Native Sons: Dope vs. Straight Outta Compton

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Young black men coming of age in troubled environments (read: the hood) have proven successful with audiences and critics for some time now: Do the Right Thing (1989), Boyz in the Hood (1991), Juice (1992), Menace II Society (1993), Baby Boy (2001), etc. It’s a familiar tale, and this year two films on the same theme enjoyed much the same welcome. Yet for all their promise, Sundance-darling Dope and N. W. A. biopic Straight Outta Compton both fail – not just politically, but cinematically – to meet the standard of a genre packed with classics. Unlike their predecessors, here the acclaim (especially over the top in Compton‘s case) two such mediocre pictures managed to achieve feels almost patronizing.

They do succeed, however, in one critical way, essential really, to these Black Boy-narratives.

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Apart from black casts and black directors – a rare thing, admittedly – Straight Outta Compton and Dope don’t seem immediately comparable. Dope tells the story of self-proclaimed “geek” Malcolm Adekanbi (Shameik Moore), who finds himself saddled with an incarcerated drug dealer’s stash, forcing him to sell the drugs for his own safety and threatening his dreams of Harvard. Meanwhile, Straight Outta Compton chronicles the success and hardships of N. W. A. members Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr. – Cube’s real life son) and Eazy – E (Jason Mitchell), whose anthem “Fuck the Police” galvanized a generation.

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On the brink of Straight Outta Compton‘s release, Selma director Ava Duvernay tweeted, “To be a woman who loves hip hop at times is to be in love with your abuser.” Much like hip hop, when consuming these immensely popular films that center black boys and diminish black girls, the latter is continually expected to compartmentalize. You see, a win for black men is a win for us all. The black male experience in America has long meant to suffice for the black female as well. Except, black manhood in America has been, from its origins, a tricky ordeal steeped in insecurity. All the privilege of gender coupled with the disadvantage of race gave way to many anxieties, not least of them the “healthy achievement of manhood” (bell hooks, Ain’t I A Woman) predicated on the subordination of black women. Such is the pleasure of misogynoir, that space where sexism and racism overlap for black women. So you can see why this is a dangerous face for the whole of the black experience to wear.

From the beginning I suspected Straight Outta Compton would have a serious “Woman” problem. It didn’t take long to appear either. Even before filming started, a leaked casting call raised eyebrows and turned stomachs with its racist physical requirements.

STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON: Hawkins, Jackson, Mitchell, 2015.

STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON, Hawkins, Jackson, Mitchell, 2015.

Dope, meanwhile, seems to possess all the ingredients of something new, progressive, and different – a lesbian main character, a nerdy black hero – but does nothing with them. In many ways, the film is a kind of meta-work: a loving shout-out to the ’90s and indeed the era of hip hop N. W. A. themselves helped to usher in. No doubt Famuyiwa even took most of his cues from Gray’s own Friday. But stunning costumes aside, the film’s performances are lopsided (its best actors Kimberly Elise and Roger Guenveur Smith are wasted although Moore makes for a solid lead); the plot is meandering, bordering on clunky; and there is a bizarre perpetration of dangerous myths about the black community. And while certainly a diverse entry into the – largely white – teen comedy genre, for a film set in present-day Los Angeles, there is not a single dark-skinned female in sight, much less within the main cast. What’s more, none of the women who do appear have anything resembling a personality. Chanel Iman makes a humiliating cameo as a messy, poor little drugged-out rich girl; Kiersey Clemons’ Diggy is defined strictly by her sexuality and her “boyish” appearance; while Zoe Kravitz is sidelined as little more than the object of Malcolm’s sexual fixation.

Zoe Kravitz, DOPE, 2015.

DOPE, Zoe Kravitz, , 2015.

Historically, black music, film, and literature has often juxtaposed the fair-skinned black woman as romantic and feminine next to the dark-skinned black woman, nagging and sexless. But Dope and Straight Outta Compton have removed the latter altogether.

While unsurprising in both cases, with the film’s surviving subjects Dre and Cube acting as producers while their close friend F. Gary Gray directed, Compton never really stood a chance. The result: a predictably safe vanity piece, sacrificing complexity for likability when it comes to its main characters. No matter. The underdog elements inherent in N. W. A.’s story along with their wide fanbase assured the film blockbuster status long before it hit the big screen. Fans of the group and hip hop in general are rewarded with iconic tunes and endless cameos, including Snoop Dogg and Tupac. The performances – particularly from Jackson as Cube and Mitchell as Eazy – are solid. There’s even room for some lasting imagery like the group running from police after a concert. But Compton breaks no rules. You learn nothing new; in fact, you’re more likely to be misled by the film than you are to get an honest sense of its heroes. 

One huge, if widely overlooked aspect of N. W. A.’s legacy was their unabashed misogyny. True, these talented young men revolutionized a genre and articulated the pain of a generation; but they also really hated women. Black women, specifically. It was not just an image; it transcended their music and seeped into the way they lived their lives. Somehow, Dre emerges as the film’s beacon of light: a humble genius dedicated to the music and a kind of savior (after all, it’s Dre who convinces Eazy to stop selling drugs and focus on rapping). Hawkins puts in a commendable effort, but anybody who knows even a little bit about Dre and his scowling persona could spot the deceit in this depiction of him.

Ironic that in the effort to sterilize this history, the film itself becomes an act of misogyny. Much ado has already been made over the decision to remove Dre’s brutal assault of music reporter Dee Barnes from the film, but it hardly ends there. Dre also physically and emotionally tormented his ex-fiance and mother of his son, R & B singer Michel’le, even going so far as to shoot at her.

Of course, the waters of controversy quelled as soon as Dre made a public apology. The film went on to earn millions worldwide and the reception – for all its shortcomings – has been nothing short of glowing.

It’s a disappointing departure from the diversity of last year’s black cinema when we had comedy (Top Five), satire (Dear White People), period drama (Belle), romance (Beyond the Lights), and historical drama (Selma). We seem to have returned once again to the conventional, and it’s true, there’s no place for black women there.

