HOV Song Cry

19 Jul

 

4:44 Album Review

Several years back Jay-Z appeared on The Howard Stern Show, putting himself in the hot seat deflecting barbs and personal jabs hurled his way by the self proclaimed “King of All Media” and the shock jock’s morning drive posse. Mister Roc-A-Fella; the founder of Roc Nation, Rocawear clothing empresario and the president of Def Jam at the time! A hip-hop icon in the game for almost two decades strong, he seemed put off by a number of questions and was reluctant to respond to other off color remarks and was just sounding super uncomfortable. At a certain point I said to myself why was this “Business, Man” subjecting himself to this?

Cry Jay Z, we know the pain is real
But you can’t heal what you never reveal
What’s up, Jay Z? You know you owe the truth
To all the youth that fell in love with Jay Z
You got people you love you sold drugs to
You got high on the life, that shit drugged you
You walkin’ around like you invincible

4:44 is Jigga’s Tony Soprano moment (we are privy to that inner monologue on nearly every verse he delivers) where Young Hov was always the Michael Corleone in the rhyme game. On 10 tracks amounting to about thirty-six minutes in length he confesses (literally snitching on himself), purges his demons and claps back on rumors in a way that is both refreshing and perplexing that one would never ever expect in the early …The Life And Times Of S. Carter days. Solange had him on TMZ with the elevator beat down she administered to brother-in-law Hov on a loop and wifey Beyonce put him on blast with the release of Lemonade. Shawn Carter Tracy Jordaned himself (the 30 Rock reference so fitting in this case) on both 4:44 and Family Feud, sans his hardrock persona on both tracks, he not only admits to his infidelity and indiscretions but owns up by apologizing. Jigga what?

The same way I never thought the kat who gave us Golddigger would wife a Kardashian, never did I think that I would hear words like that from Jay, let alone on wax. I find it interesting how people are running with how candid President Carter is, especially the Beyhive who can’t come to grips with the fact that anyone could wrong their girl. How you gonna cheat on the baddest chick in the game? C’mon, Eric Benet did step out on Halle Berry! The entire point of the going Eric Benet line. Nuff said. I believe this is the first collection of tracks by Hova that has one producer manning the board and it results in a solid concept record, not a collection of singles from the usual for hire hitmen. The No ID thing is funny how he co-oped Kanye’s mentor on a project where Ye’s “big brother” openly comes at the troubled recording artist. Chi-town’s own blessed this project with a gospel tinged soundscape to accompany the rhetoric and pearls of wisdom offered as Jiggaman goes in on the music industry, mumble rappers, prodigee West, haters and Stans alike. Marcy Me and Kill Jay-Z catch your ear on first listen, both songs lyrically sound, bars to rival anything from J Cole, Kendrick or the old Kanye we’ve all been missing. The standout track on the  4:44 album without a doubt is The Story Of OJ. The commentary on society and race is spot on.

Light nigga, dark nigga, faux nigga, real nigga
Rich nigga, poor nigga, house nigga, field nigga
Still nigga, still nigga

OJ Like I’m not black I’m OJ… okay.

I guess this is the kind of music you put out when in your late 40’s you’re no longer “dumbing it down” for your audience. But what makes this song an instant classic from a recording artist recently inducted into the songwriters hall of fame is the accompanying music video. That said, I don’t think anyone under the age of forty can appreciate what the imagery in the animated clip co directed by the MC and visionary director Mark Romanek represents and why it’s so mind blowing that he choose to go there. The psychological damage that Disney, WB studios and the rest of the companies of that era who proliferated those racial stereotypes to the general public can never be measured.

The QT effect one example chronicled in the accompanying video is disturbing.

 

The most unexpected cut is Smile which features mama Carter who is outed by her son on the track that speaks on her sexual preference. I can honestly say there’s nothing on this album for no young heads. This is mature hip-hop; perhaps taking  a cue from Nas’ superb 2012 release Life Is Good. The  legendary Queensbridge rapper also enlisted No ID and Salaam Remi when he chose to speak on his high profile divorce from wife Kelis at the time.  Maybe Shawn should have gotten there ten years ago but even he admits in some lyrics that his wife matured faster. The lone banger Bam with the assist from Damian Marley is as close to a single as you’re gonna get. And thank god Jay-Z didn’t stoop to the Drake fake Jamaican patois on the dancehall flavored joint.

4:44 is one of the best releases of 2017, definitely one of the best for everyone’s GOAT who is not Biggie, who hasn’t really delivered in a minute if we’re being honest. Jay is the Floyd Mayweather of the rap game; he’s got nothing to prove and he’s paid. Since returning from a second retirement, this 13th solo studio release is regarded as his magnum opus and all but secures his legacy. A definite career defining drop the mic moment, he should do that and then walk off stage.

My non subscription to Tidal factored into when I was able to issue this post.

Arthvr Alleyne

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FILM VIEW 2015

5 Mar

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In Lucas We Trust

The rollout of pictures on the calendar  for 2015 told you everything you needed to know about the year in film. A required offering of sequels and reboots anchored by the Christmas release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens guaranteed that event release studios covet, where projected 200 million dollar first week numbers for a mega blockbuster of this magnitude would be looked upon as disappointing. JJ Abrahams a director and storyteller adroit at re-imagining what people loved about the tales and touchstones that defined their youth  was handed the Glengarry lead of franchises by Kathleen Kennedy of Lucas Films to guarantee a hefty return on their 300 million plus investment. A blockbuster that comes with comic book and cartoon spinoffs, toys and collectibles, fast food marketing, Lego video games, a slew of product licensing from soup can labels to “Darkside” flavored gourmet ice cream and other tie ins. The so-called, quote-unquote, according to the Star Wars creator “white slavers” at Disney looked to do rather well for the 40 billion dollar payout Lucas received when they  acquired the most coveted brand in all of entertainment. That being said, there simply is not a mass movie going culture anymore with video on demand and streaming readily available. I am one of those guilty of foregoing a trip to the theater when a month or two from now  I can have relatively same experience in the comfort of my own home.

Last year during a Hollywood Reporters executive roundtable studio heads stressed their brand, scheduling and rollouts for the all important franchise picture, a Magic Mike sequel looked on as such, that next installment dictate the profit margin at year’s end because of return ticket sales. And nothing is more tried and true than the reboot, they make up three of the year’s top five grossing films at the box office, Star Wars and Jurassic World a billion and a half one-two punch to date. Jurassic World being one of the films along with Mad Max: Fury Road, Pointbreak, Terminator Genisys, and Creed as part of the summer preview I had to ask myself, do we need another one of those? Stallone is once again in the corner as Rocky and Daniel Craig solidifies his legacy as maybe the best Bond ever with Spectre (Yes, whenever a new 007 signs on to her majesties secret service that qualifies as a reboot for the franchise). I guess it’s not for me to say what will get people out on a friday night, two of those offerings are critics darlings and people just can’t get enough of those gosh-darn dinosaurs. Only the Terminator project that elected to disregard the beloved Cameron storyline was universally panned. True to form devotees of The Hunger Games final installment, Divergent and The Maze Runner follow ups filled the seats as YM fare dominated. Comic book stuff with all its bells and whistles are always a draw even when it all seems run-of-the-mill at this point. Like the animated releases that’s hard to distinguish one from the next, these movies unimaginative of late are what the family moviegoers continue to demand, Inside Out probably the best of the genre this year. With television, specifically cable TV now the outlet for what was once considered independent cinema and as the Amazons, Netflixs and service outlets and most notably  Hulu get into the film game they need to be aware of marketing and theatrical runs, Netflix mishandling of their brilliant first theatrical feature Beasts Of No Nation resulting  in that picture  being passed over during awards season. Rummaging through any number of projects before the prestige releases at year’s end I have to say the majority of those films were remarkably underwhelming. I am not going to name names but when you take into consideration the effort that is required to plan and finance a studio picture the result should not be simply mediocre. To quote a college of mine “mediocrity is a disease”.  And the film business being what it is, how one gets a project greenlit is a mystery of Hitchcockian proportions. A great pitch does not a picture make.

On the OscarsSoWhite hashtag uproar, it’s not that Hollywood is racist, the industry is exclusive, where a large number of the decision makers are white and male. That is what works for them, that’s what has always worked and why change the process that is the basis of a multi billion dollar industry is their mindset I’m thinking. It’s a club that few people get a chance to join. The larger discussion to me has always been who gets to dictate how we’re all represented in the films that go out all over the world as the culture evolves because the percentage as it stands is disproportionately low.

 

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1. Beasts Of No Nation

  • available on Netflix

I dare anyone to tell me different when it comes to the best feature film this past year. Nothing comes close to the what Carl Fukunaga has put up on the screen under the Netflix banner. This brutal and stunningly acted film is an unflinching view from a child in an unnamed war torn African country stripped of all he holds dear and left with no choice but to participate in atrocities to get along. Agu, portrayed by newcomer Abraham Attah has to rely on his wits and wait out this nightmare he has been trussed into, doing the best he can in order stay alive and simply survive under the most extreme circumstances. The promotional material clearly state that “children are not soldiers” and one can clearly understand as you watch this mischievous child we are initially introduced to do things under the watch of The Commandant; a seductive, manipulative junta leader played by Edris  Ilba, his critically acclaimed performance has no equal. A more hideous Fagan from Dickens famous tome where young men are cajoled and forced to do the deeds of those who take them in. Once with the rebels our young protagonist is forced to go through a harrowing indoctrination and each successive episode that follows contributes to the loss of innocence of the carefree young man we first get to know playing imagination TV with his friends. Like his fellow child solider Strika Agu’s reactions speak volumes to what he relates in the voice over narration. And as the soldiers campaign wages we quickly realize that there is no clear humanity to speak of by the occupying forces. Leaving an indelible impression this film overall had me uneasy subject-wise and in sheer awe when it comes to the execution of story.

 

2. Mad Max: Fury Road

Septuagenarian director George Miller finally brings his on again off again,  years in the making  action-er sans Mel Gibson as the titular Max with Charlize Theron technically in the lead role as Imperator Furiousa in this slam bam popcorn movie that sets the bar pretty high for blockbusters going forward. You can’t help but admire what is basically a chase film set in a post apocalyptic landscape that is so fully realized and has heart, you root for all the participants from the stolen away maidens of Immortan Joe the messianic leader who controls the water supply. To the War Boys serving under him he is a deity, they simply crave his acknowledgement “witness me!”and the denizens of Gastown and the Bullet Farm who have their interests to protect. Your heart goes out to Nux played by Nicholas Hoult as you watch him want to matter so that he is willing to go to Valhalla (give his life) in doing so. Furiousa is all of Aliens Ripley and every bit Sarah Conner going toe to toe with the boys. Tom Hardy as Max Rockatansky is simply the same Max we’ve known from the beginning, wanting to go his own way, haunted by those he has failed in the past and not looking to get involved with what he is confronted with now. Ever inventive stunt sequences and practical effect galore go counter to the heavy-handed CGI formula we’ve grown accustomed to and in doing so bests every single big release this year in pure spectacle.

