Pootie Tang (2001)

Pootie_Tang_posterThank God for Louis C.K. When he directed the 2001 film “Pootie Tang,” he was still an aspiring comedian, writer and director, not yet a household name, and certainly not the innovator on stage or behind the camera that we’re accustomed to today. Let’s just say no one was calling him a genius yet.

Chris Rock however imagined that C.K. one day could be a genius. C.K. wrote and directed on “The Chris Rock Show” and with Conan O’Brien on “Late Night,” and it was Rock who encouraged C.K. to start developing ideas for himself. But not before C.K. was tasked to adapt a successful sketch and character on “The Chris Rock Show” into a feature length film that would turn out to be the biggest failure of C.K.’s career: “Pootie Tang.”

The sketch is little more than Rock conducting an interview with a jive-talking pop star, and the film (barely qualifying as one at just 81 minutes) isn’t about much more. In fact, it’s a mess. “Pootie Tang” was such a disaster in 2001 that Roger Ebert wondered in his Half-Star review if it was even finished, imagining how such a wild mish-mash of a film could’ve possibly been made and released in this state. “Pootie Tang” is not bad so much as inexplicable,” he wrote. “How was this movie assembled out of such ill-fitting pieces?”

And yet if it weren’t for C.K.’s rise as a director, would anyone have given “Pootie Tang,” truly a cult classic that just had its 15th anniversary, the second look it deserves? Continue reading “Pootie Tang (2001)”

Justifying Horrible Things: An essay about Louis C.K. and ‘Horace and Pete’

Horace_and_PetePosterIn the third episode of Louis C.K.’s “Horace and Pete,” Horace’s ex-wife Sara (Laurie Metcalf) delivers a gut-wrenching, vivid monologue in which she slowly reveals her infidelity to her new husband. The camera remains firm on her fragile face, and it takes a solid ten minutes before the camera even cuts away to reveal Horace (C.K.) is sitting across from her as she speaks. The more we learn about her backstory, the more she digs a hole for herself. But it’s so descriptive and well acted we empathize with her immediately. We understand why she’s behaved so horribly and why she can’t bring herself to stop. Worst of all, she now has the audacity to look to Horace to help her find a way out, but we too understand why he’s the only one who could.

Call it TV, film or theater, this episode of “Horace and Pete” is possibly the single best hour of art of the year. It explores through only dialogue and character what it is to be on the brink of something so terrible and be unable to stop. Horace tells her it’s like having home insurance during a fire: you just have to burn it all down.

“You really have a skill at justifying horrible things,” she says to him. That line speaks volumes in the moment of the episode, but whether on stage doing stand-up, on screen, or in public, Louie increasingly is all about justifying horrible things. Continue reading “Justifying Horrible Things: An essay about Louis C.K. and ‘Horace and Pete’”


Bryan Cranston plays Blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo in Jay Roach’s biopic.

TrumboPosterDid the injustice of the Hollywood Blacklist have to do with Americans’ Cold War fears, how we suppressed the First Amendment rights of thousands, or how we wrongly persecuted and led a witch hunt against innocents and those just expressing political beliefs? Or was it all because Dalton Trumbo was just too good?

“Trumbo”, the biopic on the life of the Oscar winning, yet blacklisted screenwriter, is filled with some stirring sentiments and American values. As Trumbo, Bryan Cranston delivers winning speeches with impeccable diction, all while maintaining his position as a contentious, even disagreeable figure. Jay Roach’s film though may just be a little too fun for its lofty ambitions. The screenplay touts values of Free Speech, but the story itself suggests the motto, “Be so good they can’t ignore you.”

Trumbo was brought up in the Golden Age of Hollywood, so the film is fascinated with that Old Hollywood charm, playing off campy fun biopic beats as it checks off the list of stars who made their way through Trumbo’s life: Edward G. Robinson, John Wayne, Kirk Douglas, Otto Preminger. The cast all gets their moments to do their mini-impressions of some of Hollywood’s most iconic and eccentric figures. “Trumbo” even opens with a montage of some of Trumbo’s many credits and takes us through his work on “Roman Holiday,” “Spartacus”, “The Brave One”, and “Exodus”, and Roach peppers the score with slinky jazz and a light, breezy tone. Much early on is even told through news reels rather than personal moments.

