Movies

Last Day of a Young Black Man

Fruitvale Station's intimate portrait of Oscar Grant promises better days ahead for black film.

AP Images/Ron Koberer
T hree hours before the advance screening of Fruitvale Station I attended in Chicago, a line of eager fans snaked through the Cineplex. Many were dressed up, hair done right, faces beat. Writer and director Ryan Coogler and stars Octavia Spencer and Michael B. Jordan were on hand for a talkback after the screening. The Reverend Jesse Jackson, introducing the actors and the drama, which won the 2013 Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, referred to the movie’s subject matter as “Trayvon Martin in real time” and led a vigorous call-and-response. There was a charge in the air, like the one I felt a month earlier at a crowded screening of the romantic comedy Peeples, written and directed by Tina Gordon Chism. During both screenings, attended by predominantly black audiences, the crowd laughed, nodded in the darkness, and, when each movie finished, offered sighs of contentment and effusive praise. At the end of Fruitvale Station, there were also tears. Contemporary black film is something of a...

Vacant Beauty, Boredom, and The Bling Ring

With her latest film, Sophia Coppola emerges as successor to Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni, master of disaffection and alienation. 

AP Images/Matt Sayles
AP Images/Matt Sayles Next month my 15-year-old son, Miles, starts Calabasas High, which lies wedged between the palaces of the community for which the school is named and Topanga Canyon where we live, with its erstwhile bohemians and aging hippies of whom I would probably be regarded as one or both. My niece went to the same high school and I remember some years ago driving her to the fiefdom of an 11 th -grade classmate who had to himself the guest house which adjoined his parents’ mansion and was bigger than any home I’ve lived in. One of the Menendez Brothers went to Calabasas High. Sometimes I worry Miles will wonder what the hell he’s doing at this school and other times I dread he’ll fit right in. Calabasas was where the true-life blingleaders of Sofia Coppola’s new The Bling Ring went to school before they were expelled. This exile appears to have sealed the kids’ view of themselves as outsiders while further igniting their hunger for an insider’s privilege, wealth, and any...

All Tomorrow’s Parties

Gay Equality 1, Civil Rights 0 – join us in wondering how to celebrate this Fourth of July. (Hint: not by seeing Johnny Depp’s new movie, that’s for sure.)

AP Photo/The Omaha World-Herald, Brynn Anderson
AP Photo C all it coincidence, but my bedside reading for the past couple of weeks has been the new two-volume boxed set of the Library of America’s Reporting Civil Rights . Awe-inducing and frequently thrilling, this monumental anthology of on-the-scene coverage of the fight for black equality features contributions by scores of writers, some rightly renowned—James Baldwin, Garry Wills, et. al.—and some unjustly obscure. Part One deals with the years 1941-1963; Part Two tackles the pressure-cooker decade that followed King’s “I Have A Dream” speech. Each volume also includes a sheaf of photographs, primarily of the writers themselves at the time. They’re often evocative ones, even if the era’s great photojournalism—no less worthy of commemoration—gets short shrift as a result. Anyway, I won’t pretend I’ve made much more than a dent in the set’s almost 2,000 pages. But that’s not the point, since Reporting Civil Rights could easily keep my idle hours occupied until Christmas. (Not...

Burning Down the (White) House

White House Down, when ranked among the other dull offerings of this summer blockbuster season, is worth its weight in kabooms. You will be entertained. 

AP Photo/Sony Columbia Pictures, Reiner Bajo
AP Photo/Sony Columbia Pictures, Reiner Bajo H ere’s a confession likely to guarantee you’ll never trust me again: I had a pretty good time at White House Down, the new movie starring Channing Tatum as a wannabe Secret Service agent who ends up as President Jamie Foxx’s only hope of surviving an attack on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. That may or may not surprise you, but it sure as buttercups did me. It’s not even July, and I’m already deathly weary of movieland’s bang-kapow-boom blockbuster season. (On Hollywood’s timetable, of course, “summer” now begins before Memorial Day and is effectively over by August.) WHD ’s unlovely director, Roland Emmerich, is the German dolt who peaked with Independence Day 17 years ago before going on to make, among other screen supertankers packed with manure, The Patriot and Godzilla, not exactly good reasons to look forward to his latest. Maybe most to the point, I’d already seen—and loathed—pretty much the identical movie back in March. You remember...

