Queen Latifah’s latest film a real Beauty

Beauty Shop opens today, so I might as well toss my own two bits out there. The wife and I caught it a couple nights ago and we both really enjoyed it.

I remember liking Barbershop a few years ago and being disappointed in its sequel, so I was happy to find that its spin-off was closer to the spirit of the first film than the second one. In fact, I just might like the new film best of the three; it is the least encumbered by anything we might call a “plot” (the jealous, ridiculous, rival hairdresser played by Kevin Bacon is a relief after the heavies Ice Cube had to deal with), and it benefits greatly from the charisma of Queen Latifah, Alicia Silverstone and others.

Indeed, charisma and chemistry are pretty much the only reason to see this movie — but in the hands of these actors, it’s a pretty compelling reason, too. I like films about characters who enjoy their friends and their places of work, and watching this film felt like hanging out with old buddies. And Queen Latifah is a real joy to behold: comfortable in her skin, proud of her big body, and gifted with charm, intelligence, and an impressive array of facial expressions. This woman’s always ready for her close-up.

I was also impressed by the way the film tweaked some of the stereotypes surrounding these characters. Mena Suvari plays a rich snobby type who seems friendly enough, and I genuinely felt bad for her when Bacon’s character makes a disparaging remark about her breast implants; but then, just at the worst moment possible, her nastier side comes out, and while there’s no particular depth to the character, the change in our emotional response to her is still a bit jarring; I, at least, felt the sting of betrayal there.

FWIW, I also liked the way the film subverted the myth of achieving one’s ultimate dream. I could say more about that, but I don’t want to spoil anything. Suffice to say the film extols the virtues of one’s local community over the grander ambitions of international fame.

Biggest shock: Seeing Keisha Knight Pulliam, who once played the cute little Rudy on The Cosby Show, as a promiscuous, navel-flashing, gangsta-dating boy-toy.

UPDATE: Upon further consideration, I may have to take back that bit about liking this film better than Barbershop. There is nothing in this film that provides the intergenerational camaraderie or the socio-cultural banter or the politically incorrect thrill of hearing Cedric the Entertainer bark the words, “Fuck Jesse Jackson!” Barbershop was a politically conscious film about black men that riled one of the world’s most famous black men, and that kind of friction can be very entertaining, whereas Beauty Shop is a cozier film about black women that would probably earn praise from one of the world’s most famous black women (yes, I mean Oprah). But then, the difference between the two films probably reflects the difference between the two genders. And it’s probably no accident that I saw one film with a male buddy while I saw the other film with my wife. If I came away from Beauty Shop with a slightly more positive buzz, it may have had something to do with the company I was keeping that night.

Links to non-film articles

In addition to writing film-related articles, I also write news stories and features, many of them about religion. (I have won a few awards for my news and feature items, but nothing for my reviews — presumably, I would guess, partly because Christian community papers don’t write enough about the arts to make it worth their while to hand out awards in that category.)

Two such stories have gone online in the past week — one is a feature for ChristianWeek on the appeal of Orthodoxy to evangelicals (in a related vein, check my interview with Fr. Thomas Hopko for CanadianChristianity.com); and the other is my latest in a long line of stories for BC Christian News about the breaking up of the Anglican church, as seen from the city where the schism really began in earnest about three years ago.

In the country of my father’s skull …

Caught a press screening of Country of My Skull (or, as it is known in North America, In My Country) this morning.

It’s good to see a film about the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission — especially one that acknowledges the positive religious tenor of the whole thing — but whatever social or political impact this film might have had is seriously watered down by the time it spends on a rather trite love affair between two journalists, one a South African played by Juliette Binoche and the other an American played by Samuel L. Jackson. The affair itself isn’t developed beyond the most perfunctory elements, and the point of it all seems to be that “truth and reconciliation” are necessary not just on the national level, but at home, too — which is a rather banal direction in which to take this film, no matter how true that message might be. Chalk this one up as another misfire in director John Boorman’s erratic career.

