Sunday, August 15, 2004

Harold & Kumar Go To...Fight White Power?

Despite the current popular, political argument that life imitates art (or see: kids smoke and kill people because they are influenced by what they see on a screen at the local-plex) Hollywood has notoriously been behind the social times in reflecting what is going on in the moment when their films are released. For example, the overt personal artistic expression that littered art, literature and music in the 1950's and 1960's in this country only flowered in American Cinema in the 1970's. While Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball in 1946, it took years after that before African Americans stepped out from the stereotypical roles they were usually relegated to on film...ironic for a supposedly liberal-leaning town. Part of the reasoning for this social delay is because of the time it takes to produce a film, but more importantly because major studios have often treated us, its audience, like kids with too much money in our wallet; by providing us with a two-hour escape from society rather than inciting us to question it. Plainly, it's just more profitable that way. However, Hollywood does sometimes catch up...and indeed the stoner-comedy Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle is an excellent example of the freeing of two otherwise forgotten-on-film minorities from the stereotypical ties that had previously bound them to anonymity.

Despite current continuous, necessary and vigilant calls for more roles and roles of power for African Americans, Hollywood has slowly integrated and enfranchised the African American on film. There is a stronger African American voice in Hollywood today then there has been ever before; actors like Denzel Wahington and Halle Berry have broken through racial-character stereotypes and play racially indifferent lead roles; roles that probably would have gone to an Anglo actors even fifteen to twenty years ago. Is there any doubt that a Manchurian Candidate remake or The Pelican Brief would have featured white lead actors had they been made in a different era? That Mario Van Peeples can make a film today (Badassssss!) about the independent, albeit meager beginnings of African American filmmaking is truly a signpost of how far things have come. The crossover mainstream success of films like Barbershop has proven that Hip-Hop culture is hip enough or, more importantly, a viable enough money-making product that major studio executives have noticed and responded.

Which brings us to the representation of Asian-Americans and Indians (the ones from India, not the reservation) on film. Has Hollywood similarly enfranchised these minorities in movies as much as African Americans? I would argue not. For years in American movies, there was an unwritten policy that Anglos played major character parts that were clearly identified or intended to be other minorities: David Carridine's "Caine" comes to mind; Twenty years ago, Ben Kingsley, an Englishman, played famous Indian leader Mohatma Ghandi. Even today, in a more "enlightened" era, many films that feature Asian Americans or Indians place them in squarely stereotypical supporting roles. While actors like Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan have made names for themselves as lead actors in Hollywood, it is surely not based on their acting skills first, but for their martial arts prowess. The stereotypes of these minorities portrayed in modern film and television seep into public consciousness and into popular culture. Among the oft regurgitated lines in pop culture and, especially, male-fraternizing conversation, are from The Karate Kid. Pat Morita's (Shock! Another Asian in a popular martial arts movie!) Asian-cum-Hollywood "philosophies" like "Wax on, Wax off," "Sand The Floor" and "Karate here; Karate not here." How many times have we seen Indians portrayed in film and popular culture as cab drivers, one-dimensional sentimental losers or comic foils (up to Kal Penn's character in Van Wilder, Apu from The Simpsons)? Is there a more over used "go-to" for a laugh then an Indian accent? Somehow, these minorities have taken the current mantel for a "bookish" or "nerdy" character in a film...which seemingly represents a step-up on the Hollywood evolutionary minority-ladder from "non-existence" to "let's laugh at them." There are millions of people in many areas of this country whose ideas and images about these minorities come from what they see on mainstream film and TV...only!

In Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle we have an excellent leap forward in an effort to smash this ideological barrier. In fact, the film does a complete switcheroo, stereotyping white people while ascending the protagonists to multi-dimensional character status. For example, there are the "Extreme" dudes (representing skateboard youth culture), the cops (representing patriarchal authority), and the business executives (representing corporate America) all of whom constantly fight to squeeze our heroes back into the squarepeggish-holes they came from. What ammunition do they use? Some of the very same pop-culture references mentioned above (Both The Karate Kid and The Simpsons are cited) and the stereotypes they foster ("What kind of name is "Kumar" anyway?). Even members of Harold and Kumar’s own racial minorities try to reclaim then and mold (or hold?) them back into the stereotypical clay figures they are breaking away from. Consider Harold’s repeated abhorrence of an Asian club trying to recruit him. Indeed, the members of the club are first portrayed in the typical pre-established minority light (tending towards dorkish) until we see them later partying as hard as any bunch of white-baseball-hat wearing frat guys; another example of the filmmaker’s opening the book you were judging previously by its cover. For Kumar, his immigrant-turned successful doctor father fights hard to force his son to focus onto becoming a doctor (a program his older brother already submitted to) himself and little else. Kumar is more than bright enough, as evidenced by the sequence where he performs a difficult surgery without breaking a sweat or training. There is also a powerful passing of the minority-enfranchisement-mantle in the film. There’s a scene where an African-American offers Harold sage words of racial tolerance advice in prison; the only time in the film when another character offers encouragement instead of hatred. Harold and Kumar are our heroes in the film, the protagonists the filmmakers ask us to identify with...and we easily can. They are bright, young, urban professionals fresh from the womb of college who just want to get high and eat some burgers! That's me! Or at least it was a few years ago... and I am neither Asian nor Indian. Thus, both Harold and Kumar enjoy all the rewards bestowed normally upon their heroic brethren at the end of a movie: the girl, triumph over their enemies and, for the sake their own story, tons of White Castle burgers.

