Documentary Pack #3

Whitney Houston Meets Grace Jones

WHITNEY

As we move forward in a generation of instant media and entertainment on demand, more and more available footage will readily be available to drive the documentary industry into a new level of insight. We saw moments of this in The Jynx mini-series in that serendipitous last moments where Robert Durst blurts out those iconic last lines seemingly incriminating himself after his long denials to Andrew Jarecki.

In Whitney, we see the emergence of this new-found opportunity to not only find room to celebrate the achievements of a pop-icon, but also become uniquely involved with the demons of her day-to-day existence that she was forced to endure. Kevin MacDonald does a fantastic job combing through the archives of the life of Whitney Houston, interviewing most of the relevant (some refused), and constructing a fascinating story of the human potential for bruising and abusing.

Whitney

In particular, what MacDonald does right is:

(1) Refusing to glorify the career that Houston had behind a veil of thinly disguised narratives and iconic performances. Like Asif Kapadia’s Amy, we see in Whitney the essential cross-sectional observations of the toll that fame has on the functioning human capacity. These are not vain ideas, this goes to the very heart of man’s purpose and the fracturing of a design intended to withstand a certain measure of flexibility until reaching its point of irreparability. Fans need to see this and understand the realty of our collective worship of an industry that makes slaves of talents.

(2) Placing Whitney Houston in the immediate context of her environment and seeing the impact that she carried as an Africa-American icon. The juxtaposition of her life and the outside world foreshadowed the eventual breakdown in her own personal life as an apt personification with the outside struggles that she was mending as a public figure.

(3) The controversial reveal in Whitney (spoiler here) is perhaps the most impressive footage that harks to the ideas of future filmmaking. Without abusing the moment, MacDonald finely weaves this tragic revelation into an already impressive creation that adds only layers to our own understanding of a troubled individual whose life was tragically stolen away by the people she entrusted to keep her whole.

RATING: B


GRACE JONES: BLOODLIGHT & BAMI

If there’s going to be a documentary that only fanatical fans will stand to endure, it’s this one. Prolonged idle chatter, Jones throwing hissy fits, and concert footage readily available on YouTube — Bloodlight & Bami is a special features documentary that should be made freely available because Sophie Fiennes put not real effort into creating something worth paying for. A complete waste of time about a person hiding a boring persona with ostentatious regalia.

grace jones

RATING: F

Skate Kitchen

RATING: [C|👎]

“[I]t’s really authentic in the sense that it captures what it feels like to be a kid who skates and lives in New York.”

[Rachelle Vinberg]

A biographical film — unprecedented for its novelty in adapting an Instagram feed — about the female friendships that form around a common passion and the conditions of living in a New York state of mind. Crystal Moselle brings a unique female vision into the mix of a male dominant profession — depicting the lives of real New York skaters who tackle their lives (“the main characters are all real New York skaters who are playing characters who are very close to themselves in real life“) and the process of growing older and finding your tomorrow-self reminiscent of the boys in Beach Rats from another emerging female director, Eliza Hittman. (Or, as everyone else has pointed out, a 2018 version of Larry Clark’s Kids [1995] told from a female perspective).

Asked about the role that female skateboarders have on the future, lead character, Rachelle Vinberg, had this to say:

Screen Shot 2018-08-23 at 2.03.52 AM

And while — as noted by Mick LaSalle (San Francisco Chronicle) — the film is certainly missing a desired sense of context for these women, it remains valuable (not unlike Saturday Church) as the only experience most will have into a group of skaters readily seen but rarely understood. If filmmaking is anything, it has to be the production of art through the process of illuminating silent figures. This film does some of this well.

Skate Kitchen certainly showed a level of promise for a profound ability to capture a sub-culture, but barely qualifies as a film without a running narrative and a “fly-on-the-wall feeling of a documentary” that leaves much to be desired from its idle chatter and loose emotions.

RATING: C

The Miseducation of Cameron Post

RATING: [C+|👎]

“[Homosexuals are] brute beasts…part of a vile and satanic system [that] will be utterly annihilated, and there will be a celebration in heaven.”

Jerry Falwell

In the early 90s, the Christian community was coming off an abysmal display of Christian virtue. Having failed to be a support to the gay community in the midst of the AIDS epidemic, they doubled-down their rhetoric to build exclusionary communities away from the sexual deviants and lepers. Conversion therapy retained its appeal and for those today who yearn for the old days defined by intolerant fundamentalism, this technique of re-wiring the identity remains en vogue. Recently, the Williams Institute estimated that 20,000 LGBTQ youth will receive conversion therapy from a licensed professional. People like Sam Brinton who recently told his story on the pages of the New York Times:

But it didn’t stop with these hurtful talk-therapy sessions. The therapist ordered me bound to a table to have ice, heat and electricity applied to my body. I was forced to watch clips on a television of gay men holding hands, hugging and having sex. I was supposed to associate those images with the pain I was feeling to once and for all turn into a straight boy. In the end it didn’t work. I would say that it did, just to make the pain go away.

