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film fatales #11: night catches us (tanya hamilton, 2010)

Here’s an example of the kind of film Hollywood and the Oscars ignores, which given I watched it the day after the Oscars means it points to some of the problems with inclusion that were highlighted in this year’s ceremony.

Night Catches Us features some major actors. Anthony Mackie is now known for his participation in the Marvel Universe, but even before Night Catches Us, he appeared in some big movies like The Hurt Locker. Similarly, Kerry Washington was still a couple of years away from the career-changing Scandal, but she had been in movies for a decade, notably in Ray. Toss in Jaime Hector and Wendell Pierce from The Wire, and you’re off to a good start.

The film was the first, and thus far only, feature film directed by Hamilton (who also wrote the screenplay). It played the festival circuit, bombed in limited release, and I’d say its best chance now at an audience is through streaming services (it’s on Netflix for a few more days). When your movie is five years old and you’re still hoping for Netflix, you’re fighting a losing battle. Which means nothing about the quality of the film. In fact, Night Catches Us was nominated for 8 Black Reel Awards, winning five: Best Film, Best Actor and Actress, Best Screenplay, and Best Original Score.

It did not get any Oscar nominations. And no one really expects that it would ... a low-budget indie film made by and about black Americans that dies at the box office? This isn’t Straight Outta Compton.

Hamilton tells an interesting story, about Philly in 1976, about characters with Black Panther affiliations in their past. There are tense moments, but ultimately, it’s a character study. Hamilton uses old photos and newsreels to take us back to the Panthers, which helps provide context. While she isn’t avoiding a political statement, it’s not a Grand Message. She is after something “smaller”, showing how the lives of her characters reflect their times, which makes its own kind of political statement.

There is some good acting and some good dialogue. In the end, Night Catches Us is too slow ... even at 90 minutes it felt long. It is the kind of movie that deserves a bigger audience, and at times it feels like a miracle that it even got made. I wish it was better. 6/10.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)


2010-2014

The Oscars are tonight. As usual, I am way behind on current movies. The only film from 2015 that knocked my socks off was Mad Max: Fury Road. I’ve only seen about 1/3 of the films nominated, and only half of the Best Picture nominees.

I often take this time to look back on recent years, hoping that I’ve caught up a bit. Here is a list of the movies for which I have given at least a 9/10 rating since 2010:

2010: 13 Assassins, Carlos, If God Is Willing and da Creek Don’t Rise, Inside Job (Oscar winner for Best Documentary), Winter’s Bone (4 Oscar nominations)

2011: A Separation (10/10, Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language film), The Interrupters, Mysteries of Lisbon (2010?), Nostalgia for the Light (also 2010?)

2012: Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

2013: Before Midnight (10/10, one Oscar nomination), The Square (10/10, one Oscar nomination), 12 Years a Slave (won 3 Oscars, including Best Picture), The Act of Killing (2012?, one Oscar nomination), Gravity (won 7 Oscars), The Past

2014: Boyhood (won 3 Oscars, including Best Picture), Olive Kitteridge (won 8 Emmys, including Outstanding Limited Series ... i.e., it’s not really a movie)

During that time, I have seen every Best Picture winner but one (The Artist). Among the critical favorites I have missed from that period: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Melancholia, The Turin Horse, Under the Skin, and Holy Motors. I have only seen one of the top ten box office champs of that period (Marvel’s The Avengers). In short, it’s not unusual that I am behind on this year’s Oscar nominees.

 


oscar nom: when marnie was there (hiromasa yonebayashi, 2014)

My last Oscar movie for this year is also possibly the last movie for the legendary Studio Ghibli.

When Marnie Was There looks beautiful, which we have come to expect. Its fantasy elements come more from the psychological aspects of the story than from the visuals. I haven’t seen Yonebayashi’s other directorial effort, The Secret World of Arietty, but this one is grounded in something resembling reality, unlike Miyasaki’s work, which always offers other-worldly delights like the soot thingies in Spirited Away, or the title character of Howl’s Moving Castle.

This movie carries a lot of emotional depth, and is honest about adolescent separation. The story is so complicated that the final few scenes that “explain” it come too late. I admit I’m usually slow on these things, but even after the explanation, I wasn’t quite sure who Marnie was in relation to Anna. Maybe if I’d had a genealogy chart.

