Cleaning Out The DVR Yet Again #31: Black and White (dir by James Toback)


(Lisa recently discovered that she only has about 8 hours of space left on her DVR!  It turns out that she’s been recording movies from July and she just hasn’t gotten around to watching and reviewing them yet.  So, once again, Lisa is cleaning out her DVR!  She is going to try to watch and review 52 movies by the end of Wednesday, December 7th!  Will she make it?  Keep checking the site to find out!)

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On November 15th, I recorded the 1999 melodrama, Black and White, off of Encore.

Black and White is a film that I’ve seen several times and I’ve always meant to review it.  It’s an attempt to explore the state of race, rap, crime, and sex in the late 20th century.  It’s also a James Toback film, which means that it contains all of the stuff that appears in every James Toback film: a threesome in the park, improvised dialogue, cameos from famous people playing themselves, an obsession with college basketball games, casual sexism, and a lot of talk about why you should never send “a little boy to do a man’s job.”  By his own admission, the white Toback is obsessed with the black experience but, when you watch a James Toback film, you get the feeling that his entire knowledge of African-American culture comes from watching other movies.

In short, Black and White is probably one of the silliest and most misjudged films that I’ve ever seen.  In fact, it’s so misjudged that it’s compulsively watchable.  Though I’m always hesitant to casually toss around the term “guilty pleasure,” that’s exactly what Black and White is.

Black and White tells several different stories, some of which are connected and some of which are not.  Sam Donager (Brooke Shields) is an independent filmmaker who is attempting to make a documentary about white people who try to act black.  Her husband, Terry (Robert Downey, Jr.), is gay and hits on every man (and boy) that he sees.  Sam and Terry start following around a group of privileged white kids who are obsessed with rap music.  Sam asks them if they want to be black.  They say that they’re going through a phase.

One of the kids is named Wren and he’s played by Elijah Wood.  He doesn’t really do much but every time he shows up in the film, you go, “It’s Elijah Wood!”  And then there’s Marty King (Eddie Kaye Thomas) who is the son of the Manhattan District Attorney (Joe Pantoliano).  Marty’s older brother is Will (William Lee Scott) ,who is some sort of low-level criminal.  And finally, the unofficial leader of the kids is Charlie (Bijou Phillips) and she gets to give a long monologue explaining the various uses of the n-word.

(Their teacher, incidentally, is played by Jared Leto.  If you’ve ever wanted to listen to Jared Leto lecture about the relationship between Othello and Iago, this is the film to see.  That said, the whole Othello and Iago lecture is just kinda randomly tossed in and doesn’t really pay off.)

Charlie is one of the many girlfriends of Rich Bower (Power), who is not only an up-and-coming rap producer but he’s also the head of a criminal organization.  (There’s a lengthy and kinda pointless scene where he and his associates demand money from a club manager played by Scott Caan.)  Rich is also friends with Mike Tyson.  Tyson plays himself and he gets to deliver an entire monologue about how Rich should never send a boy to do a man’s job.

But we’re not done!  Rich’s cousin is Dean Carter (Allan Houston), a college basketball player.  Dean is dating an anthropology graduate student (Claudia Schiffer, giving a hilariously terrible performance) who is obsessed with fertility symbols.  Dean is also being blackmailed by a corrupt cop named Mark Clear.  Guess who plays Mark Clear?

BEN FREAKING STILLER!

Needless to say, Ben Stiller is massively miscast.  He delivers he lines in his trademark comedic fashion, which makes it next to impossible to take him seriously as any sort of threat.  He also has a backstory that is needlessly complex but at least it allows him to say, “I’m Saul of Fucking Tarsus!”

Anyway, almost the entire film was improvised, which is one of those things that probably seemed like a good idea at the time.  A few of the actors do well with the improvisation.  Stiller may be miscast but at least he can come up with stuff to say.  Robert Downey, Jr.’s character may seem out-of-place but again, Downey knows how to keep things interesting.  But the rest of the cast seems to be a bit stranded so we end up with a lot of lengthy scenes of characters struggling to make some sort of sense of Toback’s storyline.

