Monday, June 28, 2010
By Scott Tre
Fair or not, some things become synonymous with each other over time. Whenever people think of jails and prisons, rest assured the subject of anal rape is not too far behind. During my brief stint as a correction officer, whenever people would ask me about my job they would inevitably steer the conversation toward sodomy. They seemed repulsed and intrigued in about equal measure. It's not all their fault. Movies, documentaries, rap songs and stand up comedians have made male violation seem like the favorite past time of American inmates.
The latest episode of The Boondocks, entitled "A Date With the Booty Warrior", takes aim at America's fascination with rectal violation behind bars. It is the second episode to focus on Tom Dubois' crippling and irrational fear of anal rape. This was introduced in the season one episode "A Date With The Health Inspector", where Tom Dubois sees an anal rape scene in a prison movie on cable as a child. He is so traumatized that he lives the rest of his life in mortal fear of having that most intimate of body cavities breached by a cell full of sadistic convicts. As "A Date With The Booty Warrior Opens", Tom has seemingly conquered his fear. As proof of this triumph, he agrees to take a group of troubled kids to a Scared Stiff trip to the Willie Horton Penitentiary. The group includes Huey and Riley. While there, a riot breaks out, leaving the kids at the hands of the inmates. As Huey helps the inmates organize, a frightened Tom must decide whether to preserve his precious manhood or "man up" and rescue the kids.
This episode gleefully goes way over the top, portraying Tom's fear as an honest to goodness phobia. Despite his fear, Tom is very tolerant of homosexuality. He is a gay rights advocate and has no problem with viewing depictions of consensual gay sex in movies and television. This might suggest that Toms overtly "homo-friendly" nature might a be a form of over compensation. The term "pause" is again played for laughs, as is the ineffectiveness of scaring kids straight. The inmates are shown to be not only inarticulate, but incapable of organizing themselves or seeing beyond there own base instincts and desires.
The "booty warrior" of the title is a send up of a real life convict that was interviewed on an episode of the MSNBC documentary series Locked Up. In the now infamous clip, an inmate named Fleece Johnson explains the mentality behind homosexuality and rape in prison. In the process he makes "booty" sound like the most sought after commodity imaginable. The fact that the clip ends up unintentionally humorous undermines its intended impact. Chris Hansen from "To Catch a Predator" is this episode's first clear target, and opens the show on the perfect note.
When I first saw the promo for this episode, I mistakenly assumed it would be a giant send up of the classic "special" episode of Fat Albert & The Cosby Kids entitled "Busted". In that episode, Fat Albert and the gang are given a Scared Straight style tour of a maximum security prison after they are arrested for joyriding. "A Date With The Booty Warrior" doesn't seem to have any references to it at all. Instead, it mines the prison rape theme for every possible joke, cheap or otherwise. Most of it is obvious and hilarious. Up until the actual riot, the hilarity is consistent and non stop. There is also a bit of commentary on the prison industrial complex by way of Huey that works on a variety of levels and shows just how insightful the show can be in spite of its hamfisted approach.
"A Date With The Booty Warrior" continues the winning streak of this seasons latter half. It's every bit as outrageous as "Pause", and offers satisfying closure to the plight of Tom Dubois. Tom is not only The Boondocks resident assimilated negro, but he is also the living embodiment of anxiety. Fear rules his life. That in and of itself is perhaps an insight into the Black male psyche that Aaron Mcgruder never intended. Just as the violent macho posturing found in America's prisons is mostly a facade, Tom's entire persona is a coping mechanism. The only difference is that he chooses avoidance and passivity over brutality and intimidation. Both Tom and the inmates have a way of protecting their manhood. The Boondocks finds a way to make both quite funny.
Sunday, June 27, 2010
By Scott Tre
Perhaps the single most recognized and imaginative weapon in film history, Freddy's clawed glove represents Hollywood imagination at its most primal. It inspires both fear and admiration. That it was conceived by a child molester/murderer for the purpose of savoring the killing of his victims was all but lost on the generation of young movie goers for whom Krueger would emerge as an icon. The original A Nightmare On Elm Street downplayed Freddy's pedophilia to avoid accusations of exploiting a then recent scandal involving sexually abused children. It remained a rather vague subtext, restlessly stirring underneath the dream demon/slasher angle.
Freddy is shown constructing his prized weapon in an opening credits montage. He lovingly attaches every hinge and smooths out malleable metal sheets around a ratty leather glove. That's part of its charm: It very much looks like something that any black smith or metal worker could construct. It was modern for its time, yet strikingly primitive. No movie monster before or since has had such a novel weapon, one that tells you everything you need to know about him at a single glance. Freddy savors his kills. He lives to scare, torture and kill children. That he evolved into a symbol of cool for an entire generation of kids is both a testament to Robert Englund's charisma and America's attraction to the perverse and macabre.
The thin curved blades that protrude from the metal shells slice, stab and rake flesh as easy as butter. They are not as powerful or as fearsome as Leatherface's chainsaw or Jason Voorhee's machete, but they are infinitely more interesting. Loud power tools have no personality. They are too impersonal. The same goes for huge knives and cleavers. They still leave the killer at arms length from his victim. Freddy's glove requires that he reach out and touch his victims. It is an extension of his evil, a literal part of him. We see him make it and put it on, but we never see him take it off. It isn't simply something he picks up and uses. It fuses with him, forming a symbiotic relationship. The actual functionality and practicality of the glove is anyone guess, but its onscreen impact is undeniable.
Friday, June 25, 2010
By Scott Tre
As the late George Carlin once lamented, Americans mistakenly think that bullsh_t only comes from certain people and sources. Wisdom and maturity reveal the sad truth that misinformation and deception are not exclusive to select venues. The word of supposed real life gangsters is no more trust worthy than that of the rappers who emulate and pay tribute to them. The same can be said for the journalist and media outlets that produce books and documentaries that claim to offer the unbiased truth. The printed word is no more reliable than the spoken word. In such an environment, how should an inquiring mind go about seeking out the truth?
