Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Coming of the Robots

So I’m moving and the computer is about to be put in a box for 24 hours or so. Even worse, Time Warner Cable is threatening to not move our internet connection over until even later. I have yet to miss a day on this blog, and I will not have my streak broken!

So I've set up blogger to robotically post while I'm offline. Of course, the robot insists on All Robot Covers All the Time, and who am I to disagree?

Will I wrest control of the blog away from the robots tomorrow? Check back and see!

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Comics I Love Even Though I've Only Seen the Covers #8: My Love

Romance: '70s-style!

The title of this post is a lie, because I have in fact read this next story, here. Alas, it's pretty condescending to the whole affair. They even get the year wrong ("in that summer of '68"), despite the fact that the comic came out only two years after Woodstock. Great art, though.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Underrated Movie #46: The Murder of Fred Hampton

The rousing conclusion of our week-long look at movies by black folks about white folks and/or white folks about black folks.
Title: The Murder of Fred Hampton
Year: 1971
Writer and Director: Howard Alk
Stars: Fred Hampton, Rennie Davis, Edward Hanrahan

The Story: What do you do when the subject of the documentary you’re making gets assassinated halfway through? You intercut an exposé of the murderers with the inspiring footage you have of the dead man. The life and death of this charming 21-year-old Black Panther makes for one of the most jaw-dropping and edifying documentaries I’ve ever seen.

How it Came to be Underrated: This is another one that was only recently released on dvd after being extremely hard to find for many years.

Why It’s Great:

  1. Obviously, this is the document of a crushing blow, but the most shocking thing you realize while watching it is in how many ways the Panthers succeeded in the end, simply by embarrassing the government into adopting their programs, from free breakfast programs to inner-city free clinics.
  2. There’s a great scene where Hampton meets with two other revolutionaries who want his support. To their surprise, he skeptically dissects their shaky program point-by-point. His criticisms are extremely smart, yet delivered with his usual swaggering humor. In response, they scoff, “The reason we don’t do a lot of talking is because what you say is a foregone conclusion with us.” He cocks a slight smile, and then shoots back “Yeah, well, the reason I do do a lot of talking is that nothing is a foregone conclusion with me.” Now that is a dangerous man.
  3. As chilling as it is to watch the post-murder scenes, the most fascinating footage is the mock trial Hampton holds for himself as a piece of political agitprop before his death. Amazingly, Hampton gives himself a thoughtful trial filled with real-world give and take, designed to make his audience think, not feel. The actual justice system, on the other hand, shot first and asked no questions later in this case. This movie takes everything you think you know about the Panthers and turns it on its head.
  4. It’s fascinating to watch a cover-up fall apart. As Hampton himself liked to do, the filmmakers wisely let the killers talk until they impeach themselves. Newsmen at first uncritically report that it’s “a miracle that no policeman was killed” in the “gun battle”. The police give a photo to the papers showing the supposed bullet holes from where they were shot at by the Panthers. When news crews actually go there to confirm, they discover that the black spots in the photo identified as bullet holes are actually nailheads. There was no returning fire. Gradually, it becomes obvious that Hampton was shot in his sleep.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Strange but true, VH1, of all people, recently did a fantastic one-hour overview of the Panther movement as part of the “Lords of the Revolution” series, which they re-run a lot. The oddest moment is when Oscar nominee James Cromwell shows up in a beret, talking about the good old days. It turns out that he was a 18-year-old Connecticut-based Panther supporter once upon a time. Who knew?

How Available Is It?: It finally has a nice dvd from Facets, along with a another short doc by Alk, “Cicero March”.

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: When All Else Fails…

(Thanks to Progressive Ruin and the ISB)

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Underrated Movie #45: One False Move

A week of movies by black folks about white folks, and/or white folks about black folks.

Title: One False Move
Year: 1992
Director: Carl Franklin
Writers: Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson
Stars: Bill Paxton, Cynda Williams, Billy Bob Thornton, Michael Beach

The Story: Three drug dealers pull off a violent heist in L.A. and head for Arkansas. L.A. police detectives are one step ahead of them and head east to await their arrival with an unsophisticated small town sheriff.

How it Came to be Underrated: The distributor, IRS, wasn’t around very long and the movie didn’t get much of a release, but it became a sleeper hit on vhs.

