A report from last week's 21st Indie Memphis Film Festival, which included new and old favorites.
An interview with Stanley Nelson, the director of The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution.
The NSA plans to reopen the public vetting process for cybersecurity standards; "12 Years a Slave" and the dangers of early Oscar predictions; Disney's new app allows moviegoers to interact with movies while watching them (sigh); our computers are atrophying our brains; "Endless Love" author Scott Spencer on how his novel become a really bad movie (twice); the final moments of Winnie the Pooh; students demonstrate against random drug testing.
Qasim Basir presents his first feature film, "Mooz-lum," featuring Danny Glover, Nia Long, and Roger Guenveur Smith. Based on true events, it follows the story of Tariq (Evan Ross, son of Diana Ross) as he begins college, hoping to escape his childhood struggles. Estranged from his mother and sister, he spent his youth living at times with a strict, religious father and at times in a local madrassa (Islamic seminary). He is a Muslim college student, enrolling in the Fall of 2001. Simply, it is a story of a man trying to hide from the boy within him, just as all hell is about to break loose.
The movie opens nationally on Friday, 2/11. The title is a play on a common mispronunciation of "Muslim." I shrug when President Obama, despite his childhood in Indonesia, pronounces the term as "Muz-lem," though that is still better than the archaic "Moslem." The point here is not that anyone is intentionally mispronouncing the name. Rather, those of us with Muslim names
I saw "The Wiz" (1978) and I saw "Captain EO" (1986) and I never saw Michael Jackson the movie star. For the longest time, it seemed, he was supposed to grow up to become one, but it didn't happen that way. Not long after 1982's Thriller he began transforming into something almost unrecognizable, unphotographable -- something that allegedly had to do with Diana Ross, hyperbaric chambers and, perhaps, the Elephant Man's bones. Whether an illness or a form of self-mutilation, it was a shame. The appealingly handsome young man on the cover of Off the Wall and Thriller morphed (as in the famous "Black or White" video) into a synthetic science-fiction construction that could only have inhabited an artificial universe like those of his two best-known big-screen appearances. He still worked for large crowds on stage, but -- for cosmetic and psychological reasons we may never understand -- close ups came to seem like a very bad idea.
As alien and unreal as he presented himself by the mid-1980s, the one thing that seemed genuine about him was his damage. His music became as polished and mask-like as his visage, and equally devoid of mature emotion. It may have been pop music for theme parks, but it wasn't for adults -- and he didn't seem to want to be thought of as one.
View image SJP sports her power flower.
"The weekend opening [of 'Sex and the City'] also ranked as the strongest ever for a movie carried by a female lead (at least if ticket-price inflation is not taken into account). Paramount’s 'Lara Croft: Tomb Raider' was the previous record-holder, with $47.7 million in ticket sales for Paramount during its opener in 2001.
“'I am so excited about the possibilities for movies about women,' Ms. Parker said."
-- "Gal Pals of 'Sex and the City' Knock Indiana Jones From Top Spot," New York Times, June 2, 2008
Summer's here and the time is right for fart, diarrhea and masturbation jokes in the theaters. Not just in raunchy male-oriented comedies, but in so-called "chick flicks" -- the kind groups of pals attend together after a few cocktails. I'm speaking, of course, about "Sex and the City." Could it, perhaps, be the long-awaited Judd Apatow(ish) movie for gals? You know, the one about a group of friends who hang out and get drunk or stoned, complain about their relationships (or lack thereof), make dirty scatalogical jokes, and generally prefer one another's company to that of the opposite sex?
You tell me. Because, sadly, nobody has enough money to pay me to go see "Sex and the City." I am not the target audience and I know that. I have no objection to it, either. As Roger Ebert succinctly stated at the top of his review "I am not the person to review this movie." Me, too. I am also not that person.
Angelina Jolie as Mariane Pearl
"A Mighty Heart," Michael Winterbottom's film based on Mariane van Neyenhoff Pearl's book about her husband Daniel, a journalist who was kidnapped and executed in Karachi, Pakistan, opens this weekend. I've had my say about the casting of (Czech / Haudenosaunee / American) Angelina Jolie as (Dutch / Cuban / French) Mariane Pearl. And so has Mariane Pearl, who told Newsweek: "This is not about skin color. I wanted her to play me because I trust her. Aren't we past this?"
Marianne Pearl as Marianne Pearl.
Well, some people are. And some aren't. Like, I guess, the people who hired Halle Berry to play white Nevada schoolteacher Tierney Cahill in the upcoming "Class Act." (Berry's at least as much white as she is black. But will she wear "whiteface" in the movie? Do you care?) Or, perhaps, the ones who hired John Travolta to play a woman in "Hairspray." Or even those who think it was just wrong for Marriane Pearl to have married a white Jew in the first place. (Miscegenation!) Let's take that logic to its inevitable extreme. Some people are sticklers for racial, cultural and gender purity. If only race, culture and gender were really that monolithic and clear-cut...