 

On ‘Girlhood,’ ‘Juice,’ and Depression in the Black Community

L - R: Assa Sylla as Lady, Mariétou Touré as Fily, Lindsay Karamoh as Adiatou, and Karidja Touré as Vic

GIRLHOOD, Assa Sylla, Lindsay Karamoh, Karidja Touré, Mariétou Touré, 2014.

Given the current climate of the movie industry – that is, the general lack of films about black people who are not servants, slaves, or sassy best friends – I’ve lately been returning to some “old” gems from my childhood. Perhaps naturally, upon reaching adulthood an instinctive nostalgia sets in, but it’s hard to deny that the ’90s was a relatively prosperous era for black film and television. The stories and representations of blackness varied on the big and small screen. Today, television fares much better when it comes to diversity and casting black people “against type.” But the fact remains in the ’90s we had The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Moesha, Martin, The Parkers, Smart Guy, Sister Sister, Cousin Skeeter, Kenan & Kel, Living Single, Family Matters, among many others; today we have Black-ish and Empire. And consider this: the most recognizable (largely because they have been “legitimized” by the Academy) black filmmakers working today – Ava DuVernay, Steve McQueen, and Lee Daniels – have received such recognition for strikingly monolithic films about black oppression.

Black suffering framed as cinematic is hardly a novel business. Black and white filmmakers alike have profited from such images. But whatever the intention behind them, however objectively “good” these films turn out, few have emerged with a full, meaningful depiction of this pain – why it is, where it comes from.

Until recently, I had written Juice (1992) off as one such film: a half-painted portrait of black man-pain. Ernest R. Dickerson’s directorial debut follows four best friends – Bishop (Tupac Shakur), Rahim (Khalil Kain), Steel (Jermaine Hopkins) and Q (Omar Epps) – through the treacherous, if familiar streets of Harlem. The teenagers regularly forgo school for arcade halls, record shops, and Steel’s house while his parents are at work. A necessary ennui clouds the first half hour of Juice, and it’s the chemistry and earnest performances from the actors that keep the film engaging. When the unlikable if immensely sympathetic Bishop sees on the news that an acquaintance has been shot during a robbery, something disturbing awakens in him. Already grappling with classical notions of masculinity, he decides they should hold up a nearby corner store. At first, his idea is met with resistance, especially from Q, who would rather be DJing. But by the time he returns from a successful audition to spin records at a neighborhood nightclub, Bishop has convinced Rahim and Steel to participate in the heist. Q concedes reluctantly, but no good can come of this, and predictably the once close group of friends find themselves violently ripped apart by fear, guilt, and murder.

JUICE, Tupac Shakur, Jermaine Hopkins, Omar Epps, Khalil Kain, 1992.

JUICE, Tupac Shakur, Jermaine Hopkins, Omar Epps, Khalil Kain, 1992.

Of course, Juice portrays an exaggerated case, but the film this time around struck me as an apt and ever relevant commentary on depression in the black community. We don’t know a lot about Bishop except that he lives with his grandmother and his sickly father who is confined to a wheelchair. We also know that Bishop feels powerless a lot. Two scenes where he’s confronted by a local gang bookend the character’s transformation: In the first scene, his friends come to his aid and he is emboldened by their protection. In the second scene, his friends abandon him and so he resorts to a more dire approach. Violence seems to make him feel powerful. Perhaps understandably so. All of these characters seem trapped by something unspoken and indiscernible: with the exception of Q, none of them seem to hope for a better life than the aimless one they’re living now. This powerlessness, this hopelessness, is depression, which prevails in impoverished communities and is especially exacerbated by systemic racism.

The CDC recently reported black people were 4 percent more likely to report depression than their white counterparts; and considering that generally women are more likely to suffer depression than men, this means black women experience depression at a higher rate than the rest of the population, too.

GIRLHOOD

GIRLHOOD

Enter Girlhood (2014). When I first watched the film at last year’s London Film Festival, I left the theater starry-eyed. Here was the “carefree black girl” film I had been waiting for all my life. Even now, three viewings and countless think pieces later, Girlhood remains a fascinating, if ultimately conventional film. It hurts to admit this – it feels dishonest to the exuberance of my first viewing – but I think black women are so starved for images of ourselves that we don’t always question the ones we do get especially when they’re as beautifully imagined as Girlhood. 

The film tells the story of 16-year-old Vic, formerly known as Marieme (Karidja Touré), who, much like the boys of Juice, also feels stuck. She finds herself switched to the vocational track after twice failing the same year, and the future she sees before her – undoubtedly represented by her single mother who cleans hotels – seems bleak. Physically abused and constantly policed by her older brother, and often left alone to care for her younger sisters, she finds welcome reprieve in a group of lovably fiery girls: Lady (Assa Sylla), Adiatou (Lindsay Karamoh), and Fily (Mariétou Touré). Among them, Vic flourishes and her world doesn’t seem so dim after all. Unfortunately, the film loses all its energy once Vic exits this girl group, inexplicably to become a drug runner for a local dealer.

Far from radical, Girlhood resembles many “hood” and banlieu films before it. The main difference is this time around the film is populated by girls. For all director Céline Sciamma’s claims to the contrary, Girlhood is quite like Boyhood (2014): Both films assume a stance of universality. Little reference is made to the heritage of these girls, not to mention the fact that so many non-black women have co-opted the film as representative of all girls when black girlhood is a famously specific and isolating experience. In an ideal world, universality would be fine. As it stands, we live in a world where blackness is constantly erased or under threat of erasure. In a xenophobic France where immigrants are constantly demonized, Sciamma’s efforts to align these girls with a country that sees them as “other” are arguably noble. But if one has to erase blackness in order to humanize it, can we really call it a triumph?