 

3. The Revenant

This film  inspired by Hugh Glass’ exploits in the early 1800s is Iñárritu’s take on John Ford’s The Searchers with parts Fitzcaraldo.  And to top it off the director goes ahead and out Terrance Malicks Terrence Malick in the process to the nth degree which is the highest praise I can bestow on this level of film-making. Leonardo DiCaprio’s immersive performance is profound,  leaving you breathless with its grandeur and wonderment set against the brutality of the frontier. The resurrection that is acted out as Glass methodically returns to exact his revenge in a satisfying climactic showdown is the stuff of films of yore. The one and only Tom Hardy and emerging star Domhnall Gleeson are no slouches either  as they round out a supporting cast that does all it can not to get upstaged by the attack sequence involving a bear. My hat goes off to cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki for capturing such stunning images under those conditions in South America in the winter  and the Mid West here in the US with a palette limited to the use of available light for all but two scenes.

 


4. Ex Machina

Screenwriter Alex Garland explores the God complex of tech genius Nathan Bateman played with relish by Oscar Isaac who is on the verge of a breakthrough in AI at his retreat secluded away deep in the mountains. When Bateman awards a golden ticket to one of his programmers to share what he has come up with, given exclusive access to what he believes will change the world, this staff lottery winner has no idea what’s in store. What initially seems “super cool” to Domhnall Gleeson’s Caleb Smith begins to get super weird in a hurry in their restricted confines. Nathan has Caleb administer the Turing test to Ava, a way of evaluating his work to determine if the humanoid he has engineered is ready to be reveled as the technological breakthrough he hopes. The dialogue of ideas and philosophy bristles as they butt heads over her. Can a machine truly emote genuine feelings, have an actual consciousness? That is the underlying question. Caleb is sympathetic to Alicia Vikander in the role as the not fully formed prototype and this leads to certain revelations and an unsettling conclusion. First time director Garland shows exceptional form in this science fiction cautionary tale.

 

5. Straight Outta Compton

This biopic chronicling the meteoric rise of the seminal gangster rap group of the Mtv era directed by F Gary Gray (an up and coming music video director at the time) gives a vivid account of the circumstances that had these young black men from the streets of Compton with the help of manager Jerry Heller  topping the charts and on the FBI watchlist because of their songs and controversial stage performances. The flip-side of concert tours and music videos; hanger-ons, guns and groupies come at a cost. When the comradery that fueled the creation of the seminal album Straight Outta Compton which introduced gangster rap to the  world and  changed the face of music begets infighting that leads to the group breaking up over contracts and loyalty. In a whirlwind of intimidation and violence it all in the end seems to come down to the almighty dollar.  A climate in Los Angeles at the time really begs the chicken or the egg question in regards to what influenced what; were Easy, Dre, Cube, Ren and Yella  simply reporting on drive-bys, pimps, the dope game and what went on in the streets rhyming over  beats by Dr. Dre or was that record what gave rise to the gangster culture. The cast of relative unknowns really sells this tale with some spot on portrayals along with knockout performances.

 

nina simoneWhat Happened, Miss Simone?

  • available on Netflix

At the beginning of last year there was a hue and cry surrounding a biopic of this beguiling and outspoken performer. The glamorization in portrayals of real life characters has always gone on but this Netflix documentary shows why there ain’t nothing like the real thing. This North Carolina native has layers to her character that you see through archival footage of trenchant performances and revealing interviews. The arch of her career answers the question posed in the title What Happened, Miss Simone? I can only hope that when the attempt to get a feature film on her life to the screen again that they will source this powerful documentary.

 

6. The Big Short

That rich people are dysfunctional is a given. When Bernie Madoff rips people off and has no compunction in doing so knowing full well that they will lose their life savings even when it’s clear he obviously doesn’t need the money, you see where director Adam McKay is going with this film. If the housing crisis had zero effect on you I would see where the humor in average hardworking Americans  falling for a scam that got a bunch of  Wall Street wisenheimers stinking rich. One well crafted script based on the national bestseller by Michael Lewis gives this A list ensemble cast of Gosling, Carell, Bale and Pitt the right to go all out Monty Python. Imaginative ways of explaining hedge funds and subprime mortgages with celebrity cameos and characters breaking the fourth wall makes this savvy farce a must see.

 

7. Anomalisa

This is what Charlie Kaufman does, he brings out what is most venerable in his characters, that uneasiness or embarrassment that may be have a crippling effect he forces you to focus your attention on when you instinctively want so much to look away. I recall his directorial debut, the heart wrenching Synecdoche, New York in 2008 bringing a friend of mine  to tears at that screening. This time around he uses a uniquely original stop motion technique to tell the story of a customer service guru stay at a hotel the night before a speaking engagement. A cartoon  which has no flights of fancy, musical numbers, cute character of the hint of comedy which is the staple of the normal animation not rated R. The chain-smoking, sex obsessed protagonist voiced by David Thewlis again and again  finds himself in awkward situations both imagined and real. The melancholy of individuals trying to connect is the underlying theme of this inventive film.

 

The Death Of Superman “Superman Lives”; What Happened?

The giant mechanical spider fight sequence the exec pitches to the bewildered director is legendary in film circles (at least in mine), I have told that story at least a dozen times myself. So when I hear Kevin Smith’s take on it, revealing that producer John Peters  was the one who wanted to have a robot with multiple legs do battle in what was to be the Tim Burton Superman project starring Nicholas Cage well… they had me at Hello. I love this documentary! I love stuff about how that project or this project  got made and all the behind the scenes back and forth. Amusing antidotes from  Smith –the original screenwriter before Wesley Strick was asked to step in– about the  wheeling and dealing will have you think he should pursue a career on the speaking circuit instead of his chosen vocation. Test footage of Nick Cage in the suit for fanboys to spaz out about, this film unlike any other  gives inexhaustible insight into the development of the blockbuster that never was Superman Lives. Millions squandered in said development, an array of out-there personalities, farfetched opinions by anyone who had a say and script revisions galore with each new  group that’s brought onboard. The  countless costume and character design costs to tally as more meetings were taken. In their own words accounts by Smith, Burton, Peters, Dan Gilroy and a long list of other scribes, artists, noted designer Colleen Atwood, various members of the creative team assembled over the years between nineteen ninety-six and nineteen ninety-eight before finally going ahead and pulling the plug. And according to director Tim Burton he will wrestle with why this movie didn’t get made well into his later years.

 

8. Bridge Of Spies

Mister Hanks takes on the cold war in this Capraesque telling of a story based on actual events. This recent pairing of Spielberg and his buddy is  so old Hollywood. Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, Atticus Finch take your pick, never has there been a more earnest character up on the screen. The back and forth by government agencies, the US court system and the minutia of geopolitical wrangling won’t deter our straight arrow protagonist who must convince his fellow attorneys, family and the American public in spite of bias towards the political prisoner he is assigned to defend to observe his rights and do the human thing.

 

Trailer 2015: Deadpool Red Band

Ryan Reynolds seems to have a charmed life; People‘s sexiest man, the knockout wife and he seems like a decent person. The film career … whew! This clip of an R rated Marvel Studios superhero release looks pretty killer.

 

9. The Tribe

New kid at a private school gets hazed and then is initiated in a gang. That would be the logline for this critics darling first feature by Ukrainian writer and director Miroslav Slaboshpitsky, but… (and there is a but) But the entire cast of this  film are hearing impaired and communicate only in sign language, and… there are no subtitles. For the first few minutes of the film you feel like a voyeur, and as I kept watching I personally felt excluded somehow, like the audience was meant to be left out. But not knowing exactly what’s being communicated does not take away one bit from this highly charged look inside of a criminal enterprise with his classmates that includes robbery and prostitution. Dare i say this brutally violent amoral story told in a lyrical silent film way is part of its charm.

 

10. Phoenix

In a ravaged post Nazi  Berlin an Auschwitz survivor struggles to find her identity after plastic surgery to her disfigured face and while trying to piece together a life knowing she was betrayed by her husband who she still has strong feeling for. Nina Hoss gives a haunting performance as the singer recruited by Johnny once she tracked him down. Encouraged to help him get his wife’s inheritance with a woman who believes has a striking resemblance to his former spouse he believes is deceased. Without recognizing her, he enlists her to play his wife in a bizarre hall-of-shattered-mirrors story that is as richly metaphorical as it is preposterously engrossing. There is psyche damning  love in this film reminiscent of the all time masterpiece Vertigo.  Director Christian Petzold addresses the Jewish German dynamic in this standout piece of German cinema.

 

Film View Notables

Actor Male: Leonardo DiCaprio (The Revenant)
Actor Female: Charlize Theron (Mad Max: Fury Road) and Brie Larson (Room)
Supporting  Actor Male: Idris Elba (Beasts Of No Nation)
Supporting Actor Female: Cate Blanchett (Carol)
Breakthrough Performance: Abraham Attah (Beasts Of No Nation)
Director: Cary Fukunaga (Beasts Of No Nation)
Original Screenplay: Alex Garland (Ex Machina)
Adapted Screenplay: Cary Fukunaga (Beasts Of No Nation)
Director Of Photography: Emmanuel Lubezki (The Revenant)
Visual Effects: Rich McBride (The Revenant)
Editor: Michael Kahn (Bridge Of Spies)
Soundtrack: Daniel Pemberton [score], Various Artists [music] (The Man From UNCLE)
Artisans: Nicholas Hoult (Mad Max: Fury Road [A]), Joel Egerdon (Black Mass [A], The Gift [W, D]), Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl, Ex Machina, The Man From Uncle [A]), Roger Deakins (Scicario [DP]), Tom Hardy (The Revenant, Legend [A]), Ryan Coogler (Creed [W, D]), Bryan Cranston (Trumbo [A]), Robert Richardson (The Hateful 8 [DP]), Jacob Trombly (Room [A]), Domhnall Gleeson (Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Ex Machina, Brooklyn, The Revenant [A]), Jason Mitchell (Straight Outta Compton [A])
Artistic Merit: The Assassin, Macbeth, Scicario, 99 Homes, Chi-Raq, Spotlight, The Gift, Everest, Trumbo, Love, Legend, Joy
Guilty Pleasure: The Man From UNCLE
My To Do List: Inside Out, Steve Jobs, Tangerine, 45 Years, Brooklyn, Amy, Son Of Saul. In my defense binge watching Archer on FX takes up a helluva lotta my time.

