Friday, November 26, 2010

More Suicide Than Rainbow: For Colored Girls

The original of a review that was published recently.

Tyler Perry’s For Colored Girls is a melodramatic adaptation of a classic play

By Pamela Zoslov

For Colored Girls represents a marriage of two very different traditions: the downtown feminism of Ntozage Shange’s influential 1975 play for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf, and the “chitlin’ circuit” box-office bait of Tyler Perry, the successful playwright, movie director and portrayer of Madea, his saucy, amply padded matriarchal alter ego. Shange’s play, or “choreopoem,” as she called it, is a blend of poetry, music and drama performed by seven women identified only by the colors they wear (“Lady in Red,” “Lady in Blue,” etc.). Through vernacular poetic monologues, the women explore issues including domestic abuse, love, rape, abortion, spirituality and black revolutionary history. When it was announced that Perry would direct the movie version, there was widespread worry: how would Perry, the director Spike Lee denounced for perpetuating negative racial stereotypes (“coonery and buffoonery”), realize this serious, important work? Would Madea be in it? Would he call it “Tyler Perry’s For Colored Girls”?

Perry did neither of those things, but his adaptation is still uneven. Colored Girls has ample star wattage, with a cast that includes Janet Jackson, Loretta Devine, Thandie Newton, Whoopi Goldberg and Phylicia Rashad. The characters are given names, and the abstract structure has been given a concrete narrative, shifting the focus from sisterhood to soap opera. It also introduces men into the scenario, in ways that are none too flattering. Perry’s roundelay of stories follows an increasingly familiar formula of demonizing black men. If the abusive males in The Color Purple and the overpraised Precious weren’t repellent enough, consider the depraved lineup in For Colored Girls: philanderers, abusers, rapists, husbands who give their wives HIV, fathers who murder their children. America elected its first black president, but at the movies, images of black men are increasingly retrograde. While the same stories were told retrospectively by the women in the stage play, acting them out literally on the screen makes them seem more vulgar than poetic.

The movie often wallows in misery — of the male-generated variety — lingering on a brutal rape (crosscut with scenes from an opera) and, based on one of Shange’s poems, the dangling of two children from a fifth-floor window by their demented father. Though beautifully acted and photographed, For Colored Girls is hampered by the fact that what was richly moving in the oral storytelling tradition becomes over-the-top melodrama on the screen.

Where the movie does succeed is in preserving the music of Shange’s poetry, weaving her monologues skillfully into the narrative and eliciting stirring recitations by the actresses. Phylicia Rashad, as Gilda, manager of the tenement building where several of the women live, delivers a particularly haunting, quietly melodious reading. And yet for every savory subtlety, there’s some regrettable burlesque, as with Whoopi Goldberg’s character, a white-turbaned religious fanatic who pours oil on her daughter’s head and exhorts passersby to “Repent! Repent!” Ultimately, the movie soars only when Shange’s poetry is center stage, calling into question the wisdom of “opening up” the play for the big screen.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Love and Other Drugs: Pissing Off Big Pharma

Rarely does a movie pack as much into 113 minutes as this exceptional romantic “dramedy” by Edward Zwick (thirtysomething).

Directors often stumble when trying to balance comedy and drama (consider Judd Apatow’s limp Funny People), but Zwick and co-writers Marshall Herskovitz and Charles Randolph make it work, while also providing an acrid satire of the pharmaceutical industry.

The movie, set in the 1990s, is partly based on Jamie Reidy’s memoir of his stint as a Pfizer salesman, with a love story appended to it. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Jamie, a glib womanizer and chronic failure who gets by on his seductive charm. After losing his electronics-salesman gig for screwing the boss' girlfriend, he enlists as a pharmaceutical rep, a lucrative job whose slippery ethics are a good match for his personality. The movie details the sleazy sales tactics used to push Pfizer’s pills — primarily Zoloft, which is competing fruitlessly against Eli Lilly's Prozac — such as seducing eager medical receptionists and pimping for horny physicians like Dr. Knight (Hank Azaria).