So what is the easiest, most subtle way for the film establishment to welcome these minorities into mainstream characterhood? The cinematic tablet easiest to swallow (and responsible for the negative images in the first place): the comedy or more specifically, the stoner comedy. Amazing to think a dime bag, glass bong and some hamburgers can try to right the wrongs of previous media injustices for a whole new generation of eyes and minds.

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Braff-fest of Champions

I love "Scrubs," the NBC dram-com about residents in a hospital. You should love it too. Therefore, I like Zach Braff, that shows star and the writer/director/star of "Garden State", his first feature film. His character in "Scrubs" has a self-deprecating style that a self-deprecating jack-ass like myself can appreciate. He is about my age, so I cannot hide a bit of pulsating green jealousy that the guy got to make his film and I get to sit here 8 hours a day and type my knubby fingers into carpal-tunnel hell. Oh well, maybe the flourescent lights will give me skin cancer first.

Anyways, Braff's film centers on an tv actor (Braff) who returns home to Bon New Jersey for the first time in 9 years because his mother has drowned. He visits old friends! Dude! Let's get high! He has a strained relationship with his psychiatrist father (Ian Holm) who has prescribed him tons of mood-alterting behavior medication. My dad sells insurance....which you can't get high off me I've tried. He meets local, strang-o hottie (Natalie Portman) and develops cutesy romance. Aw! Much like I have devloped with my MP3 player (Rio Karma Plug).

I liked this movie because (A) Braff has good taste in music: Coldplay, The Shins (!), Iron & Wine, and Simon & Garfunkel. By the way, if any of the preceding bands do not sound familiar to you get your ass to your local free peer-to-peer download site and start stealing! (Legal disclaimer: I hereby free myself of any legal responisbility to that last remark). (B) Braff has good taste in movies...the army scooter/bike thing he rides and Natalie Portman's character clearly are influenced by "Harold & Maude" (Hal Ashby R.I.P., brotha) and the scene at home after the funeral are a clear homage to "The Graduate." (C) I'm 26, so is Braff, so is his lead character. I easily identify with the disillusionment with life and family/lost in society/struggle to grow-up (You can start by acting like a man!)/lost little boy crying in the corner/get the razor away from my wrist feelings and (D) because, most importantly there are some genuinely really funny, well-written moments that all can identify with and Braff does a stand-up job on a first feature.

Now for the other shoe. It is a first feature=problems. Natalie Portman's character was either written or she plays it like she is 16. When I saw her with a beer later in the movie, I wanted to rip it out of her hand and suck it down myself. More importantly, its the kind of idea that about 1000 26 year-olds write scripts about all the time....ya know I'm lost in post-graduate/real world adolescent maturity sludge that forces me to do things like create this damn blog. Zach Braff got to make his lost 26 year-old soul script beacuse he is Zach Braff. More power to him. I just got the feeling that in 10 years, he's gonna regret the things he said in it....much as I'm gonna wanna expunge this thing forever some day. The world he creates in the film felt thin at times, not enveloping me as a viewer...characters are introduced and disappear (cop buddy scene?)...and supposedly Ian Holm was in the movie too.

I'm so happy that dude got to make his movie and there is some good stuff in it too. Go see it to support the man and young filmmakers everywhere. Besides....what the hell do I really know anyway?

Monday, August 02, 2004

"Bourne" Again

Yum-Yum...this is crispity, crunchity, butter-topped summertime entertainment with few stubborn unpopped kernels. Matt Damon returns again as hitman/spy/amnesiac/goverment tool Jason Bourne on the run from Russian oil baddies and wicked CIA types. Can't they just let him be with his tormented quarter memories, hottie Euro chick and beachfront bungalow in India?

There are a few reasons why this movie escapes the traditional hum-drum sludgy sameness that afflicts most yawn-ful Hollywood special fx action "products:"

First, an uncluttered plot. Pay some attention! Pay no attention! You'll be fine. It turns out that ironic answer to the elusive mix of "balls" and "brawn" that many similar films aspire to is keep the plot simple. Simple! This film refuses to hold all of its cards to the end...instead it deals a few out throughout the movie, keeping you in the hand.

Second, strong like bull action sequences. Many times in a car chase/gunfight/boat explosion/cat scratching scene you can tell when the actor is in the frame and when the stuntman is while the star is off in his trailer tagging the local Starbucks "Coffee Artist." "Supremacy's" action sequences, most notably the two car chase scenes feel totally seamless as any I've seen on film.

Third, speak softly and carry a big chip on your shoulder. Damon's Bourne character is given little to say in the movie, his actions speak volumes and, when is commanded to speak, his words are curt and to the point. Even better are the small scenes where nothing is being chased/blown-up/killed/maimed/molested, and you can catch your breathe, which are done very well. For example, the one between Damon and the young hot Russian daughter of a family from his past: "My, I didn't think you would be that old...mmm-mmm."

The director, Paul Greengrass, who made the excellent small-budgeted Irish docudrama "Bloody Sunday" shows that he can take a bigger budget and maintain. I have rarely seen scenes shot from so many different, but very interesting (and mostly hand-held) angles and cut together in such a way that drives the incredibly frenzied pace.

Studios spend billions and billions of dollars on just getting your $10.25 ass into the theater often to beat you over the head with a 2 hour exploding, dummified trailer for the video game and the forthcoming special/limited/boo-ya-ka-sha edition 6 disc DVD set with the caterer's commentary. Finally, we get a movie that will outshine either.