Movie-A-Day:Crank (2006)

The movie that makes meth sound like a great idea

Cast: Jason Statham as Chev Chelios, Amy Smart as Eve Lydon, Efren Ramirez as Kaylo

Premise: A hitman’s day is mildly ruined when he’s dosed with a poison that will kill him unless he keeps his adrenaline pumping.

Do modern audiences need action films? Obviously we don’t need film in general, but films that endeavor to engage audiences in cathartic action have a big opponent: video games. Why watch a war movie or a heist film when you can play Call of Duty or Payday? It seems like some films have responded by making themselves more like video games; purposely making plots merely a framing device for visceral action (Shoot Em Up, Zombieland). One of the best examples of this is Crank.

The film begins with a POV shot of our hero waking to a TV telling him he’s just been poisoned. We know from the start that the film isn’t going to waste time getting started. The premise allows the film to start strong with it’s action; after waking up Chev immediately picks a fight with some bikers, drives his car through a shopping mall, and hunts down a member of his poisoner’s crew. While modern films overuse frenetic cutting and shaky cam, this is an example of it being used appropriately. The film looks as erratic as it’s hero needs to be (notably, shaky cam is only used in scenes viewed from Chev’s perspective). It helps that Statham’s performance is a lot more “Bruce Willis” than “Jet Li”; this film’s action is haphazard rather than refined with our hero using any weapon, car, or clothing that happens to be nearby.

As many have noted, this film’s tone seems to draw from the Grand Theft Auto series. Chev’s scenario leads him to commit several arbitrary crimes in order to stay alive, leading to scenes as ridiculous as robbing a hospital for its epinephrine. The story is similar to GTA3, with a mysterious protagonist surving attempted murder and seeking revenge, with a backstory revealed much later. It also has the irreverence of the series; there’s no consequences for crashing a motorcycle and flying several feet or killing multiple people in front of your girlfriend.

The film’s irreverence is its greatest strength and weakness. Its attempts at “macho” humor means that everyone besides the protagonist is a broad stereotype.

The women in this film have it the worst; they’re pretty much props. One scene has a bad guy getting a blowjob during a call about his brother’s death. This has no bearing on the scene. At the cartel boss’ pad, there are random women sitting in globes (?!) around the pool (one of whom gets shot for no reason). But that’s ok because they’re bad guys right? Well that would work if the film didn’t portray Eve -its female lead- as either an obstacle (Chev has to constantly lie to her about his situation) or as a boost to his health meter (he has sex with her twice for the sole purpose of keeping  his adrenaline up).

In addition to the misogyny, you also get some queer-phobic subtext. In the first half of the film, Chev has a sidekick who – for no apparent reason – is established as a transvestite. This would actually be good for the film’s diversity, if the film didn’t treat him like utter shite. Despite putting himself at risk in order to save Chev’s life, Chev not only disrespects him (shoving him around, mocking his squeamishness), but doesn’t even seem to care when he’s killed (sorry for the spoiler) just to draw him out. AND THEN HE USES HIS CORPSE AS A HUMAN SHIELD. While some would claim that this isn’t explicit queerphobia, this also a film where the protagonist consistently calls his nemesis a “fag” and belittles his masculinity. Just sayin’. Personally, I don’t think that being audacious gives a work the right to be this culturally offensive. I’m not saying that queer or women jokes can’t be funny, it just has to be a little more well thought than “women getting fucked is funny” or “transvestites are funny”.

Despite two strong first acts, the third act is pretty standard. This is when things get “serious” and Chev has to think about Eve and his future and blah blah blah. Statham is great as Chev – being able to channel that John McClane-esque everyman badass –  but the character isn’t exactly a hitman with a heart. We just wanted to see him do crazy shit around Cali; nobody really cares if he lives at the end. It doesn’t help that he wasn’t the nicest guy throughout the film (using  his friend as a shield and all…).

Overall: This is a fun but woefully-insensitive action film. If you’re the type that can look past the “dudebro” sensibilities, you’ll have a great time.

My rating: Two syringes; this film’s favorite medical tool (seriously they show up a lot)

Stray Thoughts

  • Efren Ramirez also played Pedro in Napoleon Dynamite. Which sort of sounds like his character Kaylo. COINCIDENCE? Probably.

