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The People vs Larry Flynt

Posted : 8 years, 3 months ago on 4 March 2010 08:31 (A review of The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996))

The People vs. Larry Flynt is not your normal biographical film. There is no grandstanding urge to make his history and personality more crowd pleasing, allowing us to walk away knowing that, yes, this person did something good and deserved a movie made about them. They were noble and heroic. Or, the approach where we focus on an entire life that has been lived, warts and all, but largely fictionalized and filled with imagined characters and scenes. The People vs. Larry Flynt is filled with conversations and situations which can be documented for, situations which required court documentations to be more precise. There is no white-washing, and the only crowd pleasing is that someone has fought so hard for our right to say, print and create whatever we damn well please. Is Larry Flynt an American hero and patriot? In a way, yes but getting to how that works is a later argument.

There is a brief glimpse into his childhood, but that serves more as a scene to explain his work ethic and commitment to his ideals. That, and he’s always been a purveyor of filth of some kind. In that scene, moonshine, in the rest of the film it’s pornography. And it makes no attempt to classy it up like Playboy. Hustler is pure filth. Smut of the highest order, complete with questionable parodies and cartoons. This is not about how he went from rags to riches by providing a service to horny truck drivers, this is how he used his smut peddling to uphold the Constitution.

As played by Woody Harrelson, Flynt is slightly charming, even damaged, but prone to childish antics, temper tantrums and bouts of sheer unlikability. His performance is a tour de force, he never impersonates Flynt, although he does get the cadence and timber of his voice after getting shot, but instead creates a hellish wild child. He fluctuates between comedic blustering and dramatic pathos with equal ease. This performance anchors the film and allows for us to see that, just maybe, the man who created Hustler is a real genius in the business world. Harrelson is given great support from Edward Norton as his lawyer, James Cromwell as a seedy politician hiding behind a mask of righteousness and Courtney Love as his doomed, wild child wife.

But how is Flynt a patriot? He unflinchingly withheld his belief that the Constitution protected his right to produce the tasteless, morally questionable and absolutely grotesque images, articles and opinions that Hustler trades its stock in. If the Constitution could protect him, as he believed and proved that it would and could, it would do the same for the likes of us normal folks. He proved something about American politics that few politicians would even dare to tread. Is he a purveyor of bad taste? Oh, yes, unquestionably. Has he provided a great service to his country? Oh, yes, unquestionably. He just didn’t do it in a way that anyone saw coming.

I feel like this movie is too little seen, too often misunderstood. There is no glorification of pornography, there is nothing that states what he does is fine, well and good. The film challenges his right to say and do it. It only makes the argument that our Freedom of Speech is there to protect ALL speech, especially that which we hate.

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The Snake Pit

Posted : 8 years, 4 months ago on 23 February 2010 07:38 (A review of The Snake Pit)

The Snake Pit might be one of the first attempts at showcasing the standards and practices of mental health institutions, but its awkward politics reveal the era that it was produced it. That is say to nothing of the committed performances of the actors, especially de Havilland, or the directorial flourishes. It all comes down to the writing.

Olivia de Havilland, so sweet and so good on the outside, portrays a woman who feels her sanity slowly slipping away from her. She is institutionalized after marrying a man and displaying erratic behavior. She is truly sick? Why, yes, she is. She has lived through a tremendous trauma, I will not spoil it for you, and has since begun the slow process of mentally shattering. There are also hints at some kind of Freudian psychology and a history of mental unease. But not even de Havilland’s fierce performance – so believable and heartbreaking because she so often plays the good, moral and noble character – can save the film from the treatment that she is given. To put it simply, if she stops marching to her own drum and becomes the good, subservient wife and mother that everyone wants her to be she’ll be happy and sane. Then how do you explain the extended sequences of obvious schizophrenia, electroshock therapy and hydrotherapy? If she gets a husband and a child she’ll chemically hit her own reset button? They meant well, I think.

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8 ½

Posted : 8 years, 4 months ago on 23 February 2010 07:37 (A review of )

8 ½ is a joyous movie experience, a foreign language classic and a towering artistic achievement. Surrealistic cinema is as old as cinema itself, but rarely has it probed one character’s psychology so completely. There is a whimsy, a sense that anything can and will take flight at any point in time. Many movies have been described as charming and here is one that actually lives up to that description.

8 ½ tells the story of Guido (Marcello Mastroianni), an Italian director during the height of Neo-Realist cinema. He feels creatively blocked, and continuously escapes into his memories and boundless imagination. Cracking under the pressures of being the most well-known Neo-Realist director, he escapes to a spa and brings with him his longtime mistress. It’s a pity that he won’t be able to actually escape, since the studio, producers, designers, etc. have followed him there.

