Brown Sugar (Rick Famuyiwa, 2002): This is one of those movies that the idea of sounds better than the actual thing of. Loosely inspired by Common’s “I Used To Love H.E.R,” it is basically a love story where Sanaa Lathan’s love of hip hop and her love of Taye Diggs are intertwined. Lathan’s character is a music writer and is working on a book; Diggs’ character is a producer who quits his major label job after he’s asked to produce a remake of “The Girl Is Mine” for a black and white rapper duo, called “The Ho Is Mine.” Diggs abandons his shiny suits to start his own label, with Mos Def’s character as his first artist. The whole thing is Diggs and Lathan, childhood friends, realizing they love each other as more than friends, despite the fact that they’re involved with other people. Anyway, the idea is fantastic, and I loved both the lead performances — Diggs is way better than I thought he was based on not really having seen him in much, really charming and funny and like, oozing with charisma, and Lathan has the harder part, needing to seem cool and smart and grounded, and she does a great job — but the dialogue occasionally gets bogged down in the “our love is a commentary on the sad state of hip hop!” stuff. The best bits were the early scenes, where you get a documentary-style section of various hip hop greats talking about when they fell in love with hip hop, and a great flashback scene with, like, Slick Rick and Doug E. Fresh.
Evita (Alan Parker, 1996): I have had a weird nostalgic obsession with this movie lately. It came out when I was 13, and I bought the soundtrack and listened to it constantly, to the point that I still know most of the words. Seeing the movie again, there was a lot that I didn’t remember about it. Parker has a tendency toward using the songs as opportunities for montages that doesn’t always work. It’s great when you can contrast Eva’s self-glorifying with all the actual horrible things going on, seeing shots of newspapers being blown-up and riots contrasted with the glamour of Eva’s life, but since the whole thing is songs, it occasionally gets a bit MTV-ish for me. I know this is a “rock opera,” not a traditional musical, so the rules about numbers-as-spectacle don’t really apply, but still. At the time, I thought Antonio Banderas was having the most fun, and I still kind of do. Jonathan Pryce is great in this and Madonna is fine, but I still love Antonio Banderas’s performance the most; everyone else is kind of dour and serious and going for naturalistic, but Antonio’s completely giving it 110%, switching from sarcastic to giddy, his brow constantly furrowed with cynical rage. It’s hilarious and amazing.
That sequence is still one of my favourites, not just because of how much I liked the use of the film projector in staging it. His character, Che, isn’t really a character, he’s the narrator, so Parker basically has him skulk around in the background, playing servants or whoever happens to fit the scene. The whole play relies on the counterpoint of Che’s cynicism biting through Evita’s celebrity self-myth-making, so having Madonna — generally known for her ambition and sexuality outstripping her talent, an icon before she’s a singer, though she sounds her absolute best here — play Evita is brilliant in a way that I completely missed when I was 13.
It’s also strangely appropriate to this year, the election being more about theatre and entertainment than ever; I kept thinking about the Emmies and Sarah Palin and Tina Fey and stuff.
Matilda (Danny DeVito, 1996): I loved this book when I was little. I can’t imagine why I would have adored a book about a smart, bookish girl who proves that small people can be better than big people because they have magic powers in their brains, except, oh wait. Obviously flattering to Roald Dahl’s smart, bookish readers. The other, real reason I loved it was that it had a very dark side; the horrible stuff that could happen was actually horrible, like being locked in “the Chokey,” by the totally unhinged principal of your elementary school. “The Chokey” is this tiny room full of sharp things that poke at you and there’s a dripping pipe and anyway it’s actually really scary, something that the “scary” stuff in kids’ books often weren’t. The movie adaptation was remarkably faithful to the book as I remember it, even keeping the mean principal throwing a little girl by her hair, granted in a cartoonish way. The one choice I question was having Danny DeVito narrate, not because I have a problem with his voice, but he was so good as Matilda’s awful TV-obsessed, used-car salesman father, and the narrator’s voice is obviously the same. He really shouldn’t have decided to do both. While I’m at it, Rhea Perlman is also hilarious as the mom, especially when she tells Miss Honey (Embeth Davidtz, who I spent the whole movie thinking was Sarah Paulson) that going to college was a bad move for Matilda, their insanely gifted daughter: “You choose books. I chose looks.” Picture Rhea Perlman with her hair dyed really bad blonde saying that, and you get the comedy. But getting back to DeVito, he did a pretty good job of getting the feel of the book right without making it too dark; the Wormwoods’ house is unambiguously ugly and awful, but in a tacky way; the school has the right mix of awfulness and, uh, watchability.
Trans-Europ-Express (Alain Robbe-Grillet, 1966): So Robbe-Grillet is best-known as the writer of Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad and also of several nouveaux romans, including The Erasers, which plays on the detective novel, but isn’t actually a detective novel. Anyway, he also directed a handful of movies. This was his first, and it’s kind of a slightly less complex Charlie Kaufman thing, about a writer (Robbe-Grillet) writing a movie about a drug smuggler, on a train; the smuggler keeps showing up on the train, and the film-within-the-film kind of reflects the confusion of the friends that the writer is working with. “Wait, so what’s up with the prostitute?” “Uh, I dunno.” But then of course she totally becomes a key part of the story.
The Man Who Lies (Alain Robbe-Grillet, 1968): We saw these in a double feature, and this was the weirder of the two, and therefore the one I preferred. This is about Jean-Louis Trintignant, who was the smuggler in the first film, a dude who is getting chased by some soldiers and then rolls into a quiet Slovak town, where he tells a lot of lies to a lot of ladies about his friendship with the town’s resistance hero. It’s a weird movie, because you realize by the end of it that most of the film is literally just Trintignant talking; his voice mostly controls what you see, but slowly the visual track starts to break from the soundtrack. The other interesting aspect of the soundtrack, besides that one male voice, is the fact that it’s scored with a series of weird, hard-to-identify sound effects instead of music, creating this great, confusing, otherworldly effect. These kinds of effects accompany scnes like the otherwise silent scenes showing the resistance leader’s wife, sister, and maid, who live in this female-dominated household, playing these odd sexual games. Robbe-Grillet has been accused of gratuitous porniness in the past, because of his clear bondage fetish, but I think the way these scenes were staged was just wonderful. It showed these three women communicating with each other, in a way that is kind of obscure but at the same time very obvious; it made me think about all those French feminist theories of women’s sexuality as being defined by proximity and closeness, and the idea that conventional language isn’t really appropriate to women’s experience. There was a little bit of écriture feminine in there, especially when contrasted with Trintignant’s almost exhausting verbosity.