  • Throughout the film, the bad guy carries a syringe of the “Chinese Shit” poison he gave Chev. I imagine an alternate ending was him accidentally sitting on it.
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Movie-A-Day: Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil (2010)

That movie where the hillbillies aren’t the bad guys

Cast: Tyler Labine (Reaper) as Dale, Alan Tudyk (Firefly, Dodgeball) as Tucker, Katrina Bowden (30 Rock) as Allison

Premise: Two ditzy Appalachians on vacation are hunted by terrified college students when they are mistaken for serial killers

Real World History: The Appalachians represent some of the oldest families of European settlers. They are one of the primary suppliers of lumber and coal. They basically created a political party (The Whigs!). Dolly Parton is Appalachian, and who doesn’t love her?

Movie History: Appalachians are cannibalistic mutated inbred psychotic monster rapists who are obsessed with making city folk squeal like pigs (source: Deliverance).

Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil tries to buck this unfortunate film trend by making it’s hillbilly heroes well-meaning guys who don’t get that “civilized” people view them as threats. This sets up the majority of jokes in this film: Tucker and Dale do something they think is innocuous like carve a friendly mis-spelt message into a wooden log with an axe  start a conversation while holding a scythe in hand.

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In reaction, the college kids overreact and attempt to “defend” themselves against the two…

…which goes well.

These beats are repeated throughout the film, making it fairly telegraphed. The film’s plot, while novel, isn’t exactly groundbreaking in it’s structure. The conflict between the hillbillies and the college kids is intentionally dumb; the hillbillies are too dumb to know that they’re scary and the college kids are too dumb to attempt talking to them. The film also makes no attempt to obfuscate the titular “evil” our heroes have to face. Thankfully, the artistic direction and performances legitimizes the film’s predictable rhythm.

The film’s artistic direction apes heavily from recent “hillbilly horror” films (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Friday The 13th remakes). The film uses it’s backwood setting to create a visceral tone. Trickles of sunlight through the forest canopy illuminate grit and sweat. Worn-out blades screech and whine. At a glance, this film could be confused with the horror films it mocks. In addition, the film takes those films’ over-the- top violence and makes it even more audacious. A flashback shows an unseen killer using a razor sharp saw blade as a discus to kill several campers (after scratching his neck with it of course). All of the college kids’ attempts to kill Tucker and Dale only lead to their own fantastically gorey deaths. On their end, the film is a Wile E. Coyote short gone wrong. What makes this horror comedy work as opposed to, say, the Scary Movie sequels, is that the film understands the cinematic grammar of the subgenre it’s imitating rather than just referencing popular scenes. Just look at this scene, which plays like a subversion of a scene from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Despite the film’s cartoonish nature, it’s two leads are relatable. For those unfamiliar with the actors, they’re both known for playing comic reliefs in the cult classics Firefly and Reaper. Tudyk played the not-very-badass mercenary pilot Wash and Labine played the hero’s fat casanova friend Sock. Their roles are reversed here:  Labine as Dale is a dorky reader who’s uncomfortable talking  to women and Tudyk as Tucker tries to give him some confidence as the “smoother” of the two. Labine straddles a line between being as creepy as the kids assume he is and being merey an awkward dude. Whether not he’s likable enough to attract the likes of his love interest is debatable, but he’s not the first fat guy to date a girl out of his league. Despite the title, Tudyk’s Tucker character is fairly secondary. Besides buying the vacation home that the film is set in, Tucker’s entire character is support for Dale, the film’s true hero. With that, he’s also more broad in his Appalachian performance: he’s ALARMED that his best friend doesn’t enjoy fishing and thinks that offering a cooler full of Pabst is a great way to defuse a Mexican standoff. Fortunately, neither character is completely reduced to stereotype; the film thankfully avoids some of the obvious jokes about Appalachians (inbreeding, poor hygiene, etc).

Overall, I greatly enjoyed this film. It has two solid comedy leads, a well-defined aesthetic, and at least one hot actress. That’s all I needed.

My rating: Two thumbs up! (This was literally the first image I found and I didn’t even search for the thumbs up part)

Stray Thoughts

 

 

 

 

Movie-A-Day: Iron Sky (2012)

That movie revealing how even Scandinavians think we’re douchebags

Cast: Nobody famous except…Udo Kier? He was in Barb Wire; does that count?

Premise: In 2018, a colony of Nazis living on the Moon start a war with Earth. No, really.

