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FILM: Spike Lee, The Black Man with a Right to be Angry October 2, 2008

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http://www.splicetoday.com/moving-pictures/the-angry-black-man

The Angry Black Man

Spike Lee’s transparent Oscar bid Miracle at St. Anna isn’t great, but its critical drubbing reveals the cultural underestimation of a great director.

Every once in a while Spike Lee likes to say “fuck you,” or, as one of his characters says in his latest movie: “Progress? Nigga please.” Do the Right Thing was something of a cuss-out, as was Bamboozled and School Daze. One could argue When the Levees Broke is too, but I’d argue it’s a poetic cry for justice, an opera of sorts.

This time Lee almost literally said fuck you to Clint Eastwood, one of cinema’s reigning Great Directors, bashing his “white” Flags of Our Fathers and seemingly dismissing his Oscar-nominated Letters from Iwo Jima. Why go after Clint? Maybe Lee wanted buzz for his new movie, Miracle at St. Anna. Or maybe he simply tired of Eastwood and Scorsese winning Oscars while his masterpiece Do the Right Thing sits at #96 of AFI’s Top 100 movies—just added last year, almost a decade after the list’s inception. I think he’d prefer to be off the list entirely. Surely Lee has a right to be a sore winner. He’s by far the most well-known and critically respected black director living today; there aren’t many to begin with, and this is the thanks he gets?

Miracle at St. Anna is so far this year’s most hated Oscar-contender, and I’m wondering why. But first I have to say that most of the time, Spike Lee is not all that angry. To some, he is a bit of an enfant terrible, every once and a while screaming about race when most don’t want to talk about it. Yes, Lee is Mr. Race Riot in New York, but he’s also Mr. Inside Man and 25th Hour, hardly race movies. Many of his other “black” films—Crooklyn, She’s Gotta Have It, Get on the Bus, for example—are more about black communities and black people surviving than about oppression or the Evil White Man. Not even Do the Right Thing is about evil white people. It’s actually pretty fair. All those movies got good reviews. Lee is not an Angry Black Man. He’s not a black nationalist. He supports Barack Obama because of his message of hope! Before Miracle I’m sure Lee felt he’d earned the right amongst critics and viewers to be a little angry.

Still, it’s no mystery why critics were turned off by Miracle. The first image we see is of a John Wayne movie playing on a TV screen. The lead character, living in the 1980s, says to the screen, something hackneyed like “we fought that war too,” “we” meaning black people. The camera pans to a poster of Joe Louis, a black man, recruiting (black) men for World War II. Spike Lee is telling us: YOU PEOPLE FORGOT ABOUT NEGROES! LOOK AT THEM! THEY MATTER TOO AND YOU HATE THEM! Or something like that. The whole scene underscores his tiff with Eastwood and marks the movie as an angry race film. Of course, this is only the beginning. In the movie, there are no major sympathetic white American characters. The Italians are sympathetic. Even a Nazi is sympathetic! But not white America. They are evil. Oh, and incompetent and bad businessmen.

Well, let’s just say that race films don’t always go over well. Indeed a cursory look at Lee’s more combative and challenging films suggests just that. Bamboozled received mixed reviews, as did School Daze. Malcolm X and Do the Right Thing were much-lauded, but cultural theorist bell hooks argued that Lee’s biopic succeeded by making Malcolm X acceptable to a white audience, and anyone viewing Do The Right Thing can easily interpret the end as a call for peace, not war.

Miracle is about war though, so this is where I start to get interested. Not the war in the movie—I normally avoid war movies—but the war with the critics. Why does Miracle have a 37/100 on Metacritic and 30 percent on Rotten Tomatoes? Translation: this movie is crap. After watching the movie, I will acknowledge most of the criticism is fair: the characters are thin, the dialogue self-conscious, the plot heavy and complex, perhaps needlessly so. But it’s also ambitious and has a lot more to say than “there were black soldiers in World War II who weren’t really respected.” It emerges, in the end, as a truly global war movie, a WWII movie for our times: there are no clear heroes, no clear protagonist, no clear victory, it’s a hodgepodge of ethnicities and nationalities, good and evil aren’t always clear, it’s critical of revolutionaries and fascists. In short, its portrayal of war is almost like the movie itself: messy and long, with moments of heroism that don’t amount to much except a human connection. Was this deliberate? Maybe, maybe not. But Lee has directed enough solid, well-told movies that I’m willing to bet at least some of it is intentional.

I side with Roger Ebert on this one: the movie has moments of brilliance. I was expecting, then, reviews that matched the movie’s complexity. Some critics, like Ebert, would call it a great folly worthy of attention, some would nitpick and some would pan it. Instead it was universally panned: “[Lee] has nothing to sell but the theme of our common humanity—in which, on the evidence, I don’t think he believes,” the usually fair David Edelstein wrote. Really? This sounds like an assessment of the “angry I-Hate-Clint-Eastwood” Spike Lee, not the one who actually directs movies. In fact, anyone who has seen Lee’s movies knows he’s, at his core, a humanist who feels humanity is too easily taken away.

