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Can't Stop the Movies

Aloha (2015)

This is a thing that's happening because science

Brian Gilcrest, military contractor, goes to Hawaii on a job and encounters his ex-girlfriend.  Along for the ride is Captain Allison Ng, his military liaison who wants his stay to go as comfortably as possible.  But as Brian works out his issues with his ex, he has to deal with his growing attraction to Allison and figure out whether the job he came to Hawaii for will violate his childhood principles.  Cameron Crowe writes and directs Aloha with stars Bradley Cooper, Emma Stone, Rachel McAdams, and John Krasinski

This is a thing that's happening because scienceAbout halfway through Aloha I was struck with a sensation I've never had before.  Brian (Bradley Cooper) is sitting around his hotel room with Allison (Emma Stone) and the two are flirting hard.  I wanted a sex scene.  Not because I was caught up in the passion of the moment or the sexual tension, but because I wanted them to shut up.

Aloha's screenplay is one of the worst I've seen committed to film.  This is a shame because writer / director Cameron Crowe is usually reliable for turning in at least one or two scenes were the sentimentality amounts to compelling moments if not a triumphant whole.  But by the time we got to the scene where the romance between Brian and Allison is challenged because of what Brian knows about a secret military payload in a rocket set to deploy in a couple of days while Brian's ex-girlfriend drops hints about the parentage of her oldest daughter and the father silently stares through each scene...well.  "Overwritten" may be too kind a word here, so I'll keep with the sentimental spirit of Crowe's movies and go with "clustercuss".

There's a recognizable humanity in Crowe's movies which works well with the sentimentality because Crowe is good at getting to the pain and anxiety behind closely felt emotions.  I didn't recognize any humanity in Aloha because everyone plays like a parody of earlier Crowe characters.  Right off we get an overwrought voiceover explaining childhood dreams deferred before seguing into the disheveled (for Aloha, anyway) Brian as he's greeted by Allison while she launches into different religious and cultural details about the Hawaiian land.  We'll learn plenty of things about Brian as Aloha goes on, but what Allison sees in him will remain a perpetual mystery as she's bound up with expository dialogue explaining the different visuals Crowe references.


Spike Lee: Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth (2013)

Beat the man

Spike Lee teams up with Mike Tyson to present a filmed version of Tyson's one-man show, Undisputed Truth.

There was a boyI can think of few subjects more worthy of Spike Lee's attention than Mike Tyson.  Tyson has always fascinated me, as his early life and brutal treatment still led to reading Maya Angelou and philosophy to talk about shifting economic conditions in America.  But this same upbringing and intelligence nonetheless produced a man who was convicted of the rape of Desiree Washington and bit off part of the ear of Evander Holyfield.  No matter the sensitivity or humor of the way Tyson presents himself in Undisputed Truth, to say nothing of the apparent reconciliation between him and Holyfield, I could not forget that the Tyson speaking onstage trying to crack jokes with the audience contains violent multitudes.

My observation Tyson "trying to crack jokes" is intentional, because I didn't laugh once during Undisputed Truth.  What I saw was a shifting portrait of a man uncomfortable in the spotlight, trained to behave and perform in a specific way be it in the ring or up there in the corner of Undisputed Truth.  The first shot of the show has Tyson in silhouette, sitting quietly as Nat King Cole's "Nature Boy" plays and when the lights come on we see Tyson trapped in the corner with a single bar stool and he tries to put on a chipper voice when he thanks everyone for coming out and welcomes them to his "living room."  It screams loneliness and desperation, not intimacy and humor.

The loneliness is what struck me the most about the next eighty minutes, as Tyson tells the audience stories of how he was abused, ignored, spat on, and taken advantage of.  I was almost horrified the first time I heard the audience laugh when Tyson was telling the story of the bully who killed one of his pet pigeons.  It's in that story we get a microcosm of Tyson, capable of nurturing but because of his environment and the evil he was subjected to he becomes a reflection of that evil and expressed it in violence.  This tension between Tyson's story is presented in the way Spike frames Tyson.  Unlike in Freak and A Huey P. Newton Story there's a noticeable distance between Tyson and the crowd, and even when we get a reverse-shot looking out into the crowd their faces are indistinct and reactions unclear aside from the sound of laughter.

Spike picks up on this tension, and the reaction shots from the crowd tend to pain a different story than the laughter on the soundtrack.  But before we get into that, how did you feel coming out of Undisputed Truth?With my mammaMy immediate reaction is that yes, that initial scene felt like a bizarre SNL parody in which Tyson takes over for Mr. Rogers, and he never quite recovers from that in terms of general presentation. We differ a little when it comes to the humor—I didn’t really laugh much, but I did think Tyson brought a nervous comic energy to certain sequences. The rhythm of the show ebs and flows, with these increasingly hard to follow, quickly spun stories reaching a manic high point, followed by a more emotional anecdote or shift in chronology.