And yet “Trumbo” can be questionably chipper when dealing with the severity of The Blacklist and The Hollywood 10. Trumbo was one of the first waves of Communists brought in front of HUAC, or the House Un-American Activities Committee, to testify and name names about his involvement with the Communist Party. Many Hollywood insiders, including his liberal friend Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg), sold him and his colleagues out. In turn, Trumbo and the other nine spent up to a year in prison despite not committing a crime, and they were barred from ever working in Hollywood again.

Trumbo instead took up aliases and fixed up bad B-movie scripts for producer Frank King (John Goodman), and Roach has a lot of fun with this concept. The behind-the-scenes dealings and a money-grubbing John Goodman brandishing a baseball bat at those threatening to boycott him are hugely entertaining, and often more of interest to Roach than the pain and suffering brought on by the Blacklist.

Roach illustrates the hatred of Communists through plainspoken bigots throwing drinks at Trumbo at a movie theater or the big talk threats of Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren). But it overlooks the Trumbo family retreat to Mexico, or the deaths that even took place during the period. Instead he zones in on the family drama and how Trumbo’s shadow screenplay work took a toll on his wife Cleo (Diane Lane) and his equally political and outspoken daughter Nikola (Elle Fanning in Nikola’s teenage years).

Cranston though is largely the catalyst behind “Trumbo’s” added weight, political significance and modern relevance. His Hollywood 10 colleague Arlen Hird (Louis C.K.) asks, “Do you have to say everything like it’s going to be chiseled onto a rock?” Cranston’s hitched up pants, his hunched posture as he marches about the room, and the way he chomps on a cigarette or cigar certainly smack of a “performance”, but he’s modest enough in his speech to make it convincing. Where everyone else is clear-cut about their politics, Cranston plays Trumbo as largely articulate and argumentative of principles over strict ideas. In one scene he stands up to John Wayne and challenges Duke’s non-existent war record, despite how he invokes the war to condemn people like Trumbo. The wit and words behind Cranston’s performance help elevate Trumbo as an artist and thinker but also show how he might be difficult at parties.

Roach’s film may be too entrenched in Hollywood history and royalty to not somewhat diminish the Cold War era hardships of the Blacklist, but Trumbo’s name was suppressed for years, and now this film proudly adorns it as a fitting title and story.

3 stars

Louis C.K.'s 'So Did the Fat Lady' doesn't speak for all overweight women; it isn't trying to

“Louie” and “So Did the Fat Lady” gives lesser seen individuals a voice and is a character study rather than a plea.

TV, its been said, is in a golden age. There are great shows and great criticism surrounding it. But every once and a while a single episode of a single show makes such noise that every Tom, Dick and Harry comes out of the woodwork to write a think piece about it.

Two years ago “Girls” stoked controversy with a polarizing episode in which Hannah enters into something of a fantasy weekend with a hot, wealthy guy played by Patrick Wilson. More recently, “Game of Thrones” stirred questions of whether or not a character was raped.

And in each case the headlines and articles are as contrarian, attention grabbing, thought provoking (and hopefully as intelligent) as the episode on which it is based.

This week, “Louie,” one of my favorite shows on television, hit a homerun with an episode that subverted tropes, pointed a finger at society and made Louis C.K., the show’s brilliant auteur behind so many of its elements, into a character we truly pity rather than laugh at.

“Louie” has done this before. Back in Season 2 Louie learned that an old friend was going to perform a last night of standup and then commit suicide, and whether Louie or his friend has the better case for living or dying is left somewhat up for grabs. In Season 3, Louie connects with a Latin American lifeguard in Miami in a relationship that seems more than platonic. These episodes were clear in their ideas, and they were celebrated because they provided us another point of view. C.K. forced us to think about how media and how society depicted ideas like homosexuality, masculinity, suicide and in other episodes religion, relationships and even the campaign in Afghanistan.