Miracle was clearly Lee’s attempt for an Oscar. He deserves one, though not for this movie. Really I just feel bad for the guy. He is brilliant, one of the best directors living today, and yet he still hasn’t had Oscar serendipity: timing, subject, quality and critical consensus. Maybe he doesn’t care, and maybe he shouldn’t. But for me, someone who never plays the angry black man and who discourages others from doing it, at a time when the world’s most famous African-American is trying desperately to not be angry, I’ll say this to Spike: it’s okay to be pissed.

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MEDIA UPDATE: Watching July 28, 2008

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Once (2006; dir. John Carney): Magic.

MEDIA UPDATE: Watching: The Wire July 24, 2008

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The Wire – Wow. W-o-w. Wow. Just finished watching the entire series in about two weeks — maybe a week and a half, I don’t remember. It must be that there’s never been a show about a city as well done as The Wire, and I’m not sure any network will ever have the courage to do it again. In five seasons, The Wire tackled Baltimore’s police department, executive branch, judicial branch, attorney’s office, school system, media, drug trade, ports and I’m certain I’m missing a few.

(While I’m not personally familiar with all the institutions they covered, I am familiar with the newspaper newsroom. And their newsroom is the most believable I’ve seen on TV, which gives me some confidence that the rest is reliable too. Although, I kind of wish they didn’t go all Stephen Glass/Jayson Blair — a typical, sexed up and overly hyped narrative — but the message was good, so I’ll give them a pass).

I can’t say everything. You just have to watch it. But if I took anything away from the show, it’s this: “the game will always be the game” — at least until everyone decides not to play. It was an oft-invoked praise among the drug dealers throughout the show, especially after somebody got shot. But it applies to every institution. If The Wire had one stroke of genius, it was showing how hubris, ambition, cowardess, small-mindedness and politics are at the core of the school system, police department, media, and, yes, even drug operations. People try to cover-their-asses, get ahead, etc. Personalities matter, but, in the end, short-term, narrow-minded politics wins, and politics, The Wire seems to say, is what’s killing everyone except for the few that make it to the top. And even then, sometimes they “get got.” It’s all a game.

Not that the show is all realism and pessimism. Yes, in the final shots of the show, everything is more or less the same. But a drug addict gets clean and wins back the trust of his family. The son of high-end drug player who was set for death or jail goes back to school and becomes a star debater. Two detectives find peace and solve career cases, even if they burn themselves doing it. And a police commissioner finally does what’s right. So there are small glimmers of hope, though dwarfed by the persistence of crap.

The Wire created — and killed — a host of rich, textured characters, from mayors to street level thugs. I’d like to pay my respects.

FAVORITES (because I need to find a way to say goodbye):

Omar Little: Omar. Omar. Omar. Vigilante Robin Hood with a code, and gay to boot. What a great character; his courtroom scene was magic.

Michael Lee: Sucked into dealing to support his family, he never seemed right for it. But he kept his brother well and even managed to remix the American family by asking his (straight) male friend to basically play housewife.

Rhonda Pearlman: Everyone knowsI love a powerful, well-dressed redhead.

Bubbles/Kima: Andre Royo deserves an Emmy for his Bubbles, and Kima’s love for him made me smile each time I saw it.

Bunny Colvin: Hamsterdam!

Bodie Broadus: For most of the show, he was merely a solid presence who seemed likable, but not too likable. But, in the end, the way he went down was pure poetry and gave him the status of martyr.

The Sobotkas: The white people had some privilege, but really, in the end, what made them different from the blacks?

Wallace: This was when I knew the show was not playing. I almost cried for this one.

Stringer Bell: Like so many in the city (media, police), he tried to clean up the game and get ahead at the same time. But if you play in dirt, you’re going to get dirty, no matter how noble your intentions.

Mayor Carcetti: How amazing it was to see him turn from idealist to realist and eat all the shit he could to get to the top.

I’m missing some, so watch the show and see what you’re missing. It’s worth every penny.

Oh, and before I forget, what a damn damn shame it’s been robbed again at the Emmy’s. Screw you, Hollywood, and your short attention span! And kudos HBO for making for your otherwise crap programming by keeping it on for five seasons.

MEDIA UPDATE: Watching July 9, 2008

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UPDATE: For my take on the new Fame (2009), please see this post: FILM: Fame (1980), Fame (2009), and Fame!

I’ve been devouring movies lately, at home and in the theater, so I haven’t been posting much — I’m too overwhelmed. I’m going to give quick reviews of all that I’ve seen, old and new.

PlayTimeTati

Play Time (1967; Dir. Jacques Tati) – This is a classic, so I won’t summarize too much. Needless to say, that, of all the movies I’ve ever seen — that would be a lot — this has been arguably the most innovative and well done. That’s not an obvious statement coming from me: my current film fetish is mumblecore (God save the label) which is the exact opposite of Playtime: intimate, emotional and rarely site-specific, with exceptions. But Playtime is pure innovation: not a close-up in the whole movie — okay, maybe one — relentless attention to detail in its direction, an almost sci-fi-esque commitment to set and costume (all gray and glass, save the end), and set action more engrossing than an action. I couldn’t take my eyes off it.