So this wasn’t my favorite Ghibli film (that’s probably still Princess Mononoke), but if this is the studio’s last effort, they are going out in style. 7/10.


music friday: sly stone, "thank you"

In late 1969, Sly & the Family Stone released “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” on a single with “Everybody Is a Star”. The irresistible funk bottom, guided by Larry Graham’s bass, helped take the track to the top of the charts in 1970.

To this day, the song elicits comments like these, from the above YouTube video:

“I just love the triumphant positivity of sly's music”

“I play upbeat music in my morning Advisory class (high school) to help us all wake up and start the day with something positive. This one was a big hit.”

“When I first heard this song I thought it was the coolest song I'd ever heard :)”

Earlier in 1969, the band had released Stand!, an all-time great album. Then, in the summer of ‘69, they played Woodstock. In March of 1970, the film of the festival came out, showing the world what a dynamic live show Sly & the Family Stone put on.

But ... blame the drugs, blame whatever. After “Thank You”, they released no new material until late 1971. Their label filled up the space with a Greatest Hits album that is as good as anything anyone has ever put out.

Then, on November 20, 1971, a new album at last. It was called There’s a Riot Goin’ On, and the title seemed to promise more of the energetic funk they had served up in the past.

Nope. Perhaps the biggest clue was the title cut, which was listed as the last track on Side One. It ran for 0 minutes and 0 seconds.

Then there was the last track on the album, which had a familiar title: “Thank You for Talkin' to Me, Africa”. The lyrics were the same as the earlier “Thank You” hit. But the arrangement told the listener that something had happened since the hit. And with that, those triumphantly positive lyrics revealed themselves as something else:

Lookin' at the devil, grinnin' at his gun
Fingers start shakin', I begin to run
Bullets start chasin', I begin to stop
We begin to wrestle I was on the top ...

Flamin' eyes of people fear, burnin' into you
Many men are missin' much, hatin' what they do

Sly still had some good music in him, when he managed to make it. But the amazing run of Stand!, Greatest Hits, and Riot was over.

 

Some years later, I had a similar experience with a Lou Reed song. On Street Hassle, he included a Velvet Underground cover, “We’re Gonna Have a Real Good Time Together”. This song didn’t appear on a Velvets album until the fine, posthumous live set, 1969. If you saw Patti Smith in the early part of her career, she often sang that song. (A studio Velvets version made an outtakes album in 1986.) Anyway, that live version from 1969 was a favorite of mine:

Well, when Street Hassle came out, and I played that version of the song, I wanted to cry in sadness. The production made Lou sound like an emotionless machine. But then, with about a minute to go, he shifted into Velvets mode, lost the machine voice, and suddenly the joy was back. I can tell you, that first time I played it, I did indeed cry at that point, although it was tears of joy. I guess it wasn’t so much like “Thank You” after all ... or like “Thank You” with a happy ending.


blu-ray series #29: macbeth (roman polanski, 1971)

We’re going to see a production of Macbeth next week (with Conleth Hill and Frances McDormand), so I thought it would be a good time to watch this movie, one of my favorite Shakespeare films from way back when. Honestly, I’m not sure I’d seen it since it came out, but it made such an impression on me that I’ve always listed it among the best film adaptations of Shakespeare.

Much is made ... too much, I think ... of how Macbeth was Polanski’s first film after the Sharon Tate massacre. This led many critics to assume the extreme violence in the movie was motivated by Polanski’s recent history. Polanski has refuted this, although he does note that one scene was informed by an event from his past: the slaughter of Macduff’s family is drawn from his memory of SS officers in the Krakow ghetto.

Given the amount of extreme violence in some movies today, Macbeth might seem almost tame. And some people point out that Macbeth is a violent play ... you can’t blame Polanski for that. But one thing that makes Macbeth such a good movie is that Polanski treats it as just that, a movie. Show, don’t tell. So, to give a few examples:

  • In the play, we learn of the execution of Cawdor via a second-hand report (this is where the line “nothing in his life became him like the leaving it”). In the movie we see his execution.
  • Duncan’s murder. In the play, one scene ends with Macbeth leaving the scene on his way to kill Duncan. In the next scene, he tells Lady Macbeth “I have done the deed.” In the movie, we see Macbeth murder Duncan.
  • In the play, Macduff’s son dies onstage, everything else happens off stage. In the movie, we see much of the killing, and some rape as well.

