Monday, February 28, 2011


After feeling totally cheated by Aaron Katz's 'Cold Weather' a few weeks ago (a movie that's been getting praise from people like Roger Ebert & Ray Carney), i wanted absolutely NOTHING to do with movies involving "hipsters" anymore. I think I'm so pissed off because 'Cold Weather' was actually shaping up to me an amazing movie. I thought; for once, a "mumblecore" film that ISN'T about a bunch of whiny, annoying 20-something year old white people, living in Brooklyn, complaining about their relationship problems, saying "like" between every other word. But the last 30 minutes (along with an extremely weak plot turn) just fueled my hatred for these kind of movies. As much as i hate "mumblecore", i always find myself giving those movies a chance, and they almost always suck. "Like, know?" To this day, 'The Puffy Chair' and the last 30 minutes of 'Quiet City' are the only 2 things produced by the mumblecore scene that i stand behind. Seriously, why cant the mumblecore scene be more like 'Blue Valentine' (a movie i like more and more each time i watch it) or the movie of discussion; 'Heartbeats'? Directors like Xavier Dolan (who's only 22 years old with 2 features already under his belt), give me hope about the future of cinema. This movie borrows a lot from french new wave, but since he's so young, I'll give him a pass and just assume he's going the "Tarrantino route" and paying homage to his favorite movies. I just hope as he gets older, he finds a style that's all his own, which he already kinda has.
'Heartbeats' has the playful quirkiness of Godard (specifically; a woman is a woman, masculine feminine and other various french new wave films) mixed with (good) Gus Van Sant (specifically; paranoid park and mala noche). The Lead actress's hair and wardrobe are clearly modeled after Anna Karina and the two male leads are right outta one of Gus Van Sant's wet dreams. Xavier Dolan's odd choice of music to go with certain scenes somehow works, just like with what Van Sant did with the soundtrack to 'Paranoid Park' and his segment in 'Paris je t'aime'.
The Story of 'Heartbeats' is quite straight forward: Two close friends (a guy and a girl) both have a crush on the same guy, and find themselves competing with each other to gain his affection, which puts a strain on their friendship. Furthermore, the guy they have a crush on is totally oblivious, not even gay, and has no romantic interest in either of them. I will admit, the trailer (posted below) is somewhat misleading. In fact, the trailer almost made me not go and see it. Don't get me wrong, there is an excessive amount of slow motion camera-work in the film, but its actually done for a very good reason. A lot of the slo-mo shots focus on the actors' facial expressions when they are put in uncomfortable situations. Dolan's use of slow motion also does a great job at accentuating the actor's bodies (especially the lead actress). Plus, all the slow camera work is evened out with plenty of hand held cinematography.
As it says in the title, this really is one of the best (new) movies I've scene in a long time, and i highly recommend it. Its funny too, because this movie looked something i would typically hate. Xavier Dolan is a director i see catching the attention of Gus Van Sant, and i wouldn't be surprised if the two of them collaborate in the future.

Friday, February 11, 2011


There's cult status and then there's obscurity. Wendall B Harris' award winning film Chameleon Street - the amazing true story of Detroit conman William Douglass Street - seems to teeter between both categories (although Obscure or not - this is still one of the greatest films to show the Black experience). On one hand, the movie maintains its cult status through screenings at arthouse & independent theaters all over the world. In the last year alone, the Brooklyn academy of music has single handily kept this movie alive in New York City. The film is also very popular among the non-fickle, non-tyler perry black film community as well. Chameleon Street also gained a newer, younger audience ("the hip-hop generation") due to Blackstar (mos def & talib kweli) sampling a famous scene from the film on their debut album.
But Chameleon Street is slowly slipping in to obscurity as the DVD is now out of print (but there are some used DVD's in circulation). And what makes the film's legacy even more obscure is that Wendall B. Harris has yet to direct another film thus making him more "irrelevant" & less "fresh" in the world of cinema. It's very suspect that a Black director who wins the jury prize at Sundance never had the opportunity to make another film in over 20 years. Were his ideas too unconventional & challenging? Was his attitude too independent? Has he been blacklisted by the movie industry? Does he have an ego that makes him difficult to deal with. His career as a director seems to mirror that of of Alex Cox who once had a promising start with Repoman & Sid & Nancy, but because of his independent/D.I.Y. attitude, he can't seem to get a film financed to save his life these days (and when he does its...Repo Girl). But at least Alex Cox was given numerous opportunities to fail. Harris never got a single opportunity to fail. You can call Black people sensitive & paranoid when it comes to race & racism but when you take the career of Wendall B Harris - you have to agree there is at least a case for some possible funny business on the racial side of things...

