Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

26 June 2015


If you want to see a clever, exciting, funny film that also happens to be smart about race, get thee to a cinema and check out Dope. As its title hints, Dope is a film about drugs. But the title also refers to being an idiot, a dope, if you will, as well as to the 1990s slang term for something that is cool. As Wiktionary offers: That party was dope!

Dope is about three highschoolers in Inglewood who are '90s geeks. They are, in other words, obsessed with '90s-style clothes, music, movies, etc. But these kids are geeks. They get good grades and get beat up in school. So, of course, they find their way into a ridiculous party at some point and then the eponymous dope gets stuck in a backpack. What is a group of nerds supposed to do with a couple of pounds of molly? This is the plot of the film, and Dope charts the changes that happen to this group of friends and the hilarious happenings of the people around them as they try to get out of the situation with their lives.

I don't have much to say about Dope, in all honesty, because the whole thing just works so well. There are plenty of parts where I thought director Rick Famuyiwa could've tightened things up or taken a different emotional approach, and a couple of performances that I thought were terrible (Roger Guenveur Smith wears some bizarre facial hair and giving the weirdest performance in the film), but all must be forgiven, because if Famuyiwa's directing is not great, his screenplay sure is. This screenplay is excellent. Just. Excellent.

And the acting, for the most part, is also excellent. The cast is headed by Shameik Moore, and he is supported by Tony Revolori and Kiersey Clemons. This trio has great chemistry and impeccable timing, and they are hilarious from the very beginning of the film. But there are some other really superb performances in Dope, too. Rapper A$AP Rocky gives a beautiful performance as the drug kingpin, and Quincy Brown (Sean Combs' son) is really funny as a wealthy drug-dealer's kid. In any case, the whole thing is filled with hilarious and poignant moments.

Comparisons to last year's Dear White People are inevitable with Dope, mostly because both films are interested in thinking about what blackness is, how blackness is perceived and how black people experience the constant and difficult racialization that the world throws at them. But while DWP is interested in lecturing us about how lots of black people don't fall in with black-people stereotypes (really??), Dope is much more interested in dealing with the way stereotypes materially affect black lives. Dope is much much smarter than DWP, and it is also much much funnier. DWP was filled with righteous indignation; this is, of course, merited, but I did not exactly find it enjoyable to watch in its stridency. Dope alternates deftly between being quite serious and laugh-out-loud hilarious. Famuyiwa calibrates this tone very well (if not always perfectly)m and the audience can transition from laugh to gasp quickly.

Both DWP and Dope are also heavily indebted to Spike Lee's filmmaking, and Dope's penultimate sequence (the protagonist's application letter to Harvard) is a Spike Lee flourish that is hard hitting, excellent, and tough as nails.

Just go. You will laugh and you will love it. It is smart and funny and intense and sexy and it just plain works.

24 June 2015

On Happy-Sad Feelings and Memory in General

At the risk of having everyone jump down my throat, but with, perhaps, the goal in mind of some sort of identity with others who felt the same way I did, here are a couple of thoughts on Inside Out.

First, it strikes me as rather odd that internet list-makers and such evaluate Pixar movies vis-à-vis other Pixar movies. I do realize that there is a clear studio brand here, and that one can begin to chart a kind of shift when Pixar and Disney joined up together, but wouldn't it make a little more sense to evaluate, say, a Brad Bird movie against or alongside another Brad Bird movie, and then a Pete Docter movie alongside another Pete Docter movie? Why is the Pixar brand itself so often the overriding conceptual frame with which we evaluate these films? For the record (since I brought it up), Docter directed Inside Out, and Docter's previous films for Pixar as director have been Up and Monsters, Inc.

Inside Out is kinda smart about feelings. It powerfully charts the way that society demands that we all be happy all of the time, and how we also (at least a lot of us, a lot of the time) want to be happy all of the time. And the film teaches its audience that it is totally ok not to be happy all of the time, that sometimes you feel sad and that feeling sad is the best way to get through a real problem. Throwing happiness at a real issue or trying to push through and see the bright side of every thing is not always the best way to process that thing. Where Inside Out heads, to take it even further, is not just to a place that says that it's ok to be sad, but also to teach its audience that some of the best memories are both happy and sad, or are complex mixtures of a whole range of feelings. Experiences are not made up of simply one emotion.

