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Dear White People

“Dear White People” is a razor-sharp, carefully observed film that dips its toes alternately into satire and sobering social drama.  This is “you have to laugh, you’ll cry your eyes out if you don’t” kind of humor, and it’s intended to make you uncomfortable as much as it makes you laugh.  Or perhaps even more.

Set at an Ivy League school called Winchester (but really seems like a stand-in for Harvard,) this film is about the struggles of black students to find and secure their own identity in that kind of rarified air.  The film follows several characters on campus. Brandon P Bell is the son of the dean and head of the primarily African American house on campus, that is, until activist Tessa Thompson wins an election against him, an outcome that surprises them both; she was just trying to stir the pot. Tyler James Williams doesn’t really want to live in that house; he’s a gay Star Trek fan with a three-foot Afro for whom “the worst part of high school was the other black kids.” Instead, he lives in a house with Kyle Gallner, son of the school president, editor of the school humor rag, which regularly feeds writers to Saturday Night Live. He’s the only white lead in the film, and let’s just say he’s not a nice guy.  Add to the mix one more character, Teyonah Parris, who wants to be a reality TV star, but finds she has to manufacture racial tension in order to get hits on her YouTube channel, which is in competition with Thompson’s radio show, “Dear White People.”

Did you follow all of that?  “Dear White People” is a cut above most films that deal with race because it’s not just about their struggle against a racist system run by whites and favoring white students, though there is plenty of that.  It’s also about their struggle with and against each other, a struggle to forge an identity out of (and/or within) their ethnicity, to manage the expectations placed on them as minority students in an elite college, and the effort it takes to reconcile the seemingly contradictory parts of themselves into a single identity. In other words, “Dear White People” takes on an incredibly complex and intricate range of subjects, and handles it with a light touch that occasionally hits like a sledgehammer.

 

Posted in The Movie Blog.

AV Club’s List…and My Revisions

AV Club just published their list of 100 Best Films of the Decade So Far.   It’s a good list… I’ve seen about 2/3 of the movies on it.  But it’s also filled with real duds, movies that were a waste of time.  So here’s my revised list, with movies I like a lot more in their place.  (The italicized movies are the ones I haven’t seen.)

  1. The Master
  2. A Separation
  3. The Tree of Life
  4. Frances Ha
  5. The Act of Killing
  6. Boyhood American Hustle
  7. Dogtooth 
  8. Under the Skin
  9. The Social Network
  10. Before Midnight Selma
  11. The Grand Budapest Hotel
  12. Margaret
  13. Holy Motors Top Five
  14. Her
  15. Inside Llewyn Davis
  16. Two Days, One Night
  17. Whiplash
  18. Winter’s Bone
  19. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
  20. Certified Copy Blancanieves
  21. Meek’s Cutoff Mud
  22. Everyone Else
  23. Moonrise Kingdom
  24. Zero Dark Thirty
  25. The Immigrant
  26. Drive
  27. Melancholia The Spectacular Now
  28. 12 Years A Slave
  29. Leviathan Frozen
  30. Inception
  31. Take Shelter
  32. Martha Marcy May Marlene
  33. Amour Short Term 12
  34. The Grey Killer Joe
  35. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol
  36. 13 Assassins
  37. Magic Mike Silver Linings Playbook
  38. Bernie Chronicle
  39. Force Majeure
  40. Gone Girl
  41. The Wolf of Wall Street
  42. The Loneliest Planet The Perks of Being A Wallflower
  43. Computer Chess  Foxcatcher
  44. Stranger By the Lake
  45. Upstream Color
  46. A Touch of SiI Saw the Devil
  47. We Are the Best!  Flight
  48. The World’s End
  49. House of Tolerance
  50. Amer
  51. Haywire
  52. Beginners
  53. Room 237
  54. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
  55. Neighboring Sounds
  56. Father of My Children
  57. Skyfall
  58. The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu
  59. Two Years At Sea
  60. The Raid
  61. The Deep Blue Sea
  62. A Dangerous Method Locke
  63. Tabu Submarine
  64. Blue is the Warmest Color Another Earth
  65. The Turin Horse Of Gods and Men
  66. Oslo August 31st The Descendants
  67. Goodbye to Language
  68. Winter Sleep
  69. Greenberg
  70. Secret Sunshine
  71. Beyond the Hills
  72. National Gallery
  73. Gravity
  74. Citizen Four
  75. Lincoln
  76. The Color Wheel
  77. Stray Dogs
  78. The Kid With A Bike
  79. Looper
  80. The Past
  81. Mysteries of Lisbon
  82. Bird People
  83. Cabin in the Woods
  84. The Strange Little Cat
  85. Drug War
  86. Exit Through the Gift Shop
  87. White Material
  88. Toy Story 3
  89. Barbara
  90. Carlos
  91. Avengers
  92. The Skin I Live In Never Let Me Go
  93. A Field in England
  94. Only Lovers Left Alive
  95. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
  96. Black Swan
  97. The Interrupters
  98. You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet
  99. Mother
  100. Edge of Tomorrow

