Friday, June 29, 2007

Isaiah Washington -- not Dancing this September

Isaiah Washington needs to stop talking. He got into trouble for using an anti-gay epithet in an argument on the set of "Gray's Anatomy," then denying it, then using it again. And now the show has released him and he has given an interview to Newsweek, claiming that he is the victim, not the perpetrator of bigotry.

Washington can’t stop himself from doing what he’s been doing a lot lately: explaining away a situation that has already cost him a beloved job and could ultimately cost him much more...."Well, it didn’t help me on the set that I was a black man who wasn’t a mush-mouth Negro walking around with his head in his hands all the time. I didn’t speak like I’d just left the plantation and that can be a problem for people sometime," he says. "I had a person in human resources tell me after this thing played out that 'some people' were afraid of me around the studio. I asked her why, because I’m a 6-foot-1, black man with dark skin and who doesn’t go around saying ‘Yessah, massa sir’ and ‘No sir, massa’ to everyone? It’s nuts when your presence alone can just scare people, and that made me a prime candidate to take the heat in a dysfunctional family.’’

"Gray's Anatomy" is one of the few major network television programs in history to be created by an African-American. It is an insult to the achievement and integrity of writer-producer Shondra Rhimes to suggest that she is calling anyone "massa."

And it is ironic that Washington starred in one of the finest, most thoughtful, insightful, and honest movies ever made on the subject of racism and compromise in show business, Dancing in September. There he played a network executive who at first supported and then undermined a young black writer's vision of a television program that would "keep it real," an expression that became the ironic catchphrase for the show's main character as the actor portraying him spins out of control.

Washington might want to sit down and watch that movie again, this time focusing on what happens to the kid in front of the camera who thinks the world revolves around him.

Monday, June 25, 2007

List vs. list vs. list

The AFI has come out with an updated list of the best American movies of all time. The best thing about their list is the list of what they left out.

Tim Gordon of FilmGordon writes that while he is a fan of the films on the list, it leaves off too many outstanding films featuring black performers and made by black film-makers. He suggests:

The Defiant Ones
A Raisin in the Sun
Nothing But A Man
In the Heat of the Night
Lady Sings the Blues
The Color Purple
Malcolm X
Boyz 'N the Hood
What's Love Got To Do With It
The Hurricane

And the Alliance of Women Film Journalists has announced its own top 100 list with emphasis on females in front of and behind the camera.

I'm in favor of everyone seeing all of the movies on all of these lists. And I am delighted that my friend Tim and my Film Institute colleague Jennifer Merin are there to remind us of films every bit as worthy as the more conventional and traditional choices made by AFI.

AFI list (2007 edition)

1. Citizen Kane, 1941.

2. The Godfather, 1972.

3. Casablanca, 1942.

4. Raging Bull, 1980.

5. Singin' in the Rain, 1952.

6. Gone With the Wind, 1939.

7. Lawrence of Arabia, 1962.

8. Schindler's List, 1993.

9. Vertigo, 1958.

10. The Wizard of Oz, 1939.

11. City Lights, 1931.

12. The Searchers, 1956.

13. Star Wars, 1977.

14. Psycho, 1960.

15. 2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968.

16. Sunset Blvd., 1950.

17. The Graduate, 1967.

18. The General, 1927.

19. On the Waterfront, 1954.

20. It's a Wonderful Life, 1946.

21. Chinatown, 1974.

22. Some Like It Hot, 1959.

23. The Grapes of Wrath, 1940.

24. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, 1982.

25. To Kill a Mockingbird, 1962.

26. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, 1939.

27. High Noon, 1952.

28. All About Eve, 1950.

29. Double Indemnity, 1944.

30. Apocalypse Now, 1979.

31. The Maltese Falcon, 1941.

32. The Godfather Part II, 1974.

33. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, 1975.

34. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, 1937.

35. Annie Hall, 1977.

36. The Bridge on the River Kwai, 1957.

37. The Best Years of Our Lives, 1946.

38. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, 1948.

