Posts Tagged ‘critiques’

Happy 49th Birthday Nigeria! Yes – Hollywood Still Hates You!!

October 1, 2009

Ahh – if anything could draw me from my 9-month blogging hiatus it is the patriotic love of country that can only be inspired by her Independence Day and unmitigated xenophobia as only Hollywood could perpetrate.

49 years ago today, the proud nation of Nigeria threw off the shackles of British tyranny (I know my American friends know what I’m talking about, right? My Canadian and Scottish friends, you can dream) and all was right in the land. For 3 whole years. Then a coup, then a presidential assassination in the next one, and before we knew it we were at each others’ throats in civil war (once again – my American friends, right?). As great opportunity, resources and wealth were squandered by greed and uncurbed stupidity, the glory of October 1, 1960 was lost and steeped in irony.

You see, the Brits see ‘relinquishing control’ slightly differently from the rest of us. It’s like hijacking a plane and, after the pilot dost protest much for several hours, you relinquish control – but only after you’ve ripped out the instrumentation panels, set a collision course for a high-rise and jumped out, taking all the parachutes with you. Yes, the colonial masters were worse than terrorists. They were dicks.

Smug dicks

Smug dicks

‘Nigeria’ was never meant to exist in its current form (and certainly not with that name, which Lord Luggard’s no-doubt put-upon and hilariously fat, bored bride conjured from ‘Niger Area’). The Brits – and other self-serving globetrotting Western powers – had a fondness for drawing up borders for shits and giggles, regardless of history or tribal relations, and then fucking around with the power structure to keep the savages in line (which worked brilliantly in post-Belgium Rwanda). Nigeria was a powderkeg waiting to erupt. Heck, there should be accolades for still managing to function @ this time. It’s like the Empire State Building remaining aloft even though they built the foundations of bamboo standing in quicksand.

You’d think we’d at least not be horridly put upon after the West made us touch our toes before pantsing us and drilling us senseless for resources. Hollywood though would rather ignore this, as racial stereotypes are far more fun than actually being honest and empathetic.

TELEVISION, BELLWEATHER OF PUBLIC STANDARDS
I caught my first unflattering presentation of Nigeria on TV, the universal testing ground for acceptable standards. In an episode of The District, a police officer argued he wasn’t racially stereotyping when he pulled over a black man in an SUV, because Nigerian drug dealers in D.C. happen to be fond of such vehicles.

The Shield, the best cop show since Homicide (and the best drama on TV in a decade) saw Mackey and friends on the trail of some Nigerians in Season 4 who had been contracted to kill a couple of cops. ‘Contracted’ being a hypothetical term, since these guys didn’t quite strike me as being literate enough to sign a contract.

Then came Commander-In-Chief, a show that inspired so much support for having a tough female president that everyone gleefully overlooked insipid and nonsensical plotting and Donald Sutherland criminally wasted as an abrasive Speaker of the House who flaunts his sexism the way people do their Bentleys. In the pilot, Madam President forces the Nigerian Prime Minister (we have a President, people) to hand over a girl sentenced to death under Sharia law for adultery. But Wikipedia calls out the show on a host of glaring inaccuracies, never mind the fact that that has so far not happened under Sharia law, which is only adopted in a handful of ‘rogue’ states (I wasn’t kidding when I said this wasn’t supposed to be one nation). When Wikipedia is more accurate than you are, it’s time to move on to where your skills will be better appreciated. Like chartered accountancy.

HOLLYWOOD PROVES TV IS LITTLE LEAGUE

There was a time when Bruce Willis was cool and excelled at badassery. Then he lost his mojo and his hair and did Tears Of The Sun.

This half-baked piece of Hollywood rewriting history had Nigeria in a modern-day civil war, and so Bruce Willis leads a fistful of Marines in to save Maria Bellucci from being raped by savages (can’t have a mixing of the species, no can we?) and in the process risks life and limb to save the last prince of the Igbo people from the pursuing militia (tireless automatons that make Orcs look personable). There are so many, many things wrong here. When 24 tried the whole ‘heroic white man saves helpless Africans from murdering Africans’ they were sensible enough to make up the generic country Sangala. It shows how ruthlessly idiotic that Tears (and Hollywood)  are if they are less culturally sensitive than a show that takes pride in proving the most reliable (if un-PC) way to curb terrorism is to eradicate Islam and Arabs.