Posted in The Movie Blog.

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

Studio Ghibli isn’t perfect. They’ve made some of my very favorite movies over the last twenty years, including classics like “Princess Mononoke,” “Spirited Away,” “My Neighbor Totoro,” and “Howl’s Moving Castle.” Lately, I’ve been a little underwhelmed with films like “Arrietty,” “From Up on Poppy Hill,” and “The Wind Rises,” but all three of those are decent movies I just didn’t love.

“The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” is the first Ghibli film since “Kiki’s Delivery Service” that I actively dislike. How in the world did the studio that used to produce such creative, inventive, unexpected movies deliver this tired cliche of a kids’ film? I am scratching my head in disbelief.

A bamboo cutter finds a magical baby in a stalk of bamboo, and takes the child home to his wife, and they adopt her and name her (apparently) Princess. I don’t know about in Japan, but in America, that’s a name you give a dog, not a child. The bamboo cutter returns to the magical bamboo, which yields riches and beautiful silks. He decides that, now that he has money and fine silks, it’s time to move his family to the city and raise Princess like a real princess.

At that point, you can pretty much guess the rest of the film, and you wouldn’t be wrong. The city is stifling, and Princess Kaguya (the name is purchased from a man with an abnormally large face) longs for the simple life of the country. She is taught how to be a lady, but is headstrong and rebellious, always wanting to dance and sing when she’s supposed to sit quietly and practice calligraphy. My gosh, even writing this plot summary, I feel like I’m penning a country song.

“Kaguya” is based on a 10th century Japanese myth, and I guess that should buy you some room to tell the same old story over again (I remember rolling my eyes hard the first time someone told me “Romeo & Juliet” was cliched.) But in that case, you’ve really got to pour creativity and originality into the details of the story, and director Isahao Takahata falls completely flat. Princess Kaguya is the blandest heroine imaginable. This is where the film really gets on my nerves. We are shown our heroine’s “vitality” and “joi de vivre” through scenes of her frolicking with kittens and dancing underneath cherry trees, scenes about as fresh and fun as the guacamole in my fridge.

“Kaguya” is the kind of film that supposedly stands against traditional idealization of women in Japan (women are silent, beautiful, elegant, etc.) but then substitutes other, equally false and impossible idealization (women are playful, adventurous, pure and noble, and love to frolick and dance.)

The film drags on and on. There are suitors, who fall in love with Kaguya without ever seeing or talking to her (a quick conversation might change their minds) but none of them are good enough for her. She sends them on impossible quests, and then reunites with the country boy from her childhood (who apparently has a wife and child?) because of course she does.

Something interesting and unusual starts to happen at the end, explaining Kaguya’s magical origins and semi-tragic end, but by then, it’s too little, too late. This film is too long, too boring, and way too cliched.