39. Dr. Strangelove, 1964.

40. The Sound of Music, 1965.

41. King Kong, 1933.

42. Bonnie and Clyde, 1967.

43. Midnight Cowboy, 1969.

44. The Philadelphia Story, 1940.

45. Shane, 1953.

46. It Happened One Night, 1934.

47. A Streetcar Named Desire, 1951.

48. Rear Window, 1954.

49. Intolerance, 1916.

50. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, 2001.

51. West Side Story, 1961.

52. Taxi Driver, 1976.

53. The Deer Hunter, 1978.

54. M-A-S-H, 1970.

55. North by Northwest, 1959.

56. Jaws, 1975.

57. Rocky, 1976.

58. The Gold Rush, 1925.

59. Nashville, 1975.

60. Duck Soup, 1933.

61. Sullivan's Travels, 1941.

62. American Graffiti, 1973.

63. Cabaret, 1972.

64. Network, 1976.

65. The African Queen, 1951.

66. Raiders of the Lost Ark, 1981.

67. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, 1966.

68. Unforgiven, 1992.

69. Tootsie, 1982.

70. A Clockwork Orange, 1971.

71. Saving Private Ryan, 1998.

72. The Shawshank Redemption, 1994.

73. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, 1969.

74. The Silence of the Lambs, 1991.

75. In the Heat of the Night, 1967.

76. Forrest Gump, 1994.

77. All the President's Men, 1976.

78. Modern Times, 1936.

79. The Wild Bunch, 1969.

80. The Apartment, 1960.

81. Spartacus, 1960.

82. Sunrise, 1927.

83. Titanic, 1997.

84. Easy Rider, 1969.

85. A Night at the Opera, 1935.

86. Platoon, 1986.

87. 12 Angry Men, 1957.

88. Bringing Up Baby, 1938.

89. The Sixth Sense, 1999.

90. Swing Time, 1936.

91. Sophie's Choice, 1982.

92. Goodfellas, 1990.

93. The French Connection, 1971.

94. Pulp Fiction, 1994.

95. The Last Picture Show, 1971.

96. Do the Right Thing, 1989.

97. Blade Runner, 1982.

98. Yankee Doodle Dandy, 1942.

99. Toy Story, 1995.

100. Ben-Hur, 1959.

Slate: Evan is no Noah

David Plotz, who recently blogged the Bible for Slate, writes about Evan Almighty's appalling effort to pander to religious moviegoers. What makes it appalling, according to Plotz, is the way it tries to have it all ways -- to sell it to religious audiences as a parable and to secular services as entertainment. I don't have a problem with the movie's not replicating the devastation of the Noah story (God did promise never to do it again). But I entirely agree that removing any sense of Evan's righteousness or responsibility and any real threat or implication undermines both the meaning and the narrative of the story.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Racially blind or blindly racist

Teresa Wiltz has a very thoughtful piece in today's Washington Post about the controversy of the casting of

Angelina Jolie, American, pale of skin and plump of lip, playing the part of the real-life Mariane Pearl, a French-born, brown-skinned, kinky-curly-haired woman of Afro-Cuban and Dutch heritage. Ponder the societal implications of Jolie sporting a spray tan and a corkscrew wig. Discuss: Is this the latest entry in the American canon of blackface --21st-century style?

Wiltz gives space to both sides, those who are offended by casting a white actress (Wlitz notes that Jolie's mother was "reportedly part Iroquois") and those who consider it a step toward race-blind casting, like Halle Berry's forthcoming appearance as a real-life politician who is white. And then she puts the discussion in the context of Hollywood history, casting white performers as non-white characters -- Mickey Rooney, John Wayne, and Katherine Hepburn as Asians, Ava Gardner and Jeanne Crain as black characters, turning real-life minority characters into more box-office-friendly Caucasians -- as recently as in Oliver Stone's "World Trade Center."

