GOOD HAIR, Great Movie

28 02 2010

Chris Rock’s documentary GOOD HAIR didn’t make it onto my ‘2009 favorites’ list a few weeks back, just because I hadn’t seen it – which should give you a sense of the rock solid validity of that list. Now that I have seen it, the feeling of searing shame I have for leaving it out of that post is indescribable. I have brought dishonor to all WordPress bloggers everywhere.

Rock, a brilliant comic, has had a rough time transitioning to film. As a director, his work’s been marked by high concepts and easy gags. HEAD OF STATE? I THINK I LOVE MY WIFE? Yeesh, and yeesh. What about his HEAVEN CAN WAIT? What was it, DOWN TO EARTH? OK, he didn’t direct that one. But as a lead actor, Rock’s predictably one-note as well. LETHAL WEAPON 4, DOGMA, BAD COMPANY all contain strangely stiff, uninspired performances. With the exception of his rib joint customer cameo in I’M GONNA GIT YOU SUCKA, nothing Rock’s done on the big screen has equaled his work on the boob tube: from his days on ‘Saturday Night Live,’ to his work on Bill Maher’s ‘Politically Incorrect,’ to his great show on HBO, and most recently ‘Everybody Hates Chris.’

Chris Rock, in his element, in GOOD HAIR

GOOD HAIR, however, blows the curve, putting Rock back where he’s at his best: in reality, in conversation, off the cuff. The man-on-the-street element of his HBO series was arguably its strongest, and he brings that format to the silver screen undiminished in GOOD HAIR, interviewing everyone from Harlem barbershop loungers to poet Maya Angelou on the subject of black women’s hairstyles, and the culture and industry built up around their maintenance. The film is book-ended with segments at the Bronner Bros International Hair Show, an annual bazaar for consumers and stylists that draws thousands to Atlanta, for an American competitive spectacle unlike any other. Your jaw will hang.

Apart from being raucously funny from first line to last, Rock’s film is a document of worth – at least for an ignorant cracker like me. The well chosen and well-edited talking heads that make up the film debate forthrightly the merits of painful chemical hair relaxants (a vaunted tradition,) and human hair weaves (a staggeringly expensive habit,) and why such excesses are so deeply ingrained in African American culture. Is it just common sense to cover up nappy roots? Maybe such extreme measures are an outgrowth of a minority self-image crisis in a primarily Caucasian country? Or, maybe, in spite of the questionable causes of seeking out “good hair,” it simply isn’t worth fucking with a woman who wants to look her best. (This is the side that Mister Ice-T takes, in his infinite, smutty wisdom…) In discussion, Rock handles his subject alternately with reverence and irreverence, and his film comes away with few concrete conclusions; though it works like Michael Moore’s muckracking at its funniest, this isn’t any sort of agitprop. The tone is playful and provocative, and though the topic runs a little low on steam around the hour mark, that only means that Rock has to fill the last portion of his film with the finals competition of the Bronner Brothers Hair Show, a display every bit as absurd as the climax of ZOOLANDER, but all the more hilarious for its, you know, actual, objective reality.

Forgive me for getting to the party late. But the truth on display in GOOD HAIR is funnier than any fiction 2009 had to offer.


Shutter Island: Where Nothing Is What It Seems… OR IS IT?

24 02 2010

Martin Scorsese’s SHUTTER ISLAND introduces us to Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio,) a U.S. Marshal in 1954, as he’s ferried to an island off the coast of Massachussetts to solve a missing person’s case. That person, Rachel Solando, we soon discover, is a violent criminal, who’s escaped her cell at the impenetrable insane asylum on the island. “It’s as if she evaporated straight through the walls,” notes sinister (or is he just British?) head doctor Cawley (Ben Kingsley.) As Teddy digs deeper into the circumstances of Rachel’s escape, questions pile up, until the inevitable one is raised: who’s really the insane one on Shutter Island? The patients? The doctors? The detective himself? Or maybe it’s Scorsese who’s mad – for attempting to turn such a loony potboiler into high art.

Do you smell red herring? Or is it just me?