To give credit where credit’s due, the animation is really beautiful. It’s minimalist and full of pastels, and there’s creativity in the way the story is drawn. Too bad there’s so little in the way it’s told. “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” is beautiful and boring, just like its protagonist.

 

Posted in The Movie Blog.

Selma

“Selma” operates a lot like “Lincoln” did a few years ago, but with more straight kicks to the gut.

Like Spielberg’s film, this biopic about Martin Luther King, Jr. isn’t interested in casting a saintly light on it subject.  Instead it’s more interested in exploring the curious mix of backroom politics, media manipulation, and various other strategies that really bring about change in our country. It’s becoming clear, according to the movies anyway, that being right and being stubborn aren’t enough to get things done; you must also be shrewd, politically savvy, and willing to bleed a little.

Thus we find Dr. King, whose name is almost synonymous with non-violence, seeking out violence.  After a disappointing meeting with President Johnson, King heads to Selma, Alabama, after the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church.  When he is punched in the lobby of his hotel, he knows this is the right place for the next public protest.  King needs people to punch him; the movement only grabs headlines when it is met with violent resistance, and headlines are the only way to change the temperature of the public debate, which will then put pressure on the White House.  If there is no resistance to the protest, if the march is allowed to proceed peacefully, then there’s no publicity, and nothing changes, and the whole thing was a waste of time.

 

Making that kind of movie is immensely tricky, especially as racially charged as things have been in our country lately.  If director Ava DuVernay made just a few missteps, if she hadn’t paid careful attention to the film’s tone every microsecond, “Selma” could easily feel like a film critical of Dr. King and his political machinations (I will guess that people coming from a certain starting place will find it that way anyway.) But DuVernay, with a lot of help from David Oyewelo as King, manages just the right tone of sobering realism.  If Oyewelo had come across at all self-important, the whole thing would have been sunk.  Instead, he comes across as humble, tired, filled with doubt, but also determined and driven by both vision and the desperate need for change.  It’s a great performance, and a perfect mix of greatness and humanity.

It helps that she drives home the stakes with a couple of scenes that really drive home the stakes of the political battle.  This is where “Selma” outstrips “Lincoln.”  In that film, the actual plight of the slaves seems awfully far removed from the meeting room full of white men arguing about the plight of the slaves. Not the case in “Selma,” where those who suffer the most at the hands of bigots come face to face with Dr. King, and march alongside him.  I very rarely cry in movies, especially those calculated to jerk tears, but this one I had to stop and sit with for a few minutes before I could continue. Like Dr. King himself, It’s a powerful, shrewd, complex and compelling film.

 

 

 

Posted in The Movie Blog.

Top Five

Chris Rock has a reputation for brilliant, biting stand-up comedy and bad, boring movies. He’s certainly not alone; the list of brilliant stage performers who make terrible movies is a mile long (and includes Rock’s’ heroes Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby, and Eddie Murphy) but Rock stands out, if you can say that, because his are almost always just boring. When you watch Pryor in Superman III, or Cosby in Leonard Part 7, or Murphy in anything he’s made in the last ten years (except Dreamgirls) you wonder what the hell they were thinking. You watch Chris Rock in Grownups, and you wonder why he doesn’t bother with thinking.

All that changes with “Top Five,” and please God, let there be more where this came from. This is what fans of Rock have been waiting for. Like his stand-up routines, it’s smart, biting, insightful, the mood shifts from angry to resigned to satirical. It’s sexy and raunchy in turns, sad and thoughtful and hilarious. Everything Rock looks at he sheds light on. This is a fantastic movie.

Written, directed and starring Chris Rock, at times it feels like he best Woody Allen film in twenty years. Since Allen is probably the best smart/funny actor/director in the history of cinema, Rock’s decision to borrow from him instead of (or in addition to) guys like Murphy and Cosby feels like a stroke of genius. And Rock brings the kind of comic energy that Allen seemed to run out of a while ago.