FILM VIEW 2014

1 Mar

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The Interview Sook

The Never-ending Press Junket   

With Seth Rogen and James Franco the tusks at the head of this heavily debated project, the floppy ears slapstick nature we’ve grown accustomed to by Rogen and his creative bud Evan Goldberg, a heaving trunk violent conclusion that symptomatic of cliché writing that defines mainstream releases and a curly tail cutesy performance by Diana Bang as Sook, the elephant in the room when it comes to media this past year is  The Interview. Sony pulling the highly anticipated film from it’s Christmas release because of a terrorist threat supposedly by the North Korean government in response to the fact the trailer makes lite of killing that country’s leader sent shockwaves through the entertainment community. Because the Asian market is vital to studio interests and in 2014  we get all our information on the interweb, the hack of the studios execs emails exposing embarrassing and off-color remarks about stars gave a little insight into the wheeling and dealing inside the studio system and resulted in higher-ups being let go. The fallout from the cyber terrorism had president Obama weigh in on the poorly reviewed, funny in spots Rogen and Franco run of the mill yuck-fest that finally got a limited release and was available for streaming. The back and forth on freedom of expression has the film on course to become synonymous with that issue the way 2 Live Crew was with Parental Advisory warnings on CD jewel cases before iTunes in days of yore. Aside from that controversy the years releases like an iPhone roll out wasn’t anything special; Marvel spearheaded the summer blockbusters as Guardians of the Galaxy exceeded expectations doing boffo box office, along with franchise pap, rote romcoms and animated stuffs for the entire family which accounted for the bulk of the year’s receipts. Franchiseitos was infectious worldwide and that international revenue kept the studios afloat; The Hobbit finally closed out the JRR Tolkien sagas giving birth to first installment YM fare Divergent, while The Hunger Games in a first of a two-part trilogy conclusion a la Twilight’s wrap-up milking it for all it’s worth. Another mindless Transformers noisefest racked up a billion worldwide so Michael Bay can satisfy his invoice with the devil. Tent pole release How To Train Your Dragon 2 scored big again and fanboy comic book stuff X Men, Spidey and Capt. along with the second chapter of the Planet of the Apes franchise made for seven of the top 10 grossing films of the year.

Heavy hitters Christopher Nolan, Paul Thomas Anderson, David Fincher and the anointed Wes Anderson came out swinging  this year and their efforts yielded interesting results. These top shelf directors collectively gave us eye-catching scenes, intense performances and trademark visuals to satisfy cinephiles and audiences alike. One can expect nothing less from this caliber of storyteller. Each fell short of the fences this at bat, though they added interesting entries to their respective filmography.

That being said the prestige offerings at the end of the year  varied, awards and acclaim split critics where there is a consensus as scribes march lockstep when it comes to those things. Some mention of the historical facts in one film in particular garnered backlash and speculation that could have cost the picture coveted nominations. There were a number of movies based on real life events and the accuracy of several were brought into question. I don’t understand what all the brouhaha is all about when just two years ago a major release about Lincoln passing the amendment to end slavery had no Frederick Douglass in it’s cast, at least LBJ is featured in Selma. The British invasion on the acting front defined the nominees this awards season; Eddie, Benedict, Ralph, Tim for the guys, Rosamond, Mia and Felicity ditto when it comes to nods for the ladies. While Sienna is an American wife to Bradley in American Sniper and Mark in Foxcatcher, two of the most highly regarded films this year. With David in Selma the Brits were well represented. And my fav Emily opposite Tom in Doug Liman’s engaging sci-fi romp Edge of Tomorrow. Films up for the big prize by the Academy this time around aren’t bad but certainly not good enough for consideration for film of the year. Each motion picture problematic in their own right, even with things that can be taken away obvious craftsmanship is evident, still none are defining works that advance cinema’s esthetic. Of the eight pictures nominated I question the distinction afforded half the field (not naming any names). I thought when the number of nominees were increased to include works that rightfully deserved the recognition that was fair. In the same vain if there are only three or four worthy, just nominate those few, it only makes sense. To keep praising one note films may be good for business to have that blurb in adverts but it is deceiving to the viewing public. A superb cast do not a film make, just my two cents.

 

1. A Most Violent Year

Three films to date for writer director JC Chandor and it’s clear that  he prefers for his stories to exist in as real a setting possible. With him there is no hyperbole to the work, no melodrama per say, tension is not expressed with the requisite “gunplay” or action set pieces. The dramatic turns driving the plot consist of heightened narratives and verbal confrontations that inflict as much pain as any bullet. Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo, Albert Brooks and all the players are to be commended for their fine performances. This corruption power play yarn set in the eighties is a joy for anyone who grew up  on the films of Bob Rafelson and Sidney Lumet like I have. Isaac’s star continues to rise, I dare say he channels Pacino in The Godfather Part II as his character makes alliances and works with his attorney played by Brooks to keep needed parties in the fold. Chastain done up like Michelle Pfeiffer circa Scarface does a spot on pistol toting Lady Macbeth. Much of what is up on the screen has been done before but to Chandor’s credit the execution is flawless. And to the comments of not enough action or the payoff being weak, then check out the latest Keanu Reeves flick that racks up an idiotic body count, this is a movie for grownups.

2. Birdman

Alejandro Iñárritu’s Birdman bristles and pops like an anti 8 1/2 by Fellini with the froth intensity of  Cassavetes inspired performances by all concerned. The frantic goings on backstage of The Saint James Theater captured by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki of the cast is reminiscent of a naval crew aboard a submarine. Keaton’s character Riggan can’t seem to distance himself from Birdman the character from the superhero franchise he walked away from and whose voice is constantly in his head. We watch his life implode as he starts to slowly unravel in the midst of the chaos surrounding the previews of his Raymond Carver adaptation he is directing and starring in. The My Favorite Year premise of the movie star cast out from Hollywood seeking redemption on the Broadway stage is a highwire act in one take that induces a euphoria for the viewer. You will delight in Riggan being stymied by Ed Norton’s New York actor unpredictable behavior as they literally duke it out over their creative differences.  Michael Keaton gets the comeback award for an actor in a lead role hands down. He puts it all on the line like a man who has nothing to lose and in doing so all are treated to a career defining performance worthy of everyone involved in the film.

3. The Double

Surreal and satirical, I find it hilarious watching Jesse Eisenberg tormented by his doppelgänger in this story of a nebbish who’s new co-worker, the charmer in the next cubicle is physically his exact double. I commend Eisenberg for being able to realize each individual character so convincingly.  We watch love-struck Simon James resist being taken over by his charismatic, manipulative other self James Simon, in the balance his livelihood at this retro world corporation and Mia Wasikowska the girl they both desire. The ambivalent co-worker Noah Taylor, Wallace Shawn as the demanding boss and the great James Fox round out the cast in this Gilliamesque comic film. Director Richard Ayoade’s odd, stylized offering is a triumph.

4. American Sniper

Chris Kyle is the deadliest sniper in US history. Bradley Cooper fully embodies this four tour Iraq vet nicknamed “Legend” directed by Clint Eastwood. You can see how hard Cooper prepared for  this role by his uncanny resemblance to  Chris Kyle. Entrusted with keeping soldiers alive as they patrol he must make numerous  choices in the midst of harrowing danger. All this comes at a cost as it weighs on his conscience and deeply affects his relationship with his wife. I dare say that Mr. Eastwood gets better with age, Sniper is right up there with his best work. For my money this completes the modern war trilogy along with Black Hawk Down and Zero Dark Thirty where war is not easily defined as simply the US combating all the evil out in the world. The glory of battle has a cost.

5. Selma

Ava DuVernay bristling, highly acclaimed picture recalls the Birmingham march and the tribulation by participants and organizers of SNCC and MLK’s people to implore president Johnson to push forward voting rights in that state. The fact that this is the first theatrical release that features Martin Luther King is telling. I delighted in how David Oyelowo convincingly embodied King in mannerisms and speech pattern.  DuVernay shows us King as strategist, diplomat and motivator, politically savvy in staging a march that would elicit compassion and support for their cause. The pious sloganeering minister he is not. The events depicted when marchers attempt to cross Edmund Pettus bridge is harrowing and brutal. Jim Clark’s police force sanctioned  by Governor George Wallace were not tolerant of that sort of behavior in Alabama. The back and forth between Lyndon Johnson played by an excellent Tom Wilkinson with Wallace (Tim Roth) then with King makes for some rousing scenes that comment on society still to this day. Exposition via FBI surveillance is an  excellent narrative device and a way of revealing King’s faults and human side.

Chuck Jones and Bugs

What’s Up Doc? The Animation Art of Chuck Jones at Museum of Moving Images

Chuck Jones is known by millions young and old, the director and artist who passed away in 2002 made some of the most beloved cartoons of all time. He brought us Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and created a host of other characters, including Pepé Le Pew, Wile E. Coyote, the Road Runner and many more. Jones drew from fine arts to popular culture in a career spanning three decades he directed over three hundred animated films and was given an Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement.

For anyone who grew up on Jones work this exhibition is a delight; 23 features, original sketches and drawings, storyboards, production backgrounds, animation cells, and a myriad of photographs showing Jones and his collaborators at work creating some of the greatest cartoons ever made. The films include all the Warner Bros. classics as well as the holiday staple Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

6. Inherent Vice

PT Anderson’s latest is right in my wheelhouse; literary, visual, snappy dialogue and a kick ass cast led by failed MC Joaquin Phoenix who since rising from the ashes as his name suggests post doc\spoof\what-the-heck project he’s done some of his best work. Private Dick stoner Larry “Doc” Sportello is taken for a helluva ride when his Ex ol lady Shasta shows up one day asking for help.  The film goes out of its way to show how these characters post sixties come to grips with their lives. There is a lot of wacky things going on in California including kidnapping, brainwashing and blackmail, all having to do with Doc’s case somehow. The back and forth between Bigfoot (Josh Brolin); the clean-cut LA cop who is crooked as that famous street in San Francisco and Doc is downright hilarious. Pynchon realised by Anderson telling a Raymond Chandler noir in an Altman way is a delight.

7. Under The Skin

Scarlett fell to earth and ended up in Glasgow in a black wig driving around in a van picking up horny Scotts in Brian Glazer’s sci-fi, suspense film. Not of this world, luring the male of the species back to her place for god knows what alien experiments with her motorcycle accomplice. The story requires she give the most minimalist performance finding herself seduced by these humans the way Bowie was in Nicolas Roeg’s classic The Man Who Fell To Earth.

Last Days In Viet Nam

This eyewitness account  on the fall of Saigon is jarring when you take into account all the lives that were at stake while the policymakers quibble. The footage of the pull out and the accounts of the scramble to smuggle people out on the remaining helicopters and boats is harrowing. It is not lost on me that this excellent documentary is brought to us by Rory Kennedy.

8. Top Five

Chris Rock has been plagued with the same affliction every edgy stand up from Pryor to Murphy to Wayans and Tucker that graduate to the big screen have. How to translate what drives their stage persona to a PG audience. Until this film I can safely say there has never been a good movie by Rock. Third time’s a charm as a writer, director and star for him. A day in the life of the comedian Andre Allen (known for the character Hammy The Bear). During an interview with a NYTimes reporter played by love interest Rosario Dawson he is forced to confront himself at a point in his career where he’s trying to transition to dramatic roles. His Andre Allen is an amalgamation of every black comic not Cosby. Rock has enlisted a who’s who of comedy (Kevin Hart, Jay Pharaoh, Cedric The Entertainer, JB Smooth, Tracy Morgan, etc.) for a series of downright funny cameos. To have Seinfeld, Whoopi and Sandler in a scene that’s not forced is worth the ticket alone.

