"Good Hair" ***1/2 (95 minutes)

Wednesday October 13, 2009

Who would have thought that a comedic take on hair would be so controversial? Or that anyone could actually fill out 95 minutes on the topic? Leave it to Chris Rock to raise the ire of such a large class of humans (the female black population) while being so informative and entertaining at the same time.

Rock (who co-wrote the script along with director Jeff Stilson, Lance Crouther, Chuck Sclar) is front and center of the action as he takes us into this "secretive" culture which is a 9 billion dollar industry. Secretive, because who knew the expense, pain, and trauma black women (and children) endure to obtain straight hair &/or hair extensions?

The doc takes a while to get going, and I kept wondering if the topic would hold my interest, but when it finally hits its stride, there are as many eye opening revelations as laughs to be had. The film is centered on the 60th (!) annual event held in Atlanta that is sort of a combination hair products show & American Idol for hair stylists. The theatrical contest (which occupies the last part of the film) is the highlight of the Bonner Brothers International Hair show that is also a convention showcasing hair product companies.

Early on, Rock and his crew take us into the black -owned Dudley Products in Atlanta, (considered the industry's world leader), then over to India, where women, who have their heads shaved in a religious ceremony, ship the locks off for a profit. We are taken to a lab to show the effects sodium hydroxide has on a soda can (not pretty!)-especially noteworthy since this is the chemical women and children place on their head-and would explain the burning sensation these humans experience when using the hair products that contain it. And we visit a barbershop where black men humorously discuss their take on the whole subject with hilarious and revealing dialogue.

Interspersed throughout are entertaining interviews with such notables as Maya Angelou , Nia Long, Ice-T, Salt-n-Pepa, Al Sharpton, & Raven Symone, among others (where was Don King?).
All the while Rock provides the narration and one-liners that is his trademark.

But it is the final contest in Atlanta, that curiously has no relation to hair styling, that neatly wraps up the proceedings and feature an under water act and upside down hair cutting! And who would have thought that the favorite to win each year was a white dude!!

The documentary has been in limited release since October 9th & opens in Baltimore on Friday October 30th.

"Where The Wild Things Are" *** (141 minutes)

Tuesday October 13, 2009

There is a lot to recommend about this filmic adaptation of Maurice Sendek's 1963 beloved children's picture book. Writer/director Spike Jonz' ("Being John Malkovich", "Adaptation", "3 Kings") has expanded the extremely sparse narrative (the book contains a handful of sentences comprising 338 total words!), while using Jim Henson's creature shop & CGI to recreate the fanciful drawings of the original source. The result is an intriguing, yet overlong, look into the mindset of most pre-teens who are striving to be accepted and loved by everyone around them.

Max (Max Records, who first appeared in 2008's "The Brothers Bloom") is a precocious hyperactive kid who just can't seem to connect with friends, siblings, & mom (Catherine Keener-a Jonze fav). After a run-in with his single parent, Max wanders off in his wolf suit and his imagination wanders off in a boat that takes him to a wondrous island inhabited by fascinating creatures who, at first, want to eat the dude. After Max stands his ground, they quickly decide to anoint him king.

What happens next is . . . well, not much to be honest. Each of the creatures has voices of famous actors (James Gandolfini, Paul Dano, Catherine O'Hara, Forrest Whitaker, Chris Cooper, & Lauren Ambrose) that, if you close your eyes, you can picture their human form. The middle third of the film has them cavorting, constructing a fort, being jealous and vindictive. All the while Max tries to maintain control and keep together his new-found subjects.

The soundtrack by the talented Carter Burwell is original for this kind of film, & the Australia locations are breathless and beautifully integrated into the visuals-but after a while, I started to zone out. Although the creatures were initially intriguing, the paper thin plot doesn't hold up as well over the 141 minute running time.

I get the angst that Max experiences that translate into the imaginative "story" of trying to gain acceptance, and finally realizing that "there's no place like home". The real question is what minimum age should the child be to see the darkness that is on the screen? Well, the answer is, it depends. It depends on the emotional level of the child to recognize that Max's imaginary world is sort of a microcosm of the real world and hopefully won't be totally freaked out when there is talk of devouring a little child.

"More Than A Game" (****) OPENS TODAY IN BALTIMORE & D.C.!!!


Time for my favorite festival, the AFI SILVERDOCS Documentary Film Fest. And, being the sports nut that I am, I'm really looking forward to the opening night as the U.S. premier of "More Than a Game" (****-102 minutes) kicks off the 7th annual festival in a big way.

"Hoop Dreams" (1994) is not only considered one of the best sports documentary of all time, in some circles it is argued that it may be one of the greatest docs. Steve James' personal and emotional account of 2 teens, William Gates & Arthur Agee, from Chicago's inner city, resonates on many levels. James followed both talented basketball players for 5 years as each was eying a future in the NBA.