To get a feel for it, here’s the trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LGv3FrXIToI

I’d only wish I’d seen it on the big screen, to get the full effect.

I can’t get into all the reasons I loved it — the gags, the inventive use of glass or lack thereof, the sets, the use of character — but I will say this: I love directors who take a single, ridiculous idea and carry it obsessively to its conclusion. It’s why I like Hitchcock (Rope) and Kafka (the Trial, the Metamorphosis). Tati is no different. That he went bankrupt filming this, what would become a flop, is all the more telling. Tati’s indictment of the modernism and modernity and their disdain for history, of sleek 60s yuppiedom, of Americans, is so all-encompassing and yet casual it’s pure genius. Simply watch it for yourself: and pay attention when you do!

Fame

Fame (1980, dir. Alan Parker) – I know I’m the last gay in the country to see this, but I just wanted to say I loved it. I loved seeing 70s/80s New York, I love that this was a time in film history when movies about young people were serious and political (Fast Times at Ridgemont High is the other prominent example). I was saddened by the fate of the actual actors — none of them became famous! The cute redhead (McCrane) still has a career, though, but has no hair :(. The black dancer (Ray), has died of a stroke (complications with HIV?). The rest are nowhere to be found. I suppose it’s in keeping with the film.

wanted_angelina

Night Watch

Wanted (2008) and Night Watch (2004) both dir. Timur Bekmambetov – I actually enjoyed Wanted, even though I mostly hate movies that are too bloody — it’s fun, blah blah, you read the reviews. So I rented Night Watch on iTunes to see if Bekmambetov could get me again. He didn’t. Night Watch I found a little too self-serious and gruesome, as opposed to Wanted, which is gruesome and fun. Maybe because he had a bigger budget with Wanted, Bekmambetov could have more fun. I don’t know. All I know is the kind of Russian, amoral, bloody-sucking action in Night Watch made me role my eyes and start playing a game of Snood.

My Winnipeg

My Winnipeg (2007, dir. Guy Maddin) — I really liked this one. It’s quick, it’s obviously inventive, surrealistic, realistic, and an innovative mish-mash of film styles. Maddin employs his signature, black-and-white fuzzy silent film-style, but incorporates some contemporary documentary footage and editing. The film has verve. But either I’m getting very slowly tired of Maddin or I just liked Brand Upon the Brain! more. Brand! is trippier, and, let’s face it, I saw it live: the music was better, the sound effects sharper, and the narrator more engaging (Isabella Rosselini). Maddin is decent as a narrator in Winnipeg, and I understand that his narration is deliberately forced and affected. But as much as he made me laugh, he also made me roll my eyes a few times, including during what I found to be an insufferable section on a hockey stadium. Last criticism: at times, in his effort to inject Winnipeg with magic and folklore, a task at which he’s largely successful, his fantasy becomes too overloaded, a bore in itself (born in a stadium? horses frozen in a lake?). This is the core problem with most magical realism: only so many things can be magical before the magic falls away.

Still, I’m being nit-picky. Maddin’s brilliant, and My Winnipeg, by any objective standard, is a small triumph.

MEDIA UPDATE: Watching June 27, 2008

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Love Songs (2007; Dir. Christophe Honore) – Though it’s been in New York for a while, the movie just came to Philly. Movie musicals are hit or miss, and this one is a hit, albeit with a few misses to start.

A French story of romantic entanglements (some obvious, some unrequited and unspoken), Les Chansons d’amour gets off a rough start. This isn’t really the film’s fault. It simply takes awhile to get used to Honore’s musical style: in the vein of Once, but a bit less natural. Still, as other reviewers have pointed out, Honore has a touch for the sentimental and knows how to draw subtle performances from his actors, adding emotional weight to the otherwise ridiculous act of singing in the street.

What saved the movie for me, however, is personal. Halfway into the film, Honore flips the narrative into one of finding love in unexpected places. I won’t reveal the end, because it’s absolute magic — the final shot is a touch of genius. But I will say the movie contains — arguably — the best gay sex scene I’ve seen on film. And I’ve seen a lot.

To fall in love with Love Songs, I had to cast off my cynicism. I gave up and said to myself: “this is about the loneliness and romance of Paris, in Paris, and of the young. There’s nothing more, nothing less.” Just love it.

MEDIA UPDATE: Watching: Dispatch from NewFest June 11, 2008

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Imri Khan as Imri in Japan Japan

Japan Japan (2007) –

I’m a nice guy, so I’m not going to beat up on a low-budget movie from overseas. Japan Japan is a bit of a mess, though. A NewFest program coordinator introduced the movie as “experimental.” That it is.

The movie is filmed with what seems like various cameras of various resolutions (though I’m sure it’s the same one, but with varying degrees of clarity depending on the setting). Director Lior Shamriz shoots from various angles – really all over the place – making the film seem frenetic. Maybe I was dehydrated from the heat, but I started to feel ill.

Still, the film’s randomness fits in with a theme – and that’s what saved Japan Japan. The movie follows a young Israeli gay boy planning a trip to Japan that he cannot afford; it also tracks his relationships: friends, family, lovers. Because of its youthful protagonist, Japan Japan seems to be about how young people, in loneliness, connect with the world, dream about the world and contextualize their lives in globalization.

