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

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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...]

The Fascinating — and Troubling — Gender Politics of Inside Out

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More than a few years ago, I remember a friend saying he was troubled by the “sexual politics” of Pixar’s celebrated 2009 film Up. At the time, I thought his analysis was a bit much—his parents were professors, and he really couldn’t help talking that way. However, he did have a point. The heartbreaking intro to the film—perhaps the single biggest emotional punch to the gut in an animated film since Bambi’s mom died—depicts a man living his life with his wife, who gives up her own aspirations for the quotidian course of marriage and homeownership. At the end of a painful five minutes, she passes away, her dream of motherhood thwarted and her yearning for other adventures similarly … [Read more...]

Noiring L.A.: Double Indemnity, Black Dahlia, and the Fears of Postwar America

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Last night marked the second season debut of HBO's True Detective. If last year's Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey tinged season one led the audience through a metaphysically drenched Louisiana swamp thriller while sparking a McConaissance and nostalgic longing for the work of H.P. Lovecraft and Robert W. Chambers's "Yellow King", season two seems to be a call back to the most American of films, the California noir. Judging from episode one pseudo kingpin Frank Seymon (Vince Vaughn), spartan Ventura County detective Ani Bezzerides (Rachael McAdams), damaged highway patrolman Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch), and corrupt Vinci investigator Ray Velcoro (Colin Ferrel) appear … [Read more...]

Innocents Abroad: Reimagining the Immigrant Frontier in “Slow West”

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“He was an officer.” “Wearing a dress don’t make her a lady. He ain’t soldier least no more … injun slayers.” “Wearing a dress don’t make her a lady,” Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender) tells his new mentee, Scottish 16-year-old Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Indeed, the first dialogue exchanged between the two in the new western, Slow West could serve as the film’s coda. Things are rarely what they seem, expectations do not often meet reality, and the stories we tell ourselves, whether about love, identity, or history, frequently obscure unpleasant truths. Cavendish had travelled from “the cold shoulder of Scotland to the hot baking heart of America,” Selleck tells viewers in the … [Read more...]

Riding Waves, Forging Communities: Surfing, Gender, and Feminism in 20th Century California

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"I like surfing because I feel like the true me. I think that surfing can show off to people that you can actually do something," Salinas, CA resident and pre-teen surfer, Mari Howarth, told filmmaker Jay Dunn. "If somebody says really mean things like 'Boys can do this and girls can't,' that's a stereotype. If you really want to do it, just believe in it and you can do it." As a participant in the Wahine Project, an organization and movement founded by Salinas native and surfer Dionne Ybarra, Howarth represents the upcoming generation of female surfers, and Ybarra's program embodies the multiracial, transnational, boundary eschewing nature of the sport. Established in April of 2010, the … [Read more...]

Maps to Nowhere: David Cronenberg Takes on Hollywood, for Better or Worse

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Birdman was the boffo Hollywood navel-gazing opus par excellence—the sort of thing the Academy just can’t resist. I’m told that the film was supposed to be a satire of actorly self-indulgence, and I just didn’t get the joke. To me, the wafer-thin paper cut-outs that populate the film—the pompous stage actor, the druggy blonde actress, the humorless critic with forever-pursed lips—were not so much knowing jabs at the business as they were boring stock characters. Alejandro Iñárritu’s flair for the dramatic was certainly on display—in, for instance, the film’s wildly frenetic soundtrack and the feeling of immediacy created by its crazy long shots—but overall it felt to me more like a … [Read more...]

Coping with the Legacy of Child Sexual Abuse in John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary

Brendan Gleeson and Chris O'Dowd in John Michael McDonagh's Calvary.

“I think she's bipolar, or lactose intolerant, one of the two.” -- Jack Brennan, Calvary What could be more suited to 2014 than a film about collective punishment? It was a year when skin color seemed to prejudice police offers to exercise lethal force against Eric Garner and Michael Brown; when members of the Muslim Brotherhood were cavalierly sentenced to death en masse by Egypt's new, US-backed dictatorship; and when ISIS committed unthinkable acts of savagery in Iraq and Syria, decapitating innocent bystanders and burying women and children alive because they belonged to the wrong ethnic or religious group. Random people seemed to suffer for the sins of the system, or the nation, or … [Read more...]

ToM “Besties” of 2014

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Hello there. You are now witnesses to a kind of confrontation between me and these three men. And it ain’t so simple, treasonous crime. No it ain’t so simple and there’s reasons why When Detroit’s Protomartyr released their 2014 album Under Color of Official Right (itself eerily descriptive of public discourse from all sides this year), how could they have known their mix of Wire-like punk dirges would be emblematic of the last 12 months? The year seemed punctuated by rough arguments, sometimes violent confrontations, and the kind of disagreements that as Protomartyr sings, “Ain’t so simple and there’s reasons why.” Yet, our little blog dedicated to engaging these sorts of “conflicts” … [Read more...]

Scrooged: It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Yuppie Christmas

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“It was obviously intended as a comedy, but there is little comic about it, and indeed the movie’s overriding emotions seem to be pain and anger. This entire production seems to be in dire need of visits from the ghosts of Christmas,” the late great Roger Ebert wrote in his review of the 1988 holiday film, Scrooged. Calling the film “disquieting” and “unsettling,” Ebert left no confusion as to his opinion of the movie, giving it one star. Whatever the famed Chicago critic’s views, Scrooged went on to secure holiday favorite status and will no doubt soon be in semi-constant rotation along with Gen X classics like A Christmas Story and more recent hits like Love Actually. If not quite as … [Read more...]

Letting It All Burn: How A 2013 “Best of” serves as a reminder of 2014’s “Worst of”

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“This police department here in Philadelphia could invade Cuba,” Mayor Frank Rizzo told reporters. “What I’m saying is that we are trained and equipped for war.” Rizzo’s appraisal might have been made nearly 30 years ago, but it now seems eerily prescient. With the events of the last few months, few films from the past couple years capture the current angry zeitgeist like Let the Fire Burn (2013) a documentary investigating the disastrous May 1985 confrontation between the Philadelphia Police Department and the back to earth, black power, anti-technology, commune/organization known as MOVE. After all was said and done, three city blocks, about 60 houses, lay in ruin and eleven MOVE members, … [Read more...]

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