Articles by

<Brandon Harris>

06/17/15 8:18am
photo courtesy of Open Road

Directed by Rick Famuyiwa
Opens June 19

Dope, the most popular movie about black folks to grace the screen at Sundance this year, presents a kalaidoscope of archetypes over its overlong running time. By film’s end it remains—even after the didactic, fourth wall-breaking, soapbox-to-the-dome ending—in search of a perspective. Or at least of a set of concerns it understands and takes seriously, instead of treating its milieu with such contempt, and its audience like they don’t know any better. Wait… they probably don’t!


12/30/14 7:00pm
Photo Courtesy of  Paramount

Directed by Ava DuVernay
In theaters December 25

Does Selma, Ava DuVernay’s new movie about Martin Luther King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s attempt to win federal protection for the voting rights of southern blacks in the wake of the Civil Rights Act, play it safe? No one’s biopic of a world historical figure, especially a legendary non-violent Negro assimilationist whose deification the entire doomed Republic seems to agree upon, will satisfy everyone. I cried while watching Selma, right around the time Keith Stanfield’s Jimmy Lee Johnson is murdered by a police officer while trying to defend his helpless father following a march the cops willfully and brutally ambushed.


07/30/14 4:00am

Get On Up
Directed by Tate Taylor

Just who the hell was James Brown anyway? I mean, like, inside? You’ll never know from watching Get On Up. That doesn’t mean it’s not fun—look whose biopic this is. Skipping back and forth from his hellish Georgia/South Carolina childhood of brothels and alternately abusive and absent
parents to his various adult personae in time frames that range from the early 40s to the early 90s, the movie deftly portrays James Brown as, in accordance with his legend, the “hardest working man in show business,” the impresario of polyrhythms, Soul Brother #1, and the Godfather of Soul, the man who took the building blocks of R&B, soul and Bootsy Collins’s LSD-doing ass and invented funk. The movie captures the spirit of all that in brisk and entertaining Cliffs Notes fashion.

Chadwick Boseman, Hollywood’s newly anointed “man you’ve never heard of who will play historically important black men in sanitized studio pictures until he actually becomes Denzel Washington-level famous,” is as rip-roaring as the role demands, giving a more than passable Brown impersonation and having as much fun as such a task suggests, whether he’s smoking PCP-laced herb in a green track suit or doing the splits in a snow-bunny sweater. Of course it’s all for naught, really, although he does a fine job of auditioning for his next role; like Notorious before it, this picture is veiled black music industry hagiography, a vapid Hollywood entertainment straight from the bowels of the SoCal dream machine. Ain’t no Cadillac Records, that’s for sure, Muddy. And Tate Taylor ain’t no Darnell Martin.

I won’t ponder what latter-day, washed-up Spike Lee would have made of this material (Slate claimed in 2012 that he was fired by producer Brian Grazer before The Help’s Tate Taylor took over the production; Grazer claims it was all a rights issue), but someone, anyone, could have tried to suggest Brown’s enigma with more nuance, if not more panache. Brown lived enough life for two miniseries, so I can’t hold it against Taylor or his screenwriters the Butterworth Brothers (Edge of Tomorrow, Fair Game) that they’re struggling to cover all the bases and in the process forget to have a theory about the man. Oh wait, I can.

The movie makes sure we know that this version of Brown beat his wife (if not that he was a serial wifebeater). After the most heinous episode, played in an effective long take, he looks right at the lens, as he does many times in this movie in which he narrates his own legend as a fourth-wall-breaking adult (but not as an abused child), and, for once, has nothing to express but a grimace, so that one knows we (and he) shouldn’t approve. The movie doesn’t have enough intellectual heft to deal with the contradiction of a Brown that was both “black and proud” and a dear compadre of Strom Thurmond, his only enduring friendship according to the 2012 biography The One, so Bobby Byrd, Soul Brother #2, becomes Brown’s principal foil, BFF, moral conscience, etc. It’s a more thankless role in the movie than it was in real life, I’m sure, but like seemingly everyone else in this picture, Nelsan Ellis is trying really hard and looks good in a conk. Say It Loud!

Opens August 1

03/15/12 4:00am

21 Jump Street
Directed by Chris Miller and Phil Lord

Fresh off a brush with Oscar, Jonah Hill has shed pounds like it’s his job in the past year or so, his focus squarely on becoming another kind of heavyweight entirely. Although he’s moved on from playing the portly teenagers that carried him to Hollywood and indiewood stardom throughout his early to mid 20s, he’s yet to carry a truly successful project on his own shoulders (to be fair, he’s only had one crack at it, that being indie lyricist turned Hollywood metteur en scene David Gordon Green’s regrettable The Sitter). That may change with the cinematic retooling of 80s cop show 21 Jump Street, a mostly pedestrian but occasionally rousing buddy comedy that both send up the drug war and reinforces its most onerous aspects.

Hill, who shares a story credit and executive produced, stars with Channing Tatum as rival high school stereotypes in the film’s efficient opening sequence, who are reunited several years later on the police force of a fictional American city with an asinine name. Of course they become partners, filling out their days as a pair of bike cops who get promoted from busting potheads in parks to an undercover job masquerading as students at their alma mater, to bust the makers of a new (and of course, oh so dangerous) synthetic drug that’s all the rage with the youngsters and seems like a relatively harmless psychedelic until you drop dead.

Ice Cube air mails a performance as their preternaturally (and stereotypically) angry black captain, and Johnny Depp, a star of the original program, drops by for a brief, not terribly funny cameo (as does Holly Robinson Peete, rising from the 90s sitcom dead in her brief role as a fellow cop), but in general the film is carried by Hill and Tatum’s bustling comedic rapport, which generally makes for pleasant viewing, although the forced irony becomes grating. The insistent self-referential winking, while sometimes clever (at least the film is self-aware as another crappy remake of a TV show no one really missed) lacks the persistent outlandishness of the best comedies from the Apatow family, Hill’s nerdy high school loser and Tatum’s muscular, bratty jock personaes aside.