Of course, Marty’s pulled that trick before, and his latest is a lot like his last foray into genre filmmaking, CAPE FEAR, an homage to thrillers that was more fun than it was truly terrifying. Just as DeNiro’s oversized Max Cady in CAPE FEAR was a figure of almost comic rage in service of a larger rumination on salvation, the few poop-self-jolts in SHUTTER ISLAND are secondary to the overall function of the thing. But even if SHUTTER doesn’t have you on the edge of your seat, it has you in its grasp, with expert pacing and performances (Patricia Clarkson, Jackie Earle Haley, and Ted Levine deserve mention for their one-scene-a-piece parts,) and several vivid Technicolor dream sequences. But what makes SHUTTER ISLAND so enjoyable over all, is Scorsese’s unflinching commitment to the device of the Red Herring: the misdirect. His film is an island of misdirects, and Scorsese deals them like a practiced card sharp. By winding down so many paths, to so many different possible conclusions, Scorsese does just what twistaholic M. Night Shyamalan wouldn’t: he doesn’t build a story around delivering its ultimate “gotcha” reversal. This isn’t SIXTH SENSE gimmickry. It’s something grander: the detective story as character piece. Bit by bit, Teddy Daniels comes into focus, even as plot strands dead end in his search for objective truth. The final twist, then, isn’t so much a plot twist as it is a final, full picture of a character. And that picture is a haunting one. But hey, if the climax of SHUTTER ISLAND doesn’t work for you, perhaps you owe it to yourself to go back and watch THE VILLAGE again. Enjoy that.

Shhh. Don't give away the big plot twist.

Though Scorsese is far from home off the Massachusetts coast, he’s not gone far in spirit, and SHUTTER ISLAND is actually a refreshing return to self-reflection following the amoral romp THE DEPARTED, a film full of highly-entertaining kills, with a minimum of meditation on them. In this asylum for the criminally insane, however, Marty’s found himself an ideal setting for a study of the brutality that defines his career. Is violence the ultimate logic – a gift from God – as one character puts it? Or is violence simply madness – and are all those who commit it, if they’re not mad already, driven irreversibly mad by it? It’s a potent question, and one the director addresses here with care, if not subtlety. By flashing back to Teddy’s experience as a G.I. liberating the Nazi concentration camp of Dakau, Scorsese places his drama squarely in the Film Noir tradition of the combat veteran-turned-detective, the man who’s seen the depths of human depravity at war and returns to the beat, trusting no one. In most Noir, this hard-bit viewpoint is exactly what saves the hero’s life. But instead of hardening Teddy Daniels’ view of mankind, violence has the opposite effect on him: not steeling, but unraveling. Teddy trusts no one, but to his own detriment. It’s a compelling take on an archetype, that if not unprecedented, is still fascinating in the hands of a master.

Ain't no mountain high enough, ain't no island crazy enough

The other Noir trope that Scorsese draws heavily upon here – too heavily – is the unreliable narrator. It’s not a spoiler to say that the seeds of the ending are planted in the first moments of the film, because within sixty seconds of his opening title, Scorsese plays a card he should hold closer to the vest, cutting into Teddy’s memory with images of his deceased wife (Michelle Williams,) and making it all too clear that her demise will be a key in the puzzle. Leo, for his part, plays Teddy too shaky from the start, projecting instability when more reserve in the film’s first act could have built confidence in his perspective. One imagines what Mark Ruffalo, who plays Leo’s partner, would have done with the role of Teddy – toning down the early twitchiness for a greater impact later. Ruffalo, though, acts as a perfect tonic to Leo in his secondary role. He gets the droll Dean Martin ‘50’s lilt down pat, which makes Leo’s inescapable Leo-ness slightly more believable.

Though SHUTTER ISLAND is something less than perfect, its effects are lingering, the questions it raises not easily dismissed. And the conclusion drawn by this brutal funhouse of a movie, ultimately, is a disturbing one: violence can’t be undone. To put faith in human recovery in the face of sadism – global, or personal – is to play a losing game. Once the crime’s committed, the case can never be truly solved.


Vista Theatre, Los Angeles

Monday February 23, 5:30pm showing

(P.S., March 15, 2010 — Just re-watched Scorsese’s CAPE FEAR, which, though still definitely worth comparison to SHUTTER, is a significantly stronger and scarier film. Put it on the queue.)

CRAZY HEART, or ‘Lebowski 2: The Dude Gets Sober’

11 02 2010

In CRAZY HEART, a new film with heart but a disappointing amount of crazy, Jeff Bridges plays Bad Blake, a hard-drinking country musician on the down slope of a storied career. As he meanders from shit gig to shit gig, Bad falls in love with a New Mexican journalist (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and flounders in the shadow of his former protégé (Colin Farrell.) But just when he hits bottom, Bad re-connects with an old friend, sage bartender Wayne (Robert Duvall,) who helps him get clean.

