Monday, August 20, 2012

Big Media Vandalism's Sight and Sound Ballot (50-41)

by Odienator
(click here for all posts)

Now that the Sight & Sound list has had its humorless, stuffy, masculine moment in the sun, we here at Big Media Vandalism decided to do our own movie list. And guess what? It’s got laughs, tears and razors in people’s coifs! It’s the Black History Mumf list of 50 Recommended Films! Don’t expect to have your snooty, highbrow critical opinions confirmed here, because who cares about that shit? We’re Big Media Vandalism, and we have to answer to an even higher authority. One that’s higher than a virus trapped in Snoop Lion's lungs.

As much as I love Vertigo and Citizen Kane (both of which made my House Next Door Sight and Sound top 10 ballot), I looked at that list the S&S critics compiled and thought to myself: Do I really want to watch most of these movies for leisure? If I said the You Bet Your Life secret word and two ducks fell out of the ceiling, one holding Blazing Saddles and the other holding Sátántangó, would I choose Bela Tarr? The answer to that question is hell no.  Sorry, I’m sending Sátántangó back to Groucho.

I’m not saying Tarr’s movie (which I’ve seen twice, so shut the fuck up) is terrible or even unworthy. I’m just saying that the individual lists I read on the S&S website were a lot more fascinating than the final tally. Which means that the odds are that somebody dropped a movie they really wanted in favor of listing something more “critically acceptable.” Get a bunch of critics together, and suddenly laughter is verboten.

But I’m not here to bitch about that list, because for better and worse, it’s still an interesting document of how little things have changed, despite some new blood. I’m here to pimp the BMV list, which is the exact opposite of the far more famous Sight and Sound list. That is, it has lots of laughs, movies that came out when you were alive and Black people in front of and behind the camera. This also isn’t a “best of” list but a “recommended” list. Who are we to tell you what’s best for you, anyway? Besides, as Roger Ebert once said, all lists of this type are bullshit. Big Media Vandalism accepts and confirms that Ebert’s notion applies to our list too.

Because I hate Blogger’s archaic coding interface, I’m doing 10 a day. 50-41 are below.

This is exactly the way I wrote this
50. The Wiz (1978)- See, I told you this wasn’t a “best of” list. In fact, some aspects of this movie (coughcoughMissRosscoughcough) are plum terrible. But the music, the set design and the mere notion of Manhattan as the Emerald City resonated with those of us who grew up in the shadow of the greatest city on Earth. NYC was three miles away from me as a kid, and seeing it dolled up in fantasyland clothing echoed how I saw it whenever I stepped out of the underground lair of the PATH train. Sidney Lumet beats the movie half to death with his heavy-handed direction, but not even he can stop the infectious, raucous fun Ted Ross, Mabel King, Nipsey Russell and Michael Jackson are having. Jackson’s “You Can’t Win,” written for him by Wiz songwriter Charlie Smalls, remains an underrated anthem of the downtrodden. I almost went with The Thief of Bagdad, with its genie assayed by the great Rex Ingram and its gorgeous fantasy vistas populated by a hero with a tan, but in the end, I decided on Evillene and her flying monkeys.

49. Odds Against Tomorrow (1959)- Robert Wise literally puts the noir in film noir, casting Harry Belafonte as co-lead in a scorching, dark tale of a heist gone awry simply because the participants can’t trust each other. Unlike many other films of this type, race plays a big role in both the planning and the failed execution of the crime. Odds gets maximum mileage out of a rabidly racist Robert Ryan and a major plot point deals with the marks’ inability to distinguish one Black man from another. Belafonte sings and seethes, Ryan is excellent, the score is jazzy and Wise’s direction tightens the screws on the viewer. The climactic sequence is absolutely ridiculous, but the final coda yields a beautifully nasty punchline worthy of the best noirs. (I reviewed the film here.)

48. Dave Chappelle’s Block Party (2005)- Before Dave went nanners, he roamed the streets of Brooklyn recruiting people to come to his block party. Unlike the beloved block parties in my old ‘hood, which featured some neighbor's kids and a wino singing Freda Payne’s “Bring the Boys Home,” Dave’s party features an all-star lineup of musical guests. The lineup including Mos Def and the reunited-for-this-show-only Fugees. Aided by the wandering camera of Michel Gondry, Chappelle plays master of ceremonies, freely riffing on whatever strikes him while showcasing and celebrating the people who inhabit the Brooklyn ‘hood he has chosen for his outdoor concert. This is Wattstax for Generation Y. Speaking of Brooklyn…

47. Crooklyn (1994)- Spike Lee’s ode to his old neighborhood circa 1973 unspools with my favorite opening credits sequence of all time. Cin-togger Arthur Jafa sends Lee’s camera on a free-flowing recreation of my childhood experiences playing games on the block. Like Touch of Evil’s restoration, I wish Lee would give us this sequence without the painted opening credits that sometimes get in the way of my nostalgia. The rest of Crooklyn is admittedly hit or miss, with Lee’s usual inability to write a credible female character nearly overridden by the charming Zelda Harris and the maternal (and brilliant) Alfre Woodard. Delroy Lindo, standing in for Lee’s dad, gives a powerful, moving performance, the opposite of what he would do in that other one word titled movie Lee cast him in next. A must-see if you were a little nappy headed kid in the 70’s, or if you  ever wanted to know what that was like.