Federico Fellini was obviously working out his own issues on the screen. And if any of this sounds relatively familiar, the musical Nine was based off of this. But it was tremendously inferior to this film. This is yet another case of the original being superior to the remake, no matter if the remake was gussied up as a lavish musical.

Marcello Mastroianni, with his aged good looks and charmingly roguish air, is as perfect as always. I wonder how much of his performance was based upon Fellini and how much was his own creation. He worked with Fellini enough times to gain a good enough grasp to do an imitation, and repeating leading actors are often considered to be attractive variations of their directors. For instance, what are Johnny Depp’s lovable odd-balls creations if not variations on Tim Burton’s own psyche and quirky personality? Regardless, it is a wonderful performance that anchors the film in some semblance of reality, but has just enough hints and giggles bubbling underneath to work with the whimsy.

And let us discuss the whimsy! I love the incredibly fine, infinitely porous line between reality, fantasy and memory. I found no trouble in deciphering which was which, and I don’t believe that I would have minded getting lost amongst them, anyway. The imagined scene where his mistress and his wife meet-up and greet each other with open arms, kisses and anecdotes slowly turns into a scene where he lives in a house filled with women he has loved, wanted to love and have loved him. This is not a man who is fulfilled and caressed by these memories and imaginings, he seems more possessed. Like these feverish daydreams are slowly driving him closer to a nervous breakdown, weighing upon his soul and emotionally constipating them. It’s all in how Marcello furrows around the eyes and mouth.

I can understand that 8 ½ will not be to everyone’s liking, it requires a strict attention span, a tolerance for whimsy, an urge not for a narrative but for an experience. I do love a good narrative, but I also love a good experience. A great piece of art works on many levels, and so this does. There is a narrative, however thin but solidly told, but there is also a great and joyous experience to be had. What can I say? I was charmed by this man filled with lust and Catholic guilt.

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Guess Who's Coming to Dinner

Posted : 8 years, 4 months ago on 17 February 2010 05:17 (A review of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967))

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is a little heavy-handed, slightly clumsy in its dealings with racial issues and family strife, but it comes complete with wonderful performances. But shouldn’t that be expected from any movie starring Sidney Poitier, Katharine Hepburn or Spencer Tracy? They’re classics, legends of the screen for a reason.

The story deals with the affluent white daughter bringing home the man she found herself in a whirlwind romance with, a successful, dignified and highly intelligent older man. A man who just so happens to be black and this will bring up ever complicated and contradictory emotion that each of their parents has about the issue. Both have a mother who supports the union and both have a father who doesn’t support or understand their choice of partner. I would have preferred for some difference between the races. We get numerous scenes of Hepburn talking to Tracy about the lessons they have imparted on their daughter, she constantly reminds him that he taught her to think racism as horrendously idiotic and vile thing. Wouldn’t it have been more interesting of her mother, or both of her parents, had had more reservations about the union. Or even brought up subtly hidden racism, and with a black housemaid who’s worked for them for decades, it seems like there just might be. It is not the fault of any of the actors, this is a fault with the writing which seeks too much literary symmetry when asymmetry or even a lack of symmetry would have proven more intriguing.

The film also touches, however slightly, on interior racism. With the black housemaid raising all sorts of accusations and condemnations, all of which are unfounded, against Poitier. He takes each of her verbal lashings, she is from an older generation and believes that things shouldn’t be rocked and forced as much as they are. He is from the newer generation who seeks equality, not because of his history or his race, but because he is a hardworking individual who deserves to be treated equally. This dynamic extends outwards towards his relationship with his father in which he explains that his father thinks of himself as a black man, and he thinks of himself as a man. And that is all the difference in the world. The way that Sidney Poitier plays these two crucial scenes is the kind of subtle and meticulous acting that the Oscars were invented to celebrate, nominate and honor.

Katharine Hepburn won the Academy Award for this performance, but I cannot say that it screams out as a winning performance. She is as intelligent, luminous and graceful as ever. She delivers a great performance, but I wouldn’t rank it above Anne Bancroft or Faye Dunaway’s sublime and iconic turns as Mrs. Robinson and Bonnie Parker. Spencer Tracy is as solid and morally right as ever. He excelled in portraying men who have a specific moral compass, get it tested, question their beliefs and come out as the authoritative voice on the issue (see Judgment at Nuremberg). Katharine Houghton, Hepburn’s niece and younger look-alike, isn’t bad, she’s quite good. But she’s out of her acting league working opposite such towering screen icons. Cecil Kellaway and Beah Richards deliver my two favorite supporting performances as a family-friend who just so happens to be a priest and Poitier’s mother, respectively. They were both Oscar nominated.

