This is not cinema for the ages but I think it’s worth seeing, both for the pretty standard superficial but satisfying uplift narrative (irrepressible young people with crappy lives in a dead-end town bond and find some joy in creativity) and more importantly for starting much more interesting conversations about cultural appropriation and representation. Patti Cake$ is a white girl who wants to rap, or rather, more specifically, who wants to be a rap star. Her hero is the kingmaker rap star O-Z, who is black. Now, if Patti were a rich and skinny white girl from Beverly Hills or Tribeca, you’d be hating on her already for trying to appropriate black rap culture for herself. But she’s overweight and working poor from sludgy New Jersey, which maybe leads you to suspend that snap judgment and root for her instead? Maybe you think of her as a human being who loves the music, has some talent, and deserves a break and you hold back from unloading the Iggy Azalea critique on her? (Side note: Danielle Macdonald is also Australian.) Or maybe you don’t, maybe you point out that she treats both of the two black males she encounters — one of them very powerful, the other powerless — as owing her something, and that also — ahem — she’s not a very good rapper. In the end, the movie finds a middle way through this thicket which I could easily spin as a self-excusing cop-out or as insightful, inclusive, and respectful. Check it for yourself and see what you think. Oh finally just need to add that I love Bridget Everett so much.
600 Miles, Gabriel Ripstein (2015). You can’t just point a camera at someone driving a car with golden hour light on their face and let it run for three minutes. It’s not suspenseful; it’s boring. A small story like this depends on effective characterization and unfortunately that doesn’t happen here. Too bad because we have a dire need to see normal human Mexicans on the screen instead of just caricatures and thugs.
Miles Ahead, Don Cheadle (2015). So ridiculous it almost gets fun, but no. This is terrible.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Ben Fountain (2012). Really wanted to like this but the prose is so jumped-up it made me nervous like I’d had six cups of coffee. Someone told Fountain that there need to be three fancy whiz-bang usages per page in order to keep the reader’s interest, maybe? There was a point where I thought we were getting into Tim O’Brien-style magical realism, but then it turned out that I was just being asked to believe something totally unbelievable, and that bothered me. I guess Ang Lee made a movie out of this in super high 3D HD; I don’t get why.
Alabama in the Twentieth Century, Wayne Flynt (2004). I’ve been meaning to get to this for a long time. It’s an academic history from a university press, and thus unsurprisingly a little long on data and a little short on synthesis for the lay reader, but I still came away with a much better sense of the political, social, and cultural dynamics of my adopted home state. In a nutshell, it’s run by an oligarchy of major landowners and businessmen who by and large don’t give much of a hoot about the public good. Which is more depressing: Watching my true home states in the Midwest devolve from their progressive labor-informed roots into paranoid right-wing madness, or living in a place that never had any progressive labor-informed traditions in the first place?
Straight Outta Compton, F. Gary Gray (2015). Trucks with a lot of the Behind the Music clichés, sure, but they’re clichés because they’re so frequently true. It’s really a pretty good movie, well-acted and visually dynamic. As with all based-on-a-true-story stories, there are certainly robust arguments to be had about what got put in, what got left out, and what got made up. For example, there are some gestures toward acknowledging the violence against women perpetrated by the group, but IMHO not enough.
The Great Beauty, Paolo Sorrentino (2013). I keep going back and forth on this one. It’s a classic imitative fallacy problem: Is the movie critiquing self-indulgence, narcissism, half-baked art, vacuous philosophizing, and bourgeois complacency, or is it an example of all of the above? Maybe both/and. It’s certainly delicious to look at, and I do find myself smiling an awful lot. Makes me feel both wistful and embarrassed to feel anything at all.
The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer (2012). Everyone said to watch this, but when I read about it I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to handle it. My solution was to watch it in several successive sessions, not all at once, which worked OK. It is so weird and heartbreaking and mesmerizing and horrifying and beautiful. It should never have been made and it’s a fantastic accomplishment. I watched it two months ago and I’m still not over it. It’s like Night and Fog crossed with 8 1/2. It’s about corruption and genocide and torture and power and all that. And it’s also very much about history and historiography, particularly how monstrous crimes get narrativized and thus normalized. So you have to grapple with abstract questions about historiography and representation and power while simultaneously grappling with very non-abstract realities of people killing each other in cold blood. It’s a lot to take. This really deserves thinking about at more length and in more detail but I’m kind of scared of it.
The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, Göran Olsson (2011). Terrific footage shot by Swedish journalists forms the backbone of this documentary, and it’s fascinating and wonderful to watch. When the editors and director start trying to be synthetic historians the piece gets a little watery, since they are incapable of seeing their subjects as anything but totemic heroes. Never mind the commentary and absorb this instead as raw history; it’s fantastic.