Japan Japan is pretty smart about this. Throughout the movie, Imri, the protagonist, watches video blogs from his friend who is living in New York (she films touristy things and dresses up like a Chinese girl), he watches Japanese porn and anime as a way to connect with the place he wants to live, he visits various places in Israel, including the wall being built on the West Bank (the film’s last scene, which includes a shot out to Banksy).

These are, to be sure, superficial connections, and Shamriz, with his awkward and fast editing, seems to think the same thing. In an interesting scene, Imri visits the home of a Turkish man (a hookup?). After hearing the older man talk at length about Turkish culture, Imri, an Israeli, calls him pathetic and bolts out the door. Clearly there are limits to cross-cultural interaction if you aren’t open to it.

But young people are also stars of their own movies. Twice during the movie the plot is interesting by a sharply edited roll of credits introducing the characters and the title of the movie: Japan Japan. The idea is that these people know they are being filmed, their lives are movies (which explains the first line of the movie: “Cinema is dead.” Who needs cinema when life is cinema? YouTube anyone?). Shamriz underscores this point when he introduces an impromptu music video starring two of the main characters. The characters are also named after the actors.

Hasn’t everyone had that dream before? Your life on TV!

Note: even though I saw this movie at gay film festival, I have to say the gay themes aren’t too strong. Which I could argue is a good thing!

ALSO SHOWN WITH JAPAN JAPAN:

“Tá” (short, 2007, Dir. Felipe Sholl): Funny, clever and hopeful. Two boys flirt in a bathroom, as one talks about getting up after smoking coke. He does a line, the other boy asks if he’s hard, so they try various methods of achieved arousal: sucking, poking. Finally, they kiss. Nice. I think I missed some cultural references.

MEDIA UPDATE: Watching June 8, 2008

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“Greek” – I’m writing about a TV show this time and not a movie because I’ve just watched a completely-unplanned 5-hour marathon of “Greek.” And I have to say, even though I hated fraternities and sororities in undergrad, I love this show! What drew me in was obviously the black gay character, Calvin Owens, who I’ll talk about in a minute. But it also happens to be a fairly well-written show (frequent references to literature and history, easy references but smart ones).

What I like:

-Calvin Owens: I like this character in part because I kind of hate him. He’s a cute, black, all-star athlete and openly gay legacy at the campuses most prestigious fraternity. ABC Family clearly had some fun with him. The twist in his story is not that he’s uncomfortable with his sexuality, but that he wants people to “get to know him” before knowing he’s gay (because then he’s in a box). It’s a semi-believable excuse for staying “in the closet,” but at least it’s new! Also, his dad is totally cool with his sexuality, (weird!), but will only pay for tuition if his son pledges. Owens seems to like being in the snotty, deeply heterosexual fraternity (as opposed to the more loose, lowdown, gay-friendly one), which makes me kind of hate him. Radical queer politics would have him exiled, but the fact that he feels comfortable there and comfortable with his sexuality (not 100%, it’s clear) is both disconcerting and refreshing. It challenges me. Sometimes I yell at the screen: “leave those assholes and be fabulous on your own!” But brotherhood means something to him — and to a lot of people on the show. I don’t get it, but he’s such a strange character and unusual representation for TV I have to applaud both him and ABC.

-Utopia: You can subtle and not-so-subtle hints that this is the utopia in which young people live today. The show boldly proclaims that young people can bridge all divides. Black gay Calvin makes nice with a Southern Baptist with a Confederate flag. Rusty, a freshman pledge, also makes nice with his Moral Majority roommate who hates frats. Many characters date interracially. The main conflict in the show — a Montague/Capulet type battle between the presidents of two frats, the slacker one and the preppy one — has a subtle class overtone, the only real macro-political battle that seems unbridgeable.

-Plot: The show keeps it interesting by giving every character their own plot line and weaving the stories together.

-Empathy: Greek is really good at taking the frat/sorority worlds on their own terms. Most of the rituals I could care less about, and the things they obsess over would normally bore me, but the script helps you understand why the little things matter. While I would have never, ever, ever pledged a frat, I could actually imagine hanging out with the messy, beer-guzzling, babe-hounding boys of Kappa Tau (the gay-friendly scrappy frat). Making me like the greek system? Now THAT’s an accomplishment.

I recommend you catch Greek on Sidereel or iTunes! It’s a fun show!

MEDIA UPDATE: Watching: Sex and the City June 1, 2008

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Sex and the City:

(Warning: some spoilers in this review)

I liked the movie. It met my somewhat high expectations.

But Sex and the City is the nightmare of men and Marxist-feminists alike, and that’s quite a feat. To understand why it makes men and women shriek, the answer lies not so much in the movie itself – we’ll get to that – but in the audience’s reaction.

Let’s go through some key moments, observed from inside a Friday night showing on the Upper East Side:

-In the opening scenes, we see Carrie in her closet reaching for something. The audience sees her abs and instinctively they all gasp at how thin (i.e. “great”) she looks… They do the same when they see her in bed with Big. When there’s a joke about how “fat” Samantha has gotten, they all buy into the joke – no one screams, “hey, the woman is 50 years old and she’s barely fat!”