Globalization is a beautiful thing. Here I am a black guy writing about a Scandinavian film to – mostly – a bunch of white Americans. Knock knock – who’s there? The future, my friends. Likewise, the Scandinavian creators of Iron Sky decided to take aim at not only the German Nazis (not exactly hard targets) but also America.

Iron Sky is one of the latest entries in what is almost a genre at this point: military satires. Iron Sky‘s Nazi antagonists infiltrate America not through clever espionage, but through their skill at propaganda as they become part of a presidential campaign.

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Connecting America to Nazis isn’t exactly a new idea, Apocalypse Now (1979) used the Nazi war song Ride of the Valkyries to equate America’s forces with the Third Reich. Starship Troopers (1997) also had not-so-subtle Nazi parallels by portraying America’s future government as only allowing military officers to breed. If one takes the movie as just a mockery of America’s military fetish, it’s competing with a Hollywood where G.I. fucking Joe is a film series. Sorry, Scandinavia, bur our films have already become self-parodies.

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In it’s defense, Iron Sky isn’t going for anything deep and instead borrows heavily from campy 90’s sci-fi. The score is a competent Danny Elfman imitation, who’s famous for working on Tim Burton’s Batman and Mars Attacks!. Appropriately, they seemed to specifically  take inspiration from Men in Black‘s “spacey” score. Visually, the film heavily emphasizes it’s large, incomprehensibly complex CG backdrops.

The Nazis’ base and war machines are full of countless gears and cogs that make the giant spider in Wild Wild West look plausible. None of the film’s backdrops endeavor to feel concrete. It’s as if a director from the Syfy channel got a mainstream film budget: the film’s aesthetic balances slickness with cheapness. Everything looks like a big, overdone Hollywood set, which works for the films irreverent tone.

Iron Sky’s cast is full of appropriately broad caricatures. The guy who discovers the Moon-Nazis is a smart-aleck black model turned astronaut who i’m pretty sure is supposed to be a Will Smith stand-in. For me, he’s the funniest guy in the movie since the actor is able to play up the “jiveness” without going into that annoying Chris Tucker territory.

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The President of the United States is a pretty obvious parody of Sarah Palin who’s obsessed with being the next Teddy Roosevelt. As with much of the film’s political commentaries, going for a Palin reference was a bit late in the game. She’s not even that much like Palin; the actress seems to doing more of a George W. Bush impression.

The protagonist of the film is one of the few “real” people, she’s a Nazi schoolteacher who’s chosen to be their spokeswoman. Despite this, her concept of what Nazis are is based in the more innocuous aspects of the party (propagation of German culture and values). Her character gives the film a bit of political depth since it implies that the Nazis’ cultural origins wasn’t inherently evil. As with the Americans (and every other country) in the film, war is the result of greedy world leaders and not normal citizens.

As a comedy, I found Iron Sky to have a great setup, but no real punchline. The beginning of the film embraced just how inappropriate you can be with Nazis. We get lots of racist humor when the Nazis’ meet the black-stronaut (“Do you realize you have a skin condition?”). It also pokes fun at the Nazis’ technological stasis; a doctor connects a discovered smartphone to a huge 40’s era computer and dubs it a “Universal System Binding – USB for short“. Despite such great setups, the film devolves into just a goofy war film in it’s final act. And since this isn’t a particularly original film, it’s action is about as stock as you can get. Once again, American films ALREADY have ridiculous action scenes, so you can’t really parody it. It doesn’t help that there’s barely any actual jokes in the final act, which instead has just more aimless set ups. Most egregiously, the black-stronaut is turned into an Aryan by Nazi scientists. Beyond one scene where some basketball players almost beat him up, this never comes up. You’d think that seeing a guy who looks like that would freak people out but not at all. Even having him feel compelled to act like a stereotypical German or white person could’ve been funny. This script really needed a “punch up” from a Scandinavian Joss Whedon in order to make the most use out of the setting’s inherent humor.

Overall, Iron Sky is an alright movie. With so many films with similar action and political themes, I don’t feel this film is very distinguished. However, I feel as if it’s premise still makes it worth a watch.

My Rating: One Nazi salute (from the REAL president)

Stray Thoughts

  • While I guess I can go with Nazis’ being able to space travel, they never establish how they keep getting air on the moon. I sense a Total Recall crossover.