On a sidenote - 1989 was an amazing year for independent film. Even though it marked the year of John Cassavetes's death (which was a major blow to American independent film), indie film still brought us; Drugstore Cowboy, Mystery Train, Unbelievable Truth, Do The Right Thing& Sex Lies & Videotape, which are not only some of the best movies of the 80's, but they also ushered in the 90's American independent movie renascence. Most of the directors, actors & writers associated with the aforementioned films went on to some form of greatness while Chameleon Street and its director faded away in to semi-obscurity. In fact, Harris' peer; Steven Soderbergh seems to be the only person to keep his name alive (Soderbergh cast him in Out of Sight)...

Harris' cameo in Soderbergh's Out Of Sight
Steven Soderbergh has been an advocate for underrated/underappreciated Black filmmaker for years...
Bill Duke's cameo in The Limey
Soderbergh helped get the word out on Killer Of Sheep

Harris also had an unexpected cameo in Road Trip which I still find strange because I know the target audience for that movie had no idea who Harris is or how important he is in the world of indie/Black film...

The legacy of Chameleon Street is becoming so forgotten (by certain specific so-called important movie publications) that it isn't even acknowledged as being one of the most important films in the "modern black film canon" (Slate recently published a list of the 50 most important Black films and they not only excluded Chameleon Street - probably the most important film that should be on that list - but other challenging films like Side Walk Stories, Black Venus, Symbiopsychotaxiplasm and countless others). It goes without saying that Chameleon Street is one of a kind and challenging (we'll get in to why towards the end of this write-up) but, in my opinion, influence goes a long way as well. Influencing other arts solidifies your importance on some level and it implies longevity because a piece of your work has rubbed off on future films...

Will Smith referenced the rubix cube scene from Chameleon Street (L) in The Pursuit Of Happiness (R)
Mos Def & Talib Kweli's sampling of one of Chameleon Street's most famous scenes...

Chameleon Street also references older important (BLACK) films that came before it (this is important because it makes Chameleon Street an abstract/subconscious lightweight history lesson in modern Black cinema)...

Chameleon Street/Black Girl
Chameleon Street/Black Girl
Addressing the camera directly: Chameleon Street/She's Gotta Have It

In Chameleon Street Wendall B Harris plays conman William Douglass Street. Street managed to successfully portray a doctor, lawyer, sports journalist and he even took the identity of a Yale student. Imagine Catch Me If You Can but only better. Chameleon Street is slightly more original than the average biography/biopic because the film was made in such a non-traditional way (it's both gritty and dreamlike/slightly off-kiltered at the same time). Harris touches on everything from racism & class to depression & identity (specifically within Black males, which is something that's pretty rare).
The lead performance, the writing & the overall atmosphere (which is an almost indescribable combination of eeriness and dark humor with creepy voice over narration) makes it stand out among so many other movies concerning the complexities of race.