I have paid special attention over the years to some of the absurdities and atrocities in racial issues in casting. One of the most absurd is Ricardo Montalban's being cast as a Japanese man -- in a movie about racism ("Sayonara"). Apparently the idea is that all minorities are the same. I did not have a problem in casting Chinese actresses in "Memoirs of a Geisha," though I think the protests hurt the movie's ticket sales. I don't think you have to be Jewish to play a Jew (though at least one critic noted that when Jews play Jews they overact and I would add so do non-Jews -- I wouldn't wish Laurence Olivier's performance as an Orthodox Jew in "The Jazz Singer" on anyone), gay to play a homosexual, Southern to play a Southerner (Brit Vivien Leigh got two Oscars for playing Scarlett O'Hara and Blanche Dubois, and "Cold Mountain" had English Jude Law playing a Confederate soldier and Aussie Nicole Kidman playing his true love). That's why they call it acting.

Wiltz perfectly captured the confusion of this moment in a way that was both sensitive and balanced and her article had a reassuring sense that we are moving toward something better. In the original Broadway production of "Once Upon a Mattress," a black actress (and the daughter of the head of the NAACP) was required to put on whiteface every night to play the queen. I thought of that when I read about the casting of Audra Macdonald in Broadway's "110 in the Shade" without any silliness about racially matching her with the people who play her family. (This is something my high school did back in 1970.) And Kerry Washington in "Fantastic Four" plays a character who is white in the comic. I don't think we'll see Queen Latifah appearing as Princess Di. But she did play a role originated by an English white male -- Alec Guiness -- in "Last Holiday."

Also on the front page of the Post is William Booth's piece about the documentary "Reel Bad Arabs," based on the book by Jack Shaheen. The portrayal of Arabs in Hollywood has been limited to "the three Bs" -- belly dancers, billionaire sheiks and bombers."

And thus we have the Timeline of International Villainy. To create drama, especially in action and war movies, Hollywood needs bad guys, and in their time, the Japanese and Germans, and later the Koreans and Vietnamese, served that role. For a long while, commies were useful foils (with their taste for world domination, nukes and vodka), but with the end of the Cold War, the Soviets became the Russians, and the Russians only worked if they were gangsters, and Hollywood already had the Italians to do that job. Colombian drug traffickers were employed as handy replacements, but then coke just felt . . . dated. Transnational corporate evildoers are okay, if not that sexy. But there just has been something about those Arabs. They've got legs.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

The Silverdocs winner: "Please Vote for Me"

And the winners are:

PLEASE VOTE FOR ME by Weijun Chen Wins Sterling Award Best Feature

Special Jury mention to ENEMIES OF HAPPINESS by Eva Mulvad

LOT 63, GRAVE C by Sam Green Wins Sterling Award Best Short

Honorable Mention went to I WANT TO BE A PILOT by Diego Quemada-Díez

Music Documentary Award Goes to NOMADAK TX by Raúl De la Fuente

KURT COBAIN ABOUT A SON by AJ Schnack Wins The Cinematic Vision Feature Award

MY EYES by Erlend Mo Wins The Cinematic Vision Short Award

by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg

Witness Award Honorable Mention went to THE PRICE OF SUGAR by Bill Haney

BIG RIG by Doug Pray Wins the SILVERDOCS/American Film Market Award

Feature Audience Award to SOUVENIRS by Shahar Cohen and Halil Efrat

A SON'S SACRIFICE by Yoni Brook Wins Short Audience Award

ACE Grant winner is THE CONCRETE JUNGLE by Rachel Buchanan and Don Bernier

Saturday, June 16, 2007

KC Star and Nancy Drew

Many thanks to the Kansas City Star for publishing my review of Nancy Drew.

Silverdocs Festival at AFI

I was out of town this week, so only made it to the last day of the Silverdocs film festival. Next year, I'll do my best to see it all. In just five years, it has become the top documentary festival in the US, possibly the world. The two films I saw today happened to have similar themes -- they were both about children and competition. Both were excellent.