Let me be clear: It is not a triumph; for while explicitly erasing their heritage, Sciamma’s narrative still benefits from racial stereotypes, at its most glaring when it comes to the film’s men, like Vic’s brutish older brother and the evil drug runner who preys on a hopeless Vic and leads her into a life of danger and depravity. There’s also the question of the violence–heavy-handed and contrived in its execution–that seems to dominate the girls’ lives. Fighting seems to be a casual element of their everyday comings and goings (they even get into a shouting match with another group of girls on a train station platform), and maybe there’s a metaphor in there somewhere, but it feels more like something Sciamma thinks black girls do.

Objectively, Girlhood is not a bad film. if I have any problem with the movie at all, it’s that it challenges nothing. It is not the revolutionary film we all want and need it to be. On the contrary, it continues in the tradition of so many other faux liberal films before it, mimicking rather than exploring what it means to grow up black and stymied.

Timbuktu (2014) review

TIMBUKTU, Ibrahim Ahmed and Abel Jafri, 2014.

TIMBUKTU, Ibrahim Ahmed and Abel Jafri, 2014.

“Where is God in all of this?” asks the local imam during a critical scene in Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu. A horde of radical Islamists have charged into a mosque during prayer – not only wearing shoes, but toting guns – and without ever raising his voice the imam makes it clear that they are not welcome. Sissako’s film is full of emblematic scenes like this, beautifully constructed and weighted with irony. In fact, it’s largely this – tragedy levelled with the director’s wry, reserved gaze – that saves the film from the conventional melodrama it very easily could have become. Of course, the imam’s question goes unanswered, but this early moment frames all that unfolds next: the fatal ramifications of a nation violated.

When the Mali city first comes under occupation by religious extremists intent on jihad, the inhabitants meet their presence with bold contempt. Understandably so; these men are outsiders, awkward and immature, and crucially unable to communicate with the people they now police (a translator must accompany them through every interaction).  What’s more, their regulations grow more and more unreasonable by the day. A ban on music and sports and smoking soon graduates to a ban on “any old thing.” At first their hypocrisy and incompetence is amusing. In one scene, the jihadis hear music and investigate only to find that the perpetrators are singing in worship. Stumped, they wonder aloud, “Shall we arrest them?”

But the amusement does not last long. A presumably adulterous couple is buried up to their necks and stoned to death, while another woman (Malian musician Fatoumata Diawara who sings the end credits song “Timbuktu Fasso”) is sentenced to a public whipping of 80 lashes – 40 for singing and another 40 for being alone with men who are not related to her.  

TIMBUKTU, a female fishmonger resists policing, 2014.

TIMBUKTU, a female fishmonger resists policing, 2014.

Meanwhile, on the outskirts of the city, kindly cattle herder Kidane (a measured and heartbreaking performance from newcomer Ibrahim Ahmed) lives peacefully with his wife Satima (Toulou Kiki) and their 12-year-old daughter Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed), generally undisturbed by the draconian measures of the jihadis. But no one is to escape their infringement unscathed. This is not so much Sissako’s design as it is nature’s. These men are not unsympathetic; to the contrary, the horror of it all is how human their fear and insecurity and intolerance is. But unchecked authority in such hands is never a good thing.

Sissako’s grim, but visually stunning tale of one city’s trauma comes at an important time politically. Timbuktu is an explicit indictment, not of Islam but of repression. Unsurprisingly, those most vulnerable to this theocratic vigilance are women. Satima delivers perhaps the film’s most powerful line to the leader of the jihadis, Abdelkrim (Abel Jafri), who insists she cover her hair – while she’s washing it, it should be noted – when she replies that he should not look at what he doesn’t want to see. This misogyny, exacerbated by sexual frustration proves, predictably, to have devastating consequences. One man asks a wizened mother for her daughter in marriage, but when the mother refuses, he takes the girl anyway. This theme gives way to several winking, illustrative images: perhaps the most overt, a shot of a man firing into the distance where two large mounds rise, separated by a carefully positioned patch of grass. 

Arguably the most brilliant scene to emerge from  Timbuktu is the pantomimed football scene where a group of boys, forbidden to play sports, enact a match with an imaginary ball. Beautifully choreographed and filmed with a graceful eye, there’s a palpable sense of triumph about the sequence, particularly after a pair of suspicious jihadis ride through on a motorbike only to leave with no obvious cause to arrest the group.

These moments of levity feel necessary to a film as bleak as Timbuktu often gets, and Sissako masters this tonal balance effortlessly. These little victories won by a stifled people come as a welcome reprieve, and their unrewarded resilience adds yet another layer of tragedy. It’s unfair, but like the climactic shot of Toya racing toward the screen –  echoing the hunted gazelle from the film’s opening sequence – they carry on.

5/5 *

The Honorable Woman (2014) Review

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Maggie Gyllenhaal in The Honourable Woman (2014)

Three years after The Shadow Line (2011), Hugo Blick returns to television with a remarkably timely, gripping new miniseries that, in just eight episodes, delivers one of this year’s most dynamic stories.

The emotionally taut political thriller takes a stark, but not entirely hopeless look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, largely through the eyes of Nessa Stein (Maggie Gyllenhaal, magnetic as ever), an Anglo-Israeli baroness and perhaps the most superbly written female character to grace the big or small screen in a long while. Superficially she meets all the expectations of a female public figure: elegant, poised, stylish, articulate. But inside she’s crumbling, torn apart by a secret some would kill to protect.

For all their wealth and distance, even in England Nessa and her brother Ephra (Andrew Buchan) cannot escape the warfare: As children they witness their father’s ruthless assassination and as adults, public emblems of Israel, they often become the target of the enmity directed at the country. What’s more, Nessa, determined to forge a path of peace where her father’s name once reigned synonymous with Israeli aggression, frequently finds herself the object of criticism, scrutiny, surveillance and more than occasionally, grave danger. She and her brother’s Palestinian translator Atika (Lubna Azabal) barely survived a kidnapping almost a decade before, and now Nessa cannot leave her house unaccompanied without risking a bit of guile on her part. So it is not entirely unexpected when Atika’s son, during an outing with Ephra and his children, is taken. The event yields more questions than answers and draws the attention of MI6, namely its head Dame Julia Walsh (a commanding Janet MacTeer) and head of the Middle East desk Sir Hugh Hayden-Hoyle (the always brilliant Stephen Rea). Together the pair unravel a path of lies, secrets, and betrayals, all leading up to a satisfying if somewhat heavy-handed conclusion.

