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Sunday, July 28, 2013

FRUITVALE STATION 7/28/13


 Tears are streaming down my face  - I keep taking off my glasses so I can wipe them clean to see. The movie Fruitvale Station based on a true event begins and ends with the shooting of 22 year old Oscar Grant celebrating New Year’s Eve on the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) Fruitvale Station stop in Oakland, California during the first minutes of the New Year in 2009.

Director Ryan Coogler shows us the actual footage of the tension, confusion and ultimate police homicide that occurred in the early hours of a new year.  We hear a shot and the camera fades out... and we are brought into the daylight back in time - almost 24 hours - and meet the young man whose tragic fate we already have witnessed. Michael B. Jordan gives an incredibly authentic performance as Oscar Grant in all his complexity. We see the human being behind the symbol of another victim of police brutality as we enter into his life, and that makes the tragedy of his early murder at the hands of those who are given the job to protect us - the LAW - even more palpable and wrenching.

Oscar can be sweet, tough, loving, evasive, generous, hot-tempered, excitable, and at this point in time wanting to change his life after a short stint in San Quentin for drug dealing. He is a sympathetic person with a winsome smile, trying to find work to help support his adored and adoring four- year old daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal,) and regain the trust of the mother of his child – his girlfriend Sophina - beautifully acted by Melonie Diaz, who is both sympathetic and wary of his actions based on Oscar’s past behavior. It is December 31st, not only New Year’s eve which makes one full of resolve for the future, but also his mother’s birthday; the relationship between mother and son is profoundly touching, and Octavia Spencer as his mother becomes the moral focus of the film. She is ever-present in Oscar’s consciousness – whether it be flashbacks or in the present. There is one tender scene depicting a celebratory birthday dinner that takes place a few hours before his crucial trip on the BART which makes evident the joyous and strong familial support system in Oscar’s life.


How many times do we read of young black men being killed in police actions?  Fruitvale Station attempts to show us one of these young men in the flesh, full of the vibrancy, dreams and missteps of a life being actualized in a society that is not color-blind. The end of his life - a life filled with potential and hope brought me to the outpouring of those tears in lamentation and mourning for all the lives that are terminated before they are given the opportunity to continue on this journey we call life.

Monday, July 22, 2013

I'M SO EXCITED 7/22/13


The words surreal, strange, fantastical and bizarre have been associated with Pedro Almodovar’s cinema along with longing, fragility, fluidity of gender, and the search for one’s individual sexuality in a world filled with variations from the “norm.” His 2011 movie THE SKIN I LIVE IN encompassed all those terms and I for one was deeply touched by that exceptionally idiosyncratic film. On the other hand, I’M SO EXCITED is Almodovar on his tiptoes – LIGHT and FROTHY. I do not deny that the movie made me laugh out loud, but it never made me ache with confusion and pain. It never touched me beneath the skin I live in.

The bouncy, brightly colored, whimsical, animated opening credits put a smile on the audiences’ faces, setting the mood for the craziness that was to come. The movie bolts onto the screen with cameos by Airline workers, Penelope Cruz and Antonio Banderas, two of the finest actors in Almodovar’s repertory.  But their cameos are basically a “schtick” - an eccentric bit - with no relation to the rest of the movie, except as a sign that we are about to be launched on a wild ride. 

We meet the flight attendants and passengers of Peninsula 2549 – an Airline like no other - bound from Spain to Mexico, and discover early on that there is trouble with the plane’s landing gear which puts everyone at dire risk as the plane circles round and round looking for a place to land.  How the crew and passengers deal with the end-of-life/ tying-up-loose-ends business goes to the heart of this comic allegory. Life goes on in the midst of probable death so everyone - actually everyone who is not in Economy Class (they are drugged and asleep) - lets loose and are plied with drinks, drugs and engage in sex – a feast of debauchery including gay and straight sex, anonymous and public couplings. We are privy to personal histories, infidelities, lies and scandals – humanity with all its human failings flung out like baggage for all to see and hear.

Three of the Flight attendants who are all gay, function as a Greek Chorus – commenting on the action, and entertaining the travelers with a wonderfully kinky and freaky rendition of the Pointer Sisters song “I Am So Excited.” These flamboyant stewards are the focus of the movie – their struggles with morality, philosophical musings, religion, and libidinal urges make for a tender, extravagant burlesque. There is also a Cassandra-like character – a predictor of future doom that nobody wants to hear, because the underlying truths make everyone uncomfortable.


I love that Pedro Almodovar works on films that are unpredictable. He experiments with all kinds of genres – some are secret and intimate and others are open and “cosmic”. I admire that he does what he wants and each movie is a challenge. Immediately after the movie ended, I felt that this comedy was both hilarious and often too obviously “over the top.” On further reflection, I realized that what I had perceived as superficiality was a strongly structured jab at our human vulnerabilities – delivered with jest and generosity – all the better to grasp and hold you.