Why It’s Great:

  1. Most first-time screenplays have the same problem: everybody talks the same, or, almost as bad, likable people talk one way and unlikable people talk the other way. Everybody here has a unique voice, black or white, cop or criminal, and each one of them has at least some humanity and inhumanity inside them.
  2. This screenplay follow the two best rules for writing believable dialogue: “People only want what they want” and “Nobody listens to each other”. It’s hard to hold yourself to those rules. You have to know everything about your characters, all of their history and hopes and dreams, but then you have to remind yourself that your characters won’t ever understand those things about each other (or even about themselves, half the time.)
  3. Like Thornton, Franklin had been an actor. He followed this with a petty good big-budget noir, Devil in a Blue Dress, but he hasn’t done much since, which is a shame. His directing is classically suspenseful without the dreadful stylistic flourishes that would overwhelm the genre once the Tarantino-wannabes took over.
  4. The violence in the first scene is shocking, but it’s not gratuitous. That’s the scene that rolls the rock uphill: we know what the killers are capable of and we wait with mounting tension through a series of nail-biters, fearing that it’ll happen again and searching everywhere for another way out.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: After they became bigger stars, Thornton and Paxton re-united for another great big-city-criminals-menace-a-small-town thriller, A Simple Plan.

How Available Is It?: It’s on dvd and available to watch instantly.

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: Bypass to Otherness!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Underrated Movie #44: Nothing But A Man

A week of movie by white folks about black folks, and vice versa.
Title: Nothing But A Man
Year: 1964
Director: Michael Roemer (The Plot Against Harry)
Writers: Roemer and Robert Young
Stars: Ivan Dixon (“Hogan’s Heroes”), Abbey Lincoln (The Girl Can’t Help It), Yaphet Kotto (“Homicide”)

The Story: An easygoing railroad worker courts the daughter of prominent preacher who kowtows to the white power structure. She leaves her family behind to marry this proud man, but life together isn’t easy, especially after he gets a rep as an “agitator”.

How it Came to be Underrated: They had the courage to make it, but they didn’t have any way to get it to the world. This was a totally independent movie made at a time when there was no infrastructure in place to distribute them, so it was barely seen until it finally came out on dvd 40 years later.

Why It’s Great:

  1. This is such an authentic and unblinking portrait of black culture that it’s hard to believe it was made by whites, and even harder to believe that the all-black cast trusted them to tell this story. They don’t shy away from topics that were strictly verboten to discuss around white people (like nappy-headedness, for starters).
  2. I’m in love with Abbey Lincoln! She almost always looks like she’s got a sly secret. Note to actresses: look like you’ve got a sly secret. That’s good advice for anybody, actually. It makes everybody want to know what you know.
  3. Dixon’s performance is amazingly relaxed and raw. Sydney Poitier had become a big star by this point, but, with the big exception of Raisin in the Sun, he’d been stuck playing an endless succession of bloodless saints in well-meaning liberal exposés. These movies sought to prove that blacks weren’t bad people by presenting them as a monolithic force for righteousness. Dixon must have made Poitier pretty jealous by landing a complex, three-dimensional role like this one (though I’m sure he got paid peanuts)
  4. What did it cost to maintain a little dignity in the black south of 1964? We hear a lot of hagiography about the civil rights movement every January and February, but the history we get is set in a fantasy world of easy heroes and villains. Modern schoolkids wouldn’t guess that the decision to be a “race man” (or woman) was a tough one that each black person had to make on their own, and you ran the risk of alienating just as many blacks as whites.
  5. It’s hard to structure any story with a wedding in the middle. As we English majors used to joke about Shakespeare, “Every comedy ends with a wedding, and every tragedy begins with one” (as in life, we supposed). So what kind of movie has a wedding in the middle? A movie that’s willing to admit that getting married doesn’t actually fix or cause as many problems as we like to pretend. Fortunately or unfortunately, you’re still you.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Everyone should see Raisin in the Sun. John Cassavetes’s first movie Shadows is another great early independent movie that explored a black perspective.

How Available Is It?: It finally has a great dvd, beautifully restored, with a few special features.

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: “I’m Sick and Tired of My Job”

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Underrated Movies: Special Guest Picks #2

Here’s a second helping of our new weekly feature, Special Guest Picks. Today’s guest is Monica Edinger. She picked two movies I'm a fan of (though not equally), and two movies I’ve never even heard of, but they look fascinating:

The Young Visiters (2003)
Director: David Yates
Writer: Patrick Barlow
Stars: Jim Broadbent, Hugh Laurie, Lyndsey Marshal, Bill Nighy

This is the film adaptation of Daisy Ashford's 1919 novella, supposedly written when she was nine years old. The original is great fun and available in various online locations. (From what I know this wikipedia entry seems quite sound.) The film captures the flavor of the quirky original text perfectly, occasionally taking us a little further into the trials of our poor main character, Alf Salteena as played to perfection by Jim Broadbent.