Jeff Bridges in CRAZY HEART

There’s just no question about it, Jeff Bridges and Robert Duvall belong to that class of actor who would be worth watching reading the phone book. (While Farrell’s an actor I’d like to hit over the head with a phone book.) And though CRAZY HEART, which Bridges and Duvall also produced, isn’t a poorly written showcase for their skills, its script is too close to the Yellow Pages for comfort. It’s a character piece in the purest sense, meaning it has approximately no plot, just fine performances and dialogue to hold it together. Hey, who am I to criticize a film that knows exactly what it is? I didn’t hate G.I. JOE for exactly that reason… If CRAZY HEART bags Jeff Bridges his golden man, which it almost certainly will, then it was worth making – and for the Bridges fan, it’s certainly worth watching. But for the fence-riding viewer, the CRAZY HEART executive summary in the Oscars’ Best Actor clip reel will do just fine. There’s a bevy of great, guileless line deliveries to choose from here – but personally, I’m still partial to Bridges’ turn in Peter Weir’s FEARLESS, a film that’s about eleventy-hundred times more interesting than this one.

There’s just not much to say about CRAZY HEART that you probably wouldn’t infer from its trailer, or anticipate from your still-fresh memories of THE WRESTLER. That film was a peek behind the veil of pro-wrestling, a revelation of the sensitive men behind their violent personae. Country music, however, isn’t defined by a veiling of emotion – quite the opposite. Country is, almost by its nature, baldly confessional music. So sadly, CRAZY HEART never supplies the voyeuristic thrill of THE WRESTLER, because unlike the character of Randy “The Ram” as juxtaposed in and out of the ring, there’s nothing about Bad Blake that’s not perfectly presented in the songs he performs throughout this film – just as James Mangold’s WALK THE LINE didn’t really add anything to the story of Johnny Cash that listening to ‘At Folsom Prison’ hadn’t already told you about the man.

Mel Gibson in CRAZYHEART

But even for the similarities CRAZY HEART bears to so many ‘washed-up (fill-in-the-blank)’ films, the most irksome comparison I kept drawing while watching was to HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH, which traces a similar downward spiral of a has-been (or never-was,) but with humor and plotting that CRAZY HEART never attempts. If you haven’t accepted HEDWIG as your personal lord and savior, do so pronto… All these comparisons to other films, and what’s the point? Only that CRAZY HEART isn’t a memorable enough film in its own rite to avoid such comparisons. If only there were something actually crazy in CRAZY HEART. But this film is its protagonist: it’s not a wild drunk, just a stoic, pleasant one. And even when Bad’s at his worst, (losing a kid in a mall) it’s obvious that the sun will shine again, and the kid will come back. This isn’t, after all, the Jeff Bridges of THE VANISHING. Yikes, another comparison. Maybe it’s me…?

Among the songs that make up the film’s outstanding soundtrack, my favorite is ‘Fallin & Flyin,’ which goes something like “funny how fallin’ feels like flyin’ for a little while…” That’s a great lyric, and a great song. But the problem as it relates to CRAZY HEART as a whole is, we never see Bad Blake flying. He starts low, and ends redeemed, but still low. Yes, this is a character piece so fair’s fair; we’re not tracing the man’s entire career arc. All we’re witness to is the falling. It’s well performed falling to be sure, but nothing about it is exciting. This is a tale as predictable as gravity itself.

2009: The Year in Talkies

8 02 2010

It’s taken awhile, and I haven’t seen evvverything, but considering the fact that Americans are currently in the midst of trying to forget all about last year (last decade, really,) I figure it’s best to do this before it’s completely wiped from our collective memories – or at least from mine. So, here in no particular order, in February, is a round-up of the notable films of ’09:


Firstly, A SERIOUS MAN, a tale of Biblical proportions set against 1960’s suburbia, is one of the Coen Brothers’ best films, which is saying plenty in itself. But I wouldn’t be surprised if when the books are written, this is ultimately recognized as their major achievement… Then again, these are the Coens. The best may well be yet to come.


