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Sweet Smell of Success (1957); And That Bad Taste it Leaves in Your Mouth

February 20, 2017

large_ktuadjksimlotdkiu6b8w3sfw8eOur current social climate has bred us to do two things: fear one another and give in to our own greed. Somewhere in the mix of this inbreeding, we’ve bastardized empathy through cognitive dissonance that has allowed us to ignore unspeakable horrors we may cause as long it gets us ahead. American society was founded by men who justified the rape, abuse and enslavement of other human beings by simply lying to themselves and fawning it off as science or social order. Not every example of cognitive dissonance is as grim. For many Americans in our day to day lives, our lies to ourselves are ways to rationalize our compliance. We convince ourselves that it’s impossible and uncomfortable to fight against the system, so we ignore our own autonomy.

No film genre embodies these notions more than Film Noir during 40s and 50s, with its variety of films pitting characters into harsh situations that they can’t escape because they are prisoners to their environment. Sweet Smell of Success captures this gritty realism in ways I didn’t think possible. This is a film that affects you on a much deeper level forcing you to feel sorrow and pity for humanity, because some people are so lost in the illusion of being successful that they drown in their own deception. Unfortunately, upon their decent into the murky, crushing tides of despair they bring down everyone around them in an attempt to stay afloat.

Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) is a press agent living a salacious existence selling secrets and gossip to equally trashy publications. He’s made a name for himself making friends and enemies from people completely recoiled and simultaneously drawn to his scuzzy lifestyle and quick thinking. In his hunt of making a buck, Falco proves himself willing to crawl through any shit-tainted sludge if it means he’ll come out on top. The gatekeeper of the cesspool Falco operates in is J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), a media personality and news man. Lancaster’s stalking physique paired with director Andrew Mackendrick’s heavy use of low angle shots equates to his character’s stature in this New York City swamp they inhabit. J.J.’s co-dependence on his younger sister causes him to meddle in her personal life using Falco as a key player to splitting her up with her current love. But soon their meddling spirals into a series of unfortunate events as they both lose touch of what little humanity they have left for the sake of gaining what is not obtainable.

Lancaster is utterly terrifying yet enigmatic as the manipulating, strong-minded media icon. His dastardly arrogance and brazen attitude is constantly fed by the equally selfish and fearful people he surrounds himself with; a senator hoping to become president, an abusive misogynist cop, and Falco. J.J. validates the right to meddle into the affairs of other people despite what effect it may have on their psychological selves because he has a duty to readers, his enterprise, both mere synonyms for himself. He finds in his henchman Falco a partner to who laps at his deeds. Tony Curtis owns his scenes as a hapless, careless worm who will jeopardize his own mother’s soul if a means controlling the press. James Wong Howe’s stunning and flawless cinematography shines some high-key lighting onto the dark ways these men use their privilege to abuse and manipulate others.

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American values are reflected harshly from this film onto society baring some unwanted blemishes and gashes. These people have hardened themselves to the ethical norms of emotional security. Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odet’s killer scripts allows them to feel embolden to speak freely and recklessly to other people, using their tongues to lacerate those around them. Yet these are cowards who are often on the defensive and react with overt emotion when they are forced to criticize themselves thanks either to the disapproving looks of another or the upfront insulting of another. Much like our current administration mind you…

I’d be remiss if I ignored the connections of these despicable characters with the idiocy of our current administration. Similar to our leaders, the people of this film manage to validate all of their wrong doings and meddling because to them it’s a dog eat dog world and life is simply a game to be played for material gain and selfishness. Never mind the harm that it does to real people. By the standards of the big wigs, the group that’s wining about equal rights and empathy just don’t see the bigger picture, like when Falco tries to convince a needy friend to sleep with a stranger for a byline in a paper. He completely ignores her tears and any concerns for her safety or dignity. Instead he convinces her that she is helping and would be ungrateful to refute the stranger’s advances because after all, she’s the one who needs help. The line of thinking these days is that the public is silly to not trust our administration and support their actions, because after all we’re the ones who need help from all the danger that surrounds us.

Jackie (2016); A Slow Burn of a Character Study 

February 7, 2017

jackie-movie-poster“I never wanted to be famous, I just became a Kennedy.”

