Sunday, December 8, 2013

Too Cool for School

I am a Frank Darabont fan.  But watching "Mob City" I suspect he might be better at adapting material than creating it (although "L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America's Most Seductive City," a non-fiction book by John Buntin, is allegedly the inspiration for "Mob City"). Darabont wants to capture the flavor of post War War II  LA but it is all seasoning and little meat.  And the voice-over, rather than adding another layer to the narrative, is used for unnecessary info dumping.  We see the guy with the garish tie so we don't need the narrator to comment on it.  The whole early business with the liquor heist is too busy, too "look ma, no hands!" and way too cute - without the requisite pay-off. The show needs to be more measured and less self conscious.  The one bit I liked was the smoky Jungle Club banter between detective Joe Teague and Anya, the drop-dead gorgeous head bartender played by Mekia Cox.  Mob City needs less cool and more of this heat.


Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Running Wild and Free

I  just saw "Beasts of the Southern Wild."  What a beautiful, trans-formative movie! And that little girl - what a strong, fearless little pistol! I adore her.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Beast of Burden

I recently came across this oddity called White Man's Burden.  It is a 1995 movie written and directed by Desmond Nakano and starring John Travolta and Harry Belafonte.  The movie's simple and bizarre premise is that America is still America but black people are the ruling class and white people are the underclass.  Travolta plays Louis Pinnock, a simple but hardworking member of the oppressed white people.  He works in a candy factory run by a tidy and efficient black man named Lionel (Tom Wright) and is struggling to maintain his tenuous grip on the American Dream.  He has a blonde wife (Kelly Lynch) and two children, a six year-old boy and an infant daughter, but he just can't seem to grab hold of that next rung on the economic ladder.  Pinnock has his ear constantly cocked for opportunity to knock so he volunteers when a man is needed to deliver a package to the luxury estate of the factory owner.

From the moment he passes through the ornate gates of the Thomas estate what little luck Pinnock had dissipates like so much smoke up the alimentary canal.  On the palatial grounds, eager and immediately confused as to where to go, Pinnock peers into a window and accidentally sees the fetching Megan Thomas (Margaret Avery) coming out of the shower.  Mr. Thaddeus Thomas (as played by the then still robust septuagenarian Harry Belafonte) is not amused Pinnock has seen his much younger wife in a state of undress and orders Lionel to never send Pinnock to his house again.  Lionel, unaware of Pinnock's offense but charged by the heat of Thomas' request, makes sure Thomas will never see Pinnock again - by firing him.

Thus begins a rapid downward spiral for Pinnock.  After being rebuffed at the gate of the Thomas estate in a desperate attempt to straighten out whatever caused him to lose his job, Pinnock suffers one indignity after another.  He is beaten by the police in a case of mistaken identity when his truck, his only means of transportation, breaks down on the night on his firing.  He is already behind in his mortgage payments and is powerless to stop his family's humiliating eviction from their home.

Out of money, out of luck, and out of options, Pinnock undertakes one last desperate act.  He decides he is going to force Thomas to give him "what he is owed," at the barrel of a gun, if necessary.  Confronted at the gate of his estate, Thomas does not have enough cash on him to satisfy his "debt," so Pinnock forces Thomas drive his luxury sedan to the drive-through window at his bank.  The supercilious teller, a white man, refuses to service them because the bank is closing.  When Thomas, obviously a man of wealth and means, demands to see the teller's supervisor, the teller responds that he is in charge of his window and he will decide when it opens and closes.  The teller suggests they visit the ATM at the back of the bank.  When Thomas protests that he needs more money than that, the teller tells him to come back on Monday and closes his window.

At this point, Pinnock has a crisis and a dilemma.  He has kidnapped a prominent member of society and, if he wants to get what is "owed" him, he will have to keep him captive over the weekend.  Rather than aborting his mission and letting Thomas go, unharmed, Pinnock decides to double down on his stupidity.

White Man's Burden goes off the rails at many junctures, starting with the title.  In Rudyard Kipling's poem, the white man's burden is the supposed or presumed responsibility of white people to govern and impart their culture to nonwhite people - at the point of a gun or bayonet, if necessary.  It is never clear what the white man's burden is in this movie.  His black oppressors?  There is no hint of brutal oppression by the black ruling class and race plays no role in Pinnock's firing.  A black delivery man caught in the same circumstances would have suffered the same fate.  Further, Pinnock is revealed as a totally unexceptional man, a man who because of his limited skill set and repeated poor choices would have lived a life of disquieting desperation even if he had been blessed with a darker hue.

