Only a Few of My Favorite Things (for 2014)

Because I don’t have to, I’m not going to bother with a Top-Ten movie list this year. This is also because there wasn’t a whole lot I saw at the multiplexes in 2014 that got me as wound up as the stuff I’m listing below. And if I bothered to enumerate the movies that did, I’d likely end up with a list that more or less looks like everybody else’s, which precisely none of us wants.

Instead, I’m going to pull together a rag basket of items that for various reasons made the most resounding connections with my frontal lobes through the prevailing media din of weapons-grade white noise and free-styling schaudenfreude. Most came out this year; some didn’t, but I got around to them for the first time this year, so they count. (My list, my rules.)

Quite likely, I’m forgetting, or blocking some stuff. It’s been that kind of year. And there were some things I couldn’t bring myself to include, whatever my absorption level. Scandal, to take one example, remains for many people I trust an irresistible sack of Screaming Yellow Zonkers. But outside of Joe Morton’s righteously Shatner-esque scenery chewing and the mad electricity vibrating in Kerry Washington’s eyeballs, I’ve found that its live-action anime antics can go on without me for at least a couple weeks at a time.

So anyway…(as this fellow might out it)

 

 

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The Harlem Hellfighters by Max Brooks –Brooks made his name mythologizing the walking-dead (World War Z, The Zombie Survival Guide). But he proves himself just as conscientious in rendering factually grounded savagery in this fire-breathing graphic (in every sense) novel about the legendary all-black 369th Infantry Regiment that roared out of Harlem to fight in World War I, the hinge between post-Reconstruction’s legally-sanctioned terrorism of African Americans and the gathering pre-dawn of the civil rights movement. Though the Hellfighters’ passage from raw, often humiliated recruits to take-neither-prisoners-or-shit-from-anybody warriors is rousing, the visual depictions of squalor, disease and violence (thanks to the classic-war-comics élan of illustrator Canaan White) deepen the many ironies layered onto this saga; not the least of which was that it was only through the horrific, demeaning process of war that black men could begin proving their worthiness as American citizens – and even that wasn’t enough. To establish its own validity as historical fiction, Brooks’ account brings in such real-life badasses as James Reese Europe, Henry Lincoln Johnson and Henri Gouraud for colorful cameos. Of course, a movie is planned. Good luck trying to top this

 

 

Lucy-Scarlett-Johansson

 

Scarlett JohanssonI’ve already waxed rhapsodic about the commanding way she works the alien-enigmatic in the polarizing Under the Skin. By contrast, the art-house crowd showed relatively little-to-no-interest in Lucy in which she played a hapless, sponge-faced drug mule accidently injected with a drug transmuting her into a time-distorting, matter-altering, ass-kicking wonder woman. But Luc Besson’s acrylic pulp fantasy proved that few, if any movie actresses today are as cavalierly brilliant at throwing down wire-to-wire magnetism in such nutty eye candy. Manny Farber would have wallowed in the termite splendor of it all. Even her by-now borderline-gratuitous Black Widow turn in support of yet another Marvel money machine (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) retained enough droll slinkiness to make one suspect that giving the Widow her own vehicle might be a bit of a let-down. Then again, Ms. Scarlett never let me down once this year, so why dwell upon the purely speculative?

 

 

 

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Whiskey Tango Foxtrot By David Shafer – This novel took me by surprise as it did several other critics this past summer. Up till that point, it hadn’t occurred to me that the legacies of both Richard Condon and Ross Thomas could, or even should be filled. Nevertheless, anyone whose familiarity with these authors’ works extends beyond Condon’s The Manchurian Candidate or Thomas’ The Fools In Town Are On Our Side will recognize Shafer’s sardonic humor, crafty plotting and humane characterizations as reminiscent of both authors – which is another way of saying these qualities aren’t what readers of contemporary techno-thrillers are used to. Also, much like Condon, Shafer knows, or strongly suspects, what we’re all afraid of, deep down, and finds a surrogate for this fear that’s both outrageous and plausible; in this case, a sinister cabal of one-percenters planning to seize total control of storing and transmitting information worldwide, thereby making recent abuses by the NSA, or whoever has it in for Sony Pictures, seem like benign neglect. This premise scrapes somewhat against territory controlled by what used to be called the “Cyberpunk School” as well as Thomas Pynchon, except that Shafer’s three 30-ish hero-protagonists are at once unlikely and recognizably human: an Iranian-American NCO operative who stumbles into the conspiracy so haphazardly she’s not sure what it is until it goes after her family, a self-loathing self-help guru in debt to his eyeballs who’s recruited by the cabal to be its “chief storyteller” and his estranged childhood friend, a substance-abusing misfit with a trust fund as thick as his psychiatric case file. They are all swept into an underground movement called “Dear Diary” which knows what the cabal is up to and is deploying its own secret network to bring it down. Social comedy, political melodrama and digital menace don’t always blend as well as they do here. And this is only Shafer’s first novel, meaning, as with the other masters cited above, he can only get better at this stuff from here on.

