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Understanding Tyler Perry, the Phenomenon April 12, 2010

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Posted at Visual Inquiry, the research blog for visual studies at the Annenberg School at Penn. Many thanks to Mark Anthony Neal for linking to this post.

Watching a Tyler Perry movie is a strange and ecstatic experience. Perry’s desire for shenanigans, inanity and heightened emotions always makes for an entertaining evening. But his films are in a strange in-between space: between melodrama and traditional drama, between alternative cinema and Hollywood style, and between black authenticity and pure elitism. Through it all, what vexes film scholars, especially critics, is how style, content, auteurism and culture clash and miss each other in Tyler Perry’s films. Understanding Perry now is crucial, especially as he embarks into new cinematic territory, most notably in next year’s adaptation of Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf.

Are Tyler Perry’s movies “bad,” and, whether yes or no, why should we care?

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Brilliance of Cute: ‘Babies,’ Documentary and Digital Culture March 27, 2010

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Next month, the world will fall prey to the most brilliant idea in cinema since the extremely popular March of the Penguins and the most popular movie in history Avatar:

Babies (Bébés, dir. Thomas Balmes).

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New Haven’s New York Art Party: Video By Yours Truly March 17, 2010

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My good friend Madison Moore has organized an art party in New haven, a kind of hipster-y, New York-cool party in stodgy ol’ Connecticut.

The party, Artspace Underground, is held at Artspace New Haven, a non-profit contemporary art gallery. It has been pretty successful, marketing itself online and getting crowds by hosting popular local and regional bands.

Madison asked me to film a party and put together a short video for publicity and promotion. This is really my first solo film effort — shot and edited in less than 24 hours, so be kind!

‘Avatar’ Robbed Like ‘Citizen Kane’? March 8, 2010

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There’s an interesting debate brewing on Twitter over whether Avatar was robbed for Best Picture. Frankly I was surprised Hurt Locker had won. While critics had eventually forecast it would take the prize, I had put my money on Avatar, only for industry/political reasons. That said, I’m delighted Hurt Locker beat out Avatar, which spent too much money on creating lifelike blue people and not enough on script doctors.

A growing faction is claiming Avatar was cheated. /Film editor Peter Sciretta tweeted the first salvo: “The Hurt Locker will be this generation’s How Green Was My Valley” … and it began!

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Will We Ever Pay Homage to Nancy Meyers? February 24, 2010

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It’s quite possible the contents of this post will lose me a great deal of respect among my colleagues and perhaps bar me from tenure at most reputable institutions. But I say, why not propose a ridiculous idea?!

I’m wondering whether Nancy Meyers, Hollywood’s purveyor of feminine fantasy, might one day achieve the same level of respectability as the king of melodrama, Douglas Sirk. Meyers is not popular in my immediate social circle, and up until recently I’d thought of her films mainly as cinematic cookies, acceptable only in moderation (of course, as with real cookies, I gorge anyway).

But then Manohla Dargis gave me a way of out my cycle of self-doubt. Thanks, Manohla!

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Barry Miller, of “Fame” Fame, Decries Fame Today February 12, 2010

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I don’t get too many celebrity commenters on this site — except if you count the president of the American Medical Association. So it’s no surprise that when Barry Miller, known for his star-turn as Ralph Garcy in the original Fame (1980), started commenting anonymously on my blog, I would fail to notice.

Miller had a huge beef with last year’s Fame (2009), a disgust he broached in a USA Today article about the original cast. But while Miller declined a formal interview to USA, he left his thoughts, under the name Johnny Lagoon, all over my blog.

And they are interesting!

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“Avatar:” On Second Viewing… February 8, 2010

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I’ve been posting and tweeting a lot about Avatar, if only because it’s now the highest grossing film ever — or not, depending on how you calculate it (NYMag‘s Vulture blog has the best solution, which now places Avatar at around #3 or #4) — and only recently has it been unseated from its #1 spot in the weekend grosses (Dear John of all movies!). It also has a whole lot of representational baggage, meaning there are a many ways to interpret it, each one related to some political project or another.

After seeing Avatar the first time I came away a little disappointed. But I decided to view it again in IMAX 3D (my first viewing was on a smaller 3D screen), to see it as many critics saw it. Does it impress on second viewing and on the biggest screen imaginable?

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Why Has Showtime Abandoned Gays? (Death of the “Gay Show,” Part II) January 19, 2010

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Showtime went from the Queer as Folk channel to the home of such butch programming as The Tudors (however awesome it is). This essay was originally published at SpliceToday: comment there!

I’m continuing my discussion of the state of gay representations on television with a look at Showtime’s evolution in original programming. (UPDATE 3/23: On last night’s premieres of Nurse Jackie and United States of Tara, Showtime showed a bit more gay: Marshall, Tara’s gay son, started dealing with politics at school; on Jackie, the narrative suggests Thor, the other, uglier gay, might take Momo’s place as “gay best friend.” Signs of change or too little too late?)