The answer is both patience and persistence. Every source should be sought out and investigated and every angle and opinion considered. This goes for both investigative journalists and the public they serve. A dedication to the truth will eventually uncover that truth. Too often the public accepts the word of opportunists who speak loudly and confidently enough. They know the subterfuge won't last, so they pull a bait and switch, cashing in while they can and then quickly fading into obscurity. By the time the mark realizes he's been had, it's too late. Thankfully, freelance writers like Ron Chepesiuk are here to help us wade through the muck.
Ron Chepesiuk's new book, Sergeant Smack: The Legendary Lives and Times of Ike Atkinson, Kingpin, and His Band of Brothers serves as the antidote to the snake oil that has been sold to the American public wholesale. It is the authorized biography of one Ike Atkinson, retired Army Master Sergeant and former heroin smuggler. Ike, recently released from prison is aided by Ron's journalistic talents to set the record straight-- countering the misinformation that has been gleefully spread over the past few years by self-proclaimed American Gangster Frank Lucas.
Ike's name will be familiar to those who can recall the New York Magazine article "The Return Of Superfly" by Mark Jacobson. Jacobson tracked down and interviewed the broke, aging Lucas. The resulting article provided the basis for the Ridley Scott film American Gangster. The public promptly accepted the story told in the article and film as undisputed fact. For them, the truths related in Sergeant Smack should be nothing short of a revelation. Ron Chepesiuk has actually done the footwork that Marc Jacobson, undoubtedly thrilled to have obtained the story of a lifetime, could not be bothered with.
The book starts off detailing Atkinson's early life in Goldsboro, North Carolina. It gives us a complete picture of his childhood in the old south without lingering on it too much. We are swiftly ushered along to his military career, which began in deception. Ike was actually too young to serve his country, but an overzealous recruiter saw that as a mere technicality. Ike's penchant for hustling began with card games and would eventually evolve into a much more lucrative and dangerous undertaking: heroin smuggling.
Along with his friend and partner William Herman Jackson, Ike established a heroine trafficking organization that never employed violent tactics and operated completely independent of La Cosa Nostra. African American dealers across the eastern seaboard were provided with product so pure that it could be "stepped on" and stretched much further than the diluted goods offered by the Italian Mob. The organization was based in Bangkok, Thailand and reached all the way to the fifty states. Ron Chepesiuk offers a point by point break down of the internal relationships and daily operations. In order to evade detection by authorities, Ike and his associates had to be endlessly inventive. Duffle bags with sewn in secret compartments were used, as were custom made teak wood furniture and even the Military Postal Service.
Perhaps the biggest myth attached to Ike's legacy is the famed "Cadaver Connection", where heroin was supposedly smuggled to the U.S. via the coffins of soldiers killed in the Vietnam war. The theory has existed for decades and has been perpetuated by the likes of Frank Lucas and others. Ron Chepesiuk exposes this for the overly elaborate hoax that it is by applying both common sense and a relentless eye for detail. He builds an iron clad case against the "Cadaver Connection" that one would would be hard pressed to challenge. The chapter is reminiscent of Oliver Stone's film JFK in that it amazingly processes a sea of impenetrably complex information into a comprehensible narrative.
Sergeant Smack: The Legendary Lives and Times of Ike Atkinson, Kingpin, and His Band of Brothers is one of the most intriguing and unlikely true crime tales you will ever read. Its thrills don't come by way of a massive body count, but by way of a main character who employs charm, intelligence and wit. With every brush with the law, the tension reaches an unbearable level and the reader begins to wonder just how Ike is able to navigate the situation without breaking a sweat. Ike Atkinson emerges as one of the most level headed and well mannered kingpins of all time, and Ron Chepesiuk puts himself squarely ahead of just about very other "true crime" author working today.
Thursday, June 24, 2010
By Scott Tre
Over the past two decades, Bruce Timm and his team have established the DC Animated Universe as an enterprise without peer. They hit the bulls eye more often than not. Even when their relatively few misses are taken into account, just about any other animation studio would beg for their track record. Batman: The Animated series is still hailed as possibly the best non comic iteration of the character, and Justice League: Crises On Two Earths could easily rival any mega budgeted live action superhero flick. The DCAU is going strong as a locomotive with nary a stop in sight.
The upcoming Batman: Under The Red Hood looks to be no exception and will take the the DCAU into deeper, darker waters. The story is taken from the notorious "Death In The Family" arc that infamously killed off Jason Todd as per reader request. It also contains elements of "Under The Hood". The DVD will be in stores on July 27th. The Youtube clip below shows a brief but intense exchange between the caped crusader and the Red Hood. The blood spatter visible on the wall gives a hint as to the darker, edgier tone of the feature. I can hardly wait.
Wednesday, June 23, 2010
By Scott Tre
The original Predator sits right alongside the original Die Hard in the annals of modern action cinema. Both hold a place of honor as consummate and superb examples of brisk 80's film making. They are compulsively watchable, and that has been key to their appeal. They are part of any true action fans collection and get at least a yearly rotation in DVD players worldwide. That director John Mctiernan could have two such films on his resume speaks to his understanding of the genre. Neither seemed to be conceived as masterpieces but both ended up becoming just that.
Even more shocking is that, given the reverence for the original Predator, the reboot seems to be generating more excitement among fandom than resentment or apprehension. Perhaps it's because, as great as the original is, the story is high-concept enough to sustain a re-imagining. Perhaps more than any other genre, action films benefit from advances in film-making and weapons technology. We are now in an era where directors and screenwriters can conjure up whatever they wish. This has been both a blessing and a curse, but as long as restraint is shown it needn't be a concern.
What stands out most in the new international red band trailer for Predators is the ferocity of it all. It seems fully committed to the Most Dangerous Game motif, with the testosterone overdosed protagonists all sporting thousand yard stares that are meant to cover up fear. A First Blood style spiked booby trap can be seen at one moment. The main characters are not performing black ops in central America like Arnold and his crew. Instead they have been rounded up on a strange planet that serves as a giant game preserve. The only sense of unity among them stems from the mortal danger they all face. They are totally stranded and isolated. Truth be told, their predicament is scarier than the one dramatized in the original.