Anyone who knows C.K.’s comedy knows he’s actually quite the feminist, and this week on an episode called “So Did the Fat Lady,” he tackled a subject and a fear that for reasons he lays bare throughout the episode, feel close to home: dating as an overweight woman and the perception we carry about them.

The episode involves a chubby waitress named Vanessa (played by a now breakout performer Sarah Baker) who comes on strong and asks Louie out after he performs. She’s funny, charming and clearly into him, all of which offset the fact that Louie might be a little uncomfortable having a woman he’s just met be so up front. You constantly beg for him to say yes and just see what happens, but he’s got pressures in the form of Jim Norton lurking in the background saying “Yuck” as she walks away, Louie continuing to approach the comedy club’s other waitresses like “Sunshine” and his own weight being rebuked when he’s out with his brother on a “Bang Bang,” in which he eats two huge meals of different cuisines back to back.

But the episode’s most affecting, and polarizing, moment comes in a monologue by Vanessa when they finally do go on a coffee date.

Continue reading “Louis C.K.'s 'So Did the Fat Lady' doesn't speak for all overweight women; it isn't trying to”

American Hustle

“American Hustle” is David O. Russell’s brilliant charade of a movie led by an amazing cast.


Christian Bale gained 43 pounds for his role in “American Hustle.” When he first appears on screen, he spends minutes “perfecting” an elaborate comb over of glued on hair and parted strands that will fool no one.

The beauty is that Bale and O. Russell have fooled everyone. We immediately are torn between the “real” Bale, the real character he’s portraying or the carefully tailored version he’s putting on for his associates, and if this portrayal is good enough, we’ll believe whatever these master performers put in front of us.

“American Hustle” is a brilliant charade of a movie. It’s a talky, intricate and intrigue filled caper in which everyone’s a con artist and there’s little sense of what’s real and what isn’t. We’ve been conditioned to believe in the movies there’s a certain element of truth within each story, no matter how fictional, fantastical or how deceitful and crafty the characters.

O. Russell’s film takes the real life story of ABSCAM, a ‘70s FBI sting operation that convicted several congressmen and a senator, and turns that concept of reality on its head. He opens the film with “Some of this actually happened,” a clever twist on the ambiguous “Based on a True Story,” and inhabits his and Eric Singer’s screenplay with a wacky, high octane and deliciously fun investigation that can’t be fully followed, trusted or believed in the slightest. Continue reading “American Hustle”

Blue Jasmine

Cate Blanchett is stunning in “Blue Jasmine,” Woody Allen’s portrait of the have-more culture.


In a year filled with movies about the have-more culture, Woody Allen has laid bare how the upper half lives. Cate Blanchett is magnificent in “Blue Jasmine,” Allen’s dramatic “Streetcar named Desire” inspired portrait of a crumbling woman amidst infidelity, deceit and blissful ignorance.

I wrote recently about “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” how women in movies tend to keep their composure better than men when faced with a personal crisis, and Jasmine has this down flat. Jasmine is the ever so prim and proper housewife of Hal (Alec Baldwin), an obscenely wealthy businessman and trader who turns out to be a massive crook. She’s been driven out of her home to live with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) after Hal is arrested, and yet that complication doesn’t stop her from carefully micromanaging her life story such that she can stay in her protective bubble of wealth and stature.

Jeanette is Jasmine’s real name, but the floral connotation had a better narrative. She met Hal while “Blue Moon” played, but then even this appears to be a clever fabrication. Now she aspires to be an interior designer with a license she can obtain if she only figures out how to use “computers.” This will be perfect as it allows her to continue to adorn herself in glamour and luxury without having any inherent skills. Heaven forbid she bag groceries like her sister. Continue reading “Blue Jasmine”

Movies vs. TV

I’m grappling with the idea that it’s cooler to be a TV fan than a movie buff.

Today’s most critically acclaimed TV shows are also the most buzzed about in circles that don’t revolve around Chuck Lorre sitcoms. “Breaking Bad,” “Mad Men,” “Downton Abbey” and “Community” are just some in the mix of what’s both cool and smart.