As it happens, I brought my father to this screening, as I often do with films of this sort. My father grew up in Zambia and attended university in South Africa back in the ’60s, but because of his participation in anti-apartheid activities, he was given orders to leave the country the day after his 22nd birthday — and he wasn’t able to return, even for a visit, until 30 years later. (It’s weird to think of it this way, but if it hadn’t been for apartheid, I wouldn’t exist — my father left the country, followed his own recently widowed father to Canada, met my mother, and I was born, less than three years after my father had been told to leave.)

Anyway, my father e-mailed me some of his thoughts on the film some time later, and he said I could re-post them here. (Warning: There is a minor spoiler, but it doesn’t involve the Commission or the two protagonists.) So, for whatever it’s worth…

This movie was taken from the book “Country Of My Skull”, which presumably doesn’t hurry over things as much. South African writers are usually worth reading, and it would be an interesting contrast with Alan Paton’s “Too Late The Phalarope”, the book that was instrumental in my Christian conversion. The central event of that story is an Afrikaner policeman in the Orange Free State having an affair with a black woman, and being ostracized by his own culture as a result. I can’t remember all the details, but the policeman and the woman did not see each other as equals at all; as I remember it, they didn’t even speak much; but it wasn’t a rape either, because she acquiesced, and I have the impression that he would not have continued had she said no. He simply acted on a basic human instinct that overcame all his cultural conditioning, while she perhaps acted on culture — some combination of the inferior status of women in black culture and the inferior status of blacks in “his” land. Anyway, almost 50 years apart and quite different from this story!

The character Duma (or Nduma), the sound technician, struck me immediately as a former “tsotsi” or street gang survivor. So the revelation at the end that he had been a traitor to his cause was not a surprise. He would have lost his dignity early on, at the hands of the state. The amazing thing is that so many didn’t.

I loved the Afrikaans dialog. Did you notice the respect the central woman character showed to the proprietor of the “Ritz”, calling her “auntie”? This is the second movie I’ve seen in a week about Afrikaners who turn against their own system — Mom and I saw “A Dry White Season” on TV last week (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0097243/) with Donald Sutherland in the lead role and Marlon Brando in a cameo as a lawyer — and both movies depicted the Afrikaners much as I remember them. They are a puzzle that I would like to solve: capable of such devotion to God and duty, polite and respectful and observing all the formalities of civilized life, but capable of violence, and even hatred, when they feel threatened. Their past has something to do with this: they had to defend themselves against both the British and the Africans to retain their right to be “een volk” (a people, a “distinct society” as we might say in Canada). I know my parents and other English-speaking Southern Africans did not think highly of the Afrikaners, but I must say that I love the Afrikaner “volk” and feel very moved by their history and pray for their future. Their challenge is to hold on to all that is good in their culture while purging it of evil. It was a hopeful sign when the last remnant of the old National Party, that had created apartheid, recently merged into the ANC! I hope the majority in S.A. makes room in its heart for this “white tribe” which is capable of great good.

I remember reading in (I think it was) one of James Michener’s books that the Afrikaners lived by the Bible, but their God was the God of the Old Testament more than of the New Testament. There’s some truth in that, especially in their past willingness to go “over the top” when retaliating to threats, in an effort to forestall any future repetition. Fortunately a new generation of Afrikaners is more “verligte” (enlightened) and hopefully the NT message is gaining acceptance.

Incidentally, one thing I did like about the film myself was the way it presented the Commission as an expression of both “African justice” and Christian compassion — you might say one had baptized and embraced the other — and the way it contrasted these things with the more vengeful “Western justice” espoused by the Jackson character. There is a scene where the Jackson character has to confront the consequences of a “Western”, as opposed to “African”, form of justice, and it isn’t quite what he expected. The film could have made a significant point there, if only it hadn’t already undermined its own best efforts.

Want to avoid a lawsuit? Don’t research anything!

Speaking of Kingdom of Heaven, there was an article in the New York Times today about a lawsuit alleging that the film stole its story from a recent history book, Warriors of God: Richard the Lionheart and Saladin in the Third Crusade, by James Reston Jr.

Given that history is a public-domain kind of thing, it may be difficult to prove that the filmmakers stole any particular author’s reconstruction of history, but the response offered by director Ridley Scott is rather interesting:

Asked about the matter recently, Mr. Scott, who is still finishing the film in England, said he had not read Mr. Reston’s book, nor any book about the Crusades. “Categorically, I don’t read anything, for just this reason,” he said, referring to the dispute. “I draw the fences up.”

