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Monday, February 8, 2016

Thoughts on A Time for Laughter

I enjoyed attending a discussion at the Museum of the Moving Image on Saturday called The Color of Comedy, about black and brown voices in comedy.

The discussion started with a screening of a 1967 TV special called A Time for Laughter, which was produced by Harry Belafonte and hosted by Sidney Poitier. It was an hour of sketches that was a showcase of black humor, satire, and self-parody, and was amazing to watch. The show features a great cast of legendary comedians like Redd Foxx, Moms Mabley, Richard Pryor, and Dick Gregory, and other names I didn't know like George Kirby, Pigmeat Markham, and Godfrey Cambridge.

The sketches were really ballsy and risky for their day, featuring a sketch with blackface (a white guy learns song & dance from a black man and performs in blackface); a suburban black couple pretend to be white and piss off their black maid (Mabley), a civil rights marcher (Gregory) cracks jokes about the police and racism while in jail with a lot of his fellow marchers; a nervous undertaker (Pryor) has to deliver the eulogy at a funeral when the priest doesn't show up; and a pool hustler (Foxx) talking about poverty and civil rights. I was amazed at how the show got away with showing blackface in a social commentary way, the n-word being said a lot, and a lot of risk-taking in being very blunt about racism and civil rights, while still presenting black humor not neutered for white folks.

I especially enjoyed Pryor's hilarious performance and his impeccable comic timing and nervous energy in the character; Redd Foxx for playing to the camera like it was someone's POV, being totally at ease as the camera moves with him around the pool table, and being an excellent storyteller; Dick Gregory bringing this down-to-earth realism as he was talking about Black Power; and Moms Mabley's comedic body language as she mocks her wannabe "white" black employers.

The panel discussion was fascinating, with a variety of mostly Black comedians (and one Indian man and one Dominican man) speaking about their history in comedy, facing racial setback, being inspired by their heroes and peers, and using comedy to both bring awareness to social issues as well as celebrating a variety of Black experiences.

I did ask a question, more because one of the sketches in the show seemed like an inspiration to Eddie Murphy (the barbershop scene in Coming to America with Murphy and Arsenio Hall as multiple characters), and they said Murphy was likely more inspired by Pryor from Any Which Way But Loose (Pryor played multiple characters in a scene), but that Pryor likely got his inspiration from George Kirby's barbershop scene, as well as his own storytelling style of talking about people he knew growing up in a brothel.

It was really great to see, and I liked just listening and learning a lot from hearing about their experiences and seeing the TV special of legendary comedians (which also included vintage commercials for Pepto-Bismol, cigarettes, aspirin, and Welch's grape juice).

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films - A Film Review

I really enjoyed watching the documentary Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films. It is about The Cannon Group, a film company that made low-budget movies, which genres mostly comprised of action, exploitation, crime thrillers, sci-fi, and a children's division.

The company was run by two Israeli guys who were passionate about filmmaking, and totally outside the Hollywood system, more into pumping out low-quality movies with crazy amounts of sex and violence, that they saw as Oscar material. And throughout the documentary, the actors and directors just trash them constantly, for damaging their careers or ripping them off or being difficult to work with. One actress even burns a VHS copy of the movie she was in, to show how disgusted she was by it. The film producers had also often went over budget and didn't make their money back, ripped off investors, went into debt, and had burned many bridges due to their careless attitudes.

I still enjoy these movies, because I love that the filmmakers were ballsy and wild, made these ridiculous movies because of a genuine love of cinema, and just going for it. Some of the movies they made were films that I enjoyed in my childhood: Invaders from Mars and Missing in Action. And I enjoyed Runaway Train, Bloodsport, Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo, Kickboxer, and Over the Top. I did not like Superman IV: The Quest for Peace because it had a terrible villain and I didn't like the preachy, self-righteous attitude of the story, and the special effects were dreadful.

And I was glad that this movie pointed out the same reasons I had for not liking the Death Wish series. As a kid, I had seen a TV promo for the Death Wish movies being shown on WPIX all week, and seeing an old man gun down people at night in rundown neighborhoods was disturbing to me. I tried watching Death Wish II and III, but couldn't stand them. I hated seeing rape being depicted in an exploitative, titillating matter (with nudity and showing the rape in full view( or seeing an old white middle-class man go into rundown ghetto neighborhoods and gun down any minority who looked like a thug. It wasn't something to root for, the movies were just gross. So I was glad others felt the same.