NEIL BLO-MEINKAMPF, THE HEIR TO GRIFFITHS
Tears Of The Sun left me feeling as unclean and frustrated as if I’d just crawled through mankind’s rectum only to pop out of its asshole and find myself an extra in Two Girls One Cup (which was, admittedly, a far more compelling and honest tale than “Bruce Willis saves Africa – from herself!”). Like Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, I never thought it would be topped.
Now with caramel!
Now with caramel!

The otherwise entertaining – if heavy-handed and cartoonishly violent – District 9 gets it all wrong when it slips from allegorical to horrifyingly xenophobic. Tears really only wanted to shoot shit up real good, and didn’t care where – or who – it was. That’s narrow-minded insensitivity, ignorance and more than a dash of rampant stupidity. District 9 proves that’s child’s play by going out of its way – jeopardizing story, characterization and plot – to take a liberal (and libelous) shit on Nigeria.

It's like 'Two Girls One Cup', with less love and sharing. And more shit.
It’s like ‘Two Girls One Cup’, with less love and sharing. And more shit.
Now Nigerians are migrant ‘Area Boys’ who lord over District 9 with manic zeal and laughably generic accents. They resort to witch doctors and have an appetite for cannibalism that will – allegedly – infuse them with superpowers (more believable than half of Marvel’s stable, but that’s beside the point). They’re one-dimensional barbarians. This thing takes place in South Africa – WHY IN GOD’S GOOD NAME DO THEY HAVE TO BE NIGERIAN?? Maybe making them black South African would leave the film open to criticism; better pick a people that have nothing but detractors. Cue feeble-minded Nigerians.
District 9's Nigerians have developed a taste for white meat with a side of Prawn

District 9's Nigerians have developed a taste for white meat with a side of Prawn

It’s made a lot more disturbing by the fact that Blomkamp, the director, is a white South African, meaning he either is comically aloof of the racial tensions that exist within his country and the continent at large, particularly concerning a very injurious history that South Africa and Nigeria are on opposite, but equally damaged, ends of the spectrum of, or he’s a modern day D.W. Griffiths. Which is fine cos, as Hollywood will let you know, Griffiths was a genius. And, as George Clooney will let you know, Hollywood’s highly progressive (they gave an Oscar to a black woman! For playing a maid!). The fact that Birth Of A Nation is racist propaganda that argues the segregation of (and dangers from) black people should not cloud its epic scope and technical achievement. After all, that’s what art’s all about.

Now excuse me while I go lobby for Mein Kampf to become required reading for ages 6 thru 12.

Nigeria: Land of the Free(loaders) and home of the brave (you have to be to live there); I still love you shaa

Nigeria: Land of the Free(loaders) and home of the brave (you have to be to live there); I still love you shaa

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From ‘Superman’ (1978) to ‘The Dark Knight’ (2008): Comic Books Come to Life and (finally) Come of Age – over 30 years: Part II

December 31, 2008

The continuation of my Top 10 comic book movie adaptations (once again, the likes of Road To Perdition, American Splendor and A History Of Violence simply exist on such a different plane that I’d rather not consider them in these rankings, as excellent as they are).

5. Spider-Man 2 (**** ½; A-)
This film really surprised me. I saw the first one in theaters and found it a tedious, boring, unimaginative and poorly executed endeavor, and naturally expected more of the same from the second. But it soared majestically on a well-realized love story that became the crux of the film, never mind the rather ridiculous A-story with Doc Ock’s incredibly lame plot. It has gained staying power with its lovely insight into Parker’s real world problems. On top of that it managed the excellent monorail battle, which is one solid action sequence more than either the prequel or the sequel could muster (and the less said about the travesty that is Spider-Man 3, the better).

4. Batman Begins (**** ½; A)
Now this is where the gloves come off. Batman Begins marked the first true live action incarnation of the Caped Crusader on the silver screen – all prior were just flashy impostors dressing the part. Christian Bale and Christopher Nolan gave us a fully realized Bruce Wayne, brimming with palpable and gripping angst that carried over fantastically into the psyche of the Dark Knight himself, finally giving audiences an inkling of what it was for him to do what he does. There have been endless complaints about the cutting and shooting of the action sequences, but I’m having none of it: that’s the way I’ve imagined Batman handing out his beatings (it just sucks when you see it in IMAX). On top of that, it’s perhaps the best plotted film on this list, and the pyramid scheme of multiple villains (knock off one to find another bigger and badder underneath) is very richly orchestrated. Definitely took its cues from the best origin story of all (see #2).