Desiree Akhavan’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post is a film about the interaction of these forces. Summarized well by Tomris Laffly (Roger Ebert), it’s a “survival story of a young, orphaned, small-town Pennsylvanian [Chloë Grace Moretz], forcefully sent to a Christian gay conversion therapy camp, armed with nothing other than her non-negotiable sense of identity.” And survival is the appropriate word because the isolated  Village-like setting ruled by parochial cult-leaders bent to convert you for your own benefit is only a second form of incarceration. The first, an area explored with too little intensity, is the second-class personal isolationism forced onto the gay community in an effort to keep them outside the camp and bound without recourse for individual expression. There was a moment of this but that moment quickly went away. An opportunity lost to build on the momentum created and to speak truth on an isolation that has rich theological connections. I’ve spent a great deal of my twenties among campus Christians. And, while they rarely reached the dizzying heights that the films most manipulative character (Jennifer Ehle) demonstrates, they embodied the one played by John Gallagher Jr. with uncanny precision.

The film’s shots at Christians are fair; at times poignant and effectual with serious depth. At other times with the triteness that comes with most writers attempts to introduce a Christian experience. And as much as the Left wants to laugh at some of these tendency — I know personally how funny some of the stuff appears — there was a scene in the field that sounded hauntingly similar to the safe space rhetoric we hear so often today from fragile campus protestors and diversity administrators.

Because the film fluctuates and manages to hit on a certain depth that needs to be explored, I agree with A.O. Scott (New York Times) that it deserves “a wide and [especially] diverse audience.” But in its failure to take chances and engage seriously with the multifaceted layers of Christianity, it is a film that fails to overcome its genre.

RATING: C+

Back to School

A Review of Two High-School Comedies

TO ALL THE BOYS I’VE LOVED BEFORE

Covering our bases with this recent release getting high-marks (93% | 7.1/10) from the usual gallery and as expected, it is a tough watch. After Harvard University was accused of actively discriminating against Asian-American applicants, the Hollywood community suddenly began embracing films catered to the Asia-American market (e.g. Crazy Rich Asians). And as with this film, the quality is certainly not deserving of the praise. Compared to any high school film by John Hughes, this is complete trash and deserving of the Netflix Original release.

The film is about an Asian girl without any discernible features who enters a completely non-sensical pact with the presumed Prom King to pretend-date in order to attract another identical looking future bachelorette contestant and of course, his being white was problematic for the intersectionality community. Having spent enough time together, they both, predictably, decide to forego their other options and just date each other for realz. The main character (Lana Condor) has a stereotypical free-spirited single best-friend who goes to EDM-shows and wears black Panama hats sold at her local Urban Outfitters.

The film adds nothing new to the old genre tropes of the inexplicable female high-schooler loser who ends up with her school’s top prize except this film has none of the creativity of former like-minded attempts and none of the quirky dialogue in John Hughes’ films. 

I'm talking about a real shitbomb.

I almost euthanized myself 45 minutes in, but decided to stick it out in hopes that at least the soundtrack retained its early quality (e.g. Wild Nothing, Blood Orange), which, of course it did not. Unless you’re a teenager or Joe Reid (Netflix manages to come out with their best rom-com yet”), this film is going to be a complete waste of your time. Here are three rom-coms better from just this year. But don’t waste your time on them, either.

Go watch Pretty in Pink.

Go watch Edge of Seventeen.

Go watch Lady Bird.

Avoid this film.

Boys .jpg

RATING: D


BLOCKERS

Another gem of the high-school blend. Certainly not as boring as the film above, but equally incompetent from the standpoint of writing and perfect frat propaganda for move-in day. There was an actual moment in the film where one of the characters goes on a rant dropping a number of feminist buzzwords like gender equality, which signaled early that we’re dealing with immensely superficial writers. And yet the critics largely embraced the film, for obvious reasons like:

(1) It promotes the hook-up culture for girls — congratulating them (“a woman among girls”) for losing their virginity like boys congratulate themselves in the locker rooms after every “conquest.”