Maggie Gyllenhaal as Nessa Stein

Maggie Gyllenhaal as Nessa Stein

One must first commend Blick for placing his spy thriller – that traditionally male-dominated sphere – in the hands of some very capable women. Nessa, Julia, Atika, all of them fiercely intelligent, wield power without apology, but they are not without their flaws. Atika and Julia both carry on affairs with married men, while Nessa seeks intimacy indiscriminately, engaging in risky trysts with both intimates and strangers. Apropos, the heart and soul of Honorable Woman is without a doubt the mesmerizing Gyllenhaal, who gives an effortless performance here, full of grace and poise, measured strength and poignant sadness simmering behind her eyes. She exudes a quiet power in every scene, even when at her most vulnerable, and if she doesn’t get some Emmy love it will be nothing short of disgraceful. That said, while certainly well-written, and its characters carefully drawn, the series is perhaps wisely vague on the political front. The Honorable Woman delivers exactly what it promises: the portrait of a woman reaching for hope amid the darkness. The title most likely refers to Nessa, but it’s just as true of Atika and Julia. These women may not be perfect – they deceive and manipulate selfishly as often as they do generously – but each manages to navigate the sea of corruption and violence surrounding them with an unshakable sense of justice and this sets them apart.

Laden with powerful imagery (the falling queen chess piece is a thing of simple, unexpectedly powerful beauty) and solid performances, The Honorable Woman is easily one of the most engaging, relevant dramas to be released this year. Storytelling rarely gets any better.

4 1/2 out of 5*

About A (Privileged) Boyhood (2014)

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Boyhood, the latest overpraised effort from Richard Linklater, has the misfortune of playing at a very tense time in America. Right now the residents of Ferguson, Missouri continue to protest after the fatal shooting of yet another unarmed black teenager. This time it was 18-year-old Michael Brown, who was due to begin college this past Monday. His murder set into motion a series of events (chiefly, the protection of the officer who shot him and the blatant smear campaign against the victim by releasing a video of an unrelated robbery) that highlights the worst of the systematic racism so thoroughly intertwined in our culture. Boyhood, for all its claims of ubiquity, presents an altogether different portrait of American adolescence, perhaps not ideal, but still one unencumbered with too harsh realities.

The film follows the life of Mason Evans Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) from age six to age eighteen, and a lot of people seem impressed by the 12 year-span of the shooting schedule  (Boyhood was filmed from the summer of 2002 to October 2013). We watch Mason grow alongside his older sister Sam (Lorelai Linklater) while their single mom Olivia (Patricia Arquette) struggles to provide a good life for herself and her children. Mason’s life is punctuated by frequent appearances from his liberal bohemian father (Ethan Hawke), who does a bit of growing up himself over the course of the film. In the meantime, Mason moves several times across Texas as his mother returns to university and two of her marriages subsequently fall apart. While Boyhood does a fairly precise job of capturing all the usual plot points of a young person’s life–first beer, first kiss, first love, etc.–the darker aspects (two alcoholic stepfathers, domestic abuse) are glossed over. None of these issues are explored very deeply, much less their effect on Mason examined. It seems a boy’s life is less defined by individual experiences than by checking off certain rites of passage. Then again, for a film as universal as Boyhood wants to be, one has to deal in generalities, which brings me to my main problem with the film.

The very title suggests some sweeping, even global depiction of youth, and it’s clear steps were taken in pursuit of that goal, like Mason’s general lack of a personality, making him more a vessel for the audience than an actual character. Coltrane does fine with the material for the most part, though he’s never given a lot to work with, and as he gets older, he’s prone to insufferable musings about the meaning of life, made, if possible, even worse when he is joined in a scene by other characters trying just as hard (and failing) to be profound. If the film succeeds at anything, it’s Mason’s apathy and ennui, typical of those who have been handed most things in life. Because we already disproportionately see films from the White heterosexual male perspective, Boyhood, considered apart from its coming-of-age in real time gimmick (which has also been done before), is rather unexceptional. Perhaps worse, it perpetuates the myth of White privileged childhood as “the norm” when it is actually very specific. By the time we’re made aware of them, the film’s stronger points about taking responsibility, being present in the moment, have been lost in a polarizing narrative. Linklater may have realized this, or some version of this, because there’s an immigrant storyline (for lack of a better description of a two-minute arc) slapped on that is at best useless and at worst White savior-ish.

All that said, Boyhood is not a bad film.  The acting is good, the cinematography engaging, and the film boasts several sincere, endearing moments between Mason and his family.  But This Boy’s Life (1993) and The Tree of Life (2011)  did it better.

3/5 *

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) review

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The original Planet of the Apes (1968) prided itself on false depth.These days, its conveniently overlooked (largely because it failed) attempt at social allegory on race relations in America–with particular attention to the Vietnam War and the Black Power Movement–makes it one of Hollywood’s more obvious controversial products. Based on Pierre Boulle’s 1963 novel La Planète des Singesthe franchise essentially poses the laziest of questions: What if the roles were reversed? What if blacks were the ruling class and whites subject to their tyranny? The African-American community naturally resented this problematic narrative, especially its reinforcement of that age-old racist comparison to apes. Commercially and critically however, the film succeeded. Much like the similarly successful, yet hollow The Help (2011), Apes masqueraded as a sincere condemnation of that evil boogeyman Racism without managing to be very complex or at all precise about the matter. It’s no wonder then, whatever “good” intentions on part of the filmmakers, that rather than force its audience to think, the film only fueled fear of “the Negro” and their inevitable “domination.” No need to discuss the 2001 remake, for Tim Burton (and I can never look at him or a film of his in the same way again) essentially underlined in bright, aggressive red everything that was reprehensible about the original.