 

 

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Get On Up & Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown – The former is a feature biopic; the latter an HBO-exhibited documentary. Both told me things I didn’t know about their shared subject – or, maybe more to the point, framing what I already knew about James Brown’s story in a manner that showed him as far more than an unholy force-of-nature. If I lean more towards the documentary, it’s because the revelations are more striking (not just the spectacular “what” of Brown’s showmanship, but the painstaking “how” of its components along with its savvy adjustments over time). And its testimonies are altogether more enlightening (Mick Jagger, who co-produced both, sets the record straight on how the “T.A.M.I. Show” sequence of acts really went down) I loved listening to band members let loose on what they really thought of their sometimes thoughtless boss as well as what second-generation Fabulous Flames as Bootsy Collins learned on and off the road from Brown. Tate Taylor’s biopic has a different agenda, but it strives to be just as faithful, if not always to the facts, to the facets of Brown’s fiery, hair-trigger temperament. Maybe it tried too hard. (As far as B.O. was concerned, Get On Up…didn’t.) But Chadwick Boseman’s, conscientious rendering of Brown’s tics and turbulence is almost as breathtaking to watch as one of the Godfather’s actual Soul Train appearances. Now that Boseman’s successfully portrayed two historic icons, I remain anxious to see what he can do with a Regular Guy role sometime between now and Marvel’s Black Panther movie.

FX Stuff

FARGO - Pictured: Billy Bob Thornton as Lorne Malvo. CR: Chris Large/FX

 

 

 

FX– The third, and best, season of Veep; the harrowing, jaw-dropping single-take night scene in True Detective; Billy Crystal’s astute, heartwarming 700 Sundays; Girls and its discontents; the sheer how-can-it-possibly top-itself-again-and-again momentum of Game of Thrones…There was so much to love about HBO this year that I feel like an ingrate for professing my affection for a rival, even though there are things in both FX and HBO that I’ve neglected (American Horror Story, Boardwalk Empire) or shortchanged (The Strain, The Leftovers). Nonetheless anyplace I can find Louie, Archer, The Americans and (for me, especially) Justified is a cozy, stimulating home for my mind. Add to this the deep-dish pleasures of Fargo, whose greatness sneaked up on me the way Billy Bob Thornton’s meatiest, slimiest character since Bad Santa slithered through the frozen tundra, and of The Bridge, whose shrewd and nervy evolution from its first, somewhat derivative season went mostly unnoticed by the professional spectator classes and I’m not sure FX doesn’t have a deeper bench, pound for pound, than its bigger rivals., I prefer a lean, mean FX that takes so many worthy, edgy chances that it can be forgiven for something as lame and sad as Partners. (Never heard of it? Good. We shall speak no more.)

 

 

Oxford American music cover

 

 

The Oxford American “Summer Music Issue” – I, along with many of my friends, have lots of reasons for being mad at the once-and-future Republic of Texas. But I still love its literary heritage and, most especially, its thick, spicy blend of home-grown music, which takes up C&W, R&B, Tex-Mex, swing, funk, hip-hop and even some avant-garde jazz courtesy of native son Ornette Coleman. They’re all represented on a disc accompanying a special edition of this always mind-expanding quarterly. Compiled by Rick Clark, this CD provides the kind of kicks your smarter buds used to slap together on cassette as a stocking stuffer. Besides the aforementioned Ornette (“Ramblin’”), there’s some solo Buddy Holly (“You’re the One”), early Freddy Fender (“Paloma Querida”), priceless Ray Price (“A Girl in the Night”) and the unavoidable Kinky Friedman (“We Reserve the Right to Refuse Service to You”). The left-field surprises include an especially noir-ish take of Waylon Jennings doing his signature “Just To Satisfy You,” a deep-blue rendition of “Sittin’ On Top of the World” by none other than Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, Ruthie Foster’s espresso-laden performance of “Death Came a-Knockin’” and Port Arthur’s own Janis Joplin fronting Big Brother and The Holding Company on a “Bye, Bye, Baby” that swings as sweet as Julio Franco once did. I don’t want to shortchange the actual magazine, which includes James Bigboy Medlin’s reminiscences of working with Doug Sahm, Tamara Saviano’s portrait of Guy Clark and Joe Nick Patoski’s story about Paul English, Willie Nelson’s longtime drummer. It doesn’t beat a spring-break bar tour of Austin, but it’ll do until I get a real one someday.

Seymour Movies Retrospective: Sa Da Tay, Louis C.K.

The best movies I saw this summer? Let me get back to you on that. The best filmmaking I saw this summer? Week after week on the FX Channel’s Louie and I’m not the only one who’s noticed it. Most of the hosannas lofted in the direction of Louis C.K.’s semi-autobiographical sitcom, now on the home stretch of its third season, tend to measure its innovative excellence by everything that’s ever been on television – which on the one hand offers a striking contrast and on the other is way too limiting.