(2) It advocates for ending the so-called double-standard window that women shouldn’t demean themselves by being as promiscuous as boys and portraying parents, like John Cena, as traditional rubes stuck in the 1920s.

(3) Endorses the idea of coming out as gay in high-school (which the film above also had), which makes Love, Simon seem like an immensely competent and serious product.

Etc…

Nothing about this film makes it any better than, say Neighbors but for this messaging that the critics continuously have to endorse with their inflated reviews — which begs the question why films averaging Ds are labeled as fresh on Rotten Tomatoes?

In the end, Brian & Jim Kehoe have proven very little as writers except their competence in making the next American Pie sequel. Justin Chang (L.A. Times) gets it right: “what derails Blockers in the end is a curious lack of imagination, an inability to think beyond the raunch-com genre’s most sentimental clichés.”

Others did not.

Chris Nashawaty (Entertainment Weekly) called the film “deep-down . . . pretty conservative,” which makes sense since The National Review has been publishing an awful lot of support for the lavishness of indiscriminate sex after a night of taking drugs from boys with ponytails whose last names you can’t recall or trying to test the waters of your heterosexuality by treating boys like lab rats. How about a new rule for Entertainment Weekly: anyone who uses “butt-chugging a 40-ounce beer” in the same breath as  “hilarious new comedy” should be sent to cover cat shows instead of offering his opinions on teen comedies.

Just saying, kinda weird.

blockers.jpg

RATING: D+

Eighth Grade

RATING: [B-|🍅]

“Gucci 👌”

A probing look into the psychological and physical existence that has become our internet age, comes a film that teaches a profound lesson that may very well be the most important lesson a parent can impart to their children before middle-school: keep going, keep trying. Bo Burnham and Elsie Fisher offer an impressive combination of acting and writing in what will likely be this year’s most important film.

Eighth Grade tells the story of a girl on the brink of her high-school debut. Her life revolves around checking social media and posting life-lessons on YouTube that nobody watches. She is stupendously awkward and innocent, constantly tempted by the popularity and perversity of others to sell out and become another pod in the garden of self-replicating noise machines. And while her own existence doesn’t exactly speak a level of depth typically desired for building multi-dimensional people, she is uniquely qualified to stay the lesson of self-improvement. And while she remains largely non-existent from the standpoint of the social media celebrities that absorb our times and curtail our ability for meaningful time-allocation, she is the perfect embodiment to teach others those lessons all kids need to learn.

The lesson that they should invest in themselves even thought they may fall short of the achievement of others. The lesson that the prison of our own inability to relate or communicate with others should not make us slaves to our own potential for overcoming the deficiency of yesterday. The struggle to find friendship is crippling, but it does not have to define us in a way that makes us weak in isolation. The lesson that the capacity to grow and interact with your world as an individual does not demand that we conform to the mindless habits of predatory boys or girls sick with vainglory. The lesson to keep going & keep trying, no matter what. The lesson that love overcomes distance — fathers remain protective, watchful, and involved even when your daughters seem aloof, because a moment will come when your presence becomes a sanctuary city. In short, Eighth Grade is a moving piece of optimistic, self-realization that we need to guard jealously our time for self-improvement, but we also need to learn to forgive ourselves when we fail to get as far as we’d like. While the movie doesn’t connect the audience to the perils of social media like episodes of Black Mirror aptly do, it does teach competently the valuable lessons of where we are and how we can help one another to overcome the lesser angels of our youth.

With Blindspotting, we saw an Oakland convict yearning to overcome the demons of his past. In Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far On Foot, we saw a paralyzed cartoonist striving to overcome the demons of his present. And in Eighth Grade, we see an awkward teenager striving to overcome the demons of her future.

Keep Going, Keep Trying.

RATING: B-

A Prayer Before Dawn

RATING: [C+|👎]

“Thai prison, like all prisons, reveals the dark side of a person’s soul”

[Billy Moore]

Fine source material about the life of Billy Moore and his incarceration inside one of Thailand’s most notorious prisons as he survives the elements to earn his freedom. Tethered to drugs and the adrenaline of the violence, Joe Cole plays a fitting role about a man on the brink of capsizing. This is a raw and harrowing film about another world likely unseen by the general American audience. The fighting sequences are bland, almost amateurish at times, but the Oz-like existence inside these prisons offers a fascinating glimpse into the system where human rights or the idea of cruel & unusual punishment seems foreign.

Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire weaves together a fine film certainly nothing to be compared to with the likes of McQueen’s Hunger or Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet. And Joe Cole (Peaky Blinders) is certainly no Jack O’Connell (Starred Up), but he does do a fine job in a well-chosen script.