An interesting scene happens in Jackie when the former First Lady (Natalie Portman) and Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) ride alone together in the back of a hearse, while Jack Kennedy’s bloodied remains lay covered in the coffin at their feet. Jackie questions the driver’s knowledge of past assassinated presidents as she fears that her husband’s legacy will attain to nothing more than a distant memory. Bobby somberly listens and attempts to quell her anxiety, all the while peaceful and rational; like others in this scene and throughout the film, Bobby doesn’t show any reaction to losing his brother—the President of the United States. This scene is obviously fabricated. Jackie was a private woman who didn’t open the door for others to pry heavily into her extremely public life. Meanwhile, Bobby would go on to live about five more years before his own tragic assassination closed a window on his own story. My point is, this fabricated scene is at the imagination of the film’s writer, Noah Oppenheim. Anything could have been said or done in that hearse based on his whim, but he chose to handle this emotional moment and the ongoing situations in the film in very distant and flat ways.

The real life footage of John F. Kennedy’s death has always left an impact on me. Not the tragic shooting itself but America’s reaction to it. Faces filled with shock. Audiences of people gasped. Tears flowed for the many Americans who felt the personal loss of their chances at civil rights and progress. These strong emotions are not prevalent in Jackie. Everyone instead reacts with furrowed pity for Jackie, bowing their heads when she walks into a room or worrying with complete despair when she rambles on in shock. The ensemble of characters that fill out the film almost seem to judge Jackie behind their scrunched eyebrows yet no one, outside of Jackie, sheds a tear for Kennedy. No one shares  Jackie’s pain, they only seem to feel sympathetic slight. They don’t react as if they’ve lost a president, co-worker, or friend; they act as though they’ve lost the house gerbil.

It made me question whether this cold narrative and dismal focus is meant to give all the attention, and thus performative range, to Portman or if subpar direction of actors from Pablo Larraín simply didn’t allow for moments of glory for supporting characters. Saarsgard as Bobby seems nearly un-phased by his brother’s death throughout the entire film and is frankly wasted because of this. He adds nothing to the role nor the narrative except to be a shill that Jackie gets to lay her anger on when she thinks he’s doubting her. While I realize that Jackie and her emotional breakdown are the obvious focus of this film, it feels odd to watch a movie about an American icon and not get a glimpse at how his other loved ones reacted.

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This icebox of a focus does, however, lend itself to fantastic work by director of photography Stéphane Fontaine who complements Larraín’s taut, breathy camera work with high contrast images that manage to suck the life out of the frame while still allowing stark, rich colors to stay embolden in every shot. This dual collaboration leaves the images within Jackie rigid and pliable. Mica Levi’s score balances the images while helping move shots forward in a rhythmic progression that effectively keeps up the pace of this near two-hour journey.

These elements play upon each other appropriately but they never fully make the package of the film incredible or stimulating. Jackie has just enough introspective sequences to make it a bearable character study of the nation’s most secretive First Lady, but the film doesn’t possess enough to make it groundbreaking or outstanding unless it’s for cinematic value and Portman’s performance. I found Larríne and Portman’s choice to make Jackie appear wooden and uncomfortable in her position, despite the real Jackie possessing a knowing confidence that managed to make her an icon, a large reason  why this film truly suffers. Jackie is a film to see if you’re a history buff who enjoys period dramas, or if you’re a Natalie Portman purist or simply if you’re someone who wants to see some great DP work at play. But if you’re looking for something deeper about Jackie Kennedy’s experience as a First Lady to an assassinated president, you may find yourself better impressed by a documentary.

Split (2017); And Rising Above Trauma

January 27, 2017

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The concept of traumatic experiences revealing themselves in tangible ways fascinates me. I am completely entranced when these palpable manifestations appear in gruesome and horrific ways in cinema. This twisted appeal began when I first watched David Cronenberg’s 1979 cult classic The Brood, followed shortly after by Adam Robitel’s Alzheimer’s horror, The Taking of Deborah Logan (2014). The musings that formed during the course of those films matured once I read an amazing article on how trauma can embed itself into DNA and get passed down through genetics. The implications of this study have been grossly underplayed. I mean think about, could suppressed trauma essentially reveal itself as tumors? Or skin ailments? Perhaps its the reason that certain diseases just “run in the family.” Maybe it could be the cause of mental disorders, like dissociative personality disorder as per the theme of M. Night Shyamalan’s newest film, Split.

After Claire’s (Haley Lu Richardson) birthday party ends, she gets an unwanted surprise and winds up kidnapped along with her friend Marcia (Jessica Sula) and estranged classmate Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy). The girls are drugged and locked away in a suspiciously immaculate, seedy room with one bathroom. As the girls scramble to think on their feet and plan their escape, they are derailed by their kidnapper, Dennis (James McAvoy), who they soon discover isn’t alone.

