of his mother (Jeryl Prescott) and siblings, he leaps from the airport into a serious pursuit of happiness, shrugging off the surprised reception of old friends in a haze of cocaine and alcohol. Along the way, he picks up Asia (Skype P. Marshall), a hard-boiled beauty who is willing enough, but unwilling to passively accept his rather savage attitude.

He’s already gone with her — though she’ll be back — by the morning he reaches the funeral home, where family members duly note his disheveled air and trembling hands. It’s a tense reunion made stranger by an introduction to half-sister Lisa (Dana Gourier), whose East Coast family she abandoned long ago to make her life’s work in Detroit. A working-class struggler, he sees in these newly-encountered half-siblings a spoiled privilege from which he has been cheated.

What Muhammad sees is a city that has changed since he was last here — full of new buildings and businesses, many of which his father had a hand in. Yet the appearance of prosperity is deceptive, even at home. Dad apparently left behind a financial mess of debts and debtors that business partner Kevin (Omari Hardwick) is now hoping to pick up on our hero. And while they’d never admit it publicly, family members also think the big Hollywood director’s checkbook will cover their own needs. For his part, Muhammad was too proud not to accept the burden. Only through overheard phone calls do we realize that he himself is on very shaky ground, his credits overblown, his latest movie apparently in trouble.

Wayne embarrasses himself by getting drunk while speaking to film students at Wayne State, or storms out at an AA meeting a sister (Mariam Bassir) tricks him into attending. He is periodically drawn to the mosque, but at the moment feels beyond spiritual redemption. He also spies potential rescues in the sexy, spiky, alert form of Asia (“like the continent,” he introduces himself). It turns out, however, that his own problems are so great that he has no appetite for acceptance.

There’s a lot going on here, though “To Live” is sly in offering fleshed-out backstories and subsidiary characters that could have made a lot of interesting points come alive. Despite his apparent fame we never get a hint of what (or about) Muhammad’s films are like. When relatives insist on seeing his latest rough cut, followed by very faint praise, we’re given no idea what they reacted to. Like a scene where Panchili conceives, where she negligently crashes her rental car, then blames it on someone else after the police arrive, it would be even stronger if we had a clearer sense of the interpersonal power dynamics at play.

Even so, Basir keeps us involved in the watershed of this alcoholic antihero, using Detroit as a kind of falsely glittering aquarium — all underground neon lights and sleek newness, though evidence of past misery lies beneath. (At a late moment Muhammad visits a site he worked with his father long ago, where a cracked pipe can still be found among the ruins.)

Actors bring enough charisma to fill roles that your writing may lack detail. The director’s own cinematography has a dreamlike fluidity, while a varied soundtrack returns to the mournful solo cello that dominates the original score by Maxime Lacoste-Lebois aka Max LL.

For all its deliciously annoying gaps in character and storytelling specifics, “To Live and Die and Live” still has a persuasive overall vision, one that holds out the possibility of redemption for its protagonists — and its city — even though only the history and toll it still has is right-headed. is encountered.

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