-Then there’s the oohing and ahhing over all the clothes. When Carrie gives Jennifer Hudson an expensive Louis Vuitton bag, the audience cooed. When Big unveils Carrie’s new closet, the audience gasped as if we’d seen the second coming. Real estate, bags, shoes: the audience loved it all!

-Everyone sighs with relief when Miranda takes Steve back (how dare she move out of her home and into her own apartment in Chinatown! Did she think she didn’t need a man!) When Big finally proposes to Carrie “the right way,” for a **second** time after leaving her at the altar the first, there’s no bemused silence – “why is she marrying him again? Why must marriage be the answer?” — there are , instead, “awwws.”

[By the way, the final marriage is my only really serious problem with the movie, but I understand why it was there. I, however, would’ve preferred the ending of Ira & Abby.]

Not to mention the incessant cooing over babies, toddlers, even dogs. The movie is all schmaltz, and, save a few murmurs I heard from a woman sitting behind me, cynicism is not allowed.

Of course, feminism is all about cynicism – or at least you can interpret it that way. But women today aren’t asking the same questions as the women in the 70s. It’s no longer “why do I need a man or this pair of pumps?,” it’s “how can I get a man and retain some sense of self? Or how can I buy this pair of shoes, be attractive to men, but not be seen as a slut?” There’s a lot of negotiation taking place. The women in Sex and the City ARE independent, I would argue: Carrie insists on owning a piece of her new apartment, Samantha thinks she’s sacrificing too much for her beefcake, Miranda (not Steve!) moves out of the house when their marriage dissolves over cheating, even Charlotte rarely utters her husband’s name. So, yes, they’re independent, but they also want Prince Charming, they want “the fantasy.” Many of the women I know, some ideologically feminist, feel the same way. Why are we so scared of that?

This is sticky territory. The women in Sex and the City, and their female followers, are too independent for men – the men in the movie are still accessories, Samantha ends the movie single and 50 – but too in love with capitalism, marriage and men for old-line feminists. This explains the bad reviews.

I don’t see anything wrong with it. I don’t fault the movie. SATC gives us excess: excessive glamour, excessive marketing, excessive schmaltz (how many times did they say “love”?), excessive materialism and, above all, fantasy. These are all important things – and all pretty camp, by the way. Women clearly like this stuff, so if anything we should be criticizing them, not the show or the movie.

I don’t care that it’s not representative of New York – it’s the fantasy of the New York that rings true (it’s the anti-Taxi Driver). It’s the New York many people want – glitzy, gentrified and whitewashed. Let’s acknowledge this is now the New York we will have, if not now, soon enough. If we all hate it, let’s change it, but let’s be honest: no one earnestly complained when Whole Foods opened on Houston. Or when Deitch opened a gallery in Long Island City.

Sex and the City is a culturally important phenomenon – to dismiss it as fluff is to skirt the surface of its meaning. It’s very much a movie of its time. It’s about the thoughts many women now have, whether we like it or not (the cooing, oohing, aahing, and gasping). It’s about the New York we now have. Above all, it’s about the power of fantasy, which is not something new. Men have their fantasies – the sports dramas, war movies, Iron Man, There Will Be Blood, Wall Street, Reprise, there are hundreds that are similarly divorced from reality but receive glowing reviews.

Give women (and gays) theirs.

ANALYSIS: Critical Reception of SATC June 1, 2008

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I’m usually not surprised by critical reception of movies. Indeed, I knew Sex and the City would receive mixed to negative reviews. But what’s interesting about this is the gender differential. I thought — silly me! — that female critics, needing to prove how impervious they are to highly-gendered movies (i.e. how “serious” they are), would pan the movie. They would, as they have on other films, join the male establishment and rally to the butch cause.

The opposite happened. Female critics mostly liked the movie. Male critics were lukewarm at best.*

The Times’ Manohla Dargis is the one outlier — the only female to give a bad review. My guess is the lone female critic at the nation’s most prestigious newspaper couldn’t bring herself to like such schmaltz. Other critics could afford a little more indulgence, to take the movie a little less seriously. Dargis was vicious though, so much so it calls to question whether she was — consciously or not — sharpening her criticism to show she can’t be won over by silly feminine things. She’s a “real” critic. She only likes stuff it’s okay to like, serious French movies like The Valet, for instance.

*I used Metacritic because it filters through the critics more than Rotten Tomatoes and has a more nuanced scoring system.

MEDIA UPDATE: Watching More May 29, 2008

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The Fall

It’s true, the movie’s kind of boring. Why? Despite a brilliantly funny child actress playing an injured girl in a infirmary, The Fall simply lacks any forward motion and conviction. We don’t know where it’s going and we don’t care. Lee Pace — however much I adore him — is not a strong lead. He’s depressed about something and lacks the gravitas or viciousness (either would be fine) to make us care. When we do find out what’s his problems are — and what he plans to do about it — we care even less. The problem is trivial and its solution maudlin. Tarsem spends too much time in this world.

His fantasy world is more interesting, but here too, slow editing and an uninteresting storyline plague the plot.