Ha! Maybe this explains why the history undergirding certain earlier Scott films, such as Gladiator (2000) (my review) and 1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992), was so dismal.

Scott reportedly also said newbie screenwriter William Monahan “had relied on original documents and several Muslim authors,” the implication apparently being that Monahan had not relied on any secondary sources — but if Monahan really had been, as he reportedly said, “a student of the Crusades since he was 14,” then I would find it highly unlikely that he had read nothing but primary sources all his life. And assuming that he has read some secondary sources, I would assume these, too, had influenced his script.

Not that this would mean he had necessarily read Reston’s book, of course. And I wouldn’t want to quote Scott out of context. I just find it funny that any director would openly say “I don’t read anything” when he’s making a historical epic for which there must be an endless supply of research material.

Anticipating the Kingdom …

Looks like I might get a chance to see Kingdom of Heaven, Ridley Scott’s upcoming film about the Crusades, next week. So I’ve been looking around for other Crusade-themed films, just to see how this subject has been handled in the past, and, uh, there don’t seem to be all that many of them.

George MacDonald Fraser’s The Hollywood History of the World mentions only two, both of which happen to be available on VHS — Cecil B. DeMille’s The Crusades (1935), which I saw years ago and consider one of the worst DeMille films I have ever seen; and King Richard and the Crusaders (1954), which I have never seen but would love to some day, if only to see George Sanders and Rex Harrison chew the scenery as King Richard and Saladin, respectively.

I have also come across a review of John Aberth’s A Knight at the Movies, which devotes a chapter to the Crusades, but the only films he discusses there, apparently, are the DeMille film; Youssef Chahine’s Saladin (1963), which I would love to see, it being an Egyptian film directed by a Christian at a point between the Arab-Israeli Wars, but I imagine it will be beyond difficult to find on this continent; and two films — Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky (1938) and Charlton Heston’s El Cid (1961) — which take place around the same time as the Crusades but don’t actually take place at any point along that path from Western Europe to the Holy Land. So, not much I can do with that list.

Most Robin Hood movies allude to the Crusades, but only because King Richard is away somewhere fighting in them while Prince John tries to usurp the throne. However, I seem to recall Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991) starting with Robin imprisoned somewhere in the Holy Land and escaping with the help of a Moor played by Morgan Freeman, who comes back to England with him and thus keeps some sort of Christian-Muslim dialogue running throughout the film. And I have heard that the opening scenes of Robin and Marian (1976) might get into something along those lines too. So I might check those out.

If anybody has any other tips you could send my way, by all means, please do.

On a side note, I also can’t help noticing that Ridley Scott’s upcoming film marks a couple of reunions. The star of the film is Orlando Bloom, who was just an elf looking for mainstream cred when he had a bit part in Scott’s Black Hawk Down (2001) (my review); and the film also co-stars Jeremy Irons and Liam Neeson, who both played Jesuit monks in The Mission (1986).

“Capitalizing” on crimes?

I’ve been thinking about the relationship between real-life crimes and the movies lately.

A couple days ago, I finally got around to seeing documentarian Nick Broomfield’s Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer (2003), his follow-up to Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer (1992), and it is interesting to see how his new film looks at the effect that his last film had on the lives of some of the people it portrays; the new film begins, in fact, with Broomfield being summoned to appear in court because of claims he made in his earlier film. It is also interesting to see how Broomfield, who has shown a knack for infusing his dry British wit into some pretty sensationalistic American stories (Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam, 1995; Kurt & Courtney, 1998; Biggie and Tupac, 2002), lets us peek into the subjective processes by which he takes the objective facts of Aileen’s life and fashions them into something dramatic and watchable. And if there remains any question in anyone’s mind that Broomfield is no longer a mere observer but has made himself a part of the story, the sequence leading up to Aileen’s execution includes footage of American reporters interviewing Broomfield outside the prison, hoping that his special access to Aileen (he filmed her last interview, a fact that is trumpeted like a National Enquirer headline on the DVD’s cover) might give him some sort of special insight into her case.

