Thursday, October 22, 2009

Dream Weavers

In his autobiography, Malcolm X recalled the first time he had his hair chemically straightened with a caustic lye-based solution. “The comb felt as if it was raking my skin off. My eyes watered, my nose was running. I couldn’t stand it any longer; I bolted to the washbasin.” For Malcolm, the wearing of a “conk” — as the chemical process was then known — became a symbol of black self-degradation.

Comedian Chris Rock takes a lighter view of the issue of African-American hair in the documentary
Good Hair, which Rock produced and co-wrote with a team including director Jeff Stilson. Rock’s premise is captivating. One day, one of his young daughters asked, “Daddy, how come I don’t have good hair?”

Weaving together interviews with actresses, models, scientists, stylists, salon patrons, hair-product manufacturers and, amusingly, the Rev. Al Sharpton (who says he modeled his unique look on James Brown), Rock explores the idea that naturally kinky African hair is culturally undesirable, showing the lengths to which black women (and some men) will go to achieve straight, smooth, European-style tresses — “good hair.” Skin-corroding chemicals, labor-intensive hair extensions, entire days and thousands of dollars spent at the salon. When Tyra Banks appeared on her talk show with her “real” hair, it was a step toward exposing what is behind the smooth-haired looks of famous black women. This movie is another.

Rock is an amusing explorer as he examines the components of this mad pursuit of smooth hair. He enlists a scientist to demonstrate, by dissolving an aluminum soda can, the corrosiveness of sodium hydroxide, which is the chemical basis of hair straightener (“nap antidote,” one woman calls it). He travels to India, where he discovers the source of the human hair used in the expensive “weaves” worn by black women: impoverished, devout Hindus, who sacrifice their smooth locks in a head-shaving ritual at the Hindu temple, which then sells the shorn hair. Rock follows the hair as it travels to Los Angeles, where it is more profitable to its traders than gold.

The movie glosses over the socio-cultural implications of hair straightening, preferring to focus on comedy, as when Rock delightedly prods some black barber-shop customers to discuss the problems of having sex with women who wear don’t-touch weaves ("Go for the titties!") It misses a good opportunity to examine the tyranny of “white” beauty standards, and wastes considerable time focusing on a flashy hair-styling competition in Atlanta, in the style of cable reality shows (the movie was produced by HBO).

But Chris Rock isn’t Malcolm X (or even Spike Lee), so it's best not to lament what's not here. The movie is best appreciated for what it is: a highly entertaining look at a seldom-explored cultural phenomenon.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Father Knows Mess

It’s funny how the movies will change a person. Consider Simon Carr, a political columnist for Britain’s The Independent, whom former Prime Minister Tony Blair once called “the most vicious sketch writer working in Britain today.” (A sketch writer is a kind of Parliamentary verbal cartoonist.)

Yet it’s not his scabrous political opinions that bring Carr to the screen, but a touching memoir he wrote about his life as a widowed father raising his young son and older boy from a previous marriage. The book, with the Thin Lizzyish title The Boys are Back in Town, is a sort of wry parenting manual for the hopelessly messy. It is the inspiration of the lovely film The Boys are Back, directed by Australian Scott Hicks (Shine). Through cinematic alchemy, the paunchy, balding Carr has been transformed into impossibly handsome Clive Owen, who plays Joe Warr, an English sportswriter living in Australia.

Joe’s beloved ex-equestrian wife (Laura Fraser) dies of cancer, leaving Joe alone to raise 6-year-old Artie (Nicolas McAnulty). Overwhelmed by his unaccustomed responsibilities and Artie’s inconsolable grief, Joe determines to say “yes” to every childish request, no matter how silly or inconvenient, and to approach housekeeping with casual indifference. Let Artie steer the truck? Yes! Can he put on wet clothes directly from the clothesline? Why not?

The increasingly disheveled all-male household is expanded when Joe’s adolescent son, Harry (George MacKay), who lives in England with Joe’s ex-wife, joins them, bringing along a case of culture shock and unresolved feelings of paternal abandonment.

The movie is achingly sad at times, and in lesser hands might have been a mawkish mess. But there is exceptional talent at work here. Allan Cubitt’s screenplay preserves much of Carr’s real-life dialogue and is subtle enough to make events like the occasional reappearance of Joe’s dead wife seem completely natural. Owen’s taciturn demeanor is well suited to a man trying to keep his emotions under control, McAnulty is cheekily adorable without being cloying, and MacKay is persuasive as conflicted prep-schooler Harry. Scott Gray’s rhythmic editing is remarkably effective, and cinematographer Greig Fraser, who also made Jane Campion's Bright Star so pretty, paints the Australian countryside with a lively, luminous palette.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Tropic Blunder

It’s axiomatic that an exotic tropical setting will not save a bad movie.

In Couples Retreat, written by the
Swingers team of Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau, the best moments come before its four couples arrive at their island paradise. Hyper-organized Jason and Cynthia (Jason Bateman and Kristen Bell), troubled by infertility, persuade their friends, via an amusing Power Point presentation, to join them at Eden West, a partnership-renewal retreat. The other couples — Joey and Lucy (Favreau and Kristin Davis), Dave and Ronnie (Vaughn and Malin Akerman) and divorced Shane (Faizon Love) and 20-year-old girlfriend Trudy (Kali Hawk) — are compelled to participate in therapy and absurd activities like swimming in shark-infested waters and yoga that involves a hunky instructor dry-humping the ladies. The high point in lowness is the scene in which Favreau tries to connive a masseuse into giving him "full release." Embarrassing!