Everything needed to be faster, wittier and much much more provocative. At almost 2 hours, the Fall should have been 90 minutes, with the majority of that time spent in Tarsem’s beautiful but not nearly complex enough or sardonic enough fantasy world.

What’s sad is that there are clearly glimmers of brilliance. There’s an interesting subtheme about the dawn of cinema — specifically “special effects” cinema — that could have been further explored. Still too, some of the characters in the real world had fantasy world doppelgangers. Both characters would have been enlivened with more context and character development.

Redbelt

Isn’t as transcendent as it wants to be, but Mamet smartly bends the conventions of the sports movie — spending more than half the movie explaining how the fighter got to the match. As is typical for Mamet, the dialogue is dense and rapid and the plot slightly convoluted (but flows easily). The makes the movies engaging to watch, distracting you from realizing that not much is happening.

In the end, the themes are familiar: one lone man has the faith to believe in something greater than money or self-gain and has to fight the forces around him — including his wife! — to vindicate his belief in the higher power. Mamet stops at the vindication, cutting off the movie right when it should end: after our hero, up to his neck in crap (a lawsuit, counter-suit, suicide, betrayal, debt) and perhaps his convictions dwindling, realizes his ideals can still empower him.

Chiwetel Ejiofor leaves the film as something of a sex symbol and a more acting cred to boot. I’ll put it plainly: he’s hot.

Indiana Jones

It was entertaining. But I don’t remember the previous ones, I was too young when I saw them. So I have no strong feelings on this. :(

MEDIA UPDATE: Watching May 28, 2008

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I’ve seen a lot of movies lately! I’ll roll them out slowly. Here’s two

Baghead (okay I lied. Saw this weeks ago at Philly Film Fest, but it’s coming out in theaters)

Interesting. It’s an interesting film. It does in fact bend genres: mumblecore-like realism, horror, comedy. Problem is, it’s not very memorable. You leave the theater thinking “weird. cool” and then you never think about it again.

But I like the Duplass Bros. They’re taking risks, and that’s great. They’ve assembled a cast — as they did in The Puffy Chair — of almost mostly unsympathetic young people. This time, unlike in the Puffy Chair, we get the pleasure of seeing them freak each other out — and they have nowhere to run! Yes. The Bros. still use to stylistic conventions of mumblecore: lots of close-ups, handheld camera, inane dialogue, to give the movie that realist edge. Dance with the one that brung ya. I’m eager to see how long they will.

Reprise

I liked this movie. But I thought I would love it. Maybe it was all the critical raving. The words used to describe it “kinetic,” “energetic,” “youthful,” “exuberant,” “fresh,” “savage,” are all true. To that I would add “confident.” Trier clearly had a vision of how he wanted to tell this story: broken in time with the past clear and the future conditional (this and that “would” and “could” happen, his freshest idea). Maybe because it was so confident I hoped for just a little more. My expectations were high.

Part of what blunted my enthusiasm was the focus on male artist angst. It’s just a pet peeve. I don’t really care about the guy who can’t write because his debut novel was too good or the friend who doubts his talent. You got a book deal, shut up, suck it up and live. That these men treat their women badly pushes my buttons even more. Trier is smart enough to add commentary from  women, to hint at what pricks these men must be (in one smart line, a graduate student says: “it must be so hard to have problems in this group”). But the overall lack of perspective suggests Trier actually wants us to love these self-indulgent would-be-men.

Still, the man knows how to work a camera and get pretty subtle emotions to register strongly. In what may be the strongest scene in the movie, the disturbed, post-suicidal Phillipe asks his ex-girlfriend to relive their trip to Paris. He asks her to pose in the exact same way  she did by fountain in a park months earlier. She is disturbed. She has to oblige him — he’s clinically depressed, after all — but the love that grew during their first Parisian trip is gone. She realizes this, but Phillipe does not. Later, she doesn’t even get laid. Am I mean for calling Phillipe a wimp and an asshole?

Anyway, Trier ends the movie with a kind of rosy “would-be” future in which everyone has a girlfriend and is happy. This is the future we doubt will happen, but we suppose Erik (Phillipe’s bff and 1/2 the film’s main duo) thinks it might. This is where the film is smart: young people also think of the future that could be. What actually happens is less important. Too bad I was thinking of the great movie this could have been, instead of the very very good movie it actually was.

MEDIA UPDATE: Watching May 20, 2008

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Mister Lonely – Loved it, although I can’t say watching it was always a pleasant experience. The film has a sadness to it, and part of it came with my unease with celebrity impersonators. I cannot imagine living through someone else — but the film has a good way of addressing that unease.

Harmony Korine has a big theme going (note to anyone reading: I look for big themes like squirrels look for nuts) about the ability to improve the world through belief in something bigger than oneself. The movie has two storylines: one about a commune of celebrity impersonators and one about a group of nuns who jump from planes — I’m dead serious. The link between celebrity and religion is an obvious one — celebrities are idols, the new religion, etc. But Korine doesn’t wallow in easy comparisons. Instead, his delicate and virtuoso handling of the nun storyline — mystifying, scary, painful, hopeful — escalates the thematic tension: he has something to say.