We only need to look at Haaz Sleiman, television’s hottest gay character, who is on the job hunt, cast off Showtime’s Nurse Jackie, to see what has happened to the network.

Showtime once was the gay network. Remember five years ago, during that brief period when it housed the two most sexually explicit gay dramas ever—to this day—on television, Queer as Folk and The L Word? Bravo was also a gay network, with Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, and Logo was starting up, but Showtime was where the action was.

Not anymore. (more…)

The Life of Films: Black People Watched “Traitor”! Sophisticated Urbanites Heart “Milk”! January 10, 2010

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The market for "Traitor" in Atlanta

Thanks to Racialicious for reposting this!

The New York Times has an interesting interactive feature out that maps the top 50 rentals for 2009 based on the Netflix queues from a dozen US cities: New York, Boston, Chicago, Washington, Milwaukee, Dallas, Miami, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Altanta, Seattle and Denver. The list is a bit skewed because these are all fairly cosmopolitan areas — Benjamin Button and Changeling are at the top of the list — though that probably reflects what I assume is Netflix’s popularity in urban and suburban communities to begin with.

The list reminds us films have long lives. The press focuses almost solely on opening weekend box office returns and forgets films go to the rental market, DVD sales, pay-cable and OnDemand. Often these venues are great for films that couldn’t get people in theaters but are nevertheless intriguing or enjoyable. Movies by and about minorities sometimes can find audiences unwilling to shell out $6-$12+ for ticket (the gay film market has operated for years on this assumption).

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Why Is ‘Sherlock Holmes’ So Dark? January 2, 2010

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Original at SpliceToday!

No one ever accused Guy Ritchie of choosing smart scripts. Ritchie consistently excels at snappy transitions and vibrant action sequences blending fast and slow motion.  Still, I’ve always liked Ritchie for his appreciation of “talk”: His characters speak fast, often unintelligibly. Unlike, say, Woody Allen, who appreciates “dialogue,” Ritchie’s protagonists talk for the sake of talking. It’s a good formula. It’s interesting.

Unfortunately, in Sherlock Holmes Ritchie zips too quickly past his best and most chipper talk as if to get it over with and back to the action sequences—which are plentiful and very earnestly directed. I expected lots of action in this film, but it was mostly wearisome.

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Daniel Day-Lewis Ruins ‘Nine’ With British Sturm und Drang January 1, 2010

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Original at SpliceToday!

I’d been anticipating Nine for months. And though perhaps my expectations were too high and couldn’t be met, I was underwhelmed.

Nine had a big job to do. It had to be fun and entertaining like the musical, and serious and emotionally deep like its source material, 8 ½, Federico Fellini’s masterpiece. Writing a musical based on one of the greatest films of all time is a pretty stupid idea, especially one as artful and sophisticated as 8 ½. Nine does an okay job, though, and it’s certainly entertaining holiday fare, gorgeous to watch and somewhat pleasing to hear. But as a story, it fails to reach its own expectations, let alone mine.

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“Avatar” Inspires Visually, But Leaves Me Cold December 22, 2009

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Original at SpliceToday. Writer’s note: The following review is a bit harsher than my first thoughts on Avatar, mainly because I realized that my lack of emotional involvement in the story was more meaningful than I’d originally thought, signaling the film’s ethnic and political paradigms were not as sophisticated as its visuals.

I’m a pretty lenient grader. I tend to evaluate films on their own terms. I watched Transformers II and managed to keep my lunch down. I even defended The Women, Lord help me. I’m not a snob.

It’s not as if I hated Avatar. I liked it. Avatar is a great cinematic experience. Everything you’ve heard is true: the visuals are spectacular and engrossing. Many times I completely forgot I was watching computer-generated images. Even now I think of Avatar not so much as digitally rendered and impressively filmed and created.

But I didn’t love it, and that’s a problem. I feel the need to counteract a lot of the raves I’ve been hearing and reading.

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Breaking Down “Avatar:” Going Native December 18, 2009

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It’s probably too much to ask that the script for a film like Avatar be as extraordinary as its visuals. Avatar is visually stunning; the 3D is seamless — Cameron doesn’t do what most directors do and throw a bunch of things at you, which can ruin the sense of realism. The colors are brilliant. The world is scrupulously drawn. You feel transported. I basically forgot the whole thing was CGI.

Will it do well? I’m not sure! Certainly Titanic burned slowly, amassing solid numbers for months (remember it opened at a mere $28 million, and went on to gross 20 times that domestically, then double that internationally.) It’s all going to depend on word of mouth. My midnight screening was overwhelmingly male — and immature, laughing at every sentimental moment — though they loved it in the end. The film has work to do with women. And the sticker price doesn’t help.

What about the writing though?

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Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Slate of Spring 2010 Programs (Curated By Me)! December 17, 2009

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The brochure for the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Spring 2010 Adult Public Programs is coming out! This spring I’ll be co-teaching a film survey course with Dr. Rebecca Sheehan (PhD from Penn, now at Haverford). I’ll also continue to run the Film@Perelman series, and I’ve selected some interesting offerings for the season!

