Saturday, April 28, 2012


Pariah, written and directed by first-timer Dee Rees, is a quiet but confident success that may in time be regarded as a harbinger of a new wave in LGBT filmmaking. Alike (pronounced "Ah-lee-kay" and well played by Adepero Oduye) is a Brooklyn teenager slowly coming into her own as a lesbian, though she must change clothes on the bus in order to appease her conservative mother Audrey (Kim Wayans). Alike's best friend is the openly gay Laura (Pernell Walker), who favors ball caps and men's shirts. Choices in dress and what those choices signify mirror Alike's efforts to find a niche in the lesbian community. Alike doesn't feel quite herself in the outfits Laura suggests, but she knows the church clothes that Audrey picks out aren't her either. Alike's work-weary father Arthur (Charles Parnell) recognizes what's going on with his daughter but can't acknowledge it because of the uproar it would cause at home. It's in her writing that Alike is most fully herself, she's an AP English student with a flair for poetry that impresses her teacher and may get her a college scholarship. In a welcome note of restraint, there's nothing transformative or empowering about the poetry Alike writes and reads in Pariah. It's is quite simply an outlet that she must have in order to claim her identity, since so many other means of doing so are blocked or out of reach. Alike's unexpected attraction to Bina (Aasha Davis), the daughter of her mother's co-worker, complicates her efforts to discover what kind of lesbian she wants to be.

Pariah is a film about attempted connections; Alike can't fully embrace the circle Laura runs in, while her peaceful moments with Audrey are all too brief. Alike and Bina bond over music, but it isn't clear that both girls understand their feelings to the same degree. What makes Pariah (a shaky title, by the way) so moving is that it isn't just a film about entering the gay community but also about entering adult life. After a well-staged and frightening confrontation with her family(Wayans' Audrey, angry at everyone, is scorching.), the realization that Alike's true home lies elsewhere comes almost as a relief. Adepero Oduye plays Alike with a devastating smile and a palpable need or love of all kinds; Alike rides into her next chapter beholden to no one's idea of who should be, and it's that sense of new discovery that makes Pariah feel like the first of what comes next.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Just how relevant are critics?

This overwritten but still telling review of Peter Berg's Battleship confirms my suspicions, which are that the movie is a mess and that Rihanna's performance is more like performance art. At this point is it worth recalling that Berg directed Friday Night Lights? (This Recording)
Watching Rihanna take a bloody lip from a disrespectful alien-machine amalgam and trying to enjoy it is very difficult, perhaps on the level of trying to the explain the work of Levi-Strauss at West Point. It is doubly disturbing that the alien lets her go with only that much violence, as if it was meant to stand in for something more. To address the issue of domestic abuse and minority empowerment in a film adapted from a board game stands as one of the definitive artistic achievements of this decade, if not of all time

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Dept. of More There Than Meets The Eye

Good post by Glenn Kenny on Whit Stillman's fizzy search for order, from Metropolitan to the new Damsels in Distress.
I understand the film's lead character, Violet, played beautifully by Greta Gerwig, seen above, as both a Stillman spokesperson and self-criticism, and I mean that entirely in an intellectual sense—I don't believe this film is any type of confessional in the conventional sense. Let us take just one example of the Violet view of the world/life. When Violet talks about finding the scent of a bar of motel courtesy soap to be "transformative," yes, it's funny, but it's not entirely a joke. Personal hygiene as a touchstone of not just physical and mental health but also of moral order—I think this is an idea that Stillman takes very seriously indeed. But he is also acutely aware as to how peculiar this idea at first appears in the "real" world that's outside the movie, and how Violet's championing of this makes her seem a little ridiculous. The whole scheme of the movie's whimsy rests on this tension, which is why the delivery of the dialogue in this picture is by necessity a trifle more formal and declamatory than it was in Stillman's prior films, which, you know, have LOTS of dialogue.

Tuesday Music:The Band - "Up on Cripple Creek"

Drummer/vocalist Levon Helm of The Band is reported near death tonight, a decade after a serious battle with throat cancer. This video of a post-Robbie Robertson Band won't shake any memories of The Last Waltz, but it's proof that even after the most remembered chapter of his career the man never phoned it in.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Dinosaur Subtext

Don't click on this link if you'd prefer the dinosaur scene in The Tree of Life to remain a mystery. According to the explanation provided I read Malick's intent with the scene correctly in the context of the film, but it's fascinating to know the process by which the scene was arrived at. My favorite part of this post is the excerpt from Malick's "draft screenplay", which reads more like notes for a philosophy paper.
Leaving aside the question of whether the science behind this depiction of dinosaur life is sound (or, at least, generally accepted), that is the intention of the scene. Michael said Malick uses CGI footage almost the way he uses photographic footage. He wants a LOT of it to choose from. They gave him about 50 versions of the scene altogether (out of maybe a hundred that they put together). Michael's initial inclination was to assemble the shots the same way you would if you were shooting it with actors, with the pivotal moment focusing on a close-up of the actor's face, but Malick did not want close-ups of the dinosaurs' eyes -- he wanted it done with the paw (OK, I called it a "paw," but Michael corrected me: it's a foot).