Thoughts on The Last Five Years

I watched The Last Five Years yesterday. The story itself isn't too interesting (a romantic relationship falls apart, and the story is told out of chronological order with the leads singing solos about their relationship), but it was an adventurous step for a movie adapted from a stage musical.

Anna Kendrick is cute and charming, and has a high, melodic mezzo-soprano voice that is lovely to hear. I also liked seeing her performance in playing someone going through heartbreak, career disappointments, and trying to stay supportive as her man succeeds in life. Jeremy Jordan was affable, but I hated it whenever he sang loudly, it just hit my ears hard, like he was yelling. His acting performance was decent, his singing just got irritating to me because it sounded turned up to 11 frequently.

I initially had turned it off because the movie is pretty much all singing, and I am not into musicals. I gave it another chance, and the charm grew on me, but it can still feel like a lot to hear a lot singing with little speaking time in between.

Thoughts on Pride & Prejudice and Zombies

I enjoyed Pride & Prejudice and Zombies, though it could have been better. I enjoyed the scenes of the Bennett sisters fighting zombies, training with each other in hand-to-hand combat while exchanging dialogue about proper decorum, joking around, and being supportive of one another. The film had an awesome animated opening sequence, and I really liked a duel scene between Lizzie and Darcy. That scene had wit and charm and a spunky life to it. And I really liked the performances of Lily James as Lizzie (headstrong and intelligent), Matt Smith as an awkward suitor, and Lena Headey as a badass eyepatch-wearing zombie hunter. The story idea was fun and clever, and it seemed like the actresses playing the sisters were having fun with this twist on a typical English period drama.

The negatives were the casting of Sam Riley as Darcy. His acting was dull and boring, and he was miscast for the role. The first two thirds of the film were fun to watch, but the last third was a drag. It was dreary-looking, and lost the momentum of the film's pairing of horror with comedy. I already guessed the villain's surprise reveal long before it happened, and I just stopped caring. I also wanted to see more teamwork with the sisters throughout the film, not just focusing on Lizzie and Jane and forgetting the others.

And since I ragged on Natalie Portman last week, I will give her good credit for co-producing this movie, as it was a smart choice to be a part of this film. Two points for her.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Jane Got a Gun - A Film Review

I went to see Jane Got a Gun today (directed by Gavin O'Connor), and found it really boring. I was interested because I wanted to support a female-led western movie, and because the trailer made Natalie Portman look like a badass, defending her family against a murderous gang and getting her guns ready. It looked like a different role for her, and it looked exciting.

Instead, the movie was dull as hell.

There were several problems with this movie. I will start with Portman, because she is the star and co-produced the movie. She is nearly 35, but still looks like a young ingénue. She doesn't come off as being tough or having seen hardship in life. I could see other actresses of petite size being more convincing in Westerns: Salma Hayek, Holly Hunter, and Jodie Foster. They are small, but come off as tough and strong and having had more harder life experiences beyond their initial privilege (beauty, wealth). Portman, to me, seems to have had a life without real struggles. She made it big as a kid and successfully transitioned to an adult acting career, she comes from an upper-class family and likely would've made it into Harvard without her fame, and she comes off as fairly sheltered in an elite world. She tried, but she didn't seem gritty enough to be believable as someone who has to fight to survive in the Old West. Jane seemed defined by her relationships to men than by her individual self, whereas it should have been a story about a passive housewife taking control and fighting for her family's survival, discovering her own strength and power in the process.

Joel Edgerton was totally forgettable as Dan, Jane's former fiancé. He just stood around like a blank piece of wood, and he could have been switched out with another dull Aussie actor like Sam Worthington and I wouldn't have known the difference. I barely knew anything about his character, as he had no personality, and seemed like he just blended into the desert background. And it took me nearly a half hour into the movie before I realized that Jane and Dan were supposed to be a formerly engaged couple. They had no chemistry whatsoever, and acted like they were just barely above being strangers in their interactions, they often came off as cold and remote to each other. (I think the only time Portman has had great chemistry with a man onscreen has been with Jean Reno in Leon when she was 12, and that is kind of sad and messed-up).

Ewan McGregor was terrible in this as the villain, Colin. I didn't realize it was him until about a quarter into the movie, and that explained why I thought his Southwest accent sounded weird. McGregor is a great actor, but is terrible at American accents. He did OK with a Southern accent in Big Fish, but otherwise, he sounds strained and flat when trying to sound American. He sounds charming with his real voice, and cute with a British accent, he should just stop accepting roles as American characters. Nothing about his character struck me as interesting, and I'd rather switch him out for Ian McShane as his version of Al Swearengen from Deadwood.

