Can't Stop the Movies - No One Can Stop The Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Stan Brakhage: The Dead (1960)

The Dead - 1960

Many of Stan Brakhage's films are available for viewing in multiple venues.  You can watch The Dead here.

The Dead - 1960One big mistake the religious bodies of the world have made is the decision to personalize and make human their respective deities.  God, at least in terms understood by Abrahamic religions, was once a formless voice that commanded unlimited power and authority which made his will known in impossible ways.  Then he was made human, and with humanity comes frailty, weakness, and death.  What was once a powerful and mutable symbol with no specific backing in language and comprehensible only through associative imagery became just another human on a planet infested with them.

There's a certain power in taking this course of action intentionally as personifying or making plain the mysterious is one step toward removing its universal appeal.  Stan Brakhage understood this ability when it came time to film The Dead.  It's undeniably powerful, and another early example of his ability to layer distinct realities on top of one another to comment on them all.  Here Brakhage is mixing the uncontrollable reality of death with the hubris of controlling nature and the people who walk around having to be blissfully unaware that they can do nothing about either.


Chef (2014)

Kickin' back with the talent

Carl built his reputation as a chef on surprising choices and a unique palette.  Now, as the years pile on, he starts to wonder if he's been losing the edge of his early career on safe menus and pleasantly bland tastes.  Jon Favreau directs and writes Chef, starring Sofia Vergara, Emjay Anthony, and John Leguizamo.

Kickin' back with the talentJon Favreau’s Chef perfectly anticipates my response. About twenty minutes in, Carl Casper (Jon Favreau), chef extraordinaire, reads a review by one of California’s top critics that begins by explaining how much this critic loves Carl and his early work. Afterward Carl and his coworkers seep further into despair as the critic begins to eviscerate Carl and his cooking, preferring the edgier Carl versus the one who boringly spices up his dishes by telling his staff to “Have fun” instead of altering the food. When we see the results “Have fun” gets the patrons it becomes easy to understand how the critic would feel this way.

Carl, on the other hand, thinks he knows. He grows defensive, wonders if anyone really understands the value of good cooking, and gets into daily arguments with his superiors about that one time Carl put that “artsy stuff” into his sweet rolls. At this point my temptation to read Chef as autobiography went into overdrive. Jon Favreau has spent the last decade crafting mass-market entertainments and adding a personal touch along the way. For example, Iron Man would not have been nearly as engaging to watch if Favreau did not allow the camera access to Tony Stark’s face so that we could watch his expression during battle. Favreau understands what’s going on underneath the characters is just as important as the actions they are taking.


Spike Lee: He Got Game (1998)

Premature celebration

Jake Shuttlesworth is serving time in prison for killing his wife.  Outside the bars, his son Jesus has become the basketball superstar the entire country is trying to court.  The warden of Jake's prison gives Jake a one-week reprieve from his sentence to speak with his son.  If Jake can convince Jesus to sign with Big State, Jake will earn a lessened sentence.  Spike Lee directs He Got Game, starring Denzel Washington and Ray Allen.

Premature celebrationAndrewCommentaryBannerTwelve films in and we are finally introduced to one of the most stable laws of the universe - Spike Lee loves basketball.  For years he's been a fixture at Knicks games and even engaged in a few public disputes with players like Reggie Miller.  But behind the media-inflated bluster of Spike's purported "interference" of the game he's just one of many devoted fans.  Spike just happens to be the kind of fan who can get court-side seats and use his expanding influence to make films about his love.

To that end we've got He Got Game, a very good film that nonetheless strikes a few odd chords in me.  From a visual level it's easy to understand why Spike loves basketball so much.  In the first shot on we see different people move in wide and tight spaces on the court with grace, and sometimes not, watching the careful arcs of their basketballs soar toward the net dozens of times.  Not a single one of these moments feels the same, and in those tiny details we see the genius of basketball as a cinematic medium.  Given the right cinematographer and director, any game of basketball can become a never-repeating sequence of movements, which is exactly how Spike keeps the game fresh throughout He Got Game.

But when He Got Game is weak it feels like we're entering into the same kind of troubling territory that brought She's Gotta Have It and School Daze down a peg.  Denzel Washington gives a tremendous performance as Jake, but Spike does cartwheels to avoid placing too much blame on Jake's shoulders.  Each discussion of Jake's wife's death is treated so nonchalantly that it hardly seems to affect the film, and even when we watch her death it's done with so much melodrama and so little blood that it seems like Jake is in prison falsely.  So by the time Spike has Jake healing a hooker with his sex I had stabilize my head to keep my eyes from rolling straight out.

How was your view of the court?


Beyond the Lights (2014)

Please leave us alone

To outsiders, Noni Jean is on top of the world.  She has a hotly anticipated R&B album weeks away from release and is blitzing the media with her happy, sexy, and confident image.  But, one night, she tries to take her life by jumping from a balcony.  Kaz Nicol, the officer charged with protecting her, bursts in and saves her life at the last moment.  This starts a relationship between the two that provides an opportunity to examine what they really want in life.  Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love and Basketball, The Secret Life of Bees) wrote the screenplay and directs Beyond the Lights.

Please leave us aloneI'm going to give you a story outline, and you imagine what kind of movie it is.  A rising star in the R&B world is set to drop her latest album when she forms an unlikely romance with a police officer with political aspirations.  It sounds like an open invitation for the worst in soapy melodrama, overblown musical performances, and grand emotions with shallow characters.

Beyond the Lights proves beyond any doubt that someone with intelligence, heart, and talent can find the powerful emotional core within any scenario.  Movies exist not only to show us the impossible in terms of physical feats, like a spacecraft hurtling into a black hole.  But they also exist to show us impossible relationships formed out of deep need, of people who have become such passive reflections of their environment that any step toward individuality disrupts the lives of every connected person.  What Gina Prince-Bythewood has done is more impressive than any big budgeted spectacle.  She has looked into worlds that seem alien, grounded them with a bevy of impressive performances, and presented them in such a way that the visuals speak more about society than any political screed you could read.

Not only is Beyond the Lights one of the best films of the year, it is one of the densest and most satisfying romantic dramas in years.  No matter how you decide to approach Beyond the Lights there is a treasure waiting.  If you want to review it purely from an academic perspective and the cultural differences between hegemony and appropriation within the necessary shifting identities late-period capitalism requires - then you're in great shape.  But if you are just in the mood for a challenging and beautiful look at two broken professionals who are trying to figure out what is best for the both of them then Beyond the Lights is simply wonderful.


The Wind Rises (2013)

Two as one in the sky

Jiro Horikoshi was a Japanese engineer responsible for many aviation designs leading up to and during World War II.  Hayao Miyazaki's The Wind Rises is a fictional reimagining of the years prior to his great engineering successes.

Two as one in the sky

One of the greatest pleasures in watching a Hayao Miyazaki film is the moments of silence where a character is concentrating on a great task.  He typically animates these scenes with tiny movements - muscles tensing with anticipation, sweat slowly forming on someone's brow, or hair standing almost entirely on end in anxious worry.  I'm thinking of when Prince Ashitaka raises his bow and carefully lines up a shot in Princess Mononoke, or Chihiro examines the creatures of Spirited Away.

Solely using this metric The Wind Rises should be a fantastic film.  Jiro (Hideaki Anno) is a studious dreamer, so when he is not lost in his work his mind wanders the contours of his imagination for inspiration.  There are long minutes where we watch Jiro at work measuring and performing calculations to perfect his aviation designs.  The little details of Miyazaki's earlier films are present as Jiro's hand tenses slightly as he writes or his eyes narrow slightly while working through a problem.