Of course, as the best comedies are, the humor here is driven by issues that in the real world are deeply unfunny things, and it speaks to the filmmakers’ cowardice that they lack the panache to tackle them with any depth. A pity. Of course, what else is to be expected? Teenage boys of all ages aren’t likely to read the film with much rigor, and the people who wrote and financed it, many of whom likely indulge in illegal substances of one sort or another, aren’t likely to find themselves on the wrong side of the law anytime soon, so why should they make much hay about the absurdity of the drug war? Look no further for yet more proof that Hollywood still prefers to send its messages with Western Union.

Opens March 16

03/14/12 4:00am

On the Silver Globe (1988)
Directed by Andrzej Zulawski
Saturday, March 17 at BAM

Over a decade in the making, Andrzej Zulawski’s On the Silver Globe is perhaps the tragically underheralded Polish director’s crowning achievement. It’s an overwhelmingly odd post-apocalypse sci-fi space-travel picture that was famously shut down by the Polish government during its initial phase of production in the late 1970s and is somewhat gloriously “a broken thing” according to its author—although his way of coping with the missing footage should be regarded as one of the great cinematic saves of all time.

Based on a novel by Zulawski’s uncle, the film tracks a settlement, founded by Slavic astronauts on a distant plant after Earth’s demise, over the course of the several millennia in which the new society’s modern customs, pushed to their breaking point by resource scarcity, give way to phantasmagoria dominated by pagan madness, unvarnished carnality, alien warfare, quasi-religious sacrifice and deity worship centering around the astronauts themselves. Missing footage has been replaced by shots of everyday Polish life in the 1980s, over which narration, seemingly pulled straight from the stage directions of the screenplay, informs us of what we missed. Still unrelenting despite the inherent compromises on display, the film displays Zulawski’s penchant for coaxing unhinged performances for his large cast and for indulging in long, roving takes in which his character’s flights of fancy play out for wide-angle lenses placed right in the middle of the action, as if by some deranged Malick. Although it’s not called as much, this is surely the centerpiece of BAM’s Zulawski retro, “Hysterical Excess.”

02/08/12 4:00am

The International Film Festival Rotterdam, which concluded its 41st iteration this past weekend, is a place to get lost. I’m not just talking about the oddly modern streets of this Dutch port city, one of the principle victims of the German’s furious WWII bombing campaigns, although that is one of its seductive pleasures. You walk out into the crisp Dutch nighttime air from the foyer of a budget hotel on Baan Street, a small cobblestone alley near the city’s famous ports, the ones that in years to come may be threatened by rising oceans, and you know mystery lurks both on the streets and within the festival’s famously broad program, even as it’s been slimmed down by about 20 percent or so from the four hundred-plus selections of years past.

Among American films world premiering in Rotterdam, buzz was strong for both Julia Halparin and Jason Cortland’s Now, Forager: A Film About Love & Fungi, and Matt McCormick’s road trip doc The Great Northwest, but generally Rotterdam is more friendly to young international auteurs and the American avant-garde. Terrence Nance was on hand with his decidedly experimental Brooklyn-set feature An Oversimplification of Her Beauty. Truly artisanal filmmaking in the mode of the New American Cinema, it employs stop-motion, traditional animation, reenacted narrative, awkwardly filmed interviews with the director and the woman whose beauty informs the title. It is a lovely and deranged summation of the director’s not quite but almost unrequited and purely platonic love that is as inventive as it is glibly humorous.

Takashi Miike made his first big international splash in Rotterdam, with Audition in 2000, and returned this year with the world premiere of his latest film, Ace Attorney, a bizarre, oddly satisfying video game adaptation and otherworldly legal satire. Consistently stylish, frequently corny and always watchable, it flames out long before its 130 minute plus running time comes to a close. Like much of Miike’s big-budget work, it is significantly overlong, providing another example of a master filmmaker in full bloom who is perhaps overindulged (he’s perhaps the most prolific director in all of Asia), whose craft and wit are unsurpassed but whose reputation allows him to work without the limitations that might make his movies more vital and economically structured.

Disco, flying saucers, long-haired sheriffs who speak in the lilting accents of American southerners on Italian beaches can be found in Davide Minuli’s handsome and preposterous The Legend of Kaspar Hauser, easily the most outlandish thing I saw in Rotterdam. Shot in handsome black and white on the beaches of Sardinia, Manuli’s film features perhaps the mostly deeply unhinged performance of Vincent Gallo’s increasingly strange career as a film actor. Or shall I say pair of performances, as the always caustic actor, director, writer, musician and provocateur stars as both as the aforementioned English-speaking long-haired sheriff (perhaps the film’s most sympathetic character, although that adjective is a stretch) and the Italian-speaking, white jumpsuit-wearing, motorcycle-riding assassin sent to dispose of Mr. Hauser.

Manuli allowed his actors to improvise much of the dialogue, but rarely has so little form been employed by a director using that technique; at times the text feels like a parody of Thomas Pynchon as written by a stoned Italian high school student who has been the better part of his senior year watching Gummo. Shot in the longish takes that signify Serious Cinema to citizens of festival-circuit-land, the movie is a pop bonanza; I almost wish it had been direct by Madonna, but perhaps even she couldn’t have outdone Manuli in the garish pretension and perfume ad aesthetics categories. Still, it’s almost worth the watch for the terrific score by French house music star Vitalic, and as a reminder of just how good Werner Herzog’s version of this same story truly is.