Thursday, February 10, 2011


Seriously, am I the only one who noticed the change in tone, subject matter and style within (mostly) American independent films ever since todd solondz (one of my all time favorite directors) blessed us with; 'welcome to the dollhouse' and 'happiness'? since 1999/2000, it seems like there are more and more todd solondz clones at every sundance film festival. We've all heard that generic Todd Solondz criticism before (and quite frankly, its getting kinda old); "why does he make such disturbing movies?" Well if that's how people feel, then why have so many movies over the recent years taken something from him? Why has he (and a small handful of a few other directors) influenced so many films?
Pedophiles have been painted in a more sympathetic light, and made out to be less of the monsters that they are (brian cox in 'l.i.e.', kevin bacon in 'the woodsman', jake earl haley in 'little children', etc). I'm sorry, but you can pretty much trace those specific performances back to Dylan Baker in 'Happiness'. American Film makers have been exploring themes of; sexuality & sexual orientation (me and you and everyone we know, wild tigers i have known, l.i.e.), violence (elephant, homeroom, dear wendy, after school) and the theme of 'coming of age' all together in a much more blunt and graphic fashion ever since 'Welcome to the dollhouse' hit the scene.
What stands out the most to me however, is the overall atmosphere and style of Todd Solondz's films that you see in so many recent American independent films. You all know what I'm talking about. Its that mixture of bright colors and wholesome-themed music set in suburbia, mixed with insanely dark humor (that usually involves kids).
Now this cant all be attributed to Solondz. His peers like Hal Hartley and Todd Haynes also helped to shape a lot of the independent films over the recent years as well (specifically; poison, safe, henry fool and trust). But as far as I'm concerned, its Solondz's style that shows the most in other people's films. Whats sad about this influence (that most people, including today's indie directors themselves who aren't even aware of it), is that 75% of the movies influenced by Solondz (along with Hartley & Haynes) aren't even good.
But seriously, when you look at the movies on the list below, just stop and think about it for a second. If you have the time, try watching some of his films, then try watching some of the movies on this list right after another to really get what I'm talking about.
Anyone who knows me well, knows that not only do i always speak highly of Todd Solondz, but Ive always preached how so many films copy his style. Well, thanks to and its addictive list-making feature, Ive come up with a list of films that have borrowed (or in some cases stolen) from Todd Solondz. Seriously, years from now when Todd Solondz is dead, everyone is gonna be talking about how influential he was. I'm using this as an opportunity to document that not only was i one of his biggest fans, but i recognized his genius long before he died. Ray Carney has John Cassavetes. Roger Ebert has the coen bros. I have Todd Solondz.

so here is my list...

Wednesday, February 2, 2011


WTF?!?! A movie about the IRA for black history month??? I know, i know, it sounds a little strange, but keep reading...
Needless to say, this is an odd pick, but if we're talking about black history in film, this movie has to be mentioned. Lets just put aside the fact that 'Hunger'; a biography about IRA member Bobby Sands and his famous hunger strike in prison, is a GREAT film. And lets also put aside the fact that Michael Fassbender's dedicated performance (and weight loss for the role) is not only one to put Christian Bale in 'The Machinist' to shame, but its one of the must underrated performance of the last few years. We're not going to focus on that stuff. We're going to focus on the making of the movie. The man behind the camera. This recent hit at Cannes, made history not once, but TWICE. 'Hunger', directed by Black filmmaker; Steve McQueen (no, not "Bullit" Steve McQueen) won the "Camera D'or" award at Cannes, which is basically the equivalent for best first feature. Spike Lee never even pulled that off, and there was a time when Europeans (especially the ones at Cannes) LOVED him. On top of that, the movie itself, taking advantage of the flexibility of digital film making, featured the longest unbroken single shot in a mainstream film (17 minutes long). So, not only did Steve McQueen become the first black filmmaker to win best first feature at Cannes, but he also set a record for longest unbroken shot in a "mainstream" film.
Usually directors with a background in either photography (like Steve McQueen) or music videos who make their directorial debut, usually fall victim to putting more emphasis on the style and atmosphere of the film, and less on the actual story and the performances. Steve McQueen got right on his first try. And whats great is that his next film is a biography on Fela Kuti (there, are all you guys questioning as to why i would mention a film about the IRA during black history month happy now?!?! He's doing a movie about Fela Kuti next, so shut up). My only fear about this biopic is that i cant think of a single actor who's able to pull of a performance of such a unique figure.
I imagine not too many black people (especially African Americans) are aware of Steve Mcqueen and his accomplishments, because they're either too busy pretending that Tyler Perry is the only relevant name within the world of black film. Lets not forget about how the so-called black film community pretty much ignored Mariannae Jean Baptise's ACADEMY AWARD nominated performance in Mike Leigh's 'Naked'. In fact, here's some more black history for you: Marianne Jean Baptise became the only black actress to be nominated for an academy award, but not nominated for an image award (which is essentially an awards show that supposedly honors excellence in film among black people). Its ironic how black people are the first to complain about not being recognized for all these movie award ceremonies, then they turn around and totally ignore great black performances and achievements in film making themselves. Anything outside of their comfort zone of Madea, Martin Lawrence or movies about backyard family bar-b-cues never seem to register.