A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004)
Director: Brad Silberling
Writer: Robert Gordon
Stars: Jim Carrey, Meryl Streep, Liam Aiken, Emily Browning, Timothy Spall

May I just say that I am a proud Lemony Snicket fan and eagerly await his forthcoming new series (in which I do hope he will update us on the Baudelaires). This film does justice to the odd story, the language, the nutty bad folk (say Count Olaf as played by Jim Carrey), the three siblings, and more. Many well-known adult actors make witty appearances. And the end-credits are amazing.

Dreamchild (1985)
Director: Gavin Millar
Writer: Dennis Potter
Stars: Coral Browne, Ian Holm, Peter Gallagher

Yeah, I'm an Alice in Wonderland gal, a rather serious fan and collector of all things Alice. This film by Dennis Potter is moving, beautiful, and provoking. Potter took the true story of the real Alice Liddell (on which Carroll based his tale) traveling to New York as an old woman to celebrate Carroll's centenary. She has flashbacks to her childhood in Oxford with Carroll, dreams from the book itself (Jim Henson was involved with these), and various experiences in New York. One of my all-time favorite Alice movies.

The Gold Rush (1925)
Director, Writer, Star: Charlie Chaplin

I'm sure some would be surprised to see this on an underrated list, but how many young people today have seen this movie? Black and white not to mention silent? I suspect that these days Charlie Chaplin is more a vague name, that little guy with a cane and mustache. How many kids, I have to wonder, actually have seen one of his movies? I start showing his shorts to my fourth grade students at the start of the school year, first giving them some background on his fame and the making of movies one hundred years ago. We work our way up to this one, arguably his best feature film.

Monica Edinger fits right in with our theme week, since her next book is about a child on the Amistad. Monica writes the always insightful blog Educating Alice, where she writes about books, movies, and whatever else is on her mind. She also reviews books for the New York Times and teaches 4th grade (and there's a blog for them, too).

Monday, February 22, 2010

Underrated Movie #43: Summer of Sam

A week of movie by black folks about white folks, and movies by white folks about black folks.
Title: Summer of Sam
Year: 1999
Director: Spike Lee
Writers: Victor Coliccio, Michael Imperioli (Christopher from “The Sopranos”), and Spike Lee
Stars: John Leguizamo, Adrian Body, Mira Sorvino, Jennifer Esposito

The Story: Young Italian-Americans in 1977 New York grapple with a serial killer on the loose, a heat wave and a blackout, but the real threats come from their own fears and flaws.

How it Came to be Underrated: To be honest. I have no idea why this movie wasn’t a bigger hit. Lee never stops exploring, and, as a result, he’s had some misfires along the way. The consequence is that has to re-build his reputation from scratch every five years or so, but he eventually comes back every time.

Why It’s Great:

  1. As soon as Lee burst out of the gate with She’s Gotta Have It, he came under a lot of pressure to start making movies about white people, but he held off. Do the Right Thing showed that he could understand and sympathize with white folks, but they still weren’t his point-of-view characters, which only got his critics hotter under the collar. That made Summer of Sam all the more shocking and fun when it rolled around ten years later. Working from a script by two Italian-American actors, Lee finds the same universe of hopes and fears in the Bronx that he’d already explored in his own Bed-Stuy.
  2. This is the ultimate antidote to the corrosive clichés of most serial-killer stories. Having seen too many movies, every fear-addled New Yorker decides they can solve these crimes on their own by “getting inside the brain of the killer,” but the real killer isn’t driven to kill because he’s a crazed vet, or a priest, or gay, or a punk. He’s doing it because his dog told him to. Everybody wants to see the killer as a judgment for society’s failings, but he’s not. He's just crazy. Lee caught a lot of flak for showing the title character talking, but that’s the whole point. If your dog told you to, you’d do it too.
  3. This movie is brazenly kinky. Everybody unconsciously fetishizes their own fears, feeding off the thrill of mass hysteria. It’s easy to make sleeping around look like a lot of fun, and it’s also easy to demonize it. You can even do both at the same time—Just check out every Lifetime movie. What’s hard is to make a darkly honest movie like this that doesn’t let us admire or condemn the misdirected sexual appetites of its flawed heroes.
  4. The musical montages are absolutely electric, especially two explosions of hysteria cut to the Who songs “Baba O’Reilly” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again”. When he’s firing on all cylinders, Lee has more raw kinetic power than any other working American filmmaker.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Like Werner Herzog, Lee is one of those rare filmmakers who can do equally great work on both fiction films and documentaries. Two of his best docs are Four Little Girls and When the Levees Broke.

How Available Is It?: There’s a barely adequate non-anamorphic dvd. Let’s see this brilliant Ellen Kuras cinematography on a nicer disc!

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: Lick Your Weight in Wildcats!