I may be going way out on a limb, but Kristopher Belman's stunning doc compares in every way with what is considered the standard in sports docs. Belman's amazing initial effort (he wrote and co-produced it as well) chronicles, over a 9 year time span, the "Fab Five". These were 5 African-American youths from Akron Ohio, 4 of whom have been playing basketball together since they were 11, who went to great lengths to stay together at any cost to win a championship. For example, when one of them decided to attend the elite St. Vincent-St. Mary school, a predominantly white school, the rest of them passed up going to a closer predominantly black school, so as not to break up their longtime chemistry-to the dismay and scorn of their community. Oh, and one of those players happens to be LeBron James-who went straight to the NBA from that same high school to become one the most famous NBA players on the planet.

However, even though most of the media ads will no doubt prominently display James' mug, don't be mislead. This is not his story alone. In fact, he was merely one fifth of the equation. It is more a story about their assistant coach, Dru Joyce II, who replaced SVSM's already successful head coach who suddenly left for greener pastures during their junior year, and who instilled valuable life lessons both on and off the court. Father of little Dru, the diminutive point guard, Dru Sr. would try and right the ship after the head coach's defection to try and lead the team to a championship. All the while, James was being touted as "The Chosen One" by Sports Illustrated placing him on its front cover (the first high school player ever to achieve that honor) and their games were being nationally televised on ESPN because of it.

Belman has created an extraordinary achievement as he and co-screenwriter Brad Hogan have structured this film like a narrative and have successfully made it dramatic enough, despite its known ending, to make it seem fresh and exciting. The score by producer Harvey Mason Jr. is superlative and "today".

The best compliment I can give to it was by 2 ladies sitting next to me. Prior to the screening, they gave me the impression they didn't know a basketball from a marble and I don't have to tell you they had never heard of LeBron. After the screening they turned to me and exclaimed "Wow! What a film!!"

The post screening discussion was as outstanding as the film. The sold-out audience (the 3 AFI Silver theaters and the Round House Theater next door were all filled to capacity) was treated to a terrific interview hosted by NPR's "All Things Considered" host Michelle Norris. Present were producer and music director Harvey Mason Jr., Director Belman, all 5 of the Fab Five, and coach Dru Joyce. Of course the audience was buzzing when LeBron graced the stage, but the comments by the other players were equal to the task.

Belman revealed that the full length feature sprung from his 13 minute college project and his decision to continue following the team ended up being a stroke of great luck. Producer Mason said he corroborated with Belman on the music. LeBron, who was raised predominantly by his mom, said that his house was like a "Chuckie Cheese for kids" with the constant visitation of his friends. And huge Sian Cotton said watching it with an audience was a thrill and admitted he started to cry a one point. The audience laughed when he commented that the film was so suspenseful that even he wasn't sure how it was going to turn out in the end. When each was asked by Michelle to make a comment to the young people who want to be the best that they can be, the soft spoken LeBron, who was the last to speak, imparted wisdom from the perspective of a superstar that perfectly wrapped up the half hour dialogue.

The after party, as it has been since 2003, was held in the beautiful Discovery Communications headquarters. The catered food was geared to the theme of the night, complete with gourmet hot dogs and bags of peanuts and popcorn, and wonderful musical entertainment was provided by D.C. rappers, Tabi Bonney and Wale.

"More Than a Game" is scheduled for limited nationwide release by Lionsgate on October 2nd. Put it on your calendar!

"A Serious Man" ***1/2 (104 Minutes)

Thursday October 1, 2009

In terms of religion, how interesting to follow my last film ("The Invention of Lying") with this one, the latest offering by the brilliant & highly successful brothers Joel & Ethan Coen. Where Ricky Gervais considers a universe where everything appears to be morally correct and is devoid of religion, here is a narrative that immerses itself in it-more specifically the Jewish faith.

It reminds me of my hometown boy, Barry Levinson, who really made his mark and started to became bankable after working with Mel Brooks writing 1976's "Silent Movie" then Directing 1977's "High Anxiety". Then he won an Oscar for directing "Rain Man" in 1988. This success over the years allowed him the time/money to pursue his more personal "Baltimore" films ("Diner", "Tin Men", "Avalon", & "Liberty Heights"). In a way, this seems what the Coens have done; creating a film that you can tell comes as much from their heart and history than any of their previous works.

I ventured down to the fabulous AFI Silver to attend the screening complete with a wonderful Q & A (more on that later) with Michael Stuhlbarg who plays Larry Gopnik-the main character in the film whose entire world is about to crumble. Before we're introduced to him, though, we get a curious prologue set in a Polish shtetl where it seems the husband has invited a dybbuk (a demon) into the household. When his wife recognizes the dude for what he is (or may be) he is promptly dealt with that may, in its own way, be a curse or salvation-something we never know. However the tone of what follows is set: what happens to all of us during our lifetimes is never fully explained or understood.