Movie-A-Day: Legend of the Drunken Master (1994)

That movie with some guy named Jackie Chan

Cast: Jackie Chan as Fei Hung, and other people who I assume are famous in China

Premise: When a doctor’s son bumbles into an international crime conspiracy, he uses his controversial martial arts style to save the day.

As with most Americans, my image of Jackie Chan was shaped by films like Rush Hour and Shanghai Noon. He’s the goofy Asian guy who we’re surprised to learn is a badass. But unlike in our dumb movies, in China he’s…the goofy Asian guy who we’re surprised to learn is a badass. That’s kind of his thing. The primary difference is that Chan’s chinese efforts allowed him almost total control over production. He was responsible for his stunts, choreography, and even editing. This allowed for his works to be a lot more distinct than his big budget Hollywood schlock. One example of those works is today’s film.

As someone whose never seen a Chinese Jackie Chan film, the first that struck me was how cartoonish he can be. In most American films, the humor is derived from how out of place he is in America (with one of the few exceptions being the god-awful The Tuxedo). In Drunken Master, it’s just because he’s a goofy son of a bitch. Since the premise of the film requires him to be drunk, it perfectly showcases Chan’s cheeky humor. Chan’s character Fei-hung is a gifted martial artist who becomes increasingly wacky-yet-deadly the more sloshed he gets. This leads to techniques such as “down the hatch” where he dodges attacks by chugging.

The cartoony nature of the film isn’t limited to Chan either. Probably the biggest star in the film besides him is the late Anita Mui who plays Chan’s stepmother, despite being 5 years YOUNGER than he is (eww).

This actress is one of the best physical comedians i’ve ever seen; particularly her facial expressions. Like Chan, she’s also pretty adept at combining comedy and kung fu. The cast of Drunken Master is pretty funny in general. For instance, the primary bad guys are all businessmen who are inexplicably good at kung fu, leading to scenes such as a new steel mill foreman keeping his workers in line by picking up a FLAMING STEEL BAR and fighting off his entire crew with it.

Despite the emphasis on drunken kung fu, most of the action is pretty straightforward. Chan’s drunken style is more like a “super mode” and most of the scenes have him using more conventional martial arts. Not to say this is boring; many of Chan’s signatures are present such as improvised weapons; one famous scene has him fighting off a gang of axe-wielders with a frayed bamboo shoot. In addition, every character has a unique and appropriate fighting style; the tall and lean bad guy has an aggressive kick-centric style to utilize his range, whereas Chan’s father has a very rigid style reflecting his stern demeanor. Touches like this are great because this film doesn’t have much in the way of true “acting”, so characterization comes from how these people fight (which thankfully everyone does).

If I had to say anything “bad” about the film, it’s that the film has one…uncomfortable…scene. After Chan’s first use of drunken  boxing, his dad beats him with a stick and then, for being complicit with his fighting, threatens to beat his mother too (which he only relents on doing because she’s pregnant and that of course makes it wrong). I imagine this might be a bit of values dissonance, though I don’t know much about what was considered appropriate in 90’s Chinese film.

Overall, this was a great movie. It’s hard to get across the quality of an action film in a text review, but trust me when I say this is one of the most distinct (and funny) martial arts films you’ll find on NetFlix.

If you want a more insightful critique of Chan’s skill as an action comic, check out Every Frame A Painting’s YouTube video on the topic.

My Rating: Two bottles up!

Stray Thoughts

  • Chan’s character creates several funny names for his moves (“maiden flirts with gentleman”, “corkscrew opens wine bottle”, etc). I assume this inspired Hak Foo from Jackie Chan Adventures.

  • The bad guy does a standing split in a suit. I can’t even find a job in one. Life is unfair.

 

 

 

Movie-A-Day: The Interview (2014)

That movie we almost got nuked for

Cast: James Franco as David Skylark, Seth Rogen as Aaron Rappaport, Lizzy Caplan as Agent Lacey, Diana Bang as Sook Yung Park

Premise: A vapid entertainment reporter and his producer unwittingly become CIA assassins after they manage to score an interview with Kim Jong-un.

In the history of greatest scams, Sony should be up there with Bernie Madoff. Not to say that the company is guilty of wrongdoing per se; their plan to to double-sell The Interview was good old fashioned salesmanship. Besides the obvious audience that the North Korean debacle created, their plan to release the film digitally meant that they got to cut out the theater middlemen. And then they STILL got the theatre profits once it proved to be lucrative to pass up. Kudos to Sony, i’m never one to knock the hustle. With that out of the way, is the film actually good?