 

Flying Lotus Never Catch Me featuring Kendrick Lamar

Director Hiro Murai

The track taken from the album You’re Dead! is a rhythmic jazz fusion bed of sound that Kendrick  lays down his rhyme on. This meditation on death seems to be a celebration of life. The performance by the children here truly inspiring in the context.

   

9. Gone Girl, Interstellar

This is a David Fincher film; he knows how to set the creepiness at 10 while the story unfolds. Spoiler alert! There will be uncomfortable, moody, stylish stuff going down. Rosamund Pike giving a performance of Betty Davis proportions, Affleck’s leading man good looks in a Hitchcock universe pegs him as the chief suspect in a thriller that provides breakneck twists and turns. WTF moments that annoy many simply amuse me.

You sit up and take notice whenever Chris Nolan releases a motion picture; it is mandatory viewing. Nolan is a provocateur with millions of dollars and the finest craftsmen and performers at his disposal, engaging the viewer on a level few can achieve or even attempt. He is that dude. Matthew McConaughey does not take a victory lap after his phenomenal run of critically acclaimed films and television work culminating with Dallas Buyers Club, committing to this character when things seem implausible. This Earth on its last legs, only shot to save all mankind, we’re relying on you kid story is dense with scientific jargon and heart.

10. Nightcrawler

Jake Gyllenhaal has amassed a string of terrific performances in some disturbing films over the last few years. All the trappings of a movie star; The Day After Tomorrow and Prince of Persia (the later so horrendous it may have put him off purely commercial work altogether) he has opted to keep challenging himself as an actor in such films as Brother’s, Source Code, Prisoners, End of Watch and Enemies. As producer along with director Dan Gilroy (of the Gilroy clan: Writer, Director Tony and Editor John Gilroy) they have fashioned an edgy suspenseful story around the cutthroat world of photojournalism in Los Angeles. The predatory nature of the enterprise is creepy enough and once Jake’s Louis Bloom takes it upon himself to get involved in the stories he’s covering to make his footage leadoff caliber stories his actions prove to be criminal and comical in the most macabre way imaginable.

Actor – Michael Keaton (Birdman)
Actress – Marion Cotillard (Two Days, One Night)
Supporting Actor – Mark Ruffalo (Foxcatcher)
Supporting Actress – Patricia Arquette (Boyhood)

Breakthrough Performance: Ellar Coltrane (Boyhood), Andre Benjamin (Jimi: All By My Side)

Director – JC Chandor (A Most Violent Year)
Original Screenplay – Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. and Armando Bo
Adapted Screenplay – Jason Hall (American Sniper)
Director of Photography – Bradford Young (A Most Violent Year, Selma)
Visual Effects – Richard Stammers, Lou Pecora, Tim Crosbie and Cameron Waldbauer (Xmen: Days of Future Past)
Soundtrack – Hans Zimmer (Interstellar)

Artisans: Jennifer Kent (The Babadook [W, D], Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler [W, D]), Ralph Fiennes (The Grand Budapest Hotel[A], The Invisible Woman[A, D])

Artistic Merit:  The Rover, Boyhood, Belle, The Invisible Woman, Nymphomaniac 1 & 2, No Man’s Land, Dear White People, Enemy, Maps To The Stars, The Babadook, The Grand Budapest Hotel

Guilty Pleasure: The Raid 2, Edge of Tomorrow

A Later Assessment: The Theory of Everything, Mister Turner, We Are The Best, Citizen Four, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night and Ida I look forward to seeing at a later date. These films were not screened  for the posting of this piece, for no particular reason other than the fact “I can’t see every movie.”

Ms. Lauryn Hill Revisited

31 Oct

L Boogie bobcut

It was the summer of 2007, news that year for long-suffering fans of the multi talented  Grammy Award winner Lauryn Hill was that she would be recording and putting out new material. Her debut solo recording The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill in 1998 blew away the critics and added to her growing fan base. That album culminating her rise to mega-stardom, stepping out on her own after starting out with the hip-hop hit makers and genre breakers The Fugees. The rumors revolving around her personal life and instances of erratic behavior during that period well documented in the tabloids, besides the release of Mtv Unplugged No.2.0;  the two disc set of earnest but uneven material was underwhelming and underperformed on the charts, besides that she’d been absent from the spotlight making babies while being in an on again off again relationship with Rohan Marley for almost a decade.

The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill

Mtv Unplugged No.2.0

The MLK Concert Series presenting Miss Lauryn Hill of course had Brooklynites excited and a possible reunion with Wyclef and Pras in the studio was huge in music circles. That abrupt coming together yielded one single from the Refugee Camp but she was back and out on tour in Europe and longtime fans were excited. Many reports of her antics onstage; being late or just a no-show at dates were widely reported. So I’m sure like me many people wanted to see for themselves which Lauryn Hill would be at the show at Wingate Park on the outskirts of Crown Heights in the borough branded as hip to newbies with the onset of gentrification (I have to editorialize I can’t help myself), an opportunity to see an artist of her caliber right in my own backyard was reason enough for me and besides it was free. I was looking forward to it for two weeks and in the midst of a run of days of sweltering 90 plus weather I set out with a liter of water an hour before showtime and met a line a full Brooklyn block and some that snaked around Wingate high school from the park entrance when I arrived.

 Though the heat was oppressive the crowd was in generally good spirits as we inched our way to the gate. Once inside the grounds it was announced that no more would be admitted because the venue was at capacity. Glad to make it in under the wire and a long way from the stage I tried to get the best vantage point possible. There was a buzz of anticipation but I felt anxious like I always do in a crowd this large. Everyone rushed forward when Sean Kingston the opening act took the stage. Kingston had a hit that summer with Beautiful Girls and gave a spectacular amateur performance like the sixteen year old he was. With the crowd settled in; reclining on portable chairs, reminiscing about their Lauryn moments while having water purchased for a dollar a bottle from savvy vendors working the venue. I could describe the atmosphere as subdued as the sun set and brought some relief to the communal. It was a Brooklyn vibe, in attendance fans of all ages had an anecdote that they held dear, feeling obligated to share what made them come out there that day.

Lauryn Yime MagLauryn Harpers

For me what it is –if I had to sum it up– she set herself apart from the prepackaged overt sex object singers who had the same watered down sound from a handful of producers that says more about the production of the track than the singer’s talent. She stood out in every which way; both her look and the music was honest and had an edge. The mere fact that she had gotten to such lofty heights is a testament to her abilities only because at a glance she doesn’t strike you as that person. Lauryn stood out because she rapped and would sing on the same track so effortlessly, the hybrid of both by one artist unheard of then. She wasn’t just one of the best female MCs out there she was one of the best on the mic period. It’s seldom that any artist, male or female, makes the mainstream shift to their brand like Lauryn did. Her impact evident in groundbreaking music videos, film roles and voted one of the most beautiful women in the world gracing magazine covers like Time, Harper’s Bazaar and Rolling Stone. Bringing credibility to the hip-hop game, technically a rap artist winning Album of the Year, unprecedented; touted as a multifaceted artist like Stevie Wonder or Prince and she did not disappoint in her debut disc. So as some grew impatient due to the extended delay, they were well aware of the stories surrounding her recent shows. In the know I got a call from my people backstage that Ms. Hill had finally arrived three hours after the posted showtime. The band immediately took the stage and did a sound check as she was being introduced.

Miss Hill Wingate 2
Lauryn made her entrance in a large ‘fro wig, big frame sunglasses and bulky frilly leather jacket and wool pants with boots which seemed a bit much even going for that seventies chic on a day where as aI stated previously the temperature was in the high nineties. The funk outfit that backed Ms. Hill brought it like the Ike Turner Revue. Rev ups of her solo catalogue interspersed with selections from music legend Bob Marley; the dub funk vibe back and forth proved challenging to the East Flatbush crowd that had waited a few hours for this moment. Taking liberties with the original arrangements of her signature compositions we were treated to a hard-hitting version of Lost Ones that got the show rocking. Similar unconventional renditions of When It Hurts So Bad and Final hour were not tolerated, there was a mass exodus onto the streets with each successive tune. By the time she went into Ex Factor I had gotten close enough to not require assist from the video screen. There is a lot to be said for the power of music; a well crafted song will always affect you with its presentation, with this powerhouse slow jam Lauryn stopped the bleeding, it halted those leaving in their tracks and had them re-think weather to stick around. I could see what probably many couldn’t, that Lauryn had come to proselytize; the Lauryn Hill at that time had her fill of people trying to define her –from the record company to the media to Wyclef—this was her going out of her way to do things on her own terms and how could you not respect that. She was pretty much, this is the real me take it or leave it. Either way it was all right with her because she was going to do this her way. Her defiance on her Mtv Unplugged where a non glam Lauryn made a point to say it wasn’t about the glitz and glamour and that there wasn’t anything wrong with her and she had every right to speak her mind. Reminiscent of Fiona Apple’s “This is all bullshit!” acceptance speech while clutching a coveted moonman, both instances spoke volumes about the objectification and exploitation of women in the music industry and how the very same establishment regard the consumer. Rumors of her insistence on be addressed as Ms. Hill comes off bitchy on soundbites and in gossip columns that goes with the program when it comes to confirming something may be up with Lauryn Hill. The fact of the matter is most female artists make it squarely on looks and not talent, you know who they are because its evident by-product that’s forced down our throats by the labels.

Her voice as raspy as always could not reach certain notes at times during the show, in spite of that Lauryn gave solid covers of Marley’s  Zimbabwe and The First time Ever I Saw Your Face another Roberta Flack classic she nailed. Her encore consisted of Fugees mainstays How Many Mics and Fu-Gee-La, her newest release at the time Lose Yourself was a definite highpoint, along with solo chart toppers Everything is Everything and That Thing (Doo-wop) to close the show. I remember walking home that night knowing there would be some strong opinions on her performance but the reports in the papers and on Mtv News regarding the  backlash was extreme. Many felt betrayed or perhaps Lauryn had simply lost her damn mind. There is a Pop Star manual most artists stick to because that formula generates hits that keeps them on the carts. But when someone like a Lauryn or D’Angelo set themselves apart from the pack because they don’t seem manufactured in an American Idol way it is refreshing. These artists identified with the Neo Soul movement; the avant-garde take on classic rhythm and blues that in the nineties shook up the contemporary black charts. Soul ll Soul and Sade instrumental in the burgeoning sound since the eighties, compared to Hip-hop because followers personalized it making it part of their lifestyle. And when D’Angelo and Maxwell step back and all of a sudden people crown Justin Timberlake  the king of R&B, it’s the same with the female singers in her absence.
“…I wish her heart was still in rhymin.” to quote Kanye (and very few do these days). Mister West and I agree Ms. Hill on her game has no equal, one after the next they step up to try to replace her and as far as I’m concerned they need to keep trying. I dig the track she released at the end of last year Consumerism, lyrically it’s right up there with her best.