There was a lot more to say about the life of Moore, which was largely ignored. This was perhaps a wasted opportunity to make a complete film instead of showcasing only a small window into an interesting personality and the wider context of Thai politics and criminal reform.

RATING: C+

BlacKkKlansman

RATING: [C+|👎]

I’m going to break this review down into three short sections. The first section will discuss the film in general. The second section will assume the response of three categories of moviegoers. And the final section will mention the impressions of black critics.

SECTION I

BlacKkKlansman is the newest Spike Lee joint based on the infiltration of the Ku Klux Klan by the first African-American detective, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), to serve in the Colorado Springs Police Department. The setting is the 1970s, with the Klan aspiring a resurgence and the black power movement firing on all cylinders. A perfect storm and neither side is fetishizing over diplomacy.

The first image in “BlacKkKlansman” is a famous, stirring shot from “Gone With the Wind” where we see a street littered with Confederate soldiers under a tattered battle flag. At the end, we see the mowing down of civilians by a self-professed neo-Nazi beneath the cries of a nation struggling to keep the seams from tearing apart. In the words of Lee: “[w]e’re living in pure, undiluted insanity.”

And so the setting is prime for a thoughtful cross-sectional indictment of our current system of justice and an unvarnished look into the hearts that prevail in the wakr of America’s slave state. And yet, instead of substance rooted in the education of a period that still haunts communities of color, we get a largely thoughtless piece of entertainment to lighten the mood. We live in a world where the passion for advocacy is constantly fighting a war with distractionism and Spike Lee is playing both sides.

Once the initial train of comedy settles in and the broken record racism wears off. And, the use of racial slurs and the shock-value becomes nothing more than redundancies. What remains is an hour of tedious progression that anyway ends up being scrapped into a the bin of futility. Aside from the bookends, the film spends a good middle portion dragging along Lee’s few good ideas, while diluting the few quality moments that is there in the process. Lee had a bone to pick and he forced us all to sit there and proof-read his diatribe.

While I remain adamantly against these topics to be handled with jest because the comedy inherent in using racial slurs to me is short-lived and the effect of diluting the impact of language only adds to the peddling of language in public. While films like Death of Stalin was able to somewhat match the gravity of the situation with the lightness of the script, the same cannot be said here. Those who find themselves amused with the perfunctory writing of Quentin Tarantino (without the idiosyncratic characters) will find the film mildly amusing. For the rest of us who expect more, BlacKkKlansman will prove stupendously underwhelming. I sat in a theatre with the majority of its audience being from the black community and I sensed an actual palpable feeling of boredom.

The messaging of the film was also unintelligible.

If the purpose was to condemn the Klan and celebrate black power than the film failed by juxtaposing the black liberation movement (BLM) and the Klan as seemingly two sides of the same coin (e.g. during the Belafonte lecture). Perhaps only the cops came away as heroes and barely at that, with no one willing to forgive them; and, for good reason perhaps, with only in the final moments cleaning house.

If the purpose was to draw a correlation between the present “America First” administration with the racist Klan members than, in that mission, Spike Lee was successful. However, based on the (above mentioned) alignment between the Klan and BLM, it does the black community no favors when the Klan prefigures Trump, while the Black Panthers presumable can be taken to prefigure the modern-day anti-Trump campus and street movements we saw with Concerned Student 1950 and Black Lives Matter. These parallel are inappropriate, but based on the directing, they were difficult to ignore. I could be wrong, but the flippancy of the film had almost zero emotional drive to galvanize people into action and the footage of Charlottesville at the end felt disconnected from the general lightness of the script.

Spike Lee has made it clear that the inclusion of Charlottesville was intentionally done to draw parallels between the formal creation of the Klan after Birth of the Nation to the birth of Trump’s America. I suspect that by constantly hearing that Trump is a Nazi, the audience will fail to hear the impact of this alignment thanks to the increasingly loud chorus of The Resistance.

birth

SECTION II

Most likely, your response to the movie will come to mirror your political alignment.