One of my thoughts frequently was, “Tyson would be a great one-man performer if he had a little more control over his delivery.” This was usually followed by the question of responsibility in giving Tyson more of a voice, empowering someone who was convicted of rape to tell their side of the story and spend an hour prior painting themselves in a complex, somewhat nuanced light at least in part in order to contextualize the later crime. We talked about it a little with Kobe Doin’ Work, but it’s tough for me to make a case for actively seeking to give accused (and in this case convicted) rapists more exposure and cultural agency just because of the other details of their lives—it’s something victims almost never get in those cases. (*And significant to note that this was of course a show running on its own, independent of Spike—what I’m referring to is Spike’s decision to give it wider viewership by filming it.)

That said, you bring up an interesting theme that I don’t think gets fully realized in Undisputed Truth—the tension between Tyson’s inner violence (both suffered and inflicted on others) and his projected humor and reflectiveness. He’s sharply self-aware, and there are moments—like the story you mentioned about the bully killing his pet pigeon—where it almost seems like his own humor, feeding into the audience’s uncomfortably cued laughter, is directed at the absurd contradiction of his character. For being known as, among many other things, one of the most fearsome, brutal boxers of his time, I can see how such a sensitive and horrific story would be dealt with using dark humor—it’s as if both projected versions of his personality are meeting in a memory.


Straight Outta Compton (2015)

Just another show for the press

Looking to escape from the oppressive environments keeping them down - Eazy-E, Ice Cube, and Dr. Dre start tinkering around with beats and spitting some rhymes in the hopes of making it to the big leagues.  Success comes hard, and it comes fast, but what will this mean to the rest of the world?  F. Gary Gray directs Straight Outta Compton from a screenplay written by Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff and stars O'Shea Jackson, Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Paul Giamatti, and Lisa Renee Pitts.

Just another show for the pressMorgan Freeman provided a convenient sound-bite for people looking to criticize the existence of Black History Month a few years ago. Those who use the quote omit some key expressions from Freeman’s original response, most notably that, “Black history is American history.” Straight Outta Compton, much like its musical forebear and last year’s Selma, is here to remind us of how important that statement is. The history of gangster rap, and by extension N.W.A., is American history because the Reagan years and mislaid priorities of the early New Deal Coalition created a breeding ground of oppression and violence.

I have to admit, I didn’t think director F. Gary Gray had a film like this in him. Set It Off had some hints of the strengths he showcases in Straight Outta Compton, and Friday proved he can have a sense of humor about the truths he wanted to bring to light, but Straight Outta Compton is the real deal. What Gray does is create a complex tableaux of interconnected, and totally American, factors which influenced the creation of N.W.A. and led to the release of “Straight Outta Compton”. That something was going to inevitably come from creating these oppressive conditions is a given, but Straight Outta Compton doesn’t assume N.W.A. would be the only result.

This isn’t to say that Straight Outta Compton is a thorough sociological study. No, it hits a lot of the standard beats of musical biopics, right down to the person who doubts the artist (almost always female) when he’s trying to get his art out to the world. There may be no way to make these scenes feel fresh, and Gray staging the confrontation between Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) and his mother (Lisa Renee Pitts). Yeah, the scene has energy, but Dre going from quietly listening to his tunes to the way his mom just doesn’t understand is so familiar it could have been cut to just showing the aftermath.


Spike Lee: Oldboy (2013)

This fuckin' world

Whatever Joe Doucett feels the world owes him, it's clear he's not getting it.  Mistreating his coworkers, hitting on his client's girlfriend, getting blackout drunk and yelling at his friends - nothing satisfies.  But one night he's snatched from the street and placed in solitary confinement for over a decade.  Now free, he's challenged by his captor to discover why Joe was imprisoned for so long, and who would do this to him.  Spike Lee's 2013 film is a remake of the acclaimed 2003 original directed by Park Chan-wook.

This fuckin' worldSo we have come to it—Spike Lee's remake of one of my favorite movies of all time. It would be easy (and possibly more fun) to just pick apart Oldboy, but the real sin here is that Spike hasn't made an especially bad movie, just a dull and unmemorable one. The fashionable response to Hollywood's continuously remaking classics and even recent foreign films is to decry each effort as unnecessary and lacking in originality—which they often are—before they even hit theaters. I'm not totally sold on that response. The stream of remakes and reboots isn't going to stop, so why not at least give those spearheaded by interesting directors and writers a chance to spin a story in a new way?