This modern version of the Story of Job then flashes to 1967 in a northern town in Minnesota (both brothers grew up Jewish in St. Louis Park, a suburb of Minneapolis) where our hero, Larry, is dealing with a multitude of problems. You know how people say that tragedies seem to come in 3's? Well for him, it seems that figure is multiplied by multiples of 3's. No matter where he goes or what he does, a dark cloud is above his Keppie (head for those of you not well versed in Yiddish) and storming over his brow.

How's this for starters: one of his pupils (Larry is a physics professor at the University of Minnesota) is concurrently bribing & blackmailing him(!); someone is trying to sabotage his attempt to get tenure by sending anonymous damaging letter to his superiors; his about to be bar-mitzvah son is more concerned about getting high than high grades; his teenage daughter is stealing money for that nose job she desperately "needs"; his immediate next door neighbor on one side hates Jews; the one on the other side is sex-crazed; not to mention his wife wants to leave him for his best friend, Sy Abelman. All the while, Larry, trying to keep stoic through all of this, starts seeking out advice/answers from the local rabbi's. How can the Almighty Being allow all of these travails from happening to such a "serious" man?! Like real life, no easy answers/explanations can be found. Larry is just trying to get by as best he can.

The brilliant script is matched by the Coens' forte: for the most part using little known or recognizable character actors that are incredibly believable. Michael Stuhlbarg is so perfect in the role that you'd think he was born to be Larry Gopnik. Known more for his theater work (Michael was nominated 4 years ago for a Tony for his role in "The Pillow Man", appeared on TV, and had a couple of minor roles in the films "Body of Lies" and this year's "Cold Souls"). While Fred Melamed (as Sy), Richard Kind (as Larry's live-in brother, Arthur who's constantly dealing with a draining neck cyst), Sari Lennick (as Larry's wife Judith), and Adam Arkin (the most famous name in the cast who plays Larry's divorce lawyer) are spot-on perfect!

The Coens' outstanding Director of Photography, Roger Deakins (who lately was also the DP for "Doubt", "The Reader", "Revolutionary Road", & "In the Valley of Elah") and their art department have created a 1967 suburban milieu that is stark and barren and I'm certain taken right out of their childhood. I love the look of the neighborhoods with the tiny lawns devoid of trees and shrubs. And the original music by their long time corroborator Carter Burwell is perfectly entwined with the music of the 60's that is craftily inserted throughout.

And don't feel you have to be Jewish to fully appreciate the movie, any more than you needed to be Italian to enjoy "The Godfather". Just sit back and let Joel & Ethan take you for a wild ride into situations & predicaments that, unfortunately, are common to us all.

The film is being platformed beginning October 2, opens in D.C. on October 9th, and probably in Baltimore on October 16th.
Following the film the audience was treated to a entertaining Q&A with Michael Stuhlbarg moderated by CBS News' Dan Reviv. Brought out during the interview and Q&A:

Michael revealed that his very first pre-professional performance was in "Bye Bye Birdie", ironically at the Long Beach Jewish Community Center. He has also appeared in the stage and film version of "The Grey Zone"-so there might be some type casting here.

He's currently working on the pilot of HBO's "Boardwalk Empire" which Martin Scorsese is executive producer & directing, about the birth & high times of Atlantic City.

Eleven months before being hired, he tried out for the husband's part in the prologue and even got a Yiddish coach to learn Yiddish and to help in the dialect. However, the Coens ended up using actors from the Yiddish Theater Company in New York City instead. Six months later, he was called in to try out for the parts of Larry & Arthur and found out months later he received the lead role.

In talking about the Coens, he said that they actually are the editors and use the alias Roderick Jaynes ("Jaynes" was actually Oscar nominated for "No Country For Old Men"); they act as "2 sides of the same head" on the set often agreeing and never fighting; Joel does the actual directing while the slightly younger Ethan "holds his head down and paces around in the back of the room and just listens listens listens very carefully"; they storyboard every scene and are so totally prepared that the 2 month filming came in ahead of schedule and under budget.

Michael revealed that the 3rd head on the set was clearly their long time DP Roger Deakins who was quite the perfectionist (the results are clearly seen on the screen).

As for whether the film was biographical, Michael revealed that the Coens' parents were both professors (their father taught economics at the University of Minnesota) and that several of the character names were actual names from their past but, overall, the main story was somewhat fictional.

Sy (Fred Melamed) tries to confort Larry (Michael Stuhlbarg)
after informing him of his affair with Larry's wife
Joel & Ethan Coen on the set

CBS News' Dan Reviv (l) & actor Michael Stuhlbarg (r)

Actor Michael Stuhlbarg