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Here and Now with the Past; Ramblings on the TCM Classic Film Festival

April 12, 2017

In 1931, MGM producer Samuel Goldwyn insisted on adapting Elmer Rice’s successful stage play Street Scene for the screen. The dramatic story, centering around a New York City stoop on a hot summer day, unfolds through the various inhabitants that call the stoop home. The stair-encased concrete slab of the stoop serves as a soapbox for the apartment’s tenants, granting audiences the intimate opportunity to hear opposing ideologies, moral standards and personal desires of a dozen or so New Yorker’s who jut in and out of the frame. Goldwyn’s adaptation of the play brought in newcomer Sylvia Sidney and the already established, masterful director King Vidor—two essential components that make Street Scene an absolute powerhouse of a film. The whirlwind of talent on and off the screen allows Street Scene to successfully capture pertinent traits of human behavior while advising against the dangers of the moral superiority that comes with class and racial identity, making it a riveting film like no other of its time and putting it on par with the likes of Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing (1989) almost 60 years later.

I had the pleasure of seeing this remarkably conscious work of art at the TCM Classic Film Festival this past week. Preserved and presented in nearly pristine 35mm thanks to the UCLA Film and Television Archive, I watched Street Scene with bated breath as tears welled in my eyes. I underwent an incredibly emotional experience during the film’s screening; one wrapped in a love for cinema’s ability to reflect the human experience so perfectly then shrouded in Turner Classic Movie’s desire to bring these films into the forefront of contemporary audiences’ minds. That tear-laden moment throughout Street Scene proved to be just one of many powerful emotions that eclipsed my very first film festival experience.

Publicity still from Street Scene.

The TCM Classic Film Festival was my lifelong dream come true. Cinephilism is in my blood, a passion for film so deep that it feels encoded in my DNA. Thanks to a mother who loved old Westerns; a father who cemented my earliest memories of going to the movies; and an older brother who fell in love with the theater and the Golden Age of Hollywood in my youth, I’ve carried the need to obsessively watch and engage with films before I even understood the mechanics of criticism and film reviewing. In fact, I’m pretty positive my earliest ancestor was the tribe’s fire tender who debated the meaning of what was happening in the fluttering licks of fire and the animated glow of its coals. Turner Classic Movies has allowed my ancestral devotion to moving pictures to thrive over the years by making the deep dive into the ocean of cinema history easier to navigate.

That’s why I always knew I’d work for Turner Classic Movies. I was never certain how, when or under what conditions, but I knew even if it meant as a janitor in my 60s that I’d find my way into the TCM building. What I couldn’t have imaged or expected was that I would get to work on the Film Festival with an amazing group of people by helping organize and construct the beautiful programming guide that found its way in the attendees’ hands. The experience of being among the community of classic film enthusiasts that migrated from all over the world for this cinematic mecca in Los Angeles was unreal. I never expected to see such a diverse fan base of warm, friendly people, especially considering how problematic classic films can be. I’m naturally weary of those who long for the nostalgia of life in the past. The phrase “make America great again” churns knots in my stomach at the obvious disregard of what America was for people of color. But the core group of people who came out to celebrate and relive the classy, sophisticated, often left-leaning ideologies of old Hollywood were kind-hearted fans who just wanted to discuss the legendary and unsung talent of yesteryear.

The theme for the 8th annual TCM Classic Film Festival was Make ‘Em Laugh. Nevertheless, my experience with the films I managed to see mustered a different theme: Make Em Reflect. Many, if not everyone, who watch classic films are taught to view them from the lens they were created in because there are problematic issues that we do not stand by today. But what was hardest about having to look back on how people of the 1920s into the 1970s thought and acted was realized that little to nothing has changed in the grand scheme of society. Sure, it’s not acceptable to throw around racially charged words and it’s most definitely frowned upon for men to beat women, but we are all awake to the reality that now more than ever these things are still taking place and oddly enough seem to be coming back in vogue like some twisted alternate universe where the last generation of progress didn’t happen. These films actually feel progressive compared to where we find ourselves today.

No period of cinema highlights this better than the Pre-Code films of the 1930s. These films—made before the infamous Hays Code placed sharp restrictions on what could and couldn’t be discussed, implied or shown on screen— often reflected a radical ideology from their writers, directors and producers. Pre-Code often featured a heavy concentration on sex, violence, illegal activity and liberal leaning philosophies often influenced by source material from the 1920s New York theater scene. Fans of this era in cinema history flock to these films for this very reason. We love their salacious stories and edgy performances that crystallized itself on celluloid strips. In Street Scene, infidelity, racism and class are a major focus. Two other fantastic Pre-Code films screened at the festival centered on strong women who use sex to for their own pleasure and advantage: Jack Conaway and Anita Loos’ Red-Headed Woman (1932) and the Howard Hughes/Tom Buckingham collaboration Cock of the Air (1931) restored in its original sensational glory by the Academy Film Archive.

Jean Harlow in Red-Headed Woman.