You could, for instance, take the Aug. 2 episode, “Barney/Never” (the title alone could be a minimalist poem), and submit it to Cannes or Sundance with every expectation of winning a short film prize. (The Oscars? Well, yeah, if they deep-sixed their restrictions on previously broadcast films and that’s not gonna happen anytime soon.) From its opening black-and-white shot of both Louie and a barely recognizable Robin Williams as the only mourners at a club manager’s burial to its concluding exchange between Louie and an intractable little boy who “diarrheaed” in his bathtub, the episode seems as familiar and as startling as the best works of realism in any medium. Kurt Vonnegut has said the human condition can be summed up by the word, “embarrassment.” Amplify that to “mortification” and you’d have to conclude that, as writer, director and actor, Louis C.K. has become as inquisitive and as unsparing an auteur of the human condition as those hydra-headed humanists Jean Renoir and Luis Bunuel. And I’m not embarrassed to make the comparison.

Nor am I embarrassed to trace Louis C.K.’s filmmaking acumen back to what remains his only big-screen directing credit. I refer, of course, to Pootie Tang, which barely gets mentioned in profiles of Louis and reviews of Louie. Apparently, C.K. remains more embarrassed about it than anybody else. I suppose if Roger Ebert uses phrases like “train wreck” and “not bad so much as inexplicable” to describe my first at-bat as a director, I’d think twice before mentioning it, too.


C.K. and Ebert can think what they want. But if you go to www.rottentomatoes.com and look up the critics’ reviews for Pootie Tang, you will find by my name a red, ripe tomato among a relative sea of green splotches. I am as proud of that tomato as I am of anything I’ve achieved in thirty years of newspaper work. Having watched the movie again recently, I’d add another half star to my original two-and-a-half-star Newsday review in which I brought in both Jean-Luc Godard and Rudy Ray (“Dolemite”) Moore as direct and equivalent influences.

Good luck finding that review on-line, though. For that matter, good luck finding a DVD of Pootie Tang. You can, however, stream the whole movie the way I just did: in pieces, on You Tube. And it doesn’t matter what sequence you watch them in since, befitting the movie’s origin as a recurring sketch on The Chris Rock Show (where Louis C.K. served as staff writer), Pootie Tang is a surreal mélange of bits, sight gags and spoofs glued together by a plot line whose puerile silliness is among the movie’s woozy, offhand graces.

For those who have no idea what I’m talking about, I’ll try to be brief: Pootie Tang (Lance Crowther and where the hell is he these days, anyway?) popped up on Chris Rock Show as this mysterious, bespectacled Lothario whose ways with women were as impenetrably enigmatic as his speech patterns. Pidgin English doesn’t begin to define Pootie’s patois, whose best-remembered outgrowths include the movie’s original title, “(I’m Gonna) Sine Your Pity on the Runny Kine”, “You’re a baddy daddy lamatai tebby chi” (In my delirious moments, I almost get that one) and the oft-repeated, apparently multi-purpose “Sa dat tay.”

The character proved popular enough (even Gwyneth Paltrow appeared on the Rock show doing Pootie-speak) to tempt Rock, C.K. and fellow travelers to concoct a blaxploitation parody giving Pootie a back story: He is born in a “small city outside Gary, Indiana” and raised by a widowed father, a foundry worker played by Rock, who perishes when he’s mauled by a gorilla at work. (“Third time it happened that month,” someone says.)

Daddy Tang bequeaths to his grieving son the belt the former frequently and vigorously applied to the latter as punishment. Pootie is told that he can use the belt to apply Whup Ass to whatever evil comes his way – as it inevitably does in the form of a corporate sharpie (Robert Vaughn) wishing to neutralize Pootie’s global influence as a do-gooder-pop-star-positive-role-model-vigilante.

The pace is pokey. The visual style (or “style”) goes from pasty to pallid in ways that Quentin Tarantino would covet for his own cracks at Roadhouse Chic. The Godard-ian moments come principally in those interludes where Wanda Sykes as Pootie’s loyal, bewigged squeeze Biggie Shorty speaks to the camera at oddly-placed interludes. Any rational minded movie-goer would judge the whole thing as half-baked. But so are most of one’s fainter-by-the-year memories of blaxplotation movies and Pootie Tang’s klutziness works in its favor as a subversive spin not only on what it’s spoofing, but on the very idea of spoofing the genre in the first place.

As J.B., Chris Rock’s narrator-dee-jay persona puts it: “Pootie Tang will draw you a picture of how he gonna kick your ass, then mail it to you ten days in advance. The picture gets there right? You’re goin’, “What the hell is this?” and then Pootie Tang knocks on your door, Promptly kicks your ass and you still won’t know what happened to you!” OK, this isn’t precisely the analogy I was looking for. But re-think the above quote’s references to Pootie Tang as the movie rather than the character and it makes some kind of twisted sense — as does the movie.

Most will never bother finding out. I doubt this brief will change the minds of haters or makers. (As Rock himself said in an episode of The Bernie Mac Show, “Even my momma didn’t see Pootie Tang!”)

Still, whatever problems Louis C.K. has with this movie’s existence, its refusal to paint even within its own wobbly lines resounds in the groundbreaking, boundary-breaching nature of Louie. As Pootie himself might say, and I’m only guessing here, “Dadda bee inna detta tau dandee day.” Or something like that,