And we're talking about actors here. I'm not advocating blackface or whiteface minstrelsy (that implies bad acting, doesn't it?), but these people are supposed to be able to play characters other than themselves. That's what they do.
Maybe Jolie is terrible and totally miscast in the part. I don't know, I haven't seen the movie yet. But a commenter at the site concreteloop.com succinctly summarizes my own feelings about the matter at this stage: At first it does seem a bit odd, because I am sure there are women of African American or Afro-Cuban descent who could play that role but I would not say this is modern day black-face. If it were some blond-hair, blue-eyed non-talented actress, I would really have a problem. However, I do think Angelina is a great actress and as a matter of fact Mariane Pearl wanted Angelina to portray her in the film. So shouldn’t her wishes be respected?Producer Brad Pitt, who hired his honey for the part, said he was nervous about doing it, but he felt it was the right decision for the movie: "I knew the part had to be played by someone with Mariane's strength and understanding of the world, but I didn't know how to broach the subject. It feels a little like Wolfowitz trying to get his girlfriend a job. [...]
"I know that people are frustrated at the lack of great roles (for people of color), but I think they've picked the wrong example here."
Halle Berry plays Tierney Cahill (pictured -- either the one on the left or the one on the right) in an upcoming movie. You see the resemblance. Gotta problem with that?
I guess it also depends not only on whether you think Mariane Pearl has a (moral? contractual?) right to approve who plays her in a movie made from her own book, but whether you consider Angelina Jolie an actress or just "Brad's girlfriend" — you know, half of "Brangelina." (Or even whether women are capable of making such important judgments, since those who cry "racism" here insist that Jolie and Pearl do not have the personal or professional credibility or authority to make such decisions for themselves.)
And whether you consider the fact that both share Northern European / Caucasian heritage. Much of the criticism I've seen has focused on the tabloid "Brangelina" phenomenon (as if that were real anywhere beyond the supermarket checkstands), or has tried to tie this casting into the history of racist portrayals of African-Americans in Hollywood movies. (In that regard, I recommend Donald Bogle's book, "Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies & Bucks.") But is that really an appropriate conclusion to draw in this particular instance?
I agree that actors of color should be offered more and better roles — including those that weren't originally written to be one race or another. (Sigourney Weaver played a man's role in "The TV Set" without changing a word. Other parts have been re-written for the actor selected for the part.) But is the problem really one of casting people with the same racial make-up as their characters? Or is it more significant that writers and directors and casting directors are not making films with enough characters of color?
On the practical side... well, a star is a star. Angelina Jolie and Halle Berry are Oscar winners, marquee names, not struggling unknowns. (Not that struggling unknowns or semi-knowns don't deserve a chance, but they're unlikely to get one in such a high-profile project.) Mariane Pearl wanted Angelina Jolie to play her, sought her out, and sold the rights to Brad Pitt's production company. Based on this "package," the film was able to get a greenlight from Paramount Vantage, with the expectation that they would make a profit. The question becomes: Is the only form of "good casting" to make sure the racial balance of the character matches that of the actor?
Is Beyonce really too light — or too dark — to have played a character based on Diana Ross in "Dreamgirls"? Is Denzel Washington really too dark to have played light-skinned, reddish-haired Malcolm X? Was it racist to have cast Chinese actress Gong Li as a Japanese woman in "Memoirs of a Geisha"? Were Al Pacino — or Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio or Robert Loggia — terrible in "Scarface" (1983) because they are not Cuban? Was it wrong for Benicio Del Toro (Puerto Rican-American) to play a Mexican cop in "Traffic"? If these actors were good or bad in those movies, was it because of their racial background, or because of the roles and their performances in them?
I wonder what happened to a sense of proportion here. This isn't exactly Mickey Rooney playing a grotesque caricature of a Chinese guy in "Breakfast at Tiffany's." Doesn't the performance itself count for anything — or is it all about appearances? (OK, if Jennifer Aniston had been cast as Pearl, I'd be a lot more skeptical. Even though she's only two years younger than Pearl, while Jolie is seven years younger. But if Jolie is playing Pearl in 2001-2002, then she's just about the perfect age, no?)
The Pale Man knows how to do The Contrarian. He sits motionless until an external stimulus prompts him into motion.
There's a brand new dance That's easy to do It's called the Contrarian And it's all about you!
Strike a hipster pose And admire your reflection Just be sure you're facing In an opposite direction!
(apologies to Rufus Thomas)
Is Armond White too easy a target? Does any other movie critic have a blog devoted to "parsing the confounding film criticism" he produces? (See the hilariously titled Armond Dangerous.)