The celebrity impersonators, like the nuns, are trying to better themselves through a belief in something (their celebs, their craft, but also each other). They aren’t doing any harm, and they haven’t lost their souls, they’ve just found another use for them. They want to make people happy — they put on a talent show.

What’s sad is the impersonators see themselves as outsiders — yes, “black sheep,” a convenient but important metaphor in the film — they don’t participate in the world, living miles outside Paris. How can you improve the world and encourage togetherness when you are alone? Diego Luna’s Michael starts the film thinking he’s alone, he ends it realizing we’re all together.

The religion here, then, is the world, it’s people, who by merely living show life is worth living. Once Michael learns that the impersonators are not alone in trying to improve themselves, living for something else other than the self, he is finally free. The idols are not the celebrities, “people,” writ large, are the idols. Korine believes in faith, not religion (and the fate of the nuns at the end proves this).  So the message of the movie is simple: believe in each other and we can all “live forever,” as Diego Luna says .

The movie is slow, it demands patience, but some of his scenes are downright brilliant — as many reviewers have noted. You simply have to see for yourself. And sometimes Korine’s choices seem oddball and unnecessary. That may be true. But I’ve never felt so odd during and after a movie. Korine managed to get at themes of togetherness and faith through celebrity impersonators. Freaky, unsettling.

Description and reviews.

Oh yea, I saw Prince Caspian. One word review: Watchable.

MEDIA UPDATE: Watching May 7, 2008

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The Visitor: Subtle yet powerful, the perfect post-9/11 movie about New York and America. The storyline unfolds gradually and quietly. A couple — both Muslims, one Senegalese, one Syrian — accidentally get caught living in the apartment of a bored, lonely economics professor (international economics, no less!).  The movie is at its best when it’s dramatizing the subtleties of cross-cultural connections: the street music players of various cultures — Chinese to African — who play for New Yorkers everyday; the (mostly white) New Yorkers listening to the (mostly of color, international) men playing drums in Washington Square Park; the woman who buys the necklaces made by the main female character, Zainab, and to whom, when Zainab says she’s from Senegal, she says, “Oh, I went to Cape Town…” (which is thousands of miles away). But the movie demonizes no one — except implicitly the Bush Administration.

The movie so asks: who are the visitors? The immigrants? Or are New Yorkers/Americans tourists in their own city/country? At the immigrant detention center keeping Tarek, the male half of the couple, posters on the wall say immigrants are part of America and one mural memorializes the twin towers and the Statue of Liberty.

All of this would be overbearing if the film’s editing was not so quiet and steady. The themes slip into your mind before you realize they are there. This is how great movies about big subjects are made.

Tom McCarthy, of the Station Agent fame, does well with the larger narrative. The Station Agent was a charming movie, but The Visitor manages to be charming, insightful and powerful all at once.

MEDIA UPDATE: Watching (Tribeca FF) May 5, 2008

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More watching, from Tribeca:

Katyn: I must confess my ignorance of early European history and say I wasn’t completely aware of Poland’s precarious state throughout the war and in its aftermath. So much of this movie was exciting for me only because some of it was news to me. This movie was beautifully shot and extremely well-told. World War II movies are often bogged down with weighty, plodding narratives, poor character development, and too often end with an either glorious or tragic end to the war. Katyn — the movie named for a massacre by the Soviets during the war — had neither. One of its messages seems to be that the war never ended for Poland; it s aftermath and horror lived on in the culture psychologically for decades.

Following some realist conventions, the movie’s editing did not compel the viewer forward, per se. What we saw instead where glimpses of several stories played out subtly and across time, all of which eventually came together in the story of the mass murder. The movie held back on the horror until the end, which softened the tone and prepared the viewer for the brutal finale. Artfully done. I loved it — except when I left I wanted to kill myself.

SqueezeBox!: I also enjoyed this documentary on the 1990s late night party. More than a well-made film (it was good), it is valuable as an historical document: as a story about how subcultures reacted to the Giuliani regime and his crusade against vice (though this is of course not new and has happened in most coastal cities since the dawn of cities); as a much-needed installment in the history of drag and camp (the movie addresses the prominence of rock in camp); as a way to understand the historical antecedents of New York hipster culture; as an entree into the psychology of 1990s/1980s performance art; and finally as a way to understand how New York has changed so drastically in the past twenty years, to realize what has been lost but also what has been gained. That the party ended right before September 11th and midway through the HBO series “Sex and the City,” right before the producers really turned up the dial on glamour, is significant. (That movie is coming out a month before Sex is also telling).

A friend of mine, Madison Moore, who frequented the now-gone hipster party, MisShapes, said SqueezeBox is a clear antecedent. Both parties are sex- and sexuality-inclusive, both used Don Hills as a venue, both are predominantly queer, etc. So they are similar, but MisShapes is also different: less about putting on makeup and more about realizing that all clothes are makeup, less about hard rock and more about alterna/electro/retro rock, less about sex and more about dance. SqueezeBox was still a “gay club,” MisShapes was a “dance club with a lot of gays.” MisShapes fits much easier within New York’s glam/celebrity/fashion scene: more Silmane/Dior, Commes des Garcons, etc. These are culturally significant shifts that have a lot to do with New York’s changing economy but also with its demographic and broader generational shifts.