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“Invictus” and the Politics of Idealism December 12, 2009

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I tend to avoid in films what we see in Invictus: rugby, sports, Matt Damon, Morgan-Freeman-as-Deity-figure, sports, and Clint Eastwood. I should be ashamed of avoiding Eastwood, but his recent films have often been marketed as morally simplistic (and his Republicanism doesn’t help): we know with whom we are supposed to identify and who is evil (exceptions might be Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima). Yet Eastwood’s films are majestic, regal, and magnanimous.

Invictus is, in fact, morally simplistic: we root for South Africa and deify Mandela. But it’s nonetheless an important meditation on the politics of idealism, a film particularly relevant for Americans right now, especially progressives trying to make sense of the 2008 election. Invictus shows us idealism, even amidst mounting reasons for pessimism, is necessary.

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Lo-Fi Survives the Age of High-Tech and Big Budgets December 4, 2009

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Original at Splice Today. Comment there!

It’s the visual equivalent of wearing flannel or drinking black coffee. Retro ebbs and flows, classic comes and goes, but Wes Anderson’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox pushes me to believe we are in a lo-fi moment.

You cannot write for a living and avoid silly trend stories; it’s inevitable. We naturally look for patterns, and we have blank pages to fill. Still, I think this may be legit.

First, take the reviews for The Fantastic Mr. Fox. (more…)

“Up in the Air” Lovable, Borderline Insightful (Review) December 3, 2009

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Original at Splice Today! Comment there!

Jason Reitman’s newest release, Up in the Air, will no doubt encourage comparisons to Thank You for Smoking, the successful humanization of a heartless tobacco lobbyist in a humorous and efficient 90 minutes. Both films portray men who do despicable jobs—from the latter’s tobacco lobbyist to former’s professional pink-slip giver—and yet are lovable and charming. Both are loners, having failed in relationships while succeeding in their careers.

But the similarities end there. (more…)

Kanye West and the Power of Curating Web Video December 2, 2009

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Kanye West just made a film career. Let me explain. (more…)

“Blind Side” Success: What If Sandra Bullock Starred In “Precious”? November 29, 2009

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Note: This is not a review, but an essay based on the film’s marketing.

UPDATE (12/7): Three weeks into its run, The Blind Side is still doing well and now beating New Moon in weekend grosses.

ORIGINAL: Tambay Obenson over at Shadow and Act is asking what scores of cineastes have been asking over the past week: Who in America is watching The Blind Side (and recommending it) and why? Like Tambay, I saw the trailer and immediately rolled my eyes deep into my stomach, itself about to hurl. Black cineastes naturally recoil at dramas that dramatize the uplift of the Magical Negro by a rich white family.

Yet here we are. The film has passed the $100 million in record time; it’s already taken the trophy for highest grossing sports drama opening; it’s a career-best opening for Sandra Bullock; and received an A+ from CinemaScore moviegoers, which, while an unreliable metric, signals that audiences are likely recommending the movie to friends.

What’s going on? A few guesses: (more…)

New York Times, Myself on “Precious” November 21, 2009

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The New York Times has a great little article out on the debate  over Precious, over whether or not it’s a responsible representation of black people. Felicia Lee asked for my opinion, based on an essay written for this blog:

Aymar Jean Christian, a doctoral student in communications at the University of Pennsylvania said he found “Precious” brilliant and added, “In some ways, the debate’s not about the movie, it’s about the idea of the movie,” and black concerns about representation.

On his blog, Televisual (at blog.ajchristian.org), he wrote that Precious was “by far the scariest movie for anyone invested in having only ‘good’ representations of black people (‘The Cosby Show!’) in film and TV.”

The article explores the film’s historical predecessors, markedly The Color Purple, and its televisual antithesis, The Cosby Show. Professor and cultural critic Mark Anthony Neal (under whom I researched YouTube, black vloggers and identity) lays out the connection:

A father repeatedly rapes and impregnates his daughter in “The Color Purple” (as does the father in “Precious”), enraging some critics (mostly men) who asserted that the book and the film treated black men harshly. “Precious” has avoided that kind of backlash, but “people are suspicious of narratives that don’t put us in the best light,” Professor Neal said. The roots of that suspicion, he said, can be found in a long history of negative images in popular culture that helped keep black people in their place by reinforcing the notion of their inferiority.

Most black people, the article implies, aren’t wholesale against the movie — except Armond White — but some are still wary of it, especially scholars, because of a long history if demeaning images of black people (minstrelsy, early radio, film and television) and the persistent threat of stereotype.

This strikes me as true. The enormous popularity of the film, especially among black people, signals there’s a demand for these kinds of stories. I’m not sure if it’s about a kind of “authentic” black narrative, or if it stems from a larger narrative of struggle, but whatever the case, the story has resonated in print (Sapphire’s novel Push) and now in film. This is meaningful, and in my opinion not particularly damaging.

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