At its very least, director Michel Gondry's follow-up to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind answers the head-scratcher, "What sort of person walks away from $50 million?" Apparently that individual would be brimming with humanity and humility, as terrified by the burden of power and celebrity as he is intrigued by its perks. In short, that would be comedian Dave Chappelle, who, eight months before making a widely publicized beeline for Africa upon inking a blockbuster deal with Comedy Central, threw a little wingding for a few thousand of his nearest and dearest where Quincy and Downing streets meet in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood.
For Dave Chappelle's Block Party, Gondry and his crackerjack Eternal Sunshine cinematographer Ellen Kuras film Chappelle over the course of a few days as he prepares to stage "the concert I've always wanted to see." These arrangements include a trip to Chappelle's stomping grounds in Dayton, Ohio, where he gives away all-inclusive tickets to his concert to, among others, the middle-aged ladies at the convenience store where he gets his smokes, as well as two engaging golfers who choose to let a racist slide so they can make it to the show. Chappelle also enlists the services of the Central State University Marching Band, and they are, to put it mildly, rather pleased about their upcoming gig.
Oh, the concert? Turns out to be the one I've always wanted to see, too. I dare anyone to sit still in the presence of this dream roster, which features hip-hop's best and neo-soul's brightest backed up by The Roots, a band whose relevance cannot be overstated. The CSU drumline and John Legend aid Kanye West in his heaven-scraping rendition of "Jesus Walks." Erykah Badu ditches her massive Afro wig and stage-dives. Rap forefather Big Daddy Kane takes all these whippersnappers to school on "Boom." And Lauryn Hill outfoxes her record label by reuniting The Fugees, much to the shock (and awe) of the crowd.
With Block Party, Gondry successfully follows in that tradition --- which includes Scorsese's The Last Waltz, Demme's Stop Making Sense, and Jarmusch's Year of the Horse --- of feature-film directors who made a musical detour. But as glorious as the music is (I didn't even mention Jill Scott, Dead Prez, or Common), Gondry knows this is Chappelle's show. The master of ceremonies is fast, funny, and honest, whether he's silently (yet hilariously) watching two guys fix a car, waxing poetic in a thrift store about his love for Thelonious Monk, or working up a cheesy lounge routine with Mos Def in charge of the rim shots.
Chappelle calculates the block party to be "5000 black people chillin' in the rain, 19 white people peppered into the crowd," though Roots drummer Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson notes that both his band and Chappelle share the experience of often playing to audiences that "don't look like us." The issue of race is omnipresent, but Chappelle handles it slyly and effectively, using humor to confront without confrontation. This delicate balance must be exhausting, however, enough to make a guy cross an entire ocean just to take one step back.
Director Carroll Ballard has carved out a nice little niche for himself in the alternative pets genre. He's brought us The Black Stallion (1979), about a boy and his horse; Never Cry Wolf (1983), about a man and his lupine pals; and Fly Away Home (1996), about a girl and her geese. Duma is Ballard's latest, and it's based on the true tale of a boy and his cheetah.
Campbell Scott and Hope Davis portray the parents of Xan (Alex Michaletos), a 12-year-old whose idyllic South African farm life is upended after family tragedy. Xan has been helping to raise an orphaned cheetah cub called Duma, but they light out for the desert after it becomes clear that a city existence won't agree with them. Duma is essentially a road movie, though Xan and Duma meet only one colorful character, a drifter named Rip (played by the splendid Eamonn Walker, best known for HBO's Oz). But it's not clear whether Rip will help them in their quest to get Duma home or sell them out for the reward money.
At no time does the cheetah speak, which might be why a smart adventure like Duma didn't get a wide release. But it's a perfect family film, without violence (save a bit of bullying) and no real peril (though the crocodile situation gets a little dicey). And who doesn't love seeing an adorable baby cheetah grow up to ride in the sidecar of a motorcycle?
Dave Chappelle's Block Party (R), directed by Michel Gondry, is playing at Culver Ridge 16, Henrietta 18, Tinseltown, and Webster 12 | Duma (PG), directed by Carroll Ballard, is showing at the George Eastman House's Dryden Theatre Saturday, March 11, 8 p.m., and Sunday, March 12, 2 p.m.