As far as the cast, this film’s three principal characters range vastly in terms of quality. Rogen is the straight man for most of the film. Similar to Pineapple Express, he’s the funny everyman to anchor the film’s wackiness. While he dips into his usual dynamic when interacting with even straighter characters like Agent Lacey, he’s more often the reasonable counterpart to Franco.

Speaking of Franco he’s by far the weakest part of the film. Much of the plot is driven by his character being an idiot (Skylark doesn’t use the CIA-given bag, Skylark can’t see that Agent Lacey is seducing him, etc). Dumb characters aren’t a bad thing inherently, but Franco is awkward in the role. I wouldn’t say it’s due solely to his acting, but because the character is all-encompassingly stupid. When he gives a speech for his show’s 10th anniversary, he makes a terrible Lord of The Rings reference which ends with him saying “I’m like Gollum…(in Gollum’s voice) you’re my preccccious“. When he’s being briefed by Agent Lacey on how to assassinate Kim Jong-un, he discusses how he’d like to shoot him on camera with a gun since it would be the violent equivalent to a “money shot” in porn. Which ends with him demonstrating a bukkake scene. The operational logic seems to be that entertainment journalists are exceedingly shallow and stupid, but this character should still have an above average sense of social intelligence. It’s his fucking job. Instead, he’s portrayed as having his foot surgically-grafted to his mouth. Skylark should at least be able to present himself in a manner that seems appropriate at first before you consider it (similar to Michael Scott from The Office in the earlier seasons). This could’ve worked slightly better if Franco could play the character correctly. Franco’s area of humor has always been more in the ‘stoner’ realm. His delivery is loose and slow-paced, which is suited for a high-school slacker or a friendly pot-dealer. Being a entertainment show host requires Franco to be either more energetic (think of Billy Bush from Access Hollywood) or more deadpan to sell us on the character.

On the other end of quality, we have Park’s performance as Jong-un. Whereas Skylark is poorly defined character, Jong-un has some nuances based on public perception of the real man. He’s shy yet surprisingly affable, he’s into basketball and western music, and they even integrate how he reacts to his perceived effeminacy (which is integral to the plot). It’s admirable that, despite the film’s broad portrayal of…everything, it’s antagonist is portrayed as a human being. Ironically, Park has more chemistry with Franco than Rogen does. It helps that the film makes the effort to connect the personalities of Jong-un and Skylark whereas it just assumes we’d go along with the established relationship between Franco and Rogen without developing either character. Park’s introduction to the film vastly improves it’s second half.

The film’s plot is also a mixed bag. As mentioned, Skylark’s stupidity makes the film grate at first, but Jong-un’s affability allows for a believable plot twist. What’s interesting is that the film seems to toy with actually having a political message: is assassination always the best option when overthrowing a dictator? Is this handled well? I don’t want to spoil the ending but I would say…no, but this is possibly by design. I’d say it’s appropriate for a film that doesn’t take it’s politics seriously. Beyond that, the the plot is usual fare for raunchy comedies: sex, drugs, violence.  Rinse and repeat.

The film’s portrayal of actual Koreans is sadly sparse. Aside from Jong-un, the only major character is Sook, who’s the love interest for Rogen. Most of her humor relies on us finding cute asian women saying things like “butthole” and “vagina” funny. She’s mostly there for shallow humor, though she does become more important in the second half of the film. It’s obvious that the film thoughts about North Korea came solely from an American perspective, since there’s almost no Korean presence in it.

Overall, this is a pretty run-of-the-mill comedy. I’d give the first half a C- due to the lack of humor and chemistry between Rogen and Franco, and a C+ due to Jong-un’s introduction and the strengthening of Franco’s character. Almost every other aspect of the film is basic stock for raunchy comedies.

My Rating: One Nazi fist from Charlie Chaplin (in a much better protest film)

Stray Thoughts

  • One thing this film does that I absolutely hate is use rap music for all of it’s “big” scenes. I get that the genre lends itself to being used for exaggerating already exaggerated moments, but this film uses rap music everytime we see women or cars or people getting shot. Try to limit this to two scenes max, Hollywood.