One theme that comes up in both of Broomfield’s films is how people exploited Aileen, whether for money or for political gain; and of course, the question any viewer must ask is whether Broomfield himself is exploiting Aileen — and despite the sensationalistic tone of the film’s promotional materials, I am inclined to say, “No, he isn’t,” or at least, “Not primarily.” I think Broomfield is sincerely disturbed by the way the legal system may have let Aileen down — or, for that matter, by the way Aileen might have let herself down — and I do sense an empathy of some sort in his portrayal of her unfortunate life.

I was reminded of all this when I wrote my recent post on Sturla Gunnarsson and was reminded that one of his films, Scorn (2002), had been all about a couple of real-life murders perpetrated by an arrogant high-school student against his own mother and grandmother here in British Columbia.

And I happened to watch Broomfield’s film while another movie about a real-life killer was making the news here. As reported by the Canadian Press, Studio Briefing, and my friend The Shining Path, there has been some controversy lately over an upcoming American film based on the murders committed by Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka over a decade ago; notably, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty has called on people in his province to boycott the film outright. The situation is somewhat aggravated by the fact that there was a publication ban on the original court case at that time — although that didn’t stop some Canadians from taking advantage of this newfangled thing called the World Wide Web to see what the American media were publishing about the case.

Now National Post columnist George Jonas has this to say about the whole affair:

To wean himself from the worst impulses of philistinism, an asset for a politician but a liability for a film critic, Mr. McGuinty must start vocalizing the phrase “not what but how” just before breakfast. When repeated assiduously 15 times on an empty stomach, the line gradually penetrates a politician’s mind and leads him to grasp that the value of a piece of art or entertainment isn’t determined by what it is about but by how it is made.

Many works of art — cinematic, visual, literary — capitalize on terrible tragedies. Schindler’s List capitalizes on the Holocaust. Gone With The Wind capitalizes on the Civil War. Shakespeare capitalizes on some of the bloodiest chapters in English history. Much of medieval and renaissance art capitalizes on the story of the Crucifixion and Calvary.

Here’s what confuses many politicians. The same tragedies that inspire master craftsmen and superb entertainers also motivate tin-eared dilettantes and ambulance-chasing ghouls. Using the same kind of story Truman Capote used to produce In Cold Blood, the dilettantes and ghouls produce garbage.

That’s where critics come in. Brave and sturdy souls, they take a deep breath, wade into the cesspool, filter out the filth and guide us to the pure stuff. One can only commend Mr. McGuinty for volunteering to join their ranks. Alas, to be a critic requires (a) viewing movies before calling on people to boycott them, and (b) not spouting rubbish about capitalizing on tragedies.

Exactly. Amen. I agree. Couldn’t have put it better myself. But even so, I think concerns remain.

Documentaries, at least, can provoke a certain degree of necessary doubt, but, as G.K. Chesterton warned, dramatizations cannot help but feel more definitive — writers of fiction, even historical fiction, must make choices between available interpretations of any given historical event — and when Aileen, in Broomfield’s new film, begins to contradict everything she said in his earlier film about her victims being rapists and abusers, you begin to wonder if Monster (2003), the Oscar-winning feature film about her life, may have needlessly tarnished the reputations of Aileen’s victims by accepting her original version of those events. In addition, there seems to me to be something a little unseemly about glamour dolls like Charlize Theron accepting Academy Awards, in glamorous ceremonies populated by similarly glamorous people, for playing such troubled and marginalized individuals who had such a terrible effect on other people’s lives.

James Cameron earned a fair bit of scorn when, at the ceremony where he won his Oscars for Titanic, he asked for a moment of silence for the victims of that ship — but I can respect that impulse, at least in principle. If you are going to assume the responsibility of helping to shape our cultural memory of a real-life tragedy, then you have to keep that real-life situation in mind, even — if not especially — when you are being praised for the technical skill with which you helped to shape our collective memories. I wonder what might have happened if Theron had done something similar when she won her Oscar; I wonder what might have happened if she had asked for a moment of silence for Aileen’s victims, or for that matter if she had asked for a moment of silence for the recently-executed Aileen herself.