It’s obvious that James Toback felt that this film had something important to say but, instead of any insight, it can only offer up the occasionally strange-as-Hell scene.

Like this scene, for instance, in which Mike Tyson literally attempts to kill Robert Downey, Jr:

Or this weird little scene between Ben Stiller and Joe Pantoliano, which is dominated by Stiller’s odd delivery of his lines:

Or the closing montage, which is actually rather well-put together and makes great use of Michael Fredo’s Free:

Sadly, the video above ends before it gets to the part where we see Claudia Schiffer on a date with Mike Tyson, telling him about fertility symbols.

Anyway, Black and White is one of those films that wants to say something despite not being sure what.  Again, it may ultimately be rather silly but it’s still compulsively watchable.

(For the record, Marla Maples — who also appeared in Maximum Overdrive and was married to future President Donald Trump when this movie was made — has a cameo as a character named Muffy.  We live in a strange fucking world, don’t we?)

Film Review: Wild (dir by Jean-Marc Vallee)


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Wild opens with Cheryl Strayed (played by Reese Witherspoon) standing on the edge of a cliff.  She has been hiking for days and, because her hiking boots are too small, she’s limping and in a great  deal of pain.  She takes off a boot and a sock and stares at her bloody big toe.  With trembling fingers, she removes what is left of her big toenail.  And then, she throws her boot over the edge of the cliff while screaming, “FUCK YOU!”

And, from that moment, Wild had me.

For the next two hours, I sat there and I was absolutely enthralled as Cheryl, an aspiring writer and a recovering drug addict who was still struggling to come to terms with the death of her mother (played, in heart-breaking flashbacks, by Laura Dern), hiked her way from the Mexican border up to the Canadian border.  I watched as she learned how to survive in the wilderness, how she cautiously learned to trust some of her fellow hikers, and as she dealt with sexist rangers and creepy hunters.

And there were a lot of reasons why Wild held me so enthralled.  There was Reese Witherspoon’s performance, for one thing.  Reese is on screen during every minute of Wild and, for a lot of that time, she’s alone with her thoughts and her emotions.  She gives an amazingly focused performance, one that should regain her some of the respect that she sacrificed by appearing in movies like This Means War and publicly asking, “Do you know who I am?”  Both the film and Reese’s performance resist the temptation to idealize Cheryl.  Instead, both the film and the performance feel real and because Cheryl comes across as a real person (flaws and all), it makes her journey and her achievement all the more powerful.

I couldn’t help but relate to Cheryl.  Like her, I’m an aspiring writer.  Like her, I’m still learning how to deal with the loss of my mom.  Like her, I have trust issues.  Like her, I am sometimes too stubborn for my own good.  Like her, I like to leave quotes in guest books.  Like her, I always pack a few paperbacks before I go on a trip and I like to write in my journal.  Like Cheryl, I’m a survivor and I’m proud of it.

Unlike Cheryl, however, I’ve never gone hiking and I doubt if I ever will.  As much as I loved Wild (and it’s definitely one of my favorite films of 2014), it didn’t leave me with any great desire to go on a hike.  That’s largely because of that first scene.  When Cheryl threw away her boots and screamed, I thought to myself, “That would so be me.”  Of course, the difference is that Cheryl did that after hiking for a month.  I would probably end up doing that after the 2nd day.  And then I’d turn around, go back home, and spend the weekend watching Netflix.

But here’s the thing: Wild is not really about hiking.  Wild is about the journey.  What’s important is not that Cheryl hiked but that Cheryl accomplished what she set out to do.  No matter how difficult it got, no matter how many people told her she should give up, Cheryl walked from Mexico to Canada.  By the end of the film, I felt like, if Cheryl could do that even with boots that were too small, than there was nothing that I could not do.

As a result, Wild is not only one of the best films of 2014.

It’s the most empowering as well.

 

It’s The 2014 Independent Spirit Nominations!


