On Sidney Lumet's "Prince of the City"
Published on August 19, 2011 by Sara Foss

I got on a Sidney Lumet kick a while back, and watched several of his films, including his 1981 film about police corruption, "Prince of the City," which starred a young Treat Williams as a detective who decides to tell investigators about corruption in his department.

"Prince of the City" is a darker, more ambiguous film than Lumet's most famous police corruption film, "Serpico." In that film, Serpico was depicted as a saintly fellow who simply couldn't tolerate corruption, and felt compelled to do something about it. In "Prince of the City," Williams' motive are less clear, and he's far from a good guy; unlike Serpico, who never did anything wrong, his motivation could be guilt, and a hope for redemption.

Over on Press Play, Steve Santos explains why "Prince of the City" is the more interesting film, and laments that the film has not gotten its due. Personally, I'm not sure that Lumet has gotten his due. He received a lot accolades when he died, but I didn't get the sense that people fully appreciated just how great his films are. If you want further proof, check out his underseen 2007 crime melodrama "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead."

Thinking about "The Help"
Published on August 17, 2011 by Sara Foss

I read "The Help" because a local flack thrust it upon me and told me it was the greatest book in the world, and that I absolutely had to read it. I was immediately suspicious, because my basic experience with books other people say I MUST READ, RIGHT NOW is that they're always a disappointment, never as good as the person claimed. And since in this case the booster was a cheerful flack - the antithesis of much of what I stand for, essentially - I was even more skeptical than usual. And so it was with reluctance that I took the flack's copy of "The Help" back to my apartment.

Normally, I let new books sit around for a while collecting dust, but I could see that "The Help" was a phenomenon, and that if I didn't read it I'd be missing out on ... something. Not necessarily a good book, but something. The chance to participate in a larger discussion about race and class and gender in America, maybe. So I read "The Help," and although I had some real problems with it, I went easy on it. It was, if nothing else, a reasonably entertaining yarn - it never bored me, and I was genuinely interested in the characters and the twists and turns of the plot. But I also questioned the use of dialect, and the tired device of having a white character serve as the catalyst for almost every important development in the narrative. And I also felt that the book was so good-natured and fun that it failed to capture what it would really have been like to be black in Jackson, Miss., during the civil rights era, despite some somber moments after Medgar Evers is murdered. And I wasn't sure I appreciated the book's softening the edges of what was an extremely tense and dangerous - as well as courageous, let's not forget that - time for a whole lot of people.

That was my take on "The Help," but what do I know? I'm a white person from New Hampshire. There was one black person in my high school, and none in my middle school or elementary school. And so I emailed my old college classmate Kiese Laymon, a Jackson, Miss., native who now teaches English at Vassar College, to see what he thought of "The Help." He didn't like the book, not one bit, and recently he re-posted an old personal essay he wrote a couple years ago in response to the book on his blog, Cold Drank.

Here's an excerpt:

"While my Grandma worked full-time as buttonhole slicer at a chicken plant in Forest, Mississippi, one of her side-hustles was washing clothes for this family called the Mumfords. The first Thursday in August of 1985, when Grandma got off work at the Chicken Plant, we went to Mumfords because Grandma had grown-folks business to take care of. I had heard a lot about the Mumfords but had never been to their house except to pick up and drop off packages with Grandma.

The Mumfords lived right off Highway 35 and I was always amazed at how the houses off of 35 were the only houses in Forest that looked like the houses on Leave it to Beaver and or even What’s Happening. I was and always will be a fat black boy, so like most fat black boys, when I imagined the insides of rich folks’ houses, my senses locked in on the kitchen. I imagined gobbling up hands full of Crunch and Munch in their walk-in pantry and filling up my cup of cold drank with ice that came from the ice dispenser built into the outside of their tar black refrigerator."

Now that "The Help" has been turned into a movie, it's getting more attention than ever, and although some of the response has been negative, I've also read a lot of positive commentary, from both black and white viewers. (Salon has a pretty good piece on the wide variety of responses to the film.) And since "The Help" is likely to get nominated for all kinds of awards come Oscar season, I'm going to have to go see the damn thing, and wade into the discussion myself.



Watching "Beats, Rhymes & Life"
Published on August 16, 2011 by Sara Foss

Over at the DG, I review the amateurish yet engaging new documentary about the influential hip-hop band A Tribe Called Quest, "Beats, Rhymes & Life."

Here's an excerpt:

"Filmed by actor Michael Rapaport, 'Beats, Rhymes & Life' adheres to the basic structure of most music documentaries. It documents that band’s rise, and unlikely stardom, as well as the band’s falling out and the lingering resentments that its various members harbor. Luminaries explain why the band is so important, and why its music means so much, while providing insight into the flaws of its members and the sources of conflict. This material is engaging, but also a bit cliched, but in its final third 'Beats, Rhymes & Life' actually surprised me by presenting two things I wasn’t expecting: a harrowing medical story, and a satisfying redemption narrative."

