Monday, April 19, 2010

Good Hair

I had no idea. No idea that African-American women went to such lengths for beauty. Not even for beauty, but for normalcy.

Good Hair is a documentary co-produced and starring Chris Rock, a documentary which shows the extraordinary measures black women in our culture go to to achieve "good hair." "Bad hair" as defined by this movie is nappy, or natural, African hair. Apparently it's not desired.

Desired hair, or "good hair," is the white look. Straight. Glamorous. And women (and many men) are willing to put acid on their hair to straighten it regardless of the pain ("just a little more, just a little longer," said one man who described the process of pain with the product on his hair).

Those who can afford it opt for the weave, a rather expensive process where other women's hair is woven into their own; this option is less painful but far more time-consuming. There is a telling moment during the film when several people, real people, wonder out loud how some can afford it. The answer is: any way, any how. Looking good is more important than paying the rent.

The documentary makers don't make judgment. Chris Rock just looks amazed throughout. What bookends the movie is Rock's musings about what to tell his two girls when they get a little older about this process. As it turns out, there is no good answer.

I highly recommend this movie. Good Hair does a good job of showing the price that is paid for image. It's engrossing, it's funny, it's amazing. Thumb's up.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Bad Lieutenant, Port of Call - New Orleans

Nicolas Cage. You needn't say more. He really tops himself in this role of a complicated detective in the port of New Orleans. When you think "over the top," sure, you think "Nicolas Cage," but his portrayal is more multi-leveled than that.

Terence McDonagh is injured in a selfless act post-Katrina and needs constant pain medication for his back just to make it through the day. Every stiff-legged step he takes tells you that throughout this drama. The act of altruism we see in the beginning tells us that McDonagh isn't a bad guy, but he drifts into bad activities in order to alleviate the pain -- helping himself to drugs in the police lock-up, eventually holding up kids and threatening them with police records in order to get their stash, etc.

In the meantime, while we watch his descent into a drug-addled life, his police work and excesses take us into a bam-bam kind of existence: he's trying to solve the murder of a family, his drug-using prostitute girlfriend has her own problems with men who beat her up as part of the sex, his alcoholic father's dog needs to be taken care of, he runs afoul of his bookie when he bets on the wrong teams over and over, a nervous teenage witness has to be protected, and he starts seeing hallucinations -- on and on until you wonder when everything will cave in on him.

Thankfully this is an intelligently written screenplay with more than a few surprises and, of course, excesses. It's rather compelling and, due to Cage's skill and effect on us, we're involved enough to see it through.

Talk about excess. There are a couple of scenes where our coked-up lieutenant resembles the lead character in Scarface. This film isn't for everyone, but for those who like action and especially Cage, it's a winner. Thumb's up.

An Education

As the movie An Education began to unfold, I had the uneasy feeling that this was another tale of innocent girl, 16 years old in this film, meets older man who takes advantage of her. While that is in a way true, this is a different tale, and one that should be watched, flinching be damned.

Carey Mulligan, who has received top awards for her portrayal of Jenny, a teenager in the sixties who is trying to do what her beloved teachers and Type A-father are telling her, but she wants to move a bit faster, a bit differently. Trying to bone up on the Latin that will propel her towards Oxford, she by chance meets an older man, far wittier than any schoolboy on a bicycle she's likely to run into in school circles. David is instantly charmed by this very clever girl, one who seems to know a bit about art and music, and offers to introduce her to his two friends, Danny and Helen, and the cultured world. He also introduces her to quite a bit more, and I would be doing you a disservice to explain what or how.

While her father (Alfred Molina) constantly bleats at her that education is the way for a young girl to do better than he did in life -- remembering this is the sixties - he's also giving some mixed messages when he, too, is charmed by David and allows, well, what he shouldn't be allowing. Why Molina hasn't received all the awards actors can accrue is a mystery; as wonderful as Mulligan is, Molina is the character that sets everything up in her young life.

This is really an amazing film, one that shows us that education comes in many ways and on many levels. I highly recommend it. Thumb's up.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Yesterday Was a Lie

This is the tale of a gumshoe who finds that time keeps shifting on her. And when you hear "gumshoe," you know that we're talking '30's or '40's, although we're never told what year it is. And when our private detective Hoyle (Kipleigh Brown) lifts the black rotary phone, we're sure this is film noir.