CATEGORY 1: If you are a progressive, anti-Trump voter, who reads his administrations every movement as further evidence of racism and bigotry, and finds that the black community is right to condemn and revolt against the systematic racism still pervasive in our society, this film will be a smooth slide into the warm bath of your ideological establishment. [Prediction: B & up]

CATEGORY 2: If you are a moderate who remains sympathetic to the concerns of the ongoing problems with our justice system, low-income education opportunities, and use of excessive force by officers, while able to judge Trump’s actions on a case-by-case basis without unduly assuming the worst (but not blind to how utterly incompetent and insecure he appears). You will find either liking the film with reservations concerning the inflated reviews, or feel it underwhelming and frankly lacking the creative depth and nuance one should demand from this issue. [Prediction: C+ to B-]

CATEGORY 3: If you are a Trump supporter with grave skepticism about the current complaints of progressives on campus and the identity politics pervasive from second-hand journalists and think the black community is protesting much ado about nothing (or even think they bring it on themselves by being pugnacious with cops), you will likely not find yourself coming back for seconds. [Prediction: C and less]

blackkk

SECTION III

Since most critics fall into the first category above, the response was predictable. With near unanimity, the critics prostrate themselves to the altar of political correctness while ignoring the general mundanity of the film. I knew this would happen based on how even garbage films celebrating the gay and lesbian lifestyle get high marks (see this post), while equally terrible Christian films get slaughtered.

What I was more curious about was how Rotten Tomatoes critics from the black community responded to the film. All of them gave it Fresh Reviews, sure, but their insights were invaluable for my own reading.

For example, Ferdosa Abdi (Geeks of Color) notes the “seeming one-dimensionality” of Stallworth and preferred that Hollywood’s “issue with colorism” could have been overcome by casting Laura Harrier’s Dumas as “a dark-skinned Black woman.” However, if Lee based the fictional Patrice on Kathleen Cleaver & Angela Davis — both light-skinned  — this would make little sense.

Jonita Davis (Black Girl Nerds) describes the film as a demonstration that “Black people seeking equality and civil rights did not create racism or the current hate leader, Trump.” Notably, she sees the juxtaposition during the lecture by Harry Belafonte with the Klan meeting as a reminder that “KKK members playing the lovable idiots were just the latest in a long line of very evil, violent, dangerous men.” I guess Davis wasnt bothered by the seeming cross-comparison between the two groups incorrigible intransigence and the awkward parallelism when both groups chant WHITE-POWER / BLACK-POWER.

David F. Walker (The Stranger), who I agree with a lot, nails the criticism of Lee’s failure to pick a genre and his seeming failed attempts “to take back some of the aesthetics and tropes that Tarantino has staked a claim to.” Echoing what’s been said already, Walker notes the “Stallworth’s hair has more dimension than his character,” which it does. Aramide A. Tinubu (Shadow & Act) adds that “since large chunks of BlacKkKlansman are focused on making sure the audience gets the point, the movie feels a bit long-winded, and some of the relationships between the characters, Ron and Patrice’s in particular, suffer from not being as fully fleshed out as they deserve.”

Travis Hopson (Punch Drunk Critics) offers a tepid review with almost signs of underwhelmed optimism: “It’s good to see Lee back on his high horse, having found something to say and the passion with which to say it.” Others less so, noting the films hard-hitting, unvarnished look at racism and noting the “blinding hatred and racist dogma . . . on display in visceral detail.”

Justin Charity (The Ringer) adds an insightful comment on Charlottesville footage in throwing “the preceding comedic experience into stunning relief” and forcing the audience to remember “Kwame Ture’s awkwardly long and intense remarks” and Belafonte’s storytelling. At the same time, some like Dwight Brown thought Lee overdid this sequence: “[L]ast minutes of news clips would have been stronger if they were shorter. No need to hit the audience over the head with the film’s most obvious message[.]

Joi Childs (Slash Film) agrees that the alignment between then and now was clumsy: “[t]he lack of subtlety drops you out of the journey, and feels like a vehicle for Lee to express his anger toward the government and Trump rather than tell an otherwise fascinating story.”

And finally, one of the more thorough reviews from Odie Henderson (Roger Ebert) ends with high praise:

This is not only one of the year’s best films but one of Lee’s best as well. Juggling the somber and the hilarious, the sacred and the profane, the tragedy and the triumph, the director is firing on all cylinders here.

Out of the 170+ reviews, I can only find about a dozen (mentioned above) from black critics, which means the film was seemingly propped up by a mostly monolithic base of Hollywood white liberals who hate Trump and focused more of their attention on the message, instead of the presentation. This isn’t a judgment, this is just one explanation for the inflated reviews. This is also why this blog exists (see ABOUT ME) .

Well done to the few brave souls to rate this movie down. I join you in staying off the bandwagon.

RATING: C+


* For more, check out the talk on What the Flick?! between Christy Lemire, Katie Walsh, Tim Cogshell, & Tim Grierson.

** If you want to see truly impactful recent films on these topic, begin with Fruitvale Station, American History X, & I Am Not Your Negro. If you want to be entertained, go see BlacKkKlansman.