The Plot Against Harry (1969/1989)

The Plot Against Harry

Dir. Michael Roemer, 1969, or maybe 1989

Released in 1989, two full decades after it was made, Wes Anderson listed The Plot Against Harry as one of his ten favourite movies about New York, saying it was very gentle and non-violent. It’s an appropriately bizarre choice from a man who gave the same distinction to New Jack City, a film he had never actually seen.

Martin Priest plays Harry Plotnick, a gangster who is released from prison. Although he maintains his mafia ties, Harry decides to start over after he is unexpectedly reunited with his grown children, and then diagnosed with an enlarged heart. Though he tries to make a new life as a caterer, he can’t quite escape his past.

The Plot Against Harry is a bit of a misnomer. It’s more atmosphere than story, and its dated 1960s setting gives the film a moody, psychedelic film like nothing else out there. My mom, who was a Jewish teenager in the 1960s, said it was very much like that. B+

Rock and Roll Is Dead (May it Never Die): A Pop Revival Primer, Epilogue

Well, guys this is it.

I mean it. The very month, February 2014, is probably the end of Pop Revival as a viable genre. Most of the time, genres fizzle out, get buried beneath some new hot sound, or drag on for years beyond their natural lifespans; the point being, when genres die, people usually don’t notice.

Then, in a month that isn’t even over, three things happened. Dum Dum Girls released Too True, an album that stayed true to the attitude that made them a hit, while happily abandoning the original sound. Then, Vivian Girls performed their last show ever; saying as much themselves before pounding out a rocking set, and getting their pictures taken, sweaty and visibly shaken.

Third, Arctic Monkeys won best band and best album at the BRIT awards. Not living in Great Britain myself, I don’t know whether their win was expected, but it definitely wasn’t warranted. AM was a thoroughly mediocre affair that awkwardly utilized hip-hop beats; the few songs that didn’t get that treatment were alright. But then they came up to accept their award.

Immediately this was called “controversy,” and though it wasn’t immediately clear why, it soon began to make sense. Arctic Monkeys had been on a lot of minds leading up to the awards. Actor Robert Webb wondered aloud “didn’t Arctic Monkeys use to sound Northern?” Indeed, the band has lived out most of its existence in the Mojave Desert, and Alex Turner’s speech revealed an attitude that’s normal in America– hell, it’s cliché in America. The desire to keep British music British is understandable, but something has broken there.

All the way back in 2006, when Arctic Monkeys first infested the airwaves, the next big thing was being born. In returning to the pop standards of the 1960s, Pop Revival was finding a way forward. It had birthed something totally new, a defining sound for a new era. Nobody could have known when this decade began, but it was coming. It was coming from Los Angeles, from Perth, from rural Virginia, from Aix-en-Provence. In short, it was coming from everywhere but Britain.

To be continued…

Seeking Asian Female (2013)

Seeking Asian Female
Dir. Debbie Lum, 2013

As long as I can remember, white men have had a fascination with Asian women that goes well beyond personal preference, and I just don’t get it. I’m not the only one. Filmmaker Debbie Lum constantly fought the urge to bail on her documentary Seeking Asian Female when she saw how her potential subjects were objectifying Asian identity. Finally she settled on Steven, an unassuming old man with a Chinese fetish bordering on mania.

To this end, Steven actually marries Sandy, a girl freshly imported from China. Sandy is not the docile servant-heart he imagined, and neither is he what she imagined. The relationship is rocky, but gradually morphs from societal construct into an actual romance as Steven gradually relinquishes his Chinese obsession. Seeking Asian Female is not always easy to watch, but it has done the best– often funny– job at a subject that demands further attention. B-

Four Lions (2010)

Four Lions

Dir. Chris Morris, 2010

British comedy mogul Chris Morris first raised public outcry in 2001 when his satirical news program Brass Eye poked a red-hot eye at the nation’s outsized fear of paedophiles. In 2010, he made his first feature film showcasing the only thing that scared Britons more: Al Qaeda.

Set in unassuming Sheffield, Four Lions tells the story of Omar (Riz Ahmed), a terrorist hopeful who plans to bomb the London Marathon, beating out the plan by temperamental convert Barry (Nigel Lindsay) to pull a false flag operation against a mosque. Of course, the members of the cell aren’t very religious at all– in fact, Omar’s disapproving brother is as non-violent as he is devout. The audience is treated to the slapstick, petty bickering, and general silliness of the group as they fail upward to a horrific conclusion.

It’s Morris’ lack of compromise that makes this film as dark as it is, but his research is air-tight: interviews with Pakistani British, intel experts, and even ex-jihadis confirm that homegrown suicide attacks are usually bizarre failures. Sure, the guys all blow themselves up, but maybe, like in Paedogeddon, Morris is telling a funny story to makes us less afraid. If the purpose of terrorism is to terrorize, then he is our best weapon. B+

Note: This was the end of my original run of reviews for film school, but now they will continue!

OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies (2006)

OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies

Dir. Michel Hazanavicius, 2006

Before winning an Oscar for The Artist, Michel Hazanavicius decided to take a hard-boiled series of French spy novels and adapt them as comedies. Jean Dujardin plays the titular agent; a bumbling, racist spy sent to Suez Crisis-era Egypt to uncover the location of weapons taken from a Russian ship that went missing the same time his old partner was killed. In doing so, his ignorance of Islam makes him the target of an ersatz Muslim Brotherhood, a deposed princess, and even his lovely assistant (Berenice Bejo). He also becomes obsessed with his cover as a chicken farmer.

With it’s cinemascope, slightly faded but rich colour, rampant abuse of day-for-night shooting, and hilarious setpieces in between the main action (especially involving chickens, ouds, or escaped Nazis), Hazanavicius manages to spoof mid-century spy fiction intelligently and humourously without taking it to the farcical extreme that other films might. B+