The Great Gandolfini

The actor's genius was his knack for humanizing but not sentimentalizing his tough guy characters.

AP Images/Barry Wetcher
AP Images/Barry Wetcher There's a distinction to be made between dying too young and dying too soon. The first connotes unfulfilled promise: Heath Ledger, for instance, was barely beginning to realize himself as both an actor and a human being. Moviegoers can only guess what he might have gone on to. When it comes to James Gandolfini, on the other hand, we knew—we'd learned, we'd seen—what he was capable of. All we were asking for was another quarter-century or so of basking in it. Granted, that "we" is generationally skewed. However awed the middle-aged likes of me may have been by Ledger's talent, twentysomethings no doubt felt his loss more keenly. But until I got busy Facebooking—the modern wake—after Gandolfini's sudden death at age 51 on Wednesday, I hadn't fully realized how much people (OK, let's be accurate: men) in my age bracket had come to think of him as our guy. Not only the best we had, but the one we felt the most intimate with—and the most defined by. That was mostly...

Greta Gerwig, Dancing with Herself

The anti-celebrity of the Frances Ha star

John Cuneo C omic actress Greta Gerwig has a versatile look—indolent or boyish, athletic or glamorous, always blond and beautiful but with broad shoulders and doughy cheeks that make her resemble an improbably attractive rugby player. The through line in her work is her pained gaze telegraphing that she’s alone in the world, and she wouldn’t expect otherwise. Gerwig started her career in movies referred to as “mumble-core.” By definition, a mumblecore film was a low-key drama set in post-college American life in the first decade of the 21st century, made with sweat and the contents of a piggy bank. Many of the actors were nonprofessionals, and the stories they told were about well-educated people too creative to get a law degree but too pragmatic to idealize bohemian poverty. Both in front of and behind the camera, the mumblecore crew seemed like happy underachievers, confronting their tenuous existence with a mix of navel-gazing and bravery—in their element before the economy crashed...

Star Bleck

The second entry in the J.J. Abrams' reboot doesn't have the fun of the first outing, and all that's left is one more humongazoid, cluttered summer blockbuster whose gobbledygook plot just spackles over the interludes between kaboom-happy CGI set pieces.

flickr/skookums 1
Q uick quiz: which movie currently in theaters does worst by a beloved national classic, "modernizing" it in ways that violate everything people cherished about the original? If you picked Star Trek Into Darkness, let's have a beer one of these days. At least The Great Gatsby' s director, Baz Luhrman, puts his purple heart on his zircon-studded sleeve with a romantic pizzazz F. Scott Fitzgerald might approve of. From my lonesome perch, the cement-mixer racket from Gene Rodenberry's corner of the Great American Cemetery is a lot more deafening. Just so you won't misunderstand, a Trekkie I'm not. My indefensible affection for botched WW2 spectaculars apart—really, Is Paris Burning? does have its moments, folks, and I guess you had to be there as a susceptible tyke in 1966—I've never been an anything-ie, really. But I admire hell out of Rodenberry, who created the Shatner-Nimoy Star Trek almost half a century ago, for his humanism and humor. No other series as vividly evokes the liberal...

Da Gr8 Gatsbee

Nobody's going to mistake Baz Luhrman's adaptation of the F. Scott Fitzgerald classic for a great movie. But, there's no doubt it's a fun ride.