This may not end up being as influential or beloved as the original, but it most certainly looks to be a high octane offering on it's own terms. My anticipation for this is officially in high gear, even if it is directed by the same guy who made Armored. Predator can never be replaced, but perhaps I can now make room on my shelf for a worthy companion piece (The highly underrated Predator 2 notwithstanding). Expect the critics to be as divided on this one as they were on the original (Roger Ebert liked it, Gene Siskel didn't).
By Scott Tre
True Pop songs rarely move me. In fact, the lead singles off even my favorite artists albums don't appeal to me for one simple reason: The first single is often what the artist and/or label deem to be the most marketable. I've always felt that if you truly want to know what's in an artists soul, you have to wait for one of the subsequent singles. Better yet, buy the album. His most potent work is possibly buried there.
When The Source Magazine gave Nas debut Illmatic the then coveted "5 Mic" designation in the spring of 1994, it caused a slight furor. Much of it revolved around the perception of east coast bias on the part of the burgeoning Hip-Hop media. How could a new and relatively unknown artist from New York receive a level of praise that has eluded even the best and most popular artists from other regions?
Up until that point, the only thing anyone had heard from the album was the Large Professor produced lead single, "It Ain't Hard To Tell", which employed a sample from Micheal Jackson's "Human Nature". The song featured Nasir Jones at his abstract and braggadocios best, but it was nothing that would convert non believers. It was a bit too subdued, courting lyrical enthusiasts almost exclusively. Though dope, it didn't seem to herald the coming of a genre changing album.
My friends and I anticipated the release of the album. We all thought Nas was undeniably dope due to his posse cut appearances and the year and a half old single "Half Time". Still, none of us could fathom that he'd be the new golden boy. He just didn't seem to have that "it" factor. How superficial teenage minds can be when contemplating art.
The local college mix show that we all listened to was the only way that transplanted New Yorkers could get their fix while living in GA. The name escapes me at the moment, but I remember the station being 88.5 and the show being on Sunday nights. They would always debut the best underground Hip-Hop from all over, with the emphasis often falling on the northeast region. Some nights they may even play an exclusive from a Ron G mix tape. On one particular night, that's exactly what they did.
As usual, I kept the my tape on pause in preparation to capture some gems. While getting my clothes ready for school the next day I heard something world changing emanating from my speakers. Almost like the pied piper was calling to me. It was a piano sample, looped in a way that I had not quite heard before. It came courtesy of came courtesy of Ahmad Jamal's "I Love Music". Even with the DJ's incessant yelling, it called out to me. It demanded that I awake out of my drab routine and take notice. It coasted over the peaks and valleys of a plodding boom bap track. "What song is this?" I wondered. "Whatever it is, the beat is dope. Could it be? Yo!"
I ran to my tape deck and hit the pause button. My deck, chomping at the bit like an overeager gunfighter, released the tape and and allowed the beautiful track to leave its footprints. Then, Nas voice came in. I was so excited that I wasn't in the frame of mind to truly take in the words. I just listened. The relatively complex rhyme structure combined articulate enunciation with street slang. Everything formed murky nostalgic pictures. Almost like you were traveling through the recesses of someones mind. Every once in a while a true gem would stand out, like a phrase from a Bible verse:
Born alone, die alone, no crew to keep my crown or
throne I'm deep by sound alone, caved inside in a thousand
miles from home I need a new nigga, for this black cloud to follow Cause while it's over me it's too dark to see tomorrow
That's how each of the verses played. The picture that emerged is that of an introspective soul whose mind wanders well beyond the confines of the high rise project where he lives. We allows his consciousness to wander from one picture to the next. Every now and then, loneliness rears its head and he is brought crashing back down to reality. That would be the black cloud mentioned in the bolded line above. The negative thoughts that obscure the light and stifle ambition. Still the author prattles on. The world doesn't stop, and neither does the authors mind or his memories.
The amazing piano sample embodies the mix of emotions conveyed in the lyrics. At once sentimental and nostalgic, yet somewhat somber and world weary. A feint sense of hope permeates it, which is emphasized by the shout outs that close the song out:
To everybody in Queens, the foundation "It's yours!" The world is yours To everybody uptown, yo, the world is yours
"It's yours!" The world is yours To everybody in Brooklyn Y'all know the world is yours "It's yours!" The world is yours Everybody in Mount Vernon, the world is yours
"It's yours!" Long Island, the world is yours "It's yours!" Staten Island, yea the world is yours "It's yours!" South Bronx, the world is yours "It's yours!" Aight
Nas seems to be encouraging the listener to dwell not on where they are, but dream of where they could be. The world is bigger than your block or your borough. Even though it is directed toward New Yorkers, the message doesn't come off as exclusionary as one may think. I'd like to believe that Nas was imploring his Big Apple brethren to think bigger and more positive.
Now doubt that the title was probably inspired by the phrase made famous by Brian De Palma's bloody opus Scarface. Nas is part of the cult of Montana, but the song itself seems to speak of something a bit more elevated than the base and shallow ambitions displayed in that film. Allusions to New York city drug culture are made (hence the mention of the murderous Pappy Mason), but the culture is not glorified or reveled in. They come of as more of a point of reference. The opening line is a good clue as to where Nas head is at:
I sip the Dom P, watchin' Gandhi til I'm charged Then writin' in my book of rhymes, all the words
pass the margin
The author is fueled by not just by liquor but the life and philosophy of a spiritual leader who sought peace and equality for his people. He considers the duality of man, the ability to indulge earthly pleasures while dreaming of higher things. Not as contradictory as the notion of placing a "positive/conscious" song in the midst of an album that celebrates hedonism and violence. It comes of as more of a meditation. I defy even the most die hard Scarface fan to argue that Tony Montana had quite so much on his mind in his quest to dominate the dope trade.
Producer Pete Rocks of key singing during the hook lends an air of sincerity and earnestness. The incessant cutting of the hook from T La Rocks classic "It's Yours" adds an air of old school celebration. It adrenalizes and sedates, making you feel alive but woozy. The mix of themes and emotions is entrancing. It leaves the listener a bit unsure as to what particular response Nas was aiming for.