While nowhere near a bad film, I wouldn’t rank it as a masterpiece. It’s very good, but slightly flawed. It deserves respect for treating such a sensitive and fresh subject, interracial marriage was just about to be made legal in all the states, with maturity, intelligence and warmth. It preaches too easily, and makes easy answers where complicated ones would have really been better suited for the material, but it tries its best. From here you can see the 1970s revolution of cinema creeping in around the edges. This is where the studio system and the independent, artistic streak merge.

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Respect M.E.

Posted : 8 years, 4 months ago on 17 February 2010 05:16 (A review of Respect M.E.)

Missy Elliott, along with her frequent cohort and collaborator Timbaland, was a seismic force in hip-hop and the pop music landscape for ten straight years. Each album was worth owning, but those gloriously freaky singles really changed the game. So much so that even Madonna got in on the act Hard Candy.

Respect M.E. is a perfect summarization of the past decade and perfect introductory point for the unconverted. It’s a non-chronological spin through songs like “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly),” “4 My People” and “She’s a Bitch.” I’m normally a stickler for chronological sequencing, but it works here. Missy Elliott isn’t an artist who grew in artistic stature, she came out swinging, but just got weirder and wilder as she along. She picked up where MC Lyte, Queen Latifah and Salt-N-Pepa left off: she was an empowered woman who wasn’t afraid of reversing the inherent sexism of hip-hop, just having a good time and celebrating old school charms. She did it with intelligence, humor and style and nothing else sounded like her singles on the radio when they came out.

And let us discuss those singles, or, at least, a chosen few of my favorites. “Pass That Dutch” is a pressure-cooker ready to blow. It lacks a traditional structure, but it’s a wild party from another planet being beamed into your speakers. “Work It” features layers of samples, a charmingly old school beat and backward lyrics. Her introduction includes a boastful “Missy Elliott exclusive” which isn’t really boasting since this delivers what she’s talking about. “I’m Really Hot” lets everyone in the game know that no matter what you think, Missy is still the wildest and most creative person out there right now. And “She’s a Bitch” lets everyone know that no one is going to call her a bitch, unless it’s on her own terms. Nothing, however, has topped the wildness, creativity or influence of “Get Ur Freak On.” Before this how many hip-hop producers were creating such electronic influenced music? Or sampling such random Eastern beats? With that one song Missy Elliott launched herself into the pop music elite. With each new single she created another impressive and perfect moment, but nothing will top that masterpiece.

I would have preferred for “4 My People” to have been included in its original form and not the Basement Jaxx remix, but that was the hit version. So I understand why it was included. I also would have liked to have had “Take Away,” “Lick Shots,” “Funky Fresh Dressed” or “Back in the Day.” These aren’t deal breakers, but they would have been great inclusions. Her humor, imagination, numerous talents as singer-rapper/writer/producer, self-empowerment and positivity prove only one thing about Missy Elliott: she’s an icon in the making. DOWNLOAD: “Get Ur Freak On,” “Pass That Dutch,” “She’s a Bitch”

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Night Ride Home

Posted : 8 years, 4 months ago on 17 February 2010 05:15 (A review of Night Ride Home)

Night Ride Home drops much of the bullshit that had marked Joni Mitchell’s previous Geffen Records albums. There’s no random celebrity guests, no odd synth-heavy Elvis covers, the growing self-righteous political speak, Night Ride Home is a stripped down return to the folk-jazz that made her an icon. I’m still amazed at the sounds she can bring forth from a guitar and the harmonies she can recreate with layering her voice on top of itself.

“Come In from the Cold” is an exquisite song about childhood and middle-age. The introspective lyrics, silky vocal delivery and strange harmonics recall Hejira, her last good album before this. The jazzy introduction to “The Only Joy in Town” recalls the sounds of Hejira even more so, there’s something slightly Arabic about the way the horns slink. But nothing can top “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” Mitchell has taken W. B. Yeats poem and set it to music. Patti Smith did something similar with “Spell” on Peace & Noise, which just makes me even more convinced that Joni Mitchell and Patti Smith both decided to take folk music and distort it to their own passions.