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Though limited to one body, Dennis is one of 23 personalities that await in a queue to take over the body of Kevin. These different personas struggle to regain conscious in “the light,” but three have proven their strength. What fuels these three to stay conscious is their preparation for the arrival of the Beast, the 24th personality. The other personalities, and Kevin’s own psychiatrist (Betty Buckley), believe the 24th to be an imagined persona meant to keep the other personas in check but Dennis, Patricia, and Hedwig (all McAvoy) know better. The 24th may be more than another personality and could be something super and incredible all on its own.

Horror fans who long held faith that M. Night Shyamalan would return with a knockout someday can finally let go of that breath we’ve been holding in for about 15 years. Shyamalan has finally reached his potential and returned with a fantastic mind bender that narratively tests the limits of the human brain. Split isn’t just a thriller about multiple personalities, it’s a drama about abuse and the ways in which people learn to cope with it. Through flashback scenes, we see the childhood of Casey and Kevin, seemingly unconnected separate stories that intertwine together in heartbreaking ways.

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But back to Shyamalan, let’s not pretend that he is or ever was a beckon to filmmaking, although in our time I would argue he is one of the few consistent directors within the horror/thriller genre, on par with James Wan, Rob Zombie, or TI West. I think the years of backlash against Shyamalan has been rooted in viewer disappointment from once catching a glimpse of his genius early on in his career only to be led astray film after terrible film with his less than stellar motifis, plot  twists, and bland storytelling. The visuals that made Unbreakable (2000) captivating despite its hokey story or the atmosphere that made The Sixth Sense (1999) so heart-stoppingly tense was missing from his later, more garbagey films.

Despite his fickle ability to tell a story, Shyamalan shows a fierce mastery of skill in Split—a companion piece to his sophomore film Unbreakable, a film about ordinary people with extraordinary talents. It’s easy to argue that the film’s focus on distress from abuse is a tad bit exploitative and some critics have poorly argued this. I can understand this argument, but I don’t find that to be prevalent in the text of the film. It does more than blame trauma for psychosis, instead it questions what if trauma can cause the brain to react in extraordinary ways? It does already, Shyamalan just ups the ante through science fiction. 

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Split goes above and beyond as a horror/thriller through its effective use of camera movement, sound, dramatic lighting, and a strong performance from McAvoy. But I commend  Shyamalan for using Split as an uplifting bandage to those who have suffered trauma and abuse in life. It acts as a supporting hand intended to make the many of us feel impervious and invincible in spite of our pasts that are meant to make us feel weak. Split argues that something stronger, more impenetrable can emerge from within someone who has experienced trauma making our pain something that gives us an edge. For some that’s exploitation, for me it was emotional and powerful.

SEE IT.

Hidden Figures (2017); And the Hopeful Rise of Black Women in Society

January 23, 2017

hidden-figures-posterFor too long, Hollywood has underestimated the role of Black women at the forefront of film. Often times in cinema we (Black women) are relegated to supporting roles and set as background pieces, rarely ever possessing the agency to explore our multifaceted selves on screen. Some people may not be aware of this, but Black women are humans too. We laugh, we cry, we hurt, we hate, we anger, we love, we achieve, and we’re smart. We retain an outlook on society that many groups don’t possess. Not only are we hindered and shaped by our race but we are also affected by our gender, and yet often times society forgets—or rather ignores that fact.

The abolitionist and feminist Sojourner Truth fought for equality of all women during the first wave of feminism, while an unfortunate many white suffragists only cared about a white woman’s own access to civil rights. During the 2nd wave, the same dissonance took place and continues to happen time and again. Even this past weekend’s powerful women’s march (that was initiated by women of color) was marred by conflict as white women seemingly hijacked the movement and spoke out against focusing on racial relations. While Black women fight to support the freedom of all women through our own social liberation, many others have left us to fight our intersectional battle alone. It’s not as though we need a savior to help us achieve, but it would be amazing to have assistance from those who live in the spotlight to help us get seen in the shadows.

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This is what is so admirable and amazing about Hidden Figures. Screenplay co-writer Allison Schroeder used her own personal privilege as a white woman to uplift and highlight the largely unknown story of how three Black women—along with a team of women of color—made waves at NASA with their brilliant minds. These women, known as “computers,” overcame racial stereotypes, barriers and blunt hate to do their jobs to the best of their abilities. Their minds and hard work helped put John Glenn into space in 1962 and send three astronauts to the moon seven years later. I’ll repeat: Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Katherine Johnson, along with an entire colored department at NASA, helped put a man in space and on the freaking moon. American wouldn’t be the America we know now, or knew, had these events not taken place.