AP Photo, File
AP Photo/Warner Bros. Pictures T he book will still be around in the morning. That's the best advice I can give anyone appalled by the mere existence of director Baz Luhrman's 3-D, darn near transcendently tasteless screen adaptation of The Great Gatsby— or Da Gr8 Gatsbee, as I've grown fond of calling Luhrman's version. For once, I find myself almost envying people who've never read Fitzgerald's novel. Free of literacy's inner censure, untroubled by invidious comparisons, they can just let the whole whooshing, clamorous debauch run them over like a fire truck tearing after a burning Christmas tree, emerging dazed but sated. Then again, ex-English major or no, that was pretty much my own reaction. Combined, true, with a few incredulous giggle-fits that may have annoyed the soignée senior citizen sitting next to me. (No more Baz's target audience than I am, she did look charming in 3-D glasses.) Though I thoroughly enjoyed myself—and don't feel at all sheepish about it, so there—it may...

Tired of TV's Golden Age?

Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color shows why we still need the movies.

Courtesy of erbp
Courtesy of erbp I t is a truth universally acknowledged that TV has surpassed the movies as the medium of choice for the discerning viewer. Since the evolutionary leap that was “The Sopranos,” episodic television—the grown-up kind, that is; the kind that’s not TV, but HBO (or Showtime, or AMC, etc.)—has raised its game with complex plots, high-quality production, morally ambiguous protagonists, and eager forays into R-rated territory. So, this weekend, the sixth-season premiere of “Mad Men” will suck up all the cultural oxygen. A couple million viewers will tune in, and tens of thousands of words will be written obsessing over every detail of Don Draper’s continuing journey from icon to relic. Director Shane Carruth’s new film, Upstream Color , meanwhile, will open in one theater in New York, kicking off a brief art-house rollout that, if he’s lucky, will win over a modest, devoted following. For the last nine years, the only thing on Carruth’s filmography was Primer (2004), a 77-...

A Season of Swords

Game of Thrones, otherwise known as every origins story trash-compacted into the "ultimate extrapolation of Dallas," returns for its third season this Sunday.

HBO
Once again, it's that splendid time of year when we get to cast aside human decency without a backward look. Let's savor ruthless ambition, revel in permanent war, and realize we don't give two hoots about the huddled masses being ground underfoot like cigarillos for conquest's sake. Kicking off its third season on Easter Sunday, and so much for piety, HBO's Game of Thrones may be the closest that high-minded lefties will ever come to experiencing the buzz Paul Ryan feels at CPAC. Meanwhile, virtuous conservatives get to gorge guilt-free on rampant carnality and unrepentant paganism, and who says there's no such thing as common ground anymore? Try Westeros. If you can believe it, GoT has gotten even more murky and brooding this season, creating an enjoyable illusion of depth where none exists. That's even true of the latest iteration of the title sequence, which is, as ever—thanks partly to Ramin Djawadi's theme music—among the most brilliant summonses to addiction in TV history...

Before You Know It, Change Happens

Movie Still/Mike Simpson
At SXSW, a festival geared toward the young, beautiful, and hip, I’m guessing few expected to be bowled over by a documentary film about aging and aged gay men. But Before You Know It , which made its debut this week, does indeed leave you wowed—and unexpectedly hopeful about the plight of gay seniors. The problems of aging are scary for any population, but for a generation of gay people, the situation is particularly difficult: many lost their connection to family when they came out and don't have partners to turn to for help as their needs increase. Following three gay men—one in his 60s, the other two in their 70s—director P.J. Raval sets out to chronicle what it is to be wrinkled and slow in a young, fast culture. Almost immediately, however, the movie documents the importance of creating a chosen-family—and just how difficult finding community can be for those who start looking late in life. In Galveston, Texas, Robert has built Robert’s LaFitte, a gay bar famous across the...

Advice for Escaping Film's Winter Doldrums

No need to despair and go watch Identity Thief when you can stay home and rent a Luis Bunuel flick.