While Night Ride Home is a very good album, there’s something preventing it from being as great as anything between Ladies of the Canyon and The Hissing of Summer Lawns. It’s about as good as, you guessed it, Hejira. Which isn’t a slight, for that is also a rich, deeply rewarding effort that is quite often highly difficult to listen to because Mitchell has chosen to follow her artistic muse so far out into uncharted territory that we’re just not familiar with it. But that is why she is an icon, an influence upon generations of women (and men) and not some flash-in-the-pan pop tart. DOWNLOAD: “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”

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The Lost Weekend

Posted : 8 years, 4 months ago on 12 February 2010 01:36 (A review of The Lost Weekend (1945))

Billy Wilder was never afraid to bounce back and forth between making you laugh and making you cry. People tend to think of him as the jovial jokester behind Some Like It Hot, The Fortune Cookie and The Apartment. Fine movies all, but he also did black-as-midnight comedies (Sunset Boulevard) and tremendously powerful dramas like The Lost Weekend. Billy Wilder was a genius, and this was only his fourth film which he has infamously stated he made to understand Raymond Chandler’s alcoholism while working on Double Indemnity.

And so, we are thrust into the hellish world of an alcoholic for an hour and forty minutes. Ray Milland essays a writer stifled by a bout of creative blockage and a growing, crippling addiction. He lies to his brother, who is ready to walk out after six years of the same false promises and blatant lies, and to his girlfriend, who isn’t ready yet to call it quits. We catch him sometime between soberities as the movie opens, he proclaims to have not touched the stuff for ten days. That may sound like small change but that’s his entire world. One of the first things that we see is a bottle hanging from a window – this is not a good sign. Yes, he has been sober for ten days. Now we’re going to watch him go on a five day bender, the “lost weekend” of the title. And somewhere in-between the drinking episodes, in which Milland’s face and eyes descend into rodent-like madness, we see anecdotes that correlate how he got so far into this bottle.

This is a compact, tight and highly believable script. It doesn’t allow for the drunk stereotypes to play out like they do so often in other older films, such as The Day of Wine and Roses. The Lost Weekend sinks us down into his brain and we come to understand this man, even come to understand the feelings of inadequacy that are always gnawing at his insides. This is a knowing look at a disease, not an excuse for actors to go melodramatic.

I have mentioned several times that actors have a tendency to go over-the-top or too melodramatic when portraying alcoholics, and this is true. The same could also be said of the mentally ill, drug addicts and unstable people. Ray Milland never veers close to the edge. In fact, his performance is quite possibly the most pitch-perfect depiction of an alcoholic ever seen on film. An impressive scene that always springs to mind happens early in the film. During a flashback we see Milland sitting in the audience watching an opera. The actors onstage are holding champagne glasses and drinking toasts. His eyes, lips and entire demeanor veer back and forth from predatory jungle cat to self-hating loner within seconds. That is committed acting. Another great scene comes when he awakens by a shrilly ringing telephone. He doesn’t answer it, but speaks to it. He tells the rings everything he would tell the person on the other end, even begging it to stop haunting him. He deservedly won the Academy Award for Best Actor that year.

In every sense, in every choice and in every frame, The Lost Weekend is a disturbed, achingly poignant study of one man’s addiction. This story remains timeless, and if you don’t believe that watch one episode of Intervention. This is filmmaking as a reflection and response to a social ill.

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Posted : 8 years, 4 months ago on 12 February 2010 01:33 (A review of Kinks)

Kinks is a decent enough debut for any British Invasion band. There’s nothing terribly special about a good deal of its tracks, many sound like long-lost Beatles tracks. But when the Kinks hit a home run, they hit it so far outside of the park that most bands were creating entire careers off of those early ’64 singles. Don’t act like you don’t know every word to “You Really Got Me.” Much like contemporaries the Beatles and Rolling Stones, the album is made up mostly of covers; the Americana R&B/proto-rock styling of Chuck Berry (“Too Much Monkey Business”) and Bo Diddley (“Cadillac”) got a lot of exercise in thanks to those English boys. The originals proved that the Kinks wouldn’t be slaves to albums filled with covers for very long. I love the piss-and-vinegar early-punk of songs like “Stop Your Sobbing.” DOWNLOAD: “You Really Got Me”

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Posted : 8 years, 4 months ago on 12 February 2010 01:32 (A review of Fever)