The work that was put in by her on soundtrack cuts for the Love Jones Soundtrack, the inevitable Bob Marley duet project Turn Your Lights Down Low and the collabo If I Ruled The World with Nas made it possible for Erykah Badu to fit in nicely at the time instead of not receiving any airplay because there was no category to place Baduizm. Fact is there’s no Alicia Keys to the extent she end up being if Lauryn continues to do her thing, that’s a fact. Keys would have come out and established herself but not gotten the shine she received, let’s just be real. Rihanna by proxy slid into the glam slot nicely, but muscially relegated to a pre pacakged chart run courtesy of producers by number that would’ve run its course like T Pain. Beyoncé would’ve dropped her solo record then quietly went back and played her position as Beyoncé of Beyoncé and Destiny’s Child. In my opinion it was Amy Winehouse who stepped up to fill that gap, had Lauryn still been on the scene Winehouse would have struggled to make it in the States like every British act that graced these shores in the last twenty years from Terence Trent D’arby to Oasis, she’d have been known more as a tabloid mainstay and not lauded during awards season as she was. All talented artists in their own right but lets stick to the facts nothing they’ve done as urgent as what Miss Hill has done by comparison. It is always telling when someone so gifted chooses to stay away for so long. I wish like Marvin or Al Green or Aretha that when the Lauryns and alike are going through what they are going through as individuals that as artists they would be still capable of putting out music but I don’t fault her for it. The perceptions and what is required to be in the industry a lot of the time has little to do with talent but is predicated on looks and sex appeal. An artist can get caught up trying to be that type of performer then end up rejecting it altogether and going in the other direction, an overriding factor in where Lauryn Hill’s career will end up and why I doubt that D’Angelo will release another album.

Illustration by Renaldo Davidson

The McKee Effect

30 Sep

McKee Seminar Badge

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oh to speak ill of the elder statesman of screenwriting and feel the venomous sting of the disciples of McKee. Everyone has their influences; mine being Billy Wilder, William Goldman, Paul Schrader and the like when it comes to movie biz writers, but the devotion of admirers for the author of the bestseller Story tends to rival a cult. His legend abounds beyond the industry, notoriety due to Brian Cox’s spot on portrayal of the master in the Charlie Kaufman penned Spike Jonze film Adaptation (what cracks me up is a few attendees I spoke with that weekend believed that McKee himself actually appeared in the film). Anyone who knows me knows like Groucho Marx “I wouldn’t want to belong to any club that would accept me as a member.” So on the insistence of my good friend  producer Jil Hardin I attended the last New York  seminar after she could not stop talking about the Los Angeles congress and the effect it had on her take on story. Even with tickets at a premium McKee’s intensive four-day classes quickly sell out. The idea being by everyone  assembled, absorb the teachings of the great man, garner his take on script structure, substance and style in the annals of cinematic narrative referenced, get the goods before he decides to pack it in and not leave his Connecticut estate or spend time abroad as he is apt to indulge in his leisure. The entire gathering was treated as a can’t miss event by his followers. When attending with my business partner Eternal (a McKee acolyte) back in mid April I have to admit there was a curiosity on my part to see if I’d be immune to it all or get swept up like everyone else in the live presentation.

 The Master confided to the intimate turnout of say 500 plus that plans were underway to launch a university on writing, give credence to story and impart his doctrine as an academic (basically the online courses offered to subscribers on mckeestory.com). The body of those tutorials would be given over the span of a school year; a version of what McKee does in his sold out seminars being the basis of the curriculum. The student body acquires a full understanding of a form that can be applied in every medium, from film to stage to literature and at the same time get a degree. The guru promised this “writers university” was not far off and it would revolutionize how writing is taught.

A no filter presentation by this world-weary storyteller made for some lively sessions; spouting profanity, opinions and many a politically incorrect declarations for effect as he set down his principles that had the assembly buzzing. Given his worldview and personal triumphs he imparted extensive examples from a wide array of films along with the fundamentals of screenwriting. In the stands around me performers, playwrights, actors, stand up comics, directors, aspiring wannabees completely engrossed in his talk show anecdotes and contumely manner as they blindly scribbled notes. Mac couldn’t help but go on about the quality programming on cable; shows like Mad Men, Nurse Betty, Vikings and The Sopranos to name a few that have ushered in the new golden era of television. Editorializing and coming off like a grizzled newspaper writer, praise heaped on Breaking Bad, Vince Gilligan and crew lauded to the hem of the heavens deservedly by someone who has influenced the best there is working today.

I spoke to several in attendance and saw how the McKee effect washed over participants from as far as Finland and Australia and by the last day I too was awash in his McKeeness. The celebrated writing instructor paced back and forth drinking water, diet soda and some green health concoction; part evangelist other bits bigtop ringmaster up there on stage, I admired his intellect and observations with each passing day. Under the impression that like a motivational speaker he would give the secret on how to get your script past the Philistines guarding the gates to fame and success in Hollywood, to my surprise and others chagrin he focused on how to get it right and be an artist who masters story. A seminar that’s a kick in the pants to the fledgling scribes (which there were quite a few) and a wake up call to the writers with a little experience under their belt maneuvering the word biz that’s the backbone of showbiz. The fact of the matter is there are steps to this game; it’s a process that takes years to achieve. You don’t just put that one script out there and its snatched up and sold and you’re set. The best writers are in their 30s and 40s and have paid their dues and that leads to rewards.

McKee The Quest

 

He made sure to pound home the fact  that as a writer you should not be satisfied with a few drafts, that those are the most pat and cliché paths one can take in creating unique work, that you should explore countless options until  you have exhausted every possible idea or scenario for your can’t miss script. What rang true to me in particular was a striking account by him about an encounter with the late great Paddy Chayefsky, writer of such signature scripts as Network and The Hospital brooding over still not getting a scene right after completing forty drafts, hearing that made me seem like a lazy writer. The assumption being that there is some so-called formula when trends seem to define a particular genre before the next thing comes along, by example McKee teaches that good writing has no shelf life. I’d read Story years ago but it was like having Dickens go over Great Expectations line for line as McKee plowed through his text and embellish; that made the four-day writers boot camp worthwhile to me. The priceless insight on structure, pacing, dramatic turns, exposition and conflict resolution, Robert McKee puts in place a system, it’s all about gathering a plan of attack before even beginning your draft.

“Stop boring people with your mediocre writing!” A direct quote from Bob himself.

A serious thinker this guy –that goes without saying– a particular analysis of Chinatown had me go back and look at a film I’ve seen umpteen times for obvious reasons, after gaining new insight from McKee I plowed through Robert Towne’s seminal script to confirm these finding were in fact on the page. His sagness disjointed my thought process emphasizing the obvious, how drama can be driven and sustained without being bogged down tedious exposition.

Performing an autopsy on Casablanca on the final day and  he revealed how functional a script that time-honored film has. The execution of classic narrative tropes fit like pieces of an elaborate puzzle laid out in the talks over those few days from inciting incident to the third act as our protagonists concludes their quest. No matter what you take away from the entire proceedings or what you latch onto that will forward your writing there is no secret formula, he couldn’t stress that more. What McKee does is provide rules for the playing field you’ve stepped onto, a business that shows no mercy to newbies, industry staples or insider alike. And for whatever reason you decided to take a stab at an industry that goes through writers like a drunk doing $3 shots during happy hour and make this luck-of-the-dice game your stated vocation. At least these talks gives you the tools to get the job done. Your level of success is entirely up to you but the Story sage implored everyone in attendance to put in the work, and then some and “write the truth”.

Film View 2013

3 Mar

Cinemascope-logo-3d

vanity fair march 2014 cover

The Year of Black Film

The industry provided couples with a steady dose of PG-13  franchise pictures to choose from, also a glut of animated features for the entire family, superhero tent pole releases and the zombie genre pic for teens dominate the box office like in years past. The only thing they have in common of course are ridiculously high budgets, effects laden action sequences; rote crowd pleasers with color-by-numbers storylines that don’t require much thought, these are  the types of releases that  keep the studios in business. A steady stream of Black-themed films noticeably permeated the strategic studio scheduled rollout; populating the landscape from early 2013 the Jackie Robinson biopic 42, all the way to year’s end Buppie reunion sequel (10 years in the making) The Best Man Holiday, both pictures doing extremely well at the box office. Along with the excellent underappreciated documentary Free Angela & All Political Prisoners, memorable movies Blue Caprice, Mother of George, The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete, Fruitvale Station, Lee Daniels’ The Butler, 12 Years A Slave, Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom, along with the niche offering Oldboy, Kevin Hart: Let Me Explain stand up concert film, the obligatory Tyler Perry effort in 2’s and the gospel tinged musical Black Nativity among them. On display several black storytellers getting a chance to show their craft. For as long as I can recall there has always been one or two mainstream Black films released and then there’s that  filmmaker of color of the moment like a Spike Lee or presently Tyler Perry to serve the market. There has never been this number of Hollywood movies written, produced and directed by African-Americans and others who are a part of the  African diaspora (and trust me I should know). The Village Voice called Mother of  George “A new renaissance moment for  American Black Cinema.” Not to mention the long list of talented actors who dominated the screen, it has been hinted at so I am just going to go ahead and deem this The Year of Black Film.

From the cinematic standouts 12 Years A Slave and Fruitvale Station much deserved critical acclaim, oddball choices as a Spike Lee re-imagining of the cult classic Oldboy, the mere fact that picture came and went quietly speaks to how Lee fared amongst such strong and diverse entries this year. In previous years A Spike Lee Joint (this latest branded the first Spike Lee Film release) would have filled the quota. The Best Man Holiday USA Today headline: Holiday nearly beat Thor as race themed films soar.That got them into a bit of hot water because the film is about relationships not race but look at the perception. And Armond White’s opinion and antics aside many critics and viewers found 12 Years A Slave too violent, “torture porn” to some because it doesn’t have a hook like the revenge fantasy Django Unchained or overly sentimentalized like The Help which is much more palatable to audiences, nor artsy like a Schindler’s List which in my opinion is equally or more violent but is considered a classic.