Nakano, a writer-director of Japanese heritage who was born and raised in this country, seems to have a tin ear when it comes to American race relations.  In a movie made on the cheap, he fails to fill in necessary detail.  There are no billboards, advertising or commercials extolling the prevailing black hegemony.  We don't see black newscasters, actors, politicians or judges.  White people aren't cornrowing their hair or getting tans to fit in.  Pinnock is married to a pale, blond woman, which would put him on the lowest rung of this society but, as played by Kelly Lynch, his wife, Marsha, retains all the snap and vinegar of someone who has been raised with a sense of white privilege.  She is not downtrodden; she is defiant and full of the notion of who she is - despite her circumstances.  While her family is being evicted, she flouts the orders of armed men and boldly dictates the terms of her surrender.

There is also some ridiculousness of Thomas' son (Bumper Robinson) bringing a white date to a family function.  This is so howlingly out of left field  and there is no context or justification for this interaction in this movie.  To hammer home the point, his date should have been the darkest woman the filmmakers could have found.  Also, there is some business with white skinheads being the equivalent of black street gangs.  Without the notion of white supremacy, white skinheads do not exist.

The one tonally correct moment in the movie is when Pinnock sends his son into a toy store to buy whatever toy he wants. When the black action figure he chooses costs more money than Pinnock has, Pinnock tries to persuade the boy to buy the cheaper white action figure.  As his son has a minor tantrum, Thomas tells Pinnock to get the kid the toy he wants and to take the extra money out of his wallet.  Pinnock makes a show of surreptitiously taking the money out of Thomas' shirt pocket and slipping the bills into his pant pocket before handing them to his son.  The little white boy is ecstatic with his dark-skinned, nappy-headed "Puma-Man" doll that looks nothing like him.  For the most part, Nakano is totally clueless about the world he has created but in this one instance he gets it right.


Saturday, June 22, 2013

"Man" Steals

I saw Man of Steel in a bistro theater full of gray-hiared people like myself - all the others couples - literally out for a dinner and a movie. I was the only person of color in the theater - but this may have had more to do with the location of the theater (far suburbs) than anything else. Anyhoo, I was moved by Man of Steel - surprisingly so as I have always been a Marvel Man and have gone on record as to how corny and ridiculous I consider most DC Characters (his power is that he talks to fish - really?).

Over the last five decades the most popular DC character has clearly been the one without any super powers. In fact, the problem with Superman, DC's first and most durable superhero is that, over time, he became too super - and writers had to go to ridiculous lengths to cut him back down to size.

One of best things about "Man of Steel" is how it discards two of the hoariest tropes associated with Kal-El: his acute susceptibility to kyptonite and the nonsense about no one being able to figure out that Clark Kent is Superman. Done and done. This opens up the "Man of Steel" to a more "realistic" telling of his story. As realistic as a story about a man catupulted from his dying planet in rocket ship who crash lands on another habitable planet can be.

There is real pain in Kal-El's hero journey. The death of his surrogate father, Jonathan Kent, is as tragic a circumstance as you can imagine. It is many times worse than Spiderman being unable to save Captain Stacy or Uncle Ben - because there was really nothing he could do. Kal-El is able to save Jonathan Kent's life and it takes every fiber of his being not to - he is forever his father's son (both of them) - and then he must bear the burden of knowing he could have saved his father's life and he is forever conflicted by the fact that he not only did not but by the should not his earthly father imposed on him. This is powerful stuff. And, it is powerful stuff delivered by great actors.

The entire enterprise is imbued with a certain gravitas by employing actors such as Oscar winners Russell Crowe and Kevin Costner as Kal-El's fathers, the reliable Diane Lane, drabbed down and vertially make-up free and, just barely, old enough to be the 30 year-old Henry Cavill's mother. These actors are complimented by the venerable Laurence Fishburne giving Perry White a presence not approached by Jackie Cooper (does anyone remember the estimable Frank Langella in the lamentable Superman Returns?) and Henry Lennix and Christopher Meloni as General Swanwick and Colonel Nathan Hardy, respectively.