If you're reading this and thinking Yeah I know, then you're reacting the way I reacted to the film. What Inside Out does well is make these things really clear for a teenage or adolescent audience, and I'm glad it did that. But I sort of understood the message way earlier than the film wanted me to understand the message.

I also just didn't understand the spatial elements inside the brain of the little girl. The film set up a whole set of rules for how the girl's brain worked, but I felt like it didn't really play by these rules. Where are we? How does an emotion get sent into a different area of the memory, anyway? If something is forgotten forever how, exactly, does one get out of that space of forgotten-forever? I was frustrated by all of this: this purse of core memories, all of the spatiality in which the movie was so invested. I just didn't get it.

The movie does some really great things, though. Inside Out tells us that as one gets older, memories that were once very happy become sad memories. And Inside Out illustrates beautifully what it is like to lose a personality when one is a teenager and has trouble making sense of one's own self.

Still, I couldn't help but feel like this abstracting of this emotional world (which was actually a concretizing of the emotional world), seemed unspecific and often generic. Happiness, Sadness, Disgust, Fear, Anger. That's all this movie thinks there is?

08 June 2015

Paris Blues

I was super into Paris Blues. I've been thinking about the Method recently a little more than usual because I am reading Jane Fonda's autobiography My Life So Far (actually, since I'm audiobooking it, she's reading it to me). Fonda was a student of the method and she mentioned offhand some of Lee Strasberg's other students – Ben Gazarra and Newman and Joanne Woodward – and I thought oh yeah Woodward and Newman.

Paris Blues is a jazz movie from 1961. In many ways it is very slight. Woodward romances Newman, who is taciturn and difficult, but also fun-loving and smiley by turns. And Sidney Poitier walks around Paris with the luminous Diahann Carroll. The couples fall in love. The boys are jazz musicians and trying to make a go of their careers. Newman is trying to be a composer. Louis Armstrong appears a couple of times, most notably for an extended musical sequence that is absolutely delightful. But, as I say, the whole thing is pretty slight. The couples are in love, they fight, they're not in love anymore, they reunite. Carroll and Poitier fight about what we used to call "the race question" – Poitier likes living in Paris because Parisians are not even close to as racist as Americans are, his own country. Carroll argues that roots are important, and that the only way the nation is going to improve is if people stay and make waves and fight about it; running off to Paris isn't the answer.

Paris Blues fits in perfectly, then, with Martin Ritt's commitment to racial equality and issues of racism in his films, and the movie also ends with a beautiful, hard finish. I was really into it. I forget how much I love Martin Ritt's work.

02 June 2015

My Favorite Moment in Ex Machina

There were a couple of moments in Ex Machina that I loved. But my favorite moment in the movie was the sequence when Caleb, the young programmer who is visiting this isolated compound up in the mountains, starts to think that maybe he is a cyborg. This is all the more cool because the audience has already thought of this. I had been wondering this exact thing for the better part of thirty minutes, since seeing the oblique shot of the strange scars on Caleb's back as he shaved his face. By this point in Alex Garland's movie, Caleb has been so thoroughly tripped out by his boss Nathan (and by Nathan's creation Ava) that he has started to think that he might actually be a computer underneath the skin he has always thought was real.

Freak out over, Caleb is able to sleep. He presumably has confirmed that he is, finally, human, and not simply one of Nathan's creations. But, again, Nathan and Ex Machina know better. In a strange conversation about how desire might work, Nathan explicates a queer theory describing sexual desire itself as culturally contingent, explaining that Caleb "himself" – at one of the levels he considers most personal, human – has been programmed by media, by his parents, by his culture. It is a pretty great conversation, and one that makes it clear that Caleb is, no matter how "real" he thinks he is, actually a cyborg. It is too late for us not to be cyborgs. Who we (think we) are is so completely informed, molded, even dictated by the media we consume, even the media that we are consuming alone at our computer consoles. This is even more true for someone like Caleb, who spends his days at a computer, speaking in the computer's own language.
The internet, this ability to have information at our fingertips, this stream of every type of pornography imaginable, has permeated our very desires.