MEDIA UPDATE: Watching: Medicine for Melancholy April 26, 2008

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UPDATE: 9/15/09: Since writing this, Medicine got the attention it deserved, including nominations at the Independent Spirit Awards, a small bit of distribution and a DVD deal (purchase here).

medicineformelancholy_large

ORIGINAL: This movie was so good I thought it needed it’s own post. I already posted this on Facebook, but here it is again.

The film doesn’t have a distributor yet. Get thee to a film festival and watch this film! Below is an email I sent a reviewer friend:

http://www.strikeanywherefilms.com/: Medicine for Melancholy is the story of two twentysomethings who spend 24 hours with each other after a one-night stand, in San Francisco. The film explores 21st century questions of race, gentrification and digital connection so subtly and so well, it deserves indie distribution.

——————————————–
I loved it. I admit, some of this is personal. My interest, research-wise, is in contemporary realism, specifically focused on young people, and after seeing movie after movie of uninteresting white people, I have to say this was a breath of fresh air. I’m not usually one to complain about the preponderance of whiteness in a movie – heck, my top 10 fav movies are all predominantly white, with a few Asian thrown in – but for “mumblecore”-esque movies specifically, the imbalance is fairly pronounced. Not to mention that it was beautifully shot, and that, personally, this movie is very similar to the life I lead – so that’s a big caveat.

For me, the movie was more than just “black mumblecore” or “black Before Sunset” or anything of the other obvious film-historical references he was making (Do the Right Thing, She’s Gotta Have it, even French new wave, right?). It was a movie fundamentally of its time – in terms of black history, urban history, generational history. The conversation on blackness and authenticity is one that young black people like myself – especially those of us who listen to indie rock and have lots of white friends – grapple with on a regular basis, and that’s really only happened within the last ten years or so (to question the notion that “black” may be just a label is fairly new in the grand scheme of American race history; once again I could also bring up young people and Barack Obama). I thought the movie handled this pretty realistically– the conversations that happened around race and gentrification are ones that I’ve had literally dozens of times with friends, black and white, mostly black though.

Not to mention that the movie took the stylistic conventions of mumblecore – overuse of close-ups, handheld camera work, poor sound quality and sometimes stunted dialogue – and reinterpreted with a message of some social import. In mumblecore, the fact that people communicate so poorly (can’t express feelings, etc.) is somehow related to this general inability of people my age to communicate, which I don’t think is true. But in Medicine that inability to communicate (at least at first) has a whole lot to do about our inability to talk constructively about race and class, which is true, and it’s particularly hard for young urban, semi-privileged black people. It was also refreshing to see people move around a city and actually examine and assess its significance – as opposed to other young, urban movies in which the city is a mere backdrop (exception: Quiet City).

The narrative on digital media was brief but significant. The title character looks up his one night stand on MySpace before meeting her — her profile is titled, “Cahiers du Cinema,” and we later find out she makes t-shirts with the names of female filmmakers (the director’s, Barry Jenkins’, fav directors are women). While in his own apartment, the girl later looks up the guy’s MySpace. This is where she discovers his ex-girlfriend was white, a revelation he never offers (and never does) but subtly shapes the texture of his character throughout the movie. Such a small discovery, made through online media, and perhaps only possible through online media, underscores some of the films biggest themes (the lack of black people in the indie scene, the complex nature of any individual’s racial universe, the truths we hide from those we hope to love, etc.). In a world where we’re, supposedly, all performing all the time, it’s profound that online spaces add more texture to a person’s life fabric.

What a rich and simple movie.

MEDIA UPDATE: Watching April 26, 2008

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Just saw Priceless Hors de Prix with  Audry Tautou and Gad Elmaleh (The Valet) last night. It was exactly what I needed: frivolous, stylish, French fluff with pretty clothes and pretty people. Very fun to watch, the perfect end-of-the-semester getaway.

Watching Baby Mama next, not so optimistic.

MEDIA UPDATE: Listening April 26, 2008

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In a stressful time of year — both school and the presidential campaign — Erik Satie really helps bring my blood pressure down.

Aldo Ciccolini. Satie: Gymnopedies.

Listen to it!

MEDIA UPDATE: Watching Listening Reading April 16, 2008

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Every once in awhile, I’ll write a post updating you on what I’m consuming. Here goes!


MUSIC
: I move glacially slow on music, so this might change not much.

—–LISTENING: Mikel Rouse (Como Eu Estive Cegu, How I Stayed Blind); Rachael Yamagata (Be Be Your Love), Kevin Bewersdorf (My Heart Still Beats).

—–ANTICIPATING: Nico Muhly (MotherTongue)!


MOVIES
:

—–WATCHING: Medicine for Melancholy (pray it gets a distributor and a DVD), Baghead (realist-horror-comedy, okay), Help Me Eros (great imagery, good narrative), How Do I Look

—–ANTICIPATING: The Tracey Fragments; Synecdoche, New York; Vicky Christina Barcelona; Sex and the City


READING
:

—–EVERYTHING: New media, performance, queer theory, film theory.