Of course we must mention intrepid girl reporter Lois Lane who finds perfect incarnation in Amy Adams, apparently in direct lineage from "Girl Friday" Rosilind Russell to her inimitable predecessor, Margot Kidder.

The fact that "Man of Steel" is marred by obligatory fight scenes (with brooding Michael Shannon) - that make the movie overlong - does little to dilute it as a great telling of this original hero's journey.


Monday, May 6, 2013

Tin Can Alley

The third sequel in a movie franchise is seldom the charm.  They
are either big and ponderous (Matrix Revolutions), descend into
parady or camp (Superman III) or devolve into pure schlock
(Jaws 3D).  Iron Man 3 is none of these while possibly being all
of them.  In fact, IM3 plays like a third Robert Downey, Jr.
franchise, a third rail to his Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes
annunities - call this one Tin Can.

Jim Favreau, director of the first two Iron Man movies, looks like he
may have eaten his way out of that job as he reprises his role as a
corpulent Happy Hogan.  He is replaced by Shane Black, author of
the original Lethal Weapon movie.  In fact, IM3 plays more like the
fifth installment of Lethal Weapon than a sequel to IM2.  The villian
is a Euro-Trash industrialist (Guy Pearce) and the final
confrontation takes place on a dirty oil tanker with Downey
and Don Cheadle firing bullets instead of repulsor rays.

As I noted in my review of Iron Man 2, seldom has there been a
better match of actor and role than Downey and Tony Stark/Iron
Man.  The age old question: does the man make the suit or does the
suit make the man, applies to IM3 as Downey spends way too much
time out of his full metal jacket.


Monday, April 22, 2013

Rogue Behavior

I recently watched the first two episodes of Thandie Newton's
action-adventure series Rogue on DirecTV's Audience Network.
It is gritty, fast-paced entertainment that feels oddly British (I kept
expecting to see the iconic "Egg" Building in the background) even
though the story is supposed to be taking place in Oakland,

It is probably not surprising that the show appears wrapped in the
Union Jack when the chief writer, Matthew Parkhill, and most of
the prime participants are either British, Australian, New Zealand
or Canadian actors and the show is filmed in the city of Vancouver
in the Province of British Columbia. I don't understand why the
show wasn't based in London - except for the desire to sell the
concept to an American network and audience. Suffice it to say
you never believe you are in Oakland, California, despite the signs
on various buildings designating this as an Oakland Police Station
or that as an Oakland courthouse.

Something decidedly "British" pervades the whole enterprise.
British and Australian actors are apparently the new vogue in all
realms of entertainment. They play True Blood vampires and
upright police officers and rogueish Governors dealing with the
Walking Dead
, but in all of those instances if you didn't know,
you wouldn't know. In this particular instance, you are constantly
aware of something being not quite kosher with these allegedly
"American" characters. 

Ian Hart, who plays an artful dodger cop, is such a archtypical
British character with his cockney attitude and porkpie hat that
his character could have been played by Bob Hoskins. The most
believable of these "American" characters is Kavan Smith, as
Thandie's husband, and he was born in Edmonton, Alberta.

All of which is to say what? "Rogue" feels ersatz? Yes. Do I
ever feel like I am in America, let alone in Oakland, California?
No, not ever. Even the stakes, the Chinese mafia trying to bully
in on the action on the docks, seems British. Even Newton's
mixed race kids are too British in looks and demeanor to be
believable as Oakland born and bred. It is annoying. Why are
they trying to sell me that this story is taking place
in America, let alone in Oakland, California?

But, if you can swallow all the textural tea and crumpets,
Rogue is gripping and compelling. Newton is whippet lean
and junk yard tough as Grace, the conflicted cop working
undercover to expose the smooth but lethal boss of the docks
(New Zealand born Morton Csokas). The sexual attraction
between these two is palpable but Grace is the wife of Tom
Travis and the mother of feisty teen-ager, Evie Travis (Sarah

Grace's dual life takes a terrible toll on her family: her young-
est son wets the bed, has nightmares and draws horrific pictures
of sharp-toothed predators chasing him. A good cop, she is a
horrible wife and mother - constantly making promises she can't
keep.  Grace wants to quit her increasingly dangerous life and
devote more time to her family, but she keeps getting sucked
back in - with ever escalating consequences.