Schroeder’s co-written script with director Theodore Melfi helps cement the intensity and relevant urgency of Margot Lee Shetterly’s nonfiction novel with an ensemble cast of divine actors. And can we just thank the heavens for Taraji P. Henson’s slide into the mainstream? In these post-“Empire” days, she is no longer limited to roles that are only seen by majority Black audiences and thus ignored by the mainstream. This woman is an incredible actor and a force to be reckoned with and now the world recognizes it. Henson delivers a powerful performance emoting with great passion when necessary and reacting in timid, slightness when appropriate for her character.

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Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae give rousing performances shining in their own right as two strong women who refuse to let the status quo keep them from achieving their goals. Monae as Jackson struggles to become an engineer, but gets roadblocked by segregation and racial bias that prevents her from furthering her education. Spencer as Vaughan has desires to move upward in her department, but is continually denied access despite being entrusted with supervisor responsibilities and workload without the pay or title. Both women refuse to go down without a fight and instead take initiative that grants them the opportunity to move forward. Monae and Spencer both play their roles with a fierce tenacity that is both inspiring and warm.

Vaughan, Jackson, and Johnson were all brilliant women who were blessed to experience greatness despite the era they were born into. Although their tales went largely unknown for some time, they received resurgence when Shetterly’s novel in the making prompted producers to take notice and buy the rights to make a film. These women are just three of many who have achieved great success that directly attributed to the illustrious status of this country, but they will forever go unearthed because of the simple fact that their skin color rendered it acceptable to ignore their legacy.

Hidden Figures is powerful for showing how utterly foolish and frankly stupid humans beings continue to be for denying others basic rights and opportunities over biological differences in melanin and anatomy. Maybe one day we’ll reach a place where films of this nature will simply be a way to highlight the extraordinary tales of people who slip through the cracks of notoriety in history, instead of needing to be a tool that repeatedly teaches us to not be ignorant, racist assholes. But in this social climate it feels like these stories need to taught a little while longer. 

SEE IT. And contribute to uplifting women of color instead of ignoring us.

3 Things I Loved about Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016), And 3 Things I Didn’t

December 24, 2016

cwq_ccexuauhczmIt’s practically pointless to write a critique for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, although it hasn’t even been a full week since its official release. Already, Rogue One has made a whopping $155 million and has accumulated well over 300 reviews on Rotten Tomatoes with nearly unanimous praise across the board. And, that’s not even counting the slew of amazing bloggers now on RT who devote their time to crafting responsible, well thought-out critiques (I see y’all). So honestly, there’s no point of me cranking out a 1,000+ word review when dozens of over reviewers have already praised the same elements I liked and slated others that I didn’t. That doesn’t mean I won’t contribute my part in the sea of critical noise though. Here are three things I loved about Rogue One, and three things I didn’t.

What I Liked:

  • Deigo Luna, Riz Ahmed and Mads Mikkelen’s faces. These men aren’t just incredibly easy on the eyes, but they are also extremely talented actors who have made waves in their own right throughout the years. With the introduction of each one I found myself getting way too excited at their presence in the film. I didn’t realize just how much I loved Mikkelen as an actor until I nearly squealed when opens the film. Mikkelen is a fantastic performer, perhaps one of the greatest of this decade. Although he isn’t breaking the mold with his performance in Rogue One—neither is Ahmed, Luna, Forest Whitaker (who is great by the way) or any other actor in the film—wonderful to see a parade of colorful, multinational faces on screen. By the way, why are there no Black women in a galaxy far, far away?
  • I saw Rogue One in 3D, and while I can’t say that paying the extra cash to see it that way is worth it, I have to admit the 3D technology does lend itself to some amazing details in architecture, landscapes and background images. The scenes showing spacecraft’s go from lightning speed to their stopping points is frankly incredible. Side note: does anyone else have to wrestle with the glasses for the first 30 minutes? I can’t be the only one who is more distracted by the glasses themselves than the images on screen…and I wear glasses!
  • Dark Vadar’s badassery. Nuff said.