In PRECIOUS, a melodrama that implemented multiple fantasy sequences in its subjective portrait of a pregnant young woman in Harlem, director Lee Daniels made some choices that some felt teetered on overkill. But that’s melodrama for you; and in terms of visceral, emotional cinematic experience, PRECIOUS had precious few equals this year… In other words, it made me cry. There. You happy? SUGAR, by Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, takes the opposite tack stylistically: it’s an understated docudrama about a young baseball pitcher from the Dominican Republic who travels to the U.S. with hopes of major league glory… But without giving too much away, this is a story like PRECIOUS, about finding fulfillment and joy without achieving your wildest dreams – making it a far more poignant and valuable piece for its time than some tired variant on the “heartwarming” Horatio Alger myth.

James Gandolfini's IN THE LOOP

From the other side of the pond, Armando Iannucci’s IN THE LOOP, an acid-tongued political farce from Britain, is highly recommended on DVD. One word of warning, though: this isn’t a film to watch while doing laundry or checking Huff Post. The dialogue is fast, furious, and unrelentingly English-accented. Keep up with it, though, and the rewards are rich… Also from Merry Ol’, Lone Scherfig’s coming-of-age drama AN EDUCATION took turns that surprised throughout, but never hit an untrue note. As much as Carey Mulligan’s been garnering attention for her debut here, it’s Alfred Molina who thrilled me most, as the strict father seduced by Peter Sarsgaard’s dashing bachelor almost as much as his daughter is.

James Gandolfini (left) as a WILD THING

And while I wouldn’t say either was among my favorite films of 2009, Wes Anderson’s FANTASTIC MR. FOX and Spike Jonze’s WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE were intriguing and unique children’s films – both of which stayed true to the spirit of their source material. Anderson’s compulsive attention to detail proved a sublime fit for stop-motion animation. And not since modern classic BABE: PIG IN THE CITY has a children’s film dared to be as sober and challenging as WILD THINGS. The fact that Warner Bros. allowed it to be released in this form (after much delay and re-shooting,) is something of a Hollywood coup. Like it or loathe it, there just won’t be another movie like WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE. Pixar’s UP deserves a mention in the ‘daring children’s film’ category as well, though its first heart-wrenching five minutes essentially earn ninety minutes of light fun. Still, those were five stunning minutes.

Sam Rockwell in MOON

As for grown-up (non-porno) entertainment, Sam Raimi’s DRAG ME TO HELL was some of the best fun ten dollars, or two Euros, could buy you in oh-nine, a film that worked phantasmagorically well as both horror and comedy – so right there, you’re getting two movies for the price of one ticket. At a swift ninety minutes, this gory dynamo packed a punch that many films double its length this year (Michael Mann’s GANGLAND NAPTIME) couldn’t muster… And MOON, the science fiction thriller by David Bowie’s son Duncan Jones, was a smart and spooky bit of Kubrickiana with a personal-best performance (performances, really) by Sam Rockwell.

The best scene in the best movie of the year

At the top of the heap, my two favorite films of the year go conveniently hand-in-hand: Kathryn Bigelow’s masterful THE HURT LOCKER and Quentin Tarantino’s electrifying INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS. Both are very different war films about very different wars, yet both achieve lyrical truth about the nature of violence, and the nature of violent entertainment. The Basterds, a band of Nazi-killers in World War II, aren’t so much men as they are an idea embodied: a pure force of vengeance. (That the Nazis believe them to be Golems is one of my favorite details of the film.) LOCKER’s Specialist James, by contrast, is a far more realistic character than any, anywhere, in BASTERDS. Like the nation he represents, James is addicted to war, so consumed by it that everything else in his life fades away. But his tale is only arguably a tragedy. He returns home only to realize that he can’t force himself to love his wife or son – not as much as he loves the effect heroism has on him. So, is it tragic for a man to do what he loves if what he loves is war? LOCKER, brilliantly and simultaneously, works as an action thriller and anti-war drama – depending on one’s answer to that question. The Basterds, of course, are similarly thrilled by violence, and Tarantino lets them win the war through uncompromising sadism… But only in a fairy tale.

S T I G L I T Z .

Between these two films, 2009 gave me much to think, and spiel about. My sincere thanks go out to all those who worked to make all the films on this little list – and all the films, even the awfully shitty ones, that 2009 had to offer. Making a movie ain’t easy, friends. Making a great movie… Well I personally think that’s about the best thing a human being can do.