The film consists of a lot of walking and talking. It’s a good thing Rock and Rosario Dawson are so much fun to listen to, as they riff on Planet of the Apes, Barack Obama, and reality TV. Rock plays a character a lot like himself, a little bit like Kanye West, and with more than a passing resemblance to Birdman (more on that later.) Rosario Dawson is a reporter assigned to interview Rock right before both the opening of his big serious movie about a Haitian revolutionary, and his TV wedding to a reality star. So they spend a day together, visiting his family, going to a press junket, and walking around New York City telling stories about their love life and alcoholic misadventures (both are four years into “the program.”) There’s chemistry between them, but he’s about to get married and she’s not exactly who she says she is. Things get complicated, then get sorted out.

There are a ton of similarities between this film and the one that won Best Picture this year. Both are films about a washed-up actor trying to get people to “take them seriously” by doing something completely different, something the critics think is out of their range. In my opinion, this film is hands-down the better one. It is better directed, better acted, funnier, smoother, smarter, and more satisfying. Why did it not garner a single Oscar nomination? “Top Five” might be the best argument out there that Oscar is whitewashed.

For what it’s worth, here are my Top Five:
1. Public Enemy
2. A Tribe Called Quest
3. Wu-Tang Clan
4. Kanye West
5. Ghostface Killah

Posted in The Movie Blog.

Foxcatcher

This might be the feel-bad movie of the year, but it’s also one of the best.  And it’s not one of those films that’s mean and nasty, like a Lars Von Trier flick (or that damn thing I watched last year with the electrocuted horse; I was so depressed after that I don’t think I could muster the energy to write a review,) it’s just a film where not a single good thing happens to anybody, from the first minute to the last.  Now, you’re sold, aren’t you?  You’re going to run out and RedBox this one right away.

But it is a very good movie, and one I’d recommend.  Even more than “Snowpiercer,” this one is about the way the upper class exploits and feeds on the lower class.  But this is based on a true story.

Channing Tatum plays Mark Schulz, in an internal, brooding, intense performance that I previously wouldn’t have thought possible from Tatum, who always before exudes confidence and charm on the screen. That’s all gone here; he has always lived in his brother Dave’s shadow, and resents him for it. He’s a gold medal wrestler, but his brother (played by Mark Ruffalo) gets the speaking engagement and special meetings, and nobody knows who Mark Schultz is, despite the gold around his neck.

So when John DuPont (a completely unrecognizable Steve Carrell) approaches him about putting together a wrestling team to take gold at the next Olympics, he sees a chance to get out from under his brother’s shadow and make a name for himself.  DuPont and Mark Schultz set up Foxcatcher farms, a state-of-the-art wrestling facility, and recruit the most talented wrestlers to come and train there.  But something is rotten in the state of Denmark.  DuPont knows almost nothing about wrestling, but loves to take the credit for any success Schultz experiences; he writes speeches for his protege in which Schultz finds himself introducing DuPont as “the father I never had.”  DuPont also introduces him to cocaine, and Schultz stands by and watches and DuPont enters the wrestling ring himself, and his lackeys pay his opponents to let him win.

The final blow comes when, after a disappointing performance at Worlds, DuPont smacks Mark Schultz upside the head and then calls in his brother Dave to right the ship (which may or may not have needed righting.) Dave happily joins the team, helps his brother get cleaned up and focused back on wrestling, but there’s nothing he’s going to be able to do to repair the relationship between Mark and DuPont.

Dave Schulz is really the center of the film; he is essentially the guy that both Schulz and DuPont want to be.  He is the charismatic leader that Mark would like to be, he’s also the naturally inspiring leader and coach that DuPont would like to be.  So of course you know something terrible has to happen to him before the credits roll.