Jean Harlow stars in Red-Headed Woman as Lil, a fiery and confident woman who gains access into high society by sleeping her way up the social ladder. This disturbingly hilarious film uses its plot to explore the disparity in economic standings and how people tend to define their identities by the illusion of class and glamour—so much so that they are willing to do anything (and anyone) to feel accepted in someone’s “elite group.” Lil is shamed and deemed “unworthy” to gain access into superficial high society after an affair with a married man (Chester Morris). But the attempts to keep her out only fuels her fire to prove that she’s worthy of getting in. Meanwhile, Billie Dove uses sex to get her kicks and the perks that come along with being among the socially privileged diplomatic elite in Cock of the Air.

Thanks to the fine work of Heather Linvielle and the film preservationists at the Academy Archive, a theater at full capacity with eager fans got to watch a dazzling restoration of Cock of the Air. Before its initial release in 1931, the Hays Office had Hughes cut nearly 12 minutes of the film over its risqué material, and honestly it’s not hard to see why. Dove stars as a sexy free-spirited stage actress pressured into voluntary exile from France after a series of sexual liaisons lead to distraction and problems for the military. She heads for Italy where she is entranced by an American soldier (Morris again) whose own sexual exploits is endangering his job and life. The two are ignition for the other’s fire, but Dove refuses to be at the behest of a man and instead enjoys leading the arrogant soldier on in a series of hilarious circumstances while he begs for a chance to bed her. Dove’s promiscuity is admirable: she graces the screen in low-cut dresses, side boob and a sashay that entices any man, or audience member, that lays eyes on her.

These women get to explore their sexuality under varying degrees of social constraints. Dove’s character is European sparing her the judgmental standards of American society. Harlow’s Lil finds it difficult to gain access into high society but reaches a level where she creates her own standards. Meanwhile the working class, unhappily married Anna Maurrant (Estelle Taylor) in Street Scene must battle harsh judgment that denies her happiness outside of a nuclear family and from her own sexuality. Nearly 80 years later, lower class women are still vilified for being humans with a sexual desire. Birth control is challenged, planned parenthood is under attack and women are still having to defend themselves for doing what men have always been free to do: be agents of their own sexual identity. These current topics made watching Harlow and Dove sleep their way to the top exciting and refreshing but Taylor’s dilemma even more heartbreaking.

Chester Morris and Billie Dove in Cock of the Air.

Other highlights of the festival included seeing the 1926 Ernst Lubitsch film So This is Paris with piano accompaniment by Donald Sosin. This hilariously silly silent film and its performance gave our packed theater the opportunity to relive the past by creating an enchanting environment for watching a silent film on the big screen. Audiences reacted in sync laughing and hooting together at the antics of two married couples that become entangled in an affair. Their antics were made even more humorous by the upbeat, deliberate tempo of Sosin’s accompaniment.

Another musical gem that day was Lady Sings the Blues (1972) in 35mm. Diana Ross emits sparks in her screen debut as the tragic and talented Billie Holiday (whose stage name came from Cock of the Air star Billie Dove), physically capturing the inner turmoil that the late singer expressed in her vocals. There’s an authenticity that is present when watching a film in 35mm that excites movie fans in a visceral way. One guest introing Black Narcissus (1947) mused on this notion by discussing the pleasure of watching a nitrate print—two or which I had the pleasure of seeing at the festival. 35mm makes you feel as close to the past as possible. It’s akin to seeing the strokes of a painting or hearing the cracks and lint pops on a record. It heightens the process of filmmaking; the colors seem more natural and muted. Somehow the image seems more immediate. Ross looked spectacular and performs with hypnotizing grace on screen, as does the beautiful Billy Dee Williams who took my breath away numerous times along with Richard Pryor’s stunning emotional performance.

Diana Ross in Lady Sings the Blues.

This immediacy is felt even more when watching a nitrate print, which takes on a new form of life itself. Laura (1944) and Black Narcissus were absolutely invigorating to watch on the big screen though being sleep deprived stopped me enjoying the full experience of both. Laura’s black and white cinematography translates to silver tones in nitrate, like watching a Blu-ray transfer where the images are sharp and clear while the contrast is higher and light radiates in stunning ways. This effect is most evident in Jack Cardiff’s color cinematography in Black Narcissus and its ability to realistically reflect light and simultaneously soak it in. A scene in which a character stands in water is astoundingly beautiful as the sun’s reflection glows with a golden shimmer. Reds are deeply bold and vibrant while skin tones manage to radiate with warmth. Nitrate print allows colors to pop in ways made more effervescent through Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s gorgeously framed long shots and tight close-ups.

The TCM Film Festival felt like returning home to a place that I never knew was missing from my life. It provided a space for the most enthralled classic film fans and newcomers of the era to discuss their favorite actors, directors and pictures with like-minded devotees. Despite working through most of the festival, I managed to see an amazing batch of films and panels including home movies of Hollywood stars from their surviving family members, as well as informative and inspiring conversations from Leonard Maltin and Peter Bogdanovich, who discussed his history with legends like James Cagney, John Ford, Cary Grant and Orson Welles. The TCM Film Festival connected me to knowledgeable and enthusiastic fans while also serving as a place to share information and factoids that has nourished my ever-growing devotion for classic cinema. I am grateful for all the hardworking staff members behind the scenes, including Charles Tabesh, Genevieve McGillicuddy and Mark Wynns, for making this festival so spiritually gratifying and I can’t wait to return to it all next year!

