Mini-Review: Pariah


Drama, 2011

86 minutes

Starring: Adepero Oduye, Pernell Walker, Charles Parnell, Kim Wayans

Directed by: Dee Rees

Written by: Dee Rees

Pariah is the kind of movie that you could easily talk yourself out of seeing. It’s about the “tough” stuff: adultery, family tension, and growing up gay in a home, and situation, that not only doesn’t accept it but tries to suppress it. It is also, partially for that same reason, precisely the kind of movie you should see. Alike (pronounced a-LEE-kay) is a winsome teenage girl who is coming to terms with the fact that she is undeniably a lesbian. She is also black; in short, hers is a voice that is not often heard in popular culture, cinematic or otherwise. Her close friend, Laura, is her bridge into the world she wants to belong to: together they dress in baggy, masculine clothes and frequent a lesbian club that recently opened near where they live in Brooklyn. Her family, however, keeps her in the closest, pressuring her to be the daughter they want even when that is clearly at odds with what she wants for herself.

Alike’s struggle is at times harrowing, heartbreaking, and seemingly hopeless. Though we want her to find common ground with her family, and to be accepted for who she is, it seems evident early on that this cannot possibly happen. This film is not about wish fulfillment but about how we contend with the harshness of reality. Still, even beyond its important subject matter, Pariah is an excellent film, subtle but affecting, surprisingly funny at times, and beautifully acted. It understands its world, its perspective, and thus makes it wonderfully real and imperative to the viewer.


Mini-Review: Strange Powers

Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields

Documentary, 2010

89 minutes

Starring: Stephin Merritt, Claudia Gonson, Daniel Handler, Carrie Brownstein, Neil Gaiman, Peter Gabriel

Directed by: Kerthy Fix, Gail O’Hara

In another time, or perhaps another place, Stephin Merritt would be widely regarded as a lyrical genius. He’d be the next Cole Porter, a witty wordsmith whose songs are both deliciously hummable and surprisingly poignant. He’d be famous, in demand, celebrated for his virtuosity…. In his own time and his own situation, though, Merritt is regrettably more obscure than that. While perhaps an indie icon, he is no radio star; his songs are largely unfamiliar to anyone who has not sought them out. Perhaps this suits him just fine. Or, maybe, baroque pop sensibilities and instruments like the ukulele will never be for everyone. Whatever the case, fans like me will have to take solace in the fact that Merritt is, if not an actual star, at least the star of this documentary, which chronicles the ups and downs of his band, The Magnetic Fields, over the course of 10 years. Strange Powers offers an intimate look at Merritt’s process, from writing down ideas to practicing, revising and eventually recording a song. It also gives insight into his close relationship with longtime collaborator Claudia Gonson. For anyone completely enamored of the band’s music, this documentary is a must. It provides access to Merritt that is so rarely granted, and an opportunity to connect with the music on a deeper level. And, no surprise, it has an amazing soundtrack.

Mini-Review: Take the Money and Run

Take the Money and Run

Comedy, 1969

85 minutes

Starring: Woody Allen, Janet Margolin, Marcel Hillaire, Jacquelyn Hyde

Directed by: Woody Allen

Written by: Woody Allen, Mickey Rose

Take the Money and Run is the first “real” Woody Allen movie, the one whose DNA we can still find traces of in the writer-director’s most current offerings. It’s a straight-up comedy, but not necessarily slight. In fact, it’s one of the first of its kind: a mockumentary that employs a wide variety of gimmicks to create the illusion of authenticity. Using this form, it tells the story of Allen’s failed criminal protagonist, Virgil Starkwell, a crook so pathetic that his attempt at a bank robbery is foiled by his poor penmanship. It features both footage of Starkwell and interviews with those closest to him; the best subjects are his parents, who agree to appear only on the condition that they be allowed to wear Groucho Marx glasses (to conceal their identity).

The gags are plentiful, and usually very clever. One of my favorites is a scene of Virgil in his high school’s marching band: he plays the cello. He struggles—and fails—to keep up with his classmates, sitting down in his chair and playing a single note, then getting up and scrambling to keep his place in the band. It’s simple and silly, but also a brilliant bit of visual humor, which Allen does quite well anyway. The whole film is full of such scenes, and my descriptions can hardly do them justice.

…So go watch it, learn it, enjoy it, and then we can start our own club. The password will be, “Is Kowalski a midget?!”