What might have been an amusing domestic comedy or sharp satire of marriage-therapy schemes disintegrates into a scattershot collection of unfunny, unsexy sex jokes and curiously stale references (Fabio, Chewbacca, Mr. Belvedere) by a largely charisma-free cast. Vaughn and Favreau reverse their
Swingers roles, with Vaughn playing the nice, devoted husband who, in one of the funny male-banter scenes that are the movie’s saving grace, warns Favreau’s horny Joey that if he keeps chasing tail, he’ll end up eating alone at Applebee’s. A mildly funny jape, but hardly worth the price of admission, or the two hours or so you'll never retrieve.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Lie Defector

The winning comedy The Invention of Lying, directed, co-written by and starring Ricky Gervais (Ghost Town, Britain’s The Office), imagines a world in which falsehood doesn’t exist and everyone always tells the truth. They don’t know how to do otherwise: in this alternate universe, lies, fiction, irony, imagination and even social niceties are unknown. Daily life is a harsh landscape of unfiltered admissions (“I loathed almost every moment I worked for you”), and rude insults (“You’re fat and have a snub nose”). Advertising is limited to true, mundane assertions (“Coke: It’s Very Famous. Pepsi, When They Don't Have Coke.”) It's a terribly depressing world, this world without lies.

The movie hilariously illustrates the pitfalls of such congenital truthiness in the opening scenes, in which pudgy Mark Bellison (Gervais) calls on pretty Anna (Jennifer Garner) for a blind date. She bluntly states her disappointment in his looks; a waiter serves their cocktails saying, “I had a little sip of this.” When Mark, a screenwriter for a company that makes boring historical documentaries – the only kind of movies that exist in this truthy universe, like “The History of the Fork” and Mark’s downfall, “The Black Plague” -- is fired because his true stories are too -- well, true. He's about to be evicted from his apartment, and in desperation has a sudden impulse to lie in order to get extra money from his bank. As the world’s only man who can lie, Mark decides to use his newfound power to get rich and win Anna, who likes money quite a lot but still finds him insufficiently handsome (not a good “genetic match” for creating the attractive children she requires).

The movie ventures into religious satire as Mark is called upon to comfort his dying mother and “invents” a story about paradise in the afterlife. This makes him an accidental new messiah, a phenomenon that culminates in his delivering a kind of Sermon on the Mount with delivery-pizza boxes as tablets. The movie is sprinkled with droll lines, marvelous visual gags (a nursing home’s with a sign reading “A Sad Place for Hopeless Old People”), mild Pythonesque routines and amusing small roles for Tina Fey, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jonah Hill and Jason Bateman.

Although the movie doesn’t know quite what to do with its good premise and sags considerably after its brilliant opening, it’s still a thoughtful, original and funny movie that blends English humor and American romantic comedy in a refreshing way. Of course most people I know will hate it, but I liked it quite a lot.

The Lesser Barrymore

Drew Barrymore makes her directing debut with this girl-power action comedy, a sort of Kansas City Bomber meets Juno. The movie is based on Shauna Cross’s clever young-adult novel Derby Girl, in which Bliss, a 17-year-old bored with her small-town Texas life and beauty pageant-obsessed mother, secretly joins a women’s roller-derby team in Austin.

The premise has abundant appeal, especially for adolescent girls, and with
Juno star Ellen Page, a 22-year-old actress blessed with convincing teenage looks, a relentless retro-rock soundtrack and lots of derby action, the movie should have been irresistible. But it's a flabby affair, with a weak script unhelped by inexperienced direction. Cross, a former derby skater, adapted her own book, yet strangely, much of its wit was lost in translation. Page's acting is fine, but her pretty, slender looks make her a wildly unlikely derby champ (Juliette Lewis, as Bliss's hard-bitten rival, is more persuasive), and emphasize the silliness of the notion of bone-breaking roller derby as a self-empowerment strategy for teen girls. You're not supposed to side with her disapproving parents (Marcia Gay Harden and Daniel Stern), but you do: you worry about their cute teenage daughter getting permanently maimed in a ridiculous "sport." Neither are you persuaded that this sardonic, combat-boot-wearing girl would last for one moment on the beauty pageant circuit, no matter how vigorous her mom's machinations.

The team Bliss skates with is called the Hurl Scouts, and they compete in short little Girl Scout uniforms: the soft-porn element of roller derby is mostly unexplored but is never far from awareness. Like the underdog Hurl Scouts,
Whip It rallies briefly in the stretch with some strong scenes in which Bliss makes amends to her deceived mom (helped by the fact that Marcia Gay Harden brings so much dimension to the part) and betrayed best girlfriend Pash (Alia Shawkat). The unevenness suggests that had Barrymore focused less on music, makeup and mayhem and more on real storytelling, the movie could have been a resounding success. As it is, many will enjoy it for the spectacle, and the hell with the story.