I'm all in for the ten-episode run.


Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Spurs that jingle, Django, jingle

Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained is a remarkable achievement.  Remarkable for reasons that have everything to do with its subject manner - the antebellum south and its cruel and peculiar institution of slavery - and nothing to do with it.  It is remarkable primarily because it is a compilation of improbable things: a nearly three hour long spaghetti western; a $100 million blaxploitation movie (in fact, perhaps, the "granddaddy" of all blaxploitation movies); and, most improbable of all, a nearly three hour blaxploitation spaghetti western that is smart, funny, savage, knowing, telling, entertaining, and, often, bloody, engrossing, and full of surprises.  

A gritty parable of love, lost, sacrifice and revenge, Django follows the prototypical arc of the spaghetti western's man with no or one name - with a notable twist.  When we meet Django ("the 'D' is silent") he is chained to a quartet of black men who have been bought at a slave auction.  They are being transported through the woods, chained neck to wrist to ankle, barefoot and bare-chested on a cold and chilly night, when they encounter a man driving a quaint wagon with the giant white tooth bobbing on its top. Fortunately for Django, the loquacious and courtly Dr. King Schutz (Christoph Waltz) has given up dentistry for the more lucrative profession of bounty hunting and he needs Django to identify a trio of ne'er do wells for him.  

It so happens that the three men Dr. Schutz is tracking are the same three men who whipped and branded Django (Jamie Foxx) and Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) before selling them further down the river.  Not knowing where the brutal Brittle Brothers have gone, Dr. Schutz's plan is to go from plantation to plantation with Django masquerading as his velvet-suited valet until Django can spot and identify the culprits.  Mission accomplished, Dr. Schutz takes Django on as a junior partner while promising him both his freedom and the good doctor's help in finding his wife.

One night after a cowboy meal of beans and strong coffee, Dr. Schutz tells Django the German legend of Brunhilde: Brunhilde, a half-divine shield maiden, has been condemned to live her life as a mortal woman imprisoned in a remote castle protected by a dragon and surrounded by a wall of fire where she will remain until a man can slay the dragon and penetrate the wall of fire to save her.  Django's half-goddess/whole woman - his wife - is named Broomhilda von Shaft (which, ostensibly makes her and Django the great grandparents of that bad mutha "shut your mouth" private dick whose movie of the same name greenlit the blaxploitation explosion of the late sevenites).  And the dragon who guards her citadel is the suave and savage Calvin Candie (Leonardo Dicaprio).  Django resolves to walk through the fires of hell, in this instance, the laws and mores of pre-Civil War Mississippi, to reclaim his wife.

The lead actors in Django are excellent.  Waltz exudes the innate charm he oozed as the silky but vicious Nazi Colonel Hans Landa in Tarantino's last revisionist epic, Inglourious Basterds, only this time he uses his considerable powers for good.  Waltz's Dr. Schutz is the glue that anchors Django's tale and he steals almost every scene he is in, even those with the equally impressive Dicaprio, who has slyly grown into the best actor of his generation.

Samuel L. Jackson is a hoot as the house nigger, Stephen, who has fashioned himself a cushy sinecure as the lead slave at Candieland, the plantation owned by DiCaprio.  It is Jackson's most cunning and diabolical turn since Ordell Robie, the devil in man-clothes he played in Tarantino's Jackie Brown.

Foxx's role is a thankless one that requires him mostly to be noble and stoic.  He complies admirably, giving it his best "Clint Eastwood."

About the "N" word: suffice to say it is probably said enough to make your teeth white.

In this new millennium, four years into post-racial Obamarama, it is possibly disheartening that the red meat of a black actor dispatching scores of white men (and one white woman) with accuracy and aplomb is still thrilling.  As thrilling as it was when Jim Brown, Fred Williamson and the rest of them bloodied the screen forty years ago.  

What is heartening is that the hero of Django never once lusts for a white woman.  There are no heaving bosoms, ala Raquel Welch or Stella Stevens, for him to lust after.  The primary white woman of note is Laura Cayouette as Candie's spinsterish widowed sister, Lara Lee Candie-Fitzwilly, and she is mostly a comic foil. 

Our hero only has eyes for his purloined wife of whom he has frequent visions as he endures both his quest and their separation.  While "When a man loves a woman" is not on the soundtrack, it could be.