3. Superman II (*****; A)
This is the near-perfect blueprint of what a sequel should be: more of the same, but bigger. It fleshes out the Lois-and-Clark love story, introduces us to a troika of villains as powerful as our esteemed hero, and raises the stakes from saving California to saving the Earth. This is the Godfather Pt II of superhero movies – on par with the original on so many levels, but just missing that very negligible X-Factor that will always make it a second generation. But what really stops this film from being the A+ that it should have been, is knowing what this film could have become. Director Richard Donner had shot the bulk of this but was fired to be replaced by Richard Lester (a shared first name was about as close as these two came to matching talents), he who wrought upon us Superman III. Do yourself a favor and pick up Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut; there are one or two inferior elements there, but everything else is on a grander, more incredible scale. And even in its rough cut, the climactic interaction between Jor-El and Superman (sans his superpowers) is absolutely heartbreaking.

2. Superman (*****; A+)
The film that started it all, and that for 30 years held the top spot uncontested; I naturally expected that would never change. It took its subject matter seriously, creating a fully-fleshed out universe where you could honestly believe a man can fly. It’s almost three movies in one: the opening on Krypton, the second phase in Kansas (I remember being so fascinated and so moved by this part, especially around Father Kent’s death), and the bulk of the story in Metropolis. And these boast three different tones, with three different looks, that blend into a delicious, mind-boggling whole. Whether it’s simple but spectacular set pieces (the helicopter rescue, the pursuit of the nukes, spinning the world on its axis) or the well-plotted narrative that focused on character above all else (Clark in Kansas, or Superman’s midnight flight with Lois), it worked on level few blockbusters could. And the music – who could forget the music? Easily John Williams’s greatest ever score, from the Krypton theme to the main title to the incredibly moving Love Theme (‘Can You Read My Mind’?); all this showed that this was the kind of superhero movie that would (and perhaps could) never be undertaken again. And there’s no justice without mentioning Christopher Reeve’s bravura performance as Kent/Superman – you’ve got to watch carefully to realize the slight of hand and amazing ability he brings into the role. Watching his physical transformation (that encompasses emotional and psychological) when he contemplates spilling the beans to Lois? Priceless. It’s the best bit of casting since they got Brando as the Godfather, and the best acting ever in a movie like this (until the next, equally tragic case, 30 years on).

You'll believe a man really can fly, which is all we ask of the great movies

You'll believe a man really can fly, which is all we ask of the great movies

1. The Dark Knight (*****; A+)
There’s not possibly enough I can say about this movie. It’s epic; it’s personal; it’s brooding; it’s thrilling; it’s violent; it’s hopeful. What it is not, however, is just another blockbuster. From its phenomenal score (of course no threat of comparison to Maestro Williams’s Superman symphony) to its phenomenal cast’s phenomenal performances to its ridiculously epic (in a great way) set pieces to its well-oiled plotting, deep-seeded themes and impactful emotional resonance, there’s little this cinematic achievement is lacking. Nolan has done the unthinkable among beloved indie directors: top even his most cherished low-budg masterclasses with a gigantic spectacle of a summer blockbuster. It represents genuine hope for the future – that big-budget blockbusters can be crafted with indie flick thoughtfulness and sensibilities: caring for characters, justifying their every controversial move, fleshing out the world they inhabit and drawing strong parallels to ours. It is the most intense blockbuster I’ve ever seen in theaters; probably one of the most intense and relentless ever. Once it gets its screws into you, it doesn’t let up or let go, and returns haunting you, with resonance and sometimes heartbreaking clarity, long after the lights have flickered off the screen. Here’s to 30 years (at least) at the top of the food chain; Superman has (barely) lost to a very worthy adversary, and it might take just as long if not longer for such a realistic and sustained challenge to rear its head. Yes, I said it: these two films represent quality that’s almost once-in-a-lifetime, so enjoy them as you’re privileged to. Chris Reeve and Heath Ledger (among a worldful of others) never got to.

From ‘Superman’ (1978) to ‘The Dark Knight’ (2008): Comic Books Come to Life and (finally) Come of Age – over 30 years

December 24, 2008
It took 30 years, but Superman, director Richard Donner’s seminal 1978 superhero saga – and my favorite film of that year – has been toppled from the top of the standings of the genre it founded. By Christopher Nolan’s sweeping morality play/action-adventure masterpiece (a term I don’t use lightly) The Dark Knight.