"Doubletime" is like a cross between "Spellbound" and "Rize," the story of two Carolina teams that go to New York to compete at the Apollo Theater in the National Double Dutch competition. Jump-roping has been divided for decades between single (skipping) -- mostly white -- and double (double dutch) -- mostly black. Everything comes together in Harlem as American kids of both races take on some tough new competitors -- from Japan.

In "Please Vote for Me," third graders compete in a hotly contested election to be elected class monitor. In China. Previously, class monitors had always been selected by the teachers. But one classroom was persuaded to try "democracy." Three students are nominated and the next thing you know they are surrounded by their own Karl Roves and James Carvilles -- parents who help them try to buy votes and write their speeches and classmates who heckle their friends' opponents. It is hilarious when the eight year olds replicate the emotions and tactics of adult campaigns -- but with less ability to hide their ploys and emotions. And it is touching when we see how much it matters to them -- everyone breaks down in tears at some point. As much determined by the one-child culture as by the communism, it is an enticing glimpse of a world both familiar and exotic.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Jaguar Stalks

Check out my friend Lauren Verlaque's Zazzle store,
jaguarstalks's Gallery.

Monday, June 11, 2007

SPOILER ALERT -- "Nancy Drew" and "Ratatouille"

Two movies for kids coming out this month devote a significant amount of story-telling time to plot twists involving secret out-of-wedlock children whose fathers were never told that they existed. One is the PG "Nancy Drew" and the other is the G-rated "Ratatouille." Is there anyone who thinks that this is an appropriate storyline for movies marketed for children? Is there anyone out there who looks forward to questions from a six-year-old about what a DNA test is for or how a father could be surprised to find out that he has a grown-up child or why a mother would want to keep such a secret?

It is not as though either of these is a sensitive treatment of a subject that may be of interest or concern to children living in a world of blended families and reproductive technology. In both cases, they are tossed into the plot more for convenience than for the expression of art or creativity. If the film-makers could not show some effort in designing a plot with more imagination, they could have taken the time to think about finding a plot with more resonance for children.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Could Paris be doing a Cagney?

When I saw the reports (who could avoid them) about Paris Hilton shrieking and crying as she was taken back to jail, I thought of that famous scene at the end of Angels With Dirty Faces when priest Pat O'Brien asks his childhood friend, a hoodlum played by James Cagney, for one last favor. Cagney's character is in prison, sentenced to death. His cocky bravado has made him a glamorous figure to the local teenagers, who all want to be like him. O'Brien asks him to help him show the kids that he is not a hero. And so, on the way to the chair, Cagney pretends to be a coward, and the kids lose all respect for him.

So, could it be that somewhere, somehow, someone got to Paris and said, "It's time for you to make a contribution to society. This whole Britney/Lindsay/Paris bad girl thing has gone too far. So, could you help us out, honey, by behaving like a total looney-tune spoiled girl princess sissy instead of the cool and haughty heiress that launched a million paparazzi?"

Well, it's a better theory than the alternatives. I'd hate to think she really is a total looney-tune spoiled girl princess sissy.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

The KC Star runs my review

Many thanks to the Kansas City Star for asking me to review Surf's Up.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Great black movie musicals (yes, another list)

My friend Tim Gordon has a great list of his favorite black movie musicals, in honor of Black Music Month. I was especially glad to see the underrated "Sparkle" included, as I am a huge Lonette McKee fan. I was also very happy to see him list classics like "Cabin in the Sky" and "Carmen Jones," and one of my favorite films in any category, "School Daze."

Long shots (literally)

Thanks to my DH for showing me another great list, this one from Daily Film Dose, of the greatest long tracking shots in the history of film, with clips.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

AOL Music's 77 Most Unforgettable Movie Songs

Another indefensible but irresistable list, this one from AOL, The 77 Most Unforgettable Movie Songs. What makes this list fun is that it includes the movie clips, everything from "Top Gun" ("Take My Breath Away") to "Napoleon Dynamite" (Jamiroquai) to "Beverly Hills Cop" (Alex F). Of course many of the choices are quibble-worthy, but unlike EW, I think #1 is an excellent choice. And the sidebar lists (best Bond themes, movie musical groups we wish were real) are a treat.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Which critic shares your taste?