Everything about this film is top-notch.  It’s probably the best-acted film of 2014; Ruffalo, Carrell and Tatum all deliver career-defining performances.  The direction is subtle but effective; this is a deceptively complicated and difficult story to tell, but director Bennett Miller consistently makes choices to serve the story and stay out of its way.  I think this takes more skill than the kind of flashy direction that won Innaritu the Oscar this year.  From beginning to end, from top to bottom, “Foxcatcher” is quietly, devastatingly, one of the best films of the year.  Don’t overlook it.   

 

Posted in The Movie Blog.

Winter in the Blood

Based on the 1974 novel by James Welch, “Winter in the Blood” is a dreamy, often brutally dark film about an alcoholic on the Blackfeet reservation in Montana.  Chaske Spencer plays Virgil First Raise, who lives his life in an alternating state of drunken stupor and hung-over bleariness. There’s not much that you could call a plot here; First Raise wakes up in a ditch as the film opens, discovers his wife has left him, heading into town with his rifle and his electric razor, and he eventually decides he ought to go after her, at least to get the rifle back. But even this quest doesn’t feel at all urgent; he seems to not really care if he gets her or the rifle back, and he’s not in a hurry.

Instead, this is a very wandering, impressionistic film.  Directors Alex & Andrew Smith do a great job of capturing how, if you live in one place long enough, almost anything can trigger a flashback to a powerful, often painful memory.  We learn, as the film unfolds, that Virgil has lost both his father and his older brother is traumatic and scarring ways.  We also learn that he’s basically a good guy who takes care of his silent grandmother whom everyone else seems to have forgotten about.  He is drowning in the pain of his past, and drowns his pain in drink, and meaningless sexual encounters.

Continued…

Posted in The Movie Blog.

Birdman

2014 is starting to look like the year of the movie gimmick.

It started with “Boyhood.”  All anyone wants to talk about is how it took Richard Linklater 12 years to make this film, what an extraordinary achievement.  Never mind that a) he’s not the first to film a series of characters over a decade long arc and b) what’s on the screen is barely watchable. And then “American Sniper,” which, based on the buzz, is more about America’s relationship with its soldiers than about what actually happens on the screen.  Right-wingers and left-wingers talk about “Sniper” so differently it’s hard to believe they watched the same film; after seeing it for myself, I have to wonder if either side was watching the film very closely.

And now here’s “Birdman,” another big mess of a movie, that everyone is raving about for reasons which have little or nothing to do with what is up on there on the screen.

Michael Keaton plays an aging, mostly forgotten actor who was once a big deal because he played a caped superhero.  This is interesting, because Keaton is an aging, mostly forgotten actor was once a big deal because he played a caped superhero. Edward Norton plays a notoriously difficult actor, which is interesting because Edward Norton is a notoriously difficult actor. Zach Galafinakis plays his level-headed, pragmatic lawyer/producer, which is interesting because I never thought I would use words like ‘level-headed’ and ‘pragmatic’ to describe a character played by Zach Galafinakis. Naomi Watts is neurotic and insecure; Emma Stone just got out of rehab, and looks like it.  You get the picture.

Keaton is staging a Broadway play as an attempt to revive his career, which is a bold, risky move away from what he’s known for.  (Director Alejandro Innaritu is staging an artsy comedy in an attempt to revive his career, which is a bold, risky move away from what he’s known for.  OK, I’m done.)  He is kind of obsessed with fame, and getting it back. He has almost no idea what love and admiration are apart from fame. He’s an absent-minded father and was once a terrible husband. There’s a voice in his head that alternately tells him he’s a genius and a total loser who has no idea what he’s doing. He may actually have superpowers, or maybe that’s in his head as well.  The directory plays coy.  I hate that.

Oh yes, and one more thing: Innaritu has structured the camera work to make it look like the whole thing happens entirely without a cut.  I remember another movie a few years ago that did this: it was a haunted house pic with Elizabeth Olsen in it. It wasn’t very good, either.