The initial response to Illmatic was muted outside of New York. It took a full two years to be certified Gold by the RIAA. It did so just after Nas truly became mainstream with his more radio friendly sophomore release It Was Written. At the time, I considered the muted response to the album as proof of my pet theory that you really had to be from NY to "get" Nas and his music. I can see now how pompous and xenophobic such a perspective was. Music does not belong to the region that spawned it. Truly great art transcends boundaries. This is evidenced by West Coast rapper Fashawn's recent Ode To Illmatic mixtape.
Upon moving back to NY I realized that anyone could love and appreciate "The World is Yours", but for New Yorkers it holds a special significance. It speaks to our conflicted relationship with our city. It illustrates the way dominates our perspective and gives us comfort, but oppresses us in a way that urges us to seek solace elsewhere.
For me, "The World is Yours" is New York, and the most affecting Rap song I have ever heard. it not only represents post golden era New York Rap at its best, but one of our most gifted artist at the height of his power. Nas touched on a feeling that I think even he couldn't really describe if asked. Such is the power of a truly gifted soul. They rarely understand what they posses. The song is the perfect balm for differed dreams, making you ponder your limitations while asking you to be bound by them.
Thanks Nas. Thanks Pete. You affected my world. For that I am eternally grateful.
Tuesday, June 22, 2010
By Scott Tre
The films that feed America's gangster fetish rarely focus on the truly disturbing side of crime and the environment that breeds it. Even the best crime stories focus on the sexier elements of the game. America loves to revel in pitched battles between rivals or see characters indulge in the spoils of war. What of the things we don't see or hear about? What of the kids who are kidnapped and killed in order to "send a message"? What of the criminals who truly have no code or boundaries? Those stories tend not to be as marketable, and so filmmakers stray away from them.
In the fall of 1994, as the early 90's "Hood" movie cycle was still in high gear, a gritty little crime tale quietly slipped in and out of theaters. It wasn't set in the then popular world of L.A. gang warfare, and it didn't benefit from a soundtrack filled with the more colorful Gangsta rappers of the day. It featured no rappers among its cast, and presents a young child as its protagonist. It fearlessly showed scenes that depicted not only cruelty to animals, but cruelty to children. The world it presented was harsh and unrelenting. It offered its hero no respite, and the viewer no relief.
That movie was Fresh, written and directed by Boaz Yakin and starring Sean Nelson as the Michael, who goes by the nickname that serves as the films title. Michael is a 12 year old boy in Brooklyn who works as a runner for local drug lords Corky (Ron Brice) and Esteban(Giancarlo Esposito). Because of his circumstances, Fresh has been forced to grow up much too fast. He is wise beyond his years. He handles situations like an adult although he isn't one. His calm and collected demeanor often causes the adults around him to react to him as a peer, although they clearly see other wise.
Fresh has a beautiful sister (N'Bushe Wright), whom Esteban seeks to possess. Esteban sees himself as a throwback to the gentlemen gangsters of yore. His self image is contradicted by his squalid living conditions and his overall sleazy demeanor. Esteban treats Fresh as both a son and an employee. Like many of the other adult characters, he sees nothing wrong with engaging in adult behavior in front of children, which is evidenced by how he allows Fresh to walk in his bedroom just after he finishes having sex with Fresh's sister. As she lays completely nude and sprawled out over the bed in a heroine induced haze, Esteban parades around the room with nary a stitch of clothing. Fresh and his young friend look on. Fresh says nothing, but his facial expression seethes with quiet rage. It is a subtle but shocking moment.
We see a young boy get murdered on a ball court, for no other reason than being a better ball player than one of Fresh's older associates in the drug game. The killing results in another casualty as a young girl that Fresh has a crush on gets hit by a stray bullet. Fresh has the unenviable duty of putting her out of her misery as she gasps for air while gurgling blood. In another unflinching moment we are reminded that this is a world in which being a child exempts you from nothing.
The only seeming bright spot in Fresh's world are the chess lessons imparted by his alcoholic father Sam (Samuel L. Jackson). He schools Fresh in the rules of chess and being the sharp young man that he is, Fresh applies those lessons to the treacherous world he navigates on a daily basis. The game gives him an invaluable weapon, helping him to emancipate himself and his sister from the unforgiving streets of Brooklyn while exacting revenge on his oppressors.
Fresh devises a plan that plays Esteban and Corky against each other. In one very tense scene, we see that one of them has no qualms about beating a child to death simply to "send a message". Again, low class dope boy chic adds a sense of irony to the delusions of grandeur on display. The dealers see themselves as mini moguls or heads of state, when the reality is that they rule over a rat and roach ridden concrete wasteland where the residents are held hostage. The high rise projects and train tracks of New York's most populated borough have never looked more desolate. This is a kingdom that no king worth his salt would ever envy.
Dog fighting is shown with equally chilling accuracy. Not so much the fighting itself, but the fate of a particular dog that is as elaborately cruel as any number of slasher movie kills. It is one of the many scenes in Fresh that tests the viewers boundaries and dares them to keep watching. None of it is done in loving artistic detail, but is shown matter of fact. No stylization or thrill seeking. Profanity flies out of the characters mouths in a way that rivals the freedom with which they release bullets into highly populated areas. It all plays as a metaphor for the physical and moral mine field these kids are forced to navigate. They adopt the mannerisms of their unworthy adult role models as a means of survival.
Fresh is not mentioned nearly as much as more popular and highly praised offerings such as Menace II Society and Boyz N The Hood. It is equally as powerful and well made as the former and easily better than the latter. Perhaps arriving fairly late in the 'Hood sweepstakes and taking place in a less cosmetically pleasant setting hurt its prospects. More than likely, the fact that it portrayed violence against children in such an fearless manner was the main reason. It is a bitter pill to swallow. The only thing close to thrill being offered is the feint hope that the young protagonist makes it out alive. Even if he does, the audience has been heavily taxed by what they have seen.
Writer/Director Boaz Yakin is not African American, yet he went to great pains to avoid many of the cliches associated with the genre. The soundtrack does not pulsate with rap music (although Members of the Wu-Tang clan did provide a couple of offerings that plunked on a soundtrack CD for the film). There are no ghetto travelogue moments meant to titillate white viewers. There is no humor meant to lighten the mood. Fresh is neither conceived nor executed as a conventional entertainment. It is meant for thoughtful but tough viewers who can stomach the harsher elements of crime lore. If you have the brain and the stomach, you should give Fresh a try. If nothing else gets you, the shocking final moment will.