Coming up with my favorite comic book adaptations is a bit tricky, given the presence of films like American Splendor and Road To Perdition which are, let’s face it, real movies (most of the others, with the exception of my Top 4, can’t comfortably claim that). So I’ll leave the non-fantastical out and label them honorable mentions (alongside the surprisingly endearing combo of Hellboy/Hellboy 2).

10. Batman Returns (*** ½; B+)
A huge favorite of mine when I was a kid, my taste in it waned a bit as I fell more and more in love with the comic book incarnation and recognized layers of depth Tim Burton couldn’t be bothered unearthing (with his focus on garish sets and fetishistic nipple-bearing costumes, Joel Schumacher couldn’t be bothered with anything at all).

9. X-Men II: X-Men United (*** ½; B+)
Much better than its solid predecessor (and much better in hindsight after seeing Brett Ratner’s atrocious third entry), this exciting and intelligent film was still missing a spark, a secret ingredient of some sort…oh to hell with it – it was missing its X-factor. There, I said it.

8. Batman (****; B+)
I suddenly feel conflicted naming this one ahead of Returns. Maybe my memory’s a bit fuzzy and I’m mixing up my love for both (the more I think about it, the more likely it becomes). I would’ve gone back to watch them to make sure, but Christopher Nolan’s kinda burned those bridges now. After his Batman movies, “there’s no going back”; he’s “changed things forever…” Ok, I’ll stop now.

7. Sin City (****; A-)
Rodriguez’s stylish noir jaunt is the auteur’s best film since his debut: hard-boiled, hard-fisted, and wonderfully shot and cast. Its three-story structure is a bit of a flaw, but at least it opens with a bang with the audaciously over-the-top and awesomely cool Marv, proving that Tarantino isn’t the only one gifted at single-handedly resurrecting film careers from the grave. Act II is its weakest by far, before Bruce Willis taps into one of his more affecting performances in a lifetime (plus Jessica Alba doesn’t suck! How shocking is that!)

6. Blade II (**** ½; A-)
Is that shock I register on your face? Well pick up your jaw and revisit this bloody vampiric action tale and you’ll realize it does more than pass muster. Wesley Snipes is perfectly cast (as he was in the first one), but the introduction of Guillermo Del Toro at the helm raises the style and furious pace to borderline unbearable highs. Add a wickedly cool yet tragically sympathetic villain, a decidedly badass (and pre-Hellboy) Ron Perlman, some excellent plotting and slick fisticuffs, plus a near-heartbreaking finale, and you’ve got the perfect template for the legendary vampire hunter. Before David Goyer emasculated him and handed the third film over to two pretty white people. The horror.

I’ll finish with my Top 5 after Christmas, but will leave you with some excerpts from Roger Ebert’s review of Blade II – not to bolster my case, but merely because this man’s a writing genius, and for him to exert those energies on a film like this pleases and tickles me senseless:

Blade II” is a really rather brilliant vomitorium of viscera, a comic book with dreams of becoming a textbook for mad surgeons. – Roger Ebert

"Pure action, bloody well done" - Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

"Pure action, bloody well done" - Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

JCVD: An introspective satire of uncommon intelligence and grace (***** out of 5; Grade: A)

December 18, 2008
When the listing came out for the Toronto Film Festival, I was shocked to hear a Van Damme movie would be screening.

JCVD was best described by a Toronto critic as being the sort of film you’d expect if Charlie Kaufman was an avid fan of Bloodsport. A surrealist romp of blazing wit, insight and heartrending honesty, it features the one-time action star Jean Claude Van Damme playing himself (or a version of himself): mocked in the industry and labelled a bad father in court during a custody battle. He returns to Belgium to unwind after the disastrous (but blackly funny) trial before he takes on yet another mundane action film (the scene in which he negotiates with his agent, is an insightful if heartbreaking moment when he reveals his desire to sacrifice financially in order to improve the film in question; it shows how something that must have started off as a quest for fame and fortune has become one for respect).

He is a local hero Belgium, accosted by taxi drivers and store owners for photographs and autographs. But the trip devolves into a fascinating comedy of errors as a bank heist breaks out, complete with a sticky hostage situation, with all signs pointing to JCVD as the perpetrator. As the police, media, and a battalion of adoring fans descend upon the scene, the question arises: could the cash-strapped Van Damme (who just lost a film role to Steven Seagal because Seagal offered to cut off his famed ponytail) be so desperate to raise the money to fight for his daughter’s custody?