But movie critics are all jumping to see “The Turin Horse.” It’s the final film by the aging Hungarian master Bela Tarr. It’s slow, depressing, in black and white, has little dialogue and is bound to be this year’s art house masterpiece. It’s not exactly a blockbuster.

I love movies for their artistry, abstractness and technical wizardry. What’s frustrating to me is that people groomed on TV neglect those points because TV, much as I watch it, possesses none of these.

My goal now is to address these gaps without condemning TV as a whole.

TV is not a visual medium

The image of Luke Skywalker stepping outside to watch Tattooine’s two setting suns burns vividly in my mind. The wedding from “The Godfather” is there too, along with E.T. riding a bike in front of the moon or Lawrence of Arabia standing victoriously on a raided train.

I have fond memories of many of television’s finest moments, but I can hardly visualize any of them.

TV lacks iconic visual moments. A Google image search will prove me right. Search any good movie last year, even one you haven’t seen, and familiar images will still be there.

You may get Walter White standing in his underpants with a gun if you search a TV show, but you’ll mostly get cast photos and promos.

Many of these shows are gorgeous in HD with rich set dressing and costumes, but the nature of television requires cinematic simplicity and familiarity.

If one episode of a show looks too radically different from the next, people get wary. So directors develop patterns when shooting on a set, including reused establishing shots and lots of close up, over the shoulder conversations.

Rarely then do we stand back and marvel at the beauty or craft of an individual shot. Often film has the luxury of larger budgets and a longer shooting schedule, but there are dozens of indies that do away with HD cameras and are still more visually stimulating.

In fact, TV is not a visual medium. Its closest relative following World War II was radio, which likewise evolved TV into an art form that valued story over style.

TV is all about story

Any film school will tell you the three most important things a filmmaker can focus on are story, story, story.

Students then crank out a concept driven show like “Lost” with a million different narrative threads and an intricate web of clues that’ll add up by the season’s end.

But what that neglects are either shows with elegant, artistic simplicity or shows that are truly surreal.

And when something like “The Tree of Life” comes along and is a visual and emotional feast rather than a narrative one, people flip out.

“What does it all mean,” they cry, as if analyzing a string of lottery numbers that’ll key in the secret behind an island and smoke monster.

There’s a reason it’s called an “unconventional narrative.” Often, there’s not a complex answer to unravel because it’s anything but conventional. It’s art, beauty and expressionism for its own sake, and anyone who has seen the films of Bunuel, Kubrick, Tarkovsky, Tarr, Fellini, Malick and countless others would know that.

TV is never ending

If I ask to watch “Lawrence of Arabia,” you cringe at its length. But you won’t bat an eye at a TV marathon.

If I don’t get into a show it’s because I can watch a dozen movies in the time it takes to watch just one season on Netflix.

And if I get behind on a new, must-see TV show, the moment has already passed. There’s no catching up with so many other things to watch.

But TV thrives on its endless narratives. In fact, TV is the only art form that can actually change between episodes and seasons as people watch and debate.

This is so true that TV now encourages live discussions on Twitter through strategic hashtags, whereas doing so in a theater is plain rude.

If I was an old fashioned troll I could say that a work of art should stand alone with one artist behind it, and a TV series with a million contributors on social media is intrinsically not that.

TV is not film

Everything I’ve argued could also be a reason for why TV is so special.

The strength of TV is that it’s not film’s bastard child. In the last decade alone it has learned to tell stories in a way no other medium can and dispelled most rumors that TV is nothing but a trashy wasteland.

And there are even exceptions to my rules. “Louie” is a show that represents what television could be if it chose to follow that path. It’s a program that uses a serialized format to its advantage to create essentially short films. “Louie” is not only well made and often surreal, but individual episodes can stand alone as art. Not to mention, Louis C.K. is TV’s closest example to an auteur.

What we’re left with is a war between two completely different art forms and two sets of preferences. It’s black and white, but we’ve been comparing two shades of gray.

That’s why I’m scared when movie theaters are losing business to a digital age, episodic film franchises dominate the market and Netflix moves closer and closer to just being HBO.

Film is becoming the cultural dinosaur, and TV is thriving in a way that threatens to make interesting movies extinct.