Monday, June 21, 2010
By Scott Tre
The blind, unquestioned devotion that Tyler Perry receives from certain portions of the black community got severely lampooned on last nights episode of The Boondocks. Entitled "Pause", the episode pulls no punches, addressing both the obvious and not so obvious undertones and contradictions that surround the Tyler Perry phenomenon. Aaron Mcgruder and company take aim not only at Perry himself, but his creative output and his fanbase as well. The end result is perhaps the most scathing indictment imaginable. The Boondocks has effectively trumped any number of cultural critics and editorialists who have attempted to put things in perspective. The ideas presented may not be "accurate" but they cut to heart of the matter in a very bold way.
"Pause" centers around the wildly popular Winston Jerome. Winston is a cross dressing actor/playright/filmmaker who specializes in "chitlin circuit" plays with soap opera plots and christian messages. His claim to fame is a female character named Ma Dukes, which is played by Winston in Drag. Grandpa Freeman is a huge fan of the works of Winston jerome and answers a casting call for his latest production. The casting call is actually a thinly veiled recruitment drive for Winstons cult like theater company, the homoerotic atmosphere of which is in direct contradiction with the Christian beliefs that Jerome claims to be his inspiration. Huey and Riley attempt to rescue their grandfather become he becomes part of the fold.
The Parallels with the Tyler Perry phenomenon are obvious and intentional. There is no mistake as to who Winston Jerome is a stand in for. "Pause" leaves no stone unturned. The title itself is a reference to the overused phrase that is meant to be a disclaimer for any statement that could be considered in any way gay. The seeming obviousness of Perry's true sexual orientation is also tackled, as is the inherent contradiction of cross dressing male who purports to be a messenger for Christ. The blind devotion of Perry's audience is a constant running joke. They consider his works to be positive because they contain no profanity or racial epithets, yet the lurid subject matter is excused. The questionable quality of his scripts also takes a blow. His empire and message are written off as a way for him to indulge his homosexuality without being scrutinized.
How the viewer feels about this will depend on what side of the divide he or she falls. The Tyler Perry phenomenon has long been a lightning rod issue within and without the African American community. There are those who not only question Perry's sexuality, but the actual quality of his work and sincerity of his "message". They are often written off as haters or house negroes by the faithful. Likewise, Tyler Perry supporters are often written off as mindless religious fanatics who will forsake artistic quality in exchange for a "message" they can relate to. This is the first time such discourse has been framed in coherent way. The observations and conclusions reached in "Pause" might not exactly be "fair", but they warrant discussion. Tyler Perry has emerged as the preeminent black film maker of his day and the validity and significance of his career should be evaluated.
Truly valuable parody and satire rarely play it safe. If really want to provoke thought and inspire laughter you have to hit where it hurts. The Boondocks seems to get that, even though it is not always able to make good on that premise. "Pause" is funny and times even hilarious. It has moments of true inspiration even though it sort of devolves into a game of the dozens played at Tyler Perry's expense. It is very telling about the state of black entertainment that the most thoughtful discourse about this subject has taken place in the form of a half hour cartoon. Folks on both sides of the divide are perhaps to close to the subject to truly evaluate it. Like Huey himself, The Boondocks seems to view from the outside looking in. What does that say about Mcgruder himself? Does he see himself as being a part of the world he portrays, or merely a commentator?
Sunday, June 20, 2010
By Scott Tre
Upon seeing The A-Team on television as a young child, I was immediately hooked. That same summer my mother had taken me to see Rocky III, and just like every other kid my age I had become enamored with Mr. T. I had heard much about the show from my young friends before I had ever watched it. The advertisements made it seem like something aimed at adults. My early misconception could not be further from the truth. By the time the end credits rolled, my young mind was sold.
The A-Team became a regular ritual for me during my 1st and 2nd grade years. I remember the teacher putting my name on the board because I was humming the theme song for the show shortly before the final bell rang. In Christmas of 1984, my father, who always had a keen awareness of what interested me as a child, bought me three A-Team action figures: Hannibal, B.A. and Murdock. Each came with an M-16, binoculars and other accessories.
The A-Team property is one of my few childhood obsessions that did not stay with me throughout my adult years. Attempts to cash in on the nostalgia factor of the show have always been lost on me. When it was announced that Joe Carnahan was heading up a big screen version of the franchise, I couldn't muster up much interest. I did harbor a tiny bit of curiosity as to what it would look like. The A-Team was, from a visual standpoint, the consummate "80's Show". The wardrobe and catch phrases spouted by Mr. T could hardly work in today's world.
When the first pieces of advertising surfaced, my curiosity was mildly peaked. The trailer seemed to capture the spirit of the show, but I still was not completely sold. Nor was I happy with some of the casting choices. My temporarily peaked curiosity soon fizzled to near indifference. The A-Team would not be one of my more anticipated summer releases. I saved my excitement for The Expendables, Inception and Predators. I dragged my feet when it came to finally seing the film. I opted for a matinee showing, figuring that's all it would be worth.
The A-Team chronicles the exploits of a quirky team of crack commandos. After their initial meeting, they pull of a number of successful missions during the Iraq war. When they are commissioned to perform black ops in Baghdad, the operation goes awry. They are subsequnetly arrested and sentenced to hard time in federal prison. The Mysterious CIA agent behind the failed mission offers them a shot at redemption that requires them to become fugitives until they can attain that which can clear their names.
The first act of the film did nothing to assuage my fears. We are introduced to Colonel Hannibal Smith(Liam Neeson) by way of a torture/interrogation scene which features a wholly ridiculous and inexplicable means of escape. We are introduced to B.A. "Bad Attitude" Baracus (Quinton Jackson) with an ineptly choreographed fight scene. The camera jitters and jerks as if overdosed on 5 hour energy shots. The scuffle seems as though it's taking place in the middle of the earthquake. One of B.A's signature catchphrases is revealed in a way that would have been far better received had the entire sequence been the least bit competent. Of all the character intros. only "Howling Mad" Murdock's (Sharlto Copley) comes close to hitting the mark. The film is on such unsteady ground at this point that it seems unlikely that it will ever find it's footing.