The first act unfolds from several perspectives, reminding me a bit of another clever heist film, Sidney Lumet’s under-appreciated Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead. It may seem a bit like a gimmick at first, but on reflection one realizes the significance in getting the audience to appreciate the varying perspectives surrounding the man (in order to separate him from the myth), and the value in seeing cause and effect reversed. This is probably the strongest portion – emotionally – of the movie, when we get to peer behind the superstardom veil of Van Damme (the 3rd act, by comparison, feels a bit flat – even if the final frame is gold).

The heist puts things into overdrive without ever once becoming an action flick. The effect of this brush with celebrity on everyone – from the cops, to the spectators, to those inside the bank – is fascinating and brimming with comic genius at nearly every turn. The scene when Van Damme is very politely asked to flick a cigarette out of a hostage’s mouth with a kick is gold; it gets several shades more brilliant when someone else tries to replicate the feat. My personal feat was not falling to the floor from my seat in hysterical laughter.

The revelation here isn’t that the French can make a genre-defying, razor-sharp film, but that a) one could be fashioned around Van Damme, and b) he would live up to his end of the bargain. It is a brave, intelligent, honest, charming performance, from the exasperation during the custody hearing and his disarming desire to placate fans, to his naked regret and worry about the meaning of his life, should it end badly during the standoff.

This brings me to the most daring and divise scene in the movie: JCVD’s floating, piercing and brutally introspective monologue. It is a riveting moment, whether you agree with its use or not, and indisputably the high-point of Van Damme’s career. I’ve always liked the man, in an off-hand kinda way (Universal Soldiers, Timecop and Lionheart are pretty sweet flicks), but this pushed the love-and-respect meter through the roof. It has to go hand-in-hand with the comebacks of 2008: Robert Downey, Jr and Mickey Rourke, neither of which were as surprising as JCVD.

The film opens with a furious, stylish (if mechanical) action sequence done in one seamless shot. JCVD, winded and out of breath, complains that he’s 47 and can’t do these things in a single shot. The aloof director deadpans “He still thinks we’re making Citizen Kane.” By the time the end credits rolled, writer-director Mabrouk El Mechri had come as close to anyone will probably ever in making a Sidney Lumet film written by Charlie Kaufman.

With Flying Colors: My Film Grading System

August 6, 2008
The Four-star rating has become the most widely used by professionals – notably my two favorite critics, Roger Ebert and James Berardinelli – and has become a near-must for respectability. Since I am neither professional nor respectable, I have opted to use a 5-star rating system. It gives me greater leeway and allows for more specificity, separating the bad from the good and the good from the great and the great from the mind-blowing awesome.

To further buck the trend, I’ve coupled my rating system with a letter grading system, ranging from ‘F’ (Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, Queen Of The Damned) to A+ (The Godfather, Unforgiven). That way, there is a difference between a very, very good film meriting 5 stars and an ‘A’ (The Life Aquatic), and a great one of 5 stars and an ‘A+’ (Magnolia). This allows me to dole out a handful of 5-star ratings every year, while reserving my highest grade for those all-too-rare films that are rapturous, veritable religious experiences.

Last year I gave out two 5-star ratings (Michael Clayton and Hot Fuzz), one the year before (Pan’s Labyrinth) and none in 2005 (at least until I re-examine the charms of Batman Begins). This year I have given two thus far, including one A+, my first since 2004’s Million Dollar Baby (still my reigning choice of the decade ‘til date).

In total, I have given out 6 A+’s this decade for just over 20 five-star-rated films. The ratings and gradings work hand-in-hand, with the gradings elevating or tempering the degree of the rating, and works roughly as thus:

5 stars: A (Excellent) or A+ (Brilliant/Masterpiece)
4½ stars: A- (Great but Flawed) or A (Top Notch)
4 stars: B+ (Very Good) or A- (Very, Very Good)
3½ stars: B (Above Average) or B+ (Pretty Good)
3 stars: B- (Not Bad) or B (Pass Mark: Rated ‘Fresh’)
2½ stars: C+ (Barely Worth It) or B- (Touch-and-Go)
2 stars: D (Very Poor) or C (A Flop)
1½ stars: D (Not Fit For Cable)
1 star: F (Epic Failure)

Think of it sort of the sharps and flats in playing music; after all, many will tell you that writing reviews is an art unto itself (then again, many haven’t read my reviews…).