Fever owes as much to Donna Summer and ABBA as it does to the reigning Queen of Dance, Madonna. Kylie Minogue might not have as impressive a voice as Donna Summer, but she’s got just as fierce beats. She might not be as ethereal as Agnatha and Freda of ABBA, but she can blend her voice into just as impressive melodies and sweet talking whispers. And much like Madonna, she knows that a strong voice isn’t necessary for success in the club, but you must have a personality. And so she does. Who needs deep poetical insight when you could have a throbbing bass, gurgling synths and Kylie sighing that she can’t get you out of her head? It’s hypnotic, it’s infectious, it’s hot. With not a ballad in sight, although “Fragile” comes close until Kylie starts to coo like a sex kitten in heat, this is the perfect disc to become a slave to its rhythm. Or to break out a sweat to outside of the dance floor. She’s the perfect kind of pop star: infinitely disposable, utterly charming and she sings every song like it was for your ears only. DOWNLOAD: “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head”

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Hard Candy

Posted : 8 years, 4 months ago on 8 February 2010 09:18 (A review of Hard Candy)

Hard Candy screams ‘contractual obligation’ from start to finish. Instead of Madonna leading the pack and being ahead of the curve, American Life’s unedited video was ahead of the curve just like Confessions’ bubbling Euro-disco was right before that took off, she’s following the pack. And not just following, but doing it about five years too late for a collaboration with Timbaland to really mean anything. By 2008 it had seemed inevitable that she would eventually get around to working with him. If this album had been released by any nondescript pop tart, Britney for instance, then it probably wouldn’t have arrived with such a shrug.

Justin Timberlake and Timbaland offer, oddly enough, both the best and worst of the lot. “Voices” is an awful hot mess to end the album with. Falling somewhere between hip-hop and orchestral bombast, it features Timberlake, annoyingly over-sexed, moaning something about masters and slaves and Madonna ranting about something or another that sounds vaguely tortured. “Dance 2Nite” isn’t atrocious, but it’s not terribly memorable either. However, they do redeem themselves with “4 Minutes” and “Miles Away.” “4 Minutes” was the huge first single, the lyrics make little sense but that marching band gone to Wonderland groove is hot. “Miles Away” is wistful and proof that there was trouble in the Ritchie homestead. But the best track is “Devil Wouldn’t Recognize You.” Filled with her New Age mysticism and Catholic imagery, surrounded by a killer Timbaland beat that proves he hasn’t shot all of his tricks off on Timberlake, it is a hypnotic (almost) close to an album that is by turns fun and garish.

The other half of the album is offered up by Pharrell, who seems to have rediscovered his producing insanity…in a good way. Gone are the minimalist to the point of idiocy beats that marred his efforts with Gwen Stefani (honey, I love you but…). “Candy Shop” sounds like paint cans being beaten, and Madonna compares her clitoris to a one-stop candy shop which can be customized to fit your cravings. Disgusting, but hilarious. And he manages to create an urban-disco which makes Madonna sound right at home, instead of the Tim squared numbers which made her sound both desperate to stay young, relevant and hip, and like she was just doing a bunch of filler to get out of her contract. “Give It 2 Me” is funky, in a Chic-meets-MC Lyte way. “She’s Not Me” sounds like the Queen is reminding everyone within ear shot that all of the Britneys, Gagas and Christinas of the current pop world are just pretenders to her throne. And “Beat Goes On,” featuring a cameo from Kanye West, is second best on this album. On the outside a frivolous hip-hop party track, on the inside an even more frivolous bubbly disco number. Nothing deep, or revolutionary, but a hell of a fun dance track.

But Pharrell isn’t immune from releasing bizarro-world tracks like “Spanish Lesson” or “Incredible.” “Incredible” suffers from the kitchen-sink approach which sunk tracks like “Wind It Up.” The only joy to be had from that track is once the beat kicks back in towards the end and Pharrell starts to scream out “BOOM!” in the background. And “Spanish Lesson” is the worst song Madonna has recorded in the past ten years. A strange thing: she threatens to sex you up if you don’t do your homework and proceeds to translate random phrases in Spanish. What does it all mean? Who knows.

Hard Candy is an album of tremendous filler, not unlike True Blue. In an era where Peaches is releasing psycho-sexual singles that border on sonic pornography on an off day, Madonna’s attempts at overt sexuality play out like cutesy mannerisms. Her vulgarity used to be one of her charms, but all of that time spent in European discos and wanting to tell her real feelings seems to have made her lose some of that rough edge. (For the record, I miss her collaborations with crazy, trashy Euro-disco producers; it was much more fun and consistent.) Somewhere, Dita is either howling with laughter or sobbing in frustration. DOWNLOAD: “Devil Wouldn’t Recognize You”

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