OK, yeah, I’ll admit, “Birdman” is better than that.  It’s miles away from being as good as it wants to be, and all that pretension is irritating, but it’s not a completely bad movie. It’s pretty fun to watch Edward Norton chew scenery. There are some decent sort of half-assed ruminations on the nature of fame, and the life of actors, and theater. Nobody’s really searching hard after truth, but hey, if it’s right there in the candy jar, nobody’s going to pass it up, either. There’s an enjoyable shagginess to it, and it avoids formula, giving it a feel of its own.  Though it did remind me of “Synecdoche, New York;” another, far superior film about a director struggling to mount a stage production.

It won’t make my top 10 of the year list, and this is very obviously a film engineered to make lists.  And, full disclosure, five or ten years ago, I probably would’ve been suckered in by all its meta-ness and put it on a list.  But now, I’m not even sure I’d recommend it (unless you were trying to choose between this and “Silent House.”) But if I was channel-surfing through late night cable, I’d pause.  I might even stay and watch it all over again, and marvel at what a mess it is.

 

 

Posted in The Movie Blog.

American Sniper

I’m going to set aside most of my political opinions about the war in Iraq, and the American military in order to write a review of “American Sniper.”  I’m going to accept the premises that the movie puts forward — that the war is justified, that our troops were fighting to protect their friends and family back home, and that they were fighting against savages who had to be stopped by any means possible – because those are the premises the movie puts forward and asks me to believe. To criticize the movie because I don’t agree with them would be like criticizing the Harry Potter movies because I don’t believe children can fly around on brooms.

Bradley Cooper absolutely transformed himself to play legendary sniper Chris Kyle. It’s hard to believe this beefy, monosyllabic bullrider is being played by the same actor who wore a football jersey through most of “Silver Linings Playbook.” He looked like the opposite of a football player there, and certainly not a guy you would want on a rooftop with a high-powered rifle. But he embodies the character completely here, disappearing into the role. I liked Cooper as an actor before, and was impressed with his transition from “The Hangover” to much more complicated films and roles; I have a ton of respect for him as an actor now.

Continued…

Posted in The Movie Blog.

Locke

It’s a risk to limit a movie to one setting.  It’s an even bigger risk to limit a movie to only one actor on the screen, start to finish. But if you’re careful and you pay attention to details, these are the kinds of limitations that can bring a focus and sharpness to a project that elevates it to a work of art.

“Locke” is a work of art, and a thrilling, emotionally engaging movie. Aside from an establishing shot on a construction yard, the whole thing takes place inside a car, and the only actor onscreen is Tom Hardy. It’s a crime that Hardy wasn’t for a BAFTA award (the British equivalent of the Oscars); I haven’t seen most of the movies that were nominated, but it’s hard to imagine a better performance in a more demanding role than this one.

I don’t want to give too much away.  Suffice it to say that Hardy’s entire life threatens to unravel over the course of a two-hour car ride.  The has multiple phone conversations through his car’s bluetooth; with his wife, a desperate co-worker, and his boss, and another person. The film unravels its secrets at a leisurely pace, and I think you’ll have a better viewing experience if I don’t give away the details.  He is a careful man, with a lot of pride, trying hard to do the right thing by everybody. Except sometimes that just isn’t possible. You can’t be everywhere at once, and the choices are brutal. He has made a mistake, and is trying hard not to accept its consequences. It might end up ruining his life, but it will not change the kind of man he is.

The pace of “Locke” is perfect, and the way streetlights play off the dash and highlight Hardy’s face is reminiscent of Michael Mann; this is a film that makes digital video look good. A little more variation in the visuals seems like it could have been possible (the same two police cars go by with lights and sirens at least three times.  But then again, this might have taken away from the laser sharp focus on Locke’s face, which is the film’s great strength.

I wrote recently about how “Mr. Turner,” in refusing to limit itself in practically any way, becomes a boring, shapeless film.  ”Locke” is just the opposite.  The two are a great study in contrasts, and a testament to how limiting yourself in certain ways can produce better, clearer, more compelling art.  ”Locke” is one of the best movies of 2014.

 

Posted in The Movie Blog.