The state of Black Cinema comes into question, where do films like these fit into today’s society, in the multi million dollar industry? What is the perception of what is represented in that type of film? The ones that resonate typically are family dramas, inner city morality tales, narratives of servitude, romance or broad comedies.  Like the character Cecil Gaines in The Butler was taught, “We got two  faces: ours and the ones that we got to show white folks. We have to make them feel non-threatened.” Meaning to say the negative response to films like Fruitvale and 12 Years and their plaintive narration has proved to be too much for the general movie goer who seeks escapist fare. Akin to the Civil Rights Movement, Hollywood will have to get used to the change. The snub of Lee Daniels’ The Butler, the highest grossing African-American film this year, praised by critics, virtually shut out  this awards season. That Sundance Festival darling Fruitvale Station did not garner nominations in the Best Picture, Actor and Director categories they warranted. Unusual indeed the fact that The Weinstein Company backed both pictures and the Mandela movie, the history of campaigning by them is notorious. For your consideration indeed. Still Idris Elba with Julia Roberts on his lap on the cover of Vanity Fair is a sight to behold as is Lupita Nyong’o ruling the red carpet this awards season. It was director Steve McQueen who brought one of those self-congratulatory Hollywood Reporter roundtables to a screeching halt a year ago when he pointed out the lack of films by minorities and it is apropo he is the one spearheading this year of Black Film. Actor Michael B. Jordan echos the same sentiments I have, “One film or five? What’s the quota? I feel like this is a year filmmakers of color had stories they wanted to tell and they were successful. But it’s got to be sustained.”

1. 12 Years A Slave

British filmmaker Steve McQueen takes an unapologetic look at every subject he brings to the screen. You can’t not be brutally honest when it comes to the story of Solomon Northrup the freeman abducted and held in bondage during the 1800s in the Antebellum South. A narrative with no hook, no convoluted revenge tale or earnest historical biopic by a big name director. Chiwetel Ejiofor gives a taut career defining performance under McQueen’s unrelenting direction, anchoring a beguiling cast that includes heart wrenching  portrayal of Patsy by Lupita Nyong’o. This film does what Kubrick said when he attacks any subject matter; become the definitive take on that subject. You can’t help but be shaken and the impact leaves you unbalanced and reflective once you’ve seen it. A level of storytelling that dwarfs every other entry in the field. It is a comment on what passes for entertainment nowadays and the intelligence of the American public that this film is looked upon as a hard pill to swallow. A point of contention always raised by the offending party when specific instances in history are dramatized. Consensus praise in critics circles for McQueen’s work , I am baffled by the odd savaging (I’m looking at you Armond White) as if there is no artistic merit to speak of. The fact that he has pulled up a seat at the table. Good for him.

2. A Touch Of Sin

Balancing humanity and morality, the modern world smashing up against old world tradition, the impact on Chinese civilization painted with a broad brush awash in blood. The studied performances in this drama show incredible range and illustrate what it takes before one reaches a breaking point (where there is no turning back). When violence erupts it’s a result of X amount of offenses and transgressions before that final thing sets off acts of retribution. Four stories rooted in economic frustrations, each one taken from the headlines in his native China by director and writer Jia Zhag-ke.

3. American Hustle

American Hustle is the best Martin Scorsese Picture that Martin Scorsese has made in a while, the only thing is that it’s made by director David O’Russell. The hottest director of the last three years, he is in a Billy Wilder zone as we speak.  Amy Adams,  Jennifer Lawrence, Christian Bale and Bradley Cooper especially should thank their lucky stars. The dialogue in his character driven stories bristle and you can see how much fun the actors have saying their lines. The film has the best line in a film this year (no spoiler alert “see the movie!”) Jeremy Renner’s pompadour is worth the price alone.

4. Gravity

Alfonso Cuarón’s film has heart! Co written with his son Jonás Cuarón, it is a rollercoaster ride of improbable twists and turns, sensory overload in 3D (in a good way) that leaves the viewer euphoric when all is said and done. Sandra Bullock does a yeoman’s job as the medical researcher out of her comfort zone dictates that you have to route for her because you’ve put yourself in her shoes. All the expensive toys, bells and whistles that go into a production like this and George Clooney support the reality of her peril at low orbit. Trying to get back to her spacecraft before she runs out of oxygen and then back to Earth safe. There are several things implausible about the film from a technical standpoint but it does not take away from what’s up on the screen, in awe and terror the special effects never make you spiral too far from the human story.

Behind The Scenes Look

 NYTimes Making A Scene: 11 Performances

Award winning cinematographer Janusz Kiminski (Steven Spielberg’s secret weapon) directs 11 tiny little shorts with eleven of the most celebrated actors on-screen with lines from noted screenwriters. To check out all 11 performances click the link on the screen. Julia Louis-Dreyfus, line by Nicole Holofcener is not to be missed.

5. Fruitvale Station

The fact that the Oscar Grant killing so mirrors the circumstances that led to Trayvon Martin’s death makes Ryan Coogler’s film debut emphasize these recurring incidents that unfortunately leads to an inordinate number of lives loss when minorities encounter law enforcement. What makes it so tragic is the sheer randomness of it all; ordinary lives turned upside down when families have to cope with losing a loved one. Oscar Grant’s spirit lives on in this straight forward retelling of the events filmed on location in the Bay area. Michael B. Jordan depicts Oscar as a conflicted young man trying to get a grasp on his immediate situation, making choices (good and bad) that seem warranted under the  circumstances. It’s not what he says so much it’s what he doesn’t and how his eyes speak volumes when confronted by difficult choices. It’s a credit to the filmmakers that the cast seems like family. You can almost fault the film for being so naturalistic you overlook how well executed it is.

Dante Ferretti MoMA

Dante Ferretti: Designing for the Big Screen at  MoMA

The retrospective at MoMA pays homage to the master Production Designer who has defined the look of critical cinema for more than four decades of innovative, distinguished design work, Ferretti has received numerous awards, including three Oscar statuettes, three British BAFTAs, and several Italian David Di Donatello awards. Collaborating with the most noted directors in the annals of film Fellini, Pasolini, Burton, Scorsese and Tamor, I can argue that without him they could not be the visionaries we know. The painstaking detail in the model Gangs of New York set shows what goes into creating the world on-screen that fuels one’s imagination. A true artist, it is evident from the fully rendered charcoal drawings, ink sketches and architectural renderings serving the needs of these one-of-a-kind filmmakers. The exhibit shows his amazing range from designing Concetta World’s rollercoaster to the opera Aida, La Boehme and a stage production of The Fly. The labyrinth of selected Ferretti work on film projected simultaneously will dazzle and make you fall in love with the movies all over again.

6. Free Angela & All Political Prisoners

The iconic activist Angela Davis’ afro is as ubiquitous as that image of Che in a beret. And what she is so famous –infamous– for? The specific events that catapulted her into the public spotlight in the seventies few people know. The writer / director Shola Lynch when I met her at a screening in Harlem called her film a thriller and romance, it is that and so much more. This film gives a depiction of early 1970s through interviews and archival footage; the tone of the country under Nixon and the California of Ronald Reagan permeate the narrative of what led this assistant philosophy professor, Panther supporter, alleged kidnapping conspirator, FBI 10 most wanted fugitive turned counter-culture icon. In the current interviews you can still see the spirit of the young radical some 40 years past.

7. her

Spike Jonze is that type of storyteller like a Wes Anderson, you know when you’re in a Jonze crafted world, it will be sad, quirky, heartfelt and at times scary on some level. Beneficiary of Charlie Kaufman scripted tales of wonder like Michel Gondry at the start of their feature film careers, at this point without the assist it is clear where Charlie leaves off and where Gondry and Spike continue. I want to speak on the performance of Phoenix that could have only manifested itself due to a collaboration with Jonze, venerable and frank, you expect a certain performance from him but this turn not froth with the usual Joaquin malice and it is disarming to watch. Samantha voiced by Scarlett Johansen is so engaging it is possible to see how Theodore Towmbly can have a relationship however implausible with the OSI system on his cell phone. Samantha is HAL 9000 without life and death at stake in the vastness of space, the bigger question that crowds Joaquin Phoenix is love, that titular expression that has no precise definition and how one communicates in this existence.

8. Picasso Baby: Music Video

Jay Z brings Hip-hop to the art world, as his own art installation performing at The Pace Gallery in Chelsea NYC. This one-of-a-kind happening by the mogul, recording artist and trendsetter is captured by director extraordinaire Mark Romaneck.

9. Upstream Color

Without pricey special effects, set pieces or name cast Shane Carruth’s debut sci-fi film Primer overwhelmed viewers. Nine years later he has delivered an equally brilliant, mesmerizing and at time downright confusing opus I found strangely beautiful. Sans dialogue for a majority of the story about a couple who meet by chance and find that it was not coincidence, over time realizing that their lives had been interrupted by similar mysterious incidents and have left both broken and reeling for some sense of normalcy or simply peace. They harken back to the past for comfort and as they fall in love realize they share the same experiences, not knowing where one begins or ends or which is either. The filmmaker draws on broad themes that has a certain poetry, specific instances are dramatized and the viewer is left to draw their own conclusions. If Carruth’s first film drew comparisons to Kubrick this one seems to tip it’s cap to Malick with a tinge of Cronenberg for good measure, and I don’t know about you but that works for me. Kudos to him for being in such esteemed company.

10. Stoker

The english language first feature of Korean auteur Chan-wook Park does not disappoint with its taunt narrative, stylized visuals and heady cast. Park the purveyor of revenge dramas (his resume speaks for itself) with a script by actor Wentworth Miller  unabashedly tips his hat to Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt.  Sexual tension and studied lunacy make for a refined thriller that pauses to reflect on the consequences. Mia Wasikowska, Nicole Kidman and Matthew Goode make the perfect dysfunctional family. 

Actor – Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years A Slave)
Actress – Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine)
Supporting Actor – Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club)
Supporting Actress – Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years A Slave)

Breakthrough Performance: Michael B. Jordan (Fruitvale Station), Adèle Exarchopoulos (Blue Is The Warmest Color)

Director – Steve McQueen (12 Years A Slave)
Original Screenplay – Eric Warren Singer and David O’Russell  and (American Hustle)
Adapted Screenplay – John Ridley (12 Years A Slave)
Director of Photography – Philippe Le Sourd (The Grandmasters)
Visual Effects – Tim Webber, Chris Lawrence, Dave Shirk and Neil Corbould(Gravity)
Soundtrack – Danny Elfman (American Hustle)

Artisans: Forrest Whitaker (The Butler[A], Fruitvale Station[P]),  Andrew Dosunmu (Mother of George[D])

Artistic Merit:  Act of Killing, Blue Caprice, Behind The Candlelabra, Blue Is The Warmest Color, Dallas Buyers Club, Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Like Someone In Love, Mother of George,  Mood Indigo, The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty, Room 237, The Grandmasters

Guilty Pleasure: Only God Forgives

A Later Assessment: Computer Chess, Before Midnight, Francis Ha and Rush I could not truthfully comment on. These films were not screened  for the posting of this piece, for no particular reason other than the fact I can’t see every movie.

ism

30 Oct

Your Humble Narrator is a series to showcase the short stories, essays, poetry, scripts and musings of writer Arthvr Alleyne (and yes, I am speaking of myself in the 3rd person).


cemetery

  All Hollows Night; the Devil will have his due. In the guise of others people show their true selves.  Revelers take things to an extreme, marginally talented celebrities are impersonated, put on Vampyre, fraud politicians (an oxymoron if there ever was one); the intoxicated look in the eyes behind a plastic George Bush mask. The circumstance an excuse for women with loose morals to dress like harlots and blame their behavior on the alcohol and the occasion.  In a suit and eyeglasses frames, under an open shirt displaying the symbol of a facsimile Man of Steel from his forged Mild Mannered secret identity. A longhaired boy in sandals and a prop crown of thorns; fools! They even mock their savior, the son of God, complete with fake blood and make-up for stigmata, hauling around a sizeable cardboard cutout cross. The procession that came down 7th Avenue has ended, the celebration however continues. Halloween. The Village is festive, teaming with hungry hearts. I have a large appetite.