First released in 1970, Tristana is one of the masterpieces of Spanish director Luis Bunuel's astonishing late-life creative spree after his return to Europe from exile in Mexico. Newly out on Blu-ray from Cohen Media in a handsome-looking restoration, the movie is such a bracing antidote to the slop playing in theaters that I almost broke down in grateful whimpers when the UPS guy handed it over. A week when a botch like Oz The Great And Powerful is No. 1 at the box office—and Identity Thief, which I'd hoped might be just a grotesque memory by now, is still hanging in there at No. 3—can make the likes of me feel seriously glum about how we've wasted our lives by tossing critical spitballs at Himalayas made of cheese. Along with Belle du Jour, Tristana is also one of only two movies Bunuel made with Catherine Deneuve, who's at once the unlikeliest actress ever to star in his films and uncannily perfect for them. She's Tristana, a demure 1930s waif taken after her mother's death into...

Schindler's List, 20 Years Later

How does the film, which defies routine criticism in many ways, hold up?

AP-Photo/Douglas C. Pizac
Universal has just brought out a 20th-anniversary Blu-ray edition of Steven Spielberg's Holocaust movie, Schindler's List . Don't blame whoever got stuck writing the box copy—"Experience one of the most historically significant films of all time like never before," and so on—for a certain awkwardness about how best to strike the celebratory note. The package is also notably stingy with the undignified extras that usually tempt consumers to repurchase a beloved classic, but what were you expecting, a blooper reel? That crack isn't meant to be gratuitous, believe me. Call it a reminder that Schindler's List is every bit as much a Hollywood product as Groundhog Day, which came out the same year. Unlike Groundhog Day, it's got the Academy Awards—seven of them—to prove it. In my book, nothing that wins that many Oscars can be altogether holy. However ennobled by its topic, the movie was nonetheless conceived as entertainment—of a very somber sort, to be sure—by one of the most gifted of...

Gleefully Hate-Watching the Oscars

You can complain all you want about the Academy Awards, but admit it. They're fun, and the griping is nearly the best part. 

AP Photo/ Reed Saxo
AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes M ost serious movie buffs—and not even only those of a certain vintage, which does at least provide an excuse for bitterness—never tire of expressing contempt for the Oscars. One of their favorite damning proofs of the Academy's puerility is that 2001: A Space Odyssey didn't even get nominated for Best Picture of 1968. That is, going on half a century ago, and talk about holding a grudge. In 1968, to put things in perspective, Christopher Nolan (director of The Dark Knight Rises ) hadn't been born yet. In 1980, when Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull scandalously— scandalously!— lost the Best Picture sweepstakes to Ordinary People, Wes Anderson was 11 years old. Perhaps the shock traumatized him into wanting to live inside painted boxes, but more likely it didn't. I don't recall any permanent damage myself. Nor do I get wrought up because, say, the obvious real Best Picture of 1990—at least to the handful of crazies who saw it—was Guy Maddin's gleefully...

Why Liberals Make Better Political Pop Culture than Conservatives

An image from the libertarian animated film "Silver Circle"
In my ongoing quest to reach across the aisle and foster bipartisanship, I come to praise Jonah Goldberg—yes, that Jonah Goldberg, the author of Liberal Fascism and innumerable appalling columns, for what he writes in the Los Angeles Times , in which he recoils at the suggestion by some of his brethren that they need to buy a movie studio and start churning out conservative films: There's a difference between art and propaganda. Outside the art house crowd, liberal agitprop doesn't sell. Art must work with the expectations and beliefs of the audience. Even though pregnancies are commonplace on TV, you'll probably never see a hilarious episode of a sitcom in which a character has an abortion — because abortion isn't funny. The conservative desire to create a right-wing movie industry is an attempt to mimic a caricature of Hollywood. Any such effort would be a waste of money that would make the Romney campaign seem like a great investment. There's something Goldberg doesn't mention,...

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