Movie-A-Day: Frankie and Alice (2010)

That movie where Halle Berry plays a white supremacist

Cast: Halle Berry, Stellan Skarsgard, Phylicia Rashad

Premise: A woman’s childhood trauma causes her to develop a racist split personality (check out the trailer)

Remember when Halle Berry was gonna be the next Meryl Streep? This chick used to be in films like BAPS and The Flintstones, then went on to win a best actress Oscar for Monsters Ball. That must’ve been prophetic, since her filmography since then stinks as bad as…well y’know. Immediately after her Oscar win, she began showing up in big budget bombs like Die Another Day, SwordfishCatwoman, and Gothika. What happened? I’m not sure honestly. I hate to play the race card, but things like last year’s Sony leak show that Hollywood is pretty rough on even it’s A-list black stars (DENZEL WASHINGTON wasn’t considered bankable according to a Sony exec). Being a black woman made her difficult to cast as a love interest for conservative Hollywood, and that’s the bread and butter for most actresses. Even her biggest financial success in X-Men has become a backhanded compliment as she was marginalized to the point of having her role in the third film basically be a cameo. With mainstream Hollywood having abandoned her, it make sense that Halle would begin to test the waters of Indie films with Frankie and Alice.

Despite NetFlix’s categorization of the film as a “thriller”, Frankie and Alice doesn’t attempt to titillate audiences with it’s depiction of multiple personality disorder. Halle’s character Frankie is shown to have very specific “triggers” that relate to past trauma; bright lights cue her remembering a significant car accident, hearing a song reminds her of her first love, etc. Frankie, while not the most stable character, is never presented as a one-note loon. We see how she tries to cope with mental illness and how she reconciles her gaps in memory. Rather than the character be given a single event that makes her go insane, the flashbacks show a series of events that each contribute to her MPD.

I’ll admit that I have a hard time commenting on Halle’s performance considering the nature of the character. I’m not well-versed in actual MPD. In the film’s context, Frankie’s creation of Alice is rooted in the harsh racism of her childhood in 1950’s Georgia. Being a poor servant to a wealthy white family means she internalized the highfalutin culture of the southern elite. Alice is Frankie’s interpretation of those people, meaning that she’s an affectation of an affectation. That makes the character pretty broad; insert every “southern belle” cliche you can think of and you pretty much nailed it. It’s not a great performance since it doesn’t really sell us on Alice as a person.  Whether or not “not great” means average or bad depends on whether you think Alice should be a person or merely a character created by Frankie.

The film’s theme seems to be “personal synthesis”. It’s a pretty obvious theme for a film about multiple personalty disorder (just look at Identity). This is expanded with Skarsgard’s psychiatrist character, who’s subplot involves him dealing with a divorce. In a somewhat out of place scene, he’s calls his ex-wife to admit he’s always “been a different person around her” and wants to be the “whole person” she needed. IT’S KIND OF LIKE HE HAS MULTIPLE PERSONALITIES. Subtle. There’s also a commentary on synthesis in the family in regards to Frankie’s secretive family dynamic. She hides her job as a stripper and her general bohemian lifestyle from her mother which forces her to affect a different persona in her company as a nursing student who works for the telephone company. While this is as un-subtle as Skarsgard’s conversation with his wife, it does at least try to connect the audience with a story that many would find to unrelatable. Strangely, the film doesn’t overtly push the idea of racial integration. The film’s climax focuses on Frankie and her family, while only vaguely alluding to how integration of her psyche (like the races) will be a difficult lifelong journey.

Overall, this is an alright movie. While this isn’t the Oscar-worthy performance we expect from Berry, it’s clear she put in an effort on a difficult project.

My rating: One self-hating black thumb up

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Stray thoughts

  • While this film was given a limited release in 2010 in order to be considered for awards, it’s worldwide release wasn’t until 2014, which explains it’s obscurity.
  • The explanation of how “Alice” could hate blacks despite being…well…black is that she’s actually incapable of seeing her own skin color. In other words: she’s Clayton Bigsby.

WHITE POWER!

Movie-A-Day: Raising the Heights (1995)

The movie that even Spike Lee thinks went too far

Cast

Trust me; you don’t care

Premise

In the culturally-divided Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, the lives of a black teen and a Jewish reporter collide due to a high school crime ring. (check out the trailer here)

The obscurity of NetFlix’s library is quite astounding. One night, I found the Super Mario Bros. Super Show of all things. Unfortunately, not all of NetFlix’s stock are gems. For instance, there’s this film.

