Finding Family with the Wilderpeople

wilderpeople ricky and hec

Historian and legal expert Ariela J. Gross opens her 2008 work What Blood Won’t Tell with details from the life of Alexina Morrison, an enslaved person in Jefferson Parish Louisiana. In 1857, Morrison fled her master and found herself imprisoned in a local jail, where she convinced the authorities that she was actually white; she had been kidnapped and unfairly sold into slavery, she told them.  William Dennison, the local jailer, believed Morrison and took her into his own family, gradually integrating her into white society where she attended balls and other social functions. Eventually, her master James White sued to return her to her previous status.  The case, Morrison vs. White, went … [Read more...]

In Fits and Stops: Coming of Age in Anna Rose Holmer’s Extraordinary “The Fits”

The Fits girls

When I first saw the trailer for The Fits, we were going to see Yorgos Lanthimos’s brilliant and mordant The Lobster at Atlanta’s Midtown Arts Cinema. Half paying attention, I assumed the tale of a Cincinatti teen who joins a dance team would be a gag-inducing inspirational sports/dance flick—Rookie of the Year or Save the Last Dance by way of Akeelah and the Bee. It’s understandable that promoters of a dark, underdog indie film would want to frame it in misleadingly appealing terms for mainstream audiences—it happens all the time—but I can’t blame the team behind first-time director Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits for playing an Entourage-style bait-and-switch with their trailer. On second … [Read more...]

Apocalypto Now: How Everyone’s Favorite Bigot Made an Improbably Great Film

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When I heard that Mel Gibson was making a movie about pre-Columbian, Mesoamerican culture, my reaction was probably not different from most: a deep, existential groan.  The right-wing, anti-Semitic actor and filmmaker hardly seemed like the best candidate to create a thoughtful historical depiction of Mayan life on the eve of European colonization. True, Gibson had just accomplished a certain kind of feat.  His 2004 film The Passion of the Christ not only stirred profound interest in the evangelical community—some even carried their own crosses to showings—but it also became what might justifiably be called the biggest independent film of all time, earning an eye-popping $612 million on a … [Read more...]

Doc Sportello and the Dude: Separated at Birth?

Doc Sportello and the Dude

When I heard that Paul Thomas Anderson would be translating a Thomas Pynchon novel for the the screen, I could not help but be excited. Here was one of today’s most ambitious and talented filmmakers interpreting an author of such dazzling obscurantism that his novels were generally considered by critics to be the acme of unfilmable.  It was like the unstoppable force finally met the immovable object.  Who would prevail? The answer was probably not Anderson.  The film adaptation of Inherent Vice only made back $14.7 million on its $20 million budget, though it earned a respectable 74% approval from critics on Rotten Tomatoes.  The movie was universally ignored by the award shows and seemed … [Read more...]

Black History Month Part VI: F*** tha Police (and the Oscars)

straight outta compton police scene

With the regularity of something that is extremely regular, pundits and politicians solemnly intone that America needs to have a conversation about race.  Actually, it seems like Americans have been having this conversation for several centuries.  We're happy to talk about race, but not prepared to do much about racism.  African Americans keep getting shot, politicians keep escalating their appalling rhetoric about Muslims and Mexicans, and--as we've seen all too clearly this year--movies keep getting made by, for, and about white people.  Even when the characters are non-white, they are often played by white actors.  (It's a testament to Cameron Crowe's talent that casting Emma Stone as a … [Read more...]

Selma, George Wallace, and the Real Legacy of White Resistance

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George Wallace, Jr. wants you to believe that his father was unfairly represented in the Hollywood film Selma. The movie – produced by Oprah Winfrey and Brad Pitt, and directed by the outspoken Ava DuVernay – has generated significant controversy since its December 2014 release. Former White House staffer Joseph Califano and others have taken issue with the film’s not-as-flattering-as-they-would-like portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson (and have even absurdly suggested that staging protests in Selma was LBJ’s idea). And Spike Lee and many others cried foul over the snub of both DuVernay and actor David Oyelowo at last year’s Academy Awards. Oyelowo masterfully embodies the film’s … [Read more...]

“Room” and the Allegory of the Cave

Room Brie Larson

Room is the adaptation of a popular novel by Irish writer Emma Donoghue, with a screenplay written by the author herself and ably directed by Lenny Abrahamson. Those are the basic facts. But there is always a gap between facts and truth. The truth is that the film pushes against the outer boundaries of what we understand about love, family, parenting, epistemology, and even the meaning of existence itself. That, of course, is an awful lot of freight to put on one movie—especially a film that, for much of its duration, concerns only two actors interacting in a tiny space, one of whom was a seven or eight year old boy at the time of filming (albeit playing a five-year-old). Again, the facts … [Read more...]

ToMers on the Best Books and Movies of 2015

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In the fading days of 2015, it's time for our annual smorgasbord of culture: best this, best that. Of course, almost all our writers are in their 30s or older so the cool train left the station long ago, but hey WE STILL HAVE OPINIONS. With that in mind, we'll start with two hidebound standards: movies and books.   In regard to the former, apparently the folks at Tropics of Meta really liked Mad Max and Ex Machina... or did they? As for the latter, it's a wide ranging list from a site that enjoys grazing from a wide range of landscapes. If you don't put up any fences, we'll eat your tomatoes, drink your milkshake, raid your pantries, you get the idea. Best Books Charles Lee: Inventing the … [Read more...]

Jurassic World: Hollywood’s Epic Ode to Woman-Shaming and Mansplaining

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If there's anything Jurassic World gets right, it’s that the titular theme park was always going to be little more than Sea World with serial killers. The latest installment in the hoary franchise at least nails the cynical Disneyfication of dinosaurs and biotechnology in a way that the earlier films never really did—or never got around to, since life always “found a way” and mayhem ensued before business could really get going. My praise officially stops there. Where do you even begin with this movie? The leading characters are flat and one-dimensional, each less interesting than the last. There’s Jake Johnson’s hipster dinosaur purist character, who by all rights should have been … [Read more...]

Straight Outta Respectability Politics: The Wonder and Weirdness of NWA’s Biopic

NWA

For once, the bluster of a movie tagline is actually on-point. The trailer for Straight Outta Compton pegs it as “the movie of our time,” and it’s easy to forget one is watching a film and not the news as director F. Gary Gray unspools a panoply of poverty, racism, and police violence on the big screen. The names Trayvon, Mike, Renisha, and Eric are never far from the viewer’s mind as we see Dr. Dre and Eazy-E face down racist cops in late 1980s LA. This is coming from a viewer who hates biopics—music biopics in particular. Biopics tend to be like sports films and romantic comedies, where the film’s narrative is straightjacketed to a hackneyed sequence of successes and failures that … [Read more...]

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