Courtesy filmfestival.tcm.com

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Hell or High Water (2016); And Our America in a Nutshell

March 27, 2017

There’s an uncomfortable unveiling of America that Hell or High Water undergoes during its hour and 42-minute runtime. Director David MacKenzie and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan slices off a piece of American culture and thrusts it under a microscope to reveal the nuances of how the “American Dream” affects our society and how our obsession with cultural ideology has us on the verge of hurling up what we’ve been spoon fed for generations. Every aspect of this neo-Western crime infused thriller’s production lends itself to unraveling these aspects through the microcosm of rural America, an often forgotten and ignored chunk of the United States that only came to the forefront of our thoughts with the disappointment of Trump’s electoral win.

In peeling back the garish layer of an American sector that we progressives dangerously consider “backwards,” MacKenzie’s vision and Sheridan’s script highlights how geographical isolation and a stagnant economy has resulted in our current status. But this very thought process—the over-analyzation of the those in the outskirts— has resulted in the furious push back and battles between opposing views that we relentlessly see today. This gets fleshed out in Marcus (Jeff Bridges), a geriatric sheriff coming up on retirement who still think it’s funny to make racial jokes aimed at his half Native American/Mexican partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham). Marcus doesn’t seem to understand why Alberto can’t just take the joke, the way many on the right feel it’s acceptable to spew whatever degradation they deem acceptable without considering someone else’s history and cultural background. Similarly, Tanner (Ben Foster) can’t take a bank clerk that he robs calling his robbery “stupid.” He becomes furious at feeling emasculated and threatens her instead of considering the position he and his brother Toby (Chris Pine) have put her in by holding a loaded gun to her head.

Here, these men are all byproducts of their environments; for this reason, the Howard brothers push back against their environment to save the family ranch that is in danger of being taken by the banks after their mother passes. Poor, uneducated and with seemingly no other options, these jaded men—one recently divorced, the other fresh out of prison—pounce on small banks throughout Texas to earn the money they need to pay off the debt they find themselves in. Naturally, their plan spirals down a distorted vortex of bleakness, but along the way viewers are shown a true reflection of America, and not an idealized version or an altered fun-house reflection, but a sharp, clear look at what this country has become and what it’s always been.

This violence and inhumanity in Hell or High Water manifests itself in Tanner’s ferocious climax in which he seeks thrill and glory at the expense of innocent lives. In our everyday reality, this manifests itself in current synagogue bomb threats, shootings of unarmed people, Sandy Hook, the death of Trayvon Martin, the housing bubble of 2008, the deplorable American Health Care Act, Neil Gorscouch’s past rulings putting corporations over people and the continuing denial of rights to those with very little power, financially and socially. This desperate swan song is eclipsed in Foster’s performance but illuminated by the screenplay’s focus on how American policies and compliance has allowed this. Our boisterous arrogance and nostalgia is at fault for where we find ourselves in today.

Hell or High Water gorgeously plays out like an ode to Westerns of generations past thanks to the lush, wide landscape shots and passing establishing shots through car windows. It encapsulates the rugged, rough and tumble gun-toting imagery of the old cowboys, and its grants audience’s insight into this past while embracing the excitement of the era and reminding us that although the times may have changed, the enemies have stayed the same. In the time of the Newton gang, Jesse James, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, corruption of big banks has always been the enemy. And yet we keep forgetting this time and time again.

Set in Texas, Hell or High Water possesses the free range to expose America for what it is now: A post 9/11 future where we uphold the 2nd amendment over the 13th and where lobbyists and corporations have dictated our values to us. The inevitable heist gone wrong element of the film (foreshadowed earlier on) happens not because of serendipitous moments but because our ideological obsession with needing guns. The theft of money in a bank robbery is now a certainty for bloodshed, just as walking down the block at night heightens the chance of death for people of color be they Black, Indian or middle Eastern.

Similarly, lives are lost because of the callousness of banks and loan sharks under the guise of business. Hell or High Water is a great story that paints important strokes on the larger canvas of our country and the ideals we decide to hold true. It does so much while doing so little. It shows us reality through fiction, one that reflects a dying empire trying to hold on to its glory in a world of quickly changing beliefs and perceptions. The brothers’ last bank robbery in a bigger city is thwarted by technology and a readiness that these small-town men weren’t aren’t prepared for.

America is attempting to regress and go into its happy place while the Earth continues to heat, evolve and change with indifference to our existence. It’s up to us to decide if we’re willing to stick it to those in the system whom do us wrong or beat them in more productive, lasting ways to ensure justice and pursuit of happiness for all and our planet. As Hell or High Water shows, short-term fulfillment made by regressive patterns may win the fight, but it doesn’t win the battle. Only progressive movement forward can do that.

SEE IT. 

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.

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