Wisegeek has some up with a test to help you determine which movie critic is closest to your taste in movies. Not much range in movies or critics, but fun to try.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

If Rives controlled the internet

I am a huge fan of poetry slam star Rives and of the fabulously provocative and entertaining TED Talks series. Put them together and you get this clip:

Saturday, June 02, 2007

SPOILER Alert! Jeff Bridges coaches.....

Last night I was thinking about next week's animated release, "Surf's Up" -- cute and unprenentious -- and realized that it reminded me of one of my favorite guilty pleasures of the last few years, Jessica Bendinger's deliciously kinetic Stick It. Both are films about young athletes getting ready for the big, defining competition. Both learn that winning isn't everything -- in fact, both learn that winning can be the opposite of coming in first. What's important is loyalty, self-respect, expressing yourself, and having fun. And both young athletes are coached by ex-athletes played by Jeff Bridges. Hmmm...

Friday, June 01, 2007

Quotes of the Week -- "Knocked Up" and Mars/Venus

Can it be that there is a gender difference among the critics who reviewed "Knocked Up?" Not a split exactly, but a slant. Male critics were more likely to be unabashedly positive about the film, finding it not just funny but smart, even profound.

At the New York Post, Kyle Smith gave the film a "Standing Ovulation" (that was the headline), calling it

an era-defining comedy classic to rank with "Little Miss Sunshine." It's this generation's "When Harry Met Sally," and it's even better than "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," because the freakish situation it uses as a setup is life....
Like Rogen's character, "Knocked Up" is a lot more mature than it looks. It's a brilliant comedy disguised as a dumb one.

Adam Graham of the Detroit News says it
is full of huge laughs and witty pop culture banter but also offers insightful and honest explorations of marriage, relationships, friendship and parenthood.

Bob Longino of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution calls it
more than just laugh-out-loud funny. It's the relationship comedy of the summer and likely the best boy-meets-girl movie of the year.

At the New York Times, A.O. Scott says it is
an instant classic, a comedy that captures the sexual confusion and moral ambivalence of our moment without straining, pandering or preaching.

We're talking about a movie that draws much of its humor from arrested development, pot jokes, very crude and raunchy references, and a childbirth scene that gives new meaning to the term "up close and personal."

Female critics seemed more ambivalent. Slate's Dana Stevens calls it a "raunchy, guy-centric summer comedy...[that] is a crossover movie both in gender and in age." But she says that as she thought about the film, she realized
[Writer-director Judd] Apatow writes men with far more insight and acuity than he writes women. As a result, his portrait of contemporary gender relations is unbalanced: Crude and hilarious in Guyville, he seizes up when he gets to Ladyland and allows himself to take refuge in comfortable clichés. It's not that Knocked Up is misogynistic—if anything, Apatow is uxorious to a fault, scrupulously respectful of chicks and the chick stuff they do. He just doesn't seem to get exactly what that stuff is....

Paradoxically, the tenderest, most emotionally intimate scenes in "Knocked Up" aren't the romantic ones between Alison and Ben, but those involving Ben and his profane posse and his growing relationship with the developmentally stunted his next film, maybe he could honor women by striving to create female characters with the depth of humor and humanity he gives to men.

In The Reeler, Michele Orange says the movie makes her want to be a dude. In Apatow's world, the dudes get to live in slacker heaven -- they get to be funny. But it is the treatment of
the sympathetic, if undeveloped Alison (what does Ben, who lives for one-liners, see in his bland goddess?) that confirms the essential zoological status of the female of the species in Apatow-land. They can’t make you laugh but they can certainly make you cringe.