L - R: Kirk Acevedo, Keri Russell, Jason Clarke, and Kodi Scott-McPhee in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

L – R: Kirk Acevedo, Keri Russell, Jason Clarke, and Kodi Scott-McPhee in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

The prequels have removed race–thematically anyway–from the conversation altogether, clearly in the hopes of subverting controversy for the sake of good summer entertainment. Mission accomplished. If nothing else, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes delivers all that is expected of a good blockbuster: remarkably rendered action sequences, commendable digital work, and passable performances from recognizable actors (Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, James Franco, etc.).

Ten years after the events of the first installment, Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), the ALZ-113 virus that was originally engineered to treat Alzheimer’s, has plunged the human race into civil unrest. In the forest, Caesar (Andy Serkis) governs the apes with the help of Koba (a brilliant Toby Kebbell) and Maurice (Karin Konoval), his second and third-in-command respectively. At a nearby camp, a group of humans led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke) hope to restore electricity to their base using a dam in ape territory. Caesar sees in Malcolm the same kindness he saw in his old friend Will Rodman (James Franco, who appears in a brief video cameo) and reluctantly decides to trust them, much to the displeasure of Koba, who only sees the dark side of humanity. Malcolm and Caesar try to forge a peaceful alliance, but the resistance around them–which includes Caesar’s son Blue Eyes and Malcolm’s human allies Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) and Carver (Kirk Acevedo)–proves devastating.

Malcolm (Jason Clarke) is followed by Caesar (Andy Serkis), Koba (Toby Kebbell) and Maurice (Karin Konoval) as he tries to make peace with them in a scene from the motion picture "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes."

Malcolm (Jason Clarke) is followed by Caesar (Andy Serkis), Koba (Toby Kebbell) and Maurice (Karin Konoval) as he tries to make peace with them in a scene from the motion picture “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.”

Dawn succeeds, but perhaps a bit too well in its intention. It’s engaging and fun, and although the human characters pale in comparison to their far more dynamic ape counterparts, the relationships between the characters–especially Caesar, Blue Eyes, Koba and Maurice–are brilliantly drawn. But what of its subtext? Is all social commentary lost simply by neglecting to reference race? Well, for one thing, the reboot is framed in such a way that it’s nearly impossible to draw those parallels anymore. Rather than encountering a time warp in space, here the era of the apes begins thanks to one man’s fear of death and another one’s greed. The danger of experimenting on animals, the human race incurring rightful retribution for such a cruel, longtime practice, seems the more obvious takeaway. But there is a brief moment in Rise where Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton for the purists)’s character sprays Caesar with a fire hose, recalling those horrifying images from the sixties, and in Dawn, Caesar tells his son the mistake he made was forgetting “just how alike we [apes and humans–or oppressed and oppressor] are.” So race still lingers faintly around the film, especially given the segregation of the apes and the humans. If that’s the case, then Apes–perhaps unknowingly–brings to light the mistake of a “post-racial/colorblind” society, where we still practice oppression without naming it. But this is a hard one, because as much as I love subtext, I don’t know if I want Apes to have any, especially if that depth inherently relies on a human-animal analogy. This film is one better enjoyed on the surface.

4 out of 5*

 

 

‘Penny Dreadful’ (2014) review

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The latest effort from The Aviator (2004) writer John Logan, Penny Dreadful, made a solid arrival last month, unsurprisingly, with the likes of J. A. Bayona directing and Sam Mendes producing. Showtime’s deliciously creepy new series (already picked up  for a ten-episode second season) takes its name from cheap 19th century British serials,  a tad ironic, given that it boasts appearances from the stars of Victorian classics like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray. 

Timothy-still-could-get-it-Dalton stars as the formidable Sir Malcolm Murray, father of Mina Murray (whom you may recognize from Brahm Stoker’s Dracula) searching for his daughter in London, circa 1891. He is led by Mina’s former best friend Vanessa Ives (a simmering Eva Green) whose talents as a medium (and perhaps a little something more) help them navigate that treacherous demimonde, where “science and superstition walk hand-in-hand,” and where Malcolm believes his daughter has been lost. Ives enlists the help of mysterious American showman Ethan Chandler (Josh Harnett) as the muscle of their operation, while  ambitious young Dr. Victor Frankenstein (a massively entertaining Harry Treadaway) brings his scientific merits to the table to examine the blood-drinking creatures they discover. On the periphery we have the restless Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney), Chandler’s dying lover Brona Croft (Billie Piper), Frankenstein’s menacing creature Caliban (Rory Kinnear), and  Sembene (a sadly underused Danny Sapani), Murray’s manservant.

The cast is largely solid, with only a few missteps. Billie Piper’s attempt at an Irish accent is distracting at best and downright grating at worst. Reeve Carney pales alongside his co-stars but gives a generally passable performance, hindered only by an anachronistic look and a less grating, but still questionable accent, placing him at stark odds among a convincingly Victorian set. Dalton, who strikes one as a man who could and would take on an adversary such as Dracula, vacillates believably between  dangerous and desperate, guilt-ridden father. He and Eva Green have an amazing chemistry, all at once uncomfortably filial and palpably sexual; and Green, for her part, remains intensely magnetic every time she’s on the screen.