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The nominees for the 2014 Independent Spirit Awards were announced earlier today.  While the Spirit noms aren’t exactly the most accurate of Oscar precursors (and the rules of Indie Spirit Awards are pretty much specifically designed to honor the type of low-budget films that are often ignored by the Academy), more than a few of the Spirit nominees are usually remembered when the Oscar nominations are announced.

The winners will be announced, by Patton Oswalt, on March 1st.

Myself, I’m just happy to see Frances Ha and Upstream Color’s Shane Carruth nominated.

Best Feature:
“12 Years a Slave”
“All Is Lost”
“Frances Ha”
“Inside Llewyn Davis”
“Nebraska”

Best Director:
Shane Carruth, “Upstream Color”
J.C. Chandor, “All is Lost”
Steve McQueen, “12 Years a Slave”
Jeff Nichols, “Mud”
Alexander Payne, “Nebraska”

Best Screenplay:
Woody Allen, “Blue Jasmine”
Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke and Richard Linklater, “Before Midnight”
Nicole Holofcener, “Enough Said”
Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber, “The Spectacular Now”
John Ridley, “12 Years a Slave”

Best Female Lead:
Cate Blanchett, “Blue Jasmine”
Julie Delpy, “Before Midnight”
Gaby Hoffman, “Crystal Fairy”
Brie Larson, “Short Term 12″
Shailene Woodley, “The Spectacular Now”

Best Male Lead:
Bruce Dern, “Nebraska”
Chiwetel Ejiofor, “12 Years a Slave”
Oscar Isaac, “Inside Llewyn Davis”
Michael B. Jordan, “Fruitvale Station”
Matthew McConaughey, “Dallas Buyers Club”
Robert Redford, “All Is Lost”

Best Supporting Female:
Melonie Diaz, “Fruitvale Station”
Sally Hawkins, “Blue Jasmine”
Lupita Nyong’o, “12 Years a Slave”
Yolonda Ross, “Go for Sisters”
June Squibb, “Nebraska”

Best Supporting Male:
Michael Fassbender, “12 Years a Slave”
Will Forte, “Nebraska”
James Gandolfini, “Enough Said”
Jared Leto, “Dallas Buyers Club”
Keith Stanfield, “Short Term 12”

Best First Feature:
“Blue Caprice”
“Concussion”
“Fruitvale Station”
“Una Noche”
“Wadjda”

Best First Screenplay:
“In a World,” Lake Bell
“Don Jon,” Joseph Gordon-Levitt
“Nebraska,” Bob Nelson
“Afternoon Delight,” Jill Soloway
“The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete,” Michael Starrbury

John Cassavetes Award:
“Computer Chess”
“Crystal Fairy”
“Museum Hours”
“Pit Stop”
“This Is Martin Bonner”

Best Cinematography:
Sean Bobbit, “12 Years a Slave”
Benoit Debie, “Spring Breakers”
Bruno Delbonnel, “Inside Llewyn Davis”
Frank G. DeMarco, “All Is Lost”
Matthias Grunsky, “Computer Chess”

Best Editing:
Shane Carruth & David Lowery, “Upstream Color”
Jem Cohen & Marc Vives, “Museum Hours”
Jennifer Lame, “Frances Ha”
Cindy Lee, “Una Noche”
Nat Sanders, “Short Term 12”

Best Documentary:
“20 Feet From Stardom”
“After Tiller”
“Gideon’s Army”
“The Act of Killing”
“The Square”

Best International Film:
“A Touch of Sin”
“Blue Is the Warmest Color”
“Gloria”
“The Great Beauty”
“The Hunt”

Robert Altman Award (given to a film’s director, casting director and ensemble cast)
“Mud”

Piaget Producers Award:
Toby Halbrooks & James M. Johnston
Jacob Jaffke
Andrea Roa
Frederick Thornton

Someone to Watch Award:
“My Sister’s Quinceanera,” Aaron Douglas Johnston
“Newlyweeds,” Shake King
“The Foxy Merkins,” Madeline Olnek

Truer Than Fiction Award:
“A River Changes Course,” Kalvanee Mam
“Let the Fire Burn,” Jason Osder
“Manakamana,” Stephanie Spray & Pacho Velez