And here's a video of A Tribe Called Quest performing the "Can I Kick It?" and "Excursions" during the Rock the Bells tour in 2010.



Thoughts on "Stand by Me"
Published on August 14, 2011 by Sara Foss

I have certainly seen better movies than the 1986 film "Stand by Me," but I still list the beloved coming-of-age film as one of my favorite movies. It is funny and heartbreaking, sensitive and adventurous, and contains great dialogue and classic scenes. Just last weekend, I found myself recalling the leeches scene while hiking to a pond with friends; we had heard that this pond was filled with leeches, and were debating whether we really wanted to go swimming. (In the end, we did, but we were still haunted by the image of poor Gordie fainting after pulling a leech out of his underwear.)

Last week Slant Magazine ran two essays on "Stand By Me," which you can find here and here.

"Stand By Me" is about boys, but I think almost anybody can relate to it; the film's portrait of childhood - of that dreamy period of early adolescence when you're still a kid, but beginning to experience more adult feelings - resonates long after the film is over.

Also, in this 2009 column I remember one of "Stand By Me's" great moments.

Crazy Like a Fox: Herzog and Cage in "Bad Lieutenant"
Published on August 9, 2011 by Sara Foss

I finally got around to watching the 2009 film "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans," which bears only a passing resemblance to the cult 1992 Abel Ferrara film "Bad Lieutenant." Both films are about a bad lieutenant, but that's really the only thing they have in common.

In the 1992 film, Harvey Keitel played the lieutenant as the world's most spiritually broken man; the movie is a bleak and devastating journey into his hellish everyday existence, which involves doing copious amounts of drugs, drinking too much, forcing female suspects to provide sexual favors and neglecting his family. Nicholas Cage, who stars in the 2009 film, does all of those things, but is slightly more sympathetic, maybe because director Werner Herzog turns the off-putting material into a comedy.

Not everyone thinks "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans" is a comedy. I told some a friends I thought it was a comedy and they were like, "It's so dark." And I was like, "Yeah, but it's a comedy! A dark comedy, but a comedy nonetheless!" Cage's derangement is played for laughter. His life is so out-of-control that at one point he hallucinates and sees iguanas. I often laughed as he raced around New Orleans, trying to put out fires that were often of his own making. (Thinking Tom Cruise in "Risky Business," another dark comedy about a man's darker side.)

Keitel's bad lieutenant does not inspire laughter. I'll be honest: I didn't really like the original "Bad Lieutenant," and should probably revisit it. The earlier film is deadly serious, and raises challenging and provocative questions about sin, Catholicism, guilt, forgiveness and redemption. Herzog's film, on the other hand, mostly ignores the big questions, functioning more as a character study with an especially black and devious heart.


Watching "Captain America"
Published on August 9, 2011 by Sara Foss

Overall, an enjoyably patriotic superhero movie.

Chris Evans makes for a good Steve Rogers, although I can certainly imagine other actors in the part. I'd also say that if you're going to see one comic book movie this summer, check out the excellent "X-Men: First Class," which I wrote about here.

You can read my review of "Captain America" here, but here's an excerpt:

"'Captain America' and 'X-Men: First Class' both draw upon World War II for inspiration, and thus have an engaging retro feel. But 'X-Men: First Class' was a surprisingly subversive and complex film, while “Captain America” is the opposite: an old-fashioned, patriotic yarn that reaffirms and celebrates basic American values such as truth and justice. “Captain America’s” protagonist, Steve Rogers, is one of the least complicated comic book superheroes I’ve ever seen; if thrown into 'X-Men: First Class' and forced to hold his own with Professor X and Magneto, he’d seem like a boy among men.

But you shouldn’t interpret that statement as meaning that I didn’t like Steve Rogers, or that I didn’t find him worth cheering for. Far from it. Steve Rogers is my type of hero — a bullied weakling from Brooklyn who never backs down from a fight, has the heart of a lion and finally gets his chance to show the world what he’s capable of when he’s selected to participate in a special military program. He’s simple and also a little bit dorky, but inherently decent. Which is also a good description of the film."


Watching "Beginners"
Published on August 4, 2011 by Sara Foss

I reviewed the new movie "Beginners" this week. I'd say about three stars. Good, but not great.

Here's an excerpt:

“'Beginners' features a precocious Jack Russell terrier who occasionally speaks in subtitles, and it still manages to be a decent movie. When you think about it, that’s pretty amazing. Because when I saw the talking dog, I braced myself for an overly cutesy, twee and annoying little film. And 'Beginners' does have its cutesy, twee and annoying moments. But it’s also a heartfelt and moving film, and director Mike Mills balances the quirk and sincerity fairly well."

Visit the DG to read the whole thing.

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