Raising The Heights seems to be a low-budget entry into the once popular “urban crime” genre. These included films like Boyz N The Hood and Juice. I also sense a large Spike Lee influence in it’s racial politics. That’s not a good thing. The most immediate issue with this film is how jarring the characters are in their racism. Early in the film, a black and Jewish character are eating dinner in different scenes. In the midst of a fairly mundane conversation, both characters begin angrily talking about each other’s cultures which results in an angry montage where they both get up from their seats and just start ranting directly at the audience. The Jewish guy even goes as far to say that they should “take a cue from the Italians and beat blacks with clubs“.

Did I forget to mention that the main theme of the film is that Jews and black hate each other? Because this film makes sure to remind us at every point. This was actually what made me interested in the film in the first place; fiction about African-American race relations rarely touch upon the interactions between blacks and other cultural/racial minorities. Unfortunately, the standard way of having this conversation in film is to make everyone a complete asshole. You’d be hard-pressed to name more than one character in films like Crash or Jungle Fever who’s remotely likable. Likewise, Raising The Heights‘ cast includes:

  • A Jewish mom who believes blacks are inherently stupid and helpless.
  • Her son (the guy who wants to club black people) who gets cocaine from the Hispanic super who lives in his basement and then stiffs him on payment after kicking his ass.
  • A black teen who buys “drugs” (never specified) from a local dealer with sex, yells at her mom for being poor and spits in the Jewish mom’s face for being an “uptight bitch”.
  • A co-worker of the reporter who casually calls his boss a “Jewish faggot” to his Jewish love interest’s face.

It’s a bad sign when the antagonist of the film, a drug-dealing, murderous, high school teacher who claims to “hate every nigger, Jew, faggot, gook, and spic that comes into this country” is your most enjoyable character. I get it, people are racist. But making every racist character a caricature lessens a work’s social commentary. Racism persists because of how endemic it is in our society. It’s an employer feeling “uncomfortable” hiring people with accents. It’s the airport security officer who is a little more grabby when a passenger has a turban. In order for the racial commentary to be resonant, it has to be able to get the common man to recognize how he/she is part of the problem. This can’t be accomplished with broad, unrelatable characters.

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In this film’s (paltry) defense, it’s definitely earnest. The two protagonists aren’t nearly as loathable as the supporting cast. The black kid is portrayed as someone legitimately interested in Jewish culture without the film shouting it at us. He also seems to be the only legitimate actor in the film, injecting at least some energy into the tired “noble, talented kid from the ghetto” character.

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The Jewish reporter is…meh. Her storyline highlights another major issue with the film: it doesn’t represent Jews that well. It’s not anti-semitic in it’s portrayal, it’s just not that deep. The reporter’s conflict is that she hides her Judaism in order to succeed as a reporter. But beyond changing her name from “Berkowitz” to “Burke”, we never really get a sense of what about Judaism she’s rejecting. We know she wants to fit in, but the film doesn’t portray her or her family as being THAT different from any of the “whites” in the film. The film assumes we just “get” what it means to be Jewish without actually elaborating on the particulars of the faith and history. I suspect that this film’s aspirations of being a “hood film” made it difficult to switch focus from it’s black teens onto it’s Jewish adults. The film’s final comment on Black+Jew Relations is good in theory, “Jews should be as proud of their identity as Blacks”, but lacks some punch in a film where Jews are secondary characters.

Overall, I’d say this was a well-meaning but lackluster film. It falls back on pretty much every stereotype imaginable and has some truly painful dialogue (from a ten-year old black kid “Hitler should’ve finished the job!“). I watched it looking for social commentary, but you should only watch it for laughs.

My rating: An upside down Black Power fist for LOWERING the heights of black film (see what I did there?)

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Stray Thoughts

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I’m honestly baffled as to what the film was doing with the evil teacher bad guy. I assume i’m supposed to feel that WASPs are the “true” villains of America, but why make him a schoolteacher? At least he’s racist to the point of hilarity: at one point, he gives a lecture about Martin Luther King getting shot to keep his students from snitching on him.

Brett Ratner (director of the Rush Hour series) was the music director for the film, showing that he’s made a career out of embarrassing black people.