Monday, July 8, 2013

20 FEET FROM STARDOM 7/8/13

What does it feel like to be 20 feet from stardom? Ask me – I am a visual artist who is familiar with the waves that crest and then come crashing down. Oh yes the fickleness of nature and the vicissitudes of acclaim, glory and celebrity! 20 FEET FROM STARDOM directed by Morgan Neville gives us the back-story on the back-up singers for many superstars from the 1960’s to today. This film focuses on the mostly African American women who gave depth, sparkle, glamour (with style and swagger,) and musical resonance to the performances of Ray Charles, Ike and Tina Turner, Mick Jagger and The Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, Luther Vandross, Sting, and David Bowie among others. But who are these women? Do we even know their names?

The documentary, 20 FEET FROM STARDOM introduces them to us by giving a NAME to the voices – giving a life story to those who have been blotted out. We are made privy to often exciting, exhilarating and heart-breaking narratives through archival film footage and biographical accounts that divulge the years of hard work these professionals endured honing their craft. And we see them today revealing the alterations that time doth inflict on us all. In the early years, many of these gorgeous singers were “scenery” for the guys up front OOOhing and AAAhing in perfect harmony, wearing tight clothes that accentuated shaking, fluid hips while they bellowed out an orchestrated range of tones “behind” the Maestro. But they were much more than “eye candy” – they were integral to the fire and spirit that drove the audiences into a frenzied state at jam-packed concerts.

Each one of these women has a history – a long history with the world of music and the artists that they have been associated with. We meet Claudia Lennear, Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, T├íta Vega, Judith Hill and the Waters Family, etc, as well as Sheryl Crow who sang back-up for Michael Jackson early in her career We get glimpses of how these individuals were treated, ie: Darlene Love by Phil Spector who would not let her out of her contract and stalled her career for years.  In contrast, Luther Vandross was incredibly generous to those who worked with him such as Brooklyn born, Lisa Fischer who I was particularly attracted to. She garnered the respect and admiration of those who sang with her, and to this day at the age of 55 shares lead vocals with Mick Jagger and is still singing back-up on all the Rolling Stones tours. Fischer has a beautiful smile, a wonderful, natural and hopeful way of talking about her experiences. Yes she and her voice got to me!

Personal reminiscences, life dramas and struggles are delineated. Each woman has forged her own path; each woman has had her ups and downs.  Success is ephemeral and the most penetrating thing that they can do for themselves is to sing loud and clear, giving expression to the intensity and breadth of the joy and sorrow that springs from one’s inner, profound self.


As an artist I try to remind myself of this everyday.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

THE BLING RING 7/7/13


Every film Sofia Coppola has directed is both romantic in a perverse way, and touchingly innocent. THE BLING RING zeroes in on our fascination with celebrity culture, but not of the “great” performers, but rather our adoration of the accessories/accoutrements that sheer beauty and glamour bestows on the “chosen” that grace the covers of tabloids and supermarket/ convenience store displays. I would call this phenomenon - “Stash/Splash” with its spill over marketing of an intoxicating lifestyle to those who covet a superficial “look” and sleek values.

Marc (Israel Broussard), an average looking teen is the new “kid” attending his first day of High School in an upscale Los Angeles neighborhood.  We discover early on that Marc has had a bit of a rocky educational history in his former high schools – nothing too serious – but Coppola is letting us know that this young man does not toe the “straight and narrow.” Like a wildcat sniffing a lamb, Rebecca, a lovely looking, predatory fellow student (an excellent performance by Katie Chang) immediately discerns a kindred spirit and the two become “best friends” each voraciously enthralled with celeb lore and the “bling” that blankets their lives.

Rebecca, the ringleader, who is fearless, desires what these “icons” have, and is determined to get what she wants, introducing Marc, her willingly passive partner into an exciting, seemingly benign world of  “trespass.” He works the computer and finds out when the targets/marks are out of town on promotional jaunts, and then they both break into these fabulous homes complete with rooms (not just closets) of over the top designer clothes, jewelry, shoes, etc. Both intruders assume that what they steal would never be missed. Soon we are introduced to a gang of girlfriends who rapaciously join the night invasions, each acting like ravaging foragers.

To complete the picture, we are given a glimpse into the family life of one of the members of the club whose name is Niki, played by Emma Watson the British actress known for her part as Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter film series, doing a great impersonation of “Valley” girl patois. She lives with her new-age mother (Leslie Mann) and an “adopted” friend and fellow conspirator Sam (Taissa Farmiga); both girls are home-schooled and straddle innocence and marauding hunger for feverish experience. In one telling “teaching lesson” Niki’s mother projects an image of Angelina Jolie on the screen and asks the girls what they admire about her. They respond to her clothes, thinness, jewels, and most importantly her “hot” husband Brad Pitt.


THE BLING RING is more than just satire; it envelops us with a biting halo of truth pointing at America’s obsession with obtaining money effortlessly, and what such currency can purchase. I also kept thinking that Sofia Coppola is showing the flip side of the rap culture’s adulation and emulation of “bling” as evidenced by white upper class privileged youths. Except once caught the sentencing for transgressions are a whole lot “lighter” for one social class than another. Here Money talks.