L - R: Sembeni (Danny Sapani), Ethan Chandler (Josh Harnett), Vanessa Ives (Eva Greene), Dr. Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), and Sir Malcolm (Timothy Dalton) question a creature (Olly Alexander)

L – R: Sembeni (Danny Sapani), Ethan Chandler (Josh Harnett), Vanessa Ives (Eva Greene), Dr. Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), and Sir Malcolm (Timothy Dalton) question a creature (Olly Alexander)

In just eight episodes, each installment of Penny Dreadful delivered. There’s a lot to cover, but aside from a rushed and arguably unnecessary romance between Ethan and Brona, the shakes, the chills, and the plot have all been paced rather nicely. The episode “Closer Than Sisters” is pure background, yet doesn’t halt the drama at all. In fact, it is in this episode, the gem of an already impressive season, that the emotional stakes in all their complexity are revealed. Thematically the series explores the boundaries of forgiveness, guilt, salvation, all with a decidedly cynical look at redemption, which Vanessa seems to crave. It’s no accident then that Miss Ives–at odds with her country and most importantly Sir Malcolm–is Catholic, for whom redemption and death are perfectly compatible. “Your father loves you very much, and would do anything to save you,” Vanessa writes to Mina, “But I love you in a different way. I love you enough to kill you.” In the next episode, “What Death Can Join Together” Sir Malcolm is forced to face the very real possibility that he might not be able to save his daughter in the way that he hopes. Sembene, veering dangerously toward Ominous Magical Negro territory, tells him as much, and Van Helsing’s personal connection to vampires, which mirrors Sir Malcolm’s, contains tragic implications. Without giving too much away, the season finale sets up an interesting question for next year: With all this talk of salvation, do we even really want to be saved?

In short, Penny Dreadful the series can be summed up in much the same way as Abel Korzeniowski’s delightfully haunting score (and if he is not recognized come award season next year, it’ll be an injustice): Nothing short of pitch perfect.

 

 

‘Kill Your Darlings’ Review

Kill-Your-rlings-Poster

The Beat Generation have enjoyed a cinematic surge of interest as of late, to varying degrees of success: the good, if forgettable Howl (2010),  Walter Salles’s disappointing On the Road (2012), and most recently, the inexplicably well-received Kill Your Darlings (2013). It’s no wonder the first two made it to the big screen; Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957) and Allen Ginsberg’s Howl (1956)– along with William Burrough’s Naked Lunch (1959)–are consistently hailed as the era’s defining works, and Kill Your Darlings brings all three writers together at the brink of these creative years. It’s actually one of the film’s biggest problems. As much as I’d love a film about the Beats inspiring, fighting, and loving each other, this perhaps was not the best vehicle to do it. Kill Your Darlings makes the understandable, but fateful mistake of exploring these social relationships  at the expense of an interesting story in its own right.

Dane Dehaan and Daniel Radcliffe in Kill Your Darlings

Dane Dehaan and Daniel Radcliffe in Kill Your Darlings

At the center of the film, and indeed the Beats themselves, was Lucien Carr, a charismatic, free-spirited young man, arguably responsible for the formation of the Generation in the first place. Ginsberg once said, “Lou was the glue,” and it’s true that the brightest of the Beats met through Carr. A scion of wealthy St. Louis high society, Carr was already well acquainted with Burroughs, himself from a prominent St. Louis clan, long before he made it to Columbia University. Once there, he met Edie Parker in an art class, and she introduced him to her boyfriend (soon-to-be husband) Jack Kerouac. Then late one momentous night, playing Brahms at high volume, Carr drew to his dorm room a bright young freshman: Allen Ginsberg. Thus, a generation of luminaries was formed. Perhaps Carr, too, would’ve reigned in public consciousness as recognizable a name as Ginsberg and Kerouac, had he not murdered David Kammerer deep in the summer of 1944.

It’s unfortunate then that writer-director John Krokidas and co-writer Austin Bunn place this story firmly in the hands of Ginsberg, who was the least involved and the last to know what was going on. As a consequence, the film loses a lot of its inherent drama, and what might’ve been a complex commentary on infatuation, obsession, and love–romantic and platonic–is stifled, swapped instead for a heavy-handed coming-of-age story. The film follows Ginsberg (played by Daniel Radcliffe) from his unstable home life with an emotionally absent father (David Cross) and mentally ill mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to Columbia University, where he finally begins to come into his own. He is immediately struck and taken by Carr (Dane Dehaan), and after a reenactment of the Brahms incident, the two become fast friends, or nearly, given the tilted dynamic between them from the beginning. Carr ushers a grateful and eager Ginsberg into the 1940s New York literary scene  where he soon becomes acquainted with the brilliant but odd Burroughs (an effortless performance by Ben Foster) and the passionate Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston). Always lurking along the periphery is English professor-turned-janitor David Kammerer (Dexter‘s Michael C. Hall), a tolerated rather than welcome presence. Ginsberg begins to question the hold the possessive Kammerer has on Carr when he discovers that Lucien might be more complicit, and perhaps more devious than initially thought.

Burroughs (Ben Foster) standing while Kerouac (Jack Huston), Ginsberg (Radcliffe) and Carr (Dehaan) read

Burroughs (Ben Foster) standing while Kerouac (Jack Huston), Ginsberg (Radcliffe) and Carr (Dehaan) read

As young Ginsberg, Radcliffe’s performance is earnest, but just shy of convincing, perhaps not entirely his own fault. As a character, the actual man himself is captured rather dismally. There are moments of genius, like when he argues with his professor about meter and rhyme and his pining for Carr leading him to embrace his own sexuality, but largely the character feels inconsistent. Dehaan fares much better as the charming, manipulative Carr, as does Michael C. Hall in the role of the tortured Kammerer.  The others, all of them talented, are unfortunately wasted here, especially Elizabeth Olsen resigned to a decidedly shrewish Edie Parker. In fact, the saddest thing about Kill Your Darlings is all the wasted potential. The filmmakers took a story ripe with drama–obsession, jealousy, sex, murder–and by handing it over to Ginsberg (a master storyteller in his own right), stifle a lot of complexity. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say they were slightly derivative of On the Road, turning Carr into a sexually confused Neal Cassady, which is a shame because Lucien Carr was already plenty interesting. There’s no basis for the film’s claim that Carr strung Kammerer along and forced the man to write his college papers (something the character later transfers to Ginsberg). In fact, by all accounts Carr was really quite a brilliant student. Later he would become one of the most respected editors of his day, working until his death for United Press International, in the meantime editing and reviewing the early drafts of his friends Kerouac and Ginsberg. 