Thankfully it does, and once the actual story (disjointed as it is) gets rolling, The A-Team is a lot of fun. It ends up being a great deal better than the ads and trailers would have you believe. Much of this is due to Joe Carnahan's understanding of the source material. He clearly "gets" The A-Team. and makes sure that all of the signature elements of the show survive the translation to the big screen. The screenplay provides suitably outlandish plot developments and set pieces, and the principles channel the spirits of their small screen counterparts as though they were part of a cinematic seance.
The A-Team also possesses something of a cinematic healing factor, recovering from it's botched opening steadily and smoothly. As the running time wears on, the set pieces become more coherent and establish a visual language that is understandable to the viewer. The film is like a severe introvert at a party that somehow finds his social niche during the course of the event and blossoms into a extrovert before our eyes. By the midway point I was invested much more than the opening act lead me to believe I would be.
Aside from the horrible introduction, the film suffers from two other flaws that thankfully don't slow it's momentum much. The plot is more convoluted than necessary. It's a far cry from the "Fugitive" style serialized drama of the series where the team would use their skills to help those in need and then evaporate like dew in the early morning. The other major hurdle is the casting of UFC champion Quinton "Rampage" Jackson as B.A. Baracus. Though not "bad" per se, he is the only cast member that does not fully inhabit his character. It could just as well have been any hulking behemoth playing the part. Mr. T was not a great actor but he was a true original. Quinton hasn't an ounce of his charisma.
That is really a shame, since the film cleverly uses B.A's fear of flying as a constant source of humor. The bits are entertaining, but could have been so much more had a better actor been cast in the role. As Colonel Hannibal Smith., Liam Neeson truly embodies the character and almost makes us forget that his American accent doesn't quite work as well as it should. Bradley Cooper simply is Templeton "Faceman" Peck. Sharlto Copely inhabits the role of H.M "Howling Mad" Murdock so completely that it becomes downright chilling at times. You really can't imagine the original cast of the show doing a better job than their big screen counterparts.
Brian Bloom has a lot of fun as the snarkily villainous mercenary Pike. While the self aware villain has become a huge cliche in recent years, Bloom beings real energy to it. He really does seem to be "ahead of the curve" so to speak, with his so called superiors struggling to keep up. As Charisa Sosa, Jessica Biel is the female counterpart to Quinton Jackson, offering nothing of real consequence to the proceedings.
The A-Team is the best pure action film of the summer so far. While that may sound like faint praise, there is something to be said for a filmmaker that can take a consummate example of 80's cheese and turn into a competent entertainment for modern audiences while still retaining the cheese factor. The A-Team is free of pretense. It weaves the same magic as the original series, making us eager for more adventures. Fans will gladly recall the voice over during the shows opening:
(Ten years ago / In 1972), a crack commando unit was sent to prison by a military court for a crime they didn't commit. These men promptly escaped from a maximum security stockade to the Los Angeles underground. Today, still wanted by the government, they survive as soldiers of fortune. If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire... The A-Team.
Friday, June 18, 2010
By Scott Tre
The Korean poster for Christopher Nolan's Inception is the newest image from the film's intriguing marketing campaign. It's been a long while since trailers and posters have made me curious as to the actual subject matter and content of a film. Too often, the advertising gives away the entire plot. The story itself is almost completely revealed, leaving only the execution a mystery. So far, Inception seems to be bucking that trend. If the movie ends up being of real quality, we just might have a legitimate phenomenon on our hands.
Wednesday, June 16, 2010
By Scott Tre
Much to the chagrin of movie buffs and cultural critics everywhere, syndicated cartoons have been making successful transitions to the silver screen over the past few years. It should come as no surprise that even the most seemingly unlikely of properties are being considered for adaption. There is no premise that is too outlandish for Hollywood.
The Hollywood Reporter has provided the world with the first glimpse of the title creatures from the upcoming Smurfs movie. Yes, you read that right..a live action Smurfs movie. The plot has the little blue creatures inexplicably ending up in our reality after being chased out of their village by Gargamel. It seems that only a small fraction of the film will take place in the fantasy setting seen on the Saturday morning cartoon series.
Update: The teaser trailer has leaked, and it has a strong Alvin & The Chipmunks vibe. The Smurfs themselves don't exactly look "real", but maybe that was never the intention. A CGI animated feature like the ones put out by Pixar or Dreamworks may have been a better direction for this project. Still, I wouldn't be surprised if this made upwards of 200 Million and inspired a brand new animated series on Cartoon Network.
By Scott Tre
Unlike many of the film makers who churn out genre pictures these days, Ben Ramsey actually understands his audience. He doesn't see them as a demographic to be catered to, but a large fraternity of which he has always been a part. Ben grew up watching and loving action films of all kinds, and now he makes them. He has a fan's love for action cinema tempered by a keen understanding of how the movie business actually works. His latest project, The Micheal Jai White vehicle Blood and Bone, has been wowing martial arts fans since its release on DVD this past fall. You can check out my review here.
Monday, June 14, 2010
By Scott Tre
In the summer of 1984, my mother took me to see Conan The Destroyer after much begging and pleading. Being the sensitive and timid child that I was, I opted for The Karate Kid instead. I just knew there would be something in Conan that would haunt my dreams. Since I didn't care to experience a series of sleepless nights, I convinced my mom to exchange the tickets. I had no way of knowing how much that small decision would impact my movie going life.
I was treated to a small story with a hugely sympathetic protagonist. Teeager Daniel Larusso (Ralph Macchio) moves from New Jersey to Southern California after his mom finds a job there. When a local bully targets him, he learns Karate from a maintenance man named Mr. Miyagi. Miyagi gives him a little more than he bargained for, instructing him in the philosophical and physical aspects of the martial arts.
What captured my imagination most was the use of the Crane technique. I went home and sloppily practiced it. The next year, when the film premiered on HBO, I recorded it and watched it countless times. It was my new favorite movie. I learned its lessons well, and came to think of Mr. Miyagi in much the same way I thought of Yoda.