Before the Oldboy remake was released in 2013, I wondered what Spike's attraction to the material would have been—would he add sociopolitical resonance that wasn't part of the original, or relate the slow discovery of both the protagonist's and antagonist's crimes to the way we repress national history? Maybe stylistically we'd get a radical departure from Park Chan-wook's film that would necessitate a U.S. updating. Instead we got a few interesting new touches (mostly coming from Josh Brolin), a few unnecessary/bad ones, and Michael Imperioli's hair.

The main points of discussion for me with this version of Oldboy revolve around the various contexts Spike establishes for the characters—both Joe Doucett (Brolin) before he's imprisoned, and the mysterious antagonist played (bafflingly, hilariously badly) by Sharlto Copley. We should look at this version as its own film than holding it up unfairly against the near-perfect original—but there are a few points where comparing it to the original, and the changes Spike made to the story, helps me understand why this version is so underwhelming in the end.

Without just jumping into everything all at once, what were your initial thoughts?How may we make your stay betterMy first impression was covered in my original Like review, where I first shared many of the same concerns you bring up here.  But that was almost two years ago now, and this project has given me a greater appreciation for the texture and theming of Spike's films, and repeat viewings of Chan-wook's Oldboy have lessened my appreciation for the original.  I don't think either film is a masterpiece, in Spike's case because the start of the second act halts the momentum generated by his excellent extension of the imprisonment sequence, and in Chan-wook's case because the other parts of the "Vengeance trilogy", Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Lady Vengeance, have more interesting moral implications than the carefully constructed revenge plot of Chan-wook's Oldboy.

Comparisons are almost unavoidable so I will do my best not to compare the two as they're radically different movies in the grand scheme.  What grips me most about Spike's Oldboy is just how much of a casually racist bastard Joe Doucett is.  It's not enough that he talks over and down to his black receptionist, but that he has the gall to assume sexual dominance over the girlfriend of a potential black business partner.  The specter of past and present racial injustice is all over the opening act of Oldboy with the overt in Doucett's reactions to the black people he comes across and in the bell boy which watches Doucett during his many years in the prison.  Spike makes a good visual connection between the false "happy to serve" image of the black bellhop and the wardrobe and facial similarities with Doucett's captor (Samuel Jackson).  The plot makes literal the oft-repeated notion that the only way black people could only be racist against whites is if blacks enslaved and robbed whites of hundreds of years of social and cultural development.  Only in this case it's twenty years, and despite the setbacks there 's still a white benefactor, no matter how sadistic, ready to support Doucett when he is set free.

Spike's Oldboy suffers when this angle disappears so that we can go through the mechanisms of the plot.  But when it returns it does so in spades.  Jackson wears a red zoot suit reminiscent of Denzel Washington's "I'm black and I'm proud" wardrobe from early Malcolm X.  The dialogue dances around this too, with Jackson saying, "Reparations must be made" of this racist white man who hurt him and his business.  What's interesting here is how diverse Jackson's crew is, and how obsessed with racial purity Adrian Pryce's (Copley) family is.  That's one key change from Chan-wook's Oldboy I liked a lot, as the somewhat innocuous rumor accidentally started by Oh Dae-su in the original becomes a twisted moral landscape of the racist and sexist Joe Doucett accidentally betraying the white racial purity of Pryce's family.

It's avenues like this where Spike's Oldboy is rich for reading, and I'm curious if this helps sway your opinion at all or if it's still too little too late.


Woman in Gold (2015)

There's the woman in question

Maria Altmann, after thinking she has said goodbye forever to the family who fled Austria at the dawn of World War II, discovers a parcel of notes which may return paintings back to her.  But the Austrian government is unwilling to admit their complicity in the Nazi occupation and subsequent theft of her legacy.  Maria, with the legal advice of young lawyer Randol Schoenberg, seeks to right this wrong.  Simon Curtis directs from a screenplay written by Alexi Kaye Campbell and stars Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds.

There's the woman in questionDealing with biographical films is a tricky prospect. They might not have great cinematic appeal if the real events the film is based on features a load of conversation or doesn’t have any intriguing characters. The inverse of this is to realize that biographical films, much like the way memories collect in our minds, are only as “real” as the way they are told. Like a crazy uncle who embellishes the story of a fish he caught, the emotional reality of the story told in broader details might make it more compelling than the same uncle giving precise fish measurements.

Woman in Gold already has a larger than life back story without any embellishment as Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren) became the little ol’ woman who could in taking on the Austrian government. It’s hard to imagine a more suitable partner for this story than Randol Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds), who has his own rags to respect story intertwined with Maria’s growing lawsuit. But instead of allowing those emotions to come out in evocative dialogue or engaging cinematography, they are instead spelled out in what is quite possibly one of the worst screenplays I’ve seen made into a movie.