 

What I Didn’t Like:

  • Am I the only one who was completely underwhelmed by the action sequences? Chalk this up to hype, but supposedly director Gareth Edwards watched a ton of war films before filming Rogue One to prepare for the intense action sequences. This gave me all the feels as I thought this film was going to be on par with say, Saving Private Ryan (in its direction that is, not impact). Unfortunately, the trio of editors involved in cutting up Rogue One made a pretty snowflake cute out with not true girth or definition. Now, I enjoyed the last 15 or so minutes way more than I did the overall film, but the battle lacks all power due to the action getting stripped away to cut another sequence of action.
  • The heavy-handed religious overtones didn’t do it for me. The overt reminder of The Force’s power within and without of humanity made for some very cheesy moments with the blind believer, Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) and his “walk on water” style faith. I’m not knocking the religious aspects, I just felt it could have been done more subtly.

  • Reluctantly accepting that I’m not a Star Wars fangirl. I love the original Star Wars Trilogy and like a good little capitalist I have followed every film since. But watching Rogue One made me realize that I just don’t care about the Star Wars universe the way much of the world does. Rogue One is good, but it’s not great. I highly disagree with viewers who are stating that’s the best one since the original or the better than whichever film of the original. I frankly thought Rogue One was boring in parts and actually drifted away mentally while watching it. I don’t think Rogue One is necessary to the canon of Star Wars. In fact, I don’t think any of the rebooted films are except for maybe The Force Awakens. I was intrigued by the spectacle of Rogue One but not the story or it’s connection to the canon, which just made me realize that I’m just not a transformational fan of the series.

La La Land (2016); Don’t Buy the Hype

December 19, 2016

lalalandposterLa La Land has received an ongoing litany of praise in the past few months–beginning well before its official widespread release date. Critics have heralded it as “dazzling” and “unforgettable” with many making it a shoe-in for awards season. Multiple critics have vomited a slew of praiseworthy sentences even claiming it “the best picture of the year”. I beg to differ. La La Land is a gem that’s for sure, but it’s not a polished diamond in the rough. Instead it’s more a rose quartz, not rare to find and not the greatest gem you’ll stumble on, but it’s pretty enough to keep on your mantel and show off to your friends. Damien Chazelle’s musical romance isn’t bringing back the musical as so many reviewers will have you think, because to say that would be to assume that’s it’s a musical to be considered on par with the greats from the era it so proudly homages. La La Land instead is just helping keep us all talking about musicals so maybe more can continue to emerge.

I thoroughly enjoyed La La Land, but on the car ride back home after I started to pour over the details and break down what I liked and disliked about it, only then did I have that a-ha moment. I realized La La Land isn’t a great story, nor an exceptional musical for that matter. This is a film that owes the praise and accolades it’s receiving to cinematographer Linus Sandgren for creating such a beautifully sensational spectacle that could make even the most hardened critic ignore the gaping holes in the story that prevents this film from being a top notch banner of what a musical can and should be.

Let’s start with the facts: La La Land is not a great musical. It’s good at best but that’s mostly thanks to the score that wafts through the background. There’s maybe two songs that are actually memorable but that’s the music itself and not the wooden and shallow dance numbers. The spectacle around the songs–the colors, the costume design, the background set– is what makes them so enchanting and entertaining. If you’ve watched only handful of musicals, chances are you have seen better examples of this spectacular genre. La La Land simply doesn’t soar as a musical leaving director/writer Damien Chazelle to let his script act as the pulse of the film. At first glance it seems works, but then I began to pull at the other pieces of the thread causing the whole thing to unravel in a 20 minute car ride home mulling over the story with myself.

La La Land (2016) Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone)

Aside from this, a major problem with La La Land is Ryan Gosling, and y’all I hate writing a sentence with that phrase. Gosling is my modern day Paul Newman, an actor whose skill and personal qualities cements my love for an entire lifetime. I have been in a long-term serious love affair with Gosling since I was about 9 years old. From “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse” and “Breaker High” to The Believer and Dead Man’s Bones, I have been every step of the way with Gosling’s career. So that’s why it’s painful to admit, and even shocking to see, how mediocre he is La La Land. He dances with all lower body leaving his torso and arms lame and weak taking away from his overall pizzazz in dance numbers. The music isn’t written to accommodate his vocal talents resulting in subpar, and sometimes just bad, singing. While his character is somewhat likable, I didn’t care for him and it seems the script didn’t either. As someone who has followed Gosling since both of our adolescent years, I know he’s capable of wowing me in all of these areas, so why in La La Land didn’t he?