Manhattan as accommodating as any bastion of civilization this side of Hades, Greenwich Village undeniably the Freak Show, nearly everyone residing on this island of exclusivity has run away to join the circus, with conviction.

He raised his voice when there was no need to do so, that was the liquor talking. Wide-eyed and squirrelly, having diarrhea of the mouth, “I made 160,000 on that tip alone… believe that shit? The numbers were forecast for much less, way lower that the actual value. I got a friend on the commission.” Wharton graduate; insider trader, Master of the Universe? He smiled showing me his fangs, “Let me buy you another drink.”

I was drinking 24 year old, single malt scotch. He had lost track of the party he came in with. Wall Street types slumming, safari in the concrete jungle, holding their own amongst the animals. Under the spell of this Gotham voodoo, it made him feel alive. He had been garrulous about Alan Greenspan, the Fed and interest free loans, a free market economy, corporate ownership, the EnRon documentary, the Dot.com buyouts and latecomers dying a slow death. A futures trader, he was all over the place, Game Theory, rejuvenated lower Manhattan development since 9-11. He felt like he was becoming boring, in the fray fourteen hours a day from the opening bell of the Tokyo stock exchange to the close of the NASDAQ. It would be hard to not take your work with you. Techno geek and self described pimp when it comes to the ladies. This protector of capitalism, everything just and the vanguard of Americana was an Anne Rice fan. As her many devotees he sang her praises. “That’s what I love about her!” He confessed, practically at the top of his lungs, “She makes you believe that those things can really happen, that they are possible.”

I knew exactly what he meant, being a casual reader of the genre. He was impressed with himself and he was definitely trying to impress me. I made him feel like he had to, but really deep down inside he wanted to. “The Mayfair Witch series as well, not just he Vampire Chronicles.” He stated, “I like all her work.” I lean towards English authors for some reason, like Will Self, and of course Martin Amis. “Don’t go by the movie with Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise, movies never do the book justice.” I would have to agree with him again on that note as well.

“My favorite is the forth one–” he finished what I was going to say.

“Right! Right-right, The Tale of The Body Thief. The story was so cool. It didn’t even have to be about vampires, it could stand on its own as a great fantasy story. It was that good.” He gushed. I doubt the actual publicist Knopf assigned to one of their best selling clients worked so hard. “The premise is so ridiculous; Bela Lugosi and bats. You know what, I dig the seventies movie with Frank Langella though. It’s to her credit that she eliminates the cheesiness and the camp factor and grounds the actual premise in fact.”

He had said premise twice in the same sentence, explaining a word with the very same word.

“Have you ever read the actual Bram Stoker novel?” I asked.

He was conflicted, I could see in his eyes.

“No.” nature called, he excused himself, “Excuse me.”

I put some money on the bar and was already at a stall before my undead brother. He was eager to relieve himself, not trying to figure the logic in how I arrived in the rest rooms before he did, even though he left ahead of me. The fact that I cast no reflection in the mirrors by the sink was lost on him as well. He looked past the partition to see my phallus then immediately turned away. This children’s game that grown men play. Then he wet his hands and slicked his hair back like a Pat Riley inspired Gordon Gecko.

When he took out his plastic fangs he mentioned, “Yours look really real.”

Really real, I smiled like thanks.

“They don’t come out.”

It took him a second to figure out what I just said.

“You got those done by a dentist? Wow… how much did that run you?” he was fascinated.

“They didn’t cost me anything, they’re real.”

With little effort I barred the door so we could not be disturbed. I did this without moving to it, solely with my mind. Someone was trying to turn the handle from the other side.

“No.”

He was somewhat in disbelief as I draped him cozily.

“Yes.”

“NO!”

His blood-curdling cries could barely be heard on that side of the door amidst the loud conversations and the music at such a high volume.

I sat in a booth at The Slaughtered Lamb thinking. On my way over I saw a convincing Krusty the Klown and Sideshow Bob. The level of creativity impressed me; they didn’t just throw something together, they did a really good job. Enchanted by what is enthralling about the female form, old feelings wash over me. This young woman sitting by herself got the attention of every one; everyone who saw her could not turn away. She was in her own world in a bar full of people. Petite and sweet, costumed like a courtesan I believe and sipping a dirty martini. Little cutesy was like a hors d’oeuvre to me. Had to step down off her stool in her seafoam colored heels with her tinny-weenie self to get to the jukebox. Balancing her cloudy drink, shaking it to Bombs Over Baghdad, she had body and an appetizing aroma. Into herself before she noticed me sitting by myself and then got into me, Joy invited herself to sit down.

“Joy.”

“You are a Joy, Aaron.”

“You enjoying yourself?” Wanted to know if I was enjoying her company. “That’s all that matters now is it.” She amused herself, “I adore your watch. David Yurman?”

“Yes, it is.”

She was checking me out. I checked out the Celtic tattoo on the inside of her elbow. Joy had all the trappings, Cosmo and Vogue city girl; Hermes bag, Prada belt, Paloma Picasso bobbles, Chanel this, Louis Vitton that and so on. It was clearly all about her. She drove an S class Mercedes, shopped at William Sonoma, kitchen filled with things from Crate and Barrel, Ann Klein her choice for business attire and Vera Wang her favorite designer. We talked about how she procured the prize possessions in her bulging closet.

“I’ve run out of space.” Always armed with sufficient platinum plastic in her Coach wallet, she had already registered at Tiffany’s for when she was to get married.

Which would be in the next three years. “Three years tops the way I see it.”

Shopping entity, consumer ready and catalogue friendly, soft as cookie dough and well endowed looking extremely tasty. Something seemed funny; I felt something in the room, something odd.

At the table in the back, between The Bride in the wedding dress –her for certain sham pregnancy– and The Bride in the black stripped yellow track suit, in the middle of both versions of the same Kill Bill character. He watched me, the angel in the leather vest, pierced and skin garlanded in tattoos of scripture, his wings were majestic. They were magnificent … because they were real. The man with the wings got my attention and nodded at me. He knew what I was, and who I was and he couldn’t be bothered. They touched his feathers and flattered him (they couldn’t have known). The angel gave the women his undivided attention. Joy had eyes like a doll.

“Anyone ever tell you you have beautiful eyes Baby?” she remarked.

“Maybe, someone might have at one time, why?”

Nobody seemed to care as we made out. Her lips, they were sugary sweet, her tongue creamy, the blood remedied my needs like an elixir. You couldn’t tell looking at her sitting where I left her. Her eyes look like a doll.

Couples crowd into the Pink Pussy Kat and the other sex shop up the street. This is the perfect night for that particular type of exploration I’m supposing. The devil may care attitude that accompanies every Devil’s Night. Up to what mischief? Bleecker Street is bustling with commotion when I get down there. I watch people gawk and stare, with all that’s going on there is plenty to see. A grown fool in a baby diaper, Willie Wonka and a pageant of Oompa Loompas take up the sidewalk, a Howard Stern with a huge paper Mache head and nose has to step off the curb to get past.  I smell weed and get a funny feeling, but this time I know this feeling. This is the second time in recent months this has occurred. I look around, and for a second I see him, in front of the T-shirt and souvenir store, then he’s gone. One like me, “I feel like I’m being watched.”

One of Them, I sense danger and take to the shadows. Seeping into the night, a near replica of Don King catches my eye before I take flight. Across the rooftops of Chelsea I scatter pigeons, heading north making my decent in the Flatiron District by the church that used to be a club that’s now shut down. Canines interfering with the trash at the side of the restaurant on 6th and 21st growl reacting to my person, someone has thrown up on that side of the street, inside the drinking establishments the activity is heavy and outside the streets are empty. Approaching from the opposite direction this guy veers into me, deliberately bumping me, lifting my billfold and promptly apologizes. “Excuse me.”

He cuts through the well-lit parking lot to 22nd street. I materialize before him and he is dumfounded.

I don’t mince words, “You have something of mine?”

The pickpocket doesn’t take time to assess the situation and pulls his gun on me.

Backing away he instructs, “Don’t follow me Blacula.” He takes off running hard, looking back making good his escape. I come down in his path once again and he opens fire. I open my coat wide and walk right to him, taking a series of gunshots to the chest as I do. This doesn’t deter me and I hem him up. He doesn’t understand, “You‘re not bleeding?”

I substantiate his bewilderment, “No, I’m not… you ruined my favorite shirt.”

Reality slowly starting to unravel, with his background he saw me as some Boogie man, some Barnabus Collins.

“Freeze!” I heard from a distance. What else now? I looked up. A cop has happened upon our little situation. The patrolman exited his scooter with his gun trained on me and my criminal friend gave a sigh of relief. “Police! Hold it right there.” The officer demanded in an authoritarian tone, “What are you up to?”

He was assertive and kept eye contact like they teach at the Academy.

“What am I up to?” I asked him.

I was trying his patience, “Let ‘em go, let him up! Let me see your hands now? Now!”

I held onto the one with my things even tighter.

“You want me to let him go?” Confused that I didn’t follow his orders, this do-gooder cop not realizing I had him under my spell. “Stop pointing that gun at me.” I tell him.

“I’m going to put my gun down now.”

I had his full cooperation.

I made it clear to him, “You made a mistake and now you feel like a fool, don’t you?” Then he pretty much repeated what I said. “I won’t tell anyone you’ve been drinking.” I was convincing as a Jedi Master.

He surmised and summed up, “I… I need a drink. I really need a drink.”

“Get back in your ridiculous little vehicle you ridiculous little man.” My précis of the entire episode.

“I’m just a ridiculous man in an embarrassing scooter.”

I told him, “Move it along, there is nothing to see here.”

The thief was speechless as the cop did just what I said.

“Alright! Move it along. Nothing to see here!” he said to no one in particular.

I got back to the matter at hand.

“Hail Mary, mother of grace…” my intended victim said his Hail Mary’s and Our Father’s as he looked deep into my milky eyes.

Bewildered by the turn of events, behaving in an unmanly fashion, he doesn’t even try to use the gun he still has in his hand. The pocketsize New Testament I fished out of his coat along with my billfold had highlighted passages. I sent him to his maker and recovered my personal affects. The stray dogs in the parking lot go wild as I finish feed.

The courtyard of the church in Chelsea is pelted with eggs from earlier; I stand before the statue of the weeping Virgin in thought. The miracle reported in the press of this phenomenon attracted devotees recently from the mid-west and as far as Cuba. The vigil is around the clock. “When man is faced with his own mortality he looks inside himself and turns to God.”