Not that I'm trying to play in to the idea of "black history month" being the only month we should celebrate, study or focus on anything that has to do with African American history in this country, but i figured this would give me an excuse to recommend some good films on the subject through out the month of February. And if anyone is interested, BAM will be having a series on black films through out the month of February (including the criminally underrated 'Chameleon Street').
There was quite a bit of interest in Shriley Clarke's films last year. Anthology Film Archives did a retrospective on her, and a few months ago, IFC screened the movie of discussion: 'Portrait of Jason'. With all this sudden interest, i cant help but hope that the masters of cinema, kino or criterion (specifically their sub-label; eclipse) will finally release Clarke's work on dvd. Shirley Clarke has always gone against the grain (sorry to sound so cliche, but its true). Not only was she an American female director working during a time when there weren't many (still aren't today), but the subjects of almost all of her movies were black people or some kind of black subculture. I'll always give credit to Melvin Van Peeples for pretty much starting the black film movement (which eventually turned in to the silly "blaxploitation genre"), but Shirley Clarke definitely planted the seeds for the African American film movement. Aside from the fact that her movies were a big hit among the NYC film underground, Europeans, and other demographics who weren't regularly exposed to (respectable) black films, but she even played a Major role in black films that she didn't even direct. She loaned John Cassavetes her camera equipment so that he could make his first (and groundbreaking) film 'Shadows'; a movie about racial identity among 3 black siblings (2 brothers and 1 sister) who are all different skin tones. From then on, John Cassavetes himself encouraged his friend Ossie Davis to direct his first film, and set up a meeting for Gordon Parks with warner brothers so that Parks could make his first film; 'The Learning Tree'. Shirley Clarke's un-patronizing look in to the lives of black people as actual people and not "subjects", paved the way for other white female filmmakers with a similar focus, namely; Claire Denis (no fear no die, 35 shots of rum and i cant sleep).
For a movie made in the mid 60's, 'Portrait of Jason' was a head of its time. Its not like homosexuality wasn't explored in films, but it certainly wasn't explored in (the few) black films that were around. Typically, an almost 2 hour long documentary that pretty much takes place in one room, interviewing one person sounds like an incredibly boring movie, but trust me, 'Portrait of Jason' is far from boring. The title of the film is pretty self explanatory. Shirley Clarke interviews a gay black, conman/prostitute/hustler (Jason Holiday) about his far from normal everyday life. Through the course of the film he gets more and more drunk, and talks about his disdain for living a "normal" 9-5 lifestyle. He also gets in to his different hustles and schemes while making fun of himself at the same time. Jason Holiday is such a great interviewee, and you never lose interest in him (a few times in the movie, you can clearly hear the crew in background break out in laughter at his responses). In fact, you almost cant wait to hear what he's going to say next. The combination of his hilarious personality mixed with his stories make the documentary just as hilarious as it is tragic. As you watch this movie unfold, you can see the blueprint for future films like; 'Paris is Burning' (probably one of the most intriguing documentaries ever made) take place right before your eyes. The open homosexuality of the documentary, while at the same time not being the "focus" of the film, may have very well inspired future filmmakers like Gus Van Sant, and it also shares similarities with the works of Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Andy Warhol as well.


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