Then it hit me; because his character is developed to be a schmuck who makes no sense when you step back and examine him. This is a guy with a firm chip on his shoulders who meets Mia twice before beginning their relationship and each time he could care less. They do a literal song and dance about how he’s just not that into her. He denies the initial spark between them leaving her with no indication that he cares to pursue any type of relationship with her. And yet, like a light bulb going off when it’s convenient for the plot line, he shows up to her job adamant on spending a day with her. The formation of their relationship is equivalent to a trite pre-teen love affair. The span of time they spend together doesn’t lend itself to fully understanding the problems that arise between them. We see montage of their blossoming relationship but not the details needed to truly care (though kudos to the elements of cinema that make you cry on cue in spite of this). Instead of communicating with each other about their relationship, Mia and Sebastian both make assumptions about the other leading to a very confusing climax in the second act of the film.

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These character just aren’t fleshed out enough to feel real. It’s almost a one-sided game here in which Mia wins getting the bulk of the attention and development while Sebastian, who is so undersold I didn’t even know his name coming out of the movie, plays out like a one note caricature of a tortured artist. These characters make the decisions they make because a script pushes them to, not because of the natural progression of human growth and change. Emma Stone delivers a great performance but like her character it’s all a facade. Stone has improved in talent over the years (and she’s the unmitigated star here), but has unfortunately lost the natural charm she once held in films like Easy A. Plus, a romantic chemistry is void between Stone and Gosling. They seem like old pals rather than passionate lovers.

So if that’s the case, why did I like this film so much? Because of the technical side, namely Chazelle’s always stunning movement while filming and Sandgren’s illustrious, mesmerizing use of color and framing of scenes along with the production design that is a lighthearted nostalgic treat for all the classic Hollywood film lovers. There’s odes to Singin’ in the Rain, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Humphrey Bogart, Louise Brooks, James Dean and Busby Berkeley’s stunning work (unfortunately La La Land doesn’t dive too much into good old Busby’s work during a pool scene, pun intended). There are excuses to provide cameos of almost every major star of the past so if you’re passionate about classic Hollywood then it’s exciting to watch!

In spite of the issues that prevent La La Land from being as immaculate as most critics have attempted to make it out to be, this is still a must see film. Television alone has kept keep the musical alive in the traditional sense in part due to NBC’s live musical resurgences, and also moving musicals into the future thanks to the CW’s hilarious “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.” La La Land is somewhere between the two. Not wholly traditional, not necessarily foreword thinking but it is clever in its attempt and it’s a hell of ride. Just don’t think of it too much.

SEE IT. If you feel it’s a “best picture” type film, then let’s chat about it in the comments.

Sounder (1972); And Ramblings on Writer’s Block and Other Films in Dark Times

December 14, 2016

I’m forcing myself to write and post this because I haven’t in a while. Once again I’ve hit a wall, that inevitable stopping point that happens every so often where writing slips down the priority ladder all the while clawing at my heels. “I don’t have time”, “I’m too busy”, “my brain is fried”, “I don’t wanna”: there are always excuses rumbling around in my head that prevents me from engaging with my thoughts during these blocked days. I’ve rarely even mediated lately. Not that I was a poster child for it or anything, but I just haven’t allowed myself to simply create and be. I’ll manage to write a few sentences here and there, and ideas bubble to the surface frequently. But I don’t give in. I haven’t really figured out why I don’t give in. Maybe its all the reasons above. Despite it all, the block never stops my clamoring need to feel whole by writing and getting whatever it is out of me.

I find that in these moments of writer’s block, I make time for everything else but myself. Life has sped by me faster that I can feel the wind graze my skin. I’ve been adjusting to a new job at my favorite television station, Turner Classic Movies while staring at screens all day. I’ve been panicking about the state of the planet and humanity under a new presidency. I have been working on plans to fix it the issues at hand, as if I’m equipped enough to do so. I’ve been watching more movies than I can count, which makes me even more anxious that I’m not writing about them. But then I wonder, should I? Should I write just because I saw films x, y, and z? Or should I save my posts for something powerful?

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Portrait of Jason (1967)

Nevertheless, so many powerful films have crossed my radar while working at TCM. Of the dozens I’ve watched in the past few weeks, a few immediately spring to mind: Solyent Green (1973), Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980), Crossfire (1947), Portrait of Jason (1967) to name a few. I particularly loved Gerald Mayer’s Dial 1119 (1950) and its brilliant social commentary on the ways in which American society chooses to criminalize the mentally ill instead of possessing the empathy to learn and work with them. In this film, Marshall Thompson portrays a vengeful mental patient with a chip on his shoulder and delusions in his head. These two elements convince him to find the doctor he blames for putting him away.