Pauline Kael famously had a reputation for having a strong stomach for on-screen violence, but in a 1972 interview, she said “The movie that shocked me most deeply was Polanski’s Macbeth. The murder of Lady Macduff, the torn bodies scattered around, the pieces of children’s bodies, like a chicken yard, the knives constantly going into flesh had me shaking afterward. I felt numb. When I came home my daughter thought I’d been mugged.”

It is the intensity of the violence that affects the audience. But even when Polanski shows rather than tells, he isn’t adding anything to the play.

I realize it’s impossible to treat any film adaptation of Shakespeare without constant references to the source material. But I think this Macbeth is better understood if we think of it, not as a Shakespeare play, but as a Polanski movie. While some might question his decisions, he isn’t working randomly here. He has a vision of the film he wants to make. The cinematography, the dialogue, the acting, the setting, and yes, the violence, are all in service to Roman Polanski’s movie.

When the film came out, it was famous for being a “Playboy Production”, with Hugh Hefner getting an executive producer credit. When Francesca Annis performed Lady Macbeth’s famous “out damned spot” sleepwalking scene in the nude, Hefner got the blame. (Polanski just said people slept in the nude in those days.) Voyeurs were likely disappointed ... there was Annis’ ass, and there were a lot of very old naked witches, but that was it.

Seeing it now, more than 40 years after it came out, I found that it remains one of my favorite “Shakespeare films”. Ironically, one I like better is Throne of Blood, Kurosawa’s samurai version of the same story. 9/10.


oscar nom: winter on fire: ukraine's fight for freedom (evgeny afineevsky, 2015)

The you-are-there feeling is intense ... 27 people are listed under “Cinematography by”, including Afineevsky, and they manage to get footage from the inside of a revolution. The “Fight for Freedom” took place from November 21, 2013 to February 23, 2014. Afineevsky makes no pretense of being objective, which is OK by me. The movie is a stirring paean to the bravery of the people of Kiev, who fought for freedom and, if we believe the film, won their freedom. Their actions led to the hated President Viktor Yanukovych sneaking out of the country in the night.

The camera men and women exhibit great bravery, as well, sharing in the tear gas and clubbing and shooting of the enemy. Afineevsky and editor Will Znidaric create an inspiring narrative ... by the end of the movie, you want to become an honorary Ukrainian.

But the single-minded insistence on the point of view of the insurgents leaves too many holes in that narrative. Afineevsky keeps things moving, so that we don’t have a lot of time to think about the greater story. It’s not that we don’t get the perspective of the police as they follow orders and rampage against their fellow Ukrainians (although we don’t). It’s not that we don’t get the perspective of Yanukovych. But something more important is virtually absent from the film: the influence of the Western powers on the events in Ukraine. As Patrick Smith notes, the United States had their own interest in what was going on in Ukraine, and they were involved in the dismissal of Yanukovych, who wanted Ukraine to side with Russia, and the opposition, which wanted to side with the European Union. Plus, Afineevsky dismisses what has happened since the end of the revolution in a couple of sentences at the end of the film. Those sentences are insufficient to address the very real problems of the post-revolution Ukraine.

There is no denying the canny excellence of Winter on Fire. It gives us a perspective on an important event that we don’t often get. But in the desire to present an inspiring story of a revolution, they place narrative above a full examination of the revolution. 7/10. For an equally subjective, you-are-there film that succeeds on a much higher level, check out Patricio Guzmán’s two-part The Battle of Chile.


music friday/oscar nom: straight outta compton (f. gary gray, 2015)

A couple of days ago, I wrote about Liz Garbus’ documentary on Nina Simone, “The most important thing about a good documentary is the subject matter. If you are making a movie about the life and career of a singer, it helps if that singer has something special that makes an audience want to know more.” Straight Outta Compton is a “based on true events” fictional biopic, but what I said about the Simone movie holds here as well. N.W.A offer up a fascinating subject, and their place in music history is unquestioned.