The story felt pointless, and without real stakes. In it, Portman's character Jane has a husband named Bill (Noah Emmerich, who gave a decent performance in the little screentime that he had) who got shot up in a battle with Colin's gang, and are coming in to finish the job. Jane reaches out to Dan for support and manpower. The movie made it seem as if Jane was going to be the lone hero, but her former fiancé did more of the action than she did, with shooting and driving the story forward. It felt more like it was a story about these men fighting with each other and an innocent woman getting caught in the middle, and only getting her hero moment at the very end, which felt anticlimactic. There were often long pauses in conversations between characters, which often came off like dead air, like nobody had any deep connection or history with one another, and just stood around waiting for things to happen. The movie was too quiet, with long stretches of boring conversation set against the desert background (which did look very beautiful and expansive, so the stellar cinematography can be credited for that).

It isn't the worst movie that I've seen, it is just very boring and forgettable. I don't recommend it at all. And the title is weak, and rips off an Aerosmith song title, a song which packed in way more hard drama and heavy emotion in a few minutes than this movie did in 90.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Thoughts on Rob the Mob

I just watched a movie on Netflix called Rob the Mob, and I liked it a lot. It is based on a real story about a young couple from Queens who robbed mobsters' social clubs in 1992, knowing they didn't have guns to protect themselves. Michael Pitt and Nina Arianda were really likable and charming as the dopey and idiotic couple who robbed mobsters for cash and for personal revenge (the guy's dad had been intimidated by the mob for years and they extorted money from his store) a...nd barely got by on minimum-wage jobs in Ozone Park, Queens, living in the same neighborhood as the mobsters.

A John Gotti trial is the backdrop for the story, and heavily influences the mob's reactions and the FBI involvement. There was a really talented cast of character actors who played the mobsters: Michael Rispoli, Andy Garcia, Burt Young, and Yul Vasquez, grounding the film in its 1992 New York setting, and I was also impressed by Ray Romano as a news reporter who has been covering the mob for 30 years and resents them.

I definitely recommend the movie if you like mob comedies or stuff with a mainly character actor cast.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Anomalisa - A Film Review

I saw Anomalisa on Sunday, written and directed by Charlie Kaufman, and found it interesting, though I was mixed on it. The stop-motion animation looked great, with a lot of fine detail in the facial expressions and body language, and since the performances were done like if it were a live-action drama, the animation became more lifelike and emotionally touching.

The story is about two lonely people connecting with each other, and the strengths of the film are in their conversation and shared connection. It mostly centers on Michael (David Thewlis), a British author of a self-help book for customer service agents and phone operators. He comes to Cincinnati to give a speech, and, because he is bored with his life, he sees and hears everyone as identical, with Tom Noonan voicing male and female characters with the same needy, soft tone of voice. He goes through the motions of his life, as if in a daze, from taking a cab to checking into his hotel to ordering room service to taking a shower, until hearing a unique female voice jolts him awake.

The voice belongs to Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a nervous and insecure customer service agent who has a dorky charm about her. Their encounter and deeper connection both thrills Michael to meet a true individual and Lisa to be recognized and appreciated for her seemingly ordinary self, singing a Cyndi Lauper song and describing her day trip coming from Akron to Cincinnati. Leigh, known for playing a lot of dark characters (most recently an unrepentant murderer on her way to be hanged in The Hateful Eight), delivers one of my favorite performances I have seen from her, because she plays a character who is both mundane and completely charming at the same time. She is lonely, yet not a pathetic loser. She hasn't been with a man in eight years, yet is happy about being good at her job and singing along to pop songs. Leigh was just fantastic in this role, and it broke away from her usual dark character typecasting.

I thought about the film more after I left, as I did not like Michael. He was emotionally distant and cold to his family, his ex-girlfriend, and service workers. He was happy to speak with Lisa, but treated her as if she was a rare gem because she seemed "different," and the next day's events were heartbreaking to watch. I was concerned that the film fell into the trope of having a lonely man fall for a "quirky" woman who changes his life, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope from Garden State and Elizabethtown. But Kaufman wrote Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, where he gave agency to Clementine, who didn't want to exist as men's inspiration or fantasy figure or a muse, and had her own life to handle. And Lisa, while she is romanticized by Michael as being an "anomaly," she is ordinary like him. It is his problem for being down and seeing everyone as identical, and it isn't up to her to change his life for the better. The ending was fitting, and broke conventions of the woman existing as muse for the man, and the more I thought about it, the more I appreciated it.