Category Archives: Movies

‘A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ But A Sandwich’ DVD review

Alice Childress took it upon herself to write the screenplay for the 1978 cinematic adaptation of her 1973 young adult novel, and it’s easy to understand why. That book, of course, inculcated thousands of white, suburban high schoolers with the notion that their urban black peers were doomed to lives of drug-addicted ghetto-dwelling; despite the best efforts of well-meaning lit teachers, the book’s astonishingly judgment-free look at the trials of smart-ass Benjie could easily be mistaken for tacit approval of his teenage junk habit. Of course, it wasn’t, although it could be said that Childress’ use of nuance and subtle character-building — not to mention her lack of an appropriately uplifting resolution — may have easily gone over the heads of many in her intended audience. No such nuance was employed in the film version. Benjie clearly is painted as a victim of circumstance here, the oppressive and poverty-stricken setting of early ’70s Harlem beating him into submission as the earnest but quixotic efforts of his mom (Cicely Tyson) and stepdad (Paul Winfield) barely keeping the young man afloat. As in the book, the most provocative character here is the Black Power-spouting teacher Nigeria Greene (Glynn Turman). Although Ben Nelson’s flat and linear direction doesn’t do justice to the refined morality of Childress’ streamlined screenplay, the power of the story and some notable performances keep Herofrom turning into an afterschool special.

First appeared Feb. 18, 2009 in Detroit Metrotimes.

‘Taxi Blues’ DVD review (Detroit Metrotimes)

 

Although it’s just now seeing its first DVD release, Taxi Blues was, at the time of its 1990 cinematic release, something of a revelation. As Russia was emerging from the thaw of the Cold War, Western audiences grew increasingly interested in how the global political situation was playing out on the ground in cities like Moscow. Taxi Blues gave those audiences a close-up look at exactly that. Shlykov, a gruff and hardworking taxi driver, gets shafted on a fare by Lyosha, a struggling and shiftless Jewish saxophone player. Shlykov chases Lyosha down; of course, the two assume the worst about one another; of course, stereotypes and prejudices are overcome and the two become friends. After that, however, director Pavel Lungin pushes the film into some interesting territory, revealing the daily struggles encountered by workaday folk in this newly opened society, most notably the disorientation Shlykov experiences in his adjustment to a post-Soviet Russia; it’s very nearly heartbreaking when Lyosha gets a jazz gig in America and Shlykov is left with just his taxi. There’s a certain syrupy melodrama here, but Lungin avoids tugging obvious heartstrings. While the film’s visuals (and musical numbers) look quite dated at this point, it’s easy to understand why Taxi Bluesearned Lungin the Best Director award at Cannes in 1990; it’s harder to comprehend why it’s taken so long to arrive on DVD.

 

First appeared Jan. 29, 2009 in Detroit Metrotimes.

‘On Each Side’ DVD review (Detroit Metrotimes)

 

Metaphor is seldom more obvious or more heavily played than the one used by director Hugo Grosso in this 2006 film, his first non-documentary effort. Perhaps Grosso thought that without factual exposition to give viewers all the answers, we couldn’t figure out that the building of a bridge — again, the building of a bridge — was going to connect people who lead different lives. But again and again, Grosso hits us with images of Argentina’s under-construction Rosario-Victoria Bridge to underscore links between people with seemingly disparate stories. But it’s no big deal because what On Each Side lacks in subtlety, it more than makes up for in its facility with tightly focused storytelling. Perhaps due to his documentarian background, Grosso’s work finds dramatic arcs where many would see daily life. On Each Side brings us stories of small peoples’ lives — two frisky sisters, a curious photographer, one of the bridge’s engineers — and demonstrates the universal peculiarities that define people as individuals. The narrative is strong (with or without the symbolism) and funny, while Grosso’s visuals provide a strong sense of intimacy.

 

First appeared Jan. 28, 2009 in Detroit Metrotimes.

‘Takva: A Man’s Fear of God’ DVD review (Detroit Metrotimes)

Sometimes, a job promotion ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. In the case of the quiet and well-meaning Muharrem (played by Erkan Can), the revelations that await him when he’s chosen by his mullah to be a money collector for his mosque conspire to not only upend his deeply held religious beliefs, but also throw him into a modern world in which he is none too comfortable. It’s appropriate that this 2006 film hails from Turkey; just as Muharrem struggles with the reconciliation of tradition and modernity, of faith and finance, so to do the streets of Istanbul quiver from these same tensions. As Muharrem experiences more and more of the modern world — he never exactly fits into the suit and cell phone he’s given — and as he sees more and more of his mullah’s craven, un-spiritual financial dealings, his previously well-defined religious outlook gets disoriented. Director Ozer Kiziltan put all he had into this, his debut film, and Takva does occasionally heave from the weight of Kiziltan’s multiple subtexts. Still, Takva manages to be both an intimate and personal story with a considerably larger message about religious hypocrisy and the corrupting influence that money can have on even the most (outwardly) pious people.

First appeared Jan. 21, 2009 in Detroit Metrotimes.