I also noted that the best parts of What Happened, Miss Simone? were the concert sequences. And this holds true as well for Straight Outta Compton, as O’Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Neil Brown Jr., and Aldis Hodge do great work on the screen while the real N.W.A comes through on the soundtrack. The movie comes to life during those scenes, and at times, Gray places the songs in a context that illuminates both the songs and the times.

But Gray relies too much on the impact of those songs, which overwhelm the picture. I don’t want to take this too far ... it is clear in Straight Outta Compton why the music was so popular. But ultimately, Straight Outta Compton is a fairly standard biopic, and to the extent it mirrors the actual N.W.A, that suggests either that Gray is too reserved artistically, or that N.W.A weren’t as revolutionary as they once seemed.

It’s not a question of how accurate the movie is ... well, that is a big question here, but I’ll put it off for a second. We see how the group forms, we see how they click (there is a wonderful scene early on where the joy the band feels as they make music is delightful), we see what happens on their big concert tour, we see them begin to break apart ... accurate? Perhaps, but it also follows the traditional pattern of a hundred other biopics.

Also, Ice Cube’s early solo career is given plenty of screen time. He was the first to breakaway, and there is some good drama to be taken from that situation. But Dr. Dre’s later split is only presented as important in the context of the group. Even as we get an impression of Suge Knight’s imposing presence, there is practically nothing about the G-Funk sound Dre perfected on The Chronic. Which is fine, this isn’t a movie about G-Funk. But Dre seems less important than Ice Cube because there is less drama in the enormous impact of Dre’s sound. In the movie, Suge Knight overwhelms Dre once Dre goes off on his own, because Suge Knight personifies drama.

And then there’s the question of accuracy. It’s more about what’s missing than any particular misrepresentation of what we do see ... some facts are fudged, but not in any serious way. But there is nothing about the treatment of women ... Dre’s history of violence against women is ignored, the lyrics that are presented as important are usually either expressions of Compton life or disses of other members of the band (as if the misogyny of so many of the lyrics isn’t worthy of attention), and almost every woman on the screen serves as background flesh for party scenes.

Straight Outta Compton gets plenty of things right, though. You have to look between the lines a bit, but the early scenes establish Eazy-E as a “real” gangsta and Ice Cube as almost middle-class. But the movie shows how no young black men can escape the institutional racism that surrounds them. Ice Cube is a great writer and a strong rapper, and the setup for his writing of the pivotal “Fuck Tha Police” is the best example of how the movie places the music in context.

Later, there is a concert scene that shows how volatile the song is:

In scenes like this, it’s mostly irrelevant how close to “real” events the film is. What matters is how “real” the film is in showing the emergence of a song, with context, in such a way that it still carries power almost 30 years later.

I should note I watched the original version, not the “director’s cut” that may fill in some of the blanks. What is left out matters, and keeps Straight Outta Compton from being a great film. But, on the level to which it seems to aspire, that of a standard biopic, it is successful. 7/10.


oscar nom/film fatales #10: what happened, miss simone? (liz garbus, 2015)

The most important thing about a good documentary is the subject matter. If you are making a movie about the life and career of a singer, it helps if that singer has something special that makes an audience want to know more. Nina Simone is certainly one of those artists. She made more than 40 albums, starting in 1958. In the late 60s, her albums regularly placed just under the top ten black albums. She had two singles in the R&B top ten. She was a classically-trained pianist. She introduced many rock standards, such as “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” (written for her). Her compositions included “Mississippi Goddam” and “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black”. Her vocals combined jazz and blues and pop in a unique way, such that you always recognized Nina Simone’s voice.

She also led an eventful life, including her serious involvement in the 60s civil rights movement. She lived all over the world, mostly after leaving the United States in frustration with life there: Barbados, Liberia, Switzerland, the Netherlands, France. And she had the kind of volatile personality that would have been ripe for the social media that thankfully wasn’t there for most of her life.

What Happened, Miss Simone? details all of these things, but the presentation is straightforward, even old-fashioned. There is nothing in that presentation to match the revolutionary nature of much of Simone’s art. Nina Simone’s life is begging for a less-ordinary movie than What Happened, Miss Simone? Also, Simone’s daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, is an executive producer, who appears frequently in interview segments. It’s not that the movie plays as an “authorized” biography, but you wish there was more outside representation.