46. The Best Man (1999)- Malcolm D. Lee sometimes gives his famous cousin Shelton a run for his money in the directing department. Lee’s films are filled with the follies and foibles of Black men trying to live up to the ridiculous macho stereotype mold we are squished into by both Black and White society. Even something as comically suspect as Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins has much to say about the topic. The Best Man is a funny, yet scathing indictment of both the stereotype and the men who choose to subscribe to it. Morris Chestnut’s absurd logic about faithfulness gets a major airing out after his best man Taye Diggs writes a tell-all roman a clef about his friends. One of the revelations is Diggs’ former liaison with the woman who would be Mrs. Chestnut. All hell breaks loose, scored to D’Angelo’s classic tale of cheating, Shit Damn Motherfucker. Before all is said and done, Terrence Howard walks off with the picture, stealing it with only a few scenes.

45. Love and Basketball (2000)- My friend Shuri described this movie to me thusly: “It’s exactly what the title suggests. There’s no thuggery, no robbery and no coonery. It’s just love and basketball.” Though starved for a movie like this, I avoided it solely due to the trailer’s out of context placement of Sanaa Lathan’s dialogue about playing a basketball game where the stakes are for the heart of her boyfriend, Omar Epps. It all sounded so cheesy! Yet, in context the entire sequence has an undeniable power because we care about the characters in this well-written and acted romance. Lathan’s character in particular grabs you with all three of her dimensions. Female characters of color were rarely afforded this level of complexity and detail. Writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood doesn’t shortchange Epps’ character either, and she crafts one of the best mother-daughter conversations ever, between Lathan and Alfre Woodard.

44. Waiting to Exhale (1995)- While we’re in estrogen territory, how about a few words on angry-as-hell Angela Bassett setting her cheating man’s clothes on fire in Forrest Whitaker’s take on Terry McMillan’s beloved novel. It’s too bad Ms. Bassett didn’t take her author’s advice and pour some hot sauce in the guy’s asshole, but that would have pushed Waiting to Exhale off this list for dietary reasons. Whitaker gets fine turns from his females stars, a vulnerable yet strong Whitney Houston, hapless Lela “Sunshine” Rochon, sassy, big boned Loretta Devine and the aforementioned pissed off Ms. Bassett. These females are allowed to make mistakes, to learn from them, and to find some semblance of happiness amidst all manner of issues and problems. Exhale got me cussed out by a Black woman after the screening I attended, but even her misdirected anger couldn’t stop me from loving the scene where Gregory Hines tells Devine he likes big women. Devine’s reaction as she walks away almost made me stand up and cheer.
43. Stormy Weather (1943)- Lena Horne evaded the Southern censor’s scissors simply because she’s the star of Stormy Weather. The Fox musical is the rare chance to see her at the height of her powers onscreen. Presented as a showcase “celebrating the magnificent contributions of the colored race to the entertainment of the world,” Stormy Weather is a series of vignettes and musical numbers strung together by the barest of plot. Bill “Bojangles” Robinson stars in a pseudo-biographical story of his rise to the top. Along the way, he meets Lena, love blossoms, and people wonder why “ain’t no Sun up in the sky.” Along with Cabin in the Sky (coming up later), Stormy Weather capitalizes on the short-lived popularity of the all-cullud musical. Fats Waller shows up, as do Cab Calloway and the acrobatic Nicholas Brothers. The latter duo’s total disregard for their bodies results in the greatest tap number committed to celluloid (according to both me and Fred Astaire). Horne sings more songs here than in her entire career at MGM, including the title song which became her signature.

42. Wattstax (1973)- Richard Pryor makes his first appearance on this list as the master of ceremonies of Mel Stuart’s concert film. On this date 40 years ago, a concert was thrown by Stax Records musicians in Watts, the Los Angeles district I learned about courtesy of Fred G. Sanford. The Staple Singers, Isaac Hayes, Rufus Thomas and others performed for a large crowd of folks, all of whom paid a dollar’s admission. Stuart and the late, great cin-togger John Alonzo do more than just capture the concert performers; their cameras stroll into the neighborhood to talk to people like Raymond Allen (whose TV wife was Fred Sanford’s nemesis, Aunt Esther) and Ted Lange, who later wound up serving confused White people watered-down booze on The Love Boat.  Pryor’s commentary is hilarious, a harbinger of what was to come in his later concert films. An incredibly soulful time capsule, especially with the restored Isaac Hayes footage MGM wouldn’t let Wattstax’s filmmakers use due to music rights issues. Should be shown as a compare-and-contrast double feature with Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock.