Monday, April 09, 2012

Eastwood's Folly?

I barely remember Clint Eastwood's White Hunter Black Heart from my "I hope it's in stock at the video store" days, but this apprecation makes me want to seek it out again. Also, were trailers so stilted even 20 years ago?
Eastwood embodies Wilson as both a charming rabble-rouser and a man driven by staunch morals about the phoniness of happy endings (as he and Pete debate early on, in a slightly too on-the-nose scene) and the necessity of taking principled stands no matter the consequences—"If you fight, you feel okay about it," he tellingly informs Pete. Those two qualities come to the fore in White Hunter Black Heart's most amusing scene, in which Wilson absolutely eviscerates a woman he's attempting to woo with a caustic anecdote after she confesses—in front of avowed Jew Pete—that Hitler's one good idea was gas-chamber extermination. Wilson's duality is also forcefully felt in his simultaneous disgust with the Hollywood money machine and his defense of the system's "whores" (amongst whom he once counted himself), in his egotistical demand for financing and then cavalier abandonment of the production for hunting escapades, and—most fundamental of all—in his desire to create art and risk self-destruction.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Sunday Music: Alabama Shakes - "I Found You"

I know, I know. Late to the party. First album out this week; read the group's story here complete with praise from peers.

New Girls

If you're tired of hearing about Lena Dunham and her upcoming HBO series Girls then this week will be a painful one for you. Dunham and her colleague Jenni Konner talk about the show here. My anticipation is heightened by the fact Dunham cites Whit Stillman's Last Days of Disco as a favorite film, and as Glenn Kenny points out Dunham is in a unique position to explore rarely seen layers of female friendship.
Dunham led off by saying one reason she loved Disco was its portrayal of a "great female friendship," a description that made Stillman raise at least one eyebrow. The film's central relationship is between Chloe Sevigny's Alice and Kate Beckinsale's Charlotte. Charlotte's, as it happens, is one of the most hilarious archetypal underminers in the history of fiction, so blatant in her manipulations that the joke becomes (in my mind at least) how much Charlotte only thinks she's being something like passive-aggressive. Sweet and inexperienced Alice falls for Charlotte's nonsense with a credulity that would make her an utter dupe in a less nuanced film, and this credulity leads to such classic lines as "I think Uncle sexy." But on reflection, it seems that the fact that Dunham takes the relationship in the film as a friendship is not unrelated to what makes Dunham interesting as a filmmaker.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Dobra Ojca: A film by Chris White

DOBRA OJCA \ A Short Film by Chris White from Chris White on Vimeo.

I'm pleased to share a short film by my friend Chris White, whose previous film Taken In I wrote about here. I have a small role in Chris's already completed next feature Get Better.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

My movie-going companion asked me as the credits rolled whether Lasse Hallstrom's Salmon Fishing in the Yemen was based on a true story. (It is in fact based on a novel by Paul Torday.) Though the setup (repressed Scottish scientist helps Arab Shiekh bring salmon to a desert country, falls in love) has the strangeness of real life, the movie is so intent on being nice to its characters and tying up loose ends that it's hard to imagine Salmon Fishing being anything other than a ready-made comedy. Alfred Jones (Ewan McGregor) thinks he's happy enough in his government job, though his frequently absent wife (Rachael Stirling) seems to put up with him more than actually be married to him. Alfred doesn't want any part of investment advisor Harriet (Emily Blunt) and her interest in helping her client, a liberal Sheikh (Amr Waked) become a salmon fisherman without leaving home. The unlikely salmon project is pushed along by a brassy Prime Minister's aide (Kristin Scott Thomas) looking for good news from the Middle East as the war in Afghanistan goes sour. Salmon Fishing slaps one on the head with its message, a catch-all belief in the importance of faith when things get bad. It isn't clear whether or not the salmon (brought in from a fish farm when political pressure kills an attempt to secure wild salmon) will run upstream, and Harriet pines for an MIA soldier boyfriend (Tom Mison) even as she begins to be drawn to Alfred.

If you're not sure how any of these questions will resolve themselves then you've never seen a film directed by Lasse Hallstrom, champion of the pleasant and classy. I refer you to Chocolat or Something to Talk About, films that work very hard to take the audience on a journey that ends in the place you'd most expect. Hallstrom gets a hand here from his leads; McGregor is quite good as a man slowly waking up to life and Blunt gets to play a too-often hidden vulnerable side. As the Shiekh Amr Waked does provide a hint of something wilder. There's a glint in Waked's eye that makes us wonder just how far the Shiekh is reaching for his dream. (The Shiekh's anti-Western enemies are never individualized.) Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, full of beautifully shot Scottish countryside, will transport audiences but only so far. The charm of its people makes two hours go down easily, but I wanted a little more of that salmon-loving Shiekh.