When I heard that a remake was on the way, I was elated to see an African American in the lead role. I was also sure that the film would be superior from a technical standpoint. I was less sure as to the impact it would have. It certainly wouldn't affect me in the same way the original had. Would the new film become a mainstay for my son's generation as the original had for mine? Would it exude it's own charm, or would it simply ride on the coat tales of a recognizable brand name?
This new version of The Karate Kid stars Jaden Smith as Dre, a young boy from Detroit who relocates to China with his mother (Taraji P. Henson) after the death of his father. Upon arriving in this new land, Dre attracts the attention of a young girl. A group of local bullies take exception to this and being to administer brutal beatings to Dre. During one particularly nasty run in, Dre is saved by the reclusive maintenance man Han (Jackie Chan).
Having witnessed Han's proficiency in Kung Fu first hand, Dre begs to be his student. Han initially refuses, but reconsiders after witnessing the extreme methods of the sensai who trains Dre's antagonists at the local martial arts school. Han brokers a deal that requires Dre to fight in an upcoming tournament. While he is in training, the bullies are forbidden to touch him. As Han instructs Dre, he imparts invaluable life wisdom and philosophy on him. This forms the basis of strong friendship between the two that will serve them long after the tournament is over.
The Karate Kid contains many of the same plot developments and dramatic beats as the original. Certain moments will be instantly recognizable to fans even though they have been slightly tweaked. The two ways in which the remake differs from the original are the locale and the age of the main character. The latter makes the Dre's situation a bit harder to relate to. A beating at the hands of hormonally crazed teenagers is much frightening than a playground scrap between prepubescents. The possibility of serious injury and death is more immediate. It's also easier to suspend disbelief in terms of the fantastic physical feats and acrobatics on display.
Nonetheless, the fight scenes in the remake far surpass those in the original. They are more elaborate and brutal, involving characters who strike each other with every intention of inflicting serious injury. They are easily more competent than those found in any number of more "serious" action films and they serve the necessary purpose of ratcheting up the tension a bit. Alas, the situation never seems as dire as it could have because the conflict between Dre the bullies seems a lot less personal than the one between Daniel and Johnny. Also, the advanced age of Daniel and Johnny gave the impression that all bets were off. There was no limit to how far it could go. In little Dre's case, we know that things wont get too far out of hand despite the brutality on display.
As Mr Miyagi, Pat Morita exuded warmth. He was not just a taskmaster, but a friend. A Mr. Han, Jackie Chan is emotionally distant. He betrays no sentimentality or warmth. He is much more of disciplinarian then Mr. Miyagi. Pat Morita's presence had a calming affect. Though Jackie Chan is clearly his physical superior, there is still something less self assured about Mr. Han. This is not really a flaw, just a different approach to the "mentor" character. Mr. Miyagi was not unaffected by tragedy, but he seemed to continue on in relatively high spirits. Mr. Han is clearly damaged, having been beaten down by life.
Jaden Smith is just fine as Dre, though most of his screen presence seems borrowed from his father. There are many moments in the film where his vocal inflections, mannerisms and line readings are reminiscent of the elder smith. This is a positive as the Will Smith persona has always seemed tailor made for summer blockbusters. Jaden is at ease with the camera. If he develops his own screen persona as time goes on, he may just enjoy the same level of success as his father.
The friendship that develops between Dre and Han is less emotionally affecting than that of Daniel and Mr. Miyagi. Still, it generates an ample amount of substance. Particularly notable is the scene where Han reveals to Daniel the source of his pain. The scene is as manipulative as it could possibly be, yet it achieves the desired affect. We have come to care about Mr. Han despite how distant he seems. We want to see Dre help him to heal.
The remake is also more of a traditional "martial arts" movie than the original, featuring a trek to the mountains as well as mystical moments that introduce slight elements of martial arts folklore and fantasy. The film integrates these elements seamlessly. They feel organic as opposed to contrived or intrusive. They also don't seem cliched as they should. They give the film an air of magic, helping it to establish it's own entity, seperate from the original.
The Tournament that takes place at the climax is a mixed bag in terms of quality. As a whole it works, but certain elements make it seem more akin to myth and fantasy. Opponents are sent flying out of the ring with tremendous force. Surely, anyone who was sent sailing over the ropes by a kick or punch would hardly be in any condition to continue fighting. The inclusion of a scoreboard shows the influence of fighting based video games, and the appearance of one character in particular seems inspired by anime. This new Karate Kid is aware of the pop culture landscape in a way the original was not. As a result, the original, as melodramatic as it was, seems more "real" while the remake is more of an action film at heart..
The film is hampered by an excessive running time that seems padded with filler. Dre's relationship to his mom holds less weight than it should, and the fact that Dre has been uprooted from everything he knows and planted in a foreign land is never examined in a substantial way. Like his mother, the movie seems to expect him to just roll with the punches. The original was a superb example of simple, streamlined storytelling. The remake feels bloated, and the bloat holds it back from being truly great.
The Karate Kid is satisfying. Though it isn't quite in the same class as the original, it provides solid entertainment in a summer season that seem devoid of that. Kids will cheer, and adults will be happy that another milestone from their childhood has not been tarnished. This remake allows kids to be participants in the action as opposed to just spectators. Flaws aside, if I had seen this as a kid it would have blown me away. That's how I know that it's done its job. Perhaps this will become a tradition, with a new Karate Kid remake every quarter century. The story is just that timeless and durable, and this new version has energy to spare.
By Scott Tre
This season of The Boondocks has been a roller coaster ride in terms of tone and quality. It's been all over the place, inspiring any number of reactions from both fans and detractors. At this point, it's impossible to anticipate what the remaining episodes have in store for us. Perhaps it's time to just sit back, take it all in and reserve our judgments until after the credits roll on the series finale.
Last night's episode, "Fundraiser", is perhaps the most delightful one yet. After binging on contemporary gangster films, Riley decides to stage a Tony Montana style come up in the candy business. He applies what he learns from the movies, determined not to make the same mistakes that befell their main characters. As expected, he shirks Huey's advice against such action. Riley's come up is strategic and decisive. He puts together a team and moves on the competition. His business becomes so lucrative that it draws the ire of school administrators and people much higher up the food chain. As the plot thickens, the hard headed Riley adheres to the lessons he learned from the likes of Tony Montana and Henry Hill even after he realizes that real life logic doesn't function the same as movie logic.