41. Let’s Do it Again (1975)- Black Cinema’s most charismatic comedic duo, Sidney Poitier and Bill Cosby returned for this “sequel’ of sorts to Uptown Saturday Night. The second in a trilogy, Let’s Do It Again finds Sidney and the Cos up to their necks in fixed boxing matches, hypnosis and the constant threat of gangster violence. The latter is dispensed by John Amos’ Kansas City Mack and Calvin Lockart’s Biggie Smalls (yes, that’s where Christopher Wallace got the name). Using hoodoo he learned in the Army, Poitier hypnotizes skinny boxer Bootney Farnsworth (Amos’ TV son, Jimmie Walker) into believing he can beat Mike Tyson. Mucho mayhem ensues, including the appearance of Mongo Slade, who must be seen to be believed. George Foreman shows up, and Poitier gets another chance to act silly, thereby shuffling off the mortal coil of Hollywood Noble Negro for good.  His first chance to act silly is coming up later.

Tomorrow:: Entries 40-31


Kevin J. Olson said...

Great stuff, Odie. The sentiments of your list match the sentiments of mine. I look forward to following along with this. A few thoughts on these selections:

47. Crooklyn -- A million yeses for this choice (probably my favorite Spike Lee film). I remember seeing this in the theater when I was 12, and I remember being in love with it then. It's really one of the few Lee films that has left an indelible mark on me (Do the Right Thing and 25th Hour would be the other two). Even as a 12 year old kid, I remember vividly that opening (what a great field trip that was for me seeing as how I grew up in your typical, stuffy white Northwest suburb) and Lindo's performance which was great (is he ever bad in ANYTHING?). I also remember those POV shots and the way the camera captured what it was like to look at the adult world through the eyes of a child). Great choice. And honestly, once I saw this selection, I knew I was going to love your list even if you put nothing but Norbit on it from here on out. Oh, and I'm assuming that other one-title film was Clockers? Never finished it.

46. The Best Man -- When I worked at Blockbuster I remember watching this film in the back. I often get it mixed up with The Wood for some reason (cast overlap? same release date on DVD? I can't recall...), but I remember really liking it when it was out. It's funny, though, because I was a senior in high school and many of my friends wondered why I wasted my time watching such mainstream, melodramatic stuff when I should be spending more time watching shit like The Boondock Saints~! Ugh. Needless to say, I'm not friends with them anymore.

45 Love and Basketball -- Gotta be honest here: I used to pull this DVD out whenever I had a girl over so they could see my sensitive side. It's actually a beautiful and poignant film that does what it needs to do and does it with finesse. It doesn't strain too hard or overreach in order to elicit a tug at the heartstrings. I love the way she sets up their relationship throughout the film (especially when he's younger and sneaks into her room because his parents are fighting. I used to always keep my door open for a friend in a similar fashion when I was in high school) until it all comes together in that final one-on-one scene that, as you say, seemed so trite in the trailer but was a beautifully done moment. I especially like the way Prince-Bythwood keeps the camera on Epps' face as he continues to score point after point on her in what is actually a sweet moment between the two. I really like that you single out the scene between Lathan and Woodard. I also love the moment near the end between Haysbert and Epps. Both parent/child dynamics were done well.

Whatever happen to her as a writer/director? Oh, and this is the film where I simultaneously fell in love with Lathan and garnered a healthy man crush on Epps.

Whoa...that turned out longer than I expected. Great stuff, and I can't wait for the rest of the list!

Hal said...

I like ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW too, despite the too-familiar ending you mention in the review. Was this Cicely Tyson's first film? I believe I spotted Diana Sands in the same scene that had Tyson bartending--Sands had no lines. I'm pretty sure it was her.

CROOKLYN is probably my favorite Alfre Woodard performance. Picking out her best is like trying to choose the best painting from a wall of Picassos though.

Will be following the countdown...

odienator said...

Kevin, thnaks for the long, insightful comment! Clockers is indeed the movie I was citing, and I love both the book (which takes place in my hometown) and Lee's film.

I watched the Boondock Saints and I didn't see what the big deal was. I guess I'm one of those time-wasters who watches melodramatic stuff!

40-31 is up now, and it plays like a shrine to one particular star. That was completely unintentional, to be honest. Check it out.

As for Gina Prince-Bythewood, she recently adapted and directed The Secret Life of Bees which, I am almost ashamed to admit, I really liked.

odienator said...

Hal, I think you are right on both counts. It's Tyson's debut and that may well have been Diana Sands. Both of them had such lovely ways of speaking dialogue. I was talking about Sands last Friday and I mentioned how much I loved her famous line from your favorite movie and mine, Willie Dynamite (Will-ayyyy! oh oh Will-ay D, yeah! Will-ay D!), not to mention her "Miss Sepia 1957" from The Landlord. Her Claudine would have been something!