Having said all of that, What Happened, Miss Simone? shines in its concert footage. During those performances, the decision of the film makers to stay out of the way is clearly the proper move. Simone’s singing and piano playing, along with old interviews she gave, and excerpts from Simone’s diaries, speak for themselves. And Simone is such a titanic figure, she bulldozes over most of my criticisms.

Nina Simone probably deserves a more complicated bio-documentary than What Happened, Miss Simone? But in the meantime, this isn’t a bad way to start. 7/10.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)


oscar nom: bridge of spies (steven spielberg, 2015)

Bridge of Spies is standard Spielberg, which is fine ... he has made some of my favorite movies. But Bridge of Spies will never be one of my favorite movies. I hold him to a higher standard.

This is a director who made the movie I placed at #25 on my Top 50 list a few years ago (Close Encounters). I’ve given four of his movies my highest 10/10 rating, and eleven of his movies are at 8/10 or higher. I rarely dislike his films ... I didn’t think much of A.I. or War of the Worlds, and Hook was a disaster. But we’re talking a top director.

Which means a standard Spielberg is OK by me. It’s nominated for Best Picture, which seems a stretch, but the truth is, of the four nominees I’ve seen, only Fury Road rises above the pack. Mark Rylance is up for Supporting Actor, and he is very good here. The picture moves along ... it’s never boring, even at 142 minutes. Tom Hanks, who is kind of the Steven Spielberg of directors, does his standard thing, which is fine. I’d like to say better things about it, but I probably preferred Munich. 7/10.

I should also say something about Inside Out. I kept falling asleep, and so I can’t really give a reasoned evaluation. I liked the premise OK, and what I stayed awake for intrigued me enough to watch it again some time when I won’t doze off. But for now it gets an Incomplete.


music friday: bruce springsteen, "valentine's day"

Tunnel of Love was Bruce’s Blood on the Tracks. I’m far from the first person to say that, although when I wrote about it during the very first year of this blog, I compared it to Planet Waves. “Brilliant Disguise” was released as a single before the album came out. Understand that in 1987, Bruce was coming off of Born in the U.S.A., which sold upwards of 30 million copies, and a live box set that was one of the biggest-selling live albums of all time. (This evidence is anecdotal, i.e. it’s what I remember but I don’t have the energy to look it up, but I feel like the story was a lot of people bought CD players so they could play the live set.) It is safe to say anticipation was high for Tunnel of Love.

And the first thing we heard was this:

Tonight our bed is cold

I’m lost in the darkness of our love

God have mercy on the man

Who doubts what he’s sure of

Tunnel of Love was a great album, and “Brilliant Disguise” is a great song. But, as I noted back in 2002, “Tunnel of Love reeks with despair over love (never was a album dedication more ominously plain than this one: "Thanks Juli"). Juli was his first wife, Julianne Phillips, and it’s rough, that he thanked his wife in the notes for an album filled with the traumas of love.

The album closed with “Valentine’s Day”, one of my favorite Bruce songs. “Brilliant Disguise” was a #1 single, but I last saw him play it in concert in 1992, and I’ve seen him 18 times in the 23+ years since then. It’s as if once his marriage ended, and he began life anew with Patti, he didn’t like returning to those earlier times. (In the last five shows I’ve seen, going back to 2008, he hasn’t played a single song from Tunnel of Love.) But at least I got a handful of “Disguises”. “Valentine’s Day” is one of the rare Bruce songs I have never heard him play live. And I don’t expect to hear it when I see him next month, either.

“Valentine’s Day” doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of the album at first. It’s the closing track, the story of a guy who misses his girl. He’s on the road (it’s a Bruce song, after all), driving back to see his honey. It isn’t ironic ... Bruce rarely is ... you can tell he really loves her and really misses her and really wants to get back home to her.

But it’s also the most melancholy version of love. This guy is terrified: “I got one hand steady on the wheel and one hand's tremblin' over my heart ... What scares me is losin' you.” Even when he finally gets to her, a feeling of sadness lies over everything: “So hold me close honey, say you’re forever mine, and tell me you’ll be my lonely valentine.”