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Underrated Movie #42: Brother From Another Planet

This week: movies by white folks about black folks, and movies by black folks about white folks.
Title: Brother From Another Planet
Year: 1984
Director: John Sayles (Eight Men Out)
Writers: John Sayles
Stars: Joe Morton ("The Good Wife"), Steve James, Tom Wright, David Strathairn (Good Night and Good Luck)

The Story: A intergalactic refugee with a healing touch crash-lands on Ellis Island, but he’s no "E.T." Because he looks a black man, he winds up in Harlem, where his potential goes mostly unrecognized. Gradually, he find his way in the world, but two “men in black”-style slavecatchers from his home planet are hunting for him…

How it Came to be Underrated: I’m stretching again, since this is a pretty universally beloved movie, amongst those that have seen it. But you won’t see it on many lists of the best American films of the ‘80s, and that’s where I think it needs to be.

Why It’s Great:

  1. This is it: the movie that made me a film buff. When I was eleven or so, I rented this movie randomly. Then I re-watched it, over and over, before I had to return it. I was blown away. Starting with the wordless 5-mintue sequence where we follow Morton’s crash-landing on Earth, in which we slowly realize who he is, what he can do, and what he’s running from, all without dialogue, I somehow felt that this no-budget oddity was a lot more meaningful than its slicker cousin E.T., though I couldn't yet understand why.
  2. Who is John Sayles to make a movie about '80s Harlem? Can a middle-class white guy write characters who, for the most part, have less money, less education and a different cultural heritage than he does? Should he? How can he find universal points of identification without ignoring the uniqueness of the world he's portraying? The first inclination is to say: “don’t do it”. At worst, you’re going to offend a lot of people, at best, you’re going to be imitating other voices rather than finding your own. But this movie justifies itself beautifully. (It doesn’t hurt that Sayles empowered local filmmakers along the way, including cinematographer Ernest R. Dickerson, who went on to help Spike Lee make his movies.)
  3. We’re watching a few weeks in the life of one reborn man, but his journey contains the life of every person —and all of history, for that matter. The structure of the movie follows the same arc as the “hierarchy of needs” described by psychologist Abraham Maslow. One by one, Morton learns to aspire to each level of human experience: first survival, then work, then love, and then, finally, justice.
  4. The movie gets a lot of comic milage from the tendency of New Yorkers to take umbrage at anybody who doesn’t know the unspoken expectations of their particular subculture. Morton ironically fits in because he’s in a city where they treat everybody like an alien.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Sayles is one of the best filmmakers of his generation and he’s made over a dozen great movies. My other favorites are The Return of the Secaucus Seven and Lone Star.

How Available Is It?: There’s a dvd with a nice featurette and commentary featuring Sayles and producer Maggie Renzi.

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: The Enlightened Ones!

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Comics I Love Even Though I've Only Seen the Covers #7: Career Girl Romances

And finally: an example of what happens when you let a comic-book artist create a cover right after he's been dumped for a slicker guy:

Friday, February 19, 2010

Ones That Got Away, Part 2

Here’s some more highlights from the lamentable list of movies I can’t find copies of, taking us up to recent times. If I could re-watch them, I'd write 'em up!

The Red House (1947): Farmer Edgar G. Robinson has two rules for his foster daughter: Don't go into the woods, and ignore the screams coming from the red house! One of the most nightmarishly Freudian noirs, from the director of 3:10 to Yuma.

Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954): Mistreated prisoners run riot, until a sympathetic new warden and a smart prisoner reach an agreement for new reforms. Can they sell the plan to those on both sides of the bars that are calling for blood? Director Don Siegel at his best.

The Little Fugitive (1953): Early independent film about a little Brooklyn kid who is tricked into thinking he’s killed his older brother, so he runs away to live at Coney Island. This is a real favorite—I was shocked to see that it’s not longer available.

Shame (1968): Ingmar Bergman’s most underrated film concerns two apolitical Swedish musicians who ignore the near-future civil war raging all around them, until it’s too late to take a stand.

Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (1970): Elio Petri’s masterpiece won an Oscar, but it’s never been available on vhs or dvd here. A conflicted police chief wants to be caught for killing his mistress, but nodoby dares arrest him.

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974): Before The Deer Hunter and Heaven’s Gate, Michael Cimino made this leaner modern-day heist-western with Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges.

Tampopo (1985): A zany Japanese tribute to Italian “spaghetti westerns”. The result is a modern-day “ramen Western” in which a resourceful drifter protects a noodle shop.

Hands on a Hard Body (1998): Small-town Texas documentary about oddballs competing to see who can keep their hands on a truck the longest. It turns out that one of them has a secret weapon: he’s seen a little movie called Highlander.