The film is an independent one, on low budget with high concept. The film was originally filmed in color but the film has been bleached to black and white. It's quite an effective technique, especially with two blondes whose hair shines with aura. The lighting is magnificent.

Hoyle seems to have a drinking problem, as she deals with her disjointedness with a swig of bourbon every chance she gets. She keeps coming across a blonde singer (Chase Masterson) whose name we never hear but who seems to be wherever Hoyle goes.
She's also dogged by a cast-off boyfriend, who seems to know more than he's saying.

While this film looks like it could star Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray, there's no murder here to solve, just Hoyle's own personal internal mystery. And no '40's film ever looked this good.

The film would've been better as a short, as the theme is repeated and repeated to reach the length of a full-length movie. The end is less than satisfying, and, although the denouement may resemble Memento, that movie that everyone loves to talk about but hates to watch because it's so confusing, this one is not confusing by the end. It's just not up to the build-up.

Thumb's up for the intriguing look and rather new turn on an old idea. For those who only appreciate Hollywood-made excess, you're gonna want to skip it.

Crazy Heart

There's a scene in the beginning of Crazy Heart that sums up 'ol country singer Bad Blake's current state of affairs: he gets out of the car, his pants askew and belt undone, and pours a jug of yellow liquid on the ground of the parking lot. In other words, he's currently an out-of-luck, gotta-get-to-the-next-venue country singer, and no money or time to stop at any motel along the way.

It's a fine screenplay, achingly portrayed by Jeff Bridges in the title role. His singing voice is acceptable, believable in the lower registers, and gruff enough to make us believe this guy has been through everything a country singer should experience. The only part of this movie I found unbelievable was the May-December romance. While Maggie Gyllenhaal is a fine actress, and getting better all the time, I just did not see how she could be attracted to this old, smelly, bedraggled mess of a man.

Even though there's no real action to speak of, the movie never slows, and keeps up a constant character portrayal of Bad Blake and his move towards redemption. The music is another character in this movie, and is a real star, thanks to T-Bone Burnett, who co-wrote the songs with Ryan Bingham. It's really outstanding, and I'm not a country music fan per se.

I highly recommend Crazy Heart, not just for the fine acting but also for its heart. And, of course, it's the pinnacle, so far, of Jeff Bridges' fine acting career, as he won an Oscar for it.

Thumb's up.

Twilight: New Moon

Unless you've been living in a cave populated by only the likes of CNN and Bill Maher, you'll know that the Twilight series about vampires has a new edition out: New Moon. New Moon occurs after Edward leaves Bella alone to fend for herself. "New Moon" refers to the fact that there are not only vampires around, there are werewolves. And you have to wonder about Edward's value system when he leaves the woman he loves behind so that they can prey upon her.

But "prey" is a word to be defined. There are vampires who want to kill her, and apparently werewolves who wouldn't mind the same, but there is also a werewolf who loves her, Jacob. Jacob was born on an Indian reservation, but cuts his hair and bulks up so that he can run with the pack of local boys. It takes Bella awhile to figure this all out, but she was slow on the uptake about Edward in the first movie/book, if you'll recall.

I found this movie not only slow but turgid and downright full of itself, arrogant. The only time it seemed worth paying attention was during the fight scenes, which were brilliantly shot with some decent CGI but all too brief. Add also the scenes between Bella and Jacob; I knew Kristin Stewart was a good actress, but had no idea that Taylor Lautner could hold our attention. He does. But both of them are not enough to save this serial.

Look out, there's another one around the corner, a development that leaves us holding our throats and howling at the moon.

Thumb's down.

Fantastic Mr. Fox

Fantastic Mr. Fox is an animated adventure chronicling Fox's rejection of his urban ways and then helping his community thwart the humans who are out to destroy them. The famous voices include George Clooney as Fox, Meryl Streep as his wife, and many others like Bill Murray as the badger.

It's a unique filming process. I said "animated," but it's really more stop-motion, and the fur looks so real because it is. The voices make these characters come to life. They are full-blown characters, just like Roald Dahl wrote about in his novel. It's quite fascinating to watch these animals adapt to city life (well, most of them have), and sympathize with a very real Mr. Fox when he can't quite leave his hands, er, paws, off the chickens.

However, I didn't quite find it as fascinating as most reviews. I got a little bored toward the end, even though there were some delightful surprises. Still, I highly recommend it as something completely different from what you've ever seen before.

Thumb's up.