BLACK SNAKE MOAN (2007) – Pulp friction

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Black Snake Moan doesn’t begin to hide its trash origins; in fact, it embraces them. But the movie gets at something, and it does so far more effectively than a lot of higher-toned movies.

The movie’s premise at first seems hopeless. Rae (Christina Ricci) is an outrageous nymphomaniac. Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson) is a broken-down blues singer whose wife has just left him. One day, Lazarus finds Rae at the side of a road near his home, beaten and near death. He goes to town to get some medicine for Rae and finds out about her seedy reputation. Out of nowhere, Lazarus divines a cure for what ails Rae: He chains Rae to the radiator in his front room and, in essence, says that she won’t be released until her demons are expunged.

That premise alone is going to elicit at least two reactions from the movie’s potential audience. Feminists will carp about an older man passive-aggressively chaining up a woman because he thinks it’s for her own good. Then there are the lascivious men in the audience who will lick their lips and say, “Ooh, man! Christina Ricci in bondage!”

But surprisingly, once the movie gets past its sweaty, Southern Gothic beginning, the characters really start to unveil some interesting layers. Ricci takes what could have been a simple, tacky role and gives it some genuine depth. Her take on Rae reminds me of Jodie Foster in The Accused — showing a woman’s vulnerability in the face of her supposed worldliness and sexual voraciousness.

And Jackson, after sleepwalking through Snakes on a Plane, once again twitches with electricity. It’s as if his Bible-spouting hitman from Pulp Fiction suddenly got a mirror stuck in his face to show him that he has a few of his own demons to conquer.

The cast is uniformly excellent. Justin Timberlake is very effective as Rae’s erstwhile lover. “Law & Order’s” S. Epatha Merkerson is a sunny presence throughout, providing some joy to counter Jackson’s gravitas. And John Cothran Jr. takes a stereotypical role — a very preachy preacher — and turns it inside out. The scene where his character explains his concept of heaven is a metaphor for all of the movie’s characters — cutting through the guff and getting to what really matters.

At its center, Black Snake Moan is about an old codger condescending to save a young girl’s soul and realizing how much cleansing his own soul needs. The movie might not be as spirited as a homecoming revival, but it certainly is a blessed tonic to more pretentious movies with similar themes.

 

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STAR WARS EPISODE II: ATTACK OF THE CLONES (2002) – Underrated SW entry

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Maybe I’m subject to a Jedi mind spell, but for me, Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones is the most satisfying Star Wars movie since The Empire Strikes Back (1980). The story of 1999’s Episode I was inevitably exposition; this one has all the pay-offs.

Here’s a rundown of the major plot points and fans’ criticisms of the movie.

Jar Jar Binks. Episode I‘s much-reviled comic relief has basically been relegated to a desk job and is on-screen for only a short time. So Star Wars fans, quit’cher bellyaching already!

The romance between Anakin Skywalker (a/k/a Darth Vader-to-be) and Princess (now Senator) Amidala. Much has already been made of this couple’s pedestrian dialogue, but it’s at least as convincing as Empire‘s budding romance between Han Solo and Princess Leia. In any case, Natalie Portman (Amidala) is as shimmeringly beautiful as ever, and Hayden Christensen evokes the Vader-to-be far more convincingly than did Jake “Yippee!” Lloyd in Episode I.

Conflict. There’s a lot of it here, most of it quite convincing and intriguing. Anakin chafing under the tutelage of Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), some evil politicians who want to take over Amidala’s territory, Anakin’s search for his long-separated mother–it all adds a welcome layer of depth to what is often perceived as a comic-book fairy tale.

Visuals. As always with the Star Wars series, this movie’s visual palette delivers the goods, with otherworldly settings and rich, vivid atmosphere.

In-jokes. There are some extremely sly references here, not just to the other SW movies but to A.I. and Gladiator. And the action sequence with Anakin and Amidala trapped in the clone factory plays like a nightmare version of Charlie Chaplin’s trip through the conveyor belt in Modern Times.

Yoda. The old Jedi master — computer-generated this time, but still voiced by Frank Oz — is the most thrilling surprise here. For an old, short guy, he wields a mean light saber.

Bad acting? Tell that to such pros as McGregor, Samuel L. Jackson, and Christopher Lee.

As with any of the Star Wars flicks, it helps if you’ve seen the others. But on its own, Episode II is as lavish a movie treat as you’re likely to find in this movie series.

SCHOOL DAZE (1988) – Don’t like Spike Lee? Go on and swear, see if I care

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Spike Lee’s amazing School Daze has the liberating feeling of something loose and cool breaking through on the screen. As critic Roger Ebert noted in his review of the movie, Lee makes no apologies about showing no white people in the movie — and more power to him. Lee’s loosely plotted depiction of life at an all-black college is refreshing in its — if you will — “segregation.” A viewer can perfectly well see that Lee wants to show a black milieu, free of the condescending whites of many lesser movies.

The majority of the story involves the college’s fraternity and sorority. Half-Pint (Spike Lee) is quite happy to sacrifice his individuality if it’ll get him into Gamma Phi Gamma, despite the best efforts of his cousin Dap (Laurence Fishburne, billed here as “Larry”) to radicalize his sibling. And sorority leader Jane (Tisha Campbell, who later had to suffer as Martin Lawrence’s wife in the sitcom “Martin”) has an intense relationship with lead Gamma man Julian (Giancarlo Esposito of “Breaking Bad”), which eventually has some beyond-unfortunate consequences for Jane.

The movie goes all over the place, but if it’s a mess, it’s an invigorating one. It goes from Half-Pint’s frat hi-jinks, to Dap’s getting humbled (somewhat) by a local man (Samuel L. Jackson!) who couldn’t care less about getting radicalized, to Julian’s unbelievably callous kiss-off to Jane. In between, there’s a great speech by Ossie Davis, as a coach who psychs up the college football team as though he’s giving a Sunday sermon, and an appropriately named dance number, “Da Butt” — placed in the film because Lee wanted to see what it was like to start a national trend.

And about a half-hour into the movie is what I consider its greatest moment (embedded below): An all-out musical number (written by Lee’s father Bill) called “Straight and Nappy,” in which the “wannabe” sorority girls, with their contact lenses and fancy hair, duke it out with the “jigaboos,” who let their hair go natural as a matter of pride. The number goes far beyond its reason for existence and just turns into a marvel to watch. You can just about touch the joy in the performances of the women, who seem to marvel at the chance to show their stuff. (Look at those happy faces at number’s end.) For me, it was 1988’s best movie scene, and it made me wish the entire movie had been a full-fledged musical (though it squeezes in a couple of other numbers, one by Stevie Wonder).

I met Spike Lee at a book signing shortly after this movie came out. At that point, I was so thrilled with his movies and to see him in the flesh, I burst out at him, “I hope the studios let you make movies forever!” Lee looked up at me wordlessly, and you could see his thoughts in his eyes: Who is this crazy white man? Well, what I am is a movie enthusiast who loves great movies that have an individual point of view, rather than looking like they were steered by committee. And how many committees would approve a musical number called “Straight and Nappy”?

School Daze is one of Spike Lee’s loosest movies, and still one of his best.