Then, there’s the problematic framing of the narrative, namely as an unrequited love story. While the extent of their relationship remains elusive–was it sexual, fanatical, obsessive, unrequited, mutual?–it should  be known that Kammerer first took interest in Carr when he was fourteen. When the boy’s mother discovered a stack of “desperate letters” from Kammerer to her son and decided to move, the 29-year-old professor uprooted, too, and proceeded to follow them around Northeast America, from Massachusetts to Maine to Chicago. A suicide attempt at the University of Chicago is, in the film, decided to be a result of Carr’s own sexual frustration and inability to come to grips with his sexuality.  Ginsberg argues that Carr had perhaps at one point loved Kammerer. On the other hand, Carr, who’d been abandoned by his biological father, may also have regarded Kammerer as a paternal figure of sorts, given his chillingly casual confession to Kerouac, who later recounted them in Vanity of Duluoz:  “Well,” Carr said, “I disposed of the old man last night.”  But understandably, one must be careful with that kind of narrative, for it plays to the worst of homophobic inclinations, and indeed, Carr himself owed the leniency of his sentence (he was sentenced to one-to-twenty years, but served only two) to the hysteria that gay men actively prey upon straight men.

Overall the film itself leaves a lot to be desired, largely because of uneven writing, leaving the story and its characters scattered. It’s better than On the Road, but that’s not saying much.

2 1/2 *

The Fall of Eve: Female Sexuality in Eve’s Bayou (1997)

eves bayou poster

Yes, I know; I have exhausted the topic of Eve’s Bayou beyond repair, but allow me to add another element to the conversation, one that makes this film extremely relevant in a way I’d never considered before.

My initial reaction to Kasi Lemmons’s stellar directorial debut was something like gratitude. Here was a story about a little black girl, told by a little black girl, that had nothing to do with her blackness. Representation in film is no small thing, especially when almost twenty years later, films from the perspective of African-American girls remain a novelty. Much later I discovered The Color Purple (1985) and Crooklyn (1994), but it wasn’t until 2012 with the arrival of Beasts of the Southern Wild that a film even remotely rivaled the affect Eve Batiste’s story had on me.  That’s largely due to the bottomless implications of the tale Eve (played by Jurnee Smollett) spins for us.

“The summer I killed my father I was ten-years-old,” she says in voice-over narration, and we witness how, deep in small town-Louisiana, circa 1963, Eve’s innocence is lost. It all starts when she wakes in the carriage house one night to find her father Louis (Samuel L. Jackson) having sex with a woman (Lisa Nicole Carson) not her mother (Lynn Whitfield). This event precipitates not just Eve’s “fall” but that of her older sister Cisely (Meagan Good).  

Lynn Whitfield, Meagan Good, and Jurnee & Jake Smollett in Eve's Bayou

Lynn Whitfield, Meagan Good, and Jurnee & Jake Smollett in Eve’s Bayou

I often came close, but one thing I’ve never deeply examined is how closely the film mimics the Fall of Man, framed in a distinctly feminist context. Our main character isn’t called Eve for nothing. Technically, her namesake is a slave ancestor who healed a cholera-stricken general and then proceeded to bear him sixteen children. But the film’s many Biblical references connect our Eve more strongly to her Biblical counterpart. Of course, we all know the original: God made Adam and Eve, and they lived together in innocent bliss til a serpent tempted Eve with an apple from the Tree of Knowledge. Eve took a bite before offering it to Adam, and thus was born Original Sin, culminating in their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. In the film, there’s a recurring snake motif. Eve and her brother play down by the bayou and stumble across a snake they believe is dead. Eve–and it’s important that it’s Eve–picks it up only to discover that it’s very much alive. In another scene, in order to abate her boredom, Eve places a toy snake on her brother’s pillow beside his head to scare him when he wakes up. Finally, at Eve’s behest, voodoo woman Elzora feeds Louis’s hair to a snake in order to bring about his death.  Eve does her part, too, by hinting heavily to family friend Mr. Meraux that his wife and Louis are having an affair, in a shot set up so that behind Smollett, all that can be seen is a stand stacked with bright red apples.

Historically, culturally, women are regularly portrayed as “seducers” who wield their sexuality like a weapon against men, helpless to resist.  Perhaps that’s part of the reason we as a society can’t seem to wrap our heads around the concept that when a woman’s body is violated it is never, not ever, her fault. In the female-dominated Eve’s Bayou the women are sexually autonomous, not only welcoming but often initiating acts of passion. But considering this is a film placed firmly in the hands of children, a Gothic coming-of-age tale what’s more,  this theme takes on an altogether different, grotesque tone.

The incident that becomes the catalyst for Louis’s death as caused by Eve, is a not very filial kiss between him and Cisely, his clear favorite among his children. The film never gives us a precise answer as to who initiates the kiss, but no matter; it still suggests that black girls are not allowed to explore their sexuality in  a healthy, safe way. Eve, too, certainly suffers a massive blow to her development by witnessing her father with another woman, in what is likely to be her first encounter with sex. I’ve mentioned before in this post the parallels between Eve’s Bayou and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (1970). Most importantly both works, astounding debuts from African-American women writers, feature the victimization of young black American girls, whose innocence, traditionally, has neither been protected nor valued in a way that other cultures protect the girlhood of their children. Feminist scholar bell hooks has spoken at length over the years about the fetishization of the abused black female body, especially as it relates to big screen imagery, and this was one of her chief complaints about Beasts and 12 Years a Slave (2013).

This element of the film is not unimportant given recent cases like Amber Cole and Dylan Farrow, and the way girls (women, of course, but most importantly even girls) are still viewed as somehow responsible for being taken advantage of.

TRIGGER – WARNING: On Dylan Farrow’s sexual abuse allegations…

This has been a rather depressing weekend. Firstly, I would like to send my condolences to the family and friends of Philip Seymour Hoffman, an incredible talent and lovable guy who will be sorely missed.