Magic Mike

Magic Mike

Comedy/Drama, 2012

110 minutes

Starring: Channing Tatum, Alex Pettyfer, Matthew McConaughey, Cody Horn

Directed by: Steven Soderbergh

Written by: Reid Carolin

Yes, Magic Mike is a movie about male strippers. And maybe that is reason enough, for some people, to see it. No judging if that’s you; in the words of Matthew McConaughey, “All right, all right, all right.” Most people don’t believe me when I explain that that wasn’t my motivation for watching it. Because, I guess, not everyone finds even the trailers for it freaking hilarious.

Okay, for starters: McConaughey pretty much plays himself—or at least the person I like to imagine he is—all oiled-up, bongo-playing smarmy charm. He has paintings and sculptures of himself scattered all throughout his house; basically, even breathing the same air as him will corrupt your innocence. He’s magnificent. (I’m pretty sure if Daniel Day-Lewis had played him, there’d be Oscar talk.) Secondly, Channing Tatum. This guy, despite having a ridiculous name that is equally as plausible forwards or backwards, is a gem. He is truly funny, which I get that most people don’t want to believe based on how he looks. But he is. He was (surprisingly) hilarious in 21 Jump Street, which was a straightforward comedy, and he is just as funny here, even though Magic Mike is, ostensibly, a drama.

But really it’s more of a dramedy. That’s because men taking off their clothes is inherently comical. It doesn’t feel exploitative or sad or dirty; it’s not as complicated as women taking off their clothes, which, no matter the circumstances, always has those nasty patriarchal overtones. The men in this movie have some control over their destiny: they’re in stripping for the money, the rush, and occasionally the drugs, but not because of some sad childhood or debilitating self-esteem issues. Thus, we can laugh at them, or with them, really, since they know how ridiculous they’re being. And they are, knowingly, being absurd.

You see, while men just want to see the clothes coming off; women enjoy the theatricality. Thus, the stripping scenes are all inventively choreographed, with cheesy themes like “It’s Raining Men” used to showcase the men’s many…talents. I honestly don’t think you have to be attracted to these men to be amused by their onstage antics. And, really, that is just one minor part of the film.

It is what happens offstage that makes Magic Mike more than just a “stripper movie.” There is a genuine story lurking there about the pitfalls of easy money, available drugs, and powerful fantasy. There are even ethical questions, which you might want to skip over if you’re just looking to enjoy some nearly-naked hot guys. But please don’t skip over them just to enjoy some nearly-naked hot guys. The hot guys will still be there when you’re done considering the ethical questions. Magic Mike, for all its pumping bass and flashing lights, is more significant than it appears to be. It’s not just tricks and theatrics, but story and substance. And for a movie that features a character named “Big Dick Richie,” that’s no small feat.

Safety Not Guaranteed

Safety Not Guaranteed

Comedy, 2012

86 minutes

Starring: Aubrey Plaza, Jake Johnson, Mark Duplass, Karan Soni

Directed by: Colin Trevorrow

Written by: Derek Connolly

The funniest, most charming, and most keenly observed movie of the summer is one that most people probably did not see. Safety Not Guaranteed takes a bizarre premise (inspired by real life) that could have easily translated into broad, unsophisticated comedy and instead delivers a story that is subtle, compassionate, and quietly hilarious.

The plot hinges upon a highly improbable classified ad that spurs the main characters on a journey of self-discovery:

“Wanted: Someone to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. I have only done this once before. SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED.”

This ad catches the attention of Jeff, a journalist from a Seattle magazine, and he assembles a team of interns to track down the person who wrote it. The interns, Darius and Arnau, are both misfits in their own unique ways, and they each favor a different approach to finding the mysterious ad writer. Inevitably, it is the sullen but comely Darius (Aubrey Plaza) who discovers and approaches the man; he turns out to be an unassuming grocery store clerk named Kenneth Calloway. Kenneth (Mark Duplass) is just as weird as you would expect, but he is also surprisingly smart, sensitive, and real. A loner like Darius, he proves himself unexpectedly endearing, to the point that Darius ceases to engage with him as a reporter and starts to develop real affection for him.

Of course, there is still the whole matter of time travel, and it turns out that, despite how ridiculous it seems, Kenneth totally believes in it. Furthermore, he’s convinced that there are government agents after him, hoping to put a stop to his experiments. Both Darius and the audience worry that Kenneth might not be as harmless as he seems, but at the same time start to wonder if maybe he could be right. And therein lies the charm of the film: anything seems like it could be possible. The characters—not only Darius and Kenneth, but also Jeff and Arnau—learn to embrace the world rather than to hide from it, to look for meaning rather than to accept emptiness. They begin to find possibility where before they were limited, and even the audience can’t help but join in. Safety Not Guaranteed makes it easy to believe in anything. Even time travel.

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