Jamie relentlessly pursues Dr. Knight's patient Maggie (Anne Hathaway), a clever, beautiful artist with pre-Raphaelite curls and early-onset Parkinson’s disease, and the pair — both averse to commitment — begin a libidinous affair, with ample onscreen nudity. Jamie’s career rockets when Pfizer launches its magical moneymaker, Viagra, but he’s blindsided by his love and concern for Maggie.

So entertaining is this sardonic romp that the sadness arising from Maggie’s illness delivers an unexpected wallop. Though the movie meanders a bit, it brims with sharp lines and good performances. The movie gets bonus points for pissing off Big Pharma: asked for its reaction to the movie, a Pfizer spokesperson sniffed in the Wall Street Journal: “The sales practices portrayed…do not conform to our policies and procedures.”

A version of this appears in Cleveland Scene.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Fair Game: The Spy Left Out in the Cold

Fair Game dramatizes the Valerie Plame affair and the lies that led to war

By Pamela Zoslov

If truth is the first casualty of war, the second must be the truth-tellers. Consider Julian Assange, the internationally hounded founder of the whistle-blowing website Wikileaks, and Joe Wilson and his wife, Valerie Plame, the subjects of Doug Liman’s sharply observed drama Fair Game.

The movie is based on the memoirs of Wilson, a former U.S. ambassador who wrote a famous New York Times Op-Ed in 2003 disputing the manipulated intelligence cited by the Bush administration as a pretext for invading Iraq, and Plame, a CIA officer whose career ended when her covert identity was revealed by conservative columnist Robert Novak, evidently in retaliation for her husband’s outspokenness (Karl Rove reportedly said Plame was “fair game.”)

Although the Wilsons – the attractive, blond Valerie, once imagined by Maureen Dowd as Marvel Comics super-heroine “Valerie Flame,” and Joe, an √©minence grise with a salt-and-pepper mane and wire spectacles, are natural subjects for a movie spy thriller (like an older Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, stars of Liman’s Mr. and Mrs. Smith), the film wouldn’t succeed if it weren’t about something bigger: lies, propaganda, war, abuse of power, and the hijacking of democracy.

The casting could not be more perfect. Naomi Watts not only resembles Plame physically, but is credible and affecting as the gutsy covert operative who wears multiple identities in her often dangerous work — romanticized for the movie, but compelling — including that of a businesswoman, the disguise she wears in her daily life as a wife and mother in a prosperous Washington, D.C. suburb. Sean Penn seems to not so much impersonate Wilson as channel him, in a nuanced performance that reminds us of how fine an actor he is. The movie’s Wilson is principled, arrogant, a bit of a blowhard, and his self-righteous but understandable bluster places his wife in jeopardy.

As part of her work in non-proliferation, Plame is asked to recommend her husband, a former ambassador with expertise in African nations, for a trip to Niger to research whether Saddam Hussein bought weapons-grade yellowcake uranium. Wilson’s report concludes that no such purchase was made, and he’s incensed when the now-infamous “16 words” — claiming Hussein sought “significant quantities of uranium from Africa” — make their way into Bush’s State of the Union address. Wilson fires off his Times article, which reverberates in the White House, where Scooter Libby (David Andrews) and Rove, surely acting on behalf of Vice President Dick Cheney, seek to discredit him by leaking his wife’s identity to Novak.

Following her exposure, Plame is subjected to death threats, and Wilson is denounced by the cable-news noise machine as a flake, hack, liar and traitor. Jez and John Henry Butterworth’s excellent screenplay doesn’t overlook the dire human consequences of Plame’s blown cover – a group of Iraqi scientists she promised to smuggle out of Iraq are left stranded and in jeopardy. The Wilsons’ marriage falters, and Plame takes refuge with her mother and father (Sam Shepard), a retired Air Force colonel.

Soon the affair known as “Plamegate” erupts, and Libby – “the fall guy,” according to the movie’s Wilson -- is convicted of obstruction of justice and other charges and sentenced to prison before his sentence is commuted by Bush. The Wilsons, today still denounced by many on the right, left D.C. for a new life in Santa Fe. They survived the ordeal, spoke out and wrote books, but the same can’t be said of the other victims of the mendacious invasion — the uncounted thousands of dead Iraqis, victims of gruesome torture, brutal home raids, random shooting and indiscriminate bombing. The public’s memory is short, but as the ongoing, terrible revelations attest, history will not forget.