"Fundraiser" goes a long way in proving the theory that The Boondocks functions best when it abandons heavy handed social commentary aimed at "important/black" issues and just has fun. In fact, the less profound it tries to be, the more profound it ends up being. "Fundraiser" is all about America's gangster fetish, or more importantly how so many people use contemporary crime films as a blueprint for real life hustling. As the situation escalates and becomes violent, Riley refuses to do the "smart thing" and continues to follow in the footsteps of his fictional gangster heroes.
Parallels are also drawn between school fundraisers and the crack game. The kids sell thousands of dollars worth of snacks for "prizes" that in no way compensate them for the time and effort expended. The adults at the top of the operation only care about getting their cut. Almost everyone can be bought off, including the parents who should be questioning the origins of their children's new found wealth. "Fundraiser" also tackles the way self serving entrepreuners exploit America's tendency to give money to "worthy causes" without really looking into them.
All of this is done with a myriad of Pop culture references so plentiful that they go beyond the boundaries of popular gangster films. When one of Riley's underlings befalls the same fate as a certain space pirate, it results in one of the funniest moments in the history of the show. Even funnier is Rileys response to the situation. Unlike other episodes, the shows favorite racial epithet is used sparingly. Restraint is something that is rarely associated with The Boondocks, but "Fundraiser" shows an ample amount of it. There isn't much here that can be considered "over the top" or "too far" by the shows standards.
Season three of The Boondocks has not established a discernible rhythm, so perhaps it's time to stop looking for one. The Boondocks has always refused to conform to expectations, a quality that would be highly praised in any other television series. Instead of writing off the entire series on the strength of a single entry, one should stand back and take in the whole picture. Reactionary responses are the province of lazy minds. We beg for entertainment that truly challenges us. When it's offered, we lament the fact that it was not retooled into something more predictable. Like Riley, we hold on to our ideas of how things should be, rather than looking at them for what they are. Life rarely conforms to our expectations, and neither does The Boondocks.
Thursday, June 10, 2010
By Scott Tre
Classic Kung-Fu movies are not just the Hong Kong equivalent of B-Westerns, they are also forerunners to modern superhero blockbusters. Many of the same genre trappings are in place. The Characters wear outlandish costumes and exhibit even more outlandish abilities. They are often defined by these attributes to the point where they are named after them. The themes often deal with revenge, honor and duty. It's a shame that so many westerners allow production values and cultural differences to prevent them from enjoying the inventiveness and energy to be found in these films.
Wednesday, June 9, 2010
By Scott Tre
Video Game movies have gotten the short end of the stick in terms of Hollywood Adaptations. When Mortal Kombat and Resident Evil are considered the cream of the crop, there is obviously room for improvement. Not long ago, the Street Fighter: Legacy Short provided in a scant few minutes all the entertainment value that was lacking in the two feature length films. Now we have a similar offering from director Kevin Tancharoen. The beneficiary this time is the Mortal Kombat franchise.
Mortal Kombat: Rebirth offers the by now cliche "dark and gritty" take on the property, grounding the story in a film noir style hyper reality that would be well suited for an episode of Batman: The Animated Series. While this may seem like blatant fanboy pandering, it also raises an interesting question. The Mortal Kombat franchise is a shamelessly contrived mythology mired in the most outlandish fantasy setting imaginable. Human martial artists do battle with cyborgs and monsters in a grand tournament. Is it possible to translate that to a "real world" setting while retaining the spirit of the games? In a worst case scenario, it can render something that was already silly even sillier.
The casting of Micheal Jai White as Jax lends the proceedings a much need air of legitimacy. If that doesn't sell you, the fight choreography most certainly will. The tone is miles away from the flamboyance of the Paul W.S. Anderson iteration. We are also introduced to essential characters such as Reptile, Baraka (Lateef Crowder) and Johnny Cage. Shang Tsung shows up in photo, very much resembling the villainous Han from Enter The Dragon. I very much prefer this take on the material to the much too fondly remembered feature film. At the very least, a film done in the style of this short will not seem as horribly dated in fifteen years as the 1995 film does now.
Early buzz for the short had people speculating that it was a trailer for an upcoming video game or possibly an upcoming movie. As it turns out, the footage is actually a concept reel, giving investors an idea of the potential for this new take on the material. Should the film secure financing and distribution, the casting could be totally different. Even if this doesn't result in a full length feature, this footage opens up a Pandora's box of possibilities. It should provide fuel for the imaginations of Mortal Kombat fans for quite some time, and probably inspire more than a few fan films.
Tuesday, June 8, 2010
By Scott Tre
Idle hands are the devil's workshop. Too much free time can be a very bad thing, especially if your a psychopath with an over active imagination and combat experience. When you want to do a big job you have to bring out the big guns, but you should always keep a trusty back up piece in reserve. As any survivalist knows, there's no such thing as being too prepared.
Disgusted by the lawlessness and hedonism of 1970's New York City, taxi driver Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) decides to launch a one man clean up campaign. He acquires all of the necessary tools of the trade, amassing a small arsenal of handguns. The most interesting aspect of this is the elaborate modification he makes to one the smaller weapons.
Travis takes a Smith & Wesson Escort and attaches it to a drawer slide, making sure the slide itself is properly greased. He then straps the slide to his right forearm. The slide contraption is more than just a fancy holster, spitting the weapon into Travis's hand whenever he flicks his wrist. The apparatus is conveniently hidden under the sleeve of Travis's Jacket.
The scariest part is that the intended target would never see it coming. A hand extended in friendship may actually be hiding a poisonous snake just itching to take a bite. Aside from this crude version in Taxi Driver, fancier ones can be seen in both Red Heat and The Adventures of Ford Fairlane.
Monday, June 7, 2010
By Scott Tre
The radiance of that golden brown skin refuses to be ignored. It's glow is soft, but enticing. The same can be said for those curly tresses that bounce with personality whenever she turns her head. Then there is that girlish smile. Sometimes beauty keeps men at a distance, like museum patrons that are encouraged to observe and admire but not to touch. Rachel's beauty practically begs you to approach her. Her aura is just that inviting.