At the risk of sounding contrarian, I want to suggest that White (published on the web via the weekly New York Press) is by no means the worst movie reviewer in the United States. He just pretends to be the baddest.
The all-too-common White review is a reactionary tirade that owes a lot to the angry shtick of aging hipster comedians like Dennis Leary and Dennis Miller back in the 1990s ("hipster" being White's favorite term of disapprobation). White can also be funny, but I wish he thought so, too -- and that his humor arose from his observations about movies rather than his hysterical indignation.
In this sense, White doesn't necessarily practice film criticism, although what he writes is almost always based on his real or imagined characterization of what other critics have already written. The movie itself sometimes gets lost in White's internal monologue as he rages against some chimerical critical consensus.
In the Bizarro World, Armond White is Jeffrey Lyons. He's the negative campaigner's blurbmeister. Just substitute disses for superlatives and you'll find a similar (anti-)promotional blurb mentality at work. This is the most elementary form of so-called "criticism" -- purely heirarchical rather than analytical or exploratory. It's not even "This is why I prefer this to that"; it's just "This is better than that because I choose to say so."
Eddie Murphy and back-up singers in a soul revue from "Dreamgirls."
Atlantic, Stax/Volt, Motown... Those are three (four?) of my favorite record labels -- and two of 'em are in the news now. Of course, Bill Condon's film of the 1981 musical "Dreamgirls" is loosely based on a slice of Motown history involving Diana Ross and the Supremes. (The slick diva lead singer is named Deena. Subtle.) "Dreamgirls" is playing roadshow engagements in LA, NY and SF -- and opens around the rest of the country on Christmas.
But on a far more significantly note: Last week, music mogul Ahmet Ertegun, founder of the great soul/jazz/pop/rock label Atlantic, died at age 83. Ertegun, along with several others whose names on LP jackets I came to associate with great music (his brother Neshui, Jerry Wexler, Tom Dowd, Arif Mardin...), made Atlantic into one of the greatest recording imprimaturs in American history. (In no small part thanks to its partnership with Memphis-based Stax and Volt.)
Today, the Atlantic/Stax/Volt legacy is in the hands of the brilliant archival label, Rhino, which recently released a terrific box set: "What It Is! Funky Soul and Rare Grooves (1967-77)" from the vaults of Atlantic, Atco and Warner Bros. Records (which includes stuff from Curtom, Cotillion, Reprise... -- labels are as fascinating to me as movie studios, and some have equally distinctive house styles). An earlier indispensable Rhino collection -- "Beg, Scream & Shout! The Big Ol' Box of '60s Soul" -- has a lot of the Stax/Volt material, and comes in a replica carrying case for 7" 45 rpm singles. And I'm thrilled and relieved to see that the 203-track, 8-disc "Atlantic Rhythm and Blues 1947-1974" (which I originally had on LP, then repurchased on CD in the 1980s) is still in print -- along with many of the original albums.
The best appreciation of Ertegun and Atlantic that I've read is from That Little Round-Headed Boy, who even includes a convenient 45 adapter for use on 33 1/3 rpm long-playing turntables! (Bur remember: For best results observe the R.I.A.A. high frequency roll-off characteristic with a 500 cycle crossover.) Not only that, TLRHB adds his own list of favorite Atlantic sides. (And, yes, I've always had a soft spot for Clarence Carter's "Patches," too... and I fervently believe that Aretha Frankin's "Until You Come Back to Me" is to Atlantic what the Temptations' "My Girl" and Stevie Wonder's "Signed, Sealed, Delivered" are to Motown/Tamla -- single-slices of heaven on Earth.)
This is a mono posting and may be played on stereo equipment.
(Note from Roger Ebert: Cynthia, who now lives and works in Tucson, was a features writer at the Sun-Times in the 1970s, where our desks faced each other and we shared everything from coffee to the mysteries of the new computers. She sent me this after the death of Richard Pryor.)
Right here in the middle of Muhammad Ali's mansion, right here in the middle of the mahogany and the stained glass and the rare Turkish rug, there was this large insect buzzing near my ear. I gave it a slap and missed. Then it made a swipe at my other ear. I batted at the air but nothing seemed to be there, and Muhammad Ali was smiling to himself and studying the curve of his staircase.
Billy Dee Williams has been called the black Clark Gable and, if pressed, he'll agree that the comparison has some merit. Now 38, Williams spent a long apprenticeship on Broadway, in television and as a supporting film actor before he made his breakthrough as Chicago Bear Gale Sayers in "Brian's Song " in 1971.
The boy is 11 or 12, and he lives on a sharecropper farm with his parents, his brother and his sister. His parents are people of enormous dignity and strength - qualities the white community did not prize among blacks in the Louisiana of 1930. But they attempt