Zack & Miri Make A Porno movie review (Baltimore Citypaper)

You know those triumphant moments when the forgotten and dismissed hero returns to the field of battle on which he used to dominate and–despite the fact that nobody expects him to even be able to hold his own against the newcomers now running the show–completely schools the whippersnappers and the unsuspecting crowd? With Zack and Miri Make a Porno, Kevin Smith has become that aged champion who is once again victorious. Stepping into the raunchy rom-com category that everyone now thinks was invented by Judd Apatow, Smith deftly incorporates and amplifies the raunch, romance, and comedy–and adds his own patented brand of cynical sweetness.

This is not new territory for Smith, but it’s clear that by casting Seth Rogen in the lead he was eager to show Apatow and company how it’s done. While the first quarter-hour is largely wasted on exposition–that recalibrates your ears to Smith’s penchant for voluminous profanity–once the movie moves into full screwball territory, it’s a juggernaut of laughs and, yes, romance. Zack (Rogen) and Miri (Elizabeth Banks) are lifelong friends, bonded by history and shared loserdom, and they’re also so irresponsible and insolvent that they wind up with no water and no power in the middle of a Pennsylvania winter. After a particularly debasing experience at their 10-year high-school reunion, they decide there’s nothing left to lose, so they’ll make a porno so they can get rich.

While Smith doesn’t shy away from the nudity and sexuality that’s, well, part of pornography, neither does he hesitate to point out the mundane ridiculousness of it all. (Traci Lords’ role is nearly as depressing as it is hilarious.) Of course, the whole scenario is there to ratchet up sexual tension between the protagonists, an effect that only heightens the impact of the comedic elements. It’s truly remarkable just how many zingers Smith has jammed into Zack and Miri, and even more remarkable how few of them issue from the stars’ mouths. Rogen is perhaps the least funny of the entire cast, being continually shown up by the likes of Justin Long and the always-hilarious Craig Robinson. Long plays the gay porn-starring lover of Miri’s high-school crush–Brandon “Superman” Routh, of all people–with deep-throated, cocktail-swilling savoir-faire, while Robinson’s character is half black-power stridency and half pussy-whipped husband. An abundance of cringe-inducing physical humor accentuates the script’s crackling comic timing, and, when combined with surprisingly believable acting from Rogen and Banks, Zack and Miri comes together to redeem Smith for both Clerks II and Jersey Girl.

First appeared Oct. 29, 2008 in Baltimore Citypaper.

‘Icons of Adventure’ DVD review (Detroit Metrotimes)

Fans of matinee B-movies have suffered through most of the DVD area. While many genre films are available on disc, the tangled nature of licensing and public domain issues — not to mention the relatively small audience for these films — has meant that far too many of the action and adventure films of the ’50s have made their way into dollar bins on low-quality DVDs marred by subpar transfer and reproduction technology. Someone over at Sony, however, seems to actually care about the massive library the corporate media monolith owns. This two-DVD collection still provides plenty of bargain bang for the buck — four movies and three shorts for a list price under $25 — but the quality of the transfers is simply astounding. All four of the films — The Pirates of Blood River, The Devil-Ship Pirates, The Stranglers of Bombay, The Terror of the Tongs — are Hammer Studios productions, but none of them are the horror films for which the British studio was best known. Instead, these pulpy actioners are about pirates, Fu Manchu, and an Indian death cult, and, despite the comparatively primitive production values, hold up rather well in this era of Captain Jack and Indiana Jones. In fact, it could be argued that all four of these flicks (three of which feature Christopher Lee) are actually better than today’s summer blockbusters; after all, it’s these breezy, workmanlike adventures that Verbinski and Lucas-Spielberg were desperately attempting to emulate with their multimillion-dollar budgets.

First appeared Sept. 17, 2008 in Detroit Metrotimes.

‘Making Of’ DVD review (Detroit Metro Times)

Nouri Bouzid’s 2006 film Making Of took home two awards from the Tribeca Film Festival; one for Best Actor, and the other a special mention for Best Screenplay. Though the winning performance by young Lofti Abdelli as Bahta, the carefree-kid-turned-dazed-terrorist is doubtlessly noteworthy, it’s Bouzid’s nuanced script that goes the furthest to give this Tunisian film its undeniable impact. Opening with a group of lively and typical teenage boys — talking trash, flirting with delinquency via graffiti — it’s hard to imagine that Making Of will devolve into a harrowing look at the mind of a young man who will soon strap sticks of dynamite to his chest. Yet, as beautifully as Bouzid and cinematographer Michel Baudour present the landscape of seaside Tunis, they paint in equally vivid strokes the hardscrabble poverty that affects so many families in the north Africa. As Bahta’s run-ins with the law escalate in intensity, his relationship with his father disintegrates and his options dwindle (the kid just wants to be a break dancer, which isn’t an admired, or particularly lucrative, occupation in Tunisia), it still seems extraordinarily unlikely that he’s destined to become a deluded pawn in an extremist game. But Bouzid delicately and empathetically puts him there in a way that’s as emotionally deflating for the viewer as it is haunting.

First appeared August 6, 2008 in Detroit Metro Times.

Buy this DVD at Amazon.com.