The journey doesn’t turn out the way he expects, however, instead leading him to a bar where seven strangers with their own hangups and problems are staying. There his cover is blown resulting in a stand-off in which he holds the bar hostage while the outside world clamors to get a piece of the action. The cops only want to resolve it their way. The doctor his way. The bystanders theirs. And all the while these seven people worry for their lives as the  gunman becomes more and more unhinged.

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Dial 1119 (1950)

Another powerful gem that I re-watched was Sounder. There’s something about the 1970s that allowed filmmakers to do a magnificent job at capturing reality through film. A night or two before Sounder, I watched History channel’s reboot of “Roots” and all I could do was roll my eyes at a production value high enough to include the likes of Derek Luke and Forest Whitaker, but still low enough to ruin itself with historical inaccuracies and mediocre technicalities. “Roots” felt like a project that was trying way too hard, like someone who realizes they have an important piece of history in their hands but botch it by trying to explain too much of the particulars. African accents frequently drop into American ones. Scenes go on far too long into ad nauseam for what it’s trying to articulate. Forest Whitaker’s intense monologues lack the genuine pathos needed to truly be engaging, although he delivers with great energy. Everything is bright, well lit, acted, fake.

That’s what sets it apart from the 1970s version and the reason for my intense craving to rewatch it while completely forgetting to watch episode two until editing this piece. There was a grit and grime that attached itself to films from the 70’s. A realism that plastered itself right on to the celluloid. Other decades don’t possess this life force. Even the poorest quality films from the 40s or 50’s don’t hold that grungy, dank look that truly makes you feel you’re watching these people in real environments live their lives the way the 1970s did.

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Sounder (1972)

That’s what Sounder has—that’s why it shook me to my core. I first watched it years ago in elementary school after reading the novel. Time, and my failing memory, allowed the details to slip away from me all too easily after years of never truly thinking of it again. After watching it at my desk in the middle of working, I fell completely in awe. Sounder is an effective film because so much of its story is rooted in realism. Cecily Tyson doesn’t have to deliver a powerful monologue as the music swells for you to feel what’s present. The camera doesn’t have to spend long beats staring at the saddened look on the Morgan children’s faces when their father is hauled off to prison. We don’t have to wait in fields searching for Sounder when he goes missing to young David Lee’s dismay. These things aren’t contrived, instead they fall into place at a natural progression that happens in brief spurts then continues on with its story, because life goes on. 

David Lee breaks your heart not because he’s a poor black boy. This family’s tragedy isn’t just because they’re poor. The sadness felt by watching their plight emerges because life goes on. While father Nathan Lee is in prison, the Morgans must continue despite his absence. They miss him, they long for him but there’s no time to grieve. They don’t have the privilege to do that. They realize their loss but must continue on for survival. David Lee’s youth is tainted by his need to provide for his family. He doesn’t bemoan it. He just does what needs to be done, just as father did when he stole ham from a house to feed his family after a night hunt to catch a raccoon for food fails. 

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Sounder (1972)

Sounder doesn’t possess over generalizations of society but focuses on the general emotional reactions people. It doesn’t look to demonize white people for how they treat this family during the time period. It address issues with compliance and how humans are predisposed to do what they are told, some without ever questioning why or what they truly believe themselves. The sheriff can’t give David Lee the name of his father’s prison camp because the law tells him he can’t. Even when the sheriff’s kindly white friend and neighbor attempts to get the information from him, he denies her. He’s furious with her and even threatens her reputation as well as their friendship when he catches her snooping for the information. He reminds her that he does what he’s told saying, “When [the Judge] calls me, I jump!” Even the guard at the jail shows his impetuous compliance when he  pokes holes in a freshly baked chocolate cake to assure there’s no files or hatchet in it. Davids face of disappointment is all we need in that scene.

Rebecca (Tyson) laments to her husband Nathan Lee (a highly underrated and always incredible Paul Winfield) one night; what’s the point of them working when it all just goes back to the land owner leaving them hungry and starting from scratch. As she speaks, she walks around their shack allowing the flow of her dress to revel the tears and rips throughout it. The family wears scarps for clothing with the youngest rarely wearing shirts. Their clothing is for necessity only not luxury. The cinematography and muck present in 1970’s 35mm gives this film a near documentary feel.

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Sounder (1972)

But Sounder isn’t one of those films where it has to beat you over the head to drive its message home. In its Depression-era time frame we don’t see much of the “upscale” high-class life. We see country living for everyone featured in the film, even if some of their homes are nicer than others. Sounder is a portrait of a family in a time when life was rough. But their love for one another is apparent and shown in their support for each others goals and achievements. The demand for equality and justice for black lives is ever present by simply watching this family be during harsh times.