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Yesterday, Dylan Farrow, the adopted daughter of Mia Farrow and Woody Allen, repeated allegations of sexual assault suffered at the hands of Allen in an open letter in The New York TimesNow, this is hardly brand new information.  Dylan was first silenced precisely 21 years ago, when Connecticut State Attorney Frank Maco decided to save the young child the trauma of testifying in open court. This, even though he had “probable cause” to prosecute Allen. She was ignored again as recently as November 2013 when Mia and her children gave an interview to Vanity Fair’s Maureen Orth. Mia and Dylan both detail the abuse and the aftermath for almost half the article, only to be overshadowed by a brief, throwaway line about how Ronan Farrow, Mia and Woody’s youngest son, might biologically be Frank Sinatra’s son. It’s only now that people seem to be paying attention to these allegations and yet still desperately seek to silence her.

It is true that when this all first came about in the early nineties, it came on the heels of a messy split. Mia discovered naked photos of another adopted child, Soon-Yi, in Woody’s possession. It should be said that even though Allen himself was not legally Soon-Yi’s adopted father, his relationship with Farrow lasted twelve years before they broke up. When his affair with Soon-Yi began, she was about nineteen, maybe twenty, which means he knew and arguably raised her from the time she was seven or eight-years-old. So while it can be argued that not a lot of people were aware of his having abused Dylan, the circumstances of his relationship with Soon-Yi are public knowledge. That alone is indicative of a man who has little, if any, respect for boundaries. 

But perhaps the most disturbing thing to come out of this is the response it has elicited from Allen defenders. And I don’t think it’s too much to say that no one can truly be neutral in a situation like this. You either believe Allen did it or you think Dylan is a liar.  So in order to save you the time and trauma of reading the message boards and the comment sections, let’s  break the bullshit down, shall we:

1.  How do we know she’s telling the truth?

By far the most prevalent and admittedly true argument is that no one was physically there so the only two people who truly know what happened are Dylan and Woody. But isn’t it interesting how, even though none of us is more aware than the other, the knee-jerk reaction is to doubt the victim? Take a look at this very astute Buzzfeed article about five things more likely to happen to you than being accused of rape:   http://www.buzzfeed.com/charlesclymer/5-things-more-likely-to-happen-to-you-than-being-f-fmeu  For the too long; didn’t read crowd, you’re more likely to win the powerball lottery and get hit by asteroid than you are to be falsely accused of raping someone.

Now this is not to say that false accusations never happen. Of course they do. The problem here is that Woody has automatically been extended the benefit of the doubt, and in even worse cases, sympathy, not because we believe “innocent til proven guilty” but simply because power and patriarchy. Here we enter a very nuanced world with uncertain rules: In a select few cases, it is easy to believe, shame, and crucify someone for sexual abuse, provided they look the part. It is no longer difficult to suppose people in honored positions of power–a teacher, a priest, a camp counselor–might be guilty of abusing that power. But more often than not, the abuser is allotted more compassion than the victim. Why is that? Is it because as a society we inherently distrust women? Women are seducers, liars, gold-diggers. She can’t possibly just be sick and tired of seeing her abuser, the man who nearly destroyed her life, continually lauded because what? He made a few watchable films…which brings me to my next point:

2. He’s such a talented filmmaker. You can separate the art from the filmmaker.

This might be possible in any other case EXCEPT Woody Allen’s. He is an inescapable presence in his films. There is no way you don’t know you’re watching a Woody Allen film, a film that glorifies neurotic narcissism as if it’s virtue on the same level as altruism. Not only does Allen write and direct his films, he often stars in them, too. And if that’s not enough, quite a few of his films mimic his real life uncomfortable. Manhattan (1979) deals with a 42-year-old divorcee dating a 17-year-old woman. Blue Jasmine (2013), for which Cate Blanchett is sure to win Best Actress (you can tell by the politely dismissive response she had for Dylan’s open letter), tells the story of a neurotic, selfish middle-aged blonde whose husband wants to leave her for their teenage au pair.

For the record, I don’t think liking Woody Allen films says anything about you other than that you like Woody Allen films. Just don’t use it as an excuse to turn a blind eye to this, and don’t shame Dylan Farrow just because you want to continue watching his films guilt-free.

3. Mia Farrow planted the stories in her head out of spite. 

Allen’s team has sold this blatantly misogynistic narrative to the world, and it’s by far the most beloved argument used to shut down these allegations. Never mind that Mia Farrow was married to Frank Sinatra, and never really stopped seeing him (if you catch my drift), but basically we’re saying that Mia Farrow is a bitter old hag upset that her lover ditched her over twenty years ago for a younger woman. To these people I only say, you’re the worst. And you probably don’t even get why you’re the worst, but you are for being willing to entertain the idea that Mia is bitter with no facts rather than that Allen is just creepy, knowing the fact that he married a woman he had known since she was a child. Well, just because a man married his girlfriend’s daughter who he helped raise from her youth doesn’t mean he is capable of molesting another child…ok, actually read that sentence again.

And finally, 4. He was never convicted.

This one is the worst. Statistically speaking, only 3 percent of rapists will ever serve a day in prison. Yep. So for all those people worrying about being falsely accused of rape, chances are, you damn sure won’t go to prison for it. In this specific situation though, it’s a lot more complicated than that. As I mentioned before, the only real reason they decided not to go to trial was because they feared for Dylan’s mental and emotional health. Yale-New Haven hospital’s team of investigators declared, somehow unequivocally, that Dylan was not molested, even though they didn’t interview her and then proceeded to destroy all their notes on the incident. And the judge saw fit to grant Mia sole custody of Dylan, and what’s more, denied Allen visitation rights to both Dylan and his other adopted child with Mia, Moses. So there’s that.

Again, no one knows what really happened but Allen and Dylan, but think really hard before you defend Allen. There aren’t a lot of good arguments for it. More to the point, I think it’s important that while we don’t lose the pillar of civilization that is “innocent til proven guilty” that we make it easier and safer for victims to speak out.