My second favorite sequence from the movie is Sonoya Mizuno and Oscar Isaac's incredible dance sequence. It's a surprising, odd section of the movie, mostly because it departs so fully from the visual world that Alex Garland has so-far created in the movie. The sequence is also totally chilling, because it becomes so clear in this sequence that Kyoko is a machine. Her dance moves copy Nathan's exactly. Or... well, doesn't this beg us to think about who Nathan is copying with his dance moves? I mean, it is clear that Kyoko can only copy the moves Nathan teaches her – they dance in unison – but Nathan's moves aren't original either, are they?

Ex Machina sort of devolves at its end – Garland has trouble dealing with the fallout of the situation and theoretical proposition he has set up for us – Sunshine (a much more successful movie, to my mind, at least on an emotional level) went similarly off the rails. It is as though the only possible response to the questions that Garland wishes to pose is violent action. For Garland, violence is what we find at the limits of subjectivity. Still, as with Sunshine, this violence is awesome to watch. The stabbings at the end of Ex Machina are one of the coolest things in the movie. That knife just goes in so easily, with an even beautiful simplicity. Violence, here, works to illustrate another limit of human subjectivity. The human body is subject to injury, to woundings, to violence, and human consciousness cannot (yet) live without the body that houses that consciousness. As Bussy asks in George Chapman's 1604 play Bussy D'Ambois:
Is my body then
But penetrable flesh? And must my mind
Follow my blood? Can my divine part add
No aid to th'earthly in extremity?
Bussy's question is rhetorical. The answer is an unequivocal yes, one that Chapman stages by having Bussy die onstage in front of our eyes. But in Ex Machina, we follow a different person out of the compound and back to the city. Her mind, perhaps, does not need to follow her blood.

I don't know. For me the film becomes confused here. I kept wondering about the body, particularly at the film's end. How is the body powered? Is Ava's body subject to the same time limit that human bodies are? How does she experience her stolen skin? How long will this body and its parts last? Isn't Ava just as human in this way, too? She cannot continue indefinitely, can she? And won't she – just as humanity itself, as Nathan reminds us – need to be replaced by a newer model who can experience things in even more varied ways?

01 June 2015

The Assault

It's a real shame that so many non-English-language films from the 1980s are out of print these days. As I try to watch these older movies that I have heard of or simply seen their names on lists, it can be really difficult to get ahold of some of these movies. (The Dartmouth Library) is helping me as best as it can at the moment.

Last night I saw Fons Rademakers' De Aanslag (The Assault) – it actually ought to have a better title, but it is based on the novel of the same name by Harry Mulisch. I haven't read this book, but I am going to wager that it is much more deeply moving than Rademakers' film.

Still, the film is sturdily made in a kind of 1980s Romantic vein, and it boasts some excellent performances, particularly by Derek de Lint. And it certainly doesn't deserve to be out of print like it is. As far as I can tell, The Assault is only available for purchase in the U.S. in a dubbed-into-English VHS edition that is only available used (current price $45). This is a real shame!

The Assault is about an event in little Anton's life when he is twelve at the end of the second World War. A Nazi policeman is murdered in front of his neighbors' house. They run out quickly in the dark and move the body in front of Anton's house. The Nazis then arrest everyone in the house and burn it down. Anton and the audience understand very little of what is happening, but as Anton gets older he randomly meets people from back then who tell him bits and pieces of what happened so that he can finally piece back together the actions the assassins, his neighbors, and his family took that night.

The style of The Assault is out of fashion right now – it would be remade quite nicely, I expect – but it is a great story. It's a good mystery and an emotionally rich situation.