Sounder is heartbreaking because its shitty to watch good people struggle. To be reminded of the timeless truth that no matter how hard you work, shit happens. But despite that shit, it takes perseverance and surrendering to some extent before things can open up and change. Maybe that’s been my lesson during this writer’s block as my mind grows more and more preoccupied with the future state of my country and this world. Shit happens and we can’t just get distracted complaining about it or looking for someone else to guide us through it. We have to treat life like every generation has before us by working hard to fix what we can and accept what we can’t. Regardless, life goes on so we must keep living.

The Handmaiden (2016); Sex and The Big Screen at its Best

December 6, 2016

handmaiden_poster_2764x4096_1200_1778_81_sI almost don’t want to write a review about The Handmaiden. I went into this film knowing absolutely nothing about it except that its directed by South Korean visionary Chan-wook Park. Park first came onto my radar back in the gestation of my cinephiliac days after I stumbled upon Oldboy. Young and ripe in my cinema fandom, Oldboy completely changed my perspective of what film could do and was capable of. Oldboy is a masterpiece that astounded me to the point of possessing a permanent residence among my top favorite films of all time. When a friend mentioned she was seeing The Handmaiden for her birthday and that Park was attached, I asked no questions—just showed up.

What I watched in a theater of about 13 people was unlike anything I had ever seen before and perhaps the most intimate movie going experience of my life. For that reason, I want people to stumble into this film ignorant of what it is. I want anyone who sees this to be completely unaware of its plot, its content, it’s twists and turns, and the sensations that will arise from it. I want this film to utterly blindside and shock you, and regardless it will. I want The Handmaiden to make you shuffle in your seat, cross your legs in prurience, and fan yourself as emotions arise and your body reacts to the images that flow across the screen. To watch this movie and take note of your responses to it is what the cinematic experience is all about.

So because of this, I will not delve into the plot much except to mention that it’s set in the early 20th century with Japan and Korea as its backdrop. The story breathes in a time of history that I knew nothing about: Korea under the rule of Japan from the early 1900s until the end of WWII. Park uses this setting to allow both cultures to revel in their history while complementing and critiquing aspects of both. Prepare yourself. Although The Handmaiden moves in a placid flow, it simultaneously plows through elements of the story.

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English-speaking viewers will likely have a bit of trouble keeping up at first due to both Korean and Japanese being spoken throughout the film. Subtitles are present to guide you along (Japanese in yellow, Korean in white), but if you have a brain like mine that likes to wander attempting to pick up subtleties in inflection and culture, it’ll do you good to know that you need to shut off your mental tangents to fully focus on what is going on.

The plot of this film is grossly captivating and it shifts and turns in ways you wouldn’t expect or imagine. It’s an ode to film noir, more specifically the femme fatale. It’s a feminist herald that combines explicit sexual content in beautiful, and at times ghastly, ways to both sensate and criticize the society in which the film is set. But that’s beside the point. The Handmaiden impresses here mostly because of Park’s visual mastery of the camera complimented by editors Jae-Bum Kim and Sang-beom Kim. Meanwhile, cinematographer, Chung-hoon Chung, proves absolutely magical creating breathtaking visual cues and a trenchant color palette. The Handmaiden is stunning. It’s the type of film that will likely get nominated for an Academy Award for its visual talents, if the Academy has the balls to give credit to such a controversial piece.

Park doesn’t just use his visuals as a pretty centerpiece. He brilliantly directs with levity littering nuggets of hilarious moments on a continued basis throughout. The Handmaiden is a must see film that will challenge your thoughts about cinema and about sex. It’s reminiscent of past films like Blue is the Warmest Color and In the Realm of Senses. But where Blue fails in its depiction of consensual sex between adults by filming in exploitative, harsh ways centered through a male-gaze, and In the Realm of Senses lacks in its ability to bring excitement to its love scenes, The Handmaiden marries art and titillation for an almost completely new framework to center its images through. Sure the film could’ve shaved off some scenes to lessen its 2 hour and 47-minute runtime. And yes the last scene is completely unnecessary and I thought the men of this deserved harsher comeuppance all around. Despite it all, The Handmaiden is a witty and brilliant film that I recommend everyone see. But not with your family. For God’s sake don’t see this with family.

SEE IT. But seriously, don’t bring your mom.  

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