I can participate in the celebration of the service; I can delve in reflection and prayer.  But I find no solace in it the way I should, the way others do. Is it me? Is it why I find myself in the predicament I am in now? The Archdiocese calls this marvel a conscripted manifestation. I espouse no theory to this wonder. Organized religion; the business of God never interest me. If people find hope in an inanimate object that shows emotion that has no logical explanation, and they want to attach theology or mysticism to it, I cannot take that away from them. My path takes me down harrowing side streets.

I find myself not ready to retire just yet, I find myself in the Meat Packing District at a club around 3 AM. I get the attention of the guy at the door and he lets me in as others wait to be picked. Fierce trannys, tabloid fodder, jaded haute models; once upon a time household words take up the line. I’m not on the list. Party fiends, posers, burnout rock stars and the obligatory hangers-on have to exercise patience. Enough punch lines for any stand-up comedian worth their salt. The conga line to Hell begins here. Overweight Elvis decked out in a white sequined jumpsuit does karate moves as the lights strobe, a macabre Saddam Hussein with a noose collaring him like a necktie getting down on the dance floor. I spy an Olsen twin and the Entourage guy. Some stray Oompa Loompas from before hold down a space by the door. Again no one notices that my image does not appear on the many video monitors. In the corner was Pamela Anderson or an incredible simulation. My pagan instinct; debauchery finds me easily. They came in one after the next, truly delectable all three, Jandy, Maya and Diedre.  Black eye make-up, all with black fingernail polish and one impish young woman with a lace vale. Fishnet stockings supported by garters, shimmering pattern on her brocade dress drew me to her and strutting about on razor sharp stilettos.

“Move Bitch, this is my song.” She reiterates, “Yeah you Bitch.”

“No-no. Eff you Bitch this my song.”

They argued over ownership of what neither one of them had rights to. Blood red lipstick, latex and herringbone corsets laced up tight. Caught in the flashing lights, trance music and sex drinks, collectively they don’t care about who’s on glossy magazine covers –retouched and Photo Shopped– or what’s on TV – because they don’t watch TV– and they smoke as much as they want and they simply don’t care.

Maya, “I’d rather live a short and happy life than be old and miserable.”

“Who cares if whoever is gay…” Jandy’s outspoken, “Everyone’s gay!”

“I really doubt that college makes a bit of difference.” Diedre remarked.

“Or voting.” They by consensus took a skeptics pose.

“It doesn’t matter we’re all going to be dead in the next ten years. Stephen Hawkings said so.”

“Bitch you can talk shit!”

“My cousin’s fighting over in Iraq. We can all die in a terrorist attack tomorrow Bitch.”

“The Pope doesn’t care about the pedophile priests but no contraceptives or abortion according to the Vatican.” Skeptical-Feminist-Nihilists.

They had their forum and wanted to get out of here. Bedlam makes an expected cameo and then we leave.

The party didn’t stop in the car; feeling each other up, precarious displays of burlesque, flashing the cabbie and warbling excruciating Portishead karaoke. In the hotel room more ecstasy and ordered up Amaretto and Red Bull. Lesbian. Bi-sexual. They began sucking on everything in sight. Nymphomaniacs.

“By all means degrade yourselves.” I completely approved.

A study in folly was what my present company offered up. Cherub tarts, they roughed up Jason the boy-toy they picked up in the lobby. Wrapped him up in a feather boa and brought him with us. Heated sexy chicks, the one with the angry ponytail unzipped his pants with her teeth. Recipient of forcible dominatrix conduct and simultaneous fellatio, part of a threesome and abridged foursome, Jason didn’t mind the full contact and rough trade. As he caught his breath I took turns tasting the goods, delirious to my selection of delicacies. I bled them slowly. I could taste the intoxicants and opiates coursing through their naked slutty bodies. I was licked and loved up and suckled scrumptious. These sodomites had no moral boundaries, instant gratification, the least mischievous of the three Maya was egged on by the other two. The oldest Jandy encouraged her and Diedre’s loose morals. Maya chose to take a moment, and when she did she saw, she saw what all this carrying on had led to, what I was up to. What I was. I hadn’t gotten to her yet and, and she panicked. Screaming, hysterical, she got off the bed and got as far away from me as possible. This confused Jason who found himself looking up from the floor.

Diedre and Jandy would not let go of me as their girlfriend stood against the opposite wall trembling uncontrollably. She had it in her head to leave.

“Come?”

“No.” was her immediate response.

“Come Maya, come to me.”

“No! No I can’t.” I was horrific and seductive, “you can’t make me, you can’t make me.” Sensuous and repulsive, “Don’t please, I don’t want to…”

She had no choice in the matter. Swept into my arms, obedient in my irresistible embraces. She loved me like the others and even more so, I saw to that.

“What are we to do Jason, what, are we, to do?” I had to attend to the next set of business, “I like you. I like you Jason… don’t you know that?”

He cringed next to the dresser in the corner, I was at a quandary, I had had no plans for him.

“Please-please, don’t? I don’t want to die.” He pleaded.

“You will die one day I assure you.”

He was just hanging out. Aspiring model, writer, photographer, he interned at a prominent literary agency and also worked part time at a bar in Brooklyn. Jason was not about semantics at this point and time.

He begged, “Please-please-please?”

And in his mind it was up to God.

We believe in one God, Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, light of light, very God of very God, begotten not made…”

            “Non factum, consubstantialem Patri: per quem omnica facta sunt. Qui propter nos hominess et proter nostrum salutem descendit de caelis.” In Latin I too recited the Nicene Creed.

Along with faith he hoped for luck. I was game to give him a chance, a chance to win his life.

So secluded, on the beach in Rockaway, before the sun would rise, the chessboard was set up and I waited for Jason to be seated. Not knowing how he got here, not one footprint found in the sand leading up to this particular jetty, he saw the situation and having no choice accepted the challenge. Like the Knight Antonius Block, Jason sat before me, and I was the personification of Death.

“I do this as no allegory for life being a game. I possess no special skill; pure gamesmanship on my part, the outcome is to be determined on equal terms. You have the first move.” He comes out fast and attacks my flanks, striking and repeatedly drawing back. “Your fear fuels you, despite your doubts of God you ask him for resolve in this matter.” Jason never addressed my comments. Staying focused, using a combination of knight and bishop his attack is unrelenting. And it is this fervor that is his fatal flaw. Jason only prolongs the inevitable. He is at a disadvantage seeing only seven or eight moves ahead. I have already seen the whole board —the entire match— the outcome, his downfall and the ramifications. He plays well but gets tripped up and stumbles hard. Terrified Jason is unable to recover as I snatch up rooks, vanquish a knight and martyr his beloved-cherished queen, and for my means a handful of my pawns are a part of the slaughter. It is just a matter of time. Broken in faith and resolve he realizes this. “Check.” He is strictly on the defensive now. “Check.” He will sacrifice what remains of his gallant Templars and divisive clergymen subjugated for his cause and King. “Check… Checkmate.” Jason succumbs to my queen as I observe the sun crest on the horizon. His heart palpitating, struggle passionate, momentary is my ambivalence, the tide ebbs along the quayside and I am swift and merciful.

In the western direction I outdistance the long light of the impending sunrise to the confines of my Mausoleum. My neighbors Jacqueline Onassis, Judy Garland and most recently Leona Hemsley rest in peace on these exclusive grounds.

Imagery of the sun –the very blight that can send me to oblivion— ornaments the dark confines of my inner sanctum. Above the entrance of this multi-million dollar sarcophagus is the symbol of the Egyptian Sun god RA that I identify with. My pretties are asleep in the crypt, only two coffins to share so Jandy lays up with me. They purr like kittens my concubines as they nap. I reveal in this wickedness for selfish reasons. In my weakened state I know the sun is high. The gravediggers work hard before the noonday heat becomes unbearable. I listen to love ones grieve openly; to the dearly departed. Amidst the smell of fresh cut flowers I settle in on the cool satin, and then I close my eyes.

Under The Sunset. I attend a gala performance of Faust at the Met the very next night, unaccompanied. The seating accommodations are not to the liking of the woman with enough jewelry hanging from her like a chandelier when she realizes she will be seated next to the likes of me. Like what am I doing here? I have clearly ruined her evening and I can care less quite frankly. What do I know about Opera? I know enough to not be reliant on the subscript that is projected to follow the narrative. I speak several languages and have an appreciation for the Arts and the finer things. Regardless of my appearance you cannot judge me on face value alone. “ Suffer fools gladly.” I fail to explain this to her or feel the need to elucidate knowing she has but a certain level of comprehension.

I watch the performance, which is truly awe inspiring and afterwards I strike up a conversation with a couple in the lounge area. Wilhelm and Betty; he has an old world charm to him this dapper gentleman recently arrived from overseas, born and raised in Pretoria South Africa. The woman as radiant and stunning as any specimen I’ve ever seen. There is such a thing as being too beautiful. Upper Westside resident since moving from Lake George upstate to attend University, she was showing him the town. They had met at a film series at MoMA.

“As moving as American Blues.”

He had made the same comparison I had when asked to describe opera in the pantheon of music by someone before. The Africana knew of Jimmy Reed, Howlin’ Wolf and the likes of the great Son House. Held them in high esteem that is unusual provided his background to simply assume we were all god-forsaken creatures due to his biased upbringing. He sported a haughty moustache and was under the influence of something that clouded his mind, rendering my physic power useless when it came to him. The woman whose name I forgot the moment she said it was as enchanting as Kim Basinger at that age.

“I’m corruptible you two.” The implication was there all along, we knew what she was suggesting.

Then the strumpet pantomimes oral sex poking her tongue in her cheek.

We kept talking as she excused herself. He had no shortage of questions, I could only impart a certain amount of information, and the rest he would have to research. Her escort went to see what was keeping her as we both commented, “What’s taking her so long?” When he too did not return I went to investigate even though I had a feeling. Where I found them it was quite cold, in the back by themselves he stood over her dead body.

“What happened?”

His answer was interesting to say the least, “She’s been killed, her life taken, taken by a Vampire. An entity that possesses powers from the realm of the undead. The Vampyre; a creature that feeds off the living to sustain its existence, a being that flourishes after the sun goes down.”

On a chain between his open collar this rake wore an ornate talisman.

Drawn out by the pawn once the queen is taken, I came to my own conclusions. I kept thinking I should have seen this.

“How do you know this?” I already knew the answer to my question.

“Because I know it to be true.”

“How do you know they exist, these Vampires of which you speak of?”

The feeling that I had all along is confirmed as the creature now reveals itself, this other Vampire. He appears with alacrity adopting a posture of pre-eminence and dominance.

“Because he told me.” Wilhelm bows his head, “My Master.”

He addressed this one who had been stalking me all these many months.

“She was too beautiful.” The cavalier immortal remarked.

We could all agree on that.

 

 

Ism is the second short story of Aaron  who was unwittingly bestowed with the “dark gift” in Un a piece that first appeared on the site http://www.americanfiction.net.